Longreach

Oct 12  |  Mark J Fitzpatrick

High above the heap they’ve formed in this gully for warmth, something has shifted loose, dancing across slick rock in freefall.

The pooling rain has displaced small stones, surely? Perhaps something’s moving through the scrub though. Or someone.

Jeremy knows that in this absolute darkness, pin-pointing the faint clattering as it rebounds around the ravine is near hopeless. Like tracing a rumour first murmured across a crowded room, unleashed safe in the knowledge the crush of well-heeled bodies will obfuscate its source.

Galas. Crowded rooms. Rumours. Of these, only rumours remain.

Like the scattered details the last of Jeremy’s charms have garnered as he’s led his weary family north. A cruel, hollowing trudge through squalls and muck and biting frost, pushing towards the promised warmth of a settler community said to be thriving on the new coastline, just beyond Longreach.

If it exists.

Now wide awake, Jeremy frees himself of the tangle of his family, his emaciated husband and stunted child huddling closer, preserving whatever warmth there is to save. Willing his grinding joints to shift, he fumbles in the cold dirt for the suitcase they’ve carried since the day they fled. Months have passed, though it seems an age of scrambling, hiding, bartering, hunting and worse.

Satisfied they are alone in this chasm of moss and grit, Jeremy opens and empties the case. In the pitch black, he undertakes his silent ritual, checking and repacking the last of their possessions.

He thumbs the covers of their tannin-stained passports, rescued from a bleak stream in the hope they’ll serve some purpose further north. The government that issued them may be long gone, but they vouch for Christos whose complexion betrays his heritage. In the aching pit of his stomach, Jeremy knows that while they are now all foreigners, some aren’t satisfied without an ‘other’.

He returns the fob of keys to the suitcase, their jagged, geometric teeth alien in a world of ancient boulders, warped gums and scraggy tundra. He remembers the cars and apartment they secured, presumably now in ruin. They’ve made a home before. They will make a home again.

Jeremy feels for and finds the smooth, onyx pebble Micha fished from a riverbed.

“It looks like a planet, dad. Let’s keep it.”

Blinking away tears, he places his rusted knife in the case beside the stone, praying he won’t need it again but that if he does, he’ll find courage. Or mercy.

Fastening the clasps of the case, Jeremy settles against the rock to wait for first light. They’ll stir, find berries, drink what they can collect from the pockmarked ground and continue on to Longreach.

It must exist.