Winner: The Lyrebird’s Bell

The sky was deliriously blue, and mint and honey livened the air. I was surprised at the freshness of the body.

The sky was deliriously blue, and mint and honey livened the air. I was surprised at the freshness of the body. As much as I was able, given the circumstances, I had prepared my nerves for a sickening wave of foul odour. But Antoinette must have washed her in that strange, time-dripping hour she had me wait between her entryway’s blue-stone columns, and she and her mother were alone.

Mrs. Chernov’s finely pinned curls had been tugged out of place from us hauling her all the way from her bedroom to the old snow gums where we now stood. The breeze was dead, and the trees were so still it felt deliberate. Each one posed as stiff yet fluid as an ancient Greek sculpture, waiting to disorient us, to creep and twist behind our backs.

“Do you think this spot is all right?” Antoinette was deeply flushed as she wiped her brow. The March heat gave her the mottled look of a pink ling fish, with her bright red hair, the rosy swollen patches beneath her freckles. She kept glancing at me. I thought she could not be serious. Now, after everything, is when she loses her nerve?

“Makes no difference this far out. Nobody comes here.” I could not take my eyes off her mother. Mrs. Chernov’s curls floated about her head in a filthy cloud, tangled with insects and leaves and powdered pink with forest dust.

My stomach continued the long, miserable drop that had begun the previous week.

Antoinette picked a beetle from the knotted hair and set it carefully on the grass. She neatened her mother’s dress, with its buttons like little glass bulbs of lemonade, swatted the dust from the scalloped collar and tipped the black Wedgwood brooch in place. Her mother was white enough now to pass for stone. Her dress was the rich green of the wild. All we had to do was walk away, and let the forest have her.

My name is Elizabeth, though everyone called me Betsy—which I loathed, as nicknames tend to go. If we were going to reduce ourselves to nicknames at all, I was at the very least a Liza, like the genus of mullets from ancient Rome, or a Beth like the poor March sister with scarlet fever. My mother tossed the peachy Betsy across the parlour rather suddenly, years ago, and it stuck to me like a rumour.

Antoinette agreed the first time we met that it did not suit me. It’s far too darling a name for you. She read my prickly temperament, my wily black hair and stern blue eyes. You look like the Queen of the Crows.

Our houses were the bones of Regency decadence, stout villas grown ashy with age. They were originally built for two sisters exiled by scandal, long dead and buried under the red flowering gum. Antoinette had not lived here long—her family only arrived a year earlier, in 1946—while I had never been outside of Victoria. During the warmer months, I used to have a tutor who sailed in from London. An uncompromising young woman of whom I drew and burned many lurid portraits, but I had not seen her in some time. In the colder months I saw no one. I played on mossy rocks and tangles of woody vines, and stared into the towering rock formations, like a gravestone cavalcade, of the Hanging Rock volcano.

Until, unannounced, Antoinette appeared. She strode up to me barefoot, holding a bouquet of dirty snapdragons, as though she had sprouted from the soil.

One afternoon in February, while lying among the wildflowers and silver-boned trees of her garden, we heard the ringing of a bell.

“It’s a lyrebird trying to fool us,” Antoinette said.

I looked up at the hazy light breaking through the leaves. The sound drifted over us, an adornment of passing time like a lost, windblown pall. Such a cast-iron sound was misplaced out here in the true wild bush, more remote even than the local ghost towns and suffering goldfields.

“It’s a dead bell warding off evil spirits,” I said. “There must be something wicked lurking in the woods.”

“A lyrebird could easily mimic a dead bell.” She had been making a point of learning everything she could about Australia since arriving. “Did you know there are orchids here that only grow after a fire? They wait until everything else is dead and the smoke calls them out of the earth.”

I pictured the smoke that covers graveyards in Bela Lugosi films.

“You’re an orchid,” I said, “wiling away until I come calling.”

She laughed. “Since I was born under the sign of the fish, I’d be a water lily. My dedulya told me so. She said I speak the language of Neptune and intuition.”

Antoinette read the stars like tea leaves, charting her fortune with a tarot deck. She always asked to read mine; I told her no, it was pseudoscience, but that was not the reason. In truth, pseudoscience or not, I resented the unsolvable nature of its mystery, as though some beautiful, loving, empyrean secret meant to shove me away, and leave me clawing at darkness, in the scrubby brake that I had never left in all my life.

One of these days I’m going to peel open your brain like a tangerine.

She looked me over. I savoured the sugary tingle of her eyes on me, her piercing discernment. “I’m not sure what language you speak.”

One of smoky whispers. The cold breath carrying a wolf howl to the moon.

I said nothing and she groaned, grabbing my face in both hands. “One of these days I’m going to peel open your brain like a tangerine.”

I poked her side, all in fun, and it was then that I felt her ribs. I had never noticed she was so waifish. Her expression snapped and she stood, fidgeting clumsily with her dress sash and muttering at me not to play so rough.    

Was she not eating? I had heard of girls on diets, but a diet for whom? We had no playmates, hardly any family. My mother was always off in Melbourne, at some urban villa retreat or slenderizing salon, and my father was long gone. As far as I could tell, other than Antoinette’s mother, we were all alone.

While toying with the hem of her skirt one morning, Antoinette turned to me and said, “You know how Betsy isn’t your real name?”

We were playing Candy Land outside by her fragrant camellias, using redcoat tin soldiers to replace the missing board pieces. The air was itchy with mayflies, the breeze dirty with heat.

“It’s a version of my name,” I said.

“I mean how it’s a nickname.” She paused. “Antoinette isn’t my real name, either. My mother makes me say it is. On paper we’re from Bordeaux, and the whole time we travelled she changed her accent to sound French, and she pretended our name wasn’t Chernov.”

I could not tell if she was serious. “What do you mean it isn’t your real name?”

Antoinette put her finger to her lips. “Not so loud. My mother said she’d lock me in the cellar for twenty years if I ever told anyone who we are.”

“How would she know?” I widened my eyes in a spooked pantomime. “Is she spying on us?”

I waited for her to laugh, but she did not. Her gaze tunnelled down the path, between long, ruffled rows of chrysanthemums, and landed on one of many shadowed windows. There her mother stood between the shutters, watching us in a paisley dress and pearls.

“Last night I dreamed I stitched our souls together,” I said, taking Antoinette’s hand. “And whatever happens to souls in dreams must be as true as what happens to our bodies when we’re awake.”


I teased her about her supposed real name at first, but soon it began to torment me—in a wormy, petty way—that she would withhold it from me when I had been upfront about the whole Betsy mess. In its secrecy, her name writhed in my thoughts, pulsed on the tip of my tongue.

“What about Alice?” I asked, as we hiked toward the rippling green of Mount Macedon. “You look like an Alice. Or something more Slavic than Antoinette. Anastasia.”

“That’s not how names work. You should know, Betsy-bits. Besides, it doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?” I looked up from the grass, just off the dirt road, where I had stopped to gather broken pieces of a folksy cornflower plate, likely lost on a picnic a hundred years back. “Don’t you care what people call you?”

“None of the old life matters anymore,” she said. “I don’t even remember my mother’s eye colour.”

“They’re probably green like yours.”

“No, they’ve darkened over the years.” She sat down abruptly and examined her blistered feet. Words fluttered inside of her mouth. I sensed the frenetic change in her breath. “That woman is not my mother. I just get used to her sometimes.”

“Are you a changeling?” I slid onto my stomach in the warm grass, propping myself tauntingly on my elbows. “Did fairies steal away with the real Antoinette?”

Her body stiffened. She drew closer to me and whispered, “She’s a spirit.

I gave her a hard look, then laughed.

“You think you know so much?” she said, tossing her ridiculous sandal.

“Apparently not as much as you.” I grabbed the sandal and handed it back to her. “You need proper footwear. You’re going to be bitten by a snake one of these days. A poisonous one.”

“I’m being serious, Betsy. She’s a likhoradka. They’re dangerous spirits who possess your body and fill you with sickness.”

“Why are you so grim today?” I asked.

“Why are you so difficult?” There was a reediness in her voice, like a dog’s whimper. “I’m not making it up. I read everything in our library during the blockade, every book we had, trying to figure out what had changed her.”

“Changed her from what?”

“From how she was before. Not sweet—but gentle.” Antoinette touched her ear, rounding it as if to tuck her hair away, though it was tied back. “She protected me.”

I realized then that I had no impression of Mrs. Chernov. I saw her only in windows, watching us like a lonely wraith.

“Tell me, then,” I said. “Where did your real mother go?”

“She starved to death, if you must know.” Antoinette turned from me, her voice hot with agitation. “Starved saving all the artwork in the Hermitage. Every day she sneaked the paintings off the walls, while living in the museum cellars with Rubens and Raphael and all of my favourites, eating nothing but crumbs and binding glue. And the spirit found her starved, and took over her body.”

“How could she carry everything all by herself?” I asked. “All of those huge paintings and sculptures.”

She threw me a moody squint, then turned away again.

Evening fell over the surrounding fields, and the flittering chirps of magpies filled the trees. Antoinette looked across the waves of blue grass, into the great eucalypt forest, with such fixation that I grew anxious for her to speak.

“Betsy?” she said at last. “Do you really want to know what happened?”

I leaned in as close as I could, unblinking. “I want to know everything, always.”

The spot of sun behind her, lowered to just above the trees beyond the field, lit her hair an icy gold. “My father was in the bathtub,” she said. “He was singing something. I remember thinking how funny the song was, but I can’t remember it now. And then there was this sound, like the world had blacked out. Everything froze, and the air tightened all around me like it wouldn’t let me move.”

“What sound?” I asked. “What did you hear?”

She hesitated, as if recollecting the consequences of her honesty. “A gunshot,” she said. “He’d cracked my mother’s face against the hutch the night before. Chipped her tooth. She looked like broken china.”

“And she shot him?”

Antoinette nodded.

I was unsure what to make of this. Another fabrication, perhaps, though I felt the chill in the air deepen.

“Did she get in trouble?”

Antoinette sighed. “No—no, not really. Everyone knew how Papa treated us. And the siege had come by then.” She spoke with a weathered resignation I had never heard in her before. “You know, he lay in the tub for a week before someone came to pull him out. Mama never left his side.”

It was an appalling thought. What might happen to a mind left alone like that to stew in its own shock? Mrs. Chernov would have watched the body grow pulpy and pale in front of her, the stench of it mixing with the pink, soapy water.

“Bad spirits sneak into the hearts of wicked people,” Antoinette said. “They use them as vessels to spread whispers of hell.”

“But your mother was good, you said.”

“A likhoradka mistook my mother’s heart for wicked, and flew into her, and made her cruel. It must have seen her shoot Papa without knowing about the chipped tooth, or the times before.” Her gaze had not moved from the forest. She spoke over the wind as it blew a husky dirge through the grass. “That’s when she turned mean, drinking and muttering how everyone we knew had failed us all those years. How she hoped the fascists washed the city clean of all of them. That’s why we had to run after the war ended. Because of her sympathizing.”

Sympathizing. I figured this meant her mother had aided the Nazis, but it had been over a year since the name hissed its way through the bush, and I did not want to be the one to bring it back.

“Were your mother and father ever cruel to you?” Antoinette asked.

I ran my thumb down the side of my hand, where the skin was smooth as plastic. “Sometimes they found my drawings of Isabella, the London lady I told you about. They’d hold my hand over a candle flame until it bubbled. The skin’s all hard now. See? You can stick pins in and I won’t feel it. I’m like a poppet doll.”

We found ourselves laughing at this. I did not ask her any more questions, or show doubt in her story, whether I believed it or not. If my family were so brutal, and I had lived such a sorry life, I would spin a story like straw into gold.


Antoinette and I were plucking witch hazel in her garden, collecting the scraggly yellow petals into a tea kettle. With our thirteenth birthdays approaching, we were making home-brewed facial tonics for the bad skin she warned would soon befall us.

She had already begun washing her empty perfume bottles to hold these imagined tinctures. I thought to invite her to explore the flowers on my own property, but while her garden was violets and yellow roses, and sweet pink wildflowers coated in a fairy tale haze of summer pollen, mine was filled with bat orchid and stormy smoke bush, and grew wild with neglect.

We had not discussed the likhoradka incident, though my own note of it as an incident, such a tip-toeing word, was evidence enough that something was wrong.

I wanted to ask her doting, weightless questions just to hear her answer, see her mouth shape itself around the words.

Antoinette busied herself with the shrubs while I drank Coca-Cola and watched. She smelled of sweat and I felt a thrilling urge to press my hand, cold from the soda bottle, against her bright pink skin, and graze the hair coiling rusty gold against her temple.

“You have so many freckles,” I said. It was my way of telling her that I loved her freckles. I was in the sort of mood that crept up on me, where I felt fizzy-brained around her. I wanted to ask her doting, weightless questions just to hear her answer, see her mouth shape itself around the words.

“You always smell like the forest,” she said. “And you have sneaky eyes like that American actress.” She lowered her voice. “Oh, maybe just whistle ... just put your lips together and blow.”

A pressure beat against my lips. Pulsing yet empty, like hunger. I had felt it before, and in my daydreams it led to me giving her the faintest kiss, and her mouth melting, sticky and pink as candy, into mine.

Dreamy from the sun, I played with the torn flowers in the kettle. I closed my eyes and imagined I was a witch three hundred years ago, surrounded by forbidden spices and herbs.

“Let’s make potions with the flowers,” I said. “Like Morgana. Something to protect us against evil.”

Antoinette stared at me, alarmed. “What do you mean by that?”

“She’s a sorceress from the Arthur legends,” I said, sticking a dolly I had made from grass into one of the twists in her braid.

“I meant about the potions.” She looked into the empty flower pot beside us, ran her fingers through the tiny leaves floating on old rainwater. “If I show you something, you can’t tell.”

I was thrilled at this. “Show me what?”

She led me through the garden to a scuffed-up pantry door. It was hidden behind the leafy vines that covered the side of her house. We walked quietly through the pantry, which smelled pungently of rotting fruit, and across a narrow hall into a parlour. The room was bright and busy with giltwood furniture. Sunlight swam through a glass chandelier and dappled the porcelain-blue walls. It was a marvel to stand in such a room, despite the scattered cigarettes, the shattered ash tray lying below a dent in the wall.

“Wait here, I’ll be back in a minute,” she said, then hurried up the winding staircase. Soon I heard her fretful footsteps through the ceiling.

I sat in one of several finely embroidered chairs, gently touched the opulent wood of the armrest. In my house, the fabric was frayed and snowed upon with dust, so that each room sat in a state of perennial winter. But people lived in Antoinette’s house. She and her mother, however unpleasantly, shuffled about together, day to day, and ate together, and talked, and breathed the same air.

Antoinette had left her tarot cards on the parlour table. The devil card was face-up, goat-legged with broad, domineering horns—and seemed to be watching, as if waiting to churn the unguarded idle hours into mischief. I quickly turned the card over, as sounds of yelling and stumbling broke overhead. I shot toward the stairs, but Antoinette was already spiralling down. She clutched a spice tin to her chest and grabbed me so fiercely as she passed that I nearly tripped and fell.

Outside again, we ran all the way to the weeping cherry tree at the farthest edge of her garden. She clung to me until her panting wheeled into laughter.

I pushed her off. “What’s so funny? I thought we were in trouble.”

“Mama was angry that my noise woke her up,” she said, shaking the spice tin, “but she was angry about the wrong thing.”

I watched her open the small blue box. Inside were the white teardrop petals of spurge flowers, and unwashed pulpy seeds.

“The seeds are from the strychnine fruit,” she said.

“Are you completely mad?” I asked. “We can’t use these in the tonics.”

“Do you want a protection potion or not?”

I stared in disbelief.

“Never mind, I can make it myself.” She tightened the ribbon holding back her hair. In lifting her arms, the frilled sleeves of her dress slid back, exposing a large bruise on her shoulder. It looked fresh, almost cloven, like a hoof had kicked her in the arm.

The cherry tree’s long tresses brushed my legs as I tried to think of what to say.

“Betsy?” She tugged the frills back over the bruise. “Swear you won’t tell on me.”

My guilt was sticky in my stomach. But nobody had ever trusted me with something as precious as a secret.

“I swear I won’t tell.”


That night I could not sleep. A common occurrence in an old house with aching pipes and lonesome floorboards. I was going through my mother’s belongings, delighting in the vestigial clearings of dust on her bureaus, where once sat glossy Royal Dalton ladies and velvet jewellery boxes, now stored in the cobwebby darkness under my bed.

Stealing was an improvement from previous habits. No longer did I need to break my mother’s clocks to trick her into arriving late at the Macedon station. Or smash vases to weave tiny invisible traps for her feet in the powder room rug. And no, it was not stunted by the victim never knowing—how could she know when she was never home?—but nurtured by it, like a death cap mushroom growing in the dark.  

I decided tonight to steal a quill-tipped fountain pen, cozy in its silver case. My mother had bought it in Vienna, while on one of her adventures with some exquisite alcoholic who painted deathly cherubic portraits of her. Who would surely open up the world for her. Who one must never insult, Betsy, never be rude to when he’s over for dinner. He had once given me a box of dark chocolates, each one filled with dripping spiced cherry and shaped like Mozart’s head. I squished them all over the windows in the parlour, so that it looked as though a brigade of magpies had blitzed themselves against the glass.

When I looked under my bed to find that there was no space, with all of the other collectibles, I brought the pen outside to my second hiding place. A large, black purse like a doctor’s bag, which I had buried by a hollow log near Antoinette’s house. The log lay dead against my Camelot Wall, a low stone border overrun with centuries of moss and black grime. I dug into the soil, while a magpie’s eyeshine blinked at me from a tree.

It was so quiet that Antoinette’s entrance into her garden travelled clearly through the trees, and over the heaves of flowers and the grubby stone wall. The magpie cawed, and like a sudden dishevelling of shadow flew away.

I followed the sound of her footsteps until I saw her. She looked faintly blue and luminescent in her white nightgown, and wore a wreathe of flowers on her head. In the middle of the path, she stopped and sat down. Bundled in her arms were a glass bell jar and a rusty first aid kit.

I watched from behind the cherry tree, as she took pebbles from the kit and arranged them with delicate precision.

“Betsy, for crying out loud, I can see you,” she said.

I pressed closer against the trunk. “How?”

“Your foot, I can see it peeking out. Why aren’t you wearing any shoes?”

“I couldn’t find them,” I said, hurrying over to where she sat. Her shadow lay so dark and finely cut behind her on the pale gravel that there seemed almost to be two of her.

Collected in the first aid kit were a black candle, a few scrappy matches, the poison spice tin and a mortar and pestle. In the bell jar was a photograph of her mother.

Her pulse flitted against my hand. My body dissolved in its rhythm, and I knew that she could see through me like I were nothing more than water.

She picked up one of the pebbles and held it out to me. “It’s a rune, like the Vikings used. My mother says ‘rune’ means something hidden.”

“Your mother who’s not your mother,” I said.

She took the spice tin from the kit and held it tightly. “This will fix all of that. Look what I’ve done—the potion will take care of the body, while the spell takes care of the spirit. You see? I’ve worked it all out.”

I wanted all of this to stop. “Come home with me. There’s a cold rain coming.”

Antoinette took my hand in both of hers, close against her chest. “Who do you have if not me? Who do I have if not you?”

Her pulse flitted against my hand. My body dissolved in its rhythm, and I knew that she could see through me like I were nothing more than water.

“But it isn’t real,” I said. “We were only playing.”

She took the candle, now lit and lacquered in its own sweating wax, and held it between us. “The likhoradka celebrated all night when the war came. Did I tell you that? The kitchen reeked of honey wine, she got so sloppy drunk she spilled it everywhere. The city is alone now, myshka. Trapped. Nobody, nobody coming for them.”

Antoinette poured the contents of the spice tin into the mortar and began to crush and grind them. As the candle flame whipped about, her eyes seemed to cloud and darken, slowly from the edges, like blood moons.

I remember only her voice after that, calling to me as I stared at my own bare feet, and beneath them a bottomless well of shadow.

Birds sang clear and shrill all morning while the horror of the previous night sank into me. My organs burned and twisted, as if poisoned themselves. But Antoinette had been so sure of her mother’s evil—and she had been evil, had she not, with or without the aid of nasty spirits?

I thought at least now Antoinette would be safe, and years of companionship were ahead of us. But within a week, a police car and a plain green vehicle rolled up to Antoinette’s front gate in the soft grey dawn. A uniformed officer waited as a woman in a long wool coat escorted Antoinette out the door and down the steps. The woman dragged a suitcase behind her, which she struggled to manage with Antoinette digging her unbuckled sandals into the dirt. I watched through my binoculars for only a moment before running to her, but by the time I reached the gate, left wide open beneath the crooked tea trees, Antoinette and the cars were gone.

The woman and officer had not even thought to speak with me. I glanced back at my house, lights all out, den window broken, verdurous green leaves cracking through the spalling brick. They must not have known I was there.

For weeks afterward, dusk brought with it a sky of mourning violet. The trees greyed to ash and sank toward the earth.

Over time, Antoinette’s house grew to be a distant fortress, far beyond the Camelot Wall, in a fallen kingdom I was not allowed to enter. It looked desolate with its door boarded up and its windows locked and filthy. Woody vines and ramblers crawled around the chipped pillars. The pale-purple mint bushes neatly dotting the property grew ravenous, devouring distinction between beginning and end, destruction and growth.

It seemed obvious to me now that no attempt to tether one’s self to anything could last. You are always cut loose again by some stronger force, and pulled into a more defeated isolation.

On one particular day, I sat by a nearby creek and listened to the stillness. Leaves shaken by the wind, the low murmur of oncoming rain. It was only me out here once more, and I saw no cause to speak, now or ever. A sound only floats away, as all things do. It seemed obvious to me now that no attempt to tether one’s self to anything could last. You are always cut loose again by some stronger force, and pulled into a more defeated isolation. A place where memories flash like mirrors and you are the only thing that will not leave you.

Sticky hoya climbers were dripping nectar onto the soil next to me. Maybe every drip meant that an hour had passed, but there was no way of knowing. I had buried a watch out here somewhere, long ago. A gold cocktail watch that belonged to my mother, with a dour rectangular face like my father’s, so was it my father’s watch, then? Who had owned that unfriendly watch? I remembered only that its glass face was so cracked after I broke it that it looked like a spider’s web.

Nectar landed on my hand. I ran the wax against my skirt, but that only spread it. I would have to dip my fingers into the creek to wash them clean.

The surface of the creek was so fragile that it broke when I touched it, a reflection of floating rock faces and stringybark trees springing outward in illusory ripples. Fallen reeds lay on the water and tangled over my feet. Or, I was meant to think so—but I saw the bones forming from the long, grassy spires, the hand wrapping around my ankle. Rather than leave this place, I could sink into it completely, into its myths and stone, water and earth. I only had to let it take me, drag me to the bottom, where I had the strangest feeling I would find myself waiting.

Far in the distance, I thought I heard the singsong of a bell. A bird playing tricks, or a mourner sounding the end of a funeral. Some tune sent off into the sky, by bird or hand, with little thought as to who might be listening, or how silent the world would fall once it was gone.

I surprised myself then, and drew back. Not entirely, one foot still submerged. It was the breeze that caught me. It carried honey and mint, a tinge of pine. This was my scent, what Antoinette must have meant when she said I smelled of forest. Outsiders marvelled at the sweetness of the trees, having only ever known of the bush as some perilous mystery. But I was no outsider. This place did not need to swallow me to claim me; it had long cradled my small life, its breath perfumed my skin.


“The Lyrebird’s Bell” has the sacred, gothic sensibility of myth, but remains grounded in the evocative connection between its characters. Rich in sensory detail, the story crackles with electric urgency, energized by forbidden discoveries and a tantalizing balance between play and peril. This is “The Lives of Girls and Women” as dark fantasy, and a compelling, original work of fiction by a writer to admire.

About the author

Caitlin Galway’s debut novel Bonavere Howl was a spring pick by The Globe and Mail, and her short fiction has appeared in Gloria Vanderbilt’s Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology, House of Anansi’s The Broken Social Scene Story Project, and Riddle Fence as the 2011 Short Story Contest winner. Her nonfiction has appeared on CBC Books as the winner of the 2011 Stranger than Fiction Contest, judged by Heather O’Neill.