The barking would eventually rouse Kodaly. Half an hour passed. She only felt a general warmth in her limbs even though she’d begun to burn. The cigarette had fallen from her fingers. Embers caught in the fringe of a lace curtain and fire shifted across the walls in a gentle flow of energy. It found immense bales of tinder in the full bookcases out in the hallway and raged through the rest of the house.
The dog woke her as the chemicals in Kodaly’s bloodstream wore away. Sedation would only cover so much pain. She’d kicked the dog in the past, with boots she wore when gardening. Bruiser remembered long after, refusing to come to her when she called, unless it was to eat at a bowl of food laid out for him—so as she began to regain consciousness she imagined she’d give him another kick.
She came to with that petty vengeance in mind. Problem was she’d only be wearing slippers this time; she wouldn’t be able to hurt the mastiff with just her soft foot. It’d be nothing more than a push for the colossal hound. And then he’d go on howling.
She lay on her bed, unable to swallow. Even wriggling her toes or fingers was done through a viscous difficulty that made her think of amber. She was surprised by how much thick light there was around her. All that lovely yellow. Too early. She had to find a way to open her eyes. Morning had come and dissolved her walls. Made by bees, she thought—a house built by bees. Heat poured into her chest. Forced her to cough. Then choke.
Kodaly couldn’t stand. She’d used too many painkillers. She’d taken a sleeping pill. And there wasn’t enough air, so all she could think about was getting outside to breathe.
Kodaly crawled across the carpet, but the open doorway was ablaze. She went to the window, where the curtains had fallen away in tattered flames, and pushed through the half-melted flyscreen. Got out.
Bruiser continued to bark. He’d begun to howl as well. If he would just shut up, she could lie down and let the world disintegrate back into the night. She’d found a way to get somewhere darker, while she was sleeping, where even a dream couldn’t find her. When Kodaly put her hand to the pain in her head, she found fire.
She drifted down soon afterwards, eyes closed, mouth open, to the bottom of the swimming pool in her backyard.
There was weeping—the noise of an old person bemoaning the loss of a world. It made her think of her grandmother, all atremble in her last days, when the doctor asked her where it hurt and she responded, Everywhere, in a small defeated voice as much a question to herself as it was an answer to the doctor. Everywhere?
Kodaly was quiet. She could hear the delicate hiss of oxygen moving through a tube into her throat. She couldn’t tell where the noise was coming from—the weeping. Her room was dark and the bandages muffled her senses. The first thing she remembered was her hair. It’d been a good while since it had been cut. Perhaps the longest she’d grown her hair since high school. Organising that appointment with the salon had been so easily put off. She might have delayed that conversation for years to avoid the inevitable questions from her chatty hairdresser who’d also discovered that having children wasn’t as straightforward as a green light at an intersection.
Kodaly blinked. Closed her eyes. Dry. What did she still have after the fire? Odd things might had survived. The firefighters had been quick. Flashes of glistening yellow jackets arriving with spinning colours brightly revolving above their trucks. War machines, thought Kodaly. Cannons of water arced through the air to attack the fire, making what had seemed end of the world and monstrous a manageable incident. A minor suburban drama not worth a mention in the local newspaper. With all her shivering, they brought her a thermos of tea and a useless blanket. Her flesh was blistered. She was bleeding and she couldn’t see from where. These men nevertheless talked to her as though she was someone they knew as a sister, daughter or mother. Apologising that the tea had no sugar. One of them had made it for himself before the call came in. And he said the fire wouldn’t result in complete loss. Not total devastation. An inventory would need to be taken when she got out of the hospital. She listened to the hiss of oxygen and thought the least of her troubles was her hair. It would grow back quickly enough, yet that was the loss she fretted over—how easily it had disintegrated to ash in her hands.
Nurses had the job of peeling the clothes away from Kodaly’s body when she arrived at the hospital. She might have rolled in damp grass, long and green because it had been months since the last mowing. The mistake had been dropping down into her pool. As though it was a bathtub filled for a gentle soak. It was late autumn, so it was as dirty as puddle water, and concrete-cold. The annihilating pain of that freezing body of water stunned her, and she couldn’t imagine the damage it had done to her scorched flesh. Silk pyjamas had melted into her arms and would have to stay for a little while longer. The pattern of stars embedded into her legs and arms. Too dark to see. She might still have those strips of silk melted into her skin. The thought pleased her now that she felt her pain diffused by a morphine drip.
Despite the agony in every ripple, she had pushed to the surface and broke with an explosion of heat. Steam rose and swirled from her as she breathed good clean air and found that there was a point where pain became so intense it confused the brain. Kodaly had felt brilliantly awake in those moments of surfacing—consciousness itself was a blazing fire already consuming the entire globe. She felt that euphoric expansion lifting her out of the pool, as if she might keep rising and become stratospheric if she hadn’t been mesmerised by the colours of the burning house scattering across the water. A cascade of illumination that might pour out until any conceivable oblivion was filled with seething energy—often disguised as pain or fear, revealed as the purely ecstatic. At that moment she might also have asked, Everywhere?
The noise had stopped and began again now. A weeping. No, nothing as grand as that. There was a girl in the bed next to hers. The word ‘crying’ would do for the noise she made. Maybe because ‘weeping’ was the noise a person made when there was no relief from suffering, when no one in the world might come and help. There would be nothing for Kodaly to do, no kicking with slippers or garden boots to stop the noise, even if she could get out of bed.
The dawn would be a long time coming. The view outside the windows was a fence-high skyline of suburban homes. No illuminated windows that Kodaly could see. Streetlights the only glimmers through tree foliage. The headlights of a car traced a bitumen line through the houses. There would be a nurse to eventually respond to the sound the girl was making in the next bed. The other patient would have to be a lot louder to be heard outside the hospital room.
At the moment it was only loud enough to reach Kodaly. She found herself enjoying the noise. Preferable to the sound of a hound howling at her through the windows of her home day and night. She could imagine this human noise within herself. A pleasure. That noise would be a sweet thing she could draw from her own lungs, stomach and throat. All she felt was a constant need to cough. The tube down her throat made that impossible, let alone any greater release of feeling. She couldn’t do more than hiss with a leak of oxygen.
The girl’s right arm was bound up to her shoulder with white bandages. Her body was untouched by the fire she’d found. Not like the hunger of Kodaly’s fire. The girl had long brown hair with a sheen of the recently cleaned. It would have that fresh shampoo fragrance. The hair had been tied into a plait and was now a cord resting on the rise and fall of her chest. Not done by a nurse. A plait like that was a mark of family and friends. The girl couldn’t have done it herself. Two hands with agile fingers would have been needed to bring all that hair in and weave it together.
Kodaly blinked and looked for a clock. How long would the girl cry? Kodaly found a monitor by her bed instead. It wasn’t facing her. She couldn’t see what its sensors might tell her about blood, heart or lungs. The noise it made was quiet and reassuring. Flashing light against the white wall.
The monitor reminded her of small television sets she’d seen when she was a child, of portable ones that had a handle above for easy relocation. She had one in her bedroom, never moved from a chest of drawers. The television helped her sleep some nights. Not by watching shows but by turning to the numbers between channels where the static created a flickering grey light in her bedroom and the sound made her feel as though a signal continued to be possible. She could pick up a signal from between the dreams being sent through the people all around her. A message that was broader, simpler, telling her we sleep now and, as always, this is done together. A signal that was as much presence as it was absence. If there was no possibility of connection it would come across as dead white snow and a perfect tone endlessly sounding.
She drifted away, thinking about all the clear, open sounds, the official channels, all those voices talking past each other. Millions of schools, whole heaving colonies of fish sifting through each other on sea currents, a flickering of light that would go on lapping against the shore of her mind for the rest of the night.
The girl wasn’t crying anymore. She was laughing. Giggling, really. She wouldn’t want to use that word. Chatting with a friend on her mobile about when she’d get out of the hospital and what she could still do and what she wouldn’t be able to do for a while. Ten-pin bowling was out. Giggling as she said it because she couldn’t imagine anything she’d want to do less with her right arm if she had the use of it.
A nurse came to check on both patients. Kodaly didn’t respond to her questions, though she heard them clearly enough. She might blink a response, or her face could still be expressive, even if she wasn’t able to speak. Everything in the room was still too bright. A man had entered the room a few minutes before with food and that had felt invasive. There would be a sign saying nil by mouth, just as her grandmother had at the foot of her bed. That phrase had struck her when she saw it because it was incredible that a person could be denied food yet might go on indefinitely receiving nourishment. That had seemed like magic for Kodaly. But if the cure was magical then the illness was an awful fairytale spell: her grandmother’s bowel cancer meant that, though she’d been eating her fill every day and night, she’d been dying of starvation for months.
The nurse said hello to Lauren, using her name as if she was reading it off a sheet. She suggested Lauren stop texting while she answered a few questions about her injury. The girl replied as though she was describing the progress of a boxing match she was being forced to watch. It was all just too gross to get into. Assuming, perhaps, that her body would heal as easily as it always had since she was a baby.
The nurse quietly went about a few more of her duties in the room and then moved closer to Kodaly’s bed. She felt a pressure on her chest, a point where she hadn’t been burned. Three fingers resting on her clavicle as though she was an instrument that might sound a chord. Kodaly was surprised by how pleasant the nurse’s reassuring touch felt, but didn’t blink her eyes open.
‘You sleep as long and as deep as you want, love.’ It was a gentle voice. Nothing read from a piece of paper. It occurred to Kodaly that’s what she had been trying to do in the time before the fire.
The smell of Lauren’s lunch diminished after a few minutes. The girl was hungry, complaining to the nurse before she left that the portions were too small. Soon after, Lauren came nearer to Kodaly’s bed—she could hear her phone taking pictures. Some of the snaps were close to Kodaly’s face, others were further away. It didn’t occur to the girl to switch her phone to silent, or she didn’t care enough to bother. The phone swooshed when it sent pictures away and soon she was talking with her friend again, not about ten-pin bowling absurdities but the ‘horror show’ right next to her bed.
‘Her skin’s scorched black,’ Lauren whispered. ‘And she fucking stinks like she’s been dead for a month and found washed up somewhere. Made me think Last Podcast on the Left type of shit.’
Lauren was young, perhaps a teenager. It made sense that she would be as honest as a child not often separated from parents, or unsupervised by grown-ups liable to berate her if she was indelicate or impolite. Kodaly understood. She was a skeleton beneath blackened flesh. All of her muscle and skin was a charred covering ready to be stripped away from the frame. The skeleton inside felt as if it belonged to the dusty ground of archaeological digs or the ordered rows in suburban graveyards.
Things don’t go according to plan, she wanted to tell Lauren. One day the man you love, the father of your unborn children, might just not come home. And then there’s a phone call that informs you of an accident on the road. Happens every day, and most of the time it happens to someone else. But sometimes it happens to you.
‘Sucking air through a tube like a lazy bitch with a cocktail at a resort.’ Laughed at that bit. ‘Dumb bitch dropped a cigarette in her bed. Falling asleep like it was the 1970s. Hollywood movie stars used to die like that, right?’ Asked with a laugh, still so much a giggle. ‘She’s had no visitors.’ Silence as she listened to the long reply.
Lauren started crying again when night fell and her painkillers had begun to wear away. She was badly burned. She might never have full use of her fingers on her right hand. Depended on the rehab. Understandable that she would want to cry, but she went silent when she heard the sound Kodaly made. The nurse called it weeping and didn’t try to stop the awful noise. Told her it couldn’t be helped. Sedation can’t kill sorrow.
When they pulled the tube from Kodaly’s throat earlier that day, and she had managed a few sips of water, the first thing she asked about was her dog. She’d never thought of Bruiser as her dog before. Bruiser had always been his dog. Raised from a puppy and in his life before they moved for work and found a place together in Canberra. The barking after his death was awful. Bruiser wouldn’t stop. Not crying, not weeping like a human being. Howling as if the world had become a great emptiness and he could only echo with loss. She had kicked that damned mastiff hard to make it stop. Bruiser didn’t even growl at her for the steel-capped garden boot, but he did stop making the noise. Didn’t bark again for months—not until the fire.
The doctor looked as though she was going to brush off the question about a pet dog called Bruiser, something for the nurses to deal with, but she saw the expression in Kodaly’s eyes and told her she would find out. The nurse came with a message minutes later. A handwritten note left for Kodaly from one of the firemen explaining that he had taken Bruiser home with him and was looking after the mastiff until she got out of hospital. There was a number for her to call.
Kodaly thought about calling it straight away. She knew it would be silly to simply hear Bruiser barking again. And it would be a while before she could speak over the phone without sounding like a half-dead thing from a horror show.