Oyster

Overview

Janette Turner Hospital has been called by the Times Literary Supplement "one of the most powerful and innovative writers in English today." Oyster has received critical acclaim internationally, and was short-listed for the prestigious Miles Franklin Award and the National Book Award in Australia.
Outer Maroo, a small, opal mining town in the Australian outback, is stewing in heat, drought, and guilty anxiety. Some ghastly cataclysm has occurred on the opal fields, but this is a...

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Overview

Janette Turner Hospital has been called by the Times Literary Supplement "one of the most powerful and innovative writers in English today." Oyster has received critical acclaim internationally, and was short-listed for the prestigious Miles Franklin Award and the National Book Award in Australia.
Outer Maroo, a small, opal mining town in the Australian outback, is stewing in heat, drought, and guilty anxiety. Some ghastly cataclysm has occurred on the opal fields, but this is a taboo subject. At the heart of the mystery is the cult messiah, Oyster, dressed in white, sexually compelling, and preaching the end of time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A rank, festering smell hangs over the desolate Australian Outback town of Outer Maroo, so isolated that it can't be found on any map of Queensland. The smell, which the town's wary inhabitants call Old Fuckatoo, is engendered by the corpses of animals dead in the lingering droughtand something more mysterious and horrible, "the feral stench of hate." Dreadful events, carried out under the mandate of religious fundamentalism, have occurred here , but no one dares to refer to them, or to the charismatic cult leader who called himself Oyster and whose acolytes worked like slaves mining opals and serving Oyster's insatiable sexual appetite. Oyster and his followers disappeared in a wave of violence unleashed by evil Dukke Prophet, a member of the churchgoing community of the Living Will, and ever since, no strangers have been allowed into town to look for their missing loved ones. The Bible-quoting, hypocritically sanctimonious Prophet deposed the Living Will's mild pastor and demanded fire and brimstone in the name of salvation. Prophet, a lecherous rancher named Andrew Godwin and the proprietor of the town's only pub are making millions in illegally traded opals while cowing the town's inhabitants and accumulating massive armaments. Armageddon beckons. Part of the seductive power of Hospital's novels (The Last Magician; Charades) lies in her practice of constructing the plot in a series of interlocking narratives, like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. Here, much of the action is filtered through the thoughts of Mercy Givens, the young daughter of the deposed pastor. Mercy's precocious but innocent mind resists the full meaning of the brutal acts that finally engulf the community. She and the others in the beautifully observed cast of charactersa schoolteacher doomed because she tells the truth, the parents of two missing cultists, an Aborigine woman, two of society's outcasts who have tried to forget their pastsgradually reveal the terror of people held under the iron fist of religious fanaticism. As the chilling truth becomes more clear and as the suspense mounts, Hospital creates her most powerful and dazzling novel to date. In sensuous prose, feverish with the cadences of mystery and doom, sometimes hallucinatory but always meticulously controlled, she spins a story eerie in its timeliness and credibility. (Mar.) (PW best book of 1998)
Library Journal
This novel tells a tale fit for the millennium. In a part of the Australian Outback so remote it is literally off the charts, a tiny opal-mining and ranching community faces the end of its world. A place of closed minds and closely held secrets, Outer Maroo has become dangerous since the arrival and departure of the fascinating, sinister spiritual leader calling himself Oyster. Since Oyster's coming, certain areas of conversation are taboo, minds are unhinged, and reality seems hard to define. Outsiders are met with distrust, dislike, and worse, while a seemingly endless drought heightens tension unbearably. When two particularly stubborn strangers demand information about their lost children, disciples of Oyster, they initiate Armageddon for Outer Maroo. Related from multiple perspectives and shifting back and forth in time, the narrative maintains the pace and suspense of a technothriller, yet its principal strengths lie in mood and characters depicted in exquisite prose. Hospital The Last Magician, LJ 9/15/92 deserves a wide readership for this book. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/97.]Starr E. Smith, Marymount Univ. Lib., Arlington, VA
Dale Peck
It is both a rare story and an accomplished piece of writing.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Echoes of Waco, Heaven's Gate, and Jonestown combine with intimations of apocalypse in a stunningly evocative story of life in a remote Australian hell-hole—a place where evil is as pervasive as the heat, goodness as rare as rain. Australian writer Hospital (The Last Magician, 19??, etc.) sets her morality tale in Outer Maroo, a town in a hot, arid region where droughts are common and a sinister, moistureless fog often covers the land. It's a place so remote that it's not even on the maps, yet its soil is riven with opal seams. These opals, and the isolation, attract folks "who are always waiting for retribution to catch up with them"—including the charismatic Oyster, who founds a commune (Oyster's Reef) just outside of town. Gradually, he begins to attract idealistic young people; they come as disciples, but soon find themselves digging for opals and catering to Oyster's increasingly bizarre needs. A chorus of voices recalls his lethal effect on Outer Maroo—how he corrupted many of the locals, offering them wealth and freedom from a government they viewed as intrusive, and how a teacher was among those brutally murdered for opposing him. Oyster's reign ended, appropriately, in an apocalyptic fire in which he and most of his followers perished. Only the good—Mercy, a young girl Oyster raped; Ethel, a local Aborigine; Jess, a former surveyor; Major Miner, a veteran and former POW; plus Nick and Sarah, two "foreigners" searching for their lost children—survive. These are the people who now recollect the corruption and destruction of Outer Maroo and their discovery of a kind of redemption after Oyster's end—and a chance to build a shining city of faith. Adeep and harrowing journey through a desolate land into the recesses of the soul and then back into the light, all recorded in luminous prose.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393319361
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1st American Edition
  • Pages: 412
  • Sales rank: 1,498,085
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Janette Turner Hospital received Australia's Patrick White Award for lifetime literary achievement, and is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

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Read an Excerpt

Last Week

Monday: High Noon

More foreigners are on the way.

In Beresford's, someone looks up and sees Digby's truck float into view, suspended out there (maybe still twenty miles off, maybe only two), shimmering at the yellow edges of its cabin and rocking gently on the swell of its own heat wave. Someone, one of the men, observing this in the middle of fence-repair calculations, lurches a little and lets a handful of nails leak through his fingers. The nails shuss back into the nail sack, shik shik shik, a shivery rush, metallic.

This is a sign.

Any sound can be a sign now, and everyone in Beresford's goes still. This is the way it is. Everyone watches, everyone listens, everyone disappears behind a vacant look that says It's no use asking me, I don't know anything, and the question on everyone's mind is: where will it end?

Well. It will end at Oyster's Reef, of course, where it began, we all know that, but when will it end?

Mercy has noticed that people cannot five in the ordinary way any more, drifting comfortably along without thinking, the way they used to. Hours used to flow into days and days into time just as smoothly as creeks sail into rivers and rivers to inland seas, or so people say, so books maintain, so Miss Rover -- Mercy's former and only school-teacher -- claimed, and Mercy is inclined to believe that once upon a time these things were so. On certain days she can almost remember when there used to be a slick of water in the pale golden bed of the river and in the concave salt-pan crust of the Sea of Null.

But now it is no longer certain that B will follow A, or that rivers will ever flow anywhere again, or that the air will not smell of death, and so the people of Outer Maroo are wary, especially where foreigners are concerned, and Mercy can feel the anxiety fluttering around Beresford's like a bird that cannot find its way out.

At the soft pock of the falling nails, the spell settles on them all (they are familiar with it now, the way it drops like a mosquito net, suffocating). The clocks become loud, and each second takes twice as long to pass. In slow motion, women turn from the vegetable freezer and gaze out the window where the heat and the thick fragrance of corruption crouch like sluggish, malevolent beasts. Young Alice Godwin and her dreadful mother Dorothy are fingering a bolt of thistledown cotton, their hands full of the soft blue stuff, but the second they see the yellow mirage of the truck drifting in toward anchor, their fingers go slack and the bolt of cloth gallops off the counter and over the floor. Blue billows east and west, soft masses of it puckering at tea-chests, frothing over booted feet, pleating up against saddlery and sorghum sacks and tubs of rice. Ma Beresford is going to be furious, but Mercy catches her breath and shuts her eyes tightly to memorise the lovely rush of colour unspinning itself. She folds it away for safe keeping in those same dream niches where she stores the pinfire opal and the gem-seamed book-rich tunnels of Aladdin's Rush.

Visions such as these shimmer and tease and make promises and translate themselves little by little. When Mercy summons them up again and unwraps them, she feels lightheaded. She feels that soon she will be able to build a fence with them, no, not a fence, a wall, that soon she will have enough pieces of ... pieces of ... ? -- what are they? -- enough pieces of these things that cannot be turned into darkness, these pieces of light, enough of them to build a wall, four walls, and the walls will be high enough and potent enough to contain everything she knows about Oyster's Reef, and there will be no windows and no door at all in this room that she will make, this shining bunker, but nevertheless she will put locks on the radiant walls and wrap them in polished steel bands which will flash back the sun, and all the darkness of Oyster's Reef will be contained within them, on the inside of the fortress, with no possibility of leakage whatsoever, and then Mercy will be able to walk away and will no longer have to know what she knows.

'Mercy,' Mrs Dorothy Godwin says sharply, irritably. 'Don't stand there in a daze, child, when strangers are coming. Help me roll up the blue.'

'Mum,' Alice Godwin says, 'I feel sick.' She presses one hand against her chest and holds the other over her mouth. 'Mum, can't we go before they get here?'

Alice and Mercy exchange a look of pure kinship, pure panic. Their helplessness is like the soft unravelled blue cloth, Mercy thinks; it connects them.

'We will go just as soon as we can, Alice.' Alice's mother has no time for weakness, not even in herself, although she is sometimes willing in her own case to grant extenuating circumstance. 'Don't talk in that whiney tone, child. Pull yourself together. We will go just as soon as we can.' Alice's mother slips several reels of thread into her handbag, a discreet gesture, and one that is executed with the utmost delicacy and grace. All the reels are in garish and impractical colours. It is a point of honour with her to steal nothing that could be of personal use. Honour flourishes in the town of Outer Maroo. Honour will compel Junior Godwin to drop in over the next few days, embarrassed, and equally discreet, to return what his mother took. Everyone knows this will happen.

Dorothy Godwin knows, and does not know, this. She has the gift of forgetting.

There is much to forget in Outer Maroo. In Outer Maroo, forgetting and honour are as crucial to survival as a good artesian bore.

Dorothy Godwin pushes the cardboard core of the unravelled bolt of cloth across the counter. 'Mercy, the blue.'

The blue streams silkily through Mercy's fingers.

The eyes of Mrs Dorothy Godwin move from face to face. Everyone watches everyone else, warily, eye to eye. Everyone understands that such mutual vigilance is necessary. Mercy thinks of a story in the school reader: the one of the little boy who kept his fist in the dyke all night. If anyone slacks in the hard communal duty of forgetting, she thinks, who knows what sort of inundation will drown the town?

Alice folds herself over her stomach and whimpers.

'Well,' her mother sighs. 'It can't be helped.'

No, people murmur.

What's done is done, they sigh; and any stranger would instantly conclude: here is a group of people bound by guilt; they dread, and constantly expect, retribution. Or, conversely: here is a group of innocent people dazed by awful circumstance; they know that the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly and unjustly against them; they wait haplessly for a harsh and wrongful judgment to be handed down.

'What's done is done,' Dorothy Godwin says.

As though a secret signal has been passed, there is an exodus, carefully unhurried, of Godwins and of several others who have recalled pressing business at far reach. Beyond the verandah, red dust and exhaust fumes plume around their idling cars. As soon as they have seen the new arrivals, they will leave, but they need to know who is coming. They need to take stock. After that, they will go.

But why is it, Mercy wonders, that they will all drive back to their cattle properties or their sheep stations or to their stake-outs in the opal fields, and not one of them will simply drive away? And why is it that from time to time, not often, certainly, but there has after all been a slow trickle of visitors since ...

since ...

... there has been a steady trickle of visitors in these past twelve months since Oyster's Reef disappeared ... since people began to come looking for the missing ...

So why is it that Jake Digby occasionally arrives with passengers, but no passengers ever leave with him again?

That thought catches Mercy off guard, and she breathes quickly and hugs herself in the manner of Alice Godwin. Jess puts her hand on Mercy's shoulder. 'Hush,' she murmurs, or seems to murmur. 'It will be all right.'

Everyone looks at Jess.

One of the men, laughing a little, relieved to have something to laugh at, says to Jess: 'I could've sworn I heard you speak, Old Silence.'

Jess looks at him without smiling and nods.

'I didn't mean . . .' Mercy foolishly tries to explain, but there really is no need. Spoken thoughts or unspoken, everyone has the same ones, and Mercy presses her crossed arms harder against her stomach and curls herself over her sickness till the feeling passes.

Jess touches Mercy on the cheek with the back of her hand, motherly. It will be all right, her gesture says, but Mercy fears that it means goodbye, that Jess is about to leave, that she will walk out of the shop, across the verandah, across the dust to Bernie's Last Chance, where she will be instantly absorbed by the washing of floors, or the making of steak and kidney pies, or the pulling of drinks at the bar, whatever Bernie needs. Then Mercy imagines, feverishly, that Jess will hang up her apron on the peg behind the kitchen door, and that she will walk away toward the Red Centre and disappear, as so many have disappeared. She clutches Jess's hand convulsively, and Jess does not let her hand go.

She can feel Jess's thoughts coming back to her through the pressure of Jess's hand. It's all right, Jess says. I'm not going. And I know what you meant.

What Mercy meant, what she meant, was not the obvious. Of course any passengers arriving with Jake cannot leave, that is understood. It is horrible, it is more horrible every time, but that is the way things are. The question is: why does no one else ever leave? -- not counting Miss Rover, who was in a different category, a different category altogether, Mercy is quite clear about that. Miss Rover was very suddenly transferred, and in any case that was before things at Oyster's Reef got out of hand. Teachers were always in a different category.

Teachers never belong, people said. They come and they go.

From the small towns of western Queensland, they mostly go.

But why, Mercy asks herself, does no one else leave? Leave and not come back, that is; because obviously Mercy does not count the small convoys that go to Longreach or to Quilpie or to Brisbane to sell the opals and to bring supplies back: to bring food, beer, drinking water, drums of petrol, clothing, haberdashery, bolts of blue, supplemental fodder for the cattle and sheep until the drought lifts, spare parts for the tunnelling machines and the blowers, for the winches, for the hammermill mixers, for the augers, for all the grazier's and the opal miner's needs. No one wants supply-company men arriving unannounced, so people leave and come back, yes. They leave in fours: two trucks per trip, two drivers per truck; and they return in six, ten, fourteen days.

But why does no one simply leave, the way Miss Rover did, without looking back? Petrol rationing is one reason, of course; the fact that petrol is kept under lock and key. But even the people with access to petrol come back. Why? This interests Mercy, the riddle of what it is exactly that has glued them all together. At night she lies awake and ponders it. She constructs thought experiments and unravels them and follows their threads. Ma Beresford and Ma's Bill, for example ... suppose they failed to come back from a provisioning trip, what then? Suppose they sold a whole shipment of opals and kept the money, and bought airline tickets to Tahiti?

Suppose Mr Prophet faded to return from the sheep and cattle sales in Longreach or Charleville or Roma?

Or consider Mercy herself. Could she leave?

Suppose she were to climb aboard Jake's truck one day, suppose her parents permitted it, suppose the elders permitted it ... well, of course no one would actively permit it, but suppose they were to turn a blind eye? Well, of course they would not turn a blind eye, but suppose she were somehow to sneak on the truck anyway, suppose she were to hide under a seat until Jake reached Birdsville or Windorah, and suppose she were then to hitch another ride east to Quilpie, and then take the train to Brisbane or to Sydney or to ... well, to anywhere. The unlimited possibilities make her dizzy.

Could she do that? Anxiety drums against the underside of her skin. She tents her hands and presses her fingertips together and there seems to be a low electric humming in her veins like pins and needles, like hope perhaps, because the stunning thought comes to her that she could, she could, she could leave on Digby's truck, technically she could. And perhaps one day she will. She will, yes. She will fly through the window of Outer Maroo. One day. She will escape, possibly, in spite of so much evidence that there is only one way to leave town. In Mercy's case, an exception will be made. Something will happen. Any day now, perhaps today, someone not yet known to her will arrive in Outer Maroo, perhaps today on Digby's truck, and there will be a certain kind of light around this person which Mercy will recognise, and the stranger will look at Mercy in a certain way, and Mercy will look back, and the stranger will beckon, and Mercy will go to the stranger like a sleepwalker without a second's pause and without looking over her shoulder, the way people did when Oyster first arrived in town, but this will be different. This stranger will be as different from Oyster as day from night.

And Mercy will walk through the wall of fire, oh she has no illusions, nobody can have illusions any more, it is not going to be painless, but she will do it. In the twinkling of an eye she will be translated into her real self, the one Miss Rover saw, the one Jess sees and knows, the one which has always been smouldering and fizzing away somewhere under her skin. There are nights when the hum of this other life burns her fingertips and fills her lungs with so much heat that she has to breathe fast with short little gasps or she will faint.

But then again ... maybe everyone in Outer Maroo lives by such lunatic hope?

And if she did leave ... if she did get away ...?

Mercy tries to imagine herself in Brisbane. She tries to imagine Brisbane: tall buildings, a river with water in it, grass that is green instead of brown, garden sprinklers, jacarandas. She makes herself walk beneath the jacarandas, a little ghost full of emptiness. No matter how she moves herself through Brisbane, fast or slow, by ferry along the river, by foot, by day, by night, Outer Maroo goes with her like a phantom limb. That is how it would be. That is how it would be for all of us, she knows. We would be like people who have had a leg amputated, or an arm torn off. We would not believe that the missing piece was missing. We would not be able to tolerate the absence. We would have to come back.

Nevertheless, Mercy would like to believe that possibilities she has not yet thought of could exist, in some other dimension perhaps. After all, could anyone have imagined Oyster before he came? Could anyone have imagined that day when Miss Rover stood on the verandah at Bernie's and made the whole town hold its breath? So Mercy marks time. She takes messages as they come, she saves little tokens of light. She lets blueness and the spill of soft cotton cloth fill her senses, she gives herself to the lift of them, she holds them, she breathes them out.

When she opens her eyes again, she must devote her attention to Digby's truck, which has at last arrived in the street outside, which is rocking into berth at the Shell petrol pumps in front of Beresford's, which is spilling out the newest shipment of foreigners. The foreigners float beyond the shop window, not yet fully tethered to the red earth, but twisted and pulled into thin wavery shapes by the haze.

Jake Digby is already on the verandah. He leans against the screen door, his strong sweat-and-whisky smell moving on ahead of him, and he pauses for a moment to make a space for the fog of himself within the hot bubble of the shop. Flies nuzzle his face and he bats them off with his Akubra. He lets the door slam behind him.

'Where's Ma Beresford?' he asks, looking around.

No one answers. Sometimes it takes whole minutes to readapt to the eyes of an outsider, even to one like Jake Digby who comes whenever there are people who insist on being brought, which is not often. The thing is: he comes and he goes. There is a great gulf fixed between Jake Digby and everyone else. In Beresford's, they suck on this knowledge and move it around in their mouths for longer and longer before they come upon the kernel of any word that can safely be spoken to Jake.

'She's gotta sign for the water,' Jake says. 'I brought ten fifty-gallon drums on spec. Reckoned you could do with 'em, but I gotta get paid up front, and she's gotta sign for 'em.'

Rivulets of sweat trickle from his hair and leave route maps in the dust on his face. He is wearing khaki shorts and heavy work boots and a less than clean singlet. He wipes the back of one hand across his forehead. When he lifts his arm, a gust of something like sweet flyblown fruit reaches Mercy and she swallows quickly and rests her hand on the spice jars behind her and concentrates on cinnamon sticks and thyme.

Everyone is watching the foreigners -- there are two of them, a man and a woman -- who stand swaying in the heat.

'Been on the road two days,' Jake says. "Came all the way from Quilpie, with one bloody breakdown per day. Found this lot' -- and he jerks his thumb back over his shoulder -- 'at the Quilpie Railway Hotel. Been there weeks, apparently. Not travelling together. Don't even speak to each other hardly. You'd think they were practically at war. According to the lady there' -- and here Jake indicates by a certain fleeting modulation of the voice that he is using the term in its generic sense, but with grudging respect, and that as far as city types go in general, and city women in particular, this one is a bit of all right -- 'according to the lady, she asked to buy a ticket to Oyster's Reef, if you can believe where this cock-and-bullshit's got to, it's like bloody fairies, it's like Santa Claus, yer can't stamp it out. Well how was she supposed to know, eh? she's a Yank, she read it in the papers over there or got a postcard or something, it's gone halfway round the bloody world and back again, and some clever-arse joker in the pub told 'er she'd have to wait a few days, the line was unnergoing temp'ry repairs. And she believed him, see, well that's the thing about Yanks, innit? you could sell 'em Ayers Rock.'

No one laughs. It is all very well for people in Quilpie to make jokes. Quite apart from everything else, people in Quilpie think they are superior because the railway line stitches them to Brisbane. They act, so Ma Beresford's Bill has informed Mercy, as though you can hear the pulse of the whole bloody nation tick tick ticking in their precious Railway Hotel, in which you can buy the Brisbane papers, well la-di-da, and in which you can even buy unused paperback books and the Australian, and who would want to, could Mercy tell him that, when those toy boys in Canberra and Sydney don't know a Santa bull from a Simmenthal bull from bullshit, or an artesian bore from a fucking hole in the ground. Hell, any moron with a satellite dish can tell you what the Prime Minister said yesterday (begging Mercy's pardon, and the pardon of the whole Living Word congregation of which Mercy's father is the pastor, or used to be; begging the pardon of the whole bang lot of the Living Worders who believe that a satellite dish is the mouth of Satan, and television is his voice in your home), still, with honourable present company excepted, any dope in the pub who is watching the TV over the bar can wank on about foreign policy and the bloody arrogant French in the South Pacific, but it takes intelligence to know when to crop-dust for heliothis in the sorghum or for locusts in the fucking buffel grass. And even though at Mercy's house they pray for Ma Beresford's Bill ... no, that was before; at Mercy's house they used to pray for Ma's Bill, that the Spirit of the Lord might put a burning coal on his tongue to purify it, nevertheless they always agreed that he was right about Quilpie, that wicked city.

'Well how was she supposed to know?' Jake repeats with a touch of belligerence, from which everyone understands that Jake has fallen for his female passenger hook, line and sinker.

'Yeah, Yanks are funny like that,' someone concedes, finding a voice, a safe thought. 'They'll believe anything you tell them.'

'But how could she have known Quilpie was the end of the line, eh?' Jake is warming to his subject, spoiling for an argument. 'I found out who the joker was. Gave him a little lesson in manners for his trouble. Should keep him quiet for a while, I reckon.'

Mercy is squinting, because the heat rearranges people. The two strangers are pleated diagonally like Japanese dolls, rice-papered, their heads stretched out into points that slant away to the right of their feet. When they move, the lines shift in slow motion, and new points form, new angles, new shapes. They rearrange themselves like coloured chips in a kaleidoscope. The woman puts out a hand to steady herself, and for a moment Mercy can see her clearly, but as soon as the woman's palm touches the flank of the truck, her mouth opens in shock and she goes out of focus again. She cradles her hand against her cheek and then blows on the pads of skin tenderly (Mercy can see two mouths, two hands) and looks around in a sleepwalking way. She is wearing sandals and a sleeveless white dress which comes halfway down her calves, and a floppy straw hat from which a crumpled ribbon trails. The hat, Mercy thinks, has been rammed into suitcases all its life. It is soft and durable, much worn, not fashionable, not a tourist's hat of the kind Mercy has seen in year-old Women's Weeklies that Ma brings back from Quilpie. It could belong to a cattle cocky's wife. The woman takes the hat off and fans herself. You can tell from the way she puts up her hands and does little tap-dance steps that she is not used to bush flies. Folded splinters of her arms whirr around her and she looks at her hands in a blurred way as much as to say: which pieces are me and where oh where have they brought us and what are we doing here? She smiles at the slow ballet of her hands much as a baby does, absorbed in its clever fingers and thumbs. Mercy can see a helpless kind of laughter rising in the woman, and recognises the hysteria that sits on the edge of sunstroke and dehydration. The woman turns toward the man, laughing, inviting him to share an uncertain joke.

But the man will have nothing to do with uncertainty. The woman's languorous amusement irritates him. He turns from her, frowning, and studies the road that runs to nowhere in both directions, assessing Outer Maroo's five public buildings: Beresford's General Store cum Farmers' Co-op cum Post Office Agency; the pub; the School of Arts hall, which once served, before dry rot set in, for all dances, wedding receptions, and wakes, as well as for the Country Women's Association and the Returned Servicemen's League; and finally the two churches: the Living Word Gospel Hall and St Chrysostom's, once Catholic, well, still Catholic, no doubt, in secula seculorum, but now unsafe, untenanted, collapsing under the weight of termite colonies, evangelical rivals, and soft rot. The stranger who came on Jake Digby's truck notes everything with the fierce air of a man taking down evidence. There is something about the mass of him, about the concentration of will, that causes his mirage selves to settle and coalesce. Even with the width of the shop, the window, the verandah, and the road in between, Mercy is mesmerised and can feel the pull of him.

She thinks suddenly, incongruously, of Gideon.

She does not want to think of Gideon. Oyster's Reef streams from Gideon like a vapour trail. She does not want to think of Gideon, though some bodily tic of the stranger perversely reminds her ...

Is it Gideon, perhaps, for whom the man has come looking?

The man makes a decision and crosses the space of red dust and leaps lightly up the verandah steps without even looking to see what the woman is doing. For a moment his hand rests against the screen door, but then he changes his mind and rubs a space in the dust of the window instead, and peers through the grubby glass. He looks directly at Mercy and she holds her breath, although she knows very well, having done it often enough, that when you look into the murky shop from outside in the sunblind light, you see nothing but shadows.

The man himself is shadowy, framed by the smeared oval clearing he has made. He looks like a formal portrait, sepia tinted, from some other time. Mercy wants to memorise him for her private collection, to file him with the pinfire opal, and with Miss Rover's books, but she dare not close her eyes in case he vanishes. He has greying hair, once dark, and dark eyes. It will not surprise Mercy if the glass begins to melt where his gaze passes through it. Several tendrils of his hair, damp with sweat, fall across his forehead. His lips are not like the thin hard lips of men in Outer Maroo, but full and soft. Sensual, Mercy thinks. It is a word she has been waiting to use, longing to use, ever since she heard Miss Rover say it. Yes, sensual.

Mercy's own lips move responsively, shaping themselves toward something she cannot name, and it occurs to her that she could come out from behind the counter very naturally and cross the shop and check the levels in the grain bins below the window. She should do this, because it must be a couple of days since she has checked the grain levels, and he has not moved, the foreign man, he is still staring through the oval of rubbed glass. She knows he can see nothing except shadows, but at a certain point, when she is close enough, their eyes will meet ...

'Maybe we could tie a string to 'er and pull 'er back down to earth.' Jake Digby is snapping his fingers, click click, in front of her face.

Mercy blinks at him.

'Thought we'd lost you,' he grins. 'Got our head in the clouds, have we, love? You gonna tell me where Ma Beresford is, or not?'

'Uhh ... she's gone down to Brisbane with Bill,' Mercy says. With the two big trucks, for supplies. I'm minding the shop while they've gone.'

'You'll have to sign then,' Jake says. 'If you want the water.'

Mr Prophet says stiffly, 'Mercy can't sign, she's under age.'

'Suits me, mate. I'll take the bloody water back. Gotta be at least ten properties between here and Windorah where I can sell it for whatever price I care to ask. I'll just have a few beers and I'll be off.'

No, no, no, voices protest.

'Hot-headedness,' Mr Prophet reproaches, 'is not an asset in business, Mr Digby.'

'Is that so, mate?'

'A little patience, Mr Digby. With a little patience, we can come to an arrangement.' Mr Prophet always speaks, even when mustering cattle or supervising the winching at the opal digs, in what Mercy thinks of as his prayer-meeting voice. She believes he is not aware of this. His property is a hundred kilometres out of town, well served by an artesian bore, but the bore, alas, has a high sulphur content. Particularly high, most would say; so that, while the water on Jimjimba is fine for livestock, and for the washing of dishes, and even for the taking of showers (once one gets used to the alkaline slick on the skin, and the frightful smell), nevertheless it is not pleasant -- decidedly not -- for human consumption; although when rainwater tanks are empty, as now, one drinks what one must.

Mr Prophet speaks. 'Outer Maroo always needs drinking water,' he says. He gives the words such a mournful and delicate moral resonance that he seems to have indicated: Thou art weighed in the balances, Jake Digby, and found wanting.

Jake is impervious. 'I'm easy, mate. I just gotta be paid, that's all, cash on the barrel. This is me own initiative, and me own risk, a bit of extra business on the side, as close to legal as you'll get out here, and at a discount price some blokes would hock their mosquito nets for. But somebody's gotta sign, because I gotta have legal-looking receipts for the weigh-station johnnies and the tax man, and those blokes have a bad habit of cropping up when you least expect 'em on the other side of Quilpie. Once you hit the bitumen, in fact. The second the road surface improves, that's me rule of thumb, civilisation is down on yer like a ton of bricks.'

Mercy, startling herself, offers: 'I can pay you cash from the safe, Jake. That's what Ma Beresford would -- She'd want me to.'

'I believe she would, Mercy,' Mr Prophet says. 'Nevertheless we do not look upon ... irregularities ... lightly, Mr Digby. We do not look upon . . .' In his mind's eye, perhaps, Mr Prophet looks upon the sulphurous bubbling of his bore-water outlet pipe. 'In times of drought,' he murmurs, 'we cast ourselves upon the Lord.' He closes his eyes. Perhaps the Lord confides in him. 'His Ways are not our ways,' Mr Prophet acknowledges. He clears his throat. 'This is the Lord's doing, Mr Digby, although you may well think you have come here of your own accord.'

The elders cannot help themselves, Mercy has noticed. They must always speak this way, it is like a disease. They reinfect one another at every prayer meeting and become incurable. Once Mercy was afraid for herself, thinking such thoughts. Now she lets them come and go. She lets them stay for a while. She holds them up to the light and examines them. If it were not for Ma Beresford and Ma's Bill and Miss Rover, if it were not for Miss Rover's hidden library, if it were not for Jess and Major Miner, how would she have known there was any other way to talk? And since there are these two worlds, one of which she could so easily have missed knowing about, how many others might there be?

Jake is scratching his crotch. 'I reckon I'm a bit surprised to hear that God is in on the water traffic.'

Mr Prophet smiles his sorrowing smile. 'In spite of yourself, Mr Digby, you are an instrument of the Lord.'

'Jesus,' Jake says. 'Gimme a break, mate.'

Mercy cannot blame Jake. She always wants to wipe Mr Prophet's smiles off her skin.

'Your blasphemy changes nothing, Mr Digby. I will sign for the water. Mercy is too young, her signature would not be lawful.'

'Yeah? So who's gonna know? A scribble is a scribble. I'll do it meself for that matter.' Jake makes a defiant flourish on the white form with a ballpoint pen. 'Don't know why I didn't think of it before,' he says witheringly. 'An old sinner like me.' He squints with one eye, and holds out his thumb like a measuring stick, assessing Mercy. 'Too young, is she? Looks just about the right age to me.' He runs his tongue around his lips in a particular way, and makes small animal sounds, and winks at Mercy. 'How old are you, anyway, my luv?'

'Do not answer, Mercy,' Mr Prophet says.

Behind his hand, Jake makes a face and rolls his eyes for Mercy's private benefit, and she presses her lips together to prevent a smile from escaping. 'What's this?' Jake says. 'Muzzling the witness? I call that buggering up the evidence, which is, I understand, against the law. Gonna have to report this, Mr Holier-than-Thou. How old are you, luv?'

'Sixteen,' Mercy says, blushing, complicit.

'And never been kissed, eh? Never been touched.'

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