meet the winners of the 2017 rachel funari prize for fiction: 2nd place, “mammal” by emily o’grady
Emily O’Grady’s story, Mammal, won 2nd place in the 2017 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Emily, plus her award-winning story!
Tell us a bit about yourself? Who are you?
I’m a writer from Brisbane, and a PhD candidate and sessional academic at QUT.
What do you think it takes to win an award-winning story?
It can be a bit of a mystery I think. Hitting the theme if there is one, but also creating that spark that elevates the story from being competent and well written, to being the type of story that lingers in the readers mind long after they’ve read the last line.
Where do you write?
Usually at home. I’m very slow, and tend to write a good sentence or phrase, and then need to get away from the screen and wander around for a while. If I’m editing then I’m not fussy. Anywhere from my bed, to the state library, to cafes or restaurants if they’re quiet enough.
What inspires your work? Particularly, what inspired you to write Mammal?
I’ve become quite obsessed with Big Foot horror films recently, and liked the idea of transplanting a traditionally generic concept into something a bit more nuanced. I tend to write about the lingering traumas wrought by crime and the aftermath of violence, so the combination of these two ideas came together pretty naturally.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read. What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
I just finished Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, and am trying to read the The Vegetarian by Han Kang as slowly as I can. Next up is Hillbilly Elegy by J.D Vance for my bookclub.
What does “rebirth” mean to you?
I like fiction that has quiet moments of transformation or realisation for the characters. In writing Mammal, I wanted the theme of rebirth to really emerge in the hinging moments that propel the story in an (I hope) unexpected direction.
Anna brushes her teeth, her silvering hair. She massages lanolin onto her face, the mothy skin of her neck. It’s Thursday, shopping day, and she’d planned on driving into town later on: yeast for bread, oranges and potatoes. Treating herself to a pub meal maybe, a nice glass of red. Anna had gone to school with a man who still lives close to town, and after her steak sandwich she sometimes tails his car back to his property in the hinterlands. His wife had died of something slow several years back. Children grown.
Anna had already walked up the headland and through the pine forest, swam in the surf. She burnt her porridge over the blackened gas stove but ate it anyway, overlooking the sea on the Redwood bench her father made. She hasn’t seen a soul on the beach for weeks. People rarely come this far down the coast to swim, the water too calm for surfing. A few times a year, startling things are birthed from the ocean, delivered onto the foam-scalloped shore. A shark pup once, mossy with rot, and fish as large as boogie boards that Anna identifies from her guidebook over tea. One morning Anna woke to find a whitewashed dinghy, wrecked. She dragged it along the sand, nestled it into the Marram grass and used it as a planter: thickets of salt greens foresting the soil, asparagus sprouting like spines.
She’d heard that during cyclones, cattle and sheep from farmland are swept into floodwaters, everything feeding off the plains sucked away. How later, the rivers regurgitate what they’ve consumed, and the ocean will be dense with livestock bloated with methane, plumes of blood in the water as the sharks swarm, hitching their jaws. Whenever there’s heavy rain Anna stands on the cliff’s edge, sand wet as clay, waiting for something mammal. Waiting for something to be spat out of the sea like a gift.
When Anna gets to the pub Harris is in his usual seat at the bar, schooner in hand. His hat is on the counter beside him, like a companion. He’s already shredded the coaster, head turned towards the screen. Anna nods at the bartender, a local boy with thick, silver rings on his finger. He pours her wine and she orders steak and chips, takes her number to a table by the window.
The afternoon deepens and the pub is half-empty – not that it’s ever full. The regulars are all there, and a few tourists who bypassed the woodsy cafes of the mountain village further up the road. As Anna eats she watches a flushed couple in a booth, squirming, snotty toddler in the man’s lap and a small boy mushing chips into the grey carpet at his mother’s feet.
Anna finishes her meal and Harris downs his beer. He makes his way across the carpet, tentative as usual, as though worried she’s going to abruptly forget who he is, order him away. He stands over her, wordlessly, hat to his chest, fingertips of his other hand grazing the table. His fingernails are cut short, nick of blood on the thumb. In the light his face is soft and she sees a flash of him, forty years younger, out the back of her parent’s weatherboard, he and Walt shirtless, fishing for guppies in the frog pond. Anna gets up and heads to the car park. He follows her, wordless still.
Harris hadn’t recognised her, the first time. She’d come to the pub the day after she moved into the hut. She hadn’t known her father owned the land for all those years – that he’d been coming most weekends until a few months before the stroke. She found the deeds amongst his business receipts, her and Walt’s school reports. The documents said he’d bought the hut the year after Walt was taken. It was barely liveable, no electricity and frigid in winter, but the bones of it were good. Anna was finishing a biological illustration commission, had plans to fix it up the property to sell. She’d wanted to extend, attach a patio that looked out over the sunrise. But when she saw the hut she knew she couldn’t bear to touch it, to change it. The fingerprints of her father all over it, his collection of sarsaparilla cans corroding under the windowsill, teeth marks on the rims.
But Anna had recognised Harris right away. The same jerk in his head as he spoke, like a bird pecking. The tattoo he’d gotten on his neck in his final year of school, a Scottish thistle, now blue and blurry. She shot him glances all through her meal and he pretended not to notice, had likely been flattered. After she’d eaten she’d gone up to the bar, hovered beside him, cleared her throat. The flash of recognition, then the smaller flicker of horror before Harris recomposed his face, smiled, as politely as he could manage.
When Anna pulls into Harris’s driveway he’s already opening the backdoor. She locks her car and makes her way up the steps, eucalypt medicinal in her nose. There’s a stack of newspapers, egg cartons and rinsed jars of pasta sauce by the door. She knows Harris cleans for her, that he puts fresh sheets on the bed every Wednesday night.
Afterwards, Anna dresses, heads into the kitchen to make herself a cup of green tea. It’s all Harris has, and she’s forced to try and enjoy the taste for something to do with her hands. She sits in the lounge while Harris showers. There’s a picture of Harris’s children above the piano. His daughter played, and Harris had told Anna he still gets it tuned each year, though she lives overseas and only visits at Christmas time.
Harris comes down the stairs, places his laptop on the coffee table.
‘I’ve got something to show you,’ he says. As the laptop warms up he walks to the windows, fiddles with the blinds. He runs his finger along a bookshelf, rubs the dust between the pads.
‘Y’know,’ he says. ‘I’d been meaning to tell you, even before you moved back. Was going to write to your folks, but then I heard about your Dad, and thought, best let it rest for a while longer.’
Anna straightens up from the pillow. He’s more nervous that usual, which makes her nervous, but there’s also a spark of excitement there she doesn’t recognise.
‘What are you talking about?’
Harris strides over to the laptop, taps out his password with index fingers. He doesn’t take his eyes off the screen.
‘I know what happened,’ Harris says. ‘To Walt.’
Walt. Neither of them has mentioned him for the almost four months she’s been coming over. Anna was happy to let it hang between them, like mist. She feels a bristle of annoyance that it’s been disturbed.
Harris sits beside Anna, pulls the laptop onto his knees. Anna glances over the page he’s just pulled up. She doesn’t understand.
‘I’ve been trying to find the right time to tell you,’ Harris says. ‘You turning up here after all this time. Just wasn’t sure what you’d make of it.’
Anna stares at the screen. The website is one of those cheap, flashy home jobs. A dozen different font sizes and colours. She isn’t sure what she’s supposed to be looking at.
‘We go tracking, on the weekends. There’s a whole group of us, six or seven blokes. We get ten sighting a month, on average.Just last week we found a roo folded up like pieces of paper, insides completely gone.’
Anna still can’t piece it together.
‘Why are you showing me this?’ she says. ‘What does this have to do with Walt?’
Harris pulls out a hanky from his pocket, wipes his nose and mouth. ‘No human could’ve been that quick, that quiet. He was only out of my sight for a minute, Anna. It was only a minute.’
It was Harris who’d been with Walt the afternoon he was taken. After school the boys had ridden their bikes to the milk bar and split a packet of FAGS, sucked the sugar sticks as they raced to the rock quarry. Harris had gone home alone, thought Walt was sulking or playing a trick, and it wasn’t until dinnertime that anyone realised he was missing. Anna remembers that night clearly. She’d walked with her father to Harris’s place, just on the other side of the cane. Her father had slapped Harris so hard his lip was still puffy as marshmallow after the weekend.
They never found the body, the bones, but two years later, a bushwalker unearthed a shoe and a school tie, five hundred metres from where Harris had last seen him. Walt was still a boy, but his feet were monstrous, the shoe almost man-sized. There wasa church service, a memorial on the school oval. Anna had been given chocolates from her class, a whole shoebox of Polly Waffles and Chokitos. She gorged on them in the scrub behind the tennis court, threw them up, slick and brown and sweet. The librarian found her, took her to sickbay where she’d been given more chocolate. The next day the librarian came to her at break, gave Anna a purple hair-ribbon that had belonged to her daughter whose lungs had filled with fluid years before. There’d been a memorial for that as well.
Anna stands on the cliff, though the wind is fierce, the peaks of the mountains nearly invisible. When she was small her parents hadn’t let her out of her sight, but by the time she started year eight she was free to roam, would go to the mountains most days after school. Anna would find a large stick and sift through the scrub. When bushwalkers passed she’d straighten up, transform the stick to a trekking pole and return their smiles. She was meticulous, would track the ground she’d covered and then transcribe her progress into a notebook when she got home.
That was where she’d last seen Harris. Early summer. He was about to graduate, was going to the teacher’s college in the city, but would end up dropping out after a semester, taking over his family’s cane farm and running it into the ground. She and Harris had ended up at the same high school. He’d steered clear of her for the rest of primary, and they’d spent two serene years out of each other’s paths while Anna was finishing her final years before moving to the upper school. He’d ignored her for almost a decade.
Anna remembers: the rustle in the foliage, waiting for a walker to appear around the track. But when she continued around the bend there was Harris, crouched beside a red gum. He was riffling through his backpack, something wound around his hand. Braided rope, the colour of bluebells. It was a tangle, and he picked at a knot, with his fingers and then with his teeth. His head was turned and Anna had a clear view of the tattoo on his neck, scabby with infection.
She didn’t want to talk to him, didn’t want to stop him. She tried to back away, but stumbled over a root, slid over the wet detritus. Harris looked up, rope in his mouth like a gag. Anna scrambled off the ground, turned and ran.
Back at the hut Anna trails down the dunes. The water is grey marble, clouds low and thick as cream. She scans the shore. The tide has gone out and sea-junk litters the sand: cuttlefish, slicks of seaweed, the occasional sack of jellyfish that Anna presses her heel into, bursting it like a cyst. Anna picks up a stick, flicks a piece of seaweed into the water, and her eyes land on something closer to the headland, yellowed but glowing against the dirty sand. Thin as a wrist, thin as bone. Anna looks beyond the dunes, to the mountains slicing the range.