Rosie first suspected something was different about her when she was seven years old in the winter just before her mother disappeared.
She always thought of her life in two parts, life with her mum and life afterwards. Her whole family spoke in the same shorthand—her father, her younger brother Oli who was now the same age she was on the day her mum left—they all referred to Before and After. It was too painful to be always calling her Mum, to referring to memories, so they talked of her sparsely and always with a lowering of the voice. If any of them needed to refer to her it was ‘Well that was where she kept it before you know so it might still be there’ and they all knew who the ‘she’ was and what the ‘before’ meant without having to painfully rasp out the word ‘mum’ and the gaping giant hole of hollowness that went with that word.
Rosie can only remember pieces from the day her mother disappeared and it frustrates her, these black holes in her memories of a day that changed her life forever. She can picture the week after the disappearance vividly, the constant questioning from the policeman with the lined face, how he tried to act friendly and that he was her best mate but she could sense his growing anger and clenched jaw frustration as the days went by and she failed to answer his questions.
‘But what did she say when she handed you Oliver? She must have said something?’ he would bite out.
She remembers the high-waisted jeans she had been wearing—her favourite with a violet and daisy embroidered on the front pocket. How she had loved those jeans. She remembers she had been walking the back goat trail that led to the wattle clearing—a favourite place of her mother’s to take a picnic. But no matter how hard she knocked herself with her closed fist—sometimes until she bruised underneath her hairline where no one could see—she couldn’t recall if her mother held her grandmother’s old wicker basket in her hand. But she must have because the basket was nowhere to be found in the days and years that followed. She catches glimpses of memories sometimes out of the corner of her eye—her mother weaving the winding goat track in front of her—Oliver wrapped in his muslin wrap and propped on her hip. Was it that day he gurgled and held chubby fists to the sun’s rays or was it another day all mixed up in her memories? Did her mother have on her long denim skirt mended up so much it had almost become a walking patchwork quilt? A square of poppy material covered the right side of her bottom that Rosie always laughed at and a long strip of green ran along the hem. But Mum adored that skirt and refused to throw it out despite the playful teasing from her father. ‘It’s more patches than skirt love!’ he would laugh as she sewed yet another patch on by the firelight.
What Rosie will always remember is the cooling of the rock against her back as she tucked herself further into the crevasse, the way her mother’s breath had suddenly quickened and how she had stopped so suddenly in her meanderings, Rosie had run into her legs and how she had pushed Rosie in the crevasse.
Rosie remembers her eyes had looked different—frightened?—as she handed Oli to Rosie.
‘Shhhh,’ she had placed her finger on her lips. ‘Whatever you do don’t make a noise.’ Her eyes suddenly flashed sad or had that been Rosie’s imagination now filling in what had really happened, she had feathered her fingers over Oliver’s fuzzy hair and she lightly touched a finger to Rosie’s cheek then she turned, picked up her skirt and had run.
It was the shock of the running that had stayed Rosie and forced her into obedience and silence. She might have thought her mother was playing except for the fear on her face—and that run. In the outback, the searing heat, nothing was done at a running pace. The walking was slow and steady, the hand gestures languid and the talking kept to a minimum. But she will always remember the sudden turning of her mother, the gripping and lifting of her skirt, the heavy thud of her boots as she ran—like she was running for her life.
Rosie had stayed there as the sun tracked over the sky and into afternoon. Oliver fidgeted and grumbled and finally started crying. That was the other memory she had layered into her bones because that is how deep Oliver’s cries cut her that day. They started low then pitched higher and higher in intensity. It was ear-cracking and heart-stopping and ripped Rosie over and over to hear. She couldn’t believe he could cry for so many hours until she thought she would go mad. He was crying for his milk and his mother’s warmth and love and arms but she never came. She never came back and Oliver’s soul-wrenching cries that ricocheted through the vast plains of the farm seemed to echo the soundless call from Rosie’s aching heart. Where was she?
Rosie’s father had finally come looking for them around 3pm that day—confused that his wife and children were not home as they were every day when he returned from feeding the cows and watering the crops.
Rosie had felt a deep relief wash over her when she heard her father’s reassuring voice raised and calling ‘Kali, Rosie, Oli—where are you?’ Her dad could fix anything. Everything would be OK now. But as he took Oli from her aching arms his eyes told a different version of what was going to happen and she felt her unease escalate again. Now that Rosie was fourteen she realised he must have known nothing in the world would make his wife abandon her baby and daughter—nothing. So that must mean—what? She was in fear? Rosie and her father had since offered a million explanations but no answers were ever reached for the aching question. Where was her mother?
The following minutes from the first moments her -mother’s boot thuds echoed into silence blurred into hours which terrifyingly blurred into days. The first few days were the worst—Rosie was assailed by stabs of hope that lasted all her waking hours—that her mum would walk in the door now—or maybe now. But she never did.
This couldn’t be happening, surely this couldn’t be real, Rosie thought in an agonisingly endless loop. She would feel herself panting in sudden terror and panic then the next minute be sobbing in heaving and ugly cries. Her father would grip her in an almost painful hug and she could feel him shaking as he held back his own tears and confusion. Their nearest neighbour was a one-hour drive but that didn’t stop the farmers and families and even some shopkeepers from four hours away driving and visiting. It was a stream of people, of utes and cars and trucks arriving all hours of the days and then leaving. Warm cakes arrived and meals and fresh bread. Baskets of the famers’ produce layered the massive oak table—apples, eggs and lemons with the leaves still attached to their stalks. Their smells filled the house but the food pile continued to grow instead of diminishing as no one felt much like eating. She felt like her insides had been vacuumed out and she was fragile and hollow and would only be able to fill again when she saw her mother’s face. Some familiar faces grasped her hands and looked meaningfully into her eyes and Rosie felt a compelling giggle rise in her throat but she bit it back. She knew the sombre adults surrounding her would have been shocked if she burst out laughing. But her mother would have giggled at the tableau in their normal quiet and small farmhouse cottage. The guests sitting wordlessly, her husband flittering around and foisting cups of tea onto people who didn’t want them, Max sitting in his old rocking chair.
Max was her father’s best friend, an old bushman who had worked her father’s farm his whole life whenever the mood struck him. He had been born in one of the old cottages on their farm and his mother had worked at the farm as well—helping out with the cooking and planting. When she died Max had been just 22 and he stayed on. Rosie’s dad had legally made over the cottage to him when he turned 24 so that he would always have a home and somewhere to stay if he wanted but he couldn’t be contained by the walls of the cottage and had to go walkabout every so often when the energy took him. He would bowl up out of the blue, chuckling at his years-long joke of making Rosie’s father jump and scream as he sneaked up behind him.
After her mum disappeared Max helped her dad with the milking and bare necessities. It would have been cruel to have left the cows, their udders painful and swollen with milk—they didn’t stop producing because her mum wasn’t here. So even the very next day, eyes blurred with tiredness, her dad had pulled on his gumboots and set off to milk.
Max sat with his eyes glittering at the stupidity of social conventions—the words unspoken, the confusion of Rosie and Oli, the apparently vital thing that no screams and wails be heard, no rending and ripping of one’s own clothes or punching walls, putting your foot through the fly screen door, smashing the flowers in their china vases upon the ground with fury and blood-curling howls of grief and confusion and derangement. Rosie couldn’t bear the falseness of the adults, the doe-eyed stares, mummering voices, trite and useless sayings. Is this what disappearance and death looked like? Why didn’t adults say what they meant: cry, punch the walls and yell at the sky with fury? What was the freaking useless muted show about? She often fled outside in that week after her mum disappeared and she would find Max out there too—squatting on the ground, roll-up cigarette in his hand, leaning on the wall. The only moments of peace in those terrible stabbing weeks of grief for Rosie was when she squatted next to Max, back against the warm bricks of the house with his steadiness and calm. She would look out on
the dry dusty yard, the small garden her mother battled daily to keep alive of pansies and carrots, basil and tomatoes and at the empty rotary clothesline with the faded pegs. She would close her eyes, mimicking Max, and listen to him suck and exhale on his cigarette. After a few moments he would speak.
‘Ah Rosie. Rosie my love. You poor little girl. Your mumma loves you and Oli more than anything in the whole world. She would tell me. I’d see it when her eyes rested on you playin’ in the yard. I said to her once “Kali I can see you would grab a star and give it to that girl if you thought it would make her day glitter even a little more” and she said “No Max I would grab the whole damn universe to give to her if I could just to see her face” and she smiled at me—you know that goddamm smile your mumma has Rosie, that changes her face where she looks so happy that you just have to smile right back at her no matter what mood you’re in. She gave me that smile. I would give anything, anything to see that smile again and I know you would too.’
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
Rosie is a fourteen-year-old who lives with her father Leo and seven-year-old brother Oliver on a farm in NSW. When she was seven her mother Kali disappeared from Rosie’s life.
Rosie understands over the years that she has a deeper magical understanding of mother earth and that may be why her mum disappeared—they share the same magic. Max, her father’s best friend, mentors Rosie. Rosie leaves the farm for Australian wilderness in search of her mother. She faces many challenges. She becomes self-empowered. She finds her mother in the standing stones Max had found at the beginning. Her mother explains why she had to disappear.
Rebecca Poulson is the author of Killing Love, published in 2015 by Simon and Schuster and winner of four prizes and shortlisted to Top 3 for Ned Kelly award for True Crime at Melbourne Writers Festival. Her writing has appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Telegraph, NZ Herald, News.com and many magazines. She has been interviewed on TV and radio multiple times, and is a speaker and an ambassador for Our Watch and White Ribbon.
To contact the author email firstname.lastname@example.org