The Running Wolf
I could be anywhere. Shadows from flickering tree branches dance across the bed and the floor is littered with a mountain of junk parts. Aha, now I know. Bits and pieces of the world Pat has collected, sure he can make them new again if he just tightens a screw. True enough, machines are only alive if we want them to be. They have a different system inside that can be manip- ulated. And there he is, in the middle of the kitchen flipping bacon like a pancake. Fat spits onto his arm but Pat doesn’t even flinch.
‘Siddown.’ Pat’s not one for hairs and graces. Not at 6 am in the morning. There are fried eggs too. I break the yolk and watch as it runs the wrong way down my plate. ‘From now on, you eat what you’re given and ya don’t play with your food,’ Pat says real quiet.
‘But it’s moving south.’ I knife the bacon rind off and put it under the runny yolk. It stops going any further, so I eat the bacon and leave the yellow puddle, even though it’s the best part of the egg.
‘You finish that plate. It’s a long drive.’ Pat scrapes his knife like fingernails on a blackboard. Joelle Parkinson did that once because she thought it would make us squirm but in the end she bent a nail backwards and cried.
I try to finish my eggs I really do, but Pat’s in a mood and I can’t tell him that his forks are the wrong kind of metal. The thin kind that gives my teeth a headache. I took a fork from home but right now I don’t know where it is. We had a complete set of estate cutlery. Bought it from Mr and Mrs Dickson when they both went into a nursing home ’cause they’d forgotten who the other one was. Even though they’d been married for sixty-eight years. Kept ringing the police on each other, screaming that there was a burglar in the house. Mrs Dickson even hit Herbert on the head once with a 500-gram tin of home-brand peaches in syrup. But I’m happy we got their forks because they were proper good. Heavy with a fancy D engraved on the end so it looked like they were supposed to be mine all along.
It’s a dragon-breath morning. Fingers so cold they don’t feel like a part of my body. I stand on the front porch trying to tap some warmth into my toes and start the motor in my heart. It’s a morning so quiet you’d think we’d already been forgotten. Or were never here at all. But a town like this doesn’t wake up just to say goodbye. And maybe that’s okay because for now it’s all mine. The maggies with their morning song, warbling joy into the pale blue sky. Dewy spiderwebs all over the bushes, each one like a perfect equation. Across and down the road little Jackson and his dad are walking to their car.
‘But I don’t have anything for show and tell!’
‘Well you can’t take a pot plant. Make something up.’ His dad trips over a garden gnome. ‘Shit,’ he says with the volume turned down. I can hear the garbo coming too; scratching a mole on the back of his neck that’s been bothering him for weeks. Then a car door slams behind me and rattles the porch windows. My maggies fly off to find some worms and the spiders pack up their webs.
Even though my name swings both ways, the doctor told everyone I was going to be a boy. Probably thought he saw a willy on the ultra-song that was actu- ally just my little finger in the wrong place at the wrong time. ‘That’s deception,’ my dad said when he found out I was me instead of a son, and drove off for a few days. But he came back and said they still had to call me Dylan because it was a good, strong name. Plus it was the name of his friend who was in jail and he’d sent me a baseball cap with Little Dylan on it.
‘Come on, quick sticks,’ says Pat. He looks at the ground, says we’d best get going but his words fall into the hole he’s diggin’ with his boot.
I wanna slip into those dry cracks and stay put. Lie in the ground with Mama. But I know the earth and this town are only for those who belong. And without someone to love, you can’t belong anywhere.
We’re leaving this back-paddock town. As you hit the main drag there’s a sign that says ‘Welcome to Beyen! Keep driving.’ Mitchell Baker who’s always selling homemade cigarettes round the back of the bike shed wrote that last part, with a black marker he stole from the art room. It’s true, though. You can miss this town and not miss a thing. It’s where I’ve long been but never belonged. Not like Piper or Lily or the Magann twins. Their families go way back to the beginning of time and even then, people are still calling them coon and Abo like they shouldn’t be here either. My time is up before it really began and I can’t say I’m too glum about that. I am sad to leave Mum behind though, because now she’ll always be part of this town even though no one will ever see her again.
Before I made a mess of it all, Mum and I were gonna sail back to her belonging. Back to where she’d been a happy little girl drinking hot chocolate out of a bowl and skipping to school with a big chunk of stinky cheese in her bag. Mum missed Paris so much it felt like she’d pulled a muscle in her heart and some days she would just curl up on the bed trying to remember what cold felt like. It was never really winter in Beyen—I couldn’t imagine snow falling from the sky. Each flake one-of- a-kind, like a frozen fingerprint that only lives between the sky and the earth.
We really were gonna make it happen. Get away from the heat and the flies and the non-belonging that was always making us feel heavy here in Beyen.
I know Mum is in the ground now, but I still need to take her home. Because we are more than our bodies.
Tiffany who runs Mysticize, the candle and crystal shop above the Chinese takeaway, told me Mum’s spirit was free now, so all I’m thinking about is getting her to the water. I’ve never seen the sea, felt the waves slap onto my back, saltwater spray across my face. The town pool in Beyen isn’t the same. Most of the time it’s only half-full and you can always tell when Ash Malone’s done a stinky wee in the deep end.
It’s a long way from Beyen to the ocean. It’s numbers ticking over and over on the dashboard and a whole lot of sleeps trying to dream yourself there. And I have, because it’s the only thing that matters if you want to stay real.
The land out here is a sea of dry dust. It covers the ground and stops living things from breathing. Nothing comes out of the earth and the only things that go in are bones and history, death and regret. That’s what the old men propping up the front bar say when they’re talkin’ themselves through another pint of stout.
Water is a miracle. What else can slip through your hands or crush you in two seconds flat? What else is soft and strong enough to carve patterns into stone? It regulates, generates and lubricates body parts we didn’t even know we had. Babies are seventy-eight per cent water when they are born. The older we get the less we have. Right now I’m only about fifty-five per cent. That’s all teenage girls have. But when I get to the sea, the salty air will fill my lungs up like a petrol pump and maybe my numbers will change. Mum used to say that everyone’s soul is connected to water because it’s a life force.
Even though Paris is a dirty city far from the ocean.
The sea is always a passage home.
Water is where this story begins and ends. A ques- tion chasing its tail for the answer. And what lies in the middle? Well I’ll save that for the car ride. Pat was right about that. It’s a long trip. He locks up the house, flicking pieces of dry paint off the porch. Stares at his hand, a few red specks caught under the nails. And I reckon that’s about all he’s taking from the place. If I squint hard enough, I can see Barry standing tall in the field at the bottom of Novis Lane. Now you might think I’m silly for naming a tree. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called dumb as a stump, or smart as a stick. Duncan Glover used to call me a teabag: takes a while for things to filter through. But Barry’s not a regular tree; he’s where I used to go and hide myself. Barry knows I’m going now. He knows what happened too.
Pat catches my eyes on him and brushes something invisible from his pants.
‘You remember everything?’
Suddenly I’m afraid. Have I packed all the knowledge?
‘’Cause we’re not comin’ back,’ he says with a big fat full stop.
‘But I don’t know all the galaxies or what disease emphysema is.’
Pat rolls his eyes.
I’ve got it wrong again. People don’t always use words to say what they think. Sometimes it can be a long unblinking stare from the other side of Parker Street one Tuesday arvo that burns like a branding iron. ‘Go back’ is what those eyes mark on your shadow so you’re always in the wrong place no matter where you are. Right now I’m using that eye-talk with Pat. He hasn’t said anything about the boat so I don’t know if he thinks he’s coming too. I give him this cowboy glare that says ‘Sorry mate it’s not on the cards. Not even the four of spades. This is a family trip and you and me are not that.’
I know the boat will be made out of metal. Or wood. I just don’t know where it is yet. But I will feel it in my waters as Margie says about the rain that mostly always never comes. She’s eighty-nine and has lived in Beyen forever. This town is the beginning, middle and end of the whole world for her. Margie’s life map is very small but mine is just about to start. A single crack in the dry earth travelling east from the middle of nowhere to the wide, open sea.
Sometimes I find my way into memories that aren’t mine. Saturday just gone I walked past a lady picking up pork ribs from Gary the butcher, and suddenly I’m at her kitchen table watching as she plays gin rummy with the girls, cackling like galahs when Theodora says that Ian sleepwalked into the kitchen and peed into the geranium pot by the window but, gee, hasn’t it flowered well since then. I’m only there for a few seconds before I get sucked back out, but I know a lot of people in this town and the secret things they do. I didn’t ask for that kind of knowing and sometimes I wish I could shut it off, especially when I see things I don’t want to. Like Mr Kelly’s grandson who lives in Adelaide but comes here for the holidays. I passed him one day sitting on the front porch. Looked into his eyes and watched as he drowned a cat in a bucket of water behind Mr Kelly’s back shed. It was all gone in a flash and when I looked back at him sitting on the porch, he held up a kitten for me to see. Cuddled it close to his chest and smiled.
I had a kitty once, called Ashtray. He’d cuddle close to me as well, purr loud as a lawnmower. Did Mr Kelly’s grandson know that too? People like him are why you keep your eyes to yourself. When I told Mum about the things I saw, I thought she’d say, ‘It’s only a hop, skip and a jump from heaven to hell for telling a lie.’ But she whispered that life was full of things we could not understand. That it must be hard to suddenly see a glimpse of what makes people tick, for better or worse.
I won’t be taking any of those memories with me if I can help it. Got no room for drowned cats or pot- plant pee.
Brown foam bulges out from under the wrecked car- seat cover and I think the whole world is second-hand. What does new smell and look like? How do you feel if you’re pretty? The engine chokes on its own smoke and splutters into action. We pull out and follow the sun as it rises. No one but us, like we called ahead and booked out the whole damn road. If we were bandits on the run, we’d have special names like Fury and the Tadpole. Or Buster and the Choc Drop. But in this bomb-of- a-ute, held together with rust and rubber bands, it’s just me and Pat and the only thing chasing us is a tornado of dust. It spurts out from the tyres and hits the back window like a hazy brown blanket.
You’d think it just being the two of us we’d have a cracker of a conversation going but Pat’s sold all his words for a big slice of silence. Clenches the wheel so hard it looks like his knuckles are gonna pop through the skin. And when someone has angry hands you don’t talk. But I know we’re thinking the same thing— that it’s my fault she’s not here. True enough, I’ve never been very good at keeping people around and now I’m basically an orphan. Although Pat’s grumpy like Daddy Warbucks (without the bucks) it’s really not at all like Annie.
Pat’s not my dad. He’s Mum’s boyfriend. Was. Now everything is past and I’m not sure what he is to me. Or vice versa.
Dad’s the one who made me black. A darkness so deep down you cannot take it out or scrape it off.
Besides I’m fourteen and by now it’s probably seeped into my bone marrow. Even though Mum had the safe kind of skin, I only got it on my palms and the soles of my feet. Not much good there. Maybe none of that matters anymore because this is the end of the beginning.
– Cath Moore, Metal Fish, Falling Snow (Text Publishing)