Elias Greig on ecofascism and the settler invasion fantasy, Natalia Figueroa Barroso on Charrua language and colonisation, the winners of the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize and Judith Wright Poetry Prize, new poetry and fiction from Angela Costi, Liam Ferney, Michael Farrell, Ouyang Yu, Tim Loveday and more.
OVERLAND 188 spring 2007
ISBN 978-0-9775171-5-2published 20 September 2007
CHILDREN OF THE DIRT
Ignoring looks from the men at the bar, I sat on a red vinyl covered stool and waited for work.
Any kind of shit job would do, preferably one that involved using a gun.
The door squeaked on its hinges and everyone in the bar, all five of us, stopped what we were doing to see who would blow in.
She filled the door frame, wisps of white grey hair brushing the lintel above her head, arms touching either side of the door frame. Behind her a smaller man followed, still taller than me, but diminutive in comparison to her bulk. The broad planes of his cheeks told me he had old blood, and the sensor clipped to the pocket on his shirt marked him as a Sniffer.
“Two beers,” the woman called out and a buzz of talk started up again.
“Locals?” I asked the barman next time he passed.
“Dirt farmers,” he said and spat. “Got blown onto Murphy Lawton’s farm about three months back. They’ve turned around a crop and Lawton’s hoping they move on. Taking up some of his best pasture they are. Ruining him.”
I doubted it. There were rules to stop that kind of thing. More likely Lawton was privately thanking the gods for the rent they were paying while publicly cursing them to hell.
She drank her beer in thirsty gulps, finishing it before the Sniffer was halfway through his and ordering another. She seemed content to sit on the second one, unworried by the eyes watching them.
I caught the woman’s eye and stood, letting my jacket fall back to show my tools.
“What’s a decent Gun doing without a contract at this time of year?” she asked.
“Just unlucky I guess.”
She leaned back, assessing. “Are you any good?”
“I’m not dead yet.”
She nodded at that. “I’ll give you base contract, bonus for each crop and every time we move the farm.”
With spring just around the corner I wasn’t going to get any better offers. I held out my hand. “Carol Stanton.”
“Edith James, Edi to my friends, and Art Mugamba.”
The Sniffer held out his hand which, after a pause, I took in mine.
“You don’t like Sniffers?” Edi said. “I won’t have prejudice on my farm.”
“I’m fine with Sniffers so long as they do their job.”
Art smiled, revealing a line of white teeth against his dark skin.
“Have you got transport?” Edi asked.
I nodded. “The trail bike out the front is mine.”
“You can follow us back.” Edi downed the remainder of her beer and headed for the door.
I followed their truck, my farm bike skidding on the tarmac road. The last remaining piece of my inheritance.
Their set-up was about thirty kilometres out the other side of town. It wasn’t large. Three old vans plus the one Edi had driven to town, all with side and front blowers and about twenty netted acres, heads of broccoli sticking out at regular intervals. A few hens scratched around the vehicles and a goat was staked under a nearby tree. Dilapidation hung over the spread like a haze.
“You can’t afford me,” I said to Edi. “Even on base.”
She cackled at that. “Think you’re so good, smell this.” She bent, pushing aside the edge of a netting cover and lifted a large handful of dirt, holding it under my nose. Fresh earth filled my nostrils. “Eighty per cent Murrumbidgee topsoil and twenty per cent homemade.”
I whistled. Truth be told they weren’t paying me enough. Dirt that good meant high yield crops, two or three of them a season. Once the winds blew and the farm started moving, all the claim hoppers would be after us. Moving closer, I inspected the blowers, climbing up above the oversize tyres to get a look at the machinery.
“German import,” I commented
“The best,” Edi agreed.
A young couple came out of the middle van, Edi waved a hand at them. “My son Steve, his wife Mel.”
I opened my mouth to say hello but Edi was already moving on, pushing me past Mel’s pregnant belly and Steve’s amiable, gangling form and in the direction of the third van.
“You can set up in here.” She climbed up the side steps and flung open a door revealing a narrow room, bunk beds on one side, sink on the other, all tucked in behind the blower. “We eat together and everything organic goes through the converter and back into the farm. Two watches a night, we all take turns, except Mel here who can’t keep her legs together.”
I winced apologetically in Mel’s direction. She didn’t respond, but Steve caught my glance and winked.
“Can you cook?” Edi asked.
“Sorry, I was at target practice when God was handing out home skills.” I smiled to soften the words.
“You and Art can share dish-pig duties then. Get yourself settled, dinner in an hour.” And Edi was gone, issuing a stream of orders to Art and Steve as she went.
I grabbed my tank bag and panniers off the bike and dropped them on the cabin floor before settling myself on the step of the van to take in the view.
A breeze sprang up, setting the wind chimes strung between vans tinkling. Art came out and stood, facing into the breeze, hand on his sensor, body rigid. After a moment he relaxed.
“What’s the forecast?” I called out.
“There’s a southerly due in tonight.”
“The crop looks ready for harvest.”
Art gave me a toothy grin, “Why do you think Edi was so keen to get you on board? Gun or not, you’re an extra pair of hands.”
Mel came out of her van and faced into the breeze, eyes closed, sucking in the fresh air.
“When are you due?” I asked.
She jumped. “Two months to go,” she said and scurried away.
“What brings you this way?” Steve asked over dinner.
“Didn’t your mother teach you not to talk with your mouth full?” I don’t like people asking questions.
Edi laughed. “Hoity toity!”
I lifted another forkful of food to my mouth.
Edi gripped my arm, stopping the fork mid-air. “Answer the boy.”
“I shot my last Sniffer. Are we done now?”
I met her gaze.
Art broke the silence,. “Looks like I’ll have to watch my table manners then.”
“A Gun is easier to replace than a good Sniffer,” Edi commented quietly.
“I never said he was a good Sniffer.”
“Well that makes it alright then.” Art smiled at me, his face lighting up in the glow of the hurricane lantern. “Seconds anyone?”
I took the seconds on offer and kept my expression neutral, knowing they were all watching me, judging. Everyone continued eating, conversation moving on.
I let their talk flow around me, not joining in.
I don’t make friends.
“I’ll take second watch,” I offered as soon as I finished eating, barely waiting for Edi’s nod before I excused myself.
“Wait, you’ll need these.” Edi pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Our plans for the next big blow, due in a week to ten days. Memorise them, then keep them in the driver’s cab.”
I set my alarm and lay fully dressed on the lower bunk. Outside a screen door slammed and Steve called out, Mel’s quieter voice responding.
I was still lying that way four hours later, the chimes tinkling outside, when the sound of engines drifted my way.
Standing, I opened the door and cocked my head to listen.
Art was already alert, waking the others, stirring them all to readiness.
Shadow-like, Steve took position near the roadway, Art on the other side. I climbed onto the roof of my van and lay belly down ready to provide covering fire. A dark movement by the tree, Mel moving the goat, and Edi nowhere to be seen.
They came on trail bikes without lights, riding hard and fast. A gunshot rang out over engines roaring and then there were five. The wind was blowing nicely now, another farm might well have been on the move. With a crop still in the ground, ours wasn’t going anywhere.
I took aim and fired, evening the odds.
The remaining four fanned out, circling the edge of the farm, sending netting flapping as they passed. I lay flat, staying hidden. I heard a shout which was followed by a blinding burst of white as one of the bikes flipped on his headlights. Squinting, I took aim. Glass shattered and the light was extinguished. The rider ditched his bike, laying it flat, engine roaring like something wild.
The hairs on my neck stood to attention. Rolling on the flat roof I scoped the scrub on the other side of the van. Out of the dark two blower vans fired up, coming from the quiet side.
“Ambush” I shouted, firing again.
An amateur’s mistake. I promised myself a stern talking to if I survived.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Steve grappling with a form in the dark. Bodies entwined, no clear shot at either. I tracked their movements until moonlight shone between them, then fired. Steve’s assailant cried out and then went on screaming, his voice adding to the chaos.
A shotgun blast shattered the night. Edi walked from her van onto the quiet side, calm as you like. A cartridge clattered and then another blast.
Bodies scattered as pellets ate through shirts, peppering the dirt around.
The bikes accelerated up the incline and past us, not stopping for their fallen friends. The remainder ran, swallowed back up by the evening.
Edi turned on the lights and we took count of the dead.
Two dead and one still screaming. Young with brown rag-tailed hair. A landless farm boy probably. I felt a moment’s sympathy and then got over it.
“Sweet dreams.” My gun popped again and there was instant quiet, broken only by the sound of gasoline dripping on tin.
“They must have thought we would be on the move tonight,” Steve said.
“Rag and bone,” Edi answered.
In the aftermath I didn’t understand what she meant, ears still ringing with the roar of the shotgun.
“We cut them up and put them through the composter,” Edi explained. “You can’t buy fertiliser that good.”
I blanched. “I’m paid to kill, not butcher.”
“You’re paid to do as you’re told.” Edi produced a circular saw.
I held the body, while she cut, blood pooling on the tarpaulin she put on the ground. Nothing wasted.
I bit my lip, turning my head away.
We loaded the dead, converter working to capacity and still not keeping up with the mass we were trying to shove inside.
“You know what the worst part of this is?” Edi said. “The bloody paperwork. I’ll have to log the incident, send in ID pictures, we’ll all have to provide statutory declarations so the government can check the satellite pictures and know the crop was in and they were trespassing.”
I shrugged. “No-one will question it. The laws were written in your favour.”
Steve interrupted, “They won’t all fit, not this evening.”
We stacked the last body on the bunk I’d just lain in, my body heat soaking up into its cold lifeless form.
“There’ll be more when we get moving.” Edi paused and looked at us hard. “We’re not giving them one speck of soil.”
He turned up during breakfast, rubbing his stubble coated cheeks and trying not to look nervous. “I hear you had some trouble last night.”
“Word travels fast. Did you hear I had trouble? Or that I was going to have trouble?” Edi asked, causing him to blink rapidly.
“Carol Stanton,” I introduced myself.
He held out a hand for me to shake. “Murphy Lawton. I own the land this farm is resting on.”
“What’s your business?” Edi asked.
“I won’t have that kind of trouble on my place. I’ve got family to think of.” The words came out in a rush, as if he’d been rehearsing them.
Edi laughed. “I’ve got a licence, I’m paying you fair rent. If there’s damage, the government will make good. Now I’ve got a farm to run.” She stood over him, arms crossed against her chest.
“I want you gone by the end of the week,” he said, still reading from the script he’d written himself. “We’re honest farmers around here. Living off our own land, not what we’ve stolen off others.”
“I’m an honest farmer too. Living off what I’ve been able to hold.” Edi waved her hands at him, brushing him away.
“He probably tipped the claim jumpers off,” she commented as he left moving at a faster pace than he’d arrived at.
“Give him a chance. It’s hard for all of us,” I said.
“They make it harder than it has to be. They hate us, all of them. As if it’s our fault they’ve over-farmed and lost their topsoil to the first breeze that happens along.”
Mel watched the farmer disappear, a stricken look on her face.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“She’s fine. It’s thanks to people like her daddy that we’ve got what we have.”
I gave Edi a blank look.
“Her daddy was Max Lamberton. He introduced the Farms Without Fences Act. He’s a hero.”
Mel looked embarrassed.
“Are we going to harvest?” Steve asked.
We brought in the crop, loading it into the co-op trucks that arrived mid-afternoon. I bent and stooped and ignored the burning in my back.
It took the better part of two days, even with the co-op workers. When we were done, there was fresh compost to put on the earth before putting the covers on and pulling them taut.
“We’ve got a little squall coming through tomorrow, then a few days wait,” Art updated us, double checking his electronic sensor.
As the blow started up the next day, Mel went missing.
We spread out to search, visibility down to metres, dirt stinging against bare skin. Eyes narrowed to a squint I found her in standing in the middle of a covered field, facing into the breeze, mouth open as if to catch the wind.
“Come on,” I grabbed her arm, jolting her out of whatever reverie she’d been in. Barely able to see for the flying dirt, I took a bearing from my wrist compass and dragged her back in the direction I’d come.
“They hated me at school,” she said her words slipping past with the wind.
“Because of what my dad did. All the farm kids hated me.”
I didn’t understand or care about her problems. The side of the truck loomed out of the haze.
“If the pegs don’t hold, Edi will hate all of us,” I said, trying for a lighter note.
She laughed at that, the happiest I’d seen her since arriving.
It blew into the evening, not like earlier in the day, not gusting and squalling, but enough that I sat on the leeside of the van and watched the trees bend and sway and the covers rippling like waves on a lake.
I walked, in part to keep myself alert, also to check for threat from claim hoppers. Returning to camp I saw something flapping in the wind. The edge of a cover.
I ran to secure the edge. Already soil was disappearing from under it, swirling gently around my legs and skittering west, towards the mountains.
I fought to bring the cover back to the ground. For a moment I thought it was going to take off like a sail, carrying me with it, then in a brief lull I wrestled it to the ground. Grasping a peg I pounded it in with a rock then jogged back to the vans. Art was still up, sitting cross-legged on a cover, sensor lights flickering.
“Loose cover by the north edge, I’ve pinned it temporarily, but it needs a hammer and a few more pegs to secure it properly.”
All I saw in the dark was his white teeth. “I’ll go,” he volunteered and left.
“What’s going on?” Edi’s bulk loomed out of the night.
“A cover is loose,” I said.
“I secured them myself; they couldn’t have come loose, not in this, not without help.”
“So someone helped.”
Edi shook her head. “Impossible.”
“It’s happened before.”
“Not on my spread,” Edi said, refusing to believe.
“How’s Art been? Still listening for the weather and not listening to it? It happens.”
“Not with Art, it doesn’t,” she snapped.
“What about Mel? She’s always wandering all over the place.”
“It’s your farm.” I walked away. So long as she paid me it wasn’t my problem.
She worried on it all that night and through the next day. Edi might not have wanted to believe what I said, but she watched both Art and Mel.
The next few days blazed hot, a foretaste of summer to come. Mel was grouchy, lugging around that incubating belly. I watched them all. Steve watching Mel, Edi watching Art and Art watching the weather.
The easy camaraderie I’d avoided was gone, replaced with short tempers and misunderstandings. With everyone at each other’s throats I felt more comfortable.
I’d been with them just over a week. Edi had the covers up in readiness for the expected blow and was issuing a steady stream of instructions when Mel snapped.
“Shut up! Just shut the fuck up. Stop telling me what to do and stop calling this dirt you’ve scraped off others a farm. You’re a damn thief, not a farmer.”
She’d been boiling for a fight for days.
“We don’t steal. We take what others have thrown away. This dirt feeds you,” Edi retorted.
“That’s right. Remind me how grateful I should be. I never got a say, did I? Dad changed the laws taking us off the land and putting us on the road and no-one ever asked me!”
“If you’re not grateful you should be!” Edi spoke slowly and clearly, every word a well aimed knife. “Where were you that afternoon the cover got loose on the northern edge?” Edi asked.
Mel’s face turned white. “What?”
“Give the kid a break,” I jumped in, regretting it the moment I spoke. “Forget it.” I held my hands up in surrender, not wanting to be part of the fireworks. I was tired of the ceaseless company, the heat and having to do anything that didn’t involve pointing a gun.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Edi followed me as I walked away, her finger stabbing into my back. “I’m watching you. Going around making sly comments, planting doubt in us all. Who’s to say you aren’t the one that pulled those covers back? That you aren’t working with someone else, planning on jumping claim as soon as the wind picks up?”
I laughed. “It makes you feel better for it to be an outsider, does it? You have never had wind chimes broken, cover ties pulled back before I came along?”
“Well, there’ll be another accident soon if we don’t head back. Listen!”
She cocked her head and heard the howl of a strong wind coming. Argument forgotten, we ran for the vans.
The promised change hit like a truck. The first gust hurled soil forward and up. Above us treetops bent over backward, snapping back between squalls.
I threw myself into the driver’s cabin, mashing gears till the engine engaged and moved forward, chased by the wind.
We pulled out in formation, two vans either side of the farm, two behind driving it forward with the wind, lower vacuums sucking up the bottom soil and spitting it out so that barely a skerrick was left behind.
Running with the wind then slowing as the next gust built force and pushed us to run again. Crashing through temporary fencing, across flat dry paddocks and on, herding our dirt all the while scanning from left to right, watching out for claim jumpers. All it took was one good Sniffer and a team big enough to out-drive and out-blow us. The dust closed in and I navigated by the van’s mapping system. Watching as blips appeared on the edge of the screen in front of me.
“Two vans from the east, trying to cut in,” I spoke into the radio, lifting the flare gun and aiming one-handed. I watched the illuminated panel, waiting until the spots had almost closed in. I braced my body against the rock and sway of my van and fired into the gloom.
The shot was deafening in the close confines of the cabin. On the radar, the blips swerved and then peeled away.
Steve and Edi steered from the sides, pushing us to the west of a large farm dam, then east and east again to avoid a small town. We passed water towers and highways, Edi calling them as we pushed that pile of dirt around.
Places I’d never heard of, Tambingey, across the dried out Mungallala Creek and then down to the flood plains where the going was easier for a spell. Driving for hours till my hands ached from holding on to the wheel and my eyes were bloodshot.
“Due south,” the radio crackled and we brought the farm through Taralba and then east to Talawana, hurdling the river there in a last great gust that died away.
Blowers cycling on low we drove circles around the farm till the dust started to settle, reconfiguring from an airborne cloud to a gathering of dirt of the ground.
“Just over 150 kilometres in four hours,” Edi crowed. She was on a high, we all were, caught up in the adrenalin, tension released.
Engines off, we scurried to resecure covers, putting down posts, marking the edges of the claim till we were safely contained.
Over a hastily-cooked dinner Edi spread a map out on the table and ran calculations till we had our location figured.
“We’ll put the first crop in here,” she said, nibbling her bottom lip. “We can irrigate from the river. We’ll do a fast crop and look for another wind to take us further south where it will be cooler over the mid-summer months.”
“If it’s a good spot we could stay,” Mel suggested, hand curved protectively around her belly.
“No,” Edi shook her head, still pouring over the map. “There’s better places further south, higher rainfall if we can tuck in behind the mountain range.”
Mel didn’t reply.
When you’re dirt farming, boredom’s good. Boredom means the crops are growing, you’ve got temporary roots, you’re not moving and no-one can legally jump your claim. If you’re a Gun, boredom means fighting complacency, staying alert, keeping the skills up.
I studied them all. Till I knew their expressions better than my own. I could have played poker with any of them but Art and won.
I took the time to cultivate Mel. I listened until she talked herself out, then I did some talking, planting seeds of my own.
Art worried, “There’s too much iron in the ground here, it interferes with my instruments.”
Whenever there was the slightest hint of a breeze, something went wrong. A piece of metal accidentally caught in a blower, wind chimes gagged, cover pegs loosened or missing. I made sure Edi knew about each and every one.
In front of us the view changed from grey covers to netted soil and then to green as the first shoots of the new crop lifted their slender necks to the sun.
We all helped with the farm work, weeding and watering.
“You’re not a bad farmer for a Gun,” Edi commented.
Edi worried on the crops, nagging Art for reading after reading, searching the skies with her own eyes.
Mel hid in the fields and ate dirt when she thought no-one was watching. I’ve heard pregnant women do that. Get mad cravings. They were all a little crazy, Edi obsessed with getting the crop in and the next move, Art losing his mind to the weather and Mel wanting her land in one place. I had my own demons. Steve was the only normal one of us. The stable compass point around which we all revolved.
Six weeks is all it took to turn that crop around.
“What’s happening?” I asked Art, having spent ten minutes watching him sniffing the weather.
“I’m not sure.”
Every day Art tried to sniff the weather while Edi worried on whether to plant a second crop or wait for a friendly wind.
The storm came without warning. One moment it was a bright day, puffs of cotton chasing each other playfully across the sky, the next lightning struck, then wind lashed across the plains, plucking three metre branches from trees, rocking the vans as it hit.
“Covers on,” Edi screamed, over the howling bluster. It took half an hour to get the farm locked down, soil sliding from under us as we worked. By the time the last peg had been hammered in, visibility was gone. Heads bent against the wind, we used compass bearings to fight our way back to the truck. Dirt laced gusts sandpapered my skin.
“Where’s Mel?” Steve asked when we got back and ran a quick count of heads.
“She’ll know to take cover.” I gripped his hand, not letting him go out. “It’s not safe.”
A tree limb bounced past, missing us by centimetres.
It was noisy, a howling gale complete with groaning wood and shrieking metal as the roof on one of the vans worked loose. There were other noises too, ones I couldn’t identify as anything but the weather talking. When it started I looked across at Art, sweat beading on his forehead as the wind spoke to him.
He fought it all the way. There’s madness in listening to the weather. It brought me to tears, holding my head in both hands, ears covered and I couldn’t understand what it said.
“Over there!” Steve pointed.
Mel was out by the edge of the covers, bent. Another gust of wind sent debris flying, masking her temporarily from sight.
“What’s she doing?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“She’s pulling up the covers.” Edi swore.
“Mel!” Steve yelled.
“Shoot her. Shoot her before we lose it all!” Edi ordered, voice steely. “She’s breaking half a dozen laws.”
“She’s my goddamn wife,” Steve yelled.
I raised my gun. If I fired I could stop her. My gun wavered. A few more seconds and she’d have the stake up.
“NO!” Steve lurched towards me.
I paused a moment, bracing myself against the wind. As Steve’s hands reached towards the gun, I fired. Her body dropped and the cover billowed up, obscuring her from view.
“NO!” Steve ran, leaping forward, as if by reaching her he could turn back the clock.
Art scrambled for the covers but Edi held him back. “It’s too late,” she said gently and we stood and watched the farm being picked up by the gale, speck by speck until it become a brown cloud, leaping away from us, driven by the wind.
“What was she thinking, what was going on inside her head?” Edi asked.
“She was giving it back. Stealing back what her father stole before her.” I holstered my gun and turned to walk away.
“I thought you were her friend.”
“Her father made the laws that took our farm. She was never going to be my friend.”
“The loose covers and broken wind chimes – it was never Art or Mel, was it?,” Edi asked from behind me.
I stopped. “No.”
She didn’t speak again. I left them, Steve in the dirt with Mel, Art and Edi side by side.
It was time to move on. I couldn’t get back my father or the farm I’d grown up on. Somewhere out there would be another dirt farm looking for a Gun.
I could destroy them all. One by one.
© Susan Wardle
Overland 188 – spring 2007, pp. 52–58
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