They live a long way out. Isolated. Few neighbours. Few cars ever passing the front gate, which, though the property is large, is not far from the house. A few hundred metres at most.
She is alone because her husband is up on the mines. Their first season on the place didn’t bring a wheat cheque. That augured well! They tried to laugh it off after drinking too much. That was their nature, what they liked about each other. They’d both been farm kids whose parents had sold up during hard times in the early eighties. They knew it was foolish buying out on the very edge of the growing zone (or rather, on the edge of the arid zone), but the risk seemed worth it.
They were desperate to get out of the city. To go home. But Lucy Downs—both of their mothers had been called Lucy—was the best they could afford. Two thousand hectares of dust and patches of thinned gimlet and salmon-gum woodlands thick with wild goats. They laughed at the ‘Downs’ bit, as the dust rolled in waves back and forth over the spread. But it was a sign of optimism. After all, it was hard to tell if they were actually in the wheatbelt or the goldfields. There was always hope of the plough unearthing a nugget.
She hears a vehicle coming down the dirt driveway, and freezes. She loves the aloneness so much that an unexpected presence is more than a fright; it alters her concept of reality. Assuming a threat, she goes to the pantry and takes out the loaded rifle. She walks carefully to the front kitchen window, eases the half-curtain back, and sees a middle-aged man in greasies and akubra getting out of a Toyota. His red cloud kelpies are on the back tray, chained to the cabin, barking excitedly.
Shut up, boys! the man says to the dogs. He has a thick accent. Maybe German, she thinks. But if so, it was a long while back. It is an ocker-German-English accent.
She leans the rifle against the wall near the doorframe, and opens the door, carefully and silently snibbing the lock. Heat tumbles into the cool house. With her rough ‘stranger greeting’ voice, she speaks through the flywire.
Gidday, she says. Can I help you?
Gidday, he says. Yeah, lady. I mean, we can help each other.
She feels the pull of the rifle, but ignores it. Confident as anything, she says, I don’t get ya.
Should say who I am, he says. I own Eagle View about twenty k’s down the road. Few places between us, but out here we still call each other neighbours if we’re on the same stretch of nothing to nowhere! He coughs a tobacco laugh.
Right, she says. Uncertain. The dogs are shaking with excitement and half choking themselves trying to jump down into the dust, into the traces of sheep shit.
Anyways, you’ve got caltrop up along the road round your front gate. Saw the yellow flowers through the gravel dust. Can’t miss those little bastards.
No, she says flatly.
You haven’t been here long. You know what caltrop looks like?
It was a rhetorical question. Not really sarcastic, more neighbourly mixed with blokey condescension. She forgets about the rifle. Women are not a big part of this man’s life. Probably a bachelor farmer.
Yeah, mate, grew up on a farm.
Hmmm, well, he says. Guess they’ve just flowered and you missed them driving out in the dust. It was that storm we had a few weeks ago that brought ’em up. Not much rain—filled half a rung of my big tank. But enough to stir the caltrop. Little bastards—spikes made in hell.
Yeah, their name comes from a kind of anti-personnel weapon.
He looks at her in disbelief. A mouthy woman, he might be thinking. But he kicks at the dirt and says, I wouldn’t know about that, but they’re worse than damned doublegees. And poison doesn’t seem to work. Have to get out there and pull ‘em out. And walk around in a pair of thongs to collect the jacks. We’ve got a pact on this road to alert each other if we see any growing along the roadsides. We’ve managed to keep them off the properties pretty well, but they’re always popping up on the verge and down the tracks, bloody cars and trucks carting them in from all parts on their tyres. Sometimes it’s just a bloody mystery how they get there.
Okay, mate. Wouldn’t want them over our two thousand hectares. Would have a bloody sore back and go broke buying thongs.
He half-laughs, hacks, spits, excuses himself, tells his dogs to shut up, and says, Well, have a nice day. Oh, the name is Rilke, and you’ll find me in the book.
She laughs, Like the poet!
Oh, nothin’. Rilke—I’ll remember it. I’m Desirée Cramer and my husband is Tony.
Yeah, yeah. I know, I know who you are, he says.
She baulks at that, but ticking it over, knows she shouldn’t be surprised. Makes sense. Why wouldn’t he? His neighbours would be told by their neighbours who are her neighbours. Bush telegraph. Low population area. To sign off, she says, And don’t worry, we’ll uphold the pact.
Yeah, the pact, he says. The pact is important around here.
He stares hard in through the flyscreen, heavy red face glowering with thousands of midday suns. It’s hot, and he looks hot. His eyes, deeply recessed, tell her nothing except that it’s flaming hot. They are lakes of sweat threatening to burst their banks. The eyeballs are reflections of strange parallel suns. He pulls them back down further into the molten realm of his head, breaks the stare, then turns back to his vehicle, giving both kelpies a rub on the head before he gets in and drives off.
It’s mid February: the blowtorch days of summer. The last thing she feels like is going out and pulling caltrop. She wonders why she hadn’t at least offered Rilke a cold drink. It hadn’t crossed her mind. And thinking over it, she doubted she would have even opened the door. No reason, really. But offering a drink is just manners.
She feels the pressure to get the job done, compelled to deal with it immediately. She wants it out of her hair. The caltrop’s presence makes her skin crawl.
Putting on a hat, she steps out of the cool of the house. Sweat instantly starts running and pooling under her thin cotton shirt. She steps inside again, slips off her bra, rebuttons her shirt, and goes back out.
She takes gloves, shovel, weeding fork and bucket from the engine shed, and walks up the drive.
She regrets not driving her air-conditioned SUV those few hundred metres.
True: around the front gate and for about three metres either side are thick infestations of caltrop. Burrs have already appeared on the long tendrils feeding out from their drought-defying taproots. It is a tangle, a Gordian knot. She gets to work, straight in. Burrs leap up and savage her fingers through the cotton gloves, and she feels herself burning on every exposed part, even through the fabric of her shirt. Sweat torments her breasts, forming humidicribs against her ribcage. She shifts, bunches and lifts her breasts every now and again, to mop up the sweat with her shirt.
It is by chance she notices Rilke’s Toyota deep in the scrub opposite. The dogs are silent. He is inside the cab, watching. She can tell, though she can’t see clearly. Why haven’t the dogs barked? She wants to leave the work and go straight back inside the house. The cool house with good locks on the door, a telephone and a rifle.
Ridiculous and dangerous to be working out in the heat like this.
But she persists, and doesn’t look back towards Rilke, his silent dogs and silent vehicle. She doubles her efforts. Blood is soaking the gloves. Her breasts are annoying her—she no longer enjoys the brief moments when they hang free under the shirt, searching for a draft and nothingness. She crouches, so contact is permanent. She is dehydrated. Nothing to drink. That was foolish too. And unlike her.
She is almost finished, on her last legs. Then the dogs bark, the Toyota starts up. She wants to run but her knees have stopped working. She’s trapped in a crouching position. By the time she forces herself up, the Toyota is alongside her and she’s shrouded in dust.
Your old man should be doing this job, says Rilke, deep eyes through the open Toyota window, following it with Shut up! to the dogs, which are growing frenzied again, their eyes rolling.
She almost says, He’s not here. But she catches herself in time. Her body is hell.
You look like you’ve got sunstroke, he says.
I’m right. Just need to get a drink.
Your husband should have thought about things before he took on a place like this. We only count on one season in every three paying out.
We took it on together, she says.
Up on the mines like the rest of them, no doubt, he says, knowing exactly what’s what.
She ignores him. Thanks for letting me know about the caltrop. Got some things to get sorted. See ya later, Mr Rilke.
And then the door of the Toyota swings open and Rilke’s heavy body half-falls out, almost on top of her.
She spills onto the ground. Her breasts move heavily under her shirt. She is swimming under the sun, the dead dry world around her.
He reaches down and grabs her arm, hauling her up. Sorry, Miss—I stuffed me hip up a few years ago on the bloody combine. Happens when I get out of the vehicle sometimes. Lose me balance.
She has wrenched her arm away and looks towards the house. She refuses to be frightened. She considers running, wondering if two kelpies would be enough to trip her up if they were released, but then thinks how much she loves kelpies. He reaches into the cab and hands her his insulated drink bottle.
Nice cool water, he says. Drink.
She grabs the bottle. Water spills over her burnt face and down her chin. She jerks her face forward to prevent it wetting her shirt, and reddens beneath her sunburn. As she clips the lid closed she sees her shirt is entirely transparent with sweat anyway. Part of her dies, and the fear that she doesn’t recognise as fear goes as well. She is numb.
She stands up straight and looks Rilke deep, deep in the eye. She says, Sorry, I should have offered you a drink when you came to tell me about the caltrop.
That’s okay, he says. It takes a while for new ones to understand the pact—its … complexities.
Well, I’ve upheld the pact, she says quickly.
Yes, yes you have.
And with that, he takes his bottle and slides awkwardly back into the cab. He tells his kelpies, which are sitting silent now, pressing against the cab to get a bit of shade, to shut up again. He drives off, this time down the road further and further, until the dust of his wheels is lost with the mirage and delusion made by the sun, still hot as hell as it lowers slowly in the sky.© John Kinsella