Coral Hull: When Children Bare Their Teeth

My brothers fall on their beds adjacent to each other, whilst mum beats into them with sticks and dog leashes. Dale is the squealer. He squeals like piglet caught by its hind leg. Brendon simply grinds his teeth together, locking his jaw and looking up at her with his killing eyes. He is spiritually superior and waits for her to finish what she must do. It must have been terrible to watch your older sibling being beaten, knowing that your turn was coming, and that nothing, not even your eyes or your own small whimperings of fear, would stop that terrible force that swept down through your mother's arms to lash. I heard Dale say, "Me first!" It was sad when he said it. I believed in winning and changing the course of fate and the words "Me first" had this weary inevitability about them. Years later he was to put his hand out at high school requesting to be canned, rather than be given a lunchtime detention, so he could get it over with. He said to me that he never felt the cane. "It doesn't hurt," he said, "I have strong hands," as if by magic this pain and all other pain to his hands had been extinguished. The first two confident things that Dale said about himself were "I have straight eyes," that being for throwing rocks at neighbours rooves and windows followed by "I have strong hands." But it seemed like a wishful thinking to end all nerve endings in the tips of his fingers and I knew that his hand felt that stinging wooden ruler as all children's hands would. But where he didn't feel it was the great tragedy of Dale. He never felt it inside his heart. All through his shaky adolescence his legs never stopped moving. His eyes flashed bright marsupial brown alight from tears as his feet ran wild beneath the kitchen table. Even when he was sitting still, he determinedly outran the trains to Parramatta and utilised his body's sugar reserves in odd and tremendous ways. There was nothing I could do to stop those running legs. Dad called them "sparrow legs" and every time Dale appeared it was as if a little brown bird hopped manically backwards and forwards across the back lawn, pecking at breakfast crusts thrown out by my mother in the mornings. A few times I remember thumping him in the back and pulling his bleached brown hair, but I was young and under tremendous stress. I spent my time trying to belong to colonies of ladybirds, turning over beetles trapped on their awkward backs in the hot sloping gutters and digging for the eggs of skinks with the hot excitement of grey lizards in my blood. The greatest moment was when Guenther had found a huge blue-tongued skink in the vacant block next door and his mother had fed it a hard boiled egg which it swallowed whole. "It's not from here," Melaine said. The dirt of the block next door seemed unstable. It had been vacant for many years and I was frightened to dig too deeply. The cats dragged in bodies of non-descript animals with saliva coverings. Our animal companions broke out of our yard and came back. Rusky the kelpie-cross particularly liked jumping the slim grey palings of the back fence and headed straight towards old Girt's paddock in order to roll in the horse shit. A very old brown horse lived out its retirement on old Girt's paddock. He seemed to stand as a streetscape or an old statue, always in the same position with only his jaws working in their deep brown fashion, as though he were injesting a haystack or working on carefully trimming up a prickly fence hedge. In the mornings I liked eating raw rolled oats and working my jaws like a horse at a chaff bag. He seemed so solid and peaceful in the suburban paddock. One day I could see him turning into a stone and remaining there. He did the dogs in the area a great service by providing them with enough shit to roll their backs in. Many local dogs or more could easily share a nice piece of horse shit as all they required was the sensation of scent combined with their own good fur. There was Prince the golden retriever up the road and Snowy the dangerous black labrador a street away who had torn Rusky's chest in a serious fight and next door Jack the dopey red setter, whose red fur whistled through the air as he flew his slobbery jaw and noble forehead as high as a kite. There was Glen the quiet and tawny pup who spent long periods of time in shady places where snails curled in their moistures on dry days. He was a warm shy dog as non evasive as a straw broom, whose immediate surroundings were inhabited by snails. "He's a good watch dog," dad said, "because he watches everything." Glen never even barked out a warning when the first dog in the street was poisoned by the glass baiter. In fact I never heard Glen bark at all. Then there was Buffy and Scamper the two maltese terriers, indoor companions to Gig's parents, Melaine and Evol. Dogs who were carefully combed and who stayed inside like well worn slippers, their shaggy sharp clawed feet skidding down the polished wooden floorboards of the hallway to snap in small fake ways at the hesitant shoes of visitors. After a few of the dogs in the street disappeared and Glen still hadn't barked, we were told that someone had fed them glass baits. Jack the setter in his puppy-like stupidity was the first to go. It was suddenly as if someone had thrown their kite away after we had all enjoyed it sailing in the wind gusts. I imagined Jack found dead on the lawn with the bloody raw meat and crushed glass cutting open his stomach linings. I had never seen a dead dog, but I kept seeing Jack on the lawn dead rather than never seeing him again. I wondered if Gary Leech had wheeled him away in the wheel barrow or if the angels had taken him. There may be angels for each dog type and so I imagined silly angels for Jack. Angels that didn't judge and punish a silly kind of dog for making a mistake in taking the glass bait. With a dog baiter in the street there seemed no room for mistakes here, and no second chances. In Liverpool pretty stripy cats like Tiger who fell asleep under the rim of car tyres had only one chance, not nine. Tiger yawned through his broken spine and the only fear I saw was in his eyes when he tried to walk again, but he soon dismissed the idea. He was taken to the vet and that was the end of his short life, and all his pretty stripes. I thought of all the different dogs ending in their yards and each morning we had to check out backyard for glass baits. I wouldn't know what to do if Rusky had eaten a bait. We had grown up together. It was a strange street for awhile after that a mean dog hating street and flying above all the suburban backyards with god I was shown many things that might normally evade me, things as witnessed by giant red kangaroo or inside spaceships or old shoes that flew past moons with men inside that swept the cobwebs from the skies. This is how I saw the street as the dogs disappeared and died. And as the big brown horse from Old Girt's paddock quietly chewed up the scene, and as Dale slobbered along his jerky knees as he waited for dad to come home by the front wrought iron gate, and as mum reached for the dog chain from on top of the fridge. Internally I was fighting off alien forces and striking out. Soon it was poor Dale's skinny back that I struck, and I think we may have loved one another but it was a lot easier to strike out at something your own size or smaller. We had no hope of taking on the tremendous forces inside our parents that we thought we trying to stub us out. So when we scratched and kicked at one another, and fought over who got the biggest bag of chips, or the purple and blue mugs or dobbed each other in for throwing rocks, it really had nothing to do with evil or wanting to destroy each other's lives. Instead it had to do with our own survival and we felt that one another was the only thing we could survive against. We were all drowning in rage and fear and occasionally we would push the other sibling under by the shoulders in order to get a breath of fresh air. I regret that I hit Dale when I was bigger, and I also forgive him for hitting me and Brendon when he was bigger. As far as the bashings went, I was partially brainwashed and hence thought that it was all part of a punishment which we all must receive for being bad. Well, for not only being bad, but for being who were which was the same thing, and to this day if I say, "You bashed us with sticks and chains," mum proudly corrects me. She says that they were palings that she had ripped off the trellis with white paint on them. She says, "Don't forget to include the nails. There were nails sticking up out of those palings," and then she laughs. She used to break the sticks across Dale and Brendon's legs. But we resisted, and still we lived and would be angry and would throw stones at every adult house in the street. Until soon we were throwing stones upon our own rooves, and our hearts were born again in the western suburbs of Sydney and full of angry violent stones. I would say, "No mum, don't do it! Don't do it!" My brothers couldn't understand why I would want to protect them. This sudden outburst even shocked my mother a bit, so that once she stopped momentarily, and then kept going. It was almost that moment of someone else entering the house and saying this was unacceptable, as if indeed God had came into the house from a spaceship and spoke through me. My mother never bashed me, perhaps to her it would have been like bashing a smaller version of herself. Although she more than often got pleasure from my ugly duckling ways, my tubby waddling towards shovels and buckets lodged in the winter sandpit, towards plastic animals and especially the backyard insects. She told me that she could have been a ballerina or a played the piano if it weren't for her life and looking after us all time. As a child I felt dismayed that I had impinged upon her beauty and her life, or as dad had put it when he was drunk and howling mad at her, how we had made her hips all big as a water buffalo and her legs all veiny and blue. As an adolescent I wasn't as easily convinced that it was my fault and said "I didn't ask to be fucking born." I felt I always had to defend my own existence and often crumbled into a grey void of no worth. The important seeds had been planted when my psyche was most delicate. A very young child has a mind full of butterflies. Perhaps she didn't hit me like she hit my brothers because she knew that dad took care of me. When he hit me she was never around, and he did a good job. It was hard and swift, like a clap of thunder against the skin. Inside me it created a world of unpredictable and barren places. A place of darkness and striking down. Mental corridors where I was followed by footsteps disembodied hands and claps of light. Often my brothers were hit so much by our mother, that they flared back at her actions from the darkness of their boyhood rage, like the spark of an ignition, or like a Campbeltown sky on firecracker night, all lit up for an instant and then gone weak and smoky. Brendon finally broke his silence and flared up. He was the last human being in the world that I would expect to flare up. It was like the shock of a lawn sprinkler that you thought was dead, suddenly spraying into the air twenty feet high, or fountain water shooting from the mouths of cupids, with their mossy old brows grey and stone bound. There was the runt cat named Baldy who hid under Brendon's bed, and who jumped every time the mattress springs came down on top of his protruding spine. He was a shaky old cat by now, prone to long spells of gentleness and sunlight. He was a cat on his way back to childhood. It was risky to stay in a crouched up cat position under this bed whilst this was going on. But he would not leave Brendon to escape out into the frontyard day. I heard the movements of the springs as my brothers shifted positions on the bed as they were being hit. It was as if the shifting might miraculously thwart the blows, or at least allow a blow to fall onto an area of skin or clothing above skin, previously unharmed and not as vulnerable. If you hit something like a child's skin for long and hard enough, they become like those exotic circus animals who tortured, flared their teeth at the animal trainers with the iron bar, who has bashed them senseless behind the scenes, until their small sad flares are seen as a display of fierceness to a applauding crowd. Flares go nowhere, except back into the circus cage and back into the body of the crumpled tiger, monkey or elephant to feed a growing insanity, and to feed its great dream, that the trainer would somehow reach into that cage with his or her huge bare vulnerable arm, if only for a minute or a second. For so much could be achieved, after the preparation and under the acute and long term surveillance of animal hatred. When mum hit into my brothers with the dog's lead, there was the presence of the leather part and the choker chain at the end. In her rush to flog she often would not disconnect the chain. Dale would squeal, "Not the chain mum! Not the chain!" Hurt and betrayed after mum miscalculated, I heard him choking on his own saliva and saw his face as bright as a Woolworth's tomato with tears on his face as long and wet as if the rubber garden hose had been left to run across it. He was screaming and stuttering out from between his bucked teeth, "Youyouyouyouayou you hit me with the fucken chain! waaaa waaaaa waaa waaaa, I want dad! I want my dad!" She was shocked herself this time and didn't bother to hit him again because he said "fucken." We all waited for her to remember that we were her children. I wanted to say, "We are your children," but I didn't know how to say it. Instead Dale called out to our absent father for protection. She hit them when dad was at work. I didn't want dad to come home as he was the one who hit me, and I was worried that he might hear Dale crying out from work, and that he'd come home earlier and that mum and I would get hit. Nothing would shut Dale up. He bawled his guts out in an ode to the hatred and horror of his life. He wanted dad but I didn't. I didn't want mum either. I didn't know what I wanted. I didn't think who I could turn too, as this seemed to be just the way things were. I didn't even know that my mind had been busily calculating the best way in order to survive, in a way that a child would learn their school times tables just before a big test. Survival just came naturally to me. Of course I wanted more. I wanted to live amongst all that was good as well, but survival was what my body wanted for now. Dale eventually followed Brendon's example with more silences followed by flaring. Dad came home drunk to torment mum for the night. Dale eventually stopped his tremendous sobbing and crying, for although it shattered through walls inside neighbouring houses, noone came to his aid. He saw the world for what it was and toughened up. When mum hit out with the chain Dale became savage, hissed back and almost bit her firstly focused on her reachable forearms but then more and more on her face. He was turning into a child that would focus on biting the faces of adults, that would focus on doing damage to something that was threatening his own skin. But we never knew who would do damage to us and who would not. Our parents said they loved us as they damaged us and inside it was all teeth and flaring and all messed up. By this stage we were less than children. We were the inhabitors of dark places, cannibal puppet dolls that grew teeth and jumped out of ovens to bite into the necks of adults on late night horror movies, and bravely we sent our flares into them. They were the only ships sent in to save us, and we didn't know who to steer them, to make them work for our lives. These flares and teeth baring and revenge formulas were our S.O.S. signals but who was receiving them? It was like a convict throwing a bottled message into the Tasman Sea, that washes up on a desolate rocky beach excavated by the ancient Puffins. We soon learnt that the good guys weren't always winning. Our flaring into this world rather than our living, our flaring and emergency signals received by noone. This all powerful child loving creator who looks down on earth, is now receiving more darkness than a child should have to live in, and for some reason will not turn it into daylight.