In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes her question memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Kathleen Jennings’ debut novella Flyaway, a beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun. Available July 28th from Tordotcom Publishing.
ALL THAT WAS
Once, somewhere between the Coral Sea and the Indian Ocean but on the way to nowhere, there was a district called—oh, let’s call it Inglewell.
Now, of course, it is overlaid by the smooth, sturdy engineering of the mining companies—the towns and their histories have been dug up or made over. A few landmarks remain unchanged: the inevitable memorial to wars long ago and far away, the street names. But almost every town has just such a memorial, and many places have a Spicer Street or a Pinnicke Road. You could never be sure you’d arrived.
But not so long ago it was a cupped palm of country, pinned to time by its three towns: Woodwild, Carter’s Crossing, and Runagate, my own.
Runagate—Heart of Inglewell on its stone welcome sign. Thirteen streets, one remaining pub, never a bank. One grocery store with a comfortable bench outside and air-conditioning sighing through the bright plastic strips curtaining the door. A water tower patterned in white and rust and shade. Three churches, each smaller than a house. The clawing precision of hard-won roses planted in wire-fenced gardens on the buried corpses of roadside kangaroos. Geraniums hot as matches. The spice of pepperina, oleander’s poison-sapped glow, the hallowed death of angel’s trumpets as apricot as sunset. Showgrounds, handsome in dusty cream and pea-green paint; stockyards. A long low school smelling of squashed jam sandwiches, the heady scents of cheap felt-tips and novelty erasers.
Of Inglewell’s three towns, only Runagate still had a pulse. Woodwild was already nearly vanished; Carter’s Crossing had barely been. They held to each other by fraying ribbons of fractured, blue-black bitumen and cords of ribbed dirt, fringed with pale sand or beaded with blood-red pebbles (not stained by massacres, no, nor cursed, whatever people whispered about how the Spicer family first established Runagate Station).
That triangle tangle of roads and tracks held the district of Inglewell: hills and scrub glittered in the powder-white light, fading to chalk blue; sharp grasses fluttered pale in the paddocks, green and burgundy on the verge; grey huts subsided into themselves like memory. Then the plunge into purple shadows, the troll-rattle of an old timber bridge, a secret of dim emerald and the barrier-shriek of cicadas. Then up again, sky-tumbled, grass-fogged.
It was a fragile beauty: too easy to bleach with dust and history, to dehydrate with heat, rend with the retort of a shotgun or the strike of a bullbar, blind with sun on metal. Easy to turn from it, disgusted and afraid. But if you got out of a car to stretch your legs and instead were still, if you crouched down and waited, it would find you, nosing among the grass like the breeze. The light and loveliness would get into your bones, into your veins. It would beat in your blood like drumming under the ground.
Memory seeped and frayed there, where ghosts stood silent by fenceposts. There the bone horse kept pace with night drivers, while high branches shifted continuously even on breathless days and creaked with the passage of megarrities or other creatures unseen, and at midday long shadows whispered under the trees. And what trees!
Bottle and box, paper and iron, thorned and blossomed under the unutterable light (the sky blue as breath, as enamel, or beaten like copper, everything beneath it turned to metal, or else translucent). Trees like lanterns, like candles, ghosts and bones. The fibrous skeletons of moth-slain cactus and beetle-eaten lantern-bush leaned over the opal-veined bulk of petrified limbs spilled in empty creek beds. Trees bled resin like rubies, sprouted goitrous nests, suspended cat’s-cradles of spiderwebs, spinning disks of silk. Trees towered hard as bronze in still sunlight, and stirred like a living hide in the rolling advent of a storm.
If you were born to Runagate with all its fragile propriety, its tidy civilisation, its ring-fence of roads and paddocks, wires and blood, there was nothing else in the world beyond but trees.
Lemon Tree and Lantern-bush
My mother—pale, delicate Nerida Scott, who wilted like a garden in the heat of the day—did not like to speak of or even look at the trees beyond Runagate.
Our front garden—the prettiest-kept on Upper Spicer Street, the handsomest street in Runagate—contained nothing native to the ground from which we daily coaxed and tortured it. It was decent, tidy and ornamental, and, like my mother, gracious. Though she always sent me to borrow books for her on homemaking and manners and inspiring true stories, she didn’t need them: Nerida Scott was as naturally elegant as a lily.
I, in contrast, had reached the age of nineteen, graceless and unlovely, despite our best efforts. There was too much of my father in me.
“But you are a good girl, aren’t you?” said my mother, catching my hand with slender fingers when I stood to clear the lunch dishes. Her nails were smooth and petal-pink.
“Yes, Mother,” I assured her. As I washed the plates, I concentrated on scrubbing out a little more, too, of that old childish self—the restless temper, the loose-limbed insolence I had got from my mocking father and unloving brothers, an unflattering pretension to cleverness. Unlearning the habits gained during the useless, featureless years I had spent at Runagate State School, before I had to grow up. Before I chose to. Nothing (she liked to say) is as unattractive as a woman with a little education, is it, Bettina? And I had spent three years resolutely becoming responsible and civilised and winsome. A strong will has its uses.
That day, like nearly every day, was bright. My mother, her eyes already green-shadowed with tiredness, settled to sleep. My mind quiet, I swept the kitchen to the companionable hum of the refrigerator, the midday crooning of red hens scratching beneath the lemons that hung in the backyard: lemons the size of ox hearts, thick-rinded, brilliant and knobby, luminous among the glossy green. They were not, I think, the shapely fruit my mother had expected, but she did not want to replace the tree. The scent wandered through the house. I would have gone and gathered armfuls of fragrant leaves, but my mother, in one of her few deviations from her magazines, considered cut arrangements gauche.
I washed my face and hands, carefully cleaned the dirt from beneath my nails, added the faintest of colours to my cheeks and lips, brushed the thick dull bob of my hair over the thread-thin scar, almost invisible, on my cheek—a childhood injury, forgotten—and straightened my skirt and blouse. My mother might be asleep, might not love her petty, parochial neighbours, but in Runagate she would certainly hear if I went out looking as if I had no one to care for me.
There had been no car at our house since the night my father left. My mother had barred my brothers from repairing their battered ute in the driveway, and in any event Mitch and Chris had soon gone too. But under the pressure of the midday sun, as I wheeled my yellow bicycle to the front gate, opened it and latched it neatly behind me, I almost regretted not being able to drive. Almost, but then a throbbing in my head and neck reminded me of what we had lost with it: the snarl and roar of engines in the garage and on the lawn, boys rioting through the house, light hair feathered white from the sun, shouting like crows, always too much in the open air. Monsters! my mother had called them, rightly: husband, sons, and cars too.
Nowadays our peace was broken only by wings outside the windows, the shifting of lace shadows. “We are pleasant together, aren’t we, Bettina?” my mother would say, and I would answer, “Yes.” We were homemakers; after everything, I chose to stay when restless spirits fled.
We bloom where we are planted. Don’t we, Bettina? We are content. And I was content. For a moment, pushing back my hair at the door of the library before returning my mother’s books (improving and inspiring), I smelled the ghost of oil and petrol sweet on my hands, but while I had few secrets from my mother, that was not a memory to grieve her with. It would fade.
I ran all my errands but one, and the bags swung heavy on the bicycle’s handles.
“Scott-girl!” bellowed Pinnicke, the old scalper, on the corner before the petrol station, on the road leading away from Runagate. “I found something near the traps, dingo traps, I thought I’d got its paw—you’d think it would be a paw—but come see, come see.”
I stepped down hard on the pedals, flew across the road and past the pumps, kicked the stand down quickly and darted into the shop.
“A hand!” laughed the old man, outside. “Complete with a ring!”
“Pinnicke bothering you, Bettina?” asked Casey Hale at the counter. She had cut off all her wild permed curls and her short hair was sleek. Modern.
“No, Miss Hale.” Pinnicke was quite unbalanced; it was correct to avoid him, whatever acquaintance he’d scraped with my father. No one worth knowing had liked him. I scrambled to remember any of the old books on etiquette my mother had me read to her, but they didn’t contemplate Pinnickes. I was breathing too fast. I’d hardly been acting my age.
“Bring your bike in,” she said, too kindly. “You can leave through the back.”
“No, thank you, Miss Hale.” That would be undignified. “Is there a delivery for me, Miss Hale? From the bus?” We don’t end a sentence as if it is a question, do we, Bettina? “From the bus,” I corrected myself.
She raised one eyebrow—vulgar, my mother would have said, and once I would have wished I could do it—then went through a door and brought out a white box tied with baling twine and punched with holes. From inside, small voices cheeped.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yes, Miss Hale. That is all, thank you.”
I waited for her to give me the box. She gave me a long stare first. “Okay, Miss Scott.” Her tone was rude, but at least she wasn’t treating me like a child. “My compliments to your mum.”
I accepted the box of chickens and bundled hastily outside again, narrowly avoiding a tall man with a sandy beard, and above it pale keen eyes, cold as a crow’s. He smelled of blood and oil. Not from Runagate, I registered, and with speed (but not haste) stowed the box in the basket of my bicycle and fastened it there with cords.
“Reckon your dad would have been interested.” Old Pinnicke was leaning against the wall. His breath stank like the air from the pub. “Always picking things up, wasn’t he?”
The stranger had parked his ute—dented, rusted, piled with cages of geese and feathers—on what footpath there was. A two-way radio crackled inside the cab and something slumped low in the passenger seat, cowed, or dead. I pushed off the kerb into the road, where there were never cars.
I stopped, hunched over the handlebars, eyes closed, waiting for my mind to catch up (surely it had once been faster). Curses from Old Pinnicke. A blue smell of rubber, like time contracting too fast. I opened one eye and saw a young man drop down from the cab of his red truck, rusty hair on end and freckles showing. This one was from Runagate. Too much so.
“Tina Scott!” said Gary Damson. “What the hell are you doing?”
But I was on the bicycle and away, my face hot as fire. I stood on the pedals, as if I were fifteen and heedless. I wanted only to get out of the open street, the staring eyes of Runagate. To get to home and safety.
It was common knowledge (which is not the same as gossip) that Mr Alleman, who lived next door, lost his son in the Woodwild School fire before I was born. Since he’d retired from covering clearing sales and dances for the STAR, he’d found nothing better to do than watch his neighbours. His sharp nose tracked above the leaves of his lantern-bush hedge. “You’ve got a fan, Bettina Scott,” he observed.
I intended to ignore him but could not avoid seeing what he nodded to. Scrawled in black letters across our neat white fence was the word MONSTERS.
“Who—” I began.
“I didn’t see,” said Mr Alleman, and tapped his blade of a nose. “But we can guess, we can guess.”
I couldn’t. In spite of the heat, the paint stuck to my fingers. Fresh. Mr Alleman was chuckling. Chilled with fury, I gathered the mail from our letterbox and went quickly through the gate.
I settled the new chicks—no worse for the adventure with the truck—under the hanging bulb, then lingered by the door of the garage and sorted the mail, waiting for my mood to settle, and Mr Alleman to lose interest and go indoors. A bill. A flyer for events at the cultural centre: a bush-dance, an introduction to computers, a water-dowsing workshop, a movie to be shown on the last Saturday, and an historical lecture on the eradication of invasive plants. That should be of interest to Mr Alleman—we didn’t approve of his garden. Letters to my mother from her travelling friends in scripts looped, elegant and feminine on flower-scented paper—I breathed it in, forcing myself to relax. The stamps read Åland, Ísland, Magyarország. Tiny bright worlds, smaller than Runagate, places where plants froze in the snow and died in the autumn. A catalogue of pretty throw-rugs and framed sayings, which we would look through after dinner. And a grubby little envelope, not stamped or postmarked, not even addressed except for one word: TINK.
You are truthful, Bettina, aren’t you? I didn’t answer, even to myself. That paper, that writing—filthy and bold and untidy—offended my already-ruffled spirit, and stirred it up like dirt at the bottom of a water tank. All my worst impulses.
This—whatever it was—was mine. I put it into the pocket of my skirt and stood in the garage, feeling my unsteady heart, and the paper resting guilty as fire against my leg. Mr Alleman had gone. My mother’s advice would have guided me, but she was asleep, and for a moment the idea of rebelling against my own better judgement tasted as good as salt.
I scrubbed the fence, the sun hot through my blouse, the breeze pressing the fabric against my shoulder blades. But I could not enjoy that secret glory of movement and effort. My peace was twitched by my conscience, by the worry Mr Alleman was watching behind his curtains, or my mother behind hers, by the growing suspicion this was not, in fact, the first letter I had received and therefore neither special nor deserving of secrecy. Hadn’t there been a letter once, ages ago, that my mother had read by the window, laughing softly to herself? The memory was sluggish, cobwebbed with disuse. It had been foolishness, my mother had said. Nothing to bother our heads about, Bettina, is it?
“Bettina Scott,” said a voice behind me, angry and light, but a man’s. I spun, spiralling dirty water. It spattered the driver’s door of Gary Damson’s truck, where the letters spelling Damson Fencing were peeling to reveal only their own deeper shadows. I was indecorously, bitterly, delighted. It was his own fault. He had startled me twice today.
“Was that paint?” he said. For a moment, my thoughts were fast enough: I was suddenly certain what Gary Damson’s square hands would feel like, raised in anger. He leaped out, but I was taller and faster. Gathering bucket and brushes, I ran into the yard, past the house, back to the safety of the garage.
“You coward, Tina!” he shouted, voice cracking. I knew he would not follow. Mother had forbidden him the yard, back when my brothers left. Damsons respect fences.
Coward. My hands were shaking. “Hush,” I whispered to myself, until they stilled, and my thoughts were quiet once more. I rinsed the bucket, and after a while the truck choked to life and roared away. Caution was better than bravery, I reminded myself. A civilised, bone-china soul knows, as a bird does, that a heavy-footed, shouting man is a thing to be fled.
The garage was quiet, except for the scrape and slide of noisy miner and magpie claws on the iron roof, the spreading patterns of hydrangea-blue shadows, and the perennial half-whispers in the trees that did not belong to any breeze or beast I had ever seen.
I wrung out the damp hem of my skirt, dried my hands and went inside.
“Are you feeling ill, Bettina?” my mother asked me in the bright evening, pausing over her letters.
“My stomach,” I said. Unthinking, I rubbed my neck and shoulder.
“You mustn’t be ill, Bettina,” said my mother, anxious. “You are never ill.” She smiled at me bracingly. “You are a good girl. You always do what I need to be done—you must be well for that. You are feeling better, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Mother,” I said. It had, after all, only been tension. Guilt, and alarm.
She paused delicately. “I heard some . . . altercation this afternoon.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. Her eyes were still shadowed. “Someone painted words on our fence. Not crude. Just ‘monsters.’ I cleaned it.” Looking up, I saw her watching me, eyes kind and green, her pale lashes fine as the fringe on a fern.
“And?” she prompted.
“Gary—Mr Damson, young Mr Damson—came by.”
“What did he want, Bettina?”
“I don’t know,” I said, honestly. “I didn’t stay to ask.”
My mother nodded. “The Damsons are no better than they should be,” she said. “Fencers.” She shook her head, as if she did not love her white fence, as if the Damsons were involved in an arcane and dubious activity. “They are not like us, are they?”
She watched me.
“He shouted at me,” I said, to please her, and to claw my way back to the peace I had felt that morning. You always feel better when you tell the truth, don’t you? “For almost splashing paint on his truck. But he was the one who frightened me.” Odd I had not heard him drive up. What had I been thinking of?
“Poor Bettina,” said my mother. “Come here.” She reached up and embraced me briefly; her skin was soft over the vine-firm tendons of her thin arms. A tightness I hadn’t noticed in my back eased. There was, after all, nothing to worry about.
“Perhaps we should send that shock back where it belongs,” said my mother.
She had ways—terribly polite, peaceful ways—of putting our world to rights. That night she called Sergeant Aberdeen, our policeman. I listened calmly, suppressing a juvenile glee. She thought he should know young Gary Damson was stirring up trouble; of course she could trust him to do what was necessary, couldn’t she? He had a daughter, so he understood, after all?
We did not care for poor Winston’s daughter, and so, “Did he understand?” I asked, when she hung up. My mother merely sighed. Patricia Aberdeen, after all, would have revenged herself upon Gary without recourse to the proper authorities.
“A shame he was saddled with raising such a wild girl,” said my mother. “It was fortunate for everyone when she was sent away. Better not to think about her, don’t you agree?”
So I did not. But when I changed for bed and emptied my pockets, I found the letter again.
It wasn’t a real envelope. The paper was locked together by an untidy series of creases. With it a memory unfurled just as mechanically and rumpled: my hands knew this pattern, we had folded notes like this at school. We? I had been peculiarly friendless; it wasn’t nice to have favourites, besides which the company at Runagate State School had been lacking. Not like us. Like Gary Damson, too much themselves: nothing but sunburn, muscle and dirt. Like my brothers.
A sudden image of the three of them, crow-hoarse with laughter, Mitch and Chris lanky as cranes beside Gary.
Dismissing that train of thought as unprofitable, I opened the letter over my bare knees, the brittle butcher paper scraping faintly on faded scars.
It contained a page torn from the Runagate, Woodwild and Crossing STAR. The date was three years old, but I guessed each word before I read it.
YOUTHS RUN AMOK
DAMAGE AND DISTURBANCE
DESTRUCTION OF PEACE
I shifted the scrap to read the writing underneath: a large, unsteady scrawl, the pen pressing veins into the paper.
YOU COWARD, TINK
Why would anyone trouble to point that out twice in one day? Gary Damson’s words, although he wouldn’t have called me Tink. Only my brothers and father had called me that. But they were long gone. When I tried to remember how their voices sounded when they said it, I couldn’t. I wasn’t surprised: even their faces were blurry. My mother hadn’t kept any photographs. We don’t need to be reminded, do we, Bettina? Forgetting is easy, once you learn how.
I looked at the article again. It had been torn from its page, with greasy thumbprints dark on the grey paper. It smelled of motors and dung. I rested it back on my knees, holding it cautiously so the newsprint could not come off too much on my fingers.
Only my brothers.
I could have told my mother. But I lingered too long, and felt through the house a draught, laden with the breath of growing things. Rain, I knew as if it had already fallen on me. A serenity comes with that smell, calming the acid of doubt and regret, stirring different thoughts. The scent of sharp grass softening, the lemon tree digging its roots further into the dissolving earth, the pepperina and lantern-bush and beyond—pine, brigalow, eucalypt, the vast, uncivilising world shifting like a shaggy animal, silver-green under the clouds, dreaming, although my mother would not credit it, in memories.
Excerpted from Flyaway, copyright © 2020 by Kathleen Jennings.