science fiction and fantasy writer

Once a month, on a Sunday

Once a month, on a Sunday, Mum and me and my little brother Zubby would dress up in our best clothes, Mum would put ribbons in my hair, and we’d all walk into town to go to church.

On Sundays when my Baba was home, Mum would sing while she helped us dress and brushed our hair. She’d tell stories while we walked along the track and Zubby rode in his pram, and she’d let us run ahead when Zubby got bored of riding. She wouldn’t care if we strayed from the path, except for the part where the gambelgam was, where we needed to stay close. She wouldn’t even mind if we dirtied our hands and clothes before we reached church.

But my Baba had been away now for three months – a lot longer than he was usually out on the road. Mum was in a foul mood. She growled and snapped while she got us ready. My scalp stung as she pulled my hair tight to plait it. I bit my lip and stayed silent, but Zubby cried when Mum brushed his hair, which just made her growl more.

“Zubair! Stay still!”

The only thing to do when Mum was like this was to be quiet and stay out of her way. But her temper made me nervous, and that made me clumsy. Pulling my dress on over my head, I knocked the water basin from the kitchen table. Mum jumped as water splashed over her skirts.

“Olivia! Green Christ above, girl, look what you’ve done!” Aside from the mess, she hadn’t washed herself, yet.

“I’ll fetch more,” I said, quickly, and fled before she could send me on my way with a slap.

I dashed out the door and into the lean-to shed out back.   Zubby screamed louder all of a sudden. I guessed he’d got the slap instead. I tipped the lid off the big wire cage on the bench near the front of the shed and rummaged around in the wool and straw inside until I caught a mouse. It squirmed, warm and helpless in my fingers. I grabbed the water bucket and ran down the stepping-stone path to the creek.

The tin bucket bumped against the side of my calf. My plaited hair slapped against my shoulder blades. I slowed once the house was lost from sight behind the Banksia shrubs.

The Banksias’ flowers had already dried out, losing their bright red colour. They sat along the branches like so many tiny brown owls. A lizard scuttled away from the path. Up in the trees, a magpie cleared its throat, but didn’t sing. The bush was stuffy and hot after the cool of the house.

The temperature dropped a little going down the slope to the creek. I walked across the top of my shadow when it baulked, not wanting to lie itself across the water. I stopped on the wide pale stone beside the bank. Baba had chiselled the Arabic word ma’ into it, which meant “water”, and some other words that he wouldn’t say aloud. The mouse lay still in my hand. Its heartbeat tickled my palm.

The creek was still full of winter rain, but moving slowly, brown with dirt. I held up my fist, with the mouse’s tail hanging out the back and its nose poking between my first finger and thumb.

Shukran jazilan,” I whispered, like Baba told me to. It meant “thank you”. I tossed the mouse underarm, out over the water. Its legs spread out stiffly around it, ready to land.

A long tongue of water shot up from the surface of the creek and snapped the mouse out of the air.

The tongue thickened out. It swayed in front of me, taller than I was. Odd lumps and tentacles bulged from the bunyip’s sides and disappeared again. I watched a dark spot flow down its middle and disappear into the creek. The bunyip looked back at me, even though it didn’t have eyes.

I could feel my shadow tugging at my heels, wanting me to come away. I ignored it. I wasn’t in any danger.

“Hello, bunyip,” I said. Baba had told me there was no point in talking to the land’s dreamings, but I always spoke to the bunyip anyway. “I’d like some water, please. May I?”

It didn’t answer, of course. I crouched at the front edge of Baba’s water stone and lowered the bucket into the creek. The bunyip stayed where it was, watching. A tentacle came out of it when the warded metal touched the water, towards me, but it didn’t grow far.

I heaved the full bucket up out of the creek and turned to go. “Goodbye, bunyip.”

It had already sunk down into the creek when I looked back over my shoulder.

Back at the house, I played clapping games with Zubby, sitting out of the way on Mum and Baba’s bed, while Mum finished getting herself ready. Then we set out. She put Zubby into the pram, although he wanted to run, and made me walk along beside. The weather was turning cloudy. It didn’t look like rain coming, but it was enough to stop the day from getting really hot.

Walking along, just the three of us, I could nearly forget that Baba had been away so long. He never came to church with us, even when he wasn’t out on the road. Church wasn’t Baba’s religion. He didn’t follow the Green Christ, or even Christ the Lamb. Baba followed the Last Prophet instead, and did his praying at sunrise, noon and sunset every day, wherever he laid out his mat. Baba made his living going around to the towns and the squatters’ homesteads and fixing up all the old runeworks with his Arabic letters. People didn’t mind that he followed the Last Prophet, because he always did right by them.

Really, Zubby and me followed the Last Prophet too, because Baba did. When he was home, he read us stories from the Prophet’s book. He didn’t mind us going to church, though, because the God of the Green Christ and the God of the Last Prophet were really the same; the Christ and the Prophet just had different ways of teaching His lessons.

We came to the kink in the track around the gambelgam’s place. Baba had laid sleepers into the ground around that part and had used an iron to burn his letters into the wood. The gambelgam place is hard to pick out, not like a willywilly that twists up all the trees it can reach chasing possums and koalas. You mostly won’t know a gambelgam’s there until you hear it sing. Your shadow will have heard it first, but won’t be able to warn you that there’s a dreaming ahead. And once that happens it’s probably got you unless you’ve got some good warding under your shoes.

I could hear its song over the rattle of Zubby’s pram, bumping over the sleepers. It sounded like wind and fire and grinding rocks. It’d take your shadow and soul away to the red heart of the land if you let it, Baba said.

Mum’s knuckles were white, holding my hand against the handle of Zubby’s pram. Mum didn’t need to be so scared. As long as we stayed on the path that Baba made, the gambelgam’s voice had no power. I wasn’t going to run away from the path. Our shadows could hear the song but because of Baba’s warding, weren’t caught by it. They stretched themselves far out to the side, away from the gambelgam.

Baba had taken me off the logs, once, and held me just beyond where the gambelgam could come out and get us, so its voice would fill up my head and I’d know the red heart for myself. I’d gone to the place where Baba said the dreamings are born and watched the shadows dance on red stone.

Once we got past the gambelgam, Mum calmed a bit. She let Zubby out of the pram, although she wouldn’t let us wander far. The day stayed just warm, because of the clouds, but I was still thirsty by the time we crossed over the runestone labyrinth that guarded the road into town.

Mum dug a tin cup out from the bottom of the pram and we took turns to drink from the pump at the horse trough outside the pub. She straightened our clothes and retied my ribbons and felt around the edges of her hair, then we walked the rest of the way to the church in the middle of town.

The yew tree outside the church’s western door looked sadder every month. Half its branches were dead and bare of leaves, making it look hollowed-out around its thick trunk. We walked around the curved wall of the church to the southern door. Father Henryk waited for us in the shade of the oak tree there.

“Good day, Alice, children,” he said. Father Henryk had an accent, the way Baba did, but different from Baba’s. Both of them mixed up their ‘a’ and ‘e’ and ‘o’ sounds, but Baba made it sound nice, along with the way he growled out his ‘h’s. Father Henryk just sounded funny. Mum said Father Henryk was Dutch.

Mum bowed her head. I did, too. “Father,” said Mum.

“I’m pleased to see you,” Father Henryk added. He was very tall and thin, with wet-looking eyes and a big Adam’s apple. “You should really come more than once a month.”

He always said the same. Mum always answered the same, too: “It’s a long walk with the children.”

Father Henryk put a hand on Zubby’s head. “It is particularly important for the children.”

Mum tried a smile, even though she wasn’t happy, and said, “Faris will make enough one day to buy me a horse and buggy. Then I’ll be able to come more often.”

Father Henryk’s face got all tight and serious. “May I speak with you a moment?”

Mum’s face got tight then, too, and shuttered up, the way it did when she had to talk to the ladies she didn’t like in town. “Look after your brother,” she said to me.

They walked back over towards the yew tree. Zubby stuck out his bottom lip, thinking about crying. I caught his fingers and held on just tight enough that he could still pull them free. He laughed and I held out my hand to play trap-hands. I watched Mum and Father Henryk talking. He looked like he was asking her something. Mum had her arms folded in front of her. Father Henryk pointed towards me and Zubby, and they both looked. I turned quickly away.

People from the town were going into the church. They looked at me and Zubby, too, and at Mum and Father Henryk.

Mum was still unhappy when we finally went inside the church. She kept starting to sing and stopping part way through the hymns. Father Henryk didn’t try to talk to her again. A few people said hello to Mum, but only looked sideways at me and Zubby. Mrs Kewell from the post office looked like she wanted to talk more, but the look Mum gave her killed whatever words she had before they got out of her mouth. We didn’t stop at anyone’s house for tea, which we sometimes did.

My tummy growled on the walk home. Zubby complained about being hungry.

“When we get home, Zub,” said Mum.

“Father Henryk doesn’t like that Baba follows the Prophet and not the Green Christ, does he?” I said.

For a moment, Mum looked like she was about to cry. She said, “No, love, he doesn’t. You can run along and explore if you want. Come back before we get to the gambelgam.”

When we got home, in the middle of the afternoon, it was my job to fetch water again.

“But I’m hungry, Mum,” I said.

“You can eat when you get back,” she said. She gave me the crust of yesterday’s loaf to tide me over and told me to hurry up. She was trying hard but I could tell she was still upset.

Zubby started complaining again. I looked over my shoulder as I ran out the door. Mum was standing at the table with Zubby going red in the face by her hip. She held on to the wood like she didn’t know what her hands might do to him if she let go.

Inside the lean-to, I reached up to shift the lid of the mouse cage. I stopped. The lid wasn’t on straight. I felt like my insides had all fallen down from their proper places and landed on my bladder. I hadn’t closed the cage properly that morning.

I pushed the lid all the way off and pulled out the whole mess of wool and straw and dropped it on the ground. No mice scuttled out. For a minute I couldn’t think what to do. I just stood beside the empty cage, hoping Mum wouldn’t come out the back door and see.

I rubbed the tears out of my eyes, bent to pick up all the mouse bedding again, and stuffed it back in the cage. I tore up my bread crust and sprinkled it into the cage, then left the lid just a little bit open. Hopefully when I came back, I might’ve caught some mice again. I grabbed the bucket  and ran off down the path. Baba dipped for water without needing a mouse. As long as I stood on his water stone, I’d be fine, just this once.

I felt less and less brave the closer I got to the creek. My shadow dragged at my feet. Baba said dreamings couldn’t recognise people. I thought Baba was wrong – the bunyip knew me, it would forgive me one mouse. But knowing about dreamings was Baba’s job. What if it was me that was wrong? I thought then that I should’ve brought a rope to hang the bucket from, so I wouldn’t have to put my hands near the water. But if I went back now, and ran straight off again, Mum would wonder why, and then she’d find out about the mice.

I stepped onto the water stone and waited. My shadow lay very still behind me. The bunyip didn’t come up.

“I’m sorry, bunyip,” I said, knowing that it must be in the creek, since it was part of the creek. “All the mice got away. I haven’t any to give you.”

The surface of the creek stayed flat.

“May I still dip for water?”

I edged up to the front of the stone and squatted down. Watching for the bunyip, ready to leap backwards out of the way, I reached the bucket over the bank and dipped it in the water.

The creek bulged, only a couple of feet away. A watery tentacle came up and reached towards the bucket. I froze. The tentacle stopped.

Ever so slowly, I pushed the bucket under, and pulled it back up, full. Just as slowly, the bunyip stretched out its tentacle. The tip got wider and flatter. I lifted the bucket clear. The bunyip reached underneath, to catch the drips that rained from its sides.

I stood up straight. The tentacle lowered, and disappeared back into the creek.

“Thank you, bunyip.”

I laughed as I ran back up the path. I’d been right. I couldn’t wait to tell Baba.

I stopped by the lean-to before I went back in the house. Something rustled under the cotton and straw inside the mouse cage when I poked it, and I quickly put the lid all the way back on.

Zubby was happy, chattering to himself and chewing. His plate was piled with bread, cheese, pickles and salt pork. There was another full plate beside Zubby’s, for me. Mum sat across the table, one of my shirts in her lap, staring off at nothing. A needle was pushed through it, near the collar, where she’d started fixing a tear.

She was quiet all afternoon and through dinner. When it came to bedtime, she tried to tell us a story, but she kept stopping and forgetting where she was up to. She gave up as soon as Zubby fell asleep.

I lay for a while, listening to her get herself ready for bed and thinking about what I’d done with the bunyip.

“Mum? When’s Baba coming home?”

She didn’t answer. I turned over to look at her.

“Mum?”

Her back was to me, as she snuffed out the wick of the oil lamp. In the dark, I listened to the creak of her bed as she climbed in and the rustle of the sheets as she pulled them up. Then she lay so still and quiet that I could hardly hear her crying at all.

~END~

(c) Ian McHugh, 2008

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