The beard is long, too long for sensible grooming so he has it plaited in three separate strands and looped over; through it all, holding it together, is the leather strip. My leather strip.
“You still have it,” I said.
As eloquent as always. Should I try to draw a few more words out of him? Or should I sit here on the upturned timber bucket – not comfortable at all – and watch as the sun settled into the red and orange and vermillion slashes of colour as the night fights its way onstage.
It’s the best time of the day out here. In the morning the sun begins to sizzle from the moment it breaks free of the horizon. During the day, the whole day, you could cook eggs – no, bugger eggs – you could cook steaks on the single concrete paving slab. He wouldn’t let you, though, because that slab is his front veranda. And the overhang? That’s his version of bullnose.
“The roof still holding up?” I ask.
The grin reaches one side of his face, but the blue-white eyes sparkle with the memory of days and conversations that started that way before.
“Aye. The bullnose still looks good, don’ it, kid.”
That’s my name. It’s the only name he’s ever called me: Kid. Or Hey, Kid. Or Oi, Kid. But always Kid. Even now, it seems, when my hair is grey – okay, it’s white – and his is still that gun-metal blue shimmer. The same colour it was fifty years ago when he rescued me from the ill-conceived notion that I could cross the desert. On foot.
Not a deliberate or planned excursion. My family was on the way from the west of the country to the east, and in the middle of that journey is a long – very long – stretch of flat desert. No trees. Almost no shrubs. In summer, no grass and no animals. Everything else was more sensible than I was. A disagreement, heated and dramatic. I decided to go my own way. I was old enough to make my own decisions.
Fifteen year-old boys always know themselves and the world better than anyone else.
I took a water bottle. Not a metal canister bottle that could be tied to my belt. A plastic one, two litres, from memory. And the first time I drank from it and burned my lips, I cursed my stupidity and turned around to go back. In my head, I planned the words I’d say to make them see sense. That was my focus. How to show humility while not being humble.
And I walked. And walked. And discovered that this flat land wasn’t flat. Each slight rise led to another rise and another and another. Not a desert of sand. Stones. Pebbles. Rocks. All held the heat.
No trees. No shade. No grasses except the sharp spinifex, and the first time I tried to dig under a group of these tussocks and disturbed the snakes and lizards and other things … I won’t tell you how that turned out, but I wasn’t there for long.
I could work out east and west; easy enough given time. I assumed north was … north – but of course, I’d been turned around and it wasn’t north. I was trying to go south to get back to the road, but my mind wasn’t aware of the tracking of the sun from east to west. It just saw the sun in one position and the halo effect of hallucinogenic mirages that gave me the idea that north was south, and south was north.
When it got dark, I looked up from my scuffling forward movement. That was when I realised I’d been going the wrong way. I also realised I wouldn’t make it if I turned around to go back. The plastic bottle that had once contained hot water was nowhere to be seen. It must’ve been too heavy to carry. Like my shirt. Like my jeans. Gone.
Red skin and black sky. I sat down on the only rise that gave a view of the sun as it fought off the darkness. Noises I didn’t know, had never heard before, arced up around me. I didn’t move.
A very faint thought of food was quickly dismissed. It would be quicker without food. Or water. Not that I had the energy to dig. Or a tool. Or the knowledge.
I curled up in a small ball. Slept.
But the desert doesn’t kill you right away. You have to earn it.
I woke up when the sun rose. Animal tracks surrounded the place where I slept. I looked east. If I headed that way, my eyes would burn. No hat – don’t remember if I’d had one to start with. If I walked west, my back would burn – I reached back and discovered it was already blistered. I didn’t feel the pain.
A dingo slunk past, just a shadow among the tussocks. A shadow with teeth. At least I would be of some use when …
Why go anywhere? I sat down with my right side to the east, faced north, drew my name in the sand.
“Here lies the kid who …” Couldn’t think of anything else.
Good name. It was what he saw when he threw me over his shoulder and carried me all the way to his tiny shack in the rocky hollow.
“Hey, Kid. You gonna do somethin’ useful, or you gonna dream it all away?”
I got up to make tea with the fixings I brought. The only thing in the world he missed from the life he’d known as a kid. I did it every year. Once I brought my wife, once my son. Now, I come alone. It is our world.
The dark sky lit up with the millions of pin pricks of light – not white; silver and pewter, blue tones and azurines, greens in avocado and olive and teal. Yellows, too, in many accents. A single tear rolled down my face.
Copyright 5bayby14u 2017.