You were eight years old, and had never worn a sweater. Shivering in the cold was a descriptive gap left in books, and your imagination struggled to transform freezer ice into fields of snow.
Instead, you met the sun every morning, thanked it for leaving at night, and watched your father mow, day in day out, the tides of red dirt that kissed every corner of your homestead.
You once swam in dams, rode horses, chased pigs, and sooked poddies. So your father said. But all you remember ever doing is reading books, and conquering trees.
Most were grey skeletons by the time you were tall enough to reach the first notch to the first branch. Your father warned their roots were rotting, but you climbed regardless, just to check you weren’t missing anything at the top.
Your torn spine books explained little men and little women peeping through rainforest canopies to find candy lands and rose lit plains. The giant grey gums nested little in the way colour range, and it was usually only ever one unattainable branch that threw the chance of seeing beyond any possible outskirts. Over the hill, and far away, to the green of the other side.
But everything in your range was lit with a darker red, a land that natured little enchantment. Your hands, grasping at the trunk, would burn from friction, and the sun would beat the part of your neck your collar gave up on. And when you found yourself unable to go higher, and unable to see further you closed your eyes, squeezed them beyond comfort, and found relief in the black view that eventually returned to a bloody red.
The property was dire. The heat serrated every living thing with a blunt blade, yet bore water was something the body knew was last resort. Life was a haze of the dead amongst the dying. Trees, shrubs, a house, Dad, your dogs and the arid.
“All we’ve got to do is hold out for better prices,” he told your step-mother, the only accessory to your forced fairytale. But when she left for the city, probably to live with her parents, your story thinned, and a happy ending slumped with the cattle prices.
“All we have to do is keep them alive,” your father said months later. “Just till the summer storms come.”
But when the storms came, they were made up of wind and resistance. The clouds were dark but empty, yet the weather’s rage picked up dust and dropped it back onto the earth like dry fall.
Most of the beasts died that season, and the rest, skeletal and long feral, jumped the barbed wire fence into the national park next door. You remembered, weeks after they left, the skeleton twisted in the wire, with hanging bits of hide and bone rattling without wind. It should have been frightening, but it held some solace amongst the otherwise empty scenery.
One low thirty day, your father took you down to what remained of the river. Like his will, it was low, but not lost. He’d hoped for a yellow belly, you yabbies.
But when he pulled out the ninth carp – its eight predecessors on the bank like a firing squad’s triumph – he stabbed it and stabbed it, long after it stopped it’s inoffensive struggle, with the half rusted pigging knife. And you wanted to cry and scream for him to stop, but little girls in Akubras don’t do that, so you looked away without turning your back.
That night your father cooked steak. Yours bled a thin red onto the plate, because it was seared straight from the freezer. There were no vegetables, no chips, no bread, no accompaniment besides your glass of sarsaparilla cordial. Your father sat in silence while you talked about a man in your book called Shackleton. At this point you started to wonder if your father was feeding you the kangaroo from the freezer and dressing it as beef. You wouldn’t have minded either way, his silence was what made your food taste dusty.
Like most nights you lay awake, not unable to sleep because of the heat, but because of the sweat it drained from your pores. The evening before’s output made your bed sticky like dried glue. Switching sides was like having a dozen nails caught on threads – it was more annoying than painful, and the relief was rarely worth the effort.
You waited twenty minutes after your father’s light went out, listening to the clicks of your wall clock, convinced every third’s pause was longer than the preceding two. You grabbed the jeans from your floor, pulled them over your pyjama pants, and put on your greying sneakers.
You didn’t need a torch, but you always took one anyway. The moon lit the land in a shade you preferred – cooler with less glare.
The dogs slept in old pig cages, and knew not to yap after the sun was down. You let the kelpies Jesse, Red and Katie out, after the three pig dogs who all went by ‘Dog’. Katie kept jumping up and licking your chin, and two of the Dogs chased each other around your legs. Your father had warned you against sooking the dogs too much – they were workers not pets, but since their work lay rotting on wire fences, you saw little harm in a pat.
Every time you visited the dogs, you felt around in your stories for a new plan. From what you saw in the unimaginable dome of the sky, you knew something could take you somewhere. And the relief would be great
The dogs followed you to behind the motorbike shed, which was in partial ruins since last summer. A sheet of grey, scorched, corrugated iron, slightly construed and upturned by the day’s heat, lay like startled cloth. You’d collected twine from molding bails of hay, and grabbed the pig knife from the back of the ute. You had six old halters from the once active stable that still smelt of pony, and you dropped them all beside your frame.
The twine was thin, tough and durable enough to hold it’s cargo. You cut six pieces of different lengths – two short, two long and two even longer. The corrugated iron had six holes from where it had been nailed onto the roof – one on each corner and two on the side.
For once you thanked God for the calyces on your hands. Pushing the twine through the holes should have torn at the tips of your prints, but instead with clear precision under sky light, you had pieces tied on within minutes.
At one point you thought you saw a wild goat, but before you had a chance to chase your eyes, you realized you were humming. And before you had a chance to notice the fevered tinge of delusion in your voice, you caught true sight of what you’d created.
You called the dogs with names by their names, and called the Dogs. Katie was the kindest, so you slipped the head of one horse halter over neck, and fastened the chin strap around her stomach. She didn’t flinch, or query the contraption – just assumed the straps as her new role. Jesse was less complying, and Red rolled over every time you touched her stomach. The Dogs wagged dopily as you fitted them, and seemed happy to have purpose again.
From iron, to twine, to halter, you tied each dog to a corresponding piece of harness. Pig dogs on the shorter pieces, Jesse and Katie at front. Your sled looked near perfect, though your huskies were happier to lay down than stand with pride.
You tied an extra two long pieces to your leaders Jesse and Katie, and led your pack down the rock laced, red graveled driveway. The corrugated iron screeched – the thin screams against the sharp pebbles that lay beneath probably stired your father, but nothing more.
50 meters, and 10 minutes later you reached the red snowfield. Arid, and dry. On one side of you was a fence post that began kilometers of barbed wire boundaries. Your other side showed a pole that started the exact same shooting in a different direction. You intended to go straight. Straight out to what you’d never seen.
At once, all the dogs pricked their ears and started to struggle away at something small and insignificant in a dried shrub, but as soon as you snapped, “Settle down” their attention returned to you.
You sat on the piece of corrugated iron, your jeans snatching on its rusted tears. The iron was hard on your spine, but you intended a fast and swift journey, with few bumps. With a mighty, “Hi Yah” you whipped the reigns and cooed the dogs to leap forward. Leap forward, up and away.
But almost as soon as you’d sat down, the dogs turned their heads to you and let their tails follow. They gave up with wagging tails, and took to your side. You sat deflated with Katie’s head rested in your lap, twine twisted and torn at your feat.
And with a gust of wind that shadowed the moon with a cloud, your flight path dimmed to a cold and foreign shade. Your accident of proximity never seemed so black and fate-changing.
And the relief was great.