Death is a heartbeat away

Hi ho!.jpg

 

I have posted this here before; I think?

 

1932, on a road passing Datjoin, heading toward what was soon to be known as ‘Wialki’, a place deep within the eastern section of the Western Australian Wheatbelt. A young woman held rein whilst perched high upon the seat of a cart, a cart that had seen its heyday a good fifty years earlier. Cars were something that happened to other people, and there were only a hand full in the entire area. Whilst sturdy enough, in its own way, the years and carpenters of dubious qualification, generally none at all, had done their best to keep it on the road; their ‘best’ proving no more than barely sufficient. Lashed into traces was a bay mare lovingly named ‘Lucy’ by the very same woman driving her, albeit some fifteen years earlier. The father of the woman driving, however, had named the hard mouthed, moody, flighty, pig rooting nag ‘You Bastard’, a secret kept silently and to himself at around the same time as his then four year old daughter had called ‘You Bastard’, ‘Lucy’. Being a father, and a man with an excellent eye for horseflesh, his name for the horse proved far more accurate. After a short stint as a beast under saddle whose sole purpose was behind and around livestock, she was retired after she threw him, bit him, then killed a dog under hoof all in the same day. He would have preferred retiring her to the plate, however, needs must, and into traces she went.

 

Not more than three and a half miles from the front gate of ‘Datjoin’, to the Post Office at Wialki, bush, in the process of slowly being cleared, surrounded the track on either side. Salmon gums stood tall, white bodied beasts with noisy darkish green leafy hair infested with pink and grey galahs, painfully noisome beasts of the feather and rats of the sky; the track itself was a sandy one, narrow, and not accustomed to an abundance of traffic. A gum, twisted, scarred and slightly larger than its neighbors, stood on the northern side of the east – west track, at its feet was a large ‘Bull Ant’ nest. The gum, over the years, had become a nesting place for a pair of Nankeen Kestrels whose sanctuary come nursery was three quarters up the tree situated in a broken off and hollow stump of a branch. A yard to the north east of the base of the tree was a nest of Dugites, their young were a dark copper shade, all baring shiny black heads and fierce demeanour as is the norm with such highly venomous snakes. And there, leaning against the trunk of the gnarled behemoth some hundred yards ahead of her was a man; immediately catching the lass on the cart’s attention.

 

Dressed in a neat white shirt, collar unpinned, with a well tanned face just visible beneath a mop of brown hair that had been reasonably well maintained, yet was slightly longer than was the fashion. Something along the lines of a ‘naval officer from a hundred years earlier’ she thought to herself. Broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip, to her he appeared to be in his early twenties, yet on reflection, she believed he bore the air of a ‘dashing rogue’. Neat brown strides that may have been moleskin covered his legs, stopping at a pair of shiny black boots, and if he wasn’t six tall, she vowed she would walk east. How he came to be standing beside a track on a July morning, dew still yet to evaporate from the grass and leaves, and without a jacket to warm him, mildly perplexed her. The gap between she and he taking an eternity to diminish ─ all thanks to the slow plodding of Lucy.

 

When the gap had closed to ten yards between man and beast, he stepped away from the tree, looked up at the whites of his eyes appearing to almost glow in contrast to the colour of his tanned cheeks. He flashed her the most wolfish of smiles. To her utter dismay, accompanied by the squawking of the trees feathered inhabitants, the nameless chap walked away from her around the tree. By the time she reached it however, he had disappeared from sight.  Believing he must have hidden himself from her, she gently slowed Lucy to wander past his spot, feigning interest in him should he be watching, however much she found the dashing six footer appealing, whilst secretly scouring the ground for him. Yet, by the time the intrepid pair had passed the tree entirely, he was gone. Angered at this, she put him from her mind by focussing on the memory of his eyes ‘deep enough to swim in’.

 

Her return trip from town proved uneventful, and when the weathered and wizened tree came into view, she found his absence quite depressing.

 

Time and lifestyle being what they are, his appearance haunted her briefly, only to fade after a day or two on return to the farm. When, some eleven days later her father passed on to her that she needed to go to town in the morning to collect much needed equipment from the shop come Post Office. At the crack of dawn, Lucy, aka – ‘You Bastard’, once more did her level best to remain out of the traces she was currently in, stomped off to town, the lass seated above and behind, reins in hand. As with the last trip, some hundred odd yards to the west of the old tree, ‘He’ faded into sight, standing and leaning as he had the previous time she had gone to town. Clothes and manner identical to their last encounter; ten yards from the tree, as had happened before, she found herself mesmerised by his amazing green eyes flashing at her as he rounded the tree and was lost from sight to once again. To her disgust, on closer inspection in passing the tree and its raucous inhabitants, she found that he once more had vanished. Lucy could not have cared less.

 

This was to become a routine for her every time she ventured to town for the next six or eight months. Always appearing from a distance, disappearing without so much as a footprint to prove he had existed at all. His green eyes now indelibly embedded within her mind, ensuring she woke in a sweat in the middle of many a cold and lonely night in her small camp bed. The false memory of her held passionately within his heavy muscular arms the main cause. Another year passed, and sadly Lucy had passed on (“Shot the old bitch when I had the chance. I knew there would be good eating on that one” said father to son a fortnight later), and a new old horse had been relieved from mustering livestock, filling the trace as Lucy could never have done. The girls’ trip to town, mutating into something close to addiction over her, and the unspoken liaison it offered.

 

Feeling as though kicked by a horse, she noted from a distance that something was terribly amiss. Not only had he not appeared as she approached the usual spot, the tree itself looked as though it had been torn from the ground by a giant, cast into the middle of the road, and then burnt. Tendrils of smoke still lingered about it, and the noise of its pink and grey inhabitants made conspicuous in their absence. Roots and branches lay bout it, torn and twisted and ruined, leaves scattered like fallen hail appeared in the surrounding tree tops and low dried grass. A hole like an entry to Hades was all that remained in the spot the tree had been rent from. Gasping for air, an ‘O’ taking place of her pretty mouth, she reined in and sprang from the risen seat, and ran to the tree. Her tree. Their tree. And stalked around it. No other piece of vegetation had been in anyway changed or harmed in its surrounding. Not a leaf nor patch of grass had been molested, just the one, only, tree that was hers, and the absence of him.

 

She wept, torrents. Heartfelt, gut drawn sobs came from her. Tears cut wriggling tributaries through the grime on her cheeks. Sucking in a deep breath, gaining a relative semblance of composure, she dragged her feet back to the waiting contraption. Crestfallen, climbing up into the seat, Agatha picked up the reins, gave them a slow flick, and away plodded the horse.

 

Rounding the obstacle on the track, she ventured off the road, the cart jumped with a jolt from the offside wheel, bouncing over some hard lump in its path. Surprise bringing her figuratively back to earth, she looked over the side and behind the tall wheel to see what she had run over. All she found was a broken branch from her tree, now with an added wheel track from the steel bound rim. Returning her gaze toward the rear of the horse before her, something bright reflected from the ground, catching her eye. Turning to inspect what it was that had drawn her attention, it took her a moment to find it and what she saw drew her back from the seat and onto the ground in a single swift movement. Feet on terra firma, two incredibly quick steps had her at a fallen limb with a smaller branch sticking out at an odd angle, its end a mass of green gum leaves. With both hands she lifted the lesser branch, snapping the green stick off at its junction on the larger limb. Hastily tearing casting it from her, she brushed ants from both arms and hands before it hit the ground. There, what she saw beside the broken limb chilled her to the very quick of her marrow. A gasp escaping her beautiful lips, she bent down, hand extended, and picked up a pair of boots. The most beautiful pair of mens dress boots, polished and black. One had been sitting upright whilst the other lay on its side, the sole facing her, size ten she guessed, with hobnails, all apparently intact and well brushed standing proud, glimmering in the sun. She inspected them, laces in good repair, and quite new judging by the wear on the heel. Inspection over, telling herself that she was in no way mad repeatedly, she deduced that these were the boots, THE boots that belonged to the man of her affections. Stumped by the ill logic, she stepped back up into the seat, placing the boots up beside her gently onto the splinter giving seat. Again, slowly she shook the reins, and the new old horse stepped away.

 

That evening, kerosene lamps turned low, she snuggled deep down into her camp cot, a curlew sang out giving her a fright. At this, she leant out of the bed and extracted HIS boots from beneath it as quietly as she could, placing them beside her on top of her threadbare counterpane, and promptly fell back to sleep. In what seemed like a blink of the eye, she awoke to the sounds of the day, a Thursday, again she took up the boots, inspecting for the millionth time the set of initials stamped into the leather sole, just before the heel ‘I.J.M.’, and then placed them beneath the bed. Hiding them behind a reused powdered milk tin, and her small sewing basket.

 

Her vomiting began in earnest after breakfast. By lunch all she could do was dry wretch pathetically into the galvanised bucket beside her bed.An hour later, still clutching the bucket to her chest, diarrhea, explosive and unrelenting added to her woe’s. Agatha spent the rest of the afternoon on the long drop toilet behind a York Gum near the house. Unable to tolerate anything by mouth, come sunset her conscious state had dropped to such a point that her mother was forced to hold her in a seated position on the toilet; her complexion had turned a pasty grey, black rings surrounded her eyes, and she appeared to have lost a dress size in weight. After dark a feeble coughing began, transforming quickly into a full body hacking cough, leaving her short of breath, blueing her lips and fingernails in response. By eight o’clock foamy red blood was coming with every cough, her diarrhea and dry retching continued.

 

Earlier, at around mid afternoon, Father had set off in search of the one and only Doctor in the district. Sadly on his arrival, he found that the doctor was  eighteen miles away running his one day a week clinic in Beacon, just as he has done every week for the last seven years. Lost for alternatives, he rode back out of town toward a nearby farm, hunting the farmer’s wife come midwife, Mrs. Gordon. After banging on her door for what seemed an age, it finally came ajar, and he was told by a ten year old lad that ‘Mother is out near Bencubbin ‘elpin’ Mrs. Pitcher have her wee bairn. An’ we won’t see ‘er until the morrow at the earliest.’ Flustered and very alone, he rode back into town to the Post Master’s house. Summoning the Post Master’s wife, who, whilst having aided in a variety of births and dealt with occasional injuries, had no medical knowledge. With reluctance she finally acquiesced, and joined him, driving her cart behind him into the early evening.

 

When, at last, some two hours later, they arrived at the farm, his beautiful flaxen haired daughter was dead. Drowned in her own lung blood, and succumbing to the wrath of dehydration.

 

Mother, with the aid of the Post Master’s wife, washed her daughter’s body, brushed out her hair, and dressed her in her prettiest blue dress, laying her much emancipated body out on her narrow camp stretcher. Father, being a man of compassion, but still very practical regardless of circumstance, gently told Mother that it would be best to get her to town before the sun rose in six hours, the days getting warmer as they recently had been. A country mile was still a country mile, no matter how the crow flew.

 

The drive back to Wialki had been long and unpleasant for all, the new old horse was utterly blown, sweat dried white over its withers, head hanging, too tired to drink from the trough before it. Father carried his stiffening daughters corpse through the front door of the Post Master’s house, into a back room, gently placing her on the low bed within. Mother covered her in a counterpane taken from the dead girls cot prior to heading to town. Father stepped out once more, this time in search of the local Catholic Priest.

 

Fearing she be the carrier of some horrid, unknown, and highly contagious disease, the lass was buried that morning in a hastily dug plot outside of town, but as close to the newly erected St. Patrick’s Catholic Church as possible. Wialki was yet to have an established and consecrated cemetery, her family being good Catholics as they were, had to make do. A short service was given, and Mother silently wept. Tears washing flies from her face as they rolled steadily down her cheeks; Father flicked them from himself with a switch made from a leafy stick torn from a nearby Tamma bush. The only others in attendance were the Priest, the Post Master’s exhausted wife, and the midwife, freshly returned from a long and terminal night for both the mother and child she had attended. Agatha’s brother was away shearing.

 

With the hole filled, sorrow and anguish hung over Mother and Father, despair lingering above the grief struck couple like some ghastly carrion bird, swooping in to devour all heart and feeling from the pair. The old, old horse, as it had become overnight, slowly plodded its way home, head hung the entire way.

 

The first sign that something was amiss occurred as they rounded the last bend of the home track. In the lingering vestiges of daylight was the scent of smoke. When the house came into view, it was merely remains, rather than house they saw. Willy willy’s of fine grey and white ash lifted into the wind around the burnt smoking pile that was once home to a happy and contented family. No wood, no uprights, no beams, no walls, no veranda’s, and no floors remained to be seen. Heat distorted corrugated iron lay strewn about the place, scattered haphazardly as if lifted and discarded by Gods hand.  The kitchen, separate to the house had vanished entirely, scorched earth and blown ash replacing it. Not even the windmill, nor the dunny had survived, with the tree beside the self same outhouse looking as though it had been struck by lightning. Oddly, and possibly worst of all, there had been no sign of storm nor fire anywhere else. Thankfully no beast or fowl was injured or killed, all livestock were huddled within the corner of a paddock next to the destroyed windmill. Oddly the trough remained intact.

 

Saying nothing, Father removed the extremely tired horse from its traces, and lead it to the trough, astounded to find water still held within, releasing it there in the knowledge that the beast was too spent to wander. He then went back and helped Mother down from her seat, gently placing her on the ground, walked around behind the cart, dropped the tailgate, and withdrew a length of rolled canvas come tarpaulin from it. Unrolling it beneath the cart, a bed for the night now found. Standing again, he unslung the water bag and then opened the toolbox, extracting a much dented soot blackened kettle, a pair of dented and chipped white enamel tin mugs, two reasonably fresh dirt encrusted spuds, and a packet of tea. Wandering back to the house, he scraped some coals from where the eastern veranda had stood, onto the iron head of a long handled shovel, and carried it back to the little cart. After scratching a double handful of dried gum leaves into a pile, he dumped the coals on to it, and gently blew on them. Little wisps of smoke began to form, the coals reddened, and he began feeding twigs, then sticks, then a couple of more substantial lumps of wood onto them as the fire built. Filling the kettle from the waterbag, he stood it beside the inappropriately happy little fire, and went to fetch Mother. Returning with his silent, emotionally and physically drained wife of 27 years, and sat her on a Salmon Gum log beside the fire. Making the tea, he dumped the two potatoes to boil in the remaining hot water within the kettle. Finally he was able to venture back to the house, now in darkness, and attempt to establish what had happened, only to return five minutes later, the night proving a greater obstruction than his spirit could handle.

 

Fine eastern sunlight caught the inside of the canvas wrapped around them, and he drew himself from his bed into the pickaninny dawn. Cool chill and moist air enveloping him entirely; pulling on his boots he walked to the place where his home had stood, and began investigating. Half an hour passed, and thus far he had found nothing to salvage, nor the starting place of the fire. Lingering over a bowed piece of roofing iron, he lifted it left handed, and placed in on top of the small pile of iron he had created. Beneath he stared at the location of his daughter’s death bed, the only bed she had known in life, and stood transfixed. Nothing remained of the little camp cot bar piles of powdery fine white ash. Nudging one such pile with the toe of his boot, he uncovered what he later discerned to be as knitting needles, another pile, beside the first transformed into a blackened old powdered milk tin. Holding the items in his large calloused hands, he realised he was silently weeping, these items proving to be the only things to survive as proof of the existence of his little girl. Standing a while longer, he raised his head, placing the priceless treasures with all the love his body possessed a’top his pile of roofing iron. Turning, he gave a lesser pile of ash, this one beside where the wall had stood, a further nudge with his boot. The rush of air in between his teeth was loud enough for mother to hear a good eighteen feet away. Bending at the waist, he reached down and pulled out, shaking the ash away as he did so, a pair of shiny black, hobnailed and laced boots. Neither boot was harmed, and appeared as though they had been removed from his feet, not from the ashes of a fire that had decimated all it encountered. Turning the boots over in his hands he noted ‘I.J.M.’ stamped into the perfectly oiled sole. Calling Mother, he showed them to her, asking her if she had ever seen them before. Boots in hand, she examined them minutely, on turning them over, soles facing her, she gently wrapped them into the apron around her waist, turned, and slowly meandered back to the cart and camp fire.

 

It was two weeks to the day when the Priest from town went out to see the grieving parents. Pastoral care his motive.

 

Laying beside one another, wrapped in the strip of canvas on the ground beneath the cart, Mother and Father were both found, very much dead. Their remains, given how warm it had become over the last week, the corpses were remarkably intact. By appearance, neither corpse had been molested by animals nor birds. Ants and flies had been at them, although not greatly, beyond that, there was no obvious cause of death.

 

In a later police report, the priest was noted to state that a “clean pair of ankle high black hobnail boots were found on the grass beside the old man. They would have been far too big for him, and I doubt he would have had the money to buys such a fine pair of boots.”

 

Four days later, Constable Street of the Muckinbudin Police arrived at the farm where the gruesome discovery of the dead couple was made. He noted that all of the livestock in nearby paddocks had been watered, and pushed into paddocks heavier in feed by surrounding neighbours. Plodding along on a sway backed and big bellied chestnut mare, he was surprised to find a man six foot tall, well built, heavily tanned, and approximately 25 years of age, strolling up the house track toward him. Dressed in a crisp white collarless linen shirt, moleskin trousers, black boots, and sporting lengthy brown hair of a style that put Constable Street in mind of a Naval Officer from the time of Nelson. When questioned by the Police Officer as to his reason for being on the track exiting the property, the rather dashing chap replied in a heavy Scot’s brogue “I’ve come to get me boots.” Accepting the dubious response, Constable Street bid him good day, put his heels to the horse, and set off, abruptly stopping, the question of ‘no hat, horse, nor water bag’ sprang to mind. Drawing rein, he turned in the saddle, and found the road empty. Perplexed, he turned the horse and set back up the track after him, calling out all the while, still he found no one. Thinking himself mad, he cast his eye to the ground, yet there were absolutely no tracks on the ground other than those of the horse he was seated upon, and that of a small kangaroo. Casting around the surrounding scrub, not a thing beyond an unwanted kangaroo tick clinging to the back of his neck was found. Incredibly, absolutely nothing at all showed any trace of the chap having ever been there, which he later reported.

 

Months passed with rapidity, Mother and Father, cause of death ‘unknown’, were buried with their daughter, and Wialki returned to the semblance of normality it had previously enjoyed.

 

Interestingly enough, there are still reports of a long haired chap, collarless white shirt, moleskins, and black boots; yet the word behind closed doors is that ‘I.J.M.’ haunts the road between Datjoin and Wialki to this day.

 

 

Fin.

 

 

Click the picture.

 

 

N.

 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Wow. This story was amazing. I loved all your colloquial details and mysterious descriptions.

    Like

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