IT WAS THE farmer who built the shack, when he was a young man, long before I was born. By the time I knew him, he was an old man, his hair so white that it was impossible to tell its original colour. His eyes had faded, too, by then. The blind one had the colour of bruised milk, but even the good one was pale in a way that only comes with age. In order to imagine him as a young man, I have to keep him at a distance. Or else shade his face with the wide brim of a hat. In my imaginings, he is a figure that forks out of the horizon on the far side of a thirsting paddock; young and strong, but as lean as everything else on this brittle, rain-shadowed peninsula.
He'd not long been the farmer when he built the shack. When his father died, he inherited the whole property, but only by eighteen minutes, which was the exact margin by which his twin brother missed out. The only two pictures I ever saw of the twins were taken when they were children; I used to look at them, on the sideboard in the farmhouse, whenever we visited. The family portraits, the wedding groups, the babies in their christening caps, all seemed to me to have come from some unaccountably ancient time, when people were more serious, with fates that were more precarious and interesting than ordinary modern people. Perhaps it was just because I knew most of the people in the pictures were already dead that I imagined in their faces some presentiment of doom. In one picture, the twins were babies, curled like white lacy worms inside their matching wicker cribs. In the other, they were grubby boys in overalls – only as tall as the rifles they held with butt-ends to the ground – standing either side of a pile of dead rabbits.
'They were that thick, those bunnies,' the farmer told me once, when he caught me looking, 'that you could shoot seven with one bullet. No kidding.'
I did not believe him.
'Which one is you?' I asked.
'That one,' he said, pointing. 'Can't you tell?'
'No, you look exactly the same,' I said, blushing with frustration that I didn't know a better way to behave when people joked with me.
'Come on! Have a heart! That's me. That one – the handsome one.'
When I got older, he stopped kidding around so much, maybe just because I was older, but maybe because he knew me better by then.
'Which one is you again?' I asked, some years after the first time.
'Give us a look,' he said.
I held the frame out to him and he took it into his hands. He looked at the picture for a while, then put it back down on the sideboard and tweaked its angle to just right.
'Aren't there any pictures of the two of you when you were older?'
I'd seen the kinds of pictures I was thinking of, the ones of clear-faced young men still on the right side of everything that would happen to them. I thought that somewhere in the house, in an album perhaps, there'd be a picture of two boys in identical slouch hats, smiling bravely.
'No, mate. This one, and that one – that's it.'
'You forgot to tell me which one's you.'
'Tell the truth, Sal, I don't know for the life of me. Never have.'
HE WAS TWENTY-TWO when he took over the farm, and unhurriedly waiting for life to deliver him a wife and kids. The big house was full with his mother, and his brother, and all the younger ones. He built the shack because he wanted a place of his own, at least until the little ones were grown and gone. In the days, he'd work the farm, and in the kindly, sideways light of evening, he'd walk the crumbling rim of his property, carrying a little green hut in his heart. It took him a long time to choose the place, but he set it down eventually in the crook of one of the smaller bays, a bare mile from the big house with its deep verandas and shaggy windbreak of pines. Right on the shore, at the top of the sand, he drew the floor plan on the ground with the toe of his boot. There would be two bedrooms on either side of a narrow hall, and a main room that would do for everything else.
After he framed the place, his raw timbers boxed the landscape of paddock and sand and seawater, making windows through which he sometimes thought he saw the ghosts of his future. There was a woman, pretty enough. A girl he'd lift onto the back of a pony. A boy he'd teach to fish. They were there with him while he bricked in the fireplace and hammered on the roofing iron and hoisted the water tank onto its stand. They flickered in the corners of his eyes as he crafted the box bed in one bedroom and shelved the narrow bunks in the other. He had no lush fields, but to a family he could give this. This stretch of fine, squeaking sand, this safe curve of bay, this wedge of rocks barnacled with mussels, this clear water swimming with silver perch and parrot fish, this hillside pocked with the burrows of muttonbird and rabbit.
The day he dug the long drop, he roped in his brother to help and the pair of them sweated as sandy soil dribbled back into whatever hole they made. Mid-afternoon, his twin cursed him from beneath a film of grime, chucked his tools and stormed back to the big house. But the farmer just leaned on his shovel, gave a halfway smile and shifted his hat on his head. The job was near enough done, and he could see a day when the bunkroom would be stacked with his brother's kids as well as his own.
Two bullets shot it all down. The first one killed his brother on a foreign battlefield. I want to say France, but I never could bring myself to ask him directly and gossip only tells so much. The second one was fired by the farmer himself, back home, on a royal-blue day in summer. In the noon sun, he walked the mile from the big house to the shack. By the barely used fireplace whose bricks he'd laid with his own hands, he nestled the muzzle of his rifle up under his jaw and pulled the trigger. For a time, there was blackness. Only for a time, though, because somehow the bullet missed almost everything. Up behind his face it swam, forging a path through muscle and sinew and bone. It shot up to the ceiling and lodged in a knothole that might have been ready-made, and he healed with one eye blind and turned inwards, and a dent like a convict's thumbprint in his forehead.
After the next-door farm was subdivided for shacks and the shop opened on the main road, I heard the woman behind the counter talking about him. The word she used for him was simple. I was old enough to understand her euphemism, and also to know that she was wrong. If he was simple, it was only in the raw form of the word, for he had the mildness of those few who find a way to remove themselves from pointless complexity. He'd succeeded in what he set out to do – he shot the ghosts right out of his head. Only he hit the harmless ones, too.
IT WAS MY father who wrote to the farmer and asked if we could come and talk to him about the shack on the sea edge of his property. But it was my mother, my brother and I who appeared to him from the windblown dust of the kitchen garden on the sheltered side of the farmhouse. With the roads the way they were, it took longer to get there in those days, and we were late. Dad was back along the road, changing the tyre that had blown out on the corrugated dirt, and to keep us out of his hair my mother had walked us the last mile or so to the farm. Standing there on the path, with our black shoes turned golden-brown, we must have looked as apologetic and thirsty as the geraniums and the sage.
My mother reached out to knock on the slender frame of the screen door. Beyond the mesh the kitchen seemed dark, and in the coming years, that is how I would always find it. It was a cave of a kitchen, with flagged floors and several mismatched dressers and a meat safe that gave off the same smell as the one that clogged your nostrils in a butcher's shop, only less fresh.
She knocked a second time and we heard shuffling within. The screen door swung towards us, but it was not until the light from the doorway fell upon the rest of him that the farmer took shape against the darkness. The way he squinted against the glare turned his eyes into pits of wrinkled flesh, and the dent in his forehead looked like a third socket from which an eyeball had been plucked. His white hair plumed like a cockie's crest and his rumpled clothes were covered with dust.
The farmer's good eye was mobile as he studied us, but the blind one stayed still. Then he lifted a hand, thickly caked by its own skin, split into bloodless cracks at the knuckles. And with this hand he touched my mother's face. He touched her tenderly, wistfully, just above the line of her jawbone. His fingers were so rough that I doubt they had the sensation to feel my mother's softness. I think that although he reached out and touched her, he felt precisely what he expected to feel, which was nothing at all. He let his hand drift upwards from her jaw to the wisps of her windblown hair, nodded a smile. Then he withdrew, and let the door swing its way back to closed.
I looked to my mother for a cue, but her face wore the dispassionately interested look that she had whenever anybody did anything odd. It was a closed look, one that did not admit intruders, and I remained bewildered as she walked us back down the path to the road.
'What happened to that man's head?' my brother asked.
'Shh,' I told him, though I hardly knew why.
'Look, here's Daddy,' Mum said, pointing to our car as it turned into the farm driveway with one tyre blacker than all the rest.
Mum told Dad that perhaps the front door would be best. Perhaps she told him later about the screen door and the hand that touched her face, but somehow I doubt it. Our father took the small flight of sandstone steps up to a wide, shaded veranda while we waited by the car. And this time, the farmer opened the door and smiled warmly, like a normal person. He took a hat from a hook by the side of the door, and when he put it on, it covered up most of the puckered dip in his forehead.
'Got here all right, then?' he said, pumping Mum's hand in greeting.
'Sorry if we've put you out,' she replied, smiling.
Mum ushered him into the front seat of our car and squeezed into the back with Rob and me. As the car began to move, the farmer whistled through his teeth and a black and white collie streaked out from under the veranda to leap at the wound-down passenger window. She had to scrabble her claws on the duco to get her back end into the car, but then she settled down on the farmer's lap and dangled her tongue out the window for the drive down the rough track to the water's edge.
I DON'T REMEMBER going inside the shack that day, though I suppose we did. I recall picking my way in winter-soft feet over the spiny rocks to find pools lined with anemones and sea-lettuce. There, I amused myself in the innocently cruel way that children do, filling my pinafore pocket with the tiny blue triangles of periwinkles, pushing my fingers into the soft centres of fringed anemones, bursting leathery pods of Neptune's necklace, using my fingernails to hold flailing crabs by their shells, un-suckering starfish from their sleep.
When I'd had enough, I made my way up to the ridge where my father stood, nervously driving the brim of his hat. Now and then, he would point, presumably adjusting the four corners of the allotment that would eventually be ours. Beside him, the farmer nodded inscrutably into the brewing sea breeze.
'You wouldn't have to trouble yourself with the paperwork,' said my father as I came to stand beside him, my feet and ankles reddened and itchy from the cold and the salt of the sea. 'We'd pay lawyers to see to all that.'
The farmer nodded.
A sum had been mentioned in the car. Another sum, a larger sum, was mentioned now. I'd not ever seen my father like this. He was usually the one who held open the silence into which everyone else poured their secrets and confessions. I expected him to send me away, but instead he drew me to him.
'This is Sally,' my father said.
I looked up at the farmer and I doubt there was anything covert in the way my eyes probed his blind, canted eye and peered up under his hat brim to interrogate the dent, inlaid with pearly pink scar-skin.
'That's a pretty name,' the farmer said. 'I bet you like ponies.'
'Not especially,' I said, truthfully.
'Of course you do,' said my father, jostling me.
Again the farmer said nothing, and there we stood as the breeze blew the bay into a mottled blue chop. My mother sat at the top of the beach, framed by dune grass, her eyes closed and her hands making circles in the fine white sand. At the tide line, the dog barked and danced while Rob waved a slobbery stick in front of her face.
I'm sure now that we reminded the farmer of something lost, that never really was, and that that is why he finally said: 'I don't suppose it's any good being the dog in the manger.'
It was inexplicable to me, but my father smiled, and the two men shook hands.
• This is an extract from The Shack, a forthcoming novella.