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LEMON TREE AND LANTERN-BUSH
My mother—pale, delicate Nerida Scott, who wilted like a garden in the heat of the day—did not like to speak of or even look at the trees beyond Runagate.
Our front garden—the prettiest-kept on Upper Spicer Street, the handsomest street in Runagate—contained nothing native to the ground from which we daily coaxed and tortured it. It was decent, tidy and ornamental, and, like my mother, gracious. Though she always sent me to borrow books for her on homemaking and manners and inspiring true stories, she didn’t need them: Nerida Scott was as naturally elegant as a lily.
I, in contrast, had reached the age of nineteen, graceless and unlovely, despite our best efforts. There was too much of my father in me.
“But you are a good girl, aren’t you?” said my mother, catching my hand with slender fingers when I stood to clear the lunch dishes. Her nails were smooth and petal-pink.
“Yes, Mother,” I assured her. As I washed the plates, I concentrated on scrubbing out a little more, too, of that old childish self—the restless temper, the loose-limbed insolence I had got from my mocking father and unloving brothers, an unflattering pretension to cleverness. Unlearning the habits gained during the useless, featureless years I had spent at Runagate State School, before I had to grow up. Before I chose to. Nothing (she liked to say) is as unattractive as a woman with a little education, is it, Bettina? And I had spent three years resolutely becoming responsible and civilised and winsome. A strong will has its uses.
That day, like nearly every day, was bright. My mother, her eyes already green-shadowed with tiredness, settled to sleep. My mind quiet, I swept the kitchen to the companionable hum of the refrigerator, the midday crooning of red hens scratching beneath the lemons that hung in the backyard: lemons the size of ox hearts, thick-rinded, brilliant and knobby, luminous among the glossy green. They were not, I think, the shapely fruit my mother had expected, but she did not want to replace the tree. The scent wandered through the house. I would have gone and gathered armfuls of fragrant leaves, but my mother, in one of her few deviations from her magazines, considered cut arrangements gauche.
I washed my face and hands, carefully cleaned the dirt from beneath my nails, added the faintest of colours to my cheeks and lips, brushed the thick dull bob of my hair over the thread-thin scar, almost invisible, on my cheek—a childhood injury, forgotten—and straightened my skirt and blouse. My mother might be asleep, might not love her petty, parochial neighbours, but in Runagate she would certainly hear if I went out looking as if I had no one to care for me.
There had been no car at our house since the night my father left. My mother had barred my brothers from repairing their battered ute in the driveway, and in any event Mitch and Chris had soon gone too. But under the pressure of the midday sun, as I wheeled my yellow bicycle to the front gate, opened it and latched it neatly behind me, I almost regretted not being able to drive. Almost, but then a throbbing in my head and neck reminded me of what we had lost with it: the snarl and roar of engines in the garage and on the lawn, boys rioting through the house, light hair feathered white from the sun, shouting like crows, always too much in the open air. Monsters! my mother had called them, rightly: husband, sons, and cars too.
Nowadays our peace was broken only by wings outside the windows, the shifting of lace shadows. “We are pleasant together, aren’t we, Bettina?” my mother would say, and I would answer, “Yes.” We were homemakers; after everything, I chose to stay when restless spirits fled.
We bloom where we are planted. Don’t we, Bettina? We are content. And I was content. For a moment, pushing back my hair at the door of the library before returning my mother’s books (improving and inspiring), I smelled the ghost of oil and petrol sweet on my hands, but while I had few secrets from my mother, that was not a memory to grieve her with. It would fade.
I ran all my errands but one, and the bags swung heavy on the bicycle’s handles.
“Scott-girl!” bellowed Pinnicke, the old scalper, on the corner before the petrol station, on the road leading away from Runagate. “I found something near the traps, dingo traps, I thought I’d got its paw—you’d think it would be a paw—but come see, come see.”
I stepped down hard on the pedals, flew across the road and past the pumps, kicked the stand down quickly and darted into the shop.
“A hand!” laughed the old man, outside. “Complete with a ring!”
“Pinnicke bothering you, Bettina?” asked Casey Hale at the counter. She had cut off all her wild permed curls and her short hair was sleek. Modern.
“No, Miss Hale.” Pinnicke was quite unbalanced; it was correct to avoid him, whatever acquaintance he’d scraped with my father. No one worth knowing had liked him. I scrambled to remember any of the old books on etiquette my mother had me read to her, but they didn’t contemplate Pinnickes. I was breathing too fast. I’d hardly been acting my age.
“Bring your bike in,” she said, too kindly. “You can leave through the back.”
“No, thank you, Miss Hale.” That would be undignified. “Is there a delivery for me, Miss Hale? From the bus?” We don’t end a sentence as if it is a question, do we, Bettina? “From the bus,” I corrected myself.
She raised one eyebrow—vulgar, my mother would have said, and once I would have wished I could do it—then went through a door and brought out a white box tied with baling twine and punched with holes. From inside, small voices cheeped.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yes, Miss Hale. That is all, thank you.”
I waited for her to give me the box. She gave me a long stare first. “Okay, Miss Scott.” Her tone was rude, but at least she wasn’t treating me like a child. “My compliments to your mum.”
I accepted the box of chickens and bundled hastily outside again, narrowly avoiding a tall man with a sandy beard, and above it pale keen eyes, cold as a crow’s. He smelled of blood and oil. Not from Runagate, I registered, and with speed (but not haste) stowed the box in the basket of my bicycle and fastened it there with cords.
“Reckon your dad would have been interested.” Old Pinnicke was leaning against the wall. His breath stank like the air from the pub. “Always picking things up, wasn’t he?”
The stranger had parked his ute—dented, rusted, piled with cages of geese and feathers—on what footpath there was. A two-way radio crackled inside the cab and something slumped low in the passenger seat, cowed, or dead. I pushed off the kerb into the road, where there were never cars.
I stopped, hunched over the handlebars, eyes closed, waiting for my mind to catch up (surely it had once been faster). Curses from Old Pinnicke. A blue smell of rubber, like time contracting too fast. I opened one eye and saw a young man drop down from the cab of his red truck, rusty hair on end and freckles showing. This one was from Runagate. Too much so.
“Tina Scott!” said Gary Damson. “What the hell are you doing?”
But I was on the bicycle and away, my face hot as fire. I stood on the pedals, as if I were fifteen and heedless. I wanted only to get out of the open street, the staring eyes of Runagate. To get to home and safety.
* * *
It was common knowledge (which is not the same as gossip) that Mr Alleman, who lived next door, lost his son in the Woodwild School fire before I was born. Since he’d retired from covering clearing sales and dances for the STAR, he’d found nothing better to do than watch his neighbours. His sharp nose tracked above the leaves of his lantern-bush hedge. “You’ve got a fan, Bettina Scott,” he observed.
I intended to ignore him but could not avoid seeing what he nodded to. Scrawled in black letters across our neat white fence was the word MONSTERS.
“Who—” I began.
“I didn’t see,” said Mr Alleman, and tapped his blade of a nose. “But we can guess, we can guess.”
I couldn’t. In spite of the heat, the paint stuck to my fingers. Fresh. Mr Alleman was chuckling. Chilled with fury, I gathered the mail from our letterbox and went quickly through the gate.
I settled the new chicks—no worse for the adventure with the truck—under the hanging bulb, then lingered by the door of the garage and sorted the mail, waiting for my mood to settle, and Mr Alleman to lose interest and go indoors. A bill. A flyer for events at the cultural centre: a bush-dance, an introduction to computers, a water-dowsing workshop, a movie to be shown on the last Saturday, and an historical lecture on the eradication of invasive plants. That should be of interest to Mr Alleman—we didn’t approve of his garden. Letters to my mother from her travelling friends in scripts looped, elegant and feminine on flower-scented paper—I breathed it in, forcing myself to relax. The stamps read Åland, Ísland, Magyarország. Tiny bright worlds, smaller than Runagate, places where plants froze in the snow and died in the autumn. A catalogue of pretty throw-rugs and framed sayings, which we would look through after dinner. And a grubby little envelope, not stamped or postmarked, not even addressed except for one word: TINK.
You are truthful, Bettina, aren’t you? I didn’t answer, even to myself. That paper, that writing—filthy and bold and untidy—offended my already-ruffled spirit, and stirred it up like dirt at the bottom of a water tank. All my worst impulses.
This—whatever it was—was mine. I put it into the pocket of my skirt and stood in the garage, feeling my unsteady heart, and the paper resting guilty as fire against my leg. Mr Alleman had gone. My mother’s advice would have guided me, but she was asleep, and for a moment the idea of rebelling against my own better judgement tasted as good as salt.
I scrubbed the fence, the sun hot through my blouse, the breeze pressing the fabric against my shoulder blades. But I could not enjoy that secret glory of movement and effort. My peace was twitched by my conscience, by the worry Mr Alleman was watching behind his curtains, or my mother behind hers, by the growing suspicion this was not, in fact, the first letter I had received and therefore neither special nor deserving of secrecy. Hadn’t there been a letter once, ages ago, that my mother had read by the window, laughing softly to herself? The memory was sluggish, cobwebbed with disuse. It had been foolishness, my mother had said. Nothing to bother our heads about, Bettina, is it?
“Bettina Scott,” said a voice behind me, angry and light, but a man’s. I spun, spiralling dirty water. It spattered the driver’s door of Gary Damson’s truck, where the letters spelling DAMSON FENCING were peeling to reveal only their own deeper shadows. I was indecorously, bitterly, delighted. It was his own fault. He had startled me twice today.
“Was that paint?” he said. For a moment, my thoughts were fast enough: I was suddenly certain what Gary Damson’s square hands would feel like, raised in anger. He leaped out, but I was taller and faster. Gathering bucket and brushes, I ran into the yard, past the house, back to the safety of the garage.
“You coward, Tina!” he shouted, voice cracking. I knew he would not follow. Mother had forbidden him the yard, back when my brothers left. Damsons respect fences.
Coward. My hands were shaking. “Hush,” I whispered to myself, until they stilled, and my thoughts were quiet once more. I rinsed the bucket, and after a while the truck choked to life and roared away. Caution was better than bravery, I reminded myself. A civilised, bone-china soul knows, as a bird does, that a heavy-footed, shouting man is a thing to be fled.
The garage was quiet, except for the scrape and slide of noisy miner and magpie claws on the iron roof, the spreading patterns of hydrangea-blue shadows, and the perennial half-whispers in the trees that did not belong to any breeze or beast I had ever seen.
I wrung out the damp hem of my skirt, dried my hands and went inside.
* * *
“Are you feeling ill, Bettina?” my mother asked me in the bright evening, pausing over her letters.
“My stomach,” I said. Unthinking, I rubbed my neck and shoulder.
“You mustn’t be ill, Bettina,” said my mother, anxious. “You are never ill.” She smiled at me bracingly. “You are a good girl. You always do what I need to be done—you must be well for that. You are feeling better, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Mother,” I said. It had, after all, only been tension. Guilt, and alarm.
She paused delicately. “I heard some … altercation this afternoon.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. Her eyes were still shadowed. “Someone painted words on our fence. Not crude. Just ‘monsters.’ I cleaned it.” Looking up, I saw her watching me, eyes kind and green, her pale lashes fine as the fringe on a fern.
“And?” she prompted.
“Gary—Mr Damson, young Mr Damson—came by.”
“What did he want, Bettina?”
“I don’t know,” I said, honestly. “I didn’t stay to ask.”
My mother nodded. “The Damsons are no better than they should be,” she said. “Fencers.” She shook her head, as if she did not love her white fence, as if the Damsons were involved in an arcane and dubious activity. “They are not like us, are they?”
She watched me.
“He shouted at me,” I said, to please her, and to claw my way back to the peace I had felt that morning. You always feel better when you tell the truth, don’t you? “For almost splashing paint on his truck. But he was the one who frightened me.” Odd I had not heard him drive up. What had I been thinking of?
“Poor Bettina,” said my mother. “Come here.” She reached up and embraced me briefly; her skin was soft over the vine-firm tendons of her thin arms. A tightness I hadn’t noticed in my back eased. There was, after all, nothing to worry about.
“Perhaps we should send that shock back where it belongs,” said my mother.
She had ways—terribly polite, peaceful ways—of putting our world to rights. That night she called Sergeant Aberdeen, our policeman. I listened calmly, suppressing a juvenile glee. She thought he should know young Gary Damson was stirring up trouble; of course she could trust him to do what was necessary, couldn’t she? He had a daughter, so he understood, after all?
We did not care for poor Winston’s daughter, and so, “Did he understand?” I asked, when she hung up. My mother merely sighed. Patricia Aberdeen, after all, would have revenged herself upon Gary without recourse to the proper authorities.
“A shame he was saddled with raising such a wild girl,” said my mother. “It was fortunate for everyone when she was sent away. Better not to think about her, don’t you agree?”
So I did not. But when I changed for bed and emptied my pockets, I found the letter again.
It wasn’t a real envelope. The paper was locked together by an untidy series of creases. With it a memory unfurled just as mechanically and rumpled: my hands knew this pattern, we had folded notes like this at school. We? I had been peculiarly friendless; it wasn’t nice to have favourites, besides which the company at Runagate State School had been lacking. Not like us. Like Gary Damson, too much themselves: nothing but sunburn, muscle and dirt. Like my brothers.
A sudden image of the three of them, crow-hoarse with laughter, Mitch and Chris lanky as cranes beside Gary.
Dismissing that train of thought as unprofitable, I opened the letter over my bare knees, the brittle butcher paper scraping faintly on faded scars.
It contained a page torn from the Runagate, Woodwild and Crossing STAR. The date was three years old, but I guessed each word before I read it.
YOUTHS RUN AMOK
DAMAGE AND DISTURBANCE
DESTRUCTION OF PEACE
I shifted the scrap to read the writing underneath: a large, unsteady scrawl, the pen pressing veins into the paper.
YOU COWARD, TINK
Why would anyone trouble to point that out twice in one day? Gary Damson’s words, although he wouldn’t have called me Tink. Only my brothers and father had called me that. But they were long gone. When I tried to remember how their voices sounded when they said it, I couldn’t. I wasn’t surprised: even their faces were blurry. My mother hadn’t kept any photographs. We don’t need to be reminded, do we, Bettina? Forgetting is easy, once you learn how.
I looked at the article again. It had been torn from its page, with greasy thumbprints dark on the grey paper. It smelled of motors and dung. I rested it back on my knees, holding it cautiously so the newsprint could not come off too much on my fingers.
Only my brothers.
I could have told my mother. But I lingered too long, and felt through the house a draught, laden with the breath of growing things. Rain, I knew as if it had already fallen on me. A serenity comes with that smell, calming the acid of doubt and regret, stirring different thoughts. The scent of sharp grass softening, the lemon tree digging its roots further into the dissolving earth, the pepperina and lantern-bush and beyond—pine, brigalow, eucalypt, the vast, uncivilising world shifting like a shaggy animal, silver-green under the clouds, dreaming, although my mother would not credit it, in memories.
This is a story I heard a long time later—or at least the bones of it.
* * *
Linda Aberdeen, formerly Spicer, had grown up in the city, married in the city, gone no further than the ocean for her honeymoon. The winter she headed west, she was first surprised at how far the city extended, then at how far beyond it the bus took her. Past the neat houses, the ragged houses, and the bulldozered plateaus with their spotless, pointless black streets. Beyond the dark green hills and the khaki hills. Out to where the land unrolled vast and shimmering pale, or contracted shaking and glittering into tunnels through which their bus beat on.
Winston, with their baby Patricia fussing in his arms, saw her off from the pebbled concrete transit centre early on a damp morning, for even in winter, that city was never really cold. “Why didn’t you go with her?” was a question no one would ask Winston Aberdeen as often as he would himself.
Late in the afternoon, the bus driver let Linda down onto the beaded blue-and-red pebbles outside the mechanic’s shop at Carter’s Crossing. Closed. There was a railway line but no station, a few clean cream houses set clear of the grey trees, a hall with CWA painted on it in looping blue, and the smallest wooden church Linda had ever seen.
A man sat in the open back of a battered station wagon, smoking. He was wearing scuffed sneakers instead of boots—not at all what Linda had expected.
“Darryl Scott?” she asked, checking the letter from her grandmother.
He drove her another hour—it felt longer. The bitumen ended; the wheels struck white dirt with a drumming like a racing heart.
“Sylvie doesn’t clear that track anymore” was all Darryl Scott bothered to say, when he dropped her beside the road. “You can walk from here.”
He tossed her duffle bag down beside her and was off again, leaving her coughing in dust fine as powder. He admitted it later, when pressed. No reason to deny it. They hadn’t talked much. She wasn’t his type. He had not seen a woman answering Linda Aberdeen’s description again.
“It’s only a visit,” said Linda to herself, choking on dry air. “Anyone can visit their grandmother.” Still she wished she had brought her daughter with her, if only as something warm to hold.
Here, the air was dry as paper and chilly. There were no houses to redirect the wind that flew along the road and through her green coat, tangled her hair and stung her nose. No buildings visible at all. No cars. Nothing Linda knew.
Sylvie Spicer had sent Linda a firmly drawn map with Keep on the path written in bold black letters. The only other landmarks on it were the road, “Blue Mailbox Corner”, “The Dead Tree” and “Creek.” It took Linda several minutes to find the mailbox, although it was no longer blue: a tin-roofed wooden box, large enough to hold a child, cobwebbed and filled with purple shadow. The path began there: a crease in the brittle grass barely wider than Linda’s shoe. No gate.
She clambered through the slack wires of the boundary fence—the fluted wood of the posts shifting slightly with the disturbance—slung her bag over her shoulder and set off down the slope toward the trees that seemed to indicate a watercourse.
Throughout the long bus ride and the days leading to it, Linda had fought to lower her expectations. Her beautiful, tormented, uneasy mother, both kleptomaniacal when it came to superstitions and deeply suspicious of all fiction, had never spoken of Sylvie Spicer. It was too easy for Linda to hope Sylvie might be everything her own mother had not been, everything she wanted to learn to be for Patricia.
But the interminable drive, the cracked cold land, the wire-sharp grass abraded those hopes.
“Still,” Linda said to herself and a flitting wagtail, “blood and water, and all that.” At least, Winston had said, it would let her stop wondering about her mother’s family.
The grass she strode through clung to her jeans and hemmed her coat in pale seeds. She strained to see an opening, a gate, another fence in the trees, anything that hinted at a destination, but the air stung her eyes to tears. When she lowered her hand, she saw the animal.
Linda had never seen a dog that colour, the peculiar grey-blonde of the grass, like ash and honey. Its limbs were thin, its skull narrow and its eyes glass-green: brilliant and alive. Metres away from the track, it watched her, every part motionless: its small ears, the hollow-flanked body tapering to a skeletal tail. The only thing she knew for certain, bone-deep, blood-deep, was It can run faster than me.
She stood, staring. A tremor ran through it, something more than the ruffle of its coat in the wintery air.
All the stories her mother had not cared to tell her, the stories Linda had begun to read to her own daughter, bristled along her spine. Wild woods—oak or deodar or cedar, depending on which of her mother’s histories she chose to plumb, for she wasn’t on a sure footing with Winston’s family’s stories yet—where nightmares stalked their prey; stories to keep children from wandering, to brighten the lights of home. Abruptly, they made unwelcome, visceral sense. Linda scrabbled desperately through them for advice. Don’t visit your grandmother was unhelpful, and too late.
She thought through the contents of her pockets: bus ticket, chewing gum, comb. The pocket knife Winston gave her before they were married, engraved LS and too stiff for her to open quickly, even if she could have done much damage with it, was in her bag. And the letter, with Keep on the path written so heavily she could feel it from both sides of the paper.
Keep on the path, even if golden-silver death watched you with green glass eyes, beautiful fur showing every line of its ribs.
“Good boy,” said Linda, and stepped forward.
The fur shifted on its back like grass in the wind.
There was nowhere to run. No vehicle had passed them on the white dirt road from Carter’s Crossing; to each side of the world trees piled paper-dry onto the horizons. But ahead ought to be Sylvie Spicer’s house. Besides, in those nearer trees Linda might find a handy branch.
She fitted her foot carefully into the track. A long, low vibration started in the creature’s throat.
Linda gripped the handle of her bag, ready to swing it, and stepped again. The animal jerked forward, quicker than Linda wanted ever to remember. A metre away, it stopped, head down.
“Damn, you’re fast,” said Linda. She rubbed one sweating palm against her coat. “But you’re not coming any closer. Are you trained? Not to let trespassers in? Sit!” she said, experimentally. Nothing happened.
“If you’re Sylvie Spicer’s idea of a guard-dog,” said Linda, lifting her chin, “she has a few things to learn about hospitality.” She brandished the letter. “I’m family. I’m invited, I’ll have you know!”
At her next step, she heard grass cracking under her foot and wrenched her gaze away just in time to catch herself, step down on dirt instead. When she looked up, the creature was on the other side of the path. She hadn’t heard it jump.
“Watch me,” said Linda, forgetting she was an adult, and a mother. “I grew up walking park railings.”
The animal flitted over the ground like a shadow, always at the corner of her eye, keeping a steady distance. Linda didn’t put a foot wrong.
After a long, whispering silence, the low vibration began again, a note that climbed steadily into a high keening. As the sound rose, the wind swept down from the hills. A cold, arid gale stripped tears from Linda’s eyes and whipped her hair across her face. It tore at her coat and snatched her letter away, spinning it tumbling and catching across the paddock.
She stopped herself on the point of leaping after it and looked back to see the animal at her heels, unblinking. “Two not out,” said Linda against the icy wind. “All I have to do is stay on the path.”
She made it to the trees. Later, they would find a thread of her coat caught on the bark of a dead silky oak, although they would not know whether she had left it coming or going. The animal, breathing at her heels, began a tuneless moaning, varying notes and sobbing howls, coarser than birdsong, more deliberate than the rush of water.
She tried to ignore it, not to find a pattern, but there were—feelings. Impressions of violet shadows and chill golden sunlight, the twisting nets of liquid day through brown water, the scudding lights of high clouds at dawn, the blazing of stars in blue nights and beneath all that, echoes of darkness like centuries in rocks, and the promise of the unknown behind bleak hills.
The late afternoon sky, the sharp air and the track shifted, dissolved together. Linda put her hands over her ears. “I can’t hear you!” she lied loudly, and hurried through the susurration of she-oaks. The animal bounded lightly beside her, the brindles of its coat flickering. Linda stumbled through the trees until the ground gave way.
She lay at the bottom of a dry creek bed, bruised and dusty. At the top of the bank from which she had fallen was a fence: a tottering row of pickets knotted together by clawed bushes, broken where she had fallen through. The animal looked down at her, the whitening hairs around its muzzle clear, twitched one ear, then sauntered—almost hopped—out of sight.
Linda dusted herself off, limped up the other side and between the trees. There was no beast waiting. Only brown and black chooks hunting insects in the grass, a vegetable garden and a tired grey house, bowed with age.
She had expected a woman as dark as her own mother. But the old lady who pulled the door in, scraping it over the curl of mustard-yellow linoleum, was tall and green-eyed.
“Sylvie Spicer?” hazarded Linda.
“Good lord,” said the older woman—too old, surely—opening the screen door. “You’re the image of your mother.”
* * *
“She wasn’t my daughter,” said Sylvie Spicer.
In the kitchen with its bleached mock-marble Formica and floral linoleum, with a gun above the door and an electric stove set into the recess where a wood stove must have once stood, Sylvie Spicer had cleaned up the scrapes on Linda’s hands, anointing them with yellow iodine. Now she served tinned fruitcake in the living room. The sinking furniture was crowded by low shelves of curling farm annuals, condensed novels, an aged encyclopaedia and a few curious titles such as In the Wake of Sea Serpents and The Fables of Mkhitar Gosh.
“That was my son. We lost him.” The boy in the picture with its curved glass frame was holding a rifle and not exactly a boy. He wasn’t in uniform, but Linda, not used to seeing rifles in snapshots, assumed a war took him. Korea, perhaps? The frame was older than the picture. He looked like a clever young man; he might have been an amusing uncle. But he wasn’t Linda’s uncle, and Sylvie had never been her grandmother. A dusty, stale grief sat in the hollow of Linda’s throat.
Sylvie went on. “They found his clothes and gun, but no sign of him. Then your mother arrived. Washed up in the creek after the rain. I almost hated her for taking poor David’s place. Strange girl. Never liked to say where she’d been before us, and didn’t stay long after. But she was the only thing I had left to love.”
“She loved me,” said Linda, as she had told herself many times. She needed to believe it—she had lost any claim she hoped to have on Mrs Spicer, and the ache surprised her. Still, the old woman had invited her here. Maybe she was lonely. A foster-grandmother was better than none. “Do you have any photos of her?”
“No,” said Mrs Spicer.
Linda pulled out her wallet. “I have one in here—not very good, she never did like cameras—you can have it. If you want.”
“My memory will serve. What happened on the path?”
In the ordinariness of the house, it all seemed half-imagined. “Your dog,” said Linda. “I’m frightened of dogs. They always seemed to be barking at us when I was little. I was startled, and fell into the creek.”
“I don’t keep a dog,” said Mrs Spicer flatly, and stood to carry the teapot back to the kitchen.
Linda glanced around for a telephone. Perhaps Darryl Scott, taciturn as he was, could take her back to Carter’s Crossing. There must be somewhere to wait for a bus back to the coast.
“Silver-brown?” Mrs Spicer asked from the kitchen.
“Yes,” said Linda. “With pale eyes. Like bottle-glass.”
“It must have liked you,” said Sylvie Spicer, bitter as the tea. “It doesn’t usually show itself so readily. Called, did it?”
Linda, listening to evening gathering outside, remembered how the sound had seemed anchored to the roots of the world. “Is it dangerous?”
“Of course it is,” said Sylvie Spicer sharply, reappearing in the doorway. “Dangerous itself, and dangerous because of those looking for things like it.” She looked Linda up and down, in a familiar way, and sniffed. “He must have known you were hers.”
“Mum left here before I was born,” said Linda. “Dogs don’t live that long. Do they?”
“You know it wasn’t a dog,” said Mrs Spicer. “My family’s been settled here a long time, Linda Aberdeen.” Her green eyes flashed, as if she expected Linda to challenge that claim. “We aren’t given to wandering. Something like this has been around a long time too. People vanish. It changes. This pale one has been here since your mother arrived. Since David disappeared.”
“I thought he went to war.”
“War?” said Sylvie, contemptuous. “He went up to the top paddock—him and his dogs—and only his horse came home. Never a bit of use afterwards.” She looked severely at Linda. “Blood calls to blood.”
Linda studied the photo in her wallet, slid it back into her bag. “You’re saying that … creature ate David?”
“In a manner of speaking,” said Mrs Spicer, with a thin smile.
* * *
“I’ve called that nice Mr Scott,” said Mrs Spicer. “He’ll drop you in Woodwild. The Stockman’s Arms is still open, last I heard. If they’ll take you.”
“Thank you,” said Linda, measured. The woman was unbalanced—by loneliness and grief, perhaps—and Linda wasn’t going to antagonise her unnecessarily. But she wasn’t going to stay. “I’ll wait by the road.”
“You don’t want to walk it in the dark,” conceded Mrs Spicer. Linda could have done without that thought.
She shouldered her bag and strode away, furious and—yes, miserable. Stupid! She had a family. Winston and Patricia, the extended, extensive network of Aberdeen brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. And yet … the creature had known her. What if—only for the sake of a story, mind—what if it had understood when she said she was family? Out there all alone for years and years, never able to come in, watching its people grow old and die?
The last light threaded thin and gold through the trees by the creek, flinging long blue shadows over the tossing grass. It smelled of distant smoke, of new-broken leaves and—although the creek was dry—dark water. Starveling country, her mother had called this. Whatever the truth of it, her mother had wanted to be from somewhere else.
Linda stood in the paddock, between the creek and the fringe of trees that hid the road. The sky was mother-of-pearl.
“Hello?” she said to the fading light, feeling foolish. She cleared her throat. “I only want to talk.”
The path, in this light, was the scratch of a nail. A brief, battening gust of wind stung her face. She dropped her duffle bag, pulled off her coat and pushed up her sleeve with hands still yellow with iodine. Mrs Spicer hadn’t bandaged the scrapes—it only cost Linda a little pain to bring red blood beading. The cold soon numbed it. What are you doing, Linda Aberdeen? The scent of her blood, and her mother’s.
“I’m here,” she whispered, hoping nothing would answer. “I’ve come.” She turned and saw the beast.
Its pale eyes were bright as lamps with the last sun, its head low; the shadows along its ribs moved and flickered as it breathed.
It did not simply stand on the earth, thought Linda. It was part of the light and the wind, the scrubby trees, the bony hills. It contained them. She could smell the creature: earth and plants, blood and wildness. It lowered its narrow jaw and let out a high, rippling keening.
“Oh, you poor beautiful thing,” said Linda, and stepped off the path.
The creature sprang, but Linda expected that. She caught it bodily—much bigger than a child, but she had learned to hold tight. It was not ethereal now: its fur was greased and matted, its hot carnivorous breath snapped too near her throat. She could not let go. She could never let go. She’d have laughed, if she’d had breath.
Here I am waiting, Mr Scott, and a little something I picked up. I’m sorry, Winston, it followed me home.
Its claws tore her sleeve, and it changed beneath her touch, convulsing and contorting, bones and joints shifting into a creature stranger and ill-formed, multi-limbed, scaled and furred, bat-leathered, draggle-feathered. There had been something in the fruitcake, thought Linda distantly.
When it stopped struggling, the stars had moved on and the moon had risen. The face looking down at hers was a young man’s, though grooved with weariness and hunger. He was wrapped in her coat. All Linda’s strength had leached into the chilly earth.
“What did the old witch tell you, to make you do that?” he said, wondering. The moon silvered his hair—or was it whitening? It haloed him too brightly for mere moonlight, and the shadows around were peculiarly deep and clear, warm-hued beneath him as much as beneath the grasses, as if the same blood flowed through both. The lines on his face had deepened. He wasn’t as young as she’d thought.
“Nothing,” Linda tried to say, but her voice betrayed her: a broken wheeze that wrapped around her heart and clenched, cold. When she reached for him, her arm felt numb and gloved.
She struggled from the grass and, resting a moment—for the last moment she still thought her life had not changed unutterably—saw a flutter of contempt in his face. He turned, clutching the coat around him, and ran, limping, his legs sinewy white beneath its hem.
Linda leapt up, tangled in the torn remnants of her shirt, and struggled backwards out of it, out of all her clothes, plunging bodily into the night wind that fluttered the hair on her arms and back and ribs. Through the soles of her feet and hands, through her skin, the land sang to her: dark and silver, the bones of the world. She felt the drumming of David Spicer’s bare feet, outdistancing her easily. At the edge of the creek, he stopped. She could not feel what lay beyond those pickets: the house was outside her visible world and Sylvie Spicer, waiting, was only a wavering shade.
“Do you think I don’t remember you?” said David, to Linda, or to what Linda had become. His voice was harsh. He’s old, she thought, and then, He thinks I’m my mother. “You tricked me, but you’ve had your go. You’ve taken my life and all these years. Do you know what it’s like to watch the world turning and passing and never taking you with it? You’ve had your time walking it. Take your own back.”
David stepped down into the crossing, and from the opposite bank a spasm threaded the air, furrowing cold and then heat along her ribs. A bullet, realised Linda, as the sound cracked in her ears. Just like the movies.
She turned and ran, on four unruly legs. Lights on the road. She raced to it, scrabbled belly to the grass beneath the wires, dashed out. The station wagon was high, huge. She could see the long road beneath and beyond it, pale with stars.
“Mr Scott!” she tried to call, once. A billowing of fumes and throbbing on the air, and the car moved to where she stood caught in the beams. It struck her side. Had she not spent her life in traffic, had Darryl Scott accelerated faster, she might have been killed. As she reeled into the trees on the other side of the road, panic began to wash her away. The old earth, the inevitability of blood and fear, the quicksilver heartbeat of the lonely stones rose into her. She ran blindly into the hills.
Copyright © 2020 by Kathleen Jennings