A mist is settling across the paddocks, following the creek. In the early dawn a fox barks, nearer, farther, going away. The moon is sinking in the west and the last stars have faded.
Steam comes up from the man’s spray of piss off the veranda. His feet are cold on the wooden boards. His wife is inside, in the dark warm cave of the room, feeding the baby, holding it against her warm skin, her head bent, almost asleep, curled over the tiny turned cheek. She will come back to bed, long after he’s come inside from the veranda, and she’ll lie, curved, knees up, feet tucked into the hem of her nightdress, the knuckles of her vertebra going down down and he’ll reach over to cradle her and she’ll say Uh, uh, irritably, sleepily. He’ll mutter, I wasn’t going to. That’s what it’s like these days.
Almost light. Half waking, he leans towards her, wanting, whispering, Sarah. Soon the baby will wake again. His fingers reach, touch; his mouth finds her breast where the soft cotton has dropped aside. His tongue explores, licking, tasting. The duvet rises and is swept away, sheets billow and her feet smack onto the floor. It is an exasperated smack.
Shouldn’t have touched her tit. Sacred. For the baby. He hears her washing and knows she’s bent over the basin, slipping hot soapy hands around her body, washing away his lick. She doesn’t know he can see. The door is open a chink . . . a glimpse . . . she leans over the basin and the nightdress swings open. Maitland is unhappy. How can a woman be so tired? Doesn’t have to work. What’s she on about? She sees into his skull.
‘Don’t you realize,’ she hisses around the half-open door, ‘that I’m exhausted? That I’m drained? All my energy goes into this baby, our baby, and you can’t hold off for a fuck! You’re amazing.’
The door bangs shut. She’s kicked it. She mutters angrily, Why is he always watching? My body is my body. Now Lucy’s crying.
Maitland lies motionless in the wide bed. His gaze glides vacantly about the room, measuring widths in relation to each other. There is a certain built-in harmony. When you’ve built the house yourself, your gaze can’t let go the proportions of things, the juxtaposition. Draw a line, put that window there. With a few mates in to help, raising the frame’s easy. Love that smell of wood. Hours rubbing lanolin into the hands each night, slowly, like a meditation. Sarah used to call it Doing a Lady MacBeth. Will this little hand never be smooth? Where’s her humour gone? I thought everything was okay. Come home from hospital, everything’s fine. I know she’s sore. I keep away. I count six weeks. Give it two months. I keep away.
Now, Sarah sits in the kitchen with Lucy. The door of the wood stove hangs open, the fire warming her, warming them both. Maitland stands at the window, looking across the hills. Sunrise by seven. Cold enough for a heart-starter.
‘That’s a filthy drink,’ she observes from her corner.
He ignores what she has to say about the mug of muscat. She says it often, her nose wrinkling. He got to like it years ago on a camping trip. Damn’ cold in the mountains. Mist like potato soup, no way to get warm except get up. Dingos calling, out in the fog. They can’t see either. Mate hands me a mug and says Here y’are, get this into you! The tin mug’s full. Warms the guts. Warms the heart.
Early sun touches dew on the grass by the path to the shed, lights up water splashed across the concrete floor. A horse snorts, blowing misty clouds. Dog on his chain by the tank curls tighter, one ear pricked for the sound of the back door opening. Out there milking, leaning his head into the cow’s warm flank, Maitland watches his hands streaming the milk into the bucket and thinks of the woman by the kitchen fire. Life’s simple for you, Maybellene, he tells the cow, as she stands stolidly, chewing her cud in a clockwise fashion.
While she finishes feeding the baby, Maitland brings in the milk from the brown cow, strains it into jugs and scalds the bucket. The woman watches this clanking of steel. Her husband’s back is to her, showing holes in the elbow of each sleeve, with crinkled yarn where it’s pulled. His legs look bowed or maybe it’s just the skinny legs of his jeans. She has made tea and the rolled oats porridge soaked overnight in milk and left at the back of the fuel stove, is perfectly cooked. When Sarah returns to the kitchen from changing a nappy, he has already gone.
Peace, she thinks. He needs me too much. I haven’t that much to give. Not now. Later. Through the window, she sees him striding away, Dog bouncing beside him.
Maitland is going to check the cattle. Today the calves must be separated from their mothers. He has studied all this in his livestock management book, before they left the city. Before buying the block. Excited to be tree-changers.
Maitland catches the horse easily, spreads the checked wool blanket on the curving back and fastens girth and circingle. The straps and buckles are familiar now. Cattle look good, Maitland muses, pausing at the fence, gazing, counting. Better move them out of that paddock, now. Something about paspalum this time of year. Leaning on the pommel, he appraises them. He sees himself in cocked felt Akubra, handsome, likeable. Lonely. Maitland has his hand in his pocket, around the neck of a flask. Just a suck. Helps the time go by. Do the right thing then, and toss it down the sink. You know how it upsets her. Ah, Sarah.
A thin little childish song comes from his lips, Lavender’s blue, diddle diddle, rosemary’s green, when I am king, diddle diddle, you shall be queen….
He musters the cattle, pushes them into the yard behind the shed. They’re a fine mob. From there, it’s easy to draft calves from cows. Poor Maybellene, you too. I’m sorry. Swing the gate. Cows one side. Calves the other. Mooing. Calling. Push ’em up, Dog!
The calves huddle together, big calves now and time to be sold. The cows will call for several days, then forget. The bull will help them forget. Maybellene has to stay around the house, as milker.
He spends the morning quietly pushing the cows across to a paddock some distance from where he leaves their calves. Between them and fenced off with four-strand barb is limestone country, full of rocks, trees and wild grass covering secret hollows. Where the trunk and branches of an old tree angle and arch, there is a wide, deep hole. Lizards and spiders live there among little pockets of ferns anchored to the walls before the rock drops smoothly to the bottom, with scattered tree debris and bones of small fallen animals.
Maitland rides towards home, sees the white squares hanging in two scooping lines behind the house. While he watches, they are gathered and he enters the house to find Sarah folding all the washing, nappies last. He kisses her cheek and runs water into the kettle. Where he sets it on the stove the drops spit and pop on the hot iron. He opens the fire door to push in another log, but she says, ‘No, I want the fire slow, I’m cooking a roast.’ He squats there, feeling the fire’s warmth on his face. The skin on his mouth is chapped with a little crack forming and dried blood.
Poor lips, Sarah thinks. Hair like silk. The stuff on fresh corn, under the husk. He looks tired. But she doesn’t touch him.
‘Thanks.’ He pours her a cup of weak black tea and a strong one for himself. Slugs it with a dash from the flask. Hmm. It’s been a big day and his body feels weary folded into an easy chair. He crosses his feet, stretches.
‘Yuk,’ Sarah says. ‘Look what you’ve brought into the house.’
All along his trouser legs are small black specks of ergot from the paspalum. The field will darken day by day with a gradual attrition of colour: light to dark. Green to grey. Should check the book, see what it’s about. The cattle have called during the night, waking him once. I’ll get up early, he thinks, check ’em out. And he slides deeper into sleep.
In the night, a fence falls.
In the night, the woman rises from her warm, her snug bed. Her toes pushed into slippers, she stokes the kitchen fire, sits curled over the baby’s turned cheek. Snoozes peacefully. How the baby grows, how she is blooming. So beautiful, this little thing, my own one. Mine. Back in her bed, she sleeps, her knuckled back like a shield.
Maitland kicks his way out the gauze door and treads cold-footed into the early day, milk bucket swinging, knocking against his knee. Why is she like this? It isn’t me. It’s her. Selfish bitch.
Maybellene is not waiting where he locked her last night in the small house-paddock by the shed. Dammit, Maitland curses. I suppose she’s wandered off to find her fucking calf. There she is, beyond the broken wire fence, up and away towards the sloping limestone ridge.
He walks across the thick-grassed paddock, paspalum bending, applying its stickiness to trousers and socks. Thigh high. Belly high on a beast. Dammit, he sighs again. How did she get in there? The cow swings her head to watch Maitland wading towards her. There is a tremble in her limbs; a line of drool drips, hangs, drops from her jaw.
Maitland takes all afternoon to haul up the few strands of fence with the heavy wire-strainer. His mind feels fogged; his discontent sits in his gut.
‘Why?’ He asks Sarah again that evening. ‘Why are you like this? I’m locked out. It’s you and Lucy. Lucy and you. Why don’t you touch me, even?’
Sarah’s face wears a glazed look. Her eyes gaze into the distance, through him. He does not realize this is her defence. ‘I have no strength,’ she explains. ‘I keep telling you. I can only look after Lucy. You’re an adult, surely . . .’
‘I have needs, too.’
‘Between your legs!’ She yells, suddenly angry. ‘You’re all drink and dick.’
‘No, Maitland says. ‘It’s not like that.’ But Sarah has gone to her room, slamming doors.
Fuck you, Sarah. Anger and defeat compress his lips and Maitland’s hands fist deep into his gritty pockets.
For a while, the cows had bunched against the fence, walking its length. Now they are quiet in their safe paddock on the far side of the uncertain ridge.
Maitland rides across to check, paspalum covers the horse’s flanks and legs with its dark ergot, making the dog bounce and leap, the small black specks sticking to its fur. And finds Maybellene deep in the darkly seeded paddock. ‘Cheers Maybellene,’ he grins, raising his flask to her. ‘You’re not looking for your bloody calf, are you? You’re into this stuff.’ And he waves his arm, its arc encompassing the field. Maybellene, nodding, rocks on unsteady legs.
That evening, just before dark, he finds the house-paddock empty again. Can she die of it? Should’ve read the book.
He can see Maybellene up on the ridge like a great bone-angled statue, silhouetted against the sky, close by the ancient tree. ‘Don’t go there, you crazy cow… go back. Maybellene!’ And Maitland half runs, half scrambles across the uneven ground, trips and hauls himself up again, flailing to keep his balance in this drunken race. Baffled at his erratic progress towards her, Maybellene swings her dull head, loses her footing, props sideways, vanishes.
‘Jesus!’ Maitland’s boot catches the top of a secret stone and he hurtles forward, clutching at nothing.
From where he is lying, Maitland can see a grey triangle of sky, latticed with branches and leaves of the gnarly tree. From the colour of the sky, he thinks it is morning. Or evening? His head aches from the impact. Beneath his chilled fingers, he encounters rock and twiggy dirt, and then softness, warmth and a heavy breathing. Oh, God. The word sighs from his lips. Oh, Maybellene. And he remembers. He has slithered bumped dropped somehow to the bottom of this hole, where he lies on his back beside a stunned cow.
Minutely, he flexes his body. Thighs. Toes. Shoulders and arms. Everything works. His fingers seek the soreness on his head and he sees a smear of blood, feels the dampness in his hair. Passing giddiness sweeps his vision into odd angles that he cannot shake away. Kneeling, he strokes the cow, runs ignorant hands over her body, across the wide curved ribs beneath the satiny skin and along the strong and knocky legs. But Maybellene lies there.
‘You’ll be all right,’ he tells the cow, and at the sound of his voice, she tries to rise, but falls back again, a deep, fathomless noise sounding in her throat.
In the almost-dark, he edges around the wall, ripping his nails on useless cracks and clefts. He reaches as high as he can but there’s nothing to grip and the tiny ledges where he might have put a boot tip, are too tiny. He needs a rope, but such things are far away, down in the shed near the house where the woman sits alone by a cradle.
A smile softens her lips, smooths her frown, as she tucks the shawl around her small likeness. Snoozes.
Lavender’s blue, diddle diddle, rosemary’s green, when I am king, diddle diddle, you shall be queen….
* * *
© Julia Osborne
This story appeared in Regime Magazine, vol.01, published by Regime Books, 2012
Note: Cattle grazing on ergot infested paspalum risk developing hallucinations / staggers