Lara is standing, disconsolate, on the veranda of her father’s tired, timber bungalow; she wears a faded, blue-daisied frock that hangs like a bag over her thin frame and though it is the same dress every day, lately she has tried to pull the fabric in at the waist and she’s not even sure why. Her bare toes are dusty with outback ochre and the air is so spiteful that even the magpies crouch silent in their trees. Lara‘s head hangs so that her dark hair, hacked off short with her dead grandmother’s sewing scissors, scratches at her cheeks. And she doesn’t notice. It’s too hot.
It is too hot to do her chores: the cleaning, washing, baking, will all have to wait. And it is too hot even for her eyes to tumble over her encyclopaedia’s tiny type in search of Learning, which is a problem, because upon his return, her father – stained dark with sun and soil – will ask her what she has learned today of the letter ‘C’. His voice will be scratchy and his shoulders slumped, but before he can eat dinner he will want to know what she has learned…and she will want to see his approving smile. She thinks, maybe she will tell him of ‘Camaraderie’ or ‘Companionship’ or ‘Conception’ (for she has already tasted their papery sweetness) yet she knows that while her father would like their multi syllable complexity, he would not like their meaning. She knows that before he gets back she must learn something solid, a noun (but not a proper noun, ‘Champs Elysee’ for example, that would not do). She must learn a good, solid noun so as to ease the unease veiled behind his kind eyes. If she doesn’t, he will not reproach her, but they will have nothing to talk about, there will be no words tonight, and his gloom will overtake them both.
It seems it must have been someone else’s life, some other child called Lara who huddled over books with her grandmother, plaiting love with language and a hunger for worldly knowledge. It is so much harder now. All the joy has dried up like the dam out back and yet Lara knows that her Learning lifts her father from the threadbare sheets of a morning and that it draws him home from the distant paddocks of an evening. In spite of her father’s reliance, maybe because of it, she has come to find this task of self-education so very tiresome, and instead of trudging the columns of print, she has matched her father’s absences with her own, retreating to her sparse bedroom to cradle in her lap her grandmother’s last gift: a birthday letter. Until last month she had kept it unopened in the box beneath her bed for three years; until the morning when her father cooked her a stack of bland birthday pancakes and showed an unusual insight by presenting her with a selection of pretty ribbons. However, what she had most longed for on this day was to open the letter and she had done so as soon as her father had left for the day. Unlike her tenth and eleventh birthday letters, her twelfth letter (just three weathered pages carefully rendered up in a shaky, grandmotherly script) told of the unspeakably intimate workings of a woman’s body… A full month later, Lara still needs time to absorb the horror of it all, and until she can, the encyclopaedia’s neat lines of Learning will be ignored.
From her stupor on the veranda, Lara can hear the engine’s objections long before she can see her father’s rusty, white ute bouncing along the driveway: a bellowing of red dirt suffocating the horizon. She can feel her chest tighten; he has been to Town today, perhaps he will bring her something. But probably not. He has no money.
Town – where people live. In families. The last time Lara had been to Town she was eleven. As in the previous visits, she had hovered meek and silent at her father’s side whilst he collected the month’s mail and the standard groceries from Old Tom’s store. The store stood unremarkable between a house with a fence but no garden, and the pub with its rusty, corrugated iron roof and empty veranda. The road through Town was bitumen, but only for 100 meters or so, just long enough to stretch from start to end before abruptly becoming red gravel. Lara had longed to read the notices pinned on the wall or pick up the unfamiliar packets on the shelves but she couldn’t. It wasn’t that her father had ever said she shouldn’t; she just couldn’t. Instead her eyes just darted feverishly about the dim room taking in the foreign images: silenced by the hush of layered footprints.
Back in the heat, Lara’s eyes return to her feet, beyond which, red filth is wafting in pathetic breaths across the ground. She has not read anything more of the letter ‘C’. Not even ‘Corn’ – a good, agricultural noun. He will be disappointed… but, she is twelve, and she has only ever left the property on five occasions and she is beginning not to care what her father thinks. When she’s in her room cleaved to her grandmother’s letter, Lara is more steady, but out here on the veranda her thoughts trip traitorously towards an edge, teetering like her dusty toes on the very verge of some abyss. It seems that she is sliding, day-by-day, towards a point where there really is no point at all.
She has her monthly ‘curse’ now; it’s a word passed to her from her grandmother’s letter, and it’s a word that in Lara’s thinking, is unutterably apt. She sometimes marvels at the human conspiracy, wrapped so meticulously in Society’s wretched rules, which can hide such a terrible affliction… for even her early edition encyclopaedia ignores the curse’s existence. She trembles to think what conclusions she might have drawn had she fallen into womanhood without her grandmother’s kindness and foresight. She is confounded by her father’s silence on the matter, himself as bereft of voice as the barren Western Australian expanses around them.
The curse brings with it a heat and an anger that she cannot recognize. It makes her say things she doesn’t want to say, and weep tears weighty with loss, but loss of what? She doesn’t even know. Yet the yearning is important. Last month she had sobbed at the dinner table and her father had scratched his grey stubble and stared into his plate, and twirled and twirled his fork in his palm, unable to raise the words to console her. When she’d finished crying, they continued eating, and afterwards she had washed the dishes looking out the kitchen window to the darkness, as usual. On his way out to the back veranda to meddle with some lame machine by the faltering light of an oil lamp, her father had gently rested his hand on her shoulder and sighed. Lara had felt herself sag against the sink, the devastating tide swelling again, but then he had moved away and she had stared at the dark glass in silence and watched her tears slip down the stranger’s face. She traced their path quietly to the folds of the stranger’s nostrils, then on to the stranger’s lip; she barely recognised the girl reflected before her, or assimilated the wet tickle on her own skin with the wretchedness of puberty.
She does not really wish to hurt her father for he is a gentle man. A broken man. But in spite of this, her tongue grows hot with acid arrows that burn tiny holes in his resolve. Roiling within, she finds herself, too often, erupting through the flyscreen door and relishing the slap slap slap of timber on timber that renders the chooks in the yard all a-flutter. Again and again she heads into the vast space that has served as her prison ever since she killed her mother in childbirth. She often wonders whether, as an unborn, she had somehow sensed the desolation she would face in this countryside, and so had clung too, too long to the cradle of her mother’s womb, ripping her maker’s insides to shreds as she was pulled from it’s warmth.
Outside, there is only ever one direction to walk – down the gully and past the rickety-picket plot where two long mounds nestle together beneath the silvery streak of a ghost gum. It is the place her father always sips his Sunday tea, and Lara takes the long way round.
Just beyond the ghost gum is a brackish tributary of Kennedy Creek; Lara and her father have always called their precious slice of water ‘the river’ but these days she is all too aware of the term’s pathetic deceit. The creek is shadowed by huge red gums that have stitched their great roots to the infertile dirt an age ago. It’s as if the property is planted on a timeless parcel of arid earth where the crop seeds wont take and the sheep won’t mate, and that these trees have witnessed all its trials. Resting her cheek on the bark’s savage crevasses, she imagines that these majestic trees were, once upon a time, all misguided farmers like her father, who toiled at the earth for a lifetime only to be transformed into twisted giants and rooted to the spot, eternally destined to watch over the land that had beaten them into submission. She wonders whether her father’s eventual death will see him transformed thus, an inevitable addition to the great, leafy gathering of despair. Such thoughts bring the treacherous scent of possibility with them, and confusion. What was once a given, is now a mystery to her and she shakes her head, trying to expel the restlessness that has smothered her contentment as soundly as a blanket drowns a campfire.
In the middle of her fourteenth summer, on a day when even the chorus of crickets has flagged in the heat, a swagman is camped by her river. She has never seen such a man before and she hangs back behind one of the red gums, spying shyly, intrigued beyond experience by this strange imposition on her father’s land. He is rugged and shaky. His beard is wild, and like a thorny bush it has clutched itself around his whole face beneath the tipsy, akubra hat. His eyes are dark and she likes to imagine that they sparkle within their eyebrow nest of thorns… but from her safe distance she cannot really tell.
The smoke of his fire meanders, on and off, for three days. Lara creeps away from the house in the mornings to watch him. From her hide up the gully, she thirstily drinks in the stranger’s routines, careful to remain silent, unable to imagine what she would say to the man should he see her; would he think she was strange… or ugly? She keeps feeling her hair… and each time she does, she feels something like shame soaking her innards, and though it is a common enough sensation, it somehow feels different this time. She cannot explain it.
On the third day, Lara is watching him again. She watches him nurse his coals into flame with some twigs. She watches the slow care he takes with the dinted, black billy, balancing it between two pieces of wood so the flames can lick its base. After a while, she thinks he will lift the billy away from the fire, throw in a handful of tea leaves, stir it with a stick and put the lid back on to brew. Which he does… but then she becomes mesmerised as he hoists himself to his feet, takes a stance – feet wide apart, knees bent a little – and swings the billy around and around like a windmill, his arm swooping in an arc from his shoulder and then plunging from a great height to brush past his knee and climb up, up, up again. His other arm is thrust perpendicular for balance, its hand an unlikely and steady counterbalance to the whirling bucket. No tea spills. The violence and masculinity of the act is a total surprise. Lara gasps.
The swagman gently rests the billy back on the ground next to his tin mug, and then he unfolds his aching bones to full height; as his head lifts, Lara can see that he is staring up the bank with eyes every bit as dark as her father’s, but she’s sure she sees them twinkle in the light. They settle on her at once. She freezes, heart racing, fingers tightly twisted into the thin fabric at her legs. He nods at her, slowly. And then he motions with one big paw that she should come down the bank. He doesn’t take his eyes off her and she can’t see his expression through the tangle of his beard.
She finds that her feet are walking towards him, but one of her hands darts back to her hair whilst the other remains rigidly clasped in the fabric of her dress.
From the edge of the little camp clearing she can see that he is a very tall man and his coat is actually just a woollen blanket drawn together at his chest with some twine threaded badly through two holes. Both of his boots have peeled apart from the big toe to reveal knobbly bunions, but his bare feet and toenails are remarkably clean: far cleaner than hers. He smells of wood smoke.
Lara is staring at him, eyes wide with uncertainty, leg muscles tensed and straight. But then a magpie’s caw tears apart the air right above them and she jumps… she feels like an idiot, and overwhelmed, turns clumsily to leave, her intention to scamper up the embankment again and run back home. As her foot scrambles for a hold in the crumbling dirt, she feels a clamp on her arm, right around her bicep. The clamp is scratchy with calluses, and firm, and it’s not letting go, and she feels panicked to her soul. Whipping her head around she finds herself staring straight up into his eyes – deep, watery, dark – but across their surface is a creamy film. Cataracts. Just like Grandma’s. He is staring through her and at her, perhaps blind; even so, he has still managed to cover six feet of ground and grab her arm!
Lara sucks in air with a squeak and tries to tear her arm from his grasp but he holds on tighter and clears his throat. He tries to talk. He cannot. He clears his throat again and an earthy, breathy rumble escapes his lips. She wonders, amid her panic, if the beard has grown right across his mouth like a vine so that he can no longer talk. She doesn’t relax but inside she feels a shifting.
He tries again and this time a word escapes to her. She thinks he has said ‘sorry’. The shifting shifts again and pulls her back from the edge, towards something like pity, and she stops yanking her arm. His lashes are blinking and there is wetness on his damaged eyes. He speaks again, ’sorry’, shaking his great swathe of hair in disappointment. His grip loosens and when his hand drops to his side, Lara steps away, but she is surprised to find she doesn’t run.
He shuffles back to his stump-seat by the fire and she watches. He wrestles the lid off the billy and sloshes tea into the only cup. He turns to her and offers it up with two, shaking hands, like a disciple. Lara doesn’t know why, but she steps forward and takes the cup. It is still steaming hot. No milk. No sugar. It’s all he has, which is really only a little less than her.
Lara’s nerves take a while to settle and she keeps the fire between them while she drinks the tea. She wants to thank him. She wants to ask him what he’s doing on her father’s land and how much he can see. She wants to know how he survives… and whether a girl could do the same. She wants to know everything there is to know about what is ‘out there’… but she can only nod, and swallow. He cannot see that she nods. After five minutes, she places the empty cup on the ground, and leaves.
When she looks back from the top of the embankment he is sitting still, his head cocked a little, listening, and she realizes she has seen him in this position often over the past three days. She raises her hand lamely before reminding herself that he probably cannot see it, and turns away.
The next day, he is gone.
On the ground by the dusty campfire is his tin cup: battered and blackened, but clean none the less. She stares at it a long, long time before taking it up in her fingers and carrying it home. She rinses the dirt from its base and places it in the old wooden box beneath her bed where it lies with her grandmother’s bible, her mother’s wedding ring, and a pair of cream knitted booties that she cannot remember wearing and used to think were important. It lies in the box with her birthday letters.
Never quite sure if the cup was gifted or forgotten, Lara keeps revisiting the creek to see if her strange swagman has returned. One morning she follows the curl of the bank for a mile or so but there is no sign of his smoke, just the immense grandfather gums stooping under the weight of time and thirst.
Between chores and Learning, Lara makes tea often in the privacy of daylight; she uses her cup and thinks of the swagman without even this small comfort. She supposes he has found another cup; she very much hopes so, but not as much, not nearly as much, as she wishes he would return for this one.
So, once only, after dinner, she deliberately drinks her tea from the swagman’s precious vessel instead of her mother’s favourite porcelain teacup with the delicate violets around the rim: denying her father’s hollow, nightly ritual in favour of the thrill of provocation. She feels inside her the scuff of nerves against entitlement against loneliness against sadness: a courageous, tumultuous attempt at statement. But her father doesn’t notice – or chooses not to – and their quiet understanding flexes its fingers a little more urgently along the string that binds them in this boundless place.
By: Georgia RadcliffeSmith