The water ran over Jeanie and Sam. Leaves, a lurid red, yellow or green, floated past or settled to a soft carpet on the creek floor. It wasn’t deep. They’d given up looking for yabbies. Jeanie rubbed soft, coloured rocks on a boulder. She added water to make a paste.
‘Mum says it’s bad juju to play with this,’ Jeanie said.
‘Oh, yeah?’ He grinned at her. His hair was cropped too short. His mother cut it on the back step, pressing on his shoulders for him to please be still.
He leant over and tucked her hair behind her ears. Her face was as pale and luminous as the inside of a shell. He ran a stripe of orange dirt down her forehead and nose. Washed his hand in the water, then a line of red across her cheeks. The dark dirt he dotted at the corner of each eye. Cicadas made the air hum.
‘Do me,’ he said.
She filled his face with lines.
‘What do I look like?’
‘An idiot,’ she giggled, scrunching her face. The dried dirt on her cheeks cracked.
He pushed her back into the shallow creek, so that the water ran around her but not over her head. ‘An idiot? I think I look like a chief.’ He held her down. She let him, not struggling.
‘Aboriginals don’t have chiefs, that’s American Indians,’ she said.
‘How would you know?’ he said and held her harder, the water turning her hair to weed.
‘Mum says they drove the Aborigines to the edge of the cliffs. Then they pushed them off. That the farmers in this valley are only a generation away from the ones that did the pushing. She says we wouldn’t even know if we were on sacred land because there’s no-one left to tell us,’ she said.
‘My dad calls your mum a bleeding-heart hippie and a blow-in.’ He leant on her and her face went slowly under. The water healed. She kept her eyes open and he could see right through the surface and into them. She was limp. A bubble of water escaped her nose. He let her go. She broke back through.
‘What if a leech climbed up your penis hole?’ she said and coughed. The water streaming off her.
‘What if one found its way inside your vagina hole?’
He laughed, stuck his tongue all the way out and slapped the water with the flat of his palms. It made a strange sound and splashed not much at all. As she stood up she saw her reflection in the water. Her markings dripped from her face.
She walked to the deep dark bit of the pool and flopped in. She washed her face and kept her head under the water so long she felt his fingertips on the soft bit of her arm, gently calling her back.
On the walk back down the hill she stopped to pick a leech from her leg. He waited for her. She flicked the leech at him. It landed by his foot and she watched it right itself and waver its mouth in the air, sensing his heat.
‘I know a sacred place,’ he said, looking back at her.
‘Whatever,’ she said, watching the leech lean closer to his shoe, stretch itself.
‘I’ll take you,’ he said.
He leapt down the track, slipping in the damp leaves that were always damp here, no matter how hot the day was. The leech swung its blind face towards her.
When they stepped out of the trees into the paddock he made a sloping mouth of the slack wire fence.
‘After you,’ he said.
‘Ha,’ she said and stepped through.
All the cows turned towards them, chewing. Their udders were so full they reached the grass. The lines on his face had dried to soft powder. His brothers would tease him.
‘I’ll come get ya tomorrow,’ he said, ‘after church.’
She showed him the curl of her smile. They split off in opposite directions.
‘See ya,’ she called to his back. He lifted his hand but didn’t turn around.
She walked towards the river. The cows made space for her. She put her hand out to touch their flanks as she passed. The skin jumped under her fingertips. They were his cows and where her house was built was once his family’s land. He’d told her when the river was high and a gushing brown that they should have never built so close to the water. That there was the hundred-year flood to consider. She’d asked when was the last one, and he’d shrugged, knowing everything and nothing.
She looked up at the hills. Bumps of a skinny spine. The highest bit they called a mountain. Every afternoon the cliffs shone orange.
Are you coming?’ Sam said. He stood at the doorway. He looked clean, his cropped hair slicked to one side. But he was wearing the same clothes as yesterday. She saw the ghost of his painted face on the front of his shirt. She felt her mum’s hands on her shoulders. For all her bangles, she always appeared silently.
‘Sam,’ she said, ‘do you want to come in, have something to eat?’
‘No, ma’am, thank you, ma’am.’
Jeanie rolled her eyes. ‘We’re going out, Mum,’ she said, twisting out of the hug. She put on her dirty runners and didn’t look at her mum. Jeanie touched Sam briefly on the elbow to draw him away.
‘Be back before dark,’ said her mum, a sentence that was worn as old blankets. Sam nodded to her as if from beneath a hat, then followed Jeanie as close to her heels as a dog would. She could feel her mum watching their backs. Knew she would be shrugging her baggy shirt back up over an exposed shoulder.
Jeanie stomped dewy spider webs, spun between the blades of grass. ‘No, ma’am, thank you, ma’am,’ she mimicked him. He kicked a clump of cow shit at her but it disintegrated with the force of his boot.
They crossed the little wooden bridge over the creek. There in the dappled light the shadows were black and the spots of light blinding. Between each thick plank she could see the sluggish creek beneath them. They walked to the fourways where the roads made a star. A weatherboard shop opened its door to the crossing.
‘Which way?’ she said.
He nodded at the road that wound up the mountain.
Three old men leant against the weatherboards, sucking breath between tight tips. As they walked past, the men shook their heads at them. One of them squeezed a word out of the slit of his mouth, ‘Sam?’
Sam looked at the dirt between his feet. Jeanie looked at the man’s watery old-man eyes and said, ‘I can see your aura. It’s brown.’ She saw Sam smile. She grabbed his arm and hissed, ‘Run.’
They didn’t run far. Words came slow as the seasons to the old men, anyway. They walked along the winding gravel road. Every now and then they spied a house through the leaves. Up here in the hills, the houses rotted and sagged with the humidity. Jeanie’s mum said they weren’t hippies, but she only meant that they weren’t hippies in comparison to the others. Kids who came to school with ringworm, that looked drawn there with texta, their heads half shaved, crystals woven in the knotted strands of what was left, smelling of damp. The ones who lived in these houses.
At a certain point the dirt turned from grey to red. Jeanie ran her hands over the cut the road made in the hill. It was flecked with quartz.
Whatcha doing?’ he said.
‘Just feeling the energy,’ she said, then laughed. ‘Mum says quartz is good energy, that it’s lucky.’
‘It’s only lucky cos of the gold. Quartz means gold.’
‘Are you agreeing with me?’ she said, grinning.
‘Huh? No,’ he said, but he couldn’t help but grin too. ‘It’s here,’ he said and turned off and into the trees. It was dark under the canopy.
The grass was short as if cropped by a tethered animal. The trees loomed in a circle around them, the foliage densely packed. A Smarties-blue circle of sky above. She couldn’t see the mountain or the slice of cliff, but she knew they were close. They had walked forever.
‘How did you find this?’ she said.
He shrugged. ‘This is a man’s place.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I can feel it.’
‘I can feel it. You sound like my mum.’
‘I just found it.’
‘I just found it.’
He sighed and walked away from her, then turned back, and said quietly: ‘They would have killed you for coming here. Pointed the bone. Then you would have walked off and died. That is what they would have done.’
‘I wonder what will happen to you.’
‘You brought me here.’
‘I’m allowed here.’
‘You are not.’
He smiled the smug smile he used when she didn’t know something obvious: like the colour of the sky before hail. She pushed him. Surprised, he pushed her back and she fell to the ground. He pinned her arms down and there with the smell of hot dirt he kissed her hard on the lips. His legs clamped tightly around her. She looked into his eyes. They were as brown and dark as deep water. She bit his lip hard. He sprung off.
‘Take me home,’ she said. Her singlet was torn.
‘Suit yourself.’ His lip was bleeding.
His blood tasted like a ten-cent piece. She sat up too fast and felt dizzy. She looked at the sun and it burnt shapes into her vision. She closed her eyes but the shapes were still there. She hung her hair over her face and stood up. When she opened her eyes she was in the middle of the circle alone. She spun around, looking for him. She walked towards the trees, but realised she didn’t know which way they had come.
He was watching her from the tree line. She was walking towards him without knowing it, as if reeled in. He looked taller. Straight as the trees he stood among. When she reached him she vomited at his feet. A thin green bile strung from her mouth as she doubled over.
‘See,’ he said. Sucked his lip. ‘You’re going to die.’ She looked up at him, wiping her mouth on her arm.
‘Please,’ she said.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘you just need water.’ He changed quick as the wind.
She sucked tears in and walked off. The foliage closed in. She could hear the snapping of twigs as he followed her.
‘Did something happen?’ said her mum.
‘You seem funny.’
‘Really?’ Her mum cocked her head at her, the way birds do.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Her mum got up from the kitchen table and kissed Jeanie on the top of the head, filled the kettle. ‘Do you want some lemongrass tea? ’ Jeanie looked at the jar of alfalfa sprouts on the windowsill. Yesterday her mum had turned to her and said, ‘They’re like pubes,’ and giggled.
‘I’ve got sunstroke,’ Jeanie said and scraped her chair back, making a deliberately horrid sound on the slated floor. ‘I don’t want a tea.’ She let the screen door snap behind her. She walked the long way to her room, around the verandah that held the house like a rubber band.
She woke up to the sound of rain falling on the tin roof. Her face still felt too hot. It was dark, but she could tell by the birds that it was dawn. She walked to the bathroom, stepping on the floorboards she knew wouldn’t creak. She was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. She looked at herself in the half-light of the bathroom. Stuck her tongue out to see if it was white like a corpse tongue. She splashed cold water on her face. It smelt like tank.
Back down the hallway to the front door, she stepped out on the verandah to watch the rain. She shook cobwebs out of her raincoat and put it on. Stepped into her thongs and out into the rain. Long grass licked her legs. She walked away from the house and the river. Dawn blushed to the east. She stepped through the fence. Water seeped in around the edges of her raincoat.
There was a glow in the shed by the hill. The hills stood over the building like a bully. She walked until she was close and couldn’t see the hills any more. The rain fell so hard her feet formed a pool of water and worms slipped over her toes.
‘Sam.’ He couldn’t hear her.
She saw him through the open doorway of the shed. His cheek on the cow’s belly, as if listening closely for an answer.