If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 1
To Noël and Angela, Carol, Angie, Jenny, Natalie,
Kirsty, Victoria, Val and Val, Helen, Helen and Helen,
all those who plunged their hands into ‘washing-up
therapy’ at Café Altenburg, or brought ‘plates’ to days
of communal house foundation laying, wall raising and
shed building, and to all who shared the dream
so long ago and still live it
About the Author
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, March 1972
Local MP Praises Knitting Triumph
The Honourable Kevin Briggs, Country Party, presented the prize for the Gibber’s Creek CWA Annual Junior Knitting Competition yesterday.
This year’s winner, Bronwyn Sampson, 12, created a beautiful baby’s jumper in swirls of tangy orange and royal purple. Mr Briggs was most impressed with Bronwyn’s ‘mod’ colours and womanly skills.
A splendid afternoon tea was served by all the ladies.
HALFWAY TO ETERNITY COMMUNE VIA GIBBER’S CREEK, AUSTRALIA
Leafsong sat by the fireplace outside the faded circus tent on one of the stumps of wood that served as the commune’s chairs, tables and occasional execution blocks for chooks, and assessed her empire.
The world was going to end the next day, at eleven-thirty pm exactly. You didn’t often get to celebrate the end of the world. The end of the world deserved a feast, the best she could create for the commune and its friends, for people who didn’t slide their eyes away from her lumpy body, her uneven ears and mismatched eyes.
When her body was made, she thought, the halves of two different people had been glued together. Sometimes Leafsong wondered if another girl crept the earth, the mirror image of her. She hoped her mirror twin had been as lucky as she had been, with her sister and her friends.
Leafsong gazed at the gum trees reaching dappled arms towards the sky and at the silken river quiet between its banks of sand. Yes, Halfway to Eternity would be the best place to be when the world ended. Above her stretched a blue-painted sky, and hills that sang of leaves and cicadas and of silence.
Silence had a melody too. It was sad, thought Leafsong, that few could hear it, especially if tomorrow night the northern hemisphere was going to explode like the newspapers said Nostradamus had predicted.
Carol said newspapers were part of the bourgeois capitalist conspiracy. Leafsong wasn’t sure what ‘bourgeois capitalism’ was, exactly — it was hard to ask questions when you couldn’t speak and didn’t know how to spell ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalism’. She suspected bourgeois capitalism had something to do with buying new lounge suites by having boring but well-paid jobs like the one Carol had given up in Sydney, when Mum and Dad moved to the USA and Carol brought her down to Gibber’s Creek.
It was just possible, of course, that Gibber’s Creek, the commune and the southern hemisphere might survive when the north half of the planet vanished. Leafsong knew very little about physics — she had stopped going to school four years earlier, when she was twelve, and no one, least of all her parents or her schoolteachers, had been particularly interested in sending her back again. But even she suspected that an exploding northern hemisphere would rip away the oceans, the atmosphere and possibly everyone on the planet too.
Leafsong didn’t think it would really happen. Or rather, she had suspended disbelief, like you had to with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Their visits required feasts too. In any case a horde of friends were arriving in the morning to finish Sam’s house and they needed to be fed whether or not the world ended. It was an unwritten rule of the alternative society that when you came to help build, you were fed.
Leafsong grinned. Perfect timing! An End of the World Feast and a We’ve Finished Sam’s House Party!
The feast would need to be cooked there on the fireplace and in the makeshift oven Sam had rigged up from an old truck brake drum, of course. But where should it be eaten?
The obvious place was the big geodesic dome the commune had built when they first bought the land two years back to be ready for JohnandAnnie’s baby. JohnandAnnie lazed on the dome’s deck now, Annie feeding Sunshine. John saw Leafsong look over and waved a two-fingered ‘peace’ sign at her. But although they had all helped build the dome, it had become JohnandAnnie’s private property, even though Clifford said all private property was theft.
The mud-walled cottage she lived in with Carol was too small for a feast, and Sam’s place was still only eight solid wood posts with chicken wire stretched between them, though its roof was already half covered with solar panels. Leafsong suspected Sam’s concept of ‘house’ was primarily ‘a place to perch solar panels’.
All going well, Sam’s mud walls, windows, doors and floor would be finished in one giant working bee tomorrow, hours before the end of the world, but the floor wo
No, the party would need to be where she was sitting, around the fireplace where they all ate each night, and in Sam’s mum’s giant old circus tent the commune used to store tea chests of brown rice and lentils. Clifford slept there too, and Sam for now, their sleeping bags shoved into old chests each morning to stop the chooks or bush rats using them as nests.
There was masses of room for a party in the tent, even if it rained. But what should she cook? Sam’s parents had promised a sheep to roast on the spit to feed the helpers tomorrow, but a feast needed more than meat.
There was corn, of course, an acre of it along the river flats, each stem as strong as if it owned the earth, as if to say, ‘I am here forever.’ Everyone in Gibber’s Creek seemed to have corn and tomatoes ripening. The commune had been eating corn on the cob, corn fritters, and corn and tomato casserole for two months. Corn was not nearly special enough for a feast.
There were eggs too, from the chooks scratching around the tent, and cheese and milk from the two goats, much healthier than what came from cows. And fat purple eggplants, giant-leafed basil, silverbeet, beans, carrots, potatoes and possibly 7,862 tomatoes, the whole garden filling the air with the smell of fermenting fruit . . . and the contents of Sunshine’s nappies, because JohnandAnnie believed that anything that came out of either end of a baby was naturally pure and therefore safe to use as fertiliser . . .
. . . and at least a three-hour picking’s worth of strawberries. If Leafsong didn’t harvest them, no one else would, because JohnandAnnie never worked, due to too much of what darling old Mrs Weaver down the road called ‘Whacky Baccy’, and Sam and Carol and Clifford were busy building, and planning the future of the commune and the world. Leafsong could hear their laughter as they puddled clay and dried tussocks together for the working bee.
No one asked Leafsong to help build anything, though even at sixteen her big crooked body was almost as strong as Sam’s. Somehow any wall Leafsong worked on or trench she dug turned out crooked too, though every cake she baked was perfect.
Nor did Leafsong join in the long discussions around the spark spires of the evening fire, the scent of red gum coals mixing with patchouli oil and JohnandAnnie’s joints. Should the commune become a learning centre for peace studies and alternative technology? How many long-drop dunnies did they need? When exactly would the world run out of oil and other resources, causing global catastrophe and the withering away or violent self-destruction of established societies?
It was difficult to discuss things when you could not speak, but not impossible, not when the others in the commune had learned to look at her, despite the slight distortion of her face, and had learned to interpret her gestures too. But since the day, when she was seven years old, she had discarded speech, Leafsong preferred to leave discussions to others.
Leafsong stood and lifted up her shoulder bag. No, a proper feast needed more than stuff they grew and ate every day, including brown rice. You could do one hundred and one things with brown rice and Leafsong had tried them all. Only stuffed rice balls and leek and mushroom rice were even vaguely feast-like.
There was no alternative, decided Leafsong happily. She needed white flour, even if Clifford said that white flour and white sugar were poisons with all the goodness taken away. Once the white flour was in a pumpkin fruitcake, Clifford would never know it had once been white. She had to have sugar too, because the commune had not yet provided itself with beehives or maple trees.
And butter. Goat’s milk was no good for butter, and shop-bought butter had to be used fast before it melted because no one had a fridge yet.
Leafsong grinned. She had five dollars and forty cents in her shoulder bag, made by selling her tomato jam and green tomato chutney on the commune’s stall by the gate. The money should go into the jar in the tent where the commune pooled whatever money they earned or received from relations. But today buying sugar and flour was more important.
It wasn’t as if you had an end of the world every week, or even once a year. This might be the only chance she ever had to celebrate one.
Leafsong trudged down the dusty track to the road to town, her slightly too-big sandals flapping under the hem of her blue cheesecloth dress. The sandals were Clifford’s, or had been, because all property was theft, and what belonged to one belonged to everyone, even if they didn’t fit everyone, quite.
Excitement fizzed through Leafsong’s crooked body. A feast to cook! A party for the end of the world.
No one stared at her in Gibber’s Creek, even though she wore cheesecloth and faded papery daisies in her waist-long hair, instead of a mini skirt or moleskins or jeans. No one even looked at her, beyond a first uncomfortable glance. People rarely did.
Leafsong was used to people avoiding looking at her. It meant, for one thing, she was free to briefly examine everyone she passed: a young man in jeans, who looked away a second too late, and was blushing; a woman with blue-rinsed hair, clad in pearls and a crisp shirtdress and carrying a small dog. The dog had the lost look that said, ‘I am only an accessory even if I am fed and groomed.’ The dog gazed at Leafsong, its tail wagging. The woman did not.
Gibber’s Creek was a town of dogs. Dogs sitting in the backs of utes. Dogs peering from the windows of tradesmen’s vans. Dogs waiting patiently outside the grocer’s shop, lifting their legs against electricity poles, or with wagging hopeful tails outside the butcher’s.
And a man. A man in a white suit, there in Gibber’s Creek! Leafsong had never seen a man in a white suit, except on TV back in Sydney, when she and Carol still lived in their parents’ house. The man was forty, perhaps, with a tan so even it might have been painted on, and eyes a strange light blue.
The man did look at her. Really looked: he was . . . evaluating. He gave the beginning of a smile, his teeth shining as white as his suit.
It was the wrong kind of smile, as if a snake had grinned at her. Snakes had no malice, exactly, and nor did she think this man was malicious. But something was wrong with him, and with his smile too.
And then the smile stopped. He looked away as if he’d never seen her.
Leafsong smiled back politely anyway, then turned quickly into Lee’s Grocery Store. The grocery store wasn’t as good as supermarkets back in Sydney. Its only vegetables were dusty cabbages, even dustier potatoes, some shiny brown-skinned onions, sad-looking carrots and large wedges of bright orange pumpkin, with shrivelled apples and orange net bags of oranges. But the shop did sell sugar and butter and flour, as well as the array of canned vegetables and fruit lining the shelves behind the counter, and ice creams in the freezer cabinet by the door.
Leafsong waited her turn in line, then handed a list over the counter to Bronnie Lee. The grocery girls were used to her not talking now.
She listened to the women’s chatter behind her as the two big paper bags on the counter grew fatter with her purchases. Everyone in this shop knew each other and her, but of course no one talked to the mute commune girl.
‘Six millimetres of rain last night, but they got more across the river . . .’
‘Did you see Bellbird last night?’
‘. . . and another crop circle down in Harrison’s top paddock,’ said Mrs Weaver excitedly, her work-knotted hands petting the young kangaroo in a hessian bag suspended from her shoulder.
Mrs Weaver had found Joey with its leg caught in a barbed-wire fence. She had rescued it, cleaned the wound and put the leg in a splint. And now she took Joey everywhere while its leg, hopefully, healed.
Mrs Weaver had been the first local person to visit the commune, apart from Sam’s parents. She’d brought a tray of hot buttered scones, two jars of raspberry jam, six potted fruit trees she’d grown from seed, and the orphaned joey she had cared for before this one. Mrs Weaver always had an animal or two in care.
‘I asked the alien about the crop circle,’ she continued excitedly. ‘And he said, yes, it sounded
Silence could have direction, just like sound. Leafsong stared at the shop door with the others.
The man in white had entered the grocery store. Two young women walked behind him, wearing white cheesecloth kurtas and loose white trousers. The man’s smile was snaky again: he was evaluating each person in the shop. The women’s smiles were vague and happy — their bodies were loose.
How did they keep their clothes so white in Gibber’s Creek’s autumn dust? wondered Leafsong. Carol had been forced to colour her once-white shirts and dresses with dyes home-made from onion skins and gum leaves. It should have worked, according to the self-sufficiency magazines, but left the clothes as mottled as the trees the dyes had come from.
These people wore garments so white they glowed.
‘Good afternoon.’ The man’s voice conquered the shop. Leafsong instinctively moved aside for him to take her place at the counter.
The man in white shook his head. ‘We’ll wait our turn. There is a season for all things.’ His smile turned into a grin. ‘This is the time of waiting. Even if this particular time lasts only five minutes.’
The women in white laughed, a little too much in unison. Around the shop the other customers smiled, in an ancient belief, perhaps, that strangers who came with jokes did not also bring swords.
Don’t laugh, thought Leafsong. Didn’t they see the snake behind the smile? She had seen a black snake swallow a frog a week ago.
Couldn’t they see this man was hunting too?
The pale blue eyes turned to Leafsong. ‘My name is Ra Zacharia. You’re from the commune next to Drinkwater.’
It wasn’t a question. ‘Ra Zacharia knows everything,’ said one of the white-clad women proudly.
It didn’t take omnipotence to work out I came from the commune, thought Leafsong. Not when she wore blue cheesecloth and daisies. But she nodded politely.
‘What’s your name?’ The voice was gentle as the blue eyes gazed into hers.
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