Roni O’Brien’s ‘Flesh’ is the winner of the 2016 S.D. Harvey Short Story Award, presented in conjunction with the Australian Crime Writers’ Association.
You can’t keep a heart cold much past two days.
You can’t keep anything dead past two days.
I couldn’t. You couldn’t. Jacka says he can but he’s from west of the river, and the people from west of the river always had secrets. One of my mums, I can’t remember which, she said they’ve got their own way of doing things, that there’s nothing special about it. But then, she wasn’t there that night and she never saw what I saw.
I mean, I didn’t kill anyone. Nobody ever said Jacka did either.
If you’d seen me when we were kids, you probably wouldn’t have seen me. People don’t bother much to look at my sort of people; the kind with rusted old Fords and crappy stickers and a trailer on the back full of bits of our lives that probably should have gone to the tip if we’d known any better. I didn’t know any better. The old man did, but he was the one who steered us everywhere. Most of the time it was to all the wrong places.
Besides, I’m only telling you this so you’ll know why I did some things. Not everything, just some things. I don’t want you thinking I didn’t know what I was doing.
Lots of people know how to shoot a gun.
Anyway, Jacka knew how to shoot way before I did.
You’d never guess Jacka was from where the Riveries lived. It’s where the Murray River kind of knees itself into the bush like an old man’s bent leg. Jacka didn’t hang around with the Riveries much when he was in town, only when he went home. Plus his skin looked a bit different to them, like he’d worn it out a bit harder. But when you knew him, really looked into him, you could tell. Yeah, you could tell he was from the river bends.
People used to say he was adopted, but Jacka told me that was a lie – and we both knew what a lie was, believe me. Those kids at school, at Widjimorp, they’d push him to the ground until his knees scabbed up and made curved scars on his legs. But then his legs healed up until the scars were like smiles, sort of laughing and sticking it back up them.
I had the same knees. Except no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get the scars to smile. Sometimes if you wear away at flesh too much, it won’t go back the same way.
People used to say he was adopted, but Jacka told me that was a lie – and we both knew what a lie was, believe me.
I’m not sure where I learnt that. Maybe I heard it from some of those church people, the ones who were always going on about sinning and salvation whenever Dad and me came back to town. I know I didn’t learn it in school because I didn’t learn much from them, the ones I can remember. And the only ones I can remember were the schools where you could tell the teachers had done their welfare training because they all had that same tilted head smile when they spoke to you. Like the priest the police sent that time, the one who wanted to save me.
Maybe Dad, the old man, maybe he’d told me about flesh. He had a way of keeping the flesh tight after he’d finished skinning the animal and then the skin would drop loose off the carcass at the last minute, sort of the way your pants crumple on the ground when you take them off. I never saw Dad handle flesh any other way when it came to skinning things.
I don’t want you to think that’s all he did. It was just his job, you know, like shooting roos or butchering things in the back of that trailer. Sometimes when we were between jobs, or mums, or schools, he’d take me to Mildura and the air would smell like oranges and I’d suck the skin from the fruit until strings of it stuck to my teeth like fangs. Then he’d laugh at me or maybe I’d smile back and we’d sort of share something. But only for a moment you see. Only for that one small moment.
And then those small moments would kind of disappear. Like the time we visited my uncle at the shooters’ camp and they wrapped a freshly shot rabbit in that crumpled foil that’s been used before and they shoved it into the coals. Then they ate the meat right off the bones. That uncle must have loved that meat so much because he held me really, really tight after everyone had gone to wash the dishes and my dad turned Johnny Cash up to drown out the noise.
You probably want to know if I called out or stopped them, but the truth’s always hard to find when you’re trapped in a panic. Anyway, they said my memory is not – what is it again – not a reliable source, so maybe he wasn’t my uncle after all.
My mind’s never paid much attention to anything, you know? It still doesn’t. I suppose I was numb, or maybe I was tired; tired of driving around half the Mallee stopping at farms and towns and butchering people’s pet sheep and tired of wanting to be still and tired of wanting. I mean, Dad killed other things like old milking cows – choppers they called them – and rams and goats and anything that people wanted to kill and eat. He’d kill anything.
He drew the line at horses, though. Dad had a soft spot for horses, although I’m not sure you could really call it soft spot, more like it was just empty in there. The old fruit growers would say, ‘Mister Mikac, you can have him, then,’ and they’d whoosh their hands at the horse hanging its head low with its filthy mane covering its eyes like it knew what was about to happen to it. I think I knew too.
‘Give him to Cora,’ they’d say and they’d look at me like they could tell I needed something to love. They’d eaten horse in the war, Dad said, so they didn’t care. But the old man just couldn’t put a gun to a horse’s head. The part that could make him do it wasn’t there. A bit like the part that was meant to be a parent I suppose. I’m only telling you this because I want you to know he tried to care about something. Even if it was just for a moment.
I mean, I didn’t hate him and I don’t know why I would hate him back then when I was only six.
But I never got to keep any of those horses. I always thought it was because we travelled around so much with our trailer dragging along behind us like one of those uncles. And then I thought, maybe my dad, and whichever mum was there, maybe they thought I didn’t know how to care for something. Because keeping something close to you meant you had to protect it and let it touch you without hurting you. I suppose you have to know what looking after something is like.
You need practice.
Now Jacka, he was the one who first said you could kill things for love. Most of the time he only ever killed kangaroos and fish and stuff, and even then that was only to sell them for money for home.
‘You have to have a reason to kill something,’ he said. ‘You only kill things for other people, to pay them back.’
It’s like his family and anything he ever cared about gave him a reason to pay things back.
Jacka said he’d been with his family in Widjimorp all his life.
He told me once, ‘I’m stuck to this place like my skin’s stuck to my body.’
I can’t imagine that. Wearing your skin heavy on your bones like that, always sort of stitched into Widjimorp. It was almost like Jacka felt his skin made him part of everything around him. Even when the land stretched out into big bleached sheets for want of rain, he felt a part of it.
He said his great-grandad, or someone greater than him anyway, he used to know all the people along the river for about a three day’s walk. My dad knew all the people along the river for a three-hour crawl so I suppose that made us the same then, Jacka and me. You know, if you’ve ever watched a fast flowing river in the middle of a storm you would know this – sometimes when an object is spinning around on its own and it has nothing to hold on to, it clings to something stronger and they float together.
Not that I clung to Jacka like that then. Not at the start. I mean, I didn’t hate him and I don’t know why I would hate him back then when I was only six. Maybe my first mum was the one who told me Jacka and his people were rotten. I kept looking at him wondering what that was because only meat got rotten when you left it hanging in the meat house for too long with the flyscreen door open. I couldn’t work it out with people.
That must be what made the old man and all those mums lift their lips at the people in the river bends. Because the Riveries were the only people lower than them. It meant we weren’t at the very bottom, we were second from the bottom and that means something when everyone looks at you with that same shade of sorry in their eyes. You start to think you don’t matter. You think nobody is lower than you. And that matters.
So I pretended to hate Jacka just to make my first mum happy, which wasn’t easy to do a lot of the time unless you bought her a packet of tobacco from one of the service stations we passed everywhere we travelled. That’s the only place she liked to buy her rollies, so people didn’t know what her and Dad were doing with the white rollie papers and the tobacco pouches.
But after she left us for a man with an all-night service station, Dad drove around for another year, driving that Mikac Mobile Butchers & Shooter’s trailer and stopping to clean his guns, with me reading things in the front seat out loud just to keep the hurt out of the air until we found another mum. This one was a bit, sort of, overstuffed, and her skin stretched out too tight across her middle and she ate too many greasy chips, but at least she didn’t mind me going down to the river bends.
And the second mum kept Dad away from me and that was a good thing. Because there’s only so many times you can tell people the marks on your legs are where you got pushed over in the yard before they sort of scowl at you because you’re getting too old for falling over. And then they tilt their heads again.
And it’s not like I went to the river bends much, because it’s kind of hard to keep friends with a black kid from Widjimorp when you only ever came back a few times a year.
I can tell you, though, that I never called him a black kid. I never even called him a bastard. That was the old man. Saying someone’s a black bastard is pretty stupid when you think about it, because when I sat on the river’s edge all day until the sun fried my skin into brown peels, my skin was darker than Jacka’s. And everybody knew my mum was somebody that nobody knew. Not even me.
Jacka told me he didn’t get it either, but he said at least me coming down to the Riveries’ place meant he had someone to fish with. I didn’t mind fishing. Shooting is a whole other thing, but fishing is where you go when you don’t want the rest of the world to know where you are. If you hate school or you have that empty, hungry feeling you get when people at the Swap & Sell markets look at you with their nostrils flaring, you can always go to the river and fish. The water doesn’t care. It doesn’t judge you or tell you to stop screaming or hold you until the bruises grow in flower shapes on your arm. The water just is.
You probably wouldn’t understand, but being stuck in a whirlpool makes you want to put your head down somewhere and just breathe for a bit. All of the swirling and the trying to breathe and not getting anywhere makes you so tired that you just want to be still.
And everywhere we went, Dad and me and the trailers and the mums and the belts, it was never just still. It was never like coming back to somewhere where I knew where things would be the same, even if it was just the service station, and the fish’n’chip shop, and the dirt track to Jacka’s house where the Riveries sort of let me be. At least I knew the way there. It’s so easy to lose your way when you’re running from things all the time.
You probably wouldn’t understand, but being stuck in a whirlpool makes you want to put your head down somewhere and just breathe for a bit.
It’s why I stayed in Widjimorp the last time I came back. You’re probably wondering how that happened, but you see I was sixteen by then. I already knew that I could give informed consent because one of the head-tilting teachers told me so. I don’t remember telling my dad and our new mum about it. That’s that memory thing again, fuzzing everything up until it blurs, as if it’s one of those dust storms.
I want to tell you the part about me leaving but all I remember is the red dirt swirling over the wooden railway bridge and Jacka coming to get me and all my backpacks while I informed-consented the woman in the police station. And when we turned to leave, I didn’t even know I’d been carrying so much around with me.
All I know is I just wanted to stay. Because to me, staying meant you belonged somewhere, that you belonged to something even if it was just the dirt. That’s probably how Jacka knew. He’d stayed so long in one place and everyone his family had ever spoken about had stayed there too. They were flesh and blood he said. He belonged, you know?
He used to tell me when we were fishing about how the stars showed him the way home and how they told him where he’d come from and I would shut my eyes and just listen to his voice and I wanted so badly to have stars of my own that when I opened my eyes and he was there beside me, I didn’t even know how much I needed him to show me the way.
Some people say that when skin is different, you can never really join it. All I know is that Jacka’s skin and my skin did. Probably because we’d never tried to force it together before.
I tried really hard not to touch him. I tried not to run my finger along his arm where his hands spread out and my fingers caught on his scars. They were little clasps reaching for me. It’s hard not to want to feel skin against yours, especially when you’ve never had it touch yours like that.
It’s funny, but I remember once, I got taken to some church in a town somewhere near the Wimmera. I must have been about twelve and we were up to our third mum because this one smelt of sunscreen oil all the time even though she didn’t wear any. And the preacher up the front, let me see if I remember now, he said, ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.’
He said that it meant we must not give in to carnality, but when I think about it now, I know what it really means. It means if you’ve done something really wrong, you’ll be saved if you believe in the same Jesus they believe in. I never really believed in any sort of Jesus much because he’d never really helped me before, and Jacka said he didn’t believe anything either. But we were saved all the same.
Besides, the Bible says lots of things. My third mum really liked reading it, especially when Dad was missing somewhere in the darkness and all we could hear was his breathing. Sometimes to keep herself from giving in she’d even read the Bible to me, which is why I remember that part about a time to kill, and a time to heal.
Besides, the Bible says lots of things. My third mum really liked reading it, especially when Dad was missing somewhere in the darkness and all we could hear was his breathing.
Not that anybody killed anybody. I need you to know that. I told them, just like I’m telling you, that Dad was the one who tried to kill things. He didn’t even need to feel like he owned them. He would grab his .22 and pull the wooden butt in hard to his shoulder and shoot at roos and possums and galahs just for the fun of it. They didn’t belong to him either.
I think now, the old man thought I belonged to him. Although belonging isn’t even really the right word because it means a different thing every time someone uses it.
I wanted to belong to somewhere; I wanted to belong like the Riveries did. And I wanted Jacka to belong to me. But when you hold something too tight, so tight that you crush it, then it’s not really about belonging anymore. At least that’s what the social worker woman said and she didn’t even have a head tilt.
I will tell you the same thing I told that social worker woman, and the police: I don’t know why the old man was in the wattle scrub that night. Neither does Jacka. Maybe Dad wanted to come shooting with us because he had his gun ready. I only remember there was one of those big, dry dust storms that night. That’s the problem with the Mallee, the red dirt can be like a rain that never leaves.
I told them just what I’m telling you – Jacka was just about to go out to shoot rabbits by the moonlight like he did when the cicadas called loud. Just so you know, the cicadas calling means everything in the bush is out hunting in the heat of the night. That night, though, the dust was blowing too hard to see who was hunting who.
There might have been a sort of cry from that grass fringe, the one near the old midden heap, but maybe it was the wind howling. Besides, Jacka couldn’t see anything because it was so dark and the air was thick with half of the Mallee. So I’m not sure why the gun went off.
I’ve already told you my memory can’t be trusted. I couldn’t have known the old man was shot, not until they found him two days later on the bottom of the ridge, the one below where the gold dust wattle grows. The Riveries said nobody knew because it’s always hard to tell if there’s fresh blood on the ground when that red dust flows after the rain.
I haven’t told you about the inquest because there isn’t anything to tell. I mean, they had a Bible and they talked about swearing to things and stuff and being really sure, but they didn’t mention the part inside it about saving people. The police only talked about how the old man’s body laid there for two days and how he’d been shot through the heart and how nobody knew a thing about it. My third mum said that might have been the first time he ever really felt anything in his heart.
The thing is, if you want to know about salvation then you should probably know they didn’t even talk about it at the inquest, the salvation part I mean. They said the shooting was all an accident. They talked about how Jacka and I were roo shooting, and how we were underage because they thought I didn’t know how a gun worked. But I did, I knew how a gun worked and I’m telling you there was too much dust in the air, too much of everything in the air, to know for sure.
I don’t want you feeling sorry for me, though. People don’t need to do that. People have wanted to save me my whole life and I didn’t even know I needed saving. So when we buried the old man, I sat in the front row of that church with Jacka’s family and we sang songs about how death is sad, even though sometimes it isn’t, and I didn’t even listen to the part about being saved at all.
You see, you can keep flesh cold, I know that now, but only for so long. The heart, though, that’s a whole other matter. You can’t keep a heart cold, no matter how hard you try.