(Edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)
The Butcher in the Moonlight
It’s that time, long after midnight, long before morning, when it’s hard to wake the ones who sleep. Her little sister is rolled into a tight ball in her cot. Her brother won’t answer if she whispers across the passageway between their open bedroom doors. She could even speak aloud. She could yell out his name, just once, and the baby wouldn’t wake and her brother wouldn’t answer and there would be no sound from her parents’ room further down the passage, beyond the kitchen, next to the lounge room .
She slips from her room and tiptoes down the passage, eyes closed to make the dark hers. She goes to her father’s side of the big bed. Her mother would send her back to her room if she went to her side. She lifts the edge of the bedspread, pulls herself up and tucks herself into a tiny space in the bed, next to the open double windows. In his sleep, her father wraps his arms around her and she balances herself there, knees over the edge. She can sleep, knowing she won’t fall out.
When she wakes, it’s still the time when others are hard to wake, but it’s later. It’s lighter. The pale net curtain shivers and she feels a cool breeze on her skin. Even the heavy drape pulled to one side moves a little. Her father has rolled away and she has shifted in her sleep. Her hand is lying in front of her face on the sheet. She looks past her lashes, past her hand, through the gauzy wave of the net curtain. Outside, the moon is alight and what she can see out there is like another room that has appeared out of the hour when she slept. The concrete of the verandah is a shiny white floor, with the wall of the house on one side and the beams of the carport spread out on the other. The end moves off into a tunnel, out towards the yard and beyond to the street. Next to the window, peering in at her through the gauze, she sees a butcher.
He nods at her, his hair covered by one of the puffy white paper caps that keeps the blood and bone gristle out of their hair, and he has a puff of the smoke he’s pinching between his thumb and forefinger. His eyes are nearly shut but he looks at her. The white t-shirt he’s wearing bulges over his stomach and it’s smeared with blood. She can see greasy bits of fat shining bluish near his chest. His white pants are all bloody too and she can just see the tops of the thick white gumboots, splashed all over with blood. It’s on his arms too. He’s washed his hands clean but some of the ginger hair on the backs of his wrists is matted together in dark red tufts.
I just knocked off, love. Thought your dad might be up and have a stubbie for me.
He lights up another smoke and runs one of his hands up and down the aluminium frame of the window of her parents’ bedroom. She hears it rattle faintly.
Come out here, love, and have a talk with me.
No. I’m just here, in my mummy and daddy’s bed.
I can see that. But they’re asleep. Come and have a look out here.
Her father is breathing louder and turning his head a little on the pillow.
I’m going to wake up my daddy.
The red bit at the end of the smoke is pointing at her tummy now and she feels like it’s burning a hole in her.
He shakes his head.
No. You’re not.
I’m waking him up now.
And she hears the silver-slither-snake noise.
Her dad is a butcher, and her grandfather, and her uncles, and she’s heard that noise lots of times. The snake noise is when they take a long, sharp knife out of the keeper they have strapped like a belt around their waists. This butcher’s knife is white like the moon that’s out there behind him, out of sight but shining on everything, like the bright lights on the roof do at the meatworks.
Don’t wake him.
His skin is all sleepy like her baby sister’s when she pushes herself back against his chest and says, softly, so the butcher outside might not hear.
She hardly moves her lips but he wakes straight away. The butcher steps away quickly with squelching lake-mud sounds and he’s gone before her dad can sit up. The shining room that was outside begins to lose its shape, with the hint of gold showing just above the flat line of the ground out beyond the street and past the highway.
The lake is cold enough to cool her down when she makes herself heavy and sinks past the top level, the surface that is golden-brown like the colour of her eyes, and that can be transparent for a little way if the sun shines directly on it. Even if she’s not far enough from the shore to be over her head, she can go down to the level where it’s cold, the part that feels as cold as the water in the tank outside the kitchen at home, the one that’s mostly underground. The tank is hardly ever full. She can take off the lid that’s supposed to stay on; it’s the size of large metal rubbish bin lid; and she leans down inside, opens her mouth, and calls. Her voice returns. She closes her eyes and pretends she’s in a cave and all around her in the dark in a circle, are other girls, unseen, hidden in their places, calling back to her. But every few years, heavy rains fall. It doesn’t rain in a distracted way, with the waft of a light shower or a fine spit out of a clear sky. There is no rain, or it falls in torrents. The torrents are rare, but when they’ve come, she’s gone to the underground tank afterwards and taken off the lid and bent over, but still leaning her head back enough to let in the daylight, and she’s seen the glint of the water just below the top of the tank that has a peaked roof like a smaller sibling to the house’s tin roof. She’s small enough to lean right over and put the whole length of her arms inside and dangle them under the cold water, and even lift her feet from the ground and suspend herself, arms immersed, reaching out and down into the tank that could be bottomless, her forehead and chest pressed against the rim of the opening, sunlight shining through the strands of her hair that fall through to drift in the water. The middle layer of the lake can be almost as cold as the deep water in the tank. She spreads herself out in the lake. She tries to stay there, suspended, a deep breath held in her chest, not touching the bottom, not floating up to the top. If she concentrates, she can stay for a few seconds, still as she can be, not letting any bubbles of air out of her mouth or nose, keeping her eyes softly closed. If she doesn’t move her limbs, then after those few seconds, she will start to float upwards, or, if she lets out her breath in one long whoosh, she will sink. The mud is thick and silken, unless her feet find the sharp mouth of a mussel or the nip of a yabbie’s pincers. Slowly, she rises. Breaking through the surface, she blinks in the light. Here, though, the lake is shaded near the shores by great red river gums. One has the shape of a bull’s head with horns in a heavy burl at the parting of two large trunks emerging from the main trunk. Her father shows it to her once. He points and she says she can’t see it, but really when she looks she half-closes her eyes until the mass of the head and the curled horns with jagged tips turn back into wood: until the empty eyes with hard blue sky piercing through them stop seeing her.
Indigo Perry lives in the Yarra Valley, outside Melbourne. She teaches creative writing in the School of Communication & Creative Arts at Deakin University. Her book, Midnight Water: A Memoir, was shortlisted for the National Biography Award. www.indigoperry.com