Blue bottles. All shapes. No bigger than a child’s hand. But blue.
They are lined up at eye level under the house. Wooden stumps have been topped with tins like pie dishes turned upside-down on the drainer. A cool, earthy smell hangs in the slatted sunlight as the afternoon wears on.
One squat-shaped bottle has patterned sides. She wonders if its darker blue holds a trapped shadow and rubs her thumb over the decorated relief. Round and round.
Can you see me, can you, can you? she calls as the television’s sound sifts through the gaps in the floorboards. If she glances upwards, she can make out her father’s long legs, a zig-zag where they block the light.
He’ll be sleeping, she says, when he doesn’t answer. He’ll be sleeping like the shadows, she repeats, watching the soft dirt cling to her toes, outlining them. Her footprints have made mountains for the ants. Casually, she lifts her foot. Her big toe becomes an earthquake; a god flattening the world.
The ants dig themselves out. She catches one in a bottle which she turns as if on a spindle. The ant’s antennae twitch. Its feet tread an endless upwards patter against the bottle’s blue side, as if it’s walking in the sky. Eventually she tires of the ant and sets the bottle on a joist.
Squinting up through the gaps in the lounge room floor she sees a line of green and brown punctuating the zig-zag of her father’s legs. Her gaze travels to the empties in the boxes stacked, side by side, under the house. They are like soldiers resting in a shadowed world. Quarantined, heads tipped in their wooden barracks, they seem asleep. Solid, uniform, dangerous.
She undoes a hairclip, letting her curls brush her shoulders. You can’t leave your room, she says, turning her back on the empties. She peers at the ant, her lashes magnified by the glass. You’re very naughty. Hear me, do you? she asks. The ant’s body oozes acid as she pokes the hairclip into the bottle. Her nose wrinkles its freckles.
I’m in charge down here, down here, down here, she chants as she arranges the bottles from small to large. The tallest bottle fits snugly in the space between the joist and the floorboards. It is lighter than the others, opalescent, smoother. She traces the bottle’s outline. It reminds her of her mother’s skin, curved, milky.
Mummy went away, she whispers to the ant, shaking its bottle. Too much bloody trouble, that’s what Daddy said, Too much bloody trouble. The ant bounces around inside, its legs broken. I should’ve stayed in my room, she tells it, looking at the cast on her arm.
Where they emerge from the cast’s frayed edge, she tests her fingers, moving each one as if she is playing a piano whose notes have already floated away. They were shouting, she says, pizzicato. The china cabinet fell. Like this, she tells the ant, using her cast to show how the cabinet hovered, then crashed. It shook the house, she says, fingering the bottles. A shudder runs through her.
Daddy kept saying Sorry, Sorry, she says, sprinkling dirt into the bottle containing the ant. She turns the bottle so that it shimmers. She blinks. She runs her fingers across the smooth surface, feeling for imperfections, hollows, chips. She inspects a bubble, a pocket of time caught in between. Like the sound of broken glass tinkling, she whispers as she rains tiny stones into the bottle where they clink against the glass. Mummy and all her pretty things smashed, she adds, shaking her head. Daddy was so upset he threw me against the wall yelling Get back in your room!
She tips the bottle with the soil. The ant has its eye pressed to the glass.
It was a terrible accident, you know, she explains. I'm lucky to be alive. My hand turned blue.