4. Exquisite Corpse
Ella opened her notebook. It was new, pretty, there was a pattern on the front. Birds flying, their beaks touching, trees draping their branches over a calm pool. It was the same pattern as the one on the vase. The vase sat on the edge of the desk, so close to the Librarian that when she lifted her hand and swept her hair over her shoulder, the tip of it, dark, straight, catching the light, just touched the edge of the little blue house on the clean white surface. Willow Pattern. It was written on the very back of the book in black print. The paper in the notebook was harsh against her hand. Ella liked the plain black notebooks better, the ones with the leather covers and the paper that was soft as skin. The only reason she chose this book was its connection to the vase, and in turn, the vase's proximity to the Librarian. Ella's Librarian.
Her Librarian smelled like flowers, gardenia. It was her hair. That hair fell thick and when it pooled on your hand it was as heavy as breath. Ella smoothed the front of the notebook, remembering. She had a flower hidden in the inside pocket of her jacket, woollen and damp. Although she'd sprayed perfume on her neck before leaving home, the perfume was cheap and the rain washed all trace of it away. All she could smell now was the damp wool, like a wet dog, and a hint of rose from the bud in her pocket. Red. The colour of an open vein.
She glanced up just as the Librarian swept her hair from her face, the neat, cut strands touching the empty vase. Ella watched as the woman twisted her thick locks back as if tying them with an elastic band. But when she relaxed her fingers, the hair fanned out over her shoulders, long enough to sweep the edges of the book in front of her.
Later Ella would ask about Wilhelm Reich. She had it all planned. She would relate it back to Freud, a question about the link between the two psychiatrists. The Librarian knew a lot about Freud. Last weekend she was reading a book about him and the Surrealists. Ella had walked slowly past her desk and there was a picture by Hans Bellmer. A wooden girl in pieces, a doll, her head turned sadly towards the ground, her body taken apart and put back again in the wrong order. The sculpture looked like her Librarian, with her long dark hair. But the picture was only a sad, imperfect version of the woman. Afterwards, Ella had stood in the bathroom just outside the Special Collections room. She had stared in the mirror. Ella looked more like the woman in pieces than the Librarian: Ella was growing her hair out and she was an odd collection of body parts. She reached her hands up to touch her own lowered eyelids. When her hair grew longer she would dye it darker. She would buy a straightener, some kind of product to make it shine. She would ditch her dark-framed glasses for contact lenses, tinted bright green. Then maybe ...
'Hey, Sammi.' Her Librarian's voice was a bright bell. The note of it caught Ella's attention and she glanced up to see another woman in the same red and black uniform. Another, lesser librarian, pretty, but not as beautiful as Ella's Librarian. Sweet-faced, young, her breasts straining against the buttons of her shirt. This new woman, Sammi, stood too close, one hand resting on the woman's shoulder, and Ella felt her jaw tighten.
'Crazy, huh?' Sammi nodded out past Ella to the long stretch of windows, the grey curtain of water beyond them looking as if the river had been turned on its side to flow down out of the sky. A wall of water. The thunder of it.
'They're talking about the water. The levels rising. They said they might evacuate.'
'I'm getting a coffee,' Sammi said, touching that thick mane of hair.
'Bring your brolly.'
Brolly. Ella felt her teeth creaking against one another. She would never use the word 'brolly', an ugly, nonsensical word. Her Librarian would never use the word. Ella's hand was poised over her notepad, a pencil gripped between her fingers. The rough paper beneath was blank except for the finest of lines tracing out the places she should put her words. She watched from under her lowered lashes as her Librarian stood and stretched, her limbs unfolding. A flash of pale skin between her knee-high socks and her short black pleated skirt. She wore flat-heeled shoes so polished they caught the dim glow from the fluorescent lights and amplified them. Her skirt flicked prettily from side to side. Ella wished she could walk like that, a sweet swing of the hips, an easy grace, and then the doors swept open and they were gone.
Ella watched the rain. There was so much of it. A vertical river, an avalanche of wet, the sound like a great beast huffing towards them. She could see that the banks were breached. An army of white foam soldiers spewed up against the boardwalk with a force that would sweep away cyclists. The sound of it alone made her heart crawl up in her chest. She looked down to see a large ant scaling the leg of her table, skittering in a strange stop-start spiral pattern. Panic. This is what panic looks like, Ella thought. The sight of the ant seemed to calm her. She settled even more when the doors peeled open and her Librarian spilled through. There was a trace of red on the woman's cheek, lipstick, a farewell kiss. The ant finally made it onto the table and walked circles around itself till Ella lifted her willow-patterned notebook and rested it gently on top of the creature. She pressed down with the palms of her hands. There was a tiny click, the sound of its body popping beneath the weight of her notebook, and then silence.
She put the rose in the vase. She checked to see that no one was watching, shielding her action with the bulk of her body. She lowered her head, pressed her lips gently against the soft velvet of the petals. Whispered, 'Know this.' A kiss, the slip of a tongue. Ella turned and sat back down at her notebook.
Her Librarian gathered her papers. She didn't even look at the flower, a perfect rose, fragrant, the petals just beginning to part, a bud at the very moment before flowering. The woman glanced up and around the room. Special Collections, the quietest part of the library, was a sanctuary, a church for the studious and the homeless. No students with barely disguised hip-hop buzzing their headphones. Ella liked it when her Librarian was on duty in this room. Apart from a foul-smelling man in one corner, his coat flecked with food and vomit, and an old woman in a lavender jacket and white gloves, flicking through a volume of collected newspapers, they were alone.
She watched as her Librarian packed her books into a simple leather satchel. She glanced around the desk, the clean pale wooden surface empty of almost everything. Ella held her breath as the woman paused, her brow furrowed. She raised her hand, rested her red lacquered fingernails on the petals, touched her lips with her fingers as if taking a kiss from the flower and then breathed in. The scent of it entered her lungs, something from Ella, some part of her love, ingested. Ella felt her eyes filling with tears. Why was she leaving now? Why didn't she stay? She had her question prepared, written carefully in the back of the notebook. I need to find some information about Freud's relationship to Wilhelm Reich. And then, underneath this, the prompts: Marxism, 1920s, character analysis. She had it all there, on the tip of her tongue. She had rehearsed answers to the questions that her Librarian might ask, Yes, particularly in relation to neuroses and sexuality. No, not the stuff about Orgone energy. That is too late, the 1920s, specifically.
Her Librarian turned, that easy grace, the gorgeous flash of skin at the knee. The doors opened and it took all of Ella's energy to seem impassive when what she wanted was to race after her, ask where she was going, why she was leaving her post. A captain stayed with the ship, and when Ella glanced out of the window she could tell they were sinking. The water lapped up past the wooden walkway and sucked at the grass of the hill. The river was rising quickly.
Stepping out into the walkway, the sound of the rain was fat and resonant. Ella stood for a moment, blinking as if into a bright light. People were racing away from the building. She stood and peered over the edge of the balcony to the causeway where a small child in a red dress stood with a teacup raised in her hands as if offering it up to a god. The weather god groaned, or perhaps it was the sound of the river finding an even stronger hand-hold as it hefted itself up and out of the bank, crawling on its slithery belly up the side of the grassed hill. The little girl looked directly up at Ella, opened her mouth. Ella leaned forward, smiling for the first time that day. She raised her hand to wave but the child was swept up into the arms of some passing adult and bundled off and out into the downpour.
Alarm. An electronic scream. Ella watched as the people began to jog and then run. Children were swept up and away, and lovers dragged each other by the fist. Library staff turned in small circles just like the ant on the desk. Ella held the willow-patterned notebook to her face and smelt the acid death of the insect on the cardboard cover. The alarm changed from a clang to a whoop, a small child running and shouting to the sky, the sound of a bird calling for its mate. Whoop whoop whoop. And she found herself smiling again. The tapping in her chest like a little patter of laughter. Or like rain.
She leaned as far over the balcony as she could but Ella couldn't see her Librarian anywhere. She took a deep breath. There was grit between her teeth. Sand. There had been so much sand shifting. Ella ran her tongue over her lips and swallowed.
She would be downstairs. Sometimes her Librarian stopped to talk to the security guard and then disappeared into the elevator behind him, where the shining silver doors closed to reflect Ella's disappointment at losing sight of the woman once more. She hurried to the lift, pressed the button. The alarm changed again, a bell to call children to dinner or to their studies. The lift was too slow. She ran around to the stairs, scrambled down, two at a time, her short legs stretching awkwardly. Ella wasn't used to running and she slipped, catching herself on the wooden banister, checking her pace to an easy lope. She stopped, stared at her foot and the scatter of long furred legs beside it. She bent to peer at the spider, a huntsman probably, but with a luminous patch of green on its fat back. A beautiful creature, rare and unexpected. Ella stepped around it. She was going down, the spider was climbing. A strange crossing of paths. She looked back as it scuttled up the stairs, its hairy legs sure and quick on the concrete. It knew what it was doing. Ella's own anxiety seemed to increase with every downward step.
There was no security guard. Ella stood where he normally sat. There were signs of his presence: a packet of mints, open. He was always chewing on mints. The whiff of tobacco that seemed to emanate from his skin. The twitch of the screen where security camera images, grainy and grey, flickered, scanning each room of the labyrinthine building one by one. She peered at the screen. On it, the room where she had sat only a few minutes before. She saw the willow vase, the rose resting inside it. The chair pushed out from the bench, perhaps still warm from her Librarian's body. The image blinked and changed: the great void at the heart of the library, a stray woman furiously buttoning up her coat.
All visitors to evacuate the library area immediately. Last city council bus will leave from the library bus stop in fifteen minutes. All visitors to evacuate the library area immediately.
Then the whooping sound again, the song of joy, and Ella grinned as she watched the security camera flicker and change to reveal her Librarian, bending, the back of her neck so white in the grainy picture that Ella had an urge to press her tongue to the screen. She was swan-like. She was a bird. She was the soar and uplift of her heart, her breath on the air. The alarm sounded Ella's joy. The woman was reaching behind a stack of papers, shelves with books to either side. She seemed frantic, looking around, pulling on something–a book?–something. Small white letters in the top right corner of the screen spelled out Basement 1. Ella turned and crossed to the impassive metal doors of the lift. She pressed the button. Waited.
Outside, the river ate the grass. Earth, stones, bitumen. A man stood on a hill and watched as a boat drifted by. The boat turned a slow circle and it was only then that he realised there was no one on board. A big metal drum floated past. A water tank. The man recognised the irony and he pulled his raincoat around his shoulders, sweat gathering inside in the heat, rain thundering on the outside of the yellow plastic. So odd to watch the river grabbing up great hunks of earth, reclaiming land. A pontoon floated by, a huge thing with tall, white-topped wooden pillars that people tied their boats to. Now the whole pontoon was a boat, bobbing, straining against the wash of the current.
The end of the world. This one thought had taken hold and was being turned around in the minds of a thousand people who stared out and into the river, broken now, cracked from the hot wind. A slow creeping end. And, with it, a hush. No traffic now, just the constant note of water, a deep bass-note underpinning the hiss of the rain like a crowd in a stadium waiting for gladiators to fall.
The alarm switched from whoop to wail and Ella pressed her ear against the metal doors. Perhaps they had stopped the lifts already. Is that only in the event of a fire? Is a flood just as dangerous? Were there stairs somewhere? But no, she could hear the hum of the lift descending, the beep and judder as it found her floor and paused, the exhalation of stale air. Ella rushed into it, pressed the button for the basement seven times. Somewhere down there. She pressed the button again. The doors closed. The lift seemed to pause. She held her breath. The lift began, slowly, to trundle downward.
It was wrong to go downwards. This was something she felt in her chest. It was a heaviness, a threat, a physical warning, her body urging her not to breach the waterline. Odd how your body prepares you for survival. As the lift descended, she closed her eyes. She saw the legs of the spider, long, hairy, each one propelling it ever upward. The crazed steps of the ant making circles on the table before she put an end to its dance. She found it difficult to draw breath. The downward motion was drowning her. When the doors opened onto a dark corridor she gasped, but it seemed her lungs were clamping down, stopping her from taking more than a tiny cupful of air. Ella breathed dampness. A hint of gardenia. Her Librarian was close.
It was too dark to see clearly. Light came from the end of the corridor, a thin line of it spilling out from under a door. The lights flickered on, a splutter, blinding Ella for a second before plunging her back into darkness. She held out her hand and the wall was there at her fingertips. Damp concrete, warm to the touch. It was as if she had stepped down into a sauna. She felt a bead of sweat gathering under her bra, the spill of it tracing a line down her belly and easing out into the fabric of her knickers. Everything hot and wet. Ella paused. Took another thin breath. She felt light-headed; she was wet between her legs, the heat perhaps. And yet she was enveloped in an odd excitement that hummed in counterpoint to the sound of the alarm as it switched from horn to bell, a thrumming in her cunt. She closed her eyes. A spider crawling up the steps, faster and faster, legs scrambling. When she opened her eyes it was just as dark and her skin felt the tiny creep of sweat.
She would be behind this door. There would be no one but the two of them. Together. For the first time all day, Ella felt vaguely frightened. She had never been alone with her Librarian. There was always the safety-net of some other person, some student, some old woman researching her family history. Another librarian, like that Sammi with her bright red lipstick still traced on her Librarian's cheek. Now, here, they would be alone. Ella felt sweat in her palm. The door handle was cool and her fingers slipped against it. She wiped her hand quickly against her dress before trying the handle once more. She twisted it, her fingers trembling slightly. Ella was the kind of girl who leaped into cold water suddenly, running at life, hoping to outskip the worst of it. She braved train carriages full of bogans with their foul mouths and their teasings. She stepped onto the dance floor at nightclubs knowing that she was dancing to a different rhythm, a counterpoint to the writhing crowd, a target for ridicule. This was her way of surviving life, quickly leaping amongst it. It would be easier now to rush into the room. Here I am, arms wide, waiting for her Librarian to turn and smile or, more likely, frown. She didn't like to creep, and yet she crept, the door opening a fraction at a time.
Inside were shelves, a maze of them. The light shone down onto piles of old books, yellowed pages sticking out past leather spines, cracked and dusty. She took a breath, hoping for gardenia. Instead there was just the must of ages, parchment sweating in the unnaturally damp heat. The sound of the alarm became muffled as the door shut behind her. Inside, here in the bowels of the library, was a strange sense of calm. A sound, a vibration. Ella turned and noticed a moth flinging itself frantically against the ceiling. Its wings shed brown dust as it hurled itself towards its own destruction.
Outside, a crowd gathered on the high ground. The rain had eased off. The little girl in the red dress reached down into the grass where a Christmas beetle kicked its legs, desperate to be up and away. She flicked it with her finger, jumped back. The great lumbering thing loped towards the top of a blade of grass and spread its wings. Its fat body lifted awkwardly into the air and it was gone. The child clapped, grinned, looked up towards the river that was lapping against the glass panels of the library: its eyes, held open to the water. The river was finally clambering up the corpse of the concrete and metal beast. The girl pointed the chubby fingers of one hand at what looked like a piece of a building, wooden walls, ivy-covered. It performed a perfect pirouette before it was sucked down into the swell.
Ella crept down aisles of newspapers bound in leather volumes. She let her fingers tag the pages they contained. Traffic accidents, missing children, suicides, murders, elections, and all the ills of their city captured and pressed between the pages. Life made history. History shelved and forgotten. At the end of the aisle was a wall, covered by a heavy drape of gold velour curtains. She reached out and stroked the fabric. She felt her way towards a break in them, and parted the velour, holding the softness gently between her fingers. Behind the curtains there was only glass. An aquarium. Books like bright fish floated by, bubbles of air escaping from their spines.
The room beside her was filling with water.
It was already so high, the waterline on the other side, that Ella could only reach it by rising up on her toes and pushing the tip of her finger onto the glass. A light was on in the room and it spilled down through the water. Chairs were like sharks racing through the churn, the sharp fins of their legs circling. Her Librarian was in there. Ella pressed the palms of her hands against the glass. Of course her Librarian was there. Suddenly it seemed like today was the turn of a key, unlocking the mysteries of the world. All her life she had been preparing herself for this moment. They were alone, here, finally, but of course there was no need for words. Ella had no reason to ask about Freud or Wilhelm Reich or any other excuse for interaction. They were stripped bare: Ella in the air, and her Librarian, alone with her, her legs kicking out as she fought to stay afloat. She spun like a ballerina in a music box.
Ella had a music box at home. The ballerina still turned round, but slowly, and the music came fitfully, a few notes in a run, then a pause as the ancient mechanism battled to continue along in its dance. Ella loved the slow bursts of sound and silence. She loved the way her Librarian performed this same dance. Ella stood with her hands pressed to the glass and her forehead leaning into the cool surface.
One of the Librarian's shoes had fallen off. There was something quite beautiful about this. If she were on dry land she would walk with a gentle limp, a lilt, a skip. Ella loved this idea. But of course her Librarian was not walking on dry land. She was spinning in slow circles, her long legs kicking out, her hands circling in the water like Catherine wheels, making clouds of bubbles. Ella watched a book swim by, as her Librarian's single shoe kicked out at it. The book changed course, thrashed aside, swimming now towards the glass. It thudded against the wall near where Ella's hand was pressed. A body on the cover, naked, almost obliterated by scratches to the daguerreotype photograph: The Story of the Eye. Ella vowed to read it. If she did not drown today, here in the basement of the library, she would make her way straight to a bookstore. She would buy this book. She knew that somehow it was a message, a symbol of their love.
They were in love. The water level rose in the aquarium and her Librarian danced, her socks still pulled up to her knees, the stretch of flesh above. With the waves of her skirt obscuring her thighs, Ella could admit it.
'I love you.'
She could say it aloud. Ella pressed her lips against the glass.
'I love you.'
And, as if to express her love for Ella, the Librarian floated closer to the glass. Kicking, her skirt floated up and away from her body and there it was, the curve of those perfect cheeks, the hair, wild and luscious. She wasn't wearing underwear. Ella felt herself blushing. She pushed her own dress against the glass.
'I understand,' Ella said. 'I love you, too.'
Ella took off her underpants. They were damp already. She pressed them up to the glass for her Librarian to see. Damp at the crotch. It was an expression of her bodily love, this flood, this desire. She pressed the knickers high and she wasn't sure if her Librarian could see her at all before the dancing ballerina of her body was swept away from the glass and disappeared behind a school of books. The water was rising. It was almost at the ceiling.
Ella turned and looked around. There was nothing but shelves and books, nothing to stand on. She ran back along the aisle. Surely, somewhere. A chair. She needed something taller, a table, a filing cabinet, something. But there was only this one chair. Ella picked it up and raced back to the aquarium. She dragged a large bound volume of the Courier-Mail and rested it on the seat of the chair. She found another, four, five. She piled them up and used the back of the chair to balance as she clambered on top.
The floor was damp now. Water seeped in from the corridor. She wondered, suddenly, why the room next door was filling with water when the floor here was merely damp. In the other room, the water level was still over her head. Ella waited for the tidal pool to whisk the woman back to her, the circling of it an inevitability. She was coming closer. Ella raised her hands and waved up above the waterline in the next room. It was odd, this gesture, so often used by the drowning to alert the living, used now by the living to attract the attention of the soon-to-be-drowned. Ella felt herself grin as the Librarian saw her hands. Her head was butting against the ceiling now. Ella watched as she tipped back her head, filled her lungs with precious air and then pushed off the ceiling and plunged down. Ella watched her legs scissoring. She felt a rush of blood to her loins at the flash of pale skin in the thick hair of her crotch, the pale protrusion of the lips there. She felt it in her body. The woman banged her fists on the glass. Ella pressed her body against it, letting the vibrations course through her. She lifted the skirt of her dress. This nakedness: she let her Librarian see it. Her own damp lips parted, her own thatch of dark hair.
'I am like you,' Ella said.
She took off her dress.
She was like the Bullmer doll, the Surreal girl in pieces. Without her clothing, her Librarian would see that Ella was imperfect. This is what love is, a reveal that is both horrible and exquisite. She reached behind herself and unclipped her bra. She let her breasts escape their cotton casing. Her breasts, the nipples tight with her excitement. The Librarian kicked at the glass and Ella watched, the little slit, the peek of red, the flare of love. Ella smiled. She pressed her chest against he glass and the Librarian thumped at them with her fists. Ella closed her eyes briefly to enjoy this touch, the shudder of glass against flesh. The first time someone touched her breasts, the first time, and just as she wanted it to be.
'My first time,' she said. 'It's with you.'
These things happened. She would remember them. Ella would lie under the covers and press her fists between her legs and it would be quick. Sudden. Perfect. Every time it would be the same, this moment repeated. They were from two worlds. The water only accentuated this fact. She had always known it. She had peered across the divide as Romeo might peer at Juliet: the Willow Pattern lovers, divided by circumstance. The Librarian's hair took on a life here in the water that it couldn't in the air; it writhed, it groaned under her caresses. Ella traced the swirl of her locks on the glass. The Librarian stared at her, eyes widened, a desperation to take in every drop of Ella. And she provided herself. She lifted a leg and placed it on the back of the chair and spread her cunt with her fingers. This. Here. She pointed.
'This is where my love is.'
It was wet in there. Ella showed her this, first with the V of her fingers. Love, forever married to flood. She dipped her finger in to the tight crevasse, the skin of her hymen stretched taut, her finger dipping its beak into her body like a bird. Here. Flood. She raised her finger, slicked in juices. The woman's eyes bulged wider, her mouth opened, and she shuddered. Air escaping. This is how it is. This is how it feels.
'Wait,' Ella called to her. She was not ready. 'Wait for me!'
But the convulsing continued and the legs kicked out and the glass shuddered. Ella pressed herself against it. The stack of Courier-Mails slipped under her feet and she righted herself awkwardly, reaching to grip the back of the chair. The Librarian clutched at her shirt, pulled it, and the buttons tore free. She showed Ella her breasts, one of them still cupped in the black lace of her bra, the other nipple dislodged, a single eye peering out as wide and bright as her eyeballs which stared down at Ella as the rest of her body began to float upward. She bobbed at the ceiling, butting her head against the glass. A beautiful rhythm, the rhythm of water and flood and death.
Ella stepped off the chair. The newspapers slid to the floor. She lay amongst them. Someone murdered in Tarragindi, someone missing in Brookfield, Someone falling from grace in New Farm. She lay amongst the forgotten history of this place and the water was cool on her hot skin. She looked up to where her lover lay, one hand still clutching the edge of her shirt, one nipple peering down, her eyes wide with the mystery of this odd connection. She let her knees slide wide. Her Librarian's legs were splayed. Ella mimicked her pose. She held one breast between her fingers, feeling the heat of the sensation drawing a line between her cunt and her breast.
Woman Drowns. Family Grieves.
The headline beside her. She felt grateful tears prick at her eyes. All things colliding. The past, the present, the future. This moment. This perfection of partings and connections. She reached to the paper and tore a few pages free of their binding. Woman Drowns. She rolled the pages into a tube. She placed it at the mouth of her cunt. She felt the pain of it, the new place filling with the news of the day. Woman Drowns. Family Grieves.
Her Librarian watched, unblinking. Ella felt the tearing, the breaking of her old life, the spill of blood. She pushed the wad of newspaper into herself with enough force to tear her flesh. Ella arched her back.
'I love you,' she said. 'You know. I will love you forever.'