It was a part of the country you forgot about until you were back in the middle of it. Then, thirty miles past the turnoff, how the familiar shape of the land took hold. there were the low yellow hills, rumpled like old carpets, rising up on either side of the car and falling back into paddocks, hillocks. Their worn sides were threadbare, showing grey earth through the thin grass, and not soft to lie on. In places, rocks jutted out like boards, or bone.
Even though you could drive for hours, the woman thought, on bland roads, you would come back to this. For miles the scenery outside the car window had been flat and clean as wallpaper but now there was this cut in the hills, dry shingle track. Deeper and deeper into the interior it followed the knuckled line of the land. There was no space for turning. people who took this route didn’t change their minds that way: they left, or they came back.
For them, travelling only in one direction was a law of nature — and as she drove further inland the woman felt the tightness of her compass heart. There was no going back for her either. This was where she belonged. She remembered.
Since leaving the city this morning and travelling north, what had started as a journey had become her own return. Time had changed. The dawn lifting over the city felt like it belonged to another day, and the long highway that led from it. All she knew were these hills, the high flat plain beyond them, the past the future trammelled together by this thin road. She shifted into a lower gear as she felt the car pull back against the incline of the next few yards ahead. All her minutes were here, with the stick, the clutch, all her hours. For a second the motor failed to catch and stalled, whirring, before the gear engaged and the weight of the car’s body was forced onwards again, upwards. Slowly, mile by mile, the land gained height. Chips from the road sprang up and hit the windscreen, stones jagged under the chassis. For some time it seemed she was making no progress but still the woman pushed the car further up against the incline, the sides of the hills pressing in, steeper and steeper the road, higher and higher until suddenly the land fell away and the blue sky, icy with its winter sun, was around her. No one would ever find her here. Even from the high saddle there was no sign of the way she’d come, no path, no road, only the bent backs of the hills repeating themselves, over and over, on one side of the road, all the way to the western mountains, on the other to the sea.
Now for the woman it was as if she had never been away. The house in the suburbs belonged to someone else, its lawn clipped close as felt. She remembered how grey the lawn had been in the early morning, and moist, her footsteps marked upon it. The woman who had left the house had not used the path. She had closed the front door and walked towards the car; left the racks of tightly fitted clothes behind her, and the baking pans and tins that gleamed — perhaps some other pretty bride could get the use. Let her go through the cupboards. Let her finger the linen, try on shoes and fancy underwear, use the creams. The one who’d left these things would never want them back. She’d driven through the whole day to get from grey dawn to this yellow afternoon.
She stopped the car, for a minute, to see. All around her the land lay vivid in the light. Although it was late in the day she was too far in high country now for there to be any shadows. Sun streaked the hills and the mountains in the distance were sharp and blue as if they’d been clipped from tin. How far there? What road could take you? As a girl she had always imagined herself walking around blue mountain forests, iced with snow and frost — if only the road she knew could take her there, if only, she had thought then, there could be that choice. Now she realized the mountains were no more a fairytale than any other place. The frost glittering in places, the bright frozen leaves. These were brilliants she’d already worn. The snow her white dress, the cold sheets spread across the bed, and the window with the moon in it a pane of ice. The future was simply a set of parts you didn’t yet possess. You struggled to lay claim, and the minute you had one you had the rest. Not so the past. That was already deep in: it was this place, earth and sky, these creased hills. It was the few sheep picking at grass along the side of the road for comfort. he woman wound down the window to smell the tang of their wool in the cold air. The past, from now on, was where she always wanted to be.
There wasn’t much further to go. She started the engine again, pressing down a little harder on the accelerator. Now that the slow ascent was behind her what was left of the journey would be easy. She increased her speed as the road along the tops lengthened in front of her, wider than before and level. As she drove further west, sun filled the car. It played about the woman’s hands resting on the wheel and fell in a bright ribbon across the back seat where her babies were sleeping. In the rear view mirror she saw them, the girls with their brother carefully between them.
`Good children.’ Silently their mother mouthed the words, practising.
`You’ve been very, very good’
After all this time they still felt so new. Eleven years had passed since the eldest had been born, and yet even now she felt the longing to rouse them, feel the weight of their bodies in her arms. Was that how it was for a mother? To need to bear your babies for your proof?. She wanted so much to keep them to herself, the girls, solemn and dark as strangers, and the tiny boy with quiet watching eyes. Maybe, from now on, the woman hoped, the chance would be there to hold them, be that close.
`Good children,’ she practised again.
By taking them back with her, perhaps they would become part of her memory, and not loosen from her mind.
`You’re my own children.’
They were all she wanted to keep. The rest were trappings. Like the city shoes that had crippled her feet and left prints in the soft grass, her other possessions had made her false and cruel. The fitted band of diamonds said it: Liar. If she could wrench it from her finger now she would, for days she’d been trying to remove it, soap and water, oil, but all lubricants had failed and it remained embedded, as if, like a husband, she was not supposed ever to let it go. The only way to get rid of the thing now was to cut. Clip the band, throw the bright broken bit to the air and let some bird take it for a nest. Have nothing lest. From now on she wanted only the memories of her mother’s soft cotton dresses, the smell of them washed in soap and left outside on the line to dry. She would have only bare feet, bare hands and her own eyes for brightness. It was a mother’s house she wanted for her babies, not a husband’s A familiar place. There would be thin curtains billowing at the window in the morning sunshine, the paper blind tapping on the glass in a slight breeze and the print of the window-frame upon it each time it touched. There would be summer and autumn and winter and spring, endless blue days, some with frost and others with the hot smell of grass in them and hay, but apart from that all the days the same and wide as air with nothing in them. *
As she drove she felt more and more these promises of her destination. Her hands on the wheel felt them, and her keen eyes trained on distance. There would be the final curve of the road, the dip in the land … In her mind she was already there. Now she was driving up the main street, passing Farm Supplies, and the milk bar where the kids hung around outside, sipping cokes and smoking. How quiet it was, and the little shops seemed closed. On the shadowy side of the street the thin iron colonnades outside Dalgety’s stood in a row, the pretty glass roof broken in bits, and a brittle wind coursing through it. In the store windows were the swathes of patterned cloth she remembered, the tilted mannequin dressed in a cocktail gown, the twisted metal stand of hats. She tried to look inside for more but it was dark. In her mind she crossed the street, but though it was sunny and warm enough to sit on the bench outside the post office, there was nobody there. The glass cabinet outside had a notice pinned inside it advertising postal rates for a Christmas long since passed.
`Your last chance for surface parcels.’
`Don’t be late with your greetings.’
Next door, Ballard’s Fruit had the blind pulled down, and in the window of Jim Reed’s the colouring books and boxes of toys were faded and dusty. A bumblebee dozed in a pack of cards, a dead fly rested in the pink lacy lap of a plastic baby doll. The town was exactly as she remembered it. No people in the street, empty shops, nothing in the world to buy. Though to a visitor the town may have seemed shocked timeless by an unexpected death, for the woman it was as if her return had been arranged. The poor toys and favours were not gaudies for a grave but mementoes. As she dreamed, it seemed even the thin wind in the street was an echo, her own lovely refrain.
The empty bottle rolling along the footpath, the ruffle of paper rubbish in the gutter.
The road had opened out by now, the narrow track had given way to a band of tarmac that was smooth and long. A low bank of grass grew on either side with fenceposts behind, fixed up with wire. She knew she was getting closer then. Though the paddocks were empty and the wood on the fenceposts so worked and softened with moss one quick push could bring the whole line down, even so they meant some farmer had put them there. He would be back. Soon, she would see a house. Then another. Then she’d feel the dip n the land and the turn as the road began curving up into town.
In the back seat, one of the children shifted in sleep.
The woman pressed down on the accelerator. She knew this part of the plain. She recognized the squeak of the wire on the posts. As a girl, she’d climbed over them: one foot on the base wire, the other on the top. There was the brief blunt cut of the wire printed into her bare soles then she swung one leg over and jumped down the other side. The grass felt thick and soft.
She knew exactly where she was. There were the clumps of toi toi up ahead, gathered together in clumps along the banks where the land scooped out in a shallow bowl.
Without turning her head she put her fingers to her lips and whispered, `Look.’ She pointed out the window. `They all belong to me.’
Along the bank the toi toi had gathered, hundreds of them, to welcome her. They waved their soft braided heads, pale blond like the hair of babies, each seeded strand combed by the thin breeze. When she had been a child she’d played with them, straddled their cane stems, ridden them like horses through the hills. She’d plaited the blond manes, kissed their heads.
There now, easy.
Even now she could hear them whinny and snort as they gathered around her, her tall palaminoes.
Good girl, easy.
How young she’d been then. She’d worn slip dresses cut from her mother’s own, her arms and legs had been left open to the air.
Outside the window of her car the pale horses surrounded her, all their blond heads nodding, dipping in the breeze. She could play with them now.
In the rear-vision mirror her eyes, for a second, caught the eyes of a child who had woken. Was she the same one who had been calling to her? Again the woman had the shock of strangeness, like fear. Who was she? Then she remembered, the present came back at her. She remembered what to do.
Again she put her fingers to her lips, whispered so softly it was like breath.
`We’re nearly there, I’ll wake you when we stop. Sleep now. Don’t disturb the others.’
It must be the second one who had woken. It was the younger girl, who asked questions. In the morning it had been the same.
`But where are we going? How long will it take?’
Born two years after her sister it was as if she had to know why all the time, to be given the comfort of information to make up for being second in line, the one who comes after the procession and picks up, picks up.
`Will we like it? Will there be a school there?’
Always questions, so many words.
`Buy why are we going today? Why now? What made you decide?’
They had stood outside the house in the freezing dawn. Mist rose from the pale grey of the footpath.
`Where will we live? Will we have a house of our own?’ Although the daughter had been whispering, the mother heard the loudness of accusation in her words. Anyone might hear; across the grey lawn, inside the house a husband, sleeping, might hear the questions through his dreams.
`Why are we leaving so early, Mummy? Why isn’t Daddy coming too?’
The light outside the car window had blanched now, shadows made troughs in the back hills, the sun that had played about the woman’s hands had gone. Up ahead the road curved, no signpost to mark it, no map. She had come this far. With all the questions in the world, no one would ever guess she had brought her children here.
Finally it had been the older girl who had managed to silence the other. When the last bag was stacked in the boot, the last cardboard box squashed into the space on the back shelf, she ran into the house and came out carrying the baby. Without a word she put him, bundled in a blanket, into her sister’s arms. That was when the mother and the daughters knew that the words were finished between them. The mother had opened the car door and the girls climbed in, took the baby between them. She’d closed the door after them, then she herself slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. Before it was properly light she had pressed down the clutch and eased the gears through first, second, down the driveway.
In third she had moved the car, soundlessly it seemed, thought the sleeping suburban streets. In fourth she had left the city. Seventy miles an hour on the main roads to put the distance down, fifty from the turnoff, dropping down when the surface was bad. Back out along the high country she’d made an easy sixty. There was so much time to lose n the miles she left behind.
`You can do anything with your life,’ that’s what everyone had always told her.
Alright, so she would do it now. After all the years, after all the strange city women with their powdered scented cheeks, their whisperings in her ear, `You’re so very, very young.’ After falling in love, and marriage, and the tightness of the ring … here, amongst her familiar hills, with the dark coming up behind, she knew what to do.
`Are we going where you lived with your mother? Will we like it there?’
That morning she had pressed her cold face up against her second daughter’s cold face.
`Please, please,’ she’d whispered. `No more questions now.’
Tonight they would be back there, that was all. it was simple Though the woman driving the car had buried her mother years ago the house she had grown up in would be there and they could claim it; they would open the door. Though it would be night when they arrived they would be comforted by the surround of its `walls, the planes of window and door. One by one they would walk into unoccupied rooms, feel the shape of the house form around them. room by room, in the dark, they would feel it. The woman driving the car had this knowledge in herself; fate. Home.
Copyright ” 1999 by Kirsty Gunn. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.