Return Instinct

The tip of the boat noses into the air. She leans into it as it rises, gripping the edge of her plastic orange seat, quietly daring the motion to throw her overboard, or at least out of herself. But the seat is bolted to the boat’s base and her grip survives—when the hull slaps down she sits, hard, but is exhilarated; she breathes in the salty spray as it baptizes her. Airways that reach all the way to her core begin to clear.

The man beside her wears no hat on his bald head; this has been the same every year. His scalp shines under a fierce sun in an almost cloudless sky—too bright to admire the blue. Perhaps his scalp’s shine is from sweat, perhaps seawater, perhaps even sunscreen—though it has the distinctive red coloring of burn upon burn. The kind of red that rises pre-emptively, as bodies react instinctively to environment.

He has become a staple of her visits, like a gatekeeper, this man who helps to work the small passenger boat. He tends to speak to a point just over her shoulder, and looks away often, to the way ahead. She imagines that if ever there were some obstruction in the water he’d call out to the driver of the boat.

‘The drought’s just broken, you’re lucky to come at this time—was a bad one,’ he says. He tells her stories as she sketches in the drawing pad that rests on her knees. Mostly she tries to hold onto the details in what he says, anything that stirs an image—it happens beside the big euky near Nelson’s camp—shoots the biggest roo you’ve ever seen and it just keeps on going—the thistle’s outta control now, with the rain finally come, you’ll see; and we’re told not to burn it even, ’sgettin’ too regulated round here now. She appreciates that he always tells her these stories in present tense, though he likely doesn’t realise it; it combats the staleness of what she can know only through the static force that is the past and memory. The images come faster than she can work, but she resists any sense of urgency—flows free-form across the page. The important part is the regular, practiced movement; reconnecting with the act as each breath.

What she wants most is to hold these conjurings in her mind not as a thing, an image or scene to hold still, but as a continued moment of being that weaves its own life in and out of other lives: the thistles that struggle, the trees that grow and fall, the animals that plague and disappear. The change and the cycles.

He tilts his head as he gets into his story, and the reflection of the bright sun on his pate makes her thirsty. She drinks from her water bottle—hands sweaty and slippery on the plastic bottle’s condensation, the water inside warm already. She must lift its weight with both hands.


Her unhatted companion is off first. He takes a blue rope from the boat to twist around the sturdy end of a stump, their unofficial mooring point, then waits to offer the unloading passengers a hand. There is little fanfare in this arrival at destination, just the sound and smell of birthing: the dull underwater thud of the contact of metal hull to softened shore and then the answering water-lap, with its accompanying scent of churned mudded water.

She may see him later, if he stays a night on the island with a friend, but his home is back where they departed from, so as she steps forward in the boat she bids him goodbye until next time, which is true enough: whenever next time may be.

She stumbles a little as her feet reach shore—feels the unexpected give of dry mud that is wetted beneath. She looks down, unaccusatory; absorbs the image of dried and cracked surface-layer, broken where nature needs it to be and not where she will decide later that night when she draws it. She will lose something in transcription, but nonetheless bore its likeness into her page with the care of a tattooist on skin. Lately, all images appear to her edged in inherent loss, sharpest around this other life that she leaves behind then returns to, again and again.

She meanders from the docked boat to the campsite. She cannot tell if the island is the same or changed; tries to slough off such concerns for so long as she is there, just to know it as it is. To feel lucky that the island is capable of waiting for her at all, year to year; can resist the timeframe of humans in favour of its own continent-long history.

She is greedy for this place as she wanders, hand still tracing shapes in fine grains of graphite. No, I cannot have it. I cannot have it all, nor even many pieces of its whole. She tempers her yearning not by denying it but by cherishing it—covets the yawning gaping emptiness in herself that annually she fills, and which over time empties again—covets that she is so lucky that she can be empty. That she can want as much as this.


At the night’s fire a young man watches her sketch. She talks to him a little, because he asks about her and her work. As a younger artist, she would grow shy of her art and hunch her body around the page so that her piece, in-progress, would remain unrevealed. Now she recognises creation as a process of birthing; the beauty in the ugly, the partly-formed, the engorged stomach of its beginning, the richness in what is messy: ink like blood asking her to remember the tear of foetus from mother, yet the givingness of the same act: life, in that moment, doubling. Each birth evokes, just beyond what can be seen, a sense of hope and the hint of death. Yet there is art, and then there is Arya; some things continue to take, to need: not all births are as final.

‘What brings you here?’ he asks.

She explains that her father worked here for a while, when she was younger. It became her favourite place, just as she suspects it was his, and now she likes to make time to come back. Here, she can work, hours and hours. She suspects there’s more than this, this time, even if she can’t name the feelings for him. She came here thinking she knew, but now… she knows only to work, that in the work all else will come.

She tells him the story of when she took red dirt from the highway’s roadside. She bought a canvas and layered the dirt thickly over it, pasting it down. When it sat first in the collection jar she, like a child, relished scooping it through her fingers. Atop the canvas she worked carefully—dirt is just unwanted grit: a rust-stained shirt, washed; hands, clapped clean, picked from under nails; shoes, rubbed on wet grass, good as new. She walks a line between the sacred and the discarded. She knows what it is to fall too far to one side, and idolise the trash for its nostalgic calling, before recognising it for what it is. She must make this piece more than dirt, something that echoes its other self: stretched out along the horizon, part of landscape.

To finish, she covered it in lacquer. It no longer held the silk-come-sandiness quality it had in the jar, lost something of its quiet crumble, but moved instead to opalescence, invited you to run fingers along its smoothened bumps. She is tempted to liken the finished product to amber, for him to imagine it better, but that isn’t quite right.

She tells him how the officer at customs grimaced, said something like, ‘Is this really art? I don’t get it.’

He nods at this; it’s not clear if he understands or just wants to, and either is good enough. He asks her, perhaps in his mind daringly, if she can draw him. She accepts and invites him to meet her back by the firepit at sunrise.


He takes a while to get used to her presence, her insistence on him forgetting she is there. Instead, as she sits a short distance away with her sketchpad, they first talk of his work on the island. Inevitably, he shifts to speak of the past before he can speak of the present and what will be—starts with where he has come from, what his parents wanted from him; how he has disappointed them. She speaks to him of her own father, briefly. He cannot know how instead it is Arya who dances always at the edges of her thoughts because she chooses not to tell him.

She makes some brief sketches of him, to warm up her hand and her mind, but he is not ready to be candid with her yet. In portraiture, she thinks, they will choose how much to reveal to you, what to reveal to you, how they wish to be perceived. They will look off to the side, at the back of the canvas, at your hands or at your face as you work. To make eye contact, or avoid it. Right now, she is looking for something other than that—a piece that exists beyond her, would exist even if she were not here.

Finally, it is when he chops the wood that is sold for campfires that it appears he has forgotten her presence. He has just had a short conversation with another worker, and returned to chopping without, it seems, immediately remembering she is there, and so becomes unselfconscious.

To watch, to disappear, to visit, she thinks, it is all a part of knowing that you are now apart from.

When this thought floods her with feeling, she turns quickly to a new page. She leaves his shape half-sketched on the sheet before and draws through the sensation. It is now she who has forgotten him, and she, present, begins to capture instead what she is.

She will describe it later as a looking back on herself. What she draws is a figure, burning like the fire last night, an echo of this hereness on top of herself: this amalgamation, seated atop the rock she is seated at. What she wonders at, what she looks to, where the ache and the voice and the flooding sits is the boundary: Am I a part of this? Is this me, and I it? Is Arya part of this, will she be, through me, through what I can show her, or simply what I am? Will he, too, be part of this; can we all be connected through this place? She is not crying, but there is in her a cry, a voice, a calling. There is no heartbreak, but there is a heart, is a sense, is a tightness. This is not a being, she thinks, but a process: a rending, and a reforming.


She thanks him for his time today, shows him a few of her sketches. She will take them home to finish them with colour. She is grateful to him. Would it have happened to her if she had not watched him so all day? Had not sketched relentlessly until the pad became part of her, a breathing, a living the page? Did their shared toil lay bare this essence, so clear now to her?

A younger version of herself might have gifted her body to him, for a night. But it is herself she is returning to, and she is greedy for it, so she will not share. Instead, she makes dinner with him, and lends him company, and an ear to hear about his plans for what he will do with his life, which seems short in the way he looks only to the next few years. She wants to assure him that there is much more time than this. But she only nods: she is solid, and present, and content with that.


Though she is alone when she comes here, it seems that she carries more and more people with her at each return. Her work returns her to herself; the presence, the observing, and the creating. Though she knows she cannot ever bring Arya to her grandfather, the same way she can no longer visit him herself, she can bring her here. She wonders if there will be more times that she comes here alone, or if things will change: in the sacrifice of what she has, to create instead experiences for Arya, who will then be old enough for the journey. Either way, she knows she will borrow strength from this larger part of herself, from what is contained in this land that she returns to, year after year.

The low clouds cover the brightness of the sky as she leaves the island. Her unhatted companion is quiet today, seems to doze even as he looks on. Seated at the front of the boat as it glides evenly on the calm waters, she feels as if she emits a brightness, like a beacon. To call herself back here, maybe, but also to show that place the way to come with her. It will stay behind, and part of her will remain with it, but she hopes that they will also go on, together.

About the author

H. C. Phillips studied physics before moving from Australia to Canada, where she took a hiatus from academia to focus on writing. Now she is back to studying in the field of neuroscience. In hindsight, she can now see the progression from physics, as how reality comes to be, to neuroscience, as how reality is perceived to be, and can see the parallels to her lifelong love of words and stories—all the what-could-bes. She has published been published in Lines+Stars and emerge16. Most recently, her piece “To Love” was included in the July 2019 Issue of The Write Launch. In her writing, she is particularly motivated by explorations of reality’s nature and perception, and by turning ideas over to uncover a new perspective.

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