My father is asleep – jetlag and melancholy have him flat out, but my mother, my brother and I have been awake for hours waiting for the sun to burn off the worst of the mosquitos. We pad down off the veranda and collect the dogs who leap in joy, moved by some memory of the last time we were there – the people who come and walk them at dawn. The last time they saw me I was six and I am pleased they remember me now I’m eight.
We are barefoot. City feet. The skin on our soles needs toughening but we can’t be seen to wince as we walk the stony path into the sugar cane. The dogs hare off ahead, sending an early redbill screaming into the light peach air.
The first walk of our visit, this one is always just the three of us, an inventory of what is changed, but more importantly, of what remains the same.
We are not the first up – long before dawn my grandfather and uncle chuntered past our window on their tractors. If you are to believe my father, they do it deliberately to wake him. The smoke from their exhaust is just visible over the top of the cane but far enough away that no sound reaches us.
I am wary of my grandparents – of all of my Australian relations. But I like to watch them. My grandparents were bakers in Sydney and when a supermarket killed their pie shop, they bought the farm, a seven hour drive North up the Pacific Highway. They figured out how to be sugar cane farmers in the same way they figured out how to be bakers, they looked at what they had and worked out how it would fit together.
My grandfather is one of those prudish older Australian men who refuses to believe ‘buggery’ means what it does, but who has a collection of towel hooks shaped like licking tongues cast in olive green fibre glass. He has a large pink rubber breast mounted on the wall by the toilet, and when you press the nipple, a buzzer sounds. Him with the popcorn machine and condensed milk in a tin with a spoon, walks like a penguin because of his bad knees, a large man with a white moustache and a rainbow love bird called Harley on his shoulder. I never know if he is furious or joking.
My grandmother at this time in the morning is clearing her lungs while the kettle boils, putting food down for the cat. Patience, who leaves red welts on all who approach her, even my grandmother who inexplicably loves her.
My grandmother is small and thin and drastically allergic to eggs – so allergic her eyes start to run if an egg comes into the kitchen. She makes weird eggless cakes. Wacky Cake, dense and moist with a layer of caramel on top that is thick and chewy and strange. The punishing treat of Tractor Cake. Muesli and dried fruit held together somehow, baked into a brick and delivered to her husband and son as they work out the back. She makes treacle toffees at Christmas and wraps them in cellophane the colour of blue glass. She feeds magpies and butcherbirds on the dining table, bacon rinds, old cake and grated cheese. She caws at them and they feed from her hand.
The first landmark, ten minutes’ walk from the house is the box tree. You can see it from the veranda like a ship’s mast in the cane field, distorted by heat wobble. When you get to the tree you can step over its roots and touch the warm grey paper of its bark. The line of black ants that continues up into the branches and out of sight. After his new knees, my grandfather walks to this tree as his daily exercise. After his death, my mother will see him standing by this tree but by the time she reaches him he will be gone.
The first cane fire after he died, my uncle was surprised by a change in direction of the burn, heard his name called in that gruff familiar voice, turned to see he was almost trapped. As an adult I will walk to the box tree alone, to tell him what has gone on in the years I’ve been away.
Five minutes’ on is Goat Island, where tame goats gone feral keep the grass down. At feeding time my uncle drives down with us in the back of the Ute and we throw whole loaves of Mighty White out for them, bleating loudly to get their attention. When the goats become too much as my grandparents age, they will be got rid of, all except one who won’t be caught and who lives alone in the long grasses, mad as a ghost.
Behind the island is the marsh, thin gum trees and swamp grass, stagnant pools of dark water, the air dense with mosquitos, the trees thick with cicadas and frogs. The temperature and the noise turned up so that you fly through it alone on your bike, try to hold your breath against the smell but also, because if you can hold your breath the whole way through, the ghosts won’t get you. Sometimes the remains of a wallaby or a possum, turned inside out, the wet stones and ropes of gut stretched across the pathway. This is where dogs disappear.
Two days later, my father will walk slowly around the farm. He refuses to hurry, even at the marsh, coughs and splutters as he inhales mosquitos, huffs his breath at the smells of the bog. But still he won’t run, pauses to take a photograph of the mad goat, staring at him from the tall grass on the other side, her yellow eyes, and bell around her neck. It is uncomfortable to find her watching.
Next comes the flood mitigation, a tall grey pole on the top of which stands either a snakebird or an osprey. An easy place to fish for flathead or butterfish, and on the other side of it, in the drains we throw gill nets for mullet, kind looking fish that only feed on mud, nothing like the pike eels that would take a finger. Next to the river, mangroves on one side, cane on the other, is the spot where the dog wrestled a giant red bellied black snake while my mother held my baby brother stood on the seat of the tractor.
We return to the house, where my father still feigns sleep in the guest room in which all four of us stay. The mosquito nets that hang from the tall ceiling, where there is every time a wolf spider on the wall, and when you enter the room you stand for a moment and look until you see it. Then you climb into your bed, tuck the net around you, and then you are safe, and the spider carries on with her business. You don’t enter the room without checking for her, like the time my mother runs to get a handkerchief out of her handbag, touches the bristles of her body before she knows what it is.
The wooden ceiling in this room that cracks as it expands in the heat, the black and white lino floor, tacky with pool water and dirty feet.
There are little divots in the dirt in the tractor shed and if you dig down with a teaspoon you can find an ant lion. My brother, my cousin and I search these out – they look like miniature versions of the Ceti Eel from The Wrath of Khan. We collect them in an old ice cream container and give them dirt to dig in. While they remake their funnels we collect ants of all sizes. My cousin delights in a bull ant, takes a nip from it, internalises the pain. What we do with the ant and the ant lions is not kind. It takes about 20 minutes and bodies are strewn throughout the ice cream container. We leave it in the shade under the house, and next time we check, the dogs have become interested, and the ant lions and the legless bull ant are gone. Here under the house, which is on stilts for when the river floods, there live old bikes with white leather saddles, a punch bag, its stuffing bursting from a tear, a rocking horse. Crates of coke, lime- and orange-aid that we help ourselves to. Under one of these crates a large coiled snake nesting, discovered once we are gone.
In the feed shed, a barrel of duck pellets, a huntsman spider as big as both of my hands put together. You keep your eye on her as you dip the tin in to the pellets, while chickens make dust eddies at your feet.
The vegetable garden, soil wet under bare feet, sun heated strawberries, avoiding the red backs like they are unripe fruit. A large hot tomato, taken by blowflies and lobbed over the fence to the chook pen. It is the job the of smallest child to carry the white bucket of scraps to the chook pen every evening, hold your nerve as the chickens swarm at your naked feet, dump out the fruit peel, the crab shells, prawn husks and burnt toast, back away, while the birds attack the leftovers, close the gate. The filter mud, the persimmon tree, the attractive scent of old food filtered through chickens.
For the weeks we are there, my father is an over-heated presence, either splayed on the bed in the guest room or glowering on the veranda in an easy chair, cleaning the dust out of his camera lens. Pin pricks of his good side coming through with the first beer of the day – 11am when the men come back from the fields.
The dining table is made of railway sleepers and balances on my grandparents’ rock collection which is inhabited by jumping spiders and cockroaches, but still the place I eat the happiest. My uncle sits at the end, his bare feet up on a stool, the soles visible, dark as newly dug potatoes. He eats from a mountain of school prawns, like a machine – he takes off only the head, unpeeling the rest, the shell and tail and legs a waste of time to him. He won competitions eating prawns in his youth. My father spreads a slice of Mighty White with soft butter, peels and deveins his prawns, slowly, so that the mountain is in danger of disappearing in front of him. He lays out his small prawn bodies on his slice of bread, perfect rows, salt, pepper. He looks for a lettuce leaf, but none have been offered. My uncle watches my father’s slow lunch with orange prawn whiskers laced into his moustache. He is holding back a remark. He slaps the table with a broad hand and says ‘right-e-oh’ and goes back to his tractoring.
Holding my cousin around the waist on his dirt bike, my legs held awkwardly to try and stop them brushing against the exhaust – that burn always sucked inside – he can’t know it that hurt, or that there’s any fear taking those sharp corners, trying not to grip on to him too tightly – a muscled boy, fed on mangoes and river oysters and mighty white. I will know him better when I am 17, and he takes me hunting with him one night, lets me hold the lamp for kangaroos. We are stoned out of our heads, and he puts his arm around me and says goodonya when I stop him from mistakenly shooting a wallaby. Quietly the proudest moment of my life.
There will be a morning when I wake up while it is still dark outside, and I take my rod down to the river. The same river from which the shark hunter over the way pulls out six and seven footers and sometimes brings his larger catches in alive tied to the side of the boat, and sends me a slow wave while he fins the smaller sharks, pinking up the muddy water. Palms sweat against the fishing pole at the thought of the black eye and what it sees. Before the sun is up, I catch a large flathead, land it and stand poised over it with a knife. Kookaburras shriek at me. I go back to the house and wake my mother up to slit its throat. The dogs stand in the shallows, watchful for toad fish.
Out on the horizon a thunderstorm approaches. The dog hides in the larder with wolf spiders and biscuits. My father takes his camera apart and puts it back together again. His feet are long and white and neatly tended to. Sweat beads on his forehead and he blows air out of his mouth audibly to communicate his discomfort. The countdown has started to when someone – my mother or my grandmother probably – will tell him he ought to get in the pool if he’s hot, to be met with thick silence. I think of him there even after he has long since stopped coming with us, even after he is long gone.
When the clouds break though, he’ll stand at the edge of the veranda with the rest of us watching the lightning strike the box tree and water pour off the roof.