Years later when I go to the dry river everything is less than in my memories. The riverbed is narrower, there are fewer ghost gum trees. I remember an entire stand behind the sand track, or this is how it seemed. They were evenly spaced, each giant with its own territory of solitude. I remember the quiet. How there was only the sound of our footsteps on the fallen leaves, our voices in the stillness.
Now many of the trees are gone, fallen or cut down. There are more paddocks instead, the beginning of a new housing estate.
I walk in circles unable to find the place at first but our tree is still there.
When at last I find it I am surprised at the smallness of the marks we left. I kneel and run my fingers over our carved letters. All this time and the tree has kept them for us. It could have easily healed itself. The cuts were not deep. They were made only with children's hands.
Certain things were placed in the box. We were not supposed to touch them. No one said it but we felt it. It was the way our mother held the box to her chest as she walked along the hallway, protectively, as though it was a baby. She hid it from us in clear view.
Angela and I removed it from the top shelf of the linen closet. The door creaked. In the weeping house the only sound was our breathing in the silence that followed. Already, in the few weeks, a light layer of dust had settled over its lid.
It was Angela's idea. She said we needed to look inside to find my singing voice. It would help me to remember exactly when and how it happened that the words lodged in my chest quite close to my heart.
You'll never get it back unless you know why it went away, she said. She was full of ideas.
It was a simple blue cardboard box. I thought it would be heavy. I thought the weight of it would make my arms shake but it was light. The writing on the lid said in flowing white script carnegie elegant glassware. In blue ink in the right-hand corner was one more word. Darling.
My sister Danielle was sleeping when we entered the room. She was facing us with her knees drawn up. In those weeks all anyone did was sleep. Our house was like Sleeping Beauty's palace after the enchanted spell is cast. People slept on beds and on sofas. They closed their eyes in chairs with cups of sweetened tea in their hands. Mum slept with pills that Aunty Cheryl counted out into her hand and guided to her mouth. Dad slept on the floor between us with one arm slung across his eyes.
Angela and I sat on my bed with the box between us. She looked at Danielle sleeping and then at me, asking me with her eyes if it was all right. I shrugged. I didn't know what my mother would do if she found us with the box. I didn't know if she would sense it had been opened and leap from her bed and come running to find us. I didn't know what it would contain.
When I opened the lid the smell of fifty-cent-sized raindrops hitting dry earth escaped.
Angela opened her mouth into an O.
Up rose the scent of green-apple shampoo. Of river stones once the flood has gone. The taste of winter sky laced with sulfur fumes. A kiss beneath a white-hearted tree. A hot still day holding its breath.
We removed the contents one by one.
There were two blue plastic hair combs. A tough girl's black _rubber-_band bracelet. A newspaper advertisement for a secretarial school folded in half. A blond braid wrapped in gladwrap. A silver necklace with a half-a-broken-heart pendant. An address, written in a leftward-slanting hand, on a scrap of paper. Ballet shoes wrapped in laces.
From the box came the sound of bicycle tires humming on hot pavement. Of bare feet running through crackling grass. Of frantic fingers unstitching an embroidered flower. Of paper wings rising on a sudden wind. Of the lake breathing against the shore.
I didn't say anything. I kept very still. Danielle turned on her bed but kept sleeping.
"Somewhere in here," whispered Angela, "is the answer."
On the day of the funeral my nanna let the cat out of the bag about an angel and caused a great ruckus and then left squealing the tires on her beige Datsun Sunny. Even before that Kylie went ballistic and punched one of the Townsville twins on the nose. My singing voice disappeared long before then though the words to songs still ached inside my chest. I could feel them in my stomach and taste them in my mouth but they wouldn't come.
After the funeral the house was full of the rustling of black chiffon and the smell of Cedel hair spray holding up stiff French rolls and already wilting roses dropping petals onto the shag rug. The visitors pressed themselves against the living room walls and tried to drink their tea without clinking their cups and saucers. They used up all the air-conditioner coolness and sweated around their necks. Men undid their ties. Women pressed handkerchiefs to their foreheads. They used up all the oxygen. I could feel my lips turning blue.
Our mother was laid out on the sofa as still as a statue and surrounded by aunts. Her only movement was to occasionally blink her see-through blue eyes. Her long eyelashes hit her tearstained cheeks and caused a faint and momentary breeze.
In the middle of the room the nest of tables had been spread apart from smallest to largest like a set of stairs. On the lowest were jam drops with smooth skin and jelly eyes. The middle held a round unsliced tea cake. On the top step there was a host of fairy cakes, still-winged, standing on each other's shoulders.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Anatomy of Wings by Karen Foxlee. Copyright © 2009 by Karen Foxlee. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.