Excerpt Palimpsest-Zelopolis

Excerpt from Zelopolis, A Novel

Greek light. The ancients likened the light of day to Being. Light gave life. Darkness took it away. I could never have understood this had I not arrived in my father’s village and sat under its sun. In Zelopolis the sun was no metaphor, it was real. It forced clarity upon the landscape, making its topographic idiosyncrasies completely seeable; exposing everything as far as the eye could see, even beyond the eye. Forced knowledge that only the mind could comprehend, that only the spirit could intuit.

My first encounter with Greek light, however, was merely theoretical. It came through the world of books in my father’s artificially lit library back in Coober Pedy. It was there in the dim, dry ambience of that room that I first read the poets and the philosophers. It was there that I came to understand that the sun generated the best conditions under which a person may discern objects and scrutinise truths. It was there that I played out the drama of light and of darkness, the drama that determined, for the poet Elytis, what it was to be Greek. I followed the Homeric myths underground – down the dark and dank stairways – curious about the underworld, but always, reluctantly, coming back up. Greeks were supposed to be children of the light, and would always choose light over darkness, sight over blindness, reason over confusion, life over death.

It was in Akindynos’s aphotic room, drilled into the dismal underground of Coober Pedy land and fitted with shelves filled with book and book and book, where I spent the long days of my youth. I’d always been drawn to my father’s library as it revealed a world of colour in the darkness. I imagined that Greece must be a lot like Coober Pedy. In Coober Pedy many people spoke Greek, and looked Greek, and had Greek names. These Coober Pedy Greeks were also curious about darkness. They sought treasures in the antipodean shadows, underground where ochre turned black. But more than that, they recoiled from the day, and sought refuge in darkness, where they built their homes. I then understood that it wasn’t Coober Pedy light that they shrank from, it was the heat.

Even back then, Akindynos burrowed into the darkness seeking out the Greek light. He sought all possible knowledge of the Hellenic world, and of the Hellenes. He added books to his library that were either about Greeks or about other things, but written by Greeks. Amongst all the Greek volumes, Akindynos also included encyclopaedic texts that, by virtue of their broad scope, appended information of a world that took me far beyond the confines of Coober Pedy and the the Coober Pedy Primary School, the disseminating-curriculum and the teaching staff; those blood-filled narratives of colonisation, the dark stories of indigenous culture, of witjuti grubs, red kangaroos, and the Dreaming. There was the world of Coober Pedy in which Akindynos was a visitor, and the world of Hellas in which Akindynos, and by extension me, belonged.

But there in my father’s library I also found my own world, another world, between this one and that one, a world that opposed the vivid Greek optimism of light. One day I turned a page in an illustrated book of world religions only to be shocked into recognition, to recollect some old knowledge, to rediscover a black goddess who held a bloody knife in one arm, and a decapitated head in another. That was Kali, the Hindu goddess. Kali; she who is black. Kali, with a long red tongue lolling out of her open mouth. Kali, symbolising violence and death. But also, life. Kali; motherly love. Kali. Her name full of the same sound of my own name, my nature already drawn to the same darkness. My namesake may have been the bright-starred constellation, but darkness was always more becoming of me than light.

As it was of Thalia. From the very moment she was born, or maybe a little later, a few months after she was born, she would cry whenever I took her outside into the sun, or even inside when I pulled aside the curtains to sit in the light. Julian and I had moved into a three-bedroom house in Adelaide: a light, airy, sunny home, optimistic and welcoming, a family home. Thalia’s was the front room where the light of the day would stream inside, making her happy. The two back rooms were for Julian and for me; a bedroom and an office, filled with artificial light that could be manipulated and focused onto whatever needed to be seen.

During my pregnancy I had sought out the sun, spent most of my time in the front room, bringing my books with me, but then, usually leaving them aside, the room too bright for reading. When Thalia was born, I would drink tea in the front garden, under the shade of the Jacaranda, with the spectacle of light all around.

But Thalia was always distressed. She was always in a battle with the sun. Thalia was not a child of the light. Not a Greek at all.

And so, there we were – mother and daughter – and we developed a new habit. We slept throughout most of the day, and stayed awake until late at night when she was able to function, performing all the normal actions that children perform during the day, and I could be a normal mother. In the evening’s darkness Thalia would happily play, laugh, listen to my stories, listen to me sing, crawl into Julian’s embrace, feel about his face. I understood very early on, much earlier than Julian, much earlier than the doctors, that Thalia’s rejection of light was a matter of confusion, not contempt. She did not know how to filter the shafts of light. They came to her potent and dangerous. When the diagnosis came Thalia had already learnt to negotiate her way around the space, seeking the dark, covering her eyes in the light. Along with the diagnosis came a dark pair of glasses to help with the day, but even then Thalia would keep her tiny hand to her forehead — a constant salute — keeping every single ray of sunlight from making contact.

I should have expected it, should have been prepared, that day. We were in Coober Pedy – a visit to see Thalia’s grandmother. Thalia, having mastered her walk was already so confident in making her way about the space; not seeing and yet seeing by counting steps, and feeling around obstacles, smelling paths and intuiting spaces. It must not have been more than a minute, less than that. I had turned my back. It is a wonder mothers ever do that – turn their backs – but they do.

And it was in that moment, and not the previous moment, not the moment when I was looking right at her as I spoke to Anastasia about her. It was the moment when I had turned away. Anastasia had begun talking about the mine, a new machine, and I had turned to see the thing she described. This was the moment that Thalia sought the darkness, and the deep shaft, the treasure below. I knew she’d fallen even before I turned around to see that she wasn’t there. To see that her short figure with her large blonde head had disappeared from the landscape. I understood it in my body first, and then, when I turned back to find a flat landscape without a child, I knew it in my head. Thalia, who’d become so confident in navigating herself in the dark, must have run toward that black hole in the bright landscape, her joy must have been so great, her trust in the blackness so complete that she had stepped right into it, and fallen down, there.


Later, when I returned to Coober Pedy, to the hot ochre land with the holes in the ground, I would sit for long hours, just sit, next to that single hole in the ground. In the beginning it was inconceivable that I would do anything but sit, and stare, and replay the moment again and again, rearranging the facts, placing myself, or Julian, or Anastasia over the hole that took Thalia. I’d replay even further back, and rearrange the entire day, shifting the visit to another day, an overcast day when the black hole would be less attractive. And I’d go even further back, to the moment of Thalia’s conception, shifting that day to another day, rearranging the chromosomes, so that different genes would connect, disease-free genes that would have avoided the blindness. And I’d go even further back, murdering off the conception entirely, removing all evidence of there ever having been a Thalia. The past was not satisfactory. It was not satisfactory at all. But it had past, and could not be changed now. Not now. Not ever. Enough.

Back to Zelopolis.


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