Authors: Tim Winton
There were a lot of things I didn’t ask, he murmured.
The moment passed. Georgie knew she wouldn’t leave tonight.
Later, in bed, she lay beside him almost certain he was asleep, and thought how cheap it was, bolting for someone else. She’d left men before but they were always bastards and she’d gone without a pang. But she’d never abandoned anyone for another man.
It robbed you of the high ground, clouded the purity of your purpose. And, choosing one over the other, that felt bitterly close to shopping. Could be she was her mother’s girl after all.
In another life he’s going barefoot up the old sheep track in the wake of his shadow. Wind curries the brown grass uphill in waves, spritzing the broken skin of the land. It blows hair across his mouth and buffets the cockatoos whose passing blackens the sky a moment. At the top of the hill he finds her among the limestone pinnacles doodling with a stick in the yellow dirt.
Tea’s up, Bird.
She glances at him, her little knees knobbed in a squat. He hunkers down beside her. The tall white stones radiate the day’s heat. He digs his toes into the sand.
Lu? she murmurs.
I saw God today.
Was him orright.
How’d he seem?
Er, what’d he look like?
A dot. A dot in a circle, sort of. When I close me eye and poke it with me thumb he floats across the sky. Right into the sun, even. No one else can go in the sun, right?
Smiling, he puts his hand in her hair and picks out a burr. She grimaces enough to show where her front teeth have been.
Tea, he says.
Gis a piggyback?
Yer getting too heavy.
Carn, Lu, ya weak or somethin?
Get up, ya cheeky bugger.
He hoists her up, thinking that if anyone saw God it would likely be her. Bird’s the nearest thing to an angelic being. He carries her downhill. Already, over their shoulder, the moon is blundering up amongst the tuarts. The house tilts on its stumps like a tide-stranded boat in the twilight and from it come the sounds of mandolin and guitar.
“Irene Goodnight”, says Bird.
Sounds like it. Where’s your brother?
Down the creek.
Fox skirts a crate of melons half-covered by a tarp and lowers Bird onto the back step.
Thank you, fair beast, she says.
Fox smells ganja on the breeze. The mandolin burrs dolefully through the house, where doors and windows stand open to the coming cool of night. The dog barks off in the distance.
Get in the shower, Bird.
You said tea.
Well, thank you.
Good advice and free. Use soap front and back.
Soap in the front hurts.
I’m just a bloke, what would I know?
He follows her through the house, adjusts the hot water in the shower for her and goes on into the kitchen to check how the crabs have cooled. He makes a salad, pulls out some bread. The screen door slaps back and his nephew comes in smelling of dog.
Bullet, wash your hands. Better still, fall through the shower.
Go on, get your sister out. And no teasing! he yells after the boy.
Fox takes the meal out onto the verandah where it’s dark already but for the moon catching in the tarnished steel face of Darkie’s National guitar. He lights the kero lamps and sees his brother’s head tilted back, his feet on the jarrah rail, chair tipped so the guitar lies flat to his belly. Sal sits against the cornerpost, skirt up her thighs, feet white in the lamplight. She plays with her eyes closed. Cape-like, her hair falls down around her arms. Then she opens her eyes, sees Fox and smiles. For a few minutes he leans against the table to listen to the intricate improvs that they weave around the old standard. After a while he goes inside and gets some beer. The hall has filled with steam.
Fox whumps the wall to rouse Bullet from the shower and goes back outside to dinner. Darkie and Sal are into a tune he doesn’t recognize, a striding bit of bluegrass that has mandolin and guitar calling and answering. Fox pulls on his beer, stands there smiling, getting the feel of the changes.
The kids come out, hair towelled askew, and set upon the crabs.
Bullet is nine and rangy as a roo dog. Even in sleep he twitches and whimpers as though dreaming on the run. Cracking crab claws with his teeth he inhales more food than he chews. Bird is a methodical eater. She strips the shells of meat and piles it on her plate. At night she sleeps in total immobility, like a diver enraptured. Most nights she wets the bed as though unable to swim up through the weight of sleep. Fox knows the sound of her footfalls on the boards in the dark. It’s him she comes to for the sponge bath and the change of linen. A thousand nights they’ve stood silent together in the bathroom, her head on his arm as warm water runs in the sink.
Fox loves the kids as his own. Sometimes it surprises him to remember they’re not. Now and then he still catches himself watching Sal. There are nights when the low rumble of her laughter stirs him awake in his bed.
They’ve more or less grown up together, the three of them.
He doesn’t mind. He’s his brother’s brother. That’s how it is.
Come get some crabs, he says to Darkie and Sal. You’ll be late for the gig.
Crabs don’t wait, says Bullet.
Well, these ones aren’t goin anywhere, says Bird. Not anymore.
Except down me neck.
They playing tonight? asks Bird as though her parents aren’t there.
White Point, says Fox.
You got school tomorrow.
Darkie and Sal leave off playing, wipe their strings and lay the instruments in their tatty cases. They come to the table shining with sweat.
Saw an eagle today, says Bullet with flecks of crabmeat all over his face. Wedgetail, it was.
That’s a beautiful bird, says Sal.
Not as good lookin as our Bird, says Darkie swilling a cracked claw in vinegar.
I saw God, murmurs Bird.
Well, that’s hard to beat, love, says Sal with a grin.
Bullet, you been aced, mate.
The boy goes back to eating. If he wasn’t so hungry he’d likely pursue it, thinks Fox. Bullet doesn’t fancy being bested.
For a while they eat and talk with the warm night closing in and the house creaking on its stumps. The air is sharp with kerosene and vinegar.
Anyone for a hunk of watermelon? asks Fox.
Fox is the only one not sick to the guts at the idea of melon.
Darkie calls them vineturds.
Don’t know what you’re missin out on, youse blokes.
You just go ahead, Lu, says Sal.
Fox steps down off the verandah with an old butcher knife honed away to a crescent. He rolls one off the crate, strikes it with his knuckles and rejoices at the healthy sound it makes. He slips the knife in and feels the melon sigh as it falls open. It gives off a sweet musk which causes the hair to rise along his arms.
The sigh, that musk, like the breath of God.
Tear into it, Lu, says Darkie, laughing.
Fox brings the halves back up to the verandah, one in each arm, like a midwife with glistening twins.
Go, boy, says Sal.
Yeah, go hard or go home.
Fox sets his teeth into the flesh, sees the very cells of the stuff turgid, bright with moisture. Sugar cool in his mouth. He chews a moment, spits a few seeds across the rail into the dark.
Spittin blackfellas, says Darkie.
Give over, Darkie, says Sal.
Somethin your grandad used to say, Lu explains to the kids.
If a man can number the dust of the earth, says Darkie, then shall thy seed also be numbered.
He said the seeds were like blackfellas hiding in the melons, says Lu.
What blackfellas? calls Bullet.
Abos, Darkie says.
Used to be a mission, says Lu. A camp. Out the back of the river there at Mogumber.
And who was hiding? Bird asks, lost.
Kids used to run away from the camp, Bird. Lookin for their families. Your grandad used to let em stay down the creek where no one would find em.
Then what happened?
They went south. Got caught mostly. Back to the camp. Before my time, Bird.
The girl looks at the seeds buried in the melon.
They only made one of your grandpa, says Sal. Just as well, eh.
Bullet saunters over to the melon and buries his face in it for the laughs.
While Darkie and Sal get ready Fox does the kids’ school reading.
Bullet lies on the library floor intoning until released. Bird insists on sitting in Fox’s lap to read Possum Magic. She’s already halfway through the Narnia novels but the picture book, a hangover from infancy, retains a ritual hold over her. She nestles into his neck smelling of Pears shampoo and fresh pyjamas .115 Lu, how come water lets you through it?
Um. Good manners? he says.
That’s not the answer.
Darkie comes in wearing a clean shirt, his hair tied back and shining, eyes bloodshot.
You blokes comin to the Point?
Yeah! cries Bird.
I told you, Darkie, it’s Sunday. School tomorrow.
We’re playin one short. It’s a weddin.
You’ll be fine.
They booked us.
I’ve got the kids. Told you when they booked it.
They can sleep in the ute, can’t you, Bullet?
Bullet has come in with Sal who’s finishing the plait in her hair. It’s the colour of shortbread. Sweat glistens on her neck.
Bird launches herself toward her mother and Fox rocks alone, pissed off that they’ve done it again. He’ll be to and fro all night from the car, playing with only half his mind on the music.
By midnight Darkie and Sal will be wound up tight and the party will move on to someone else’s place and they’ll get blasted.
He’ll either drive the kids home himself or doss down with them on the tray of the ute. In the morning they’ll be slit-eyed and cranky and likely miss school.
Carn, mate, says Darkie. Don’t be such an old woman.
Well you’ve told em now. The genie’s out of the bottle. I’ll bring some sheets.
Whew, says Sal. Too hot for jeans. Where’s that dress again?
When Fox gets out to the yard they’re all waiting. The dirt is pink from brakelights.
Carn, Lu, says Bullet from the tray of the one-tonner.
Want me to drive? he calls to his brother. You probly shouldn’t.
Get in, says Darkie lazily.
Fox throws some bedclothes and his old Martin in the back and climbs up with the kids. He kicks a few furry melon stalks aside and sits back against the cab window with the kids snuggled up to him in their pyjamas. He smells the sweet, dry grass and watches their dust rise pink and white into the star-blown sky. In front Sal’s laughter is just audible over the squelch of gravel and the old Holden motor. Even in the dark the amber blossoms of the Christmas trees hang vivid at the track’s edge.
Bird begins to sing.
I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains
They pick up speed, Darkie lairizing a little at the wheel to make the kids giggle. Fox cranes to see Sal cuddled up against Darkie, kissing his neck. He turns back, sees his olive trees, the ones he planted as seedlings, fall by in a dusty procession in the front paddock.
Fishtail! yells Bullet.
Darkie gives the old Holden some throttle and the tray slides into a drift, kicks back while the kids shriek with pleasure.
Behind them the ruts of the drive yaw in and out of view.
And then there’s dirt in his mouth. The sky gone completely.
For a few moments Fox thinks he’s gone to sleep, it’s been a long, hot day and the travelling air is cool. But dead grass rasps against his cheek and a queer red light washes over the 117 earth. Strange, but he thinks first of his mother, that he’s there again on the ground beside her. And he considers the olives which fall to the dirt, season after season. He smells fuel, rolls over and is rent with the most abrupt pain like a hatchet high in the chest. God Almighty, he’s out in the paddock. He feels a sudden panic that he’s been left behind and scans the dark swathe of the highway beyond the gate. He gets to his knees and quickly understands that his collarbone is broken. Upright, arms crossed before him, he tries to take it in. Light pours up out of the ground and a red cloud of dust rolls along the drive until it overtakes him and billows out onto the blacktop.
He shambles across stony dirt to the drainage ditch where the ute’s headlights burn into the ground. Fencewire twitches in the hay stubble, hissing, snagging as he stumbles. He blunders down to the upturned one-tonner calling their names, all their names, revolted by the beetle-like underbelly of the vehicle, the evil turning of the rear wheel.
There’s no sign of the kids; they must be safe, but before he can call out for them he spies Darkie half out of the cab and he goes to him, kneels to see that his arm is pulp and the rest of him feels like a kitbag full of loose tools. God Almighty, he thinks, how long have I been out? The earth at his feet is tarry with blood and his brother is so gone. He can hear Sally now but not see her in the darkness of the cab. She’s just a horrible wet noise in there. Fox crabs around to the passenger’s side and on his belly and crying with pain, he burrows in through the bent hatch of the window frame. The undulating cab roof is hot and slippery beneath him. He smells shit and Juicy Fruit, gropes one-handed until he finds her wedged under the steering column, bits of metal protruding from her trunk.
He feels her lips under the palm of his hand.
It’s okay, she says, I don’t feel it. Sing, Lu.
He feels the breath go out of her before he can pull his hand away. The hot rain of her urine sluices his face. He comes to again out on the dirt. The same night, perhaps the same minute.
Goes searching up the track, crosses himself for relief, nursing hope.
But he finds Bullet in the stony edge of the paddock, his head rent like a cantaloupe, still smelling of soap, pyjamas clean.
The National in its case, right there in the ruts. The mandolin dusty. A folded rug full of burrs.