Title: Afraid

Author: Elizabeth Knox

In: Sport 6: Autumn 1991

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, April 1991, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Conditions of use



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Sport 6: Autumn 1991



My grandmother saved things. In a side room at right angles to the wash house, dark but for the open door, or the holes in its moth-eaten iron roof, Grandma kept salvaged newspapers, flattened Weetbix packets, egg cartons and carefully washed tin cans with their labels stripped off. We used to play with the cans, take them and some old table spoons—EPS worn down to raw steel—around the back of the house to the patch of gravel by the wooden steps sheltering the gas meter. We would use the spoons to shovel stones into the tins. My sister was baking or feeding baby. I was three and the many measures between empty and full were fascinating to me in themselves.

In my childhood, God was a closed and curtained house of which my grandmother was the proprietor. A house my father escaped from by breaking a window and climbing out. The way he would talk, about Grandma and the Catholic church, encouraged us to regard her—a believer—as an exotic animal, of a species nearing extinction. We would watch her with reverent pity.

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But I won't tell you about Dad and Grandma; I'll just show you a stone in a can in the hands of a little girl later called Little.

She walks up the steps at the top of Pitanga Crescent. She is not supposed to have been able to unlatch the gate and get out. The adults think her sister is watching her. Someone is watching her. The steps are long shelves of cement, each step quite an undertaking for a child whose knees are still padded with soft baby fat. She walks up the steps towards the silent forest—talking back to the one watching by rattling a stone in her tin can. The sound it makes is every word, from her first, stretching out a chubby hand and a piece of banana to her mother, saying experimentally, imitating, 'There.' Every word, first to last, and every proposition, command, question in between—a stone in a tin can, rattling as she climbs towards the silent forest.

Tinakori Hill

I took my second illicit walk twenty-seven years later. Sure, I trespassed plenty between times, but that isn't the same. Tinakori Hill was the inside surface of a breaking wave I tried to scale. Years later, one night in a strange city, I took a walk turning thirty corners to the left to find, not sleep, but sense.


The effort of leaving New Zealand set me off. We saved our money and bought our tickets. We found handholds over the horizon and hauled ourselves across the great populated distances of the Pacific and Asia and North Africa.

The seats are narrow and everything is reassuringly dull. They show movies; a certain degree of concentration and dexterity is involved in eating your meal. Then you sleep, sometimes between strangers, in an exhausted intimacy. And even if you wake and find all the cabin lights low, everyone asleep, the cabin crew sprawled out in their reserved seats, the jet probably on automatic pilot while its crew of two (747-400) take turns, ideally, catching a bit of shut-eye—even then you know that you're quite safe, because surely nothing terrible can happen to an overnight hui of insensible people in their stocking feet.

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The plane turned from north-west to north-north-west and dawn caught up with us. I leant gingerly on the emergency door and saw islands and rugged peninsulas, mist and mountains. What fun we'd have.

All roads lead me to believe

It was early morning; the fields steamed. I'd cheated winter. From the bus I saw blossom, and the warmth of sun on ochre walls: Trattoria, Tabacchi, Farmacia, Alimentari. The traffic jammed, exhaling acid. In a garden above the road, on one of those sudden limestone hills, I heard a nightingale. Dad had a record he had played often when I was a child—Respighi, The Pines of Rome—a legion passes and the road is restored to silence and a sound like someone writing well about water.

All this is pathology. I am reporting on the progress of my disease: euphoria, then dread, fever, then a walk along narrow streets turning thirty left-hand corners.

I entered my first serpentine city, knowledge ripening in its every coil, at once decrepit and a blood-oiled newborn, shedding its skin with every mention of its name.

I felt smug that I'd cheated winter—but the feeling was dangerous, not worn-in, roaring-twenties-languid-Riviera-tan smug. I wasn't seasoned, spring cut me, sap flowed, some Great Art grafted in God. The graft took, it had a hybrid vigour.

On our third evening, walking back to the pensione, hand in hand, we went along the street of the Three Fountains (there are four, including the art nouveau addition). We passed the Villa Barberini, now an art gallery. The gates were open and we went in to stand on the yellow path (the same composite of stone as the golden sand of Abel Tasman National Park). The lawn was covered in daisies, grass as green as it is only when it comes up through sub-zero soil. The fresh smell of the daisies was unheimlich (unhomely) at that time of year. My body knew it was autumn—but I had spent three days not on earth. The plane landed. An angel rolled away the stone. Spring came into my nose and mouth as appetising as paradise.

From that moment on my hands, full of nothing but air, seemed to be holding something that squirmed and rustled, and the air between my tongue and palate swelled and unravelled like an itchy bud.


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You see

I was happy with my husband, but not with my happiness. Being in love I learned how to carry water. I was always on the level, even in steep places. I'd been put out of my misery and longed to leap back in the window and kick the door shut on my bouncer—like the sabretooth in the closing titles of The Flintstones.

Dinner, dishes, an hour with our books, a bath, bed, naked or not. Yes, I can see we all need routine to endure our alloted average seventy years of free will; with indulgences—untimely infatuations, drunken binges, temper tantrums, and holidays in Europe, sampling the great painters like sweets of different flavours, blood sugar boosted, but nothing essentially changed.

The only true virility is pleasure

Our room in Rome overlooks the Piazza della Repubblica. Italy too is rationalising its health services, so every morning we wake up to the sound of traffic through the window and solid shutters and a man shouting something we can't understand. He stands on the curb by the fountain in the Piazza's centre; he waves his genitals at the traffic who hit their horns in outrage or approval or in lieu of lifting a hat to a slight acquaintance. Everything in our room is painted cream, everything but the marble dresser tops, and the cracked, self-adhesive vinyl on the dining table. The floor shakes; the beams beneath its marble tiles have dry rot. We eat panini, white butter, cherry jam, caffe latte. It is cold; I fold my cuffs down over my fingers.

The wisteria at the Forum—constricting woody vines and tassels of blossom—is like ghosts of grape bunches. Each bloom is to a grape what the cast skin of a cicada pupa is to that sound high up the side of power poles, stretching and stretching.

I have fallen ill with tonsilitis, laryngitis and bronchitis. The Italian doctor in horn-rims and a cable knit jersey consults his Collins English Dictionary and explains 'powder' to my husband. Neither of us speaks Italian, but I am prone, Little, wearing a Nuclear Free Pacific T-shirt which sweat has adhered to my (little) breasts.

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The air shaves my throat. I carry a capped water bottle, blue label; Aqua Minerale Naturale. The Trevi fountain is under repairs, the workmen wear hard hats to spare their skulls the rain of coins. (Titian's Danae, her parted legs and the liquid currency. Lorenzo Lotto's Nuptials of Venus—Eros urinates in an arc through a floral wreath and into Venus's cleft hairless lap).

Inadmissible extremities

The Flupim is oily. It hangs, a haze in the water—tastes very bitter. I can't sleep. I sit on the bidet and run the water till it runs warm, then I wash myself—losing my fresh lacquer of mucus, mine and his. I remember how, before I had a lover, I could be dirty. Then clean was a verb, not an adjective. Twice weekly I'd clean the grease from the creases of my cuntmelted soap, shed skin, a white schmaltz, smelt, melted fat.

There. That's as private as the eye-level grime on the feet of Caravaggio's pilgrims in the Madonna of Loreto in the church of Sant Agostino. I know what I'm not allowed to say. Writing this I omit my arguments, my evidence: a saintly poet, a door closed for two days, crap in the wastepaper basket. I am no holy man—matted, flea-ridden, mad—nor a Kiwi sybil (there are a number of options, but her hair is carefully clean). My voice will break no by-laws, will never roar through the sleeping suburbs unmuffled by a beard.

No monarch myself, how can God be my subject? There are words that won't be heard at this pitch. I might be sentimental, but not monumental (despite George Eliot's marble pallor and slablike cheeks, despite her able seaman's knots of metaphor). I might be weightless, fly as thistledown in the face of Heaven, but not vigorously winged. I might sing Dido, Violetta, Tosca, even Turandot; but never the sacred music of the VaticanMiserere Mei—the chilly boy treble scaling the cathedral's alpine peaks; nor the bass masked devil of Don Giovanni. Still, here's my pitch, thin hands lifted and lips parted like Donatello's wooden Magdalene. I am she, attenuated, sexless, limbs still marked by the chisel.

When the Martyr Theodora of Thrace wouldn't recant, her enemies fixed barbs in her tongue, drew it out and fastened it to her chest. Then they coated it with seasalt.


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In a tutorial on the history of film several of my students are incredulous seeing Eisenstein's citizens of Odessa filing past the body of the martyred sailor.

'He's stretching it a bit there.'

'It's morbid and overwrought.'

My sister conscientiously tells her daughter, 'Unicorns don't really exist. We can talk about them, but really, they're made-up.'

In this province and at this hour we are the sum of history, surely, the smooth lower stretches of the river, a safe, sane place. We who came from Europe checked our gods and fears at the door, obedient to the colony's sanitary precautions. Our society is abnormally secular—and passes it off as common sense. Religious appetite, amorousness and anger are diseases—our schools, clubs, places of work, even our places of worship, are quarantines. The morbid, fanatical, heartfelt are set against—as an aunt of mine would say—'bread and butter people', the dour soviet of the man-on-the-street.

What has this secular sun-bonnet ever sheltered me from in an overcast age? Brief illumination—you feed your two hundred lire into the coin box and the spotlights go on for a minute in which you must notice everything. Surely the truth is there, colours under candle soot and a troubling perspective (why does the far lintel of the manger come down as far as Saint Joseph's foot?)

God's myths are not medicine

I tell my students about Saint Victoria Martine.

One side chapel in a large Roman church is dedicated to Victoria Martine, a girl of fifteen who died in the 1820s. Her life is described in late-nineteenth-century paintings: a fat-cheeked Victoria Martine sitting up in bed to converse with a fair-haired Virgin, who gestures with plump hands at an oozing spectral crucifix. Under the altar, in a glass reliquary with golden pillars, is the saint herself. She is the size of a ten-year-old, her narrow feet covered in embroidered satin dancing slippers. She is dressed in bleached muslin and red velvet, her hair dull, arid, matted as felt. Her head is veiled in white gauze, the veil tied at her throat like an improvised beekeeper's mask—through it you can see the deep beige papier-mâché of her mummy's face.

Prestigious, rare, dangerous, ambiguous, forbidden. Different from me.

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More different than the russet coatimundi with tilted snout and bent tail I gaze at in the Melbourne Zoo, wondering how such a creature came to be (on the far side of the wire, looking at me). A corpse is the only truly heterogeneous thing; a tree is a tree, a stone a stone, beneath my notice. A corpse won't talk back, with the coatimundi's dark convex eyes, won't look and look away.

The Flupim is oily. It hangs, a haze in the water, and I drink it down. It's a cough suppressant. I musn't keep my husband awake. But there is something in my chest that I can't shift; perhaps a tinny prayer. Our Father where art thou? I'm sorry, this possessive pronoun is taken. Our father is a journalist. Our father used to climb mountains. Am I enough of an adult to learn to say 'our' with authority, meaning humanity? Have I ever learned to see the world other than from where I stand?


The Map Room at the Vatican is the length of a rugby field from the halfway line to the goal. All the maps show where the map-maker stood—not by the tourists' flashing arrow, YOU ARE HERE, but because each map has a vantage and, receding from that, the lie of the land.

In the foreground you can see a hermit in his cave, and women washing clothes in a pool beneath a cataract; then the butterfly collection of distant villages, fixed and surmounted by their steeples. Then the land flattens out, landscape becomes chart, the rivers red, the towns tiny dots. The land rises, there is no horizon, Umbria is a curling scroll. Or the inside surface of a breaking wave.

The lie of the land is this: that these Principalities (as they once were) are the same landscapes as the backgrounds of paintings whose foregrounds are occupied by nursing Virgins (the child with coral around his wrist and a finch in his fist), agonies in the garden, Lazarus coming forth, and other crucial fictions (ashy skies hanging over this same hill). I wonder, if I searched carefully enough in Umbria, Tuscany, Lombardy, finding this conical hill, or that scalloped stream-bed, will I have found the site of disputed miracles? And, maybe, evidence—the steaming spore of St Jerome's lion, or a frayed rope around the branch of a flowering tree.


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My husband leaves me in the lumpy bed at the Pensione Esedra, with water (give me the bottle) and a packet of sweet lemon wafers. He leaves me too long and I go to sleep. Then it is evening and the blue in the casement, between the wings of cream painted shutters, is not home's homely terrifying gulf, the sun thrown back by the tilted mirror of southern ice. This sky is different. Even lacking clouds, this sky has a sort of geography, various perspectives of light that make it look somehow habitable—say, by angels.

My husband comes in with the the sights I haven't seen stored in my camera. He is a curly-haired shadow. He puts the camera on the bed. Only the blue isn't fading. Our bodies are indistinct in the dusk, in a fur of mould, or smeared with ash. My husband has bought bread with a thick crust; fibrous, whey-saturated mozzarella; porcini paste; tomatoes two days off the vine; olives only a few days in brine, and still crisp; blood oranges and Vino Rustico, a flagon bottle with a tin screw cap. He turns on the light—bravely manning the pumps to bail that blue back out of the room.