I hear about it on the news before I hear it from you. The word like a curse: drought. Pictures in the paper of dried-up dams and bone-dead cattle. Reddish earth cracked like skin.
It’s your friend, Lenny, who calls me in the end. His voice too loud down the line, as though he’s shouting across the country. Your dad’s not doing well, doll. Now’s the time.
I drive up on the long weekend. It’s almost 40 degrees and the roads are packed, panicky. Mattresses flap from roof racks and children bicker in back seats. A truck changes lanes without looking, nearly taking out the nose of my car. On the radio, the weatherman says there’s no rain in sight.
The heat makes people turn, you used to tell me as a girl; the sentence always seeming unfinished in my head. Turn into what? I wanted to ask.
By the time I reach the house the light’s fading but there’s still heat in the air. Small stones crackle against the sides of the car as I pull into the driveway, a plume of dust rising and settling in the rear-view mirror.
I knock on the door and wait a minute out of respect, then turn the handle and let myself in. You always prided yourself on living in a place where no-one locks the doors, men always coming and going, leaving footprints on the carpet and beer bottles by the sink.
I find you sitting in your chair by the window looking out over the basin – the TV down low and the fan up high. You made it, you say as I step into the room, as though you knew I was coming all along.
The house has the same neglected air as the land outside. All dusty surfaces and peeling wallpaper. Curtains faded from too much sun. As I go from room to room, wiping down benches and clearing away coffee cups, you talk idly to me. Stories about lost land and missing men. Names I remember hearing as a girl: Jack from Five Mile and Bill from Broken Hill. Ray Johnson, who used to live next door. Said he was gunna stick it out. Next thing I know, the farm’s for sale, you say shaking your head. Still had my bloody ride-on an’ everything. You tire quickly, your voice fading through the walls. I come back into the living room to find you slack-jawed, sleeping.
It’s only then, with your defences down, that I can study you properly, the harsh light through the window illuminating your sun-weathered skin and sunken eyes. The infected sores on your arms and the scabs on your scalp. A dry, choking sound every time you breathe in, breathe out.
As the days go past I begin to piece together your stories. Snippets told between cups of tea and afternoon naps; muttering to yourself as I help you into the bath or walk you to bed.
You tell me about the first man to go. Mike Miller was his name. He’d always been a social man, a regular at the pub on Friday nights. Always took home the meat raffle, you say, a touch of bitterness in your voice. But after a parasite wiped out the last of his herd, you saw him less and less in town. It was only when someone spotted his car pulled over on the highway that you realised he was gone. Not like him not to say goodbye, you say, shaking your head.
In the late afternoons, when time slows and the air becomes syrupy with heat, you sit by the window looking out over the basin. That low-lying land, once fattened and fed by the mineral waters below, is now parched, starving—the bare ribs of eucalyptus roots showing through the skin of the earth. A sour note to the afternoon breeze, like bad breath.
When I bring you food you barely look at it. I watch from the kitchen as you pick at dry bits of bread and press biscuit crumbs into the hard pad of your fingertip; send the glass of water I give you dribbling back down your chin.
It’s funny, you say, and I turn to you.
It’s not, Dad.
No, you correct me. It tastes funny.
At breakfast the next morning, I notice a strange patch of skin on your cheek. A rash of some sort: purplish, almost iridescent. When I run my hand across it, I expect it to be rough, but the skin is strangely smooth and cool to the touch.
As I rub lotions and moisturisers into your skin, you talk absent-mindedly. About Dave who used to run fishing tours on the basin. Pat, who owned the farming supplies store. Poor old Lucy, you say, scrunching up your face like a child putting on sunscreen. Didn’t even have a body for the funeral.
You refuse to eat dinner that night. When I dress you for bed I see the irritation has crept down your neck and onto your chest, little flecks of silvery skin littering the sheets where you sleep.
The weekend comes and I drive down to the shops. The corner store is a dusty, disorderly place. A store of needs rather than wants: parcels of sugar and flour stacked beside bags of grain and horse feed; bottles of Jack Daniel’s displayed beside bottles of pesticide.
At the checkout I run into Jenny, Arthur’s daughter. She used to be a big girl. Homely, you would have called her—all broad hips and red cheeks. But she’s slim now. When she smiles, deep fissures appear on her face, like cracked clay.
How’s Artie? I ask, as we stand outside beneath the store’s awning.
She looks at me, her smile fading. You didn’t know? she says. He’s gone.
Jesus. I’m sorry.
She lets out a sigh as she looks out over the shadeless street. It’s for the best, she says. Couldn’t stand it any longer.
I nod, tell her I understand, but as I drive home that afternoon I wonder who she was talking about, father or child.
Days pass. You have a fall. Miss a step on the back patio and end up face-down in the dust, your shirt stained so red that for a moment I think you’re bleeding.
I pull you up, brushing you off roughly the way you used to do for me as a child. What happened, Dad? Where were you going? I ask, but you just shake your head, your eyes searching out beyond the fence where the land gives way to the basin. Dry land meeting dry land.
When I bathe you that night, I notice the rash has spread to your lower back and the sagging skin of your bottom.
When work calls, I press the phone to my ear and tell them, Just a little longer. I hang up to find you standing in the doorway, stark naked and confused, dripping dirty water onto the carpet.
Another man, Joe Lawson. His wife left him two months after the last rains fell. He stayed on a while after that, you say, but you don’t finish the story, your body suddenly taken hold of by a coughing fit that has me guiding you, shaky-legged, to bed.
You wake in the night, unable to breathe. A damp, rotting smell filling the room. I strip the bed and put on fresh sheets saying, It’s okay Dad, it’s okay. Over and over, like a lullaby, singing you back to sleep.
You refuse lunch. Sit in your chair and stare out at the basin until your eyes go red. Scratch your skin until it bleeds.
On the radio, the weatherman says water levels have reached critical stages.
When I try to call Lenny his phone rings and rings and goes to the answering machine.
That night I draw you a bath and lower you into the water. Your limbs are light, body wasted. I’m just going to put on some dinner, I say. You’ll be right by yourself for a moment?
I boil some vegetables, take two frozen fish fillets from the freezer and set them out on the bench. Somewhere through the house, I hear a splashing sound, a sharp intake of breath. I run down the hall and push open the bathroom door to find you slipped under. Submerged. Your mouth open and gasping for air.
I plunge my hands beneath the surface, hook them under your arms, haul you out. It wasn’t me, you say, your eyes wide and body shaking. It was the water.
At breakfast the next morning you open your mouth to try and tell me something, but the words dry up. Please, drink this, I say, handing you a glass of water, but you shake your head, press your lips into a thin, red line.
While you sleep that afternoon, I drive over to Lenny’s to find the door locked and the driveway empty. The windowsill littered with little, dead flies.
Work calls and says they can’t hold my position any longer. It’s been weeks, they say, and I feel my mind reeling, trying to trace back the time. Standing beneath the neon lights of the kitchen, I feel my cheeks grow hot. My knuckles gripped white around the receiver.
How can you say that? I reply. Don’t you know what’s happening out here?
We’re sorry, they say. We really are.
It’s only when I hear your voice from the living room that I realise it’s dark outside and the line has long gone dead.
In my dream that night I am a child again and you have taken me out on the basin.
A boat rented at high tide, plastic hand-reels rigged up the night before.
We sit in silence, feeling the gentle lull of the water, the slip of line on skin. Then suddenly I feel a sharp tug. See a flash of silver beneath the water. A hook clean through the lip.
When you smile at me there’s blood on your teeth. Look after yourself, kiddo, you say. Don’t you worry about me.
I wake to bright sun and bad news on the radio. I turn it off and listen to the sounds of the house. Somehow too still, too quiet.
When I go to your room, the bed is empty and the sheets are kicked down. An upturned glass of water soaks into the carpet. I follow a trail of discarded clothes down the hallway to find the front door swinging on its hinges. Your footprints stumbling away from the patio, bare feet in the dirt.
I track them across the yard, calling your name as I go, my panicked voice sending morning birds scattering. Out past the property line, the land slopes away down towards the basin. The sweet, rotting smell of waterweed and blue-green algae hangs in the humid air.
On the ground below, your footsteps begin to slow and stumble. I see the place where you tripped on a root and landed on your knees. Your final descent made on your stomach—a smooth track of sand leading you down to the water.
It’s only when I look out over the basin that I see them. Hundreds of great, bloated fish lying belly-up on the surface. Their pale bodies like gravestones on the dark water. And there, on the earth where you slithered in, something shiny flecking the dirt. Skin, I think. No, silver, I think. No. Scales. •
Rebecca Slater is an award-winning writer from Sydney. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, the Lifted Brow, Seizure, Cordite and others. She is working on her first novel.