The currawongs called out to each other in the late afternoon, as Laura stood on the track. The sign had said, Poison Water Creek, one hour return. In the car park, looking out over the tall giants of this ancient forest under the sharp light of a winter sun, Sean had suggested one more walk. She wanted to get back to their cabin to watch the sunset with a glass of wine. Instead she followed him reluctantly. Now she waited, the fear in her stomach her only companion.
Last night he had asked her to marry him. And today the world seemed to tilt at a different angle. They had been standing outside looking at the sky, and Sean had wheeled her around suddenly to catch sight of a shooting star; but she had caught only a blur of falling light, out of the corner of her eye. It was a foreign sky, nothing like the familiar handful of fairy lights, corralled by the built world that she was used to in the city. This was an infinite black canvas, woven through with tiny explosions. She had said yes.
Now with the cold wrapping ever more tightly around her, she wished she was back at the cabin, getting dinner ready after a warm shower. But instead, she felt like she was trapped in a children’s tale.
They had been walking on the track for about twenty minutes, when they had passed a family of five going in the opposite direction. She tried to remember if she had seen another car in the car park, but couldn’t. Laura had heard them long before they came into sight, children’s voices, shouting and laughing, penetrating the cold, dense silence of the forest. The sounds had had an inhuman quality. Sean had joked about the forest sprites playing tricks on them, and then they had seen two children scrambling up the path. They had stopped still when they saw Laura and Sean. Dad had emerged through the trees, carrying the youngest child on his shoulders. He nodded to them, as he urged the children past. Finally the mother had struggled by, greeting them only with a weary smile. As they continued along the track, the image of the tired family remained in Laura’s mind. There had been something odd in their faces.
The track had levelled at the bottom of the incline. They could hear the rushing waters of what they thought might be Poison Water Creek, but the undergrowth was too thick to see through. The forest was damp and claustrophobic around them. They had just decided to walk back the way they had come, when once again, they heard the sound of children’s voices. There were shrieks and shouts behind them, and the sound of small feet running along the track. They stopped to let them pass, but just as suddenly as the sounds had started, they stopped.
Sean had stood listening. “That was strange. I wonder where they went.”
And then they heard them again, but further off now.
“It’s a circular track. We must be near the road.” He had said excitedly. “Let’s keep going that way. It can’t be far.” And he had turned to retrace their steps and continue along the track. She had followed him. They had walked for some time with the children’s voices echoing far ahead of them, until finally Laura had stopped.
“Sean, I think we should go back.”
“Why don’t you wait here for a moment and I’ll go ahead and see how far it is?”
“It’s almost dark.”
But he was already jogging away following the sounds, disappearing around a bend in the track. She stood at the edge of the track, looking at the moss beside the path, covered in its own layer of ice. Next to her, an Antarctic Beech, its rough and flaky bark patched with lichen. As she looked up the length of its trunk, she saw a purple and white flower, hanging high above. It was an orchid, with roots pushed deep into the cracks in the bark; embedding itself into the life of the tree. She had read, in one of the guide books in the cabin, that the urge to glimpse these flowers had often seduced walkers from the track, leading them through deep vegetation and undergrowth, stranding them on the edges of steep gullies.
On the other side of the track, trees long fallen, carpeted with moss, were tunnelled with orange and brown fungi. She imagined in the heat of summer, brown ants marching in oblivious lines across the forest floor, carrying food to their nests. She feared that she might never leave this place; imagining her body covered by layers of leaf and bark. The ants would be delighted to find it and dismantle it, carrying it piece by piece, to store in minutiae for their next winter.
It was only two years ago that she had watched her mother die. Like an internal army of ants, cancer had collapsed her body and stolen her spirit. Now alone in the forest, the grief that she had trained to hover at a distance, edged closer. She wanted to scream, to flay wildly at it, and pull its clinging arms from her.
The forest dimmed, as if its shadows were the hands of a clock, and the currawongs volleyed their calls ever higher above the valley. She remembered as a child sitting on a stool at the long wooden table in her mother’s kitchen; the kitchen of her childhood. The table had been the first thing that her parents had bought when they had left the hostel. Her mother would say that even though she didn’t own her own home, she would eat from her own table. The poverty of the old country was gone, and never to be returned to. But the treeless hills of southern Italy, where her hungry ancestors had scraped the roadsides for wild rocket, would not be forgotten. How her mother had laughed, when years later Laura and Sean had taken her to a trendy city café, and ordered a rocket salad.
“To think we broke our backs to find these weeds, and now they serve them to me at this price.”
“With parmesan,” Sean had added.
Laura had been embarrassed, but Sean had been fascinated, and wanted to hear more.
As a child she would sit watching her mother meld flour and eggs, to form a dough and then knead the pastry on the wooden board. A chunk of dough would be separated and pummelled flat with the palm of her hand. With her rolling pin she would roll and stretch the dough until it was a flat rectangle. She would then feed this through the rollers of the pasta machine, folding and refolding the ever thinning rectangle of dough that came out of the machine, and repeating the process until a long, flat ribbon of translucent pasta finally emerged. This would then be laid flat on the clean tea towels that had been spread over the dining table. You could see the patterns on the tea towel through the transparent sheets of pasta which would spend the afternoon drying; these would be used later for lasagne. Other sheets were put through the pasta machine, this time on the setting for tagliatelle, the lovely flat noodles, that would be coiled into nests on wooden trays and also left to dry for the afternoon. Some of these that same evening, would be thrown into a pot of boiling salted water, to be eaten minutes later, with the addition of fresh tomato and basil that had been melted in a pan of olive oil with anchovy and garlic.
While making the pasta her mother would talk of marriage; advice for young housewives, but for the 12 year old listening, a glimpse into a fascinating, inevitable future.
“After we left the hostel, but before you were born, your father would come home from work sometimes, and like today, I might be in the middle of making dinner, and he would say, ‘You are always cooking. Why don’t we go out for dinner? We haven’t come all the way across the world to live like we are still in the village.’
And without a thought for the food or the house, I would take off my apron and brush my hair, and be ready even before he finished speaking. Always go with him. Never let him leave you behind. Cling to your husband not your habits.”
She would ask her mother to tell her stories about her childhood and life in the village.
“What do you mean stories?” Her mother asked.
“You know, fairy tales, bed time stories.”
“But you make me laugh.” Her mother would say. “We never had any stories. In those days children looked after themselves. Parents went to the fields, and children found things to sell or to steal. There were no bed time stories. So many nights I went to sleep with just a slap and an empty stomach.”
“But what about witches or wolves? You must have had stories about wolves.”
“Oh, that. Of course; we were always being told not to go here or there, or the wolf would eat you or the old witch would take you.”
“I knew you must have had stories.”
“Oh yes. This wolf was everywhere. We were too afraid to leave the house after dark because the wolf would be just outside the door. And we weren’t allowed to go into the forest because that’s where the wolf lived. Unless we had to get firewood, and then the wolf would be somewhere else. And in this way we grew up with fear in our blood; always this fear. It remains forever in your blood.”
“But then at 19 you left the village. You weren’t afraid to leave?”
“Ah, but there were other stories; the ones we hadn’t been told but had overheard. Our parents would read out letters and talk about uncles and cousins far away. They thought we were asleep but we were listening behind the door.”
Now, the forest was dark and the currawongs were silent. She’d seen a film once where a couple on holiday stop at a petrol station. The woman goes to the toilet and doesn’t come back. Her husband spends the rest of the film looking for her; trying not to stray too far from the service station in case she returns, but she never does. Her disappearance remains unexplained and is so final that it is as if she never existed. What would she do if Sean didn’t come back? She would call the police, explain what had happened. Would they believe her? They would search for him. What if no trace of him was ever found, the forest dissolving him into its depths? She struggled to remember what she had said to him before he’d left. Had it meant anything? What if it was too late to ever say anything again?
And then Sean reappeared on the track, “Nothing. Couldn’t find a thing. No kids. No car park. I swear I jogged for about two kilometres following the voices, but they were always just ahead of me. And then suddenly nothing; I was alone in the forest and I realised it was almost dark. We’d better get back. I’m afraid we’ve missed the sunset.”
It took them almost a half hour before the forest expelled them gently onto the edge of the road. The last one hundred metres had been a steady climb. The sharp, wintry blue sky they had left behind was now a purple dusk. Across the valley the sun was in its final sinking. They stood for a moment, bathed in its reflected glow, the forest black and quiet below them.
This story was published in Knitting and other stories by Margaret River Press, 2013