Later, Katherine seemed to remember a run of light around the box, the way desert air shimmers on the horizon. What she did remember clearly were the two women walking, flat-footed and rolling-hipped, dark limbs like animated hieroglyphs inscribing the space through which they moved, an inflated plastic bag capering at their heels like a family pet. It was one of those ubiquitous white supermarket bags that festooned the low wattle scrub surrounding the community. Simon said they were the deflated skins of white people who had been sucked dry and discarded. The bag bounced and leaped, higher and higher, until it could no longer resist its own euphoric elevation and went on up into the deep of the sky. She watched it until it had blown far out over the cliffs, as if out to sea. When she dropped her eyes, she saw the blue truck from the Twin Lakes community with Adam Sinclair at the wheel, wearing the wide-brimmed black hat that made him look like an extra in a spaghetti western. He swerved to avoid a cluster of children playing in the road, one wheel clipping a discarded cardboard box on the edge of the road.
Simon, standing in the shadow of the art centre verandah and watching Katherine approach, thinking she was a good-looking woman, even if she was a piece of work, saw the truck hit the box and Katherine stop walking and put her hands to her mouth. He saw the beginnings of a disturbance around the crushed box. The truck drew up near where Simon was standing. He said to Adam, ‘I think there was something in that box you ran over.’
Adam, who had also been watching Katherine, turned to look at Simon.
‘There was something in the box you ran over.’
‘Oh shit!’ Adam opened the door of the truck. Around the box the clustered children were whimpering. One of them went down on her knees, wailing, to scrabble at the crushed cardboard, into which a dark stain had begun to seep. As the sounds of panic spread from the children, adults emerged from the dark interiors of the houses, or rose up from dusty nests hunkered in behind the windbreaks. Katherine stood in the middle of the road. Her fair skin had gone hectic on the cheekbones. She was trembling. ‘It’s a baby. They put him in the box. I saw the kids put him in the box.’
All the children were howling now, the older ones pointing and running towards the truck. Behind them a keening sound travelled along the edges of the corrugated iron dwellings, accumulating a charge of violence. Adam went white, collapsing out of the vehicle onto his knees.
‘Oh Jesus! Oh Jesus no!’
Simon came around the side of the truck and got him under the arms, hauling at him.
‘Get the fuck up, man. Get inside.’
Galvanised, Adam heaved up and went past him at a sprawling run, colliding with Vinnie at the entrance to the art centre.
‘What’s happening?’ she said. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Accident. Kid’s been run over.’ Simon gestured towards Adam. ‘Get him out of sight.’
Vinnie looked, saw what was necessary. She appeared to inflate with a power that was almost voluptuous, equivalent to the wave of strangeness breaking over them all. In the room behind her the buyers stood bewildered among the paintings, which flared off the walls in crescendos of colour. She said to Simon, ‘Give Katherine your keys.’ And to Katherine, ‘Out the back. Take him to Marnukitji. Go!’
Astonished into compliance, Katherine did as she was told. She ran, wrenched open the door of the troop carrier, fumbled with the keys, forgetting the security button that had to be activated before the vehicle would start. Adam flung himself into the cabin and crouched on the floor, sobbing and swearing, his lean body bent awkwardly. Katherine ground the gears, feeling a rush of panic as the wheels dug into the loose sand. She would have abandoned Adam and the vehicle, refused to be implicated in this event, but the wheels churned free and the vehicle surged away from the building. People were beginning to converge on the Twin Lakes truck, and the keening shifted in register to something that raised the hair on Katherine’s neck.
The shockwaves from the accident had not yet reached the houses on the edge of the community, mostly occupied by whites, embalmed in the torpor of early afternoon behind their padlocked gates, the high security fences covered in flowering bougainvillea. She was not sure if she remembered the turn-off for the road to Marnukitji, but at a fork in the road she recognised the track some of the women had directed her along when she had taken them hunting. Once they were clear of the community, Adam pulled himself up and hunched in the passenger seat. His face was sodden and collapsed, his nose running, his body exuding the rank smell of fear. Katherine had met him once before, and thought him pretentious and self-dramatising. He wiped his face with a shirt sleeve and eased a tin of tobacco from the pocket of his jeans. It took him several minutes to roll a cigarette, his shaking fingers clumsy and inept. The smell of burning tobacco was a relief, masking the stink of fear and old sweat. He had lost his hat, and his lank black hair stuck to his skull.
They drove in silence, Adam intermittently smoking. He started up from one of these and said loudly, ‘Where are we going?’
Later he said, ‘Did you see what happened?’
‘I saw the kids put the baby in the box. Then you ran over it.’ She kept seeing it with the same sensation in the pit of her stomach, the way the children had lifted the tiny body, the impossible convergence of the box and the wheel.
Tears pooled again at the sore rims of his eyes. ‘Jesus. I can’t fucking believe it.’
He was silent for some time, then, ‘I never thought it would be something like this.’ He spoke as if to himself.
‘What do you mean?’ Katherine was preoccupied with the road. It was becoming sandy, and she would have to stop soon to lock the hubs and put the vehicle into four wheel drive. These were recently acquired skills, and she was not confident that she remembered them. She had become used to being a passive participant in activities dictated by others.
‘I always knew this place would do for me eventually. I just didn’t think it would happen like this.’
The melodramatic tone in his voice annoyed her. ‘You’re not dead yet. It was an accident.’
‘That’s not how it works with this mob.’
He hunched away from her, head down, dragging on his cigarette. ‘Somebody’s always to blame. Devils, bad spirits, whitefellas.’
When Katherine stopped to lock the hubs, Adam did not get out to help, but remained slumped in the cabin with his eyes closed. She negotiated the stretch of sand without difficulty, and the washouts at the edge of the low-lying country that turned to swamp in the rainy season. The late afternoon light brought a bloom of colour to the country, and a dozen or so large birds took flight out of the hummocky yellowish-grey marshlands, hurling their heavy bodies upwards, graceless and absurd, but wonderful. Airborne they did not look designed for flight, but kept themselves aloft with heavy wingbeats that sounded like wind rushing through tree branches. They didn’t fly far, landing again within sight of the vehicle, strutting and making small mincing runs, casting sidelong alarmed glances.
‘Shit, I never saw that many together before.’ Adam was momentarily distracted from his misery.
‘What are they?’
‘Kipara. Plains turkey. Seriously good eating.’
He began to talk then, as night fell around them. The words were an attempt to reconstruct the story of himself in this place, to give a form to what he had believed himself to be a part of. He talked of his death, of how he had felt it come close to him several times. He spoke too of the Law, how it moved across the country, ancient and arbitrary.
‘Fear is the basis of life here. Fear and celebration. Propitiation and re-enactment. It’s all patterns. And somehow they have to fit us into the pattern. We’re here, so we have to be fitted in somehow. There’s a painter, one of the old men, who’s painting us into the story. I don’t mean the paintings of horsemen and guns, the stories of the killing times. That’s something else. This old guy Jimmy is painting up some sort of consciousness, he’s trying to make room for the whitefella way of being in some sort of balance with the black. It’s the weirdest thing to watch, like he’s making something through the act of painting. But there’s no ego in it. He knows it’s his responsibility, because he’s got knowledge the young people don’t have. The painting is doing what the dancing and the songs used to do, remaking the world. Some of the old people, you can see they live close to something all the time. It’s like a part of them is always away somewhere, in communion with something.’
Katherine didn’t know what he was talking about. Adam’s voice ran on, struggling to shape this thing he had lived close to.
‘It’s like they can feel the pattern shifting and re-aligning. There’s a kind of genius in them, and we can’t get it. Our minds are a different shape. Sometimes I feel like a mad dog, yapping and biting away at something I can’t see. I know it’s there but I can’t see it.’
He fell silent at this. After a while he said, ‘Can you stop a minute. I need to piss.’
Katherine pulled over, and took the opportunity to relieve her own bladder, squatting on the driver’s side of the troop carrier while Adam walked into the darkness on the other side. The sky was moonless, shattered with stars. Minutes passed, too many of them. It occured to her that Adam wasn’t coming back. She called his name several times, but he didn’t answer. She cut the motor in order to hear better, and got back only silence, deeper than she could have imagined.
‘Come’, Vinnie had said, when Katherine rang and told her that she and Richard were separating. ‘Come and visit. Help me out. The people are amazing. The country is amazing. There’s plenty to do. You’ll love it.’
She didn’t tell Vinnie that Richard had said, one night after sex, ‘This isn’t working, is it?’ as if she understood and shared his dissatisfaction. In fact she was perfectly content and had assumed he was too. When she pressed him he said, ‘It just feels empty.’ She had tried to hold him with sex, but had only humiliated herself. She was forty, disappointed, and beginning to be afraid. She had come to Marlpa expecting to be the focus of Vinnie’s radiant sympathy. But Vinnie’s empathy was indiscriminate. It was apparent, after the first intense days of introducing Katherine to the community and the surrounding country, that Vinnie ran on a fuel comprised of the relentless demands made on her by the people and the impossible expectations imposed on her by the job. She had found a perfect balance, Katherine thought sourly, in which the demands made on her were of the same magnitude as her desire to be needed. When she wasn’t working she was felled by exhaustion, dropping into a coma-like sleep from which she woke speechless, assembling herself each morning with yoga and meditation until she had achieved enough coherence to pitch herself into the day ahead.
There was no privacy. People came to the house before the art centre opened in the morning. Katherine had to give up her own morning rituals to the demands of the visitors, making cups of tea, participating in awkward conversations of which she understood little, although most people spoke English. It was as if the language she knew had become encoded in the soft coercive rhythms of Aboriginal speech.
And she was unprepared for the Bordertown squalour of the place. It was another country, impossible to equate with the one in which she had grown up. Without Vinnie filtering, protecting, explaining, she would not have lasted a week. The broken cars, the garbage, the scaly fecund tick-infested camp dogs with their leaking sores and deformed limbs. Even Vinnie admitted she couldn’t get used to the dogs’ habit of eating the crotch out of used disposable nappies. They lay about in lethargic groups on the verandah, soupy-eyed and revolting, pissing on the newly primed canvases and on the paintings Katherine took outside to photograph.
The children too were disturbing. There was a cheeky malevolence about the young boys, who made suggestive gestures at her breasts and crotch. Sometimes they surged about the art centre in a lawless band, and she was reminded of Kipling’s Bandar-log. Her brain froze at the analogy, but they truly seemed a marauding pack species. She had no idea how to deal with them or with her violent thoughts. When they took her tools, dipped fingers into the paint, swooped and scampered and laughed at their immunity from punishment, she wanted to scream and hit them. And the perpetual refrain of people wanting Vinnie’s attention – Nakamara! Where Nakamara? It was like a broken record. Could no one, ever, do anything for themselves?
Whatever her expectations had been, these moments of generic dislike were not among them. She did not consider herself capable of serious prejudice, and blamed Vinnie, believing she should have warned her.
Katherine waited for Adam to return. From time to time she ran the motor and flashed the headlights. She dozed a little, lay down along the seat and tried to sleep, but joltingly she would remember Adam out there, a small seed of empathy connecting her to him and as quickly gone, overwhelmed by a sense of unreality. Several times she decided to drive on to Marnukitji; each time could not do it. She didn’t like Adam but couldn’t drive away and leave him alone in the dark. She wasn’t afraid; there was something in the vast indifferent landscape that suited her, but she didn’t know yet what this signified.
The dashboard clock indicated two hours had passed when she saw lights approaching from the direction of Marnukitji. When the Landcruiser drew up the man’s light voice seemed familiar, as if this drama concerning Adam was merely an excuse to come driving out into the darkness to find her. She could not make out his features, but had an impression of heaviness that was at odds with the pitch of his voice.
‘Bit of trouble in the community?’ He looked past her into the cabin. ‘Where’s the man of the hour?’
‘He walked off. We stopped for a pee and he walked off.’
Her voice echoed the man’s ironic tone. ‘He seemed to think they’d kill him. He was very upset.’
‘Ah, they won’t kill him now. Might’ve done in the heat of the moment, but not now they’ve cooled down.’ He spoke as if it was of no great importance, either way.
‘Anyway, looks like he’s having a pretty good shot at it himself.’
Switching off the motor of his vehicle, he got out and came to lean against the bonnet of the troop carrier. He put out his hand. ‘Matthew Faulkner. I’m the manager at Marnukitji.’
She shook the proffered hand, which was strong and fleshy and pleasant to touch, the grip firm without making a point of its strength. His calm humour and the practical bulk of him made the drama of the past few hours seem overwrought.
‘Katherine. I’m a friend of Vinnie’s.’
‘Yeah, she told me. She rang up a couple of hours ago, told us what had happened and said you were on your way. When you didn’t show up I thought I better come and see what was holding you up.’
Stepping down from the cabin of her own vehicle, she went and stood near him in the dark road, offering her allegiance against the hysteria of Adam and his ilk. He took out a tin of tobacco and rolled a cigarette. The quick flare of the match lit his face.
‘Could I have one of those?’
He handed the tin across to her. ‘Help yourself.’
She took a pinch of the coarse, moist stuff, and ground it on the heel of her palm as she had seen others do. The cylinder of tobacco was lumpy but manageable. He leaned forward and struck another match, she could smell the sharp phosphorus odour, and the sweat and tobacco scent of his hands. A coil of her hair fell across his wrist, and he moved his arm to hold the hair away from the burning match. When he was satisfied that the cigarette was properly alight, he went to his vehicle and brought out a torch.
‘Which way did he take off?’
She gestured towards the passenger side of the troop carrier. ‘I didn’t see. I suppose he went straight out from the road.’ Matthew moved the torch in an arc beyond the road verge, and picked up the tracks of Adam’s boots, the heels of which had broken through the sandy crust and left deep impressions.
‘Shouldn’t be too hard to track him in daylight. He won’t go far tonight.’ He took a package from the seat of the landcruiser, tossing it to Katherine. ‘Sandwich? You probably didn’t have time to pack dinner.’
While she ate he brought a bottle of rum from the glovebox, and poured a shot into a tin mug.
‘Want one?’ She nodded, and he unearthed a plastic cup and poured another. She took small voluptuous sips, drawing the alcohol in between her teeth and feeling it hit her palate in tiny explosions. The sweetish powerful drink brought her almost at once into a state of euphoria.
Matthew said, ‘Ought to put a mug out for bait. If he gets a smell of it he’ll be back like a shot.’
They sat on the road verge drinking rum and smoking. A child had died and a man had walked away into the desert night. Katherine felt possibilities expand around her, unrestrained by the conventions to which she had always paid her dues. Matthew said, ‘We should hit the road, come back at first light. No point staying out here all night. He’s not coming back now.’ Before they left he drove the troop carrier off the road behind a clump of wattle, locked it and handed her the keys. ‘In case any of our indigenous friends come along the track tonight. They’d reckon all their Christmases had come at once.’ He left a packet of sandwiches and a waterbottle on the bonnet.
The night hurtled past the open window, stars flaring between the branches of the wattle scrub, until they came out into higher country and she could distinguish the horizon as the place where the stars ended. It was past midnight when they arrived, the homestead was all in darkness. A woman appeared with two dogs at her heels, and Matthew introduced her as his sister Ruth. She had a dark intense face, and though she was not friendly she gave no indication that this late-night arrival was unwelcome. After a brief explanation from Matthew, she showed Katherine to a room where she could sleep.
In the morning he roused her at daylight. She could not remember where she was or why this man was in her room, though she welcomed his presence. He was solid, with a hard beer gut and a fleshy, handsome face. Not her physical type; she had always been attracted to tall, lean men. But he carried himself like a man used to the approval of women. She recalled Vinnie saying something about children at boarding school, a recently departed wife, some historic tragedy in which his family were involved. In the bathroom she pilfered some face cream and wiped the mascara smudges from under her wide, eager-looking eyes. She used somebody’s toothbrush and washed her face before smoothing more of the cream into it.
Ruth was in the kitchen. She greeted Katherine awkwardly, the dourness of the previous night revealing itself as shyness, offered tea, and went back to whatever she was doing at the kitchen bench. To fill the silence, Katherine described Adam’s disappearance.
‘I waited to see if he’d come back, but he didn’t. He was scared they were going to kill him, but I don’t think that’s why he walked off.’ But she couldn’t say why she thought he had walked off.
Matthew, from the doorway, said, ‘They won’t kill him. Maybe a spear through the leg, if he sticks around to take it. And if we find the silly bastard.’ He was matter of fact. ‘Wouldn’t have bet on his chances yesterday if you hadn’t got him out of there straight away. They trashed the truck. The art buyers had to get a police escort to the plane. Everyone thinks Adam was smuggled out on the plane. Half the white population have cleared out.’
Over breakfast Katherine recounted the little she had seen of the accident, and Matthew, who had called Vinnie earlier to tell her of the latest developments, described her graphic account of the aftermath. No one in Marlpa had slept; Vinnie and Simon had guarded the art centre with the help of several of the painters’ families, while others vented their anger on the ruined carcass of the Twin Lakes truck. There had been a brief rampage of young people through the teachers’ compound, and a gathering of elders in the church, accompanied by the priest. Ruth asked if Vinnie knew which family the child belonged to, and looked stricken when Matthew told her. Both Faulkners seemed to hold something in reserve in their judgement of the event, as if the whites involved were culpable merely by being there.
Ruth had made sandwiches and a thermos of sweetened tea, and produced some packets of gastrolyte. ‘If he’s dehydrated give him a couple of these.’
‘You seem sure we’ll find him.’
‘Matt’s a good tracker, and he’ll take Ruby and Pedlar. Ruby’s the best. She can track anything.’ Her voice was full of pride, as if she was responsible for Ruby’s tracking skills.
‘He may not want to be found.’
‘He’d need to be pretty good to hide his tracks from Ruby.’
In the quiet orderliness of the homestead, Adam’s histrionics seemed absurd. But the image of the bloodstained box was vivid. Matthew took the thermos and sandwiches. He said to Ruth, ‘I’ll call you on the radio when we’ve got him.’
The breakfast fortified Katherine, and some of the previous night’s euphoria returned. The interior of the Landcruiser felt familiar and functional, with its worn canvas seat cover and clutter of tools, water bottles, and hand-held radios. The elderly Aboriginal couple settled themselves into a pile of blankets on the tray of the vehicle, along with a selection of crowbars and billycans and calico bags. Behind them the sun rose like a yellow flare, throwing the long shadow of the vehicle on the road ahead. Katherine watched Matthew’s hands on the steering wheel. They were blunt and powerful, with well-shaped nails, and his tanned forearms were covered with a network of fine scars.
‘Were you serious about Adam being punished by a spear in the leg?’
‘Probably not. But he’s in pretty thick with some of the Twin Lakes mob, married to Maisie Nankivell’s daughter Marjorie. They put him through Law a couple of years ago. If he plans on coming back, he’ll have to take some sort of punishment. These days people might settle for money, since he’s a whitefella.’
‘What will you do with him?’
‘Send him out on the mail plane tomorrow. After that he’s on his own.’
‘You don’t think much of them, do you?’
‘Them being who in particular?’
‘The whites who work with Aboriginal people. Art centre co-ordinators, administrators and so forth.’
‘Vinnie’s all right. Mad as a cut snake, but she’s all right. And I work with blackfellas, done it all my life, so that’s not a criteria.’ When he grinned his upper lip pulled back to reveal a gap where a tooth was missing.
‘The sort of people I don’t like, and Adam Sinclair’s one of them, are people who make assumptions about people like me, because I grew up in this country, and because my family owned a cattle station, and because I don’t think the sun shines out of every blackfella’s backside.’
He nudged the tin of tobacco from the dashboard towards her.
‘Reckon you could roll me one of those?’ He continued to speak while she wrestled together a passable cigarette.
‘Don’t get me wrong. I’ve known plenty of smart blackfellas.’ He nodded towards the back of the vehicle. ‘Old Pedlar’s one of them. One of the best horsemen in the Territory when he was young. And a top stockman, taught me to rope and ride when I was a kid, along with a lot of blackfella skills and language. He’s got that good nature and pride in himself most of the old stockmen have got.’
‘So why is he riding on the back?’ It slipped out, she hadn’t meant to speak.
Matthew laughed, a harsh, sudden snort.
‘Because you’re sitting in the bloody front.’
He pulled the vehicle over, lit his cigarette, and called out of the window, ‘Hey Pedlar.’
There was an answering ‘Yo’ from the back.
‘Come here a minute.’
Pedlar’s creased, intelligent face appeared sideways at the window.
‘This lady’s worried about you fellas on the back. You want to ride in the front?’
Pedlar gazed thoughtfully at the space beyond Katherine’s shoulder.
‘Might be no room.’
‘Maybe she’ll have to go on the back then.’ There was a dryness in the exchange, a joke between them at her expense.
‘He’s right,’ Pedlar said. ‘We’ll be walkin’ soon.’
When the old man was seated again Katherine said, ‘That wasn’t fair.’ Matthew grinned at her, the dark gap showing again between his tobacco-stained teeth.
In daylight the wedge-shaped toe and heel in-dentation of Adam’s boot tracks stood out clearly. ‘Proper cowboy boot,’ Pedlar said. ‘He’ll get footsore pretty quick.’
Ruby set off in the lead, with Pedlar walking some metres behind her and Matthew and Katherine following in the vehicle. From time to time Matthew caught up and conferred with the old people. They might have been out for a Sunday drive, hunting for a good spot to make a picnic. After an hour or so the tracks began to swing to the west.
‘Might be he’s going the long way round to Marlpa.’ Pedlar let out a high cackle of laughter. Another hour and Ruby’s arm went up. Pedlar called out, ‘Over here. He’s sittin’ down.’
For some time a bony scatter of limestone had marked the country they crossed, and bloodwood trees grew at intervals among the spinifex and stunted acacias. It was under the shade of one of these that Adam sat, with his back against the flaking trunk. He didn’t look up when they reached him. His boots were off and his long pale feet looked abject, with a few black hairs sprouting from the arches. Katherine took one of the water bottles from the seat of the Landcruiser and offered it to him.
‘You shouldn’t have walked away like that.You knew we’d come looking for you.’
He took the water and drank it down without drawing breath, but shook his head when she asked him if he wanted more. She could smell him, that acrid mix of tobacco and sweat and fear. Matthew, who had stood back from the initial encounter, said, ‘At the rate you were going you’d’ve hit the road again about twenty kays this side of Marlpa.’ Adam dropped his head to his knees and began to weep. An expression of baffled distaste crossed Matthew’s face, and he walked away to the other side of the vehicle. Pedlar took one of the calico bags and squatted in the shade of a spindly bloodwood, where he proceeded to tear strips of greyish-looking salt meat from the lump in the bag. Ruby had already taken her crowbar from the vehicle and headed back to a wild potato vine she had staked out while tracking.
On the return drive, Katherine sat between the two men, her body angled to avoid contact with Adam and to keep her legs clear of the gearstick. She could feel Matthew’s proximity, a warmth emanating from his skin through the heavy cotton shirt. From time to time she allowed her shoulder to brush against him. She knew that Ruth wouldn’t approve of her, but it wasn’t important.
'The Accident' by Kim Mahood was shortlisted in the 2013 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.