Authors: Bryce Courtenay
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Bryce Courtenay, bestselling author of
The Power of One, Tandia, April Fool's Day, The Potato Factory, Tommo
Hawk, The Night Country
has lived in Australia for most of his adult life.
McArthur & Company
First published in Canada in 1999 by
McArthur & Company
322 King Street West, Suite 402
Toronto, ON M5V 1J2
Further information about the author can be found at
Copyright Â© Bryce Courtenay 1998
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
eBook Development by Wild Element
The Power of One
April Fool's Day
A Recipe for Dreaming
The Potato Factory
The Family Frying Pan
The Night Country
To the memory of Jessica and for Margaret
I sometimes think my books are made up of all the things my friends know. I never cease to be amazed at how generously they share their considerable knowledge for my benefit. I thank you all.
But firstly, I thank Benita Courtenay who has been with me throughout the making of this book. It is never easy living with an author and once again we have survived the experience.
Margaret and Ian Duff, who brought me the story of Jessica in the first instance and gave generously of their time and hospitality in helping with the research. Without you, Margaret, there would have been no story to tell. The gracious assistance of your family is also appreciated.
Margaret Gee, for the countless hours she put into making sure the manuscript was clean and for so many other ways that made my writing life easier. Bruce Gee, my researcher with his eye for detail and his clever mind. Essie Moses, who helped in a dozen ways. Or Brent Waters, for medical advice. Denis Savill, who always seems to come to the rescue with the cover art. The Bundanon Trust, for permission to use the Arthur Boyd painting featured on the original hardback jacket, and to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Robbee Spadafora, for her cover design and production supervision of the original jacket. Alan Jacobs of Consensus Research, for his insights and knowledge.
Susan Killham of the Narrandera Shire Library was very helpful. Leslie Niewodowski for the Yiddish translation. Or Ken Winkel of the Australian Venom Research Unit. Kathryn Everett, Sylvia Manning, Polly Zack, Peter and Victoria Thompson, Christine Gee and Margaret Merrylees. The wonderfully co-operative people at the New South Wales State Library â a resource it is not possible to replace.
At Penguin Books, Peter Field, Peter Blake, my publishers Bob Sessions and Julie Gibbs for their constant encouragement and help, and finally, Clare Forster, quite the best editor it has been my good fortune to have working with me.
âIf you lose your pluck, you lose the most there is in you
all you've got to live with.'
Eighty-year-old grandmother of twenty-two children, forced to leave her Oklahoma farm during the Great Depression, 1936.
(from the exhibition, The Photographs of Dorothea Lange)
ut in the south-west along the banks of the Murrumbidgee the snakes come out at sundown to dance. The mulga, gwardar and the Eastern brown, the clumsy death adder, black-headed python and the harmless carpet snake. They sway and twist in streaks of twirling ribbon, loops of gunmetal grey and whips of bronze catching the late afternoon sun, reptilian lightning that sends puffs of grey dust into the baking air.
This is country to make hard men whimper and bite their knuckles in their sleep. Old man saltbush tethers the black soil to an endless horizon. By sunrise the day is already grown hazy from the heat. Dark pre-Cambrian rock and mulga scrub tremble in an illusion of moisture. Men see for the most part through squinting eyes plagued by a constant vexation of black flies that suck the moisture from creased skin and feed on the salty sweat stains on their flannel shirts. It is a place where the heat is so severe birds lose their strength to fly and drop like stones from the breathless air.
The women, their hips wide and slack from too many pregnancies, walk with a slow gait.
is as though their shadows contain the weight of their weariness, dark sacks dragging along the ground behind them. Their faces are hidden in the interior of deep bonnets, but it is their hands which first betray them, blunt, calloused fingers and broken nails, skin raw and puffy from the constant use of lye soap and slap of wet flannel against a corrugated washboard.
This is a place to break your heart and leave no sentiment to alleviate a life of bitterness and struggle. Three hundred days a year a hard-faced sky mocks any hope of rain and every miserable dog's day dawn is much the same as the one before it. Monotony and stoicism are constant companions, imagination a bad habit to be quickly stamped out of young children so that they may be made useful and compliant. It is here where, at dusk, the snakes dance on the banks of the Murrumbidgee.
Jessica waits quietly with a shotgun cradled in her arm, her green eyes intent on the scene before her. In the pocket of her pinny are three cartridges, their faded red cases having been used and re-filled half a dozen times with birds hot, and tamped with wadding and cordite with a little black powder added to save money. Joe has shown her how and Jessica can now do it in her sleep: head-wadding, charge, mid-wadding, birdshot, cap and wadding and crimping. The worn cardboard casings with their reseated copper crowns are filled so that the birdshot will effectively spray in a three-foot arc at a distance of twenty feet, well, sometimes, anyway.
At first light when Jessica ventured out of the homestead to the chookhouse she saw that six chicks had gone missing from under the black hen, all taken by snakes, their serpentine slicks plain to see in patches of yard dust leading to the chicken run.
She'd vowed to get the bastards at sundown. Six of them for six chicks. Now, watching the dancing snakes, Jessica repeats her promise silently, âSix of you mongrels are gunna pay tonight.' She knows she'd be safe cursing them out loud, warning them of the revenge that's coming to them. Snakes are deaf and can't see too well either, so they're not likely to hear you coming except for the vibrations you make as you walk. They can smell, though â with their trembling forked tongues they pick up tiny particles on the ground and transfer them to the roof of their mouths where they have their smelling organs. âLike having your nose inside your mouth,' Joe says. Jessica doesn't know how he knows stuff like this, he's not a book reader and claims he's never had any proper learning. He can read all right when he's got a newspaper, but like lots of folk his lips move and sometimes you can hear him whispering, struggling with a word, trying to hear its sound, make sense of it.
Jessica has taken care to stand downwind so the snakes won't smell her and cop her presence. When they've come together to dance like this, on the banks of the river, though, they don't seem to take the same notice of approaching danger.
High up in the dark foliage of the river gums the cockatoos and galahs are carrying on a treat, while the cicadas, ready for nightfall, singe the air with their humming. It's all noise and mayhem at sunset, the bush doves kookarooing, crows cawing, grey herons calling out across the river and the kookas adding a good bit of laughing to the night anthem. Meanwhile, below the gum trees in the dust on the river bank the snakes are lost in silence.
Jessica feels, rather than hears, the smooth metallic click as she breaks the twelve-bore, then reaches into the pocket of her pinny for a cartridge and punches the cardboard cylinder into the left-hand barrel, pushing it firmly home. It feels solid and reassuring, the flat metal detonation cap warm against the pad of her small thumb. She charges the second barrel and then snaps the shotgun back into place, keeping her thumb well clear. Now she hears the well-oiled click as the breech closes back onto the stock. Two barrels, won't get away with just the one, she thinks, resenting the extra shot.
Ideally Jessica wants one always ready up the spout in case of an emergency. What she's about to do is not good practice and she knows it. But she's only got one chance and is going to need both barrels if she wants six of the bastards. She can almost hear her father's voice: âSnakes are risky bastards. Browns have a bad temper, come after you soon as sniff, follow you home, hunt you down. They strike high so the poison gets to yer heart sooner. Always keep one up the spout, girlie. âYou're too bloody cocky with that shotgun,' Joe would say when she was ten years old and allowed to use the four-ten. âOne day you'll come undone, girlie. What then, hey?'
The bite from a six-foot mulga can kill a child, paralyse it in twenty minutes, and a healthy-sized Eastern brown will do a grown man in good and proper if the poison has an hour to work its way up to the heart. Jessica is eighteen and a bit over five feet tall, with her best Sunday button-up boots adding a further inch if she's lucky. With her short fair hair, narrow hips and flat chest, she could pass for a small lad if it weren't for her pinny. Last time she went into Narrandera she weighed in at a hundred and two pounds on the chemist's scale. A bite from an Eastern brown and she's dead as a doorknob in less than an hour, no risk.
But she's got pluck. âIf I can't take six of the buggers with two barrels, might as well give the game away,' she mutters.
Jessica knows she shouldn't be down here by the river side. If Joe found out he'd be mad as hell. In his book there's enough trouble out there looking for you, without you going looking for it. Jessica has a third cartridge in her pocket but doubts she'll have time to use it if things go really crook. It doesn't occur to her to try for as many snakes as she can kill with one shot and keep one up the spout for an emergency. Six chicks, six snakes, an eye for an eye, that's how her stubborn mind works. âToo stubborn for your own good,' Joe always says to her.
Jessica is her father's girl, from her stockman's hat to the tips of her sturdy work boots. A small farm needs a boy and Joe being landed with two girls instead was a big disappointment. Joe brought up Jessica to be that son he'd never had. So it's Jessica's older sister, Meg, who takes the role of the girl â their mother, Hester, says Meg is a born lady.
Jessica has always been different, though half of her difference came about because Joe needed someone to help around the place. The other half, her love of the land, her understanding of it, seems to have been born in her.
That is how it was in the Bergman family, then. Hester and Meg indoors, baking, doing needlework, cooking, putting up preserves, churning butter, separating cream and collecting gossip. Jessica and Joe outdoors, doing all the things needed to keep a farm going.
Joe, who knew nothing about bringing up girls anyway, left Meg to his wife and took Jessica under his wing. He didn't think about what it might mean to Jessica's future; all he knew was that the little brat was always hanging around his knees, clutching at his moleskins, wanting to know things. So he just let her get on with it.
Jessica reckons she's as good on the property as any boy her age. Maybe, now she's eighteen, she can't run as fast as a young bloke, but she can shoot as straight, ride as well as any of the young jackaroos in a muster, slaughter and dress a beast, crutch a sheep, brand a calf, build or fix a fence or plough and sow a paddock with winter oats. She's a fair bushman, too. Since she was seven years old, Jessica has been Joe's right-hand man.
This is fine by Jessica. Joe is a tough bastard but fair and you can't ask for much more than that if you love someone as much as Jessica loves Joe. Joe's not one to show his feelings, even to his daughter. Tough bugger, other blokes said so too.
As a young 'un, just twelve years old, Joe Bergman had come out to Australia from Denmark. He was a cabin boy on a tramp steamer, and jumped ship in Sydney. He headed west where they wouldn't bother to come after him. Joe had wanted to work as a jackaroo, having heard wild tales of bush life on the voyage, but he started as a rouseabout, a general dogsbody, until he learned to ride a horse well enough not to come off in the scrub. At sixteen he became a boundary rider, the loneliest job in the world, and stayed at it until he was nearly thirty-five, by which time he'd lost all of his foreigner's voice. The soft singsong cadence of Joe's native tongue was replaced with the lazy vernacular, the slow, harsh twang of the Australian bush, punctuated with expletives, the plain talk of men who seldom see a woman and when they do, can't find words beyond, âMornin', missus.' Though most could do you a ballad or two if they were pissed enough and in a mellow mood.
Joe had taught Jessica one such poem, a favourite of his, when she was younger. She had recited it proudly to her class on the first day she'd attended the small bush school for the children of the farmers, shearers, drovers and stockmen.
âDo any of you children know a nice rhyme to recite to the class?' the teacher had asked on the very first morning.
Jessica, not backward even at that age, stuck up her hand. âYes, Miss!'âJessica, isn't it?' the teacher asked. She nodded. âYes, Miss.'
âWell then, Jessica, would you like to tell the class your rhyme?'
âYes, Miss. My dad taught it to me and it's by Mr Lawson!' she said.
That first day at school had set the pattern for Jessica's doubtful career as a student, for she'd been the first child ever to be made to stand in the corner in the first hour of her first day at school. Even now, with the snakes swaying before her, she can remember the poem.
Oh, I dreamt I shore in a shearin'-shed, and it was a dream of joy,
For everyone of the rouseabouts was a girl dressed up as a boy â
Dressed up like a page in a pantomime, and the prettiest ever seen â
They had flaxen hair, they had coal-black hair
and every shade between.
There was short, plump girls, there was tall, slim girls, and the handsomest ever seen â
They was four-foot-five, they were six foot tall and every height between.
The shed was cooled by electric fans that was over every chute;
The pens was of polished mahogany, and everything else to suit;
The huts had springs to the mattresses, and the tucker was simply grand,
And every night by the billabong we danced to a German band.
Our pay was the wool on the jumbucks' back, so we shore âtil all was blue â
The sheep was washed before they was shore (and the rams was scented too);
And all of us wept when the shed cut out, in spite of the long, hot days,
For every hour them girls waltzed in with whisky and beer on trays!
There was three of them girls to every chap, and six of them picked on me;
We was draftin' them out for the homeward track and sharin' them round like steam,
When I woke with my head in the blazin' sun to find âtwas a shearer's dream.
Joe never really went to the trouble of cleaning up his language when he took up land of his own and came into regular contact with womenfolk. At home, with a wife and two daughters, he still talks the same rough bush lingo. On those rare occasions when the family goes into town for a wedding or some such, or when there's ladies and strangers about, Joe says nothing until he's forced, then chooses words that won't get him into trouble.
âBest keep me flamin' mouth shut, eh girlie, âcase yer sister can't get herself a rich bloke on account of me openin' me trap,' he'd chaff Jessica in front of Hester and Meg, coming home in the sulky from a wedding, or one of their get-togethers with Ada Thomas and her two ugly daughters, Winifred and Gwen.
Joe's wife Hester has got her beady eye on the Thomas boy for Meg. Hester put a lot of work into her oldest daughter, doing the best she knows how. She comes from good stock herself, with her respectable shopkeeper relatives the Heathwoods, but she doesn't have the education to take it too far, though she reads and writes well enough and speaks nicely too when she likes. She's a sensible woman, though, who knows what she wants and has the determination needed to get it. What she wants is a way out of poverty and being ordinary, and a good marriage for Meg would do the trick. Meg took to her encouragement right away, reading and speaking properly, with her rounded vowels and fancy ways.