With his father suffering through the drought, Clayton attempts to free the rain spirits that were captured by the demonic Red King who lurks on their remote sheep station.
Guided by the magical creature Waringa, Clayton’s efforts only cause further tension between him and his father as suppressed memories of his older brother’s death begin to surface.
15% of the publisher’s revenue from the sale of this book will be donated to the following charities:
Rural Aid and Beyond Blue.
'in Melanie Rees’ exquisite telling, the unbearable is transformed' - Carly Rheilan, Author of 'Birthrights' and 'Asylum'.
Set in a time of drought in the vast almost unfarmable interior of Australia, Petrichor is the haunting story of a young lad’s quest to open an inner floodgate after a desperate family tragedy.
Told differently, this story could have been simply unbearable. Physical and emotional drought pervades every scene, every relationship, each perfectly observed interaction.
Yet in Melanie Rees’ exquisite telling, the unbearable is transformed. Everything in this story is layered and its meanings shimmer in and out, like shapes seen in the swirling dust of a dry plain, never quite out of sight, never quite within grasp. She has a wonderful lightness of touch, and this story about the hard work of recovery from tragedy will resonate with readers of every age, from adolescence upwards.
She uses myth and magical realism – even talking animals - but there is nothing sentimental here. What has happened before the story starts can never be undone. Yet like roots of grass in the parched earth, the characters hold within themselves the possibility of renewal. Ordinary magic happens, and extraordinary magic too. The rain can come again; the grass – and a family - can grow again.
Carly Rheilan, Author of 'Birthrights' and 'Asylum'
'It is a story that fascinates and inspires in equal measure' -
The Hard Hat Book Site.
Behind this young adult novel, before the story starts, there is a family event so terrible that the central character, Clayton, cannot let himself remember it. Looking forward, with drought ravaging the family farm, there is the possibility of ruin. All around there is the terrible silence of adults not coping. Young Clayton blames himself. Perhaps his parents blame him too.
It’s a dark place, but the author holds the reader’s hand and offers courage. No false promises : I honor the author for that. Young readers will be captivated by the fantasy components through which Clayton gropes his way forward – the carcase of a fox which comes to life as Clayton's unreliable guide; a serpent in a basement who holds an unspeakable secret, a powerful demon who is holding back the rain. These figures are real in the story, and the parallel truths lurking behind them are never explicitly stated. An older teenager will find the hidden meanings; a younger one will not need to.
As an adult one sees in this story a traumatised young person reaching deep to find the symbols to understand what has happened and the resources to move on. This story explores difficult truths and trusts its readers to start in this dark place and make the journey. It is a story that fascinates and inspires in equal measure.
'Petrichor is beautifully written. The descriptions of the Australian landscape in the grip of drought paints a stark image of the effects of natural disaster on both the land and the people who live on it' -
Kate Reads' Books.
Petrichor is beautifully written. The descriptions of the Australian landscape in the grip of drought paints a stark image of the effects of natural disaster on both the land and the people who live on it. Kate Reads' Books
Petrichor is beautifully written. The descriptions of the Australian landscape in the grip of drought paints a stark image of the effects of natural disaster on both the land and the people who live on it. Clayton and his family deal with the loss of stock and income, as well as the loss of his older brother, Davo, much loved but not spoken of. The mystery and grief surrounding Davo’s death is handled beautifully.
Clayton, the narrator, is a well-rounded character that young readers can relate to as he struggles to cope with what is happening to his world. Clayton has to face his fears for the sake of himself and his family.
Rural Australia is the back-drop for this story, and Rees has given such authenticity to this aspect of the novel. As someone who grew up in the bush on a farm and who saw the effects of drought first-hand, the sense of place is just wonderfully rich and real. The use of rural vernacular gives credence to this and the slow burning tragedy that is unfolding there.
The fantasy element of the novel is fantastic and highly original. The idea that water is being held captive by a demon is quite believable for a child experiencing drought. Clayton’s quest to return the water to the land is engaging and exciting and younger readers will love it.
Thematically, the novels deals with broader issues such as the particular brand of toxic masculinity that exists in rural Australia, grief and the impact of suicide, and hardship and how people face adversity. Walt, Clayton’s father, is the face of drought-stricken farmers and Rees has done a fantastic job with his character, using him to highlight the emotional impact of grief and disaster.
Even from inside the ute, Clayton could see the blood trickling down the lamb’s neck. His dad pulled up alongside the injured animal. As the grunting of the engine stuttered to a halt, the sheep’s relentless bleating took over, echoing across Paddle Creek Station.
“You staying in the car?” Dad asked.
Clayton tore his eyes from the lamb and looked up at his dad, the rifle already firmly in his grasp. “No. I can help.” He popped on his khaki bucket hat and followed his dad out onto the dusty paddock with Rusty eagerly yapping at his heels.
“Get that mutt away from here!” Dad yelled, as he loaded the rifle.
Mutt? Clayton rubbed the kelpie behind the ears. She was no mutt. She’d been Davo’s dog, but she was still part of the family. “Why can’t she come? She’s not scared, are you girl?” Clayton scratched under her collar and Rusty’s hind leg started twitching in gleeful circles in sync with his scratching.
“She’s in the way.” His dad glared at him.
Clayton grabbed Rusty’s collar and directed her back towards the ute. She walked in circles a few times and plonked herself down in a tiny strip of shade beside the vehicle.
Clayton sat with her. He didn’t want to watch his dad shoot the lamb, but something compelled him to do so. A bloody chunk had been torn from the lamb’s neck and a ripe stench wafted from the wound. The lamb’s body quivered and flies buzzed above it ready to descend.
“Can you help it?” asked Clayton, although he knew the loaded rifle already answered his question.
Dad cocked the rifle. “You don’t have to watch.”
“I’m okay. I saw Dav . . . .” Clayton noticed his dad’s forehead pucker into little wrinkles. “I’ve seen it done before.”
“Hmmm,” Dad mumbled.
“He hit a roo once when we were doing doughnuts in the paddock. He had to shoot—”
“Clay! I don’t care what he did. And if you mention him again I swear to the bleeding rain gods I’ll lose my shit.” He pushed his Akubra back from his eyes and placed the rifle to the lamb’s temple.
Rusty barked, perhaps in defence of Davo’s memory.
Clayton pressed his forehead against Rusty’s snout. “It’s okay, girl,” he whispered, trying to reassure himself as much as her. The gun blast assaulted his ears and sent a shudder through his body.
His dad looked up. Clayton expected to see grief, but his face was deadpan underneath the Akubra.
“I’ll bury it and then we’ll fix that fence.” Dad’s anger had subsided.
Clayton picked up the shovel lying in the back of the ute. “How deep do I dig?”
His dad held out his hand.
“I can do it,” Clayton said, beginning to dig. As he did the shovel ricocheted against the hard ground, jarring his elbows. In the hot air, Clayton’s t-shirt stuck to his back even though he’d only managed a few centimetres. Keeping the spade vertical, he plunged it into the ground again and stomped on either side of the shovelhead. His small frame did little to bury it.
“Give it here.” His dad snatched the shovel before Clayton could object. “Too much time with your head in those books and not enough time with your feet on the ground doing real work.”
Davo had always been the musclier one, just like their dad. Even A fewignoring the age gap between them, Clayton’s older brother had been the real farmer in his dad’s eyes. Tucked away behind the kitchen door, Davo’s blue line on the giraffe height chart had always been an inch higher than Clayton’s red line at the same age. Now the giraffe was gone, tore down along with all the other reminders of Davo. Thinking about Davo’s death stung, but as hard as he tried, Clayton couldn’t recall the days leading up to his funeral.
Dad handed the shovel to Clayton, grabbed the lamb’s hind legs and slid it into the shallow grave, leaving a thin trail of blood barely distinguishable from the red earth underneath.
He’d seen kangaroos shot, sheep dying, and Davo’s casket, but there was something brutal and final in his dad’s actions and expression that reverberated in Clayton’s chest.
Clayton shovelled the loose dirt over the carcass, although most of it billowed into the air as if the dust had a mind of its own. Wisps spiralled into the air like tendrils. As if searching, the dust drifted towards him. It looked so solid, as if he could grab it. Clayton reached out a hand.
“Clay! Come on.”
He turned. His dad sat inside the ute, tapping the steering wheel. Rusty was already perched on the tray top.
Clayton climbed in, hoisting his feet up to avoid the farming debris that littered the passenger side floor. “Can Rusty sit with us? She was allowed up here before—”
“Fu . . . Bugg . . . Darn! Lift your legs.” Dad bit his lip.
Clayton looked down. His feet rested on the rifle.
Dad double checked the safety and placed the rifle on the bench seat between them.
“Keep your feet to one side of the other tools. There’s no room for Rusty.”
And yet there was room for all this junk. Clayton knew there was no point arguing though. With his legs perched on an angle on top of the tools, he stared out the window as the car took off.
They drove along an old internal fence line, not that there was much of a fence left. Drifting sands obscured all but the top strand of rusted barbwire. In some sections, there was no wire at all, but the star droppers still stood defiant: a last testimonial to all that once was. A few klicks ahead, the hills of the conservation reserve loomed. Between the farm and the reserve, Davo’s property was covered with saltbush untouched for months.
Clayton turned to his dad. “Why won’t you tell me how he died?”
“Huh?” His dad faced him, wide-eyed, perhaps shocked at the abruptness of the question.
“It’s just, I don’t remember.” Clayton struggled to recall his last intact memory of his brother. He remembered them fishing way back when Paddle Creek had water trickling down from the reserve, and an image of Davo and him cleaning out fertiliser from the seeder bins. But the past few months were as hazy as the horizon.
“Dad?” he prompted.
His dad turned from Clayton, focusing on the road. “We’re not talking ’bout it.”
“Why won’t you or Mum tell—”
“Shut it, Clay!” Dad’s ancient hands grasped the steering wheel tightly.
Clayton bit his tongue, trying to hold back tears. He wound down the window, using it as an excuse to turn away and conceal his face, but as his dad drove over the cattle grid onto the next paddock the shuddering of the ute dislodged a tear and it rolled down his check and onto his lap.
The wind picked up and tossed whiffs of dust into the air. Clayton let the hot air dry his eyes. The breeze swept through the window, stirring the flies that had been content to cling to the inside of the windscreen. Clayton swatted at the little black beasts, but his dad seemed content to let them dance around his eyes and cracked lips. It was as if they were clinging to a carcass. Clayton wanted to swipe them away. There was still life in Dad, somewhere—deep down.
Dad leaned over the steering wheel and stared out the windscreen.
Clayton followed his gaze. Grey storm clouds brewed over the hills. He exchanged a quick glance with his dad and saw the faintest hint of a smile.
“Ain’t that a beautiful sight.” Clayton heard the change in his dad’s voice from its usual monotonous tone to something that almost resembled optimism. Dad didn’t elaborate further, but some things didn’t need words.
Not far ahead, the northern boundary fence ran for kilometres in both directions—dead straight—dissecting Davo’s and his parent’s properties like a scalpel. His brother’s old bluestone house stood prominently just beyond the fence. Davo’s paddocks still maintained a trace of fresh growth like an untrimmed beard. Tiny seedlings poked through the dry plains, fighting the earth’s brittle crust. In comparison, their property, with its crisp chewed saltbush, looked like it had a bristly five o’clock shadow.
His dad stopped at the gate and sat, eyes fixed on Davo’s house. Clutching the steering wheel, his knuckles bulged, gangly, and arthritic. They turned whiter with each passing moment. Outside the skies grumbled, snapping him out of his daze.
“We might just be able to wring some rains out of these clouds.” His dad’s lips turned upwards, but his eyes didn’t flinch and his smile lines didn’t crease. “This could finally be the break we need.”
Clayton jumped from the passenger seat. Dust had painted the sides of the ute red and he scribbled “wash me” on the door with his finger.
“Nudge reckons as soon as you wash your car it will rain. Says it’s better than a rain dance.” Clayton danced up towards his father with one arm in the air, stamping his feet. He looked up at him expectantly, waiting for a smile.
“Aren’t you’re meant to be a teenager now?” Dad’s gaze remained fixed on Davo’s property.
At least the corellas sitting on the rim of a water trough found it amusing and gave a chorus of squawks.
“How we going to fix this mess?” Dad tugged at the fence.
The Ringlock fence had come adrift from the wooden posts and the top strand of barbwire sagged along the ground. But in one section, the fence was still taut, and there, pinned to the barbwire by their tails, a dozen fox carcasses were lined up. The oldest kill was barely recognisable. Fur had disintegrated and the skeleton was starting to protrude through the leathery skin. The wind ruffled the fur of the last fox. A brown coat still covered its body except for the mange at the base of its tail.
“Why haven’t they all decomposed?” Clayton asked.
“Hmm?” Dad looked up from the fence.
“The foxes, how long have they been here? How long does it take to rot?”
“Dunno. I ain’t been up to the boundary fence since . . . .” The furrow in Dad’s brow deepened and his complexion darkened, as if the approaching storm clouds had briefly swept across his face. “I don’t know, Clay. Do something useful and get me the fencing strainer, staples, and hammer from the ute.”
Clayton stood motionless. “Which one’s the strainer?”
“It’s got the chain attached. Get with the program.”
Clayton strolled to the ute. The front was a mess: tools, bolts and empty slugs were lumped together, tangled among offcuts of fencing wire and pink baling twine. Clayton carefully moved the rifle out of the way, grasping it by the barrel.
“Whoa! Don’t touch that!” His dad snatched the rifle from Clayton.
“Sorry. It was in the way and I couldn’t find the tool.”
“Never handle that yourself.” Dad pointed at a metal contraption that looked like someone had welded a couple of clamps, a metal bar, and chain together. It was more like some evil clawed bear trap than a tool.
Dad grabbed it and the other bits and pieces he needed and returned to the fence. “You gotta watch this. You’ll need to learn to mend fences someday.”
Dad connected two loose ends of wire with the chain, levered the bar ’til it was tight and did something with the ends of the wire. His dad’s left index and middle finger were missing their fingertips from a farming accident long before Clayton was born, but despite his arthritis and missing fingertips his calloused hands were more dexterous than they looked.
Clayton scratched his head. “I’m not built for this.”
“Course you are. It’s in your blood. The Hopper gene . . . is tough.” His dad’s voice cracked.
Wind stirred. Dad coughed on a mouthful of dust, said some words Clayton’s mum would never have approved of, and resumed mending the fence.
The darkening clouds crept over the ridge of hills and covered them in shadow as his dad worked. The shadows inched their way towards Davo’s homestead. It used to be the shearers’ quarters, but to Clayton it would always be his brother’s house. He unlatched the gate, where tiny white snails smothered the rotting wooden post. It squealed as he pushed it ajar. Half a year had gone by since he’d been here, but the homestead looked the same as it had always done.
A gust of wind spun the rusted windmill, making it creak, and saltbush bowed with the force as if praying to the house.
Amid Davo’s saltbush country and homestead, there was familiarity. Memory tugged at Clayton’s subconscious. Images of them riding on the quad bike and sitting on the front porch admiring a winter crop as Rusty chased galahs. He remembered when Davo moved out. His brother had been so excited.
“Dad’s carved me off a bit of his land to help get me going,” Davo had boasted.
“You’re miles away. I’ll never see you.”
“Sure you will. When Dad’s too old and cranky to hop on a tractor you’ll have Dad’s place and we can manage both properties together as one.”
“He’ll still be on the tractor when he’s a hundred.”
Davo had laughed with his usual hearty chuckle. “So take the quad bike. You can come round whenever you want,” he said, pointing to Dad’s chunky green beast.
“But I can’t open the cocky gate between your and Dad’s property.”
“Come on, buddy. Even Mum can open and close that one. I’ll replace it for you. Got an old swing gate in the shed. Much easier to open with these little muscles.” Davo had squeezed Clayton’s biceps like they were jelly and laughed. “Look.” He disappeared inside and returned cradling a tiny ball of fur so red it could’ve blended into the soil at sunset. “I’m going to make Dad so proud. Got me own sheep dog and everything.” They’d both loved that puppy from the moment it started frolicking in the paddock: all lanky legs, floppy ears and smiles.
“Clayton!” His dad’s voice rumbled like a road train, bringing Clayton out of his reverie. “Get back here now!”
His dad stood by the open gate, unable to place a foot on Davo’s land.
“Why?” asked Clayton. He stood his ground, but his voice lost its resolve.
“Coz I said so.”
When his dad uttered those words, he knew it was the end of the discussion. He dawdled to the gate, glancing back to Davo’s house.
“Hold your horses, Dad. I’m coming.”
“I ain’t got no horses. I’ve just got a flock of sheep that might start roaming too far if we don’t fix this bleeding fence. And I got a son who’s never going to be a farmer if he doesn’t come back from la-la land.”
Wind stirred, enveloping the old homestead in a cloud of red dust. Dry and bitter at the back of Clayton’s throat, it made him cough. He hurried back onto their property.
His dad yanked the gate. “Close, you mongrel.” He kicked the post, jolting it far enough for the latch to reach. He turned to Clayton. “Don’t go near that house. You hear me?” Dad’s eyes were as wide and wild as the approaching storm.
Clayton nodded, unable to speak, his vocal chords losing more than their resolve.
Rank tumbleweed rolled across the paddock like runaway Ferris wheels until the fence caught the plants in its grip. Clouds streamed across the sky and merged like hands intertwining, fingers clasped tight. They rumbled in a passionate embrace. A raindrop fell on the back of Clayton’s neck, cooling him under his t-shirt. Another fell on his cheek, and then the storm clouds rushed southward without another drop—the honeymoon over as quickly as it began.
“Ha!” His dad laughed at the sky.
The tail winds of the storm stripped more soil from the earth. Clayton shielded his eyes and suddenly a shot echoed across the plains. Corellas on the water trough squawked and took flight.
“Is that all you got?” Dad aimed his rifle at the receding storm clouds. “Is that all you bloody well got! Come back here.” His tone of voice was foreign to Clayton and he retreated to the ute.
“Hah, I’ll give you some lead, then you might be heavy enough to drop rain.” Dad cocked the gun and took another shot at the sky.
“We’re tough.” He strode up and down the fence line, his joints forgetting their arthritis. “We’re bleedin’ tough, you hear me. We can cope with the dry.”
“Dad?” Clayton couldn’t hear his own voice, but he didn’t know whether it was because the rifle was making so much noise or because he hadn’t actually spoken. He shook as another shot rang out. Rusty growled at Dad as if he were a stranger.
“Dad, stop!” Clayton squatted, clasped his ears with his hands and put his head to his knees. “Stop it, stop it, stop it.”
“You! Are you bloody well looking at me?”
Clayton dared to glance up. A bullet collided with a dead fox on the fence. The rifle fired again, hitting the fox in its side. The carcass jolted with the force and its head lifted backwards. Although its eyes were sunken and closed, the fox appeared to look in Clayton’s direction.
He turned his gaze from the fox, crawled along the dusty earth towards Rusty and wrapped his arms around the kelpie’s neck. “Dad! Please.”
His dad fired again and again until the fox’s torso split open. Dad shut his eyes tight, screwed up his face and fired one more shot. With the impact of the last bullet, the fox launched itself from the fence and landed on Davo’s side in a heap, its legs splayed out at odd tangents, its amber eyes opened and stared directly at Clayton. Its lips parted and the dead fox grinned.
Stones popped like firecrackers against the mudguard and chassis as Dad detoured across the middle of the paddock. He was taking the shortest route possible. Fleeing. He hadn’t even cared that Clayton had insisted on going on the tray top with Rusty. She nuzzled Clayton as if she could sense his concern.
He stood, holding the roll bar, and gazed behind the vehicle. Dust billowed up from the wheels and soon red haze obscured everything behind them. As the vehicle slowed, the dust cloud drew closer. A plume extended towards them like an arm, reaching out for its prey.
The ute came to a standstill. Rusty growled. And a faint voice whispered upon the breeze, as if lost in the haze.
“Oi! You deaf?” Dad shouted from the garden. “We’re home.”
Clayton looked back at the paddock. The dust appeared to run away from the vehicle, but that was ludicrous. Dust couldn’t run. Clayton hopped off the ute and walked a few metres towards the moving dust. The hazy mass slunk into the earth, but a whiff of dust re-emerged and seemed to turn in his direction. Clayton shut his eyes and shook his head. When he reopened them, all the dust had vanished, revealing a slab of blue sky sitting atop a slab of ochre.
Hunched over her laptop on the kitchen table, his mum glanced up as they entered. Clayton noticed Mum’s eyes probing. Somehow, she knew something wasn’t right and yet all she said was, “Walter?” There seemed to be a question tagged onto his name like a hook on a fishing line trying to lure him in.
Dad didn’t bite though, and she didn’t cast any more questions.
“We didn’t finish fixing the fence,” Clayton said, trying to fill the silence and sway his dad to talk about what happened.
His mum looked at them in turn. She seemed to be searching for answers but was unable to ask the question.
“We ran out of time, Emily. We found a lamb injured on our way so we had to take care of that.” His dad’s explanation was lame. They had plenty of time.
“We could’ve finished but . . . ” Clayton looked to his mum to fill in the blanks.
“That’s alright,” his mother said with forced cheerfulness. “We’ll get Nudge to fix it tomorrow. He’s been looking for more farmhand work. If we pay him mate’s rates we might be able to afford a day’s pay.” She peered at her laptop screen and the cheerfulness evaporated from her voice. “It’ll be okay.”
No, it wouldn’t. Dad wasn’t okay. There was no sadness, no anger, no worry. Couldn’t she see the emptiness in his eyes? But she didn’t press the issue, didn’t quibble or bat an eyelid; instead, she closed the laptop and checked the oven.
“Are you hungry, Clay, sweetie?” she asked. “I’ve made fish mornay and that salad you like with the crispy noodles.”
Clayton waited for his dad to chip in with a joke about his food preferences, but there was nothing.
“It’s a nice mornay. Reggie gave us some fish when he delivered the hay bales this afternoon.”
Clayton reflected on their days sitting on the riverbank at the mention of fish: three rods buried in the sandy banks; an Esky with juice for him, ginger beer for Davo, and a proper beer for Dad. And constant chatter.
“Maybe we could go fishing too, before the school holidays end.” Clayton sat down next to his dad.
“How many bales did Reggie drop off?” Dad asked, ignoring him.
His mum hesitated. “He only had half a load left.”
“What?” Dad smacked his palms on the table and stood up.
“But he was kind enough to give us some silage,” she added hurriedly, “to help tie us over for a few weeks as well.”
“Dad? Please. Can we go fishing? Like we used to. Remember when we used to go with Da—”
“Clay, sweetie.” Although his mum’s voice was as sweet as honey, it stung like a bee. “We don’t need to talk about this now.” She put three plates on the table. Sweet smelling steam rose from them, but neither of his parents were paying any attention to the food.
“She’ll be right once it rains.” It sounded as if Dad were speaking in a vacuum, the air having sucked all passion from his voice.
Clayton stared at the towering pile of mornay and salad. He prodded at the food with his fork while thinking how to construct his words. But he wasn’t even sure what he was trying say.
Rusty licked Clayton’s shins and looked up expectantly. He placed a piece of fish on the floor for her, trying not to attract his parents’ attention.
“I was thinking we could get a loan for some more feed.” His mum hadn’t sat down to eat yet and his dad hadn’t touched his food. Clayton rubbed Rusty behind the ears, hoping she’d be patient enough to wait for their leftovers.
“Another loan?” Dad grunted.
“There’s a small bit of feed up north,” Clayton said.
“No, there’s not,” Dad said.
Mum wrung her hands on the tea towel.
“Yeah, there is. Remember he planted that saltbush feedlot. I saw it today.”
“The northern property isn’t ours to graze,” Dad said. “If it rains, everything’ll be okay. We just need a good soaking.” He stared out the kitchen window. “As far as I’m concerned that whole property doesn’t exist.”
Rusty rested her paws on the kitchen table, knocking Clayton’s plate. It clattered against the table and Dad spun as Rusty extended her slobbery tongue towards the food.
“Get that stupid mutt out of here. Take her outside!” he yelled.
“But it’s hot,” Clayton said.
“I don’t care. I don’t want her slobbering about the kitchen when we’re eating. I don’t want that dog in here at all.”
“No buts.” His dad grabbed Rusty’s collar and dragged her towards the back door. Rusty pawed at the floor trying to reach the table; her tongue drooped longingly towards the food.
“Don’t!” Clayton ran to Rusty’s side.
“Then take her outside!” His dad released his grip and returned to the table.
Clayton squatted next to Rusty, cuddling her around her neck, partly to prevent her attacking the kitchen table, partly to calm his own nerves.
“Walt,” Mum began cautiously. “Maybe. Just maybe, it’s a possibility. Letting the stock into his . . . into the northern property. It’s been a few months. Maybe it’s time―”
“Shut it, woman!” His father hurled his plate of food at the far wall. The china shattered like confetti, tinkling onto the lino floor.
Rusty pounced on the remnant fish mornay.
“Get her out!” Dad bellowed.
Clayton looked to his mum for support, but she stood by the kitchen sink twisting the tea towel between her hands so much her fingers turned bright red.
“I gotta do work,” his dad mumbled, storming out of the kitchen.
“Clay, sweetie, Rusty doesn’t need to be inside.” She tried to say it calmly, but there was no denying the quiver in her voice. She turned her back on him. “Rusty could do with some fresh air.”
With a trembling hand, Clayton picked up a chunk of fish from the floor. There was no need to ask Rusty to follow. She licked Clayton’s hand all the way to the front porch.
He sat on the top step and opened his palm. Rusty’s salivating tongue searched out every centimetre of Clayton’s hand. The warm twilight air stirred, drying the dog’s slobber in seconds. Any trace of clouds and the possibility of rain had drifted away. Wind wafted a plume of dust into the air like a finger beckoning him to follow.
Clayton rubbed Rusty’s ears. “Come on, girl. We’ll make Dad happy again. We can finish fixing the fence for him.” He walked across the back paddock to their massive galvanised shed, Rusty trailed close on his heels.
Hay bales from Reggie and sacks of grain filled the middle of the shed. His father’s tractor, header, quad bike, and a mishmash of tools cluttered one end. Beyond it Davo’s old tractor sat alone in the far corner—forlorn and forgotten.
Clayton made his way through the minefield of equipment and plucked the spare key to the quad bike from a hook under the workbench, where Davo had always hid it so they could do doughnuts in the wheat crops at night and pretend they were UFO marks.
Clayton turned the ignition and the old beast spluttered into action. “Up, Rusty.”
She leaped onto the back of the quad bike and held her head over the side, sniffing the breeze.
He drove in a daze. The quad bike shuddered as he passed over the cattle grid, but besides that he didn’t notice much of the scenery. The sun sank slowly into the earth as if it were in no hurry to welcome another day.
The sky had turned pink by the time he reached the northern boundary. Silhouetted in the failing light, Davo’s old homestead looked like a cardboard cut-out pasted onto the horizon.
Clayton dismounted. “Down, girl.”
Rusty stood on the back of the quad, growling.
“Cut it out.”
Rusty barked again.
Clayton turned. There was nothing around them except the bare paddocks shining red as the sun sank behind the hills. “What’s wrong, girl? The gun’s not here.”
Clayton patted her and walked to the fence. Tools and empty shells remained, scattered on the ground.
He grabbed the fencing strainers. “So how do I work this thing?”
He tried to feed a wire into the strainer, but it didn’t want to stay in place. The light was fast disappearing and he could barely make out what he was doing. Why didn’t he think to bring a torch?
Clayton turned to Rusty. “Nailing would be easier, don’t you think?”
Rusty spoke back, but it wasn’t her usual cheerful bark.
“Cut it out, girl,” said Clayton, squinting at the ground for the relevant tools. He patted the ground until he found the hammer and small plastic bag that held the fencing staples. He placed a U-shaped nail over the wire and tapped it lightly with the hammer until the wood grabbed it. He clutched the hammer in two hands. His dad would never approve of the girlish method but it was easier this way. He bashed it, and the nail bent at a right angle.
Padding up beside him, Rusty growled with her head low to the ground.
“It’s crooked, but it’s not that bad, girl.” Clayton looked at his efforts and at the nails that his dad had knocked neatly into the wooden posts. “Okay, I should try again.” He turned the hammer around and tried to rip the nail out, but it didn’t budge. “Pliers? Dad had pliers here somewhere.”
Clayton kneeled down and scanned the ground. He patted the soil beneath him, feeling in the dim light for the pliers; instead, his hand rested on something soft. He peered closer then recoiled, realising it was the tail of the dead fox poking through the fence. A fetid breeze swept across the paddock that smelled like rotten fruit: ripe and sweet, but also putrid.
Rusty nuzzled up alongside him and whimpered in his ear.
Clayton turned to the kelpie and rubbed her ears. “Yeah, I know, girl. The foxes reek.” He scratched her under the collar. “You normally like sniffing and rolling in anything smelly: cow pats, dead mice—”
Rusty interrupted with a snarl and bared her teeth.
“What’s got into you? There’s nothing out there.” Clayton peered into the darkness in the direction Rusty was looking. “It’s just a dead fox . . . ” Clayton’s voice trailed off as a lump caught in his throat. The fox was there a second ago. He was sure it was there a second ago.
“Hello?” Clayton whispered.
Rusty growled with her head to the ground. She leaped over the fence and darted towards Davo’s homestead, barking furiously.
“Rusty!” Disorientated by the darkness, Clayton stood. “Come back! We’re not allowed over there.”
There was no sign of her. If something dragged the fox away, it would have to be pretty big. With that thought in mind, Clayton picked up the hammer and felt his way along the fence line until he reached the gate. The outline of Davo’s house was just visible in the moonlight.
It’s just Davo’s house. There’s nothing to be scared of. There’s no reason why Dad should care if I go over there.
Keeping his eyes fixed on the house, he fumbled with the stubborn latch and swung the gate open.
There’s nothing to be scared of. His heart thumped so strongly in his chest it hurt his ribs. Nothing to be scared of.
He took a step forward. Then another. The soil’s crust crunched under his shoes like crispbread. A twig snapped under his foot.
Alongside the bluestone building something rustled.
Clinging to the shadows of the old homestead a dark shape hunched over as if in pain, its snout low to the ground.
“Rusty?” Clayton dropped the hammer and ran forward, praying she wasn’t injured.
Curled up in a fetal position, the figure whined.
Nearby him, something snarled. Clayton turned. Rusty was there, baring her teeth.
“You’re okay!” Relieved, Clayton knelt and hugged her neck. “I thought you were injured . . . .” Logic finally kicked in. If Rusty was here then what . . . Clayton turned. The figure still lay in a heap near the house.
Rusty snarled again, and then turned and ran—heading for home like a racehorse.
“Wait,” Clayton tried to yell but something caught in his throat and his voice was no more than a whisper. “There’s nothing there...”
“Owwwww.” A drawn-out mew resonated from the figure.
Clayton staggered backwards. He tripped over something and tumbled onto the ground. The hard earth jarred his tailbone and sharp blades of tussock grass scratched his back.
Get up. Get up and run. Follow Rusty. His legs refused to budge.
He prodded the ground around him and found the hammer. It slipped in his sweaty palms. He wiped his hands on his shorts, grabbed the hammer again and scrambled to his feet.
“Who . . . what are you?” His voice quivered like a tuning fork.
He clasped the hammer tighter and walked towards the house, step by step.
“Answer me. Who are you?”
The air became still and silent. The crunching noise of his shoes intensified.
“It’s just a shadow,” he reassured himself.
As he walked closer, his conviction wavered. The shadow was the same shape as a fox. It stood, clutching its stomach. Shadows didn’t clutch their stomachs. Shadows didn’t have a stomach. Or a snout.
Clayton felt as if tiny snakes were slithering in his own stomach.
Against his better judgement, he prodded the fox with the hammer’s handle.
“Owww,” the fox whined.
“Wh . . . what?” Clayton took a step back. His knees shook and he felt that at any moment they would collapse under his weight.
The fox stood up, its body unfurled until it was standing on its two hind legs. The grotesque body of the corpse was so distorted it was hardly recognisable. The fox looked down. “Oh! What a forsaken body this is.”
The creature spoke so casually that Clayton almost dropped the hammer in shock. Sure, creatures came to life in his books. But they were books. Maybe this was a book. Maybe it was a dream. A dream from one of his fantasy books. He pinched himself. Surprised at how hard he did it, he winced.
“Clayton, I’m not sure this is the body I would have chosen to occupy.”
Unable to tear his eyes away, Clayton only managed to say, “What?” He regained control of his vocal chords. “You called me by my name. How’d you know my name?” He took another step back and thrust the hammer forward.
“I know names, and fears, and dreams.” The creature made its way towards Clayton, coming out of the shadows.
Ripped open from the gunshot wound, bloody fur around the fox’s exposed skin hung off in chunks. Half its entrails were missing and its torso looked as though it had been scooped out. Its tattered fur was stuck together with dried blood and on its hindquarters was a scabby patch of mange.
The small snakes in Clayton’s belly fused into a King Brown, poised and ready to strike. If this was a dream, his fantasy creatures were way off the mark. Mythical creatures were meant to be gracious and mysterious and beautiful; not horrific fox carcasses.
Clayton held the hammer above his head, poised to strike, and staggered backwards. “You’re dead. You’re twice dead. Dad shot you. You were already dead and Dad shot you.”
The leathery skin around its eyes and protruding snout made it look like the personification of death: its eyes dark and sunken. Its skeleton trying to break through the thin veil of skin over its face.
The creature ignored Clayton’s gaping stare and walked past him towards the fence. “The portal. You’ve opened it,” it said.
“The boundary gate? That is a portal?”
“Yes. Now is the time. Can’t you smell it?”
“Smell what?” Keeping his distance, Clayton followed the creature. The only thing he could smell was rotten flesh. Clayton crept closer to the fox. “Time for what? What do you want?”
“It’s not what I want that brings my spirit here. What do you want, Clayton?” asked the fox, pawing at the skin around his belly. It looked as if it was trying to close the gaping hole there.
Clayton clutched his stomach with one hand, struggling not to gag.
“Never mind. Rhetorical question,” continued the creature. “You know there is only one thing that can make everything right again. Only one thing can chisel away at the statue that is your father.”
“What’s that?” Clayton asked.
Standing by the boundary fence, the fox looked across the paddock, up towards the hills and finally the sky. “I can make the water flow upon Paddle Creek Station again. I can make it rain.”
Melanie Rees has loved writing and reading speculative fiction for as long as she can remember, but started taking it seriously after a failed kidney transplant to help fill in the time and provide purpose while hooked up to dialysis machines. Since then she has published over 100 stories and poems in several anthologies by by Black Inc. and Simon & Schuster; and renowned magazines including Cosmos, Apex, Nature - Futures, and Aurealis.
She works as an environmental scientist, where she has spent a lot of time working on outback properties, wetlands, forests, and along the coast. When not playing in the dirt or stuck up a tree, she writes.
Petrichor was inspired by her time working with farmers in northern South Australia during the millennial drought and witnessing the malaise and heartache in both the community and landscapes. She wanted to capture that and address serious issues farmers were facing, but at the same time inject some "magic" into the story.
Offline she lives on the picturesque Fleurieu Peninsula on a bushland property, and lives in a strawbale house that she built with her husband.
The moral rights of Melanie Rees to be identified as the author of this work have been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.
Copyright 2021 Hague Publishing
Cover: Petrichor by Jade Zivanovic http://www.steampowerstudio.com.au/
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