HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Small

THIRD PRIZE 2012

SMALL

By Jacqueline Winn

As anyone can see, I'm a small woman. In a crowd, I have trouble seeing over the heads of others. And my voice, also small. Plenty of times, Iíve been passed over simply because I have difficulty making myself heard. Iíll even go so far as to admit that my courage is small. All of which is the reason I havenít said anything about the man and the boy. And his mother, letís not forget the boyís mother.

Most likely, Iím the only one that saw them, given the birdís eye view from my place. People in town tell me Iím a little crazy for living up here on Powder Keg. Now thereís a name with a reputation. If lightning is going to strike anywhere, itíll be up on the Keg. Iíve lost count of the times Iíve seen it peel out of a mean sky, its sneaky fingers searching for the slightest grip on any tree foolhardy enough to reach higher than its fellows. And there are plenty of those around here, big old eucalyptus growing who-knows-how between all those parched clefts in the ironstone.

Itís a rare soul that comes up here, even though you can pick my hill from anywhere in town. Powder Keg juts up higher than anything else around here and itís the only hill that looks ragged enough to have been hit by lightning a million times. In the last year alone, Iíve seen at least three of those ancient trees succumb, their knobbled bark exploding in a great huff of steam and splinters, right up and down the whole trunk. In the days after, Iíve watched their proud, green canopies slowly fade to deathly yellow and fall in a wide carpet of brown. I can point them out to you, their sorry bare arms still reaching for the sun like natureís own gravestones. Itís a wonder the house has never been hit. Iím sure itíll happen one day, since this is a hill familiar with death.

Worried? No, not me. Death comes to us all and Iím not about to waste a single second worrying about things that canít be changed. Anyway there are plenty of things worse than death. Which brings me back to the man and the boy. For the best part of winter, once a week or so, they were coming up my track. Walking, always walking. Not surprising, since itís getting harder to get a car up that gravel track. My clapped-out Land Rover manages fine but you wouldnít want to try bringing one of those shiny new city cars up my way. You could end up losing the whole thing in one of the washed-out ruts, if you werenít careful. Even if you made it up to the house, youíd shake the thing half to pieces. Fine for town but not the sort of thing youíd want to bring up to Powder Keg.

Thatís why I donít get a lot of visitors. None in fact, apart from the man and the boy. Though I could hardly call them visitors. They never asked permission to come on my land and they certainly never asked if they could do a bit of hunting. I might have given them the go-ahead, since the whole district has been overrun with wallabies in recent years, but they never asked, never even came near the house. And because Iím only a small woman, I didnít want to go down there and say anything. Who knows what sort of reception I might have been given, even if it is my land. The first time, I didnít even see them come up the track. It was the gunshot that alerted me. You can tell where itís coming from, the crack then the echo bouncing off all the hills around. When youíre up as high as I am, you can make a fair guess as to distance and direction. So I went out onto my veranda. The view from there is a real corker. One-eighty degrees of coast, across a broad strip of olive green bush that ends abruptly at the sea. The coastal strip is samey, only changing on occasions when the heavy morning mist pools along creeks and hollows. But that sea is a different colour every day. Silver, grey and just about every shade of blue you can name. Then, to top it all, the sky. Iíve seen some clouds, let me tell you, every kind of cloud you could imagine. And then thereís the quiet. You wouldnít want to be the sort that canít stand silence. Thatís why I heard the shot, even though I was in the kitchen the first time. I went straight out on the veranda and there were half a dozen more shots, all from the same place. Thereís a long gully thick with lantana just below my track. Plenty of wildlife in there. I wasnít sure what they were shooting at: birds, wallabies, possums, couldíve been anything. I stayed out on the veranda until I saw them come back out of the scrub. Obviously, they hadnít had any luck since the man was only carrying his gun and the boy was empty-handed.

The gully sinks away from my track a few hundred metres down from the house and if I want to see it I have to stand at a certain spot right at the end of the veranda. Itís not just because Iím small. Itís because there are trees on the steep slope below the house, big tall grey-gums and a few broad-branching tallow-woods, under-filled with tangled brush. Over the top I can see all the way to the sea but most of the gully and stretches of the track are hidden under the canopies. If you were coming up my way, you wouldnít necessarily see the house unless you knew what to look for. And, from the veranda, you have to know where to stand to keep an eye on the track. Itís not a bad arrangement if youíre the sort thatís keen on a bit of privacy.

I watched them make their way down the track, till they disappeared through the gate on the ridge. The man leading, his gun slack by his side, the boy dragging his feet, his head low, hang-dog. I assume they kept on walking all the way to the highway. Perhaps thatís where they left their car. Canít imagine they walked all the way back to wherever they came from, since anywhereís a long walk from here.

They kept on coming right through winter. Mostly on Saturdays, which makes me think the man worked during the week. The boy must have been at school, I suppose, though it was hard to tell his age since, like me, he was small. Even from the distance of my veranda, I could tell he was thin-boned from the way his limbs moved at sharp angles, knees rising, elbows jutting out, a stick-like way of walking. The man, his father I assumed, was thicker and rolled up the hill with a more laborious gait.

I became somewhat accustomed to the gunshots, often ignoring their visits, since they never came further up the hill than the gully. At first, theyíd often leave empty-handed. But gradually their forays proved more successful and the boyís downhill trek was often hampered by a pair of rabbits, a haunch of wallaby or a thick strip of feral goat.

It was on those homebound journeys I often saw the man strike the boy around the head, several times with a closed fist. I assume he was annoyed with the boy for lagging behind or perhaps for dragging the heavy meat in the dirt. From my vantage point I could never pick the crime, only the punishment. The man never helped the boy with his load, he only ever carried the gun. The privilege of superiority, I assume.

A few times the man baited the boy. He would stop on the track and wait until the boy was level with him, then heíd kick out the youngsterís legs, sending him sprawling onto the sharp gravel of the track. I donít know why he did that. He never helped the boy to his feet and a couple of times he let the boy rise only to kick him back down again. At those times, I longed for a bit of courage to yell out for the man to stop and I often thought I should go down and speak to them, tell them not to come back. But I never got up the nerve to do anything more than watch.

Even without speaking to them, I could tell what kind of man he was and what kind of boy. The fist and the gun, Iíve known men like that before, men who only felt powerful when wielding a weapon, even if it was just a bare hand. And the boy, easily cowed. Iíve known that as well. Come spring, the visits stopped and by summer Iíd almost forgotten them.

The best storms are in summer. Thatís when I like to take a coffee out onto the veranda, lean on the rail and watch the clouds blistering in the west. The hottest days provide the best show. In less than an hour, clear sky can give way to a great pile of boiling anger towering up to enormous heights. All boom and bluster, those clouds grumble their way towards the coast until they canít hold that temper any longer. Thatís when they huddle down over Powder Keg, smothering the hill in a thick deluge of water and electricity. Itís a risk, I know, but I like to stay out on the veranda, sheltered only by the iron roof. Iíve had some close calls. Iíve seen lightning fork out of the sky and hit the ground less than a hundred metres from the house. Thereís a crack and a hum, as if the whole air is buzzing with the charge and the next instant you can smell an acrid burning, like hot metal, fired-up atoms. Iím probably a fool to stay out there, truth be told. But the world is full of fools. And it was just after one of those storms had hammered its way over the Keg that I heard those gunshots once again. Three of them, from down in the gully. Iím not a hunter but even I know itís pointless to go hunting in a storm. All the animals are already sheltering from the onslaught of the sky, not a chance of catching one out in the open. I waited to hear more shots, thinking theyíd need to stay out there a lot longer if they wanted to be taking any meat home with them, but the only sound was the storm mumbling its way out to sea. I was about to go inside, bored with the waiting, when I saw them emerge onto the track. The boy was leading the way this time and, as I expected, he was empty-handed. Then a second person joined him but it wasnít the man. It was a woman, small and angular like the boy. She was also empty-handed and the minute she reached the track she began to run down the hill with an awkward jog as if she was unused to such rough tracks. The boy caught up and kept close beside her all the way to the gate, where they disappeared from my view.

I stayed on the veranda, expecting the man and his gun to emerge from the gully, at some point. But no. When it became too dark to watch any more, I went inside but I couldnít shake that feeling of unease. Three gunshots. A boy, a woman, running down my track, both empty-handed. It was impossible not to wonder.

That night, I couldn't sleep. Iím usually fine on my own. Iím used to the creak and thump of the house cooling after a day of heat but that night I heard footsteps and cries in every little noise. The whole time lying there wide awake, I was half expecting a knock on my door, a knock from a man with three gunshot wounds.

The next morning, I drove down the track to the head of the gully. Itís not far, I could have walked but I didnít feel comfortable out in the open, with only my own feet to carry me away if anything happened. I didnít get out of the Land Rover, I just peered through the window into the scrub. As far as I could tell, there was nothing to say anyone had gone down into the gully the day before, no footprints, no trampled grass, no broken branches. They must have trodden lightly, the woman and her boy. More importantly, there was nothing to say there might still be someone in there, nothing to say there was ever a gun. And it seemed to me the best thing was to leave it at that.

Up on the Keg, things get struck down in the natural course of things. A dead tree sheds its leaves and bark. In the same way, a dead man might shed his skin and muscle, his guts and heart, helped along by the dingoes and foxes no doubt. Perhaps by next winter the man will be just like those grey-limbed trees, little more than a memory of something that lived.

Iím a small woman, like the boy, like his mother. If I gave it a try, Iím sure I could gather up a bit of courage, go into town and explain the things Iíve seen. But something whispers to me, tells me to leave well alone. Perhaps itís the voice of a small woman, the voice of a small boy, living for once without the fear of a man and his fist, a man and his gun. I can only wish them well, because I know what itís like to cower under the temper of a man like that. And I know for certain, small as I am, Iíd rather take my chances with the lightning up on Powder Keg.