In this place, to scream is dangerous for there are too many ghosts to be woken.
Inside the penitentiary, it becomes immediately apparent to Ruth that the ruin is infested with the past like toxic black mold. History, a living organism, releases spores that feed on its decaying matter. This colony branches out across the remnants of internal cell walls, the shelving and the bolt fixings for sack hammocks. It threads over the foul air egress vents in the rear wall and through the rubble debris piled up in corners. Its roots travel deep, right to the bloody Indigenous land beneath the foundation stones. Unsuspecting tourists risk exposure simply by breathing in the air as they access the ruin via its purpose-built walkways. When they pause in the interpretive areas to read about the past, they are unwittingly ingesting it.
On the anniversary of the Port Arthur Massacre, Ruth Kettle returns home to Tasman Peninsula to accompany her partner on his artist wilderness residency in Tasman National Park. Seamus, a painter from Northern Ireland, is photographing the natural rock formations of the area for a new series exploring psychic projection of trauma on the coastal landscape. In these lives choreographed by trauma, damage and the ramifications of wilful forgetfulness, transformation can only occur after some extremely painful lessons.
“Not real big, are they?” a woman in front of Ruth remarks of the cells to her male companion.
“Can’t go far when you’re in chains,” he replies.
Lions, Ruth recalls. The commandant used to call the men imprisoned on the ground story lions because they wore leg irons. Together, Ruth stares with the strangers into the closest cell, now just a brick cavern with moss-covered earth, two meters deep and one meter wide.
“Look at the size of them!” the woman exclaims, as the reality sets in. “God.”
Shaking their heads in disbelief, the pair move on.
As Ruth climbs to the stabilized second story, on what is more scaffolding than staircase, a child begins to scream. The sound cuts right through her. In this place, to scream is dangerous for there are too many ghosts to be woken. Within the ruins, scars left where floor levels were keyed into the brickwork are the only trace of absent floors in the upper stories. When Ruth finally locates the source of the relentless sound, she is peering down at the little girl, Carly, held like a life-size doll under one of her mother’s arms. With a bird’s-eye view, Ruth studies her closely. Carly is having difficulty breathing, her eyes are red and watery, her nose is runny with mucus. Ruth determines, as the girl is carried out, that she is definitely suffering a reaction to the penitentiary’s infestation.
Outside, Ruth follows Carly who is climbing the hill, having made one of the miraculous recoveries that only a small child can. The blonde head darts like a white rabbit between the commandant’s office and the guard tower, up to the officers’ quarters and Smith O’Brien’s cottage, reserved for political prisoners. Ruth wonders where the father of the two children is. Are the parents separated? Divorced? Or, did he just choose to stay home this afternoon and watch the football? Only when Ruth comes within a few meters of the family does she realize, this woman, Carly’s mother, might be a ghost. Everybody on the peninsula knew someone involved in the massacre. Most knew several. Beyond the striking physical similarities—the natural butter-blonde hair, milky-white skin, heart-shaped face—the woman is the age her friend would be today, had she survived. These are the children, the children she might have had. A life she might have made for herself. Seventeen years was not long enough, not nearly long enough.
Ruth’s old friend is buried in the small, historic Clark Cliffs cemetery, overlooking Norfolk Bay, a ten-minute drive up the road from her parents’ house in Nubeena. After the massacre, those who had been involved in the tragedy or directly affected by it found themselves faced with a decision similar to the “stay or go” predicament in a bushfire. Like Ruth’s own family, after her death her family chose to stay. Other locals made the decision to leave early and over the coming year moved to the mainland, or further, some severing all ties to the peninsula.
In the aftermath, it was those who delayed making their decision until it was too late—like those who find themselves in the firestorm and at the last moment flee from their homes in their cars or on foot—who were ultimately consumed by it.
As the sun slips behind clouds and the entire historic site darkens, an autumnal gust perforates Ruth’s lips and then Seamus’s hand spoons the small of her back.
“We’re losing the light,” he warns.
From the penitentiary, a sealed path along the waterfront leads them, on their way back to the visitor center, directly past what is called simply, Memorial Garden.
At the entrance, Ruth pauses with Seamus, hands held behind their backs, palm in palm, like priests or policemen to scan the information provided. Ruth knows the details by heart. More than two decades ago a young man armed with three high-powered automatic weapons opened fire in a busy café on this very spot and then continued his shooting rampage throughout the grounds of the historic site. The gunman was tried and convicted of 35 counts of murder.
“These shootings you had down here happened in ’96, straight after Dunblane,” says Seamus. “Was this a copycat crime?”
“I don’t think so,” says Ruth. “I’m really not sure but I don’t even remember hearing about Dunblane at the time to be honest.”
“I was living in Scotland, studying at the University of Dundee,” says Seamus. “It’s not something you easily forget. Those school portraits they showed on the news of the beautiful wee bairns. Even if you weren’t directly affected you still felt like your heart had been ripped out. People, complete strangers, cried for days.”
Ruth leaves his side.
Where the most lives were lost here, they have built a pool of reflection. Inscribed around the stone edges are simple words that acknowledge pain, loss, and courage and ask visitors to cherish life as a way to honor the dead. Coins shine up from the bottom of the rectangle of chill, shallow water. Tourists who visit the Port Arthur Historic Site must wander in assuming it’s just another ruin. Chancing upon an artificial body of water they feel the irresistible urge to wish, so take a coin from their pocket or their purse and toss it in, unaware that they are asking favors of the dead.
In one corner, a plaque of bronze leaves lies submerged and Ruth does not need to count them to know they number 35—35 fallen. Glancing up, she finds the cross that bears the victims’ names: two beams of Huon pine, the horizontal wide and rough-hewn, the vertical cut neat as a fence post, standing in the shadow of the escarpment. At its foot lies a bouquet of white lilies wrapped in brown paper and tied with brown string, the only clue that three days ago was the anniversary of the worst mass murder in post-colonial Australian history.
Ruth interrogates her surroundings, searches for some trace—psychic, spiritual, or otherwise—of the violence that occurred. Moments pass and she discovers nothing but the natural beauty of the place. The proliferation of native flora exists in defiant contrast to the manicured lawns and mature English trees that dominate the rest of the landscape. Even when a flock of green rosellas fly low overhead, threatening to destroy the tranquillity, their wings merely mimic the sound of rustling leaves. The past, for now at least, is a sleeping dragon.
Amy Barker’s debut novel Omega Park won the 2008 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author, was shortlisted for the 2010 FAW (Fellowship of Australian Writers) Christina Stead Award for fiction and was winner of the 2012 IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Ena Noël Award. Paradise Earth is Amy’s second novel, and has just been awarded the 2020 Independent Publisher Gold Medal for Best Regional Fiction: Australia/New Zealand/Pacific Rim. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. Catch up with her at amybarker.com.au.
Header photo by Benny Marty, courtesy Shutterstock.