By Hollen Void
Edited by Veronica Sullivan
The driveway is five minutes all itself, downhill through eucalypt and uphill through casuarina. I used to think they were pine; we cut one for a Christmas tree each year. The farm-house is on a hill surrounded by cattle paddocks, rolling down from the house on all sides. Cypresses mark the fence lines near the house, upright like feathers stuck point-down in the soil.
My Pa had a dog that could hear a whistle from the porch and follow the wave of his arms to hustle the sheep. All the ways down-paddock, the dog knew what Pa wanted from her. Kelpie dogs make good listeners, good mind-readers.
My gran made fat rum balls at Christmas, famously rummy. She told me, You are sixth-generation Australian or is it seventh.
My own mum kind of laughed. God, don’t look that far back.
Gran threw shredded coconut over the sticky new orbs of cocoa and butter. Oh, everyone’s family turns to convicts that far back.
Mum picked me up, I was still small enough for that to happen sometimes, and threw a last word over her shoulder, Not everyone.
The Great Dividing Range drools out the Tambo which at some point marks the end of the farm on the river’s way down to the ocean, the ocean as it starts near Metung. My siblings and I played in the Tambo, daring each other to dive from the sticky, warm surface to the cold unders. We had to bring up sluggy mud from the river floor as proof. My sister – older, stronger – dived the deepest. Her blood nose, set off by the temperature switch, streamed quicker than the river and into it.
My mum remembers growing up in terms of disasters. She offers her memories like a photo album, discontinuous moments rather than a life, murky flashbacks. On Black Friday, she drove her ute back and forth, from town to beach, her tray full of people and animals. She kept doing that until a firey turned her away. She spent a night on the beach with children and parents and goats and yowling pets in boxes. They watched the hills burn and they stood with their feet in seawater.
I watched the fire jump from one hilltop to another without touching the valley. That’s how big the flames were, it could just hop across thin air. Mum makes an arc with her hands, waving them at me to encourage understanding, a trait I have inherited. It jumped! That’s how big it was. Even on the beach, the air was hot and my face was red and dry by morning.
Before that, in childhood, Mum remembers drought.
Their livestock skinny-sad and the feed running out. When a mother-ewe died, her lamb curled up beside her and waited. My mum and her parents and her brothers and sister collected them up, the ones they had to feed by hand.
Sixteen poddy lambs.
Mum’s hands are scarred from feeding poddy lambs, her job in the mornings before school, from the teeth of lambs that wanted only their own mother.
The older they are, the worse it is. You have to force their mouths open.
Her dad sold the lambs, one cent a head. The drought went on with cows and sheep going hungry and the cries travelling over paddocks to the house and her dad took all of them to a valley in one of the paddocks and shot them one by one. It’s the one paddock on their property that is natural now, a wild and beautiful place, overgrown with bones in the roots of tree and shrub. This is what the property would be if we weren’t farming it.
He never went back in. He could never go back there after.
All the farm is in Gippsland, that is what I call it, or Tambo Upper. It’s not far from Bairnsdale, the town where I was born. I am only sixth-generation Australian and my people spoke these new names over the originals. It is Gunaikurnai land and, right where my grandparents lived, Brabawooloong. It says BAIRNSDALE in my passport and when I tell people where I was born, I say that and, if they know where that is, I follow up with Tambo Upper.
All your stories are death-based. Dad also lived in the past, his stories are fine. Yours are all chilling.
Mum tells me about the cockatoo. Her brother Craig, even as a toddler, was always wandering and her mother would call him back for dinner or when he’d been out too long.
Craig! She would screech from the veranda, calling him back. The cockatoo listened.
Craig! It learned to scream.
He would come, all the way to the house from field or thicket or milking shed to find only the cockatoo had called him home.
They only clipped its wings once, as a baby. It knew its home from then on and they let it fly. It used to pull the roof nails, take them to the edge and stick its head out to watch them drop.
Pa put an order in for a tractor part that took days to come.
It wasn’t like now, just ordering a thing on the internet when you want it. Everything on a farm is on a schedule to fit the seasons, everything has to happen at the right time.
When it came, he took apart the tractor, resting the little part on the bonnet.
The cockatoo flew in, grabbed it, took off down-paddock. The bird dropped it, somewhere. He gave the cockatoo away to a neighbour who had just lost her husband.
There it is. The death.
Well, it’s a farm. And I’m not funny. Your dad’s funny. Talk to your dad.
Mum tells me about the pheasants because she may as well, she already told me about the cockatoo and the widow.
They used to keep pheasants, loosely. Roaming about their property, about a dozen plump, tawny ladies and blue-headed lords. Owned and kept creatures, whether or not the pheasants knew it.
My dad was burning off. Trash from around the farm, old furniture. He had it all stacked up in a pile in the long grass. He didn’t know he was building it on her nest, the mother pheasant. She roosted in the long grass, it was probably great cover for her, and she had her eggs there. She didn’t get up, didn’t make a sound. Pa lit the bonfire. He wouldn’t have ever known what he did except the dad pheasant came back and dived right into burning heap.
I remember walking on my aunt’s farm, downhill, in the general direction of her house. I clambered over gates without bothering to open them and kept my eyes on the ground which was pot-holed from cattle-feet and dotted with cow-pats. My breath puffed out in ghosts of fog and the ground popped underfoot with frost.
Movement drew my eye to the trees just beyond the fence-line, six feet to my side.
A skulk of red foxes in the trickling light of new day. The mother twitched her laser-eyed glance at me. She had three kits, hopping behind, a light-foot family. Silently, the feline-canines wound and slid under fences, through trees and into the valley. They threaded seamlessly into the landscape without so much as bending a blade of grass. My heart thrummed to see them.
The second I walked into my aunt’s house, I ran my mouth about them.
Whereabouts? Which fence? Into the valley? Alongside the dam?
I’d made a mistake. My uncle, a man that never needed anything from me, ever, had questions for me.
He was out the door in a second and starting up the ute.
We hate ‘em. Nasty things. My aunt said, approvingly. They steal my chooks. Vicious, murdering thieves.
It’s okay to get rid of them. They’re an introduced species. They kill bandicoots and numbats and things. You can’t let them go on.
I tried to render my mum’s words into a moral feeling. Kill the foxes, long live the numbats! Long live the chickens and the sheep and my aunt and uncle and my grandparents and my uncle’s ute and the gun that kills the queen pest, the fox and her children, pests-in-waiting.
Four pops sounded in the distance, only four. My uncle was younger then, with a good eye and a steady hand.
The next night, a fox broke into the henhouse. It stole eggs and chickens, like my aunt said, and it killed every last one it didn’t take. It killed more than it could eat for the joy of it. This seems right. Settlers brought them here for sport, brought them over oceans only to kill them. Now, there are always more foxes, living easily in cities and towns, stealing the burrows of other animals, playing their own sports with any living thing small enough to pounce on. There’s always one within shot of a henhouse. They’re the villains in my family stories, in the disaster narratives that my mother remembers to the occlusion of everything else. She was born in the right place for it, on farmland where it turns to bush, where the lines between past and present are more readily drawn, where foxes are criminals. And she brought me there too, her brood, born and brought and told. The bad drought is always a turn of the Earth away, the bushfire growing bigger on a Thursday, the foxes multiplying, the looking over your shoulder, backwards, far enough.