The Town

by Keren Heenan

Out here the wind always blows up high and hard before a storm; the sudden buffeting of trees against the wall, low murmur building to a howl and the darkening outside the window. There’s a feeling as if the sky itself could fall. And then comes the rain.

He arrived on such a day. Sometime between the howling of the wind and the bruising of the sky, he glided into town, some said, as if he knew where he was going. But I know now that he probably didn’t.

I first saw him through the kitchen window walking past the bakery. The sky was about to fall and he didn’t care. He wore a suit that looked like an undertaker’s, but ragged and silver-grey, and he carried an old leather sack. He looked around as he passed and his eyes caught mine. He slid one hand out of a pocket, moving it through the air sort of slow and smooth, and you weren’t sure whether he was waving or dancing. His collar blew up and his coat tails flapped, and then the sky broke open and he turned up his face and raised both hands like a hallelujah. Inside the bakery I could see old Mrs McGinnity’s face at the window, all pointy and white, her eyes slanted and her mouth in a thin line. She drew back and snapped her blinds closed. But all I could see was the shininess of him there in his silver suit, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I wanted to follow him, but my father came into the kitchen then, took one look and said, ‘Come away Joey,’ in that firm, quiet voice that you don’t ignore. I moved back and watched him walk on.

He walked straight through town that day, out the other side and into the old glove factory that no-one had been inside of for years. We’d see him in town sometimes at the hardware store mostly, buying stuff like glue, and rubber bits, wire and Stanley knife blades. Sometimes he bought vegetables too, like spinach, and lettuce. Uncle Pat saw him out at the tip, foraging around for bits and pieces, old tyre inner tubes and canvas scraps. One day he found Mal Black’s old torn and perished wet suit, and he jumped up and down almost singing. I can imagine his eyes then, all bright and mad like lights, like they were the day of the storm when he arrived. He’d carry the stuff from the tip in his leather sack, back to the factory out the road. My father called him the Pied Piper because of all the kids who followed him around. But he didn’t say it in a joking way, he said it sort of mean and hushed, and I knew not to let him know that I was one of those kids.

Sometimes parents or teachers, worried about what he was up to inside the old building, would follow him out of town and sit in their cars just to let him know they were there. Some would even yell at him, ‘get out of town,’ or ‘leave our kids alone.’ And there were others too who’d peer in through the windows, or call out to him if he came outside. But he didn’t speak to anyone.

I tried looking through the windows of the old glove factory myself once when he’d gone into town. They were all painted over black from the inside. I imagined him renovating the place on the inside and setting up some sort of church, or meeting hall, where one day we would all find out what he believed in and he’d make a great speech and stun everyone with his words. All the non-believers too, the ones who’d rubbished him and wanted to drive him out of town. They’d all be singing his praises and wanting to wear silver suits and walk around in the rain getting wet and mad. What was it that made his eyes shine that way?

Sergeant Trammell had to gone out there one day because of Mona Nicovski’s parents. They said he’d taken her inside and told her to take off her clothes, and he’d taken photos of her doing weird stuff. But Trammel didn’t find any photos, or even a camera and Mona finally had to admit she’d been lying. We all tried to get Sarge to tell us what was in there, but he just said, ‘Nothing. There’s nothing in there.’ Later we heard he’d told someone there was some sort of artwork on a bench. But that was all.

Even though everyone knew Mona had been lying, there were still some who thought he was up to no good. They’d see him in his silvery suit, the way he didn’t speak, and the weird stuff he collected. For me, all the strange stuff made me want to get to know him. But for them it was all part of wanting to run him out of town. Even though the old factory was on the outskirts anyway, they wanted him right out and away. My mother and father had big arguments over The Piper — we all called him that because no-one knew his name. Charlie Gravestock said he never had a name, and that he came from the sky. He said he saw something shiny in a flash of lightning in the storm that night, and soon after, there he was — old Piper, walking down Main Street in the rain in his shiny suit. Charlie said that was why he didn’t need to eat, he was an alien who just lived on air. Charlie reckoned he was rebuilding his space ship in the old factory. A few of us laughed at him afterwards, at the idea of that giant rubber space ship.

My father wanted to get a group together, a posse he called it, to force Piper to leave town.

My mother said, ‘You’ve been watching too many Westerns. He’s done nothing, he’s just … unusual.’

‘Then what’s he doing in there,’ my dad said. ‘Why won’t he talk to anyone? He’s not unusual, he’s a bloody lunatic. And a dangerous one at that.’

They argued most of the night. I could hear them through the thin walls – Mum’s soft measured voice, and Dad’s, firm and insistent at first, then getting louder till I heard Mum say, ‘I’m sleeping in the lounge.’

The next day Billy wanted to take a load of rocks out to the old factory and break all the windows, just to see what he was up to inside. He said he’d heard his dad talking about it, to scare The Piper away, and he wanted to be the one to do it because his dad liked that sort of tough stuff — ‘just to let him know who’s Boss.’

When I started sticking up for Piper, Billy called me a coward and pushed me over. No-one knew what to do then. I could see them looking at me lying like a beetle on the ground, and then at Billy with his chest puffed up and his face all sweaty. They sort of shuffled about a bit and then drifted off, all in different directions. Sergeant Trammell must’ve got wind of Billy’s plans though. He caught him before he even broke one window and drove him back home where his mother whacked him around the legs with a wooden spoon. Billy wouldn’t talk to us because he thought it was one of us who’d dobbed him in. I wanted to, but it wasn’t me.

My father started talking more and more about the posse, what they should be doing, and who he was going to get to join. Billy’s father must’ve heard about the idea too. Ever since Billy was brought back in the police car, and walloped by his mum, his dad had been itching to have a go at The Piper. He wanted to take a rifle but my father said, ‘No weapons. Just words, strong words.’

But my mother called Sergeant Trammell, and once again he was out there before the posse could even knock on the door — if that’s what they planned to do.

That night there was a huge argument between my mum and dad; raised voices and my dad swearing, and a smashed lamp. In the morning my mother said she was going to Aunty Cathy’s. I didn’t get to say that I wanted to go with her because my dad was there behind me, one hand tight on my shoulder, the other one holding the door open for her.

One day The Piper took a delivery of a big box from the Post Office. He walked right up the Post Office steps, and came out a few minutes later with the box. We all followed him, straining to see the name, who it was addressed to. But he must’ve known because he held it close to his chest, covering up the name. We tried to get Mrs Pinkerton at the Post Office to tell us. But she said, ‘I can’t divulge that. It’s personal information.’

We knew she’d be busting to tell someone something about old Piper that only she knew. She took a while to divulge the personal information though. We didn’t hear for a couple of weeks. And when we did hear that his name was John Smith, we still called him The Piper anyway. He didn’t look like any sort of John Smith.

He kept pretty quiet for a few weeks after getting the box. Then one day Roy Johnson saw something, or someone, out the back paddock past the old factory. It was black, and moving slow, with wings or something flapping out the sides. Roy said he was sure he saw it go in the back door of the factory. He said he thought The Piper was probably doing some sort of Frankenstein work in there; raising a monster. And that maybe the Monster had strangled The Piper and now it’d be out of control. But he didn’t see the black monster again. And we did see The Piper, but not often. He’d give people in town a wide berth; crossing the street, head down, holding his leather sack in front of him like a secret.

After a while we didn’t see him around anymore. Some said he’d left town for good. We’d still go out to the old factory now and then, hoping to catch sight of him, trying the doors, peering through the blackened windows. We didn’t see him though. But I thought I could hear breathing the other side of the door, once when I’d gone out alone. And Robbie Cattor swore he heard some sort of swishing and gurgling sound coming from the old factory. A sort of weeping sound, he said, but not human. No-one knew what might make that sort of noise. I couldn’t even imagine what that noise might sound like.

When they found him out in the paddock near the dam they didn’t know what it was at first. There’d been a fierce storm the night before; the wind blowing up hard, howling across the dark sky like some sort of demented dog. And then the rain. No-one was out in that sort of weather. I remember thinking about The Piper, and how he’d first arrived in the storm that night. I even went and looked out the kitchen window again. Mrs McGinnity was there too; she took a quick look out at the street then jerked the blinds closed.

The next morning there was a commotion out in the street; people gathering, heads craned forward and Robbie Cattor waving his hands around and pointing down the street and out of town. Sergeant Trammell pulled up and Robbie went with him in the police car with a trail of people following behind. Something had been washed up in the storm on the bank of the dam in Robbie’s back paddock. Something large and black, but he wasn’t game to get close enough to see what it was.

We got there too late to see anything, but Robbie Cattor told us they had to cut him out of the rubber suit. They couldn’t tell for sure whether he’d been coming out of the dam or going in, but he hadn’t been able to breathe in that suit. His body was the colour of deep water he said, and on his back a tattoo of scales from one shoulder blade to the other. He was just skin and bones Robbie said, his spine and ribs sticking out. And his eyes open, staring straight up at the sky. The Sarge had to take Robbie away and sit him down. He was still shaky in his knees when he was telling us what he saw.

‘Perfect little metal triangles all along the arms, pretty complicated stuff,’ he said. Trammell just shook his head and mumbled, ‘Just thought it was some sort of artwork. Some strange lookin’ art.’

Everyone took a while to get back to normal that day, but eventually they all went about their business, talking about the morning, shaking their heads and clicking their tongues. For a while after they called him the Fish-Man, then they didn’t talk about him at all. My mum came back from Aunty Cathy’s, and even Billy started talking to us again. And the town went back to just being the town.

No-one went out to the old glove factory. But I had a look. I still thought about The Piper.  I broke a window to get in, but I figured it didn’t matter anymore. I had to be careful getting through the window past the jagged glass. I tore my trousers a bit, and I hurt my ankle when I jumped down to the bench. Inside was all quiet and dark.

I stood for a while just listening to the quiet, and then I opened the door to let the light in. One of the metal scales from Piper’s fish suit gleamed at me on the floor. I picked it up and held it in my palm admiring its clean shine then put it in my pocket. When I turned around I could see written on the wall in big, black, shaky letters:

I am not a Man. I am a Fish.

And I hunched down on the floor of the old factory, the metal scale pressing in my palm till it hurt.

When I stood up my knees ached with the crouching. I took a brush from Piper’s workbench and opened the tin of paint with an old knife. With big, broad strokes I covered the words in black rectangles, locking them away in the silence crackling around me.


Image by Jeremy Bishop.