Andy Kovacic (University of Oxford, United Kingdom)
Buggered horse in stable needs water that you don’t have. You must shovel it up from the earth—spend all night digging holes in the reddening paddocks, digging till you hear the gentle suck of water pulled forth by the moon. There’s something Godly about finding water, more glorifying than making fire. Fire had its moment way back when in the cave years. Now all we want is something to douse our heads and keep us cool; we’ve become always too warm for sleep and affections. You thought about all this way out there in the “Never Never” of this chewed-out land, siphoning water into heavy buckets with rags. The lone animal on the farm, the last living remains, nickers noisily from his stable. He has his head out the window, nose flared like a flower in bloom and eyes looking down on you. It’s like he’s saying: Hurry up, you. I’m thirsty.
On this same day, Carpetbagger comes late. You have no coins left, so you must pay your dues in crocodile teeth and opal buttons. You are relieved to see others have left similar offerings in his rucksack: myrtle seeds, broken watches, and even dried goanna hearts. We are all baking under the cloudless sky, together struggling but somehow together alone in it all. As Carpetbagger leaves with your trinkets, you spit in the dusty tracks of his cart, and after his departure, you feel the overwhelming desire to walk around the “neigh-bour-hood” and relive how it used to be. You haven’t been out of your trap for a while and you wonder if everyone has all but packed up for the Coast, where it’s been said that the salt in the air from the undrinkable waters stings the eyes to tears—another thing that has all but dried up here.
Leaving your buggered horse and choked-out truck, you trudge down the endless red road. You remember, once, not too long ago, the fields around here were blooming so wildly that the cows couldn’t keep up. Grass grew greater than fruit flies do in sweaty summers. Crops looked plastic in their perfect repose. Wildflowers painted the hills in pinks and purples. During the nights, saltless rains would come swift and heavy to make little but steady rivers throughout the fields. Sometimes, when you blocked out the sound of the sizzling sun, you could reimagine the blub of the waters lazily snaking around pasture. But that’s just the way things used to be.
On the road, after a long stretch of nothingness, you reach the first household. It’s a modest timber bungalow blanketed by cobwebs. You walk up the winding gravel drive, not unlike your own, and peer through the windows. It appears the rats have gotten to the floorboards. There’s a rusted rifle on the kitchen counter. Another one bites the dust. Continuing down the road, you happen across a girl at what seems to be a make-shift lemonade stand. When you get closer, you find there is no lemonade at all but only buckets of dried-up flowers white like bone or that petrified coral washed ashore on beaches. There is no one else in sight. It is just you, the girl, and the road.
You nod at the flowers.
“How much can you give?”
“Nothing of worth.”
“Anything is worthy these days.”
“You speak old for a kid. Where’s your parents?”
“Home.” She points at a long, tyre-marked causeway. “The dairy farm down ‘ere.”
“No more milk?”
“No more cow,” she says sadly.
“And the flowers?”
“Last of the season.”
“More like last of the century …. Can pay a horseshoe? Fine steel.”
“Is it lucky?”
“Not sure it works that way.”
She shrugs. “Fine, hand it over.”
“Think I should keep walking?”
“Nah, there’s nothing out there to see but desert-ifi-cation.”
As you leave, you look back in time to see the girl put a new signboard on the front of her makeshift shop. In big, childish letters, it reads: Last Flowers of the Centurie.
At home, you burn candles on the verandah and they emit a flaming glow amongst the already flaming sands. You used to have sheep, bundles of them, submerged in the meadows like fallen white clouds. When the drought came, they were the first to go. Next went the goats—you miss them still. They were sociable creatures, playing games with each other like big, happy-go-lucky dogs. Nobody wanted to take them off your hands when it came to the worst. You had to bury their bones by the drying riverbeds. You had to bury them so far beneath us so you couldn’t hear the bleating anymore. You thought a lot about how things used to be. You spent worthless time on the verandah, overlooking dustbowl fields, watching the red darken and intensify. You spent even more worthless time thinking about your great love and the day she disappeared along with the rains.
She wanted to live way out here in the middle of nowhere. She liked the freedom of it, an unobstructed view of the horizon. She called it the Golden Land, and those words spelt the promise of something. You were happy. The animals followed her with big, loving eyes, and you followed her just the same. You knew nothing about farming the earth. You had to research everything about irrigation and crop sourcing. You had to flatten the bush and feed the soil—fed it so much for so little, but eventually you had fat green loam growing all over, and she and you were at peace then. She used to lay out with the animals, picking flowers, basking in the glow of the noonday sun. You watched her. She said once, Togetherness isn’t so hard here.
You almost burnt the fields down the day she disappeared, but by that time, there was nothing much left to burn. The drought came quickly and ravished your greenery, gobbled it down with hot hunger. You wanted to think that the drought took her away from you; the sun sucked her up into the sky, drinking her in like a magical tincture. But you knew that she just couldn’t stand the end of it all. The day the first flock died you gently held her hair up as she expelled her insides into the red dirt turnt slushy wet like blood marinade. Unwatered flowers are prone to breakage and wilt, even native ones. It wasn’t surprising, then, that she decided to leave. You were no longer kind to each other. You were no longer swept together in the watery current of togetherness. You had become too dry for the perseverance of something that was sucking all remaining moisture away.
You swear you’d seen her ghost one night, months later—you saw her dancing in the dark. She had her shoes off, her heels kicked up dust, and you rushed out to meet her. But she danced away from you, so fast that she skipped over the fields with just a few steps. You knew you couldn’t catch her on foot, so you roped up your chestnut, and on horseback, you flew wildly across the fields. She was ahead of you, twirling onwards and onwards, and you shouted out to her, but she kept going, and you could hear peals of laughter in the distance that sounded like mocking—both sad and lovely at the same time. You kicked on through the wild shrubbery, not minding the branches snatching at your face or the welts bubbling up on the skin of your arms. You bled copper and swallowed it. You reached for her, reached for your slice of earthen fertility, reaching for her smile that be just there before you, almost returning, to return, almost, but then, just as suddenly, you fell and crashed down a spiraling ravine veiled by the night’s miasma, and she was nowhere and there was only you and pounding horse flesh and silence. Beaten, lying crumpled in the bottom of a washed-out basin filled with the skeletons of archaic fish, once full of azure spring, you knew she was gone for good and that it was over.
By morning, you had returned with your horse to your barren fields, emerging from the orange smoke of the hot dawn like two limping renegades at the end of a journey. You coaxed him home on a broken hoof. You whispered his name. You dug up water from the depths of the earth to fill his buckets. You cried your last tears of the century into his mane. Somehow, he knew as well as you that his leg would not get better, and the rains would not return.
You’ve left your post on the verandah to return to him now. You leave the fires to burn without you, and the further you recede from the house, the colder it becomes. The horse’s foot is still ballooned like a bulbous onion, but he happily nibbles on the pale flowers you’ve bought: the last flowers of the century. It’s okay, he seems to say to you. Togetherness isn’t so hard here. You wait together, smelling of petals and brine, for the rains to come.
Andy Kovacic is a young writer from the Central Coast, NSW, Australia. She is a graduate of Law and Creative Writing and is currently studying a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University, United Kingdom.