Chimney detail
Type
Fiction

The cunning folk

On their third day without food, Billy shows his sons how to draw the symbol. He takes a handful of charred kindling, burnt out in the pot-bellied stove, and gives a piece to each of them. He uses the bottom of a mug to make the outer circle, shows them how to hold it steady against the plasterboard wall and trace around its rim. He should have a compass but he sold his, borrowed the boss’s when he had to.

The boys’ outlines are crooked. Dane can’t hold the cup up single-handedly. His wrist shakes and he draws wildly. He swears when he pulls the cup away to reveal a vague shape. Malcolm cuffs his older brother across the back of the head and Dane drops the cup, chipping the rim.

Billy almost gives up, not sure if he can bear seeing the symbol so mangled. He’s sure it will ruin the magic, but knows the kids have to start somewhere. He begins on the petals, measuring a cross in the centre, dividing the circle into four. He holds the undamaged side of the mug against the centre line, tracing an arch to the edges of the circle, then draws its mirror image above it.

He leaves this shape on all the buildings he makes. The last was the council chambers at Windsor, before the work dried up. He took the boys to see it, lifting Malcolm up to trace the petals, while Dane lay curled around the roller used to flatten the site, his cheek pressed against the warm stone and his arms dangling down past his ears.

Malcolm’s gone back to the dying fire and sits with his legs on either side of the stove, picking his nose. Dane is trying to copy his dad. He starts the circle again down lower, so he can hold the mug against the wall with his belly as well as one hand, leaving the other free to draw. His charcoal stick tangles in his shirt and he has to switch hands to finish the other side. Then Billy holds the cup for him.

The lamp dies and Dane gives up, starts scrawling his name over and over in the semi-darkness, the cup tossed aside. There’s no more oil and Billy knows the boys are still wide awake. The darkness makes the humidity of the room more oppressive. Billy is aware of the heat of their bodies, their sickly sweet breath, weighing on him. He can hear Malcolm sucking his thumb. The boy only sucks his thumb in the dark, when no one can see him. Billy sometimes wakes in the night to Malcolm’s wet slurping. His neighbour says he’ll get buckteeth if he keeps it up, but Billy leaves him to it.

Dane says, ‘Will those daisy wheels bring us good luck?’

‘If they were done properly,’ says Billy.

Dane coughs and starts whistling to himself.

Billy says, ‘You’ll get better at it.’

‘Shouldn’t I get it straight away? If it runs in the family?’

‘I didn’t, not for a long time. They tried to squash it all out of me at school. Said there was no such thing. Wasn’t till I met an old gypsy fella, and he knew me for what I was: a cunning man.’

Dane starts whistling again. Billy wonders about the boy, whether he actually has the gift. Billy tells him he’s charmed, since he’s been so close to death already, but Billy isn’t sure this makes much of a difference. Dane’s mother bundled him too close when he was a baby, refused to give him up.

 

Billy grew used to her shape in the corner of the tent they were living in, on the side of a half-built railway. He would sometimes stroke her hair and, though she didn’t move, her breathing changed, quieted. He took this as a good sign, some evidence of her connection to reality. He left bowls of milk and bread out for her in the night, as his ancestors did for the fairies, and, in the morning, they were likewise magically gone. Sometimes she suckled the baby and the shape of her exposed breast aroused him, so he had to stand outside, lean against the pile of sleepers with his hands behind his back.

He hadn’t meant to get her pregnant, hadn’t thought about it at all really, when he first caught her eyeing him off from the boarding house kitchen. She barely spoke, just stood pressed against the chamferboard hallway and looked at him when he walked past. It occurred to him she was deaf; when she crept into his room one night and asked him to kiss her, he was surprised. He let her sleep with him for a couple of nights. After the building work finished, his mate got him work on the railway. The morning he left, the manager of the boarding house led her out to him with a port in her hands.

He slept with her in the lee of the sleepers, and each day he’d haul some away to make the tracks, exposing more of the tent. The worst time was when the pile was almost gone, and in the thunderstorms their tent was pressed almost in half, with them inside stretched out on canvas bunks, their limbs pulled into their bodies so they didn’t touch the wet edges. Mould grew in galaxies of green and black above their heads.

After the baby, Billy didn’t know if he’d be able to move her when the last of the sleepers were lined up and gridded, and they had to pack up and move on to the next section, edging closer to Brisbane.

He grew to know the bush between Ipswich and the city intimately, by way of cutting into the soil. He dragged the sleepers over the undulations of the land, fitted them in. Billy imagined the steam trains moving over it, ten, maybe one hundred times faster than he was.

One day he pulled aside the tent flap to find her corner empty, the baby gone. He called out to her. ‘Cooee, Cooee!’ His voice falling out over the trees, shifting down amongst the branches. A man’s voice, farther up the line, called back. Billy saw her footprints in the sand. He followed them, on and off, to the galvanised iron tank full of drinking water for the workers. She was floating, the baby drifting away from her. He hauled them out, laid them on the dried-up grass. The dirt stuck to her back.

That’s how the other man found him, holding her in a sitting position, brushing down her back with the flies gathered around her and her face clear to him for the first time in months, in the sun outside the tent. The man shook the baby and it coughed and gagged. He handed Dane to Billy still blue-faced, with vomit crusted on the edges of his mouth.

Malcolm was born two years after, to a woman he’d found sleeping beside a chicken coop in his mate’s backyard. She left all three of them squatting in the half-built foundations of a butcher shop; the owners ran out of money and couldn’t buy timber for the floor. Billy was relieved. The woman had been too noisy for squatting. She would yell when she was angry, when they were having sex, when she wanted something. They would’ve been caught for sure with her around. As it was, he found a man with a shed in his backyard, looking for some extra money. Billy punched a hole in the roof and rigged up a fireplace, sewed beds out of hessian and the feathers and leaves he’d collected from the botanical gardens.

 

Malcolm pulls his thumb out with a pop. ‘We can be rabbits, can’t we, Dad?’

‘That’s right,’ says Billy. ‘Your grandad, he told a story. Way he had it, the vicar in their village woke one night to hear all this yabbering and yowling in the churchyard, and he flung on his clothes and went to have a look, and all there was in the graveyard was thirteen white rabbits peeping out from behind the gravestones. They’re our family’s familiar.’

‘Hoppedy hoppedy,’ says Malcolm, squatting and bouncing on the spot, his knees almost at his ears. Billy can see his teeth, jutting out over his bottom lip, shining in the firelight. He thinks maybe that’s the reason for the buckteeth, that the neighbour was wrong.

Dane brings the mug down again and Malcolm jumps in time with it, saying over and over, ‘Hoppedy hoppedy.’ The breath is knocked out of him every time he lands, so the words sound empty. He starts saying hop loudly while he’s in the air, so only the end of the word is missing. Dane is laughing at him, and this makes him say it louder; Billy has noticed how he responds to any attention from his brother.

Billy starts clapping, keeping in time with the mug. ‘Hop!’ he shouts. ‘Hop, hop.’

Malcolm bounces away and Billy loses sight of him outside the glow of the fire. He can hear him calling still.

There’s a thud and Malcolm starts crying.

Billy half-shouts, ‘What happened?’

‘He tripped me,’ says Malcolm.

‘Didn’t,’ says Dane.

Billy slams his hand down. ‘How can you tell in the fucking dark?’

This silences them for a second, but Malcolm starts up again. ‘It hurts,’ he says.

There’s a pounding on the outside of the room, against the corrugated iron.

‘Will youse be quiet?’ the owner says.

Malcolm keeps crying and the man bangs again, with a stick it sounds like, so the sheets of iron rattle. One part is so loose it bends right in when he hits it and Billy catches sight of his ankles in the gaslights. The banging unsettles all the spiders and creepy-crawlies that live in the iron grooves, and they come scuttling out. One shivers across Billy’s leg and he brings his cupped hand over it, snatches it up and eats it. He starts catching the other things that have come out in the banging, looking for creatures with fewer than eight legs, holds the boys’ noses and puts them in their mouths. Malcolm is quiet with the shock of the wriggling thing. Chews. Neither complains.

The owner stops his banging. Billy doesn’t want to pick a fight with him. He’s already behind in the rent.

 

His luck changes the next day, as he knew it would. As it always does. He loiters outside the Trades Hall, chewing pieces of grass and a plug of tobacco that fell from a too-hot suit’s pocket. This keeps Billy going until a foreman he’s worked with before offers him a job.

‘I can’t employ you long, it’s only an extension,’ says Tony.

 

In the morning, Billy locks the boys in the shed. He ties Malcolm’s leg to a chair with a length of rope that means he can’t quite reach the edges of the room. Halfway down the street, Billy hears Malcolm’s wail and Dane’s high, sing-song voice. He imagines that Dane is teasing Malcolm, standing just out of his reach, flitting around the corners of the room: perhaps with the bread in his hand, which they’d promised to ration out.

Billy sees, for a moment, Dane’s baby face in the water of that open-to-the-air tank, dark with tannin and frogs’ piss. His mother had let the baby go once she’d passed, and he floated free of her, surfaced somehow.

Now, Billy stands in the street bordered by palings worn to splinters and lying disordered with washing draped over them. Listening to his son’s voice, barely muted by the galvanised iron and the expanse between them, Billy thinks again that Dane’s survival was more than an accident, more than fate intervening on his, Billy’s, behalf, a part of the magic that protected his family. Ever since Dane started talking, Billy’s come to see him more like a person, less like an animal that it’s his responsibility to care for.

He walks back to the shed and lets the boys out, takes them with him to the house on George Street. They each hold some of his tools, which he bought back from the pawn shop with money from the Masonic lodge; one of the men there knows him as a cunning man, gives him hand-outs now and then, to preserve the old ways. A ruler and a spirit level for Malcolm. A hammer and a trowel for Dane.

Tony is standing just inside the bracketed entranceway of the house. He says, ‘Hell you bring them for?’

‘Couldn’t find anyone to look after them,’ says Billy.

‘What are they gonna do all day?’

‘They’ll be good. I’ll keep an eye on them.’

‘Should fucking hope so,’ says Tony.

Billy touches his earlobe. Malcolm crouches, shifting the dirt at his feet, and Dane looks away, down Mary Street to the women’s shelter. The light hanging from the corner of the enclosed balcony is still burning in the early morning. Billy doesn’t think the boys have understood, but still he feels embarrassed to be spoken to that way in front of them.

When Tony gets down to talking about the dimensions, the shape of the extension, Billy feels constrained. He confirms his understanding with small nods and grunts. The boys have wandered off, run up and down a plank laid over a pool of stagnant water. Billy calls them back, tells them to play nearby, within sight.

 

In the centre of the half-made parlour, Malcolm cries out. He’s pointing to a boy he can see through a hole in the brickwork where a window will go. The boy is walking down George Street eating a coconut ice. The pink part has melted and is smeared on his wrists and the left side of his face. The boy sticks his tongue into his palm, licks along the length of it to get at the sweet.

Malcolm cries, ‘Me have. Me have,’ and Dane says nothing but is looking too, at the boy with the ice and then at Billy.

Billy says, ‘For Christ’s sake, shut up. You can’t have it.’ He’s squatting on the floor, measuring the shape of the fireplace.

Malcolm scrabbles up a pile of convict-made bricks and shouts at the boy with the coconut ice. ‘Cunt!’

The boy and the man with him – his father, Billy supposes – stop and look up, and Billy sees Malcolm through their eyes. His filthy hair, hanging almost to his shoulders, pinched-up eyes, the mucus crusted under his nose and blackened at the sticky parts. Billy snatches Malcolm down with one arm. He holds him round the waist, bends him over and hits him across the arse with his ruler. Malcolm screams and Billy hits him again. Dane is looking on with his hands bundled up into fists and pressed into his chest.

Then Malcolm goes limp in Billy’s arms. Billy can see the man and the boy watching them. The two stand with identical expressions, tight-lipped and wild-eyed. The man calls out, ‘Can I help?’

Billy says no and moves away from the window hole so they can’t see him.

He brings Malcolm into the dining room, all done except for the roof. Tony’s thrown a tarp over it, to protect the timber walls from the rain. Billy leans against the wall, still holding Malcolm, who stays limp. There’s spit seeping into Billy’s shoulder and Dane is holding on to his thigh. He can’t bear to look at Malcolm’s face. He feels the wall behind him, the afternoon light muted by the canvas, so it could almost be night.

He has a vision of the room finished, the chamfer walls papered over, a Persian rug laid across the dark floorboards. The quality of light is strange, a cool burn. The room is filled with people, strangers to him, foreigners even, wearing odd clothes. None of them look at him or the boys, pressed up against the wall. He can’t feel the boys’ hands on his body.

 

He takes Dane back to the house in the night time. There are lights on in the front, the window beneath the gables, but the extension is dark. They slip in through the doorway, pushing aside the roped canvas.

He leads Dane to the parlour. He’s fitted the sash window, all but bricked up the fireplace. The skeleton of the roof is fixed above them. He lays the hessian sack he’s carrying on the floor. He pulls out three shoes: one of his, the leather coming off at the back, where the rain seeps in; one of Dane’s, the other gone floating off in the river somewhere; and one of Malcolm’s knitted baby booties.

Billy picks up Dane’s and holds it out to him. ‘Place it in the cavity inside the fireplace,’ he says. He has adopted a formal tone that feels strange to him, but he wants a sense of ritual.

Dane stands with his arms crossed, refusing to take the shoe. ‘What will happen?’

Billy pushes the shoe into his son’s chest. ‘Take it. They’ll protect the house.’ He should have a pair of the woman owner’s too, but he didn’t think she’d let him, might cause him to lose the job. ‘They’ll protect us too,’ he says. ‘The spirits and witches will fly down the chimney and mistake the shoes for us. We’ll trick them.’

Dane hasn’t moved.

‘You don’t want to put it in?’ says Billy.

Dane shakes his head, looks at the shoe at the end of Billy’s outstretched arm, expecting something, a smack maybe. Billy ignores him for now. He doesn’t want to ruin the solemness of the ritual. When he puts the shoes in the cavity, he feels strangely comforted. He’ll brick them up tomorrow morning.

 

Dane turns away, presses his forehead against the wall. He’s a boy who believes the worst is about to happen, despite the evidence of his own life, his very presence there. He has seen too much of his father to believe that telling fairy stories is going to make much of a difference.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Ariella is a creative writer and lecturer in Townsville, North Queensland. Her stories have appeared in Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Lip Magazine and Riptide. Her manuscript, Hidden Objects, was shortlisted for the 2012 Queensland Literary Awards.

More by