The sound resonated, entering the cavity of his body, shook his organs, bullied his blood about, stopped him in his tracks. Could have been a cow. That was how it began, like the lowing of a cow. A big cow, then as it grew, a cow crossed with a foghorn. Bigger than that, rising into one long sustained note, raising the hairs on his arms, up the back of his neck, across his scalp. It was the sound of something old.
The sound tailed away as he passed into the concrete atrium and saw them. Small brown men in red robes, golden sprays like cockatoo combs on their bald brown heads, long brass horns joining their lips to the ground. They drew breath and blew again. No gentle slow build. This time the blast belted around the concrete space like thunder bursting through storm clouds. Violent and quick. Wide-eyed children watched the monks, clapped small hands over small ears, small mouths flying open, the sounds they made swallowed by the sound of the horns. The parents looked like he felt, uneasy in the face of the power of the horns, of the human breath transformed into something so wrathful. It was the same look people got standing at the edge of lookouts, their children exhilarated by the great empty, while their parents’ hands hovered over their shoulders, ready to drag them back, all fighting the same sense of vertigo tipping them closer to the space that fell away beneath their feet.
Rain filled the gaps between the horns, filled the gap between the collar of his shirt and the collar of his suit coat, bled between the fabric and his skin. He dropped his shattered umbrella into the bin outside the coffee shop. The wind that had sprang like a mugger as he crossed the bridge had snapped its spine. He’d worn it like a hat the rest of the way, only for another squall to shred the skin as he turned into the library. Droplets ran from his hair, pooled above his eyebrows. Itched. The horns started again, sunshine, lethal and blinding fell into the space they ripped open. Steam rose.
The security guard on the front desk looked him up and down. ‘Detective Constable Burleigh?’ Took in the greying hair, the bull-nosed verandah of a belly, stressed 'constable', then let his eyes do the rest. Loser. And this coming from a bloke who spent his days checking backpacks for nicked library books.
Burleigh flicked open his warrant card. Repeated his request. ‘Bernhoff, Sammi Bernhoff. She’s expecting me.’
His request disappeared under a final blast of the horns that rattled the glass wall between them. Burleigh looked back over his shoulder, the applause from the children and the parents seemed to puzzle the monks. They removed their sulphur-crested cockatoo comb hats and collapsed the horns, telescoped their length like a magic trick, like packing thunder into a box. The kids were hyper. The sunshine after days of rain and wind, the sound of the horns, they ran in circles, cartwheels, shoes flying, little boys bulged their cheeks blowing air, parents flailed their arms, trying to exert some control.
‘Ms Bernhoff? She’s out there,’ the guard said lifting his chin towards the concrete entry space. ‘She’s the monk minder.’
Burleigh followed his glance. A young woman had separated from the crowd and was organising a young man with a trolley, supervising the boxes of hats and horns onto it, then herding the monks into the entry hall. Every thing done with an economy of movement, quick, precise, the monks propelled forward by the force of her will, like debris on the swollen river outside. They passed Burleigh, smaller, browner once stripped of their outrageous hats and Himalayan horns. They spoke to one another in a language of breaths and plosive stops.
‘Miss Bernhoff.’ Burleigh stepped in front of the woman, stopped her mid-flow tasking a sub-ordinate with instructions about thermoses of boiling water.
Distracted. She didn’t recognise him. He’d have seen the shadow cross her eyes if she had. No reason she should. She’d only been a kid. Five? Maybe six.
He flashed his warrant card, long enough to see the badge, too quick to read the name.
‘A quick word? Won’t take long.’
A bullshit job. That was why he had it. But still. Could’ve flick-passed it. Not too many junior to him in rank, but there was that new woman, the plain clothes constable, undesignated. Made him the senior man for a moment. At least he had that, his designation. He was still a detective.
She frowned. Dark eyebrows, two neat lines intersected by a vertical line in her forehead. Carved deep for a someone so young.
Cop appears on your doorstep, at your job, civilians clutch at straws and imagine the worst. Crooks close up shop, a range of no, not mine, and get-fuckeds at the ready. But not Sammi Bernhoff. She was family. She checked her watch, and nodded at Burleigh to follow her in. She led them all, the young man and the trolley, the monks and the overweight policeman towards a low platform set up by the entrance. The banners on the wall above the platform announced the monks of Ganden Jangtse would be making a sand mandala, according to the dates they’d been at it for days, they'd be at it for a few days more by the look of it.
Burleigh stepped in closer, intrigued, despite himself. At the centre of the blue square the heart of the design was taking shape; a circle of blue ringed by petals of red and green and orange, the colours bleached from pale centres to deep edges, each filled with its own small intricate image, a parasol, a fish, a flower, a wheel. The rest of the blue space was filled with a complex chalk outline. Like a bluepint for a piece of architecture. He looked up. A poster on the wall mirrored the image growing on the platform. The mandala of the Medicine Buddha, the healer of outer and inner sickness. There were arrows pointing to parts of the mandala, linked back to boxes of close typed text. Each line, each image, each change of colour designated with a detailed explanation. He caught the words 'charnel house' before Sammi Bernhoff’s voice brought him back to the cool sense of the library.
‘Elroy, make sure the monks have a thermos of hot water. And keep an eye on the God-botherers. Don't let 'em near the mandala.' The young man pushing the trolley looked over at the small group of protestors; end-timers, in their homespun smocks and braided hair. Their banners the usual accusations of blasphemy and God's good riddance for flood and famine and pestilence. They were tuning up the choir, Rock of Ages by the sound of it.
'OK,' she said, turning to Burleigh, glancing at her watch again. ‘My office I think.’
She took the stairs with the easy grace of an athlete. Burleigh looked at the lift doors closing and followed her up, a flight behind by the time she reached the first floor.
‘You’re a hopeless cop.’
First time anyone had said that to Burleigh he’d been angry. Determined to prove them wrong. Now he said it to himself, but for different reasons than the bosses who shook their heads over his performance appraisals. He believed people. Believed what they told him. That was his first instinct. Still was. After all this time, after every thing that had happened, it still was. He had to mentally check himself, remind himself, that people lied. Didn’t know why it still came as any surprise, after all he did.
People lied for so many reasons. Usually to protect themselves, but sometimes to protect others. Cops told lies for the greater good. That’s what he’d been told. Way back then. Way back when he’d been a kid with a uniform that still smelt of the plastic it had come wrapped in and a badge number so shiny that it caught the rays of the sun and nearly blinded him as he stepped off the little plane that brought him to his first posting. An island of sand, and palm trees, surrounded by water so blue it looked photoshopped. Water filled with creatures so deadly that it was unswimmable.
Knowing when to lie and when to step back, that was the trick. Knowing which lies would stick and which would dissolve under scrutiny. The first time he’d had to choose, he’d made the wrong choice. Hard to walk a line that kept shifting. The sand beneath his feet had shifted that day, been shifting ever since. Like the sand was chewing through Wynnum and Manly and Lota. Every day a different landscape depending on the wind, and the rain.
He thought about the island every day. Always would, even though the sand had claimed the town a few months back. The combination of a big blow, a big tide, mashing waves that carved up the police station, the town hall, sent that old stopped clock tower tumbling. Some of the people probably went up the mountain in the middle, just them and the spiders and the snakes, all fleeing for higher ground. The hymn singers and the goom drinkers and petrol sniffers, all up high. Most had taken the plane out when they could. The island left behind everywhere but in their hearts and heads, in the scars on their bodies.
Burleigh leaned on the railing of the stairs. Red dots spotting his vision, blood punching him in the ears. His knees buckled. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He fumbled it out, blinked and tried to focus the words. Damn PI wanting something for nothing, again. He switched the phone to mute.
‘Detective . . .?’ Sammi Bernhoff leaned back from the door, her back a graceful arc. The little girl in the ballet tutu pirouetting in the sandy back yard in the shade of a palm.
Burleigh pulled himself upright and followed Sammi through the door and down a corridor of industrial grey and exposed pipes. The bit of the library that only staff got to see. His shirt stuck to him, rain and sweat. In the air-conditioning it was cold against his skin. He shivered. Sammi’s dark hair, pulled back into a ponytail, swung like a metronome. A ring tone, Ride of the Valkyries, echoed in the corridor.
‘Yes?’ She walked and talked, tapping into another keypad to open another locked door. ‘Well, I can see that. I just want to know when and how high?’ The voice on the other end of the phone was muffled, and incapable it seemed of providing Sammi Bernhoff with the certainty she was demanding. ‘Well how about you find someone who does know and they can call me. I need to know how high and when, do you understand?’ She snapped her phone shut like a trap snapping the neck of a rodent.
The weather. You didn’t get used to it. Anyone who said they did was lying. Outside the river was rising, in the mountains behind the city the rivers were breaking their banks, finding new ways down to sea level. Through houses and along the valley floors, sweeping down highways, pushing semi-trailers like road kill before them. It was coming, again. Just a matter of when.
Something black and shiny and large scuttled away from the opening door. Not fast enough to evade Sammi’s shoe. She didn’t break stride as the psychedelic colours spurted from beneath the shellacked armour. Burleigh looked down as he passed. Not a cockroach. Just another unnamed thing trying to make for higher ground, the front feelers still flailing, seeking safety.
‘So, Detective, what did you want?’
Burleigh settled, uninvited into the visitor’s chair. Sammi didn’t look at him as she circled her desk, tapping the screen of her computer back into life, and checking the lights flashing on her phone’s message bank. She’d already lost interest in him, he was just another box to tick on a day that promised more challenges than a sweaty cop in a bad suit. Her radio was set low but the familiar rant of morning 4BB was audible. Brightman and Ferret weren't kicking the cops today, it was the turn of the frackers and the politicians who'd jumped so swiftly into bed with them. Loud and angry and uninformed. Even when they were talking sense, they made it sound like bullshit.
Just like this job. A bullshit job. A go nowhere job. Just needed to be ticked off.
But he’d wanted to see Sammi. See what she’d become. He pulled out his notebook, peeled the printout of the job from between the sodden pages, hardly got the bare bones of it out before Sammi clicked her tongue in irritation.
‘Oh for fucks . . . really, did you not read the protocols? We have a contact person for CEM reports and it’s not me.’
Her shoulder twitched, as if her body was readying itself to do something violent. Burleigh recognised it. A tell she’d inherited from her father. The F-bomb dropped without concern. A little girl who’d grown up around cops. They didn’t intimidate her. She knew what real ones looked like, and her instincts had told her the one in front of her wasn’t worth her time.
A bullshit job. Somewhere in Germany a cop had ticked it over into a reference, images downloaded, passed around, shared. CEM. Child Exploitation Material. A web trail like a branching tree, one of the twigs leading to the public wi-fi system in the library. Chances of finding who did it were Buckley's and none. But a job was a job and a reference with a number needed a clearance. Could have done it by phone. The contact librarian’s name was up on the wall in the office, just above the number for Thai takeaway. No need to have walked down from Roma Street, through the gutters swirling with storm debris, between the groaning masts of the Kurilpa bridge straining in the wind as if it wanted to join the brown churn of water and make a bolt for the open sea.
Burleigh murmured an apology, shifted slightly in his seat and set the plastic squealing. He’d barely blown the Cloncurry dust out of his nose when he saw her photo in the newspaper’s Sunday Supplement. The bright new librarian surrounded by the little brown monks who were going to make sand into art. Even without her name he’d have known her. The eyes, the chin, dark-haired handsome profile. Her father’s daughter.
‘Simon . . . well, where is he?’ Sammi tapped through her emails, phone lodged under her chin. ‘Well, as soon as he gets back then. Yeah, I’ll send him back down to the display. Yeah, yeah, he’ll recognise him.’
Her eyes darted up. Burleigh felt himself flensed. Always had had such knowing eyes. Dark. Whole worlds in them even back then. And now? It was like she knew him, down to every last dirty little secret failure. Every last pathetic lie he’d told from the one he’d told on the first day he’d met her.
‘Yeah, yeah, tell Simon he’ll be the one who looks least likely to be a buddhist.’
Hard to say what he expected from seeing her again. What did a moth expect from a flame? Some final searing understanding? A need to experience the fact that fire was eternal and consuming? Maybe he’d imagined it, that moment, that look, the placing of him in her world. Her mobile rang again.
‘Apocalypse Now?’ he said. Tentative, trying to prolong the moment, bridge the gap.
It wasn’t clear if she was answering his question, or just addressing her caller. She was already past him, leading him back the way they’d come, past the corpse. It had split in two. The feelers had stopped moving.
Sammi left him on the wrong side of the last set of doors, still talking to the voice at the other end of the phone. ‘If they open the dam then the first two levels are going under. We need to know. It’ll take us—’ her voice cut off as they swung closed.
Burleigh leaned against the balcony. It was raining hard now. A grey wall of it, with the wind picking up it was driving in under the concrete structures of the library forecourt. The trails of mould glistened, guiding the overflow down the sides of the stairwells and the concrete bulkheads. Used to take the sunshine for granted. Up on the island the rain would come and then the sun. A cycle that defined the tropics. Green and steamy under those blue, blue skies, surrounded by that blue, blue sea.
These days everything stank in the city. His towel smelt, the bathrooms stank, elevators reeked. Everything damp and fungal. Cloncurry blew dust and swam in mud, the rains came in and left just as fast. The sun and the wind turning the silt to a fine red dust that entered every crevice and orifice. The mine at Isa had gone under. A toxic pool that shimmered in the heat with all the colours of the rainbow all that was left. He used to drive out there. Sit up on what used to be the lip of the pit and watch the colours change as the sun tracked across. Nearly 300 clicks there and back but something to do on a day off. Drink the beer ration. Drive back at night, spotlight the roos, playing chicken with the big ones, daring them not to move, as he accelerated. Should’ve been dead a hundred times but at the last minute they’d always leap out of the way leaving him drenched in sweat, heart racing, feeling like he’d just come in his pants.
Kind of like how he felt now.
The thrill of the near miss.
He started back down the stairs, back into the corner of bright colours and crouching monks. The rain blew into the exposed stairwell, slicked the stairs, and spattered his cheek.
Sammi had called it 'the display', but it was a living display. Four monks, red robes, sitting cross-legged around the large blue square with the complicated design, circles within it. One monk sat at each side, bent double at the waist leaning into the centre, the light bouncing from their bald brown heads. There was maybe half a dozen men and women, sitting cross-legged on mats, watching. Burleigh stood behind them. His back ached. Pain stretched out from his knees down to his heels. He changed his weight from one foot to the other. Uneasy. Glancing over his shoulder.
It was the noise. He only became aware of it slowly. A rasping sound, metal against metal. It resolved into a syncopated pattern. Insect like. Felt like it was boring into his skull. None of the watchers seemed affected. They were uniformly peaceful. Beads passing through their fingers, a gentle clacking underpinning the rasp. Burleigh skirted around the edge of the acolytes, stepped in closer to the monks. The sound grew louder.
One of the monks sat upright and the grating metallic rhythm changed, like one tree in a choir of cicadas had suddenly stopped. The monk stretched, his arms raised above his head. In one hand he held a long thin metal funnel, in the other a metal rod. He twisted to one side, supple-spined, picked up a small glass jar and poured a stream of bright green sand into the funnel. He turned back and bent again into the centre of the circle. The sharp metal rhythm filled out once more. Burleigh pressed closer, saw that the monks all held funnels, and from each a fine sand fell in fluid lines and curves of brilliant colour. Sand flowed like liquid along the chalked outline of the intricate design, coaxed out by the rapid movement of the monk’s metal rods along the serrated ridges of the funnels. The rasping no longer ground into his head, instead it cradled the constant stream of sand, and when it ceased, abruptly, at some unseen signal and the four monks sat up, Burleigh felt as if a part of him had stopped as well.
While the monks had tea Burleigh shuffled behind the platform. Silk and embroidered wall-hangings hung between wooden rods. Deities, according to the helpful signage. Monsters, draped in skulls and skins, fearsome faces, of fangs and blood, some balanced on one leg clutching their consorts, waving weapons from their many arms.
The print on the diagram of the mandala was small. The letter forming a soup as Burleigh squinted at it. He reached into his pocket for his glasses, the case flopped open, empty. He swayed in front of the board, trying to bring the words into focus. Making out only random pieces of things that made no sense. He murmured the words, ‘Mount Meru . . . vajra circle . . . purifying fire.’
‘You like mandala?’
The monk was as small as a child but his eyes were those of an old man. Unlined face. Could be twenty or fifty.
‘I . . . um . . . what’s it for?’
‘Purify. Heal. He is Medicine Buddha.’ The monk smiled, curled his fingers inwards and waved the back of his hand towards the coloured sand image.
Burleigh looked again. Swirls and circles of colour, a vase at the centre. ‘Where? Where’s the buddha?’
‘This Medicine Buddha, text, dharma, see sacred parasol in the middle, that is dharma, medicine. And these around it, eight lotus petals and eight begging bowls, then . . . ’
The monk’s accent was pure Bollywood. A sing song of memorized text and religious jargon. Medicine Buddha. Healing. Processing. Purifying. Jesus saves. That’s what they’d written on the white-walled church where the women had sung on Sundays, up on the island. Burleigh looked behind him at the monsters leering from the silken wall hangings. Flames and pain and blood. That’s where all the purification eventually led. Moths to flames.
From a distance, the sand patterns growing from the centre of the board looked like a drawing, coloured in with pastels or crayon, but up close the sand was not flat. The design had shape and substance. The parasol rippled, the blue waves splashing from the top of the bowls had crests, each single grain of sand, placed just so, creating detail and depth. The sand had substance. Control made it beautiful.
‘And, when you’re finished. What are you going to do with it then?’
The monk made a sweeping gesture with his hand.
Burleigh frowned, shook his head. ‘What?’
The monk repeated the gesture, a grand swirling gesture with his hand. Then pointed to a vase on a podium, a blue willow pattern. Burleigh blinked and saw it on his grandmother’s big side dresser. Never filled with flowers. A hairline crack in the body meant it no longer held water. It sat in the same spot on the dresser, hiding the water mark it had made.
Burleigh repeated his confusion. A taller, younger monk joined them. He spoke his English with a hint of an American accent overlaying the Bollywood.
‘We destroy it. Sweep it away. Into this.’ He lifted the vase off the podium, turned it gently between his long brown fingers. ‘Pour it into the river, send it to the ocean. The mandala is like life. Transitory. Impermanent.’
Burleigh saw the grains tumbling, the vibrant distinct colours collapsing together into a muddy ruined mess and began to cry.
The monks didn’t turn away. They didn’t look embarrassed for him, or ashamed. They smiled. The small one turned to the young one with the American accent and nodded, then beamed at Burleigh.
‘You get it,’ said the young translator. ‘That’s what he said. Maybe you were kadampa master in your last life.’
Burleigh sat hunched up in a chair watching the monks controlling the sand as they built their world of mountains and gods and purifying flames. His breath rasped along with the strike of their metal funnels. Around him people shuffled into the library, backpacks, the occasional blanket and pillow strapped to overnight cases. They’d stop, stare at the sand flowing from the monk’s fingertips. Sand clinging to wet hair. Refugees from places that had already gone under. He held himself tighter. His wet clothes stank. He stank.
The vase hovered above the four bent heads of the monks, the naked crowns almost touching. She’d told him the story, his gran. Let him touch it, turn it in his hands, while she told him the sad tale. The mismatched young lovers, the daughter of a wealthy Mandarin and his servant, who ran away on the eve of her wedding, stole a boat and lived happily ever after until the spurned groom caught them and killed them. Her old finger traced the story as he’d turned the vase, there were the doves, the Gods had taken pity on the lovers and transformed them into the birds of peace. The blue lines against the white, the story of love and hope and tragedy. He’d cried.
Next show and tell he’d carefully smuggled the vase to school. Proudly retelling the story. His classmates entranced until one, a boy whose parents owned an art gallery, stood up and told them it was a fake, a story made up to sell vases. Marketing, that was all. Just marketing.
Something red flashed past. Burleigh caught it in the corner of his eye. When he turned his head he saw her. A little girl in a red dress. She was stuffing things into the the large pockets, grabbing at the air, grabbing at the ground, grabbing at nothing, stuffing her pockets with nothing. He went to stand up, she skittered through the crowds, he swayed, his legs uncertain, and heavy.
It was cold. Burleigh shivered and sat down again. He’d just rest awhile. He sniffed.
He could no longer stand up, his body was heavy, refusing to obey. He swung his head heavily from side to side, no sign of fire. No sign of the purifying flame, no sign of smoke. But he smelt something curling, chemical and acrid, into his nostrils.
Just like the day on the island. The day after the coroner had said it was an accident. A fall. An unfortunate chain of events. He hadn’t even had a chance to unpack before they burnt the place down. The police station. The houses. That was when it started for him. The first of the lies.
He’d thought it was enough. To say what he’d said. He didn’t say what he’d seen. He couldn’t, he hadn’t been there. And he couldn’t say where he’d been. But she’d seen him. Looking at her. Outside the house, outside the window of the bathroom. All he’d heard were the sounds of the fight. The anger and the thump of bodies.
They’d burnt them out at night. The cinders like fireflies skipping through the dark night sky, the wind and currents eddying them ever upwards. Figures in the darkness, howling rage, him locked inside with the rest of them, but an outcast. The coroner had sent them all the statements. His didn’t match the script. He’d skulked outside, not seeing things.
‘Weak as piss.’
They’d huddled in the hospital, no electricity, just the flame of a kerosene lamp highlighting stony faces, and a little girl with black eyes sitting on her father’s lap, watching him across the dark space. He stared into the flame of the lamp. Moths battered themselves against the glass that housed the purifying flames.
The rasping stopped.
Burleigh was still propped up in his chair, a half circle of monks around him murmuring mantras when Elroy found him. He was stone cold. Outside the sand swirled and beat against the windows like moths to a flame.