The following story ‘The Sleeping Stranger’ is from Venero Armanno’s new collection Travel Under Any Star, out today through Bareknuckle Books. The collection is being launched tonight at Avid Reader bookstore in Brisbane.
We have three copies of Travel Under Any Star to give away to KYD Members, thanks to Bareknuckle Books. To enter, simply email your contact details to [email protected] by midnight AEDT 25 November ,with the subject line ‘Travel Under Any Star’.
When Moggill Road was dirt and the timber getters had given way to farmers, yet freshly cut trees still floated down the river to the sawmill in Toowong, well, that was when her Sundays meant the church service and a best frock, and one-set tennis matches in Indooroopilly’s yellow heat. In those young days they called her Grace because Graziella came off their tongues like ash and iron filings, so now when she found the stranger curled up and sleeping with her dogs, the first thing she wondered was what his name was, and how it might sound in his new country.
She knew something of what had happened but nothing about the place he came from. Women in black with their faces covered and men in crumbled streets shaking their fists. Who wouldn’t run away? Her own home country hadn’t been any better. War makes no comforts anywhere. Paper stuffed into the holes in your shoes, soup with no meat and a single potato to share among a family. This man sleeping with her dogs – probably the same thing.
Nice to be able to escape to somewhere else.
The big news had started over the last few days. The surrounding region, and a lot of the land that Graziella and her husband Filippo had once owned, started to appear on the television too. There on the screen with searchers striding through: the forest, the valleys, those nearby manicured hills dotted with the new century’s dream of perfection: mansions, swimming pools and tennis courts. It was a long time ago since they’d worked the hundreds of acres of chicken and pineapple farms that only drove you bankrupt. After Filippo died, all she managed to hang onto were three acres for herself, the old house, one machinery shed and a chicken coop. Bills and debts gobbled up the money. Now everything here was worth millions. Millions and millions and millions.
Yet a stranger was sleeping with two old dogs in her shed.
People in the area were excited. Some were scared, expecting to find fugitives in their homes. The police had set up a special number to call if you had any information: if a fugitive was running through your back paddock, for instance, or was on the kitchen floor making breakfast of your Affenpinscher. In this area, when it came to pets, people leaned toward the exotic. As for these very exotic escapees, well, Graziella wasn’t about to join the hysteria. Where would they turn up, people asked one another in the Kenmore Woolworths and the Bellbowrie Coles supermarket aisles, where were they hiding? Popular opinion said they were more than likely up with the rapidly diminishing number of wild deer left foraging the state forest, soon to be clubbing their fawns to death for food.
‘Smoke’d give them away,’ the newsagent said. ‘And if they eat them raw they’ll be dead before they’re recaptured. Vermin in deer, of course.’
The gourmet butcher, at odds for twenty-three years with his neighbour the newsagent, ridiculed such predictable ignorance. ‘Deer eat grass, last time I looked. Cleanest meat you’ll ever see. Now, if these fellas go killing wild pigs, then they’ll see vermin.’
‘Wild pigs? And where do you see wild pigs, genius?’
It was that sort of neighbourhood.
All three of Grace’s sons were willing to move home for the duration, to protect her. ‘Ma, these guys are animals,’ said Joe, the middle one.
‘They could turn up anywhere,’ warned Sam, the youngest.
‘Even if they’re not animals they’re desperate enough to try anything,’ the eldest and most reasonable, Charlie, said, switching television stations for the weekly game.
Joe even joined a group of searchers for a day, but returned in a state of acute boredom. ‘The creek’s dry,’ he told her, referring to the winding stream flowing through the lowlands that had provided his boyhood years with untold hours of adventure. ‘When’s it really gonna rain, hey Ma?’
‘Now, you see a man in trouble,’ Graziella ordered her children, ‘you give him water and food and you think twice about calling the police. What do you think we did in the war when the Germans started getting slaughtered? We hated them, but we fed them, and let them go too.’
Her sons harrumphed, knowing better. Germans died like hunted sheep in Sicily. Graziella gave her boys their dinners and told them to get home to their families, she didn’t need protecting. When they were gone and the television was off, she cursed her husband – bless his departed spirit – for sticking so much of his small mind into the brains of those boys. Sometimes it seemed that the force of his personality had been a barrier to the wisdom that should have come to a better educated new generation.
Graziella wasn’t concerned about desperate men on the loose. If she had been, then she might as well have been concerned about desperate men all her life. Her father, the one truly good man she had known, had taught her to pass through the failings of all things masculine. Three uncles martyred themselves in the second world war, believing the fascist lie to the end. A fourth, her favourite uncle, was a small town mayor, and even he had managed to cause the end of his own life. He’d ordered the summary execution of three American GIs for the alleged rape of a local girl. No evidence against them, but he hated all Americans as marauding devils. A trial? Forget it. Shoot them in the main square. A week later when the American army arrived in force, they filled him with bullet holes. Equally illegal, but there you go.
Then the worst. Right here in these once-sleepy rural outskirts, a long time ago, Filippo had taken part in the beating of a black man caught stealing from people’s larders. Filippo and a few of his Australian cronies had taken the man, whose name Graziella had never known, to the river’s edge. She did her best to believe that they hadn’t intended to kill him, but his body was found downriver, lodged in a tree-root near the outflow of the cement works – and of who had done it, no one of significance was ever the wiser.
Protection on her remaining tract of land was left to a pair of lethargic dogs and a nice double-barrel shotgun. The younger dog was twelve years of age, a Great Dane called Sylvia who hardly ever barked. The other was Prettyboy, seventeen years if a day, an ugly mongrel she’d found in the street as a puppy. All his life he’d been friends to any and everyone. Half-blind and half-dead, Prettyboy already looked like a corpse, only capable of scaring an intruder if the intruder believed in ghosts.
It didn’t matter that her dogs were useless. Graziella knew she had her wits plus nerves of steel. If she could survive the pre-war disintegration of an entire social fabric, and the poverty and famine of war-time, not to mention a post-war economic collapse, she could handle anything. If she could survive coming to a new country and making a home, and spending a lifetime managing and assuaging the personality of a man like Filippo, she could survive any intrusion a group of scared, skinny, exhausted refugees might make.
But what a remarkable thing had happened: first the big pile-up on the Ipswich Motorway that saw endless heavy traffic re-routed through – of all places – the slow-going Moggill Ferry; then, as lost as lost can be, a transportation bus slid down an embankment while trying a u-turn up on Rafting Ground Road, not far from the Brookfield Produce Store.
The police rounded up eight of the refugees but some were still on the loose. Grace couldn’t remember how many, maybe the same again. Maybe only two or three. One. None. Hysteria can’t count. SES workers, volunteers, neighbourhood children and their pets tramped through the hills combing the area. From her bedroom’s crumbling balcony Graziella had seen a group of searchers on a distant ridge: they looked like picnickers on Easter weekend unable to find a good place to lay their blankets and baskets.
Now she looked at the stranger sleeping in her shed and wondered, Are you alone? Where are your friends?
This sleeping man – his skin was entirely, deeply black. It seemed rubbery, malnourished, loose and unhealthy. He was ugly. Even in perfect health he would be ugly – and he was so still he might as well have been dead. The dogs had accepted him during the night. All three were exhausted and didn’t stir.
As Graziella watched, a stone of apprehension settled, not in her heart but in her stomach. Apprehension, or would it be better to call it sorrow, because she knew that this man’s freedom was momentary and would come to a bad end. He would be found. Sooner or later he’d have to emerge, and that’s when the chains would fall on him, just when he tasted the sun and told himself he was free.
Graziella decided, without needing to decide it, that she would help him.
The hay and straw softened her step as she back-stepped from the shed. The sun hadn’t risen. The orange on the horizon was minimal. Mist hung amidst the trees and filled the valleys so that the length and breadth of her property seemed to exist in space, surrounded by nothing. At least for this hour, until the sun did its job and burned away the haze, this place was its own world – as it used to be.
She wished Filippo had never been forced to parcel up and sell the vast quantity of their land-holding, but debts had mounted and his health had gone. At one time they owned most of the region but land taxes, wages and fuel costs sky- rocketed at the same time as the price of pineapples and battery eggs fell like stones. Somehow, farming land became worthless beneath them, but developers kept coming to tell them that residential acreage blocks were the modern world’s new gold. Well, her new gold went to pay bank bills, government loans and endless debts; there was nothing in her account now, that was for sure, and there hadn’t been for years.
Her sons told her even these three acres were too much for one old lady; agents of course waited for her to sell up or die – go somewhere cheaper, smaller, more practical.But the view wasn’t too much for her; neither were the crowds of cockatoos who came each morning; or the deer and the giant white stag she still sometimes saw, despite the acreage fencing that kept them out of gardens.
Not quite so alone as she was most mornings, Graziella left the stranger where he slept like a sack of broken bones and went to feed her chickens.
There were three new eggs in the coop. They went into the pocket of her apron for the walk along the pathway back toward the house. Mist remained heavy and not even the birds had started a new day’s song.
She pulled her knitted jumper more closely around her shoulders. Last week, wild hail storms had ravaged the city but it was the type of inexplicable thunder, rain and trouble that didn’t put a drop of water into Brisbane’s dams. The roofs of three nearby homes had disappeared. Here, she’d spent days sweeping and mopping, and clearing her vegetable plots of fallen debris and flattened stakes. The tomatoes, ruined. Joe would help. The work had left her exhausted, yet mornings like these were moments to be happy. Even if her thin legs ached and she unexpectedly had to sit down on her way back to the house. Graziella instinctively put her hands into the big pocket of her apron in order to feel the warmth of the just-laid eggs. She caught her breath. Her lassitude was physical but was also a sort of depression, she recognised it, and in recognising it her heart sank a little further. It wasn’t for ruined trees, plants or vegetables, and not even for herself, but for the stranger lying in the straw, the breath and body-heat of two old dogs keeping him warm. She’d better bring him a blanket. Maybe she should have nudged him awake and invited him into the house for something hot to drink and warm to eat. How much had he already endured?
Joe, who had a voice you couldn’t forget, was already answering the question.
‘Listen, Ma, you take each individual fella from these crazy countries and maybe you’d say he himself isn’t an animal, but the whole lot of them put together –they just got a violent way of life. You seen them on the TV? What about when they go stupid through those religious festivals? Smacking their own heads. Now that’s stuffed. So better watch out because, you come from a place like that, you’re desperate and capable of anything.’
Graziella would let the man rest, and he could take as much food and water as he could carry, but he would have to go. Where? Straight into the arms of everyone hunting him. There was no alternative. She couldn’t drive a car any more and she certainly didn’t have the young woman’s energy she’d had in war-time. There was no underground Resistance to protect one running man; there was no network of ‘safe houses’ agreed between neighbours that could create a sheltered passage for an individual fleeing trouble. That was the old world and different times, an old-fashioned way of seeing things.
She turned her eye to the rising light, yet that wonderful mist persisted.
Graziella forced herself to her feet. She tottered. It was like this lately and she made sure nobody saw it. She knew she was the relic of a bygone era; her body was frail and her way of looking at things was as useless as ancient laws chiselled into stone but displayed in the corner of a museum. Was that reason enough to let go of what she believed in? She would never forget how at the end of the last war, when the worst of human nature was loose, mercy had still found a way to blossom. Her father. He passionately hated the fascists but he’d said no to exquisite revenge and had instead assisted the escape of a half dozen party officials. He had little Graziella bake bread for these men, pack them food and water. Why? It was either that or see them slaughtered. Justice was not in the wind, her father said, only the mob.
She couldn’t forget another of her father’s actions. A German soldier, no more than a boy, concealed in a cupboard during an American army search. When they could finally bring him out his uniform’s trousers were soaked at the front. Her father laughed it off and said they’d imprisoned him with the pasta and grain for longer than the human bladder could endure, but she knew the German’s shame came from terror and nothing else. Her father gave him a pair of his work trousers and tied the waistband with twine because he’d been a heavy man. He helped him escape, hidden in their cart, while in the town’s nearby avenues and alleys other German soldiers were being chased into corners and stoned, stripped naked of their uniforms and pierced with pitchforks, strung up by the neck.
In one street, the mob; in the next, her father.
There was no one she could ring on the stranger’s behalf. No one she could trust. She looked up at the hoop-pine treetops as the first birdsong of the day peeled across the sky. A new thought struck her: her father, the terrified German boy, and her father’s cart.
This morning Joe was coming in his truck to deliver her weekly groceries. Part of his inheritance had allowed him to open a big fruit and vegetable store in Aspley, and even though that was away on the other side of town, he liked to deliver her groceries himself. He was a hot-head, that was true, and she had to admit he wasn’t very smart, but in the main he had a good and considerate heart. At least to his family. Today they’d arranged that he’d stay an hour or two to collect the masses of dead branches those storms had strewn everywhere. He would fill up the back of his truck and dump the lot at the rubbish tip.
Grace contemplated it. Joe was a man with whom there could be no reasoning. She would have to make il straniero – the stranger – hide in the house. It was probably something he was used to, anyway. Then, well, the truck was huge and rickety, and always packed with wooden boxes and cardboard cartons. Joe even used it to help family members move furniture. Add that to the fact that the fruit and vegetable store was so far away from this area. Add that to the fact that Joe would be going to the largest rubbish tip, which was even further. What if she could make the stranger secrete himself in the truck while her son was working? It wouldn’t be difficult. He could cover himself in rags and sacks, and slide right in the back behind the biggest boxes. The man could be transported far away then jump off when the opportunity arose. He might even wait until after the rubbish was dumped and scurry off unseen across the tip. From then on, well, from then on his life and his luck would be his own.
For a moment Grace even contemplated the impossible – talking Joe into actively helping – but the timbre of his voice and the quality of his hostility stayed with her.
‘The bastards know they got no chance. You make sure you keep the bloody shotgun handy, all right? I checked it for you. You know what Pa would do.’
Yes, she knew what Pa would do. And she knew what she was capable of doing too.
So long ago, when youth was such a welcome fire in the veins, her conscience made her call the local district police chief. In a soft, soft voice she told this officer what had happened to the black man. In the old country, informers were the vermin of the earth. She turned herself into one such hateful organism and gave the names of the men, including Filippo’s. Though she trembled for a week straight – nothing happened. Ah, but wisdom comes too late in life. Now she knew, of course, the local police chief had been in on it too, but when Filippo finally came to her in the knowledge of what she’d tried to reveal, it hadn’t been with rage and violence but with a broken man’s tears and discontent. But I didn’t touch him, I stayed back, I never even saw what happened, who was there at the end.
Lies? It wasn’t up to her to decide any more. She made him go to the priest and confess; he did; it was never spoken of again, yet remained hard and cold in the deepest shadow of her heart.
Graziella put water on the stove to boil the fresh eggs. She had to admit that there was one thing out of all the confusing things Joe said that might be worth listening to. The stranger was a man in trouble. So would he understand that she was there to help him, had already devised a possible means of escape, or would desperation make him do something stupid? She despised the doubts that ran through her mind, but the seeds were planted and nothing she could do or think stopped them taking root. She was an old woman. A woman alone. Her father would have done the right thing, but he would also have made sure to be careful about it.
She knotted the food she’d prepared into a tablecloth and placed it all into a small wicker hamper. Fresh bread rolls filled with leftovers of Sunday’s roast and her home-made tomato relish. Boiled eggs, peeled carrots, tomatoes, cheese, several mandarins from the orchard. A bottle of water and a thermos of coffee.
But what did he really eat? What did he really drink? What did his religion and customs not allow him to consume?
Out of all this she hoped something would please him. Then, when they were understanding one another, before Joe turned up, she would make him whatever he wanted for the next part of his journey. Graziella slid her wrist through the hamper’s curved carry-handle and let the thing dangle from her forearm. Not wanting to, with regret, she took the well-oiled shotgun from its spot behind the pantry door, cracked it in two, and saw that Joe had left it loaded with two cartridges.
At least he had half-a-brain enough to leave the safety on. She drew a deep breath and snapped the shotgun shut. Sylvia and Prettyboy were not moving and il straniero was gone. It was as simple and cut and dried as that. Somehow he had quietly killed the old dogs and disappeared. Maybe they’d started to make a fuss; maybe in his country dogs were the Devil.
Her legs trembled, the ground moved and Graziella wanted to fall down. She put the hamper in the hay and clutched her shotgun. She touched her dogs to see how they’d died. Something about their necks, that was all she could tell.
If only she hadn’t left him sleeping there. If only she’d helped him straight away. She wondered where he was, which direction he was headed. She pictured him running through the undergrowth but quickly losing the cover of vegetation. The wilder plains around him would turn into the well-ordered and neatly patterned suburban landscape that this area had become. In order to get into what scrublands still existed around Anstead, Pullenvale or Brookfield, and possibly make it into the immense state forest, he would have to start jumping fences, would have to start avoiding housewives, children, pets. He would discover that between him and any good hiding place there was neat suburbia and dogs not so easily dealt with. He would learn what the deer had learned: in civilisation there’s not a single place to hide.
Tears pricked Graziella’s eyes. Poor Sylvia, poor ugly Prettyboy. What a way to end.
Maybe, she tried to tell herself, he would find it a relief to be caught. There would be government food to fill his growling stomach, water to parch his dry throat. There was always the awful safety of incarceration. Or – maybe neighbours’ dogs would tear him apart; some local husband and father might hit the escaping man too hard on the back of his head with a shovel; instant justice would arrive for the simple, stupid killing of two dogs already half dead.
Graziella thought, and me half dead too.
Her legs ached. Her chest was tight. Just like that, the adventure and promise of do-goodery was over; she wished the stranger murdered or maimed. In the shed where the two bodies were inert and asleep before her, she stood leaning on the shotgun for support, listening for the telltale barking of dogs down in the valleys. There was something, all right, echoes floating on the wind, reaching her ears. Dogs. It might mean the stranger was in trouble straight away – or it might mean nothing. The neighbourhood mutts barked at tradesmen, the postman, their own shadows.
And as she thought it a shadow moved inside the machinery shed. Graziella half-turned but couldn’t lift the shotgun high enough. A tremendous shove pushed her backwards. Her ankles hit some protrusion and she twisted sideways. Her torso wrenched right around and now she was on the ground, crumpled, and the shotgun, safety switch on, was out of her hands. Not that she could feel her hands.
The man who emerged from the dark looked down on her. There was the grime-stained face, dusky features. He seemed streaked with sweat and dirt. In his wiry hair were shreds of hay. His features had a deeply lined, slept-in appearance.
He spoke to her, softly but with urgency. Graziella couldn’t understand a word. He looked down on her for long moments, then he was out of her view. When he reappeared he was holding the shotgun. He turned the barrels to his hands and with a howl smashed that long sleek body against the wall and the floor, again and again. It was as if he dared the gun to fire. It didn’t. In a sort of furious ecstasy he broke it to pieces and threw the pieces away, then collapsed on his knees beside her. Despite his violence, his voice was so soft. Maybe he was urging her, or begging. All the same, incomprehensible words tumbled out. Graziella thought the most ridiculous thing: once upon a time she and Filippo had tried keeping turkeys, and this man’s language sounded just like their gobbling.
Then what seemed to be one word: Jassim, Jassim, Jassim.
It could have meant anything. Don’t die. I’m sorry. I will eat the food.
Or it could even have been a name.
Il straniero’s eyes wouldn’t leave hers. It was as if that gaze kept her in this world. His gaze had something of the compassion she’d seen in her father’s face. Maybe then this was a man like him, in another guise, in a changed circumstance. The stranger touched her cheek. She couldn’t tell if his fingertips and palms were soft or callused. Had he been a field worker or some kind of doctor or scientist? Who could tell. Where did he come from? It didn’t really matter. Instead she was curious about the way he gently felt for the major vein in her neck. At the same time she had the sensation that all the blood of her body was coursing away into the ground, even though she was certain she didn’t have the slightest cut. The man slowly lifted her arm. It didn’t hurt. Her wrist came into her eye line and was without sensation, like the wrist of some other woman. Added to that, those liver spots and the mottled skin belonged to someone else. She wasn’t ancient; she was a young woman, a girl baking bread for grimy-faced men because her father had asked her to.
The stranger felt her pulse.
Now Graziella could no longer see the large clay oven with the burning wood and the dough baking. She could no longer smell the bread being made. What she saw was not the familiar outline of her father’s big shape. Instead, it was the machinery shed’s doorway and the sky past it, the way a new day’s sun was burning away the persistent morning mist. A burst of screeching white cockatoos swept across the clouds. They screamed to wake the dead; last month, a neighbour in the valley had been given a fine for shooting at them.
After the cool of the morning it was going to be a hot day.
He’d moved her. Then he wasn’t a doctor. Though she didn’t feel anything at being carried and set down, she knew only too well that injured folk were always meant to be left where they fell. Or perhaps he knew better, knew that a woman such as her would not care to close her eyes in a machinery shed, but instead upon a soft bed of grass in the shade. The shade was created by the hundred-year-old hoop pines behind the old farmhouse, planted long before even she and Filippo had made this place their home. There were poinsettias nearby. She smelled earth and lichen. The stranger’s face was stricken.
Graziella wanted to tell him that it was all right; she could have named twenty, thirty, forty friends and relatives who’d been given nowhere near the number of years she had had. Not to mention that from her had come three big sons with families of their own. Seven grandchildren and Sam’s wife Jenny was pregnant again. Over decades you learn to understand how things fall away and manage to go on all at the same time. If there was one thing to regret it was her husband and what he’d done one day by the river. If there was a second thing then maybe it wasn’t this moment but what had led to it; to come to the stranger carrying a shotgun. To let suspicion take root and grow. That was something to be ashamed of. Her father, now that she thought of it, he wouldn’t have done it this way. His hand would have come out first, in friendship.
Close by, dogs started barking. Il straniero turned his face toward the sound. She saw apprehension flow into his torment. Graziella knew what the noise signified: the closest neighbour’s Staffis were baying at a vehicle pulling up at her gate. In a moment the driver would get out to open that gate, tell the dogs to shut up, and if they knew the driver they would. If they didn’t, they would go even more crazy, trying to jump the fence. The driver would open the gate, drive the vehicle through, stop again, shut the gate, then come on up to the house.
Moments passed. The dogs settled down, stopped barking. They knew who had arrived. It had to be Joe.
Graziella would have told this man, Run now, for your life, and though she commanded him with the last of her will – Go, please, you don’t know what my son will do to you – what she saw was a man falling into the river under a barrage of blows
The stranger had to know that he had only seconds to escape. Instead, he took her hands in his. She tried to fix her vision on his face but somehow the great branches of the Hoop Pines were closer. She knew the stranger was kneeling beside her, and in her mind she gave her words all the imperious swagger she’d been famous for: Save yourself.
Despite this, the stranger stayed with her and spoke low, in what Graziella thought was a good voice for a prayer.