Mama waited for the rain. She prayed to God under the ghost gum while the ground cracked beneath her feet. Stumpy watched from the cool of the veranda. I named him for his habit as a puppy to run into the one tree stump in the yard, not for his front right paw, which he lost in Dad’s rabbit trap for fox catching.
I came home for the first time in five years to find Mama saying the same lines as when I’d left. The only moisture around was the saliva welled under my tongue. Dad’s tractor stirred up dust clouds in the far paddocks, a distant hum. I left my ute by the shed in a spot that would be out of the way.
Grass crackled beneath me, thin brown strands so dead that no amount of rain would return it to the way I remembered it as a child. Driving home, I had seen the river stagnant, and the dry riverbed exposed to the intense sun. “Mama?” I said, touching her shoulder.
Mama didn’t flinch; but her fingers caressed my hand. They were so rough and worn, parched as the fields – and that was all her body mustered as a greeting to her long-absent child.
Stumpy beat his tail on the ground, too hot to stand and hobble over. I leant down to give him a scratch behind the ear as I let myself into the house, far more comforted by his panting and the way he rolled into my hand than my mother’s touch.
The inside of the house was cleaner than I’d expected. Before they had taken me to the city for high school, I’d been the only one to cook and clean. Dad was too busy trying to stop his soil blowing away in every gust of wind and coddling seedlings with more care than he’d ever given me. And Mama … Mama was lost.
In the kitchen, I washed the dishes in the sink of brown water. The tank must have been close to empty and Dad wouldn’t pay to fill it unless he knew rain was months away. Through the window I could see Mama and the dust that had settled upon her, making her look as though she were made of stone.
I wondered if she would come in soon; she often did just before sunset.
Then she would lie on the couch until dinner, staring at the large clock on the wall.
The screen door creaked and slammed while I checked on the jars in the pantry.
The numbers were ever declining, the newest preserve being three years old. But the staples had been restocked.
As I backed out of the pantry, I came to face someone I hadn’t seen since I’d left. Jane had two bags of groceries in hand, and she looked as shocked as I felt.
“Georgia!” she said.
It was like we were six years old again, meeting as new neighbours. Two little girls ready to make trouble. But we didn’t know that yet. Rather, we were nervous and out of words to say, just like now.
“You’re home then?” she said. She put the bags down on the kitchen bench.
“Just for a few weeks. I have a summer class before semester starts.” I watched Jane pack away the groceries, my instincts for where the items belonged mistaken.
She left out a few ingredients, stacking vegetables by the sink. “I need the extra class to graduate.”
“Oh.” Jane’s face wrinkled, and I understood our divergence had rendered shared experience almost meaningless in maintaining a conversation. Her skin even looked like it had aged beyond mine.
“Can I help you with something?” I said.
“Wash the carrots and peel them,” she said. She sounded glad to see me, even if her lips remained taut.
Jane worked with the oven and I found items in the pantry. I turned my back to her to fill the sink with half an inch of water and scrubbed the carrots. The sink soon became muddy.
“How’s your brother?” I said.
She bent over, all curves, as she wrestled the oven trays into place. Hot air from the oven blew wisps of hair around her face. “He almost got his foot stuck in the tractor last month. The doctor said a fracture is much better than no foot – that’s how fed up he is with Jack.” Jane let out a breath of exertion, finally sorting out the trays, and closed the oven door. The peeler flew across the carrots as I skinned them. Orange streamers sank into the filth.
I had no counter to her statement. What was the stress of study compared to real work? I’d dreamed in so many lectures of returning to the paddocks, but Jack’s close escape reminded me why I’d chosen to study agricultural science and get a degree. My hands were made to be soft, and so were Jane’s.
Our fingers brushed as I reached for the knife, ready to cut the carrots into chunks the way Dad liked.
“Sorry,” I said, withdrawing.
Jane took up the knife and motioned to the drawer behind me: “There are more knives in there.” Her attack on the whole chicken distracted me as she split it open on the oven tray.
At dinner the conversation was polite but empty. Mama, silent. Dad, stern and watching the falling barometer. Jane talked of her parents and the harvest and Jack in a way that made me think I resigned her to say so. When we were younger, she’d promised to be a scientist. I’d promised writer – but only out of earshot of my father.
But Jane’s smile was still hers – even if I couldn’t recognise anything else.
We washed up the dishes, and I offered a few insights into my city life. I half lied when I said there was nowhere like home. And then Jane left, saying goodbye to us all, heading for her home over the hill. She paused when she saw me, and I was certain she had something to say, but she smiled.
Dad settled into his armchair with his beer, turning on the television to the rugby. Mama lay on the lounge, feet curled up on the cushions.
“How long has Jane been coming over?” I said, hovering between the pair.
“She asked if we wanted help after you left,” Dad said. The television illuminated his face and the disgust he displayed for receiving help from another human being.
I bit my lip, sure any further questions would be ignored, and went to my bedroom. In a room smaller than I remembered, I lay, listening to the podcast episodes I’d downloaded for the drive home, the tin roof creaking with the wind. The posters on my wall were old, scavenged from Mama’s teenage collection. There was a knock on the window, and I saw Jane in the glow. I opened the window and slid away the fly screen. She climbed in like she used to as a 12-year-old, except now there was an air of grace about it. Sitting on my bed, I watched her fidget, both of us unsure how to break the silence.
Jane took a breath, and another. I thought of us swimming in the creek, before the drought, when we submerged ourselves, seeing who could hold the longest breath. Of the brief moment of bliss when we held hands beneath the surface.
“Is everything okay?”
“You’re going you hate me, but Georgia, you have to know …”
“About you leaving …”
“To get a decent education and to make something of my life? You don’t have to be jealous of me. I didn’t want to go. It was Mama’s idea.”
“I wanted to stay.” My finger touched the knee of her jeans. Jane shivered.
“Jack saw us on the driveway,” she whispered, “and he told my parents.”
My fingers pulled away and clenched around the bedsheets. “I told them it was all you. I was scared, Georgia, so I told them you made me do it.”
My face heated, my foot twitching, the humidity in the air rising.
Jane wiped her nose and eyes, a drop falling onto the carpet. “It was stupid. I was stupid. I’m sorry.”
She reached for my hand, quivering, longing for my touch.
“Go,” I said.
Jane hesitated before she backed out the window, a cold breeze replacing her. I could hear her sincerity, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. After a moment I left my room, all my childhood belongings reminding me of Jane. She was the reason they sent me away, forced to leave home.
Dad had gone to bed; Mama was asleep on the couch. I shook her shoulders, and she woke with glassy eyes.
“Why did you send me away?” I asked. Mama comprehended my words, but she wouldn’t speak. Her eyes searched me for words to say, too afraid.
I left the house, needing more space than the county air could provide. Stumpy lifted his head to watch me leave. The creek on the far side of the property called to me. It was a distance that would make me truly alone. My own parents sent me away because of Jane.
For years I’d longed to be back home with my family. The city was too noisy, too claustrophobic. As I sat down on the rocks by the rope swing, I contemplated jumping into the empty creek bed. Even the rocks looked parched. It still didn’t feel far enough away, the weight of the clouds and sky pressing down on my chest.
I thought we had been a tragedy, separated by cruel fate. Mama offered no other explanation why I was to go live with my aunt and uncle in the city – besides getting a better education. Later I suspected the truth, but never Jane.
Never my Jane.
Out by the dry creek I could hear the wilderness, the crickets chirping. No more cars or highways. But it still wouldn’t be home, not while Mama was catatonic and Dad even worse. His only way of staying strong meant pretending our farm was the entire world.
Part of me argued to leave in the night, go back to the city where all dissolved into the noise and belonged to something.
I laid down by the creek bed, a dampness spilling from my eyes, sliding into my hair, seeping into the ground. The creek thanked me for the feeble donation. What a waste it had been to shed tears on the carpet.
A drop fell on my cheek.
God cried with me, and his sorrow grew quickly. If I didn’t move soon, it would wash me into the creek.
The rain pounded the dirt, and I thought of Mama and the words I’d written off as delusions of a broken mind. Why this day, of all days?
I ran back to the house, fearful of what Mama might do.
The paddocks turned to mud, coating me in grime. I slipped through the house and onto the front veranda. Dad stood, holding Stumpy under his arm to stop him getting lost in the storm. He watched the rain bless his earth: a smile caught in the creases of his face.
Under the gum tree Mama prayed, hair sticking to her face, bedclothes tight on her skin, water rising around her legs.
“Mama,” I yelled, splashing through the stream forming around the house.
I was acknowledged at last.
“Isn’t it beautiful? Aren’t you beautiful,” Mama said, her eyes fixed on me. She gripped my arm, “I knew the truth Georgie, long before you did.”
“I knew what you were, and I didn’t care, until it became my shame. If I didn’t send you away, they would make you go. God punished me, but now you’re home,” she said.
I pulled out of Mama’s grip. “You should have fought for me.”
She shook, the rain breaching the impenetrability of her tranced state. The home I’d longed for, Jane – my world was trapped in memories, locked away by time.
Mama was the key; she had only rusted over.
Before I stepped further away, she reached out for me and I let her pull me into her arms. My heart searched for the warmth and meaning. For love. The buzz beneath my skin was weak.
Water rushed down my back, melding our skin and clothes together.
AUTHOR EMILIE MORSCHECK
Emilie lives with her partner and her dog in Canberra, where she works as an engineer. In 2019, Emilie received an artsACT grant to edit her YA fantasy novel. She is a fan of kelpies, selkies and watery graves.