He sits at the end of his sleeping mat and crosses his legs. He closes his eyes and listens. The almost-silence of the village. A dog whimpering for food. From the south, at a distance, the low rumble of the barter-truck coming. The call and return of two marri-birds. They’re mating, he hears, it’s that time of year.
The passage of his thoughts.
The blood in his ears.
The broom moving over the dirt.
He opens his eyes and there it is; his kingdom in its extent. A walled square of corrugated metal and flattened oil tins, seven paces from side to side. Five sleeping mats, one rolled tight, the earthenware cold-pot, the washing bowl, the ring of blackened bricks for the fire. His now, all of it.
And she is there, dressed in black.
He looks to the doorway, where the tattered black curtain has been drawn back since dawn. The men are out there now, back in the fields, in that slanting world of light and colour. They too are in mourning black, and they too have returned to living. Hunting, planting, scratching away at the earth. Bending their backs and leaning in.
One by one they came to him this morning and through the cold blue light they presented themselves, man-to-man, just here, by his mat. They met his eyes, said things like ‘we’ and ‘now’ and ‘forever’.
One of them said something about the dirt. Something about returning to the earth. He looks at the patch of floor between his feet. Yes, he thinks, from here to there, it’s not so far to travel.
And look there, is that Milgran’s footprint in the dirt? Just there, by his toes. He peers closer. Yes, the tallow-maker stood there, just there by his mat. Is it possible she hasn’t swept there yet? And are they Norben’s prints there too? Norben, the chopper, the one who felled the tree and presented the branch, the assassin hand that stole Father away. Yes, one toe missing, it’s him. Norben. The trace of a man right there in the dirt.
He closes his eyes and the morning returns once more. The slow procession, the fall of heavy hands on his shoulders. The men guiding him to the front to see Milgran receive the body. ‘Watch’, they whispered. ‘Remember.’
But all he can do now is wonder, as he has in the hours since then, what Milgran will do with the body. They have given him the thigh bone – he will always have the bone – but where will the rest of the Great Man go? Will he become a candle? Is it possible to turn a man into steam? Or will he be reborn as glue? Enough, surely, to hold this world together.
The sound of sweeping draws him back to the room.
He watches her shuffle past the battered water bucket and he remembers when she made the broom. Braiding the reeds and needles, fixing them to the sweat-blacked pole. The bristles have worn to a triangle now, as they always do, worn almost to nothing on the side nearest her body.
He wonders if this is how he will remember her, when the time for remembering comes; clearing away the fine layer of dirt that collects each day, refusing to allow it to become part of the floor.
‘Help you Mama?’ he asks.
‘No no’, she says. She doesn’t look up. Her face doesn’t change. ‘Today you must rest.’
He stares at the floor, at the places he thinks she has swept, at the places he believes she has not. So hard to discern which is which, it seems the surface never changes. For all his life – a span of time he cannot imagine (though she has told him he must now try) – she has kept the floor flat and level. Never rising, never falling. Always flat and level. But where does the dirt end and where does the floor begin?
His gaze falls to his hands, his skin so soft against the bone.
There’s dirt under his fingernails. Even on this day, his Day of Days, when he has become a man, when he has tried so hard to make himself clean. Always, the dirt gets in.
He turns the bone in his fingers.
He feels its heft and he watches her sweep.
Look how she lends her weight to the broom. Not all of it, never all of it, but always enough. He stares at the bristles as they move over the dirt and he thinks: How does she do it?
How does she not dig?
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