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Issue 20, Prosa | March 2017

     

Threeways Roadhouse, Northern Territory, Australia, 1986

In the way of dreams and memories, we were hitching by the road again, this time by the exit of the Threeways truck stop with the woman within watching. The boys, like the sense of time, were long gone and the road stretched lazily through the undulating, dusty desert while behind us flies buzzed relentlessly around the remnants of our outback meal. Hours, or just unbroken minutes, had passed without any cars. We waited, grit in our palms and teeth, the smell of our yesterday selves mingling with the hot dust. Rayah sketched, collected rocks and feathers from the desert, and formed a sculpture from them as she drifted in and out of our mumbled conversation. I lay over my map, circling the places I wanted to visit: Alice, Uluru, Kakadu. I liked the sounds of these names and rolled them on my tongue as I tried to interest Rayah in my plans.

‘Timor, Rayah.

‘Why don’t we go to Timor?’

‘OK, Kayla, whatever you want.’

‘Or Arnhem Land. There must be a way.’

She didn’t answer, just continued to sketch.

‘Come on, Rayah. Tell me. Where do you want to go?’

‘Nowhere,’ she said. ‘Well, everywhere. Can’t we just follow the song lines like the Aborigines?’

‘We’d need to know the songs.’

‘Maybe we could hear them and follow them that way.’

‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘But I am not hearing them, Rayah. Are you?’

She shrugged and went back to her sketching. I folded my map and stood, mesmerised by the heat waves and the long pull of the road. Hours more passed. Rayah turned from her pile of rocks and feathers to cartwheeling through the desert, doing hand stands on the empty road, to making elaborate designs in the dirt along the roadside. Her dirty white overalls and matted hair were set off by the slow descent of the sun and the occasional stark bird call, echoless in the boundless landscape, accentuating her laughter.

Eventually, the door of the truck stop slammed and the woman from inside it beckoned. ‘Go on then. Fill up your water bottles again and get out of the sun for a bit.’

Relieved, we sat in the shade and ate the oldish apples she had given us along with a lecture on hitching. I counted my money while Rayah started to practise the panpipes she had bought just before we left the coast. The late afternoon spread in front of us, punctuated only once or twice by the shadow of a cloud.

‘Let’s talk,’ I said at last.

‘Sure,’ she laughed. ‘About what?’

‘About what we’re going to do,’ I replied, looking up and down the empty road.

‘OK,’ she said, but picked up her pipes to play again. She played but didn’t talk.

‘Shall we try again?’ I finally asked. ‘We could make a plan? A “just in case.”’

‘OK,’ she said again.

‘Damn it, Rayah. You’re teasing me. Don’t tease me. I’m feeling weird. I don’t like this. What if we don’t get a ride?’

‘We could stay here. They probably have a caravan or something out the back.’

‘But I’m almost out of money.’

‘Let’s keep waiting, then, and see what happens.’

One more time, we tried hitching a ride, back on the cracking clay plains with the flies buzzing incessantly, trying to bore into our eyes. I slapped at my face and jumped away from them, almost crying as I begged them to let me be. Rayah buried herself under a T-shirt and lost herself in her pan pipes, a soft raspy sound that spiralled off into the desert like the occasional dust devil on the horizon. The flies didn’t bother her at all. Nor did the gradual dimming of light.

‘See the stars,’ she said. ‘It’s like you can watch them turn on out here.’

I looked towards the semi-dark skyline instead, desperately hoping for a car. The light left suddenly and with it the flies, but replacing their maddening, penetrating buzz was an equally unsettling silence. The solitary sounds of the wakening desert night, a long lone cicada song and then the sudden rustle of an unnamed marsupial, only made everything else seem hushed. I felt the edge of panic mounting in my breath. Slowly, reluctantly, I turned my attention to it, listened to the rise and fall and catch of my fear, and by listening tried to calm it down. But then in the calmness of my breath I heard it again, the sound of space, the ripple of it expanding through the unknown darkness, and underneath that, a mesmerising tapestry of textured sounds, and a quietness deeper than its cloak of silence. Hypnotised, I listened, feeling drawn, almost beckoned, until a slight vibration shimmied through the land and a beam of light appeared on the horizon. A road train gusted towards us with incredible speed and we jumped up to watch it, an overwhelming tunnel of light and wind and movement and noise that almost blew us off our feet as it hurtled past, and then, with its roar vibrating through our bodies, left us.

We stood, watching it recede until the darkness swallowed it completely, and then we stood a little longer. The desert insects took up their subtle song again. The muted undertone expanded as if it had just been waiting. A breath of coolness touched my gritty sunburn. I shivered.

‘Why didn’t it stop?’ I whimpered.

Rayah looked at me, confused. ‘He must have filled up at Tennant Creek.’

‘But why? Why would anybody stop at Tennant Creek?’

‘Relax, Kayla. He was heading towards Darwin.’

Silence. It was getting darker. I took a breath and shook away the unease.

‘Weird, that’s all. But there’s no point waiting here anymore.’

We went and sat inside the truck shop, violating the ‘No Hitchhikers’ sign and spending more of my ever-dwindling fund. We played stupid pass-the-time games with ripped-up napkins and added sugar satchel after sugar satchel to our cold, bitter coffee. The lady behind the counter rolled her eyes as she ignored us. ‘If they were my daughters,’ I thought I heard her mumble.

Then finally a truck came down the road from Darwin and pulled up by the tanks. A shortish man emerged from the belly of the cab. He noticed us staring at him through the window of the truck shop but ignored us as he slowly did the rounds of his truck, kicking tyres, checking connections, fuelling his tank. His exhaustion was palpable, even from where we watched. He leaned heavily against the truck, his head falling now and again as he waited for his tank to fill up, and when he came into the shop we could smell a tired scent of coffee, cigarettes, and day-old clothes clinging to him.

He nodded as he ordered his food. ‘Guess you girls are looking for a ride.’

‘Yes.’ It was Rayah. ‘We’re trying to get to Alice.’

He snorted. ‘What are you? Eighteen?’

‘Nineteen,’ she replied.

‘Yeah, well you can have a ride if you can keep me awake. Supposed to have this load in Adelaide day after tomorrow and I’m bloody stuffed already.’

A little later, we were high up in the cab of his truck, shouting over the engine and the music and the crackle of the radio and far removed from the eeriness of the desert. As we pulled away from the truck stop and onto the road, Rayah hooted and laughed and jumped in her seat. We were inside the tunnel this time – the desert below us barely visible, just a space we hurtled through. We tried to fill the space with talk. Our trucker’s name was Ray. He had two kids to different women, a daughter ‘your age I reckon’ and a twelve-year-old boy.

And then we filled the space with song, Rayah head-banging and leg-kicking along to Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel, then turning to me to croon along with Brian Ferry: ‘Come on, come on. Let’s stick together.’

The windows to the side of the cab reflected Ray’s smile at Rayah’s ongoing performance and, encouraged, she continued to alternate between trying to woo me, her unwilling sister, into a smile, and teasing me with her favourite soft-shoe rendition of ‘Me and My Shadow.’

Ray laughed at that. He really laughed. ‘Shadow,’ he said. ‘Now that ain’t fair.’ But then he laughed again. He laughed and laughed until the tears were streaming down his face and he kept on laughing until we realised he was crying hard.

‘Jesus,’ Rayah said, sidling over to put her arm around his shoulder. ‘It’s okay. It’s okay. Don’t cry.’ But he only moaned and hid his head.

‘The road,’ Rayah said and grabbed for the wheel. It pulled to the left dragging her with it till, sobbing still, he grabbed it back.

Sitting back, she squeezed my hand as we sat quietly waiting.

Eventually, his breathing evened out and he turned to us, apologising.

‘Don’t know what happened… More strung out than I thought… Never happened before.’

We nodded, simultaneously saying, ‘It’s okay’ and ‘Are you all right now?’

He shrugged. ‘You just reminded me of my daughter,’ he said, looking over at Rayah. ‘I almost thought you were her when you were sitting back in that truck stop.’

He sighed then and, reaching behind his seat, pulled out photos. We stared at a little girl with curls sitting on the lap of a young man and helping him to steer his truck. Another photo showed a fine-boned woman with a six-year-old hiding behind her leg. The woman stayed unnamed. The little girl was Amy.

‘Where are they? What happened?’ Rayah asked.

‘Don’t know.’

‘What do you mean, you don’t know?’
‘I just don’t know. They were gone one day and I never heard from them again.’

‘But didn’t you look for them? Didn’t you try to find them?’

‘No. Never looked for either of them.’

‘Why? Why wouldn’t you look?’ Rayah asked.

‘Don’t know,’ he shrugged. ‘I should’ve looked. But I didn’t. Just let them go.’

‘But why?’ Rayah asked again.

He stared ahead at the road in answer as we drove on in silence. I peered into the inky night beyond the headlights, only just perceiving the wave of the grasses before us and the occasional red-eyed dart of an animal into the darkness. Finally, Rayah pulled out her pipes again and, accompanied by the crackle of the lonely radio, started with her waspy, wispy sounds. But at some point even she must have slept – when I woke to the weight of the tonnage behind us resisting the long grind of the brakes, she was flung across me, her panpipes held loosely in her hand.

‘Where are we?’ I asked, as I started to shake her awake.

‘Barrow Creek.’

‘Oh. I thought we were going to Alice.’

‘Too tired. Too wrung out. Just got to sleep.’

‘Oh.’ I peered out into the blackness and shook Rayah again. The stars seemed brighter, the skies infinitely larger.

‘Look. I’m getting a room tonight. You can join me if you like. Sleep on the floor, whatever.’

Gratefully we agreed.

There was no town at the Barrow Creek roadhouse, only the road stretching in either direction and the dirt pull-off to the pub. Ray signalled us to wait on the veranda and went inside. Through the door, I saw him talking to the publican and ordering a pot with a whisky chaser, then another. Rayah swayed against me, exhausted, hardly awake. I pulled her to a bench. Across the road, a donkey brayed and a windmill creaked. Those silhouetted sounds again, standing out stark against the soft rustle of the wind in the grass. I peered inside the door, watched him order another round with two more chasers. I was too tired to care about anything around me, but listening or not, the night noises of the desert and the muted jukebox and the glasses clinking and the soft pant of Rayah’s exhaustion – all moved in and out of focus, almost as if I were a radio being tuned to a different frequency. I sat passively, letting the various sounds move into and out of my consciousness, until finally I saw him pick up the key and head towards us.

‘You coming?’ he mumbled as he walked past.

Inside the room, we grabbed pillows from the bed and sleeping bags from our packs, and fell into sleep on the cool lino floor.

His breath, her breath, my own breath – the sound of an air conditioner.

In the way of dreams and memories, it was the timeless middle of the night when a dream or memory or voice started to pull me from my sleep. Rayah as ice beside me. Rayah as a ghost above me. Rayah as a cry behind me. She whimpered and I pushed the sound away and tried to sleep but again I heard that whimper, this time accompanied by the smell of fear and a hot ragged snatch of breath. Her voice was inside my head. Dream or memory or neither. I woke suddenly, knowing it was neither, and immediately flung myself away. Ray was a shadow in the darkness pinning Rayah down.

‘What are you doing?’

He rolled towards me. ‘Huh?’

‘No, no. What are you doing? Leave her alone.’

He stopped, confused. Was he awake or asleep or neither? I couldn’t see his face but heard hesitancy in his breath.

‘Shit.’ He registered Rayah’s fear beneath him and rolled onto his back, his arm still across her heavily. ‘What’s happening here?’ he asked.

‘You tell me,’ I said, quickly surveying the room, instincts alive, night vision sharp.

‘I just wanted to hold her.’

‘Let her go.’

‘Really, I wasn’t going to hurt her. She just reminded me of Amy and I just wanted to hold my baby girl.’

‘Look, it’s not okay,’ I said. ‘Please let her go. Just let her go and we’ll go, okay?’

He pushed himself off her and slouched to the bed. Rayah crawled behind me.

‘Yeah, yeah, whatever.’ He fell on his bed. ‘But you don’t have to leave. I just wanted to hold her. I wasn’t going to hurt her.’

‘Okay, Okay. We know. But we’ll leave, okay? Better if we leave.’

Maybe he was just strung out, maybe we could have stayed, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Grabbing our stuff, we made it to the door. A moment more to grab our shoes. Then we were out. My last sight of him: a shadow in the darkness, body collapsed, his shame and exhaustion palpable.

But then we were outside under a shockingly star-flooded sky and what had been vast before was even vaster here. And beautiful too, as beautiful as anything I could have imagined, a silver hue fresh with the spill-off smell of bore water, electric with the settling heat, and grandly silent under the faint song of insects. It was alive with sound but riddled too with a hushed and holy quality. Catching our breaths, we crossed the highway as if walking across the aisle of a cathedral and knelt behind the far side of the water tank as if in a sanctuary. I almost would have prayed to the shimmer in the landscape but the donkey brayed again, the windmill creaked and Rayah, coming back to herself, started to laugh hysterically.

Rolling in the sparkling sands, she mimicked, ‘“What are you doing?” Your little voice. You should have heard it.

“What are you doing?”’

‘Stop it, Rayah.’
‘“What are you doing? What are you doing?”’

‘Shut up, Rayah.’”
‘Meaner than Aunty Bridge, you were.’

‘Leave it alone, would you? Poor guy was a mess.’

‘Poor guy. Bloody fuckwit. Makes my skin crawl.’

‘Forget it, Rayah. Check out the skies. Look.’ I pulled her up to search the skies with me. ‘We might see Halley’s from here.’ She stood, but grabbed me suddenly back.

‘Shh,’ she said. ‘Listen.’

I turned to her, fearing the worst, almost feeling a step and push, but she shushed me again and turned to the sound.

It was a bird. A pied butcher bird, singing in the cool of the night. I sat with a sigh beside her and we listened to its song unfurl, first a fluted musical tone, then a short melodic phrase, and then a haunting whistle that echoed slightly off the range behind us, all as languid, slow and unhurried as you could wish. And from the indistinct hills, its lifetime mate responded, but with so much space between each note that we listened to the landscape between them as much as to the wafting melody.

In the way of dreams and memories, it is moment after moment I remember, and this is another of the moments: Rayah and I, sitting in space and stars and a sacred humming silence, listening to the nocturnal love song of butcher birds, our skin and bodies meaningless in the totality of that experience, our separate selves absorbed into the fluted notes of the starlit land.

***************

[Editor’s note: We continue our serialization of Valerie Jeremijenko’s novel-in-waiting, “A Sibling’s Story.” Our first installment, “The Prologue,” appeared in Hinchas #19. “Threeways Roadhouse,” which appears about mid-way through the novel, finds the narrator, Kayla, and her sister Rayah, on the road in the outback of the Northern Territory, questing southward. Look for further installments in future issues of Hinchas.]

Threeways Roadhouse, Northern Territory, Australia, 1986