The Rugged Track
By Liz Argall
8 August 2011
Part 2 of 2
Princess Bite skated home slowly, her wheels feeling as if they were coated in molasses. When she could skate no further, she snoozed under elm or eucalypt before rising to doggedly skate on. When she stayed with her Derby families, she walked softly amongst them, unusually quiet and distant, strangely reluctant to touch the world—a world that seemed so violently alive now that she knew how she was woven and how she would unravel. "Goodbye," she said to each place she passed. "Goodbye."
Princess Bite did not want to die; she wanted to do and try everything and then do it all again. But she had sworn by the sky above, the speed in her skates, and the rugged track before her that she would save her mother, and so she would.
When Princess Bite got home, Lady Shove was waiting on the veranda, propped up on pillows, a large hat and heavy makeup reducing the worse of time's ravages. No, not time, but the price of wishing Princess Bite into the world. Thick sticks of sage and rosemary incense burned in an old cracked saucer beside the couch, masking the scent of withering flesh at the end of its endurance. Icy France, her hair pulled back in twin braids, greeted Princess Bite on the stairs.
"Don't tire her," said Icy, her own face older and weary. "She'll put on a show of perfect health if you let her and collapse later. There's soup on the stove."
"Thanks Icy, I don't know what . . ."
"I have to rush. We'll catch up later, okay?"
"Sure, later," said Princess Bite, the bearings in her heart grinding and pinching her flesh.
Lady Shove was surrounded by memories, dog-eared books, scraps from newspaper cuttings, photos, and many letters from Princess Bite's travels. Sitting pride of place on a side table was the thick red leather and gold-edged photo album.
"Hello, stranger," said Lady Shove eventually, her mouth and tongue struggling to find the shapes. She smiled and pushed books and papers aside to make space for her daughter on the couch. Her hands were bone white and shook with a constant palsy, but shoving books was still within her command.
Princess Bite curled up next her, as if she were a small child again. "I am sorry I've been away so long."
Lady Shove made a rude raspberry of a sound and kissed the top of Princess Bite's head. She wrapped her arms around her daughter, arms as thin as sticks with soft flesh hanging off the bone.
"I swear by the sky above, the speed in my skates, and the rugged track before me . . . ," Princess Bite whispered as she fell asleep in the muddy twilight.
Princess Bite awoke alone in the dark. She was stretched out on the couch and kept warm by the diamond-patterned quilt of her childhood. She felt a surge of guilt at her mother taking care of her and walked quietly across the wooden floorboards to peek into her mother's bedroom. Lady Shove was deep asleep, a pale lost figure in the bed, the sheen of sweat across her brow reflecting the moonlight. Princess Bite tiptoed away and, taking a torch from under the kitchen sink, readied herself.
Princess Bite opened the photo album and ran her fingers across the frozen images of long ago. Birthday cakes and graduations, funerals and celebrations, scraggly pets and numerous Derby bouts in numerous cities. Princess Bite smiled to see pictures of herself, Icy France, Bitto Biffo, and Jugular running under the sprinklers as tiny tots, managing to keep their feet only as long as they stayed in motion. She wondered, what was so special about that summer day of all summer days? Why was it the one to be captured and kept? She laughed softly to see her proudly bruised knee, a gap-toothed younger self grinning just above it, so pleased to have her first real skating injury.
Princess Bite covered the photographs with her hands, imagined herself no longer in them, imagined her absence, imagined what it would be like to be forever unraveled. She started with a group photo. She was a small head poking into the side of the frame. You'd hardly notice her absence, just a bit of the corner missing. It was easier to start there—and, if caught, her activities would be easier to conceal. She carved herself out of the image with a pair of nail scissors, ran her fingers along the new, naked edge of the photograph and returned it carefully to the album. She placed her smiling face in a small tin can and set fire to it, watched it burn away to nothing in seconds. She felt a jangle in her chest, as if something had come loose, a taut wire scraping across her insides. She coughed and, hands trembling, sought out the next. A team photo from when she was a junior with the Kill'n Kittens; her at the back with pigtails jutting out to the sides, that happy, lopsided, gap-toothed grin. She sliced herself away, and as the scissors cut through the emulsion she felt a sliver of her life pulled from her throat on a thin red cord.
She cut and burned herself out of a dozen photographs. Then, body drained and head throbbing, she hid the album behind the couch, and pulled the quilt over her aching body to sleep, lest she pass out mid-vandalism and be caught come morning.
Princess Bite woke slowly to the sound of voices, the sun a rose-gold against her closed eyes. She heard Bitto Biffo's trademarked snort of laughter and Lady Shove's warm chuckle as harmony. Princess Bite rubbed the sleep from her eyes and padded into the kitchen, yawning and stretching her aching muscles.
"Hey there, sleepyhead," said Biffo. "I'm surprised you slept through me galumphing up the stairs."
"Tired from travel, I guess."
Lady Shove smiled and squeezed Princess Bite's hand. Lady Shove's tremor had eased and there was a pinkish undertone to her pale white skin.
"Icy asked that I drop by and see if you were all okay, that Lady Shove wasn't all worn out from the excitement. But look at you!" said Biffo, turning to Lady Shove. "You're looking better than I've seen you in ages. No offence, Missus S, but Icy's always warning me, conserve energy this, don't do too much that. I think a bit of excitement is what we need, what say you?"
Lady Shove rolled her eyes and winked at Princess Bite.
"To the roller rink it is," said Biffo.
Bite and Biff strapped on their quads and pushed Lady Shove in a rickety cane wheelchair that weighed three times as much as she did. It was impractical and somewhat dangerous to push Lady Shove on a wheelchair while on skates, especially when going down hills and turning corners, but after several near-misses and a modest collision with a lamppost they made it to the roller rink intact, if somewhat out of breath.
"Better workout than you get with those wuss girls elsewhere, hey?" said Biff.
Princess Bite smiled and shook her head, bent over and wheezing for breath, her vision pulsing in and out of focus to the rhythm of her heart.
"Oh come on," grinned Biff. "You can't be puffed, we've just started."
"Course not," gasped Princess Bite.
"Catch me then," said Princess Bite and she gave Biff a sharp, savage wedgie before speeding onto the track.
"Oi!" roared Biff as she swiftly readjusted herself and took off in pursuit, accompanied by Lady Shove's riotous chuckle.
The day fled swiftly. Princess Bite found that if she focused on the present, threw herself into every activity, she could hold at bay the sick-dizzy feeling of slow dying. Biffo and Bite charged through the day like they were kids, kids who didn't fit into half the playground equipment anymore. Lady Shove watched them cavort, laughing at their antics, and when she had breath gave a few skating tips to a young, shy, BeesKneesTeenyRoller.
"You having a good time, Mum?" said Princess Bite. "You okay?"
"It's good," said Lady Shove. "I'm just tired. Have fun." Lady Shove's energy seemed to collapse in on itself, a sudden change from smiling to wrinkled with pain and hands shaking. The sun had scarcely kissed the horizon when she staggered to bed, waving away offers for help. "G-Goodnight girls."
"Goodnight Missus S, I should get going myself. I'll see you next week," said Biffo. Biffo and Princess Bite hugged each other goodbye on the steps.
"I'll miss you, Biff."
"You've just come back. Tell the nuns they've got their pound of flesh."
"I made a promise."
Princess Bite hugged her friend tightly.
"See ya round."
"Round like a rissole, baby."
After Biff left, Princess Bite felt silence envelop the house and veranda. She settled herself slowly onto the couch, every joint creaking, every muscle aching. She set fire to a thick incense stick and blew the end into a burning red ember. And then burned her face away from every photograph. She burned her face from birthday parties. She tore her gap-toothed smiling grin to pieces. With weeping hands she burned herself from her childhood, from a hundred happy memories. She had sworn by the sky above, the speed in her skates, and the rugged track before her that she would save her mother, and so she would.
She glanced at the wreckage around her, fragments of toddler photos mournful and accusing, and could find no strength to speak the words of unmaking. Her deeds wrote themselves in black smudges on her hands and face, and she fell into sleep, the hungry maw of a sucking wound.
On the third day home from her travels far away, Princess Bite was scarcely able to move. She opened her eyes reluctantly to the glare and could see right through her hand, into the bone and through to the other side. She passed her hand over the floorboards, and watched, fascinated, as the whirls of wood shifted and changed beneath it.
"I am u-un . . ." The words rolled around her mouth like clumsy marbles.
"Hi, honeys, I'm home," shouted Jugular as she strode up the stairs. "I hope little miss Biffo didn't wear you guys out yester . . . day." The steady thunk of Jugular's footsteps thudded to a halt.
Princess Bite struggled to sit up, her limbs flopping like overcooked spaghetti. Burnt scraps of paper fell from her body like confetti.
"What the hell happened?" said Jugular.
Princess Bite's life was delicately suspended by three threads, vulnerable to her words. "I am u-undone . . . I am . . . ," said Princess Bite. Two threads remained, fraying.
"What did Biffo do to you? I told her to take it easy, we all did!" Jugular rushed to Princess Bite's side.
Princess Bite shook her head uncomfortably.
"Hi, Jugular," called out Lady Shove, her voice crisp and cheery, words flowing without need of imagination. "It's amazing, I thought I'd be wrecked for weeks, but instead I feel amazing, I feel . . ." Lady Shove walked out onto the veranda, her face warmed by a healthy pink, her movements fluid and easy. She stopped suddenly, her voice cold. "Who did this to you?"
"I am un-undone," said Princess Bite. She felt the second string snap.
"What happened?" said Lady Shove.
"I wasn't meant to be . . . ," said Princess Bite. "I'm a dream that costs too much."
"I swore to save you, by sky, by speed of skates . . . , by rugged track. Look at how much better you feel . . . I swore. I am u-und . . ."
Lady Shove took Princess Bite's hand in hers. She traced the transparencies, ran her fingers over blue vein and fragile bone. She spoke softly.
"You idiot. It feels incredible, to wake without pain. To have thoughts that aren't clouded by pain. To have movements that are mine and not some shaking manikin. But I want you to live. I want you to have big fat roller babies."
Jugular snorted loudly, then covered her mouth and nose with both hands.
"Lots of fat roller babies, so our name lives forever. I don't know where you got that martyr complex, but cut it out," said Lady Shove.
Princess Bite pulled her hand slowly from her mother's grasp. "I destroyed all the pictures. I'm unraveling."
Princess Bite picked at the corners of her diamond-patterned quilt, uncertain whether it was the threads coming undone or her fingertips. "It's all over now. . . ." Princess Bite felt the strange euphoria, knowing it was all out of her hands, knowing she need not care anymore.
"Bullshit," said Lady Shove. "Bullshit. Jugular, call the girls, we've got a player to haul together. We need replacement photos where we can, and we'll sticky-tape, staple, draw, and glue where we can't. Every piece, every single damned piece we're going to fix. Princess of mine, I need you to show me every photo you broke."
"B-But you'll . . ."
"I'll be a cripple? Slowly dying? I know, I've had practice. Can you not remind me? We're sharing a moment of mother-daughter caring and self-sacrifice in the correct order. I'm older, I call the shots, I decide."
"T-That's . . ."
"That's life, so deal with it." Lady Shove began tidying the wreckage, stacking the loose photographs into neat piles, brushing away flecks of ash with her hands. "Did you really have to wreck this photo? Really?"
Princess Bite felt her stomach churn and heart thudder in new painful ways. "I-I'm sorry . . . I just . . ."
"It's okay," said Lady Shove, squeezing Princess Bite's shoulder. "I love you too."
During the day, players came from miles around to stitch back together the broken photographs. Some were sewn together with brightly coloured pieces of mismatched wool. Other irreplaceable photos had smiling faces drawn in with crayon or finely pointed graphite. Every photograph was restored; no photograph was the same again.
Fierce Fairy arrived in the late afternoon with a small pop. Lady Shove was in the kitchen, washing teacups. She didn't look up.
"That was a bitch of a thing to do, Fierce. I may never forgive you."
"You can't hate me for trying."
"Yes I fucking can! You tried to kill my daughter!"
"Only a little . . . I didn't expect her to follow through . . . who'd expect her to follow through?"
"You would have if you hadn't waltzed off to sulk in your ivory tower."
"Well, no harm done."
"No harm? You've used my daughter to ransack and trash decades of happy memories."
"You've got other albums."
"Not like that one, never again like that one. I'm going to have control of my body torn away soon, Fierce, and you've taken one of my most precious comforts and trashed it. Trashed it! Trashed her."
"Lady Shove . . ."
"No, fuck off, you don't get to talk to me and mine anymore."
Lady Shove's hand spasmed and a teacup fell to the ground. Lady Shove bent over her shaking arms, felt the tremor grow and pain suck oxygen from her lungs.
Fierce Fairy walked away, out onto the veranda and down the stairs. Princess Bite was propped up on the couch. Biff, Jugular, and Icy sat on the veranda a small distance away, sifting grey photo ash through their fingers.
Princess Bite grabbed Fierce Fairy's arm, her hand glowing at the points of contact.
"I'm re-raveling, I can feel it."
"Yes, and good for you."
"And by the time I am whole, she'll be broken again."
"I want a wish."
"You still want to barter with me?" Fierce Fairy laughed. "You're brave."
"I want there to be a day, just one day of overlap where she's full of life and so am I."
"What will you give me for it?"
"I like the sound of that. Pity it's not yours to give."
"But you know it will help."
"I'll need something more."
"I don't know . . . bad smelling feet?"
Fierce Fairy snorted, "Bad smelling feet?"
Princess Bite shrugged her shoulders and smiled, a tired reincarnation of a gap-toothed child that was once in a photo.
Fierce Fairy twitched her mouth reluctantly, "It'll be bad, bad even for a Derby Girl."
"How bad are we talking about?"
"Socks and noseplugs in bed if you have company."
"Bad enough to kill small birds?"
"Only if they're really small."
"Five years max, then the smell fades."
"Hmmph, ten. And your roller skates."
"All of them for all time?" said Princess Bite, her face flinching as if slapped.
"No, just your best and bravest."
Princess Bite and Lady Shove skated around the track arm in arm. They delighted in the dance of Derby and as a mother-daughter duo (backed up by Icy, Biffo, and Jugular) joyfully crushed the other teams. And for one perfect day all was well and as it should be. They had fresh memories to draw on in the days to come—time, wish, and consequence carved into them for better and worse.
And somehow, though it wasn't always easy, they lived happily ever after.