Orphans

Short Story by H.C. Gildfind

Orphans

Afternoon. A mist of not-quite-rain. Stacking wood by the side of the shack. River Gum, bought in to mix with the bush wood. Admire its deep desert-red, its dense solidity, its promise that winter has its comforts too: this is the only wood that knows how to burn hot and slow and all the way through to the morning.

Hear something far off. Stop stacking. Hear a car slowing. A car, turning.

Listen. It comes closer. Why? This is a dead-end road.

Soon, an ancient station wagon appears, squat and dark and eighties-huge, a rash of sun-blistered lesions spreading across its black paint. On it comes, like a barge, like a tank, heavy and slow, rolling up and down and side to side on the gravel waves of the water-rutted lane. Two pale faces hover in the front seats. Closer, closer.

Relief: a woman, as well as a man.

Step towards them. Meet them halfway up the drive. The car stops. Slow fumblings behind the mist-smirred screen. Doors wooze open. Each blurred white disc of face looks down as legs are swung out of the bucket seats. Feet hit the ground. A flutter of hands clutching at door frames. Heavy bodies heave up and out. Two middle-aged people.

Hello, he says, with an odd, unsteady nod. Thrusts out his clammy white hand.

Shake it.

She moves more slowly, using the car to pull herself along till she can sit back on the bonnet, propping herself up. Notice: one of her shoes has a sole as thick as a brick. Try not to stare. Look at her smiling face. Look at her fat-freckled hands. She waves one in a shy, girlish way, then tucks both hands under her armpits. Their car must be warm inside: she only wears short sleeves and a long loose skirt over bare legs. She is floral and floaty from head to foot. He is also summer dressed in shorts. His calves are huge and red-raw. A flap of belly hangs over his waistband, untucked like his plaid shirt and baggy brown jumper.

Just came for a look, she says. Hope you don’t mind, she says. We drive out here sometimes, for a look around. Beautiful out here. Been coming out here for years and years.

They begin to talk about the years and years they’ve been coming out here. The forest. The farms. The waterfalls they’ve found. The walks they used to do. The old mill they stumbled across, once. The bull that chased them through a field, once. The ankle that twisted, once. On they talk. Once, and then once, and then once.

There’s a lull in their talking.

Then, they begin to ask questions. About the shack and the red gum and the scrappy bush wood and the mud and the trees and the constant bloody rain. Another lull, and then more questions, about insulation, heating, mould, leaks, animals, bugs, bushfires, hospitals, supermarkets and the people ‘out here’. They seem genuinely interested. They umm and ahh and look all around, blinking and blinking, as if the heavy mist is bothering their lashes.

Suddenly, a yowl from inside the shack. The front door shudders. A breath-held frozen silence. And again, thumping, a howling growl, the scrabbling of claws—the fury of a dog trying to run up a wall, rudely awoken from fire-lit snoozing, rudely reminded by the voices of strangers of her one and only duty.

The man and woman look terrified.

Reassure them that the monster is locked up, that she’s just putting on a show, that she’s friendly.

Are you sure? the stricken woman asks, looking sick. You sure it can’t get out? (Choose to ignore her othering ‘it’.) She goes on, in a shaky voice, to explain how, when she was five, she was mauled by her neighbour’s dog. That was a ‘friendly’ dog too, she says. It was nondescript, she says. Just a normal looking dog. I’ve been terrified ever since, she says. I can’t help it, she says. I’m sorry, she says, I’m sorry—I just can’t help it.

Assure her that she’s safe.

Ok, she says, doubtfully. Thank you, she says.

Now, he must explain his fear. He says, Dogs never used to bother me, till I saw what they did to my Nancy. (‘My’ Nancy. Here it is. The clue. They must be a couple. And yet… They have the same short squat bodies. The same grey eyes and big-pored, bulbous-nosed Celtic faces. The same shy way of talking. The same expressions moving across their same-shaped faces.) He describes how, every day, he sees what the dog did to her. He describes how, every day, the scars which patchwork her back (the scars that he—and not she—has to see) remind him how once, long ago, a dog peeled the baby-soft skin of her shoulder clean from its blade, peeled it right off so it flapped like the crimson-lined wing of a butterfly. A momentary silence. Surprise, at this strange poetry fluttering from a man’s wet lips into the not-quite-mist. Shock, at this unwanted gift, this unforgettable image: a screaming child with flapping wings of skin.

I was in hospital for weeks, she says. Because I smacked my head on the curb when it attacked me. Smack! she repeats, clapping her hands. I’ve steel plates screwed into my head and scars everywhere, she says, all because of one dog.

She stops leaning against the car. Stands. Winces. Inhales sharply. He moves towards her, automatically, his hand out. Automatically, she takes it and leans into him. She hitches and unhitches her hip. Shifts about her strange-soled feet. Wiggles herself into a comfier place. Props herself back against the car. Slowly, he returns to the driver’s side.

We’re both on a pension, he says. Her for her body, and me for my brain, he says. Ha! Both of them, suddenly, look embarrassed. Has he said too much? Said too much to someone who has not, and will not, say a single unprompted word?

They stumble back to their original talk. Oh, the years they’ve spent weekends driving out here! And all around! Their talk putters out again. Then he says, Was a while we couldn’t come out at all. Couldn’t do much when mum was poorly. Silence. The two of them heave with one sigh. Then she turns and pulls herself along the side of the car, her free hand waving, gesturing to be followed. She opens the back door and says, There she is. We take her out. Just like we used to. Spend days driving and talking. Just like we used to—all three of us.

No choice, now, but to move past the man and stand by the woman who is holding open the rear door. No choice, now, but to duck down and look into the gloomy watery depths at the back of the car. No choice but to nod and smile at the large framed photo propped up in the middle of the back seat: a sweet-faced old lady in a fuzzy peach jumper and enormous gold-framed glasses.

Horror begins to thrum deep—deep inside.

Withdraw from the stuffy warmth of the car. Step right back.

Watch the woman lug the door closed, then pull herself along to the front of the car—the man assisting as she passes him. Watch her hitch and unhitch herself, then lean back on the bonnet again. She says, We just miss her, you know. It was always us three. Just us three, for decades—forever.

Quiet, then. Something has shifted—within and without. They must sense it too, because they are suddenly saying thank you and goodbye. They are heaving themselves back into their bucket seats. They are thudding doors shut. He is slowly, awkwardly, turning the huge old car around. He is driving them away.

Wait. Wait till they are out of sight and ear. Let their growing distance unravel the horror they’ve woven into this place. Try, immediately, to unthread it—to forget the image of a girl-child butterflied by the jaws of a dog. Try, immediately, to mute the question: whose mother was that, enshrined in the back of their car?

Get moving, in the hope that the mind will move too. Tiptoe to the quiet shack. Open the door. The dog—it; she—lies on her side, on her rug, in front of the fire. She looks up, soggy-jowled, her limbs rag-dolled by sleep. She thumps her tail on the floor but doesn’t make to rise: she’s done her duty for the day. Close the door. Let her be. Return to the wet red wood.

Keep stacking it. Focus on it. Do not picture them, all the strange and sad people that appear and disappear out here, looking for answers, looking for escape, chasing—being chased by—ghosts. Do not wonder what their lives have been, or are, or will be. Do not imagine them. Do not glance—not even sidelong—at the truths they tell about the nature of things.

Instead, stack the wall of wood. Even when the rain finally starts, stack the wall of wood. Focus on the clean solid purpose of this chore, this need: to build a fortress—this dead forest—against the freeze of winter.

About the Author

H.C. Gildfind

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H.C. Gildfind is the author of the short fiction collection The Worry Front (Margaret River Press) and the prize-winning novella Born Sleeping (Miami University Press, upcoming 2021).