Kirk turned his slingshot over in his hand. ‘This thing is going to hurt, Justine.’
‘Really hurt,’ said Steve.
‘Don’t smile, or I’ll aim it for the hole.’
I closed my mouth. Some of the teeth were taking a long time to grow through the gum.
Kirk pulled the elastic strap tight. ‘You’ve got ten seconds. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . .’
I took off through the trees as the numbers faded behind me.
I ran beside the river, sometimes looking ahead, sometimes at the currents. Soon I heard Kirk and Steve following. We kept the same distances between us, not trying to run away, not trying to catch up. We knew where the branches came low and close to our faces, where the roots crossed the path like rope and where the fallen trunks tried to block the way. Kirk, Steve and me moved through the jungle like Pop and Sandy running from the Japs. Pop never knew what the war was for. Why a river of blood? Why so many boys? What was it flowed in the veins of those bastards?
We ran and ran—they were not the enemy and I was not the prey. The river ran beside us, muddy and high, eating at the sides.
‘Coming, Justine!’ Kirk called.
One day I’d have a boat ready. A raft of branches I’d weave together with Pop’s towrope. I’d hide it at the top of The Choke, in the trees that stood underwater.
I turned and saw Kirk closer behind me now. I ran faster. I felt a sting in the back of my knee.
‘Got you!’ Kirk shouted.
I turned and Kirk held up his slingshot. I kept running. I felt another sting on my leg. I screamed, and the galahs flew up out of the branches screeching and screaming at the same time as me. I turned again, and saw Kirk pick up another stone. I stopped, my face throbbing as I scraped up a handful of rocks and dirt. I ran at Kirk. ‘No!’ I shouted. ‘No!’ All the cockatoos shrieked and blasted from the branches in sprays of white. I threw my dirt and rocks at Kirk.
Kirk cried out, dropping his slingshot, hands to his eyes. I picked up another handful of rocks, as he stood spitting dirt, wiping it from his face. Then he turned and left the river trail, running through the trees to our hideouts. Steve followed and I was close behind.
They tore at the branches of my hideout. They pulled away my bark-and-leaf walls, my towel-and-branch roof, my chimney of twigs. I threw rocks and dirt at them, then I ran to Kirk’s hideout and kicked at the top of the log. The log fell away, breaking into pieces. Kirk threw me on the ground and sat on me. I kicked and bucked, pushing up and down, twisting my head from side to side so that I saw the sky in pieces, dirt to sky dirt to sky dirt to sky.
Steve held the blade of his pocketknife to my face. ‘Better close your mouth,’ he said. I spat in his face.
‘Ugh!’ He wiped his cheek and I pulled my arm out from under Kirk, knocking the knife from Steve’s hand. Steve tried to take hold of my ankles but I kicked my legs too fast for him to get a grip. Our faces were red and hot, our breath hard and fast as we fought and struggled against each other as if it was the same war Pop and Sandy fought. If you lost what was it flowed in your veins, for what reason?
Kirk pinned my arms under his knees; I could only wriggle like a worm under the weight of his body. I pushed and grunted against him.
‘Enough,’ said Kirk and suddenly, as fast as we started, we stopped. Kirk put his hands in the air. ‘Smoko,’ he said, climbing off and sitting beside me.
Steve let go of my ankles and looked for his knife in the leaves. The knife only had one small blade, eaten with rust, but Steve said Dad gave it to him. That the knife could kill. Steve carried it with him everywhere. I sat up and we shook dirt from our hair and faces and out from under our clothes. We pulled off our shoes and tipped out the stones. I lay beside Steve, his shoulder against mine.
Kirk stood, hands in his pockets, looking up. The red gums leaned towards each other, as if they wanted to touch, the same as the banks of the river at The Choke. Kirk, Steve and me were held by the trees and their branches in the shapes of heads, faces trapped inside, pressing to see through the bark. Our three worlds joined. Our mothers were different but we all had the same name—Lee.
Kirk walked into the triangle of our hideouts, where there was a ring of stones like the one around Pop’s fire. Steve and me followed. Kirk sat and pulled a wad of White Ox and a crumpled cigarette paper from his pocket. Steve and me sat too, watching as Kirk licked the shiny edge of the paper and rolled the tobacco into a cigarette. Stray pieces of tobacco stuck out each end, like a cigarette for a scarecrow. Kirk pulled a box of matches from his pocket. The cigarette glowed orange and Kirk coughed. He blew out the smoke and it billowed around his face. ‘Fuck,’ he said, coughing into the smoke. He passed it to Steve, who closed his eyes when the smoke went down, then blew it straight into the air in a stream, as if he had always been smoking and was good at it.
I said, ‘My turn.’
‘You’re too young,’ said Kirk.
‘No, I’m not.’
‘You’re only ten.’
‘How come Steve is allowed?’
‘Yeah,’ said Steve.
‘And you’re a girl.’
‘I can still smoke.’
‘No, you can’t,’ said Kirk. ‘And don’t tell Pop.’
I kicked at the dirt. But I didn’t want to smoke.
Kirk and Steve passed the cigarette between them until it was so low it burned Kirk’s fingers. ‘Ouch!’ He flicked it into the air, then stubbed it out in the dirt with his boot. I scraped more dirt over the top. ‘Cigarette cemetery,’ said Kirk.
We got up, walked down to the river and sat on the edge. We threw sticks as far as we could, then stones to sink the sticks. The Choke was where the river was at its thinnest, the banks like giant hands around a neck. After the rain the Murray couldn’t hold, and it flooded, so the trees stood underwater. They stayed living until The Choke dried out and you could see the black water stains left behind on the trunks. You could see the cod moving across the river bottom, slow enough to spear.
We each picked up a stick and aimed. Kirk said, ‘If we had Pop’s Mauser we could shoot one and bring it home.’
‘Cook it on Pop’s fire,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ said Steve and Kirk.
‘Eat it with egg,’ I said.
Kirk aimed his stick at the water. ‘Kapow,’ he said, jerking it back. ‘Sorry, fish.’
Steve raised his stick and did the same. ‘Sorry, kangaroo,’ he said. ‘Kapow.’
‘Sorry, Mr Fisherman!’ I said and shot my stick.
Kirk and Steve laughed. We threw our guns out across the water and watched them fight the surface, then sink. Kirk said, ‘How about we leave you here, Justine? We could tie you to a tree. We could winch your mouth open so an owl could make a nest.’
Steve said, ‘Yeah, how about it?’
I said, ‘Yeah, how about it?’
‘Maybe next time,’ said Kirk.
‘Yeah, maybe next time,’ I said.
Kirk looked at the sky. ‘Better get back.’ We walked to our hideouts. Kirk came over and helped pick up my biggest branches, propping them against the pole-tree. Steve threw bark across the branches and pulled the towel tight for the roof. He took his knife from his pocket and cut the living branches for my shelf and Kirk shaped the esky. From inside my hideout I saw the forest between the branches. While Kirk and Steve fixed their hideouts, I scraped up piles of rocks and dirt as ammunition.
Soon Kirk said, ‘Come on. Pop will be waiting.’ We stood and looked at our hideouts, at the ring of stones, at the trees and the sky. Then we walked slowly, away from the Murray, along the path back to Pop’s Three.
Pop’s house stood at the top of three acres that he bought when he came back from the war. He got a job at the mills where he cut trees into sleepers for the railway. I’d rather cut the bastards then lay ’em, he said. When Pop was a prisoner in the war, the enemy made him lay a track between Burma and Siam for the Eastern Bullet. We were the living dead, Pop told the Isa Browns. We were ghosts. The house on Pop’s Three was pale green, stained with a line of dirt that rose up and down like a wave around the fibro. It was if the house had once stood underwater, like the trees at The Choke.
When we went through the back gate Pop was sitting at his fire, smoking. He threw a small stick into the flames. ‘Tea’s in half an hour,’ he said. He got to his feet and crossed the yard to the kitchen.
I never left Pop’s Three after Donna split. It was me that split her. I was breech, waiting inside her on my knees. I thought that was the right way to come out. Pop and Dad drove Donna to the hospital. Who comes out on their knees? Who comes into this world begging? I heard Pop ask the chooks. Poor bloody Donna. The doctor and the nurse put their hands on Donna’s stomach, trying to turn me, but I wouldn’t turn. I thought it was the right way. The breech nearly killed her. Donna stayed with Dad and me for three years, in the house in Moama, but she was sewn up so badly the stitches couldn’t hold; one by one they came apart, then when I was three years old she split for good. Pop asked Relle, Dad’s first wife, to take me. She said, Any kid but Donna’s. So I stayed with Pop.
It was Pop who found me at the bottom of the yard the night after my mother left. There was a barbecue. All the Worlleys and the Lees were there, drinking, listening to music. Saw you were gone, said Pop. When I found you at the bottom of the yard you were cold as bloody ice. Christ knows where you were going. I was looking for my mother. Was she at The Choke? Did she have a boat hiding in the trees? That was the night you met the big man, Pop would say. You remember that, Jussy? The first night you met him, when he was Ethan Edwards? Pop had taken me inside and sat beside me on the couch, holding my hand as John Wayne crossed the television on his horse, hunting down the Indian. ‘So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.’ Only thing to stop you crying was the big man, Jussy. I heard John Wayne as Ethan Edwards blasting the enemy. Pop said, You get ’em, big man, and then I slept. Every time I woke, Pop and the big man were there; Pop holding my hand while the big man cracked his whip at the Comanches.
Dad said my mother got on a train to Lismore to see her sister. He said she kicked up a stink because she didn’t want to do what a wife signed up for. When Pop asked the sister, the sister said Donna never got off the train and she didn’t blame her. If someone doesn’t want to be found, there are places they can hide; they can make a shelter in the trees, from branches, from rocks and things people don’t want. Tyres, milk crates, piles of bricks. They can use camouflage; they can hide in old cars, in skips, they can make a house from a couch or two doors. Dad said he had an idea where Donna was, a bloody good idea, but Pop said, Leave it alone, Ray. Donna is gone.
Kirk and Steve and me and Pop sat around Pop’s fire with plates of sausages and fried eggs on our knees. Corn and peas rolled to the edges. The coals in the fire glowed orange. Everything on our plates was sticky with yolk and sauce. Pop said, ‘Eat the bloody peas.’ We stole looks at each other and let the peas fall to the ground, kicking dirt over the top. Pea cemetery. Beyond the circle of light, trees moved in the wind and crickets called to each other. Pop’s fire held us together, burning with invisible flames that wrapped around us like arms.
Down at The Choke the river pushed its way between the banks. The water knew the way it wanted to go. Past our hideouts, past our ring of stones, past the red gums leaning close enough to touch—it flowed forward all the way to the sea.
After I had taken the dinner plates to the sink, the telephone rang, its sound cutting the quiet. Kirk sat up straighter in his chair. Steve turned towards the house. Pop grumbled as he got to his feet. ‘Al-bloody-right,’ he said as he walked slowly back to the kitchen—Pop had to keep his gut in one straight line or he woke the bug. The telephone kept ringing. Kirk and Steve and me waited to see if it was Dad. ‘Right,’ said Pop. ‘Where are you? When do you . . . Yeah, son . . . Reckon? Yeah . . . Yeah . . . How’s she running? Check the fanbelt? You looking at three hundred mile you want to know it’s tight . . . Yeah, son, see you Friday.’
Kirk said, ‘It’s Dad.’
‘What day is it?’ I asked.
‘Tuesday,’ said Kirk.
Dad hadn’t been home since July and now it was nearly the Christmas concert. I had lost my two top and bottom teeth since he last saw me, and there were no new ones at the top yet. I was the last one in my class. If I showed my teeth there was a hole. I stuck my tongue in and out of the gap, feeling the sides.
Steve took out his pocketknife and pulled out the blade. He turned it in his hands before closing it and putting it back in his pocket. There was only one blade, smaller than the one Pop used to cut my fingernails. Relle said it used to be Dad’s but Dad said bullshit. Relle said, It was yours, Ray, don’t you remember? and Dad said, I’d remember a knife as useless as that.
Pop came out with a can of beer. He sat down on his chair and pulled back the ring. The can hissed as if a small snake had escaped. He said, ‘Your old man’s coming home.’
Your old man’s coming home. When Pop spoke the words I felt our worlds—Kirk’s and Steve’s and mine—shrink and separate. The mother half was different. Ray had left one for the other. Relle found Ray and Donna in the truck. Donna was in Relle’s seat, with her arm on the handle where Relle’s arm went, her feet up on the dash where Relle’s feet used to go. Relle knew what Donna and Dad had been doing before she found them, as if her eyes had stolen away, climbed through the window into the cabin, hidden behind the mirror and seen everything that happened, then went back and told the head. I was eating Weet-Bix at the kids’ table not long after I moved to Pop’s, when I heard Pop and Dad talking.
You should have been more careful, Ray.
Yeah, and now I’m stuck with your bloody accident.
The table was so low it kept me at the height of their knees. If they didn’t look down they forgot I was there.
I can take her.
Not where you go, son.
Where do you think I go?
I know where you go.
Leave it alone.
Just saying, I can take her.
Drop it, Ray.
Where would he take me? Where would we go? Nobody knew exactly where Ray went or what he did.
Behind us, the back-house stood dark and locked. The flames of Pop’s fire and the lights from the kitchen didn’t reach far enough to show it, but you could see its outline. It was another sort of black. The back-house was where Ray lived when he was home. The only thing missing was a shower. Ray filled up a bucket with warm water from the tap at Pop’s sink, then he hung it over a pipe with a funnel. When Ray was away the back-house was locked, the curtains closed. If you looked in the window you saw your own reflection. After the phone call the back-house seemed to grow bigger, as if Ray was pressing out the walls from the inside, reminding us, like the heads inside the red gums.
After dinner Relle came by to pick up Kirk and Steve. ‘Ray’s on the way,’ said Pop. Relle didn’t look at me. She never had. Not once. Any kid but Donna’s. She couldn’t identify me, as if I was an accident that hadn’t happened. I felt the hole in my mouth with my tongue. Who is born on their knees? Who doesn’t know the right way out?
Relle had black hair in a ponytail and her eyes were narrow like Steve’s—she kept the edges tight. Every day she drew dark green lines around them. ‘Oh yeah?’ she said. Her eyes gleamed.
‘Friday,’ said Pop.
‘He’s going to teach me how to shoot,’ said Kirk.
‘No, he’s not,’ said Pop.
‘He said he would.’
‘No, he didn’t.’
‘Danny’s uncle is going to show us if Dad doesn’t. When he gets back from Gympie.’
‘Bloody Gympie,’ said Pop. ‘Want a beer, Relle?’
‘No, Dean’s at home. And I’m on the early shift tomorrow.’ Relle worked at the bakery in Nullabri. She started at four thirty in the morning when it was still dark. Just before the bakery opened she painted all the tops of the donuts with the flavours. But she never ate a single donut. The donuts could sit in shining rows—pineapple, lime, chocolate, strawberry—and she didn’t care. She didn’t even need a taste.
Kirk said, ‘Damn.’ Dean was Relle’s new boyfriend.
‘We got to go, boys,’ said Relle, jangling her keys. ‘Get in the car.’
‘Can we stay here?’ said Kirk.
‘Because there’s shit to do at home. Dean wants you to help him move the rubbish from down the side.’ Kirk and Steve groaned. ‘Get a move on,’ said Relle. ‘I want to pick up dinner for Dean on the way.’ The boys got up and followed Relle through the house. They wanted to stay the night at Pop’s, closer to where Dad would be coming to, closer to where he would park his truck, closer to where he would sleep and drink and be.
After they left I went down the back and checked on the chooks. I hooked my fingers through the wire of the run, leaned in close and saw the shadows of the girls sleeping on the roosting bars. Cockyboy was keeping guard at the top. He made a small warning cluck in his throat. I breathed in and smelled them there, the Isa Browns alive behind the wire, heads turned into the warmth of their feathers.
I went back inside, sat on my bed and looked through Road and Track. I saw a white Ford F100 with the same long aerial as Dad’s, the same bull bar. I cut down one side, and along the bottom. Now I was ten I cut the edges smooth and straight. I’d been doing cut-outs since I moved to Pop’s. I had to hide the good ones; if he needed paper to light the fire he came to my room. I got off the bed and put the truck on top of the pile in my cupboard. Dad would be home on Friday. It wasn’t enough time for the teeth to break through the gums. I pushed my tongue in and out of the hole. Kirk said, You could stick Brian Chisholm’s torch in the hole and go to work in the mines. You could get paid.
Friday was three more days. There wasn’t time.