Tuesday, July 03, 2012

A short story - Broken Circle

from w
While moving files to a USB stick I came across a short story I'd written a while back. Not true of course but it could happen.

                                                Broken Circle

Catriona is barefoot, comfortable to feel the grit between toes as she sits on the grass and dirt slope. It's midsummer, time-out, a weekend in the hills beyond Anakie.
Catriona is part of nineteen like-minded people, eyes focussed on the centre of the amphitheatre space they have embraced. The grass is barely green, in need of a good rain. Eucalypts form a raggedy surround. Linking arms, then holding hands, the participants lean towards each other as they sing the old hymn ‘Will the Circle be unbroken.’
Catriona has come to this Koorie place to light candles claiming a connectedness to the landscape though her Irish forefathers had intruded here less than two centuries ago, and none could claim real kinship.
Her companions include grandparents, children, but are mainly middle-aged, middle-class folk like herself, the usually chattering ones who listen to Phillip Adams rather than Radio Magic. They are well-informed, opinionated on world affairs and hold firm views about justice in their own way, or so her sister Elaine says, who still votes little Liberal, not quite realising the shifts.
The iron wok-like container in the centre is the focus because they have burned various paper sins of omission and sins of commission. Once upon a time this midsummer season was a church camp but those days are gone, the church decamped somewhere else.
  Here in this space, Catriona feels the rhythms of landscape and the softness of an unusual goodwill amidst people and a vague shimmer of religiousness.
Then a stranger walks, no, lurches into the group. A man of indeterminate years, or maybe thirty. He wears untidy baggy grey clothes but that’s not surprising. Grunge is still in fashion for some of the participants.  This man is disfigured with a noticeable scar on his face. He rudely breaks the circle, roughly shoves linked arms, sends one woman flailing almost to the ground. Their song dribbles to a dismal wail.  In the shambles, arms fall to our sides.  Each person is alone, not touching, except two children who are hugged, protected by a mother.
Who is this intruder barking in a torrent of foreign words?  Sounds Middle Eastern, has a different consonant attack, decides  Catriona. Where did he come from?  How dare he intrude their meditation and good intentions! Catriona no longer focuses on the candles burning but looks about, feeling an errant wind.
They feel leaderless because Neville, the taskmaster for the retreat, had gone off earlier to organise the next meal.  They are shadows now, limbless, feeble. The stranger has stopped ranting, and just sits on the edge of the amphitheatre, his head in his hands, like the respite after a violent seizure. No one dares touch him.
They move into small groups of two or three, muttering.
‘I haven’t heard from him for two years,’ Jane tells Catriona. Who is she talking about? Oh, her obsession, her estranged husband.
The stranger is now drawing into the sand with a stick, making a line of dots or the prints of a snake. What is he thinking?  Something about the Tree of Good or Evil?  ‘Paradise Lost.’  He is catching the attention of the children who are less fearful than the adults and  take no notice of his disfigurement. He has three of them now drawing circles, stamping our marks with sticks into the red sand. Is he manipulating them into a trust?  Will he turn on them, frighten them as he did by his stunning entrance, yelling? It was a magnificent intrusion, Catriona decides, forgiving him now.
He is drawing a mandala. Well, they certainly have misunderstood him. He has the children fetching tiny white stones and delicate gumnuts and pine needles to create an ever-widening circle in earth colours - white, orange, sand and brown. Catriona moves closer and want to joins in but he raises a finger to quieten her enthusiasm. He’s really saying: Let the children make it their own.
Maybe Catriona has seen him before, or perhaps seen someone like him but without the facial scarring. She lists the possibilities, her networks, but can't place him. Maybe she'd seen a similar striking face in a café or the Footscray market.
Suddenly the taskmaster Neville looms, tall and strident, Jerry the body builder in tow. They stride towards the visitor, kick the decorated earth savagely, and the stones and sticks fly wildly before settling into dust.  The artist leans back, his hands up protecting his face.
Catriona is enraged, her neck prickles and her face flames. ‘Stop! He’s not hurting us.’
But Neville and Jerry pull the man to his feet, hold him firmly and take him towards the car park. ‘He’s not one of us,’ Neville shouts back at them.
In the evening, to Catriona the lentils taste like sand. She feels shame now and perhaps the others do also. The normally noisy children are irritable and fearful. They have never seen ‘Uncle’ Nev’s brute force before and it is a shock to all of them. 
‘He has a double degree in Psych. so should know better,’ Jane says to Catriona.
‘Does that mean he’s more humane? Knows better?’ mutters Catriona.
At the moonrise gathering in the roundhouse before going to respective dormitories Catriona waits for Neville’s apology, but it does not come.  The midsummer time-out has been unsettling. She decides to confront him.
However there is a surprise. The stranger – first feared – then accepted – then thrown out – enters the space and sits with them.
Neville speaks at last. “It was a role-play. Shalim - aka Joel - is an actor. I asked him to come. Are you familiar with the Disturb Street Theatre program?  So, has it been a learning experience for any of you?’'


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