I’m back and wearing a black leather jacket. Yes, that’s how bad I am. A black. Leather. Jacket. But where have I been? Sadly not off to London to visit the queen nor write about one either. I was at the birth of my second child. A baby boy no less, thus completing the set. So for three weeks I’ve been away from the keyboard but now I’m back, yes I’m back, I’m back, I’m back in black. Queue the guitar riff…
Last time I left you I said I was writing a short story for a competition. Well I finished the story, but not in time for the competition so I’ll post the story here.
I started writing this as a horror story. That’s why it is set on a remote sheep station with ominous hills in the back paddocks. A storm is rolling in and the main character has just arrived after receiving news of her father’s death. A perfect set up for a horror. Isolation, a sense of misery and an uncomfortable environment. But I found as I wrote that it would turn into a bit more of a novella if I continued with the horror aspect. I had too many things going on. I had the main character’s coming to terms with her father’s death, her dealing with a sheep station she wasn’t keen on keeping and I’d even thrown in a helpful neighbour who may have turned into a friend or more. Top that with a monster lurking in the hills and the necessary build up to its arrival in the story and I be fifteen thousand words in. So the story is just about the woman coping with her feelings about her father and her growth through her troubled memories. In a way it is still a horror, but not really. Anyway, here it is:
The Fleece of a Strange Animal
To start at the beginning I’d have to recount all the fights and the unresolved tension between my father and me before I told you about the high country. At the heart of it was the clash of two equally strong wills. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn about farming or that I didn’t want to follow in his steps, not exactly. It was that I needed to walk my own path. Regardless my desire I found myself arriving home on a stormy Wednesday afternoon in June. Dad had died. He had been in the helicopter when it went down in the hills. I never had the chance to tell him I was sorry for the way I left or that I had still not found the connection I had been looking for. A lawyer had simply called and informed me I was required at the reading of his will. It was a pure formality since I was an only child and mum had died several years prior to my leaving. I had been left the entirety of my family’s land and all the debt that entailed. Still, there had been considerable growth in the value of good grazing land and I had planned to sell. I just wanted to go home and absorb as much of my heritage as I could before the last of the sheep were picked up and I signed the exclusivity agreement with the real estate agent.
The house was exactly as I remembered it, larger maybe, less full, but still the drab silvery brown of heavily aged wood and the old-blood red of the rusted tin roof. The original building had been here for over one hundred years. It had served as shelter for five generations of my family and in a way it called to me; it begged me to stay in the way that the same menu item always looked best everytime you visit the same restaurant. The yard, lush with autumn grass spread like a green inkblot dropped on the page of an old book. The grubby grey sheep clustered and shuffled in a thick mob toward the back fence, under the enormous peppermint gum that grew near the gate to the high country. Dad didn’t let the sheep into the back paddocks in winter. He never explicitly told me why, but I assumed the gullies and ridgelines got too perilous with the rain and wind.
That first night I sat in the kitchen for a long while after finishing dinner just staring at the window behind the sink. I’d broken it when I left. I didn’t do it on purpose but I was so angry that I threw the coffee mug I was holding. I think I’d intended to throw it in the sink. It doesn’t matter much what my intention was because it sailed through the glass and into the back garden despite my desire. The sound of the window shattering had been like someone had hit pause on a remote. Dad looked at the shards of glass still clinging to the frame while I looked at my hands. It was silent and uncomfortable. I just walked out. That was five years ago.
Beyond the feeling of emptiness for lack of people I rediscovered the feeling of oppression that settled on the place after the sun had set. In all the time I lived there, when I was young, we only went outside a handful of times at night. In the city there was always noise and light. In any direction there were thousands of other people going about their business. On the farm there was just you and the sheep and whatever else might lurk, waiting in the high country perhaps. I don’t know what I thought would live in the hills and gullies amongst the limestone boulders. Australia was devoid of any large predators, inland at least. As I lay in bed later that night listening to the thunder rolling across the plains and battering the landscape I recalled my childhood fears. That’s when I remembered imagining monsters living up there, coming out only in the winter nights to steal sheep and whoever might be foolish enough to wander about. I imagined it was their calls and shouts I heard; that it was them and not my parents arguing, usually about money.
In the morning, standing under the steel grey light of a feeble sun I rubbed my hands over my face. The gate behind the great peppermint had been thrown open by the storm. The sheep, so neatly penned the day before by our neighbour, from the next farm over, had wandered. Most were just near the gate preferring the shelter of the gum tree. But two white smudges had strayed into the first of the gullies of the high country, the back lots. I had told the transport company to come today to remove them. Now I’d have to spend the day rounding them all up again. I sighed and went back inside to get changed. My boots were still by the door as if they had known I’d return and my oilskin still hung on its hook as if nothing had changed. Things had changed. Five years ago dad would have made the sigh and pulled his boots on. He would have stopped at the door to my room, taken a breath as if to talk but then move on. I would have rolled over and pretended not to have seen him.
The sheep still under the tree were easy to move into the loading pen. The ones that had strayed a little further on took a bit more coaxing and one or two needed some considerable chasing on my quad bike before I could get them going in the right direction. The loading pen was crammed full of sheep when I stopped for lunch. I rode right up to the door ignoring the rule dad had about not driving on the lawn. Before I went inside I looked up at the back lots again. Heavy clouds rolled across the sky from the west. I was of a mind to leave the last two sheep to their fate in the gullies. If they were too stupid to keep out of the hills in winter then they deserved whatever fate befell them. I shook my head. Before mum had died she was always worried a sheep wouldn’t return, that it would stray from the flock and get lost or injured. I didn’t understand then, but with age comes wisdom. Back then, around dad, I was always quick to dismiss anything that took too much effort. It wasn’t that I didn’t care it was just a kind of mask I could use to hide. It was like I was afraid of caring too much but knowing no matter what I did I wouldn’t be able to do enough.
Half an hour after lunch I managed to get my quad bike stuck. I had been following the course most likely taken by the sheep when I’d foolishly thought I could make it up a grassy ridge but the wet turf slipped under my wheels and I got lodged on a chunk of limestone. I’d have to get the other quad up here to pull this first one off. A cold wind howled down the gully I had been trying to climb out of. Goose bumps prickled my flesh as I slogged the rest of the way up the ridge on foot. From the top I looked back. The billowing and sagging branches of the peppermint were visible, but nothing else. Heavy clouds roiled overhead. I decided I’d climb the next shoulder to see if I could spot some sign of the sheep before I headed back. Gravel slipped under my feet and I dropped to my hands and knees. A viciously sharp rock stabbed my hand. On my knees I looked at my palm to see red blood oozing to the surface. I went to wipe it away but looked at the mud and grass on my other hand and stopped. There was enough of this place in me as it was without adding more and tetanus besides. Instead I curled my fist in an attempt to stem what little flow there was.
I half crawled, half walked the last few meters. In the valley on the other side of the shoulder blackened and broken scrub retreated from an ash grey scar. Chunks of twisted aluminium and the odd charcoal lump erupted from the desolate area like broken bones exposed through bruised skin. Dad’s helicopter had gone down in the hills. I shuddered as I drew in a breath. It felt as if I’d inhaled fishhooks and they were now being drawn out along with some part of me. In my mind I saw dad stopped at my door, hand raised as if to knock even though it was open. I’d squinted, watching him but pretending to sleep. He’d sighed, that was true, but was it a sigh of resignation or satisfaction before, with his lips twitching a smile, he turned and strode out to round up the sheep? I fell back on my knees with my arms dropped to my sides, hanging uselessly as I absorbed what I saw in the high country and in my memory. I remembered that last moment in the kitchen. I’d been looking at my mug. Had dad been commanding me not to go, or begging? It all seemed different now. Less important; they were one and the same weren’t they? Was it his dream for me to stay or was it his way of reaching out? I shook my head as the first tears rolled down my cheeks. Dad would never have left. He’d have never sold. The fact he died in a crash made no difference. This day would have come sooner or later. In a way I was glad it was sooner. I struggled to my feet and turned away from the crash site to face my home. The cut on my hand tingled; dirt had gotten into it despite my efforts. There wasn’t really anything for me in the city anyway. Everything I’d ever loved and needed was here, even if I could defy it any more. The bleating of the sheep pulled me around. Both had walked into the burnt area and were heading toward me. I had to get them back and cancel the transport. By the time I returned the storm had passed without shedding a drop and I was able to pull the bogged quad out. I locked the gate to the back paddocks with a chain this time. It wasn’t good to let the sheep into the high country in winter. Because of the wind and the rain in the gullies.