WALKING ON TRAIN tracks is unnatural. The distance between the wooden sleepers is just longer than a normal footstep, so you have to look down constantly to make sure you don′t stumble. Staring along the railway line is disorienting, almost sickening. When you look up at the clouds, they seem to be moving inwards towards a fixed point on the horizon. The eye has become accustomed to the railway track, and struggles for a moment to adjust to the rest of the world.
The dog snuffled through the undergrowth, a wild look in her eye. I called her to heel but as usual she ignored me. I had let her off the leash on this section of track, as there were no sheep on the surrounding properties. She had almost been shot by a neighbour last week for spooking his lambs. If she had mauled one, I would have let him do it. I was only looking after her for friends who had gone overseas, and I hadn′t realised she was untrained. She was a stupid mutt and would strain at the leash, her tongue lolling out as she slowly strangled herself. When I let her loose she would disappear, and it irritated me to call after her all the time.
She trotted towards me with something in her mouth: a prize she had scrounged from the scrub.
'Drop it, Jess,′ I ordered. 'Come on, let me see that.′
Reluctantly she let the object slide from her slobbering jaws. It fell on the track. She sniffed at it uncertainly, trying to determine if it was edible.
I crouched to examine what I thought was a gnarled piece of wood. It was the foot of an animal, intact. Three rough claws protruded in a toe formation. The rest was covered in a downy, close-set fur. It looked like the limb of a small kangaroo, severed neatly just below the knee. The dog pushed at my hands with her snout, excited at my interest in her find and trying to grab it from me. I stood up and held it away from her.
'You can′t eat that, Jess. Go on, piss off.′ I shooed her away and she lost interest, resuming her scent-hunt through the nearby bush. I placed the leg in my jacket pocket and had a look through the grass to see if the rest of the carcass was around, sniffing like the dog for the smell of dead flesh. I couldn′t find anything, and neither could Jess.
I showed the find to Tom Grainger at the butchers. He knew his beasts of the field and confirmed it was a roo, but was puzzled how the leg could have come off so cleanly. Apart from a hardened scab of blood, the clawed foot seemed fresh.
'Probably the panther.′ He winked and we both rolled our eyes. The neighbours out near Trentham who owned a herb farm had tried to convince me of a local panther′s existence when I moved up from the city. As the tale went, a few big cats had been abandoned in the bush during the forties. Servicemen brought them back as mascots and when the cats got too big and aggressive, rather than shoot them, the men simply let them go.
It was a nice story, fine for scaring the kids on a dark night, but it didn′t stack up. I had no idea what the average lifespan of a panther was, but I was pretty sure they would have died out by now. Some believe they mated with feral cats, but the difference in size made me sceptical. Farmers occasionally reported the gruesome mauling of a sheep and a few people claimed to have seen one of the beasts, but it was generally held to be a rural myth.
The sleepers were slick with moisture on the way back. When I saw the forest canopy up ahead I broke into a light jog. The rain was coming down hard, but I knew it wouldn′t last. Tins of soup dug into my back as I ran, and I had to take it easy so I wouldn′t crush the cereal. I chose my steps carefully, trying to land between the wooden slats.
My breath fogged the air as I rested under overhanging branches. Even boisterous Jess seemed subdued, and sat down to wait for the rain to ease. I slipped off the pack and stretched my shoulders, pushing back my hood.
Heavy drips fell on me intermittently. The close forest smelled strongly – a natural damp. I went in there sometimes to pick up firewood, and I had to dry it out for days under the house before it would burn. I could get in trouble for collecting it, but at least I only took the dead wood. I was probably the only two-legged creature to go in there in years. The feeling of being alone in the forest made my stomach churn, but in a good way.
Branches shifted noisily above and I ducked my head reflexively. I looked up and saw an eagle dropping from the canopy. It spread its wings and glided over my head without seeming to notice me, flapping once to gain height as it headed out into the rain. I had heard there were two of them living in the forest, but had never expected to see one. Locals were worried they would be driven out of their habitat by logging contractors.
The dog stood up, ears perking at the sight of such a huge bird, but even she had more sense than to bark. We watched together as the eagle silently flew up into the heavy clouds, unhindered by the rain. A drip rolled down my neck as I kneeled to pat the dog. She nuzzled me, then trotted away, heading in the direction of the farmhouse. I threw the pack back on and followed her.
ANGELA ARRIVED LATER than expected on Friday night. I heard the Datsun struggling to get up the lane, its engine whining as she over-revved it, searching for traction in the mud. I turned on the porch light and went outside with the torch. It was drizzling again. I shook out my gumboots and pulled them on before running down the angled driveway to help her with the bags. She jumped out of the car and slipped straightaway, pinwheeling to catch her balance. The initial look of shock vanished as she threw her arms around my neck, cackling. Her musky scent made me giddy as she mashed her lips on mine, exaggerating the smack. I could feel her warmth through the waterproofs and any anger I had at her being so late quickly faded.
'There′s a basket of goodies in the boot,′ she told me as she leaned in to retrieve her bag from the back seat. 'Come on, make yourself useful. Can′t believe how wet it is up here.′
'Been raining all week,′ I said. I was temporarily frozen at the sight of her backside poking out of the car. I shook myself and opened the boot to fetch the basket of food. It had been a lonely week.
Unable to resist, I grabbed at her on the couch as she was showing me what she had brought up for the weekend. We rolled around for a bit but she pushed me off, saying she was starving. I made her a sandwich as she warmed herself in front of the fire. She wolfed it down with a glass of wine, which I refilled at her request, and then showed off a new beanie she′d bought me. I put another log on the potbelly. The heat in there was so intense that my eyes dried out immediately after opening the door. Winter would have been tough without it.
Ange pulled off a layer, one of the skimpy cardigans that she seemed to wear three of at a time. She leaned over and stuck her tongue in my mouth, running her hand down into my crotch to cop a squeeze. She bit my ear hard and jumped to her feet, heading for the bathroom. I leaned back against the couch, finishing off her glass of wine.
She walked back in naked and scurried to the fire. I breathed in the scent of her skin and hair, the lotions she covered herself in every morning. She laughed as she watched me undress awkwardly.
The heat from the potbelly was almost unbearable. I tried to roll over to get away from it, but the floor on the other side was freezing. We alternated positions to stop from burning up, but by the time we had finished we were slicked with sweat. My foot touched the stove as I tried to disengage myself from her, and I yelped. Ange padded into the bedroom to pull the doona. We wrapped ourselves in it and watched the flames withering away the wood. Sparks snapped against the glass.
I held her in front of me, one hand on her stomach. My fingers idly played with her pubic hair as I kissed her neck.
'It′s good to see you,′ I told her.
She looked around at me and I was caught off-guard by the expression on her face. I usually only saw that one before she cried.
'Everything all right?′ I asked.
She nodded, kissed me and slipped out of my grasp. She turned to lie on her back, facing me as I sat up. She lifted her legs and placed them on my shoulders, opening her thighs so I could get a good look. To my mild surprise she let her hand wander between her legs and began stroking herself. I had not seen her do such a thing before, but it had the desired effect. She stopped to turn over and kneel on all fours, displaying her rump to me. Her voice was deadly serious, a tone I had not heard for a long time.
'You can do whatever you want to me tonight. I mean it. I want you to fuck me really hard.′
I pushed her buttocks out of the way, confused.
'Jesus, Ange, where′s all this talk coming from? I know we haven′t seen each other all week, but...′
Abruptly she spun around and buried her head in my groin, clutching at me desperately, trying to take me in her mouth. I watched her in stunned silence for a moment, then had to take her by the arm and pull her away when I felt teeth grating on me.
'What′s got into you?′ I demanded, unconsciously pulling the doona around me. I could see from the shaking of her shoulders that she was on the verge of tears. Her mouth drooped and a second later the flood started. I reached out to pull her into the doona with me.
'Hey, what is it? What you crying for, baby?′
She pushed my hands away, squirming back closer to the fire, which must have been roasting her back. It was a struggle making out what she was saying amid the sobs.
'I just wanted you to... I can′t... It′s hard for me, you know... I don′t see you all week... And I′m sorry, all right, I′m sorry...′
I may have been many things, but I was no fool. I sucked in a deep breath and composed myself.
'One of the guys on your course?′
She nodded, wiping at her eyes, watching my reaction.
She hesitated, and looked scared.
'Three weeks,′ she sniffed.
I nodded, giving her a cold stare. 'Jesus, Ange, you kept that one quiet.′
We sat there in silence for a while, the only sounds coming from the wood crackling in the fire.
'I′ll leave tomorrow,′ she whispered. Her crying had subsided. She wiped smeared eyeliner on the edge of the doona. I nodded.
'Is that all you′re going to say?′ she blurted out angrily.
I gathered the doona around me and snatched up my clothes.
'Yeah. I guess it is.′
THE RAIN HAD stopped and a hunter had come out. A thick-necked kookaburra perched on the Hills Hoist, preening himself. He could not see me watching him at the window, or perhaps he didn′t care. Droplets of water catapulted off the washing line as he bounced up and down on it, shaking the rain from his feathers. I sipped tea, staring up at the clouds. It was a good opportunity to take some wood from under the house and chop it on the stump up on the hill. The two cows were probably hungry. Not much grazing in the top paddock. There were a few hay bales left under the house. I decided to take one up and feed them.
Ange had left that morning. She tried to get a rise out of me again before leaving. She wanted me to shout at her, call her names, maybe even throw a punch. It would have fitted the template in her head, made it easier to walk away, run to the new guy for comfort. I wasn′t playing. This was all on her. She had to wear it; she had done wrong, not me. I wasn′t going to provide her with a convenient male stereotype to help her forget. Not that I wasn′t hurting. But pleading for her to stay didn′t have much dignity.
The kookaburra launched himself off the washing line, towards the stumps under the house. I pressed my face against the window to try to see what he was doing. Seconds later he swooped back up, a mouse in his beak. He looked at me and threw his head back, gulping down the creature in one swallow. Then, with a beat of his stubby wings, he took off towards the trees in the top paddock.
I went up there an hour later with a wheelbarrow full of wood and a hay bale on top. The lonely cows wandered down when they saw me, but they were skittish and would not come too close. I cut open the hay and spread it out in a clearing between the trees.
The axe was sharp and it was easy going cutting the wood, although I missed badly at one point and hit the stump with the handle. The impact shuddered into my fingers, which began to ache with the cold. I didn′t like handling the axe with gloves. Too easy for it to slip and do me an injury. It would have taken me a while to get to a hospital.
I warmed up quickly, and had to stop. I peeled off my jacket first, and my new beanie. After chopping another few logs I was still sweating, so I took my jumper and T-shirt off too. Steam began to rise from my bare back. I started laughing, and had to put the axe down. I looked over the miserable twelve acres spread out before me and threw an off-cut of wood over the fence for the dog to wrestle with. I had never felt so manly. It was funny.
IT WAS PITCH black by five o′clock in winter. I had spent the afternoon experimenting with ingredients and a cookbook the lesbian couple up the road had lent me. Baking wasn′t as hard as I thought it would be. You just had to follow the instructions. It was like changing a spark plug, or an air filter. The brake pads on the Datsun had been more of a pain than banana cake.
By ten I had downed a few beers and the rest of the previous night′s wine. The reception on the television was terrible and there was nothing to play music on, except a tinny radio that only picked up some commercial station. On a Saturday night they played non-stop bump ′n′ grind. I listened for a while, then shut it off. There was little else to do but go to bed, and it was cold out in the bedroom.
The dog began barking incessantly. I sat there for five minutes staring at the fire and was just about to shout when I heard her yelp and go quiet.
I looked at the door, and listened: not a sound. I reached over and scooped up the poker, pausing by the door for a second. Still nothing. Stupid dog had probably strangled herself. I stepped out onto the porch.
I could smell something in the air, a heavy scent, like Ange when she worked up a sweat. I flicked on the lights.
The panther stood six feet away, lapping at the dog′s water bowl. It was huge. Almost two metres long and pure muscle. Its hide was sleek and black, immaculate and healthy. I did not move. Even if I tried running back inside and slamming the door behind me, I knew I would not be fast enough.
The cat paused when the lights came on and turned its head to look in my direction. Its pupils shrank to pinpricks in the glare. It fixed me in its gaze, then opened its mouth to let out a snarl that sounded like the whipping of a snapped electric pylon. My fingers went white around the handle of the poker.
With a low, guttural growl, the panther turned and loped away. I took a breath and stayed where I was. I could see it moving against the night like some shadow cut out of the earth, an ancient cave creature come to investigate what the mortals were up to. It moved silently across the top paddock and stopped to sniff the air, looking back over its shoulder defiantly at me. All I could see was its eyes, punching through the dark like stars.