for the rain to stop, it had been pressing
down on Kempsey for weeks, our double
decker red school bus unable to surge through
the muddy sludge of Dangars Lane. We had trudged
to the stop, down and back, two mornings straight till
word finally reached us on horseback.
Peter Ryan decked out in slick gum boots and drizabone,
his weathered face pinched like a crinkled prune under his
akubra, had almost spat out the words as he rode in to collect
the rent. School’s out, cyclone weather this, keep those gutters
cleared, we’re in for it. He’d barely crossed the cattle grid
out the drive when mother herded us toward the
huge four poster in her bedroom, our knees folding
under as we bowed our heads against the mattress. This
continued day after day, our kneecaps often lined with
red raised stripes from hours on a floorboard gap, the
water rising steadily out the window. One night as my
father toasted bread and dripping on a stick across
the fireplace, he told us things looked bad, might need
to swim to town tomorrow for help, and he was right.
By morning water swooshed through our living room
smothering the dusty floors until every corner was
wetted down, our home filling like an awkward bathtub.
Mother hurried us onto the front porch and, one by one,
scuttled us up the ladder toward my father who was
waiting, ropes in hand, looping each child together as
he tethered us to the chimney, our soaked pajamas heavy
against our skin, as he wrapped the tarp around our backs.
Minutes later we watched him cut through the flood toward
town, arm after arm above his head, each stroke carrying him
further away. And our mother beside us, her face strained
forward like a carved figure on a ship’s prow, moaned a little.
And I knew it, right there in the belly of that moment–my
wickedness. Had prayed for the rain to keep falling, for third
grade to stay closed, my parents talking around the fire each
night, too tired to fight. I wondered how I could ever confess,
my throat dry as nylon, the water lapping over the old fence line.
the turn from bedroom into
hallway was a place to pause,
a recess for listening. If
the kitchen was too quiet,
it might be a lull; if shouts
flared up, I’d run back.
If mother cried, there was only
forward, wipe the slick of
sweat across my neck, swallow
the acorn in my throat, step
through the peeling yellow arch
and cross the floor. Drape her
damp hand over mine, blot the
dollop of tears, a new bruise
waxing purple on her cheek.
Next day would be a shorter
stop. The waft of music in the
hall, her laughter mingled overhead.
I would turn, watch her fill the vase,
a dozen pink carnations on the table,
her favorite candy broken open.
And I’d slip out, into the yard; air
gulping at my lungs as I swung;
clawed the sky with bare feet
straight up and back. And below
my mother’s wash, her waving
handkerchiefs, their small corners
pegged tight against the line.
||I pass her for the third time
and this morning a weak
rain drizzles over the pale
gray fur. Her damp face is
becoming dark as she lays on
the bitumen, drivers whizzing
past, clipping her tail,
Six inches further and the bush
would have offered a veiled
resting ground. Instead she’s
in full view, front paws one
atop the other, her dainty claws
tucked under. And it troubles me,
not just the sadness of life cut
down but something else, too close
to home, the lurch of trusting the
familiar and being caught mid-leap.
The gasp is almost audible in
her stone brown eyes, the rain
coming down too thin, her soft
pouch matted down, empty.