by Matt Appleby
Australia, 1865: a woman reflects on her past and future as she walks into the desert.
|Author's Note: This was a story I originally wrote around 2006-7, and remains one of only a few I've done that I consider worthy of sharing with others. It's a long way outside my comfort zone, as I very rarely write historical fiction, and I prefer straight fantasy/SF over the kind of magical realist undertones I've used here. More than that, this is a deliberately Experimental piece, with lots of stylistic quirks and a more ornate writing style. I wouldn't go so far as to call it genuinely post-modern, as even I find that kind of thing insufferable, but it's definitely not a traditional kind of story. I like to think I've made something poetic and meaningful out of it, though I would say that, wouldn't I? I'll leave it for you to judge.
(Also, I freely admit to abuse of the 'Magical Aborigine' trope. Maybe a white Englishman shouldn't try such things, but what the heck).
by Matt Appleby
The shoe lands on the red dirt, resting for only a second, then lifts into the air. It comes back down another second later, on rock this time, landing a short way ahead, and a little further to the left than it perhaps should. The other shoe lands on another rock, just ahead and to the right, its top above the rocks in front of it. This other shoe, and the leg it holds onto, compress slightly, so that the first shoe, the left one, can lift up into the air. This left shoe hangs in the air for a second, long enough to cause speculation on where it will go next, eventually laying to rest on an area of red dirt, between a rock just to the left and one behind it. Both shoes pause for a time, compressing as the body above them leans slightly backwards.
But then the shoes are off again, moving from rock to rock, dirt patch to dirt patch. Sometimes the route is simple, sometimes not, and though there are many pauses, it is always forward, always upward.
Australia, 1865. Where life is a bad joke, performed poorly and taken too far, and the meaning always lost in translation.
Agatha Morton turns away from the window. A view is a view, but you can only look at landscape for so long. And there’s only so much to look at, anyway.
She walks over to the bed, a huge four-poster dragged out into the centre of the room. She lifts up the netting, revealing the boy laying down on the sweat-soaked bedsheet. This boy, no older than twelve, is wearing only a vest and briefs, shivering uncontrollably despite the intense heat. When Dr Arzt came by yesterday, he said this was a good sign, that his body was finally starting to cool down…Agatha isn’t so sure, but she isn’t a doctor.
And you wouldn’t need a doctor to tell you that heat was the problem. Heat defines this country. It gets everywhere: in every house, every room, every outfit, every body, every thought. When you look outside, at the endless cracked dirt, the tufts of grass stubbornly clinging onto life, the entire landscape waves in unison, swaying under the sun’s merciless pounding. And God forbid what would happen should you be outside.
Agatha kneels down by the bed, stroking her fingers across Dashiell’s brow. He is still very hot, though he seemingly feels otherwise. She would ask him, but it’s been several days since he was last capable of speaking. She isn’t even sure if he knows his mother is still with him.
The woman walks across the desert. One step at a time, the left then the right. Her shoes crunch down on the dirt and stones, burnt by the sun into dark reds and browns. From a distance, it looks like the earth is bleeding: up close, it looks the same.
One step at a time, the left then the right.
The woman keeps walking. She stumbles slightly, catching her foot on nothing, but she keeps going. Her tiny blue shoes have turned brown with the dust they kick up. They were made for walking through halls and houses, not deserts: her feet were hurting before, but now she can no longer feel them, so it’s fine. The bottom of her dress is also dirty and scuffed, where the lowest inch drags across the ground, but that too is no problem.
Just up ahead (maybe only a few metres away, but distances are so hard to gauge out here), there is what used to be an oasis. A small hollow in the ground, now empty, with three dead trees surrounding it. But in this endless nothing, where the mountains thousands of miles away look reachable, even a lifeless sight like this is interesting. It’s variety, if nothing else.
The heat. The sun beats down as hard as ever, and her thick cotton dress, a fine outfit carefully tailored to match the fine carefully-tailored shoes, all it can do is trap the rays inside it. On this walk, her organs have slowly cooked from the inside, and her dress has become itchy with all the sweat. Even her big umbrella, made especially for this climate, has done nothing to help.
But now, she is feeling much better. The sun still burns away, but she is feeling much cooler. She has stopped sweating, which is a merciful thing for a lady. She does not know why this is, why she has now adjusted to the unadjustable heat, but she is thankful.
As the woman walks past the hollow, she notices that there is actually some water left. It is about an inch of deep-brown muck, almost impossible to see under the carpet of thirsty flies, but she has heard tales of desperate people drinking far worse. Still, she doesn’t need anything right now.
One step at a time, the left then the right.
Agatha idly waves her umbrella, trying to swat away the flies buzzing all around her. It’s a futile task – kill one, and a million will take its place – but they’re too irritating to not try. Like the heat, flies are inescapable here.
She rather likes her umbrella. It’s pale blue, square and made of light cloth, styled like the new fashions coming out of China. The key word here is “like”: she is a rich woman, from a rich family, but the genuine Asian article is still far beyond her means. She is hardly Queen Victoria, after all.
Realising that someone has just said something to her, Agatha snaps back to reality. “Pardon?” she says.
“I’m sorry about your son.” the woman says, with her hand rested on Agatha’s arm in that supportive fashion. “Arthur was a good lad. He would’ve done well for this town.”
Agatha looks around her, at what is laughably described as a “town”. Really, it’s just a handful of ramshackle buildings – hotel, jail, butchers and the like – thrown at the endless desert like they’d ever seriously last. Sevenoaks is one of many such “towns”, built with the sole purpose of seeing what the interior of New South Wales has to offer. Many places have found gold mines, rich and plentiful ones, but this patch of desert just seems to have fuck all.
Well, not quite. The soil sprouts fields of dry grass here and there, enough to raise sheep. It’s barely worth calling a resource, but all the same, it lets the community get by.
Today, Arthur was supposed to ride out to the Ranges, helping the dozen soldiers here give the natives a friendly extermination. But instead, he is in the town’s makeshift cemetery, dead from poisoning. According to Dr Arzt, he’d been bitten by any one of Australia’s countless deadly creatures. Just one of those things.
It doesn’t help that Michael can’t be here for her. Her husband is the Captain of Sevenoaks’ token military presence, doubling up as what passes for police in these frontier regions. As befits his post, he’s had to go off and lead the attack on the Ranges. He doesn’t want to, but it’s what he’s paid for. It’s also why the Morton family is here.
It’s best to just not think about these things. We break down, it all breaks down.
Agatha smiles as best she can. “Yes, he would have been. Thank you, Laura. How much is this steak?”
Laura presses the large parcel, the beef for tonight’s roast, into Agatha’s tiny hands. “I think this one’s on the house.”
Agatha steps from rock to rock, doing her best to climb the hill. She stumbles frequently, her shoes having little grip on the rough surfaces, but she still manages to keep going. She’s tired, very tired, after all her walking, and her balance has become precarious, but she can rest once she reaches the top of this hill. In the back of her mind, there’s the realisation that this, perhaps, is far enough.
There isn’t much to say about this hill. Isn’t really a hill, per se, just an uneven pile of rocks built up in the middle of the desert. At the summit, the highest and largest rock sticks out like the prow of a ship, giving the place a serene appearance entirely unlike anywhere else in this region.
Agatha doesn’t climb all the way to the top. She sits down on a small rock, a short way below the largest one. The hill isn’t huge, but it still took a while to climb: how long exactly, she can’t tell. Time is an irrelevance in this land. She rests her umbrella on another small rock besides her.
Tucking the edges of her skirt under her legs, Agatha sits and watches the sunset. It has the same unearthly glow and shiver as always, the one truly beautiful thing here. It helps that, when the sun goes down, it drags the flies with it. Only they love the day.
“Good evening, miss.”
The voice shocks Agatha to her very core. Jumping with fright, she turns to face her unexpected companion. Standing on the largest rock is a man, one of the Aborigines, with the white body-paint and a spear taller than he is. He seems to be about Arthur’s age, before he died: clearly not a child, but also not quite a man.
On her walk, Agatha has become used to being alone. She’d almost started to believe that she was the only person in existence.
She fixes the man with an unsteady gaze. Her voice is croaky, yet level.
“One of you killed my husband.” she says.
“The world was created long ago, in the Altjeringa, the Dreamtime. Our ancestors wandered the land, shaping the earth and creating people and objects to inhabit it. Vast serpents writhed around, their movements shaking the endless plains into mountains and canyons. Spirits came down from the heavens, making all things and naming them as they saw fit. They helped all animals and people into existence, giving each group their own territory, language and customs. Out of disorder, life was born.”
Agatha nods. “Go on.”
Noah is the Morton family’s servant, one of a surprising number of Aborigines who choose to aid the English settlers. He is a good man, not that Agatha would mind either way. Her family is gone – Dashiell still remains, but with Dr Arzt not being worth his extortionate fees, probably not for much longer – and she is willing to have anyone fill that space. Today, she has finally given into her curiosity about Noah’s life, about where he came from.
“It is important that you understand, Mrs Morton. You British think that humans are the masters of the earth, that we are above and beyond all others. But we are not. We are but a part of this land, exactly the same as any other part. We are in the land, and the land is in us. Only if we respect this land, treat it and the spirits who live within it with due deference, will we survive.”
Noah points through the open window. Outside the Morton residence, a storm has hit, the first rains in nearly a year. The sun is blocked by the black clouds, but the light remains. In this unearthly glow, lightning forks, somehow bringing sky and earth closer together.
Frankly, the feeling that the world is ending is an everyday occurrence here.
“The spirits, the ancestors who made the world, they still live on. Every animal, every tree, every pool, every rock, every cloud, a spirit lives within it and controls it. When the thunder cracks and lightning forks, this is just a demonstration of their power. The land around us gives us everything we need for survival, and yet also contains all the seeds of our destruction. We must forget neither.”
“The Rainbow Snake, creator of water. The Wawilak sisters, the first mothers. All the ancestors in the stars, sitting around their campfires. We cannot forget those who came before us, whose spirits still live among us. We tell our stories, we make sure our children remember these ancestors, we make sure they continue telling our stories. We keep on knowing that we never live alone.”
Agatha nods. “Go on.”
There’s something just ahead. A building, for lack of a better term. It’s a white block, no bigger than a house, a lump of brick and rough plaster dumped next to a few barely-living trees. A smaller building, still only one story, sits off to the side, a wooden stable for the horses of anyone insane enough to ride out this far.
The Tartarus Tavern. The marker for where the Outback stops being merely out back and starts being a whole other universe. Also the last refuge of scum and villainy, a City Hall for this region’s outlaws. Some are convicts Transported from home, escaping the penal colonies to hide out in the hills. Others come here freely, arriving in Australia and deciding that stealing from others is the best occupation.
Either way, if you drink here, it’s because more urban taverns are a no-go.
Agatha has heard of this place. But she never expected to stumble across it.
But she’s spared the worst of the Tartarus. Whatever it used to be, it isn’t anymore. Only a few beams and slats of the stable remain, the rest burnt to a blackened pulp. The tavern building is stained black, darkened by smoke that billowed from its glassless windows. Rubble from inside, from collapsed roof and interior walls, spills out through the open doorway. Corpses, at least a dozen, are scattered across the interior and the dirt outside. They’re all covered in flies, feasting clouds so thick you can barely see what’s inside. A few birds circle above, disturbed from their carrion by Agatha’s approach.
Each of these men, bandits and soldiers alike, has been killed by a spear. Sometimes several. As Agatha knows from experience, you don’t need guns in order to cause damage.
But Agatha doesn’t stop. She carries on walking, going past this tableau and further out into the desert. Wherever she’s going, this isn’t it.
There’s a tapping sound. Agatha looks up to see a man stood by the entrance to the house, politely knocking on the open door. He’s young, clean-cut, dressed in a suit that’s as neat and anonymous as he is.
“May I help you?” Agatha asks.
The man coughs nervously, holds his hands behind his back. “My name’s Norman Fletcher. I’m…I’m here to see Catherine.”
Agatha grins. “Ahh…so you’re the Norman I’ve heard so much about!”
She stands up, putting her half-darned sock to one side. She can’t sew to save her life, hasn’t ever been able to, but aside from gardening or cleaning, there’s precious little else to do round here. She walks towards Norman and extends a hand. After a few seconds’ nervous confusion, he shakes it.
“Catherine never stops talking about you, you know. Whenever she’s around, it’s always “Norman said this, Norman took me to do that”. If you want my honest opinion, I think she’s rather taken with you.”
Norman goes bright red, embarrassment red rather than heat red. Luckily, Catherine saves his blushes by choosing this moment to walk in the room. Like her mother when she was that age, Catherine couldn’t be anonymous even if she tried.
“Are you being embarrassing again, mum?” she says, walking over to Norman. She gives him a hug and a kiss on the cheek, anything more romantic to be avoided in present company.
“Well, that’s what mothers are for.”
“Aren’t they just?”
Norman looks over at Agatha, awkwardness written all over his already awkward face. “Umm….actually…I was hoping I could talk to you in private.”
Mother and daughter shrug. Like Catherine, Agatha knows what the question is going to be. Norman would make a good son-in-law. Heaven knows, the Morton family needs a decent source of income, with Arthur and Michael both gone. Dashiell won’t be earning anything worth earning for a good few years yet.
One step at a time, the left then the right. The woman keeps walking, pressing her feet one at a time against the scorched earth. The sun and the heat press down with an almost solid force, the sheer unbearable extremity of it causing her to sway and stagger with every step. It’s difficult to imagine such temperatures, the feeling that your entire body is boiling away, but here it is. The umbrella she brought with her only out of habit, the only thing it’s good for is swatting at all the flies with nothing else to swarm over. As she walks, bowed under natures’ might, she remembers a dream she once had. It was during her first night at Sevenoaks, when the heat finally allowed her to sleep. There was a desert, an endless nothing with stars brighter than the sun hanging all above. The desert contained nothing, even less than this desert. Aside from her, the only thing there was a man, an aboriginal man like Noah, though barely old enough to be called a “man”. He said his name was Nightingale, and they talked, talked about many things. They talked about past, about present, about future, about things that made no sense to her. As they talked, Nightingale drew pictures in the sand, though they only caused greater confusion. She didn’t understand any of what he told her, but she still knew, in a way she couldn’t define, that what he said was important. Though the woman thinks about this dream rarely, it’s still better to think about than the heat.
“Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday dear mummy!
Happy birthday to you!”
Agatha laughs and smiles. Her family are not good singers, Catherine excepted, but their enthusiasm and affection has a beauty of its own. She hugs and kisses them all in turn, reserving the longest embrace for Michael. He has been away for a month, meeting superiors in Sydney, and neither of them was expecting him to be home for today. They are both very grateful that he managed it.
There are two presents, both in small white boxes, bound in red ribbon. She takes the first, unties and opens it. Underneath some tissue paper is a pair of earrings, two silver suns only a quarter of an inch across. It is their smallness, their intricacy, that makes them beautiful. Though the thought is only half-registered in her mind, they also help remind her that, even though the sun is the defining cruelty of this merciless land, it can still be turned into something of grace.
In time, this thought will serve her well.
Agatha smiles. “They’re beautiful!” she says.
Michael smiles back. “I’m glad you think so. They took some finding.”
“Well, I appreciate the effort.”
Later, Agatha will gently enquire about the specifics. But for now, she turns to the next box, unties and opens it. Inside, under another piece of tissue paper, is not more jewellery, but something entirely different. She gently lifts up a tiny model of a rocking horse, no longer than two inches long, its dark brown wood painted with obviously great care in a variety of whites, reds and blues. For half a second, she wonders why she has been given a toy, but then realises that a toy is the last thing this is.
“I like your thinking.” she says, laughing.
“That was my idea.” Catherine pipes up. “I saw it in Sevenoaks the other day. I knew it had to be done.”
Agatha laughs again.
Agatha leans against the tree, bends over and vomits by her feet. It’s a thick, dark-orange slime, with an acrid smell that burns at her nostrils. But there isn’t much, just an unpleasant mouthful. She keeps hold of the tree, feeling faint, black clouds billowing from the sides of her vision. Her head is pounding, much like it has for a while now, with an incessant throb like nails being driven into her brain.
She can give an educated guess as to what this is all about. Since she left her home, however long ago that was, she has not taken on any food or water. Her walk is intended to be one-way, so bringing supplies with her felt a little pointless, and she had long since learnt that this wilderness will not try to assist her. Regardless, she has been feeling hungry and thirsty (and especially the latter) for quite some time, and it evidently seems to have caught up with her.
Eventually, her vision returns to something near-normal, and the acidic feeling in her throat begins to fade. She wipes her mouth with her sleeve, and dabs at her watering eyes. A blob of vomit has landed on her shoe, so she rubs it against the tree in a vain attempt to clean it. She gently pushes herself off the tree, wobbling a little as she realises her balance has not quite returned.
She is just about to walk off when she hears a screeching noise. She jumps a little, and looks up.
The tree is tall, at least twenty feet, yet spindly and weak. Its many branches are largely leaf-less, and stick out at all angles like stretching fingers. It is the only tree, or anything else of height, for miles around. Sitting on top of this melancholy perch is an eagle, huge and imperious, its wings outstretched as it surveys the endless cracked desert that is its domain. Agatha has seen a few of these in her time at Sevenoaks, and by its size and shape, knows it to be a Wedge-Tail.
The eagle turns its head and looks down at her. It is too far away for its gaze to be truly readable, but it seems to be dismissive. She gets the feeling, somewhere in her chilled bones, that it knows who she is and why she is here, and regards her as nothing more than a minor irritation, a fly not worthy of its concern.
The eagle turns back to its kingdom, and screeches again.
“Tell me about it.” Agatha mumbles, before walking away.
“Good evening, gentlemen.”
“Mrs Morton, I really don’t think you should be here.”
“Can a lady not visit her husband in his place of work?”
“Yes she can, but now isn’t a good time.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“It’s police business, Mrs Morton. Not something you need to see.”
“Why? Has my husband been hurt? Is he okay?”
“Yes, he’s fine. He isn’t here right now. I suggest you go home and wait for him there. This isn’t the best time for you to be here.”
“Where is he, then?”
“There’s some extra business he needs to sort out. Police things. Please, Mrs Morton, you really shouldn’t be here.
“Mrs Morton, please. You should go. Now.”
“What’s going on back there?”
“Police business, Mrs Morton.”
“Who’s that man on the table? He’s dead, isn’t he?”
“It’s not your concern. And no, he isn’t dead.”
“Is that a spear? That is a spear. My God, he’s dead.”
“No. We’re waiting for the doctor. You really don’t need to see this.”
“Who is he?”
“No one you know. Now please, you sh-”
“Is he…? He is! He is! Oh God, he’s-”
“Please! You need to go!”
“No! I have to…I have to…I have to be…”
“Mrs Morton, there’s nothing you can-”
“He’s my husband! Don’t you understand?! I can’t leave him! I can’t leave him! I can’t…I can’t…I can’t…Oh God…”
“I know, I know. But you can’t stay. There’s nothing you can do to help. I’ll escort you home. You’ll be better off there.”
“He’s my husband. I can’t leave him. Why didn’t you…why?”
“I know. I’m sorry. We couldn’t tell you here. We still don’t know what happened. It’s still too soon.”
“Oh God. I need to go home. I need to stay. Oh God…I don’t know…What happened to him?”
“We’re not sure. I’ll tell you what we know later. You need to get home.”
“I know…I know…Oh God, he’s dead.”
“It’s okay. I’ll escort you home. You need to look after your children.”
“No, it’s not okay. It’s never going to be okay.”
“Yes, it will. You’ll be okay. You’ll make it work.”
On the horizon ahead of her, the sun is beginning to go down. Its rays are still fiercely bright, but the dark orange of sunset is slowly creeping into the light. The daytime will be over in a few hours, or something approximate to that. She has long since adjusted to the fact that, in this landscape, time is not something you can entirely trust. This is why there are no longer any clocks in her home.
Then again, “home” is also something of a relative term out here.
There’s a rock not far from here. Guessing the distance in a world this flat is fairly pointless, but all the same, it shouldn’t be any more than a mile. From this viewpoint, the rock isn’t large, probably no bigger than she is. Nonetheless, it’s the only thing of interest for quite some way, so she turns a little to the left and heads towards it.
After spending all day walking into the sun’s intense glare, she is now beginning to feel cold. The throbbing in her head has also eased off, and she has long since stopped noticing her thirst and hunger pangs. Though she has picked up a new discomfort, her face and hands itching where the sunlight has burned them, she is feeling altogether less miserable than she did earlier in the day. She had almost started to believe that the day would last forever, so the simple promise of night-time is enough to raise her spirits.
The rock is much closer now, but she already knows that she will not stop. A black woman, a native, is sat against its base, dressed in a loose brown robe. She is holding a tiny baby in her arms, its skinny form wrapped in a brown cloth sling. Both mother and child are covered in blood, and though they are too far away to be absolutely sure, there are signs of a gunshot wound in each forehead.
She will not go any closer to the rock. This tableau is not something she wants to examine in detail. She has already seen more than enough times what this war between her people and theirs is all about.
She isn’t feeling so cheerful now.
Some way off to the left is a hill. It’s large, she isn’t sure exactly how big, with a large rock sticking out from the summit like the prow of a ship. She has been able to see it for some time, but has considered it too far away to be worth a detour. However, now it strikes her as a decent place to head for. It might well be her destination, if the term could be given such a specific meaning.
She leaves the rock behind, and starts walking towards the hill.
A cloud of dust in the distance signals that a rider is approaching. This is the only building for two miles, so Agatha knows that, whoever they are, it’s her they’re after. Though she is curious about their intentions, she also knows that it will be a few minutes before they arrive, so she goes back to her gardening whilst she waits.
She bends down, shears in hand, snipping off a dead flower from the rose plant. In a climate this unforgiving, dead-heading probably won’t help this spindly, miserable-looking pink thing, but still, the aesthetic value is worth a little something. But aside from this rider, she doesn’t get many visitors these days, so the work is for her alone. Still, that’s fine by her.
Mostly, gardening just fills in the hours. Like many women of her era, and especially ones of her upbringing, she has never had the chance to work a single day of her life. She has had over forty years’ experience of keeping herself amused, and by now, thinking up things to do, when there is usually nothing obvious to do, is almost second nature. Many women in her position like to sew, but that is not one of her talents, so she tends to her garden instead.
Not that there’s much of a garden. It’s a thirty-foot square, with a thin border running along all sides, and two small raised beds in the centre. The only plants are a selection of poppies and roses, the only things she’s been able to both obtain and grow out here in Sevenoaks. There’s arguably less life here than in the field of dry grass in which this house sits: certainly, not much distinguishes the two, save the waist-high white fence that surrounds the property. But, ultimately, Agatha has done the best she can with what she has, and she is not ashamed.
As she bends to dead-head another rose, she notes that this could be said of her wider life. It has been a few months since Michael’s death, and whilst the days have dragged by with a certain grim inevitability, she is still coping better than she feared. It helps that money is not especially tight: Michael’s former men supply donations as and when they can, and whilst Norman and Catherine are not yet married, her future son-in-law is living at the house and providing a decent income. He has joined the garrison here in Sevenoaks: a job with many ill omens, but it pays better than anything else in the area. The new Captain Granger has gone to Sydney to meet superiors, and they are both accompanying him on the coach. Noah is in Sevenoaks tending to his own business, so Agatha and Dashiell have been left alone in the house. Her son is off reading his books, content as usual.
They both just find ways to survive, and maybe find a little happiness whilst doing so. Under the circumstances, they can ask for no more.
Agatha does some more dead-heading, digs up a few poppies that don’t share her will to live, and eventually the rider comes to a stop just beyond the fence. It’s Noah, looking a little dishevelled. Whatever’s going on, it can’t be good. Agatha stands up, ready to hear his news.
He dismounts with his usual slowness, and opens the gate. He walks a few feet into the garden, staying a little distance from Agatha. The gate remains open behind him.
Noah takes a deep breath, then speaks. “The news just reached town, Mrs Morton. Captain Granger’s coach was attacked by bandits in the Blue Mountains. No one survived. I’m sorry, Mrs Morton.”
Agatha puts her hand to her mouth, the shears rubbing on her nose. Suddenly, mere survival doesn’t seem so enthralling.
One step at a time, the left then the right.
There seems to be a person up ahead. At the very least, it’s a black blob in a humanoid shape. Right now, the air is so hot that it shakes, warping everything around her into barely recognisable shapes and textures, like an oil painting smudged before it dries. It doesn’t help that her brain hurts so much she can hardly see.
However, whilst the person is indistinct, there a few other things nearby that are much easier to see. There are three large shacks, if such a term can be applied to what is no more than corrugated iron resting on four wooden poles. A variety of broken and rusted machinery is strewn around, both inside and outside the shacks: most of it is too blurry to make out, but one of the clearer items is a full-size traction engine. If it wasn’t for the lone person, then she’d have reckoned this place long abandoned.
She can give a decent guess as to what this place was. Whilst most settlers were willing to stay in Sevenoaks and other such towns, there were also plenty who weren’t content with such an existence, and struck out even deeper into the Outback in search of their fortune. None of them ever came back, which meant that they either found nothing, or found things too valuable to report. What this camp expected to get out of such a barren tract of desert – even the nearest trees were on the horizon – she has no idea, but they evidently didn’t get it.
Once she gets closer, the person gradually fades from a blur into a real, solid man. He is stood just outside one of the shacks, with a small wooden folding table in front of him, covered in an odd assortment of objects: an empty birdcage, a white cloth, three metal rings, several napkins and a deck of cards. The man himself is white, with a black cloak, black top hat and neatly-trimmed black beard.
“Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages!” he says in a rich, booming voice.
She stands a few feet in front of him, and watches as he picks up the bird cage and the cloth.
“See this cage! It is empty, is it not?” He spins it round a few times, just to demonstrate.
“Ah, but look again!” He throws the cloth over the cage, completely covering it, then pulls out a cheap-looking magic wand from his pocket. “I only need to give a few encouraging taps, and then…”
He gives the cage three taps with his wand, and then whips off the cloth. Inside the cage is a small yellow duckling, trying to hide under its wings.
The man puts his cage and cloth back on the table, and gives a deep bow. “I thank you! I thank you! And now, for my next trick…”
She stares at him, completely dumbstruck. She’s heard stories about mirages, that the desert makes people go crazy and see things. This is probably one of those. Though losing her sanity is not a comforting thought, it’s still less terrifying than the possibility that this man is real.
He is now trying to link together his three rings. Arthur had shown her that trick a few times, long ago, and she has no interest in watching magic she knows how to replicate. That isn’t what magic is for. She simply walks away, heading past the man and his table, and back out into the open desert. One step at a time, the left then the right.
He doesn’t seem to notice.
It feels like she had always been here, but she knows that, actually, she has only just arrived. She can’t say when, or even how, but all the same, she knows that she had once been somewhere else, and will some day return there. She can’t work out how she knows this, but she knows.
But where is “here”, exactly? She isn’t entirely sure. It is a desert, but entirely unlike those barren landscapes Australia has shown her so far: it is completely featureless, a pan of red dust and rock so flat that she can see the horizon’s curve. There are no objects on the ground, no trees or rocks or stones or anything. The only features of interest are in the night sky above, which is filled with myriads of stars that each feel brighter than the sun. It feels like a quilt, almost.
She knows, just like she knows all those other things, that this desert will not be found on any map. Maybe it isn’t so much a question of “where”.
“You’re dreaming, miss.”
The voice surprises her, but at the same time, she’s also been expecting it. She turns to see a man sat on the ground, using a stick to draw shapes in the dust. He’s an Aborigine, and about the same age as Arthur, that awkward point where boy and man became blurred. The shapes he’s drawing are odd: stick people, spirals, lines, squiggles. One image resembles a snake, a series of winding curves. She has no idea what it means.
Of course she’s dreaming. It makes perfect sense.
“Why am I here?” she asks.
The man looks up at her and smiles. “You’re clever. Most people just start with where. But you know precisely where you are, don’t you?”
She doesn’t, not entirely, but she isn’t about to puncture his optimism.
“My name’s Nightingale.” he says. “And you’re here because there are things you need to understand.”
He starts to draw a sun, though moving in a very staccato way, as if he doesn’t realise he’s drawing at all.
“Just things.” Nightingale shrugs, but continues drawing.
“The trouble is, if I tell you now, you won’t understand. Your only hope is if you learn for yourself. But you have to be ready. If you just sit around waiting, then by the time it comes, you’ll already be too late.”
He smiles again. “Yes. You’re starting to get it already. But rest assured, there’s still a long way to go.”
Nightingale continues to talk, his discourse reaching into many more things, matters of life and love, happiness, wealth and community. But she never understands him as well as she does right now.
It doesn’t make any sense, but still, she knows.
“One of you killed my husband.”
The man, the Aborigine, takes a while to reply. Agatha gets the sense that he’s thinking, making sure that what he says is exactly what he means. In her experience, very few people do this.
“Well, I wouldn’t know about that.” he eventually says. “I’ve never killed anyone. Who was he?”
To her horror, it takes Agatha a few seconds to remember. Why memories burnt into her brain should so abruptly slip away is a mystery to her, and one she recognises will remain so. But, mercifully, she soon recalls what she needs to.
“He was Captain Michael Morton, of the Sevenoaks Constabulary. Three months ago, Aboriginals ambushed and killed him.”
“Was he a good man?”
“One of the best.”
The man nods. “In that case, you have my condolences. But how many husbands have your people killed?”
Agatha blinks. She knows full well what “her people” are capable of, but all the same, such a direct question takes her by surprise. She realises that an honest answer is needed, and there’s only one she can provide.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s probably for the best.” The man pauses, then smiles. “My name’s Nightingale.”
Agatha stares at him. Her day has been pretty damn strange, but this is not how she imagined it ending. She used to be believe in coincidence, but since she has come to Australia, such a simplistic view of the universe doesn’t quite stand up. Meeting this man, here and now, only confirms the error of her former assumptions.
“I’m Agatha.” she says, calmer than she feels. “I had a dream about you once.”
Nightingale laughs. “You did?”
“Yes. When I first came here. You wanted to tell me something, but couldn’t. I think you said I had to learn for myself.”
“And have you?”
“I think so.”
He nods and smiles. “In that case, I’m glad to be of service.”
There’s a short lull in the conversation. Eventually, Agatha realises something obvious, a reality problem that hadn’t occurred to her in their last meeting.
“You speak very good English.” she says.
Nightingale smiles, obviously proud. “I do, don’t I? An Englishman joined our tribe a year ago. His name is Will Hodgson. Do you know him?”
Agatha shakes her head.
“He’s a very wise man.” Nightingale continues. “He taught me your language, and learnt ours as well. He also gave me the name Nightingale. Apparently, there’s a bird in your native land that sings very well, and so do I.”
There’s another lull. Agatha looks at the ground, kicks at a few stones by her feet. She can feel the need to sleep encroaching.
“I forgot to ask.” Nightingale suddenly says. “What brings you out here? This is a bit beyond your territory.”
Agatha doesn’t reply immediately. She knows that Nightingale deserves a complete answer, but she is unsure how to provide it. Eventually, some words occur to her. They aren’t perfect, but they’ll do.
“I used to hate this place. I really hated it. I thought it was Hell on Earth. And in this back end of oblivion, there were only four things I valued. Four people, rather. They were my family, and I loved them. And, one by one, this land took them from me. I decided I should make my peace with it, before it took me too.”
Nightingale nods. “And what do you think now?”
“Now…” Agatha pauses, and sighs. “It’s somewhere. That’s enough.”
Nightingale turns to look at the sunset. It’ll be dark soon, but for now, the horizon is painted a deep, vibrant red. From where Agatha’s sat, the prow of this hill points right into the heart of the sun, as if it’s going to sail off into the heavens. She would once have wished it could take her along, but now she knows such wishes are unnecessary.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he says.
Agatha nods. The Outback sunsets were always beautiful, even when everything else wasn’t. But only some things change.
“Yes, it is.”
She looks at Nightingale, and realises that this is the first time they’ve ever met. He already feels so familiar to her that the insight is something of a shock. But then she yawns, stretching her mouth so wide that it hurts, and she remembers that there’s something else she needs to do.
“If you don’t mind,” she says, “I’ve had a long day, and I need to rest.”
He smiles. “Of course. I’ll stay for a while, if you don’t mind.”
Agatha closes her eyes. She didn’t realise how much they hurt until now. The sheer relief is wonderful.
“That would be wonderful.”
She smiles too.
Agatha turns on the tap, and fills the glass up to the top. Unlike most other things here, the water is cold, but that’s precisely how she needs it. When he was last here, Dr Arzt advised her to give Dashiell plenty of water, to help manage his fever: not that she needs a doctor to tell her that, but advice is advice. She turns off the tap, and leaves the kitchen.
She re-enters the main bedroom, where Dashiell is lying on the four-poster bed, dragged out into the centre of the room. The sheets are soaked through with his sweat, but he has stopped shivering now. That seems to be something…well, it obviously is something, but it seems to be good too.
She puts the glass down on the bedside cabinet, and bends over Dashiell’s tiny form. Now that he’s still, his eyes closed, he looks so serene. She feels a touch of regret at giving him a gentle shake on his shoulders.
“Dashiell, you need to drink some water.”
No response. She shakes him again.
“Dashiell, wake up. You need to drink.”
Again, no response. She gives him a third shake, a little harder this time.
“Come on, Dashiell. You need to drink.”
Still nothing. And then she realises, with a clarity like parting clouds, that her efforts are pointless. He isn’t going to wake up, not now or ever. There was indeed a reason why he wasn’t shivering, but it wasn’t a good one.
Agatha gently strokes her son’s brow. It feels very cold. She bends down to kiss him, and then stands back up to her full height.
In the time it took for her to get a glass of water, her last remaining child died, and she wasn’t even with him at the end. Strangely, this knowledge does not hit her as hard as she’d been expecting: she has seen this coming for some days, and anyway, she has already lost enough people for the sensation to be familiar. The worst part is that, now, she is alone, here in this most unforgiving of worlds. There is Noah, of course, but he is not family: in that respect, her isolation is now absolute.
In some grim and horrible way, it’s actually a little funny. Ever since Arthur was killed by the insect bite, Dashiell has studiously avoided playing outside. But three days ago, perhaps galvanised by the knowledge of Catherine and Norman’s murders, he finally relented, and went out into the fields with his elder brother’s kite. And now, today, he is himself dead, victim of a force more primal than either beast or man: the sun.
That’s when another light bulb goes off in Agatha’s brain. She knows what she must do next, and she must not delay. The answer to all her problems is finally upon her. She picks up the glass of water, empties it in one go, and places it back on the cabinet.
“Good bye, Dashiell. Good bye, and good luck.”
Agatha walks out of the front door, and closes it behind her. Before she heads any further, she takes a few seconds to look out over her garden. It’s much the same as ever: in other words, nothing very much. But it is her garden, grown with the sweat of her brow, and she is proud of it. It is almost a shame to leave it behind…but only almost.
She has left a note for Noah, when he returns, giving her best explanation for where she is going and why. He left for Sevenoaks two hours ago, on a shopping expedition, and he won’t be back until the end of the day. That will give her enough of a head start, enough to ensure that being found will not stop her plans. The house is also now his, to do with as he chooses: if he has any sense, which he does, he won’t keep it. At the very least, he will understand her mission, and he will not be upset.
Considering that she is about to walk to her death, Agatha feels surprisingly relaxed. She has spent many months just drifting through life, so the distinct purpose she has now given herself is very liberating: she has something to do, something she knows how to do, that will achieve worthwhile things. She can dedicate herself to it, and know that it will not be a waste of time. She is beginning to understand that life has a point, if only because she has created one.
Agatha double-checks her outfit. Her dress and shoes – her finest ones, that she has only ever worn twice – are clean, neat and tidy. Her faithful umbrella, though it doesn’t match, is still in excellent condition, and ready for its purpose. And she is also wearing the earrings her husband gave her for her last birthday, those tiny silver suns: for a variety of reasons, most of them sentimental, she has always put off this first use. Again for a variety of reasons, it is fitting that they should see their debut today.
She takes a deep breath, and starts to walk. She leaves her garden, closing the gate behind her, and heads off into the desert. It is only a few hours past sunrise, but the world is already unbearably hot.
One step at a time, the left then the right.
The wheels of the coach pass over the hard dirt road, bouncing repeatedly as they struggle to cope with the uneven surface. The only sounds are the horses’ footfalls and their occasional grunting, and the grinding of the wooden coach as it shakes its way towards its eventual destination. Out into the endless horizon, the emptiness in which the only feature is dry grass, nothing else is insane enough to stir.
Agatha Morton stares vacantly out of the window, fanning herself with an equal absent-mindedness. The heat, the immense, almost physical heat, is driving her to distraction, but she has already accepted that her expensive, Sydney-bought hand fan will do absolutely nothing about it. Still, she waves it anyway, just to feel like she’s doing something.
Dashiell is sat on the bench opposite her, looking outside with wide-eyed fascination, already in love with the sheer otherness of this world. He is eleven years old, yet he still sees the world with a child’s eyes: Agatha is grateful that at least one of the family will be happy here. Michael, Arthur and Catherine are all asleep, despite the heat and the coach’s constant rattling.
Personally, Agatha just wants to go home. She has endured six months’ worth of cold, wet and stinking sea voyage, just so she can live in this arsehole of the universe, where grass counts as interesting scenery, the heat is a pounding iron fist, and flies outnumber humans a million to one. She has an almost physical longing for the shady clouds and rolling fields of England, but even if she had the money to go home, she knows she cannot. Her parents' chorus of “I told you so” would be too much to endure, and anyway, she must stay here and support her husband: he considers it an honour to be in the colonies, to serve Queen and country in such a direct way. She can’t help but wonder if old Victoria would be willing to take her place.
It’s a few seconds before she realises that Dashiell is tugging on her leg. She turns to look at him, feeling a little out-of-focus.
“What is it, Dashiell?” she asks, voice equally bleary.
He points out of the window, up into the sky. “Look, mummy!” he says excitedly.
Agatha obliges, looking up into the infinite blue sky. If only for lack of other things up there, it’s obvious what he wants her to see: a huge bird, drifting in a slow circle, on wide-open wings. Her knowledge of birds is limited, but it is clearly an eagle, with a tail shaped in a diamond, almost like a spear-head. Flying way up high, almost too high to be visible, it is clearly and absolutely at home in this world, its own talon-forged kingdom.
She smiles to herself. There is at least something alive and thriving out here, and that alone makes her feel a little better about her situation.
“It’s very nice, Dashiell.” she says.
It is sunrise now. The belly of the sun is poking its way over the horizon, spreading its warm yellow fingers into the brightening sky. Another day is beginning, another beautiful and miraculous opportunity to live in the world.
Nightingale is sat on the rocky prow, right at its very tip, where he has been the entire night. True to his word, he has not abandoned Mrs Morton, and she in turn has also not left her seat.
Though he isn’t sure of the exact time, he knows that she died during the night. Once she went to sleep, she did not wake up again, and now her body has slumped forwards in the way of those who will slumber forever. As such exits go, it would have quick, and entirely painless. No one can ask more than that.
Nightingale gets up, and starts to climb down the hill towards Mrs Morton’s body. His first plan was to return her to Sevenoaks, but on reflection, he knows that going back to that world would not be her wish. So he will bury her here, at the base of this hill, and he will do it now. Being without equipment, he cannot dig a pit, but will instead use some of the many stones hereabouts to cover her: there is a chance that birds or dingoes will dig her out, but it’s no less likely than if there was a pit, and anyway, he shall just have to build a large enough mound. He can use a few branches to make a cross, as Will Hodgson once talked about, and use that as a marker. It is a simple burial, but he knows it is the kind that she would appreciate.
He does not know her full story, the events that drew her to this place, but from what little he was told, this seems like the right place to end it.
As he gets closer to Mrs Morton, and her face finally comes into view, he notices something. Though she is long since dead, and the joke has long since been given its punchline, she is still smiling.
Everything is going to be okay.