Helayne Short, The Brittle Grass

Taxus Baccata

The fog was thick as the woman with child in hand cautiously approached the bus stop in front of the park. She could not see through the fog, which increased her unease about this place, where stones holding the names of the dead stand along its boundary.

It was colder waiting at the bus stop, which stood in front of the concrete toilet block, so she moved the child away from the frozen wall to stand by the tree – the sentinel at the park’s entrance. She could not recall its name from her memory. The warmth of trees she mused, looking up at its tall spires – a young one she thought. The child also looked up, thinking she had seen a bird – the cold kept him quiet and still.

Then the woman saw a dark form come slowly through the fog and move down alongside the toilet block. Won’t be open this early, she thought and listened for footsteps leaving, but heard none.

She searched the fog behind her. She could not see them, but could feel the strange creatures she knew lived in this park, where children chased each other barefooted, over yellowed bones. She wondered if children had always played amongst the dead, remembering a sunken grave, and her and her brother’s sacrilege, with their grandfather’s torch.

Soft careful movements from behind the tree caught her ear, and a slow gentle scraping sound began.

The woman slowly moved away from the child pretending to look up the road for the school bus, and looked behind the tree.

There, a dark-coated man stood – hands casually in pockets, looking about him and with great pretense, up at the tree. But his real interest lay at his feet.

The woman stood lookout and turned to face the boy, speaking softly to him of buses driving slowly through pea soup fog – he listened, frozen into silence.

The sound began again – and from the corner of her eye, she saw the man lightly sliding his left foot over the gravel about the tree – his eyes cast downwards. Suddenly, he darted to the ground and pecked at it, bird-like. He did this several times, a slight grin forming on his lips.

The woman moved about a little, trying to look natural as she watched him.

The man stepped a little closer to the tree, and to the woman and child – no longer caring that he was seen.

His hands were long and dark – they reminded her of the feet of crows.

The child was beginning to shiver. She went to him and pulled his beanie further down his ears, nearly covering his eyes, all complaint frozen by the air about him.

She moved back to her post.

The man kept up his search, but his stabbing at the ground slowed. He frowned, and examined the height and width of the tree and looked about the ground under it, reckoning something in his mind. He moved closer to the tree, and to the child.

The woman also moved closer, standing guard against something unsettling she could feel in the man’s mind; as unease grew in her own.

The man never looked at the woman, but surely was observing her, as she was him. He kept sliding his foot and pecking at the ground with increasing frequency.

After a short time, from his right hand into his left, he tipped his treasure, and looking down at it, he smiled, and gently touched what lay there, he seemed to be counting. His smile broadened, then he held his palm open flat, deliberately, as he knew she was close enough to see.

There, held in his palm, were over a dozen, tiny, identical seeds. She remembered the bright red fruit of the tree – but what was its name?

Looking away over the man’s head, she was startled to see the creatures emerging through the fog – the tree people, who had been carved from the wood of dead trees. They looked as if they were floating away through the mist – but were they releasing birds from their hands, or snatching them from the air?

The woman searched again for the name of the tree – it still eluded her.

The man looked down at his harvest, and feeling the weight of it in his hand a sneer took his lips, as he estimated his need met.

He closed his dark claw over the seeds – then, she remembered, “… and every part of it is poisonous, particularly the seeds, except for the flesh of its bright red fruit.”

And how he did indeed remind her of Crow; standing there, with death in his hand. The man slowly walked towards them, to get to the road.

The woman crossed his path to put herself between him and the child and aimed a silver strand at Crow’s back, as he passed them by. She then stepped backwards into the warm protection of the Yew tree – worrying about the dark heart of this man.

The Brittle Grass

The man sits silently on his back veranda, watching the sun rise over empty hay sheds. He carefully polishes the old .303 that lies across his legs; sliding the cloth across the hand-carved woodwork of the stock, and down along the weapon’s black-metal barrel.

Sixty-three head of cattle he’d shot yesterday – uneven numbers are good, he’d told himself – and had stopped it there.

His wife is a horse lover, and doesn’t understand. But that isn’t her fault, it isn’t even a fault, he’d determined; it was just in her, to love horses.

Forty-seven head of cattle to go – uneven numbers are good. He nods his head to himself – uneven numbers are good. If only he didn’t have to reload. He could ask her to do it for him. Or put it off, until tomorrow?

But the desperate bellowing of the cattle carries up from the dry riverbed. It starts at dawn every morning, for there’s nothing left to eat – and despair has settled in their souls.

He believes that – that animals have souls. Maybe it’s in his blood from great-granddad; the whaling ship deserter. He was a redskin, a Native American slave who’d jumped ship. The tale was he’d always worked the land, and had had a knowing way at breeding cattle and horses. The man thinks he may have come from one of the Iroquois or Mohican tribes, as they were coastal people and easier for the whalers to snatch. He leans his back against the wall, and wonders what his great-granddad would do.

The bellowing of the cattle breaks through his thoughts again. He looks up at his two dogs, who’ve been watching him nervously from the back of the ute, with grim, uncomprehending faces. Whenever he looks up, they look away, their noses in the air.

Sometimes he liked to take the time to walk out across the land with the dogs, when he checked on the mob. The dogs did the strangest things when they were alone with him. They’d race across the paddocks chasing each other like they were pups, and would bring him gifts of rocks, sticks, and dried out locusts, dropping them at his feet; and off they’d race again. Occasionally the old girl would tease him with a rock or stick, daring him to chase her, which he did, hooting and shouting after her like a madman. She’d tear off down the paddock as if a devil was on her tail, showing the boss she could still outrun an old dingo like him. He looks up at her; but she has her nose in the air and won’t meet his eye. Maybe this time, it would be kinder to leave them behind.

His wife calls him inside for a cuppa. She’ll be heading down south to Albany for two days to give dressage lessons at the place where her three horses are on agistment, in good paddock.

“There’s cinnamon cake for second breakfast,” she teases, through the closing fly-screen door.

He places all the rifles and ammo in the ute, and walks slowly back to the house trying to keep his mind blank. He sits by the back door on the jarrah stump to take his boots off; the same stump his dad and pop had sat down on, every time they entered the house.

At the head of the kitchen table he sits, not hearing the chatter of his wife; nor seeing the mug of hot black tea she places before him.

He runs a hand softly over the tablecloth. It’s covered in wildflowers. His fingers gently move through a paddock of cowslip orchids, star of Bethlehem and yellow and red kangaroo paws. He lifts his other hand to the table, surprised to see it holds a full box of ammo – and before him, suddenly, he sees only yesterday’s slaughter. He stops breathing, and lifts his hand from amongst the flowers, and covers his eyes and weeps as he had not done since the death of his mother.

His wife spins around, shocked, “What is it?” she asks, and quickly goes to him.

“I can’t. Forty-seven to go. I can’t shoot any more of them. To kill for food is one thing…I can’t face them.” He weeps a long time, held fiercely in his wife’s arms.

“I didn’t know. I’m sorry, love, I didn’t know how much you were suffering.” They sit huddled together, her face pressed hard against his tears, as she listens to his whispered pain. Shame strikes deeply through her heart. How had she not seen him?

She knows what she has to do. “It’s alright, love, you stay here. You know I’m a crack shot.” She makes a fresh pot of tea and sends a brief text message down south, then another to their son at university up in Perth. “It’s urgent, Tommy. Ring dad on the landline right now tell him you’re sick of study and need to come home and get your hands dirty. Come home today. We’re shooting dad’s cattle. He needs you. Mum.” Nothing more needed to be said, and she pockets the mobile.

Cautiously, she asks him, “Are all three rifles ready in the ute, love?” He nods his head. She lets out a held breathe. She’d never thought her man would ever do such a thing. But now? When so many men in the region already had? She falters in her self-assurance. She takes his face in her hands and looks long into his hazel eyes. “I’ll take good care of them for you, my love. You know I love you. You, darling, are my world. I’ll do anything for you.” She gently kisses his lips and hugs him with all her strength.

Before leaving the kitchen she pauses to put on his favourite Troy Cassar-Daley CD, in the hope it will help distract him from the sound of the cattle, and what is to follow.

As she sits on the stump putting her boots on the telephone rings. “You better get that, love,” she calls out. She hears his voice strengthen when he answers the phone and realises it’s their son.

“You’re on the road already? Around lunch-time? Well, boy, if you’re here before lunch I’ll know you’ve been speeding.” He laughs softly. “It’ll be great to see you, Tom.” Through the open door she sees him rise from the table and ease into his armchair by the wood-stove. “I’ve got a bit of real hard news though…we’ve had to cull the cattle.”

With confidence she picks up the ammo box – forty-seven to go. She falters on the edge of the verandah, watching the sun sitting high above the hay sheds. How had she not seen him? She steps down, and walks through the brittle grass.

Helayne Short is an Australian emerging writer of plays, short stories and poetry.
Her work has been published in Famous Reporter and Blue Giraffe and is upcoming in the online journal Communion (Walleah Press) in December. She currently lives in Ireland.

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