North of Goyder’s*
Out here the lines of ground and sky form a stark axis. Ground, sky; a single line bisecting. The sky so big there’s only sky; acid blue, even for so early in the morning, only the corners tinged with rose. No clouds, not for months. If she stands on the veranda and follows the ground line, she can just see the marbled rubble of , bruised purple in the distance, edging the rim of their farm. Groaning jaws rising up, wrinkled and ancient, disturbing the neat, dry geometry. Trees are spare; no shade here beyond the , just scrub and saltbush.
They should have known.
She stands on that veranda now, mug in hand, low back aching from all the belly weight poked out in front, and tries to push that thought aside. They should have known.
And yet she loves to stand here, early morning, and let her eye follow the fence lines, trace the dirt roads that ring their property and lead to the outhouses, the shearers’ quarters, the sheep yards. They have their honey, their lavender. The lavender’s hardy, withstands the heat. Dried it will give off that scent she loves, off-setting the other smells that permeate: dead possums, rats in the roof, flyblown sheep, lambs stuck in the dam, their odour wafting across from kilometres away.
Here, she sometimes imagines they are at the centre of a spinning top, that together they have cast out lucky skeins of silk yarn over the dryness. Poured new life into barrenness. Their installations are all stone, honey stone, hewn from the earth and given back to the earth. Or wood, or iron. The land has given but they will return.
On the perimeter of the property, a shape is growing into her line of vision. All black, it looks like a blurred blowfly against the parched land. As it nears, the shape sharpens in focus. Spindle legs, stripes on the body. Like a black spider now, brittle legs protruding and retracting. It takes a moment for her to realise it is a man. A tall, black man, approaching her farm.
In the next instant she knows it is not Micke. He would be at the woolshed already with the others. This man doesn’t walk the same. He is much taller, more graceful in a loping kind of way. She can see the lines of his thin frame now, the shoulders slightly stooped, yet a youthful form. There is no hat, not even a baseball cap on that bony smooth skull. As he comes even closer into view she can see the sweat glisten along the angles of his face.
The youth does not hesitate at the picket gate, walks straight up the gravel path, past the lavender. He stops only once he reaches the bottom of the steps to the house. As he lifts his face to her she notes that he is African; gleaming skin stretched tight over the fine bones of his body. Too bony — too thin.
“Look for work,” he says. “Fences, plant, look after animals. Grow things.” His eyes dart about.
She is still three steps higher than him on her veranda, elbows planted on the railing. She leans forward; her back is still hurting. Perhaps she expects a smile.
“My husband is away.”
“Look for work,” he repeats. “Refugee.”
Does she believe him? It’s possible he could have come from the detention centre, though a few hundred kilometres away. She joins her hands behind her back in a stretch, then raises both arms to ease the pain. He flinches, for the first time letting slip some kind of emotion. She wants to apologise for frightening him.
He is close enough for her to see he is parched. His lips are cracked, the crusty white of dry spittle at the edges. He glances up, eyeing the rim of the sky.
“Do you need water?” she asks.
She enters the house through the French doors that she has left wide open to the flies and pests, and opens the fridge door. No light comes on. Damn it! The generator has gone again. Her hands pass over the packets of meat she had put there earlier to defrost. Warm. She feels the juice bottle, the milk cartons, the beer, the carafe of water. All body temperature.
“Damn!” she calls out loud, not daring to voice anything stronger. She takes a jug to the sink, turns on the tap, waits for the drumming of the pump, hoping it won’t scare him. The water comes out in tepid spurts, too warm, rust coloured. Now she’ll have to find someone to work out what’s wrong with the generator. They need help with the fences. She needs help with it all. She passes a hand over her abdomen. The baby’s elbow has arced from under her rib cage, or so it feels, rolling under her taut skin like a tsunami. Perhaps it is turning. Or dropping, engaging.
When she returns with the jug and beaker, he is gone. She hesitates in the door frame. Maybe he is under the house, seeking shade. From the veranda she casts her eyes over the endless land, scanning from the edge of the picket fence to the edge of the horizon. The lines of sky and earth had met, so she thought, in the form of this man. But now he is gone.
She takes the steps carefully, not wanting to startle him with any sudden movement. But also, she’d felt a sudden, spreading contraction. She sets the jug and beaker down and places both hands under her belly. She has to stand still, clench her pelvic floor muscles.
“Do you want water?” she calls, turning, looking behind her, trying to bend so as to see under the house. She can’t see him. “Here’s water. It’s warm, sorry.”
“Hello?” she calls, “Are you all right? I think we could do with some help...we do have some fences...”
She has walked to the back of the house now. The sun, risen half-way in the sky, spears its rays into her face. It’s too hot, all of a sudden, to be living here with no water, no electricity — and to be having a baby. She needs to get her phone, call Carl, call someone over at the yards to come home and sit with her; maybe the baby will come early.
There he is, over near the fence. His body is slung over the gate — resting? Ill?
“Hey?” she calls out. She can’t help thinking he has taken a few liberties. He is on their property, after all, within the boundaries of the house. She walks towards him with the water. Up close to him now, she notices his bloodshot eyes. And how his skin is stretched too tautly over his skeleton. Starved. Does she really want to hire him?
He straightens from his slumped position and takes the beaker she offers, draining it and holding it out for more. She pours, silently.
“I’ll take you over to the men,” she says. “You might be able to help.”
He follows her over the rocky stubble, past the tanks, past the windmill. The earth is cracked. If only it would rain, she thinks again, a persistent, futile thought.
Is she mad? God knows how he has survived until now — on the run, escaped from the centre? She recalls his flinching at the mere raising of her arms just then. What has he lived, this young man, in his twenty short years? She could call the cops, but something holds her back. She keeps a way ahead of him, throwing a glance back over her shoulder every ten metres. He says nothing. Maybe he has spoken all the English he knows.
At the outhouse she indicates for him to help her raise the roller-door. He seems to understand to climb into the passenger side of the ute and she clambers in to the driver’s. The keys are sitting in the ignition. She fires up and reverses out. Then over the stony ground, revving and skidding until she finds the track, accelerating as she feels another contraction. Not close enough together yet. What should it be — every five minutes?
“Hang on,” she says, an afterthought. They are at a fork in the road, headed towards the woolshed, but she takes the right track instead. It’s not well-graded. The ute bucks and strains. “I want to show you something.” It occurs to her that she’s left her phone at the house. Oh, well. They won’t be long.
The ghost town of Mindowie is reduced to a few crumbling foundations. Old stone, rising in columns that run almost parallel to the upward thrust of the slopes of the Pound beyond. The colour of wheat, now that the sun is almost overhead. She hasn’t had the time to visit lately, though it’s a favourite spot.
“Here are the remains of the pub,” she points out, stepping carefully over the sprawl of rocks. “See, here’s the bottom of a thick old beer bottle.” She looks through it at a magnified diorama, the ochre, the purple, the grey-green of the scrub all merging kaleidoscopically. When she offers it to him he takes it, dutifully, and looks through. She tries to see it through his eyes. What would he understand? What would he know about pubs, or mining booms for that matter, or the dusty bullock droves that called by? Yet she talks on. “Here’s the old store, here’s the well. If you come here at dusk you’ll disturb a pack of roos.”
She glances at his face, trying to see what it is registering. At least, he seems to be listening. “People came here with such hope,” she says. “When there was rain.” He bends to pick up a smashed piece of porcelain. “They lived with the land and what it offered.” Briefly she looks up at the bleaching sun overhead. “But then, with the drought, people died. Of thirst, or dysentery. They found them in the parched creek beds.”
The young man looks at her. Just looks.
“Then when the drought broke, people came back.” She speaks quickly, now. “They built a post office, a police station, a public eating house. A new railway line, you can still go for a ride on it. They all came back, you see. Like us. Like you.” There’s a crack in her voice and she places a hand on her belly. “That little baby who made a family, she made a life for the publican or the blacksmith or the postie, made it worth their while to come back and start again.” Too much for him to follow, but she’s said it now.
She turns to him, facing him fully.
“Where are you from?”
“Yes, I have heard,” she says. She doesn’t know much about it, only that it is always the same senselessness. She doesn’t like to think about war with this new life blooming within.
“Where is your family?” She regrets her clumsiness immediately. He doesn’t answer, looks down at the earth.
She lets a moment of silence pass. “Here it is not a war between people.”
He looks directly at her, and she thinks he has understood. Understands this land. The colour and the harshness, she imagines, of his own.
She casts one last look up to the sky, through the split stone walls to the ranges. There are no clouds, or just a few wisps and a light breeze. “One day, the war will be over,” she whispers. “I had better take you to the men.”
He nods. He must be hungry, she thinks, but he should still earn his lunch, shouldn’t he? They pick their way back to the ute, and climb in.
When they arrive at the woolshed the men are half way through the . Sheep still awaiting their brief, brutal surgery are cooped together in pens, nervously jostling for limited space. There is a ripple as they approach; she slows the ute, not wanting to start a panicky stampede.
“I’ve brought you a hand,” she calls out. A few men look up, then she spots Raymond, the foreman. He strides over. She opens her door.
“Where have you been? I’ve been trying to call.” Ray looks ferociously at the Sudanese. “Who’s he?”
“I’ve been showing him around.” She realises she hasn’t even asked the man his name. “He’s going to do some fencing for us. He can help you today.”
“Are you crazy?” Raymond glares at her, as if the African man cannot hear, much less understand. “Where did you find him?”
“He...” She is not sure why she wants to defend him, but she will. “He’s a refugee. He needs work. I’m sure he’ll...be useful.”
Ray indicates to the youth to get out. “Go over there, they’ll show you. What’s your name?”
“Aluong,” he answers.
“Go help over there.”
Aluong nods and lopes over to join the men hauling ewes into the processing line. She eyes the procedure, hears the baying of the cut sheep, coughs to cover up her abhorrence.
Ray squares to face her. “Carl has been trying to get you.”
“Oh.” She feels her abdomen tighten like a hard-boiled egg.
“You’d better call him.” Ray thrusts her his phone.
She punches in the number. “Carl?”
“Rosie? I couldn’t reach you.” Her husband sounds annoyed.
“Sorry. I was...I was showing a new station hand around. I forgot the phone.”
“Oh — well hang on, we mightn’t need...How are you going?”
“I’m fine. It might be soon, contractions keep coming, but not regular - yet.”
“Okay, good. Listen — I’ll be tied up a bit longer. There’s a buyer. Serious buyer.”
She can’t reply. Before her swim hummocks of dry grass. The ridged silhouettes of the ranges loom and brim in the distance, a mirage.
“Rosie? Rosie are you there? I’ve just told Raymond. He’s not that thrilled, of course. So don’t hire anyone just now.”
Still she can’t speak. She feels the stones crumbling, golden ochre stones, hand-hewn, stacked neatly, stone by stone. You can still see the mortar , she saw it today, rectangular chalky lines, etched laboriously, perfectly, as if just completed yesterday.
“Look, there’s just no rain, darling. It’s more than a drought, we don’t need an expert to tell us that. We had a few bumper years, punted on the lavender. But we’re north of Goyder’s, don’t forget.”
As he says it, she senses the slightest change in the air, as if the wind has turned grey. She’s forgotten to mention the generator and now he’s about to hang up.
“Rosie? I gotta go. Don’t worry, I’ll work out a good deal, hey, baby? We’ll set up somewhere close, a really nice town, have a hobby farm...Rosie...it’s cutting out.”
He is gone. She glances over to Ray, ordering the guys around. In the pens a ewe is straining, throat high, expelling a lamb. The other ewes bustle and jam around her. She gives a last groan and the lamb is out, dazed, yellowed, perfectly formed. The ewe nuzzles it momentarily, licking away the amniotic staining, letting it wobble in the dirt. The guys slap the sheep to move through. It doesn’t matter that this one has just given birth. She’s still due for the cut. She catches Aluong — paused, as well, observing. Ray is calling to him, wake up man, there’s work to be done. But the youth had caught her eye, and his had lingered briefly on her own swollen belly. And he’d given the smallest flicker of a smile.
She moves to the side of the pen and has to raise her voice over the din.
“Aluong — you can work for today and I can feed you. But I can’t take you on. We might be selling the farm.”
His face was indeterminate before, but she can read this changed look, no doubting. From momentary calm, it’s transformed into panic, the only way to describe it.
“I fix fences?” he says.
“I’m sorry. It’s not my choice.”
“Plant? Stones, build houses?”
“I would love you to build the houses again, Aluong. But it’s not possible.”
Now his face is thunderous. Absurd, she thinks, now, that she might have imagined influencing the shape of his fugitive, stricken life.
Aluong peels off the gloves he has been given and throws them to the ground.
“Wait! Where are you going?” she cries.
His bloodshot eyes are wild.
Without warning, the sky cracks open. A moment ago there were no clouds; now there are clouds, great black wedges that will wring themselves out and disperse in an instant. Rain sheets fall in a brief volley; then heavy, pelting stones. Aluong looks up, around, as if choosing one direction over all the other, same directions. Then, he sprints.
“Wait! Aluong. We can work something out — stop. Don’t run away. There’s nowhere to go.”
In the next instant she takes chase, oblivious to the calls from the men. Running, as if she can catch up to him, a lumbering, white woman, baby dropped in her abdomen, in pursuit of an African youth fleeing at the speed of a cheetah.
But run she will, until she can run no longer in the fleeting, unsustaining rain; until she is tailed and checked by a stunned foreman, until the youth has disappeared, swallowed by the jaws of ground and sky, become one with the emus and the wild goats in the unforgiving land.
Until her waters break, and she gives life.
|*Goyder’s line, named in 1865 after George Goyder, Surveyor-General of South Australia, refers to a boundary line in northern South Australia beyond which the rainfall was determined to be insufficient for agriculture.
© Jane Turner Goldsmith, 2016