The Memory Bones
“Don’t be afraid, Geraldine,” she said to me.
On land she had a lumbering style, yet her movements could still be delicate. Broad-hipped and big-eyed, she had come, in later life, to seem oddly like her jut-boned cows. With two quick steps her knees were gone, then she lowered the rest of her body, her swimming mouth forming long before her torso felt the keen slap of water, unexpectedly cold. I wasn’t sure whether the mimed ‘ooh’ of her lips signalled delight or disgust but she swam into the centre with easy movements, her arms pushing out rhythmically, her chin lifted high. She kept her sunhat on, tied down with strips from an old apron. The years of isolation had made my grandmother thrifty. As she swam away, the long ribbons trailed behind her like tame, floral eels.
The dam seemed vast but it was the smallest on the property, in the ‘200’ paddock, close to the house. Two hundred acres of low blanched hills, tinted brown and dusty green. Walled by heat, static as a painting. The French woman who came every Wednesday for cream and jars of relish would turn her sorrowing European eyes towards the bush.
“It is all so much the same,” she would murmur, as if seeing it for the first time. “So faded.”
From the dam, we could not see the house, only its thread of wood-smoke lacing through the tallest of the trees. At the back of the old place the land dropped away sharply, past the dipping yards and down into a natural basin of clay and rock. Rain was never wasted here. It coursed along two slim gullies and pooled near a glade of bowing paperbarks. Years before, Mason, that patient old horse, shackled to what looked like a giant sugar scoop, had dragged great mounds of dirt up the slope and away. The water was deep, and permanent. Even in a hard summer, it never went dry. Its hugging wall of earth, and the drooping trees on the other side, cast broad arms of shade across the surface. If a sudden breeze lifted the tendrils from the water, it felt as if something other-worldly had stirred.
William, the oldest of the cousins, his shadow moustache mesmerising us all, had intoned in his half-man voice that the dam was bottomless. “Be careful,” he’d said, his square face looming over us. “You’ll never be seen again if you go down too far.”The water was almost black, and it looked thick, as if you could catch it up and hold it in your hand like a curiosity.
My grandmother’s wrapped head bobbed on the surface. I was squatted on a flat rock worrying about snakes. The last of the strong afternoon sun was sliding a burning finger along the parting of my hair. Soon, I would have to join her. Perhaps there was a snake beneath this rock, tilting its awful Martian head, listening, waiting. I was always worried about snakes, even at home, scared of what might be knotted into the old fig, the compost heap, the unreached end of my bed.
A little tide lapped heavily at my toes. I wondered what made the water so dark? Through the trees, a mob of cattle watched us. Without movement or expression, one animal lifted its tail in a single, hydraulic arc. Manure dropped to the ground with a loud splat. From my rocky perch above the water, the colour looked suspiciously similar.
She was calling me, sweeping her arms back and forward. She looked a little cold. I wanted to ask her whether she was treading water or just keeping warm? I wanted to know how deep it was. There was no choice. I had to go in. She was only swimming here to keep me happy.
I wasn’t prepared for the bottom. My leg snapped upwards in horror. Not, after all, an infinite drowning pool, but hideous all the same. Not solid, not jagged on town-soft feet, but thick and spongy, almost warm. Like walking on a giant tongue. Better to swim, better to keep feet clear of what might lurk beneath this opaque water.
My navy one-piece seemed flimsy armour. When I had modelled it for my mother, her mouth gently compressed, her eyes unreadable, the pin-spots and little cut-outs on the sides seemed to say stylish in town or country. Grown up. But on that rock I’d seen small circles of chicken skin through the peep-holes. A creature could get in there, wrap itself around me, pull me down to the unspeakable depths. This much I knew: you needed special togs for farms.
Today, we were the only two in the world. The men were long gone, moving out on horseback, looking distracted and important, off to check fences and move stock. The morning’s housework was done. Great sails of washing flapped on the line. The dinner joint sat ready for the oven, daubed in lard and a thick dusting of black pepper, a veil of muslin draped across it like a bride. The old dog watching it with his yellow eyes would not hear the riders returning for many hours. It was a delicious, still time. Our time. We talked and sipped tea in pretty cups. Sometimes, I’d lie in the sleepout, thumbing through Reader’s Digests, shelved in their dozens behind an oil-cloth curtain. The afternoon sun shone through the window’s brain-patterned glass, patching the chenille bedspread with stretched squares of pink and green.
“Would you like to go for a swim?” she’d said, and I must have stared, because she made her tiny, musical chuckle in her throat. “It won’t exactly be what you’re used to, but it will be nice. I used to like swimming when I was your age.”
We’d packed some sandwiches and lemon slice in dented tin boxes and walked together through the spiky grass. She chatted and asked me questions, her head turning occasionally towards the grey spire of mountain at the furthest edge of the property, where the men had gone.
There was a gunshot. One. We both jumped. Silence, then a single high-pitched whoop carried across the valley like a spear of sound. Her mouth shrank in disgust.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Just the Courtneys.”
Beyond a thick wall of trees, a second trail of smoke rose in the distance. Neighbours. It came as a shock that there was anyone else nearby.
“Just ignore it,” my grandmother said.
We walked on. I kept my head down, watching for a streak of brown or killer black, each foot lowered with infinite care, wary as a tightrope walker.
It was quiet at the dam. Just the sounds of the bush and the peaceful lap of water against the rocks. I’d finally pushed off and was swimming out towards her, feet well clear of the sucking clay.
“We have to get back,” she called from the centre, her voice strangely tight.
I thought she was annoyed at waiting so long for me to get in. For a moment we faced each other, white necks bared to the syrupy water. She looked at me, distracted.
“Your scalp is starting to burn. I should have made you bring your hat. Come on, we need to go.”
With a few deft strokes she was at the edge, thin cords of water winding around her legs as she pulled herself out. She was packing up the picnic basket, the enamel mugs clanging on her hooked fingers like dissonant bells.
“Could we come again another day?” I asked. I was confused, trying to interpret her sudden haste. It was so hard with adults, especially the old ones. So tiring.
Her face emerged from inside her heavy cotton shirt, dark patches already blooming on her chest. Her lips ran straight across in a line. “We’ll see,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“Did you think there might be snakes in the water, Grandma? Is that why we had to get out?”
She turned her head towards me. She was suddenly very tall, like a horse rearing.
“You know, Geraldine.” Her voice was high. I could hear the trace of Scots. “You know, I get a bit sick of all your silly little fears at times. They really can seem quite, well, quite childish.”
Childish. It flashed out, bit into me, piercing, like a whip. Like a snake. She had never spoken to me like this. We had proper chats. She’d asked me what I thought of her new dress, whether I liked the colour, which was green. My favourite. I watched the cows through the trees. They looked back at me, staring and chewing.
She gathered the last of the things, rearranged the brim of her dripping hat, and stood waiting. We walked back to the house in silence, the basket knocking between us, my eyes full and stinging. I kept my head down, but the ground blurred up at me.
“We might go into town tomorrow,” she said at last. The dog was barking on the verandah. “Would you like that?”
I was old enough to know that this was apology, offered once, wrapped in thin paper. “Yes. Town would be nice. I’d like that.” My voice sounded very small. Childish.
“We’ll go tomorrow, then,” she said to me, softly. She was my grandmother once more. But she kept looking ahead, her jaw clamped, her sensible black shoes crunching hard on the grass.
We never swam there again. By the next school holidays, she was a widow. On a bright morning in a snap-cold winter, men in dust coats carried furniture and farm equipment into the yard. The sideboard teetered down the stairs, its mysterious drawers emptied and removed, its gap-toothed, brown face looking huge and defeated. An auctioneer in a greasy hat hammered his way through forty years until only the dry land, with its rough fences and its thirsty trees, remained. By the next day, two men in clean boots patted each other’s suede shoulders and levelled a proprietorial eye along the distant line of gums.
Strange how quickly a life can be shut down, close like a door, or a book. She bought a small house on the edge of town in a bewildered flurry of loss. The old milk jug, looking suddenly shabby, filled the redundant space for the microwave. The bathroom was papered in black and white, an etching of a bare-breasted Spanish woman, repeating herself, buxomly, up the walls. Motes of sticky red earth walked into every corner, blazoned themselves across a once-hopeful cream carpet. With her cows gone, and the dry brown hill that rises beyond the verandah lost, now, to strangers, her world shrank to church and pot-plants, and muffled disapproval of the street’s single mother. She had every tree on the block cut down, still afraid of the bushfire that had once roared across the farm and loomed like an ogre at the foot of the stairs.
The new house contracted against us. There could no longer be whole families together, no flat-voiced children giving concerts, no late card-games for the adults, the generator humming into the empty night, laughter trailing into the rooms like a friendly ghost.
When I came again, I travelled alone, on the bus, just as I had on that first unaccompanied trip. This time, a cane field stretched into the horizon. Behind a half-shrugging hill, a highway pulsed. In the muggy air, my grandmother’s house drooped beside its somnolent neighbours.
We walked the town’s main street, sheltered by the cool deep of the shops’ overhead verandahs.
“Whose child is this?” they’d ask my grandmother in every store, sliding a mint across the age-smoothed counters, or poking in their cash registers for a spare coin to pass to me.
“This is one of Cynthia’s,” my grandmother would say.
“Geraldine,” I’d tell them, scooping up the sweets and the money.
At night, we watched television. We lifted our heads to survey any car that passed by. The frayed bitumen crackled under the slow-turning wheels, each car moving warily, as if it hadn’t meant to come this way at all.
The good dog, which always kept to the lino, waited until the lights were out before taking up his usual position, stretched like a tired man the full length of the sofa.
Who can say when the end begins? For her, it began with a poem. Except for the vicious pinch of new shoes, or the flare of raw terror as a parent retreats, you shouldn’t remember your first day of school. You shouldn’t be able to recite the first rhyme that you ever learned, word for word, almost eight decades later. You shouldn’t be able to recall the names of your classmates: the girl who lost her father, or mean Alice Simpson with her tight, red plaits. This is not memory; this is malfunction. This is a hand that burrows deep in a mind, dredging up lost and useless things, letting today or yesterday fall through its fingers and spiral to the ground like dust. This is the lost reason for pills, or keys. It is the forgotten slopes of a farm left behind. It is the names of grandchildren.
“Do you remember swimming in the ‘200’ paddock?” she said to me. The question is so clear and unexpected that my hand jumps from the table in fright, as if a glass has spilled. “I never liked swimming there,” she said.
I thought of the half-solid water, the prod of cold through my swimsuit, the membrane clay moving underfoot. I told her I felt the same.
“I was afraid of snakes,” I said. “I thought there might be a snake in the water.” A barb of memory curved towards me like a tiny scythe. Childish. I was afraid of that too.
She didn’t seem to hear me.
“I always felt strange being there,” she said, quietly. “But when you children were small it was nice for you to swim. And then the grandchildren, too, of course. They had so much in the city. It was all I could offer. I couldn’t take them to the better waterholes; they were too far into the bush. Too dangerous on my own with little ones.”
I was going to correct her. Remind her, once again. She’d been confusing my name with my mother’s for some time now. Quite regularly, she really seemed to believe that I was Cynthia. But she had not spoken of the farm for over a year. I’d thought she’d forgotten it completely. So I didn’t offer my usual prompt of “It’s Geraldine, Grandma.” Instead, feeling a vague sense of unease, I moved to the upholstered chair facing hers, and waited.
“He poisoned them, you know,” she said.
I did not dare to make a sound. Did not dare slide a word in against the pin-prick of light. She wasn’t looking at me, just speaking into the room, into the hot stillness.
“Reg Courtney. Across at Witney Station. Oh, you never liked him, Cynthia. Even as a toddler you were afraid of him. You used to run under my skirt, eyes bulging, and say, ‘The big man is here.’”
I imagined my mother as a young child, watching the neighbour crossing the paddock on his enormous brown horse. She’d told me about him herself. A cruel man, she’d said. Treated his animals badly. Left the cattle too long without water.
My grandmother was not looking at me. She was staring at the wall, speaking as if she were reading the words projected there on the flat beige.
“There was a group of aborigines on the land,” she said. “We’d seen them quite a few times over the years. Oh, I got an awful fright the first time I saw them, moving through the trees near Sampson’s Gully. They didn’t bother us. Your father always felt it was best to leave them alone, let them get on with it in their own way. But he was unusual. There was a lot of hatred, and when animals went missing or anything at all went wrong, well, it was easier to blame them. The farmers enjoyed hating them. It banded them together. Stopped them fighting each other.”
Her face didn’t turn. She watched the wall as if clues were forming there, letter by letter.
“Reg Courtney came across late one afternoon. He didn’t get off his horse, just pulled up near us. Your father and I were beside the front steps. We’d just got home from town. You’d run up to the verandah, Cynthia, as soon as you saw his horse coming. Reg was chuckling to himself. I wondered whether he’d been drinking. He told us that some of the aborigines had come around to his place. I won’t repeat what he called them. Said they’d been hanging about near the holding yards. They’d taken to making damper and they wanted some flour. We all just stood there, looking up at him on the horse. Wondering why he’d come. Wishing he’d go.”
“He had a dirty, rolled cigarette burning in one hand. The flame was almost touching his skin. The afternoon was so still; all we could hear was the horse breathing and that awful man sniggering. I couldn’t take my eyes off the cigarette. Would he feel it, I wondered, when it touched his skin? Or would it burn straight through?”
“He bent down towards your father, who pulled himself up very straight. Furious.
My grandmother shifted in her chair, hunching her shoulders forward as if the air had suddenly cooled. “At last he told us what he was talking about. ‘I gave them some flour, alright,’ he said, and he leaned right out of the saddle towards us. The leather creaked loudly, made a sound like a small animal. The long stalk of ash fell into the dust without losing its shape. I remember looking down at the little tube of grey lying there.”
“‘Arsenic flour.’ That’s what he said. It was almost in a whisper. Slow, like he enjoyed saying it. Then he threw down the last of the cigarette, turned his horse without another word, and galloped away. Your father was so upset, Cynthia.”
Outside my grandmother’s window, a small girl on a rusty bike leaned against the mailbox and stared in at us with a pink, defiant face.
“We tried to find them,” my grandmother went on, turning her head towards the street, not noticing the girl. “Without saying a word, your father rode out early the next morning. He thought he might be able to get to them in time. Save them. He found nothing.”
My grandmother looked straight at me and frowned hard, momentarily surprised and irritated to find that I was not her daughter. Her lips pressed in confusion. She smoothed the bodice of her dress with her hands, traced her bottom lip with a tentative finger as if checking that it was still there. She drew in a short, loud breath, like a single sob.
“We never saw them again. We wanted to tell the police but we were afraid of the Courtneys. Ever since that row over the new fences. You know, we found one of our yearlings, mutilated, lying dead near our front gate. They could have made life very hard for us.”
Even I knew about the Courtneys. They kept grudges for generations. Old Reg was still alive, walking with two sticks and an unbowed grimace. Except for an exiled son, never mentioned again, the extended clan still lived at Witney Station, farming, fighting, and breeding hard.
The wooden clock from the dining room, perched, now, on a narrow shelf like the carapace of a rare turtle, sounded the hour, booming against the narrow walls. Not registering the sound, my grandmother continued to watch the flat space in front of her, as if its blankness gave her clarity, or comfort.
“Once, at a sale yard,” she went on, her voice steady, “Reg Courtney leaned across the fence and told your father that he’d left him a present on the land. At first we thought he meant that poor beast. Your father wouldn’t answer; wouldn’t speak a word to him.”
“‘Nice and close,’ Reg had said. ‘Just to keep things friendly. Like neighbours.’ He’d touched his hat and walked away.”
“Your father didn’t tell me for a long time. Only when he was sick himself. He wanted to say it before he died. He looked for the bones, I know he did. I looked for them, too. There were a few times, before he was really ill, when we were out checking the bores. We’d catch each other’s eyes as we picked through the bush. We were always searching for them. We never found anything. Could never prove anything. They were just gone.”
She sat for a long time. I didn’t think she would say any more but, with a lift of her chin, she went on.
“One day, oh, many years later, not long before your poor father died, I was swimming at the ‘200.’ The water was quite shallow after that very hot summer. I don’t think the level had ever been so low. I was out near the middle, waiting for one of you. Goodness, that water was so cold. For the first time that I could ever remember, I found that my feet could touch the bottom at the centre. I was pushing off from the clay, which was always very soft and muddy. That’s what made the water so dark. I thought I felt something underfoot. Smooth and round. Bone. Not an animal. I’d know an animal. Then I knew what it was. At last I knew. The flash of it. It was like lightning striking the water. I suddenly remembered what Reg Courtney had said, all those years before. ‘Nice and close. Like neighbours.’ I was sure then, where they were.”
Her voice was rising, words beginning to tumble.
“I couldn’t get out fast enough but I had to get the children out. No. It was just one. Just one child. It was one of yours, Cynthia. It was, I think, it was. . . it was the oldest one.”
Her voice was curling into itself, following memory into its coiled depths. The name, my name, the memory of that day, was falling away. Sinking.
“I was swimming back. It was unbearable. I felt as if I were being pulled under. I had to get out. I was telling the children to get out. Who was it? Oh, it was Michael. Yes. Just the one child. Yes, I think it was Michael with me.”
There was no Michael, save for an infant brother of her own, who’d died of diphtheria just after she was born. The door was closing.
“What did you feel at the dam, Grandma? What was in the water?”
She turned to look at me, her head tilted in confusion. Her eyes scanned the room and drifted across the mean apron of concrete just beyond the windows. At the edge of the road, the red dirt was crayon bright after the rain.
“Look at that soil,” she said. “It’s uncanny, that colour. Oh, I know it’s good for crops and everything but, well, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
She crossed her arms. Sat back in the chair as if suddenly overcome with fatigue.
“The water, Grandma?”
“Water? What water?” She looked straight at me for a long time, her eyes feeling their way around my face. She smiled. She was still quite beautiful, the proud way her head turned.
“Oh, Geraldine. I haven’t made you any tea. You must have been waiting for ages. Did I nod off? Was it tea you wanted? Is that what you said you like?”
She was rising. Still strong-backed. Still a trace of the champion swimmer she had been. She lifted her big body from the chair. Just for a moment, she moved slightly to the left and right, as if not entirely sure where the kitchen lay. Then, with a small judder of recognition, she walked towards the back of the house with her rolling step.
“You just stay there and I’ll do it,” she called. She was calm now, her mind washed clear. In a lot of ways, she seemed happy. “You’ve been looking after me your whole visit, dear. Just relax. I’m sure I have coffee here somewhere.” Cupboard doors were opening and shutting, opening and shutting. “Let me see. Yes, here’s some tea. You were talking about swimming. I was a very good swimmer at school. There’s a big silver cup on the sideboard. Do you see it? That’s mine. I’ll be with you in a moment, Geraldine. And don’t worry about that dog. He’s a good fellow. He never comes onto the carpet.”