The Boundless Sublime@Lili Wilkinson


My name is Ruby Jane Galbraith, and I’m no Messiah.

For a long time, there was grief. It pulled me down into suffocating darkness, and kept me anchored there. I went through the motions. I turned up at school. I ate food and watched TV and took algebra tests. But I didn’t feel anything. It was easier that way.

Mum wasn’t as good at hiding it as me. She stopped going to work and answering the phone, and pulled the curtains of her sorrow tightly around herself. She sat all day in the living room, staring at the TV and smoking cigarette after cigarette. Sometimes I’d come home from school and find her, vacant-eyed, with a perfect cylinder of ash protruding from pale lips. I’d speak to her, tell her about my day and the outside world, and it would take minutes for the cylinder to tremble and collapse, spilling ash down the front of her dressing-gown.

We ate frozen meals straight out of the plastic containers. I ordered them online with Mum’s credit card, and we pretended not to be home when the delivery man came. Mum ate hers robotically, even when her teriyaki chicken was so hot from the microwave that it was burning her throat. Once I suggested we order pizza or Indian, for some variety, but Mum shrank visibly before me, folding in on herself. The idea of having to answer the door and interact with a stranger was too much. I didn’t suggest it again.

My piano accumulated a thick layer of dust. I didn’t even open the lid. Just seeing it there, crouching close-mouthed in the corner of the living room, felt too loud. Music brought feelings, and our house was a feelings-free zone.

I went out a lot, sneaking into nightclubs and losing myself in the thumping repetition of dance, staying long after my friends had left. I arrived home in the small hours of the morning, sweaty and exhausted, to find Mum still slumped on the couch with the home-shopping channel shouting at her. She wouldn’t look at me as I staggered to my bedroom and fell onto the bed, still fully clothed. It was the only way I could sleep, with my ears ringing from the club and my mind so numb that nothing could intrude. The blissful darkness would hold me for a few hours, and then I’d wake up and go to school, leaving Mum behind on the couch.

We didn’t talk about it. Ever.

I saw the school counsellor a few times. Helena wore voluminous floral caftans and tinkling earrings. She advised me to keep a dream journal and start a herb garden. I did neither. When she asked me how I was feeling, I lied and told her I was okay. She told me I was making amazing progress. She told me I was brave. She told me her door was always open.

‘How is your music going, dear?’ she asked, one grey, wintry afternoon.

‘My what?’

‘Your music. Mr Andrews tells me you are a very talented composer and pianist.’

When I was little, the word pianist used to make me snigger. I watched the bright wooden parrots swinging from Helena’s earlobes.

‘Um,’ I said. ‘Okay.’

‘You know, music can be healing. A very therapeutic way to express and process grief.’

I made obedient understanding noises. I didn’t want to express or process my grief. I wanted to be left alone in the deep darkness. Nothing could hurt me down there, because I couldn’t feel.

‘You should write a song,’ said Helena, ‘and dedicate it to Anton.’

I felt ripples in the black tide, and let it draw me in deeper. There would be no songs. Not now. Not ever. Nothing to fill the void.

‘Promise me you’ll try?’ Helena leaned forward.

‘Sure,’ I lied. ‘I’ll try.’

‘I have something for you,’ she said, her eyes bright. She fished around in her handbag and pulled out a little silk bag. I took it, spilling its contents into my palm. A string of beads, like bubbled orange glass. I blinked. Helena had bought me jewellery?

‘They’re amber,’ she said. ‘They have healing properties.’

Was she serious?

‘I know it sounds crazy,’ she said, with a self-deprecating eye-roll. ‘But it’s actually scientifically proven. The heat of your skin causes a chemical reaction that releases a certain kind of oil from the crystal.’

‘Resin,’ I said.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Amber is a resin,’ I told her. ‘Not a crystal.’

Helena shrugged this off. Scientifically proven indeed. ‘Anyway, the oil is absorbed by the skin. Mothers use these beads for teething babies. They can cure eczema and asthma,