Fifty years ago the river flowed deep and brown between steep banks, the glint of fish and the glitter of gum leaves shimmering under summer rain. Under the mud of a thousand rotted trees, the bones of a million small lives, the still slow silence of the black cold depths, the wind rested.
Now the river is a trickle; the fish lie gasping in fetid pools, the unrelenting sun burns the river bed to a snakeskin pavement of cracked earth, and the thirsty farmlands stretch away to either side, their cotton and their fruit trees withered away. There is no more water to steal.
Beside the dead river stands a farm house. It belonged to Emily’s grandfather, and now she’s here, gathering what’s left of his life. Peeling weatherboard, yellowed curtains, a long verandah looking over what used to be a garden. A few deep-rooted gums, a small, empty dam: a tank holds enough for a few days’ stay.
It’s not hard work. By early afternoon, Emily’s packed the dusty kitchen utensils and plates into a cardboard box, for the thrift shop, and put the contents of the wardrobe and drawers – flannelette shirts, work-stained trousers, blue singlets and threadbare underclothes – into garbage bags. It’s one of those autumn days that’s not too cold, not too hot, the sky a cornflower blue, so she sits out on the verandah, puts her feet on the old wooden rail, and looks down towards the river bed.
As the evening fades in, the wind rises, gentle as an old woman. It caresses the bleached paddocks, brushes the tops of the gum trees with its dry lips, curls around the house and slides over the tin of the roof, sighing. Emily feels the first chill of winter’s kiss, faint around her collarbone. A flurry of tiny birds lifts from the dirt of the yard and wheels away, cloud-wise.
It’s time to go in. She closes the old wooden door, thinks about locking up, doesn’t. This place is a long way from anywhere, at the end of a track it takes her half an hour to drive down, and then there’s only more sepia farmland and a road to nowhere much, a few skinny sheep looking in puzzlement up at her as if to say, where did you come from?
Once the sun’s down, there’s a bite in the air, so she decides to light the fire. She makes a small teepee out of newspapers she found stacked in the shed – some going back to the 1930s – and twigs, and holds a match to them. The chimney sucks greedily at the flames – she hopes there are no bird’s nests in there, after all this time unused.
Once she has the fire lit, she sits before it, in her grandfather’s beat-up rocking chair, and listens to it hiss and chew. Outside, the wind rattles the door like a stranger in the night. Her grandfather’s ghost, she thinks with an irrational shiver – and then shrugs it off and makes herself a cup of tea.
That night she dreams that dark, wet shapes swirl on the wind, that the night sky flows like water in flood, poison green, fungus yellow. She dreams that the wind scuttles under the eaves, and slithers through the cracks and crevices of the house, heavy as pestilence. She opens her eyes to the dawn breaking pale through her window, and in her muddled half-sleep, she sees the trees leaning in towards her, like a warning.
She blinks out from the bed clothes for half an hour, uneasy and cold, then slides back to sleep.
Later, she makes strong coffee and takes it outside. The wind has dropped to a murmur, picking lightly at her hair. The dregs of the cup are bitter, so she goes to the rail to throw them out, and her eye catches on a scattering of ragged shapes below. It’s the birds, the tiny round-bodied finches she saw in the yard the day before, but they’re all dead, their tiny feet stiff as kindling, their feathers oddly luminous.
She steps carefully down stairs – the timber’s half-rotten – and squats down for a closer look. She can’t imagine what could have killed them all – thirty or more, all at once. There’s no sign of injury, just a greenish pallor that reminds her of fridge-mould. She picks up their tiny feathery bodies with dishwashing gloves and puts them in a plastic shopping bag, feeling sickened. If God sees a single sparrow fall and grieves, how about thirty?
She cleans the house, scrubbing down fifty years of neglect Thank God it was outside, down by the river, where he did it – she couldn’t have brought herself to clean up bloodstains, let alone stay alone in a house where someone had killed themselves. She tries to remember him in happier times, pottering around the yard, but she’s beginning to understand how he must have felt, in his later years. There is something ominous about this place, something more than lonely.
As night falls, the wind begins to rise again. She thinks she hears voices, hissing, snarling. They sing of cattle trampling the land like giant locusts, and starving by stagnant pools. They sing of fat green fields fed on the river’s blood, while far below, the great lightless lakes drain to deserts. They sing of dark water.
She hurries to light the fire, and sits close to it as she can, as primitive humans used to, for protection more than warmth. Behind the clouded glass of the firebox, something scrabbles and claws in the shaft – just metal expanding in the heat, she tells herself, peering into the flames.
There’s no TV out here, so she opens a book she brought, resolutely reads it, despite the fear scratching at her shoulder. It’s just a wind, she tells herself – just a wind. Still, she gets up and locks the door, against what, she doesn’t know. Outside, it lifts and grows, wrapping itself around the flimsy walls, making the fire flicker and leap. She hears it crying up from the river, a whining, warning sirens’ song of dread and invitation.
She can’t stand it, just sitting there, with the night scrabbling outside. She gets up, opens the door, finds it torn from her and flung wide, and then there’s a thud and a snap, and a body lands at her feet. Emily jumps and screams – but it’s just a possum that’s fallen down from the roof. It’s young, and very dead. Its round eyes stare at nothing, blank and shining.
The wind drops. But the air has a strange smell, noxious and sharp at the same time, acid on carrion. She looks down at the dead possum: its fur glows faintly, greenly. The verandah railings are coated in a luminous frost. She shuts the door quickly, and piles more wood on the fire.
This time, when she goes to bed, Emily makes sure that the door is locked and that all the windows are shut and bolted. Even so she can’t get to sleep. The wind chants and mutters, weaving a spell of black mud and dead trees, poison water and sour air. She stares out, all the long night, at the square of window, and imagines that the dry river is rising, spreading its dark waters up over the bare paddocks and over the rotten steps. It carries the bones of birds and trees, cattle and kangaroos. It calls to her.
In the morning she buries the possum in the long-gone garden, and loads the boxes and bags into the car. She walks down to the river and stands on the cracked mud, no sign of any flow here, not even a puddle of standing water.
In the bright autumn sun, the last night’s imaginings seem absurd. She thinks about calling Tim, her boyfriend – asking him to come out and spend the last night with her here. There are still a few things to wrap up before the real estate agent comes to value the place, and she’d rather not be alone again, in the dark. But really – why not? It’d be pretty hard to explain on the phone – and anyway, there’s no mobile reception, she’d have to drive for miles in hopes of picking up a signal. One more night. It won’t kill her.
This time she locks herself in before the sun dims, and turns all the lights on, and sets the fire, and sets up her ipod dock to play Fleetwood Mac, something cheerful and shallow. But through it all, under the music and behind the light and flame, there’s an underlay of ill-intent, a low, warning note that seems meant for her ears only. Emily decides not to go to bed, after all, but to stay by the fire, under the unblinking gaze of the electric light. Tomorrow she will leave, drive back to the city, get her mind in order.
But in the small hours, when the fire is low and red, a soft voice snatches at the door, snuffles at the timbers. She wakes with a start, in the old rocking chair, and thinks she hears it whining, the words from a fairytale she remembers from childhood.
Let me in, let me in, little pig, or I shall huff and puff and blow your house down.
She pulls the blankets around her and wrenches open the door to the fire box. She grabs cut logs and stuffs them into the coals, then newspaper, to make them catch, until fire bursts forth red and hot on to the hearth. She backs away, as it eats up the old coir hearth-rug, and begins to blacken the floorboards, seeking out the cracks between them. She watches, her back to the door, as it climbs her grandfather’s settee and sweeps up the yellow net curtains. The heat forces her out on to the verandah, not dark now, but washed in seething red. She stumbles down the steps and they disintegrate behind her. She runs down towards the river in her night things, dropping the blanket in the yard.
When she gets to the river bank, the red light from the house illuminates a torrent, a roaring flood of darkness. She glances back and sees the sky roiling with colour, corpse green, neon-blue, poison yellow, and flames rushing over the dry grass towards her like a hungry wolf. Sparks catch on her hair, smoke blinds her, and the black river surges up towards her bare feet.
The wind gathers her up like new-killed veal, and the river opens its mouth to receive.