Coo-ee: An Australian Gothic

Coo-ee, they call. It’s a matter of pride, how far the sound travels. They’re calling for Nip, the kelpie pup, who’s been missing since morning. They are barefoot though it is hot, and I worry about snakes like I worry about the storms, and the tree limbs that quiver in the wind and threaten to fall and break young skulls. I’ve told them before they’ll be sorry if their foot gets bit, but I tell them all kinds of things, and nothing seems to scare them. Last summer one of their friends drowned in the neighbour’s dam, and the town is as quiet and dark as the water about it. The boy was a friend of theirs, and they too were sullen for a week, as if the muddy water had choked them too. I thought they’d stop their gallivanting, then, but the youth don’t take long to cure themselves of grief. They were out hunting for rabbits before the month’s end, and when they came back with a net of yabbies and muddy feet, there was no amount of scolding and worrying that was going to stop them getting into trouble.


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Me, I still gasp for breath on these hot nights alone, missing my man these long years gone from his truck overturning in the fog. I still want to coo-ee him, in the night, willing him to walk through the fleshy greyness, letting it fold behind him and releasing him to me. I want the night to throw stones at the window, so I can imagine him beckoning me to run with him like we used to, over the silent fields and down moonlit paths to the clearing by the creek where we would dangle our feet into the cool water and dream of holidays in Greece, perhaps, or Italy, that would never be, because no amount of driving trucks would get us that far from here. The coo-ee rises in my throat, but I keep silent, so as not to scare the little ones. They don’t look for him anymore, not believing in returns the way I do. They are children of this earth, used to things living and dying. I admire them for their calm acceptance of this fact.

So whilst I hang back and wipe the sweat from my brow, they climb to the ridgeway for a better look. They are born for this land. It took me a long time to love it, this wild and errant vastness that showed me no love and brought only worry lines and rings of dirt on the bath. I’d go back to where I was born, city-wise, run from the farm with its white-edged sharpness and equivocating blue skies where storms gather like armies on the horizon and tear limbs from trees and hearts from chests. But they sit on the porch and yelp and scream with glee as the lightning flashes the sky with purple and I don’t have the heart to drag them from their country. I guess this place that’s been theirs since birth coo-ees them in with the lightening and the storms, and I don’t rate a mention much.


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Down in the valley wedgetails gather about the torn bodies of the roos that are cut down by logging trucks hurly-burlying in from the plantations. The glowering eyes of the semis plough them down on their way to take the logs to decimated and sliced into woodchips at port and be shipped to papermills that will in turn write orders for the killing of forests. I think about all those piles of chipped flesh, the seared ends of limbs, the stripped bare torsos of the wild. I think about the sweet rich smells of the earth after rain and the flushes of green on the tips of the shimmering forests wet with eagerness after the dry, and the underlying decay. I think about the men who drive the trucks and wonder what they think of as they rip and tear and slice and stack the corpses neatly and wrap them up in chains. Perhaps, like ordinary men do, they were thinking of the day’s end and the subtle touch of their girlfriends hands on weary necks and a weekend fishing. Like Joe, dreaming of the Mediterranean, I know they all dream of escape.

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The wedgetails don’t have such concern. They rip and tear the yielding corpses with a machine proficiency. They are built for purpose, keenly edged for surviving this place. The crows hang low and watch intently, whilst magpies settle beside the ossified bones of foxes that hang like macabre trophies on rusty barbed wire fences, resting in places where trees are no longer. They form in cruel gangs and pick on the other birds that alight on the fence for a gander.

The trucks and their drivers plough over red parrots that stop for grain and think they will never be food for birds, but they are wrong. Joe was wrong. He thought he knew this place, with all the bends around darkened tar, ribbons of tar littered with bones and weeds drawing him homeward. I remember him laughing with his hands off the wheel of the ute, laughing that the wheels knew the way home. Unlike me, who’d cry at the brokenness of dead things, Joe was immune to death and I still imagine his tanned litheness on the beach at dawn on the holiday we’d had down the coast without the kids the year before. But like the green flush of the trees, the memory is undertoned with decay. The birds were picking at his body for two days before they saw the truck from the edge of the road where one of his mates had stopped for a leak. The indignity of that creeps under the sheets at night, tugs at the blanket, cools my skin.

Yet there is a kind of poetry in that too, his flesh made into flight energy. I think of the vultures in Tibet fed on the dead, the spirit of men soaring to the heavens. This place sometimes seems to be things that move me or banality. There’s not much in between.

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I cannot blame the birds. The wedge tails are known for their aggression around here and there is little surprise they are not wary of men. I do not think they would have waited for a truckdriver’s flesh to grow cold as it is no different to a rabbit’s, and they weren’t to know how loved his skin was, his eyes, the curve of his chest, the bony collarbone that was broken in a football match at seventeen and a half. Two weeks ago, hang gliders came into the pub with videos of ‘those bastard wedgies’ as they’d exclaimed, in admiration and in horror. They were huge, attacking the wings of their craft as if challenged by their presence or perhaps just because they could. If they had hurtled from the sky like Icarus, the birds would have swooped down after them. The men had gathered in awe around the screen until one of them nudged the other and glanced, horrified, at me, and they’d sheepishly gone back to their pints of Carlton.

This place is full of stories, of men who cross this land, both new and old. I don’t know which stories fit it best, and wonder if my story will be told as I sit on this farm, a world under glass, a forced solitude where I talk to Nip and the birds and the children but hardly anyone else, so alone we are. I think of Waluwara, the dreamtime eagle that is the Southern Cross, the footmark of the largest bird in the southern hemisphere, and the pointer stars the spirits throwing sticks at the eagle.


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The man who told me the story had left long ago, when I was still with the youngest in my arms. He’d cut my woodpile and left it hollow. I could have cried, but then I thought that I had deserved it, for it was my husband’s family who drove his family out years before. He spent three days teaching the kids the stars. It was a new way of looking for them and still they call the moon Bahloo because they thought it a better name and a better story than anything I had for them. The story made me cry. As the moon grows to his full size, men are reminded that when they die they will be restored to life again in the land that the great spirit and his wife, the mother of all, has provided for them. I don’t know if I can even hold this myth to my heart because it is not my own, but it gives me hope all the same, and I guess this is what keeps me going.


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The children’s coo-ees have stopped now. I walk faster up the ridge, worried. The place is full of old mining shafts, and though most have been filled in, there are still many with rotting boards ready to claim more than stray cats that weep and wail and scratch at the walls and pine for their owners who will look, but never find them. They are gathered around a nest, long abandoned, I imagine, as the cobwebs that span it give it a weariness, as if it could no longer support the tiny birds who will grow up to be glossy black and stealing small lambs and tiny pups. It is full of bones, brittle and bleached by the sun.


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Harry, the youngest, picks up a jawbone and clacks it open and shut in an imitation of life. His sister pushes him backward in disgust. A thin strip of cartilage snaps and the jaw breaks in two. Adelaide is a tough girl and will be tougher than me, probably because she is tired of my weeping and won’t bear salt more than she has to.

She turns to me now, her hands full of tiny bones. Is it him, Mum? I startle, for a moment, thinking of Joe, and realise she is talking about the kelpie.

Her eyes are big, like Bahloo, like the moon. Is it Nip?

No, my love. Keep calling. He’ll come back. And we coo-ee, over the ridge, into the darkening sky, where eagles soar, circling us, waiting for our bones.

 

**NB This is a revised version of a story earlier posted on Steemit. I am updating it on my blog, and have put it on auto-schedule whilst away.**

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