A Sinking Heart
Third Place in the Letter Review Prize for Short Stories
1 December, 2022
Leaping over decades, the memory caught him unawares. In that disconcerting moment, as the Sunken Garden where he now sat became abruptly linked to the one he’d known so long ago, Tod saw with a jolt how little of his life remained. Not how little lay ahead — he thought he could look forward to quite a few years yet, despite the angina and drooping flesh; but what a meagre residue of his past could be retrieved, and shared with anyone.
The earlier Sunken Garden belonged to distant days of primary school in New Zealand. When the lunchtime bell rang, the youngest kids would scuttle away to that dingy spot near the edge of the school grounds. Finding somewhere inside it to perch, they’d gnaw sandwiches in companionable discomfort. ‘Sunken Garden’ was a euphemistic label for their shabby bamboo-fringed hollow. In those days people applied the word ‘garden’ freely. Christchurch, where he then lived, used to call itself with grand optimism The Garden City.
Now he couldn’t think of anyone he still knew who’d remember the old Sunken Garden. And as for Garden City, that would no longer be a favoured epithet over there in Christchurch — not since a disastrous earthquake liquefied the soil, riddling it with sinkholes. Anyway, it was all very remote. Most of his former friends from those days had dispersed around the globe ages ago, dropping from sight.
Here he was on the far side of another land, sitting in another Sunken Garden. This one, in the park-like grounds of the university where he worked, was a deeper crater, neatly landscaped with concentric tiers of seating made from limestone blocks. Its melancholy air suited today’s occasion: a funeral tribute to a life chopped short. He’d been only slightly acquainted with the dead woman, but knew her widower better and had glimpsed the enviable quality of the life they’d made together. Looking now around the Sunken Garden at the large crowd of mourners, he thought how consoling it must be to have lived most of one’s adult life in the same place, as this couple had done, working in the same institution, surrounded by colleagues year after year. It meant that at a time of ultimate severance there was a large circle of solace — scores of people testifying to their remembrance of the lost friend. A phrase came to Tod’s mind from somewhere a long way back: ‘compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.’
He’d never stayed long enough in one spot to feel much camaraderie. Moving on, cutting losses and starting again — that was his pattern. Gathering no moss, gathering very few experiences whose meanings could be held in common with mates. Along the way he’d misplaced not only the country where he used to belong but also a couple of children and a couple of wives.
The next day Tod arranged to see his only remaining friend. Jimmy’s jocular manner masked his empathy. When he saw the look on Tod’s face he swiftly produced a bottle and two large tumblers.
‘Zo – vot iss up?’ he asked in the irritating fake Teutonic accent he occasionally affected as a defence against seeming solemn. ‘Vy zo zad, hmm? Must be ze flu?’
‘No no’, said Tod, frowning into his Glenfiddich. ‘The body’s okay, probably. Apart from an odd flicker in my ticker. No, it’s the old psyche that’s ailing. Troubled by the thought that most of my past life is lost.’
‘Lost — some bits of it because I can’t remember the details, other bits because I do remember but there’s nobody left to share my sense of what it meant. Makes my heart sink.’ He held out his glass for a top-up. ‘Anything worthwhile I’ve ever known or done is draining away, and taking me down with it. As if my whole self is about to slide into a hole in the ground.’
Jimmy had listened with a raised eyebrow, fingers tapping the tabletop, and then gave his barking laugh. ‘Ah, Dr Hoffnungslos, I get it! — I sink, therefore I am?’
‘But not critical, eh?’ He refilled their glasses. Conversation slowed, sagged.
The next day Jimmy sent him a text message: For consolation, see Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning — the way it ends.
Tod found the poem in an old anthology on his shelf. Read it through aloud. Nodded at the images of those who contemplate their demise devoid of any fellow feeling except a sombre recognition that everyone else is equally perishable. The final lines, with pigeons undulating as they sink downward to darkness, offered a mere smidgin of dubious hope.
Shaking his head, Tod texted back: Perhaps consoling if you’re part of a flock. Gregarious birds can undulate together. But a kiwi is a flightless loner, nearly extinct!
Nothing could remedy his plight at this late stage. Incurable solitude. Useless to think of seeking friendship with someone whose life was on the way up, because the whole point was that he yearned for old mates (but had there ever been any?) with whom he could cherish the knowledge of a submerged past they’d once experienced together. Sunken treasure. Jimmy wasn’t that kind of companion. Although they’d rubbed shoulders for some while, there was no mutual store of memories. So no beneficial contagion.
Lately, with all this fretfulness, Tod hadn’t been sleeping well, and at the moment he felt especially agitated. Perhaps the TV would help: he often lapsed into slumber after sitting for a while in front of the screen. It would happen suddenly, almost a kind of narcolepsy, and sleep was probably what he needed right now.
Turning on the set, he found himself watching a documentary about sinkholes. In Florida a man sleeping peacefully in his home had been swallowed up when an abyss suddenly opened beneath his bedroom. Body never retrieved. And in the middle of Guatemala City, after rainstorms, a gigantic hole forty metres wide sucked down an entire three-storey building.
Such nightmarish disasters, the TV informed Tod, occurred when subterranean limestone dissolved, creating a void that caused the surface crust to break apart without warning. Or the invisible erosion could result from human agency — old mine sites, burst water pipes, the pumping out of water from aquifers.
He switched off the screen but couldn’t stop the catastrophic images. It struck him that this kind of danger surely wasn’t confined to small precarious patches of weakness within an otherwise stable land mass. Larger surface areas were probably being undermined all the time, especially if surrounded by watery chasms and shaken by tectonic subduction. Whole islands might suddenly crumple and tumble into a profound heart-stopping abyss as the ocean floor gave way beneath them. It had happened to Atlantis, perhaps, and could well happen to a place like New Zealand — squeezed more and more tightly between grinding plates until the day when its fragile superstructure would be rent asunder, sucked back down with a drowning population into the Pacific depths from which it had once arisen.
With a heavy throb in his chest, Tod went to his computer and googled ‘sinking feeling’. He clicked his way to an old newspaper article, which declared that an acute sense of subsidence means ‘you have a weak heart and weak nerves.’ ‘Neglect of these symptoms’, it warned, ‘could be fatal.’
He returned to the TV, feeling feeble. The documentary had finished. A sequence of vapid advertisements shouted at him. The drum in his blood boomed TOD! TOD! TOD!
Without warning the floor started to give way beneath his feet. Something lurched behind his ribs. Slipping, falling, looking back up, Tod thought he recognised the faces of long-lost friends and family peering down at him from around the rim of a widening crater.
They were like a small grim cloud of witnesses, but he saw nothing more as the huge cavity opened below him and he was plunging down now, cast into a bottomless pit.
Ian Reid is the Australian author of 15 books across a range of genres. His latest full-length publication is The Madwoman’s Coat, longlisted for the ARA Historical Novel Prize. His short fiction has been published in the USA (e.g. in Antipodes) and New Zealand (e.g. in Flash Frontier) as well as Australia (e.g. in Backstory). Website: http://ianreid-author.com/
Artwork by Kita Das