Hard Grain

Noma is directing the hose down cracks in the rock garden. With her pale hair pulled back from her high forehead and her deep-set, thick-lidded eyes, she has a domed look. She holds the hose out and away so as not to wet her dress. Her dress could be a petticoat, it hangs from such thin straps.

I am watching her from the veranda. I have been sweeping cobwebs from the rafters, my reflection working in each window pane: a thickish woman in shorts and pushed-up sleeves. Although green boughs screen the light, giving a look of great coolness, heat clamps down from the iron roof like a dried flower press. My hair hangs in sweaty strings around my neck.

Beyond the fence of lavender bushes lies the paddock with its faded tints of grass; beyond this stretches a vast field, shimmering in summer haze. My brother is driving the harvester through thigh-deep wheat, cutting swathe after swathe. In the distance, the machine becomes toy-like, its auger poking up like a beacon. Later it will be my turn. I will sit in the high open cabin, ear-muffs on, following the sharp edge of the grain, filling the bin. This is the way we live since our parents died, sharing the work with crops and sheep between us.

I watch Noma out under the trees, a city-pale figure against garden green.


I have to call her. She is too greedy with the water. ‘Maybe it’s wet enough, hey?’

She nods, giving the cracks one last squirt. The water doesn’t run out anywhere. It goes down deep into the bank of rocks. She walks towards me, the sun lighting that domed head for a moment, then she has reached the screen of branches and is stepping into the heavy, reflected heat of the veranda.

Noma has been visiting me for years, a few days every few months, in all seasons. It is her opportunity to breathe clean air, she says. When Noma is not working as a receptionist in one of the tall city hotels, she dances. She dances for herself, going to weekly classes in her local community hall.

She will say to me on the phone, ‘Jenny, can I come up for a few days? Is it okay with James? This air is getting to me!’

Noma can’t stand the coastal humidity. ‘My skin feels like custard,’ she exclaims into the phone and I know she is stroking her clammy arms, wiping the perspiration from her face. My brother won’t mind; he accepts Noma as simply a relic from my school days.

‘It’s no better here,’ I reply. ‘In fact, I think it gets hotter every summer.’

‘But it’s a dry heat! Can I come up, Jenny?’

And I meet the train, hugging her, feeling the bone in her back.

The cobwebs make grey, thick sticky stuff on the broom. With my fingers or with a twig I pull the cobwebs off, flicking them into the garden among fallen leaves. Sometimes there is a black house spider caught in its own web and I flick it, too, into the shrubs. I hate the way spiders clasp their victims to suck them dry. Especially the mantis. I feel stricken when I find one of these personable insects bundled in a web. Noma likes them too. She will crouch for a long time, as patient as the mantis that suddenly snatches with its jointed arms, its little scissor jaws ripping and gobbling, wings last.

‘We’re short of water, Noma. You can’t just pour it into the garden.’ I make a few more swipes with the broom. There are too many webs around the light where night-time bugs cluster, moths sketching their erratic geometry around each globe. Tucked secretly behind a beam there is a grey furred orb weaver, which no amount of careful poking can dislodge. I will have to remember to flick it away this evening when it comes out to create its web. Noma likes to walk in the garden at night, carefully, mindful of slithering things on the ground. She has often shrieked, flapping into the house in her petticoat dress to have me pick web off her hair.

‘Is it there, Jenny?’ she almost sobs, real fright in her voice. ‘Oh, how hideous, how awful…’

‘No, no, it’s okay.’

When the orb weaver has finished its web, it does not lurk on one side, but hangs motionless in the centre of its weaving. Noma knows this, and she is horrified at the thought of the spider in her hair.

Next day I find her hosing the cracks again, concentrating on a particular crevice. She is so intent, she doesn’t hear me coming. When I speak she jumps and the hose jumps too, splashing brown.

‘Noma, please why are you doing this?’ I turn off the tap, cross with her transgression against basic country rules.

‘There are eyes down there,’ she explains, gazing at me with her own remarkably large eyes. ‘See?’

‘No, I can’t see. Come inside, you’ll get sunstroke!’

In the evening we fling open the doors and windows as if even the house will exhale a long hot breath. Out here on the veranda the air has a softness, sweet with the smell of paddocks and the gentle movement of sheep. The boards are still very warm against the back of my legs where I sprawl.

Noma is so pale I can see the veins in her chest and arms. She drops the straps of her dress and it slips down to her waist, revealing the little pointed breasts that have danced beneath the cotton. She tips back her head on the end of her long neck, bending her pale silky dome toward the floor. There is a runnel of perspiration between her breasts on the concave of skin.

I see the white blur of James’s shirt where he stands in shadow, watching the darkening night – the last light on the horizon a tarnished strip beneath the cloud – the darkening trees, dark deepening the garden until it is only the whiteness of Noma and her pointed breasts that we watch.

It is time for me to drive the harvester for the eight-hour shift. At night the hours pass more slowly as I chakka chakka along the path of light, scattering field mice. I am in a time frame where only the crop and the light and the night exist, with the sound and vibration of my progress. An owl swoops across the trail of stubble behind the immense machine with its enormous trailing shadow.

The sun is just rising as I make my last turn, colouring the sky with a deep, threatening pink. We need a couple more days to finish the harvest. I see the utility arriving, bumping across the paddock, and I stop, gratefully wiping my hand across my damp forehead.

James’s eyes are still tired and red-rimmed from his previous shift. He brushes some stalk off my shirt, nods towards the sky, echoes my thoughts. ‘I don’t like the look of that. It can rain all it likes after we get the crop off!’

I will take the loaded truck back to the silo, wait while the scooping buckets clank on the chain, gradually storing our precious grain. I wish the harvest was over. I wish it was Christmas. I feel constantly prickled with dust, which filters inside everything.

After a shower I spread talcum with my fingers, sliding the silky softness over my skin. I’m fatter; there are little folds and ripples. Strong, though. I should’ve had kids. I’d have liked that. Perhaps as brother and sister we are each other’s soulmate, bound together by blood? I am happy with James. On my chest is the red-brown V of the sun’s mark.

Noma is still sleeping. I sit among the crumb-strewn plates of James’s breakfast, fingering toast, too tired to eat. In my mind the wheat stands tall. I see it being trucked, watch the accounts, wait for the money. When the harvest is over I will exult to have succeeded: just James and me.

Towards dusk I hear distant thunder, so faint I could be mistaken. I’m not. There is the long low noise again. Noma is on the veranda, surveying the horizon where indigo clouds are piling, lit within by sporadic stabs of lightening.

She counts the seconds. ‘Will it rain?’ she asks. ‘You don’t want it to rain, do you, not yet?’

‘It would be a disaster!’ I laugh, hollowly.

The first drops are large, splatting onto veranda boards. Frogs croak in the water tanks. Noma steps onto the lawn, pointing one foot in front, her arms over her head. She is dancing in the rain as it begins, turning her face into it, letting it trickle down her long pale arms and inside her dress. An anxious little wind scurries through the trees, across flat paddocks, wrapping around d the house.

Should I drive out there? Should I wait? The freshly stripped grain is safe. I will wait. Finally James is defeated by the rain. He comes back, leaving the machinery in the paddock. I reach to touch his arm; it is my misery too. Maybe it will blow over quickly with the rising wind that suddenly slams doors, making wild flags of the curtains. He shrugs away my hand.

Noma is getting wet and her petticoat dress clings entirely. She is like a spirit out there in the gloom.

‘How can she enjoy it so much?’ James mutters, watching her. ‘She’s bloody callous, that woman.’

‘She’s a city person,’ I defend her.

‘She knows we want fine weather.’ He calls sharply as if she is a dog. ‘Noma! Come out of that!’

Noma merely smiles, twirling.

We eat our dinner, smatters of talk almost drowned by flurries of rain beating on the roof and frogs booming in the tanks. Our world tonight is enclosed by the elements, like a tent. The room smells comfortingly of roast meat. I open a bottle of wine. Noma is going home soon; I want to be happy. Shadows from my candle flicker, playing across cheek and arm and hand. The wine glimmers in our glasses, casting circles of colour on the tablecloth. My brother’s face is cut with lines, with unexpected curves of mouth and brow as he laughs. His hands lie loosely by his empty plate.

I have sashayed about the kitchen to an old jazz record turned up loud. Carrying in our desserts, each moulded perfectly in its crystal bowl, I am pleased to see James so relaxed. It doesn’t matter that it is the third bottle to achieve our happiness. As I place his bowl before him, resting my fingers an instant on his shoulder, I feel the hard muscle beneath his shirt. And I feel Noma watching me. She has pencilled her eyelids tonight, and her eyes are like dark ponds.

James leans away from the littered table, pushing back his chair sharply. ‘I’m going out there,’ he says. His face is lined more deeply in the wavering candle flame; his teeth look very white.

‘What for? There’s nothing you can do. You’ll only get wet.’ We speak loudly, although the storm is passing and only the frogs boom. Noma watches us both from her chair, from her dark ponds. Her skin is incredibly pale with two bright spots on her cheeks. She is a bit drunk, too.

‘I want to see the crop,’ he says. ‘You coming?’

‘I’ll see it in the morning,’ I answer sullenly. I am just as upset about the rain, but tonight I wanted to enjoy myself.

‘I’ll come with you!’ Noma is standing too.

Noma? She has never been interested in what we do on the farm, seeing it only as her retreat.

James steps into the garden, lit by the veranda lamp, luminous in his fresh white shirt, his tanned arms very dark. He jumps about stupidly, clumsy in gumboots. Noma is leaping barefoot as if she revels in this contact with earth and water. I see their whiteness merging into darkness. I am left on the veranda, listening to their feet splashing across the lawn. The orb weaver scrambles about, repairing a hole in its web.

Next morning, cradling his hangover, James drives out with me to the field, the colours of the crop all creamy under a hot blue sky. There has been less rain out here but the wind has pushed the crop and our wheat is leaning, almost lying down.

‘Look at that. Smashed to pieces!’ His squinted gaze sweeps the paddocks, the damp stubbly earth already steaming, the big machine marking the end, or the beginning of our labour.

‘It may not be so bad,’ I appeal.

He glowers at me across the hood of the ute. ‘Look how much is knocked off the heads. Do you reckon you can pick it up off the ground?’

‘No, but…’

‘If you hadn’t been so stubborn!’ He strikes his fist against the faded metal. ‘It’s the biggest crop ever. We should’ve got someone to drive the truck… we might’ve finished…’

‘No-one can predict storms,’ I reply, but I can’t deny the truth of what he says.

‘We might’ve finished, for Chrissake!’ His breath hisses through his teeth. he faces me, his eyes networked with weariness. Sweat edges down his neck from under the stained felt hat. ‘Even Noma could tell you it was too much for the two of us!’

‘What would she know? I work beside you. Everything we know about this place we’ve learned together.’

‘I thought you’d want to check out the damage last night, but you left it to her.’

‘It was her decision,’ I say, but he ignores me.

We turn into the long drive towards the house. Noma is a distant figure by the gate, almost invisible under the drooping pepper trees.

I say what has been in my heart a long time. Noma never does anything, not even the washing up. She has taken, always taken. I feel no warmth in her embrace.

All morning James sits cloistered in the study. Noma is quiet too.

I am waiting for her departure. She turns the hose down cracks in the rocks but I say nothing because the tanks are full again.

The wheat is steaming, drying, waiting. I will not look at his hunched figure at the desk. ‘What about the crop?’ I suggest finally.

‘I’ve written the rest of it off. Waste of time.’

‘Then I’ll damn’ well do it myself!’ I stamp down the path, banging the gate, my boots breaking the crusted earth.

All afternoon I drive the harvester along the battered crop, picking up as much as I can. There will be less, I know. I drive on, relentless. Inside my head beats an engine turning blades, stripping grain, turning the auger, tipping buckets, clanking the chain. Dusk softens the glare but my weariness is consuming me. I switch on the lights, dragging my huge shadow across the stubble. Did she slide closer beside him as they drove squishing across the field to where the harvester stood gigantic in the windy night? Did she place her fingers lightly on his arm, in her familiar gesture of understanding? I wonder if he reached to hold her as she folded her pale arms around his neck, waiting for his kiss. My mouth tastes of blood where I have chewed the slippery inside of my lip. I shake the sleep from my eyes. Only the endless crop exists, with the chakka chakka chakka of the blades and the vibration of my progress.

Two tiny lights prick the darkness and the ute arrives, James alone at the wheel. I cut the engine and climb down into the relief of silence and stillness. He is coming towards me, stepping crookedly across the uneven earth.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘Come on, Jenny, go home. Get some sleep.’

He rests his hands on my shoulders. Tilting, we lean together. I feel his warmth through the thin cotton shirt, the rough texture of his unshaven cheek. In the shadow, I can’t see his eyes. Then he takes my place on the harvester. The lights make twin cones, going steadily away.

Noma is sitting on the step when I get back. ‘I’ve booked on tomorrow’s train,’ she says briefly. She is a silhouette, her voice a thin thread. ‘I should be getting back.’

After she’s gone, I stand staring at the empty, shining rails. There are weeds poking up amongst the evenly graded stones spread along the train track. A cricket is zzk-zzking in the hot, dry grass. Her kiss had been airy, her cheek barely brushing mine. It is a long way home on the rough road, towing my drogue of dust.

I wander to the rock garden to peer curiously down the crack Noma was so intent on watering. It is delicately lined with web and at the bottom there are tiny eyes, reflecting light.
* * *
©  Julia Osborne
Published: Families – Modern Australian Short Stories (Ed. Barry Oakley) Five Mile Press 2008
ABC Radio National 2005, 2006, 2009
Meanjin 1992