August 31, 1971
While my sister wives are sleeping, I step over the threshold and into the night. The cornfields rustle in the breeze; the moon glitters like a pan of salt. I don’t breathe for two minutes, waiting for the voice of God, for the click of a shotgun. But the night stays silent. I want to scream and dance and run off the edge of a cliff. Instead, I light-step down the driveway, counting in sevens until my panic fades. It’s August, and the stars are closer to the earth, and it’s too late for us to be saved, or at least, that’s what they’re telling me. Every night I pray for a little more time. I tell myself that nothing bad can happen at this time of year. Not while the cornfields are dark with birds. Not while the summer calves nuzzle at our hands for sugar. I scratch open the scab on my arm until I feel the wetness of blood. This time it will be different. This time I’ll leave, and I won’t come back.
I take the long way around the town to avoid being seen. We’re meeting in Uncle Joseph’s back paddock, a wilderness of Indian grass and smashed up cars. I climb over the fence, land awkwardly and smell dirt. I get up and shine the torch across the ground. To the west, earth and sky lie blackened by the day’s fire, lightless but for the moon. There’s no sign of Caleb. This is our time, our place, and he’s not here. I check inside the cars, behind the trees. My heart starts beating in my fingertips and I feel sick, dizzy. The Prophet’s spies are everywhere. They must’ve seen the way our eyes met in church. A page torn from a blue diary, the words ‘call me’ scrawled across the top. Behind the trees, the horizon glows grey. He promised me he was coming. And I spent all my time believing.
I’m hitching up my skirts to climb the fence when I see a shadow move on the horizon. At first I think it’s a rabbit or a fox. Then I see the flashlight, the shoulders and the tuft of hair. I stick my fist in my mouth and laugh myself breathless. Maybe I should walk towards him, save him going the distance. But instead I let him come to me. Just like he did when we were kids.
He stops at the nearest wreck. Puts the torch down on the bonnet. Holds out his hands.
‘Martha,’ he says. ‘You look like you’ve had a bad night.’
‘You look like you haven’t slept in a month,’ I say.
‘Yeah. ‘Cause I haven’t.’
He’s white against the dark grass. A flame burning on the sea. There’s a feeling here that often goes unnamed. I have no word for it. Impulsively, I reach out to hug him. We hugged a lot when we were sixteen. We bled each other, here on the grass. I still have the scars.
He steps back quickly, nearly stumbling into a rabbit hole. Staring at me like I’m rabid, like I’m about to bite him. He’s breathing heavily, ready to run.
‘What on earth was that?’ he says.
I don’t know what I expected. A moment of eye contact, a half-second of touch. Not so long ago, religion was the hair on his arms, his fingers against my lips. I don’t want to believe that we’ve changed. I squeeze my eyes shut. Breathe in the grass and the moonlight wetting the mountaintops.
‘Gentiles touch each other all the time, remember?’ I say. ‘Backslaps, hugs, handshakes. It’s normal for them.’ I pick at a flake of rust on the car door. ‘I thought we were going to start acting like gentiles. In preparation for the outside world.’
‘Sorry,’ says Caleb. ‘I just find it hard to remember this stuff.’ He gives a dry, choking laugh. There’s no smile in his eyes. I look at his face and remember being a child. Waking up to find my parents gone. Crying out again and again in the dark.
He leans back, ass resting on the bonnet of the car. ‘Sit,’ he says, patting the metal beside him. ‘We gotta talk.’
I sit down and scoop my legs up in front of me. All around us the paddocks stretch out, flat as an open palm. It’s almost dawn, and the sky is blinking open like an eyelid. I’m years away from him now, I can feel it. His skin is warm for someone else. I have it all planned out, the day we’ll leave. Dropping my heart on the floor as I get dressed. Bending to kiss the wooden tabletops. Shedding my skin on my husband’s doorstep, smiling as we leave him behind. But I don’t know what will happen to us after we’ve left. Whether we’ll be lovers. Whether he’ll leave. I look at him, sitting silent with dirt on his hands and the moon in his hair. There is everything left to say and there is nothing left to say. And the night around us feels both light and heavy.
‘Four days,’ I say. ‘And then we’re leaving forever.’ My voice is not my own. I’m speaking with someone else’s tongue. My words fall out, loose and free as a river. ‘Do you feel ready? ‘Cause I sure don’t. I feel terrified.’
‘That’s what I came…’ says Caleb, and then he can’t finish his sentence. He swallows. Tries again. ‘That’s what I came to tell you. I can’t come with you.’
‘What? What do you mean?’
He says something, but I don’t hear it. Go, I think. Tell all your friends. Shout it from the street corners. Let the forests burn and the seas rise to claim the land. Stars falling as my fists hammer against his chest. Lightning striking as the moon dies and the earth tilts towards morning. When hitting him doesn’t help, I gouge at the scratch in my arm, watching the blood well up and soak my sleeve. ‘Stop that,’ he says, and he grabs my hands and holds them tight. All I want is to make myself bleed, but he won’t let me. In my head I repeat a prayer over and over. Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Father. Father. Until the shaking stops and the heat leaves me.
Caleb starts talking again. No, the disease isn’t going to kill him. It’ll just make life a little painful. He feels like the devil took a bite of him, then spat him out again. He laughs, hollowly. I focus on my body; a hot tumble of breath, salt on my lips, words mounting in my throat like the tide. In the light of the torch, a rabbit pops up and sniffs the air. It’s a juvenile one, soft and fluffy, with ears way too big for its head. For some reason, the rabbit makes me want to cry. Caleb says he moved from stage two to stage four in two years. Practically unheard of. I say nothing. I am a daughter of a dead man and my heart breaks slowly. He keeps talking about the colour of his urine, the way his urine looks like scrambled eggs, and I remember us alone in a room with the lights off. He told me all about kidney disease when he first got it. How he could need dialysis if it got worse. But I guess he needs to say it all again. I turn the torch off so that he won’t see me crying.
‘They’ll take my money if I leave,’ he says. ‘Take my business, my house. Won’t be able to pay for the treatment.’
‘We’ll make it work,’ I say. ‘You can get another job, get a loan-’
‘Shut up,’ he laughs. His voice is dry, with no water in it. ‘A loan that big? What if I can’t find work? I’ll lose my treatment slot, and then…’ He doesn’t need to finish the sentence. I know that he’d die. Out in the fields, a bird starts singing. Then another. The hem of the sky is dipped in light. The mountains diving into the clouds, the voices of yellowthroats. Love. That’s the word for the unnamed feeling. I test it out in my head and it feels right. I turn to him and strain to make out his features, his crooked nose and the pimples on his chin. Suddenly, all the birds around us break into song.
‘Don’t try to change my mind about this,’ Caleb says. ‘I’ve worn myself to the bone. I can’t take it. If you try to argue with me, I’ll walk away. I mean it.’ His voice peters out.
‘There must be something we could do-’
Caleb slips off the bonnet of the car. His feet crunch in the dry dirt. I cry out wordlessly, grab at his shirt. He pushes me off and walks away. A song playing in my head. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see. Every step he takes lands on my chest, and my breath comes out in hot gasps. It’s not too late for us, I see him turning back. Walking slowly, then faster, then running, slamming into my arms, his mouth in my hair and his arms around my waist. He laughs and cries and says it all. And we stay like that for hours, holding back the morning.
But it’s not real. I made it up in my head, he’s leaving, and the sky is calling out his name, and I spit him out of my mouth and onto the grass and I bite my fists. In the light of the torch, I see him turn back and look at me. He shakes his head. Keeps walking.
I get up and run. Snot on my face, my dress tangling between my feet. I catch up with him near the dirt track. The grass is growing tall on the side of the road. The cows are calling out to be milked. When I say his name, he stops. When the city is burning, don’t look back. Don’t watch the fire falling or listen to the screams. You loved me with fear in your mouth and one hand on your daddy’s rifle, and I was sick with shame over needing you. I thought it was over, until you passed me that note, and the space I’d put between us disappeared. Say it, you can’t hurt me now. Say it.
He doesn’t say it. He turns to walk away.
I grab his shoulders and slam him against the fence. He wriggles and tries to break free. I hold onto him until he pushes me off, face twisted and sick. He straightens up and stumbles away from me.
‘What was that?’ he says. ‘Are you gonna chase me through town crying? Huh?’
‘Do you love me?’ I say.
He gasps. I look at my shoes. The silence opens between us like a wound. I imagine knives going into my belly, blood spilling out, rich dark blood, my guts oozing through my fingers, my body white and lifeless. And I’m praying, God, kill me. I don’t want to live, kill me, do it now. Seconds pass and nothing happens. ‘Look at me,’ he says, and I can’t, so I hold my hands over my eyes. I feel his breath on my face as he tells me to open. He gives me the smallest smile in the world.
‘I do,’ he says.
‘I care about you. Deeply.’
I stop breathing. Kiss me, I think. I take a step closer.
Caleb steps back. ‘But I’m not in love with you anymore,’ he says. He rubs the ache from his forehead and fiddles with his watchstrap. ‘I’ve changed since we were kids. I love you like you’re my sister. Maybe if we both left, we’d eventually be together. But I can’t leave, so what’s the point in speculating?’
He looks at my tear-soaked face and sighs.
‘It’s a lot, isn’t it?’
The knives are stabbing at my stomach again. This is how it begins. Hot face, cold hands, pray for the last time, goodnight, God, goodbye. I’m sorry. Goodbye. I don’t look at Caleb. If I look at him, I won’t be able to keep it in. He’ll sit me down in the dirt and pull my heart out through my mouth and bury me under the redwood tree. The moon breaks. The sky stops calling out and is silent. ‘It’s a lot,’ I say. This is how it begins.
‘Go,’ I say. ‘Leave me.’ In the early morning quiet, I feel something break. ‘I need to be alone right now.’ I hear him gasp, but I need to finish it, I need to drive the knife in.
‘Just go, Caleb.’
‘You don’t get to order me around,’ he says, his voice clogged. ‘That’s not how this works.’
‘If you don’t leave, I’ll start crying again,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to fall apart in front of you. Please let me keep my dignity.’
I hear his feet crunch on the path behind me. Then he’s pulling me towards him, his arms around my shoulders. His is body is stiff and awkward. It’s like being hugged by a corpse. ‘Let me go,’ I say, over and over, and eventually he does. I stare at a lump of cow shit while he tells me to call him tomorrow. I nod. I bite my fingers. I tell him what he wants to hear.
‘We can keep in touch,’ he says, ‘after you leave.’
He swallows and puts his hands on my shoulders. Music rises in me, unbidden. His body, my body. The only song I know. Then I step away, and the music dies. Maybe it was never there to begin with.
‘I’ll call you if I get time,’ I say.
He nods. His face is white, and he can’t look at me. ‘See you, Martha,’ he says. He opens the gate and walks back over the paddock, hands in his pockets.
This is how it begins. I take the long way home, towards the dam, where the road ends and the horizon falls open like a book. Halfway there, I trip on a rabbit hole and fall facedown in the dirt. I lie there for a minute, eyes to the sky, body cradled by the soft grass. This is how it begins. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘I needed to end it.’ In some universe, far away, he kisses the top of my head and tells me it’s alright. And I stay with him ‘til he’s ready, ready to say goodbye. This is how it begins. I get up, brushing the grass seeds from my skirt. I dry my face on my sleeve. And I begin the long walk home.
Hannah Vesey is a thrift-store clothed coffee addict with a passion for eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations. Her fiction focusses on mythology, scientific discoveries and moral dilemmas related from neurodiverse/ autistic perspectives. Her work has been featured in Scratch That Magazine, Urinal Mag and the QUT Literary Salon 2021 Collection. She was also shortlisted for the 2021 Allen and Unwin Undergraduate writing prize.