The Luminary

Bessie crouched in the bushes at the top of the paddock. Kangaroos grazed nearby, a joey peeked out of his mother’s pouch as she nosed the grass. The sky was a pale blaze, grey blue with the menace of heat.

The house was below, its slate roof dotted with patches of moss, like countries on a map. She spent her days drifting through its rooms, like the sweeping beam of a lighthouse, making sure all was in order for when they came. She would run her finger over the marble mantle, press her face against the glass. Waiting.

Bessie was content to be a protector, a guardian. In her day, she had been a defender. She had marched in Melbourne, holding her placard for suffrage. She had attended meetings with Vida Goldstein and other luminaries of the age. They had depended on her. She had sat in the corner of various parlours across town, documenting the attendees in a leather-bound notebook. She recorded their achievements, large and small. Always there was Flora, by her side. On the greatest day, when the bearded and portly men granted their wish, she and Flora had a picnic in the Catani Gardens. They devoured Eton Mess, cylinders of sweet ham and strawberries.

Days passed, months, then years. She lost count of the number of times she was called home to account for her lack of suitors, her scant interest in fulfilling her marital and biological obligations. Her father paced the sitting room, his lips clamped over his pipe so tightly she worried it might break. His watch chain glinted in the lamplight as her mother sat hunched on the chaise longue, red blotches on her neck.

‘You are never even seen in the company of men, Bessie. You don’t wear a corset. We’ve sent you to the best schools, given you everything. And for what? To be whispered about, to be avoided by our friends. It must stop.’

But it did not stop. In the end, it was solitude that saved her. It was living alone on this property in the hills with only the lorikeets for company. She collected blackberries and walked miles to the general store for supplies. The mist cloaked the mountain at dawn, the Camel’s Hump only revealing its ancient shape in increments. No one minded what she wore, she was rarely witnessed. She became invisible.

And now. The family had arrived in their capsule on wheels. The children were all whirling legs and arms as they careened towards the door. The mother, her distant relative, pensive and thoughtful as she shielded her eyes against the gold and pink of late sun.

She watched them in the shadows, sensed but not seen. She imprinted ideas in the mind of her relative as she slept. Strength, forbearance, ways to challenge, soft and deft. Bessie hoped her life was swift movement through air, unencumbered. And that her daughter’s life would be lighter and stronger still. Like the pulsing of cicadas on a mountain night, unseen but growing in volume.

In memory of my great-great Aunt, Effie Smart. Pioneer of women’s rights, and luminary.


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