Outside, a rosella perched on the edge of the bird bath. Marie watched her daughter Irma light up when she saw the bird, and stumble, hands-out, towards it. Marie noticed there was another rosella there, a smaller one. Irma’s hair shone a bronze colour. She and the pair of birds coexisted outside in the shade of the afternoon. Marie looked up after every shirt she folded. There was something about seeing your darling when she didn’t know she was watched. She felt Irma close to her skin. The sun changed. Irma’s mouth moved against her cheek, speaking words into the flesh.
Afternoons turned quickly in the valley. The air wolfish, the pale lilac growing dark too soon. Irma lifted her head when her father spread out of the screen door and told her to come inside. Griffin had his arm around her shoulders as they came in together.
‘Quite breezy, isn’t it?’ he remarked, closing both doors behind him.
‘I can hear it,’ Marie said. She put the washing basket down and bent down to touch a piece of Irma’s hair, stuck to her cheek.
‘You hungry, darling?’
Irma nodded, still mute in her imaginings.
‘Dinner will be ready soon.’
Their son Pete had found the dog and held it around the belly like a teddy bear. He had spent most of the day in bed with a head cold. Marie picked up honey from the woman, June, who lived around the corner, and spun it into strong tea. Pete didn’t like hot drinks and let it cool on the bedside, so when she fetched his empty mug the honey had sunk to the bottom like sand in the ocean.
When the weather really came they were reminded of the thin structure they lived in. The plates in the cabinet shook for minutes. Griffin moved quickly to shut every window in the house. What resulted was a closed feeling, a whirling sound that haunted Marie’s consciousness, an old anxiety.
The gust of wind passed and Marie and Griffin and the children went out the back to look at the foggy calm. When her sister, Pearl, came wading through the long grass out the back, her hands brushing along the hips of the birch trees, part of Marie was unsurprised. She called out, ‘I knew the wind would bring you.’ Griffin and Marie hurried down the slope to help her. Pearl was a dirty weight, belly protruding in her sweaty white dress, mud on her knees.
‘My goodness,’ Marie said, rubbing Pearl’s cheek in an effort to warm her, for as usual her skin was cold.
Pearl said, ‘I need to eat.’
‘Oh, love, of course,’ Marie said. ‘I’ve got a pie in the oven inside. I’ll bring a piece to you.’ They helped her up the stairs and into the house. Griffin set her down on the armchair with a blanket on her knees. He got a bucket for her to soak her bloodied toes. Marie carried from the kitchen a thick piece of pie, a tall glass of freshly squeezed apple juice and a cup of tea and put them in front of her.
The children sat silent on the floor, eyes on Pearl. Pearl ignored the children, she didn’t say their names; she had forgotten them. She was perceptibly pregnant. Her breasts squirmed out of her dress.
‘Not the pie, then?’ Marie said. ‘A boiled egg?’
Pearl agreed to the egg, hard-boiled and small cut squares of pan-cooked bread. She ate while Marie got the children ready for bed.
Marie bathed Pearl. After the initial surprise of her size, she was beautiful as always, yet a different beauty now. She was full with a fluid whistling under her skin. Pete’s gruff cough came through the wall, a cough that seemed older than him. Marie tested a smile on her sister. ‘A boy? Or a girl? I wonder.’
Pearl’s face remained blank and Marie let all talk of the baby fold, the where, when, who. She bit her tongue at the need to say how wonderful it was to be a mother and how her life would change. Pearl didn’t seem to want this sort of talk. In the morning, Marie would see if Pearl wanted to see a doctor. There might be a problem finding someone to see her. But Pearl had come to her for a reason.
After her bath, Marie dried Pearl, starting at her ankles, moving up her legs to her waist. Pearl’s shoulders were high and tense. She said there was no need to dry her hair. Marie set her up in Irma’s bed. Pearl’s webbed feet reached the wall. Pearl spoke bitterly of her backache, and the sleep the baby had taken from her.
‘I am going to look after you.’ Marie said. She paused, and reached out to rub Pearl’s stomach. ‘The two of you.’ Pearl bit her nails like she did when she was a child. Her lips were blistered. ‘It will all turn out fine.’ Marie patted her again.
Griffin was in bed when she got to their room. He gave her a look that she knew he had been saving until they were alone.
‘I thought she …’
‘I did, too,’ she said.
‘Is she going to stay here?’
She nodded. Griffin nodded in agreement. ‘I wonder where she’s been all this time.’
‘I won’t ask her. Not yet. She’s been through a lot.’
She pulled the light off and got into bed next to him. She was careful not to shift around too much in getting herself comfortable. It was an old mattress, and you could get stuck into a groove. It went quiet. A few moments later, Griffin added, ‘I’m more worried about the children.’
‘Pearl and the kids will get to know each other. Fine, you’ll see.’ Marie turned towards the side of the bed. ‘I’m going to check on her.’
‘Marie?’ Griffin called her.
She put her head against his chest and he took her hands in his. He let go of her for a second to adjust himself under the sheet. He then moved her hand to slide into his pants.
‘Yes,’ he said. He sighed deeply.
‘Is this the right way for you? The best I can?’
‘A bit, yes.’
She repeated her movements for a few minutes.
‘Hang on,’ he said, springing up. ‘I think I need to go. I’ll be quick.’
Adopted into the Martin family in a house in Bardon, Griffin had never known his birth family. He had skin like pencil, thick eyebrows, and was large-handed and awkwardly handsome at seventeen. He had gone to a private boys school. He had been chosen to represent his country in the national schoolboys cricket championships. At seventeen, Griffin was a man. He had to travel down to the coast to represent the school for a function. He no longer remembered what it was, or any detail, but he does remember when he drove from the function he got hopelessly lost. That night he was alone without a team and without his parents. His father was a doctor and his mother was a nurse and they had wanted to go with him, but that night they were both working and Griffin had said, insisted, that he didn’t need them there. His father had just bought him the car, a red Datsun. He couldn’t find his way back and he didn’t know his new car. He began to smell something and looked through the window at smoke streaming from the engine. He stopped the car by the side of the dirt road. He got out of the car to inspect the bonnet warily. He didn’t know what to do—wondered if he should wait or go find some help. He didn’t have the slightest idea where he was. It was dark. The streets led to nowhere.
He walked for a while, looking for a house or someone he could ask. He saw a light up in a park. There was a group of Aboriginal men grouped up, cooking food on a fire, and he was hungry. They saw him standing there. Marie, fifteen, was the one prodding the fish with a stick. The fire was a colour he had only seen in zinc. He walked forward. When he took the piece of fish from her she glowed with the fire when she smiled. He saw the dark corners of her eyes, and he smiled too. The fish tasted taut and sinewy, with a layer of sweet oil. That image marked his life. Marie, a dust-coloured girl, fed him fish in a park.
When he was brought back to life by these first few bites, he saw Marie’s sister. She lay out in the grass, neck elongated, under an ironbark tree, humming to herself. When she moved to look at him, he turned away.
Marie’s cousins and brothers came with him to the car. Nocturnal like all youths, they were wired for the late hours, and rowdy, stirring the empty streets. This was their territory, Griffin understood, they didn’t need a sign or paperwork.
‘That can’t be your car!’ they said, rushing to it excitedly, stroking the smooth red top. They laughed and joked with him as if he was one of them. These muscly dark boys pushed the car down the street to the service station. There was no room left to touch an inch of the car, so he walked beside them, feeling foolish at first. On the way he told them something about himself: he wanted to play cricket for Australia.
‘They’re not going to pick you,’ Marie’s brother, the age of an uncle, said. ‘No black’s ever going to get on the team.’
Griffin’s dad would have disagreed with him. He told Griffin he would make it. He’d been bowling to Griffin out the back since he was a toddler. At the service station, Griffin called his father to pick him up.
When he came back out the fellas shook his hand and said, ‘Come over here anytime. You know where we are.’
One of them stood forward for the group and said, ‘You like our sister, eh?’ Griffin felt his face turn plum.
When Griffin got back to Brisbane and told his family of his encounter, they did not like it. ‘They are not your sort,’ his father said firmly.
In conversation with his parents, Griffin agreed with their views, looking down into his tea. But he said only what they wanted to hear. As soon as the car was fixed he was down the highway again. He soon lost count of the number of times he stood by Marie’s door, and she came out, always smiling, looking like the first time he’d seen her. It was a two-year courtship, in which time they were never left alone together, chaperoned to the cinema by Marie’s Aunty. They were married in a church in Dunwich.
Griffin’s parents had reserved a section of the house for them, and they moved into these rooms. On their wedding night, they drove quickly down the coast after news came that one of Marie’s brothers had died by electrocution. Just before the wedding this brother had said to Griffin that he was part of the family now.
Soon after they married, Marie heard that her father was getting close to returning to the earth, and as the eldest daughter, she would be the one to look after him while he died. Griffin would not deny her that. They moved into Hune Hill. His car wasn’t the prized possession it once was, with scratches and dents down the sides. He had stopped playing cricket and not long after the conception of their first child he enlisted and went off to the war.
Over the next months, as she started to look ready, Pearl became agitated. She lay in the bath, the only place she felt some relief.
‘I don’t want to do this any more,’ she said to her sister.
‘We can handle it,’ Marie said. She took care of her sister, responding to any requests. Her darling Irma was her aide, assisting her with the meals and the garden while Griffin worked long hours at the butcher.
Pearl said sometimes she thought the baby would kill her. She had gotten so ill-proportionally big that she could no longer use the front or back door of the house. She got in and out for an occasional smoke or waddling wander into the bush through the kitchen window. Marie had given up wondering why this was easier for her. She watched Pearl put her bottom down on the ledge, tilt her hips, and push her feet forward. It was simple. Marie made sure the windowsill was clear of clutter: kitchen utensils, matches and children’s teeth. She kept the window open.
Every day she felt distressed that she lacked the knowledge to help her sister. She tried to remember how the old women had helped her deliver her children. But all three of her children had come early, easily, and much of it was a blur. It was clear this baby of Pearl’s was late. When she felt the baby it was turned, in expectancy for delivery. She thought it could be dead until it moved unexpectedly under her fingers. Without acting on the old people’s knowledge, or white medicine, she was helpless. They had tried everything. Pearl had asked her what to do, so Marie walked with Pearl for hours at a time out the back in the afternoons, tracing their tracks through the dry, dull earth. Marie supplied morning massages and cups of herbal tea.
Leaving Pearl dozing in the bath, mother and daughter went for a visit to the cemetery. The girl was like her, the toxins in the house weren’t doing her good. They walked through the scrub up the hill. People said this place was a lightning point because of the history here. She made out the small white sticks in the ground. The Kresigner circle. Here her dead baby also lay, with his ancestors’ bones.
There was a bench under an ironbark tree. She sat Irma on her lap, pressed the warm back of her head against her breast. She could see the whole valley from here. She spoke low, the words that she knew rumbling through, the wind making a part. Irma was serious in concentration with her, in connection.
She didn’t feel lighter as she usually did talking with the old people. There was no sudden clarity. She saw Irma’s fist around something.
‘What have you got, my baby?’
Irma opened her hand to a small finger lime. ‘Can we go home now?’ she whispered.
‘Yes, we can,’ Marie said.
On the way down from the hill she saw finger limes everywhere. She picked them up and carried them in her skirt. She had seven. Irma skipped ahead of her, the soles of her feet peppered black.
She put down the handful of fruit on the kitchen bench. She thumbed her way through an old baking book. Pineapples and other fruit can induce labour, she had read once, and here she read it again. On the next page was a baked lime tart recipe. Cooking was a way to calm the chaos—passed on by the women who had shaped her. By the next morning she had assembled the ingredients as best she could. The kitchen was her base when Irma and Pete were at school, Griffin was at work and Pearl was resting. She opened the limes, used the juice and skin, a scatter of macadamia nuts from the tree at the front, cream, avocado and honey. She put the tart in the oven. It had pale energy, pulsing there. She watched it with great anticipation. She did not tell Pearl of her plans, but hoped her sister would start to smell the tart from where she lay in the bathwater, and a comforting mystery would occur.
While the tart was in the oven, June from down the road came to the door. Pete had a fever, June said. The school rang, they wouldn’t keep him there. With Griffin at work, Marie knew she had to walk the twenty-odd minutes to get Pete. The tart was supposed to stay in the oven for forty minutes.
She ran through the heat, sweat seeping into her eyes. Her feet ached in her worn shoes. She thought about Pete, always getting sick. Griffin said he spent too much time indoors, doing women’s work. When she arrived, Pete was standing outside the office, holding his forehead. She kissed him and held him to her.
‘I’m so sorry, my son,’ she said. ‘We’re going to have to walk home.’
When they were children, she and Pearl walked everywhere, barefoot. They followed her father through the country. He showed them the dirt patterns. Pearl, her only whole blood sibling, didn’t look like her; she was darker, stronger looking. They didn’t look alike even as children. She had eyes that had been watching since before she was born.
Marie and Pete made it to the house, bringing the heat in with them. She carried Pete up the stairs and he was asleep before he was in bed. She pulled the blanket half up his sweating, small body.
She opened the oven and there the finger lime tart was, just ready, edges brown but not burnt. Her hand tingled from the heat as she pulled it out.
She walked up to the bathroom, pushing open the door. The curtains had been pulled half over the window. The first thing she saw was Pearl’s stomach, floating above the water’s surface. Pearl’s eyes were shut. There was an arm of a different skin tone around her chest, below her large, floating breasts. There were two people in the bathtub. The two people, her sister and her husband, were in a terrible tangle or a struggle or some kind. Griffin behind her, half of his face showing behind her hair, his shoulders against the wall. He was moving, and the colourless water was running around them as if it couldn’t keep up. They opened their eyes and saw her, but their bodies stayed where they were.
She went downstairs and pulled out a knife to cut a slice out of the pie cooling on a rack next to the oven. She delicately laid the piece on a gold plate and added a coin-sized dollop of cream beside it. She waited. Griffin appeared, said he was going back to work, his hair half-wet. The car roared out onto the street.
In a few minutes Pearl came down the stairs in her dress. Marie put the plate in front of her. Pearl sat on the same chair she had sat on when she first came to the house, the chair that had become hers during her stay, a chair that had originally belonged to their mother. The room was full of family items. In a bowl next to Pearl were their father’s clapsticks that he had made himself, made of unblemished, light wood. Pearl used her hands to bring the tart to her mouth, nodded in approval at the taste. There were no crumbs left when she handed Marie back the plate.
After eating, Pearl slid out the window to go for an afternoon durrie. Marie took the plate into the sink and put the rest of the pie in the fridge, with the knife resting on top. She reached over the bench to the kitchen window. Immediately the heat was trapped. She got a handful of face washers out of the linen cupboard and ran them under the tap. Irma had come home. Her face flushed. She presented herself to her mother; opening her palms to reveal a lady beetle that flew up, grazing the girl’s nose. The beetle flew towards the closed window. Marie stuck a washer on Irma’s neck. They heard a tapping, a prodding.
‘Don’t open the window, dear,’ she said.
Irma nodded. They both looked outside at the same time. Pearl was staring straight at them with a sickening glare. One hand on her back and one on her stomach, she was huge and hurting. Her dress flipped up in the wind and her stomach demanded viewing. Marie quickly moved away from the kitchen. She walked upstairs into Pete’s room. He was sleeping, his hands under his cheek. She got in beside him and pressed the cold washer into the dent in his back. It was throwing an ice cube into a fire. She hugged him to her, the clammy warmth of his arms and the drowsy muffle of the bed. She wasn’t sure if she was sleeping.
She was rattled by Irma’s voice at the door. ‘Mum, you gotta come. Aunty is havin’ a baby out the front.’
Pearl was in the currents of her contractions outside the house. She was kneeling directly in line with the front door, facing the street. Marie and her daughter got her down on the ground, one hand on either of her shoulders. Her breath was citrus and smoke. The water on the ground sizzled in the sun. Pearl’s eyes widened and Marie held on to her. No cars went by and no-one saw them, but at the same time the valley saw them. The open sky caressed their skin.
For Marie it was quick and there was nothing to be done. A few minutes and a few tries and it was Irma who had her hands where they needed to be. Marie was in shock. She took the baby from Irma’s arms, the wet blood shared across their arms. He made a sound that entered her.
A while later they sat in the kitchen on the chairs, eating the remaining pie out of the dish. Pearl was newly energised and talkative. Irma was proud. Marie tried to feel relief. The baby was solid and soft. She had weighed him on the kitchen scales, 4.6 kilograms. She sat with the baby wrapped in a white blanket, his eyes opened when she looked at him. He had a thick grey casing of hair on his head.
Pearl talked. ‘You said you would look after him.’
Marie slowly shook her head. ‘He is your child.’
‘You can understand why I can’t take it with me. It would be good here. A brother for Irma and Peter. A gift. A birthday present.’
Marie shut her eyes for a moment.
‘Of course,’ her sister said, smiling. ‘I wouldn’t forget your birthday.’ She leant forward and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
Marie looked down at the baby in her arms. She didn’t move as Pearl bent her knees and pushed her body through the sun-lined window. She could hear her sister’s feet touch the ground and her firm, wet steps as she went back the way she had come.
‘A decent size, this little bloke,’ Griffin said when he got home. ‘Well done.’
They named the baby Charles, after Griffin’s father, and Jack, after her father. He was Charles Jack Kresigner, for all her children kept their grandfather’s name. He wasn’t painted up proper way, and there was no ceremony, as the clapsticks had disappeared from the house, but Marie knew he’d grow up Kresigner, she knew how to do it right.