Maybe she’s made a shelter from mulga branches and spinifex
out on the plains somewhere. I imagine her walking from the west
in grey light, barefooted, a walking stick in her right hand, a small
lyre dangling at her waist. She must arrive as the clouds in the east
begin to roil with the day’s new fire, as stallholders wipe their tables
with rags seeped in rose oil, beeswax, throw down rugs of matted
goat’s wool. And as they set out the hardbreads, the pitas, the crates
of desert limes, as they unfold their canvas chairs and string up
awnings, maybe that’s when – at the head of the market’s main road
and off to the side – she crosses her legs and lowers herself to the dirt.
When I arrive, the sun is halfway to noon and riding her shoulder.
Her hair is a mess of dirty copper braids. She smells like rock-sage
smoke, ochre, alpaca shit, bloodwood sap, stale sweat. Every day,
the same pale dress against her russet skin. In her lap that battered
old lyre, its crescent base stained with bush berries. Over it she bends
her head, her shoulders, her chest, so deeply I’ve never seen her eyes.
When I try to imagine them, they are huge and dark, full of loneliness.
I watch her fingers, graceful as herons, pluck the strings, her soiled
nails torn to their roots. It is good, amid the giddy chitter-chatter,
the tinny laughter, the bartering’s iron pitch, the clatter of crates, trunks
to hear her music, her singing smoky-sweet as myrrh, the strings burring
in old wood. If you drop a coin on the cloth at her feet, she nods,
says thank you, but never looks up. And I can’t tell if she watches
the strings or the ground, or keeps her eyes closed, as the crowd edges
like a crocodile down the road between stalls, its huge jaws
opening, closing towards market’s end. As the women and men in long
light tunics, with skin the colour of almond oil, and black hair
like a fall of dark water down their backs, finger bead necklaces, bolts
of silk, goat-skin sandals. This morning I dropped a coin at her feet.
She raised her head, looked straight at me. Her eyes were keen
and bright as a hawk’s, as fierce. I stopped dead at the market’s mouth.
Someone behind me said, ‘Move on.’ I stepped quickly away.
© Dimitra Harvey
‘At The Market’ first appeared in Meanjin, Volume 71, Number 3, Spring, 2012; and can also be found in Long Glances: A snapshot of new Australian poetry from the 2013 Jean Cecily Drake-Brockman Poetry Prize, Manning Clark House: Canberra, 2013.
“[In] the dark and evocative ‘Father; At the Market’ by Dimitra Harvey…words flow seamlessly from stanza to stanza, ever so often peppered with the odd full stop that imbues it with an incessant sense of rhythm.”
– Sonia Nair, Artshub