By Kate Constable
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2011 Kate Constable
All rights reserved.
The crow wheeled high in the clear winter sky.
The land was spread beneath, laid out like a map, like an open book. The lines of the creeks, and the bumps and sags of the hills and swamps held the stories of the country's ancient history, the marks of its creation.
Far below, the crow saw a tiny speck move along a muddy track. It was a human girl-child. She tramped along, her head down, ignoring the country around her and the small town at her back. The girl did not see the paddocks, the railway line, the trees, the birds, the clouds. Her eyes were fixed on her own muddy shoes and the boggy road she stalked along.
The crow swooped lower. It laughed its mocking laugh: waa-waa-waah! and the girl looked up sharply, scanning the sky with her fists on her hips, as if she dared the bird to jeer again. But then her head dropped.
'Stupid bird,' Sadie muttered to herself. She aimed a pebble at a battered rusting sign beside the narrow track, and then she noticed what it said. Lake Invergarry.
Despite herself, her heart lifted. The little town of Boort, where she and her mother had just moved, was built on the shores of Little Lake Boort. That lake was public; it belonged to everybody. People walked their dogs around the circuit track, and Ellie, her mum, jogged around it every morning. In summer, the water teemed with boats and water-skiers, and the caravan park hummed with people, thick as flies, or so Ellie said.
But now Sadie remembered her mum talking about another, private lake, where she and her cousins had gone yabbying every summer. A tucked-away lake, their own secret place. Mum and her cousins had come to Boort every holiday to stay with their grandmother when they were kids, a million years ago. Ellie had loved it; that was why she'd dragged Sadie out of school in the middle of the year to come and live here. She'd just assumed that Sadie would love it too. She'd never even bothered to ask how Sadie felt about it.
Sadie hurled another pebble. It pinged off the signpost to Lake Invergarry, and a little voice whispered in Sadie's head: you know, it would be pretty cool to have a private lake ...
'All right!' said Sadie crossly, and turned down the side track. In the distance she heard the crow again – wa-aah, the call drawn out like a sing-song jeer. Crows seemed to be everywhere around here: pecking at road kill, flapping round the lake edge, staring at Sadie with their flat, bright eyes. They gave her the creeps.
She walked doggedly on. She wanted to see the secret lake spread out beneath the cool blue sky, almost like the sea she missed so much. The track rose uphill. Clumps of mud clung to her runners and she began to sweat. At last she reached the low crest of the hill, and gazed down into the shallow valley below.
There was no lake.
The valley was lined with a scum of yellowish mud. The water was gone. It must have vanished years before.
Sadie scuffed along the track until it disappeared. The lake bed had cracked apart into a crust of thick silt the colour of parchment. Sadie poked a cake of yellow mud with her toe and it crumbled into dust. Tussocks of some low clumpy plant with a soft purple feather of a flower had spread across the ground; Sadie had never seen it before.
She wrapped her arms around herself. The only sound was the wind crying in the low trees. She might have been the only person in the world.
The crow called again, a hoarse, creaking lament: waah ... waah ... waa-aah ... The sound died away as she walked slowly forward.
At first glance the lake bed had seemed wide and flat and featureless, but now Sadie saw objects thrusting up through the mud: the blackened bones of dead trees and tumbled piles of bricks. There had been buildings there, and bush, before the valley was flooded and everything was drowned. But now the waters had retreated, to reveal what they'd destroyed – a broken-down wall, rotted stumps furred with yellow mud.
A couple of hundred metres from the ruins, Sadie found a cluster of skeletal tree trunks with what looked like crooked sticks scattered beneath them, some upright in the ground as if planted there in echo of the dead trees. As she came closer, she realised they were – or had been – little white crosses.
It was a tiny graveyard. Once a grove of trees would have screened it from view of the buildings, but now the trees were as dead and dry as the bodies buried there, and only a few specks of paint remained on the wooden crosses.
Sadie hastily retreated. How could she have thought that the lake bed was flat and featureless? It undulated, dipped and rose, like the back of an enormous scaly beast, with immense muscles rippling beneath its damp, cracked skin. Lumpy warts of boulders marked the surface.
Sadie threaded her way through a knot of blackened tree-skeletons, and found herself in a deeper, hidden hollow. A group of tall stones, a metre or so high, stood in a crooked ring about five metres across.
Her heart was pounding.
The crow called, suddenly almost over her shoulder. Waaaah ... It was like a command.
Slowly, almost unwillingly, Sadie reached out to touch the nearest of the tall rocks. Her fingertips brushed its rough, crusted surface. The dried mud flaked and crumbled. Sadie rubbed harder with the heel of her hand, and the crust of silt disintegrated and fell away like a scab, exposing smooth, red stone.
Waah! croaked the crow.
Sadie's heart thumped harder. She dug her fingernails under the silt, and, flake by flake, the skin of mud peeled away. She scraped and prised and scratched until the whole tall boulder stood glowing in the cold, clear sunlight. Sadie laid her hand on the rock. It was as warm as a living creature; she could almost feel it breathe.
There were nine boulders in the haphazard circle. Now she'd helped one stone, she had to free the others too. She scraped and scratched and brushed away the dirt until her hands were raw, and sweat poured down her face. She had to clear those silent stones to the air and the sunlight, to let them breathe.
It wasn't until the last rock was clean and Sadie stood back to survey her work, that she noticed the carvings. The marks were almost blurred into the stone: indistinct, powerful, immeasurably ancient. A chill travelled up Sadie's spine like an icy hand, and every hair on her neck stood up.
A crow was there.
It looked like an ordinary bird – black-feathered and with eyes like discs of black glass. It stood on the yellow mud not far from Sadie, its head cocked to the side. It seemed real enough, made of meat and feathers; its feet gripped the mud; its shadow was crisp on the crazed surface of the lake bed. But then it spoke.
It spoke in the guttural waah wa-ah of a crow, but Sadie could understand it.
'This is Crow's place.'
Its voice was not angry, but it was stern, and Sadie understood that she must move out of the stone circle. She ducked her head and slipped out between two of the boulders, to stand blinking on the lake bed. She didn't see the crow move, but there it was, in front of her again.
'Crow is awake,' it said. It tilted its head and stared at her with one glittering eye. 'Now it begins.'
Sadie found her voice. 'What begins?'
'Beginning and ending, always the same, always now. The game, the story, the riddle, hiding and seeking, beginning and ending, always.'
'Who are you?' said Sadie. 'Where did you come from?'
The crow opened its beak in a silent laugh, then croaked, 'Waa-waah! Crow comes from this place; this place comes from Crow. Crow's messengers live here. Wah!' It unfurled its wings and shook them out. 'Crow has work for you.'
Sadie's mouth dropped open, but before she could speak, the crow gave one powerful thrust of its wings, rose into the air, and flapped away. In a moment it was out of sight, and the high blue sky was empty.
Sadie's head throbbed and her throat was dry. She looked around, but she couldn't see the crow. She listened for its cry, but the air thrummed with silence.
In a daze, Sadie stumbled back across the lake bed, her shoes heavy with mud. A slender lizard flicked across her path, and she stopped dead, heart racing, in case it spoke to her. Get a grip! she told herself fiercely. You're imagining things to stop yourself dying of boredom. You dreamed it, that's all.
Or else she was going insane. That was always a possibility. She knew what Ellie would say if she told her she'd had a conversation with a bird. Her mother would be phoning a psychiatrist before Sadie had even finished speaking. That is, if she actually listened to her in the first place. More likely she would just say, mm, that's nice, darling, and then launch into some fascinating story of her own ... something about how they'd rearranged the fridge at work, or some crazy patient ...
The sun slanted into Sadie's eyes, and she realised with a start that it was late in the afternoon. How long had she been at the old lake? She hurried along the deserted track back toward the town – past the pale paddocks that rolled away on either side, blank as empty pages in the weak winter sunlight; across the wide, silent train tracks and the abandoned rail- way station; past the shabby weatherboard houses scattered beside the road; up the hill along the main street; toward the Railway Hotel and the grey stone soldier on the war memorial.
Sadie had stormed out of the house in the middle of an argument with her mother. When she got back, Ellie would probably yell at her. Don't you walk out on me when I'm talking to you ... That was the problem; Ellie always talked, she never listened.
Sadie was in no hurry to go home. She lingered beneath the war memorial, reading the inscriptions for the first time. Her own surname leapt out at her.
C. Hazzard, L. Hazzard, W. Hazzard.
Sadie's mum and dad had never married, and Sadie had Ellie's surname. She was glad about that, not just because Dad had left them but because Hazzard was a much more interesting name than Brown. Ellie said there had been Hazzards in Boort forever, and there was the proof, carved into the stone of the memorial.
She circled the pedestal. A. Mortlock, E. Mortlock, G. Mortlock, T. Mortlock. More Mortlocks than Hazzards. That was annoying. A. Murchison, J. Raven, R. Tick, P. Williams.
There were a lot of names for a tiny place like Boort. Maybe more people had lived here in the olden days when the trains still stopped at the station. Maybe it hadn't always been a dump.
When Ellie announced to Sadie that they were moving to the country, she'd promised trees and creeks and freedom. But instead Sadie had found parched yellow paddocks and empty roads. The mindless screeching of birds, the throb of frogs in the lake. The ominous silence of icy winter nights nudging against the black glass. Endless TV ads for country golf clubs and sheep lice medicine. Personal rubbish tips behind every house, piled with rusting cars and abandoned washing machines and broken prams. The kids at the high school staring at her and ignoring her, thinking she was a snob because she came from the city.
Ellie had found a nursing job at the local hospital. I can walk to work every day! We'll be able to spend more time together! But so far Ellie had poured all her energy into trying to make friends with the locals; she didn't have any time left over for Sadie. They might as well have stayed in Melbourne. At least in Melbourne, Sadie had had her own friends to hang out with.
Their so-called new house wasn't that new; at least, it was new compared with most of the decrepit old houses in town. It had belonged to an old lady. It creaked and smelled. Sadie was convinced the old lady had actually died inside it, but Ellie refused to say.
They'd moved in a month before, but to Sadie, it still wasn't home. Home was the cream brick house near the sea, where she'd lived all her life. Boort didn't feel like home. Sadie couldn't imagine that it ever would.
They were still camping in the new house, fishing dishes out of boxes and rummaging in suitcases for their socks. Ellie was too busy with her new job to unpack properly, or fix up the house. Sadie's bedroom had hideous flowery old-lady wallpaper.
'Plenty of time to paint later,' Ellie said cheerfully.
Every morning, Sadie woke to that wallpaper, and the light seeping in through an unfamiliar window, and the loss of home punched her in the stomach afresh.
Sadie swallowed the lump in her throat and looked around. The main street was deserted. The distant blare of car horns drifted from the direction of the oval next to the school. There must be a game on; that would be where everyone was.
Sadie paused. She could go and watch the football. There would be kids there from school; someone might say hello.
Ellie would love it if she made some friends in Boort. But Ellie had dragged Sadie to live in the middle of nowhere without consulting her, and Sadie was determined to punish her mother by being as miserable as possible.
Sadie turned her back on the road to the oval.
She'd have to go back to the house; there was nothing else to do.
Perched high in a gum tree, the crow watched as Sadie trailed slowly along the road that ran around the edge of Little Lake. It tilted its head down to look at the roof of the brown brick house, set well back from the water. It saw the girl climb the front steps, lift her hand to the door, and hesitate. It heard a high, cross voice call from inside, 'Sadie? Where have you been?' The girl lifted her chin, pushed open the door, and disappeared inside.
The crow saw the other houses strewn along the shores of the Little Lake and nestled in the shadow of the hill that rose above the town. It saw the jagged grooves of creek beds, gouged into the earth as if scored by a giant stick, and the smooth puddle of the Little Lake, reflecting the blue bowl of the sky. It saw the gnarled fingers of the low, spreading mallee gums beside the lake, the grey and green of ancient scrubland.
New marks had overwritten the oldest signs. The landscape was criss-crossed with roads, railway tracks, electricity towers, boundary fences. When the settlers came, they cleared the land. The remaining trees clustered close to the water, lonely scribbles spelling out their own tale of survival. Houses sprouted like mushroom colonies. New stories were scratched across the land.
But the crow could read the old signs, the old stories. They might be hidden, but they had not vanished. Crow was hidden, too, but he was not gone. Crow was awake. Now it would begin. Crow had a story for the human girl-child. Crow had work for her to do.
Waaah! called the crow. It let itself fall from the branch, as if it might tumble to the ground. Then with one lazy flap of its wings, it rose into the crisp blue air, higher and higher. The green and yellow country rolled below, dotted with trees, snaked across with roads and creeks and fences. The crow circled once, a black mark against the blue. And then it was gone.
As Sadie let herself into the house, Ellie straightened up from the box she was unpacking. Her long fair hair swung over her shoulders, and her green eyes flashed.
'And where did you disappear to? I don't want you running off without telling me where you're going.'
Sadie muttered, 'I thought the whole reason we moved to the country was so I could be a free-range kid.'
'If you want to be free-range, you have to be responsible. Anyway, I need your help. You're thirteen now, you're old enough to pull your weight. You can't expect me to do everything!'
Sadie scowled. 'So I'm old enough to unpack, but I'm not old enough to be consulted on major life decisions like where we're going to live?'
'Don't make me go through this again. You know we couldn't possibly afford a house this good in Melbourne – three bedrooms, close to the shops, right beside the lake.'
'Right beside the railway line.'
'Oh, there's hardly been a train go past since we've been here!'
'Just shows how dead this town is,' muttered Sadie. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Crow Country by Kate Constable. Copyright © 2011 Kate Constable. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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