THE CLEARING IS unknown to her, a flat irregularity in a broad swathe of rocky ground the men call ‘the wasteland’ – heavily wooded, sloping to the creek, destined to be left virgin. The boundary of the next block runs through a corner of it. Barnard, the neighbour, had been livid, threatened to put in a complaint to the Board, to take it up with bloody Mitchell himself if he had to. Grant me my land and part be useless? Reet disgrace. He’d snorted when the supervisor told him that anomalies had been accounted for when the Board had carved up the blocks, that he did indeed have his allotted 200 workable acres.
Why has she ventured so far from the cottage? Ah, well. Sometimes you have to walk or run as far as you can go, just to pretend you are free. To fool yourself, because there is no one else. Tom is out with the group all day, ringbarking, fencing, dispatching poisonous palms that make the beasts stagger like drunkards and crash to the earth. At night, he is too tired almost to speak any more. Barnard is a tyrant; his wife, as beaten as a donkey. She does not see them often, and is glad of it, despite the claw of loneliness. She has stopped writing letters. Exhausting, the effort to sweeten words to spare those back home.
And so sometimes she is wilful. Impotently so, since no one is made to suffer but herself. But she does it anyway. Ties the ugly straw hat onto her head and walks, abandoning copper and oven, dirt floors, the sad square of sand that passes for a garden. Only by carrying with her Tom’s coil of fishing line can she tell herself there is a purpose to it, assuage the guilt of wastrel hours.
On this day she had woken raddled from the inside, homesick, bilious, restless. She was angry with Tom, angry with this place, with every dream they had been sold and had brought with them, packed between serviceable linen. All of them blighted now. She had turned from the creek on a whim, gathered her skirt in her hands, and walked into the wasteland. Pushing past branches that plucked at her sleeves and scratched her wrists, struggling over rocky outcrops, gritting her teeth at the crows and their endless dismal wauling. And then she almost fell into the clearing.
Eerie. The earth is flat, the herbage blunted as though by feet or fire. Pale shapes stud the earth here and there. She sinks down, uses her toughened palms to sweep the sand away from them. Flat stones, they are, rough worn smooth like those found in the bed of the creek. Someone, she thinks, has placed them here; they are uphill from the creek and too far from it to have been carried by flood.
Glancing around, she notices other strangenesses. Mounds erupting from the earth on the edges of the clearing, weathered dark, decayed. Stripping leaves from a fallen branch, she approaches one cautiously. Is it shelter for an animal? A nest? A hive? She probes it with the stick. Draws back. Mud crumbles, a powder of old leaves. She scratches at it again, and when there are no signs of life she puts the stick down and uses her fingernails to break through the crust. Something sharp pierces her thumb, and she flaps her hand, flicking spots of blood. Peering closely, she slowly prises away a solid, familiar shape and holds it up to the light. A claw! And it is just the first. The mound is a conglomeration of old, thin shells – whole, broken. Legs, heads, claws, tails. All stuck together with mud. Someone has had a feed of gilgies. Many people. Many feeds.
She picks apart the mound, right down to the level of the earth. Finds it to be merely the summit of something larger, a deep cache of leavings that become softer, smaller, more unrecognisable, the deeper she excavates.
For a long time she sits there among the remains of life long-gone. She imagines herself telling Tom, the others, leading them here to this place of presence. Her husband’s blank face blanker. Barnard’s turkey-red, spitting contempt. The supervisor, Kelly…no.
Her stomach clenches and turns, her mouth floods. She scrambles away on her knees, to heave onto the weedy scrub beyond the clearing.
THE GIRL IS supposed to be keeping an eye on her younger brother, but in truth she takes every chance to lose him. Losing him is easy: a goanna and a stick are all it takes. She is far ahead of him on this hot spring day.
Sun stipples through the canopy above her hatless head. She trails a whip of wattle, picking her way over fallen boughs and threading through slimy reeds. Bare feet squelching. Scum ripples the surface of the creek in greens and greys. It’s not deep, she knows that, but still she wonders: how shallow is too shallow to drown? The thought makes her stop for one guilty moment, and then she moves on again, shaking her head. He’s not that young, not that stupid.
The creek is full of gilgies, and you can sweet-talk them into your scoop net with a bit of gristle or bacon rind tied to a string. Her gran loves gilgies. She boils them up in a big pot, then pulls off the heads, splits the tails, squealing as the hot shells nip at her fingertips. Pop sniffs at that – he can’t be bothered with shelling, but he’ll smash the claws with a hammer and suck out the meat.
She hasn’t brought the net and bucket today.
Before long she’ll be reaching the strands of rusty wire that mark the boundary between her grandparents’ farm and the next property, which used to be a dairy farm owned by Uncle Jack but now has a brown tennis court cut into the old pear orchard. The new owners are never there. She could slip over the wires; she’s done it before. Or she could turn back, check on her brother – that’s what she should do. Instead, she shuts her eyes, tips her face to the sky and twirls and twirls until everything she’s been thinking breaks apart and her head is full of air and bits of words. Whichever direction she’s facing when she stops, that’s where she’ll walk.
Finally, her body slows, winds down to stillness. She lets her head undizzy, shards of thought settle, regather. Her eyes squint open fraction by fraction. And then she walks, not towards the fence, not back to the cottage, but up the slope, away from the creek, into the bush.
Pushing through the ti-trees makes her feel intrepid. A bush kid. Even though she lives ten months of the year behind a suburban picket fence. Even though she’s getting older now and should want to be done with kid stuff. It’s a special place, this, her grandparents’ farm. The first time she came for the long Christmas break, before her brother could even crawl, she was small enough that Pop could swing her up onto his shoulders and tote her around. He called it his ‘selection’, and kind of laughed when he said it. He kept a herd of Friesians in a paddock between the cottage and the nearest road, another west of the dairy. But, except at milking time, cows were boring. Cows were just cows. The bush on the far side of the property, with the creek running through it: that was where the special things were. Bandicoots that came out only at night, and only if you were quiet. Roos thumping through the trees to the creek at dusk. Racehorse goannas – lean, angular things – and those sneaky bobtails, although they would steal in close to the house in the late afternoon to feast on Gran’s strawberries, pink juice dribbling from their scabby mouths. There were snakes but not all of them dangerous; it was the dark, whip-thin slithers you had to be wary of. Kangaroo paws, egg-and-bacon, buttercups, donkey orchids – never, never to be picked.
Later, when her brother tagged along, all boybluster and noise, Pop came good with new kinds of knowledge: how to get gum out of grasstrees, how to make whistles from leaves, how to light fires with bits of glass, which types of wattle made their mother sneeze (although Gran said this was information her brother could have done without).
She misses that Pop. He is older now, too – creaky-old and tired and kind of sad – and he waves them away to do their own exploring.
It’s slow going, and she’s careful where she puts her feet, wincing, wishing she hadn’t left her lace-ups swinging on the cottage veranda rail. From time to time she turns back, fixing the way in her memory, although Pop has always told them the place isn’t big enough to get any more than a little bit lost. Just keep going, and sooner or later you’re gunna find a fence. Small birds flit and rustle alongside her, wrens and robins colouring the way. Overhead, the bluesky screech of twenty-eights, pink-and-greys.
She’s tired, ready to stop for a sip from Pop’s tin flask, when she discovers the clearing. She walks into it, a cool, damp place, and thinks of fairy circles she’s read about in books. Magical places. A self-conscious laugh catches in her throat. Fairies! Magic! Imagine what Pop would say to that. He’d call her a baby, and so she was. But still, it’s giving her the shivers.
She plonks herself down next to the stump of a jamwood tree, still scoffing at her fairy fancies, and reaches round to unstrap the flask from her belt. And that’s when she sees the cairn.
A thrill runs the length of her spine. She crawls towards it, lightly, carefully, as though the ground were suddenly glass. It’s a rough thing, put together with stones of different sizes. They’re piled up in a little mound, held together with mud and moss. She touches the green: damp, furry.
The next thought stills her breathing: it’s a grave!
SHE RESTS THE shovel between the arms of the barrow, pushes damp hair from her forehead with the heels of her gritty hands. Sweat streams down her arms, making grey slurry of concrete dust caught in the fine white hairs.
It’s mid-morning, spring-warm. There will be time enough for sunscreen, for hats; for now, she wants nothing between her face and the sun’s blessing. A small flock of black cockatoos passes overhead and she has to imagine their shrill cries, their warning of rain. She and Jack are making too much noise to hear anything else. Nerve-jarring scrapes of the trowel across mud bricks punctuate the steady churn of the concrete mixer, the talkback banter splatting from the paint-spattered radio.
The sky is cloudless, boisterously blue. Hard to imagine rain, but the cockatoos are never wrong. They’d better remember to cover the bricks with plastic before they leave.
Surveying the neatly stacked hillocks of mud bricks, the results of her months of hard labour alone in the bush, gives her a pride she would find hard to explain to anyone. Who would have thought? After all those years in front of a computer screen? She shakes her head.
Jack’s face is furrowed as he manoeuvres another brick into place, but as he stands up, slowly uncurling his spine, he huffs the strain away, blows it through his teeth in a gust. He catches her watching. Smiles. She must be smiling too; she must be wearing that goofy grin she sometimes catches on her face in the mirror. Being here, doing this: it makes her feel stupidly happy. The physical work of making something new from almost nothing.
It’s the third cottage they’ve built on the property, this one financed by solid bookings for the first two. Visitors want what it is they’re offering, keep coming back. Bandicoots and brushtail possums. Solar power and wood stoves. Gourmet picnic hampers. Hot tubs under the stars. Spoil-yourself luxury in a rustic shell of mud. The new one, closer to the creek than the others, will be charmingly equipped with scoop nets and pots, Huck Finn fishing poles. Marron and gilgies – premium local produce and here you can catch your own!
Jack is signalling to her, holding up the thermos. Mouthing over the noise of the radio: Coffee?
The cockatoos arc over her again, wheeling away to the east. Still she can’t hear them.
The clearing is unknown to them.
Perhaps when they traverse the land in their Blundstone boots, searching for the ideal aspect for cottage number four, they will come upon it, six hundred snake-lengths along the path of the creek and another twelve hundred in from that.
There’s not much to see now. It is overgrown, barely a clearing at all. If they are inattentive, deaf to its whisperings, to a certain change in the air, they might push through, move on.
But perhaps they will catch something on the breeze, think of it as an eerie place. Perhaps they will sense presence through absence.
Once there was a jamwood tree, felled to make a fence.
Once there was a theft, and the footprints of a barefoot girl.
Once there was a cairn of stones. Beneath that, a cache of letters. Beneath that – undisturbed still – a small, malformed skeleton, soft as chickenbone, wrapped in cerements of lace.
Once there was an ugly straw hat, a discarded coil of fishing line.
Once there were middens, layers silted down over time to feed the earth.
Once there was a campfire. Muller stones where acacia seeds were ground. A seasonal feed of gilgies for many. For thousands of years.