I found the creature stuck under a tree in the woods.
‘We need to put it out of its misery,’ said Gen. She was standing in the middle of the track, with her arms lightly at her sides.
‘You’re saying we need to kill it.’ I was next to the creature, my foot right by the root it was tangled in. I squatted down next to it and looked at it more closely.
Gen was silent.
‘It’s a possum,’ I said.
Gen was looking around the forest, turning to walk towards a tree behind her, touching its bark. ‘Hey look,’ she said, her voice becoming softer, ‘there’s a colony of Argentine ants living in this tree.’ Her finger traced a line up and down the corrugated pattern of bark.
‘Cool,’ I said, looking at the possum.
I had found it through its cries. They had echoed through the woods. I had run to it, dropping my bag, feeling my breath catch in my throat. One of its paws had been shaking when I found it. But that had stopped now. It wasn’t making a sound. Its body was limp, sloped down against the roots of the tree, like it had given up or it was too weak to move. But its eyes were moving: twitching, searching, rolling around. Occasionally we’d make eye contact. It was dying. It was alive. It was in a kind of pain I couldn’t understand, but I knew it wanted to live.
After I found it I had run back to the river to get Gen.
‘It’s getting dark,’ said Gen, walking towards me. She had a rock in her hand, stretched out towards me. An ant was crawling around her finger.
‘I’m not doing that’, I said, flinching backwards. The possum started whining again. ‘Look, it agrees,’ I said, ‘we can save it. Don’t you have a swiss army knife in your bag? We can cut the root of the tree apart so it can get out.’
Gen circled the tree, peering down to look at the root from different angles. She lifted one of the possum’s legs with a stick. A weak cry came out from its throat.
She took a large step over the root towards the bank of the hill, where I was now sitting, trying to steady my breath. She came and stood centimetres in front of me. I could see the hairs on her leg starting to prickle in the cold. I had my face in between those legs this morning. I remembered their warmth. It had been brief, like always – she had pushed me away and made me cum twice from behind.
I liked how confident she was in sex. Slow and deliberate. But sometimes I felt she was too slow, too deliberate. In sex and in life. She was always late. She thought “in a few months” meant the same as “soon”. She would answer questions I had asked weeks later, with a kind of clarity that suggested they weren’t up for debate. Recently I had been trying to figure out what turned her on. With this, she was evasive. She said at this stage she was more interested in me, that I’d figure it out when the time was right. But what if I didn’t want to wait and find out when the time was right? What if I wanted to know now?
I looked up at her from my perch on the bank. She was golden. The sun was throwing the last of its light on her face. Her eyes shone like pale blue orbs. From the pictures on her wall I knew they ran in her family. Before I knew her, I had joked to my friends that they were the eyes of a sociopath. They were too clear, too empty. But she wasn’t a sociopath. She made me french toast for breakfast, some mornings.
‘It’s getting cold,’ she said. Though she seemed unfazed. She was throwing the rock into the air and then catching it in her hand, again and again. ‘I think you should do it.’
‘Are you kidding me, I told you I don’t want to do it’.
I was still on the bank with my arms wrapped around my knees.
‘It’s good that you can express that,’ she said, playing with the rock, caressing and tapping it with her fingers.
‘You know, this,’ she twirled her finger around, gesturing at the forest, the trees, the possum, ‘reminds me of our conversation the other day. About how one of the problems with Western society, with capitalist systems, is the way they teach us that pain is always bad. But it’s not always bad,’ she held the rock up at shoulder height then dropped it, with a thud on the ground, ‘Too light,’ she shook her head before continuing. ‘And we go to so many lengths to eliminate our pain and hide it away but actually, it’s okay, and that entire process, of hiding and fearing, is what causes us more pain, and that’s the kind of pain we can actually do without, the endless obsessing over our own suffering. That’s the kind of pain we have the power to eliminate.’ She walked around the track, poking rocks with the toe of her shoe.
I could see the possum’s paw was shaking again.
‘Yeah, I remember that convo.’
There was the sound of leaves scraping as Gen walked up the bank. She turned and looked down at me.
‘And then we talked about the pain we had felt and the pain inside us that we had attempted to be rid of, but you never answered my question, which was, what was that for you? Where’s your pain, Gen?’
‘Watch out,’ she was standing in front of a large rock, the size of a human skull. She gave it a kick and it rolled down the bank before landing with a thud on the track. She slid down after it. Brushed leaves off her pants in silence. ‘You’re so curious about me,’ she said, eventually.
‘Isn’t it natural for us to be curious about each other?’ I said, standing up from where I’d been sitting on the bank. It was getting dark and the possum’s eyes were starting to glow.
‘Yeah, it is,’ said Gen, ‘but let’s talk about it later, okay?’ I could see her shadow was growing. It was long, and it seemed to curve around the trees. ‘What I’m thinking… I’m thinking…’ she paused, ‘that there’s no point using my knife to cut it out. It’s just going to bleed out and die in the woods. If it lives, it’ll continue to be a pest.’
‘Okay, well let’s talk about your feelings later then. Maybe on Friday, if you’re free.’
‘I might be,’ she said, not looking at me. She took off her backpack and searched inside it. She did this slowly, lifting contents up gently, peering underneath, then lightly setting them back down in place. Eventually, she retrieved a metal water bottle, unscrewed the lid, and took a swig. Once done, she held it out, offering it to me.
‘You’ll need some of this,’ she said. ‘Oh, I also have a handful of walnuts if you’d like that?’
I shook my head. She nodded and closed her bag.
The skull rock sat in the middle of the track. She pointed at it. ‘I think what you need to do is hold the rock about this high,’ she gestured with her hands, ‘above its head, and then just let it drop. It’s heavy. Here, feel it,’ she said, bending over to pick up the rock and place it in my hands. Her fingers brushed mine for a moment. They were warm. Her body was always so warm.
The rock was heavy and smoother than I thought it would be. I walked over to the tree. The possum hadn’t moved for a long time. Even its eyes had stopped darting around, but I knew it was still alive; I could see its chest moving with small flutters of breath. I stood there and thought about Piers – the guy I’d dated right before Gen. He didn’t know anything about animals. Piers and I probably would never have gone for this walk. It was Gen who had wanted to push through the shrubbery, to take me to her river, where she’d lie, naked, like a lizard on a rock; where she’d scramble up the rocks and jump, from a great height, into the cold depths of the water. When she’d shown me her diving spot, I’d faltered, unable to jump. She assured me that the water was deep, and I watched her dive in, but still, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t sure that I believed her. How could I know how deep the water was? How could I see into its depths when the depths were murky? How could I know I wouldn’t jump in the wrong way, fall in the wrong way, and hit something Gen had missed? And then my body might shatter, and float down the river, and then– would she dive in and save me? Would she swim through the currents and pull me ashore? My palms were sweating onto the rock. I felt it slipping out of my hands and instinctively tightened my grip, jolted back to the present. I was suddenly aware that the sun had set and I was still standing, rock in hand, above the possum that was caught in the tree. It whimpered and I felt it – two pairs of eyes on me. Reverberating around the dark of the forest. I looked at the possum then followed its gaze to Gen. Neither of them were looking at me. They were looking past me, through me. They were looking at each other.
Gen walked up to me and pulled the rock from my hand.
‘Fine,’ she said, ‘I’ll do it.’
Gen was silent on the drive back home. I put my hand on her knee and she smiled at it, vaguely.
‘I liked the river,’ I said. ‘Thanks for taking me there.’
She paused for a long time. Staring forward. We drove past the sea. The moon shone rings of light on the water.
‘It’s my favourite place,’ she said. Her hair was blowing about her face. She looked beautiful, like this. I closed my eyes. The breeze from the window was warm against my neck and for a moment I forgot about the possum. There was just Gen. In the night, in the car, her slender fingers manoeuvring the gear stick between us. Her foot on the pedal. Pressing and releasing, pressing and releasing.