The child was afraid. She sat beside the creek casting pebbles one after another into the stream.
—If I can hit that log it mightn’t happen, she said to herself. Maybe in ten throws I can hit the log.
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten—every one went wide. She drew herself up slowly and walked to the paddock where the new roan bull paced back and forth.
—I’m not scared, she said aloud. I’m not a bit scared, she repeated louder still, hoping that with the loudness of her voice she might drown her fear. I’m not scared of anything. I’d go under the slip-rails and walk right across the paddock, I would. I’d wear my red coat too. I’m not scared of anything.
She stood quite still, quiet now, listening inside her mind to see if her boasting had stilled the fear. She took up a stick that lay by the fence, and swished at the tall thistles growing along the path. Swish! swish! The prickly purple heads lay bruised where she had passed. A rusty old kerosene tin that had been used to carry feed to the hens lay by the fowl run. She picked it up and beat against it violently with the stick. Her mother appeared at the kitchen door.
—Julie, stop that noise! You’ll waken Teddy, and I’ve just got him off to sleep. Whatever has come over you? Put down that tin at once, and come in and wipe up for me.
After one last defiant bang on the tin, the little girl threw it down and, still holding the stick, advanced slowly towards her mother. The woman leaning against the door post was young and her usually slim body was heavy now with child. Her face was pale. Some wisps of straight fair hair, escaping from the knot at the back of her head hung untidily down her neck.
At the sight of her mother Fear once again gnawed at the child, and fiercely she beat at the geraniums growing by the back stairs. Her mother, galvanized into action, seized the stick and, breathing heavily with the effort, gave the child a couple of sound blows.
—You naughty little girl. You’ve ruined my lovely geraniums. Oh, why are you so naughty, Julie. You’ve always been so good and such a help to me, but today some demon seems to have got into you.
Sitting down on the steps the woman began to cry weakly. The child threw her arms around her mother’s neck and pressed the untidy head fiercely against her thin little body.
—I’m sorry. Mum. I didn’t mean it. Truly I didn’t, Mum.
—It’s so hard to get anything to grow in this stony earth. and they were coming on so well… Oh, there’s Teddy awake again. He’s that fretful today! D’you think you could do the dishes for me, Julie? Your father will be in for his dinner in half an hour. and I haven’t got the fire lit even.
—I’ll do them. Mum. I’ll wash and wipe too. I’ll do them real clean for you.
—That’s more like my little girl…. All right, Teddy, Mummy’s coming…. I’ll lift the hot water over for you, Julie.
The child stood on a small stool to reach the table on which the breakfast dishes were stacked beside the tin washing-up dish. Slowly, with deliberate care, she washed the cups and set them to drain on the bent tin tray; then the saucers, resting each carefully against its own cup. Now the plates. Suddenly, as she lifted the first plate and looked at the pattern: of delicate pink roses twining among little bunches of blue forget-me-nots, her eyes dilated and a chill of fear ran down her spine, paralyzing her will. Grandmother’s plate! Grandmother! The Fear that activity had quietened for a while leapt into flame. Grandmother, then Grandfather, then her little sister Joanie, then the new baby had all disappeared, one by one into the Hospital never to return. And now Mother was to go. She had heard her tell Miss Blane the school teacher: ‘I’m going into the hospital this time. I expect to go next month’. The HOSPITAL, that monster, which must be fed!
At school, she had heard Miss Blane telling the older children the story of a Monster to which the fairest maidens of the land must be sacrificed to satisfy its hunger, and her mind travelled back.
—Where’s my Grandma? three-year-old Julie had demanded.
—She’s gone to the hospital, she had been told. Later she had asked: When’s my Grandma coming home from the hospital? Father had said, stroking her hair: Grandma isn’t coming home, Julie; she’s gone to God. But Julie knew that she had gone to the hospital, and when at school a visiting clergyman had asked, ‘What is God’s house?’ Julie had replied unhesitatingly, The hospital. Then, when she was four years old Julie’s grandfather had gone to the hospital. Will Grandpa come back? she had asked.
—Of course, Julie, Mother had said. Watching eagerly each day for the mail car, Julie had waited, but Grandpa had not come back, and Mother, in a storm of tears, had told her that God had taken Grandpa.
Joanie had gone next, little pale Joanie, who never tried to walk or talk but lay like a wax doll, day after day in her little cot. Julie loved her little sister, and had fought with fists and kicks the men who had come to take her to the hospital. It was just after this that Miss Blane had told the story on which Julie had placed such significance. Then the baby that old Mrs. Bringem had brought to them, the tiny new baby brother! One day Father, with set white face had harnessed Dolly, and Mother with the baby in her arms had got in beside him, and they had driven off to the hospital. Julie knew that again the Monster was demanding a sacrifice. That was a year ago. A year is a long time in the life of a little child, and Julie had almost forgotten till yesterday, when Miss Blane had come to tea.
—Mother! Mother! Unconsciously she screamed the word, and the plate fell from her nerveless fingers, and was shattered on the floor. Her mother came running from the bedroom.
—Julie—why child, I thought you were scalded. You naughty little girl; you’ve broken Grandma’s plate! And screaming like that too, just when I’ve got Teddy off again. Go outside. Go, leave the dishes. Get out of my sight, before I give you a sound whipping.
Julie ran from the kitchen, down past the cow bails, pausing only to grab her little red coat from the line of washing. Down to the paddock she flew, where the new roan bull was quietly grazing. Not knowing the ways of the animal, her father had warned Julie not to enter the paddock; but now the fear that nagged at her brain drove her on. She must shout, she must be aggressive, do everything of which she was most afraid. Something within her impelled her and unflinchingly she ran over to the bull, waving her little red coat.
—Old bull! Mad bull! Old silly bull! she screamed.
The animal raised its head, lowed mildly and continued grazing. Julie went closer and waved the coat. Unconcerned, the bull took a few paces in the opposite direction.
—Bloody old bull, shouted Julie, and waited for the heavens to fall. She had used a bad swear word, and had thus broken a promise to Grandpa. Yet the white clouds continued sailing calmly across the blue sky and the bull went on grazing. Throwing down the red coat, Julie walked dejectedly to the fence and climbed over. Her grand gesture had failed.
She walked to the bottom gate, leaving it open as she passed through, and along the dusty road scuffing her feet till the dust rose in a white cloud.
—I wish I’d find a snake … I wish I’d find one … I’d stamp on it, I would.
But no snake crossed Julie’s path, and she walked on and on not knowing whither she was going. At last she came to the gate of the Smith’s farm. Mr. Smith had a barn with a high roof and Fred Smith was in the habit of climbing up the water piping and walking along the ridge capping, to demonstrate to his sister Mona and Julie as they stood below holding their breaths in awe, the superiority of his sex.
Julie knew now what she must do. She must climb up that piping and walk along the ridge capping. If she conquered her terror, she felt, the Monster would be placated, and then her mother would not need to go to the dreaded hospital. Her heart beat faster as she began to climb. It was easy at first. She and Mona had climbed up to the roof before, but they had never clambered across the slanting galvanized iron as she was doing now.
Slipping and sliding she crawled slowly, and at last reached the ridge capping. For a moment she sat astride it, and pressed her hands against her chest to still her pounding heart. Then slowly, carefully balancing with outstretched arms, she began to walk.
Suddenly the Fear, the dreadful stifling Fear, left Julie. She looked up at the blue sky, and the curling white clouds and felt a great elation. She was free, free as the white pigeons that, disturbed from their perch on the barn roof, were circling above her. She laughed aloud, and began to walk faster. She looked down at the Smith twins who had come running from the house, and were shouting up at her. She could not hear what they were shouting, but she did not care. She was free—free—FREE. Just for an instant she looked down, then quickly up again. The sky seemed to turn and the earth come rushing to meet her. A hurricane tore past her ears, and darkness engulfed her. Then down, down. down through infinite blackness the frail little body went hurtling to the earth.
The white clouds moved majestically across the bright blue sky. The trees waved gently in the summer breezes. The pigeons settled once more upon the roof, and the child lay still—quite still—afraid no more.