The Farm Story
In the movies, a hard-working farmer and his family endure hardship but always come up all right in the end. What do they do if they're not in a movie?
The gunshots cracked all day, from when the sun blazed into the blue above the eastern pasture, beyond the rusting frame of the old windmill that had been the fortress of so many childhood imaginings, to when it fell, casting a thickening bloody light over the wheat field, whose upward grade made it seem a vast expanse extending to the horizon.
The ripeness of that ugly stunted rust-ridden wheat and its seeming immensity under that sun, were lies. Hollow betrayals of light and land.
The gunshots woke me. a distant, dry cracking. As dry as the hot wind rushing over the fields of dead wheat.
I pulled on my jeans and boots and ran through the kitchen, grabbing a piece of toast from Margaret's hand as I passed, before she had time to slather on any butter. She gave me a stern motherly look, her eyebrows rising.
"Grandad said not to. He'll be livid!"
But I had kicked open the screen door and was running, for what I thought would be the last time, to my tower.
I clambered up the iron frame and sat on the wooden platform below the rust-eaten triangles of the blades. I could see Grandad, a small figure in white beside the tractor. The dust-red Hereford herd, their white faces like skulls, milled around before him. Grandad pushed up his hat and dabbed at his brow with a bandanna. Then he tied it around the barrel of the .33 Winchester slung over his shoulder, took bullets from a box on the nose of the tractor, began thumbing them into the breech.
I stared, stunned, as he lifted the butt to his shoulder, took careful aim, and pumped bullets into the heads of the calm and lowing cattle.
A red star exploded on the white skulls. The cows lost their dung and dropped. I could imagine their eyes rolling with surprise and momentary pain as they staggered and fell heavily on their sides, raising a burst of dust. Some would kick their legs a little, searching for the hard earth, before they were finally still.
Occasionally a beast would meander away from the herd. Then Grandad would whistle a particular way and Petersen, our black-and-white Collie, would leap around and bark and nip at its ankles until it returned.
When a dozen or so were dead, Grandad would climb into the tractor, kick over the engine with a spurt of diesel exhaust, and then reversed, using the grader on the back to push the carcasses into a ditch.
From my tower I watched Grandad's methodical labor. When half the herd lay dusty in the ditch and the sun was a rage of gold high in the sky, I returned to the house.
Grandad came in with the dusk. From the front room, among the suitcases and packed cardboard cartons, Margaret and I heard his boots clump heavily up the steps. We turned from the television to watch him through the screen door.
Sweat ran down his arm, trickled over his fingers and steamed off the barrel of the Winchester. He made a circling motion with the rifle, so that the bow of the kerchief tied around the end of the barrel licked the dust off the floorboards. Then he dropped it. A shot rang out the evening, with a certain finality, and Margaret clutched Zebediah, her toy horse, tighter in her hands.
Grandad's eyes were rolling, then staring, bloodshot and mad. Had he not been such a hard man, they probably would've been filled with tears. He seemed not to have heard or noticed the shot at all. Eyes rolling and staring into the blackening night, as mad as Margaret's pony Old Bent Back's were the day he'd eaten jimson weed and gone wild.
We'd had to shoot Old Bent Back. It looked like we'd have to shoot Grandad too. Margaret cried for a week when we shot Old Bent Back, until Grandad had made a small bedraggled unicorn out of wire, straw, glue and some of Old Bent Back's mane. Grandad had carved its horn from a steer's cropped horn. Old Bent Back's soul was in that unicorn, Margaret said. She named it Zebediah and that had quieted her.
There were speckles of blood dried to black on Grandad's shirt and on his moleskins. Moths and gnats and mosquitos and iridescent beetles flickered around his head. He chucked off his hat, brushing at the insects which swarmed around his hair. He stomped through the front room without barely a nod at Margaret and me, and went down the hall to shower.
He was mad yesterday. Today he was crazy.
It wasn't the drought that had ruined our earth, like it had so many others. Grandad was canny. He'd used the last overdaft to stock up on cattle feed. Said he could smell a dry season coming on the breeze from the west. The government had deregulated the market, though. Imported beef from Asia was cheaper than our dust. It cost more to truck the herd to auction than what we'd get for it. South West Queensland Beef and Dairy owned the trucking. They owned the auction yards. They owned the abattoir, the estate agent and the bank. We were shafted.
The bank delivered the foreclosure notice and posted the auction signs. A South West Queensland Beef and Dairy subsidiary would buy our farm, our cattle, like they had so many others, and razor a profit while we yet owed them our labor and our blood.
Grandad wouldn't even let the suit from the real estate borrow a shovel to dig the post holes. Perfectly within his rights, Sheriff T. Jackson-Flynn said. The bastard had to drive the 127 kilometers back to Windorah to get a shovel.
As soon as the sheriff and the bankers and the estate agents had gone, Grandad took a can of gas, doused the Auction: Foreclosure signs and set them blazing.
"Bastards. Sweating, collared men," he spoke with derision, "with narrow eyes and small minds. The suits hang on their crooked shoulders like the hunched wings of carrion birds. Vultures, let them profit and feast on carcasses." He didn't curse much, especially in front of Margaret, so when he did you knew he meant it.
Margaret just said how pretty the flames looked, all halloween orange, burning triangles within squares "livid against the dusk."
Me, I said nothing. I knew it was futile. I just could smell the burning in the air. It seemed to herald... something special, like Christmas Eve and the last day of school and the day after the finish of harvest put together. An expectancy of something new -- change and freedom -- yet also an ending. Everything complete, but not quite, and everything about to start again, but not quite yet.
After dinner of greens and carrots and lamb roast that Margaret had put on in the afternoon, a dinner at which no said as much as "Pass the salt please," Grandad sat on his wicker chair on the porch drinking straight from a bottle of Johnny Walker he'd been keeping for a celebration. He'd given that bottle to Dad ten years ago when Margie was born. Mum and Dad died a month later in a car smash.
I was four then, so although I remembered a lot about them, the smell of Mum's perfume and Dad's rough chin, and the sound of both their voices, Grandad had always been there too. That bottle had sat on the shelf ever since. Yeah, tonight Grandad was celebrating.
We did the washing up and Margaret helped me with my algebra homework; she was good at that sort of thing, but I never had the patience. Then we watched TV for a while, a program set in the lush English countryside. I couldn't bear it, the taste of dust still dry on my tongue, so I went to bed.
The moon lifted huge and yellow over the fields out my window, and I was too restless to sleep. There was a smell, heady on the warm breeze, like when we'd drive into Windorah along the highway, past the abattoir.
As I turned my mind to what the city'd be like (we'd be going in just under a month, after the auction, to stay with Aunt May in Brisbane) and began finally drifting into dreams, I heard Grandad go out into the night, the creak of the barn door, and then, like the breaking of clock whose mechanism yet refused to fail completely, the rustle and twang of bailing wire, extolling some purely imaginary hour.
Margaret woke me earlier than the sun and said she couldn't find Grandad. She'd cooked a big breakfast of sausage and egg and fried tomato, and had made both tea and coffee. But when she went to wake him, he wasn't there.
"And I'm absolutely livid!" she added, (she'd heard the word livid on TV and had been applying it liberally ever since) pointing at the breakfast, now cooling, laid on the best Gingham cloth, with Zebediah clutched in her hand. Her cheeks were flushed as she held her face tight against the welling tears.
I went outside and looked for him. Grandad had let the chickens out, and Petersen had killed a whole mess of them and was chasing the rest around.There were feathers and bloody chicken carcasses scattered around the yard. The rooster, escaped into the lower branches of a scraggly gum by the coop, crowed mournfully.
Petersen was barking and chasing a chicken that he'd half-mauled so it was running with its torn off head, held by one or two gory tendons, dragging a trail in the dust. The dog was well on its way to becoming wild. There was blood on his white bib, and he gave me barely a glance as I shouted his name.
Then under the crystalline blue of the shadowless pre-dawn, we saw something glinting, moving in the wheat field. Margaret, standing by me on the porch, pointed with Zebediah clutched in her hand, its horn piercing.
The glinting, shimmering as the sun licked it, made a twangy chimey music as it dashed through the wheat. It raised a dust haze as it ran, kicking the earth and crushing the heads to powder. It swung something into the air, a crooked stick, a scythe that caught the sun and arc on its blade.
It was Grandad. I could see tufts of his ashen hair through the wire cap on his head. He'd wrapped himself in baling wire and was hacking at the wheat with the scythe like some madly animate scarecrow. He'd leap and twang and chime and slash a mighty slash out of the dead dry wheat. In the gusts of powder, he looked like some emaciated Michelin Man, like the one on the paint peeling sign at Murray's Tire and Gas in Windorah.
He seemed to tire. I wasn't sure if he'd noticed us. He stuck the handle of the scythe into the earth and let go of it as he dropped to his knees, vanishing but for a gleam amongst the chest-high stalks. The scythe bent over him like some curious long-necked, silver-beaked bird, and as Grandad sobbed the wire jangled and twinged like tinny bells.
He grabbed handfuls of the cut wheat, its heads turned to dust under the pressure of his hands. He just sat there, suddenly still, the dust running through his clenched fingers and the sun gleaming on his armor of wire.
Margaret, tears wet on her face, suddenly ran forward. Blubbering, she prised open his hands, taking the bundles of straw from his fist and pressing Zebediah into them.
"Don't be sad because you had to shoot all the animals, Grandad," she said. And with her little hands she bent the thin sheafs of stalk around each other, so they looked a rough straw doll of a beast. "We can make more, like you made Zebediah, and they'll be even more pretty and their spirits will wander the fields of heaven with Zebediah."
Grandad's head sprang up all of a sudden, like he'd heard a shot. He stood, all ajangle and glowing silver in the risen sun, and said, "These fields forgotten. This earth has forsaken us, but that is the way of earthen things. I love you kids. Let's forget this earth and have a celebration." He put his silver twined arm around Margie, smiling as they emerged from the wheat, and we walked back to the house.
"Steven," said Grandad as we finished wolfing down the now-cold breakfast, "your father's black suit, the one he wore to Grandmother's -- bless her soul -- funeral, in the brown trunk, I think. Margaret, wear your mother's satin party dress. We'll rustle the best damn herd anyone's ever seen, and watch those duffers from the bank's faces when they come to auction off the beasts."
So I dressed in my father's black suit, which smelled of camphor, and Grandad found, rummaging in a box, Great Grandad's harness-racing silks, so over the top I wore a harlequin vest. Then Grandad tied a green-and-blue polka dot tie around the neck of my red shirt, and pinned his father's war medals on my chest.
Margie strolled out, beaming, in Mum's emerald satin party dress, too loose around her thin shoulders. So she tightened it up with sashes of silk around the waist, and a gold clasp that bunched up the baggy bosom, and draped herself in Mum's and her own jewelry so she glittered with chains of gold and brooches and pearls and rings, loose on her fingers.
Grandad strung his wires with the pull-tops of beer cans, brass washers, Christmas tree ornaments, bells, fridge magnets the shape of fruits and Disney characters and smiley faces, ribbons of aluminum foil, my old toy matchbox cars, keys, and other bright metallic and jangling odds and ends, and finally stuck our Christmas star in his cap.
Margaret put on her straw hat, and I donned my wide brimmed Akubra. Grandad pulled the brim so the hat sat at a jaunty angle and said, "Now we're ready." He took his camera and set the timer, so it trapped a photo of us together on the end of the porch, with the scattered bodies of chickens and Petersen leaping about behind us.
We pulled on our gumboots, and Margaret said, "We look positively livid!" I had to agree. We were dressed for the maddest Halloween costume party ever.
Then Grandad, with a jangle and a magician's flourish, held up the tractor keys.
"Mow the wheat field, Steven, my boy. Mow it all." He had never let me drive the tractor by myself alone before, though I'd driven it a few times when he'd been out in Windorah. I grabbed the keys and ran for the barn, waving my hat in the air and hollering.
"I want a good-sized stack, ya hear?" he shouted, then laughed.
I climbed into the cabin, adjusted the seat downward and forward, put in the key and pressed the starter. The engine kicked and I revved the engine so it spouted exhaust. I snapped on the stereo to a rock station, raised the harvester blades and roared out to the field.
I raised a hell of dust, both ocher red chaff and the brown of cracked earth, as I carelessly churned the wheat. The dust rose and drifted for kilometers, turning the sky to red. The tractor roared, I bellowed and the music blared. I was inscribing my bitterness, my anger, into the earth that I had loved and that was no longer mine.
When the field was reduced to stubble, carpeted in straw, I lowered the hay grader and reversed, inscribing a star from points to center, pushing the wheat into one enormous stack. The scythe, I realized, had been forgotten in my storm. Like the proverbial needle, it was lost in the depths.
Then I mowed the wild straggle that edged the field, the Paterson's curse. Mum had planted it when she'd kept an apiary, and I remembered the distinctive taste of the honey from those purple flowers. Mum had caught me, my fingers sticky, sucking the sweetness from them. But all she said was how the scrubby, purple flowered weed was also called Salvation Jane. Then she dipped her fingers in the jar too.
When the sun was middling in the sky and the dust clouds had mostly settled, Grandad and Margaret drove out in the Ford pick-up, a tangled jigsaw of wire jangling, teetering and towering in its bed.
Grandad waved a gleaming arm and I cut the tractor engine.
"Come on, Steven!"
"What do you think, Grandad?" I said with a nod toward the mountain of hay, edged with Paterson's purple tangles, that rose like some monstrous dusty bloom, as high as the house over the stubbled field.
"A veritable Himalaya, Steven my boy. An Ulluru of straw! The biggest mountain of hay in the world."
"It's absolutely livid!" said Margaret.
Grandad was excited. He was crazy excited. "We'll unload the pick-up and then have our picnic lunch."
He let down the tailgate and rolled a tar drum off the back of the Ford. Then we lashed some rope among the tangle of wire. We pulled at it, straining, and it rolled off with a flutter of petals like some enormous tumbleweed. It came to rest by the hay mountain.
The bottom of the pick-up's bed was deep in flowers -- irises, violets, chrysanthemums, marigolds, angel's trumpets, and posies. It was every last flower from Margaret's carefully tended garden. We shoveled them off and the perfume crashed out of them. They sat, a small brightly-colored hillock by the hay.
Margaret had spread a sumptuous picnic lunch out across a lurid quilt of patchwork paisley. While we feasted, Grandad spoke of the city, of dynamic ribbons and globe symbols. Of white noise and chaos. Of bleakness dressed in rainbows. Of how the city was a palace of mirrors, how the reversals of mirrors are lies. Of glass houses full of stone-throwers.
And we knew he was mad, but both Margie and I listened in rapture to this man of wire and leather whose raucous laughter shook his body and rang the midday with jangling and tinkling and twangs and chimes.
"And now to work!" And we stood, brushing the crumbs from our finery.
Grandad and I started untangling shapes from the tumble of wire, while Margie packed away the luncheon. We stood wire skeletons of cattle all around. With a long-handled brush, Grandad began ladling tar over the frames, and when he'd finish one, Margie and I would stick sheafs of the hay, tangled with Paterson's curse, to the beasts. Then Margaret stuck a red chrysanthemum to the end of each muzzle as a mouth, and violets as eyes, and tied stiff straw tails to their rears.
By three in the afternoon, a magnificent herd of fat straw beasts stood quiet on the sun-blasted pasture. Tufted with straw and spattered with tar, we looked like a trio of scarecrows.
That night, I dreamed I was soaring away from an unremitting turbulence.
At dawn I ran out to my tower for the last time. Below me, Grandad had taken his silver wire wrappings, my father's black suit, and mother's emerald dress, our fine costumes of yesterday with regalia, and made three scarecrows. They were curious shepherds overseeing the herd from the height of wooden crosses.
Fleshed in straw and thistle and Paterson's curse
Crimson-mouthed and violet-eyed
When the farm died
After the scorching months
We shot the herd
Took a thousand miles of baling wire
A thousand miles of rust-flaked baling wire
and tied a hundred head of cattle
and three fine horse
and three fancy farmers
They stood proud, our golden calves
Then the rains blew in
And scattered them
And they rotted in the sun
Shake a nativity under glass and snow falls. A wind blew, smelling fat with rain, and the beasts bristled against it. The dust raised and swirled. The shadows of our quivering beasts grew, and they seemed to move in fear, golden calves before some coming wrath.
A storm as black and immense as the onslaught of a winter's night swept over the horizon. I clambered down and ran back to the house. The rain came, slow at first, the heavy drops kicking up spurts of dust. Then a sudden hammering, scattering our beasts, tumbling them, stampeding them. The storm knocked them down, ate away their flesh of straw, plucked out their eyes and mouths. They floated away.
It thundered and flashed for only half an hour, We watched from the porch, distraught, this hell lit in lightening flashes. Then the sun came out, smeared over the slick earth. Quickly drying, glinting on the bent and tangled skeletons. Muddy clumps of straw began to ripen and rot.
Grandad seemed transformed to his usual taciturn self, but we knew he wasn't. He was hurting, as if cursed.
We took our cases and odds and ends and put them in the pick-up. Margie clutched Zebediah in her hands. Grandad had an old and browning family photo in his lap.
The last I saw of the farm as we drove for Windorah was a few lonely, bedraggled beasts of tattered straw and Paterson's curse, the scythe, glinting, somehow still planted in the earth, and we three fanciful scarecrows beside it.
Our flowered eyes were weeping; our flowered mouths were laughing.
A year or so later, in a southern suburb of Brisbane, in an ordinary life in which we walked to school rather than studying by relay satellite, Margaret wrote a poem that won a school competition, and was published in a local paper.
People asked me about the poem. Teachers, a journalist, Aunt May. What did Margaret mean by it?
So I wrote this story.
Steven Thorn (firstname.lastname@example.org) was born in Sydney, Australia in the mid-'60s, and grew up on the outskirts of New South Wales country towns, in industrial cities between sea and desert, on the streets of Sydney, and on many roads in between.
InterText stories written by Steven Thorn: "21st Century Dreamtime" (v5n2), "The Farm Story" (v5n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Steven Thorn.