If You Cut Off Her Head, A Horse Falls Out
Madison stepped out of the smoke, her long hair around her face in the roaring fore wind. The bushfire was still some distance away, but here, ahead of the flames, it was ten degrees hotter than it had been back at her farm. When she shut the truck door, the hot metal raised a line of blisters along her thumb.
“Porky!” she called. Then, quieter, “Dad?”
On the way to the National Forest, she’d told her daughter to get down on the floor and stare at the rubber matting if Porky turned nasty and came at them with a gun.
“I’m shitting meself, Mum,” Caitlin said, almost a teenager. Sarcastic.
“You should be,” Madison said, and there was something in her eyes and something in the razor edge voice that finally got through to Caitlin. Now Madison heard the click of the door lock on the truck over the keening of the wind and the panicked cries of the cockatoos. A dugite slithered by, right under her feet and she shuddered.
Madison ran a wildlife shelter on her farmland. She fed shearers and deloused dogs and drove long distances with dead animals dripping in the tray of the truck. She taped corellas’ wings and carried abandoned joeys in sheepskin pouches she slung around her neck. She worked hard and was proud of her strength.
She avoided family functions, but Caitlin was curious and looked through the mail for news from Madison’s two sisters, Selena and Euryale. Caitlin went to boarding school down in Perth during the school year, and she thought Madison should find out more about the family while records were still available. But Madison didn’t want to. The subjectmade her skin crawl.
Her husband, John, warned her when they’d bought land in Badgingarra that Porky was squatting about twenty kilometres north of them, in the Watheroo National Forest. He said they didn’t have to live that close to her father. They could buy land elsewhere. But Madison knew that the land in Badginagarra was cheap and readily available. Near the coast, rainfall was more likely and the man was twenty kilometres away. She’d shrugged, and they’d bought the block.
People gossiped about Porky in town, but no one knew of their connection. Once, Madison had been parked at the servo, filling her car with petrol, when she heard the tail end of some man ranting on the radio. He’d been going off about the government’s tolerance of Muslim immigrants, and how black-skinned foreigners were stealing the bread out of decent Australians’ mouths, and she’d thought, ‘What a nutjob.’ Then the announcer said, “Thanks for that Porky, but I’m going to have to take another caller.” Her face turned red and sweat broke out all over her body, and she looked around, afraid that everyone knew she was related to him, that there was a flashing neon sign on the roof of her car announcing that she was lunatic Porky’s daughter.
After that, she avoided driving past the National Forest on her way to somewhere. She dropped the wallet containing her last photo of Porky into the dam. And she asked John not to bring her news about her father. It just made her unhappy.
This was not, however, the first time she’d driven up the dirt track to his squat. A few months before the fire, she’d passed his ancient Harley outside the Badgingarra pub, and then, unthinking, driven to where John had said Porky lived, in a humpy hidden deep within the forest. But she couldn’t find the house, and she wasn’t going to go back to look again. She shouldn’t have gone in the first place.
And now, here she was, for the second time, standing in the National Forest, on an errand to find her father. When they’d seen the bushfire, the direction it was heading, she’d pressed John for detailed instructions to Porky’s place. John couldn’t go, though he wanted to; he was busy wetting down their home paddocks and the tin roof of their house.
The bushfire was only a few miles away now. It was hot enough to fry eggs on the dashboard, hotter in the fore wind than she’d ever experienced, and she’d grown up in the country near Fitzroy Crossing, lived through deadly summer after deadly summer. The grass trees shimmied in the heat and smoke rose from them. They were in danger of combustion. The air smelled like cat piss and barbecued lamb and was full of tiny rips of colour: burning embers. Her bare arms were covered in white blisters. The sun’s mouth hung open and a black lick of sunlight fell through the smoke.
Walking toward Porky’s capsizing house, she felt sick and dizzy and afraid. Half-eaten skeletons of some small animals lay scattered around the yard, their bleached spines arching out of the red sand. One had a long ginger striped tail and she saw that it was a cat. Had been a cat. She had the heaves.
Madison’s feet sweated in her thongs. In all the years she’d lived in the bush, she never got used to shoes. She went barefoot unless it was summer and even then only wore the thongs because the sand was too hot to stand on. She never wore make-up, carried kangaroo droppings in the front pockets of her jeans, and her unbrushed hair jutted from her head.
Porky’s house was made of grey weatherboard that had, perhaps, once been painted black. Curls of paint fell off as she watched. The fire, when it arrived, would eat the desiccated wood in a second. One side, where the door used to be, had collapsed. Did Porky climb in through a window? And where was he? Closer, it seemed that thousands of sheets of newspaper had been torn and wadded into the walls, and that was what caused them to swell and bulge as they did. But from these swollen places, even above the howl of the wind, rose a low zuzzing, and, horrified, she saw that the walls formed a massive hive, that the house itself was alive with bees, and what she had earlier thought was flaking paint on the weatherboard was actually a shifting coat of black bees.
Madison drove down to Perth to see Doctor Idle on Wednesdays, and though he encouraged her to talk about her father, she couldn’t. Doctor Idle thought she’d be able to eventually, and he told John that Madison was doing much better. The kangaroo shit in her pockets was not a serious concern and neither was the ever increasing number of burns on her arms.
“At least she feels things,” the doctor said. “That’s a step in the right direction.”
Privately, he told Madison that if she continued burning her arms he would have to report it, and she’d end up in Graylands again, with the crazies. She’d barked at him then, and flapped her invisible crazy wings, and slobbered a little, but underneath, she’d been afraid. She’d stopped putting the iron on her arms a couple of weeks before the bushfire.
Graylands was where she’d been sent when her Mum died. At Katie’s funeral, Madison began walking backwards and couldn’t make herself stop. She’d walked backwards from the cemetery at Wongan Hills, out the gate, down the hill, through the farm machinery dealership and out the other side of town. She’d been picked up by a Poseidon Fisheries truck driver on the road, miles from anywhere, her lips blistered a bright bubble gum pink. She’d still been walking backwards, and he’d tied her to the door handle with a bit of rope until he could get her some help. “Good luck, dolly,” he said, when he handed her over to the police. He gave her a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches from the roadhouse up in Roebourne. She didn’t smoke.
John had been her roommate at Graylands except he’d been Joan back then. His parents sent him down to the booby hatch because he was convinced he was a boy. Everyone else was convinced of it too.
The nurses called Joan to change their spark plugs and plunge the toilets and lift heavy boxes, and he did all these things with a smile. Joan held the door open for Madison and called her Miss Mooshy and at night, when Madison missed her mum, let her lean against his chest and drip her nose all over his nice white shirt. He held her head there, very gently, and stroked her curious hair. He gave her a necklace of coral from the Red Sea and a tiny flag of Sicily. After Joan officially changed his gender, they married and took up farming in the wheat belt and no one in the district had been any the wiser. John was a good farmer, a good husband, a terrific lover and – best of all – knew how to keep a secret.
They were both doing well now. They didn’t even drink coca cola because they heard it messed with your moods or did something weird to your endocrine system. Caitlin, of course, wasn’t John’s child. Madison wasn’t really sure whose child Caitlin was, because there’d been that time when she was walking backwards and she didn’t remember anything. She certainly didn’t remember anything that might have caused a Caitlin to happen. It might have been the truck driver, a man who’d done three tours in Afghanistan, who’d helped transport the loony that shot all those kids, and never been the same again, so he said. John thought it was him. Madison had wanted to have more children with John but she couldn’t stay pregnant. Not for lack of trying.
“Do you ever think about killing him?” Dr. Idle said.
“No. Yes. Sometimes. Who are you talking about?”
Madison hid her hands in the cracks between the leather seat cushions. She kicked the box of tissues at her feet. The jarrah floorboards were highly polished and reflected an amplified version of Madison’s red thongs.
“I would,” said Dr. Idle, “I’d imagine gory deaths for him, if I was you.”
Madison wasn’t sure if he was talking about the truck driver or her dad. And truthfully, good Doctor Idle wasn’t her. She wasn’t the sort to imagine gory deaths for anyone.
Doctor Idle had no other queer clients. He had never met a transgender person until John came into the office one day to go out to lunch with Madison. The doctor tried his best to be open-minded and non-judgmental and all those good things that shrinks are supposed to be, but still, he kept on calling John “she.” He referred to them as a lesbian couple. He winced when Madison said that John was considering getting pregnant himself. When the doctor was uncomfortable, he crossed and recrossed his legs. Some days, he looked like a three-year-old who needed to pee.
“I went to see his house a while back,” Madison said, “but I couldn’t find it.”
“That’s very Freudian.”
“What do you mean?”
The doctor hesitated. “You’ve never told me what Porky looks like.”
“Thin. Bearded. Dark red skin with a massive crop of malignancies. Singlet and shorts. Unwashed. Tattoos of machinery parts on his calves. Swastikas.”
“Not.” Madison tried to turn her mind away from the image she had of Porky standing in the Badgingarra Laundromat, shaking the small Muslim owner by his shirtfront. The man’s lips opening and closing. Spit launched out of his mouth. Contrails of saliva. If she lingered with that image too long, the words to the scene would return. The smell of the freshly washed jeans. Hot towels. Wet shirts.
“You fucker! Get out of my country! No one wants you here! Yer a leech, that’s what!”
Porky’s back was facing Madison, and the owner looked over her father’s shoulder toward her, pleading for help with his eyes.
“I cannot return to my country,” the man said. “Too much violence. My children. Please,” he said, “I will not hurt you.”
“Dad,” Madison said.
“What the fuck do you want?” he asked, whirling around without letting go of the little man.
“Let him go,” she said, her fists curling into balls. Porky looked sideways at the image of her reflected in the shiny fronts of the washing machines. She was full of muscle. Her hair, alone, looked like something dangerous.
He shoved the Afghan man towards the door, “Fuck off, you wanker.”
That day was the first time she’d seen Porky in ten years and she didn’t know what to say to him. How are you? No matter what she thought of, it wouldn’t be what she really wanted to say. She thought about complimenting him on his small bike trailer, a sofa chair on wheels with a cushion that flipped up to reveal a toilet underneath. But by the time she’d got her words in order, Porky had left and she’d lost another twenty minutes of her life. She walked out of the Laundromat backwards, saw herself in the dusty window, and stopped.
A half hour later, though, her heart was still squirreling around in her chest. She was breathless and clammy and what little she could see appeared at the end of a black tube, a telescope in reverse.
Porky was an old man, really. He couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. He was crepey and grey and crumbling in the toothsome. He’d lost most of his hair and he smelled bad. He’d need secateurs to trim his toenails. It irked her that she was afraid of him.
“Yer bloody lucky there’s so much smoke today or them bees’d have been on ya. They woulda eaten you for breakfast”
In the rising wind, holding her hair in two bunches at the sides of her head, Madison panted. Her tongue felt as vast and dry as the continent.
Porky laughed. He smacked the side of the house with his hand. A few bees flew into the air and resettled.
“They’re sleepy, they are,” he said.
“It’s a fire.” She spoke loudly. He looked down at the ground. “Coming this way. Fast.”
“Really?” he said. “A fire?” Burning embers rained from the sky. “What made you think that?”
“John said I should come to warn you,” Madison said, realizing that this was not the truth; that she had wanted, for some reason, to save her father. “You’re right in its path.”
Porky rolled his eyes. “Naa,” he said. “I’m not.”
“You are,” Maddie said. “You definitely are. No matter what you say.”
“What’s the risk?” he said.
“Getting burnt alive.”
“That all? I’d rather be barbecued in me own dear hovel than fried in that tin can of yours.” He jerked his head towards the truck. “Your bastard doesn’t look too happy.”
She meant to say, “Well then. Be my guest. Burn in hell,” but turning, she saw that Caitlin was slimy with sweat, falling out of the truck door, retching. Her daughter had never been good in the heat.
“Betta get her outa here,” the old man said. “I’ll be orright. The Devil takes care of his own.”
When Madison was growing up, Porky did all of the work around their farm himself. This was not merely to save money – though he was a man who rinsed out the same rubbish bag each time after he’d emptied it and picked up other people’s toothpicks from the street to reuse after dinner – but because he believed that other men were spying on his women folk. “They’re a bunch of yobboes,” he said of everyone else, all the millions of people in the world. “Nothing between the ears except sawdust and stuffing. Nothing intelligent between the legs either.”
Madison and her sisters had helped their mother as much as possible when Porky ran off on benders. They’d paint and clean and nail and hope that he wouldn’t notice when he returned. They passed off new furniture as stuff they’d found at the rubbish tip, and they passed off new paint as seasonal changes in the quality of the sun. The wall in the kitchen was turquoise because of the winter solstice. In regular light it would look like the white wall it really was.
Other families in Fitzroy Crossing had dads who were a little touched. It was a small country town. It was hot up there pretty much all the time. If the sun could cook an egg, it could probably cook a brain. Those things happened. The local peeping tom was greeted with a cup of tea and instructions to get off home now, Daryl, love. The man who got his daughter pregnant, not once but twice, was the policeman for the district. His wife did a brisk trade in a shed outside town that had been fitted with an air conditioner and a King sized bed. So Madison and her sisters learned not to complain. They learned to be grateful that Porky had steady work and kept his hands in his own pockets and didn’t go round looking in people’s windows at night while they slept.
When Maddie was eight or ten or fourteen, she thought her dad was a bit like one of the sheep that emerged from the bush after a year in the wild. Some of them were salvageable, but the ones that had been fly struck had to be knocked on the head with a bloody great stone. The ones with half rotted legs and oozy bum juice and maggots cavorting in their hindquarters. The ones that would fall apart if you touched them. Her dad usually seemed salvageable. But like even the cleanest of those wild sheep, she preferred him at a distance.
Katie, her mum, had grey hair, a tight little cloche of it clamped on her head. She was short and dumpy and pale and freckled. She was always certain and often right. She’d taught grade one before she got married and she still did, as a substitute, when Porky disappeared for more than a few weeks and left them without money. Porky called her The Gorgon, and she called him Porky because he was so thin and the name stuck. Maddie knew they’d had sex at least three times because there were the three of them, the sisters, to show for it, but it was hard to imagine her lizardlike dad and her steelwool scrubbie mum touching each other, much less getting it on. Still, her parents could have been anything behind closed doors. She didn’t really know them.
The family was digging the veggie beds on their farm near Fitzroy Crossing one Sunday. It wasn’t the soil or the climate or the rainfall to grow veggies. They did it anyway. Porky insisted. Katie said they might drive into town and buy some cold lemonades if they finished the job before sundown, but Porky said they could make lemonade cheaper and better themselves. Euryale lay on the ground with her head on a stone because she had trouble with the female plumbing.
“I heard,” said Katie, “That the teachers are all going off on a strike because they want another pay raise.”
Maddie didn’t care. She stepped down on her shovel, lifted the hardpan and flipped it over.
“Call themselves teachers? Ha! Not even a dingo leaves its young. And now teachers are set to walk off the job?” Katie said.
Porky laid aside the sack of manure he was dragging and leaned on his shovel. “What did you say?” he asked. There was a sudden quiet. The girls held their breath.
“Down in Perth, teachers are walking off the job,” Katie said, that’s all she said, but the fur lifted on Maddie’s arms and she looked up quickly, into Porky’s face. Euryale stood up and the three girls moved a few steps away. Something popped in the bushes. Euryale startled and to cover it, began to kick at the stone she’d been lying on.
“I wouldn’t. I’d stay there with them kids and make sure they were learning, no matter if I got paid or not.” Sometimes Katie didn’t know when to shut up.
“You’d do that?” said Porky, drawing the shovel slowly out of the dirt with a sound as if the earth itself was hushing her.
Maddie saw the snake where it lay coiled around the rock, like a shadow between the ground and the granite. Euryale hadn’t noticed it while she was resting. None of them had. But now Maddie saw it lift its head at her sister’s kicking. She knew that her father was about to hit her mother, probably with the flat of the shovel. Her father thought the solution to wrong-headed thoughts was purely physical. He’d never read one of those self-help books about managing your anger or releasing your inner leprechaun or being the change you wanted to see, although he’d developed his own version of that last bit of wisdom. If something rose out of its place in the world, he’d thump it until it fell back in. He’d hit Katie in a movement so fast and so graceful he could have been a ballet dancer. He’d probably think he was doing her a favour. He was generous with his favours in a way that he was not generous with his cash.
Maddie wasn’t sure why what her mother had said was wrong. She could see one tiny white cloud away near the horizon at the same time as the snake and her father and Euryale, and she could hear the sound of her heart in her ears and the call of the twenty-eights up in the trees and the ragged sound of Selena’s breathing right next to her. But she couldn’t hear on one side, Euryale’s side, because her father had favoured her some time ago with that same shovel. Being a little off-balance made her body more uncertain about things. She wasn’t sure that Porky was going to smack the steel of that shovel up against the side of her mother’s head. Maybe she was just remembering the way the shovel danced from hand to hand right before it sank into the skin and bone behind her ear. It might have had nothing to do with her mother at all. She stepped backwards. One step. Two. She could see it coming. She thought she could and that made it true. She could see it coming the way rubbish lifting from the floor of the desert presaged rain.
“You’d be a scab, would you?” said Porky. His voice got quieter and quieter and the shovel danced. “Me own flesh and blood’d be a scab?”
Maddie thought her mother was a queer old bat. She was ashamed of the floral bloomers her mum made for her on the treadle machine and longed for the sleek bikinis that hid at the back of the local dry goods shop. But lying in her bed at night, the sound of the treadle machine and her mother’s eternal humming of God Save the Queen and the schrick of the shears through the material and the squeak of the floorboards when Katie crept in to lay some bloomerly creation at the end of Maddie’s bed, all that was what she imagined on nights when she couldn’t sleep. Her mother’s smell of mothballs and Velvet soap. The way she almost put her lips on Maddie’s forehead when she kissed her on those nights, the faintest puff of air as her lips closed together, some sense of human warmth, skin almost touching skin, and then the floorboards, the door, the humming.
If she’d been asked if she loved her mother she would have said an automatic yes and then wondered for days if it were true. Or true in the ordinary sense. And what did it matter after all? Love didn’t change a thing in her life.
She thought she saw the snake move again and she called out, “Dad! Look!” but he never looked at her except sometimes, sideways, when he thought she didn’t notice.
It was bad, of course. The shouts came loud and fast. I’m not a scab. I couldn’t just abandon children, she said. You’d cross a picket line? he said. I would, she said and patted herself on the bosom. I bloody well would. There’s a snake, Maddie said. A king brown. The poisonous kind. She might not have said it. It was like the dreams you have where a hag comes and sits on your chest and you scream but nothing comes out of your mouth. She was watching her father’s shovel, the way the sun made a sharp white line on the outside edge of the steel blade, the way the tape holding the wooden handle together winked in the light. The truth of what was said and what was not said was impossible to discover. What kind of person are you? Porky said or didn’t say.
“I’m a mother. I care about children before me own bloody throat.”
“Since when?” he said. “You call burnt toast caring about children? You call being a scab caring about children?”
The snake zagged across the upended earth toward Maddie. The raised voices had disturbed it. The kicking had set it off. Her sisters moved their eyes from the snake to their father and back again, not knowing which one to watch. Maddie lifted her own shovel and aimed it towards the snake’s head.
“Who are you telling to shut up?”
The snake opened its mouth to strike. Her father lifted his shovel above his head. Her mother, finally, fell silent.
“Dad,” Madison said, a little while later. She held the decapitated snake’s head in her hand as it spasmodically opened and shut its jaws.
It was so very hot. And yet there was Porky wrapping her mother in his shirt. Tucking it in around her throat.
“Fuck off,” he said. She could barely hear him. He did not turn to look at her as she came closer.
“Look at me Dad,” she said. “Will you bloody well look at me for once?”
“She’s not waking up,” he said. “She must be really tired.”
But her mother would wake up. Of this Maddie was sure.
“I’ll get her a cuppa tea.” He mimed lifting a cup and drinking.
“Dad! Will you just look?”
He still crouched over her mother. “Can’t you see I’m flat out here? Yer mother’s feeling poorly.”
A little pinkish greyish froth, the colour of fairy floss, leaked from the gorge in Katie’s head.
“Have you put on the kettle?”
He bent lower and did not turn even when she slammed the open snake jaw down onto his arm. The snake bit again and again. Two drops of blood fell onto the earth. A horse shrieked from the home paddock. Blood is life. It can be resurrection.
“I can’t abide a scab,” he said, but already his voice was blurred. “She was deliberately riling me up.”
“She never knew when to stop,” he said.
Maybe because the snake was already dead it hadn’t killed him. Oh, he’d been sick alright. He’d been in the hospital down in Perth before he’d been sent to jail.
Maddie touched her mother’s forehead and then stepped backwards. The pink froth was such an ugly colour. She’d never be able to eat fairy floss again. She took another step backwards. Her father was vomiting and his lips resembled glossy eggplants. No, she said, and shivered. No. A noise came out of her mouth and she ran forward and kicked the snake’s head off her father’s arm. He still did not look up at her, even as she began to kick at his legs and belly and the soft space between his legs. He didn’t look up as she beat his head with her bare hands and pushed him over onto his back. The sisters, the two of them, just watched. The neighbours, when they arrived, found her in a gum tree, singing God Save the Queen. Porky said in court that he’d turned to kill a snake as his family was digging the veggie patch and in turning, his freshly sharpened shovel had caught his wife in the side of the head. He said a lot of things. It was only his two sane daughters who remained silent.