Rosy McKinnon stood in the barn doorway with a battered yellow bucket. She was watching the sunset above the arid landscape of the farm, adorning the dry fields in a gold wash. She thought that the dimming glow made a lonely country lonelier, and looked to see if a truck would rattle past on the road linking their farm to the rest of civilization.
She went to return the bucket to its corner, respectful of the importance that the humble plastic pail had taken on. Before it had been passed on to her father, her grandfather had used it on the farm, and it would be hers someday. It was a reminder of less complicated times – when the work was harder but the politics were fewer; when everyone needed water but most got what they needed. Times were different now.
She walked back to the house. As she did this, she was followed by two yipping border collies – their only concern a battle of play-biting on the scruff of each other’s necks. While she didn’t begrudge them their play, she had weightier things on her mind.
It had now been a month since Mick’s death, but the air still felt as heavy and stifling as before a thunderstorm. Weeks had not yet dissolved the heavy tension in the atmosphere, the tightness of voices, and the unspoken anger. Time is different for farmers. Life moves in cycles: with the bounty and paucity of crops, with the cold and the heat. There is no dead season, no time that is wasted. Those who trust the earth know that it will provide when the time is right. This is the way that things should be, but there has always been a complicated relationship between what should be and what is. As it was, the farmers were still waiting, and so Mick had not been put to rest. A true farmer, even in death his work was not done.
Rosy remembered how, in better times, her family and Mick, used to leave New South Wales and take a restored paddlesteamer down the Renmark river. That was before the sight of water meant only a cruel reminder of a drought that refused to end. Mick had taken her dowsing once, showing her how to hold the forked stick above the ground.
Once, he had starting bucking and jumping around like he had a ten-pound fish at the other end. “It’s a big one!” he cried. “Rosy, come quick, help me!” She laughed, and she went along with it because it felt so good to laugh, and hold his shirt like he would fly away. What she would give now to feel that ease and joy, to know that she would be looked after, because they could still laugh.
Mick was a man who invited familiarity. His hands and face could occupy her for so long, as she perched on a stool watching him drink black coffee with her father. He had wrinkles like a map of the desert, branching out over his brown skin to meet hair as scrubby as sagebrush. Normally her dad would have shooed her away; he was a private man. But Mick would turn and wink at her, say, “It’s alright, Frank, let her stay. She’ll need to know about all this soon, anyway.” From those conversations, she had learned so much: about what it took to borrow your sustenance from the land, and how difficult it was to farm in a country like theirs. Dry as a lizard’s back, Mick liked to say.
The back door creaked as she opened it, and the dogs looked up quizzically before scampering off. On the step was a rock Lynn had painted to look like a rose, as her own way of mocking the country’s British obsession. Her sister had moved away last year, married a Canadian businessman and gone to a country where, it was said, there was never any drought. Rosy had a postcard tacked up above her desk that showed Niagara Falls, where Lynn had been on her honeymoon. “It’s beautiful here, so lush. You have to come visit me and Freddy. You’d love it.” The words didn’t seem so much an invitation as an aura of something far-off that she would never reach. It was Lynn confirming that she had done the right thing.
Lynn had not been there to see them carrying Farmer Mick out of his barn, his old body returning to dust. Rosy had stood and watched them carry him, men of stone bearing a newly hewn statue. The wind howled, making the sheep scatter, and she had to follow them, although her heart stayed as her body moved away. The next day, her mother tried to comfort her. He was old, she said, as though that made it alright.
But this country is old, thought Rosy. We are all old. The sun and the wind have baked into us, have forged us into a hardier breed. We have always been old.
It was not until later that she found out how he died. It was the thing the adults tried to keep from her, so she would not have to imagine Mick using a shotgun on himself. They were grown, after all. Secretly, they knew the dark he must have felt, to pull the trigger. But there is some knowledge that is not meant to be inherited by the young. They learn because they have to, not because they should. At least, that is what the adults think.
Lynn would have known how to cry for Mick, because she had the same soul as the farmer without hope. She was a girl who had ridden a dirt-bike with an anxious face, like she could hardly wait to be going off to somewhere else. She had been married and then gone so quickly, leaving soon after she began to smoke and argue with the farmers.
“I need to see the world- get out of this place,” she told them, as though it was their fault that the land held little promise for a fiery spirit like herself. If she had been older she might have recognized a quieter kind of desperation in their manner, one that lasted long after a person lost the right to be young and angry. Lynn had announced her engagement at the dinner table with eerie calm, daring the family to counter her. She was surprised at the little resistance she encountered, at what might have been relief in her father’s voice.
Rosy knew what was going on, that what her rebellious sister needed was water. The country was too dry right now for reading philosophy, and wanting to change the world, and being young. She hadn’t really cried for her leaving- Lynn had burned herself up in this place, and it was the best form of water management not to cry tears over that.
Supper was on the table as she stepped into the cool threshold of the kitchen, leaving her boots on the mat. She spent the rest of the evening doing the dreary kind of homework. Her father approached her that night, looking less like he had something to impart, and more like he had something great to lose. Rosy thought that he would still be negotiating with the neighbours, arguing over whether there was any point to buying Mick’s land. There would be the precious water allocation, but no-one wanted to admit that yet. He stood awkwardly in the doorway of her room until she pitied him and made him come in and sit in her desk chair. She sat on the bed, cross-legged, and laid her book aside. He spent a long time looking at the floor, until it seemed that he had made a decision, and he deliberately raised his eyes to meet hers. He was never like this; he was a good father, but a quiet father: work was his love made visible. She knew he loved her because he took care of her the best he could. But he would not reach across to take her hand, as some might have. And this was alright, in its way. The river always flows back to its source, leaving a trail for those who care to look closely.
He caught sight of Lynn’s postcard, and he breathed deeply. “I’m glad you kept that,” he said. “Do you wish you could see your sister?”
“I think she’s happy, and that’s good enough for me. I don’t miss all of her at once- I miss different parts, like her hugs after a bad day, or the books she lent me.” She reached to take the card down, so he could see it, but he shook his head. “You’re a smart girl, so I’m going to assume that you know what’s coming. Think hard about what you want, because I’m here to tell you about something your mother and I…decided. We want you to go stay with your sister, apply to school out there. I know you haven’t heard much from Lynn, but don’t doubt that she would let you- that isn’t the important part. I want to know if you can pick a school out there, or plan to get a job. Whatever you need, we’ll help you the best we can. We can’t offer much money, but I guess we’re counting on your brains to get you a scholarship or two.” It was more words than he had strung together in a while, which might have explained his sudden fascination with a clay pig figurine on Rosy’s desk. He was clutching it like a substitute for a reality he couldn’t quite grasp, rubbing his big knobby fingers over its head.
“Can I think about it? Tell you tomorrow?”
Mercifully, he didn’t seem to notice that her body was trembling with the shock. It felt like the time she had tried to jump over the electric fence as a little girl. Her pants had gotten stuck on the wire, but she hung on as the current buzzed into her, rather than tear them. Pain gives us something to feel, and for that reason we hang on to it. She gave him a weak smile as he shuffled out, but turned away too quickly to see that he hung around the doorframe momentarily, trying to remember what he had seen on her face.
Next morning dawned on the day for sheep to be sold. It was a Saturday, but Rosy had never been one to sleep in. This was the excuse she gave herself for running down to the barns at 8:00, to see her father in grim conversation with a strange man. “It’s highway robbery, that’s what it is”, her mother had said, looking out the window as she filled the kettle. The robber in question was supervising the loading of sheep into a truck, talking over the bleating of the animals and the stressed frustrations of two teenage helpers. Her father stood rigid, grinding the toe of his boot into the dust with slow fury. It would be bleeding him, to take away his animals, especially for the pittance of a price that they would command in this drought market. Those sheep were worth more than money.
Rosy arrived in time to see the stranger pat her father on the shoulder. She couldn’t hear his voice, but she could imagine it. You know I don’t like doing this, he would be saying, but we all have a farm to run. Dead sheep are no use to anyone.
Whether he meant it or not, he should have known he was talking to a skeleton. The real man wouldn’t be alive again for at least a day. She watched as her father seized a rake, presumably to scrape out the barn. If he didn’t intend to impale himself on it, then he was using it as an excuse to hide out until his pride re-emerged from the hole it had been banished to.
Rosy slipped inside the barn, smelling the dampness of manure and fertilizer alongside the scratchy dryness of straw and burlap. Dust swirled in the dark air, and she couldn’t see anyone for a long moment. Then she spotted a man’s shape, standing weakly immobile, staring at the floor. “If you keep up that pace, you’ll definitely have the place clean by the time sheep learn to talk.” Softly, gently, like a mother, she heard her tentative voice. It was Lynn’s humour, as though it could give her courage. He looked like a child lost in the hay fields. She touched the rake and they stood there, as though it were a ship’s mast in a storm, as though it were the one sure thing.
She guided the man and his tool towards a pair of overturned buckets up against the wall. As they sat down, sunlight snuck in through the slats, lighting up a striped pattern of gold on the opposite wall. “You’ve had a hard day.” A girl’s voice. Baby, relax- you’ve earned it. Lynn’s voice, when Rosy had been the one to do all the chores.
She was easing him into saying what he had to, the lost boy inside the man. It was a long shot, but she didn’t see what in their life hadn’t become one of those. If he was waiting for the perfect moment, then it would only be once he sent her away that he would see he had no-one left to tell it to. His voice began as an unintelligible broken whisper, before it seemed to seize on the right sound. “Don’t you see what’s happening to us?” Catching his breath, he looked up like he had discovered something. “Christ, Mick didn’t die- he killed himself. The bastard killed himself.” He slumped down, hands clenched in his lap. The rake clattered to the floor, sending a cloud of new dust to join the rest. Rosy now felt sure that they would talk about everything but the sheep. Their conversation made no sense, but in a certain way it made the only sense that matters.
It was her turn now. “Mick, and Lynn. They’re both gone. It was Lynn who had to go, not me. She was desperate, and she was scared to stay out here, she didn’t want to live in a desert. She didn’t know how. But it wasn’t about us- it was her who couldn’t cope. You have to remember that, it was always about her. I wish I knew about Mick. But they both chose to leave- they felt they had to. There are good people and then there are crazy people. You and me, we’re the crazy ones.” It was dark, and he couldn’t see her crying, but he could feel a tear drip down his face. He imagined it was raining, and he closed his eyes to feel the relief of that imaginary shower. He reached out to the water, and he felt his daughter’s arm, holding it. “We’ll do this together,” she said, through her tears, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, with its skin tough as tarpaper.
I won’t be the next one to leave, she thought. I won’t. Not until we dry into dust and float away. Not until then. She had made this decision, and it felt like the opposite of shrivelling in the sun. It felt like the loosening of rigid soil, like the flood water that used to sweep the marshlands. It felt like home. And she wouldn’t lose that. The sea is always there for us, even if we can’t quite glimpse it.