No sudden slump in the cab, or grinding of rim on rock. Nothing to indicate that the wheel had put up a fight. Only an unsatisfying and noiseless wobble, an deflationary apology for having left me perched perpendicular to the descending mud track, and enveloped tip to toe in mountain forest.
It was eleven past midnight.
I’d wanted to clear the mountain; grab a signal and take the valley road down and out, past the abandoned timber mill to the old highway — the fastest route — but a gnawing fear of deep bogs in the lower stream had convinced me to backtrack towards the house and drive the flatter, longer road.
The sure thing into town.
As it stood, I was sitting halfway between the property and the ridge, with a flat tyre, the leeches hanging from my ankles like eggplants, and Jethro lying in the back seat of the truck with his paws in the air. Stuck. Man and dog. Both of us panting above the hiss of the radio and the pattering of pre-dawn rain.
“Best if we roll back down the way,” I said and grappled the steering wheel, which was slippery with grease and sweat. This suggestion was met with an uncommitted yelp, which I interpreted as agreement, and I turned the wheel and jostled in my seat in an attempt to entice gravity to draw us back down the hill. The trail was narrow and flanked by flags of leaves, which flittered crimson in the truck’s brake lights.
“Remind me to fix the reverse lights, will you, boy?”
From the back seat, hovering among loose sheets of the Sydney Morning Herald and empty two-stroke cans, a set of glistening eyes stared at me with singular interrogation.
“Hang in there, boy, we’ll get through, you’ll see.”
Under my breath I cursed the bush, and the rain, and the whole damn country at once.
Rain, and mist and flood. Wet had been the state of my everything for the preceding month, my meteorological curfew, forcing me indoors for most of the spring to plug leaks and unclog drains. It had steamed the morning forests, turned the roads into rainbows of ochre and mud and clay, and held the whole theatre in place with a tenuous agreement of rocks and leaves. It had driven the forest’s creatures crawling and slithering to my door, and filled my mornings with the gobbling petitions of the bush turkeys who’d taken up residence behind the shed, where I kept the brick moulds under sheets of green tarpaulin. In the city, the wet had been a manageable inconvenience: a dripping umbrella outside my apartment, a new pair of socks, a taxi ride home from the office; Harriet would confine Jethro to the bathroom for a hour of shakedown before dinner, after which we’d all watch the grey curtain pass over the harbour from the balcony, over wine, chocolate, and marrow. But in the hinterlands the rains moved like life at home: forever in the present, in your nostrils, on your skin, expanding and contracting in a celestial second, turning the earth to mud. It flowed unhindered through ancient drainage routes, erasing trails and clearings, indifferent to the trespasses of casual industry: stakes in the ground, makeshift mailboxes and wire fences. Desperate to meet its maker at the Pacific.
Mud was the material I wanted, and now I was drowning in it. Waited it out, consulted spiritual texts, fixed the guttering: I did all that. I prepared soup from sky juice, old potatoes and stock cubes, and debated with myself, or with Jethro when he’d listen, on the merits of rural living, while hanging soaked bed sheets about the house as I whistled a tune from some festival I’d attended once at the cricket ground. Harriet would have loved every drop; she said as much when we first visited.
“Can you smell the moss?” she asked me as she leapt across trunks of fallen redwood.
“Moss smells like mould.”
“Moss smells like freedom.”
“They’ll teek our moss, but they’ll never teek our freedom!” I said and thrust a fist into the air.
In a freeway service station café on the way home, she mapped out her vision on a napkin. “I’ll give you week,” I said to her, “before you’re scratching at the wood. How are you going to live without your morning latte?”
“From the man who’s never used a power tool in his life.”
“What do you call a microwave?”
“Cheating,” Harriet said and held up her blueprint for me to appraise. The dimensions of the rundown hut that came with the block were optimistic. I asked where the second bedroom had come from. She shot me a baleful look, then let loose a string of ideas, which rattled from her mouth like chain through a winch. Here were our reading areas, where the water tanks and vegetable patches would go, a treehouse for our children (or a mud brick castle). Compost. Work shed. I told her jokingly we should purchase. There would be vegetables in the north-facing garden, a pebble-stone walkway would lead from the front porch to the pergola, make a brief turn, then continue on to the ridge, where we would repose with a twilight vintage, and remove splinters from each other’s fingers. I told her that, as a bushman, I will have to start brewing my own beer. “Naturally,” came the reply. Further up on the napkin, where her thumb had created a neat bulge, was the mountain; an unintentional but nonetheless accurate topological feature, down whose muddy incline I was currently reversing.
The crash erased everything: the vision, the plans, the lust for escape. One pileup in the cross-city tunnel consumed my life and, for year (it might have been longer) I forgot about the moss and our little patch of earth in the mountains. The deed lay in my filing cabinet, wedged between our failing share portfolio and one of my unpublished articles. The divider was labelled ‘Springbrook’, a word which, when I’d spirited up enough strength to confront the administrative legacy of a happy marriage, plucked at my recollection strings like set of pliers. The piece of paper claimed that we’d paid for twenty acres of land up north, a fact which the stained napkin attached with a paperclip to the back of the deed confirmed. It had been up there all the time, just waiting for the right moment to claim me.
Jethro had taken to the big-bang expansion of his recreational space like a freed convict: delirious, drunk with the prospect of possibility. Days before I’d brought in the equipment, he’d already drilled tunnels through the sprawling masses of lantana bush, dug up the bones of mysterious creatures, and marked out trees on the outer boundaries of the property. With no cyclists or cars to occupy his instincts, he matched himself with the snakes and feral cats, and would deliver their carcasses to the front step night after night. At night he’d bark madly at the whistling leaves… pining for her in his own way I guess, asking what he was supposed to do next. On some nights I joined him. In the end, despite his large ambitions and stubborn heart, it was the venom of a single tick that flattened him — a rolled oat with tiny, gesticulating legs. It had burrowed between his front leg and chest, swelled his tongue and muted his bark for two days. When I found him next to the fallen redwood, I pierced the thing with a hot needle, and a smooth stream of pus and blood ran through his fur.
A ghost from the radio pronounced the start of a song, a pub with no beer — a guitar strummed once before fading out again.
I checked my phone for a signal. Nothing. I drew back my hand to sling the device at the dashboard, but relented. Who would deliver a new mobile screen out here? Even if I’d had a signal, I didn’t know whom to call. In the city I would have spent as much time sorting through the list of after-hours emergency services as I’d just wasted trying to manoeuvre down a sodden track at several hundred metres above sea level; and in Sydney, I would have rather called a cab than knocked on a neighbour’s door, whose name I barely remembered, and inquire whether I could borrow his car, which, of course, I couldn’t be sure existed in the first place. Up in the tablelands, the only person I’d met in the last six months had been the representatives of various utility companies, who’d come in clean shirts, carrying clipboards, and talking of strange meteorological phenomena. The thought of phoning emergency services had crossed my mind, however the prospect of them dispatching a veterinarian seemed unlikely. My one and only plan, ill-thought through, but a plan nevertheless, was to head to the main road and hail down the next car or lorry or anything that crossed my path, and appeal for assistance with all the country humility I could muster.
After much sliding and weaving and braking and jaw-clenching, we arrived at the foot of the mountain. I nudged the accelerator into some accordance until the truck had gathered enough momentum to ascend to a small clearing, where I could finally point us in the right direction. Gravity was still with us, but it was slow going. The punctured tyre moaned for mercy as I chiselled a path along the rocks; even with high beam, the darkness left me no more than a shallow pool of light to guide my way.
At a give way sign, where the earth met bitumen, I stopped and looked up and down the two-lane state road. I waited for a minute or two, watching and listening. The radio had made a fuzzy, but comforting resurrection, and cut into a conversation about the deforestation of the upper tropics. I clutched at my phone and squeezed a signal from it. One bar. I presented this fact to Jethro by holding it up to his maw, and there was a second when we stared at one another, unmoving, unblinking… in some primordial mammalian connection, and asking each other what the hell we were going to do next.
The universe answered.
The truck’s cabin grew brighter, and the rattling of an exhaust pipe drew my attention to the road. I flashed my lights, then leapt out of the car.
It was a red hatchback. The woman’s eyes were tired and suspicious.
“I’m so glad you stopped,” I said, panting, though I wasn’t out of breath.
The woman regarded my muddy feet. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“My dog’s been bitten — he’s pretty bad… I was on my way to take him in someplace when I blew a tyre.” I said, pointing at the truck to demonstrate my honesty.
She didn’t look. “Where are you taking her?”
“He. I don’t know. I was heading for the city.”
Her eyes widened at the suggestion. She removed her seat belt and I saw that she was wearing a uniform: a light blue collared shirt and a name tag, which said her name was Colleen.
“Sorry to be a bother,” I said.
The woman nodded, then stepped slowly around to the rear of her car and opened the hatch. “Put him in there if you like. I have to be at work soon. I think there’s an animal shelter on the way. There’s a sign at least.”
“And they’ll be open at this hour?”
“Creatures up here don’t have bedtimes.”
I pointed to the badge. Anne shrugged. “Colleen quit.”
Anne’s relationship with the road was intimate: she accelerated on unknowable straights, crossed unbreakable white lines, and her left hand hovered to the gear stick long before the corners made themselves visible. Her face was full and young, and it was only her unfaltering squint which made her seem older. The car smelled of tobacco smoke and petrol, and as we powered into the night, I felt the onset of motion sickness. I sat there trying to breathe and anticipate the curves. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been a passenger in a car.
“I work at a service station. Graveyard shift,” Anne told me. She lit a cigarette and it flared as she held it close to the open window. “Work’s hard to get around here.”
I swallowed a sudden influx of saliva. “I’m from Sydney,” I said.
She laughed as if she’d known all along. “What happened to the dog?”
“That’ll do it… if they’re not used to it. I used to feed ‘em to my old cattle dog — pick them straight off him and make him eat it. Makes them immune, you know.”
“Is that true?”
Anne shrugged. “Guess so. He never got sick. That’d be good wouldn’t it? If we could just eat whatever hurts us.”
“You can’t eat everything.”
Anne negotiated a turn.
“My wife and I were journalists,” I said. “We always wanted to get out of the city.” She more than I, I nearly said. “We bought the land… but there was always something in the way…”
“And now you’re here.”
“Well, I am.”
“What, you split up?”
I shook my head.
“Sorry,” she said.
I turned to look at Jethro, who lifted a feeble paw to his swollen tongue. “We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, did we, mate?” I heard myself say. “That’s the thing with accidents. They’re ruthless editors of life. Sorry…”
“I moved up six months ago,” I went on. “Thought I’d try my hand at mud bricking. I wrote an article on it once.”
“Mud bricking? Like building houses?”
“Yeah. Something about it appealed to me — creating civilization from the soil.”
“Got to be some first, Don.”
We fell into silence. Out the window I watched the trees glow grey in the car’s headlights then vanish like ghosts. “Do you think he’ll be okay?” I asked.
“Your pup? Sure. Ticks are mean bastards — had one behind my ear for a while, and thought it just a hangover until it lasted a week. A bit of metho, tweezers. I was right as rain after a day. But they’re not the worst you get. Not by far. You know, I’d give anything to get out of here… pack up. Head to the city and start over. You city types don’t know how good you got it. Up here,” she flicked her cigarette out the window, “nothing works, there’s nothing but wet and rain and idiots with short names and long hair. The great fucking divide. Not a drop of sense among them. You’ll see — I don’t know you from a bar of soap, Don, but just between us now, I’ll give you another six months before you pack it up. When you do, you just remember what Anne said.”
“I don’t know,” I said, offering an optimistic laugh. “We’ll see, won’t we?”
“Hang in there. We’re comin’ up to it now.”
At the sight of traffic lights in the distance, I sat up straight, and wound down my window. The light was red and there was a line of cars waiting to turn. I recognised the intersection. Soon the large green sign directing traffic to the city would emerge from behind the trees. I felt my heart trip on something shameful, something frightening: a miserable elation at the promise of order, of rigid lines and solid shapes. The triumphant realisation that no living thing, no towering, ancient tree or possum in the roof had the power to comfort me; that no forest stream or morning dew would ever contrive to orchestrate my emotions as adeptly as a sober collection of metal and electricity. Lights, white and red, sparkled from the wet road with predictable, yet effortless seduction.
“You okay?” Anne asked. “You look like you got a tick or two.”
I pulled my head in from the window. “Sure. Sure I am, Anne. Everything’s fine.”