They reckon I don’t parent Jackie properly. They’ve all got kids younger than Jackie, though. They’re not teenagers, yet. Christ, some of them still look at their mothers and smile and listen to what they have to say. Like they’re worth listening to.
‘Anya,’ they’ll say, shaking their heads like they did when we were at school. ‘You’ve gotta have boundaries. You’ve gotta be consistent.’
The middle of summer. The wind is wild, today. And my head is aching from too much bourbon last night. My mouth caked with the heat of it. There’s a fire on the southern flank of the ranges.
I’m thirsty. As I look out at the trees, their leaves falling I see they’re thirsty, too.
The wind is driving the fire west of us, for now. Today will be the day. Today, it will skid east. Or not.
We’re hoping on a southerly wind change. Or for it to die where it is. For the wind to disappear, rather than shift.
Some people are even praying for it.
I don’t pray. I don’t know how to. Instead, I walk to the River Teeth and dip my feet into the water and think about everything. Where I’ve come from.
The trees growl at me when I walk home, blanched in the heat. Parched by it.
I don’t have a car, for now. I crashed it against a metal barrier a few months ago. The noise still wakes me in the night. The rasping shudder of it. Then the quiet. It makes me sweat, even when it was winter. Even though I hadn’t been hurt. Nobody had. It was just me, in my crumpled car. My neck aching. Alone.
I try my hardest not to think about it. The noises and the quiet of it.
Today, with my feet cool in the water, I cry over what those women have said. I’d tried to make Jackie get off the mountain last night, with the fire so close. I’d tried. But there was no making a fifteen year old do what she didn’t want to. I couldn’t throw her over my shoulder like I used to. Even if I called Peter up, and he drove up to collect her, I doubt he could throw her over his shoulder, either.
She eats too much. Mum says it’s my fault. That I don’t know how to parent.
‘Who’s fucking fault is that?’ I’ve asked her before. Head thick with wine.
My only answer is the dial tone. As it shoots pain right through my head.
Jackie is watching television, one leg thrown over the arm of the couch. She’s on her phone. A phone used to mean calling or texting someone, but now it could mean anything. Anytime I’ve tried to curtail it, put boundaries up like Good Parents Should, she’s held up the screen showing an article on something or other. ‘Mum, I’m studying.’
She looks up when I come in, but doesn’t say anything. She turns back to her phone and I hear her softly sigh.
I pour myself a glass of wine and wash the dishes from last night, the bowls and saucepan stuck with pasta sauce that looks eerily like dried blood. I try not to think of the fire the roaring wind.
The wine has a chemically undercurrent, like the grit at the bottom of the River Teeth. I keep thinking of it, grit, grit, grit, as I scrub at the bowls and suck fuzzy tannins from my teeth. The tannins, the chemical taste, it makes me think of the night where I drank Cointreau for the first time and wore a blue dress that dampened where it touched me.
A thick, heavy night. Thunder growling, the twilight a pink bruise and so still. Our home is good at keeping its secrets.
I remember the cockatoos and the soft sound of the too-high grass behind the house chattering away like things living, although there was no breeze.
My damp skin.
I was eighteen.
I think of Jackie’s earthy, sweet smell.
On nights when everything is both too lonely and too full, I experience a rush of bitterness towards the Cointreau. Of how drunk I had been that night when I went out into the chattering grass with Peter. How we had walked to the River Teeth, without anything spoken between us.
Jackie startles me, appearing by the sink. ‘I wanna go for a swim,’ she says. ‘Let’s go to the Teeth.’
Jackie doesn’t ask me anything. She tells me. And it sets me on edge, but I don’t argue. Like she’s the parent and I am the child, I slip my shoes back on and we go outside, heading towards the path that leads to the River Teeth. Jackie pauses at the family tree, but doesn’t stop walking. I’ve never told her its stories. I’ve wanted to, but for some reason it reminds me too strongly of the fires of my childhood and the words have clogged in my throat like ash.
We’re sweating heavily before we’ve reached the shade of it.
Jackie takes her T-shirt off, slowly. And she watches me while she’s doing it. Looking for a response. Something to latch onto, to wield up against me. You wouldn’t even let me fucking swim.
Her bikini is pink and her body is pale. Soft. She jumps in with a loud ‘Whoop!’ and the sound of her there, in the water, makes my eyes sting with tears.
There is no one else here, at the Teeth. There rarely is, on these blanched days, where the heat turns the pebbles along the riverbank white. The ones that are wet from Jackie’s splash are suddenly coloured, like sea glass tossed up onto the shoreline of faraway beaches.
I close my eyes.
The splashing is too loud, like things shattering.
When Jackie was younger, I had tried to coax her to swim in the dam, but the leeches always got her and the sound of her crying made me want to cry, too. There are no leeches at the River Teeth. They don’t like the rushing. The pull of the water to places further down the bed.
Burning leeches off Jackie’s calves, I had always thought of the swimming pool Peter and I used to go to each summer. How it had closed down. Been turned into apartments. That place, halfway down the mountain, which had once been as green and wide as up here. It made me feel things I didn’t have words for. So I’d taken Jackie to the River Teeth. When she was younger she had stripped off quickly. She was also quieter, in the water. She emerged, each time, red-cheeked and sodden with rich smelling river water. She felt heavier than she did after a bath. Like it was not just her weight that I carried.
When we get home, Peter’s ute is in the driveway. I see Jackie’s mouth tighten as we walk. Her arms and legs are streaked with sunburn. She hated when I offered to do it for her.
I’m not a bloody two year old!
‘I’m not going,’ says Jackie, staring at the ute.
‘You’ve made that quite clear.’ By the time I’ve found the house keys, Jackie is waiting on the doorstep.
Everything smells of gravel. In this heat, the dirt loses its smell. The leaves and the trees. Everything smells of those tiny, sharp stones and their endless, clouding dust.
Peter knows where the spare key is. The other women, the ones I went to school with, think it’s strange that he lets himself in.
Why the hell wouldn’t he, though?
Peter got bitten by a snake when he was nineteen. Over lunch, he rolls up his sleeve and Jackie touches the tiny scars, like she’s done since she was small.
‘I was out camping with Grandad. To scatter nanna’s ashes.’ He glances at me, then quickly away. We’re sitting at the dining with plates full of sandwiches. ‘So, I was sleeping in my tent and I put my arm up under my pillow, you know?’ he curls his arm around his head, ‘like how I always do when I’m asleep on my belly and I feel this burning, pinching feeling. Know what I thought?’
Outside, a cockatoo lands on the wire fence between the house and the back paddock. It opens its beak and flares its crest and stares inside, panting.
Jackie rolls her eyes to the ceiling. ‘I know. I’ve only heard this like a million times.’ But she listens. Of course she does. She’s heard this story hundreds of times. We both have. I pour us some more cordial and clear my throat, hoping he’ll give up.
‘A bull ant! I thought it was a bull ant. So I went and started to try and get my torch with my other arm and then I felt it moving. And then I realised I was in trouble, you know? So I had my torch and I sort of crawled out really slowly and quietly.’
‘And?’ she says. I look at her, but can’t tell if she’s being sarcastic or kind. It’s always hard to tell with Jackie. Sometimes it frightens me, how little I can gauge.
‘When I got out I sort of shone the torch on my arm and saw blood, so I tied my T-shirt around it as tight as I could. Then I looked in the tent and I saw it. This massive brown thing, curled up in the corner of the tent, right next to my pillow.’
‘What then?’ Her face is expressionless, even when she glances at me. Mum says she’s repressed, but what the fuck would Mum know about repression?
‘Then I went and woke Dad up in his tent.’ He glances at me. I look away and scull my cordial. ‘We were just on the river, not far from here, actually. At the River Teeth.’
‘We’ve been there, Jackie,’ I say, without thinking. As though she is much smaller than she is.
‘I know, Mum. We’re there all the time.’
She half smiles at me, but there’s a sort of impatience to it. Like I’m ruining something intricate. Getting tangled in a spider web I haven’t even seen. Peter clears his throat. ‘And then it turned out it was a dry bite. I was lucky.’
‘Yeah, a dry bite,’ Jackie murmurs, stretching her arms up above her head.
‘It’s a warning bite. It’s like your mum saying if you don’t go to bed, I’ll smack you!’
‘I never say that,’ I say.
Jackie raises an eyebrow and Peter continues. ‘Anyway, it was a warning. It was just telling me it was there, you know? Just telling me it was there.’
I’d dreamt of snakes the night Peter got bitten, camping with his dad not far from home. Mum had thought it was so stupid, camping so locally, but I understood. It was about the ceremony of it, the things around the scattering that swelled it into something substantial.
The River Teeth wasn’t the right place for her, though. It was why Peter’s dad had always taken the ashes there but never gone through with it. Had never scattered them. But something shifted in Peter. He broke his mother’s fine bone china cup and saucer and bundled his father and the box of his mother into the car with two tents and two sleeping bags.
He’d known his father would be too angry, too wounded, to share such a small space with him, after.
It changed everything. The broken cup, the scattered ashes, the dry bite on his arm.
It changed him.
After lunch, Peter sits back in his chair and stares at Jackie. Even inside, it’s hot enough to make us sticky with sweat. He wipes his top lip.
‘You gonna keep an old man company?’
Her eyes narrow. ‘I know what you’re doing.’
He shrugs. ‘So? Gunna come with?’
He always does the faux causal thing and even though Jackie knows exactly what he’s doing, she mostly agrees. It drives me crazy.
Jackie sits back in her chair. Dark hair, dull and curling from the river. Already dry. Her cheeks flushed. Green eyes just like Peter’s. Narrowed now. ‘No,’ she says.
Peter’s face hardens. It’s a subtle shift. One I doubt she notices.
‘You’re not staying up here, mate,’ he says, slowly. Like Jackie’s an intoxicated colleague at the pub. Annoyed, I stack the plates and take them over to the sink. The cockatoo flies away. Everything smells thickly of hot bodies and I want to open the window, but I know the heat will only make it worse.
When I was pregnant with Jackie I was overcome by imaginings of my family. The people that came before. I thought of my grandpa. Of the grainy photos my mother took with her when she left our home in the hills. Of how dark the earth had been. How hard it must have been to work as a logger. I thought of my grandfather and my grandmother. I thought of all of them. Of being part of them like I never had before.
Sometimes, I wish they had graves. I want to run my fingers over gritty epitaphs like I’ve seen people do in movies. I want something to touch. Something to ground me.
There is only the family tree. It is green and chattering. In winter and autumn and spring, itt smells sweetly of sap and earth. It gives away nothing.
With Jackie’s tiny fists and curled toes pressing hard against my belly skin, I had thought, again and again, of Peter’s mother’s ashes. How the grey of them would have looked, drifting off into the river. I wonder if they would have sunk or floated, whether they were fine enough to turn the river water milky. Like the tea Peter’s dad used to set at the table on Sundays.
There are no bones in our family. There are no graves. Few photos. All taken outside. The wildness of the mountains making us always seem small, seem young.
Flush cheeked; restless. A week before Jackie is born, I dug an old pet chicken carcass up and there were a few fragments of bone, her skull. They were stained grey by the dark soil and, when I closed my fingers over them, they seemed to thrum with cold.
Peter can’t throw his fifteen-year-old daughter over his shoulder, anymore. But he can lock his workman’s fingers around her upper arm and drag her outside.
‘Fuck off!’ she yells, trying to struggle free.
‘I’m not wearing this,’ he mutters. He gets her in the car and buckles her in and locks it, as fluid as when she was a tantruming toddler. He closes his eyes for a moment and I wonder if he is thinking of his mother. Of losing her, so young, the last time the fires tore through the mountain. The wind gusts so hot and fierce that I stagger backwards. We all do.
Peter opens his eyes and glares at me.
I cross my arms, look away from him. Look at Jackie. Jackie, crying. Thick, heavy tears. Like rain after a summer thunderstorm. ‘I don’t want to leave you, Mum,’ she says. And then she starts to sob.
‘It’s a two seater,’ I say. ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘I’ll go in the tray!’ She stares at me, eyes wide with panic, as Peter squeezes my shoulder and gets into the driver’s side door.
‘It’s not going to come up here,’ says Peter. ‘The change has been through, Jax. The change was southerly. Can’t you feel it?’
Jackie and I look at each other as Peter starts the ignition. I wipe salt out of my eye. Neither of us can.
Jackie hangs out the window as he pulls away. ‘I’ll go in the tray!’ she yells out at me, as the car pulls away down the drive. Her mouth fills with gravel dust and I hear her loud cough. ‘Mum! I’ll go in the tray!’
I have a book of stories I’ve written about people I’ve made up. I don’t write about fires, although I want to. I have this idea that I’ll give them to Jackie one day.
But I can’t write about the fires. Even in stories I’ve made up.
I write about floods, instead. Sometimes I write about hurricanes and earthquakes, but the roar of them sometimes skids my pen to a halt.
Floods are safest. Their roar is wet. And the air above, although dark with rain, isn’t dank with ash or smoke.
The night with the Cointreau, when I wore my blue dress, I touched Peter’s still bandaged arm. I wanted to feel something, a surge of something stronger than relief. Of being grateful. Something solid enough to cling to. After the broken cup and scattered ashes and snake curled in the corner of his tent.
I wanted to be grounded.
The Cointreau dulled our differences. It dulled everything except the stars, the grass. The sweet smell of Peter’s breath. It was my brother’s Cointreau, but he hated the taste. I’d taken it from his room and Peter and I had disappeared into the paddocks. We had disappeared down the path to the River Teeth.
‘Guess the river’s my mum, now. Sorta.’ He’d laughed like it was a joke, but the words, his laugh, had made me feel hollow.
Cockatoos and bruising skies.
When we woke up, our mouths were still sticky with drink and we didn’t speak. We didn’t touch.
When Jackie came, he was already living down in the suburbs and I was still tucked away, up here. Hiding, Peter says, on the mountain.
The wind changes again. Our mountain recoils. Fires don’t hit like storms. This fire hits like water running down glass. slowly and in pieces. When a fire hits a place, it is not the place that’s changed. It’s the world that’s broken.
There are embers. A wind that seems to reel and settle like someone troubled and unhappy. We are under ember attack.
The trees growl, but they’re fearful. It is a fearful growling. Some of them still remember the fires in the eighties. Their bark still tingles with the taste of it.
I turn the sprinkler system on at the house and hang up damp towels and stand by the family tree. Feel the thrum of the earth. The pull of it. Black soil, yet grey in its dryness.
Our family tree chatters more loudly than the others. With my feet in the dry dirt, I feel like something green and growing. Old and slow. Scared only of fire and of drought.
Scared of fire.
I go and sit by the dam. Thinking that this is it. This is what I missed. The memories my brother had to give back to me as we grew up. Of the fire we lived through when we were young. Again and again. All through everything.
I am seven. In the back of Mum’s car. Everything smells of ash. Of smoke. And the world is dark and Mum is sweating and crying and the salt of it all has become ours; has become our tears and sweat. The roar, that I had thought was a tractor on either side of the car. The churning roar of it, so like water. So like wind. So like the rumble of earth I’d seen on television coverage of quakes. The sound of the world in flight.
And the sound is an old fear, an old friend. The sound is what I was afraid of, being young and pressing my brother’s marble between my fingers. Under my tongue. It’s here. It’s followed me. From my childhood to now. This moment.
Jackie and Peter will be off the mountain, now. I wonder if Jackie has stopped crying. Whether she is talking or hunched, quiet and hurting, against the door.
My hands tremble and I steady them on the cracked dam banks. There are no pebbles here. But the surface of the dam, against everything, is leaden and coloured like something on the shore of the ocean.
The air thickens. The sky darkens.
And all I can think of is the River Teeth.
The sound of the world in flight.