Authors: Jessie Cole
For my mother
They say every hero has to leave home, but what those first steps are like I’m yet to know. Where I live you’d think there was no world to discover, all hemmed in by such endless green. Cow paddocks gone bushy, forest trees taking back the rolling hills. You’ve got to cross six creeks just to get to my house, and if the sky lets loose and the water rises, there’s nothing to do but sit and wait. Some days, time seems to stand still. The weather might be wild, but the minutes tick by as though they’re weighed down by an invisible load. And then some days the whole world changes, and when that movement finally comes, it’s fast, like a raging river, nearly knocking your legs out from under you.
That afternoon Bessie was birthing and I followed her about in the rain, scared she’d do herself some kind of harm. Cows are silly that way sometimes. There can be only two trees in a paddock, close together like lovers, and a cow will get herself wedged between them. If there’s one space in the whole world a cow won’t fit, that’s where she has to be. Bessie was a big cow, and I don’t suppose I could have stopped her from doing things her way, but I figured she’d probably want some company, and I like watching things being born, even in the pouring rain.
When she headed down towards the creek, I was worried. Flooding water is unpredictable. New rivers spring up out of nowhere, charging across the sodden ground like runaway trains. They can look harmless enough from afar, but usually it’s best to stay on high ground. We stood in the lowlands, and Bessie gave a long sad bellow. She looked at me and the rain streamed across her thick eyelashes and down her brown face. The water was rising around us. I needed to get her moving.
I don’t know what made me look downstream towards the bridge. Sometimes there’s a change in the air, some small shift in pressure maybe, or the hint of a sound. But in the distance a car was trying to cross, the mounting water pushing it against the railing of the bidge. Even from where I stood I could hear the splintering of timber, and then the car just floated off the side.
I was running along the edge of the water towards the bridge before I knew it, but all I was thinking about was Bessie. What if the calf was born and it washed away? By the time I got close to the car I was angry. Who crosses a raging river in flood?
The creek was racing but the car bobbed along, incongruous with the wild torrent. ‘Hey!’ I screamed through the rain. ‘You’ve got to get out!’ There was no way I was going in, but I didn’t want to stand there and watch the car just disappear.
‘Hey!’ My voice seemed lost in the roar of the creek and the drumming of the rain. I looked around for a strong enough branch. ‘Open the window!’
Even though it was a car, all steel and glass, it didn’t make a sound in the water. Sometimes we get floods so big you can hear giant boulders rolling down the river, crashing against the rocks, but we weren’t nearly there yet. I grabbed a big branch from the ground and moved along the creek dragging it behind me and yelling. There was no sign of a person inside and I was starting to get scared.
Suddenly the car stopped, like it was stuck against something. The water built up around it. My breath stilled. It was going to go under. Then the window opened a crack. I could see fingers poking out.
‘Smash it!’ My voice was hoarse. ‘You’ve got to smash it!’
The branch I’d picked up was heavy, too big for me really, but it needed to be long to reach the car. I lifted it, my arms shaking, water running down inside the sleeve of my dad’s old raincoat. The window of the car was still above the water and I knew I only had one chance to hit the spot. Swinging the branch down, I closed my eyes and heard it clunk on the glass. There was a cracking sound and I opened my eyes and the window smashed, caving outwards. He’d done it himself. I shoved the branch forward so it was caught in against the window frame. I didn’t want it to get swept up by the water before he’d grabbed it. The fingers reaching out the window became an arm and then a body.
‘The branch!’ I yelled. ‘Grab the branch!’
It was a man. I didn’t know if I’d be able to hold him.
He pushed his top half from the window, staring through the rain from me to the branch. I nodded, willing him to understand. There was a sapling near me and I grabbed it, hoping it would give me a hold. My end of the branch was knobbly. I hooked my fingers around the stubs to try to get a better grip. The man leaned forward, grasping the branch hard. I stepped backwards, tugging it free from where it was jammed, and the pull of the water seemed to suck him from the car. It disappeared behind him, bubbling as it went down.
Once I had him it was easier than I thought. I held tight and he held tight, and eventually the water pushed him to the side, out of the rapids. He staggered from the current towards me, but I was already peering around for Bessie.
‘Fuck, you’re just a girl,’ he said, shaking and choking back tears.
I was glad my mother wasn’t there to hear that. I couldn’t think of a better way to provoke her loathing, but I chose not to see the comment as a slur on womankind. The truth is, I’m not a kid anymore, but I guess in this oversized raincoat it was hard to tell. He put his arms out like he was going to collapse into a heap around me, but I didn’t want that.
‘We’ve got to find her,’ I shouted over the sound of the rain. ‘She’s having a baby.’
The water was running so hard down my face, it was worse than tears.
‘Come on.’ I started to run back along the waterline. I could only see a little way in front of me, but I heard her bellowing not far away. ‘She’s up here!’ I yelled as he stumbled along behind me.
She was standing right at the edge of the river bend, water lapping around her silly cloven feet. Suddenly my heart was in my mouth.
‘We got to get her to move away from the water.’
I scrambled up beside her, putting my face against her wet flank. Even through the rain I could see the calf was on its way out. The birth sac was like a water balloon, almost transparent. Up close there were two hoofs inside the bubble, sticking out beneath her tail.
‘Come on!’ I shouted over the rain, but he just stood there gawking at me. ‘Help me! We got to move her.’
He came and stood beside me and together we pushed, but she didn’t budge. I closed my eyes, rain flowing over me like there was no air left. When I opened them his face was right there beside mine, eyes open and bright, the lightest blue, raindrops welling in his lashes.
‘Maybe we’ve got to shock her,’ he said. ‘Give her a whack?’
I shook my head. ‘She might bolt the wrong way. I’ll go see if I can pull her from the front. You keep pushing.’
She didn’t move, even though I tugged with all I had.
‘It’s coming,’ he yelled from behind. ‘Fuck! It’s coming out.’
And it was, wrapped in that translucent sac. We stood there then, waiting, the rain still belting down, water coming up around our ankles. It felt like the land was falling away, like it must have in the Great Flood. Just me and him, Bessie the cow, and the yet to be born.
Finally the calf slithered out, a crumpled mess in the water at our feet. I tried to pick it up but it was too heavy.
‘Get it!’ I shouted up at him. ‘It’s going to drown.’
He hesitated a second, and then scooped it up, birth sac and all.
‘Is it breathing?’ I tore a hole in the yellowy film to see.
He clutched at the baby a minute, feeling for its breath. ‘Yep.’
I pulled the sticky sac away from the calf’s face. It looked dazed, but at least its eyes were open. It blinked against the rain.
‘Okay. Let’s go. She’ll follow us now we’ve got the baby.’
He nodded and I pointed up the hill.
It doesn’t take long to get to my house from the creek, but when it’s flooding and you’re carrying a calf, it’s a bit of a trek. I had to go real slow so the man could keep up. Bessie trailed along behind us. When we got to the top paddock, I wasn’t sure she would stay put.
‘I’m going to grab a rope,’ I called to him and headed for Mum’s shed. We had all sorts of bits and pieces in there and I knew I’d find something to tie her up with. There was no power and it was pretty dim, so I had to feel around with my hands. It was a bit creepy, especially knowing there were always snakes about, but eventually I found some old rope.
Back in the paddock, the man looked pretty strange, standing there in the rain still holding the calf. Slick with water and trembling, he could have just been born.
‘Let’s tie her under a tree, out of the rain.’ I rushed past him, pointing to the edge of the field. He followed more slowly. Luckily there was an old fence post I could tie the rope to. Bessie didn’t seem impressed about being tethered but I wasn’t taking any chances.
‘Can I put it down now?’ He tried to shake the water from his face.
‘Yeah.’ I could see him better under the tree, without all the confusion of the rain. He looked almost as dazed as the calf. ‘Bessie should do the rest.’
He knelt down with the calf and put it on the mushy ground. It staggered about in the remains of the birth sac for a few seconds, trying to get to its feet. Crouching beside it, I pulled at the filmy sac till the calf was upright, then stepped back and waited. The man slid backwards on his knees in the mud. Bessie put her head down and nibbled a few stray blades of grass.
‘Come on, Bessie,’ I groaned, ‘that’s your baby.’
After all that work I couldn’t believe Bessie was going to ignore it.
‘What do we do now?’ The man tried to flick some of the birth gunk from the sleeves of his jumper.
I glanced at him but I was still thinking of Bessie.
‘Just wait, I think. She’ll come good.’
The calf stumbled around for a bit, every now and then knocking against Bessie’s legs. Eventually she gave it a lick and then it was all on. She was a mother. I didn’t realise I’d been holding my breath until it came out in a rush.
The man clambered up from where he’d been kneeling. He was a mess—drenched and covered in mud and fluid and bloody bits from the birth.
‘You’re not going to be able to save that one.’ I pointed to his jumper. ‘It’s done.’
‘Everything’s in the car. Fuck. My laptop. Fuck.’ He pressed his dripping palms against his eyes. ‘It’s got everything on it.
We didn’t have a working computer, so I guess I didn’t know what that was like.
‘I’ll find you some fresh clothes, come on.’
He patted his pockets. ‘I don’t even have my fucking phone.’
He looked about ready to freak out.
‘There’s no reception out here anyway.’ I shook my head, watching him. ‘You may as well come inside.’
I opened the door gingerly. Mum hates it when I come in wet and leave footprints all over the floor. It’s hard enough keeping the house dry in the rainy season without all my coming and going. There’s always a towel hanging on the back of the door knob and I’m supposed to strip off and dry myself there, but I didn’t want to do that with the man waiting in the shadows behind me, so I just stood there dripping onto the floor.
The power was out and the kitchen was lit up with candles. The floods mess with our electricity—as soon as something gets wet, the whole system blows. Mum glanced back at me from where she was crouched in front of my sister, but she didn’t see the man. He stayed out of the glow of candlelight, waiting for me to call him in.
My sister lives in a cabin a kilometre or so from us, but she often comes to stay when it’s flooding. Walks across the paddocks—there’s no creek between us. I looked her over in the candlelight and she didn’t seem good. She sat dully in a chair at the table, not meeting my eyes. Her forehead was all bruised, like she’d been banging her head against the wall. The baby sucked at her breast and swiped with wobbly fists at her damp hair, but she didn’t respond. Just looking at her lately hurt my eyes. ‘What happened?’ I asked softly.
‘You know,’ my mother answered, still squatting there, tending her.
‘Not that. What happened to her head?’
Mum looked around at me.
‘The cupboards, you know. He closed all the cupboards. She’d open them, he’d close them. You don’t notice stuff like that till someone’s gone. She keeps banging her head on all the open doors.’
I didn’t know what to say. Sophie’s bloke left a week or so ago. Just drove away. I guess she didn’t see it coming, though he never seemed like the surest bet to me. She’s got two babies on her own now. This little one and Rory.
‘Rory’s asleep in your bed,’ Mum said, stroking Sophie’s arm. I nodded, not knowing how to bring the man inside. I was used to my family, the odd way we hung together—the shape of us—but it was strange to see us from an outside view.
‘You got something there, love? That wet dog from next door trying to come in again? We’ve already got our own wet dog and I’ve shut her out the back. You’re not bringing in another.’
My mum didn’t miss much.
‘A guy washed off the bridge in his car and I got him out,’ I said and waited for Mum to react. She was distracted by Sophie, but I saw the moment my words sank in.
‘Alive?’ Mum always thought the worst.
‘Yeah, I didn’t mean that. I’ve got him here.’
The man stepped up behind me and I moved to the side so my mum could see him.
‘Not from around here?’ she asked him, frowning. She had a thing about stupidity. Dying for nothing. ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’
‘She saved my life.’ His voice was shaky, but he looked straight at Mum’s face.
‘Yes, she’s good at that, this one.’ Mum smiled across at me, just a flash and then it was gone. ‘How’d Bessie go?’
‘I’ve tied her up outside. Thought she might wander off.’
‘Looks good. Bit wonky at first.’
‘They all are.’
Mum didn’t get up from the floor, but she turned around properly to look at us. I took off my raincoat and hung it on a hook on the back of the door. I was still pretty wet underneath. ‘He’s covered in birth gunk,’ I offered up. ‘It was all a bit grubby.’
‘I had to pick it up. She said it would drown.’
Mum was quiet a second, thinking. ‘There’s no power, so the shower’s not working.’ We needed electricity to power the pump. ‘Grab a bar of soap,’ she pointed to the sink, ‘and then strip down out there and soap up. Wash off in the rain. I’ll bring you both towels.’
It was warm enough outside, even in the rain, but there was no way I was stripping anywhere near him. There was a time in my childhood when nudity was the norm, any excuse for a spontaneous strip-down, but nowadays I wasn’t buying it. There’d be enough water in the pipes to wash my hands in the bathroom while he was outside. I pulled the towel off the hook on the door. ‘It’s alright. I’m not that wet. I’ll go find us some clothes.’
The sound of the rain was muted indoors, and after I cleaned myself up I found my way to the bedroom in the dark. That hush of little-fellow-sleeping filled the room. I stood there and breathed it in. I loved Rory, loved having him in my bed. Sometimes I imagined crossing the paddocks between us by moonlight and slipping into my sister’s bed. She’d be caught in between her babies, breathing in their sweet smell, and I’d snuggle in close and steal some of their easy sleep. I never actually did it, though there was nothing to stop me. I guess I knew I’d be there in the morning. Rory’s two and a bit, and when he’s awake he can be trouble.
I changed out of my wet stuff, grabbing some clothes by touch. I didn’t know what to get the man, what he’d fit into. Slipping into Mum’s room, I had a feel around and came back out with an old pair of cargo shorts and a giant-sized jumper. She’s a big woman, my mum. He’d have to make do.
Mum passed me in the hallway, the baby on her hip. She pulled Sophie gently along behind her. My sister gave me a crumpled-looking smile. I could see she’d been crying.
‘I’m just going to lie down with them,’ Mum whispered as she went by. ‘Try to get them both off to sleep. You’ll get him sorted out, won’t you? The flood guy? He’ll be feeling shaken up,’ Mum said, glancing towards at the kitchen. ‘It’s too much tonight. I just can’t deal with it.’
I nodded. There wasn’t anything to say.
He was standing in the doorway, wrapped in his towel. Except for the blue of his eyes up close, I hadn’t really taken in what he looked like. He was older than me, not sure how much. Maybe in his early thirties. He had an invisible quality, like if he stood still enough he’d camouflage in against the walls. I thought perhaps in the daylight he’d be handsome. I was careful of beautiful people. There was something untrustworthy about them. They’d always been the ruin of us.
‘I hung my stuff over the railing,’ he said. ‘Left the soap out there.’
I nodded, holding out Mum’s clothes. ‘This is all I could find.’
‘Thanks.’ He looked around for somewhere to change.
The rain on the roof was steady, a constant thrum.
‘Get dressed in the bathroom if you like. Take a candle, though.’
I pointed down the hallway, and he crept away, the quiver of his hands making the candlelight jump.
We had a gas stove, so that was useful in a blackout. Mum had made dinner—rice and some kind of curry. I spooned out two servings and got us both a drink. He was back out in a few minutes, holding the towel awkwardly, like he wished he knew where it should go. I took it and chucked it into the corner. No point doing anything else till the rain stopped and the power came back on.
‘Eat.’ It had taken a good part of the day for Bessie to birth her calf. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and as I sat down at the table, my stomach growled.
He stood there, gripping his forearms, as if his body was locked and he was trying to force it open. I pushed his bowl along the table towards him.
‘It’s good. You’ll feel better.’
He trembled a little as he spooned food into his mouth, so I didn’t look at him for a bit—let him get his bearings. The curry was good, and the quiet in the kitchen made me think of when I was little and we hadn’t got electricity yet. There was always a lull in the evening around dusk. A turning. It didn’t matter what action had gone on before, there was this long moment of quiet when the day changed into night. Now we just switched the lights on and kept moving with the rhythm of day, but back then it was as if everything slowed. Sometimes we’d all sit in the kitchen together and wait for it to come. Maybe at first there’d be chatter, but after a few minutes the quiet would engulf us. Eventually Mum would rise and start lighting the candles, and it would be like waking from a very deep sleep. The hassles we might have had falling away in those long moments of waiting. They were special, the days before the lights.
‘Thanks for this food.’ He broke into the quiet. The neckline of the jumper I’d found him was wide and it kept slipping down his shoulder. His exposed skin was pale in the candlelight, like he didn’t see much sun. He pulled the material up and even in the flickering light I saw him redden, as though he’d been caught naked. Blushes always made me giggle but I tried not to smile. Figured he was having a tough enough time already.
‘Do you think I could use your phone after this?’ he said. ‘See if I can work some stuff out?’
‘Sure.’ I pointed to the wall behind him. ‘It’s just up there.’
He glanced around and then back at me.
‘That the only phone you’ve got?’
It was one of those old-style ones with the twisty cords. No point having a cordless up here when the power went out every time it rained.
‘Yep. That’s it. Works fine, don’t worry.’
He looked doubtful but didn’t say anything, just kept eating his food. So far, he wasn’t much of a talker. When he was finished I stood up and took the bowls to the sink.
‘You’re hurt,’ he said, noticing my limp.
‘Nah, I’m fine.’ It was always a thorny moment, explaining about my foot.
‘You’re limping. You need some ice or something?’ He looked around helplessly, as though he’d like to take charge but didn’t know where to start.
‘I have a club foot. It’s the way I was born.’ There was no easy way to tell him.
‘Oh, right.’ The rain on the roof seemed suddenly loud. I could see he was making himself hold my eye, like it mattered to him to be a certain sort of man. ‘I didn’t notice out there in the rain.’
It pained me that such a small thing like my foot could make people so uncomfortable.
‘We were both lurching around, don’t worry about it.’
I don’t think about my foot when I’m in the midst of things. I forget I even have it. Why wouldn’t I when it’s always been this way?
‘What’s your name?’ he asked. Introductions. We were doing everything backwards.
My real name is Artemesia, but there was no way I was telling him that. ‘Yours?’
‘Nice to meet you,’ I said, laughing and reaching out a hand for him to shake. I felt like I was in a play. A silly stage production. Formality makes me nervous. It’s hard to carry off. He hesitated a second, looking down at my hand as though it was a foreign object, but then he shook it, gently.
‘I thought you were a kid.’
‘Yes, I’m kid-sized. A biggish kid!’
‘Yeah.’ He nodded, looking uneasy.
‘But I’m twenty-two, twenty-three in June.’
There was still some water left in the pipes and I turned around to fill up the kettle for some tea.
‘I thought I could cross,’ Hamish said from behind me. ‘Thought the car was high enough. But the water started coming up out of nowhere.’
‘It’s flooding.’ I shrugged, sitting back down. ‘That’s what happens.’
He looked at the table, deflated.
‘You’re not from around here, how would you know?’ It was always newcomers who got washed away in the floods.
‘I know about floods. I just thought I could cross.’ He glanced up at me and I could see he was mortified. ‘Stupid bloody tourist, hey?’
I didn’t know how to respond. Sometimes the most dangerous mistakes are the simplest. Smiling, I tried to change the subject. ‘Bessie was so stubborn. I can’t believe she gave birth right into the water.’
‘You saved my life, Mema.’
This made me feel a little queasy. Who wants someone’s life on their hands?
‘The window was jammed. I couldn’t open it.
‘You smashed it in the end.’ But I knew he’d been close, close to going under.
‘I had to use my fucking laptop,’ his voice was strained. ‘It’s the only thing I had in the front. My suitcase was in the boot.’
I hadn’t thought of how he’d broken it.
‘See, you saved yourself.’
‘No, it was you. You had the branch.’
‘You could have swum out by yourself.’ I didn’t know that for sure, but I preferred to believe it.
‘That water sucked my shoes off. And my socks,’ he said quietly. ‘I don’t think I would have gotten out without something to cling onto.’
I looked away, tapping my fingertips against the table, thinking of Bessie’s big dark eyes. It was disconcerting that she’d give birth into an overflowing creek. Instincts gone awry. Sometimes I wondered whether humans made animals that way—domesticated them to the point of idiocy. But most days Bessie didn’t seem stupid. She had a mysterious way about her, and I trusted her more than a lot of humans I knew. She wasn’t going anywhere fast.
‘Well, you saved the calf’s life, so let’s call it even,’ I said finally, glancing across at the water on the stove to see if it was boiling.
‘A man for a calf?’
‘Yes. It’s a fair trade.’ It seemed like a joke, but really, I meant it.
I got up and poured the hot water into some mugs, scanning the jars of tea in the candlelight. We didn’t have much black tea left. Thought I’d better save the real stuff for the morning.
‘Peppermint or camomile?’
He looked mildly perplexed.
‘Camomile’s supposed to be relaxing.’ I was dubious myself.
‘Okay, I’ll give that a go.’
I handed him the steaming mug and he put it on the table.
‘You want to use the phone?’ I was beginning to feel tired.
‘Yeah.’ He stood up patting his thighs, searching his pockets.
‘What you looking for?’ I asked, sipping my tea.
‘It’s just …’ he rubbed his hand across his collarbone restlessly, ‘… without my phone I don’t think I know any of my numbers.’
I didn’t have a mobile. Wasn’t any point without reception. Round here we all had the same first five digits, so you just had to remember the last three. I knew all of them from childhood. Nothing ever changed.
‘What about your home number? You could call that maybe and get some others that you need.’
‘I don’t know it. Not off the top of my head.’
‘Oh.’ I was nonplussed. ‘Okay.’
‘I mean, I know my old home number from when I was a kid, but no one lives there anymore. I know my mate Dave’s number from way back, but he’s living in Scandinavia. I don’t know, I just don’t need to remember numbers anymore.’