I wrote about a plague once. Not a real plague, an allegorical one, or metaphorical, or impossible. The plague-victims started to walk and they could not stop. They walked themselves to death.
There’s a plague on now. I walk a lot. The two are unrelated, it’s just that, legally, we’re not really allowed to do much else.
Before I wrote that story, I walked a lot too. I lived alone then, in a small coastal town surrounded by national parks threaded with bushwalking trails, and I didn’t know many people, so to entertain myself I walked. My preferred method was brutal-uphill-death-march style, the kind of hike where my thighs screamed as I lifted each foot and propelled myself to the top of an incline, reaching a state of endorphin-rinsed-purification at the summit. I was totally clean at this stage – no drugs, smoking, drinking. I gave up coffee. Exercise was how I got out of my head then, and the best way to get out was for it to hurt.
My masochism wasn’t only displayed in my torturous paths, but inside too, in places no one passing me on the trail could see. My collapsing arches screamed. My legs sharded by shin splints. Every step, agony. I took it and bore it to show myself I was strong.
I’ve always liked sports and pain. In my mid-twenties I spent three afternoons a week climbing silks, shredding my palms on static trapeze, using the soft bits of my body to hold myself against the cold, unmoving steel of a lyra. I would hang from the trapeze by the bridges of my feet, that small place screaming as it held my weight.
In my thirties I was an avid kickboxer until too many punches in the face left me with what is probably a lifelong neck injury. I still can’t turn my head to either side now, eight years later.
When I stopped being able to go to Muay Thai, I started to run. I’d thump along paths on a secluded trail all alone, for hours. Nothing but music in my ears, the hot pull of breath and the exquisite pain in my feet and shins. My poor knees and ankles put a stop to this, prone to over-extension. ‘No wonder you’re in so much pain,’ an ultrasound technician said to me once as she glided the machine knob through thick jelly on my swollen ankle. ‘You’ve torn the ligament completely in two.’ No wonder. I’d been walking on it for eight weeks. Every step, agony. I took it and bore it to show myself I was strong.
When I stopped being able to dance in the air, I fought, and when I stopped being able to fight, I ran, and when I stopped being able to run, I walked.
Each demotion matched the progression of my years and the deterioration of my body. But in walking, I still found the pain I sought, still. I pushed myself for hours through the sweet-scented, light-filtered bush. Eucalypts and the freshwater smell of babbling creeks, their stiller pools inhabited by waving yabbies. I saw water dragons and wallabies, startled echidnas, and once watched a gleaming and slippery platypus slide and turn through clear water. On the tops of cliffs, I watched humpbacks wave and breech.
The first story I wrote when I started writing again was called ‘The Walker and the Skygirl’. The Walker, corded with lean muscle and bare feet leathered with callouses, she walked through the post-apocalyptic bushland (and the Skygirl came from the sky, obviously.) It had no actual plot: I was so neophyte a writer that I hadn’t quite worked out that a setting or a character or a mood is not a story. They are elements of story, but also, something must actually happen.
I am now so learned, so wizened of the craft that I still write stuff that is just a setting or a character or a mood, but now I know that it isn’t a story and hate myself for not being a better writer.
I always wanted to write a story about walking, which sounds kind of stupid, but it pulled and picked at me for years. When I walk, especially alone, especially in a forest or on a plain or across the rocks alongside the ocean, I feel almost primal. Elemental. This was what my body was designed to do. Four million years ago something infinitesimal began to change in our ancestors, for whatever hypothesis you might subscribe to, and our bodies slowly rearranged for this. Cranium and spine slipped their related positions slowly, like tectonic plates shifting.
When I walk alone in silence for long enough, I can feel ghostly shadow roots reaching down into the earth with every step. I can see someone like myself moving this way back and back and back until the enormity of the years feels too big to contain in my head. But I like the way that feels. I like the way it makes my mitochondria sing. I like the way it makes me feel vast and endless in time and space but also so, so fucking small and utterly insignificant in the teensy sliver of time that is my silly little life. Step step step.
I walk. I can feel my body sing a song of pain and feel the span of eons. And legally, we’re not really allowed to do much else.
So, The Walking Thing story actually has nothing to do with any of that mind-blown/masochism stuff, the ‘Marlee’s-actually-got fibromyalgia-and-also-taken-too-many-shrooms-over-the-years’, vibe I just went into. It’s one of those kinds of stories where you take a bunch of disparate things, ideas and themes that feel important, that you want to explore, and mash them into a story.
The Walking Thing is about a plague and it’s about walking, but it’s also about family, and responsibility, and caring too much about people who don’t care about you, and not enough about those who do. I wrote it at Clarion West, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written, and I got my friend Tank to do the cover art for it in zine-form, which came out fucking rad.
It was my very first pro sale, published in Interfictions in 2015, and was reprinted in the anthology Best Summer Stories from Black Inc in 2018.