The cicadas are silent. It took a while to realise the white noise of summer no longer vibrated. They’d argued about when they last heard them. She was sure it was before the last fire went through and he insisted he’d heard them after Cyclone Zandra dropped her load. That was the time the river took out the houses at the bottom of the hill. They lost twenty-nine neighbours in that muddy torrent. It came out of nowhere and took them away like a vengeful beast.
Now, there is the question of what to do with him.
If it had happened in a Wet Time, she could, conceivably, have dug a hole, but no rain for six months and the earth is impenetrable.
The sun casts a sepia light through the haze of smoke. She strokes his bronzed cheek. So smooth, like that of a young man. The young man she met and loved and moved out here with to raise their family and to garden and work and play. He looks carefree again. No lines of age or worry.
A bead of sweat drains down her spine. She wipes perspiration from her top lip and sits back in the dirt and thinks the least he could have done is die indoors, her vigil could have been less arduous, involved fewer ants. But she couldn’t blame the ants for their excited scrumming. Little enough around for them.
The first thing she had done, after finding him, was to send a text to their children. Her old phone held no battery but plugged in on a sunny day, the solar panels had enough juice to send a message. It took five goes for the message to finally send and of course, there was no guarantee it would be received. She had not heard from either of her children since October and it was impossible to know why. She’d heard things on the radio, but she tried not to think the worst. Their phones might finally have died or been stolen. Their part of the city could be without power. They would contact her when they could. Even now, they could be scavenging for fuel, or have found a ride out to see her. Be bringing food. Maybe even her medication. Maybe their dad’s medication. They could take that back. Resell it.
When he fell, he’d crushed the pumpkin vine. She leans in to chase away the flies gathering around his eyes and the vine’s prickly leaves scrape her skin like sandpaper. This is the thing he did every morning and evening, hand-water the vegetable garden. In the last few weeks, she’d seen the chore take more from him. It took longer and he puffed and panted and grunted and stoically harvested the bottom of their many rain barrels. Just to keep things alive, in case, marvellously, it rained. She told him not to bother. The garden rarely produced anything. But, it was like him to keep trying. Knowing every bit of food counted. Even one pumpkin. Always hoping. Mad at her for suggesting he give up. She appeased him by trying to help but she’s been so tired. So very tired. It’s been a month since she ran out of thyroxin and she’s grown slower and her brain is a fog.
She wonders where the fire is. Not close at least. The smoke is around, she can smell it, but it is not stinging her eyes or settling in her chest. That’s grief in her chest, heavy and crushing. Not, the stinging scratch of inhaled bushfire. She pushes herself up onto all fours, and slowly, one leg at time rises from the ground. She brushes the dust from her legs. He will be okay for a moment while she goes inside to check the phone and perhaps get a sheet. Or two. One to cover him and one for her to sit on.
This place had been glorious when they first came here. Verdant subtropics. They’d fed the king parrots and chased away the galahs, chuckled with the kookaburras. They’d made passionfruit jam and lime curd, cursed when the chooks went off the lay and wondered what to do with all these eggs when they came back on. The children had grown, eating sun-warmed strawberries, playing in the bush with their friends talking about what they would be when they grew up. Growing up to something different.
It suited their natural optimism, their sense of good luck, that they had moved to a place and found good friends among neighbours, freedom to breathe fresh air and a short commute to their good jobs. So many of those neighbours gone now. Houses abandoned to the dust and grime and rodents. Washed away in floods. Incinerated in the worst of the fires.
Oh well, they had got on with it. In the bad years and the good.
There are no messages on her phone.
She goes back outside to wait it out. If she hasn’t heard by the end of the day, she will have to decide for herself.
Spreading one sheet over him, and the other on the ground, she lies on her back and takes hold of his hand. She tells him the sky is grey as though it could rain but he would know as well as she that it is grey with distant smoke. She tells him she can see some new shoots on the avocado tree, that perhaps it will flower this year and keep its fruit. The tree has been long dead, battered by hot winds on too many occasions, but she insists if he gets up and looks harder, he will see what she sees. Some life in the old girl yet.
She says, do you remember, when the kids were little, and all their friends would come, and they would try and make a whirlpool in the swimming pool. How people would come for dinner and we would drink wine in the twilight while all the children hunted cane toads. Remember the year we grew so many plums, the year we had so many mangoes, the time our boy was stung by a bee, and when our girl harvested caterpillars and grew butterflies. Remember when you had to mow the lawn every fortnight, the grass grew so fast. Remember. Remember.
She didn’t mean to fall asleep. She’s been so tired. Her metabolism is so slow from lack of hormones. She wakes and her arm is cramped, his fingers frozen rigid in her hand. It’s dark. She thinks she can smell him already.
She pulls the sheet from his face, touches his cheek and says, look, look at the stars. The stars are out. Just like the night we stayed up to watch the moon eclipse. Remember, we drank hot chocolate and wrapped ourselves in blankets. We watched the moon slowly disappear and the stars came out. Brighter than ever we’d seen. The stars are just the same. Just like that night. They haven’t changed at all.
About the Author
Kathryn Gossow has been writing and publishing short and flash fiction in a variety of genres since 2006. Her debut novel Cassandra was a finalist in the Aurealis Awards for Best Fantasy Novel in 2017. Her second novel, The Dark Poet is a collection of short stories on the dangers of charisma. Her third novel, Taking Baby for a Walk will be published in 2021.