Originally published in Going Down Swinging, issue 23 (2006)
My mouth is thick with hot, dry air and my limbs blacken with tics before the screen door bangs closed behind me. Several paddocks from the house, a congregation of flies hover over the impossibly-ballooned carcass of a dead cow. I can’t see it, but I know it’s there. The fetid smell of rotting flesh hangs off the trees, the fences and the chain walls of the tennis-court. It rises like steam from the cracked red earth and blows hotly around the yard. There’s a meat fridge with a hard metal door opposite the room we’re staying in. I can see the hanging carcasses – headless beasts with hoof-less limbs and sinewy, exposed muscles – even when the door is closed. The sinister slit of cold yellow light stares at me in my bed and little gusts of slaughter-tainted air grab my ankles as I hurry past.
I don’t want to be here.
I think about home. About the Morton Bay Fig that drapes a cool green canopy over waist-high shrubs: my enchanted forest. About the water-tank covered in passionfruit vines and the citrus orchid laden with orange and yellow fruit. About spheres of cool dew on the lawn and about the patch near Mum’s rose garden where we always find four-leafed clovers.
Dad finds me hanging my arms over the fence, sulking out at the vast, parched nothing.
“Not having much fun, kiddo.”
I tighten my bottom lip to keep it from quivering, not wanting to meet his eye. I shake my head, very slightly. Shrug, very slightly. Smile, very slightly.
He puts his chin on his hand and leans on my fence. He must have been looking for me for a while. I’ve been hiding in the house, moving from room to room chased by dozens of voices and footsteps of relatives I barely know. I know he understands this undefinable, restless melancholia, but it’s a very personal little black cloud; inherently something unsharable. A silence settles comfortably around us.
There is a constant prickle of mortality out here. A sense that death, or at least hardship, lurks behind every pale-trunked tree and coils itself through the moaning clouds of dust. There is something harsh and cruel about the quality of light; about the weathered wooden walls and rusty wire fences; about the dogs you can’t pat and the trees with brown leaves.
“Yesterday,” he says, “I was driving out to the other house and I saw a family of emus. There were 11 of them. The parents and 9 chicks. They were crossing the paddock up there, through the barbed-wire fence.” He points at an indistinguishable square of brown on the quilt of dry horizon. “They were all through but the last one, the littlest one, got caught in the wire. The Dad stopped and went back for it. I think its leg was caught. I stopped the car and watched them. The other emus stopped too, all in line, watching the Dad try to untangle this little, stuck baby. They waited a while, but then kept moving and disappeared into the distance. The Dad stayed. He twisted at the wire with his beak until he untangled his baby. It took ages, maybe ten or fifteen minutes. I just sat there and watched them. Then he walked with it, slowly because it was limping. They would have caught up to the rest of the family when it got dark and they stopped to rest.
I brought your drawing book. Maybe you should go for a walk and do some drawings or write a story.”
He put it on the fence and went back inside.