Pearl

It was a slight, old woman in a pie shop off the highway who told me who my grandmother was. I barely saw her over the counter but she propped herself up with one foot on the skirting board and pointed at me accusingly.

‘You’re a Kresinger,’ she spat. ‘I have something for you.’  She tried to put what looked like a wood whistle in my palm.

‘No,’ I said. ‘My grandmother was Marie. Passed now, but she’s my grandmother.’

‘Cousin,’ the woman said. ‘That was your grandmother’s cousin.’

I tugged at the traffic all the way back to the city, and quickly found my father — on the back stairs, painting — who denied it. He spilt paint three times on his boot so I went back. The shop owner told me a story, starting with my grandmother’s real name, Pearl:

The first time Pearl Kresinger was taken by the wind we were both twelve. It had been raining so long the water reached the library of our school on the hill. But it was the wind, cyclonic, that kept anyone with common sense inside. Not Pearl. She went out on the beach. She was standing on the jetty star-posed and everyone saw her. She seemed to fight with the wind for a moment, her torso wrenched back, and her chin to the sky, but then we saw her fall into the grey water.

Three men died trying to save her. One yelled out he had felt her skin, and in the next wave he was gone.

A day later she came out with her hair streaked white and the wind had settled. She didn’t stay at school, none of them did, though I tracked her over the years.

Her skin was burnt butter, her forehead small and high, her fingers straight, her nails blue-grey from a permanent chill. She wore a red floral dress that dropped off her narrow shoulders. Her now black and white hair was waxy and feather-like, stretching down her back and creeping in behind her ears and into her mouth as she turned to you. I could tell what others couldn’t, her ears weren’t really there, her eyes hissed and some of her teeth were missing. But the men followed the dance of her hair from back to mouth.

When the wind was kicking in and I’d be walking home from school near the beach through empty carparks, before the streetlights turned on, I’d see her between buildings, her hair entwined, her face in someone’s neck, a man mostly, though there were women. It seemed all were hopeless against her.

After school I moved across the border and off the coast to a stopover town and got a quiet job behind the counter serving truckies.

I heard about the freak storm in the early fifties, Pearl Kresigner cheating death for the second time. The wind ripped the Kresinger tent up, into a tree. The others ran for shelter and Pearl stood there and let it lift her, she went into the electricity wires and they curled into each other like lovers, she was jolted three times. Her brother moved to her lifeless body and she touched him and he took her place.

They drove her out of there. Nobody would touch her again. She lived in the hills for a while, and then she came to my town, and into my store.

I was jealous at the sight of her. The truckies passing through the store did not know of her curse.

It wasn’t just that she was Bunjalung that made them think she was beautiful. It was the way she duck called.

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