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Juno & Hannah
By Beryl Fletcher
Spinifex Press Pty LtdCopyright © 2013 Beryl Fletcher
All rights reserved.
Some floods are silent, slow moving, tone deaf to the possibility of fugue and counterpoint. For weeks, the rain had held a polyphonic conversation on the galvanised iron roofs of the settlement. Sometimes the rain sang a lullaby, but when the wind came roaring up the valley pushing a wall of water before it, the roofs reverberated like a kettle drum. There was talk about the rising level of the river. Abraham announced that they faced the prospect of becoming completely cut off from their supply route to Piopio.
Hannah was not concerned. Wet or fine, her tasks in the community remained much the same. The only problem was Juno. She hated to be cooped up inside and Hannah had to devise extra activities in order to keep her apart from the others.
One afternoon, the rain drifted away. At first the change was so slight that Hannah did not notice the pale sunlight that was threading through the thin white trunks of the mahoe that grew in profusion outside the kitchen windows.
Juno came to tell her about the return of the light. 'I want to go outside,' she said.
Hannah took her hand and told her to be quiet. She led Juno into the washhouse. It was set apart from the other buildings in the settlement. They took oilskins from the coat rack and put them on over their knitted tops and long skirts. They removed their cotton slippers and borrowed two pairs of leather boots from the men's shoe rack. Hannah tied the laces around the outside of Juno's boots to stop them from falling off her tiny feet.
They crept away into the bush. The sodden branches of trees and ferns hung low with moisture and they had to constantly duck their heads to avoid taking a cold shower. Soon, their head scarves were soaking wet and Hannah wrung them out and placed them on a manuka bush in the hope that the sun might gain strength in the late afternoon.
They heard the river roaring below them before they saw it. Hannah helped Juno down the steep track to the swimming hole. The floodwater had eaten away the shallow banks of the place where in summer the women came to wash their long hair in the cool fresh water.
Now, in flood, the once gentle stream was dark and agitated. The weeping willows were half submerged and the swift current tore at their lower branches as if to rip them from the arms of the mother lode.
Juno sat on a flat rock at the edge of the water. She began to remove her boots.
Hannah restrained her. 'No paddling today, too dangerous.'
Juno pointed at one of the willow trees. 'A man down there.'
'A man in the water.'
At first Hannah thought that Juno was playing games; she often saw things in the physical world that existed only in her mind. Hannah looked more closely. Yes, there was something caught in an eddy at the edge of the water. A willow tree obscured the view. She walked slowly along the edge of the swimming hole being careful not to sink down into the mud.
Then she saw it. A man lying on his back, half out of the water, trapped by a fallen branch. One arm was stretched above his head displaying a roughened hand with thickened fingers. She took hold of this hand and it was cold and white.
Juno called out. Hannah could not make out her words. Something about a horse. She sounded frightened. Hannah ordered her to stay exactly where she was.
All at once the hand moved. It clung to Hannah's fingers like a disembodied claw.
Hannah grasped the man beneath his armpits and began to pull him clear of the fallen branch. She managed to drag him onto the mud at the edge of the water. She turned his head towards her and saw the face of a stranger. She ripped off his worsted underwear and tucked her skirt up into her waistband. She sat astride his naked body and placed her lips on his. She blew the air into his mouth until she saw his lungs shudder. She turned him on his side and watched him disgorge copious amounts of river water and dark oily clumps of something solid.
She became aware that she was under surveillance. Juno silently appeared at her side. Hannah was about to reprimand her for coming too close when she looked up and saw two men on horseback. They were partially obscured by the regenerating scrub.
She called out to them. 'Help me, please, help me!'
One of the men dismounted and climbed down the rough track. It was Abraham. He removed his felt hat and held it by the brim. He ordered her to release her skirt from her waistband and to leave the body alone. It had nothing to do with them. He covered the man's flaccid genitals with his hat. Juno giggled.
'This innocent child should not be exposed to such sights,' said Abraham. 'I will ride into town tomorrow for the constable to come with a konaki to retrieve the body.'
'But he is still alive,' said Hannah. 'God in his infinite grace has saved him.'
She arrived back at the kitchen and took off her wet things. She threw lumps of fuel into the fire box of the coal range. There was a pleasant aroma of roasted potatoes and mutton. Abraham came into the kitchen and ordered the women on cooking duty to prepare barley soup and bread for their unexpected guest and to find him some decent clothes. Then send him on his way.
'No,' said Hannah. 'The poor man is too weak to make his way on foot through the bush. He must stay until he has regained his strength.'
Everything stopped except for the rhythmic clanking noise Juno was making by hitting an empty saucepan with a stick. Tap! Tap! Tap!
Hannah would not let it go. 'The man's horse has been swept away in the river taking his saddle packs with him. He has nothing left.'
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Hannah opened the oven door and began to turn the potatoes over with a wooden spurtle. Abraham said for the sake of his sanity would someone please control that child.
Tap! Tap! Tap! Hannah removed the pot and the stick from Juno. The child clicked her tongue and tried to mimic the sound of the stick. Tip! Tip! Tip!
Abraham said that the situation was murky. Jimmy and Conrad had been sent to find the man's horse but after searching the riverbank they had failed to find any trace of the beast. It was becoming clear that the situation required further investigation. There was a suggestion that the man had been sent to spy on them.
Tip! Tip! Tip!
'I am a fair man,' said Abraham, 'and one who adheres to the sacred principles of Christian justice. The stranger is permitted to stay until he has recovered on the condition that before he leaves there will be a hearing. Hannah will have every chance to tell us the truth about the drowned man and how it was that she brought him back to life.'
He turned and left. Juno began to chant 'back to life, back to life' in her copycat voice. Hannah placed a warning finger on her mouth and the child fell silent. The women in the kitchen came out of their collective trance and murmured between themselves. Hannah turned her back on them and finished attending to the potatoes. The heat of the oven blasted her face.
The murmurs became louder and the comments and questions more pointed. Then Sarah stood up from her stool and clapped her hands. 'Be silent,' she said. 'The food will be spoiled with this idle chatter.'
'Her shame is written on her body,' said Augusta. 'There is no need for words.'
'In that case,' said Sarah, 'let there be an end to it.'
The trial was brief and to the point. Hannah denied prior knowledge of Mr Wilfred Cattermole before she saw him washed up on the bank of the swimming hole. She did not understand why she had removed his underclothes. She did not understand why she was able to put the breath back into his body. Someone or something had guided her.
Mr Cattermole was seated in front of Hannah in the meeting room. When he turned his head to look at her, she barely recognised him from the glacial being that had lain beneath her at the swimming hole. He looked relaxed and healthy and his beard was neatly trimmed. He was dressed like the other men; flannel shirt, denim dungarees and a felt hat.
Mr Cattermole was not able to explain what he was doing near the river. His memory had gone, flown away like a paper dart, skedaddled. He can remember leaving Piopio on his horse some time ago and that it is the winter of 1920. After that, it's a blank. No, he does not know Miss Hannah Cooper. Never laid eyes on her before. He didn't even know that this place existed. He would like to know when they had arrived here to take up the land.
'We are not here to answer your questions,' said Abraham. 'You are the trespasser, not us. You must leave today and go back to where you belong. Jimmy and Conrad will take you to the boundary of our land.'
'What was the name of the river that took my horse and almost took me?'
'Our land has its own name and so does the river,' said Abraham.
'By the look of it I reckon it to be a tributary of the Mokau.'
'You will not find us on any map.'
Mr Cattermole stood up. 'Don't bother with an escort. I am well used to the ways of the bush. I can find my way back to Piopio.'
'Go then,' said Abraham. 'There is a package of food and a bed roll outside on the porch. Take them and leave.'
Mr Cattermole turned at the door and doffed his hat at the assembly. He gave Hannah a conspiratorial wink.
She was mortified by this unwanted gesture of familiarity.
Worse was to come. Abraham summoned her to the front of the room and instructed her to face her accusers. Did she not understand the gravity of her actions? She had shown disrespect towards the elders. Her arrogance must be reined in.
'I am loath to do this,' he said, 'but I have no choice. You will be subject to the punishment of internment for the period of one lunar month beginning next Sabbath when the moon is at its lowest point.'
Hannah could feel her body close down. Her legs shook. She tried to hold her head up high and look them in the eye but none would engage her.
Abraham asked the assembly to pray for her soul. Then he read from the book of Samuel in the Old Testament. Saul said unto his servants seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit ... and his servants said to him behold there is a woman that has a familiar spirit at Endor ...
The felt hats nodded in approval. Abraham put down his bible and took hold of Hannah's head. She locked her eyes onto his. She forced herself to stay calm. He will not make me cry, he will not ...
'Learn your lesson from the sacred book,' said Abraham. 'Only God has the right to bring back the dead. Do not enter the dark and dangerous world of the bone-conjuror even if a king himself begs you to do so.'
He went to the door. Sarah was waiting outside.
'Take her now,' he said.
All through the night Hannah sat on her canvas cot next to the open window. She watched the incandescent stars pierce the vast canopy of a sky that deepened from indigo to black. To her, the stars appeared as white hot torches of judgment.
Each hour she removed another garment baring more skin to the air until she was almost naked. She was unconcerned that the other women in the dormitory might open their eyes and see her exposed white flesh. The other members of the community had been forbidden to comment upon her bodily states until the period of internment was over. The women obeyed without question. They did not register her nakedness by the flick of an eye. She might as well have been made of gelatine or isinglass.
She had not comprehended until now the loss that imposed invisibility could bring. Even Juno had looked through her with a strange floating gaze, empty and unfocussed, as if her flesh had vanished and she no longer had the ability or substance to cast even the thinnest of shadows.
The wintry air acknowledged her presence by shrouding her body in an icy cloak that made her shiver. Hannah welcomed the scourging of her flesh. She could offer no explanation for her ability to bring life back into a drowned body. The elders had tried to force her to tell them the truth. She desperately wanted to please them but to do so would force a moral descent into the sin of lying.
She tried to comfort herself by conjuring up a vision of her mother but the fading away of Eleanor's physical presence was almost complete. All that remained was a blurred glimpse of slender ankles disappearing beneath the uneven hem of a long skirt, and once, an ear lobe shedding blood when caught in the clasp of an obsidian earring.
Although Hannah could no longer conjure up her mother's face, she had a clear memory of the musical range of her voice. Her mother loved to tell stories of domestic mishaps that through constant retelling had taken on the power of grand epics.
Hannah wondered how Eleanor would have told the story of the drowned man and the hand clutching at her like a claw. She tried to visualise her mother taking hold of Mr Cattermole in the cold river water and all at once she saw a clear view of Eleanor's hands fresh from the rigors of the wash tub; one crushed finger nail on her left index finger; a ragged purple scar on the back of her right hand that in a certain light could look like a dog's head or a crude map of Australia.
This unexpected recall of her mother's wounded hands gave Hannah a sense of comfort. Something that had been lost to her since she was a child had been given back. She closed the window and climbed beneath her grey blanket just before the dawn light began to break out behind the hills.
Sarah was the only woman permitted to speak to Hannah during the time of internment. She brought food and brief snatches of gossip when the others were working on their assigned tasks. Hannah did little else except lie on her cot and day dream. When the early morning sky was clear of rain clouds she watched the silhouette of the steep hills emerge with the coming of a new day. She listened to feral roosters serenading the return of the light and the restless sheep dogs rattling their cages. She listened to the sound of the wind sighing through the mamaku tree ferns that held their delicate green umbrellas above the regenerating scrub of kanuka and mahoe.
When the wind changed direction and came from the south it brought cold driving rain that formed rivulets of mud around the buildings. The women brought candles in at night and held them up to the windows so that they could see the depth of the slush outside. Mud was their enemy. Their long skirts became sodden with sticky clay soil as they scampered between the kitchen and dormitory and the children's house. The pulley in the kitchen ceiling was strung with wet washing and the men complained that their shirts and union suits smelled of mutton chops and stewed tea.
When the southerly blew itself out, fog crept up from the river and devoured all before it. Not one leaf moved, not one bird sang. One by one the trees melted away. The fog brought a terrible silence outside her prison that emulated the social death within.
Without work Hannah's sense of time became distorted. The nights were long. After the last candle was extinguished the women who shared this hut with her went to sleep instantly and slept like the dead. It had never occurred to her before that all of them were in a constant state of exhaustion.
The days were difficult to bear. Sarah brought Hannah a slice of brown bread spread with honey for her breakfast. This had to satisfy her until teatime when she received a cup of water, a bowl of cooked vegetables or soup and another slice of bread.
'I'm frightened,' said Hannah. 'Sometimes I forget my name.'
'Hush now,' said Sarah. 'Eat your potatoes and drink your tea.'
'But tea is forbidden.'
'Drink it while it's still hot.'
Hannah gulped a mouthful of tea. 'What colour were my mother's eyes? I am forgetting to remember.'
Sarah gathered up the dishes and put them onto a tray. She hid the empty cup in the front pocket of her apron. 'Don't tell anyone. About the tea I mean.'
'Go now,' said Hannah. 'Your transgression is safe with me.'
Five days before Hannah's period of internment was due to finish, Sarah came early with the bread and honey. She brought the news that Hannah was to be released at once. She had held a meeting with the other women last night about Juno, and this morning the elders had given Hannah permission to resume her normal life.
'Is Juno ill?'
'She has not spoken a word since you were sentenced. All she does is sit and rock and yesterday she began to bang her head against the kitchen door.'
'I must go to her.'
'Eat first, that was the instruction.'
Hannah bolted down her bread. She barely noticed the cup of tea that Sarah had brought for her. She poured some water from her jug into the washbowl and threw handfuls of cold water over her face.
'I tried to stop her,' said Sarah, 'but she would not listen to me.'
'It only makes things worse to argue with her, you know that.'
Excerpted from Juno & Hannah by Beryl Fletcher. Copyright © 2013 Beryl Fletcher. Excerpted by permission of Spinifex Press Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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