What was all the fuss about? As she sat in front of the artist, she wondered why her husband wanted her portrait painted. To have another man look at her with such intensity and scrutiny for long periods of time filled her with embarrassment, forcing her to resist the urge to turn away, to scratch her nose, to blink her dry eyes, anything to avoid his glaring blue eyes. The woes of being a woman, she thought.
Nearing the end of the first sitting, for but a single moment, the sun reversed its path in the heavens and then continued its normal routine. At the time, the artist was focused on his palette and when his gaze returned to the subject, her face was pale and tears flowed down her cheeks. She was looking past the artist’s right shoulder; her eyes gazed somewhere distant, somewhere unseen.
“Is there something wrong?” the artist inquired.
Her response was that of alarm, as though awakened from a dream, and in a flash, she fled from the chair and ran out the door. He turned too late and caught sight of her shawl falling down her shoulders.
On the second day, she arrived early and gave a heartfelt excuse for her behavior. She then sat in the same pose as the previous day. Her face was blank and her body unmoving. After two hours, her eyes glistened, and with difficulty, she swallowed her sadness.
The artist put down his brush and approached the woman. Her breathing was shallow and heavy.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Am I offending you?” he asked.
“No.” She wiped the tears from her eyes and cheeks. “All is well. Please continue.”
The artist gave a nod and returned to his easel. Painting continued, and that day’s session ended with the subject still seated in her chair.
At the third sitting, an hour passed, and the artist stole a closer look at the woman’s face. The corners of her lips were curved upward, ever so subtly. Her eyes came alive; once again they gazed beyond his right shoulder. The artist turned to see what she was looking at but all he saw was an open window.
He asked her, “Signora, what are you looking at?”
She blinked and glanced at the artist.
“My mother,” she answered.
“Yes. She is standing outside. She has visited each day that you have been painting me.”
The artist walked over to the window.
“I don’t see anyone.” He turned and faced her, blocking the view out of the window.
She smiled. “I am blessed to see her. My mother died many years ago.”
As Da Vinci stared at Lisa’s face, he saw the duality of suffering and joy as if it were painted by a divine brush. He never forgot that smile.
This is a short story about environmental devastation, selfish greed, pleasurable desires, living intelligently, and taking dynamic, selfless actions.
When a recent wildfire destroyed a flower farm, the owner was devastated. The only item he saved from the fire was a large bag of sunflower seeds which he and his three employees had recently harvested.
Looking out at the blackened fields, the owner had tears in his eyes. He turned to his three employees and said, “My business is now ruined. I will need to close it down and let you all go. The only possession I have is this bag of sunflower seeds. So I will divide it into three and give one share to each of you as final severance for working here.”
The employees agreed in distress. Though they had lost their jobs, their boss had lost his property and possessions.
After wrapping the seeds in old newspaper, the employer gave one parcel to each employee.
The first employee took the seeds home and stored them in the bottom drawer of the kitchen. She thought they may come in handy in the future. Feeling tired and upset, she went to bed early that evening but couldn’t sleep as she was worried that someone would steal the seeds. Every hour or so, she got out of bed to check that they were still there.
The second employee decided to sell the seeds and hold a party. He thought that life was too short to hoard possessions. He might as well have fun while he can. With the money earned, he bought a small keg of beer and invited his friends over to help him drink it. By four the next morning, he was so drunk that he couldn’t remember his own name or his misery of losing his job the previous day.
At first, the third employee wasn’t sure what to do with the seeds. As she drove home from work, she was pondering what she should do. She knew that everything that happens presents us with a golden opportunity and it was as though she had been given the seeds as a divine gift. If she was dynamic and wise, she could change her destiny. Then an idea struck her.
Three months later, the employer rang each of the former employees and asked if he could see them. The three of them went to the abandoned flower farm.
The employer was waiting at the front gate when the first employee arrived looking anxious and upset.
“What did you do with the seeds I gave you?” the employer demanded to know.
“I kept them in the newspaper that you gave me. I thought that the seeds would be useful in the future, but the newspaper got wet and the seeds became mouldy and spoilt.”
“Oh, I see,” the employer said to her.
When the second employee arrived, the employer asked him the same question. “What did you do with the seeds I gave you?”
“I sold them and had a great night. I can’t remember much about it now but it was fun at the time.”
“So, you didn’t keep any of them?”
“No, you said they were like a severance payment, so I spent all the money I made from selling them. Life’s too short to hang onto things.”
As the third employee arrived, the employer was beaming in delight at her. “I know what you did!”
“Me? I didn’t do anything,” she said looking surprised at her former boss.
“Come with me, and you can all see what she did!” he said.
As they walked up to the rear of the property, a mass of bright yellow sunflowers were standing tall, gently waving in the breeze as if to greet them all.
The third employee was smiling at the sight. “I planted the seeds, but Mother Nature was the one who did all of this, not me.”
“That may be true,” the employer said, “but you had the insight to see the sunflowers in the seeds, and the foresight to turn their hidden treasure into something of use for everyone.”
If we all work together in new dynamic ways, we can let go of our anxiety and greed and desire for pleasure, and transform our devastation into paradise.
No one knew me, but everyone worshiped me. I reveled in their reverence; they embraced my creed with all their hearts, minds, and souls. The world that I envisioned was slowly taking shape.
Each day more compounds were constructed, swallowing up masses of land to confine the hordes of prisoners. I coerced more commanders to control the compounds and disseminate my aspirations. For decades, nothing could stop the juggernaut I had created.
The trains were one of the measures to transport prisoners to the compounds. Life in each compound was torturous as people waited out their eventual demise. Long days of labor and poor conditions wore the prisoners down. I watched and laughed as they hung on tight to a hope that one day they might be released from the torment. How pitiful they were!
Yet everything changed in that single moment. One day, during the transportation of prisoners to their compounds, I became aware of a crack in my fortified master plan. The train left early that morning. As the guards watched the prisoners, they stood erect like steel needles, and death was mirrored in their eyes. The smell of apprehension wafted throughout every inch of the train. Did the prisoners really know where they were going? Or were they just following orders, doing what was needed to survive? Or were they simply beguiled by my magnificent and all-pervading propaganda? My regime was relentless; the war continued every day for as long as everyone could remember.
Prisoners didn’t ask questions; acceptance was their creed. They were herded onto the trains, some with a little nervousness but most with an omnipresent dread. A fake smile here, a muffled conversation there, followed by a stern look from another. A pleasant environment it was not, but they all pretended to believe whatever was necessary to distract them from the truth.
The whistle blew and parents held tight to their young ones, hushing any slight murmur. These children sat in blissful ignorance of their impending destiny. I always thought that parents ought to know better, but they didn’t. The blind led the blind, and they all would ultimately fall into the same ditch. I should not have been surprised though; it was my pure brilliance that blinded them.
Their dreams were shot down like warplanes in the sky. For most prisoners on the train, their heartfelt yearnings had barely sprouted, let alone begun to grow into reality. I liked to think of the trains as dream catchers, swallowing whole any semblance of a bright and sunny future.
As each station passed, more prisoners trudged onto the train with their meager belongings. The shackled hand of destiny nudged them onward. Seats were taken with minimal eye contact. Some people made secret acknowledgments which were made in a moment and lost in the next. The train sped forth. The eyes of the guards surveyed their human cattle, and the wheels on the tracks made a violent rattle.
From then on there were no more stops, and the free world outside whizzed by like blurred nightmares. A few seats remained empty and the aisle ways were clear. Some prisoners fell asleep. It was the only way they could drown out their unknown future and surrendered past. Dark clouds hung in the heavens, gripping to an empty gloominess.
Silence suffocated the will to speak but intensified inner verbosity. The awake prisoners performed mental gymnastics of repetitious what if’s and why me’s. As each second passed, hope faded faster than mundane memories. A few prisoners wondered if they would ever see their loved ones again, while others were happy to be rid of them.
And then, in one of the carriages—as though inspired by an even greater power than me—a six-year-old girl escaped the hold of her sleeping mother. She walked into the corridor and stood still for a moment. Some prisoners watched her; the guards did not notice the little one as she was hidden from their view by a large, tall man. Her slender body was adorned with a faded gray dress and her long hair was split into two rearing ponytails.
The girl began to twirl with her arms held outward at an angle. Her dress floated in the air; she was a whimsical whirling dervish. More prisoners began to watch as the girl performed her hypnotizing movement. A merry-go-round of innocence was on display before them. Her eyes were closed and her spirit traversed galaxies. She twirled on a pinpoint. One of the male prisoners who until that moment had been wholeheartedly brainwashed by my worldview could not stop staring at the girl. As he watched, centuries of visions—past and future—formed within his mind. Thoughts thundered through him.
Hypocrisy and democracy. Do as I say and not as I do. The beauty of life overtaken by insatiable greed and the need to toe the line. The flock of sheep bleat to the beat of a materialistic drummer boy. More, we want more; it’s never enough. Why bother anyway?
WHAT’S THE POINT?
In that single moment, the male prisoner caught an unconscious glimpse behind the veil of my ingenious illusion. The twirling stopped and the girl remained motionless. She opened her eyes; they glistened and glimmered like dew kissed by solar rays. Her unblinking eyes stared for miles into the distance. She saw a field of daisies caressed by the breeze. Butterflies frolicked from bloom to bloom, befriending each flower with their unbridled joy. Sunshine graced the earth with untold blessings. The girl saw a different world fed by different desires.
As a single tear escaped from the corner of the girl’s left eye, rain began to strike the train windows. She fell down on her knees, bowed her head, and clasped her hands together in front of her heart. The rain intensified and the little girl prayed. It was a prayer that heralded a shift in the power of my regime. When her supplication was offered, she rose taller than a giant sunflower and walked back to her seat where her mother was now watching her.
The train shuddered and stopped and then lurched forward again, bringing the male prisoner’s awareness back to the carriage. Shaken and stirred, the man sighed. The darkness in his eyes had changed; a sliver of light peaked through the window of his irises. In years to come, this male prisoner would escape and lead the downfall of my regime. He didn’t know it yet, but Mitch Matthews, as he would later become known, would be chosen to lead a revolution.
A heaviness of heart descended upon the prisoners as the train arrived at its final destination. The mother whispered to her daughter, “Sweetheart, what were you praying for?” The girl considered the question for a moment and many of the prisoners stood up to leave.
Looking out of the window, the mother saw the rush of commuters at central station. Men in suits and women in fancy skirts and high heels carried laptops or talked on mobile phones. They walked to the beat of my hypnotic mantra and acted like model prisoners as they headed off to their compounds for a long day’s labor. The mother was still waiting for her daughter to respond. Finally, the little girl answered, “May we all wake up. May we all wake up.”
Long ago, before the world as we know it had seven continents, the sun abandoned her usual routine and decided that she preferred to stay in bed with the covers over her head. The world was in darkness. Owls, bats, and other nocturnal creatures were in delight, whereas tiny sparrows and shy deers were in fright. Without the sun to light the open sky and to warm the damp ground, how could they traverse their paths?
The darkness persisted for what would have been seven days and seven nights. Now, even the bats were fed up. They couldn’t sleep because the owls were hooting nonstop. Clouds were vanishing and the moon had lost its glow. Temperatures were dropping and the cows were overflowing with iced milk as the milkmaids couldn’t find their way to the cowsheds. The snakes were tired from oversleeping, and the fires were raging with anger because everyone wanted them to burn so brightly—they had never worked so hard in their life.
All of God’s creatures and elements came together to discuss their predicament. The mountains, the trees, the rivers, the moon, and the stars were the first ones there. Then, all the animals, from the two-legged to the four-legged to the three-toed, turned up. Next came the reptiles, the amphibians, and the sea creatures—from the smallest mites to gigantic whales.
Being the designated king, the lion asked, “What should we do?”
“We can’t take this darkness any longer,” the exhausted bats cried.
“Without the sun, we are withering,” the sunflowers said. “The sun was part of us and we are part of it. Without the sun, we are dying!”
One by one, the creatures and the elements stated their case.
Little Jacob Sparrow observed the assembly with keen interest, spying down on them from his high perch in an apple tree. He was a petite and polite boy, and many tagged him with the sobriquet Chirpy because of his cheerful temperament. He lived in a humble hut, along with his father, his mother, and six siblings—three girls and three boys, and a dog named Lewis. The entire family loved life, even though they all had to work long days cultivating their land. Many avoided them as they were considered to be one of the poorest families in all of creation. But they accepted the enduring darkness that surrounded them and everyone else.
After hearing everyone’s case, the lion proclaimed, “I will travel to the sun and ask her if she can rise again.”
The goats cheered, the ocean waved, and the clouds wept tears of joy.
With his head bowed, the lion ventured off to the sun, holding a fire stake to guide the way.
“Good evening, glorious sun,” the lion said. “I have come to ask one request.”
“Hello, my gracious lion,” the sun said from behind the covers, trying hard not to beam too bright as she didn’t want to blind him.
“You have come such a long way. Please take a seat. What is it you have come here to request?”
“With utmost respect, I ask that on behalf of all of creation—the earth, the water, the fire, the air, the space, all the humans and the animals, the trees and flowers and all living beings, the stars and the planets, the moon, and the ocean—may you please rise again? We miss you. We long to have day and night return to us.”
“Thank you for such a beautiful sermon. But unfortunately, the answer is no.”
“Why not, dear sun?”
“I have burned so many creatures from my strong rays. Millions have been hurt and damaged by my strength and vigor—this was not my intention. I feel such deep sorrow for the damage I have caused and I have decided to no longer rise.”
“But isn’t it your duty to shine brightly?”
“My decision has been made and no one can change my mind.”
With that said, the lion picked up his burning stake and left.
When the sunflowers heard the lion’s disappointing news, they decided to visit the sun.
“Hello beautiful sunflowers,” the sun said.
The sunflowers opened their withered faces, basking in the sun’s warmth. “Dearest namesake, we have come to ask you to shine on the earth again. We miss your play. Without you, we cannot grace the world with our beauty. You are our inspiration and our life force. We are dying to see you again.”
“Thank you for your beautiful words. But no one or nothing can sway me. I will shine no more.”
With their petals wilted low, the sunflowers returned to the earth.
When the clouds heard of the sunflowers attempt, they too decided to visit the sun. The moment they arrived and saw the sun hiding, the clouds collapsed into a puddle of emotion. “Oh, our beloved sun,” they said, “we cannot take your absence any longer. If you don’t shine, water cannot evaporate and we can’t cry tears of rain. The plants need us to do our duty. We beseech you to show yourself again.”
“Dear clouds, I understand your anguish, but I cause too much pain to beam upon the world, and I much prefer to stay here in bed.”
Hearing of the clouds’ failure, the ocean devised a plan that went against the current of the others. It then worked up the courage to visit the sun.
“Greetings, Great Light,” the ocean said. “I understand that you don’t want to hurt people with your joyous rays. But please dear sun, it is not your fault that this happens. I too hurt others. People drown within my deadly waves; seafarers cannot resist their desire to explore my treacherous turquoise seas knowing they may not return. The young and the old have died in my lap many times over, yet I do not dry up. So too, day in, day out, you must continue to rise and shine.”
“Your argument is very convincing, my tidal friend, but I will shine no more.”
Disappointment flooded the ocean. It had been swelling with confidence that it would succeed, but now it was flat and without a ripple in sight.
The lion called another meeting to discuss this perplexing situation. With his mouth open, his cold yellow eyes staring straight ahead, and his mane full of leaves, the lion waited for all to arrive.
“Order, order!” the lion called out when everyone was assembled. “So far we have failed in our attempt to convince the sun to shine upon the earth again. Does anyone have any ideas as to what we can do next?”
Some began arguing and blaming others for causing the sun to hide. The trees pointed branches at the crows, hunters directed their rifles at the lion, venomous snakes poisoned the lakes, the whales thumped the ocean, tidal waves extinguished the fires, and thunderbolts struck the mountains.
The lion let out a deafening roar. Tiny ants stopped biting, and feisty stars from faraway heavens stopped bickering. The crowd was dead silent. One couldn’t even hear another living creature’s heart beating nor detect the diverse melodies of nature running its course. Surveying those present, the lion said, “Dear friends, how can we argue at a time like this? We are in a desperate situation and we must work together.”
The assembly decided to send a large group: bats, dolphins, milkmaids, the moon, doves, an arrow-maker, moths, deers, honey-gatherers, and a courtesan. The motley crew greeted the sun, and then one by one each advocate tried to convince her to change her mind.
Disappointed, they all returned.
Seeing their long faces, little Jacob Sparrow decided to visit the sun. He did so for no good reason, though. He didn’t want to convince her to shine again as he knew that others had gone and failed. His parents had taught him to never ask or beg for anything. He wasn’t curious either; in fact, he didn’t like to travel as he was content with wherever he was. But the wind was perfectly still, and he could hear a soft, sweet sound calling his name.
When little Jacob Sparrow arrived, he got down on his knees and bowed low, with his two palms together in front of his heart. “Hello, my beautiful sun.” A tiny tear fled from the corner of his left eye.
“Hello, my dear child,” the sun said.
The boy stood up and gazed at the sun’s bed, lost for words.
“Have you come here to ask me something?”
“No, I have not, my beloved sun.”
The sun raised her eyebrows. “No, my dear child? Then why are you here?”
“I have come to adore you. I have come to let you know that I understand your decision.”
“Thank you, little Jacob. You are the only one who feels that way.”
“My beloved sun, while I have learned to live in darkness, I remind myself regularly that this is not how things truly are. I remember your light, and I will never forget you.”
“I am so happy to hear this.”
“My one concern, my beloved sun, is that I pray others will not forget you too.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is very easy to adore those that we see, and it is very easy to ignore those we cannot see.”
“But you know I’m here. I will always be here for you and everyone.”
“I know that. But many who live in this beautiful creation don’t know that. Some are already starting to forget you, and the newly born calves, seedlings, and rivulets can only imagine what you are like. Very soon, many won’t know the opposite of darkness, but I understand your decision as to why you cannot show them.”
Little Jacob’s comment struck the sun harder than a speeding comet. “You are right!”
“I am?” The boy’s tone of voice was squeaking with bewildered excitement.
“Yes, Jacob. And it makes me wonder…” The sun was silent for a moment. “My ancestors used to say, ‘If we don’t know what’s right, we’ll be living in blinding darkness. But if we do know what’s right and we don’t do it, then we’ll enter into greater darkness.’ They were the brightest of all! Thank you, my son. I now know what needs to be done.”
“Thank you, my sun. I now know my purpose here is done.”
The sun very slowly pulled back the covers, fully accepting the consequences of her duty. Her intense bright light instantly burned holes in little Jacob Sparrow’s retinas. Unable to see, he collapsed to his knees. As the sun rose to her feet, her scorching heat blistered the boy’s skin, causing it to bubble and burst. His clothes peeled off, and his brown, curly hair was scorched into a powdery black dust.
Little Jacob Sparrow’s deceased body lay beside the sun as if it were her black leather tote bag, empty and worthless. The soul that once dwelled inside it had fled, and the sun’s face was wet with tears, knowing that she would be forever indebted to the boy for his love and sacrifice.
Although her radiant heart was discolored by the boy’s burnt remains, the sun raised her arms up, yawned, and realized how good it felt to be shining bright again.
All of creation rejoiced. From that moment on, the moon has always reflected the sun’s tiny black blemish, a blemish that reminds us every day of our beloved friend Chirpy.
My life started eons before you mixed your paint. Eons before you first put brush to canvas. Mine was a miraculous conception, copulation of celestial magnitude. Everything was dark. Then everything was light. And finally, everything was a mixture of the two.
I arose from the depths of that space. The space between the space. The space within the space. Fortuitous foam was my womb. Exoskeletal wings lifted me from the void of the Great Ocean as I drifted upward, forever upward. Or so it seemed. Dazzling stars flashed; bubbles of divinity danced about me. And finally, I arrived at the surface.
Now, many lifetimes later, standing in front of me with a brush in your hand and a picture of me in your mind, you think that you know me, well enough to paint me. And, maybe you do know me with intimacy. Maybe you can see beyond the lavish cloak of ignorance that you seem so keen to paint, attempting to conceal my dignity, my divinity, my purity. Yet do you know that with this choice you also mask my true beauty? A beauty that is beyond form, beyond human desire; if only two physical eyes could merge into one, then perhaps…
Perhaps there would be less suffering. And more true love.
You paint as though you were there with me when the west wind blew. Flowers fell like feathers in the air and spring soared on heavenly wings. I was neither content nor displeased as I landed on the shore of the world. It was my duty. What was I to do?
In your final brushstrokes, you said farewell. But how can you say goodbye to your own reflection unless you destroy the mirror? Or maybe the mirror itself never existed? Nor you. Nor me. Nor anything.
“What are ya doin’, throwin me out into the bitey night? Everyone else is stayin’ in, eatin’ pie and playin’ the pianola. So I snuffled up a few crumbs, alright a whole pie, off Uncle Alfie’s plate. He’s so tubby he didn’t need it and he shouldna left it on the floor. I know the rules. What’s on the floor is mine, what’s on the table is yours. I obeyed to the letter and ya still throwin’ me out with the mosquitos. If Nick were here, he’d stand up for me. I just can’t understand ya, Mum, I didn’t do anything wrong.” Blue, ears hanging halfmast, pressed his nose against the clean glass of the verandah door. “Happens every time ya put up that weird green thing ya call a tree! Ya invite all this mob ya call a family, bunch of freeloaders if ya ask me, then ya stack pointy cardboard boxes on me favourite sleeping place, under that dust-coated, plastic monstrosity, Five minutes later ya throw me outside. Last year it was because I made a bed on a knee rug Aunt Ada made for Grandma. So I got a bit of mud on it…if Dad hadn’t thrown me bed out I wouldna done it. Grandma didn’t need a rug anyway, not in that heat. A bloke’s gotta have a place to sleep. Anyway Nick rescued me, smuggled me into his bed with him and Natalie, and made me official guard of their new kid. Ya gotta admit I’ve done a pretty good job of that since the Goddamn army sent Nick to a war that can’t be won in a place where Christmas is only a dream.” Blue picked himself up and ambled around the verandah to the little boy’s room. He spread himself across the door, on guard.
When the lights dimmed, the noise diminished and the house creaked with sleepiness, Mum stole out in her white-tent nightie to give Blue a frozen chicken leg and a cuddle. “I know you miss him, Blue. I do too. All this Christmas fuss seems pointless without Nick. I keep listening for his laughter.”
Blue nosed the glass door where Mum’s grandson slept deeply and licked his mistress’s hand. Mum looked at the tiny shape and the lonely silhouette of his mother, Natalie, Nick’s wife.
“She’s empty like us, without him.” A tear slipped from Mum’s eye. “You’re doing such a good job looking after Nick’s precious treasures.” Mum fondled Blue’s soft, limp ears. “My dearest wish for Christmas is that Nick could come home, even for a minute.” She sighed. “We’ll just have to settle for second best and fuss over Natalie and the child.”
Feeling appreciated, Blue settled to watch over Natalie and the boy, and the rest of the house, except for Uncle Alfie who didn’t deserve to be guarded if he didn’t obey the rules. The night was a velvet quilt that wrapped the house in peace until some red-coated intruder with a beard just perfect for a bird to nest in, thumped a no-wheeled contraption pulled by giant kangaroos onto the front lawn. Blue tried to head him off, but the old guy was a slick mover. He was fiddling with the glass door’s handle before Blue got a firm grip on the slippery black leather that covered the man’s mighty legs.
“Only in Australia do I have to dodge dog-protectors. It’s so uncivilized not have a chimney to keep me away from rabid animals. As for Christmas in summer…” The old fellow wiped a creek of sweat from his jolly, red face. Blue was not distracted.
“Look what you’ve done to my boot. The elves will have great trouble fixing this. Be a good dog and let me go. I got work to do—I need to give the boy something very important.” The red-coated fellow reached out to grab Blue’s collar to restrain him.
Blue evaded him with a crafty dodge then planted himself between the perverted night prowler and the boy’s glass door.
“Ya not getting past me, ya turk. I gotta a job an’ I’m doin’ it. I gotta guard the boy …for Nick. He’s away, see, an’ I’ve seen the likes of you on the tele.”
“Aah, someone finally knows where I come from, and it has to be an obstreperous Australian Smithfield who won’t let me do my job. You’ve heard of Nikolaos of Myra, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus? Why won’t you let me do what I need to do?”
Blue flattened his ears, raised his bristles, stuck his tail out straight, lowered his shoulders and widened his stance. He emitted a mighty growl. His mutton-bone sharpened teeth gleamed in the moonlight. Blue meant business.
A shrill whistle broke the stand-off. Someone was calling him. He sneaked a recce round. Dad wasn’t there. Mum couldn’t whistle. The kid was asleep. Natalie was a city-girl. If it was Uncle Alfie, he’d leave a deposit right beside the door of his precious Mercedes, a sloppy one that wouldn’t wipe off his white canvas loafers.
Then Blue heard the volcano of laughter that could only come from one person. He kept the red-coated fellow bailed up until Natalie and the boy were safely in Nick’s arms. He had to make sure there was no skullduggery involved. Mum burst out of the house clutching a teatowel. She howled into it with joy. Dad, smiling like a Cape York croc, rocked from heel to toe on the verandah, waiting for the fuss to die down so he could greet his son.
“He’s what I had to deliver, with a few other things. He hitchhiked with me. We can only stay five minutes. I’ve got a few things left to deliver.” Saint Nicholaus indicated the packed sleigh.
“I won’t bite ya next year. Don’t suppose ya givin’ Uncle Alfie a bit of coal, like? He deserves it.” Blue sidled up to his new–found friend.
“Better. He’s getting a frilly apron, a year’s supply of floor washing detergent and a mop.”
Blue licked the old boy’s hand. “Yeah, that’ll do.” He rushed off, then, to enjoy his part of Nick’s attention.
Running. Gotta keep running. I can hear the baying, the slavering…funny I didn’t know men could do that. They’ve got dogs with ‘em but cattle dogs aint trackers.
Running. Got to get to…can’t say it. Them white demons read minds almost but they won’ read mine. Getting closer. There’s the river. Into the reeds. Under the water. Break off a reed pipe —breathe. Wait.
The Missus said there’d be trouble while she was away. Said the white fullas need women round to keep ‘em civilized. Guess she didn’t mean my kind. Only took a day for the Boss to come sniffin’ round.
Well I’m not havin’ no gubbah gubbah crawling over my body lookin’ to invade. Not after what the Missus said about sin and this marriage thing the preacher talk about. One man, one woman. Sides which it’s the Boss lookin’ to settle his itch. Don’t he know anythin’ about kinship.
Hear their great beasts surging through the water so close. Keep still. Keep still.
I hear Nullaboi’s voice above the clatter and splash of the hard driven animals. What’s he doin’ with ‘em? Tracking me? He’s my promised. Has he sold me on? Yeah, probably for that booze stuff that sends him off his head.
Wish a croc ‘d get ‘em but a croc is more likely to get me if it were this close. Their rampaging is fading away. All that time I spent cleaning the schoolroom and learnin’ to read recipe books cause the Missus said I should learn to cook proper so she didn’ havta. I can read anything, every book and paper in that house and I know words. Rampage. Ravage. Unconscionable. Rape. I can name things proper.
Up river. Follow me songline to the sacred place. Gubbah gubbah don’t know this place. Follow the sultry water into the narrow chasm, scramble over the guardian rocks into the tunnel beneath Little Paaraauw, into the darkness, the welcoming darkness. Nullaboi is not allowed here. This is women’s place.
The great cave drips around me. Above I feel the bones of the ancestors and the birth cries of mothers long past. Safe here. I settle on a ledge with my feet tickling the cool water.
Wait. They’ll give up soon.
I cut my hair with the scissors from the Missus’ mending kit. I strap my breasts. I pull on patched moleskins and a loose shirt I fixed last week. They once were the old man’s, can’t say his name, dead he is. The old man was taken by the scarlet fever. I smoked them clothes to get rid of his spirit though I wasn’ sure that the evil germs in them would go away. I plan to join a droving team. I can ride better than any white bastard cause I listen to my horse and read the earth around. I move tomorrow. Nobody will take notice of a boy slipping through the bush.
I make my way back along the tunnel to the hidden entrance. Sneak a peek out to make sure it’s safe to get away.
So much for sacred women’s business, so much for women’s place. Nullaboi, what have you done? Their camp is not fifty yards away. You must have brought them here. They mightn’t know the entrance but they know the chasm is the only way out. Can I bluff it?
I hear ‘em talk bout what women do here. Hear Nullaboi say it’s a good woman trap. Say women come here to get baby spirits. Say no one here to say anything. Say you can do anything with a woman here. Nobody know. Boss say he have my mother here. He have my mother and she got the baby spirit. Me. I don’ stand a chance. I sink back into the darkness.
The booze makes ‘em sing. Makes em dance. Makes em fight. But they do not move.
In the early dawning as the scrag ends of the Morning Glory roll across the sky I see a lone man standing a top the mighty Paaraatha, opposite me. He’s chanting, standing on one leg, holding a spear and pointing a bone straight at the camp, at Nullaboi. The old man must be in the sacredest part of the men’s place, where no woman can go, where no men can go, only elders and kaditcha men. The old ones told me ta stay away, told me you can see kaditcha when something’s wrong.
Nullaboi drops to the ground, screaming in agony, cringing. The horses break their tethers and take off. The men can’t catch ‘em. A call-up of red belly blacks appear, directed by the dark figure with the pointing bone. Rifles won’t shoot. The men run. The Boss is bit not once, not twice but three times. He’s done for. There’s no one left to take his body home.
I catch a horse down river, bring it back and load the corpse on. The old one on the ridge nods approval. I walk the body back and I dump it at the feet of the Missus who has come back. She nods. She understands the message. She knows who I am. Clothes don’t disguise me. She gives me money and a letter to the preacher who said I was smart. I leave with her blessing. I am a Paaraauwi woman who walks her own way. I got the Boss’s DNA. I will return one day to claim my dreaming.
‘Got it? Wait here for me. When I get back
from the supermarket we’ll go home.’
‘Yes, of course I’ve “got it”.
What do you take me for, stupid woman?’
I bite back a retort and spin away from my
husband of fifty-one years so he won’t see the welling tears. ‘Okay, darling.
See you soon, then. Enjoy your coffee.’
I stride off to Woolworths to buy the
groceries and wish—oh, how I wish—the prayers I utter daily will be answered
soon. A miracle? Too much to hope for.
My husband Joe’s decline has been
gradual. The vigorous, athletic, strong, happy, loving man is much reduced: thin,
bent, crotchety and querulous. He tests me. Our lives have become
routine—something we’ve always abhorred—with weekly visits to the doctor, the
supermarket and walks along the beach. He still enjoys the walks with our
little dog, Jake. Jake is good for Joe.
Recently Joe had become aggrieved with
supermarket shopping; he is rude to the staff and other customers, ordering
people to “Get out of my way, you ignorant fool” as well as forgetting
what he’s placed in the trolley. If I attempt to return unwanted items it escalates
into a showdown, so I take the easy option. At least our eight tins of canned
tomatoes will fulfil our needs for months. And I can be thankful he hasn’t started
I pay for the groceries and gird myself for
the reunion at the coffee shop as I push the trolley along the noisy mall.
Sounds are amplified, clattering off the shiny marble-effect tiles, the flat
walls, the endless glass windows. I feel overwhelmed by the sensory input: all
the pushing, hurrying, anxiety-laden people.
‘Pull yourself together,’ I chastise myself,
‘it’s just the shopping centre, for goodness sake. Oh god. Where is he?’
The table at which I’d left him has been
vacated and is now filled with a family of overeaters. My skinny bent husband
has been transformed into a family of four obese individuals tucking into their
pizza and chips. Where is his empty coffee cup and the apple–cinnamon muffin? It
would have been toyed with, reduced to crumbs, mostly untasted.
‘Excuse me,’ I say to the barista, ‘did
you see my husband leave? He was sitting where those people are. I was as quick
as I could be…’ I tail off.
‘Carly, did you see the old gentleman leave
table twenty-four?’ the barista calls to the young waitress, the one with the
brightly coloured gel nails and over-painted face.
‘Yes, he said he was going to meet his
I mutter a ‘thank you’, leave the trolley
at the counter and rush upstairs to the centre management office.
‘What is he wearing, Mrs White?’
‘Oh, um, beige trousers, red braces, a
flannelette shirt with small checks—red and white—and a pair of brown shoes, he
likes them well-shined. Oh yes, and he had a dark green cardigan on too. He
feels the cold nowadays…’
I sit on the edge of the hard-backed
chair in the unfriendly reception area; I hear the announcement over the
loudspeaker. My heart pounds in my chest, my breath shallow. I feel the
familiar cold sweat of dread. Breathe, breathe.
‘He’ll turn up, Mrs White. They always
do,’ says the artless receptionist in an effort to reassure me. I force a tight
smile. ‘We’ve called security and we’ll ring the police for you if he hasn’t
been found within thirty minutes.’
‘Half an hour? He could walk onto the highway
in that time! Oh, I can’t wait here. I’m going home, he might remember the way.
Thank you for your assistance. What? Yes, of course, it’s 0432 987 654.’
I flee down the stairs, bizarrely
remembering to collect the trolleyful of shopping; why does it matter? I rush
to the car hurling the groceries into the back and dutifully return the trolley
to its bay. I drive carefully from the car park, out onto the main road and
turn right to head home—I wonder how I still manage to concentrate—with the rising
panic and flooding adrenaline. The mind is a curious thing.
I am his rock, his security, his link
with reality—whatever he has left of it. Am I alone to think this? Am I being
selfish and self-righteous? Does he wonder—ever—who looks after him, washes his
clothes, shines his shoes, reminds him to shower and to brush his teeth, feeds
him, ensures he takes his medication?
I arrive home to find a police car
parked outside. The young constable is talking to a furious old gentleman.
‘Oh thank God,’ I say. My knees start to
wobble. I lean against the police car, hands shaking.
‘I came as soon as I could, Mrs White.’
‘Yes, thank you, officer. All okay
now…’ I can hear the frantic Jake inside, barking.
‘Why did you leave me there, you awful
woman? What would have happened to me if I hadn’t known the way home? I could
have been run over; I could have been kidnapped; I could have been murdered!
What have you to say for yourself? And it’s not okay! The police are eating out
of your hand now, are they? This is a conspiracy; I’ll report it.’
‘Come on, Joe, darling. Let’s go inside
and I’ll make you a mug of tea. The policeman was just doing his job. I thought
we’d arranged to meet at the coffee shop—my mistake—and then you must have
thought I’d left you behind. Silly thing! Would I do that?’
‘Take your hands off me. You are a… a…
goddammit I can’t remember the word.’
We walk to the door where Jake greets us
with enthusiasm, bouncing up and down, grinning with delight.
‘Hello, mate,’ says Joe; he bends to pet
our dog. We go into the house, I settle Joe into his favourite chair. I put the
kettle on, take two teabags from the pantry, place them in mugs. I turn on the
television; I know he’ll watch whatever happens to be showing. I return to the
car and bring the groceries indoors.
‘Hello darling!’ says Joe as I walk back
inside. ‘How lovely to see you. Been shopping, have you? What are we having for
dinner? I’d love some sausages and onion gravy.’
‘Well then, just as well I bought some,
‘I missed you while you were out. You
know I get lonely here on my own. I am frightened of becoming lost. Can you
I squeeze his hand. I think back over the
years we’ve shared, the children we’ve raised, the grandchildren we’ve welcomed,
the work we’ve undertaken and been rewarded for. At least he still remembers the
children although the eight grandchildren confuse him. I hate it when he snaps at
them. Has it all been worth it? Life takes wild turns when least expected. Our friends:
some don’t call round often; some are dead; others confounded by Joe’s disease;
some constant—those I love.
We sit in front of the flickering screen
watching Family Feud—it seems appropriate—drinking
our mugs of hot, refreshing tea, eating my homemade Anzac biscuits.
Another short piece from Mary Mageau – one of our best and most regular contributors – all about a simple day out.
A bright morning promised a warm, sunny day – we both needed a break – so what could be better than to head off in the car for a day away. We have been discovering unfamiliar back roads and byways as we explore the rich history of our small regional towns, while enjoying our beautiful Sunshine Coast scenery.
‘Where do you want to go today, Sally? It’s your turn to decide.’
‘Let’s head for the upper end of the Mary Valley. I would really
enjoy a drive through the dairy farming region as I have never seen this part
of the country before.’
My partner took up
the suggestion. ‘The town of Kenilworth could be a great place for lunch. It’s
been years since I was there and it isn’t too far away – located about 60 km
west of Noosa. Someone told me there is a cheese factory there. We’re both
crazy about cheese so this might be a good place to take a look around.’
It was decided and
off we went. This lovely valley is home to the Mary River, meandering through a
landscape of rolling hills, neatly planted fields of vegetables, and many
majestic old shade trees. Three large farms in the valley are stocked with
herds of Holstein Friesians, Brown Swiss, and Jersey cattle. All of these cows
were roaming peacefully through the fields, browsing and grazing in their lush
paddocks. These particular breeds have been selected for the various characteristics
they contribute to creating the perfect milk. Since the early part of the
twentieth century, the Kenilworth Dairies’ farmers follow on in a rich history
of dairy farming in this region. Many agree that the milk produced here is of
the finest quality nation-wide.
The small and
vibrant town of Kenilworth came into view and sure enough, a large complex,
named Kenilworth Country Foods, was discovered on the edge of town. Poppa’s
Café offered alfresco dining under spreading shade trees. This led to a covered
courtyard lined with an impressive larder of timber shelves. Mouth-watering, delectable
sauces, pickles, chutneys, and jams were all on display here.
‘Let’s each pick up a bottle or two from the larder first, before we
sample the cheeses.’
I dropped a mixed
berry jam into our shopping bag as Sid selected onion jam and peach chutney.
But it was the variety of cheese, yoghurt, mousse, and the homemade ice cream
that left us spoiled for choice. Heaven!
After tasting an
array of fabulous cheese samples, we each selected our choice of packages from
the cold cabinets. The shopping bag grew heavy with wedges of mature cheddar, a
soft cheese flavoured with coriander and sweet chilli, another filled with bush
pepper and lemon myrtle, and finally a complex and mature Malling Red. A
Devonshire tea followed by coffee treated us to the perfect lunch, and a
different picturesque road led us home again.
During the next
few days we joined friends for drinks and a catch-up chat, and I arranged a
cheese platter as our offering. It looked so attractive I asked Sid to take a
photo of it before we ate it all. Pointing his camera and leaning over the
platter we laughed as he said, ‘Say, cheese.’ Snap went the shutter. The cheese
is long gone now but we have a lasting memento of our Mary Valley day out.
¨No Place for a Woman¨ is a thoughtful offering from one of our regular contributors, about the very real problems that faced and probably still do face, women who live on very remote farms.
Marie sat alone. Finishing her evening meal she gazed at the sun, a rim of orange over darkening hills. Her two little girls, a two and a four year old, had just been fed and put to bed. Like their mother they were slender with an abundance of curly brown hair. Duke, her large guard dog, rested on his mat in the corner as Marie spoke quietly to him.
‘Jack should be coming home any day now, Duke. We all miss him so much since he left to go droving. If only two years of drought hadn’t finished us off, he’d be here now. Before he left he told me, “The money I earn from this droving job will set us up in town.” Sometimes I worry about staying alone in this place, no-one else closer to us than the nearest station, a day’s walk from here. Soon it will be getting dark.’
Marie always delighted in the lingering warmth of the early evening, her peaceful surroundings, and the sound of birds singing before they settled for the night. As she sat near her door enjoying Duke’s company, the dog suddenly grew restless. He became tense and his ears pricked up. Marie saw nothing to excite him so she quieted Duke with a ‘Shh now,’ and an upraised hand. Only a moment later she saw the moving shadow of a man coming around the corner of the slab hut. Quickly she rose to face him at the door.
‘I’m hungry – ‘ave you got a feed fer a traveller?’ The stranger was filthy and had the strong stench of unwashed clothes about him. ‘He must have been living rough on the roads for a long time.’ His beard and matted hair looked unkempt, but his eyes worried her most―so hard and cruel. Before he could cross the threshold Marie raised her voice.
‘Don’t come in! Sit on the bottom step and I’ll bring something out to you.’ She waited until he sat down, never taking her eyes off the stranger. Quickly she filled Jack’s bowl from the cooking pot, picked up a spoon and carried it to him. He ate fast, looking over the cottage, watching her with his shifty eyes as he gulped down his meal. Then he set the bowl down without thanks or an offer to hand it back.
‘Looks like there’s no man about your place, so I’m stayin here tonight.’
Smirking he challenged her as he stood up. Marie ducked quickly back inside, whistled to Duke and picked up a heavy wooden club next to the front door. Holding Duke’s collar she tugged it twice as she faced the stranger. Right on cue, Duke snarled and bared his teeth as Marie raised the club.
‘Get out now before I set the dog on you. And don’t you ever come back here again!’ Duke began to bark savagely. As the stranger turned and moved quickly away from the cottage he called out, ‘Better be careful. I’m not finished with youse yet.’ Marie quickly closed, locked and barred the door. Trembling she sat down inside with Duke. He placed his head on her lap as she put her arms around him. ‘Good, faithful dog. Whatever would I do without you, my big, strong Duke?’
‘I’m sitting up tonight and I want you to stay inside with me. That man might come back later and try to ambush us.’ Duke took his place on the mat as Marie went to the mantle. A shotgun lay along its top. Jack left the gun with her and she knew how to use it. Marie loaded two cartridges, placing her chair in full view of the door with the shotgun on the floor before her. ‘Duke, I’m not a straight shot over a distance, but up close I never miss. If he does come back and tries to get inside, I’ll wait until I see him first, then I’ll pull the trigger. I’m taking no chances as I must protect the girls.’ As darkness was now upon them, Marie lit a tall candle, then she and Duke settled down for the night.
Hours passed as she dozed fitfully on and off. Twice she got up to check on her daughters, then came back to sit upright in her chair again. In the early morning hours Duke suddenly jerked up, fully alert, his ears raised. Marie also awoke quickly. There it was―the sound of footsteps moving slowly and deliberately on the pathway. Her body grew tense as the footsteps drew closer to the corner of the slab hut. A full moon still shone brightly outside so Mary could make out a dark shape as it passed by a thin open chink in the log walls. ‘It must be the stranger coming back again. He could have a weapon, Duke,’ she whispered. Marie picked up the shot gun, placed the butt against her shoulder, held her finger close to the trigger with the barrel cradled in her left hand. Tensely she waited as the footsteps moved nearer and approached the cottage door. The doorknob began to move, from side to side. ‘Steady, Duke. Wait until I signal.’
‘Open the door, Marie. It’s me, Jack! I’m home now. I’ve been walking all day and night. Unbar the door and let me in.’
‘Jack, Oh Jack, I’m coming!’ Rushing toward the door with Duke barking for joy at her heels, Marie’s arms enfolded him and drew him across the threshold. Relief engulfed her as she cried out, ‘Thank heaven you’re home with us at last.’ Only now, when he held her close to him and kissed her over and over did she finally feel safe. Jack was home. Only now, could she finally break into a flood of tears.