George Estreich received his M.F.A. in poetry from Cornell University. His book of poems, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, won the Rhea and Seymour Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books. His memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome, The Shape of the Eye, was published recently by Southern Methodist University Press. He lives in Oregon with his family.
Not long after my family moved from Oregon to Australia, I began to notice the posted warnings. It'd be a year before we returned, and perhaps that oceanic split between Family and Familiar heightened my perceptions: when the cars flash in from the right, and the same language, torqued by accent and slang, is very much not the same, you pay more attention to the instructions. Perhaps, too, it was the slightly different look& of the signs, the way they embodied the disorienting sameness-not-sameness we were living and breathing in. Of course the signs were different, for the same reason the mammals had pouches, the trees were willowy but not quite willows, and the schoolchildren all wore uniforms: it was Australia.
But most of all, I was drawn to the Shadow Family. In the United States, the Shadow Family is mainly restricted to bathroom doors-Generic Man, Generic Woman. Occasionally you see Generic Child crossing the street; in parking lots, on blue signs, you see their Generic Disabled Friend. But in Australia, the Shadow Family has a rich and active life. You can see them crossing the street, changing diapers, walking the dog, wearing eye protection, rollerblading, bicycling, skateboarding, feeding birds, littering, recycling, riding escalators, and, in my favorite, forcing open the doors of a train. The man looks like a reduced version of Da Vinci's ideal: he inhabits a circle, his arms spread out, his feet spread. But the circle has a slash across it, and the doors are about to crush him.
Though they are only shadows, generic figures, they exude Australian-ness as surely as an accent. This is most evident in warnings against death or injury, which always feature the Shadow Man, never the woman or child. At a hidden driveway, he is upended, flung from the hood of a Shadow Car. At an electrical substation, he is touching a wire, and is surrounded by the jagged red outline that means electrocution. Near the Queen Victoria Market, behind the door of a warehouse which contains corrosive chemicals, I saw a sign depicting a single Shadow Hand. Liquid is pooled on the palm, and wavy lines that might elsewhere mean bad smell or shimmering mirage here, evidently, meant dissolving flesh.
Perhaps some tentativeness of the first colonists, some hesitation before the frontier, persists in the nation's signs. Perhaps Australia is the kind of place that calls for warnings.
In the coastal tropics of Far North Queensland, nearly every riverbank and ferry crossing bears the yellow sign warning of saltwater crocodiles. There is a Shadow Crocodile, ready to lunge for the unwary Shadow Traveller, crush him with its tons-per-square-inch shadow teeth, clasp him in prehistoric claws, and do the "death roll": "salties," as they are known-everything in Australia, even the predators, gets the -ies or -o suffix, salties, fishos, docos, like the nickname of an old friend-prefer to drown their prey by spinning them under the water until dead. A dizzying and unpleasant experience, even for a shadow.
On the sign, the crocodile's silhouette is less frightening than comical. It looks like a child's hand shadow, projected on a wall; it is too thin in the snout, like the far less dangerous freshwater crocodiles; it does not really suggest the pure malingering prehistoric weight of the real thing, lazing in sunlight on a mud bank, with the self-assurance that comes from having evolved nearly sixty million years ago. We saw several; like most visitors to the Daintree, we paid a guy to bring us upriver on a tour boat, and point out the crocodiles, and tell us their names. One of them, he told us, had lain in wait by a cattle farm bordering the river, then lunged out and torn the head off a bull. The bull lay there, stinking, for weeks. They had to wait for a good rain to make the river rise, and wash the bull down to the sea. I asked, "Couldn't they move it?" He laughed. "They?" he said. "Up here, there is no they. There's only him."
I became interested in the crocodiles. As an American, I was a latecomer to the salties: most others have seen at least one movie featuring Crocodile Dundee, or watched the late Steve Irwin, he of "Crocodile Hunter" fame. I have not. But it is impossible to visit the Australian tropics and not learn about the estuarine crocodiles, which grow beyond six meters, which have been seen as far offshore as the Great Barrier Reef, and which drag off the occasional fashion model or crab fisherman or drunken partygoer foolish enough to hang out by the wrong riverbank. The day we left, someone disappeared from Cooktown. He was checking his crab pots; no one saw the incident, but his digital camera was found, right next to the drag marks in the mud. The crab pot was mangled. The salties destroy them to eat the bait inside.
Since much of Australia is a desert, the population tends to concentrate around the edges. So the Shadow Family was much in evidence, wherever the water met the land. When we traveled to the Great Ocean Road, along the southwestern coast of Victoria, I found five warnings on a single sign: High Surf, Strong Currents, Slippery Rocks, Submerged Rocks, Unstable Cliffs Keep Clear. Each warning displayed a silhouette who was about to die.High Surf and Unstable Cliffs both featured the universal fear of Something Big Falling on You: in the first case, a wave, hooked like the upper beak of a falcon, is frozen in mid-fall above a defenseless shadow, his hapless arms raised in defense; in the second, an overhanging lip of rock is caught in the moment it detaches from the cliff. The man below, unaware, is looking at something on the ground.
So many dangers. So many generic people, coming to generic ends. The silhouette pictured in Strong Currents could be an illustration for the Stevie Smith poem "Not Waving But Drowning." A single arm is raised. Beneath the waterline, nothing is visible-clearly, this is the view from shore-except for a single arrow, presumably to indicate a riptide like an express train, headed for the white pointers and Antarctically chilled depths of the Bass Strait. Printed on the sign was a triangle with a code number on it, giving the beach's location, as a help to emergency personnel, or at least to authorities searching for a body.
Not every warning was mortal. Some dealt with minor issues of property, safety, decorum. In these, shadow persons, performing the proscribed actions, were circled and struck with a diagonal line: the man feeding shadow birds, with pellets dropping from his hand. The skateboarder, the rollerblader, now and then the bicyclist: all circled, struck. Sometimes, as if with distaste, the person is eliminated, and the object stands for the action: the cigarette, the spraycan. Rarely, in an almost un-Australian depiction of Positive Reinforcement for Civic Behavior, a Shadow Man is shown behaving properly. In some of the "clean up after your dog" signs, he is leaning down, his hand gloved in a plastic bag, to a white oval that has just emerged from his dog. (The breed of the Shadow Family's dog varies. It is sometimes a black lab, sometimes a medium-sized mutt, and sometimes a cross between a Yorkie and a handbag.)
But obedient or rule-breaking, the dog's master is a secular Everyman: an outline, a faceless actor, a human shadow, who is changing diapers, or wearing a safety helmet, or-as in the sign warning drivers of ROAD WORK AHEAD -burying his black shovel in a black pile of shadows. For every job he does, for every ordinary, thoughtless, daily activity, his face locked in the no-expression of work, he is mortal. A red circle encloses him, and a red line strikes through his body. A cliff part detaches and is about to fall. He is Everyman, leaning against the weight of shadow, stooping to pick up after the dog, or peering at an interesting fossil buried in sandstone, and his death is always with him, whether he knows it or not.
But there's no spiritual take-away here. The signs have to do with this life, not the paradise to come; they hint at no salvation, only the things to be saved from. They say, in their flat, literal, referential, secular way, to stay alert, keep your head up, stick around as long as you can. Whatever happens afterward is up to you.
They seemed like the family we could be, or had been once, or never were. They looked like outlines we might fill in, if we tried hard, pretended. But our life was both stranger and more ordinary. We crossed the street with care. We did not get caught between the train doors. We stood under overhanging cliffs, aware of the unfallen rock above. We walked on the beaches where crocodiles were near, but did not clean fish by the water.
We took pictures. We made memories, more elusive and real than the pictures, of a place where we did not exactly belong. We never fit the outlines-either of what we expected, or what we were expected to be. When we opened our mouths to speak, we were instantly identifiable as Other-"Other" in the mildest of ways, as inhabitants of a National Ally, but Other nonetheless. We did not sound like Australians, and we did not say the things that Australians are supposed to say and do say (like mate or no worries) or that they are supposed to say but, as far as I can tell, reside exclusively on the Outback dessert menu, like fair dinkum. Phrases like this may be real, and perhaps they are being used elsewhere, but to me they are the linguistic equivalent of a hat dangling with corks.
Who are they, the Shadow Family? They are strangers to us, as strange as the country we imagined before we came here, a hybrid of red dust and satellite views, a schematic with kangaroos. That country is gone. I remember sitting at home in Oregon, zooming in on Google Map's Hybrid View of the street where we would live. A map of shadows, with trees and names. Deep in a rainy, Oregon winter, we imagined the summer we would move to.
We arrived in blinding heat-forty-two degrees Celsius-to a world disorientingly legible, where we could read the signs and understand the language and nothing was familiar. We set about furnishing the apartment. We went to Ikea, because it was what we knew, and found the generic furniture named with a shadow language, an Esperanto of no country. We wandered the place for three hours like rats with credit cards, dragging our patient children from one crowded, uninhabited room to the next; and finally, as we wheeled our chosen burdens to the checkout, a friendly Australian voice proclaimed from the ceiling speakers that neither EFTPOS nor credit cards would be accepted. (EFTPOS-Electronic Financial Transaction Point of Service-means "debit card.") We sat down on display furniture and waited. The friendly voice came back: EFTPOS was working again! We heaved ourselves up and began to walk. The voice came back: We regret EFTPOS transactions are not possible at this time! In the end the connection to global commerce was restored, which meant we could have beds and a couch and a table. We bought the furniture, and had it shipped; we assembled it and arranged it into a facsimile of home.
By late October of 2008, Australia felt like home, almost. Outside our apartment window, the cars shoved in front of each other, horns blaring, and the trams rolled by, little atonal symphonies of voltage and weight, felt as much as heard. I wrote. I thought about America, tiny and bright through the wrong end of the telescope-the poll numbers cascading through the Ethernet cable-and wondered what country we would return to, how the shadows would be filled in.