These things remain
In this place the dust never settles.
It dirties the sun at dawn and colours the dusk blood-red. It clothes the wind. Breezes lift gravel and spray it onto bare skin. It is everywhere, rests on everything.
Before the land was desert, it was water. An inland sea. In its rocks the long, curved bones of swimming creatures. A bed of shells welded to the underside of an outcrop that juts over sandy plains. A spring bubbling up to a rippling, murky surface.
These things remain.
Longer than the memory of humankind.
An expanse greater than grief.
In such a place, so much easily lost. Precious, that which is found.
Later she will lie on the bank of the spring and understand how the desert remembers what it once was.
Blacks and king browns
They are four days in, parched and delirious with the heat, the flies landing thickly on their eyelids and lips, when Charlie Quinn has a vision. It is not the kind of vision that strikes like lightning or revelation. It starts as a dull headache. Gradually, from the corners of his mind, it is a landscape that takes shape. A place he will make his home. The edges are blurred but he can feel it better than he can see it.
In is inland. In from the coast, in towards the barest raw country he has seen.
It has been just the two of them for a day and a half now; the track has emptied of other wagons and bullock carts. Charlie is driving the tilted cart, the reins loose in his hands, the horses too dehydrated to contemplate flight. Molly is asleep next to him, her head resting on his lap, her cheeks flushed pink. Her expression is somewhere between annoyance and resignation, a reflection, he guesses, of some hot, irritated dream.
Ahead of him are the open acres of the plains. What the coastal settlers call The Bush.
From this land he and Molly are to shape their existence. It’s not his, not yet. They’ve been allocated thirty thousand acres of a station to work for the landowner. Run his cattle, fence and manage a lonely, unkempt corner of the property. It wasn’t a great offer but at the time they had taken what they could get. He has only a vague idea of what is out there. He’s heard stories of the droughts and the floods, but in Charlie’s vision dry plains become fields rich with green grass and wildflowers, cattle grow plump and round, Molly is laughing, a horde of his children clinging to her skirts.
The wheels of the wagon crush thorny silver bushes and the horses swish their tails at the flies landing on their flanks. His teeth grind the dirt in his mouth and he can taste his own sweat. At this moment, his wife asleep on his lap, in the silence of the land around him, Charlie is flushed with optimism. He resolves to flourish.
When she wakes he tells her about the world he will shape for them and she smiles and pats him on the hand.
“I feel dizzy,” she says.
“It’s just the heat,” he replies.
The track so far has been carved out by the drays, the main route wide enough to take four bullock carts alongside each other, the smaller tracks still being rutted out by every wheel that rolls over them. The bush around the main route is sparse, cut down for campfires or burnt out by the traders and drovers so that there is little cover for bushrangers or blackfellas.
“It’s lovely, eh Mol?” Charlie says, “lovely wide open”.
On the fifth day, they stop late in the afternoon at a watering hole to rest the horses and replenish their canisters. Other coaches are already there. A red mail coach with heavy iron bolts on its doors, a wagon chained up carrying a load of wooden sleepers. Horses rest in the shade, noses together, swatting flies with their tails. Two men are propped up against the wheels dozing, a man washing his face, a woman walking around with a baby tucked up in a blanket across her chest.
The watering hole is murky, thick with reeds, dark-brown. They fill their cannisters and Molly drinks all of hers in one go, swallowing down the tinny aftertaste.
The man washing his face stands up and shakes the wet from his hair. “Where to?” He asks Charlie but he is eyeing Molly. She moves to the inside of the cart, listens from there.
“Tirrabella,” answers Charlie.
“Tirra what? Don’t know it.”
“It’s west,” says Charlie, “in from the Kaufmann place.”
The man raises his eyebrows. “That’s a journey mate. That’s rough land, that is. Middle of bloody nowhere. I know a bloke has a property out that way, three days in. Keeps losing his jackaroos. All just blacks and king browns out there he reckons.”
On the road, Charlie keeps his shotgun next to him as he drives. Before they left the coast, Charlie had given Molly a shooting lesson, lined up big sandy clumps of earth on the tops of paddock fences. She missed all of them except one and had squealed when it exploded and Charlie kissed her and said “that’s the way!”. Charlie secretly hoped then that neither of them would ever have to use the gun for anything more than shooting game.
For several more days they travel with the traders’ wagons and camp near them at night fall. By dawn Charlie has the horses buckled up to the coach. The pace is slow, fallen trees have to be moved, they are frequently bogged in the sticky mud of creek beds, or forced to roll slowly over the bumpy tracks so as not to damage a wheel. Molly tries to sleep during the day, slumped over a sack of material her mother has packed for them. She wakes in the twilight, to the sound of Charlie whistling as he builds the campfire. The nights they camp alone they spread the material out in the back of the wagon and make love, the wagon rolling back and forwards between its blocks. The noises they make seem louder and cruder in the silence of the bush.
“Least we’ll scare off the dingoes,” Charlie jokes and Molly laughs until she has tears in her eyes. Afterwards, they lie naked, sleep lightly with their arms resting on each other, until the mosquitoes get too much for them.
In her sweaty afternoon sleep, Molly dreams about home, the old boarding house near the headland. Once, when she wakes, she thinks she catches the scent of sea spray on the wind, though she knows they are too far inland.
On the window sill in the room she shared with her six sisters, Molly had lined up bottles that she had found on the shore. She filled each one with sea water so that when the morning sun shone through them they patterned the wall and made the whole room look as if it were underwater. After the chores had been done each morning, she would spend the afternoon in the rock pools, snatch at the small fish with her fingers and scoop shellfish from nooks, which she carried back to the boarding house in her skirt, for her mother to cook up for the boarders. Under her bed she hid her treasure chest, containing some of the things she had found on the shore. Four large coconuts, wooden splinters of varying colours and sizes, a note she’d retrieved from inside one of the bottles (S.O.S. Mary Jane) and a rusted locket with a piece of auburn hair inside it.
When she was fifteen, she discovered a body, a man, swollen fat and blue, face-down in the sand. She walked around it, prodding it with a stick, lifting the limp wet hair from the back of the neck. A shoe was hanging off one foot, still neatly laced. It looked wrong, he looked like somebody’s lost child. She finally found the courage to undo the shoe, tossed it into the ocean. Only then did she return to the house to tell her mother, who summoned a policeman to the shore, along with everyone from around the bay. Nobody knew who he was. Shipwreck, the policeman concluded. He carted the body straight to the graveyard, over the back of a horse. Molly stayed until everyone had left, and the imprint of the body had been washed away by high tide, the shore left again to its own watery repetitions.
New Gold Mountain
Three words are sung over and over in the hull of the ship, where the men sleep and dream. Xin Jin Shan. Xin Jin Shan. Xin Jin Shan.
New Gold Mountain.
It becomes a hum in the background of the living quarters. It sounds as restless and potent and consistent as the slap of the ocean on the side of the ship.
In darkness, a boy sits with his chin resting on his knees, on his father’s bunk. He has been sent down from the deck by the captain, his morning of fresh air for the week over. It is storming. The sea billows and flattens, opening and closing like a snapping jaw. The hull is overripe and rotten with bilge water and opium smoke. Men are packed into every crevice, groaning, snoring, vomiting, swearing. All of them are tense and anxious. They play mah-jongg to force the afternoons to turn to night before they notice. The winners sleep on their small bounties, though nobody steals – it’s easier to win it back the next afternoon, and no man has any fortune worth the trouble.
The boy waits for the storm to pass by scratching his name into the side of the ship with the small knife his mother gave him to take to the digging fields. Lok. Son of Ah Leung. For good measure, he adds from Kuantang. He lies back on the bunk and tries to imagine the New Gold Mountain. He pictures it rising high and glistening from amidst a forest, with white cranes swooping around its base, the tip of the mountain disappearing into cloud. He falls into sweaty sleep, and dreams that the ship is pulling into a harbour and he can see the mountain in the distance. In this dream, water bursts through the plank where he carved his name and he starts to drown.
On the ship there are days that seem to have no end. They are bleak and wider than the ocean. Lok does not know how to fill the emptiness of these days. There is only one other boy on the ship. On the second day at sea Lok asks him his name, but he doesn’t answer.
“His name is Lei. I am Chow Fatt,” says the man sitting next
to him. He cuffs the boy on the ear and eyes Lok.
“How old are you boy?”
“Seven. Lei is ten.” He turns back to his son.
“Even at seven this boy is braver than you!” he shouts at him. The men in surrounding bunks pretend to sleep.
Lei spends his days crying softly into his blanket. Lok hears him whisper conspiracies to his absent mother and somebody called Chin. When the first dolphins appear sleek and jovial at the bow of the ship, Lok runs to fetch Lei, to bring him to the surface. But the boy clutches at his father’s bunk and whines. From then on, Lok leaves him alone.
Night and day dissolve into long dark weeks. One morning a week the cargo are allowed up for fresh air. The men walk in a circle to stretch their legs or hang limp over the rails looking into the water. The crew stand with knives in hand. There are risks on a journey like this. Mutiny and madness. It is better than some of the ships that they have heard about. In the hull, rumours flourish, stories of men forced to stay in their bunks for entire months, leashed like animals by their necks or hands.
The only sunlight into the hull streaks in through the deck flap above, once a day, when the bucket is hoisted up overflowing with faeces, emptied, lowered down again.
In the brief mornings of daylight on the deck, Lok hangs over the edge and tries to gauge the depth of the ocean. Dark shapes slide beneath the ship, every now and then flesh glistens above the water, smooth and gunmetal silver. Fish spring out of the water as if catapulted, land again in white spray and disappear. The winds whip sand and salt into the crevices of their clothing. The crew capture great white and grey seabirds by throwing blocks of wood tied to string from the back of the ship and breaking their wings. The birds are unlike any other that Lok has seen, huge beaks and round, staring eyes. When they are caught they screech like old women. The crew bind their wings and tie their feet. Lok crouches next to one of the bound birds and sees a tear fall from its black-rimmed eye. He has a nightmare about this later.
“Birds don’t cry,” his father tells him when he wakes sniffling.
They sleep sporadically. Lok asks his father to tell him stories about the old Gold Mountain, the land of America, and about New Gold Mountain, the land to which they are headed. Ah Leung tells him about how men have picked up a lifetime’s riches from where it was lying on the ground.
“The New Gold Mountain is even better than Gold Mountain,” he says, “It will be just like farming.” Ah Leung laughs and in the sound of his laughter Lok forgets about drowning and crying birds and imagines fields with strips of gold sprouting from the water like reeds. Lok asks Ah Leung when they will return to China.
“When we are wealthy,” his father replies.
“How long will that take?”
“Not long,” says Ah Leung, “There is enough for everyone,
that is what is being said.”
“Who else is there? Who is everyone?”
“Sleep now,” says Ah Leung.
“Tell me a story.”
Ah Leung squeezes his eyes shut and sighs.
“Only if you will sleep afterwards. Not another word.”
“I will,” promises Lok. Ah Leung whispers to Lok the story of the two brothers, Work All The Time and Rich All The Time.
Work All The Time is poor but has a generous heart. He is overheard grieving and moaning about his poverty at his parents” tomb by two enormous crows, who take pity on him and tell him to return the next day with a sack. When he returns, they tell him to climb on their backs and they fly all day to a distant shore that is covered in jewels and gold. He collects all he can in his sack. “Hurry,” the birds tell him, “we must return before sunrise or we will all be in trouble, the sun is too hot here”. Work All The Time climbs on the birds’ backs and they take him home, where he spends his money on himself and his neighbours, and prospers. His brother, Rich All The Time, is a greedy, selfish man who has made money by keeping it all to himself and swindling others in business. He hears of his brother’s wealth and asks him how he got it. Work All The Time tells him about the kindness of the birds. The next day, Rich All The Time goes to his parents’ tomb and pretends to weep. The birds overhear him and they take pity on him and ask him to return the next day.
Rich All The Time returns with five sacks, and climbs on the birds’ backs, and they fly all day to the jewelled coast. Just before sunrise they tell him that they must leave, or they will all perish. “Nonsense,” says Rich All The Time, “There’s plenty of time”. The birds are nervous and the sun begins to rise. Soon, it is scorching Rich All The Time, but he is so busy filling his sacks he doesn’t notice at first. When he does, it is too late, he is on fire, and soon he is no more than a gooey mess on the beach. The birds, though hot, can still fly, but they are tempted to feast on the warm meat that was once Rich All The Time, so they stay. Soon, too, their feathers burst into flame and they die. And that is why it is said that people die of gold, whereas birds, of food.
“So we won’t stay at the New Gold Mountain too long?” asks Lok, after a minute.
“Just long enough,” replies Ah Leung, “sleep.”
Lok shuts his eyes but stays awake, listening to the conversations of the other passengers, talk of their villages, of brothers fighting in the rebellion, the women they have left behind, stories blended together with blood and smut and sorrow. He hears Chow Fatt’s loud snoring and in between each exhalation, his son’s wet sniffling.
A sound like wood snapping
None of the men want to touch the body. It has been lying in its bunk for four days. The stench of death is growing musky and thick in the hull. The men are allowed to sleep on the deck. The sailors complain. It is bad luck, it will bring storms and rough seas, his ghost will travel with us, he will curse us unless we give him a proper burial. He is the third man to die. The week before he died, he cried until the skin under his eyes flaked into scales. He, like the others, died with disbelief lodged in his throat, his face aghast.
Finally, the sailors lever him off his bunk with shovels, and roll him onto a piece of brown cloth and wrap him in it. The captain pins holy papers to the cloth. The men all turn away as the body is hoisted over the side of ship. When they hear the splash, the group disperses. Lok wonders how the man will find his way back to his family, or whether his spirit will be able to cross the oceans, when all he had known all his life were Pearl River estuaries.
In the dank space of their quarters, the men grow ill with boredom. Some nights there is music, card games. Other nights there are scuffles, men punching and kicking each other, the crowd around them urging them on, everything entertainment. Oxygen is sparse and the fights end with even the spectators breathless and exhausted. There are nights of silence, every man in his bunk still and contemplative, the sick ones groaning softly.
The ship makes its own noises, grunts, creaks, whistles, a sound like wood snapping. Every one of them sounds like a threat to Lok and he puts his fingers in his ears so that he can sleep.
Five men die in the second month. The first three watch their own flesh turn green and putrid. Scream out in horror in the few moments of understanding. The rest of the time they sleep, whisper and paddle their way through dreams the colour and smell and texture of sour milk. They rot away almost overnight, are thrown overboard. The other two, as soon as they discolour, are hoisted into the water while they are unconscious, breathing sick shallow breaths. Neither makes a sound above the splash of their bodies hitting the water. The other passengers, desperate for room and more air in the hull, don’t protest.
It is a test, Ah Leung tells Lok, only the strong are meant to survive the journey because it may be hard work finding their fortunes. Men who have the will to conquer this journey will surely get what they deserve. Lok finds his strength in daydreams, pictures returning to the village, handing his mother a sackful of gold, her grateful tears. This image, for 106 days, until it is as clear as a painting on the inside of his head.