This novella is included in the collection, Magic Rats, available on Kindle.
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© 2010 Jess Mowry
The boy lay in the sand at the top of a dune that towered against the empty blue sky... he might have been riding a rusty-red wave frozen forever in time. The desert stretched away all around to silent and lifeless horizons. The fiery orb of the sun beat down, but the boy seemed immune to its withering blaze except for a silvery trickle of sweat that broke from under his tangle of hair to gleam on the side of his face. He waited unmoving as specters of heat shimmered and danced on the sand. He was naked except for sheepskin shorts held together by big leather stitches, that looked like primitive cut-off jeans. A tattered Australian Army pack and a battered canvas-covered canteen were strapped over his shoulders, and he cradled an ancient .303 with a scarred wooden stock that covered the barrel all the way to its tip. His body was like burnished copper, but his long shaggy hair was so pale a blond that it seemed almost white in the sun. It smothered his shoulders and shadowed his face, almost concealing bright blue eyes that were narrowed in concentration.
At the foot of the dune was a dry steam bed, a winding jumble of wind-scoured rocks that was only an ancient memory of something created by water. A few twisted trunks of napunia trees cast skeletal fingers of shade here and there, but nothing moved in the silent heat except the shimmering ghosts, and the boy's blue eyes as they watched from above.
Then, a ripple of tension ran through his frame as he spotted a flicker of motion below, a shadow slipping behind a bush, the barely-seen twitch of a tree limb. He drew a deep breath and held it. A half-grown buck kangaroo appeared, taking three hops to a small clump of grass at the crumbling edge of the stream bed. There it stopped and stood like a stone. Its sharp eyes scanned the surrounding dunes. Its nostrils flared as it tested the air. At last it relaxed a little, but held its forepaws nervously poised and dabbed at them with its tongue, while its ears searched in every direction to catch the slightest of threatening sounds.
At the crest of the dune the boy waited, not breathing, as if he could lie there forever. Finally the kangaroo lowered its head and hungrily tore up a mouthful of grass.
The boy's movements were carefully slow -- the shadows of sunlight might have moved faster as he stealthily aimed the rifle -- but time in minutes meant nothing to him, and there were only two bullets. The rifle, like his pack and canteen, was a relic from a forgotten past; its stock and barrel pitted by sand, its front sight bent and the rear sight broken. The boy sighed out the air in his lungs as his finger curled on the trigger.
The heavy weapon jerked in his hands, its butt-plate slamming his shoulder. Yellow-orange flame spit from the muzzle, and black smoke spurted back from the breach to burn his nostrils and water his eyes. The shot seemed shockingly loud to the boy after so many days of living in silence; but even before its echo had died he was dashing down the sandy slope. The kangaroo had fallen below, and sprays of bright scarlet now spattered the grass.
The boy reached the stream bed and stopped. He raised the rifle and aimed again, but studied the dying animal and finally lowered the gun. He squatted down and rested the rife across his knees, its metal parts almost too hot to touch, then drew a long knife from a sheath at his side. It had once been the rifle's bayonet, but was worn to the shape of a miniature sword from years of being sharpened on stone. The 'roo gave a last feeble twitch and went still. Its eyes lost their light as life ebbed away. The boy had seen this a thousand times, but it still brought a feeling of sadness. He waited another few breaths to be sure, then lay down the rifle and rose to approach. He searched the depths of the animal’s eyes and wondered as always where life had gone... back into the earth, or up to the sky?
The boy was thirteen but beautifully muscled, his chest jutting high like a small pair of stones, his biceps round and starkly defined even when relaxed. His shoulders were wide, his waist was slim, and his legs were solid and strong. His feet and hands seemed a little too large like any young thing when not fully grown, and his toes were spread in the sturdy stance of feet that had never worn shoes. His face was fine-boned with a slightly snubbed nose... a face from a land at the top of the world where the sun never in the summer.
He warily moved toward the motionless 'roo, knowing the claws on those massive hind feet could rip him with one final kick. He raised his knife, but then suddenly froze, his head cocked to listen. Then, pushing the hair away from his eyes, he scanned all around the empty horizon, then thrust the knife back in its sheath, grabbed the rifle and dropped to a crouch, sighting toward the crest of the dune... but a whirling shape hissed out of the sky! He flung himself to the stony ground as the thing swooped low and slashed overhead. Then it spiraled back toward the sun, and a cheerful voice called from above.
"Never wait to see with yer eyes what you already know in yer bones!"
The boy's solid muscles relaxed. He rose to his feet, brushing sand from his chest, the rifle held loose in one hand. He pushed back his hair and gazed up at the dune. A smile spread slowly across his face as if smiles, like bullets, weren’t to be wasted. "Keri!" he shouted.
A dark silhouette seemed to rise from the sand among the shimmering ghosts, slender, and naked except for a loincloth; a boy who was also thirteen. He was deep, dusky black, and teeth shone white in a friendly grin as he sauntered casually down the slope. His hair was a halo of soot-colored curls that shaded a gently triangular face with a wide but almost bridgeless nose and long-lashed ebony eyes. His muscles were small but tightly defined, though he boasted a proudly prominent tummy, and he held a boomerang in one hand, protected by a primitive glove, while toting a spear in the other. A dented canteen and a blanket roll were slung on his shoulders with pieces of rope. A leather strip encircled one arm above the swell of an impudent bicep.
“Peter,” he said. “Been long time.”
“Aye, Keri,” the blond boy replied. He lay this rifle on the ground as the other boy lay down his spear in a ceremonial way. They grasped hands for a moment, then Peter stepped back and studied Keri. The boys were almost of equal height, though Peter massed more in chest and shoulders.
"Yer grow,” said Peter finally.
Keri laughed. “And the sun is hot."
Peter hesitated then asked, "You been walkabout?"
A wistful look came to Peter's face. "Then yer a man."
"But still yer brother." Keri seemed to consider a question, but finally said, "Now I hunt."
"Them three bloody dingos?"
Keri nodded. "They kill our sheep."
"Me father’s, too." said Peter. "Me follow 'em seven days. But they smart un's. An' big. Never see dingo tracks so big."
"Not dingos," said Keri. "Dogs gone wild off white-feller place."
"That's it," said Peter. "Why they kill everything." He offered his canteen, and Keri took a few swallows. "Drink," urged Peter. "Yers empty." He laughed at Keri's curious look. "Me hear it rattle, hunter." He picked up the razor-edged boomerang and balanced it expertly in his hand. "Wish me have this... only one bullet left. ...But maybe Trader Fenton come. We go see tomorrow?" He sighted up the dune then hurled the boomerang.
Keri watched the weapon's flight, then pointed along the stream bed. "Good place to camp." Then he stepped back and squatted down.
Peter cocked his head. "Why you lookin' at me like that? Yer boomerang come back."
Keri grinned, then removed his glove and tossed it to Peter. “How you catch it, hunter?”
The heat of the day had lessened, but the lowering sun still blazed from the west as it slowly sank behind the dunes. Peter and Keri made their camp in the shade of a tall formation of rock. They gathered wood and built a fire, then Keri roasted the meat on sticks. They feasted, then lay down on their blankets to gaze at the darkening sky. Peter was drowsy from so much food, but sat up again and looked to the east, hearing a distant droning sound. Both boys watched as a small silver object soared through the deepening dusk overhead.
"Aeroplane," said Keri.
Peter regarded the tiny thing. "Where the aeroplane sleep?"
"Never see," said Keri. "But it must come to earth sometime. All things come to the earth in the end." Then he smiled. "Yer forget how to talk like human people?"
"Oh," said Peter, switching to Keri's language. "I'm sorry, my brother. When one is alone, one does not think in words but only in pictures and feelings."
"True," agreed Keri. "As I learned when alone myself. But, it is not good to be too much alone." Keri lay back on his blanket, slipping an arm beneath his head. "My father said that aeroplanes are only trucks that fly. They have motors like Fenton’s Land Rover. This spring I saw a road-train. From a hilltop far to the north."
"On walkabout?" asked Peter.
Peter nodded. "I have seen Fenton’s Land Rover many times. He used to come often when I was young. And also trucks. They brought us new sheep from the Company and took away wool after shearing." Then he frowned. "But none have come for more than a year. Not since I saw you last." He looked at Keri. "It was your people who drove the last trucks. They asked us to come away with them. I don’t know why. But, my father said things were changing." Peter hesitated. "...He does not like things that change." Then he gazed up at the sky once more. "If aeroplanes are trucks that fly, maybe your people drive them today?" He studied the small soaring shape. "But, trucks are big. And aeroplanes are small. Did you ever think they might be birds and people only make stories about them?"
Keri smiled. "Aeroplanes are very far away.”
The aeroplane was lost in the distance. Moments later its sound was gone. Peter tossed a few sticks on the fire as the chill of night began to creep in. Then he lay back with his knees up and spread and pillowed his head on his arms. Stars appeared in the deep purple sky. Finally he said quietly, "You know that an aeroplane never came to save my mother?"
Keri's eyes saddened. "But, your father said the aeroplane people did not hear his call."
"It was the time of lambing,” sighed Peter. “My father said there was much to do and he had forgotten the batteries." He paused to gaze up at the stars. "Do you ever wonder about the world? How big it is? How many people?"
"Fenton has seen the world,” said Keri. “He said it is very big. And there are many people. Many clans and many colors. More than stars in the sky. And very much water in o-shawns." Keri looked out on the nighted land. "Someday I will see it."
"Why do you want to see the world?"
"It is like a walkabout."
"But, you have done that."
"My walkabout is just the beginning."
"It is the end for a child," said Peter.
"But the beginning for a man."
"What if you learn too much?" asked Peter. He pointed to the nighted horizon. "What if, out there, you learn too much? Or something you don't want to know?” He hesitated, then asked, “Have you ever learned something you did not want to know?"
Keri had drawn his blanket around him. "Yes," he said, after a moment. "I once learned a thing I did not want to know. But I thought I had forgotten it."
"I’m sorry, my brother," said Peter. "I didn’t mean to call it back."
"It is good," said Keri, touching Peter’s shoulder. "I have just learned something I do want to know."
"I don't understand,” said Peter.
The firelight danced over Keri’s dark face. "Maybe it is there are things to be known when one is a child. And then there are things to be known as a man. And each has their time to be understood? And maybe to learn a man-thing as a child is like being given a burden to carry."
Peter gazed into the fire. "Maybe that is true."
"Will you come and be prepared?"
Peter sighed. "I have felt I was ready ever since spring." Then he fell silent and looked at the stars. Finally he shrugged. "But, my father must want this for me. And he does not." He turned to Keri. "Must I then stay forever a child?"
Keri lay a hand on Peter's shoulder. "We will talk with my father."
Peter put his own hand on Keri's. "Thank you, brother."
James Wright stood at the door of his rusty tin shack and gazed across the empty land as daylight slowly faded to dusk. To the north lay a dark line of mountainous dunes, like a sea forever trapped in time, yet a sea that was always advancing. A year ago it had reached the fence... the last time he’d gone to look. And tonight the dunes seemed even closer... they always seemed closer at night. Sometimes he woke from sweating dreams to see them right at the window! Someday soon they would lap at the shanty and slowly rise to bury the windmill.
James looked to the rusted, skeletal tower, seeing the blades being smothered by sand and their rhythmic creaking silenced forever. Ayers had left his land last year. And Davis had moved out a few months ago... taking his bloody government check! The boy had found the place abandoned. James scowled without knowing he did, his face long set in its deep channeled lines. The boy had been out for over a week, tracking the things -- whatever they were -- that kept returning to slaughter the sheep. They might have been Davis’ dogs... just like the bastard to run off and leave them!
James was a rangy, hollow-cheeked man of thirty-eight years who looked almost sixty. His straw-colored hair had grown lank and untended; his faded blue eyes were like old bottle glass that had lain too long in the sun. He wore ragged tan trousers and a half-open shirt, a shapeless slouch hat and battered brown boots. He scanned the distance a few minutes more, then turned and hobbled back into the shanty, his crutch thumping loud on the floor boards. He'd broken his leg in a fall from the windmill... bloody fool thing to climb up there at his age: the boy could have oiled the bearings! But James had wanted to look at the dunes -- know thy enemy! -- that silently sinister rusty-red sea which even the power of God couldn't stop. The radio had been dead again; and he and Peter had set the splints with no one to help or advise... Ayers was already gone, and James wouldn't have asked for help from Davis if Death itself had been at his door. The leg had mended in time, but James still needed the crutch to walk.
The little shack had two small windows, one broken and patched with a picture-book cover. Crates were nailed to the walls for cupboards, and there was a table with three wooden chairs and a soot-blackened kerosene lamp. An iron-framed bed filled a corner, and a pallet of sheepskins lay on the floor. Dust and sand covered every surface... more and more sand invading each day, driven in deeper with every new wind and piling up in the corners. James hated the way it ground underfoot, and how it scratched in his blankets at night as if it was slowly eating his flesh. He kept meaning to sweep but never found time. An eight-day clock sat dead on a shelf, stopped by sand at minutes to midnight, months... or maybe years ago. One of these days he would fix it. An ancient Army radio stood on a homemade writing desk. It probably needed its batteries charged; but there wasn’t much petrol left, and the last time he'd looked -- when had it been? -- the stuff in the tank had gone sour.
James peered at a calendar tacked to the wall -- that couldn't be right: it must be December -- and Fenton was long overdue. James couldn't remember just when he'd come last... sometime after the Company trucks. And the trucks had been driven by Abos! They owned the bloody Company now! And they had advised him to leave! To take their bloody "compensation", as if the land belonged to them! But his father had predicted that. Give them an inch...
James turned his mind to the trader. There were sun-powered battery chargers now -- Fenton had shown him one -- but they were much too costly. James glanced at the sand-covered wireless again: what did it matter? The world was going mad out there, and he didn’t have time for its ravings.
A kettle began to scream on the stove. When had he lit the fire? He snatched it off, almost burning his hand, then rummaged about for things to make tea, though it seemed like a lot of bother for something he wasn't sure he wanted. He heard a willywagtail screech... or was it the dying cry of the kettle? He hobbled to the western window and watched as the bird rose into the sky from a distant grove of napunias. He followed its low, jerky flight for a moment, barely seen in the deepening dusk, then went to the doorway and studied the trees. A pair of shadows emerged from the grove.
At first James felt a shiver of fear and almost hurried to bolt the door... but that was crazy! He made himself watch the ghostly shapes... Peter had his mother's hair. James looked back at the grove of trees. It was too dark to see the rough wooden cross, but the moon would shine on it later. He hadn't been out there since breaking his leg; but the dunes were getting close to the grave, and someday soon he would have to move it; something he dreaded having to do because... he would know by the bones!
He noted Peter's companion, a boy as dark as the oncoming night. A frown furrowed easily into his face -- that bloody damn Abo again! -- like something come back to mock him now when everything was going to hell! Keri had come to life out there on the very same night as Peter -- at the very same moment, James had learned -- but under those trees like an animal. Peter's new life had taken Dianna's, and James had been cheated in trade. Keri's mother had also nursed Peter, or James would have buried the boy as well... if he hadn’t already! The boy wouldn’t have lived for long anyway. Maybe that would have been better? The boy had never been right in his mind: strange and silent, a speechless shadow, and always out with Keri somewhere. James had told Peter countless times that Keri wasn't his brother. In the early years he had raged about it, even savagely beating the boy; but Peter would only disappear and could never be touched after that. It had been like living with a ghost... a ghost with long pale hair like his mother. But then the Abos had gone away, after the trucks had come last year and taken the Company sheep. But why had Keri returned?
James rummaged through his memories while his eyes confronted the darkening room, seeing the clock, the dim calendar, and trying to find a connection. ...Thirteen years since Dianna had died and the Abos had all but stolen his son... walkabout! That's what Keri was up to now, a last attempt to steal the boy! Just like his people had stolen his sheep and were now trying to steal his land! Bloody lot of good it would do them! James knew the custom -- credit where due -- and the wretched rite could only take place with the father's consent and participation.
Not bloody likely!
Years ago James had told himself that Peter needed to meet other people, but Davis wasn't fit company -- his brats were almost animals -- and Ayers lived too far away. James glanced at the books on the desktop, books Dianna had bought long ago, their covers now faded and cracked in the heat. The boy barely knew how to speak English despite James's efforts to teach him. But, teaching a child took valuable time, and Peter had shown little interest in books, except to occasionally look at the pictures and ask foolish questions that had no answers... where did bloody aeroplanes sleep! There were lessons broadcast over the air, but the wireless needed its batteries charged, and that burned precious fuel.
James scowled at the boys as they approached. It was likely that the marauding things were killing the Abos' sheep as well; but neither boy -- Peter with rifle, nor Keri with spear -- bore any pelts as proof of a kill. They paused to drink from the windmill tank, swilling the water like animals. Then Peter only shook his head as he and Keri came up to the porch.
James cleared his throat. It surprised him at how much effort it took to put his thoughts into words. "Ain't you got nothin' to say to me, boy?"
Peter's voice was husky. James wondered when it had changed.
"Dogs," said Peter. "Maybe from Davis." He lifted the rifle. "One bullet left."
"Bloody hell!" James exploded. "You had five last week! I told you to take more food! You don't need to hunt like a dammed..." The words were coming easy now, but James glanced at Keri and closed his mouth.
Peter seemed to be searching for tracks as if he hadn't heard his father. "Fenton not come?"
James cleared his throat again and spat. "Greedy bastard! Last time 'e told me it didn't pay... not after Ayers an' Davis sold out." He grudged Keri words: "Guess yer people don't trade much either."
Keri smiled politely. "New trader from west." He didn't say the trader was black, only adding, "We not need much from white-feller world."
"Yer livin' proof of that," muttered James, pleased with his cleverness. He studied the Aboriginal boy... Keri would have looked the same a thousand years ago. "Come on inside," he said to his son, then added bitterly, blaming him: "There's plenty of scraps for supper! Bloody dogs came back last night! Killed six more!"
"They must have come from the south," Keri murmured to Peter.
"Yes," agreed Peter. "That is where Davis once lived. But if they try to return tonight, we will be ready for them."
"Speak English!" snarled James. "When yer under me roof!"
Supper, eaten by smoky lamplight, was all too plainly scraps from the slaughter. Peter just picked at the greasy mutton; but Keri finished all his food, said thanks to James in English, then gathered up the pan and plates and took them to the dry-sink. Peter smiled. "Is that the way of a warrior?"
"A warrior does what must be done." Then Keri seemed to consider. "Will you ask your father tonight?"
Peter's smile faded. "He will get angry."
James hadn't spoken during the meal, but now he shot Peter a glare. "I told you to speak yer own language, boy!"
Peter rose from the table and picked up a bucket. "Me fetch water."
James watched as Peter went to the door, then he glanced at Keri... strange to see him stacking dishes. "Might be able to get somethin' out of the wireless," James offered, not sure why, unless it was only to prove he could.
Keri smiled. "Me like hear music."
Peter stepped onto the porch. Darkness had long ago fallen, but the heat of the day was still in the earth as he walked to the windmill's water tank. The moon was rising, nearly full, and casting its silvery glow all around. The last of the sheep, two dozen or so, were gathered into a pen near the shack. Peter stopped to study them as a new thought entered his mind... there were hardly enough to shear for their wool and tempt a truck into coming. And, unless there were many new lambs in the spring, the flock would never survive. Didn't his father know these things? Peter decided to sleep out here in case the dogs came back tonight; though that was just an excuse... he didn't want to sleep within walls. He returned with the water and helped wash the dishes.
James had coaxed the wireless to life, and there was faint music through crackling static. Keri's body moved gently; and Peter was also aware of the beat, but the speaking voices between the music had no meaning for him... the "news" with its words about terrorisim and flights on a shuttle into space. Peter murmured to Keri of sleeping outside, then told his father in English.
James was vexed at first, as if Peter had somehow outsmarted him, but the boys would probably whisper all night, and he couldn't stand that sound in the dark... too much like the rustle of sand. He agreed keeping watch would be wise. His tea had gone cold in its dented tin cup while he gazed at the lamp's feeble flame. By raising his eyes he could just see the cross, spectral and white through the window. It always seemed nearer at night, like the dunes.
The wireless finally faded to silence as its batteries weakened and died. The dim yellow glow of its dials went out. The lamp guttered low on the last of its oil. Moonlight shone in through the windows. The boys' bare feet were only whispers, gliding over the sand-covered floor as they gathered their blankets and weapons. Their shapes seemed hazy and indistinct, like shadows half imagined. James's eyes were drawn to the cross again... maybe he had buried the boy?
End of excerpt. This novella is included in the collection, Magic Rats, available on Kindle.