The smell of the cattle is one of the first things I remember. A warm, earthy, grassy smell mixed with the sharp odour of dung. Later, light fanning towards me as the door opened. Huddled in a corner, my ankles chained like a calf foetus resisting the call of the world.
I think that was two years ago. I didn't think about marking off days for some time. My head hurt, my nose dripped, I was unsteady on my feet. Sunny days saw me sobbing and blinded and thrown back into the room behind the barn. I'm surprised I wasn't shot then.
Things slowly improved. I could work for longer, feed the cows, help with fencing, pull weeds, pick fruit. Hunger had me sneak an orange or carrot or siphon milk from the heifers. The ulcers at my ankles slowly healed as the chains came off more frequently, leaving rings like pigeon bands.
I started to collect pebbles. Round, cool, dark, sharp or striated, each marking a moment of defiance and a day. I hadn't been told not to collect pebbles, yet hid them in shallow depressions under my straw. Their presence marked concepts like numeracy and time. It wouldn't do to let on.
I don't recall how old I am, or my name. "You" seems to suffice. I am younger than Marm and Sur and quite a bit thinner. It's hard to tell my appearance in a cracked side mirror in the car cemetery but I suspect I look unkempt. They look like someone's gun toting grandparents with silver hair and rabbit skin hats. A few months ago, when the weather was at its hottest, I was bundled into the back of the ute and taken up valley where the trees crowd down steep hillsides threatening the paddocks. There stands an old hut, the door off its hinges and sky through the beams. A rusty bed stand, weeds in the hearth. Frankly it looked like luxury. What I would have given to sleep under the stars.
I was pushed down broken stairs into a cellar redeemed by a dank coolness with some water, overripe fruit and a plastic bucket. If it was metal I could have bashed it when I heard the sounds of trail bikes and the laughter of children, but that alien sound made me sob and I could raise little more than a croak. It was quiet again. I added four pebbles to my pile. Returning to the room behind the barn was almost a relief. The food improved temporarily, ham and chicken and even some stale cake, yet the water remained foul. When I first started to become aware of my surroundings the outdoors had been green and lush and the water slid down without a thought. Now outside is brown and dry and the water tastes of iron and rotting leaves.
I'm hand feeding the cattle often now. Their hides are hot and red dust billows into the remorseless sun as I give them a pat. I have recollections of not liking cows, finding them slow but oddly cunning. Their vast bulk a threat. Now, when I'm alone I talk to them. It doesn't pay to get too attached though.
Periodically I'm locked away and can hear trucks come and the frightened bellow of the steers. It's almost as bad as at castration time, a job which I abhor. Surprisingly I proved myself adept at this, and other tasks like cow midwifery. I've been even let into the barn unrestrained in the night to help with some difficult births and I'm now seldom bound in my cell.
The cows take my newfound verbosity well. I like throwing around words and hearing them come out. My vocabulary seems extensive, but I'm not letting on. I toss around rhymes. Snatches of half remembered poems come to me. One of the poddy calves must have been attacked by wild dogs last night. Sometimes I hear a lonely howl ricocheting around the valley. The crows hop back a little and the cloud of flies disperse as I approach. Rivers of blood and vitreous scour the calf's cheeks and eyes.
"I'll not carrion comfort" ignites in my head like a nail gun. Just as other thoughts and words have intruded during recent months-words like imprisonment and escape.
The rain is hammering on the corrugated roof and though there's no drips the floor of the hut is muddy and the hay damp. I've over 800 pebbles now, though some of them may be better described as scrapers and axes. I've also salvaged some old blades and tools from the pile of rusting cars and my cell is no longer secure. I've seen my way out. I've seen what I need to do, and soon. Pretending to remain ignorant is getting harder.
Last week as the rain event started one of the young steers got trapped in log debris that heralded the flood. I stood mesmerised as the water rose, the current swirling, and a new language opened my mind. I traced currents and eddies, saw stoppers and sieves, my fingers flexed as if holding a paddle and like an old cine film starting to speed up snatches of memory came to me. A sunny day, a red kayak, and a green one and a blue one bouncing down the rapids, roiling white water, laughter and deep, key strokes edging around rocks and trees, a failed roll, a short swim, tiring muscles and at last the exit bridge. Standing there alone, minding the boats in the warming sun while the car at the put in was retrieved. A ute arriving from down river. Marm. It was Marm at the wheel, cursing all paddlers to hell. Have a nice day I called. I wasn't going to let her rancour spoil my day. Yet she did. The revs of the ute's engine, its side clipping me as I fell.
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