Momento Mori

Written by Hannah Winspear-Schillings 


'Do you want help looking through them?'

She closed her eyes and shuddered. If she didn't look at him, she could almost convince herself that he was Johnnie. The voice was the same; deep and soft and rich, though the inflection was wrong.

Johnnie would have asked without that high-pitched question in his tone.

Johnnie would have done a great many things, but he would never do any of them. He had calmly hanged himself two days ago, and that was the very last thing he had ever done.

'No,' she said softly. 'I'll do it alone.'

'Anne -'

She flinched at the sound of her name. If she listened to him, she knew that he would end up persuading her. They would look through Johnnie’s notebooks together, frowning at the things their son had written and drawn, and convince themselves that they should have seen this coming.

It was the very last thing she wanted to do.

'David, leave me alone, please. I want to look through those notebooks by myself.' She softened her tone when she saw him staring at her. 'I- I'm sorry. But it was what he wanted. Give me an hour.'

'He wrote it in a suicide note, Anne,' said David, eyebrows raised as though he found her mad. 'He was deranged when he wrote that. I'm his father; I should be the first one to see them.'

'David, please.'

For a moment, they looked at each other. Then David sighed, and turned away.

'Go up and do it. I'll be up in an hour or so.' he said softly.

She turned away and went up the stairs without a word. She paused at the door and waited. Although that wasted some of the hour that David had given her. It seemed right to pause before she entered the domain of the dead. Johnnie's room was empty. Calm. As calm as the expression on his face when they'd found him. She closed her eyes as she thought about that, and David’s reaction, and her own. Somehow, it would have been easier if he'd committed suicide out of crazed despair, if they'd found him with tears on his face.

But no, he'd been calm. Smiling slightly. And his note didn't mention any "reasons" why a fifteen-year-old boy might commit suicide. He hadn't talked about suicide beforehand, or seemed depressed. He'd waited until both she and David were out of the house and he'd hanged himself so he wouldn't accidentally survive. In fact, sometimes Anne thought that he had deliberately gone out of his way to avoid displaying the traditional signs. He hadn't wanted anyone to stop him. Why?

Well, Johnnie had said that she was to read his notebooks. Anne stepped towards the first one; a battered black one, and opened it, half-expecting to find it full of despairing poetry. It wasn't. Instead, it was a rather good description of a nature scene. Anne frowned lightly as she read it.

There are no English trees, English rocks, nor cold English streams here, but the red dust                            remembers more than they ever could. The grey scrubland might still whisper old stories                                      about the people who used to overshadow them, but now they’re silent. The wind whips the                                   sand around, forming patterns. It looks as though the serpent has passed here.

Anne blinked, shook her head, and turned the page. The scene simply ended, with no indication of anything coming before or after it. Perhaps Johnnie had written it for a story. She’d never known he could write like this. Why hadn’t he shown her? Father Bryant praised him as quiet and diligent with his studies, but he had never commented on his writing. She wondered if they assumed he'd been scribbling down notes on their sermons. She looked at the next page of the notebook.

I come to a tree, gnarled and white, sticking up in to the air. The top branches of the tree                                    glimmer silver like a waterhole touched by moonlight. So close. I can see the Karatgurrk sisters,                                 or the Pleiades, up in the night sky, shining bright like the fire Crow stole from their digging                             sticks. Something black, sinuous and shining slithers down the trunk of the white tree. The Great                   Serpent slides towards me, the moonlight catching the colours of its scales, setting them all alight                          like rainbows. He looks at me, and there’s blood on his side. I touch the wound, and I hear the didjeridu.

I have to go back, now, but I'll return.

Anne frowned uneasily at the page. Fantasy, of course, and perhaps there was something here that was a clue to Johnnie’s state of mind. But what were the mentions of returning and "next time?” There was a strange looking red-brown blotch on the corner of the page. Frowning, she reached out to it.

Her fingers touched it, and she heard the drone of a didgeridoo in her head. Anne gasped out loud, and withdrew her hand. The didgeridoo noise vanished from her mind the moment her fingers lost contact with the red splotch. She eyed it, and told herself that she was imagining things. She was still in a fragile state of mind, consumed by grief and shock. She wondered if she should have brought David along after all. He was the steady, calm presence who always had a foot in the real world.

She sat down and continued flipping through the pages. A word leaped out at her from the mass of writing before she found another image, though.


Anne turned back and began to read from the beginning of the passage. This was one of the longer ones, and she found herself having to squint to make it out. The letters were scrawled and untidy. He’d written it in haste, she thought.

I went back today, and found the serpent waiting for me in the usual place. We stood                                             there beneath the boughs of the tree, and he explained to me what I must do. It wouldn’t                                           be easy, he warned. I assured him that I understood. I was willing to pay almost any                                             price to get back to the world I wanted.

He laughed at me when I asked. How could I pay any kind of price, he asked me, when                                                 I wanted to do it? It wasn't a price to me. I wouldn't have to give up my soul, or make a deal                                with a demon. Whitefella laws didn’t apply to this country, he explained, or any other stuff.                                    My soul, my country, my katjini, it’s all my own.

It's the giving up of the body that has to happen. The giving up of the body, he explained, is all                              part of getting to the Dreamtime. To the Tjukurpa. To the Altjira, the Alchera, the Dreaming.

To my own country, not this one. To my own laws and rules and beliefs, not these. I would                                   have to die, he explained. I would have to make sure that no one disturbed me before I died. And                           then I would have to wait and see what happened.

It's going to be a long time before I can do it. But I'm willing to wait. I can’t stay here, in this                        country. I can’t.

Anne closed her eyes and bowed her head, fighting to control nausea. Johnnie had been delusional.

Dear God, what would this do to David when he found out?


She looked up. David stood in the door. His face was pale, and he was gripping the sides of the doorframe to keep from swaying.

'What is it, David?' she asked, dropping the notebook and coming over to him. Maybe the shock had finally hit him. He hadn't shed a tear since that first time when they found Johnnie.

'They called. We can't even have a funeral!' David snarled, and began to sob so deeply it sounded as though he might start bleeding.

Anne pulled him close, bewildered. "Why can't we have a funeral? Maybe not open-casket, but-"

It seemed to take David a massive effort to interrupt her. “Johnnie's body is gone!"

Anne closed her eyes. Standing there, with David in her arms, it seemed to make sense.

Just imagine for a moment, said her mind, in an almost pleasant tone of voice. Imagine that Johnnie died with that calm look on his face because he was absolutely sure that he knew where he was going. Anne shook her head violently, ashamed of herself for thinking such things with her husband sobbing, and her poor, deluded son dead.

'We'll find him,' she whispered to her husband. 'We'll find him. I promise.'

David started to answer, but his voice was overridden by a clear sound from below. Anne hurried to the window, thinking the constables had arrived. Did they have some news about Johhnie? Had they found—

She looked out the window. And her mind seemed to divide in two. The rational part told her that she was tired, and stressed, and seeing things. After all, they were in the middle of Central Australia. It wasn’t that unusual to see a snake in town. The clear sound proved to be a horn, when an automobile pulled up at their house a moment later.

The laughing part of her mind told her that beneath her a great snake was coiled on the grass. The serpent’s scales shone like a rainbow, flushed gold in the light of the sun. The clear sound had been its voice, lifted in a sound too rich and silvery to be called a hiss.

The rational part of her mind told her that even if she had really seen a snake there, she couldn't have possibly seen it from this height. Or the eyes. Especially not the eyes.

The laughing part of her mind told her that the snake looked up at her with Johnnie’s eyes. They were brighter than Johnnie’s had ever been in life, blazing with the clean power that filled the snake’s whole body, but they still had Johnnie’s soul in them. He had kept his spirit.

The serpent turned and slithered away as the police car pulled up. Her son turned and went into the scrubland, gliding across the ground so quickly. Anne felt herself start sobbing.

Both she and David were crying when the police came up, and not of much help. The police reassured them that they would get the body back, of course they would, it was an unusual crime but they would solve it, there was no need to worry about anything.

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