The years pass like sheep chewing grass
School passed, the baby passed, years passed. Clouds passed overhead then blue sky, sometimes rain, a lot of rain, and more blue sky. Leaves turned red and fell, spouted green again and then turned red and fell again. The grass grew, turned to hay and a neighbouring farmer would come with his tractor and cut it into bales, some he’d take and others he left for dada to sell at the local market. Our cow grew old and died and we bought a sheep, it grew fat and dad slaughtered it and we had food for a few months or more. The flowers in mama’s garden mostly died except for turnips and potatoes.
‘Turnips and potatoes,’ Mama would say, pointing a crooked turnip my way, ‘nothing but turnips and potatoes grow in this soil, why do you think that is? Are they the only things that can stand his voice? Or is the soil somewhat cursed but turnips and potatoes ignore even the most dire of warning…though not for the poor soddin’ Irish of course, nothing can save them but death itself.’
All in all, as the seasons kind of rolled across our lives like shadows across the grass, the farm somehow changed and yet remained the same. Dada’s voice stayed the same. Mama’s hair turned a lighter shade of red but her kindness whenever Un wet the bed never changed and the town around the school grew bigger and bigger even though we stayed mostly apart.
‘It’s getting so a man can’t think with the houses crowding in so,’ Dada took to grumbling as he sat on the veranda in an old rocking chair he’d picked up somewhere, rocking back and forth, back and forth, drinking beer from a ‘long neck’ as he called them and all the while his eyes scanning the distant houses, his lips turned grim as if he was watching rats scurrying into the house.
Mama said nothing but I knew she liked the town inching closer. She had purchased another batch of chicks and this time she had some real layers amongst them and so the old ducks sign was dragged out, the word “duck” crossed of and the word “chicken,” written in a sprawling red paint, replaced it. Mama sold a few eggs each day to the neighbours who trotted across the paddock, in gumboots when it rained, in thongs when it was hot. The egg-buyers never came when dada was home, I guess they knew what was what and it was easy to tell when Dada was home, ‘You could hear him hollerin’ from Jupiter,’ Mama always said.
When a house sprang up almost over night it seemed, ‘Like some bastard was watering ‘em,’ exclaimed Dada, Mama looked sad.
‘Why are you sad, Mama, I thought you like the houses creepin’ closer?’
‘I do, but that house is too close, there will be consequences that I neither ask for nor deserve, mark my words.’
‘What do you mean Mama?’
‘We’ll be shifting ground the way ants move before the deluge. Your Dada is an ant and those houses are the approaching storm. I can smell change in the very air I breathe.’
She was right of course. A few days later Dada came home with a man and showed him over the farm. They shook hands and then Dada strode inside and said to no one in particular and so to Mama and me, ‘Get packin’, we’re outta here before some bastard’s sitting in my lap on the front veranda.’
‘Must we go, Mama,’ I asked her as we packed my things into a small plastic garbage bag that I hoped as clean but wasn’t entirely sure of it.
‘Dada will not be denied, and we’ve no money to run, besides Dada would track us down again, the way a fox tracks down the check pen. Of that I have always been certain, it’s the knowledge that defeats me every time I think of escape. I’d have to shoot him in the head, splattering his brains out the other side, so he was deader than that rooster we ate last week, and that I cannot do.’
‘No we shouldn’t kill Dada.’
I knew it was wrong and though I feared him at that point I still loved him. He was like a waterfall, you couldn’t help but marvel at its force and sometimes, as I have said, we might share a moment that I hoarded like the marbles I kept in the sock at the bottom of my drawer as if they were jewels from the earth’s deep.
‘You misunderstand me. It’s not that we shouldn’t, it’s that I fear I can’t. I fear I’ll miss or the gun won’t go off or some such and then what? Then he’d know I had tried to kill him and failed and things would go from hell to worse.’
‘What worse then hell, Mama?’ I asked mostly to change the subject, the talk of killing Dada was terrifying me. It was funny (well funny is the wrong word but it will do) but in a different way Mama could scare me as fast, and sometimes more, than Dada ever did. With Dada I could feel his torment, even when he took to the torturing, I could feel how much it did him in even as he ruined me. But Mama, with Mama sometimes when she talked I knew there as one side and then there was the other side and there was no crossing that divide, not by any means magical or medicinal or any other way known to man or God.
And there it was, that divide. And in her words I remembered that promise. If I turned out like Dada I knew what side of that divide I would be on and it would be permanent. Dada was violent and cruel and loud and menacing but Mama could freeze me hearty in the hottest summer day.
So we sold the farm (well Dada sold it, there was no “we” in what he did) to that man and we moved to another farm a small distance away so that the town was once again a non-invasive presence.
Later the town spread close again and we sold that farm and moved again further away. That second time we ended up in a farm at the edge of the forest with a small creek as the back fence boundary that kept the forest. The third farm was the last cos it was not worth a dime and no one would ever want to buy it off us. It was at this farm that the real trouble began. ‘Third time unlucky,’ as Mama said.
The second farm, as roughly as I can calculate it was when I was about eight and the third farm when I was ten. The spreading town was speeding up but this third farm was in the wrong direction (or right according to Dada) for that spread. The town was being pulled towards the city as if cities were magnets and towns small bits of metal that can’t resist the pull. We were safe now, safe from that spread, safe from the city’s pull out by the forest’s edge were only people seeking firewood, meat or mushrooms seemed to venture.
That was a good thing about the forest. Dada would often drag me along with him and we’d collect firewood that was just lying on the ground waiting for us to come along and pick it up. Once I picked up a log and a brown snake was underneath and before I could scream Dada grabbed that snake by the tail and gave it such a flick he snapped its back and that night we had snake stew. The meat tasted a bit like chicken though different too and I wondered as I ate it if its poison would do me in as I slept that night. It didn’t, but then again I probably didn’t sleep that night but lay there listening to Dada and pissing myself as I usually did.
The first farm had several paddocks (besides the two, one at either side that we kept for our own adventures that Dada had rented out to a local dairyman and that money paid his drinking. To get to the first house we had to walk from the road through several gates. If we had have had a car (we didn’t) we would have needed in winter to part it on the road cos the paddocks were just mud in winter.
The house was a wreck but it was a solid wreck with a wire door at the front that squeaked and banged; a sound I still miss to this very day. The house had several rooms beside the two bedrooms and the spare that was full of junk. The second farm as a bit like the first though the paddocks Dada rented out were fewer and the walk from the road longer. The house was newer which meant it was in worse condition than the old farmhouse built sturdily at the turn of some century or other. It had two bedrooms, a lounge room and a kitchen. Both had indoor bathrooms and outdoor toilets and laundries.
The third house was a shack, three rooms and an outhouse/bathroom out back. There were some sheds but the sheds were empty and the floors were earthen, not cement. It had a kitchen/lounge/drying the clothes room, Mama and Dada’s bedroom and my room. It had paddocks filled with the bones of old machinery but no animals, and we never brought any animals to that place.
Mama didn’t even try to sell eggs for two reasons. One ‘cos no one came near that place, only foxes and feral and two, Dada sold the chickens with the farm.
‘Well I sold it as a chicken farm so it had to have chickens in the package,’ Dada said to Mama when she got angry at losing the chickens.
‘They weren’t yours to sell.’
‘What’s yours is mine, that’s the way marriages work,’ replied Dada.
‘This is no marriage, remember, this was abduction, so what’s mine is not yours except by theft!’
Then I remember Mama stormed off and tried to slam their bedroom door but the thing kept swinging open and Mama kept slamming it shut and it kept swinging open until suddenly the three of us were screaming with laughter, screaming so hard my sides ached and tears rolled down my cheeks.
That third farm, even though it was a wreck, was my favourite through my childhood (until everything changed) mainly ‘cos of the old machinery that littered the paddocks like the skeletons of giant creatures rusting in the open air. That machinery fascinated me for hours on end, calling to mind all sorts of games where I rode giant machinery or fought huge monsters or found myself trapped in the land of dinosaurs.
Adding to the games was the brooding presence of that forest. It wasn’t a large forest, I know ‘cos once Dada and I walked from our side to the other side, where a highway with trucks and cars and stuff cut through the countryside, and we did that walk in two days, camping in the fort the first night and thinking we would take a week or two and really explore it but we popped out the other side, like the shining, brown heads of the case moths that carried those sacks about as portable homes until they changed and flew away, leaving the stick sack behind as a memento, ‘like a postcard from the Riviera,’ Mama used to say.
Anyway, despite is smallness, that forest was dark and silent and home to foxes and feral acts and even small roos or wallabies I guess, and all sorts of other creatures; goannas and snakes and suchlike. I would go in with dada but not on my own, on my own I could feel its presence, could feel its eyes and if it were watching and waiting to catch me unawares.
Playing in the yard the brooking forest just added to the game somehow, maybe it helped me think there was danger, that a dinosaur was just around the bend or I was fighting a monster and so on and sometimes at night I would sit by my window and stare out at the dark fence that was the forest and I often thought I could sense it sitting at its window looking back at me and I wondered if I could talk to that forest, and if it could answer me, what that forest would tell me. Would it be full of horror stories, or mysteries that I didn’t know about or maybe some idea of Dada’s temper and how best to avoid it, or even maybe, the courage to just get out of bed, even if Dada was up and relieve myself.
I liked the forest being there as long as I was not there, or if I was Dada was there too. Sometimes I caught Mama staring at the forest and I wondered what she thought about that forest. Did she see it as a possible refuge? A place she could run into and lose herself from Dada? A place where she could finally be free of him?
Once when she was looking at the forest as a wind was blowing and all the trees were swaying so the racket of the leaves meant even Dada’s voice would struggle to be heard I asked her.
‘What do you think about when you look at the forest, Mama?’ I asked.
‘It makes me think about many things, about the story of little red riding hood and how wrong that story is, how wolves are not in the forests, they are in the towns and that a forest would possibly be the safest place for a little girl to hide in.’