I was only a baby when I first saw her. Lying in my cot, the late morning sun poking through the slats. My colourful camel mobile spun in the breeze above my head. A lone fly buzzed. It was just a flash of lank grey hair hanging like curtains, half-heartedly thrown open across her face. She had chocolate eyes. I wanted to follow her then. But I didn’t know how to walk.
My eyes were bright blue when I was born and I came out with them open, staring. I learned to talk before I could walk and my mother enjoyed the short time before I caught at her heels and chatted endlessly. She would leave me talking or humming to myself in the living room, on a sheep skin, while she went about her day. As if overnight my eyes went a deep brown. Sometime around my second birthday. And I saw the old woman again. Now I could walk and I followed her into the garden. It was raining. She dug a hole at the end of a row of silverbeet and buried a softly looped coil of bright red hair. The colour of a star fish I found under a rock at the beach. She left on a bicycle far too small for her. It was pink with a white banana seat and rusted bolts where the training wheels used to be.
I was five when I learned to ride a bike. My father pretending to hold the back of the seat so I felt safe. I practiced on my grandparents' driveway under the dappled sunlight of the arch made by trees that had grown together. I saw the old woman and peddled after her along the street. She was leaving a trail of salt water that dried into crystals on the pavement. She turned the corner in front of me and by the time I got there she was gone. I saw something glint in the sun next to my right foot. I leaned over and picked up a salt encrusted compass. It had a solid bronze base that sat with a comfortable weight in my hand. The numbers were worn off the circle that spun when I nudged it.
I was fifteen with golden locks down to the small of my back. I decided to soak them in henna and turn them into flames that licked my cheeks and clashed wonderfully with my favourite rainbow tie-died dress. I could run fast but not fast enough to catch her. I ran through the fields and rolling hills that spilled onto the beach and disappeared into the ocean. Like her. I just wanted to grab her elephant skin elbow and hold her still long enough to ask her why she had been riding my bike. But all she left was a puddle of blood and tears and a hospital band.
I told everyone I was afraid of flying. But not of the sea. The liquid mountains grey and angry against the firmament. The stars stretched taut across the black ceiling. I was twenty three and invincible. I didn’t see her out there in the rain tossed sky or the finger painted dawn, but I swam with her in my dreams. The mother had chocolate eyes and I followed her without thinking. I would log our heading from the needle floating in the compass and calculate our position every three hours, marking the chart with a small grey pencil cross. Slowly but surely I inched my way home.
I tried to have a baby. My body ached every month and I cried. I tried to accept that this was the lot life had handed me. That I could be happy and fill my life with other things. Hobbies. I tried Zumba, rock climbing and yoga. I tried painting, taking photographs and writing poetry. I went to counselling and thought about adopting. Everywhere I looked were swollen bellies and soft breasted mothers. The babies crying on the bus echoed my own despair. I saw her when I had a needle in my arm. Sucking blood to test for god knows what this time. She was wearing white and blended in with the walls of the ward, her skin tallow under the fluorescent lights. I could only follow her with my eyes. She left the smell of onions and lemongrass frying in hot oil, with fish. Of hot streets teeming with rats and freshly squeezed lime juice. The nurse brought me a small wreath of yellow flowers. Their delicate scent mingled with the salt tang of sweat and hard earned luck.
I moved to Thailand. I meditated. The crowded streets calmed me and the luxurious quiet gold of the temples eased the clamps on my heart. I wore white cotton to combat the heat and keep the mosquitoes at bay. One day I caught myself reflected in a window full of bright fabric. My grey hair, haphazard curtains drawn. My chocolate eyes with their smiling crow’s feet looked back. I saw the old woman, bent, a brass coin falling from her fingertips into the outstretched hands of a saffron monk. I approached slowly, never taking my eyes from the soft curve of her cheek. I tucked my fingers into her elbow and slid my hand down the inside of her arm. I curled my fingers around her palm and without looking, knew the lines there were identical to mine.