Rae wishes she’d tried harder to leave with her parents. Hidden in the boot of the car. Screamed. Cried. Not that it would have made a difference.
Uncle Jim is in top form, pulling Rae in for a tight hug and measuring her ribs with his hands.
‘What a knockout you are now, hey? The boys will have to watch themselves around you.’ Jim is toothy and eager, his hand lingering on Rae’s arm as he speaks. The boys —her cousins, Sam and Craig—have run ahead, flicking each other’s exposed skin with green branches snapped from the mulberry tree.
‘Hide and seek!’ Sam is shouting.
‘Sure.’ Craig doesn’t even glance back at Rae. ‘Rae can be seeker.’
‘Count all the way to one hundred, Rae! No cheating!’ Sam looks at her until she nods, bowing out from Jim’s grip and closing her eyes. She has to fight not to open her eyes at first, staying self-consciously still. But then she feels Jim leave and Rae is alone, breathing in the stillness of the farm.
One. Two. Three.
For a second, Rae thinks about leaving them wherever they’ve hidden, finding a secret spot and just waiting out the time until her parents come to collect her. But then she feels the pang of being left out, always the strange quiet one who doesn’t know how to have fun.
‘Ready or not, here I come!’
She finds them, not well-hidden, in the shadows inside the cubby house. Sam and Craig are engrossed in something over in the corner beneath the window, which is scratched and made of dirty plastic. The roof is tin, like her cubby at home, but where Rae’s is a familiar landscape of books and cushions leftover from lazy afternoons, the boys’ hideout is strange angles and dark corners, the air inside musty and damp.
Craig is standing by the window, poking at something near the roof with his stick while Sam hangs slightly back, watching his older brother with wide-eyed admiration. As Rae’s eyes adjust to the light, she realises it’s a moth—Dasypodia selenophora, Rae knows from school—with a furry body the size of a mouse and black circles bleeding into the brown of its wings. Her heart thuds. She hates moths. Hates their agitated wingbeats and frenzied, darting movements. Hates not being able to predict where their wild flight will lead. She always seems to end up in their path, their fluttering, flapping bodies colliding with her face, her hair, pulling her heartbeat in sync with their addled staccato.
Rae closes her eyes and breathes. She tries to look casual as she turns towards the door and fresh air, hoping Carol will leave her alone if she sneaks into the house to read. But while she’s been standing there, Craig has snuck around her, dragging Sam with him. Rae steps towards them, but they’re out, giggling, slamming the door shut in her face. She slams into the door with her shoulder, not caring about being laughed at as she gains an inch of freedom. But a renewed effort from the boys pushes her back, and the click of the bolt locks her in.
Rae forces herself to breathe, trying to ignore the wild, muted flapping of the moth’s wings as it throws itself against the plastic window. She presses her ear softly against the door, hoping they’re listening, and will be disappointed by her silence, bored with teasing her. Hoping they’ll let her out. She can hear the shuffling of their feet, and the sound of their sticks against the wooden balcony rail.
‘Ow!’ Sam’s voice comes to her, petulant.
‘What did you do?’
‘I cut my finger in the lock.’
‘Shit, Sammy. That’s a lot of blood. Better not let Mum see you’ve torn that jumper. She’ll flog you.’
‘I didn’t mean to.’ Sam’s voice wavers, rising.
‘C’mon. I’ll get you a Band-Aid or something. You don’t want to show Mum, do you? She might stitch it up with a needle.’
‘She won’t. Will she?’
‘Maybe. That’s what they do with cuts you know.’
‘Yeah. It’s okay but. We won’t show Mum. I’ll sort it.’
Their voices recede as they walk away. Rae tries the handle but they’ve locked it from the outside. Rae almost holds her breath, hoping they’ll remember her and hoping they won’t, but soon she can’t hear them and time starts passing again. Rae doesn’t wear a watch—always breaks them, wasted on her, her dad says—so she doesn’t know how long. She tries to count but stops when she gets to three hundred and sixty eight, although the seconds keep marching through her head.
There’s more junk piled along the back wall than she’d thought. Boxes. A hanging net stuffed with faded plush animals. An upright cane laundry basket filled with plastic ninja swords, broken Nerf guns and an old wooden cricket bat covered in red pockmarks. No books.
Rae sits on the floor against the wall farthest from the window and the moth. She could kill it, probably. She sits and pulls her knees up to her chest and makes a game of folding the cuffs of her jeans up in tiny increments, then pulling them out again, until the fabric is creased into a zigzag pattern.
She stares at the moth for so long her eyes hurt. Its large teardrop body is a clumsy interruption between two silken wings beating a pulse through the air. The unpredictability of its flight is unnerving. As the light fades outside the window, the moth takes larger circles, swooping out into the cubby before returning to slam against the plastic. Its movements make her feel carsick. She scratches her knee and, as if drawn to the noise, the moth hurtles down and lands on the top of her thigh. At the feel of its body scrabbling against her leg, Rae panics, slamming a cupped hand over it. The wings beat wild against the flesh of her palm. She concentrates on her breathing. Counting in, and out, trying to separate the pounding of her heart from the fluttering against her fingers.
She calms, finally, and the wing-beats slow. Rae feels a sense of power, as though she is somehow in control of both her own breath and the movement of the moth’s wings. She slides her other hand underneath the furry body, feeling the hair-thin legs trying to get purchase on her skin. She brings it up to her face.
She whispers through cracks in her fingers, feeling the air pushing through. I could kill you. Crush you. Her hands tremble. But I wouldn’t. She opens the clamshell of her palms, releasing the moth. It seems clumsier and she wonders if she’s hurt it anyway. She’s heard that contact with human skin damages butterfly wings. Is it the same for moths? Her hands feel dusty and she brushes them off on her jeans, hoping the moth won’t die.
Eventually she’ll have to shout. Her aunt, Carol, won’t be happy if she has to come looking when dinner’s ready. Carol is tall, with leathery country skin and a pinched mouth. Rae has never seen Jim or the boys hug her, although she’s seen Carol hit Craig with a slipper and another time, when he told her to mind her own damn business, Carol shoved a whole bar of dripping wet laundry soap into his mouth.
Her legs ache and there’s a low pull in her belly. When she moves, Rae feels the sticky shift of blood between her legs. She stops short, holds her breath. She’s had her period once. The first time, she’d used up an old packet of pads she’d found stuffed at the back of the bathroom cabinet at home. They had been thick and the glue had worn off the back, so Rae spent five days changing them nervously between each of her classes, anxious they were going to fall out, leak, or smell. She’d meant to ask, or just go to the chemist before it happened again, but then worried her friends would laugh at her for not knowing. And then she had thought, perhaps, that she’d have more time. But it has been exactly four weeks. She should have known.
Now she doesn’t want to move at all, as if sitting still will hold everything in. She’ll wait. Face Carol, if it means she doesn’t have to deal with the boys.
It is dark by the time Carol comes.
The moth is still there, swooping the shadows in large circles, making an occasional fluttery thud against one of the boxes. Now that Rae has felt the softness of its wings against her hands, she finds comfort in its nearness. Her heart beats in time. They are together, muted by the thick silence of the dark, out of the time and business of the house. They search together for a warm glow, spiralling up.
The stickiness of Rae’s jeans brings her back into her body, where her muscles ache from the strain of staying still. The darkness of the denim offers some reassurance, but she knows there will be a stain on the floor when she stands and questions about where it came from.
The lock rattles and Carol swings the door open. There is enough light that Rae can see her pinched lips.
‘What are you doing on the floor? Why didn’t you call out?’
‘I thought everyone had gone.’
‘Of course we hadn’t gone. You should’ve called. Stand up, the boys were only playing, there’s no need to mope in here.’
‘I think I got my period.’ Rae feels her face flush. She can’t help turning her head to look at the floor; Carol’s gaze follows her. When she sees the mark, which isn’t as big as Rae expected, Carol lets out a sharp breath.
‘Rae. Weren’t you wearing anything? Why did you stay in here if you knew?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t want to bother anyone.’
‘Well. You’ll have to learn to sort it out, won’t you? Is it your first?’
‘Well. That’s something. Look. Go inside, I’ll sort this out before the boys come back. There are tampons in the bathroom.’ Carol pauses. ‘They’ll have to do. Make sure you put those jeans in a bucket or they’ll stain.’
Rae imagines Carol going to get the hose to wash the floor and her heart beats faster when she thinks Jim might see, might ask what’s happening.
‘No? What do you mean, no?’ The trace of understanding in Carol’s voice has flattened out. She is hard edges again. ‘Rae. Stop acting like a child. You need to clean yourself up.’
‘I will.’ Rae is aware of the fluttering behind her. She’s surprised at how loud her voice sounds. ‘I’ll clean up in here and then get changed.’
‘Alright then. You’ve always been a bossy one.’ Carol turns back to the door. She stops on the balcony, looking back into the cubby and the sunset softens the shape of her. ‘You know, I never envied your mum. A girl. I wouldn’t have known what to do with you. And you’d have been no good here on the farm, would you? Not cut out for it.’
Carol pauses. When Rae doesn’t speak, she says ‘It’s awkward, that first time. God, I mean, Mum would have died if I’d ever asked her. It’s not easy.’
Rae waits for her to say more, unwilling to speak into the strange softness of this moment. But Carol is done and turns to walk back towards the house without looking back.
By the time Rae has scrubbed the floor clean, the shadows stretch all the way across the floor. She can’t see the corners anymore, can’t make out the shape of the moth, but can hear it still. She takes a torch from the shed and walks back to where she can hear it, quiet and rhythmic. When she turns the torch on it becomes wild again, but she holds the beam still until its circles steady.
Rae steps down the cubby steps and out into the silence of the paddock. She walks slowly, as a small cluster of bugs collects around the moth in the beam of light from the torch. In the shed, she puts the torch on the highest shelf she can reach, leaving the beam pointing up to the ceiling and feeling some satisfaction at the thought of its flat batteries in the morning. Then Rae steps back out into the dark, the moth swooping behind her in free, lazy circles.