Copyright 2015 G White
Cover image by C White.
The Story So Far
*Fools Spoil *
I’ve been writing a lot
But it is still no clearer why
Fear rises to drown happiness
Beneath a wave of torment
Seeing compliments as meals
Of broken glass
Trusting only in the inevitable pain
Neglecting the joy of the moment
To pace, obsessed.
In writing, the world of realities
Is self empowered.
Will and desire are
Under control, literally beneath
The quivering thumb, my genesis.
In there you can live boldly
knowing that only fools or madmen spoil
Their own dreams and you are neither
Though, I have been writing a lot.
Everything swells in the rain. Window frames stick and hold tight against the wind. No rattles when the southerly gusts hard up the coast. Unseasonal, this weather, some say. Their memories only stretching back as far as they will allow, to the times when summer was always hot, sunburn stinging on younger shoulders, before the skin dried and the liverspots appear. Saggy. Chooky .
Thems were the days of real coastal summer, when the slow tick of a cooling cast iron engine block was the sound of checking the surf at a remote point, when thongs were cheap and long days stretched out before you, their interest or boredom dependent entirely upon the fickle weather bringing swell or the unpredictable smile of a girl.
White teeth shining with the reflected sun, yellow gold hair, salt hardened. A freckle or two, three framing blue green eyes. To love that again, feel and crave the beauty of youth, that which only fades. Keep it alive and supple under the tender touch of nostalgia,kind memories, the soft awareness forgetting days of rain in the summer of your youth. The listless swell, the blown out afternoon, crisp and abrasive, stinging hot sand lifting, your face burnished, rasping tired eyelids. Naked, burning soles on hot mix if you’re quick, the pain does not last! But stop to admire, pause to wonder “whatever happened to her?”, she with the freckles and the eyes so far away, the curve of her mouth most likely pursed in rejection, and it burns and burns and you, yelping, skip away to your own regrets. A wave not ridden.
You curse the stuck window, this damn wet weather, and long for a summer that was not yours to take.
We’re writing now, not in the sense of spelling it out but writing it in our cold hard core by the light of a candle – recording our stories and memories and fantasies . Reviling; prancing forsooth! You big lug. You freak. You fuck. You scary bastard. Candle stubs, beer cans, stained and sooty sleeping bag, shaggy-headed hippy you. Overlooking the point. Gone troppo, to the islands and never coming back, denizen of a cave to call one’s own. A point break to watch, to sense the rhythm and feel the pitch. Snorkel the rocks at low tide, mapping irregularities (and stealing oysters) in your mind and on paper later. Posterity beckoning as an aid to memory, addled now after one too many pulls on a cone. You will be ready when it matters, when that perfect day dawns and the swell swings and sings around the point, angling just so on the perfect tide, wind blowing quiffs and rainbows from the face before landing with purest joy behind. Days in the water, such as that, do not even have a name they are so good, so alive. So, then, be ready for them, as they arrive unbidden and are gone before you know. Missed. Live there, on the lip of your cave, on the edge of the cliff with a stub of a candle, a pad, a pen and only your own conversation for company.
Sticky stick stick stick stick. A terrible night, a week of rain, then heat enough to lift the humidity, then rain again. Then the pause between the two, the wait for more rain. Dizzying humidity. Walk a few meters and the sweat begins to drip off your brow, literally oozing with tropical intensity. Exotic fruits are hardened against mold, but I am less exotic, more temperate and the damp fug grows like botrytis around me. Cloying pits and furrows. Moist folds of cloth hang off limp bodies. Everyone, every me is bad tempered and tired. It’s worst at night. Damn this stickiness, how to sleep here like this, in a soggy inferno, unseasonal and insect ridden. The mozzies love it, plagued in it for chrissakes, adding to the misery. If I had wanted this, I would have stayed in the north, enjoying the benefits and accepting the bad as the price of admission. But here in the south I’ve already suffered the cost, optimistic of brighter days only to be confronted with this madness of moisture and buzzing critters driving me spare beyond knowing. Surely it must break soon. Now, not a breath of air to caress the skin, only stillness, we’re dripping with ire, we people the colour of sadness.
Shortly before I was born, at the very most half an hour, my father was straining to push his Vauxhall Victor out of the grip of a mud bog. My mother was in the driver’s seat, her pregnant and labor pained stomach jammed behind the steering wheel, crying with fear; panicking at the premature approach of my birth. The irony that both her husband, herself and her soon to be born son, were bogged on the dirt road at the front of their house, 20 miles from anyone that could help them was lost on them.
The laughter of Kingfishers rang sadistically while my mother moaned and screamed, depending upon the determination of her baby to escape her and her accelerating fear of that, while my father grunted in the mud, heaving at the rear of the Vauxhall, praying and cursing that it would come free. Tears or sweat rode the creases of his knotted face, runnelling the layers of fine mud sprayed there by the spinning wheels, eyes burning from tears or sweat as he rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand. Muddy and raw, like sandpaper.
The harder he pushed, the faster the car stuck, the thin road tires slicing into the soft wet clay like hungry teeth into ice-cream.
His neighbours had laughed at him when he had bought a car rather than one of the hard seated yet unstoppable land rovers they themselves drove. He’d ridden in them during the war. And as he explained it to them down at the pub, “a truck is not the kind of thing to drive a delicate mother in”. So he didn’t. A number of other things did not come to mind as he strained above the shiny chrome bumper while the puny engine and slick tyres whirred and set mud into flight, he forgot about his tractor, not 100 feet away in the shed, he forgot to admit that the car probably wasn’t a good idea.
He could hear his neighbours laughing at him over her sobs and cries and his reassuring calls “A man needs a truck, to hell with your soft ideas, your wife’s comfort. A man needs a truck.” He would shake a fist at them if he had the chance. He wanted better for his wife and child, not the usual, but better. But they didn’t understand, no matter how he explained it to them. They laughed and told him he’d regret it.
When the Victor first became stuck, slipping sideways, but not yet trapped, my father had explained his system for unsticking them. He was confident in his own abilities and that of his young wife to overcome the obstacle with ease, even though she was in labor. He told her to ease into gear, letting the clutch out slowly while he would push the car from behind. Mother, though in no condition to drive was in no condition to argue. He’d gotten her this far, after all, brought her out from the city on the coast, worked hard to make a go of an old and virtually bankrupt dairy. Had planted this life inside her. This pain that fought to get out, though it had taken a while. 8 years of trying before the miracle happened. He had never given up and at times his systematic approach, his method, drove her to madness. His endless explanations, books read and notes made. But then when she had given up and let him carry on with his plans, her period stopped and her confinement began. But now, similarly unexpected, and of much greater threat, she sensed death. Not the new life they wanted, but an end of it. She could taste it, metallic and hard. Panic rose within her as her left foot once again slipped out the clutch, and the car ground it’s awkward belly on the camber between the ruts it had dug. Rear wheels spinning in impotently above the ground. Her heart racing above the sound of the engine.
Later, when I was old enough to listen if not fully understand the circumstances surrounding my birth, Father and I would sit down and discuss them. Long convoluted evenings spent in tortuous discussions reflecting on the weaknesses of his judgement surrounding automobiles, weather and on reflection, women. This was one link in a chain for such discussions, explanations that would not prevent his own self destruction, and he clung to them as necessary, essential, hoping that he could absolve his guilt. Even though the talking boiled down to assurances that his decisions and his actions were not deliberate, who could have anticipated the events occurring as they did, yet on the positive I had survived, even as my mother had not and this somehow made it much worse for him. My presence. He wanted me to know that it was not my fault. That I had not killed her. In return He wanted to be told that it was not his fault either, that forces greater than he could have contemplated were ranged against him. He wanted me to tell him that. But I did not know that then, and so the balance of guilt in his judicial mind, handed him a capital sentence. It always would.
Others said the things that I did not understand I had to and that just reinforced his culpability. The Doctor who took care of me, the nurse at the hospital, my mother’s undertaker, the neighbour who dragged the Vauxhall out of the bog with my father’s tractor, his friends, my grandmother. The district as a whole, referring to the ‘tragedy” as we went by. The was pity and assistance in spades, but he did not want that. Not from them. He wanted it from me.
Every April around my birthday it was worse, Father would pace around the car examining it, wary as of a wild animal. Fearful. He’d cry and retreat back to the house. Hole up for days in his room and let others take the care of me. When I turned 12 I followed him out to the car. Watching him. Like the year of my birth, the weather had been damp. Low lying parts of the property were flooded. The neighbour who had towed it back up the hill to the house and parked it behind the large shed that housed the implements, the Massey Ferguson, the baler and spreader, the bits of wire and tin. It sat, rusting, on perishing tyres, peeling paint, the red roof, pinker now, enjoying a view down the steep hill out past the dairy shed and down to the creek. It caught the afternoon sun breaking through the clouds. Grass grew through holes in the floor, the windscreen had cracked. He showed me where he first saw me, a red and blue package – sloppy with fluid under the brake and clutch pedals, he told me the story again, how my mother had screamed and how he had pushed.
I examined the floor, filthy with mouse droppings and dirt. They’d picked out the horse hair from the upholstery, Opening the driver’s door my father climbed in and sat, staring. After a short while, he reached around the car, touching it’s weathered chrome, the cracked bakelite of the gear knob, tracing a finger through the dust of the gauges. Deep from within him he made a noise like a sob, like a him. He grabbed hold of the steering wheel and began rocking back and forwards in the seat. His short, thick hands tightened around the wheel as he hummed, rocking harder. His grief,as I tried to understand it, was a physical presence in the car and his rocking became heavier. I squirmed wanting to escape his anguish and the smell. He was pushing and straining against the wheel, stretching against the resistance, heaving his weight into it. The seat springs complained under his weight and his force, the car rocked under him.
I squirmed, wanted to get out. My father’s invisible battle with the car frightened me. He was subject to some other law of motion, the pent up fear and doubt and shame of the last twelve years pulsing through him, throbbing visibly as he rocked. Expanding.
He shook in spasms, choking sounds came from his mouth. The car rocked, stirring up fecund odours of decomposing shit and mud that rifled into my nostrils overwhelming me with a dizzy sense of fertility.
I was frightened. The sound of my father rasping, the sound of the car groaning on it’s chassis, fighting to get out of the decade old wheel ruts, the sweet fog of dust played havoc. “I’ll move it!” he spat. “It’ll go”, “We’ll be OK.”, He wrenched open the door, and stepped out gently pushing me to one side. The air was clear and cool, the sun was breaking through low cloud and cast shadows. Father went to the rear of the car and grabbing the bumper moved it in his hands, skin reddening and veins distending. He began wrestling with it.
The little car rocked more violently now, it swung up and down in the wheel depressions. Push forward, rise, teeter fall back, pull hard, rise, teeter fall back. The crunking of corroded springs, the flap of flaccid rubber. The Vauxhall’s freedom, sounded painful. My father grunted and rasped. The swing of the pendulum increased until topping out on the last pull, pausing precipitously on the edge, rearing up to fall and crush him, it looped forward and hopped out of the ruts, airborne for a moment before it crashed hard, splitting a front tyre and rolled, faster and faster down the slope.
The car bumped over uneven ground, rattling. It veered to the left on two wheels after clipping a rock and accelerated towards its doom. Faster it rolled, squeaking and flapping. The open door waving as if it wanted to fly. But the force of gravity held and the Vauxhall Victor sped straight now, resolute towards the dairy, and slammed into the rusting corrugated metal wall which accepted the intrusion quietly, enveloping it in its folds, and the Victor vanished from view.
There was a pause. My father, panting, arms slack, stood at the edge of the bare patch of ground, his shadow casting across the dark earth where once the car had sat and prevented life. The dairy shed, quivered and collapsed, burying the car in a clang of metal and dust.
Nearby, shocked cows lowed at the noise for a few moments before nustling back into the lush grass to chew, the event already forgotten. My father turned and dusted off his hands as he walked towards me, “Come on son” he said hoarsely and took my hand. “I’m sorry”.
We walked back up to the house and he made me toast in the kitchen. Later that day there was a cake for my birthday, he’d made it himself and in the evening he did not try to explain.
The calls of small birds, fragile, high pitched, singing to each other, I’m here. I’m here, I’m here – ceaselessly and fearfully, sounds in the morning light.
They are here, he thinks, relaxing into his coffee, boney almost hairless legs stretch out and rest on the seat of a director’s chair on the opposite side of the table. A deep breath, inhaling the backyard scent, coffee, grass and dog. All familiar. A litter of Hakea needles adrift around the base of the chair, sun striking the leaves of the Eucalyptus in the back of the yard. A remnant frangipani in flower, not yet catching the light. Movement everywhere but seldom visible, inferred.
There are wrens, superb, silver eyes, Bul Buls – red whiskered, all nest and on occasion larger parrots, King and common, depending on the season and the flowers. Wattlebirds, Bowerbirds, Spinebills, Honeyeaters and the very occasional white faced Heron and the high plaintive over flights of Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos, rackety Sulphur Crested and then the Kookaburras, jocular from TV aerials.
Now, though, is the time for the small birds to sing and chatter and fly about through the security of the spikey branches that grow in this garden for them. Planted by he of the boney leg on a once weed infested suburban block. The Frangipani is the only remaining plant from before, the rest all deliberately planned, but exactly how it had turned out, what might come and live here, was as yet unknown, only hoped.
The small sounds are familiar now after the initial excitement of the first coming of the tweets and flutters. They are part of the place now. They are too familiar from the past, from the early ages, when boney legged man was a thin legged boy and his father, a bird fancier, as his father had been before him, maintained a large aviary of exotic and domestic finches and quails. There was always a canary indoors too. Sounds of childhood. The only thing missing now was the smell of cracked seed, rotting.
The aviary ran from one corner of the childhood backyard, along the long western boundary for nearly 10 metres. It was huge, even huger to a small boy and a place of importance and mystery – always carefully locked and secured against accidental intrusions. Counter weighted flight doors built into segments allowed access or exclusion for the purposes of breeding, or weathering storms and providing security. You entered the aviary as a religious experience, it’s true size and effect contained beyond the first narrow gate into a store for grain, seed and breeding boxes, then through another chicken wire covered gate to a breeding and sleeping section, before opening out into the high expanse of aviary, stepping carefully so as not to crush anything underfoot. It was tall, long and closed and forbidding. Enmeshed in wire, small trees here and there, roosting rods and boxes suspended from the frame and hanging water bottles and feeders at a man’s shoulder height. Too tall for him just now. No man yet. There was also a pond at one end, a large goldfish, a refugee from a larger, indoor family, hidden by the green algae and nameless slimes, survived.
The father maintained the collection, much as his father had kept at first racing pigeons in a loft over the garage, trophies on the dresser in the best room, before giving the game away and building a much smaller aviary for finch and ground dwellers. Gouldian finches were his favourite. Brilliant colours, flashing when the light struck their movement, or glowing when still on a branch. Even trapped in these cages they were splendid. You can see the attraction.
When his father was in the cage, feeding, watering, tending usually after a days work, stripped down to his bonds singlet if warm, the boy would stand silently outside the cage, fingers hooked into the holes of the mesh, watching the steady practiced routine of his father. The feeding, the checking of water, the adjustments of flight doors. The careful exit through compartments, checking for escapees, were all fascinating to the boy. The father worked silently on as the boy watched on, the careful opening of breeding boxes, leery of spiders, counting eggs.
Once, he remembers a rat caused some problems, chewing through the translucent corrugated sheeting that formed the back wall of the aviary to get at the seed. Birds escaped through the hole before something could be done. Another time a dramatic storm, wind tossing branches and bright flashes of lightning, tore an opening in the wire and the father braved the rain and thunder to mount a ladder with wire and pliers to re-secure the integrity of the cage. From the safety of the back door, the boy watched on, streaks of rain distorting his view through the glass, causing his father to wobble but not fall. The terror of each new blast of thunder, his father working on the ladder, lightning flashing all the while has never left. Birds escaped despite the heroics.
There was a bird trap, stored on a nail in the feed room that was deployed after such betrayals. A counterweighted trap door, laced with the best feed, and placed on the ground. The birds, once free hung about the garden for a while, reluctant to truly go and lose their flock of friends and familiars. Soon, sensing their alone-ness the escapees would take the bait and soon rejoin their flock. Their life outside, their freedom amongst the oleander, hibiscus and the severe lawn, worth far less than cost of loneliness.
Reclaimed by the trap the father would tenderly lift them back into the aviary and set them free once more. Once he explained as the boy watched that the it was not good to leave them in the trap too long. The heat could get them or worse another larger bird, or even a cat. Unfortunate.
Some birds did get clean away. Either they were determined to lam or they were carried away by the wind far enough to make it impossible for them to find their way back. The boy thought of the story he heard once at Sunday school, the prodigal son, he wished to be prodigal, it sounded like a good way to be. Superb fairy wrens are tweeters and fly nervously and quite rapidly for such an ovoid creature, from branch to branch. Pecking obsessively at their own reflections in windows, car wing mirrors or the shiny backs of security flood lights. He thinks that they are crazy little fellas, but their presence reassures him oddly, he is not the craziest one about at the moment. The braver of them began to fly inside the house, making ever deeper excursions, foraging through the kitchen and into the living room, looking for a nesting site. Bird droppings betrayed their visits, even as far as the bedroom at the front of the house. A solitary spot of guano on his bedside table. He was both mildly alarmed and mildly pleased that they felt so much at home, but they soon stopped flying in once the breeding season began properly, opting for the a nest in the tangled mass of a cycad, which he found shortly after. He missed their interior excursions.
The aviary had always been there, even years after the father had stopped keeping birds (for some undisclosed or unremembered reason) the cage remained and became a home for broken things from the house and yard. Rusting slowly amidst the fecundity of decomposing seed and bird droppings, a catalogue of broken things grew blisters of rust and scale. Saw horses, steel drums that once stored pool chlorine, garden furniture with broken wooden slats, a swing set and slippery dip from which he once pushed his baby brother and broke his leg. Bolts fusing, superseded stuff growing ancient and cobwebbed. On one marvelous day, a piece of roofing iron was required for some project or other and while removing it from behind corrupted lawn mower bodies and old tins of paint, a plop was heard in the pond. Closer inspection revealed the goldfish, or goldwhale now, had survived in the pond these last few years, alone and untended. Survived and grown large on bugs and algae. There was much amazement. The fish had been forgotten and relegated to memory.
Some time later, the plastic pond liner was found to have split and the water drained away into the earth. The fish had disappeared.
It was a source of frustration and antagonism, whenever these were required in his domestic relationship, that the garden was planned, paid and planted without much in the way of consultation or shared endeavor. “So very typical of you, just to up and do something and leave me out” she would say in her cups. He did not understand, this was his art. His passion. The spikey leaves of the Hakea that fell and speared bare feet did not cause him pain if he stole to the hills hoist – basket under arm, barefooted, but made him glad of the protection for the birds.
“Why not flowers, why not soft things?” or “it’s a bloody cactus! It’s a bloody ugly garden! I want a neat garden! I don’t want this!” She didn’t want him.
He would retreat then in the face of these barrages, shrugging and wordless to the garden shed to check that the lopping shears remained well hidden. And they did, she was not the type to work hard and prune the garden, she left and bought a small apartment in a large block with a tiled balcony for a yard and would occasionally recall his selfishness at unavoidable family get-togthers. How he was such an idiot to be the way he was.
The father had gone now too, suddenly, one afternoon, after retirement had become too much, his head burst inside on the way back from the letterbox. The electricity bill and a brochure for cheap electrical products clenched in his spotted hand. His mother, numb and adrift decided to sell and move to a home, somewhere smaller, she didn’t need all this space and he found a job helping in the preparations for sale and departure.
The real estate agent, a spiv in a shiny suit with a red car and untrustworthy eyes suggested that the aviary should be removed as it would put potential buys off. “It’s all about appeal; no-one wants a cage in the backyard”. Who could argue!
On weekends, in the late summer, he travelled north, navigating a path of familiar landmarks, to spend time removing the heap of junk and carting the remains away in his box trailer. It took some time, and his weekend migrations north and south, his rest stops and feeding became the stuff of life. Habitual and natural. The flightless bounty of the aviary weighed down the springs on the trailer and struck blisters in his soft hands but it was honest work and prepared him for the harder stuff yet to come, the deconstruction.
There was no storm when he ascended a ladder to start unstapling and rolling the mesh away from the frame, no birds, sensing freedom, took their chance to escape. Alone and methodically he worked. Patiently.
Once stripped of wire, he knocked the frame apart section by section – disconnecting the counterweights, sawing the wood into lengths for the trailer. The aviary slowly receded, shrinking. On the last day of work and not coincidentally, the last day he would ever spend at his childhood home, raking leaf litter into a pile, standing where his father had stood, a single, very small bird, alighted silently on the spindly callistemon – a Pardalote, and for a very brief moment the bright clear eye caught his before darting away singing.
Everything feels hot and the birds are dropping down into the shade of the tree branches overhanging the creek, dull brown water, slick and littered with dead leaves and unameable insects. The birds watch. He watches the birds. Nothing much happens. The odd gust of wind, ruffles leaves higher up in the tight gully, eucalypts, mountain ash. Sweat drips from his forehead, every now and then rolling down to the corner of his eye, brown and stinging. He squints against the light and his own salt, sighs and shifts a little on his boney, retracting bottom.
Cicadas whir up and pulse in the sun. At least they like it. Not too hot for them. He could strip and jump into the creek, disturbing the floating world and cool off a little. Experience tells him the water here will be warm at the top, bath like, but much colder below that. Worth the dive.
He removes shirt and shorts. Naked, the sun burns immediately upon his shoulders, he feels the bite. The skin prickle. Steps lightly over the low grass and coarse brown river sand and choosing a spot, dives, arcing into the brown and disappearing with a crash that startles the low birds. A raven cries and luffs away down the creek and out of sight.
The water tastes of wood and mud in his mouth, he really prefers the sea, salty and alive against his tongue, not this sweet, neutral stuff. Tap water, brown water, give him a flavor for chris’sake. Just a taste. But that was then.
He swam, a loopy overarm for a few strokes across the hole, stopped to blow air and snot out of his nostrils, feeling with his feet for purchase on the silt covered rocks below. Unseen. His movements ginger, wanting to find sand but on uneven boulders. Expecting something unseen to snap and bite.
This time it was not sharp but soft and smooth, silt covered and rubbed pure from ages of onrushing water, rolling for eternity along the creek bed. It rolled yet again, unbalancing those around it, shifting the delicate balance into a small avalanche, cascading around his foot, trapping it and burying it, broad pressure, pressing down. Like mud, like a shackle of stone.
He did not immediately register what had occurred. At first thought he tried to lift his foot. He could not, it was stuck fast. His left foot kicked around for purchase and finding none he fell backwards into the water, submerging briefly, arms flashing to restore his balance, to pull up his head. Confusion mounted, mild panic began to rise.
He steadies himself and feets his foot squeezed. Again he tries to pull it free – no movement. He can feel the pressure all around, smooth surfaces of polished rocks. Numbing. Yank, Yank yank yank yank. Nothing moves. He flaps about, free foot slipping again and again. He’s in chest deep water. Stuck.
He thinks, calm down, deep breaths… right, pause, ok , now think. His heart quietens after a while. Mind still whirling. Not drowning, good, that is a good thing, no immediate danger…
He flexes the trapped foot, hard rock meets it in all directions. Toes have some wriggle room. Sharper pressure around his lower leg, just above his ankle. Taking a breath he fills his lungs and submerges into the water, eyes wide, hoping for a view of the predicament, but silt and brown water is all he can see. He reaches down his leg, feels the soft skin and the hard rocks trapping it. Taking both hands around his calf he pulls up on his leg, but he has no leverage, nothing to pull back upon. Oh… He emerges back into the light and sucks deep breaths again.
Gingerly he allows himself relax onto his back and reaches about with his free leg, looking for something, hopefully another higher rock that he can pivot off, he finds one near the limit of his outstretched leg, extending his foot he manages to push weakly, his knee stretches, and he can feel his skin tear around the place where the rocks compress it. He gives it up. Feels for somewhere else.
Over the next 30 minutes he tries as many different positions but none are successful. His foot is carefully trapped. Manacled by the dead weight of rock and his own hard luck.
Luck! Never had much of that going his way.
He thinks that someone will come along soon enough. He was certain. Day like today, heaps of people looking to cool off in the creek. Couple of hours, easy…
The sun burns his shoulders, and he ducks down into the water from time to time, the moisture providing the illusion of relief. He eyes off his hat, 3 meters away on the bank of Sweetwater creek.
The sun banks and bakes, cicadas scream through the apex of the day, ringing in his ears. Shoulders burn red and the water feels warm and slick. Itches come. He yells out into the tight valley. He hears his own voice echoing back towards him.
Every little while now he would duck under the water to cool himself off, when he emerged, balancing on the trapped foot, the sun would quickly dry the water. He could feel the burn and the contracting itchiness of his skin drying out. There was little he could do. The sun slowly worked its way over the apex of sky. Soon there would be some shade to provide relief. He would be OK.
Though the shade would be cool, he began to think, projecting forward, it would begin to get cold. His body would cool to the touch and he would enjoy relief, until internally he would cool too, then the creek would begin to suck the warmth away from him, he could sense it. The first fingers of chill creeping through him, drumming at his organs. He shivers, not yet from cold, but in fear.
Halooooooooooooooooooo. He screams loud enough and long enough that he did not hear the echo. If there were ears to hear his call, ears other than those attached to marsupial and bird brains, ears attached to legs and arms and riding a horse perhaps? A horse would be good, strong, help to drag him out. No horse came.
He was hungry and sipped some of the creek water to hold off the grumblings. At least he wouldn’t die of thirst. Childhood adventure movies were often full of the romantic castaway, survivors of shipwreck, flotsam, alone or in pairs aboard lifeboats or bobbing on the waves, fearful of sharks. Don’t the drink the water, some old salt would warn, throught blistered parched lips, it will not quench your thirst but it will drive you mad. Not that he had to worry about that, or sharks even though the thought made him imagine other things moving unseen in the dark brown water around him. Still plenty here to quench his thirst, the madness had arrived already.
The sun’s arc across the slot above him is reaching it’s nadir, and the light flares over the ride of the valley behind him. He feels his skin shrink as the temperature of the air abruptly changes. Shade, welcomed relief. He pulls on his leg absently, half heartedly. It aches in the socket of his hip. The shadow of the valley now draws across the sandy bank and ascends up the trees and valley in front of him. Birds become lively in the gloaming. Normally he enjoys this transition but now not so much. The skin on this shoulders stings, as does his face. He begins to feel the chill tendrils of night, reaching out towards him from the shadow beneath the trees. Cold descends, and the heat of the day is becoming a distant memory very quickly. He tries not to acknowledge what he knows will begin to happen as his little body in this big heat sink will soon, if not already, start to shiver. The warm water will grow cool as the ambient drops and suck out his energy, feeding on him like a casual carnivorous predator would. Simple physics, or is that thermodynamics? There would be no sleep as he would shake uncontrollably in an attempt to keep warm. It would be a long night, but he reckoned survivable. He could still move a bit and that might help to stay warm. His stomach grumbles. He sips water tasting like bark.
The darkness was almost total – a strip of starry night glows above where the top of each side of the valley finished, but around him was inky blackness. He could hear things on the bank. See the faint glow of bulging nocturnal eyes, fleeting and elusive. He felt the cold and shivered, considerably at times, his body working to stay warm, to keep the vital organs at operating temperature. His trapped foot felt numb, he tried to wiggle his toes. Sort of still there. He wonder about cutting it off.
There was that story about some guy who cut off his own arm when he was strapped on a cliff. Vague memories of the media sensation at the time. Man cuts off own arm to survive! He doesn’t think he could, and he doesn’t have a knife, was always a slack boy scout, was actually kicked out of the pack for thumping another scout. The crybaby, whinging to Arkela with his bloody nose and sense of shock. He hadn’t thought about that for a while. He wonders why he hit him?
He recalls another story now, a tibetan buddhist monk who was imprisoned by the Chinese and was tortured for a year. They made him stand balancing on the backs of two wooden chairs for twelve hours each day. Barefoot, unmoving. If he fell they would beat him with bamboo sticks. He mostly stood still and practised, not knowing when he would fall, or when would be beaten, or when the whole thing would stop. It was, and he could only do until they released him.
He looked up now to the sky, the stars were blurring and it was growing lighter. Cloud was rolling in.
He was almost asleep, moved and started, unsteady he wobbled. Cold. All around him the dark, damp cold air, thrumming. It was a physical thing this darkness, solid and strong. It had a force. A muscularity that biffed him upside the head. Playfully menacing like a bully who knew you couldn’t get away. A cat with a mouse, a pusher and his addict. He had been in the pitch darkness of the bush before, as an outdoors type, an urban bushman who sought out this type of experience for fun. The confronting darkness, the unfathomable stretching out to infinity in the length of an arm.
There is a reason why we love the light of home and cities, why we cluster around the glow. Light is absolution and safety, the illusion that we can see, dark is loss and death and despair. Fear lives there.
Sleepy and cold he’d wandered down a dark alley of fear and death and found himself conscious of the sense that it was always in fact there. The unsettled feelings that drove him too this place, the un-comfortability he felt with his self, his life, his relationships was always there. Whether it was pitch black or incandescent with the glow of arc lamps. Strange that. The light didn’t really change anything, it was just colder and the sense of encroaching death was not something that he could control at all.
The night would not last and he reckoned he could make it, but the light of day, so often sought by the depairing wanderer, would not change a thing. all was death all was despair, all was out of his control. He tried to imagine a candle, the better to examine his predicament, as if shining a light on it could make it better. He knew, he had always known. It was just easier to pretend he didn’t.
Closing his eyes, weary with the blackness and exhausted from shivering. He felt a drop on his shoulder and heard a hissing grow upwards. Then he was being showered from above. It had begun to rain. Heavily.
The rain roared around him, steaming off the creek with a suddenness and ferocity that caused him to clench. Individual drops smacked and stung into his shoulders, head and arms. He cringed below the surface where the noise of the rain slamming into the surface of the water rang hard like nails on steel, the terrific noise of the individual impacts blasting his ears. Above him the sky flashed bright as lightning flickered. Thunder rumbled, crest the ridge behind him and cascading down, gathering pace with the falling, sheeting rain. He gulped for air, amidst the torried steam rising off the water, breathing soup, heart racing, coughing and gagging. He was shaking, terror gripped him with the conviction of death, stronger the rocks about his foot. Squeezing.
Over the thrash of the rain he could begin to feel the creek move and flow around him. Water running cooler through his legs, he feels the drag, begins to resist. In the dark he can but only sense the pull, the slow stirring into movement of all that surrounds him, building in strength, the creek is lumbering into flow.
The rain continues to thunder down, he repeatedly loses balance between ducking under the surface for shelter, and the push of the water heading downstream. The creek begins to move things, lifting leaves and other debris, sticks and twigs first, the rain washing them from the banks, the rising water level lifting them from their repose in pondage and eddy. Carrying them across the surface flow, grazing his naked flesh, sticking like slime and imaginary tentacles. The flashing lighting illuminates the surging water, a dense crust of flotsam marking it’s progress. He cries, begging it to stop, then begins again to pull at his numb and trapped foot. Chafed and raw around the lower part of his leg, swollen and stiff, the joints complain painfully. The flow of the world increases. He senses the level of water rising slowly, can hear the rush of water over rocks.
Now larger things, sticks as big as his arm, whole branches lurch past, He makes a grab for one, thinking to use it as a lever. It skits by. But the idea is there, a lever, power to his arm. God send me thy staff! Or a fucking stick to prise me from this trap.
His fear retreats as the plan bursts into his mind, amid the crash of the rain on the water and trees. Thunder booms. He waited for another flash, another glimpse of a stick to save himself. A mighty crack rends the air, a blaze of light and he saw nothing, only the repeating glare burned into his eyes..
The pull of the water grew stronger, he could feel the turbulence. The weight behind it all meeting and dividing about himself, the pull began to unsettle his footing. He was shaking, leaves sticking like leeches to his shoulders, bravery and courage gone, trying to crouch and brace against the growing tide beneath the battering storm.
Again he was the child sheltering under the scratching woollen blanket perched upon his high standing sprung bed in the old house. Hearing the rain beat down on corrugated iron, gouting past the gutter. Sonic booms eclipsed his senses, despite ears clamped on ears, eyes scrunched closed. Scared and alone, alone and scared. Always like this.
He feels his bladder release and the warmth of his piss against him. Now shame and more fear to keep the storm terror company. He would have to hide his pyjama pants somewhere, not let anyone find them, or him like that. His grandma’s stern look and stout grip upon her strap, somehow worse than the fear of the storm. He crawls out of the bed, not too wet, and unties the thick drawstring of the damp striped flannelette pants, a little threadbare perhaps, carefully steps out. Naked from the waist down he lays them out carefully and shamefully on a dry spot of the sleepout floor. He feels the spray listing through the fly wire on his naked thighs and senses the dampness settling. Cold, his bare skin pimpling and puckering, prepubescent ball retracting he jumps back upon the bed with a loud screech of flat spring and cast iron at the next flash of lightning. Head drawn quickly under the blanket, skirting the damp spot, noting the aroma of his urine all the same and the absence of security.
Back in the creek he has nowhere to hide. He could piss in fear all he likes now and have no thought of the strap and the welts that it gave. She’s gone now.
The storm moves on and the gaps between the flashes of light and the cracks of thunder lengthen and he begins to find it difficult to associate any one particular flash with any subsequent bowl of thunder. The rain pounds down all the same and he notices the pressure of the water growing, hears more clearly the rushing of its sound as the heavenly thrash party moves east, away from the valley. His footing is becoming more difficult now as the pressure and his lone foot cannot equalise. He lies back and resorts and to short bursts of swimming to keep the pressure off his trapped foot. Debris scrapes by, wet dark and sharp. invisible to his eye.
A fierce tearing bites his torso and knocks him under, driving him down. Smothering him, mouth filling with blackness, only the tight pain in his left leg indicating the way up, or down. He flails upward and contacts wood, big heavy, pushing against him. He heaves against it and wiggles some way around the girth, sharp branch ends and protrusions digging into his flesh, leaves smothering. It is pushing him flat, pulling him in half. Rending him. His attempts to right himself, flop about, squirming under the tightening grip of the dead branches, thrashing now, wildly, in the growing intensity of the water. The rush of blood filling his head, the snarl of the creek barking back, filling his ears and lungs with noise and water. His efforts are puny against this, this life, this act of existence. Useless, helpless.
A chance move buys him some ragged air and so renewed grabs his leg with both hands and strains at it, pulling with all his strength. He pulls as hard as he can imagine he’d fight against death, not understanding that he is doing exactly that. He feels movement, the giant tree pinning him is shifting now, no longer able to dam back the force of water from upstream. It’s broken branch stubs plough along the creek bed, grating up the silt and the rocks tumbled. Scouring the bed.
It is alive now, rising up on stumpy broken limbs, twisting awkwardly in the moil of torrent, the weight of 10kms of catchment bearing down on just this few cubic meters of clutter. It groans and pitches forward, arcing towards him.
He watches it helplessly as it rears up, a looming solid mass, hydraulically propelled, waving dementedly from it’s limbs before it quivers drives around it’s buried axis, dragging the bottom out of the creek and rolling, no spiralling like the flight of a punt kick, a torpedo. And then all is black as the force of the backed up creek races past the rising obstacle and smashes him back down and out of his trap, snapping his ankle and flopping it free.
His mouth fills with pain and creek water, and he floats in momentary suspension, remarkable, he thinks and then the tree gives in to gravity and topples noisily, flicked up by the rushing water it once contained, it’s branches dance across the surface as it rolls and points downstream. Pressing themselves down and into him, into the rock and the mud. The pressure is enormous, it is flattening him, crushing him in the darkness, he is breaking slowly under this wheel.
The pressure lifts, and the tree drags away, only it’s branches now digging into his soft, puffy flesh, tearing tracks that will scar in time and pushing him further up the mud, higher on the bank,
The creek roars past as he coughs up mud and terror and snot. He is bawling for life, for forgiveness and it takes him a moment to accept that it has been granted. He spits more mud. He is livid with pain, any number of open wounds and a blazing ankle burn his consciousness. He drags higher up the mud bank, a little further away from the claws of the creek lest some other dam build to drown him again, and does not stop until he feels a tuft of hard grass under his hand.
Light wakes him. The creek and swimming hole are back as they once were, showing little sign of the monster they became last night. Above it, a blue rift floats but the sun is still hours away from Sweetwater the the shadows on the back side of the creak are crisp and clear.
He rolls to one side, groaning at his lacerated back and shoulders. His foot, is raw and swollen. Toes tight and blue. He crawls to his sodden clothes, hat has gone but he can cover his nakedness at least. Hungry he sits and thinks.
A kingfisher dives from an unseen place in the trees upon an unseen lizard and quickly disappears back into the canopy. The creek riffles. Benign
Above, the sun crests the eastern rim of the valley, the line of light commences it’s descent towards the water. There is movement all about.
He sighs and shifts on the leaf litter, damp and slightly shivering.
she says; you’re really in a bad way about this
he says; i don’t think it’s a bad way
she says; it’s an obsession. all this talk of flying and birds. i think that you are simply unhappy and want to escape
he says; i think it would be good. look at that seagull…
she says; i’ve seen them before. they’re white and grey and red beaks and legs. some only have one leg. have you noticed that? there are almost always two with one leg, no matter what beach you go to.
she says; if you could fly, you still wouldn’t be happy. you would only want to do something else, like swim under the water like a fish.
he says; seagulls can swim.
she says; not underwater.
he says; they can dive underwater. watch! but they cannot stay under for very long.
she says; that’s what i mean. they can’t stay under for long. they can’t swim underwater not like a fish. they’re not meant too. if you could fly you would dream of swimming underwater like a fish.
he says; no. that’s true. they are not like fish in that regard. in being able to swim underwater indefinitely. always in fact.
she says; doesn’t that make you unhappy?
he says; no. i am more interested in flying.
she says; you are exasperating. i know you will never be happy.
he says; i am happy now. i’d be very happy if i could fly.
she says; that doesn’t seem very likely.
he says; it isn’t impossible.
she says; i give in. yes it’s not impossible.
he says; look! did you see that fish jump out of the water. it was trying to fly too.
she says; you’re crying.
he says; no. i’m not crying.
she says; yes you are. its dark but i can tell.
he says; no. really, no.
she says; i know why you’re crying. you are crying because of your wife.
he says; no. that isn’t true at all.
she says; i’m sure it is.
he says; no, it is not true.
she says; then you were crying because you can’t fly!
he says; no. no no no.
she says; then what is it?
he says; it’s nothing. i wasn’t crying.
she says; what is it?
he says; what’s what?
she says; you know..
he says; no. really i don’t. i feel good. do you feel good?
she says; yes i feel good. but what about you? what is it? tell me what is wrong.
he says; i’m fine
she says; you are staring at the ceiling in a funny way.
he says; i am lying on my back. i am staring at the ceiling because i am lying on my back.
she says; you’re thinking about flying again.
he says; i’m not.
she says; you are! i can tell when you are. i always know when you are thinking about flying. will you stop, please?
he says; all right.
she says; you were thinking about it, weren’t you? tell me honestly.
he says; no. honestly, i don’t think that i was.
she says; you frighten me when you think about flying. promise me you won’t? i can’t bear it when you think about flying all the time.
he says; i promise.
she says; what is this?
he says; it’s a water pump.
she says; it has wings.
he says; no, they’re not wings they are the blades of the wheel. they lift the water. they impel it. it’s a water pump. a pump to bring us water for our garden.
she says; it looks like it is something to do with flying. you promised me you wouldn’t.
he says; it’s a water pump. really…
she says; well, in any case there are little white eggs all over the cabbages. i came in to tell you.
he says; i’m coming.
she says; if you built something to fly in. just say you did.
he says; yes?
she says; well, if you did, how many people would it carry?
he says; both of us.
she says; it could fly with the two of us?
he says; of course it would.
she says; if you built it, would there be room for the dog?
he says; yes i could make room for the dog. i hadn’t thought of it before, but it could be done.
she says; it wouldn’t be difficult?
he says; no it would be easy.
she says; i’m glad there is room for the dog.
he says; where would you like to go?
she says; i don’t know. wherever do you want to go?
he says; wherever you wan’t to go.
she says; well, i’ve always wanted to go …… no, i’m being selfish. where do you want to go?
he says; wherever you want to.
she says; i’ve always wanted to go to venice.
he says; alright, venice it is.
she says; do you know the way?
he says; yes, i know the way.
she says; do you?
he says; well, at least the general direction. are you ready?
she says; i’m scared.
he says; so am i. but are your ready?
she says; yes. yes i am ready. what do we do now?
he says; we fly.
The voyager in the foundry amidst the hot pots of metal, cooling in shafts of internal light, slowly darker, was finding the origins unclear and less than helpful.
The foundryman, overalled and bucket fisted, stares amused. A cigarette’s glowing coal drooping from his mouth. He points to the ladle, a crucible laden with the viscous flood of creation. “Here is the world” he shouts above the smash and whine of machines, flicking spills aside with a broken handled shovel.
The voyager staggers by the hearth seeking depth, bottoming. So much electrical current near him that his hair frizzled and the semi secret pops of ozone in the air are transmitted painfully through his core. The foundryman grimaces at a miscast world and flips it back into the maw of the furnace. Sparks spewing, to cast again.
Somewhere deep must be the stone upon which it was all based; down through strata and subsequent pourings, liquid hot, never apparently solid so it could not be mapped and known. Not from any angle of inspection. Take a bead, make no finding.
The foundryman has blackened stumps for teeth in his cackling face. While puzzling over a mold his tongue takes quick leaps out of the side of his mouth, licking a stubbly spot. Here and there the foundryman adjusts the form that will contain new life with a steel trowel, burnished silver by his deft recalculations of success. Every move a cataclysm. The shape in the mold is inverted and unrecognisable to the voyager who stares unknowing into the gap. Finally satisfied, the foundryman clamps a mate into the mold and calls for more liquid to blast into the form and seal it.
Some fundamental law now operates and controls the grace of creation within the foundry walls. Liquid overruns and is gathered still hot and resubmitted to the arc furnace, the better to pour next. Induction transfigures the concrete turning it to structural jelly. “We cast our life like this!” the foundryman shouts and watches the plumes of igniting gas hiss from the mold.
The voyagers fund of knowledge is expanding with each subsequent cast into the refactory heart. The heat within contained and cooled, contracting slightly until the light glimmers shut and forms the core of the voyager’s discovery. “You must allow for the shrinkage. Make allowances for everything. You can never wholly know what will happen here.” The foundryman, probing deep through crust and belly to locate the fundal height of his progeny with a thin strip of metal looks up to say. He frowns, triple folds of grime streaking his face, huge shoulders delicately lace with muscle and relax as the heat in his divining rod indicates the absence of incomplete development.
Some unheard music makes the core tick and jump. Rythmic internal hummings sluice and vibrate before ebbing back into itself. After a time of this, the mold is cracked apart and the foundling opened to the light. The Foundryman, too eager, leaps upon it to look first hand.
The voyager is now more at ease amidst the varying levels of hard and soft that cascade about him. Bits of broken form hover like dust in the furnace light. Each mote a universe of its own, briefly lit before foundering helplessly in the world. The foundryman crouches and dusts still hot flecks away from his small beginning.
The doors to the foundry swing wide and show the broad days light beyond, pouring inside to the lip of the hearth. The foundryman withdraws the sections of his cast and holds them out to the voyager. Looking at this he knows that the fundament is still young, each small part handled delicately by the foundryman’s soft hands.
The Perspective Thing
The weather is turning and your shoe crunches on the sand, its sole slips and you half stumble and pause, looking around. You continue, climbing the deceptively flat looking beach back towards the house where you live.
This house belonged to you grandparents and you would come here on holidays to play in the surf and combat the inevitable boredom of isolation. Family holidays. Now the house is yours. It is no longer as isolated as you once felt. A good road has been laid over the old and you can be in the city in an hour. This is a good place for you to live.
You remove your glasses; thin metal frames with spidery arms and clean the salt spray from the lenses with the tail of your polo shirt. It smears and there appears to be a scratch across the right lens. This makes it awkward for you to see. You rub harder, but give up, replace the spectacles on your nose and continue up the beach.
Your house is in full view. A weather beaten, weatherboard summer cottage, tastefully expanded over recent years to accommodate your residence. A wide verandah sweeps along three sides and triggers memories of long ago, swatting insects and eating crispy barbecued sausages and steak, cooked by your father and grandfather.
The scratch on your lens transforms the verandah post into someone waiting for you in the dusk. A shorter, sandy haired someone who could have been you, or your brother, but who you know is only a trick of perspective.
Your attention wanders away from the house to the dense growths of saltbush and palms between you and the house and the threatening half presence of snakes and spiders and their webs that have, in the past, stuck to your face and smothered you. Leaving you gasping and clawing to remove the thin threads from your hair and face. The beach glows in the early night, flecked with dark patches of grasses and weeds. Here and there driftwood pokes at weird angles, invoking the graveyard horrors of the matinees of your adolescence. You pick up a piece of driftwood, soft and riddled with the holes of aquatic termites, to dispel the fearful memories. Embarrassing in someone your age. You use the wood as a walking stick, or staff as it comes up to your shoulder. You drive it hard into the sand in front of you and pulling with both arms drag yourself up to it, like an oar. Or more like a punt. But you have never punted.
You look behind you to the headland and above it a darker cloud of rain hovers briefly gathering force before streaking down the beach toward you. Quickly you react, as the bluff completely dissolves in rain, sucked up into the cloud. You abandon your oar and run, awkwardly in your city shoes, stumbling and kicking sand. You begin to feel exhilarated by the effort and the cooling breeze preceding the squall tosses your hair back over your head giving the illusion of serious speed, despite your hampered strides in the sand. The first fat, hard drops of rain pop on your shoulders and arms and quickly the rain envelopes you isolating you from your house and your friends and family.
You run harder now, not because you want to get out of the rain and safe indoors, but because running in a rain squall is something that you haven’t done since you were young.
You reach the verandah, soaking and smiling. Your shirt clings coldly to your torso. Your glasses are wet and everything is distorted and unrecognisable. Someone comes out of the front door, a blaze of warm light behind them and greets you. The someone drizzles and runs around your field of vision, sometimes pink and sometimes green. You feel slightly dizzy and cannot concentrate on what is being said to you.
You only smile and follow blindly into your house. As you walk it occurs to you to wipe your glasses, but for some reason you don’t. Your shirt is wet and there is nothing else to hand. And you are beginning to enjoy the giddy sensation of liquid vision. You think now that although you can be seen clearly enough, a bit wet, but generally similar to the person that left the assembled group of friends for a quick walk along the beach to unwind after a late meeting at work in the city, you see things in a completely different way. You think to catch their, your friends and family’s, attention and share the new view, but you hold back.
You are handed a towel and space is made for you beside the fire. There is laughter and conversation crackling around you but you cannot understand what is said. A cold can is thrust into your hand, another hand pats your shoulder, familiar. Light plays and moves around the room and you smile dumbly on.
A giddiness overcomes you and you turn to face the fire. It crackles before your lenses, warm and familiar. Hardly changed from before. But this is probably the nature of fires. Swift and changing. Impossible to know. You hug the towel tighter about your shoulders and begin to fall into the warmth of the glow. Your wet clothes steaming slightly.
You relax and begin to feel hollow. Like a tube. Like the kind of tube they use to blow glass with. You remember a documentary one disappointing matinee where men blew through long tubes to inflate molten lumps of glass. To bend them into shape, speak them into form.
Thoughts flow up through you, twisting and bouncing off your sides until they emerge into the inflating mass of your head, distorted by the light of the fire. You feel long. Stretched and unreasonably warm. The sounds of the room and your friends and family have receded and been replaced by the sound of heat. The noise swells and grows vivid. You are on tracks and have begun to lose control. Something pushes you. A firm, constant pressure pushing you forwards, into the light. Molding something else out of you.
You shiver, violently. Hands show concern and slowly the noises of your family and friends penetrate your cocoon. The wet towel is removed and someone pulls at your shoes, which are hot to touch.
You turn around and everything is the same. There has been no change. Your wife, friends, teenage children are all there, but absent of meaning. Your glasses are now dry; everything is back in proportion again. Taking them off you examine them carefully. Lightly streaked with salt, you gently wipe them on the hem of a cushion cover and replace them on your nose, sadly. The illusions have now ended.
Quietly you leave the room, climbing down the verandah stairs, crab-like and you walk towards the saltbush forest, still dripping from the squall. The moon is high, peeping over a wrack of cloud that is fast dissipating in the north. You see some stars, but their meaning is unknown to you. That would be something you think. To understand what is meant by the stars.
You walk down the beach. Your shoe crunches on the sand and its sole slips, but you do not pause. You do not look around. You walk down the beach, away from the house where you live, towards the rain.
In the sky, cast in blue hangs the simplest of man’s experiments in flight. Hovering, taught on a string it rides the breeze, gentle. The kite dips serenely searching for another thermal and then rises higher. A yellow and red cats-eye floating in the sky over an industrial city.
From a short distance away, perhaps in a stand of weathered pines, or on a section of the road, which hugs the bluff that plunges to the sea; the kite appears to be stranded. A figment caught on the breeze. But it is real.
If you are patient, the thin line that tethers the kite to ground would become visible. Tracing a dark crack in the sunlight until it is severed by a weedy hillock, lost in green. You climb to the top of the hillock, ankle deep in unmown clover and the thread falls down into a small gully, where, between your hillock and another, more intimidating shoulder topped with an abandoned concrete bunker streaked with graffiti, a figure becomes visible attached to the string. The figure is unaware of your presence and appears to be concentrating, adjusting the string of the kite with one hand while standing narrowly on an isthmus between two shallow puddles, his back towards you. It had rained earlier, but now the dusk air is clear and cold. Shadows creep with distinction over the grass, darkening the colour until they loose all contrast, merging.
It is autumn, the breeze dropping as sunset advances. The sun abruptly vanishes over the western lip of the gully, bringing the early night to the kite flyers feet. He starts and begins the reclaim the kite from the evening, pulling hand over hand as the kite jerks, reluctantly, downwards out of the sky.
Thousands of metres above the kite a speeding jet glows in the refracted light of the sun before vanishing again. The kite battles downwards, resenting the strings firm grip and surging upwards weakly in defiance.
Finally it comes within reach of the kite flyer who gently claims it from the sky, tucking it under his arm and before walking up into the shadow of the gully. He is still unaware of your presence and you wonder at this. He stops at the top of the gully, glancing back into the shadow, boots wet and muddy before disappearing over the lip and is gone.
You hear a car start and slowly pull away over the gravel track with the soft splash of rutted puddles, it becomes visible now beneath you, tracing slowly along the road past the cliffs edge and the skeletal postures of the pines, before disappearing entirely around a curve in the road. The hillock provides a good view of the sea and surrounding parkland. It is growing cold, but is still and quiet. Already dusk has settled and the sky lowers. A single star blinks into being above the western horizon like a luminous kite. Its string dropping short of you, lost to your eyes.
The early morning breeze drifted through the box brush, stirring a weak mist that hung vaguely off the ground and obscured the shape of the land. At the rear of the house a horse, tan and impatient was being loaded with saddle and swag. The sky lightened in the pre-dawn, streaking red to the east and promising rain before the end of the day.
A woman in a dressing gown stood by the verandah, watching. It was a familiar ritual where one week out of three her husband would ride down to the town and organise the affairs of his place. He was not so much a man of the land, but a man on it. He fooled no-one and could not pretend to be one of the farmers, or cattlemen of these parts. He was city educated and the city would support him. This land, his place, was his inheritance, not his choice.
“Are you sure you have everything?” there was no excitement in her voice.
“Yes, I should think I have.” He regarded the sky. “It will rain later today.” He reached up to the verandah and kissed his wife on the cheek. “I’ll be back by Friday. Lunch time with any luck.” He stuck a foot in the stirrup, the horse wheeling slightly turned his back on his wife and his house before he was properly in the saddle. He waved over his shoulder as the horse drew him away in a quick trot until he disappeared in the scrub that hung close to the track, and out of sight.
The woman stood on the verandah and watched the empty space before turning abruptly and entering the house. The clock over the kitchen mantle chimed the hour and rumors of awakening could be heard. She took a heavy cast iron skillet from the rack, placed it on the hob and cut a slab of pale butter from the pat and slid it down the side of the skillet where it began to sizzle.
“Children” she called, “are you up?” Rustles and the sound of bare feet on the floor answered her. She began cracking eggs and two small children came in into the kitchen and picked themselves up onto the chairs around the table. They were sleepy faced, hair pushed awkwardly up from their pillows. “Have you washed?” they shook their heads and moved to the pump, squeaking chair legs. “Where’s Tilly?”
“She’s still in bed.”
“Go and get her Essie. Your Father has already left and there is no time to waste today.” The girl did not question her mother and again rose from the table and skipped down the hall to rouse her sister. Successful, she returned and they all sat to eat in silence, the tick of the clock timing their mouthfuls.
When they had finished eating the mother said. “Get dressed now go and check the chickens for eggs. Then we will start your lessons.”
“What about me?” Tilly, the youngest had not yet begun her lessons.
“You too. Put on your boots before going outside. The grass is still wet.”
The day was filling with the noise of work. The scrub around the house was being cleared by a gang of Indian labourers whose axes and machete’s had begun cracking in the morning light, jarring birds into flight. Soon everything was awake and the noise and activity made the woman feel less alone.
She hated the morning quiet, especially at those times when her husband had left for the town. The sounds of the clearers and the children squealing and teasing shut down the unnatural quiet. She, like her husband was from the city and the absence of sound crept at her senses with expectant, malevolent promise, shrouding the familiar in creaking shadow. “Mumma, I can’t tie up my hair.” Tilly stood by the door, ebony brush in hand.
“Come.” She laid down the breakfast plates on the table and taking the girls hand led her out of the kitchen to her room. She stopped at the door and saw on the bed her husbands flannel pajamas folded neatly ready to pack.
“Oh Tilly, look. Your Father has left his bed clothes.” She picked them up, thinking of the strange bed he would lie against without the benefit of clean pajamas. “He can’t have gone too far. We should catch him easily. Would you like to come for a ride in the sulky with me?” The girl nodded, excited. “Quickly then.”
They left the room, the mother holding the flannel bundle calling for the other girls and for Will, the farmhand, to hitch Kip to the sulky. “We won’t be long and your Aunt is coming across this morning so you needn’t worry about being alone.”
The two older sisters, a tin of eggs held between them, smiled, reprieved from their lessons. It was growing hotter and in the chicken shed, searching for eggs, they had conspired to get away to the dam for a swim. Now they could get to the creek. Much better. The Mother was placing her bonnet on her head as the sulky and Kip were led to the side of the house. She lifted Tilly into the seat and then stepped up herself while Will held the bridle. Gathering the reins the woman said “Will, watch that the girls get on with their lessons and don’t race off somewhere.” Old Will smiled, toothless. The girls giggled and waved as the sulky jerked away down the track, jogging the Mother and daughter over holes and as it disappeared ran away past the barn towards the creek. Will watched them go and shuffled back to the barn. Forgetting.
The country around the house was still untamed. High and heavy with scrub. It was the last parcel of land to be prised from the husband’s father’s selection. They had hoped to farm but the soil was poor, rocky and uneven and was being cleared now in the vague hope of cattle or sheep. This thought made the Mother shudder. All those beasts running around, grunting and roaring, scaring the children and herself. She secretly hoped for some reason to prevent this happening.
The track the sulky followed wound down and along Durrough’s creek, crossing it every now and then, sometimes losing sight of it through the thick scrub only for it to appear expectedly around a turning. The creek ran through their property and was named after Tilly’s grandfather who had first came to this small part of the world. It had once all been his land, but was now sliced up into six large farms that were controlled by his sons. Most of the low, valuable land had already been cleared and this high point, the least valuable and most difficult to work a living from, was at last being improved.
Her husband did not mind that he had received the poorest share. He had his books to keep him busy and amused. Frequent trips to the city where he had friends and interests. In fact he grabbed every opportunity to return to the city of his youth and education. The benefits of his father’s early hard work and later prosperity had meant that he could leave the farm and board at school and then university so that he alone, amongst his brothers had not grown up on the land. An outsider to it. Though he was always expected to return, and the father had divided the land into six parts, he happily accepted the poorest parcel reasoning that he, unlike his brothers did not need to support himself and his family from the land alone. The poor land also offered the comfortable option of a heroic failure and eventual return to the city away from the “bush work” that he had grown out of. His wife missed the city too. It had always been hers, the parties, the friends, she had introduced her husband to it all and now he had supplanted her. She was even more estranged.
It was hot as the sulky braked down through a steep airless cutting, the horse standing into the loose dirt and sliding. The mother gently coaxed the horse along with quiet words and flips of the reins. Kip, knew the road from eight years of travel, it was his road you would have thought as he stood the sulky down through the ruts and channels, choosing the smoothest path, obedient to his task and load. The mother, anxious at all times along the steep sections could not trust the horse, but her skill with horses was newly gained and largely ignorant of the characters of the animal. The horse did its job despite his driver.
The mother and daughter watched the road and the bush slowly approach and recede. The mother would point out the new things she had come to know, birds that swooped out of trees, oddly shaped rocks and the occasional wallaby that crossed the track ahead of them.
“Look at the birds Tilly, over there. Quickly.” And Tilly following the line of her mother’s outstretched arm would see Kingfishers or a Galah shoot off a branch for reasons of their own. Between the mother and child sat the parcel of flannel for the husband and an occasional hand would reach to it to check its safety. “Keep an eye on those pajamas now Tilly. We would look silly if we got all that way and then had lost them along the track somewhere.”
“Yes Mumma.” And Tilly placed a protective hand over the bundle. Self important.
An hour after they had left the house they reached the causeway which divided the fast running creek from the wider waters below the hill. The girl looked into it. Deep, its movement, while known, was not obvious. Deceptive and alien in its brown silent running.
She could never swim in something like that and remembered the stories from her Uncle Tim of bunyips that lived, he said, in the bottomless pools of this river and could pull you down.
Once across the river the land widened and the mother drove the sulky under a stand of trees and stopped telling her daughter that they should rest a while before driving along the road to the town. From under the seat she pulled a basket, some bread and boiled eggs and bottle of water and they ate in the shade of the Eucalyptus, listening to the sounds of birds and the gentle wind on the water. Tilly kept a wary eye on the bank for approaching myth.
The track evolved into a road as it drew along the river and the country flattened out to plain. The horizon opened up around the sulky as it rocked steadily along. To the south clouds massed just above the horizon breaking the straight cleft of yellowing land and blue. Tilly sat holding the flannel parcel against misadventure, staring out across the hot flat ground. She wondered if there was a land bunyip that hid in the ground, waiting to gobble her as in the water if she swam out of her depth.
“Will we find Dadda soon?”
“Yes, it won’t be long now.” A little later she pointed out to Tilly a vague greyness ahead of them. “There it is Tilly. Nearly there.”
“Will he be there?”
“Yes he would have stopped at French’s.” Tilly was relieved, the town and her Father were protection enough from her imagination and maybe she would be given some iced water from Garnet’s the grocer. This thought vanquished the dangers and excitement bubbled up inside her. Riding into the town the mother drove the sulky up to the blacksmiths and stepped down, settling her dress with one hand before turning to hold her daughter as she jumped to the dirt. Tilly held the hot parcel in her other arm, mostly damp now from the ride in the heat.
The mother and daughter surveyed the scene, taking their bearings of the bustling street. The mother felt a surge of superiority over those she saw and acknowledged. Dust and smiles of the locals who assented to the notion that the Durroughs were some kind of gentry.
“Tilly I will go to French’s and find your father and you can wait for me at Garnets. Run along, I won’t be long.”
Tilly heard the magical word and immediately thought back to the cool and sweet memories of other visits to the town. It was an unspoken promise that town meant an ice or maybe some boiled sweets and her mother’s directive as good as sealed the promise.
Tilly ran away from her mother towards the corner where a dusty sign announced the existence of ices and sweets and general goods. The sign was the only fixed point in Tilly’s mind. An oasis on the dusty road. She hardly noticed the fading paint or crookedness of the sign, these things she had seen before and had long become part of the experience of pleasure in this part of her world. Tilly slowed to a skip, drawing out the pleasure of anticipation, but was still moving fast enough to miss the figures of a man and woman stepping out of a doorway into her path. She tripped and pitched into the man, into familiar serge trousers and enveloped in an unfamiliar salty smell buried in the clothes of the man.
She was picked up off the ground, gently, by strong hands. Her face turned up and before she knew who it was, she felt the hands quake and tense. Her father’s face was surprised, as was hers. She was surprised firstly from the shock, but that her mother had told her where he should be and that was not here, picking her up off the ground when her mother would have been expectantly carrying the gift of his pajamas to him at French’s. She turned to the woman, she was nothing like her mother, all red cheeks and blackened eyes, who was she? She looked back at her father, he half smiled and set her back onto her feet.
“What are you doing here alone?” he smiled.
“Mother told me to go to Garnet’s and wait for her.”
“Where’s your mother, Tilly?”
“She’s gone to French’s to find you and give you your pajamas.” He sighed audibly.
“How’s about I come to Garnet’s and buy us both an ice.” He took her hand and led her away, towards the corner. The woman turned back in through the door they had come out of.
The father and daughter hurried down the street and through the doors of the grocers, Tilly bursting into a run and heading to the back of the shop, towards the ice box and lolly jars. “What about your manners?” asked her father as she impatiently bolted into the ice.
“Thank you Dadda.”
The Father stuck his hands into his pockets and looked about carefully “Here Tilly.” He led her towards the door. “You remember how you bumped into me?” Tilly nodded, coloured water dripping from her chin. “We’d better not mention that to your mother. She would worry about you running like that, not watching where you are going.” He crouched down on his haunches, mustachioed face level with her raspberry nose and reached into a pocket to retrieve his handkerchief and began to clean her face. “We’ll just say that I found you in here.” Tilly turns her face against the cotton. “Alright then? Its better that way.” Tilly nods slowly, unaware more concerned with her melting ice than the process of deception. “Would you like some toffee?”
“Oh yes Dadda.” Her father returns to the counter to buy the toffees just as the mother walks through the door.
“I swear that you spoil that child Dick. I’ve been looking for you all over the street and I find you in the grocers ruining your child’s appetite. Here we brought you your pajamas, we thought you might need them.” The man takes the bundle and holds it loosely in one hand. Bag of toffees in the other.
“You needn’t have gone to all that trouble. I worry about you on the road alone. But thank you.” They stand stiffly, talking little, browsing the shop and Tilly, sucking her toffees and making a track of sticky finger marks around the lower shelves. Shortly the mother announces that it is time to return before the threatening storm breaks and everyone back home begins to worry.
They walk out of the grocers and Tilly’s father takes her hand and leads her towards the blacksmiths were Kip stands in the pre-storm glow, flicking his tail slowly against the flies.
They pass the dingy doorway where Tilly tripped into her father without comment and soon reach the smithies. Tilly looked at the other horses stabled there, one receiving a new shoe, the glowing light of the forge and beside it, horned and squat, riding a large block of wood, the anvil.
The smithy smiled gums at the girl and she is hoisted up into her seat beside her mother by her father.
The mother takes the reins and flicks them. Kip starts off.
“Take care, drive carefully Louise.” Calls the father, one hand pocketed in their rear view, the other waving above his head. “I’ll see you on Friday afternoon.” He stands until the sulky clears the end of the street and follows the curve out of his sight, heading back towards the ranges and the slow, difficult climb to the homestead above. The father, casts a quick eye at the sky and walks towards the spot where he met his daughter an hour earlier. Pausing at the door he considered his earlier luck and then disappears through the door while the first storm clouds race overhead.
The mother drove Kip at a fair pace, spurred by the building clouds, with remote encouragement’s and nervous twitches of the reins. Tilly licked at the remnant toffee on her fingers, wishing that she had another for the journey home. Black, distorted cloudheads rise over the town behind them, pouring over the plain.
The mother and daughter are silent, heaving with the sulky’s pitch and yaw across the gutted road sharing the thoughts of darkness and rain and the climb up the hill. The mother speaks calming herself and her daughter with honest praise of Kip’s sure footedness and reliability.
“Eight years he’s been doing this trip, up and down the mountain. Rain and shine. He took your father across the creek when it was flooding that once, but you were only a baby then. Don’t worry. That storm won’t catch us. We’ll be home before you know it.” The mother talked aloud about her faith but failed to completely quell her own reservations. Kip was now an old horse by anyone’s standards and was no longer as strong as when he swam the creek with the father aboard. And now he had the sulky to pull. If it rains too much she thought, we’d be washed away, or at best stranded on some muddy crop of land, cold. The smart thing would be to turn back to the town and stay the night, but something prevented her from making that decision. Some pride. With one hand she pulled Tilly closer to her. “If you get scared Till, you hang on to me. Kip will get us home.” Tilly took a handful of her mothers skirt and watched the reins whip and flick at Kip’s flanks and trusted implicitly in her mother’s words.
The storm caught them just before the causeway, first falling in fat drops before a cold wind raced under it and drove hard rain into their backs. The river was still low, surface shattered by the rain, had a solid look, and the mother was relieved that they had made it before the rain reached the mountain and came running back down, forcing the river higher. Kip surged straight across the causeway, the rain thickening and fusing with the spray from the sulky’s wheels until, safe on the far bank, the rain dropped in sheets, smacking into the water and land.
The mother pulled a canvas sheet from beneath the seat and draped it over their heads before stirring Kip further along the track, away from the deepening water of the creek.
Soon everything was sodden. Trees and grass were flattened by the pounding rain and swift rivulets coursed down the ruts in the track. The clouds were lowering and it grew dark, a seedy greyness which obscured the land and bush and made Tilly hold tightly to the prickly, wet wool of her mother’s skirt. Kip strained upward, the rain beating off his unprotected back, feeling his way through the blinding rain. Dark birds, caught out, rushed across the track through the gloom before them and disappeared.
At some point, the mother let the canvas to slide from their heads, exposing them fully to the storm. Her hands were knotted to the reins, staring hard ahead, trying to see the dangers she knew were waiting for them, landslips and falling trees. She tried to see them before they happened. They were all about her, but she was deaf and almost blind to them through the pressure of the storm.
The storm was within her, now a part of her thinking. It’s fury entered her and became her own rage against it. She addressed the storm and its dangers with its own energy, translating the natural force into her own will to survive. Her will against this puny country, this mountain inheritance that isolated her, she wanted to crush it under her heel. She did not want it.
Fingernails bit hard into her palms and dug half moons of blood that she would later wonder at. She dragged hard on the reins, snagging the bit painfully into Kip’s mouth. He resisted, fighting against the pain. He knew the track well but the mother was insistent and drove him off the track and onto a rocky cutting to the left. Kip resisted still and she grabbed the whip and lashed him and drove him down the cutting. Rocks and mud shot away from beneath his hooves and still she whipped him until the buggy began to slide across the mud, out of control, overtaking the horse and dragging him behind it, down towards the rushing creek. The horse struggled against the weight, levering himself into the torque of the sulky, a pole snapped and they slipped further, smashing a wheel before grinding onto a small flat space and stopping.
The creek roared by below them, too close. A small voice cried under the canvas, clutching for her mothers leg. The Mother had been thrown out as the sulky snapped the spokes of its wheel, and she lay, stunned and cut on the wet ground, the horse standing over her, loose in the poles, dripping water.
Tilly emerged, crying from under the canvas. “Mama.” The Mother roused and staggered to the child, grabbing her and pulling her close, making comforting and senseless, familiar noises. She carried Tilly from the listing buggy. “Mama.” She cried again, and the mother sat on the ground and cradled her daughter in the rain. Suddenly back in the place of defeat alive in the horror of near death. They sat on the ground for a while at the feet of the horse before Tilly’s sobs had ceased.
“Are you right to walk a little?” The child nodded and the mother placed her on her feet, then herself got up and unbuckled Kip from the shattered sulky. Taking the reins in her right hand she held Tilly in the other and together they walked back through the wrack of their descent and rejoined the track. The rain was lessening and light rolled back, stretching the blacks to grey, to white across the sky. Walking along the track the Mother began to sing and after half an hour of slow trudge up the slippery track they came into sight of the homestead, sitting brightly in the cleaering. Kip quickened his pace and the mother dropped the bridle and let him run off ahead. She could see Will appear from behind the back of the house and seeing first the horse and then them began to hurry up the track.
The Mother stopped and drew Tilly into her arms, picking her up off the ground. Wet. “Tilly?”
“I think it would be best if we didn’t upset everyone with what happened. Your father would be worried if he knew what happened. We’ll just say the sulky was too heavy and we left it behind. We didn’t know it would slide off the track.” She looked expectantly at the child.
“yes Mama, but why?”
“It’s better this way. Do you promise?”
“Can I have another ice?”
“Yes, if you like. But not a word to anyone. Promise?”
Will finally converged upon them, eyes wide. They were soon indoors, amongst the light and warmth and the excited questions of the aunt and the other daughters. Tilly, bathed and fed, cooed and celebrated for a brave little girl and then finally, in the bedroom with her sisters, when she was warm, she told her story.
The humidity does pass, at some time during the night, when asleep, perhaps restlessly, the fan humming and whirring away, the blinds begin to slap against the window, breathing in and out on the first faint gasps of the change. The change, enters her subconscious and she finds herself thinking in ways that she would not normally think.
That she thinks of these climatic events as change is a testament to the definitions of her horizons. Weather simply is and does not change, it moves sure, but otherwise can be considered a constant across the globe. Pulsing with energy, driving waves and wind and temperature. Wasn’t there a cartoon character, or is it a comic book thing, perhaps Peanuts, it escapes her, but there was this character who was perpetually under a cloud. But only him, not everyone else. Weather is a constant unchanging variable to him, always damp and slightly depressed and down. She finally gets it! Oh it’s about his state of mind, the psychology of the character (what is his name?), the narrative stream of the comic, or cartoon. Not a general comment upon the nature of weather on the planet. But it would perhaps be feasible to follow a particular bit of weather, to track it and theoretically sit within it always. She thinks that birds are doing that exact thing when they migrate from one part of the world to another. Keeping centered upon the sweet spot of warmth and plenty. The long, transcontinental journeys over land and sea and ocean have their meaning in the stabilisation of change. Larger terrestrial mammals, probably once did similar things, and indeed the grey nomads she see’s in their Land Cruisers and Winnebagos, clogging up the roads on her way to work, are doing that – wandering north and south as the weather changes. Not as free as the birds, however much their caravans are named after them.
Mostly we endure. We weather the weather. Hunker down when the storms strike our back, build our shelters in the happy illusion of providing succour and comfort. Paint them interesting colours (she notes that gum leaf grey is on trend) and pretend we are comfortable. Whether it’s cold or hot, we tough it out, switching thermostats accordingly, storing our nuts in a safe place and wait until we feel better about things. Let’s just let the unpleasantness pass on by.
North American Bears hibernate, she finds herself thinking and dreams some more.
The concept is fascinating, not least because it’s a nice long nap with nothing going wrong, a recluse. Hermit bears, finding their caves and dozing off, a stone jammed in their bums to save on the cleaning up, until the weather improves. That’s surely a monotonous way to live, so much life given over to waiting for the weather.
Personally, she’d migrate every time. A long arduous voyage trumps a longer sit in the dark with your own thoughts and dreams and an uncomfortable stone. She’d not make a good recluse, she’d go mad, she agrees.
She would take to the air, like the great pelagic birds and sea creatures and bound the earth. The soaring Albatross, the speedy Marlin, the Blue Whale. At home everywhere, even in the depths of the great swathe of ocean. She could watch it change and glint as she soars above it, or as a Marlin, see the light blues of the sky darakening through the course of a day and her depth. Pure and impenetrable, unless you are in it. There, alive in the immensity, not hiding from anything, not shivering in a cave beneath a snow bank. She’d make the world hers and live in it through her efforts and wit, the strength of her own arms, wings, fins. Flying, swimming, sailing across the boundaryless expanse, at the pace of the weather. Always constant, alive, divine.
When she awakes, refreshed from sleep, the dawn breaks new upon her.
Some of these stories are very old but most of them have been written in the last 12 months or so as a form of procrastination while working on a larger story. An earlier version of Victor’s Spoils was previously published as “Farther Away’ in Oz Wide Tales and Foundering was originally published in Gangway Magazine. I had however, always wanted to rewrite them and deciding to create a slim volume of prose was as good an opportunity as any.
I would like to thank my family for telling me stories and apologise for fictionalising some events that they will recognise and others which only I do. I think often of the family storytellers, my Father, Tom my Grandmothers, Ann and Matilda and my Great-Aunt Jean, who shared their stories with me generously, making my childhood all the more marvellous for these gifts that I am only now beginning to understand. I’d also like to thank Caitie and Chris for their support and encouragement.