"A desert country seemed the place that best reflected our emotions."
After losing their daughter, writer Sandra Arnold and her husband took to travelling to process their grief and found themselves Oman. For 100 Voices for 100 years Sandra shares her story The Stone, inspired by one of the moments from their time in the desert. A beautiful piece about the moment when hope returns.
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer born in the UK and living in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. She is the author of a book on parental bereavement, Sing no Sad Songs and two novels, Tomorrow’s Empire and A Distraction of Opposites. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. Her flash fiction appears in numerous journals including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and the anthology, Sleep is a Beautiful Colour (National Flash Fiction Day, UK, 2017) and is forthcoming in Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). Her work was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize and the 2017 and 2018 Best Small Fictions. Her third novel, Ash will be published by Mākaro Press (New Zealand) in 2019.
On April 6, 2002, my youngest daughter, Rebecca, died of a rare appendix cancer at the age of 23. For a whole year afterwards I couldn’t say her name and the word ‘died’ in the same breath. Though I am a writer and at that time was a teacher of writing, I had no words to describe this cataclysmic event in the life of my family. I could no longer read novels, listen to music, or watch films. I stopped dreaming. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to be inside my skin. I woke at night with my heart beating hard against my ribs. Large gatherings of people with their noisy laughter and banal chatter suffocated me.
The silence of my home, my garden, the warm breaths of my cats and dog and goat and horses, the quiet paddocks, the river walks and the mountains provided no refuge. They were all empty spaces that reverberated with Rebecca’s absence. This new territory was so bleached of colour, so arid and alien, so lacking in anything recognisable that I had no language to negotiate my way through it.
New Zealand, where we live, is a beautiful country, but after Rebecca’s death my husband and I needed to leave it for a while. A desert country seemed the place that best reflected our inner landscape and so we were drawn to work in Oman in the Arabian Gulf. We decided to immerse ourselves in the culture of this alien land that held no memories of the life we’d known.
On our way to work in Oman for a year, we stayed briefly in England, the country of our birth, and with my brother I returned to the scenes of my childhood. This bridge to the past connected me to the present and showed me possibilities for the future. The year in Oman allowed healing to continue in circumstances we could never have imagined. I kept a diary to record our experiences there. By the time we returned to New Zealand we were ready to face the future. I began a Master’s degree in Creative Writing which explored through fiction themes of loss and grief. The first story I wrote for this was called The Stone and is based on an experience we had when we camped on the beach in Oman on the second anniversary of our daughter’s death. It has been broadcast on national radio, included in an anthology of the best New Zealand fiction and also in a Medical Humanities journal from the University of Otago.
After my Master’s degree I began a PhD in Creative Writing to research the topic of parental bereavement. Finally, after I completed my thesis I was able to live with my grief.
This morning we’d watched the sun rise over the sea because we needed to see colour spill over the earth. We walked past deep holes dug by nesting turtles and over the tracks their flippers had gouged in the sand. We found piles of broken egg shells at the bottom of the holes.
“Let’s hope one of them made it to the sea,” Chris said. He picked up a stick and drew a heart in the sand around a cluster of empty shells.
“What a waste,” I said, counting around two hundred eggs.
“Part of a cycle,” Chris said, writing our initials inside the heart.
We peeled off our clothes and waded into the sea. Seabirds circled and dived. Floating on my back in the warm salty water I thought of a friend who once described the hours he’d spent in the sea after his boat capsized. The world became the boat he was clinging to and only that moment had any substance. He said he felt outside of time. I never fully understood what he meant, until now.
Outside of time. This day. This time. Two years ago. New Zealand.
Rebecca asks for music to be put on. She discusses a racehorse with our friends John and Sue and tells them she wants to train a white horse when she gets better. She asks me several times who came through the door and I say there’s no one else here, just the seven of us. She touches everyone and checks their names, then asks Sue, “What sound does a bear make when it’s stung by a bee?” We think it’s a riddle, but Rebecca says she doesn’t know the answer either.
The two nurses decide to leave as she seems so much better. She’s laughing and joking. Her face is a better colour. I say goodbye to them on the porch. When I go back into the living room Sue is telling Rebecca she and John will stay overnight so Chris and I can get some sleep. Rebecca thanks her then nestles the side of her face into the chair and closes her eyes. As I sit down opposite her I see her chest is still. We put our faces close to her mouth and nose and feel the tiniest whisper of air. Chris finds a pulse in her neck beating very faintly. My heart is beating hard. John and Sue slip outside and wait on the veranda. The nor-wester roars through the trees whipping up the autumn leaves. Chris and I hold Rebecca’s hands.
Beneath the hills wild horses graze in the moonlight. The lead mare lifts her head. Colts and fillies stop chasing each other’s shadows. Foals stand closer to their mothers. The old ones stop grazing. They all watch the lead mare, and wait. The earth holds its breath. Rebecca’s pulse flutters like a moth’s wing, and is gone. I go outside to tell John and Sue and they say they know because the wind has died.
I don’t sleep that night and next morning I move around as if trapped in glass. In the middle of a conversation with my two other children, a sound slides from my throat. It rises to a wail. Wave upon wave of wailing, from a place deep inside in my body. Chris, Susannah and Benjamin can do nothing but hold me. A fantail taps on the window. As Rebecca’s friends start arriving the fantail circles round their heads.
Chris knelt on the sand with the sea up to his chin. A seagull flew over our heads, its keening breaking the silence of the deserted beach.
“Do you remember,” I said, “when I was in labour? You suggested playing Scrabble to keep my mind off the contractions? Then you put your hand in the bag of letters and brought out an R.”
“Coincidence,” Chris said. Then, “Ouch!”
He reached down and brought up a stone. “No wonder it cut me. It’s covered in limpets.” He turned it over. His brow creased. He held it out to me. In the middle the limpets had dropped off, leaving behind a raised pattern of white calcification in the shape of a perfectly formed R.
Sitting under the stars in front of our campfire I hold the stone and stare into the flames.
“In ancient Persia when someone first saw oil trickle out of the desert they didn’t understand what it was,” I say. “They thought it was some kind of water and when it ignited they believed the fire was sacred. They didn’t believe the flame just went out. They thought it died, like the soul leaving the body.”
Chris points to the sea. The sparks from the agitation of the algae have become flashes of light that run along the length of each wave. The sea is ablaze with white fire. A large dark shape emerges from the water. A giant turtle. She drags herself across the sand, stopping to check out sites to dig a hole, then makes her way to our tent and starts digging beside it. With a sigh, she begins the long process of shovelling out sand with her front flippers. We edge closer, and by the light of the moon we watch her lay her eggs.
After two hours she covers her nest with sand, turns around and heads back to the sea. We follow and watch her swim away. Pieces of moon float on the water where she disappears beneath the waves.