Excerpt from Sing Fox to Me

Words by Sarah Kanake

Pictures by Jennifer McGowan

Published on November 9, 2012

Mestengo

Jonah liked his grandfather’s property because it wasn’t like home. Here the air smelt thick, the trees were thin and sleepy, and the sun trickled instead of poured. There were no mosquitoes breeding in the folds of the waters surface, no pelicans or seagulls, and no splashing children. His grandfather’s mountain was still and Jonah liked the stillness because he could break it whenever he wanted. He could break it with crushing feet, and snapping branches. He could break it with his voice. Sometimes he would skip his voice out across the dark surface of the dam and hear it grow large.

‘Jonah,’ he would shout and his voice would fill every silence. Everything was Jonah. The dam was Jonah and the bush. Every tree was like one of his fingers.

‘JONAH, skip, skip… ‘Jonah.’

Then everything would go back to being still.

If anyone ever dragged the bottom of the dam they would find hundreds of Jonah scattered around the hard body of the mustang. But not even the mustang could disturb the quiet for long and that was why, after watching the bronze body disappear into the watery darkness, Jonah decided to drown the entire string.

After looking through his toy box Jonah decided that the wire stock horse would be next. Drowning a horse needed planning, and privacy, and every time he tried someone would disturb him.

The first time he brought the stock horse to the dam Murray was fishing and the next time he was floating in a small boat reading. Both times Jonah slipped away without letting Murray see him.

This time would be different.

‘Where are you going?’ his sister asked. She was skinning potatoes over the kitchen sink and her hands were covered in chalky brown mud.

‘For a walk.’

‘Where?’

‘Just around.’

Sylvia dug the peeler into the side of the potato and Jonah watched as the outer skin slipped away exposing the hard white flesh. ‘Be careful,’ she said.

With the stock horse concealed in the side pocket of his jacket Jonah followed the dirt track down the mountain and towards the dam. It was early afternoon and even though the sun was still in the sky, the air was cold and slithered under his clothes. Tiny fleshy bumps appeared on his skin.

‘Queenie…’

Jonah stopped and listened.

‘Queenie.’

The voice belonged to Samson and it sounded like he was walking back towards the house.

‘Come on girl.’

Jonah had tried twice to explain to Sam that the dog was deaf but his brother didn’t get it.

‘There’s no point talking to her,’ said Jonah, ‘she won’t hear you.’

‘There are deaf kids at special school,’ said Sam, ‘I sign to them.’

‘She doesn’t know sign language.’

‘That’s okay,’ said Sam, ‘she can learn.’

Jonah pressed himself up against a large tree and waited.

‘Queenie…’

Slowly the sound of his brother’s voice diminished and with a quick look behind Jonah left the tree and followed the rest of the track to the dam.

Murray was there, like always. This time he was standing at the bank flinging his rod into the water and pulling it out again. One hand coaxed the line through the reel and the other held the rod. When he pulled the line back in it would spool out beneath him.

‘Caught anything?’

‘Not today.’

Murray pulled the line along the length of the rod, flicked therod back over his shoulder, and sent the end out over the water. The lure split the surface and disappeared.

‘Any fish in there?’

‘I’m fishing, aren’t I?’

They stood together quietly and Jonah watched the light trickle from the sky into the murky surface of the dam.

‘Did you ever come here with my dad?’

‘Dam wasn’t here then,’ said Murray. ‘Clancy got it dug after he shot through.’

‘He’s a great dad,’ said Jonah, ‘takes me fishing all the time.’

‘Good for him.’

His dad only took Jonah fishing once and he spent most of the day writing things down in his stupid notebook and they didn’t catch a single fish.

‘Is it still call fishing if you don’t catch a fish?’ said his father and it wasn’t a question because he used the voice they all hated, everyone except Sylvia. Sam called it “the teacher voice”.

‘Dad, I don’t know how to do this bit with the bait?’

‘Just remember how I showed you,’ said his father withoutlooking up from his notebook.

‘But it doesn’t make sense the way you showed me.’

‘It most certainly does make sense.’

That night they ate fish and chips in the car.

Murray flung the rod up and over his body as if it were an extension of his arm.

‘Are you an Aborigine?’ asked Jonah.

‘Your mob say Indigenous Australian now, mate.’

‘Do you play the didgeridoo?’

He didn’t answer and Jonah wondered if Murray’s skin could blush.

‘What about corroborees? Do you go to corroborees?’

The line flicked up over Murray’s shoulder and back into the water again. It was like watching a needle pulling thread through the surface of the dam.

‘I learnt about aborigines in school, except my teacher said that there are no more real aborigines left in Tasmania.’

Jonah watched as Murray wound in the line, this time using the reel instead of his hand. He slipped the rubber lure from around the hook and dropped it into the tackle box at his feet. The lure looked like jelly. Murray closed the lid on the tackle box, clipped the plastic latch, and picked it up.

‘You going?’

Instead of answering him Murray turned and started towards the walking track.

With Murray gone again, Jonah quietly said, ‘fuck you.’

Instead of taking the stock horse to the water right away Jonah decided to take advantage of Murray’s absence. He followed the same track around the dam he used the first time, but this time, instead of crossing over the mouth of the creek, he followed it into the scrub.

It didn’t take long for the bush to close in around him. There were ferns everywhere. Jonah tried to avoid them by walking closer to the creek.

Everything smelt hidden.

Jonah wondered if Murray ever hid anything around the dam, or did corroborees in the bush. He was pretty sure that Murray wanted to hit him back at the dam and Jonah wished he had because then Clancy would fire him and Jonah could move into the shack.

The creek bed was made from hundreds of warm stones that grew larger and colder the further he went. Samson would love it, all these pebbles and rocks, each one a different shape and colour. Jonah decided never to tell his brother about the riverbank.

He could just say Murray hit him. Except that Clancy seemed to like him, and Murray had been on the mountain for a long time. Jonah needed proof.

That was when he saw the branch.

The low hanging branch was thick enough to pull back without breaking and thin enough to whip him across the face. He pushed on the base of the branch and let it go. He ducked when it sprang towards him.

This was his answer.

Jonah stood in front of the tree and closed his eyes. He told himself he could do it. He was use to pain from the boys at school and sometimes even from his sister so he pushed onto the base of the branch and let it go. It flicked over his head and Jonah darted out of the way.

‘No.’

He pushed against the base of the branch again and this time closed his eyes. He was just about to let the branch go for the third time when he heard a crack behind him like a twig breaking.

Jonah turned. ‘Hello?’

The bush was silent.

‘Hello?’

Another crack, this time closer.

‘Who’s there?’

He leant down, trying to push himself into the safety of the tree and the branch snapped. His heart was pounding.

Then there she was, that stupid dog of Clancy’s. Queen or whatever her name was. She saw him and growled.

‘Get lost, dog.’

The skin around her mouth curled back and she bared her teeth. Her nose shifted. Jonah could see the dog’s gums. He wanted to run but he read somewhere that you should never try and outrun a hostile animal.

‘Bad dog,’ he said, his voice shaking.

The dog barked and her voice was inside him like a rock falling into the dam. He wanted to cover his ears but he was afraid that moving might make her angry and when she barked again he remembered his father and the horse and the truck backfiring.

‘Her name’s Patsy,’ said his father and he showed Jonah how to lift himself into the saddle. ‘We can walk them around the paddock, or if you want, the owner is happy for us to ride them along the road.’

‘The road?’ asked Jonah and he felt the safety and freedom trapped inside the leather of the saddle.

They followed the road for almost half an hour before the truck came up from behind them. Jonah could feel the fear shudder up through the horse’s body, starting from her feet and disappearing in the space behind her twitching ears. When the truck backfired Jonah saw the horse’s eyes roll around white. He mouth opened and he saw teeth. He shouted something to her and the horse reared back, kicking her front legs out from underneath them both. Terrified Jonah dug his legs into her side and tried to hold on.

Her head came down and her neck stretched out and it was nothing like any horse he had seen in pictures or movies. For the few moments Jonah managed to hold the horse’s body into him Jonah became part of something powerful. He was a wild horse and he was strong and fast and could outrun the gunshot sound of the truck and anything else that made him feel afraid.

The dog barked again and something inside Jonah shifted.

‘Dog,’ he said and what he meant was that she was just a dog and he was something better. He was something powerful. Jonah felt the fear slip from around him and tumble to the ground, as if he were shedding his skin.

Jonah titled his head back, bared his teeth and growled.

The dog lunged.

Jonah felt fur and then he was tumbling backwards and the branch was between them. There was a loud yelp and the dog tried to fling herself back but the sharp end of the branch was in her belly. Blood pooled over his waist and thighs. He let the branch go and shuffled backwards, trying to get out from underneath her body.

The dog yowled but she was skewered. She turned her body from side to side, back and forth. Each movement sunk the branch in deeper. She tried to jump backwards, pushing with her back legs but she couldn’t pull her body off the branch. She yowled once more and was still.

Jonah waited. The bush was silent.

‘Dog?’

He could still the wails of the dog hanging in the air.

Jonah closed his eyes and tried to think. She was dead. He killed it. This wasn’t like the kookaburra. He didn’t want the dog for his pack and he couldn’t hide something this big. What was he going to do? Maybe he could drag her down to the dam and lay her body next to the mustang. Maybe he could make it look like she killed herself by accident.

Jonah opened his eyes. He had never seen something dead before.

Almost every story their father told them had something dead in it. Jonah remembered listening to his father telling Sam about the real Samson and the lion he killed and how it filled with bees and he wondered if he could get the bees to nest inside Clancy’s dog. At least then they could all eat the honey.

Maybe the dog wasn’t dead yet. Maybe she was just sleeping.

Jonah crept forward on his knees. Blood oozed from the hole in her stomach and down the branch. Jonah looked down at his clothes, there was blood everywhere. The dog’s eyes were still open and Jonah tried to look into them. They were bluish white, like drops of ice. He waited for her to blink but she didn’t.

He reached out towards the body.

There was a rustle behind him. ‘Who’s that?’

No answer.

‘Sam?’

Nothing.

‘Hello?’

Then he saw it. Two black eyes from beneath the ferns. The voice behind the eyes growled.

‘It’s okay’ said Jonah. ‘I promise I didn’t mean it.’

The growling deepened.

‘I won’t hurt you.’

Jonah took a step back. A branch cracked beneath his foot. The eyes opened, ferns bent back, and Jonah saw teeth.