A Chance to Unite: New International Writing 2019

Jo Langdon 

 

plastic figure with dead insect 

 

 

ONE

Sage is a witch. She tells him, the red berries will make you dead; the orange ones can revive you.

Jimmy doesn’t want to eat them, red or orange or at all. The tree Sage has picked them from has coarse, greenish-black bark, which makes it look poisonous, or poisoned and sick.

The wind is sucking loose birch leaves up the curved length of the driveway, and Sage and Jimmy have been crouching over the gravel, building houses with the small, flat-edged stones. Six, seven o’clock in the evening and the sun is a slice of light, sinking lower and lower through the tree line in the distance—the gums at the farthest edge of the Stevensons’ paddock next door turned black with the brightness shining through from behind.

There is a village of gravel pieces spread out in front of them now, but Sage is bored and has collected the berries and some bitter green leaves in the cup of her hands. Standing next to her, close enough to see the berries she holds, Jimmy is shaking his head. They’re not edible, he says.

Trust me, says Sage, or I won’t be your sister anymore.

She laughs at him when he scowls, her teeth showing white and bright, and then she skims her foot through the rows of gravel houses, lets the berries fall through splayed fingers.

Sometimes, she says, you’re the most stupid person I’ve ever met.

He pushes past her quickly and heads back to the house. Past the shed, then past the lemon tree and liquidambar in the front garden. He tries not to run in case Sage is watching, and when he gets to the verandah he realises he doesn’t want to go inside. Their dad is home, his utility parked up close and slightly angled against the side of the house. The grass that grows close to the weatherboard walls is long and dry and the colour of cream. There are fruit trees next to the house wall too—apricots and plums—and in summer the unpicked fruits fall and rot open to their dark stone cores on the ground.

Jimmy tries not to breathe in too much of the air. It is thick with thrips. Autumn now, but the days are still warm and dry. The sinking light has faded everything, but the air is clear to look at, the outlines of things sharp.

He sits carefully on the verandah’s edge. The nails are coming up through the boards; he’s caught his bare feet on them a few times before, and thinks about hammering them down again. A bang for each, neat and hard.

When he looks up, Jimmy sees that Sage is walking towards him. Her hair is black and looks like feathers when it’s loose, but today their mother has fixed it in two tight plaits, which is how she has to wear it for school. Her green school dress is too long for her, he sees. Under the hem her bare legs are skinny and pale to her white bobby socks and sandals.

When she’s standing in front of him she stops and drags a snort up through her nose then spits, like she’s seen men do. It looks about right, but she hasn’t done it properly, Jimmy can tell; the spit on the ground is clear.

Sage means sharp-tasting leaves, he knows. It means clever and wise. Her name is inside their mother’s dictionary, and he has memorised all of its definitions, but his own isn’t in any of the J pages.

Look in the Bible, his mother has told him. This is something she says often, and he likes the Bible: its weightiness and its feathery gold-edged pages.

When he did look he’d found his name, but not Sage’s.

So? Sage had said. Why do you care? She’d shrugged the words off with her shoulder.

Sage likes the Bible story about lions. She knows it by heart and tells it without having to read the words. Jimmy imagines their heavy-lidded eyes, and wet ivory teeth, longer and wider than his finger bones.

Now Sage won’t tell him anything; she won’t speak at all because he wouldn’t play the game. She sits close to him on the verandah, though, with the edges of their fingers touching. She puts her sandalled foot on top of Jimmy’s shoe, then next to it to measure. Her feet are smaller, only just, even though she’s older (but by less than a year, he knows. It is, and isn’t, very much time).

When Jimmy doesn’t say anything either, Sage leans close and licks the skin on his arm, which is bare up to his white t-shirt sleeve.

Don’t, Jimmy says, and Sage laughs and flicks her head. But I’m a pony, she tells him. Her legs are hanging over the verandah’s edge and she points the toes of her sandals into the ground then kicks up dust.

You’re not, he tells her, and anyway, ponies don’t lick, they bite.

She lunges at him then, like he knew she would, and he’s too quick. She would chase him all the way to the dam, to the water’s edge in a heartbeat, but their names are called from inside the house.

Sage widens her eyes. Don’t say, she says. Don’t tell about the berries and the spell.

Like he would, Jimmy thinks, but he doesn’t say anything, and they walk back to the verandah steps.

The sky has darkened now, the sun sunk away altogether and clouds streaked as if with violet ink. There’s no breeze but the air has a sudden chill to it, and Jimmy shivers a bit inside his clothes. The old man might be in the shed, he thinks, but there isn’t any light shining through the cracks between the closed double doors.

Jimmy can see past the shed and the dam to the shapes of horses in the dark paddocks next door. There is the shape of the Stevensons’ house, also unlit, and the black silhouettes of the water tank and a windmill. Things he only knows from a distance, from watching like this.

Their names are called again, and Sage heads up the steps, then looks back at Jimmy.

If the old man has been inside long enough, there will be loose shreds of tobacco and slips of cigarette paper on the kitchen table, the window opened by their mother so the air can suck out or disperse the layers of smoke. Jimmy hopes that their dad is in the shed, and won’t come in until much later, once they are in bed. At night he hears their parents walk the passageway. Their mum is soft in slippers on the carpet hall runner, but the old man—on the nights that he’s home—is always in his work boots, even when it’s the latest, blackest night, so that Jimmy wonders if he ever takes those boots off.

He walks up to the door where Sage is waiting. Jimmy swings open the screen and goes in, and she follows him inside, quietly down the hall runner and to the kitchen. 

 

*

 

Their mother is alone and pale-faced at the round table, fingering the thick, cream-coloured threads of the crocheted tablecloth. Their dad’s dinner plate is on the bench top next to the stove and covered with foil to keep warm, but there are three plates set out on the table, and on them Jimmy notices peas, which he hates.

They sit and say a quick grace first, and at the end Sage says amen, amen, amen, like she always does, three times and fast, but whispered softly enough for their mother not to notice. Usually their mum is quiet as they eat, not speaking except to say, Sage, don’t lick your knife. Eat properly.

Tonight she hasn’t said anything much at all. She sits at the table with them for the prayer then stands and carries her plate back to the bench, hovering at the stove, then the sink. She turns the taps on and begins scrubbing pots with silver wool, squeezing green detergent from a bottle.

Jimmy has filled his mouth with bread. He likes its white nothing taste, with just the faint sweetness of yeast and salt.

Across the table Sage shows him the food on her tongue, sucked to a paste and moulded against her teeth. Bread with meat and peas chewed together, Jimmy sees. His own bread sticks at the back of his mouth. His fear is mostly for her because she doesn’t know when to cut it out, when she’s gone too far.

Their mother doesn’t notice, though, or if she does she doesn’t say anything. After they’ve finished eating she leans over them to take their plates. She has a clean soap smell mostly, like cold white flowers, but sometimes it’s something else: a kind of wet, like dishwater left in the sink, which is what Jimmy smells on her skin tonight.

Once the dinner things are washed and stacked away dry, she is the sound of knitting needles clicking in the living room, and something on the stereo playing, soft and low.

Music for God, Sage says, her eyes solemn and knowing.

Sage sits at the kitchen table next to Jimmy, their homework spread in front of them. There are spelling sheets and a set of readers, then maths, which Jimmy is better at. He doesn’t like the words printed on book pages so much. Black and pressed flat on the page, the letters look too similar with the same circles, hooks and loops.

He can read right enough but slow, and staring at the pages too long makes him sick and headachy, so it’s best to remember the books he likes: the Bible stories and words from the dictionary—everything he wants to know. He learns them by heart so the letters themselves don’t matter, which is how Sage does it.

Sage was given Black Beauty for her ninth birthday, which she has repeated back to Jimmy so often with variations, the story sucked into her and turned over and felt and dreamed of, until the words and the things that happen are hers. Sage sometimes calls herself Anna, like the name embossed on the book’s front cover. Anna, so soft in Sage’s singsong.

Now, leaning over her school reader at the table, she is singing the words she spells under her breath. She’s quicker at reading and writing than Jimmy is, but she’s taking her time now, he sees. The old man still hasn’t come inside, and Jimmy begins to pack his finished homework sheets away. His coloured pencils and the grey leads go back inside their tin case.

Their mother calls out softly through the wall between the kitchen and the living room, where the stereo is still playing quiet music. It’s Sage’s turn for the bath; Jimmy will have one tomorrow. Tonight, after Sage is done, it’s just a wet flannel for his face, behind his ears and the back of his neck, then his teeth brushed before bed.

When Sage goes she is still humming, but under her breath and so softly that Jimmy wonders if only he hears it. Once she’s gone, walked through to the bathroom at the back of the house, he ducks outside and checks from the verandah to see the old man’s ute still parked up close against the side wall.

From here Jimmy sees that there is some yellow light shining dimly from the shed window, although he doesn’t know what his dad would be doing out there for all this time. The shed is just boxed-up things and broken bits of furniture, he knows. There is a wooden rocker with splits running through its timber legs, and the baby’s pram with its fold-over roof and tall, spoked wheels, which one or both of them must have been pushed around in.

Jimmy walks to the corner of the house where the verandah boards come to a sudden end. He jumps to the ground—feeling the thud in his legs, his bones—then squeezes himself into the darkness between the ute and the weatherboard wall, passing the bedroom he shares with Sage, before reaching the back of the house.

The backyard stretches into the night, ending with a line of pine trees. In the middle of the yard there is a washing line with buffalo grass underneath, roots loose in the dry ground. To the side is a peppercorn, the remnants of a fort Jimmy and Sage once tried to make in its branches, which are good for climbing. There is an old chook shed, empty but for the mice, which Jimmy has seen through the honeycomb wire door. Their tiny grey bodies, darting into or out of the old grain holder, are the same colour as the dust.

Most days their mother goes out the back to hang clothes and bed sheets on the washing line, winding it up and down to catch a breeze. And she sweeps the blown-up dust from the front verandah boards with a witch’s broom that has long, straw-like bristles, but that’s as far out of the house as she goes, except for church and groceries (there is a lady, a neighbour, who drives her to do both).

On the other side of those pine trees—barely visible in the night—is somebody else’s land. It used to be a dairy farm, but now the land is empty of people and animals both; Jimmy and Sage have looked. Jimmy thinks he can remember the noise of cows, their mooing like a strange kind of groaning that came across the paddocks.

The night is still, even the thrips gone. He moves to the concrete step at the back door, which opens into the laundry with the bathroom next to it. Through the flyscreen he can hear Sage singing to herself in the bath, the sounds of her body moving in the water. She is singing the words to the first school reader, the one their mother makes Jimmy practise with when he’s not doing well in class.

I can hop I can run I can stop It is fun Hop, hop, hop Run run, run Stop, stop, stop Fun, fun, fun It is fun. Jimmy turns the words over in his head. Those short words feel heavy and cold, and each one of them clicks into place like a magnet, a hard shiny puzzle piece, as he remembers it. Sage thinks she can use words to remake the world, he thinks, but the words are not the world. Jimmy walks two fingers up the flywire screen of the door, slowly, like a moth on the mesh.

On the other side of the wall Sage’s singing stops and the bathwater is still. Jimmy takes his hand from the screen and shivers in the black night. He swings the door open and goes back through the house to the living room, where their mother is still knitting in the lamplight.

She is working on one of her quilts, which she knits square-by-square to sew together after. Sometimes she crochets doilies and covers for things, so that all the furniture in the house is layered soft with fabric; protected and kept nice underneath. She used to knit clothes—jumpers and cardigans—until Jimmy and Sage both refused, best they could, to wear them. The hand-me-downs from church are mostly better than homemade, so long as they’re not seen wearing things that used to belong to other kids at school.

Jimmy goes to stand at her side. He watches the wool, her fingers and the knitting needles. How the wool is looped around one needle, hooked then slid off with the other one, again and again, to make so many rows. When he looks away it is towards the music. There is a low dresser across the chestnut-swirl carpet of the room, and the stereo is on top, with brittle ladies in porcelain skirts, ornamental and not-for-touching, trapped still in a dance.

Jimmy looks back at his mother and she’s counting stitches, the numbers a whisper at the back of her teeth, a soft kind of clucking. This many down, this many across, yes, good, and then she goes on knitting, panels of wool forming neat and perfect, spilling down from her small white hands.

There is one family portrait, of the four of them, which rests on the low table next to where she sits. In it, Sage is littler, rounder in the face, her cheeks appled, coloured pink by the photographer’s tint. Her hair hangs dark and straight to her shoulders, and Jimmy sees that it’s brushed to a softness, the look of feathers gone out of it. He sees himself next to her, skinnier and slightly shorter, but just as dark around the eyes, his mouth just as unsmiling.

Their parents are behind them in the portrait: he is Bernard, Bern—dad, theirs, only in the lowercase way. She is Evelyn, never made short: her name ripples, trickily.

In the photo the old man’s hair is dark and combed into a side part. His mouth curves; he looks like a man in an ad, a man who’s glad but serious. His shirtsleeves are rolled up, one hand resting big on Jimmy’s shoulder. In the photograph his arms look smooth, Jimmy sees, not greyed by hairs.

Their mother is next to the old man, and beautiful in dark lipstick. Jimmy can make out the pearls that hang from gold hooks just beneath her pale earlobes. He knows that she keeps those earrings in a cut-glass bowl on the dresser, and wears them only for church or special occasions.

In the lamp-lit room, he checks and sees that her earlobes are unadorned, but he can still make out the tiny lines that are the holes those hooks fit through. His mother looks up at him from the sofa, the knitting needles still clicking between her hands, working the wool. Her mouth twitches at the corners when she smiles at him, and her smell is cold white flowers when Jimmy leans in to kiss her goodnight. 

 

TWO

Are you awake? Sage calls out.

He counts the syllables (four), but they slip together like words in a song, making a single note.

He sees the outline of Sage in the dark, sitting up in her bed across the room.

I want to show you something outside, she says, and she slides her legs out from beneath the blankets, drops her bare feet to the floorboards.

Jimmy gets out of bed and they both begin to dress quickly, on opposite sides of the room and without turning the light on. The night has cooled down, and it always feels colder in the house with its high ceilings and the boards that line the floors with tiny gaps between them.

Jimmy is already in flannel pyjama pants and a white singlet. The flannel is faintly blue, pale like baby’s things and worn soft. He buttons into the matching pyjama shirt, then pulls his school jumper on over it, feeling the flannel of the top twist underneath it, bunched awkwardly.

Put shoes on, Sage tells him, in case of snakes. She is smaller than he is somehow these days—the top of her head barely goes past his eyebrows when they stand with their faces close together—and yet she’s so stern and sure, the way she looks at him with the staring eyes of an owl.

Jimmy wants to tell her that it isn’t summer, isn’t hot enough for snakes, but it might be. He isn’t sure and so he doesn’t say anything, pretends not to have heard her.

Sage has put on flannel pants under her pale nighty, and a duffle coat on top. She is buttoning up the toggles, her head down, watching her fingers work—Jimmy’s eyes can just make her out. Her socks and slippers are already on her own feet, so he feels around in the dark for his leather school shoes.

Their parents’ bedroom is on the other side of the hallway, and suddenly Jimmy hears their voices, rising and falling through the walls, tiered over one another, their dad’s over their mum’s now, harder and faster.

When Sage opens the door to the passageway the light is still on. Jimmy squints and hears his mother’s worry in his head: lights cost money to keep on, you know.

He follows Sage along the carpet runner in the hall and sees that her black hair remembers plaits. She pauses at the front door then twists the latch and pulls it open, pushing the screen door ahead of them, and they step out onto the verandah boards.

Invisible things are twitching and humming in the night that spreads out in front of them. Spider webs, trapezed between the verandah posts, glow in the dark. The moon is close in the sky and chalky-cold.

Sage pulls the door closed with a soft click, settles the flyscreen against its frame carefully. Ssh, she says to Jimmy, finger to her lips. You’re inside my dream.

Don’t, he says. This isn’t in sleep.

It’s what I say, she says, fierce-eyed, and their breath is caught hanging in the cool air.

She pulls away then, her kinked hair swaying over her shoulders, and jumps from the low edge of the verandah. Jimmy watches as she begins walking quickly. She’s taking the most difficult way, he sees, through trees and shrubs, ducking around the sharp light of lemons on a low branch. Then she’s in the open again, out past the hulking shape of the shed.

The way she disappears into the dark is like she’s sinking underwater, growing paler and smaller ahead of him.

Jimmy catches up and follows her to the fence wire, and she holds open a space for him to climb through so that they can walk through the front paddock, to the dam.

Somehow closer to the moon now, he can see that it is veined like a leaf. They are in an open stretch of paddock between the trees, and when Jimmy looks up he feels the rest of the faraway sky, all that universe, shrink him.

Sage is being a witch again, he can tell: she is all spooky wide eyes and turning her head slowly, looking at him like an owl.

The water in the dam has shrunk over the summer, and the hot autumn that’s followed hasn’t been helping things. Yesterday Jimmy found another dead carp on the muddy bank. He had put the end of a stick its eye and felt cruel for doing it.

Sage had watched from further back, arms wrapped around her own body like she was cold. She’d told Jimmy he should put the carp back in the water where it would want to be, only then the broken fish had floated, bent on its side and just below the surface.

Now when they reach the soft bank of the dam, the air feels thick and swampy; Jimmy mouths the muddy coldness of it, breathing it in, out. The taste is dirt shot through with salt.

Sage begins to move fast again, following the water’s curve, and he calls out to her: Wait up, won’t you?

She is making her way over to the willows on the opposite side. There are three of them with dripping-down leaves, dipping into the dam’s surface. When Sage stops she is halfway to the willows, close to the gum tree with its swing: a tyre dangling at the end of a thick rope. The black tyre is caked with dry mud and suspended, higher than usual, above the low water.

Jimmy watches Sage pull aside her coat and look down, fingering the pale fabric of her nightdress, and through it, the greening bruise at the bottom of her ribs. Jimmy knows what the bruise looks like; he’s seen it at night because some nights she still sleeps bare-chested, like a boy.

Now Sage looks at him across the darkness. Don’t let him touch you, she says; his skin is poison.

Jimmy closes his eyes against her words. Don’t, Sage, he says. Please.

Lately she’s been telling stories about their dad. Sage has told kids from school about a work accident: how the old man had accidentally tipped hot metal down his boot, and how his skin was melting away before he could get his shoelaces to come loose.

They had been standing in the gravel opposite the school gates, where they wait for the school bus and where there is a yellow sign in the shape of a diamond, and on it the silhouette of a mother holding a child’s hand. The kids all wait there on their own next to a green metal bus shelter, in front of the peeling trunks of gums that line the road. Buses in one direction go to town and in the other direction to the sea. Jimmy and Sage catch the bus to the sea, though it drops them off well before it gets to the ocean.

There were six other kids with them that day, among them two girls who Sage sometimes plays house with at lunchtime—a mums-and-dads game under the leaning branch of a paperbark tree and the gum next to it, the trees’ meshed foliage making a room. Jimmy knows the rises and drops of Sage’s voice across the playground, so fierce, or other times just loud and bossy. (He knows that Sage is complicated, spiky, so that it’s not so much that kids at school like her but, when she’s not closed off—cold, or being sharp—she’s best followed, heard.)

There was a boy in Jimmy’s grade who’s his sort-of friend, and two older ones who ignored Sage when she spoke, but the girls and the littlest kid, who’s just in prep, had all listened, and Sage always tells her stories solemnly.

Most often she tells stories about their dad when he isn’t around—when he’s away from home. Other people’s stories about him turn her inward, quiet, so even when he knows she’s making things up, Jimmy keeps his versions—what he knows—inward and quiet, too.

He remembers their Sunday school teacher with shimmering hair long and dark down her back, and perfect teeth she had smiled with often. She was newly-wed and seemed only just old enough to be a woman and not a girl, and Sage had loved her with a quiet devotion until the morning she’d said to them both: Oh, I’ve just met your father, aren’t you both so lucky, isn’t he so charming?

Jimmy remembers Sage’s hurt and silent fury in him too somehow: a hot, low hum.

I didn’t know that woman was such an idiot, is what she’d finally said to him later, when they were home and alone together.

Now Jimmy walks over to join her at the edge of the dam, and Sage sighs, a high, airy sound.

I see this wolf sometimes, while you’re asleep, she says. I see it through the window, digging up bones.

Her voice is like a song, Jimmy thinks again.

He shakes his head in return. No, he says, wolves don’t do that.

Sage’s face is full of shadows, her eyes dark hollows. It does what I say, she tells him in the same spooky voice as before.

She crouches down low and begins twisting a thick twig into the dirt upright so it stands like a tiny dead tree.

Jimmy squats down to see. In the dark, things are almost black and white. Like a photograph but smoother, without the grains. It’s a curly stick, he sees; a magic wand stick, Sage used to call them. A bit of willow all dried out.

James, she says. I love wolves the best. What’s your animal?

He thinks for a moment and then tells her lions, but Sage rolls her eyes. I knew you’d say that, she says, and then he wishes he’d said horses instead, or something better. But she’s just his sister, and so he doesn’t have to care. The desire to please her is there, though: something pushing at him every time.

Jimmy looks towards the Stevensons’ paddock next door, where there are always three horses drifting around. Two of the horses are white, faintly spotted at the neck and with ashen manes he knows Sage would like to braid but won’t; up close they make her nervous, and she stands very still and looks away. The third horse is the colour of rust. Jimmy thinks Mr Stevenson lives next door by himself, alone with the horses, but Sage says he has a daughter named Cindy, who is ahead of them at school, already in high school.

Tonight the paddock looks empty, but it stretches out into the night, unseen. Sometimes Jimmy imagines that the horses come up to the house, look through the window glass and see him and Sage sleeping side-by-side.

Now Sage lifts her head suddenly to stare back at the house, and when Jimmy looks he sees that it is lit up through the trees. He hears the sound of the old man’s ute starting up, the sound miniature, faraway. Jimmy feels Sage’s body shift close to his, feels her freeze next to him, but the headlights are moving ahead to the road and then out through the gate that must have been left open. The gums along the road break up the headlights as the ute moves away, and then it’s gone.

Come on, Jimmy says, and Sage nods. They head back to the house, walking together side by side, and Sage has pulled the willow stick out of the ground again and carries it with her. Jimmy is suddenly tired. He feels his body move heavy and slow.

They stop at the wire fence to climb through, and then the house falls into darkness; their mother has already switched the porch light out.

 

THREE 

Jimmy has a dragonfly shell.

Not a shell, he tells Sage. Not like a cicada. It’s the dragonfly’s body, its corpse all hollowed out and airy.

Sage says that she doesn’t want to touch it. The edges are too sharp and she imagines it can sting her skin, even dead.

This is the same hot, slow autumn, and before Sage begins to pull away: a time before Jimmy has a sense of the world’s momentum, that things won’t always be still like this—close and contained.

Today is also the first beach day: the day their dad goes to fish on the coast and they stay behind, but later Sage will tell it differently, and then the pictures will form, brightly coloured and flickering. Jimmy will come to know the story by heart, and soon enough, a version of his own. He will see, in the car, the tree-shadows shifting over the backs of their father’s brown hands on the steering wheel as they drive towards the sea. He will see the old man’s cigarette smoking away in the ashtray, and then, finally, the ocean: vast and brilliant in the distance through the windscreen. Jimmy will imagine the different ways it might have been.

Sage is crouched in the widest part of the driveway, with the house and the shed nearby. She is picking through gravel pieces with her fingers, looking for pieces that will fit together. She prefers smooth edges so that she can brick the stones on top of one another, or map roads and driveways leading up to each crooked house-shape. The village she makes is the same each time, Jimmy knows; it is always the same miniature world, unpeopled except for her hands and quiet words.

Their dad is packing things into the open tray of the ute, parked against the side of the house. Buckets and rods, a tangle of nets, his overnight bag full. Sage watches the old man, looking at him sideways through her hair as she turns stones over in her hands. Jimmy looks over at him then. Bern is in the shadow that the house paints over the ute and the dry grass, and he doesn’t look up.

Sitting on the ground, next to his sister, Jimmy turns his attention back to the dragonfly in his hands. He runs the smooth pad of his thumb under the stiff lace of its perfect wings.

Here, he tells Sage: look. It’s okay.

I said I don’t want to, she says flatly.

There is the noise of the engine starting then, and Johnny Cash on the radio starts singing: because you’re mine, I walk the line. The ute drives past them, and Sage and Jimmy wince as stones flick their way. When the ute is gone and everything is still, Jimmy checks the dragonfly, worried that he’s crushed it by mistake, but the wings and body, all of it, is fine. 

 

*

 

Tonight Sage is telling stories like they’re true.

They are sitting on Jimmy’s bed because it’s the closest to the window, and because Sage has said they have to look out into the paddocks.

The room is as dark as the night outside, but Jimmy’s eyes have adjusted, and he can see when Sage smiles whitely, or rolls her eyes at him.

There are wolves and witches in her stories. Forests, dense and green, and sometimes God. Once Sage had told Jimmy about their dead brothers and sisters, babies born and gone years before. Jimmy thinks of them sometimes, those blue babies, but that story hasn’t been repeated since. Sage’s favourites to tell are about animals, free and dangerous, and tonight, again, her stories are about wolves.

When she stops talking, she leans her cheek on the window, fingers making patterns in the slight condensation that her breathing leaves on the glass. She draws curling, ferny shapes, with dotted leaves—then wide, swooping wings. Zigzags and criss-crosses, and then what might be a snout, tall ears and a long curve of tail.

There are no wolves here, Jimmy says. Foxes maybe, and Mr Stevenson has a dog. I’ve heard it barking.

Jimmy has seen the dog too—circling the horses and woofing at their long legs. The dog keeps the three of them grouped together, and the horses turn their necks and toss their heads, but they don’t gallop away or spread apart from one another.

That, Sage says—her finger pressed to the window, pointing beyond the pictures she’s traced—is no dog. Jimmy has looked too quickly and Sage’s mouth twists into a smile. Anyway, she says airily, dragging her fingernails across the pane, Mr Stevenson shot that dog, you know.

Don’t, Jimmy says. He didn’t, so don’t say that.

Sage doesn’t reply; she stares at him, head cocked like a little bird.

He just shoots rabbits, Jimmy tells her. He wants this to be true, but Sage acts so certain. Her stories slip into the truth.

Jimmy turns back to the glass, but any wolf-shape out there in the actual night is gone. All he sees is a stretch of empty ground at the back of the shed, then the ghostly shapes of gum trunks before the place where the Stevenson’s land would begin.

Sage stands up and walks back towards her bed. Jimmy watches as her bare feet move over the thick lamb’s wool rug on the floor, then back onto the boards. Her nighty is silky, and pale green. Jimmy thinks of peppermint, its cool, sweet-spice taste in the nighty’s colour.

Sage sits on the edge of her bed, and he hears the sound of the springs deep in the mattress, under the blankets and sheets. He did shoot it, she says again, and I even know where it’s buried.

Go to sleep and don’t talk, Jimmy whispers. He lies down on his side, his back to the window, and tries to settle into the stillness. Sage lies down too. At the end of her bed the timber wardrobe leans out at the room, looming over where she sleeps. Only the white pillowcases and the sheets beneath the quilts, and the lamb’s wool rug in the middle of the room, are pale.

Jimmy thinks of the old man, who had come back again not long after he left, with no fish to fry up and nothing at all to say to them. His overnight bag was left by the door, still zipped up and packed with his things.

The house is always different with their dad home. Dinner is earlier, quieter. The curls in their mother’s hair are looped wider, pressed tighter. Some nights the old man leaves an opened bottle of whisky on the kitchen bench, pours the sticky liquid loose and fast so it spills over the lip and down the side of the glass. Jimmy thinks of the radio kept on in the living room with the volume down low, and his mother’s brittle ladies around it, stopped in a dance.

Lately his nosebleeds happen almost daily. Over the sink, quickly! his mother will tell him, her voice hushed yet urgent and her hands behind him, guiding him forward by the shoulders, through to the bathroom at the back of the house.

There, Jimmy will stand over the sink and feel the blood slip over his top lip. The red drips roll across the white porcelain, cracked faintly beneath its glaze, and merge with the beads of water from the tap that leaks. While he stands there, waiting for it to stop, Evelyn wets a washcloth under the bath taps and follows their steps backwards, wiping up any marks on the floors before they can dry out and stain.

In bed, Jimmy tosses beneath the blankets, touches his nose quickly, just to check.

Finally, he feels sleep closing in, and a dream already starting in his head. There are wolves—more than one of them now, a pack, circling something invisible out in the paddocks. In the night air their shapes are grey and white, grainy as newspaper photographs. As they move they lift their heads and suck the cold night air in through their damp noses. They move in twists and turns, their footsteps perfect like a dance.

Just like Sage said, he thinks, before sleep takes him away: her stories loosened out into the world.

 

*

 

Deep in the night, Jimmy is awake. The bedroom door has clicked shut and the old man has left their room, but Sage, in her bed across the floor, won’t talk to him. Now it’s her turn to feign sleep, lying on her stomach, her head turned to the wall.

The dark looks solid and deep around the shape of her blanketed body. She’s so still it’s like she’s not breathing, which is how Jimmy knows her sleep is pretend. He stands up out of his own bed slowly and walks carefully, knowing the boards that creak under his weight.

He touches her shoulder and she moves over, turning her whole body to the wall, and Jimmy fits himself into the bed next to her. Her mint-coloured nighty is somehow cool to touch, even between the warm sheets.

It takes two hands to make eight spider legs with his fingers. Sliding them under the covers he walks his spider fingers down the knuckles of Sage’s spine and she shivers.

Jimmy, don’t, she says, and her voice is small in the dark.

She rolls over slightly to face him. Her face is pale against the white pillowcase, and her bottom lip is wet from where she has bitten down. He touches a finger to her mouth carefully and she flinches. She turns away from him again, shoulder-first, and then draws the blankets up around her face.

He wants to whisper the words to a song, an Elvis one maybe. He’d start with one line, and Sage would add the next, and this would get her talking, whispering words back to him. Songs move words along, Jimmy thinks. Next to him, Sage stays quiet and still, and then she nudges him away with her shoulder.

Jimmy, get out, she says, and so he does, stung. He crosses the lamb’s wool rug between their twin beds, and, in his own bed, waits for Sage to call out to him. When she never does he thinks he’ll never get to sleep, but then sleep comes anyway; his body drops into it, like something dead.

 


Jo LangdonJo Langdon is currently working on her first novel, The Shadow Maker. She is the author of two books of poems: Snowline (Whitmore Press, 2012) and Glass Life (Five Islands Press, 2018), and was a 2018 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow. Her recently published writing includes work in the journals Overland, Southerly and Antipodes. She lives in Victoria, Australia, on Wathaurong Country.

 

 

 

 


 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.