Ye’d be best off taking a different path.
The old woman in the kitchen liked to stand with hands on hips,
it made her feel strong and mighty; gave her the right to scold the young men as though they were
the sons she never had.
He felt small next to her, though they were the same height, but
there was something in the way the women looked at him:
A veiled fear, perhaps, hidden under their bonnets and how they all looked exactly alike
their uniform long skirts and high-shouldered blouses – no corsets, though – too impractical for these wild lands. Stay off Brumby’s Track, ye hear?
Something terrible happened there, once.
Sideways glances and anxious silence. Guilt, perhaps?
Guilty consciences because they talked among themselves,
But what did he have to do with it? The sins of his fathers
As if he could’ve come in a pre-incarnate form
To warn old uncle Tommy that there are stains that can be washed off stone
but not washed off a heart.
He knows that they know.
He can’t tell the boss not to take the most direct route.
He’ll just close his eyes when they come to where it happened.
He awoke from a dream of bones.
A stone-wrought ossuary festooned with wonga-wonga vine and
pollen-heavy yellow bursts of wattle.
Where wallabies and wombats grazed on the sharp thin blades of what posed for grass.
And wasn’t it sad how death followed them out here, too,
to this upside-down world where swans were black and even the gentlest creatures were dangerous?
As though God Himself had abandoned them to become part of the red soil and feed the ghost gums
Their faces turned to home, pining for a land that forced them into exile
on stinking ships and into camps to labour for the glory of the King’s expanding empire.
Here the sun travelled in the northern half of the sky and the birds sang strange songs.
Where the trees did not change colour in the autumn.
Somehow he carried the memories of his ancestors,
and their strange second-sight that saw through time:
layered over the wild granite peaks were visions of spirits,
of beings far more ancient than even the venerable Old Country;
phantoms who wept over the desecrated land as the blood of their lost children mingled with the melting snow.
And here in this place, where pale skin was burned red by the burning sun.
A disembodied voice whispered to him from that other space,
As though the skulls in his fading dream were crying out across so vast a chasm
That they now became an echo on the morning breeze. Cries of injustice hung in the air over this place.
He knew he should never have come back here – to this town, to this farm
Where whispers told him that something out there waited for him,
To drag him into the mausoleum disguised as a bushman’s hut.
‘It’s a wonder old Tommy Aiken sleeps at night,’ said Mabel,
her hands on her broad hips, just the right shape for hoisting heavy baskets of linen.
And saying thus she effected the miraculous: silencing the chatter of the women,
who suddenly busied themselves with peeling potatoes and stoking the fire
as though they hadn’t all been thinking the exact same thing.
‘And now young Clancy here with us, I wonder if he knows what his uncle did?’
Mabel roared. Oblivious, perhaps, to the collective discomfort of the devoutly superstitious crossing themselves –
who dared not to speak of ghosts and murderers. The illusion that they left it all in the old country broken in fragments,
the new land was just as haunted as home. And was it that they’d brought the ghosts with them?
How outlandish to imagine ethereal spectres bound in heavy chains on the wave-tossed convict ships.
‘Why don’t ye ask him?’ asked one, and she was quickly hushed by the group.
It was too terrible to contemplate. And Clancy Aiken, how much he looked like his old uncle,
The dark hair and dark eyes, the deathly pale skin, the long fingers and the high cheeks –
The collectively repressed memories lifted to the surface at the arrival of the young man
Hired to muster the herefords in the High Country before the winter snows.
‘Let’s not hold him to the sins of his family,’ said another,
‘It’s not as if looking like a monster makes ye one.’
But the silence that had settled on the group remained.
Did they know for certain that they could trust a man whose visage so resembled one they had once feared?
‘Tommy was never found guilty – they never found a body, and maybe Nellie still wanders the bush.’