Jess tossed and turned in her bed. Far away, she imagined thick sleeves of bull kelp sucking against limestone cliffs. The sea was restless, spreading itself over the crumbling city grid where vehicles dunked and flipped. Houses turned to flotsam as the Earth blinked, the eye of the storm turned away from the sun. There was no Moon—everything was churning liquid, rubbery darkness. She had sunk to the ocean floor, head firmly anchored to the pillow. The bottom feeders flitted about curiously: a fish with a lightbulb dangling from its head, a faceless eel. Flat, fleshy things that never saw the light of day.
Ribittribbit ribbitribbit ahhhhhh … The frenzied rhythm of Crazy Frog punctured Jess’s sleepy cocoon at exactly four o’clock. She reached over the side of the mattress and slid her thumb across the phone, silencing the alarm before consciousness took hold. ‘Just a few more moments,’ she murmured to herself, rubbing her belly.
She heard a thump from her neighbour in the adjacent room. Jess could often hear him grunting and farting through the thin plywood. Last night, the other farmhands had got on the piss, boozing and fucking through the evening. She could hear a couple of them still up in the yard, drinking beers next to the barbecue. Their jeers flooded through walls that were flimsily partitioned from an old woolshed. The smell of lanolin hung in the workers’ accommodation, mingling with the smell of cow shit from the dairy. She let the noise, the smell, all of it wash over her.
Jess planted her feet on the rug beside her mattress. Without turning on the light, she unrolled a pair of socks from the floor and pulled them up over the ankles of her sweatpants. She padded into the kitchen (mercifully empty) and brewed the kettle for a cup of vanilla Rooibos. She opened the fridge door and sniffed the unpasteurised milk—siphoned from the milk vat, it tended to sour quickly. She wrinkled her nose. Better drink it black.
She didn’t like driving out to the city very often, but Warrnambool was the closest place with a supermarket that stocked Rooibos teabags. It was her comfort drink, a mellow root tea with a touch of sweetness. The vanilla notes reminded Jess of her grandparents’ warm kitchen, where their kelpie, Bingo, had licked her palms and followed her to school. Her nan would hum tunelessly to Classic FM while her granddad stirred porridge with nuts and sultanas. Jess had lived with her grandparents since she was four.
Now she’d moved out and had been at the work accommodation for eight months. In that time, she’d seen a dozen people move in and out. The garden was littered with stainless steel calf-feeding troughs and the empty husks of cars. A pencilled notch by her doorframe marked the height of a previous occupant—sometimes she stood against it to see if she’d grown any taller. She made her own mark in pencil, a smudge of graphite against the peeling timber.
It was twenty-five past. Swilling her tea down the sink, she patted her pockets for car keys and opened the door to the garage. The night was dead dark, the stars hidden behind thick cloud. As she turned the key to her moss-green Datsun, the garage swam with light, illuminating a laminated poster of One Direction and a collapsed laundry hamper left behind by a previous tenant. The skip was overflowing with old clothes and junk from the last batch of backpackers, along with kitchen rubbish strewn across the driveway, rusting tomato cans and sun-bleached chip packets.
Jess pumped the accelerator, juddering along the potholed dirt road. The car radio played classical music, trembling stringed instruments. It made her feel like the star of a black-and-white film. The wet bitumen shone as she veered onto the highway. As she sped up, she saw a small, furry body interrupt the glowing white line. She pulled over to the dirt shoulder.
It was a wallaby. It looked like it had only recently been hit—its fur was smooth and its face unblemished, except for a small puddle of blood that leaked from its mouth, its jaws tight with shock. Jess gripped its tail and turned the animal over, dragging it to the side of the road. The body was still floppy and warmish, not yet stiff. She touched the corner of its eye with her little finger. No blink, no movement.
The clouds had shifted. She looked up at the Moon, a sliver of fish at the bottom of a dark pond. She strained her neck to look at the stars—the Milky Way. They looked nothing like spilt milk. They reminded Jess of the holes in the bedroom walls made by previous occupants, ricochets of plaster and light splitting through wood.
She bent down to take a closer look at the animal. There was a writhing, something rippling the fur beneath its abdomen. She reached for the pouch: a loop of ratty-looking tail protruded from the soft opening in the mother’s fur.
Jess pinched the sides of the pouch, opening it. From the cavern of plucked chicken skin, she saw a pair of eyes like dark, glowing coals: unblinking, fathomless, seeing the world for the first time through their dead mother’s womb.
Jess held onto the tail and pulled gently, pinching the joey’s rump between forefinger and thumb. Out came a pair of sinewy pink legs, a gummy body and a head. A pair of huge, gaping eyes on either side of its hairless snout. A sea inside each black marble.
‘Hello,’ she said softly. The animal squealed in her hands, a high-pitched hissing noise that sounded like it came from far away.
She swaddled the joey in her red beanie and placed it on the passenger seat as she drove to work. In the shed, stray cats sipped from the runnels of the poured concrete floor and sparrows flitted from the roof beams. Jess marched into the shed and turned on the suction pump. The giant machine wheezed to life, dragging milking cups up from the platform, a small tictictic sound rushing around the empty holding stalls. She turned on the feed heads, shunting grain into the blue troughs as the cows stepped onto the platform for milking.
‘Ya late, Jess,’ called a voice from the end of the platform. Jack strode towards her in his milking apron.
‘Yeah, sorry,’ she said. Why didn’t you get started without me? ‘Did you see a wallaby on the way here? There was a dead one on the side of the road.’
He shook his head. ‘Dunno what you’re talking about. Let’s get to work, hey?’
She knew then that he’d hit it.
Jess trudged over to the milking side of the platform. The frontrunner of the herd was 587, a muscular cow with curled, wicked horns. She pulled the milking cups from the wall, their rubber tubes hissing, reached between the cow’s legs for its udder and plugged the cups onto the soft, muddy teats. She pulled the filthy string cord so that the tubes slackened around the creature’s ankles. Milk began to lick at the insides of the fibreglass orb as the rubber tubes twitched, pumping the milk through the pipes and into the heart of the machine.
The rotary groaned as it turned its first revolution, fifty cows chewing and snorting in their stalls. The din was intense: the pump engine droned, the feed heads whistled, the cows loaded the platform. A light shower drummed on the roof, accompanying the dirge of a thousand cows shuffling in the yard waiting to be milked. Jess sang a Cat Stevens song under her breath. Something about a wild world. She thought about the pink joey curled up in her beanie on the passenger seat.
Then the machine ground to a halt, bringing the carousel of manure-dripping rear ends to a standstill. She walked over to the control pad, the green START button almost translucent from years of damp. The rotary groaned to life again.
Jess’s hands were cold, and she massaged one of the cow’s swollen udders, feeling warmth pulse beneath her skin. In return she reached between the animal’s hooves and pulled out a bunch of grass and twigs that were stuck in the cleft. She stepped back and threw the wad of gunk onto the floor.
‘Careful,’ said Dylan as he walked past. ‘You really shouldn’t do that, you know.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘I know, I know.’
‘Your hand could get crushed, Jess.’
Management had been on the warpath lately, muttering WHS like a swearword.
‘I know what I’m doing,’ she said.
‘What are you doing?’ He yawned. Jess knew he’d gotten up at three-thirty to chase the cows up from the paddock.
‘I’m giving ’em a pedicure.’
‘Ooh la la,’ he grinned. ‘You should give me one next time.’
Jess shook her head. ‘I’m not touching your festy feet!’
But Dylan had already taken out his pen and began to walk around the rotary with his slow, purposeful steps. He always kept a small notepad in his apron to write down the numbers of cows with mastitis or teats chewed by foxes, marking them down to draft for early treatment. He was known at the farm for being a bit of a softcock. His team mates said he was too easy on the cows when he refused to hit them with the poly piping. Sometimes he would use the plastic bars to bang on the concrete platform beneath the animals: ‘The fear of hitting is more powerful than the actual blow,’ he’d explained to them seriously.
As a matter of principle, he would never let a cow onto the meat truck unless the animal was at death’s door. If an aggressive one was marked with a capital C for CULL because she hadn’t let the farmhands milk her, he would persist in cupping her up while the creature kicked at him, sometimes leaving bruises on his hands and wrists. Sometimes he even talked to the cows in a high, wavering voice. He said they heard sound on a different wavelength to us.
Jess liked Dylan more than the other farm hands. He would always cover for her if she needed a shift off, and they sometimes watched TV together in the living room, flicking between cooking shows and nature documentaries. He had been a baker’s apprentice before the dairy and often shared his plates of mini quiche and jelly slice.
‘Oi,’ she waved him over.
‘Are you good to clean the yard this morning?’ It was usually the milker’s job, and she knew Jack would be off in a flash, despite the extra pay. He hated hosing down shit for some reason.
‘Yeah, I can,’ Dylan said, sucking his pen.
‘Oh, legend. I’ve just got a little errand to run.’
‘A hot date in town?’ He waggled his eyebrows.
‘Nah,’ she laughed. ‘Got an appointment with the vet.’
Dylan looked crestfallen. ‘When are you going to bring me some proper gossip from the city, Jess?’ He walked back to the cows, tucking the pen behind his ear.
That morning, Jess drove out to Hamilton to drop the baby joey off at the vet. As soon as she clocked off at the dairy, she got in the car and sped off on the highway. Towering wind turbines spun lazily above flocks of sheep and cows, trucks ploughing the asphalt corridors between paddocks. Out at Tabor, locals put out hay rollers with faces painted on the front. One of them wore a moustache and glasses, another a surgical mask.
At the vet, she handed over the wriggling beanie to the receptionist, a blonde woman who stroked the joey with a long gel nail. ‘Hello, gorgeous,’ she cooed.
‘I found it on the side of the road in its mother’s pouch,’ Jess explained.
‘Ah, okay. We’ve got an arrangement with the local wildlife park for things like this. We’ll take care of it.’
‘Any cost?’ Jess asked, pulling out her wallet.
‘We wear the cost for wildlife,’ she smiled. ‘Now, can you just fill out this form …’
Jess took the paperwork and filled it out in black pen. She handed it back to the receptionist. ‘Thanks for that,’ she said.
‘No problem. One last thing,’ the woman said. ‘Unfortunately, we can’t ring you to let you know if the animal is okay, but if you’d like you can ring us up later and we’ll tell you.’
Jess nodded. She knew she wouldn’t call them.
She missed the joey already, its sweet warmth inside her beanie. In the carpark, she spun on her heel, suddenly noticing the cold air that nipped at her ears. She teetered back and forth, undecided.
Should she go back in and ask for her beanie? She thought about the creature swaddled inside the red woollen cap knitted by her grandmother. She decided against it. They were one and the same: the woollen womb, the naked joey. She hoped the vet wouldn’t throw her beanie away.
That night, Jess and Dylan were both on milking duties. At the end of the shift they pumped Rage Against the Machine on the speakers and sprayed each other with water as they mucked out the shed, hosing down the rails and concrete floor. The sun had just gone down and the sky faded from violet to grey, clouds hanging low on the horizon. Cows ambled in the paddocks, blending into a dappled haze.
Suddenly, at around seven pm the lights flickered, the machinery juddering to a halt. Jess leaped a foot into the air as the shed plunged into darkness.
‘Yeah,’ she called, shaken.
In the dark, it was eerily quiet. She could hear birds scurrying in the eaves. The cows were unsurprised by the absence of noise. They stood in their stalls, licking their jowls and chewing on their grain.
‘Power’s out,’ she said.
‘Let’s try the generator,’ Dylan said.
They walked outside to the front of the dairy, prising open the cobwebby switchboard doors. Night was falling fast around the paddocks, moths batting at their phone torch beams.
‘Maybe we should call an electrician?’ he asked.
‘Let’s have a proper go of turning on the generator first.’
Dylan said nothing, fiddling about with the switches. He flinched.
‘You okay? Don’t electrocute yourself,’ Jess said. ‘Here, give us a go.’
He let her go ahead. She stepped forward and narrowed her eyes in the dark, trying to locate the fuse. She’d learned a thing or two from her great uncle Paddy, a sparkie who’d wired up her grandparents’ house.
‘Can you shine the torch onto that spot?’ She pointed.
‘Yeah.’ He illuminated a bright blue switch under a plastic casing.
She took a deep breath and flicked it on. The lights in the dairy flashed. Seconds later, they heard the pumps wheeze to life and the rotary groan. They were back in business.
‘Should we tell anyone?’ Dylan asked.
‘That we blew the power?’ said Jess, shrugging. ‘I don’t think they don’t need to know.’
He stepped forward, relieved. On impulse, she threw her hands around his shoulders and hugged him. When they pulled away Dylan looked surprised but pleased.
The following afternoon, a fierce wind cartwheeled in the giant turbines on the horizon. The heat crackled in the dry grass, blowing dust into the house from desiccated paddocks. The radiata pines creaked, teetering against each other.
Could be a dust storm on the way, Dylan thought, taking a puff of Ventolin. He wrung his clothes out in the sink. The power was out across the whole farm, so he hung a wet towel over the curtain rods for the warm air to blow through the window, a trick he’d learned from his mum when he was ten, when his little sister Grace was born.
‘You have to keep the house cool for a baby,’ their mother had said as she hung sodden towels across the window.
That was back when Grace’s dad was still around. Dylan remembered the way his stepdad carried Grace, who liked to sleep like a sloth clinging to a branch, lying on her belly against his forearm, with her chubby arms wrapped around his elbow. He couldn’t understand how she could possibly get comfortable enough for sleep. But Grace could sleep anywhere. Their mum used to joke that it ran in the family.
After school, with little Grace on his lap, Dylan would read to her aloud from her Home Readers while their mother napped on the couch beside them. They sounded out the words together, Grace burbling non-stop like a creek. Dylan wiped away her spit with a paper towel.
When her dad came home, he would rock her to sleep in the crook of his elbow, pretending she was an aeroplane gliding through the air. It made Dylan wonder if his own father had done the same things when he was a baby.
Squirreled away in the back of Dylan’s imagination was a recurring dream that was frightening, but not the horror-movie kind of fright. He would dream that his own dad had come back. The scary bit was that he would be there, solid and alive beside Dylan, but he couldn’t sustain a conversation with him. They would sit inside the car and drive, but when he tried to talk to his father the conversation fell flat. Dread began to build in his dream state before his dad faded into a shadowy silhouette.
He feared that somehow word had got out to his dad, that Dylan liked guys in the way that normal guys liked girls. In his mind, that was the reason his father had left, and the reason he never came back. He’d never told anyone why he’d left the bakery; that would stay a secret, safely hidden at the farm.
‘You can be anything but that,’ his mum had pleaded before he left for the farm. ‘Just think about it.’
As if it was something you could think about and then make it disappear.
Dylan drove the quadbike into the paddocks, fastening the gates and hurrying the cows through the underpass and along the laneways. The soil was limey and hard on the cows’ feet, with chunks of volcanic rock poking out from the mud. When it rained, he often had to get off his bike and hustle the cows along, yelling and waving his arms at the animals. He loved to watch the herds move, a river of black-and-white streaming along the horizon.
The work was bearable on days without heat and pollen. But summer days were awful. Dylan wore shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of neoprene sleeves that he’d cut off from a wetsuit found at an op shop in Warrnambool. The sleeves and apron shielded him from the shit and mud that splattered the farm hands from head to toe, but the pollen and dust from the grain feeders still got up his nose, making him gasp and sneeze.
He could feel it collecting in his chest, caking his throat, and often had to stop and puff on his inhaler. Once inside the milking shed, Dylan sprayed the hose lightly on the back of his head, feeling the cool water drip down his neck. He could breathe easily again.
One day, Dylan was hosing piles of shit in the cattle yard after milking. One of the other farm hands was droving the herds out to paddock. It was Jack; he was yelling at the top of his lungs and standing up on the bike as he beeped the horn on the quad, driving so close to the cows that the vehicle collided with their rumps, grinding at their heels. He was driving into the animals.
For a moment, Dylan felt so angry he couldn’t breathe. His chest tightened, his throat constricted, his vision filled with something like television static. He dropped the hose. It continued writhing and hissing, like a snake.
Lately Jess had started to get foggy when she wasn’t at work. She’d wake up a few hours after midnight and find herself unable to get back to sleep until dawn had broken. Then she’d sleep in until the evening, when she’d wake up to headaches and stomach pains like a mortar and pestle grinding in her belly.
At night, she tried to fall asleep by counting to one thousand, sipping warm water when she ran out of Rooibos tea. Sometimes a slow panic engulfed her, the pillow damp with sweat and tears. The following day would pass in a haze, hours spent lying in bed and scrolling through her social media, thumbing the contacts on her phone. Others’ lives seemed far removed from her own, a funk of smelly socks and instant noodle packets. Jess suspected that she burdened people by messaging them.
She stopped washing her clothes. Her head felt thick with dense, heavy cloud. She felt as weak as the naked joey, languishing in its dead mother’s pouch. Sometimes she just couldn’t get out of bed. She remembered what her nan had told her: if you want something, you have to just keep getting up, showing up. But Jess wasn’t sure what she wanted. To save up for travel? To go home? These thoughts never permeated the fog of her daily routine. She worked, slept, tumbled between the woolshed and the dairy. She dreamed about water flooding her grandparents’ house—crackling in the tiles, seeping through the floorboards, rippling in the carpets.
Dylan left bowls of food outside her door, milky cups of coffee that developed a skin. She heated the food in the microwave and devoured it with her hands, the heat from the microwaved vessel burning her fingertips.
From time to time, the fog parted. She could see clearly that she was there, that she was real. Sometimes it came over her so thick and fast she couldn’t lift herself from it. One day at work, she was milking a heifer who’d recently given birth for the first time. The cow wouldn’t stop kicking, its hooves thumping the metal box where the cups were kept.
Jess’s hands were too slow; as she tried to cup the cow’s udder, its leg came swinging at her, rattling the steel barrier. Then the cow stepped forward, out of her reach. She ducked her head under the bar. She heard the sound before she felt it—the animal kicked her so hard that the THUCK echoed outside of her skull, cauliflowers blossoming in her vision.
She faintly remembered Dylan bundling her into the car and driving her back to the woolshed. She spent the rest of the day in bed, vomiting and passing in and out of consciousness. In the evening, her grandmother appeared at her bedroom door. Her wiry curls were tied up in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, and she wore a fuzzy blue jumper and floral pink gumboots, carrying the familiar scent of lavender and lanolin.
Rubbing her eyes, Jess wondered if it was really her nan standing in the doorway.
‘You didn’t pick up your phone,’ she said to Jess.
It finally rained after a week of hot days. Puddles gleamed in the road like dirty coins and shadows rolled across the fields with the movement of clouds.
The sun felt warm on Dylan’s skin as he trudged across the paddock. He’d waved goodbye to Jess as her grandmother sped out of the driveway. He was relieved Jess was going home but felt a twinge of grief. He wasn’t sure when, or if, she’d be back.
Between the woolshed and the dairy, the long paddock was overgrown and due for cutting. The tussock grass came up almost to his waist; he looked down and saw rats scurrying in the tall weeds. He squatted down and saw dark tunnels emerge in the empty space between the woven arches of grass blades and air, gaps that showed the paths of small rodents and winding serpents.
He walked out across the field, stomping his boots to ward off snakes. Adrenaline stirred in his chest. With each step he felt more solid, heavy, present. He felt like Moses parting the sea of weeds.
There were battalions of cutting grass, thickets of wild carrot, muscular daisy bushes wrestling with thistles that raised their violet sceptres to the air. It would be Dylan’s job to spray them with Roundup in the next few weeks. Once they’d bundled up the excess grass from the paddock, they’d pile it all under tarpaulin and tyres, fermenting the grass to use as fodder for the herds in winter.
At his uncle’s farm where he’d worked as a kid, they used to get a whole year’s worth of grass in one cutting, but in a drought they’d have to buy straw to meet the shortfall.
Then the recession hit, and it was the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ when the milk prices crashed. There was no longer money for fuel, rent, food. They milked the cows to half-cover their costs, ploughing the family into debt. Dylan didn’t like to think about those freezing nights when they couldn’t run the heater. Living off white bread and tins of soup.
He opened his phone to check his messages: there was a meme from his mate Callum, a message from his sister. Nothing from Jess.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a burnished length of rope slithering towards him. When he realised what it was, he leapt into the air, dropping his phone in the undergrowth.
The snake kept moving, a little more urgent, weaving between the tussocks.
Dylan watched the animal as it disappeared, unravelling into the grass.
‘See you later,’ he whispered.
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