Red Dirt by Fikret Pajalic

Fikret Pajalic came to Mel­bourne as a refugee in 1994. He has a BA Pho­tog­ra­phy from RMIT and for years he used images to con­vey a mes­sage, only to realise that some sto­ries are best told in words. He won equal first prize at the 2011 Ada Cam­bridge Short Story prize, has been highly com­mended in the 2011 Grace Mar­ion VWC Emerg­ing Writ­ers Com­pe­ti­tion and in the 2011 Brim­bank Short Story Awards. His work has been pub­lished in Plat­form and Hypal­lage mag­a­zines and Word­smiths of Melton Anthol­ogy.

 

 

 

I felt the dust devil in my old bones before it formed on the pad­dock. The swirl of hot wind on my neck and the drop in air pres­sure sent a sig­nal. Only a body like mine that spent a life­time work­ing the land could sense the imper­cep­ti­ble sign from nature.

Mack feels it too and he barks into the red dirt, tak­ing a step back and glanc­ing at me. I motion for him to sit and he does, uneasy and unsure. His tail hits the ground rais­ing clouds of dust. There is some­thing rest­less in the air. Some­thing that raises the hair on both man and beast and it is best to avoid it like a dis­so­nant tri-tone in medieval music.

‘Not of this world,’ my wife would say, urg­ing me to stop work at noon on a hot day. She would mut­ter some words of pro­tec­tion in a lan­guage not spo­ken for gen­er­a­tions. Neigh­bours mostly stayed away and spoke of the ‘fam­ily flaw’ that sticks to his wife’s wom­en­folk like a burr. Doc­tors talked about genet­ics, but I knew my wife as quirky. She spent her life try­ing to fol­low old super­sti­tious tales only to die at child­birth while giv­ing me twin boys.

‘May the black earth lie lightly upon her,’ said her mother after we low­ered her shrouded body into the grave.

Her mother suf­fered from the same afflic­tion as her daugh­ter and pos­sessed a myth, a leg­end or a tale for every occa­sion. She was con­vinced that her daugh­ter, my wife, must have stepped over a buried body, an unmarked grave, some­where in the field ensur­ing her death and mark­ing my new­borns for early demise. Now, all these years later, when my sons are long gone and their graves unknown, I think that the old woman wasn’t crazy after all.

The dust devil takes an upward shape and it moves wildly left and right across the thirsty ground. It loses momen­tum briefly, only to come back stronger sec­onds later. Mack finds new courage and rushes toward the col­umn that stretches ver­ti­cally, leav­ing marks on the earth like a giant pen­cil moved by an invis­i­ble hand. He barks and snarls and looks back at me search­ing for guid­ance. He feels that he must react, but is notice­ably relieved when I call him back.

Above me the sun is sit­ting at noon hav­ing a short break, observ­ing the world below, and the sky is with­out a cloud. It is for scenes like this that peo­ple invented the word sur­real. The still­ness stretched across the land­scape as if some­one froze the hot summer’s day. Only the dust devil danced to a sound­less tune.

I put my gun back on safety and return it to its hol­ster. The old bull will have to wait a lit­tle longer for his deliv­er­ance. I knew bet­ter than to make vila, Lady Mid­day, angry. Not in the old coun­try, and not here in the red coun­try. I kept the mem­ory of my wife alive by fol­low­ing a cou­ple of folk beliefs that she always stood by. For that rea­son I don’t touch the swal­lows’ nest that’s been in my roof for the past three years just in case they really are the guardians of good fortune.

Back in the land I was born in, it was said that Lady Mid­day roamed the fields dur­ing sum­mer dressed in white. She would trou­ble the folk work­ing the fields at noon caus­ing heat strokes, aches in the neck and back, and some­times mad­ness for repeat offenders.

While I chew on my sand­wich I watch the old bull. He is slow and cranky and he’s got can­cer in one of his eyes. His hide is the colour of red cher­ries and his horns are grey. He is my first stud, my first buy who pro­vided me with a steady income over the years and he helped me increase my stand­ing with the local farm­ers. Not an easy thing for an out­sider. He doesn’t know that he has only min­utes to live.

In moments like these my thoughts always run together. I think about the old bull and his immi­nent death and his predica­ment inevitably reminds me of my two sons. They would have been forty in Decem­ber had they lived. It is an irony of life that the old bull’s death will be the same as my sons.

After lunch, the dust devil is gone, dis­si­pat­ing in the air, but the feel­ing of dis­quiet stays with me. Mack helps me muster the old bull into the hold­ing pen. He is a true work­ing Kelpie and my only com­pan­ion. He could run for days in the blis­ter­ing heat or freez­ing cold. He works the cat­tle tire­lessly by run­ning across their backs, drop­ping down and expertly avoid­ing being stomped on. Mus­ter­ing, yard work, drov­ing, he does it all.

Mack is wise in the way of bush and stock. He trots while work­ing and never gal­lops. Alert at all times and with seri­ous expres­sion until our work is done. He car­ries his tongue up against the roof of his mouth, not dan­gling like most dogs.

Mack and I once drove a mob of two hun­dred head of cat­tle from Dim­boola to the abat­toir on the edge of Gee­long, los­ing none. We worked from dawn till dusk, my back­side numb from rid­ing and his paws hard as rock from run­ning. His only reward was a good din­ner and long pets from me.

Yet with all his appar­ent desire to please Mack was always able to think for him­self. That’s how all Kelpies were bred, I was told. He knew how to pace him­self and did not appre­ci­ate being dri­ven too hard. There were a few occa­sions early on when he sim­ply said ‘stuff you’ and walked off. But very quickly we got in tune with each other, the cat­tle and the land.

Those nights on the road we slept together, keep­ing each other warm. I would look at the stars above, pinned to the night sky in the shape of a cross, while my mind wan­dered to another life­time. Tears would escape my eyes and Mack’s monot­o­nous breath­ing and his warm body would send me to sleep with my heart for­ever full of pain.

After sleep­ing under the open sky we would wake with the first sliver of dawn light on our faces, damp from each other’s breath. The sun would rise in the out­back remind­ing me of our col­lec­tive small­ness and my own insignif­i­cance. The great­ness of the open spaces was at times over­whelm­ing. I felt like I was drown­ing in the dry. After a time the land accepted me. My roots in it grew big­ger, deeper. Its vast­ness and the work with cat­tle helped the pain. Days rolled into months, months into years.

More than half a cen­tury ago, when a bul­lock team did tillage and chem­i­cals were found only on the apothe­cary table, my grand­fa­ther took me out to our fields for my first les­son about the land. It is a pecu­liar­ity of my mother tongue that we use one word for both the land and the Earth. Hence, all the lessons I was given, and they were only a few as my grand­fa­ther departed shortly after due to a weak heart, were the lessons about the Earth itself. And every life les­son is only a chap­ter in the book of death.

We knelt together on the ground and both grabbed a lump of black soil. Moist and clumpy, it stuck between my fin­gers. I cupped my hands and clapped them together. The sound com­ing from them was soggy and suc­cu­lent. I put my dirty palms to my nos­trils and smelled the soil. ‘Earth like this’, my grand­fa­ther said, ‘will give you all she’s got,’ and he beamed with joy. Some­where in that same black earth, the remains of my sons are buried.

After arriv­ing in this pan­cake flat part of Vic­to­ria my com­pa­tri­ots, refugees like me, and locals from Dim­boola shook their heads in dis­be­lief. Both sides said that ‘the coun­try life is not for a for­eigner.’ I had doubts too but kept them to myself. I had my own pain to carry and had noth­ing left of me for others.

Thank­fully, my neigh­bour, an old man with thick white hair, but still straight as a pine tree, who lived on the sta­tion next to me didn’t agree with them. A day after my arrival he stopped by to intro­duce him­self, bring­ing two legs of lamb and two kilos of steak.

He expressed his amaze­ment that some­one bought the land and told me that the first thing after get­ting a ute I needed to get a dog. He spat on the red earth and said that he would make a true-blue Aussie farmer out of me before the spit dried. ‘Or my name is not Pop McCord,’ he radi­ated with sincerity.

‘You only have two breeds to con­sider out here,’ he con­tin­ued nod­ding at the vast expanse in front of us. ‘It’s either Heeler or Kelpie. Them lit­tle bug­gers are worth ten men easy. And they’re smarter than them too. Mark my words.’

I could not decide and told him that both looked very cute. I was about to elab­o­rate on that and tell him that Heel­ers look like canine pirates with those dark patches around the eyes. Lucky for me Pop interrupted.

‘Cute­ness got noth­ing to do with it, mate. Out here,’ he pointed with his thumb over his shoul­der, ‘dogs aren’t pets. They’re work­ers. I reckon,’ Pop rubbed his stub­ble, ‘since I got a Kelpie bitch you get your­self a healthy Kelpie pup and next sum­mer you and I will have some pup­pies to take care of.’

I nod­ded in agree­ment and Pop put an arm around me like we’d been friends for­ever and said ‘fan-fucken-tastic, I’ll pick you up at six sharp.’

The next morn­ing we were on our way to Cast­er­ton where I picked Mack, a black-and-tan pure work­ing Kelpie from a breeder for $900. At the time I thought that to be an out­ra­geous price to pay for a dog only for Mack to prove him­self later as invalu­able. Just like Pop proved to be the best teacher a new­bie in the out­back could wish for. Every­thing I needed to learn about my new coun­try I learnt from Pop and Mack.

As I walk toward the bull I see a cloud of dust bil­low­ing in the dis­tance. Briefly I think it is another dust devil and later I wish that it were. Soon I rec­og­nize a motor­bike head­ing in my direc­tion. The feel­ing of dis­quiet returns and over­whelms my whole body like a tsunami hit­ting the shore. The post­man is a new bloke, young and with skin com­plex­ion too fair for this part of the world. He looks like he’s been carved out of giant block of feta cheese and sprin­kled with ground paprika.

‘G’Day Mr. Shmmm…,’ and he stops unable to pro­nounce my sur­name. I wave at him indi­cat­ing that he should stop twist­ing his tongue. Years ago Pop would get annoyed with peo­ple who got my name wrong. That was until I told him that ‘they can call me a jam jar, for all I care, as long as they don’t break me.’ The young postie handed me a slip to sign.

Moments later I was hold­ing a reg­is­tered let­ter from Inter­na­tional War Crimes Tri­bunal post­marked from Hague, Hol­land. It has been many years in com­ing. I walk over to the sparse shade of the mallee bush and open the let­ter. After I read it I fold it in half and put it in my shirt pocket.

I climb up the metal bars of the hold­ing pen and sit above the old bull. We look at each other briefly. His brown eyes betray the last traces of hope. He starts thrash­ing, his eyes rolling in panic. He senses the end. If this old bull knows that there are only sec­onds left to live then my boys must have known too. I see their faces in the crowd of beaten men. Their scared eyes are search­ing for me.

As I point the gun between the horns, the crisp paper of the let­ter is rustling in my pocket. The enve­lope is whis­per­ing to me, telling me again every­thing I just read. It was a let­ter I was hop­ing never to receive but knew that it was com­ing. I was like a child who heard a bed­time story about the big bad wolf and then met one for real.

The mon­sters could not look them in the face. They shot them at the back of the head. Their hands were tied with wire and they were taken to the for­est in pairs. Did any of three hun­dred and twelve men try to run? Did they cry, plead for help? Or did they col­lec­tively resign them­selves to their fate? I imag­ine that hope­less­ness spread like wild­fire among the con­demned men. It is said that is com­mon when col­lec­tive fear grips peo­ple and paral­y­ses them.

Which one of my boys fell to the ground first, while the other lis­tened to the bul­let burst­ing through the head, crack­ing the base of the skull, exit­ing on the other side and smash­ing the facial bones to pieces.

My fin­ger is frozen on the trig­ger. In my mind I see the bul­let leave the cham­ber and travel through the bar­rel. It enters the bull’s brain and con­tin­ues down his spine ren­der­ing him dead in one pre­cise hit.

The bull falls side­ways and his heavy body hits the dirt rais­ing red dust. There is a moment when I almost expect the bull to stand up and say to me defi­antly ‘one bul­let is not enough for me mate’. But it’s never hap­pened. I have done this many times and my hand, despite my age, was always steady and my eyes sharp. There is a skill to killing an ani­mal this way. And every skill is just a mat­ter of num­ber of repetitions.

After­ward the thud and the gun­shot rever­ber­ate through my body and the whiff of gun­pow­der streams through my nos­trils hit­ting the most hid­den cham­bers in my brain, momen­tar­ily putting me on a high.

Mack would always look away dur­ing these moments. When I am done he would give me one of those stares with which he asks me if the same fate awaits him when he becomes old and decrepit and not able to run. Later I’d whis­per to his big ears that we all are going to end some day.

This time Mack does not take his eyes away from me. He is sur­prised as I am. There is no shot, no gun­pow­der and no thud of 700-kilo bull. I climb down and let the bull out of the pen and he runs with a furi­ous step, nos­trils snorting.

Pop told me that he used to cut the car­casses of his dead cat­tle into fist size chunks and inject the meat with poi­son 1080. The meat would be scat­tered around the edge of the pad­dock in a five-kilometre radius.

‘We believed it to be the only way to pro­tect the stock from packs of roam­ing wild dogs that tear the faces off calves before they eat them.’

He said that he stopped doing that when he saw a poi­soned dog con­tort­ing in agony. While he talked about the dam­age this poi­son does to other ani­mals I switched off and won­dered if there is poi­son num­ber 1079 and 1081. How many poi­sons did we cre­ate to sub­ju­gate nature?

‘It takes those wild bas­tards a whole day and night to die.’ Pop inter­rupted my think­ing, shak­ing his head and not look­ing me into eyes. We both now have elec­tric fenc­ing and Pop keeps say­ing that we ought to get some live­stock guardian dogs.

‘Bas­tard or not, no one deserves to die like that.’ Pop concluded. 

But Pop was wrong. There are demons in the shape of men out there that deserve to die a death just like that and a thou­sand times worse. On their knees twitch­ing in a cold sweat while poi­son tears through their insides, froth­ing at their mouths and bleed­ing from their eyes for days.

Pop’s ute is an old Holden with a bench seat and col­umn shift. We’ve been trav­el­ling for a cou­ple of hours and the land­scape to Mel­bourne is grad­u­ally chang­ing from red to green. I look back at the sweep of blue gums that we are leav­ing behind us and like an orphan child I find myself miss­ing the mother who adopted me.

Mack is sit­ting in the mid­dle with his head on my lap. He knows some­thing is up and he’s been qui­etly whin­ing since we started the trip.

‘You’ll be all right with me for cou­ple of weeks Mack, won’t you mate?’ Pop asks him to reas­sure both Mack and me. He then changes the sub­ject and tells me about the bull.

‘The vet said that the eye oper­a­tion went well. He reck­ons he removed all the can­cer from the eye. Evi­dently the bull’s crank­i­ness went out together with cancer.’

I man­age to open my mouth and thank Pop.

At the air­port I kneel down and talk softly to Mack. I can hear the spongy blink­ing of his eyes through the com­mo­tion of travellers.

Before we say good­bye Pop hands me a jar full of red dirt. I look at him, unsure.

‘So your boys always have a piece of you with them.’ He says and hugs me. As we embrace, Mack pro­trudes his muz­zle between us and lets out a soft bark.

#