Autumn: sharp nights, crisp mornings. Dot’s in the laundry, scrubbing clothing under cold tap water. Her fingers ache but outside the sky blues up nicely. From the window she sees Richard bending at the front gate, both hands on his knees. He seems suspended, and Dot raises a soapy hand to her neck; her heart whacks painfully in her chest. Then she sees the little girl, and she realises it’s not a turn, he’s merely bending to be at her height. The girl grins and brings one shoulder to her ear. It must be something Richard is saying, though Richard never says much. He’s not one for strays. Dot looks away, down at the washing tub, the underwear floating like dead fish.
I see you’ve made a friend. She’s stacking crockery in the cupboard, one plate at a time. Her voice is light.
The scrape of his spoon in the bowl; the last of the soup being swallowed.
I hear they’re troubled girls, she says. (They’ve both heard it: Patty McMahon, sitting in that straight-backed wooden chair last week.)
He clears his throat, the soup sticking like glue. Up the hall and out the door. The set of his spine as he goes. But why shouldn’t she say it? The old fool. He’ll be off on one of his long walks down the fence lines. All around the town: flat, treeless paddocks, no shelter to be found.
The dishwashing water is tepid now, the detergent bubbles reduced to a pale surface scum. Dot pulls the plug.
Here’s the girl at the back door, bold as you please. Bright Twisties stains on her teeth and tongue. Dot gives her the once over. He’s not here. Skinny legs, tiny soft hairs like the roadside speargrass blowing in the prevailing south-westerly. The girl shrugs and half-turns to leave; Dot’s eyes snag on the rich globule of blood sliding down her leg.
That’s barb-wire, that is, the girl says, touching her torn shorts. She presses on her thigh and licks the blood from her fingers.
Remember, Dot, scrambling through farm fences when you were young. Not feeling the skin tearing, only later finding the wound.
She reaches out for the girl. Stand still now. Leans in to inspect the ruptured skin. Come here, let’s get that cleaned up.
Header photograph by Larena Nellies-Ortiz.