These days, gruelling glowering end of world days, we have bushfires and dirtstorms in tandem and the long hot in between. The water caught from the roof is no longer transparent, it’s filled with topsoil from the Mallee. Red dirt caught up in willy-willies and blown across the state of Victoria. This is the dirt that grew grain and livestock, swirling around now in our tea and coffee cups. The dirt that made this nation a Lucky Country.
Judith, small-boned and eager-eyed, is a child of this climate. Born in the long dry, she saw rain for the first time after she’d turned two. Before then it was all dusty roads, empty dams, and water cartage. It was farmers spending mortgages on grain trucks delivering food to bone dry paddocks. Her mother reassures her that the cloudy water won’t hurt, that generations from the western district have grown up with Mallee soil in their cups. Never did them any harm.
Judith dreams about what could grow in her stomach, with this soil and the pips she swallows of the watermelons and the cucumbers. Those soft, small seeds waiting for a bed of rich soil to sink their roots in, the first cotyledon taking sprout before the true leaves rise up into her oesophagus, hungry for light. She knows that those plants grow rustling along the soil in her mum’s garden, stretching out with their shaggy arms, all the dozens of them, waving up to the sun. She imagines them bursting from her mouth in a green endless tongue, irregular as though cut with craft scissors.
Perhaps this spreading of the soil could make us all food producers, she thinks. Perhaps it could bring back the bees. Our bodies as hosts, our tongues as ropes flowering like festoon lights.
Judith’s mother is between jobs and her body has been productive enough. She dreams of different things, like an endless rainbow of colourful plastic notes in her wallet. A man who can take the rubbish to the tip and clean the gutters. A daughter who doesn’t worry so much about the dirtstorms and the bushfires. She dreams about a house with timber lining, inside and out, the walls painted warm tones like olive green and clotted cream. This house has several staircases to lofts that cantilever into the high ceilinged timber rooms. There are no doors, just pleated white silk curtains, like the white of leghorn hens’ eggs, hanging in the doorways. They could represent shrouds, or cerements, but she doesn’t think this, she thinks they represent freedom.
‘They don’t see the fires for the smoke’, a bloke in the pub laughs, commenting on the political inertia that’s followed the burning of 20 million hectares and the killing of one billion native animals this Australian summer. When half the nation’s cremated by unprecedented conflagrations, the cities along the eastern seaboard grow thick with bushfire smoke. Residents from the Lucky Country go out in droves to buy facemasks for the first time with their stinging red eyes and chests sore from absorbing all that poisonous gas.
Judith’s mum sits up at the bar with a row of men, each one of them with freshly cut out melanoma scars on their faces. A reminder of the hardening climate their skin isn’t used to. This is the way she ends each day, in the light boozy company of mostly local blokes. Her kids are busy climbing the sturdy peppercorn tree out the front, still in their school clothes. Planks of wood are nailed to the trunk as steps to a platform made from a pallet that works okay for a cubby house. These kids don’t need much.
A newbie in town pipes up, sitting by the window with a glass of cold wine in her hand, relating the impact these fires have had on the economy. ‘The government better wake up,’ she says, ‘if they know what’s good for them’. She’s a psychosexual therapist who travels to the city to work part-time. Her hair is cropped but soft and dyed shock blond. She has eyes with bulky bags underneath that seem inconsistent with the rest of her, which is flawless. But this imperfection gives her license to sit at the pub with the beaten down men.
Recently arrived, she’s started to convert her twenty acres into a wildlife shelter for native animals needing respite from bushfire affected areas, calling on her new community for help with the fences. ‘We all need help with our fences’, Judith’s mum overhears one of the locals say. She’s also bought an old church and is turning it into short-term accommodation, and has relocated her perfumery, a hobby on the side, from the coast to a heritage storefront on the main drag. This town is changing.
A young couple from the flats come into the pub. Forty or so years ago the local council decided to build five units for public housing and set the bar for eligibility so high, you had to prove to be so poor, that only the really down and out had a chance of securing a room. It’s bang up next to the kindergarten, whose garden hose has always been cut for bongs, and it receives cool reception from the community who are mostly hard-nosed and hard working.
‘Don’t you go waving your brown tail around here’, the publican calls out as one of them makes their way to the toilet. These two are known for stopping in without bothering to purchase a pint, just making use of the facilities on the days they sit in the parkland across the road. The psychosexual therapist laughs after a while, catching up on the idiom. She’s had a bit to drink and is mildly obnoxious, assuming she’s closer to the locals than she is.
‘A couple of stubbies, thanks mate’, the young bloke says to the publican. There’s a sigh of approval from the bar.
‘You’re always doubting us, man’, says the youth as he grabs the beer, turning away and joining his girlfriend as she heads to the door. ‘Always doubting’, she echoes, ‘it’s not reasonable’. The group in the pub watch them cross the road, holding each other’s hands, and setting off into the parkland. They’re slow moving, pointing things out in the distance, their faces coming closer to talk. There’s tenderness between them that doesn’t match their reputation.
‘Bet they could do with some therapy’, the psychosexual therapist says, concern in her voice revealing how unfamiliar she is with these people.
‘We all could’, says Judith’s mum, swigging on the last of her beer as she steps up to leave.
The kids scramble down the tree when she calls them, quick to get on their pushies and ride the way home. Mum follows behind, not nearly drunk, brushing the flies from her face. ‘Wish they’d fuck off’, she says under her breath. There’s leftovers for dinner, eaten in front of the TV. Judith is the eldest, and she reads Famous Five to the younger two as they drift off to sleep. She and her mum sit up late in the quiet house, watching British cooking shows featuring men with kind faces and their dogs.
That night Judith dreams she’s up the peppercorn tree on the platform cubby looking down at the pub. It’s after dark, and the blinds are drawn and the doors are shut. She knows there’s not enough clientele in this small town to keep the pub open late. Light comes through the cracks of the window where the blinds can’t reach and under the door. There’s music on in there. A kind of Celtic jig. She climbs down the tree and peers in through a shaft of light through the window, half expecting to see leprechauns. Instead, she sees a frightful scene. The town’s men are sitting at the bar as usual, but instead of serving beer, the publican is armed with a sharp penknife and goes around the room cutting at each of the men’s faces, diligently digging out each cancerous lump. He then rubs them down, gentle over their cheeks, and says quietly ‘soft as a donkey’s muzzle’. The men are oblivious, drinking away, chatting about the weather. Blood trickles into their beers. Judith gives a small shriek, one of those that can wake you from the dream, and one of the men turns towards the window. She sees that he no longer has eyes.
In the morning Judith tells her mother about the dream, and the only reflection offered is that it reminds her of a Stanley Kubrick film but without the debauchery. This means nothing to Judith.
That evening they’re back at the pub after school. Judith’s mum hasn’t had any luck looking for work and spent the day at the welfare agency speaking to diffident people at desks after waiting too long in a queue. All sorts of personal information is required and all sorts of opinions are withheld, although sometimes incompletely. An escaped scowl here, a look of disdain there.
‘Saw you come into work today’, says one of the men at the bar who works at the welfare agency.
‘Yeah, couldn’t string it out any longer, had to face the firing squad eventually’, Judith responds.
‘Well we’re there to help keep the wolves from the door, love, that’s what we do’, he replies.
The psychosexual therapist stands up at the bar, getting closer to the action. If she weren’t intoxicated, you’d mistake her for an urban anthropologist doing participant observation of a rural community. Peering over shoulders, taking mental notes.
With a louder than usual voice she says, ‘But what savage beasts are already in the house, love’, pausing to sip at her wine, ‘they couldn’t give a damn’, and she slams her glass on the counter. A gesture that shocks even her.
That night there’s no cooking shows on TV, and Judith goes to bed early. Her mother folds the clothes, packs the school lunches, and sits outside with the night. She’s laid out Pindone oats for the rabbits that find a way through the fence and into the veggie garden, eating even at her rhubarb leaves, which she wished had killed them already. The poisoned oats are green like tennis turf on the television and she’s placed them in a terracotta saucer in the garden. As she sits out there, she hears hopping, hesitant, over the dirt path, and for a moment she wants to warn the soft-bodied creature that there’s a trap set, that they’ll be enticed and then they’ll bleed out from the inside with the first small bump. But she resists, she thinks of the garden decimated, and she drinks the last of her wine.
A job comes up at the local RSPCA thrift shop, manning the desk, sorting through the bags of donations. It doesn’t pay enough, but it’ll do. The kids ride to school and Judith’s mum drives her clapped-out car into the shop to open and sits there all day while mostly regulars sift through the coat hangers and the shoes. The youth from the flats comes in, looking for bedding. They talk about the local pub, and Judith’s mum asks him about the parkland. ‘What are you doing there most days, drinking?’ ‘Nah’, he says, ‘a bit of that, but also just sitting around, talking, you know’. He hands over coin for an old woollen blanket as his girlfriend walks in.
‘We’re talking about the park’, he says to her.
‘Ah, and did you mention the horses?’ she asks.
The boy doesn’t respond, he folds the blanket into a recycled plastic bag, gently pushes his hand through the crook of her elbow and walks out, almost leading her, through the aisles of other people’s junk and towards the door. Before they reach she stops to look at a scarf on the hat stand, not silk but familiar in touch. She draws her hand along it, the fabric running between her fingers. She turns towards Judith’s mum and says, not looking at her but beyond into the jewellery cabinet they keep behind the counter, ‘I want to be like one of those who ride through the night with the wild horses, with torches, which, like loosened hair…’ But before she can finish, the boy grabs her and pulls her through the opened door.
Judith’s mum knows the lines. She also knows there are no horses in the parkland, her house backs on to it. Wallabies pass through in the heat of the summer and there’s the regular mob of ‘roos ranging around, stopping to lie in the shade, keeping the grass down. It’s big and unmanaged, with a large stretch at the back, far from Judith’s house, where bushland’s left to grow like it used to before sheep and cattle came and needed neat paddocks of pasture. There’s branches fallen and not collected for timber, ground cover thick under tree canopy. The native grasses make a soft yellow blanket in the summer, like butter-coloured mohair that the cat’s scratched at, pulling on the threads.
She watches the two of them cross the road and linger outside the Betta Electrical shop. A line of traffic is backed up at the roundabout. When it passes, the couple are no longer there. Judith’s mum walks to the front window, peers up and down the road, but can’t see them.
That night she finds her copy of the collected poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and flicks through the dog-eared pages to ‘The Boy’. It begins almost as the girl from the flats narrated – she could be forgiven the old, awkward language, Judith’s mum thought. The ending, though, she had forgotten. She reads it out loud.
And one at my side blasts us apace
with his trumpet, which shines and screams out,
and blasts us a black solitude
we race through like an instant dream:
behind us the houses fall on their knees,
the streets slope back away from us,
the squares try to escape us: we take them,
and our horses sweep down like rain.
‘What’s that mum?’ Judith asks, coming into the kitchen for a glass of water.
‘It’s a poem one of the youths from the flats reminded me of.’
‘They know poetry?’
‘They probably know a lot of things’, Judith’s mum says, closing the book and placing it back on the shelf. ‘Do you want to come for a walk?’ she asks her daughter. Judith looks down at her nightie with a bemused smirk on her face. ‘It’ll be fine hon, I’m dressed the same, just grab your boots.’
They go out the back door, through the garden, where there’s no more sound of rabbits, and out the back fence to the parkland. It’s still and quiet, a night with enough moon to allow them to walk without tripping. They’re like low clouds in their nightdresses, white like leghorn eggs, heavy boots to weigh them down. Judith’s mum leads her daughter out to the far stretch.
‘Where we going, mum?’ she asks.
‘I’m looking for something’.
There’s an old shearing shed, not a large one, with a wild pear tree growing through the lean-to roof. Somehow the corrugated iron succumbed to its force and opened up to the branches. Judith’s mum has always known it was there, hidden out in the back corner, amongst the regenerating bushland.
‘Shh Judith’, she says as they approach. She circles round the shed to the doorway on the far side, Judith trailing behind. They climb over old posts and fencing wire. The steps up to the shearing area are long rotted out, so Judith’s mum heaves her leg up and pulls herself in, turning back to give her daughter a hand.
Once they’re both inside, they turn towards the far end of the shed, where the shearers would’ve thrown the fleeces down onto broad tables for classing and then pressed them into woolpacks. It’s dark and quiet. Judith’s mum uses the torch on her phone to give light, flashing it across the back walls. There’s nothing there now but the dust floor and ‘roo droppings.
‘Uh’, whispers Judith’s mum.
‘What did you expect?’ Judith calls back, already jumping through the doorway and running off into the night. ‘Beat you home!’ she yells. But her mum’s in no rush. She sits in the doorway, legs hanging down, thinking about the poem’s ‘black solitude’, the houses falling on their knees, and the rain sweeping down like horses.
That summer turns into autumn turns into winter. The rains come. People forget about the dirtstorms and the bushfires and carry on, eyes wide shut. The water in the tank eventually settles, running clear from the taps again. Baths don’t feel so swampy and Judith forgets her dream about the seeds in her belly and the flowering tongues like festoon lights feeding a drought-ravaged world. There’s a virus to worry about and elections to think about in places where decisions are made that affect us all.
Judith’s mum is busy at the thrift shop five days a week and misses the company of the blokes at the pub after school pick-up. She gets there on the weekends though, and the clientele haven’t changed, same array at the bar, with their weary scarred faces and weathered warm hands resting on pint glasses. The psychosexual therapist went back to full time consulting in the city to pay off her various Arcadian ventures, relocating for a few months, and has only just returned. When she regains her evening routine, a couple of cold glasses of wine at the table near the bar, not many notice she’s been gone.
‘Good to see you’, says one of the blokes, half sardonic.
‘Things busy with the perfumery and whatnot, the animal refuge?’ he asks.
‘Perfumery’s on hold, sure you noticed’, she responds brusquely, ‘and there’s only the horses at the refuge’.
‘The horses?’ queries Judith’s mum.
‘Yes the flaming horses from the bushland’, the bloke says sniggering, ‘ended up in a bushfire refuge’. ‘She’s a regular hobby farmer like the rest of ‘em now!’ another man chortles.
Judith’s mum hasn’t seen the youths from the flats since the day at the shop. It’s as though the dirtstorms mustered them together and blew them away to ride horses and read poetry in hidden pastures far from there.
That summer, she realised, had thrown everything into a state of dissociation.
Judith comes into the pub to tell her mum she’s taking the kids home. The blokes ask her questions and she diligently responds.
‘What’s your favourite thing about school, love?’ one of them asks. Judith pauses, thinking.
‘When I’m at school, it means it’s not summer, which means there’s no dust and smoke and fire. That’s my favourite thing about school’.
‘Well here’s to the opportunities of climate collapse!’ the psychosexual therapist cheers, raising her glass in the air. The blokes roar with laughter alongside her; she’s becoming a local.
[Illustration by Oscar Price]