It came like a river rising quietly across the plain, trickling into dry cracks in the earth, lapping against farm buildings, washing the steps of shops in country towns. And like the scudding rain, it prickled people’s eyes, penetrated their clothes, their fingers encountered it on everything they touched.
But it was not rain. It was red dust.
Westerly winds had been sweeping the inland for months. Great spreads of farmland were rendered useless by the interminable drought. People were leaving their properties – leaving their houses vacant, paddocks empty, gates hanging open.
Isolated towns were abandoned and roads ran thick with trucks and cars driving towards the coast. Although the dust would follow. There was no stopping it. No water remained in the silted rivers; the spinifex they tried to plant – yes, nail to the ground – eroded and blew away, so that they were pursued by tumbling roly poly and umbrella grass. Spiked thistles and sharp hooked burrs stuck to their hair and clothing, burrowing into woollen sweaters and bringing points of blood to picking fingers. They retreated, watching from behind windows as dusty bunches of saltbush lodged in gardens.
Drifting shifting continent – repaying the people for the axe, the saw, the mattock, the millions of thoughtless cloven hoofs. Wildlife had vanished long ago as the dust insidiously filtered, settled and finally choked.
And the inland died. Absolutely. All that remained were skeletons of broken trees until the dunes covered them.
The farmer wiped the collected dust from his mouth and looked at his wife and child.
‘No money to go,’ he said in a voice flattened by the weather. ‘No money to stay. There’s water in the tank for two weeks maybe.’
His mind was weary with decisions. Perhaps it would rain before they had to give up. They could not hear the radio or television, because the dust… Ah, the dust. He spat and his wife flinched, gritting her teeth.
‘Why go on?’ she asked. ‘We’re finished. We should go to the coast too.’
‘But it has to break soon.’
‘By then we’ll have nothing.’
‘We’ve nothing now.’
‘Then we may as well stay. Tomorrow must be better.’ She spoke, pushing hope into her voice from her despondent heart. ‘I’ll seal the windows with more newspaper, fill the cracks around the doors… and we’ve still got our vegetables and chickens.’
‘I can fetch some water from the town pump,’ the farmer replied.
When he ventured there, driving his faded Dodge truck with the empty water tank, he found the town deserted. Not a dog remained. Overnight, people had packed their belongings and fled. Powder dust swirled beneath the wheels and discarded papers rose like futile kites on sudden gusts. Grasses bowled along the street.
The pump failed. He saw the pipe going down into the horrible bog, already cracking dry. Pulling his coat tighter about his body, he ground his fists into the pockets, resolving that they too should leave, then ploughed the difficult road back to his farm.
Dust drifted deeper across the road while they packed the truck. The wheels slipped, spinning storms of red into her eyes as the woman pushed dried sticks of acacia into the tracks.
‘Too late,’ her husband sighed. ‘We’ve left it too late. It’s impossible to walk so far.’
He had already hunted his horse. He had shown it the open road, smacked its rump and told it Get Out. Find some grass, find some water. Tears had stood in his eyes as at first the horse refused to go. But he’d cried, Go, for God’s sake! and belted it and thrown stones until the horse loped off in a reluctant canter.
Long ago he had opened the gates for his remaining sheep to wander, shooting the weak ones and burning their frail bodies.
The wife continued to sweep; mopping, polishing and berating the dust covering their possessions. She drew a rag across the table and immediately it resumed its talcum.
They wiped their plates clean before each meal, yet the food was eternal grit in their mouths.
‘If only we’d phoned for help while it was still working,’ she began.
The westerly caught at the house, buffeting it, piling dust along the veranda boards. Each day the farmer shovelled it away from the door, then looked hopefully for signs of change. But it was always the same: umber sky blending with horizon – he could not see the hills – no moon at night, no stars. Only the whistling, humming wind.
They rationed water from the tank and both of them wept one day when their child left the tap trickling and water wasted down the sink. Seeing their tears, the little boy was afraid.
Chickens scratched about searching for food. They became too hungry and there were no more eggs and finally no more chickens.
The woman continued foraging for vegetables in the dusty yard. They could no longer water them and gradually they ate all but a few small winter carrots. She knelt to scrabble in the earth, but could not find them without their wilted tops. She dug with a spade yet could not find them.
It seemed the three people were alone in their wind song world. The population clustered on the coast, waiting for the red blanket to reach them. They fought it with water hauled from the sea; fought from this last retreat so that tempers became brittle and they grew more selfish. They forgot all but their narrow existence, living close to the edge of bitterness.
Then the mother screamed. A scream muffled by the heavy air, it bounded from her throat and beat at the walls.
‘He’s gone!’ she cried. Their child had disappeared to play in the dust hills. To sit there like a child at the beach, filtering it through fingers, building castles, tunnels; digging holes that were suddenly covered by the tide. But a small avalanche flooded his own rabbit hole; it overwhelmed him with his cry choking as dust filled his throat. His distraught parents waded in the yard where tops of fence posts poked, showing the perimeter.
‘I told him Stay Inside!’ She howled like a dog, snatching great handfuls of drift, dust pouring into her clothes. Shovelling, scraping to find a face, a leg, before it was too late. And the father dug until his wife stood to say, ‘What’s the use? He’s dead. He’s buried.’ She extended her hands. Mindless, she said, ‘I found the carrots.’
It did not rain the next day, nor that week.
They leaned on the table, dust about their feet, too tired to eat their meagre food, the water silent in the tap. There was no more saltbush bowling past the window.
The country had blown away.
With a look of great tenderness, the husband took his wife by the arm. ‘Come,’ he whispered. ‘Let’s lie down together on our bed.’
She nodded, resting her cheek against his rough wool shirt.
In the morning, he opened his blighted eyes but he could see nothing. Dust had heaped around the house, covering windows, seeping beneath the doors regardless of paper stuffed in cracks. It penetrated his castle, his life, his complete being.
He lay in the darkness of the doomed room listening for his wife’s gentle breath.
He leaned to touch, to kiss, but found her soft open mouth was stopped with dust. And her eyes. Her hair spread like a dune across the pillow beneath his fingers.
* * *
© Julia Osborne
Some reader comments…
Comment from R.C. Coffs Harbour, NSW. 2013 :
I have read your story The Burial several times as I just love how you took me into the dust and the misery and the pain – I was ready to go to bed with the couple caught in the dust storm. Have you experienced such things? It seems as though you must surely have done so. How horrid is the struggle most times for those out in the arid west.
U3A in Stonnington, Victoria, studied The Burial in a 2012 workshop. At my request, moderator B.B sent me some students’ comments:
- Tragic: hope when it was hopeless; desecration of the land and all living things. Is it an allegory about what happens if we continue to rape our earth/land?
- Overwhelming. It makes you cry just by reading. T.S.
- Magnificent picture of a catastrophic situation.
- Very sad – very believable in Australia, a harsh unforgiving land. Vivid description of a tragedy.
- The most powerful element of this story is the creation of an atmosphere, interspersed with hope, then loss.
- Perhaps The Burial is a metaphor for what we have done to our country in terms of de-forestation, incorrect livestock (sheep) etc.
- Magnificently described with use of a simple family.