It was just past nine when the fuel ran out. Already the sun was hot on Leon’s knuckles gripping the steering wheel. The spare can was empty when he’d been sure it was full. The drinking water was gone as well, and he could not remember doing that. He’d filled it at the drinking fountain at Cobar. The woman from the caravan park had come out, with her hair parted in the middle, and a T-shirt that read ‘Girls say yes to boys who say no. Stay out of Vietnam’ and he’d imagined running her head under the tap, holding open her eyes and her mouth, making her see. But then he’d shaken his head and it was back to normal.
‘Right on,’ she’d said when he told her he was headed into the desert. ‘Right on, baby.’ And he’d started the engine and driven away.
The map showed nothing, just the long black line of a road cutting through all that desert, straight as a pin. A night’s drive from where he had last stopped. Up ahead was Quilpie, but that was a full thumb’s stretch north. You were supposed to wait, so he walked in circles around the car, standing tall to try and see over the desert to where someone might wave back at him. Far in the distance was low-lying scrub, a black line on the horizon. Past that all was heat wobble. Cicada hissed in the brown grasses.
He took his sleeping roll out and laid it over the back window to block out the sun. All the doors were open as wide as they would go but the air didn’t move. It cooked itself on the dashboard and became sweet and hot. He tried passing the time by opening one of the books he’d bought with him, but Sherlock Holmes did not stick, and he let the book rest coolly on his forehead, smelling the stale moths of the bookshelf at home and trying not to get angry.
His tongue lost the feel of sandpaper, and became a small brick in his mouth. Syrup from a can of peaches wet his lips, but the sweetness got at his thirst and he chewed the peach halves, sifting them through his teeth to try and get all the juice out. When the sun was high and the inside of the car was too much, he lay underneath and wondered what bits of the engine would hold the cleanest water, recited the names of the stations, in order, of the West Central line. A couple of parrots sang out on their way to somewhere cooler. Sometimes there was a thump through the ground – a kangaroo, a footfall – but it may only have been the blood in his ears. Sleep came quick and unexpected, so that he woke suddenly with the feeling something had changed. The sun had moved and seen to his ankles and shins on its way: they were red and big like peeled plums, and hurt like bloody rope burn. With his eyes closed he waited to get used to it, to know that the pain wasn’t going away. His throat felt swollen like he’d swallowed an unripe peach.
The sun didn’t burn any more, but sent low rays and long shadows out over the ground. The road was just as long and straight and empty as it was before he fell asleep, the sand and grass and dirt were the same, deeper in colour from the lowering sun. He opened the bonnet of the car and studied the radiator. You could drink that. It was just water. He stood right over it and saw it shine back at him, put a finger down but his finger was not long enough to touch. There would be no getting it out anyway. He closed the bonnet.
As the sun set, he clambered onto the roof to sit and watch night approaching like a cloudbank. He tried to think what had bought him out here. Someone would come – there were telegraph poles for Christssake. They stretched over the red hip bone of the landscape, a measure of how big the space was. The furthest one he could see was a hairline in the distance.
Perhaps in the dark, it would be easier to spot help. He could flash his headlights on and off a few times, see if it bought anything. But once the dark had settled he felt differently. There were no stars, nothing to see past the nose of the car, and it gave him the creeps. In the far distance a gun was fired and the noise bought an old heat to his palms, and his arms twitched thinking of the kick of it. His heart beat steady and loud and he bit his lips in case he’d imagined it. In the blackness something padded softly around the car. He found his hammer in the boot and repositioned himself back on the roof, the hammer resting heavy and cold across his burnt ankles. The gun sounded again, and this time he saw a spark up ahead, a long way ahead, but still there. There was something that sounded like laughter in the big space. He felt better. The thing in the dark was most likely a dingo.
It was cold now, like some bastard was playing a joke, but he didn’t get back inside the car. It was good on the sunburn. What was there to shoot at out there? Kangaroos, he supposed, dingoes, like the one that had passed by the car. When the desert had been silent for hours, something howled far away, one voice on its own, unanswered. He closed his eyes and lay flat and waited for the cold night to pass.
At dawn, Leon slid off the roof of the car and carefully laced his boots, tying them tight over his sunburnt ankles to stop them from rubbing. He put a shirt over his head for shade. In another shirt he packed the remaining tins of peaches, resisting the urge to open one immediately to have the wetness of syrup in him. He looked at the keys in his hand for a moment, and then locked the car and began to walk in the direction of the shooting.
Once the car became a spot in the distance and then disappeared behind a swell of heat waves, there was the feeling that he was stuck on the same patch of desert, that there was a cunningly hidden conveyor belt that he walked against, keeping him in the same spot. His ankles were wet in his boots and he gritted his teeth against the steady shearing of his skin. By the time the sun was fully up, the peaches were heavy, and his lips were biscuit-dry. He took a can and held it in front of him. He held it in front of him for a long time, until the fact that he had forgotten to take the can opener had completely sunk in. He could picture it sitting on the dashboard, becoming red-hot in the sun. He held the can a little longer, and then hurled it as hard as he could along the road. It didn’t go very far, and for a few moments he gathered himself by placing a hand over his eyes and blinking grittily. He picked up the can again as he walked past it and noted that it was unscratched. He dropped the peaches out of his shirt and tied it around his waist without breaking stride.
To hide the sound of the tread of his feet, he sang the cobbled-together refrains of songs he had listened to on the radio, but he sang with such sandy croaking that he stopped, and hours passed in silence while his heart beat in his ankles and he tried to remember why he was there. Answers presented themselves, but they were like answers to different questions. The butterfly hands of his mother flapping at the old man when it would have been better to do anything than flap. That thick jungle with the breath of the fresh dead right there in the mist for him to inhale. The thing mawing in the night. He threw his arms in the air, mouthed the things in his head, which helped unsettle the flies who landed on the sun blisters on his face and stayed there comfortable as cattle.
At the point when he had started to imagine someone finding his body and peeling back the layers of cooked meat, picturing how the only wet thing about him might be his heart, floundering around in what liquid blood was left in his body, a speck appeared in the distance. A car. His breath came hot out of him and his throat burnt in anticipation of talking to someone, of drinking. What if the car was full of bastards and they didn’t stop? Surely they would stop, who wouldn’t? But if it was a car, it was a stationary one, it neither got bigger nor smaller as the minutes passed. When he got closer he could see that it was a rusted oil drum shot through with bullet holes. He stood in front of it and took it in. Someone had gone to the trouble of chalking the words ‘A Cunt’ on to the side of the barrel in a childish hand, beneath it a pair of chalk breasts, or they could have been wide-open eyes.
The drum gave out a long shadow and Leon was able to lay in it. The boots came off, sticking sickly to his torn ankles. He let the flies settle. For christssake, they looked crook. His eyes were pissed in and when they were closed, everything was red. Something touched his face, seemed to nose him, but he kept his eyes closed. Whatever it was could stuff itself. A wind blew against him and he slipped down the barrel and didn’t care except he might be late back tonight and it would be a shame to make them worry. He saw himself tied by the wrists and dragged along behind a truck, in the dirt, the last of his skin left on the ground, laughing all the way. A bird sang Matilda.
It was the thirst again that woke him. He’d been dreaming of a man passing him a glass of water and he could see it crisp and cold. He took hold of the glass and bought it to his lips, but to do that took forever and it never reached his mouth. He opened his eyes and the dark was thick, but it wasn’t the dark of night – this was the dark of inside. His bladder ached dully and he rolled onto his side and heaved slowly to standing. His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth, but it was better than before. His stomach felt like it’d been through a night of terrible drinking and his head wailed at him as he stood straight and leant against the wall. The wood of the house was dry and light, and it snagged on the skin of his palm. His eyes didn’t like to focus on anything, and he let the ground settle under his feet before he tried to walk. His ankles were hot and he could feel that they were bandaged tightly. A cool breeze came in through an open window, and Christ what a thirst! He moved unsteadily, the dark around him growing less intense and he found the door and then another door and then praise the lord a toilet with a tap. He turned on the tap and the water came, sweet smelling, warm but good, and he gulped fishlike under it. When he was done with that he pissed strong and happy into the loo, unable to stop a moan at the joy of it.
‘Morning Princess,’ came a voice from outside.
He was given a bucket of water by the men who were sat around the campfire in legless plastic chairs, and shown round the back of the house where he peeled his clothes off and doused himself to feel the sand melting out of his skin. There were seven of them altogether, all bearded and with the same quiet uninterested smile when Leon introduced himself. Someone gave him antiseptic cream for his ankles and someone else gave him a bacon sandwich which he couldn’t eat, but he enjoyed smelling. It was difficult to talk but no one seemed to take offence. Klyde, the one who had found him, looked old because of his wide matted beard but younger in a Grateful Dead T-shirt. He had a smell about him of raw meat and engine oil. Somebody gave him some water with sugar and salt mixed in, and he sipped it as he took in the news that he’d been asleep for two days.
‘Thought we was going to have to dig you a bed out there, mate,’ one of them said pointing into the dark with an odd tone to his voice that might have been regret. A chicken frilled in the dark. The rest of the night passed in a strange blur, sounds and colours were not how Leon remembered, and the men drank beer and commented on the hoot of an owl or the angle of a knife that someone was sharpening. He could feel his shins healing and the skin of his face was easily and dryly peeled off, and mostly it was painless.
When he next woke it was to the sound of a car and the sun was high. Pulling on his clothes he saw his brown Holden roll up to the front of the house.
‘Got your car, mate,’ said one of the men.
‘Thanks,’ he said, surprised at the generosity. The man took something out of the back seat.
‘And what is more, I found peaches all along the road!’ The man smiled happily showing him the cans, ‘looks like we eat pudding tonight.’ He walked past Leon and towards the kitchen before turning, ‘Oh – and for the future, probably a good idea to fill up on petrol once in a blue moon before heading out in to the desert.’ The man gave him a wink and disappeared inside with his peaches. Leon blushed and felt like a priss.
A few days later Klyde took Leon out to show him around the old grazier’s station, and shoot some rabbits.
‘No bugger can see us from the road,’ he explained, ‘place belongs to Colin, he was supposed to be rearing cows on it. Here we are.’ They’d come to a fallen tree, the only tree as far as Leon could tell, and Klyde had produced a sack of rotten oranges from his backpack. He started lining them up on the tree trunk.
‘Pretty unusual to get a fella on his own out here. Were you supposed to be on your way to something?’
‘Just getting a look at the country – never really seen much of it.’ He wondered if he would be asked to leave.
‘Working life, ay?’ said Klyde, agreeably, as if he himself were a keen businessman.
‘Easy to forget about it out here,’ Leon nodded to a fat pink sky. Klyde loaded and sighted his rifle, the tips of his fingers were black from engine grease. He lined up, taking his time and then he looked to Leon. ‘Mate, this is something close to heaven,’ Klyde said. And squeezed off a bullet which exploded an orange. The sweet smell of the orange came into the air. He handed the rifle to Leon.
‘It’s a pretty unusual place you’ve got here,’ Leon said in what he hoped was an even voice. The orange vibrated in the sights. It had been a long time. ‘Can’t thank you enough for helping me out.’ He shot the orange and it burst and he felt a deep well of satisfaction. When Klyde next spoke, taking his aim carefully, the log now wet from juice, his voice was tight but his words were slow. His tongue darted out of his beard, pink and quick to wet his lips.
‘This is where a man can just fuckin’ be his natural self.’ He shot and missed. He breathed in deep through his teeth and as he exhaled he shook his head, putting the gun down at his side. ‘There’s some of us, yourself included, I’m sure, have seen and borne witness to a number of terrible things. And as you’ll know, those things haunt a man.’ Klyde handed the gun across. Leon found his arms suddenly lacked the strength to lift it.
‘And at home everyone wants to act like we haven’t seen those things, or done those things. But we have, an’ that’s not a fair thing. It’s not.’ Klyde was watching the oranges and so Leon looked, too. ‘I got a friend stepped on a mine out there. We all heard the click. He stood still, an’ we all got round him with our ideas and shit. Tried holding it down with a bayonet, tried it from every angle, thought about tying a rope round his middle to pull him off, but we couldn’t have gone quicker than the blast, we knew that. Thought up ways all afternoon, meanwhile he’s stood there, sweating at twenty-one years old. So in the end he says to pile up his leg with rocks so the mine’ll only take off up to his calf, or maybe he’s lucky just his foot. An’ anyway he’s standing there crying and shouting, telling us all to get the fuck away and piss off and we all take cover and you can just hear him there on his own crying and swearing. Then the boy does it, and after the bang, after all the dirt comes down over us and there’s that smell, we scramble up to him and he’s white in the face and his whole leg’s off and the other foot, too. And he died. An’ I told everyone there, went round telling them if any bastard ever talked about it again I’d fucking shoot them in the face, no trouble.’ He turned and looked Leon in the eye. ‘No bugger’s looked after us.’
Leon lifted the gun and took aim again, but now his heart bounced his arms. ‘See,’ Klyde went on, ‘but here, we’re all in the same boat. I can tell you are, or else you wouldn’t come rambling through the desert alone and half smoked. This is the place a bloke can let loose.’ Klyde inhaled and sucked air through his teeth again. From the corner of his eye, Leon was aware of Klyde stretching out his arms at the sky. He pulled the trigger just to have taken his turn but the bullet still found its mark. Leon looked at the place the orange had been, surprised.
Klyde carried on loudly. ‘This place is man town. There’s no women, no children. It’s just us,’ he gestured to the blasted oranges like they were a field of daffodils, ‘and we can do what we want.’ Leon handed the gun back and saw that Klyde’s eyes were shining and wet.
No one asked him to stay, but no one seemed to expect him to go either, and it was comfortable. He slept deep black sleeps and nothing woke him but the morning. The days were spent hunting and talking and fixing things, even if it was just a hole in a bucket or a blocked pipe, there was some satisfaction in it that he hadn’t known before. Out the front of the house was a jungle of metal and scrap. You would pick up a piece, sit in the dirt with a drink and make things – a chair out of old fence and chicken wire, a bin out of insulated pipe. Sometimes useless things, a family of logs, each one with a different expression, wearing funnels and rusted colanders for hats, nails for eyes, scraps of oil-stained cloth for clothes. Leon cut a person out of a tin can, yellow with sharp fingernails, a ring pull for an empty head.
There was one called Colin, someone was called Grub and there was definitely someone called Jarred, but still, he was only ever able to recognize Klyde for certain. All of them wore wide beards and long hair and everyone swapped clothes. They all had a way of licking their lips with their hot little pink tongues that made it look like they were smelling the air. Every so often, a few of them would make off to the nearest shop. It was a day’s trip away, and the idea of going seemed dreadful. The idea of those naked beardless faces, of the chatter and the sidelong looks. Because the shop was a gas servo the food they came back with was of a type. A lot of chips, chocolate bars and beer. Sacks of cigarettes, coffee and a loaf of bread each to eat fresh. One evening someone turned up with a clutch of rabbits which were gutted and skinned, and roasted on a stick over the fire. Amongst the scrap and cigarette butts of the yard was the sound of low talking, the crack of beers being opened and the smell of burning rabbit hair.
There was an old mirror in the toilet, with most of the reflection taken out of it. The toilet itself wasn’t often used by anyone – you had to get water to pour it down, and it was a waste. Someone had chalked the word ‘Ladies’ on the door. Most of that sort of thing took place out behind the scrub and wattle, and it was a better set- up altogether than going in that dark and stinking room. But he went in there anyway because he remembered the mirror. He knew the beard was there, could feel it peeling its way through the skin of his face, but it was still a shock. It was long rather than wide because he hadn’t shaped it like the rest of the men. It hadn’t grown so long that it got in his way yet, but it was still long, and parts of it were white. He hadn’t expected it and he sat on the loo seat for a moment to take in the time that had passed. His eyes were lost underneath his eyebrows which had gone feral, his shoulders were like cow skin and lean, just the sinew showing. His lips were blood-bitten and dark and, just like the rest of the men when he licked his lips, his tongue was surprisingly pink and very quick.
Out in a dry field close to midnight Leon felt the pull of home like a bite on a reel. He was drunk, had spent the afternoon drinking and shooting cans with Colin/Jarred, had even joined in at lazily trying to pick off a chook. The chook was having none of it, and had simply walked off around the back of the house and sat smugly in front of the diesel barrel.
The plan had hatched when night had fallen and the last of the potato chips had been snaffled between them. The idea of rabbits again made Klyde fart dirtily in disgust. Red meat was what was called for. They piled into the back of a ute and hooned off into the desert, Klyde now and again switching off the headlights, setting them adrift in the cold black air. Leon imagined he was near the sea and that the bellows and grindings of the truck and its passengers were the sounds of water attacking the land, and the high yells of the men were seagulls and plovers.
When they came to a stop they had come up alongside a fence. The headlights were switched on and Leon could make out the dense square of a cow, her eyes round and green and glowing.
A quiet came over the truck, like small boys looking through a window at a girl changing, they hushed each other, nudged and crowded around Klyde, who held the gun.
Another cow, smaller, presumably the cow’s calf came to stare at the headlights. They wouldn’t shoot a cow with its calf. Those were hunting rules. Give the young a chance. Leon carried on thinking this, as Klyde hopped off the ute, levelling his gun at the cow, thinking this is a joke, he’s pissing about, watching because he was certain it would stop, watching Klyde walk towards the animal, aiming as he went, watching the light of the cow eye glow, the flickering of her worried ears, her raised eyebrows, the safety clicked off.
The cow’s child gave a soft low moo and before the moo had ended, a shot rang out and the small cow leapt all feet off the ground, its tail straight out, and hurtled off into the darkness, calling raggedly. The mother cow let out a honk, like the noise you would make if someone struck you in the chest with a cannon ball, and she fell over sideways, her four legs splayed out as she dropped, her head still looking up and towards her murderers. The ground shook with another shot and then another and the cow didn’t look up anymore, but her great belly sank into itself, and her hind legs twitched.
Other cows lowed in the dark, feet trampled away from the noise, and above it all Leon could hear the husky cry of that small cow that had stood by her.
The butchering only took ten minutes. Leon stayed in the back of the truck as Colin/Jarred cut out enough for a steak each, and the cow still bled heavily and the hands of her butcherer were black in the night, and steaming. The sound of the sea rose again in the voices of the men and they whooped and some drew patterns on their faces with blood and danced a caroboree around the carcass.
Leon thought about the sound of shop bells, the girls and their lips. The hack and cough of cars in the high street. The closeness of water, the heavy rain in the streets. The light of night-time and the distant sound of music.
He kept his eyes closed on the drive back to the station, listening to the dark, and when they arrived back at the house, and when the meat was thrown on the fire, and when it clenched up and shrunk, toughening in the flames and the smell was of hot grass-fed fat, he kept still so that his thoughts wouldn’t touch the edges of his body. In the morning before he was sober, and before anyone was awake, he swung his sleeping roll into the back of his old brown car and drove thirty-three hours to Sydney, only stopping to refuel.
‘Something Close to Heaven’ is an extract from Evie Wyld’s novel After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, published by Cape.
Photograph by Forest and Kim Starr