The Swooping Season by Jen Saunders
The Swooping Season
Carmel lives on Waterloo Street, which is one of her misfortunes. Her friend Anita calls it Loo Street or Dunny Street. Sometimes just Shit Street.
At one end of Waterloo, a dirt road shaded by giant creaking gum trees, is the lake. At the other end is the pool. At the lake are minnows and tadpoles to catch in jars, boys old enough to drive and, once a year, a carnival of greasy sideshows and clanking rides. At the pool is the invisible sting of chlorine in the air, the dank hot smell of wet concrete and the big kids who corner you in the change-rooms and threaten to bash you. Carmel’s house is at the midpoint of Waterloo, halfway between lake and pool.
Behind her house is hill after hill of grey-green bushland, all the way to the Blue Mountains, according to her dad. Prickly plants, escaping the bush, spring up in the back yard without Dad having to plant them. Waratahs grow in great healthy clumps in the front yard and when they bloom in spring, people stop their cars on Sundays to take photos. Rubberneckers, Dad says every year, proudly.
Hidden in the bush at the back of Carmel’s place, beyond the pool and behind the lake, are tracks. Tracks for firefighters in summer. A track to the edge of a waterfall. A track to the entrance of an old mine shaft. There are steep tracks up sandstone ridges. And there are winding shadowy tracks that lead to ruined towns inhabited by ghosts, so her brothers say. There are tracks that lead to abandoned houses where child molesters are said to hide. Don’t go up the track without one of your brothers, hear me? Carmel’s brothers say the tracks all link up together, like a maze. The nice brother says there’s no way you can get lost. The mean brother says there’s no chance you’ll get found.
The house next door belongs to Mrs Blake, who lives alone. Carmel’s brothers say the skeleton of Mr Blake pokes up out of Mrs Blake’s vege patch after rain and that’s why she’s always working in her garden, trying to keep his bony, pointing fingers covered up. Quietly and inside her mind Carmel likes Mrs Blake more than anyone else on the street, except for Karen McEvoy’s horse. That’s because Mrs Blake came over that time when Dad was washing Carmel’s hair in the laundry. The time they all caught nits from school. She had to run away from Dad because she couldn’t breathe properly with all the water and the nit stuff that stung her eyes and Mrs Blake had heard.
Crouching under the old wisteria vine. Up near the wood shed. Carmel peered out, still and alert, like a creature. The wisteria arms gripped themselves over and over again and surrounded Carmel in their grey cage. Over the house, over the wisteria, over her dad and her brothers and over Mrs Blake, moved the shadow. Carmel, moving only her eyeballs, looked up. Darkness crept across the sky like the slow-moving curtain the killer pulls across the guilty window. The clickety-clack of hundreds of sharp beaks snipped at the air. Carmel watched her dad smiling and reassuring Mrs Blake as he wiped shampoo bubbles off his forearms with the old yellow laundry towel. Mrs Blake sweated, huffed, puffed. She had got herself all hot and bothered over nothing. Carmel looked down, from her hide-out, at her twin brothers sitting on the boot bench at the back door. Their hair was damp and combed back neat and they waited quiet and good for Dad. From where she hunched, Carmel watched Mrs Blake frowning and looking around the yard, searching her out. I know it’s been a bit hard for you Len since…
A mauve wisteria blossom dropped off its stem by Carmel’s face and landed on her dirty knee. She watched a shiny black ant step out from inside the cup of petals, waving its antennae, looking for home. Dad was steering Mrs Blake back towards the fence, cradling her elbow gently as she struggled through the gate. Carmel watched her father looking like someone else, like a man in an ad’ on TV. He waved Mrs Blake goodbye. See you Ethel.
Dad turned and stared up at the wisteria. He stood very still, his fists at his hips, his elbows out. The nit shampoo dribbled down Carmel’s forehead and crawled down the back of her neck. She could smell the dirt on her knees and feel the back of her collar getting cold. She watched the scene below like it was a school play. Dad at stage right and the brothers, waiting for their cue. Get your sister out of there.
On Waterloo Street Mrs Blake’s house sits highest up the hill. Her big front yard is home to Karen McEvoy’s horse. Karen McEvoy is a year older than Carmel and had started high school in the next town, which was full of snobby girls who did ballet lessons. Karen McEvoy was one of the tough girls. She smoked cigarettes and was good at roller-skating and hockey. Once every month she walked home from school with Carmel so she could visit her horse, Mustard. Carmel’s dad called it Muster so he could say, more than once, muster been wrong in the head to keep that old nag. Or, muster got lost on the way to the glue factory. Karen McEvoy had shown Carmel how to hold a piece of apple, flat on her palm, so the horse couldn’t bite her hand. Karen McEvoy had been bitten by a horse when she was little. One time she showed Carmel the scar on her shoulder and it was a red crescent moon, fallen from a summertime sky.
After school, at the start of swooping season, Carmel stood at the corner of Waterloo Street waiting for Karen McEvoy to arrive so she wouldn’t have to walk the worst magpie stretch alone. It was a Friday, so she was dawdling. Dad’s brother Bobby, who was a carpenter, always came over on weekends, to help Dad build things. Bobby drove a hotted-up car that had a foxtail hanging from the aerial and three trumpet-shaped shiny horns on the bonnet. Every time he drove up, and every time he drove away, the horns blared their dumb tune. Bobby followed Carmel when she went to the dunny out near the back fence and spied on her through the cracks in the door. Dad didn’t tell him off but called out oy! Aren’t you meant to be working? Bobby walked in on Carmel when she was in the bath and always said sorry Caramello! Didn’t know! Carmel would stay very still, watching the little gas flame that you could see inside the water heater. It popped yellow as Bobby shut the bathroom door, then steadied to blue again.
Looking up, trying to evil-eye magpies, Carmel didn’t notice the boy until his schoolbag made an arc through the air beside her face. The metal buckle clipped her above the eyebrow and Carmel stumbled sideways and fell, like a horse shot down in a cowboy film. She looked up at the boy as he swung his leg back and took aim at her schoolbag. She covered her head with her arms. His mighty kick sent her bag up in the air and over. It landed heavily in the middle of Shit Street, a cloud of fine dust floating gently up around it.
Carmel carefully touched a hand to her eyebrow. No blood but she could feel a plump welt and a line of roughened skin. The boy was the one that Anita liked, who was in high school with Karen McEvoy.
“You’re a Catholic aren’t ya” the boy sneered. Carmel nodded.
“What are you waitin’ around here for?” he said, picking up gumnuts from the road and throwing them with a cricketer’s easy flick at the trees where the magpies waited.
The boy whipped his straight blonde hair out of his eyes with a toss of his pretty face then loosed an extravagant string of spit onto the ground at his feet.
“You don’t know anything. She’s dead. Bloke drives the school bus took her. They found her over near the waterfall.” He picked his schoolbag up from the dust and lugged it onto his shoulder. Walking away backwards, he watched Carmel as she stood and brushed dirt off her legs, then called,
“Watch out for them maggies. They’re cranky now!”
Carmel bent to pick up her bag, expecting the screeching assault of black and white feathers, sharp beak. In her nightmare, the swooping attacks were like boiling water in a black heavy cauldron, poised, just behind her head. She hoped the magpies might be looking the other direction and swoop the boy, instead of her.
At Mrs Blake’s front fence, Carmel stopped to pat Karen McEvoy’s horse. Mustard was standing up the other end of the yard staring into space. One back leg rested bent while the other three legs took his weight. Carmel clicked her tongue, like Karen McEvoy always did, to summon Mustard. The horse turned to regard her then snorted and shook its mane, turning away. Carmel leaned her elbows on the top rail of the fence and rested her head on her arms. Looking down she watched a spitfire grub on the bottom rail. The tiny tufts of red spikes on its back waggled as it inched along. Carmel wanted to squash it but one of her brothers had told her the stink attracted more. She heard the slow clumping tread of Karen McEvoy’s horse approaching.
It stood in front of her, the fence between them, just far enough away that she had to reach her arm right out to touch. She looked at its glossy big eyeballs, its long separate eyelashes, the green dried spit around its softly crinkled mouth, the huge damp holes of its noisy nostrils. She held her hand out for it to sniff, like you do with dogs said Karen McEvoy in her head. Mustard breathed warm air onto Carmel’s wrist. A fly irritated its lip and it tossed its head, briefly showing the square frightening teeth. Carmel’s stomach flickered but she held still and the horse returned to steadily breathing her in.
“You remember me dontcha?” murmured Carmel, in the high voice she still used very quietly with her Baby Belinda doll. She slowly raised her hand to pat the hard, flat plane of the horse’s forehead. She saw the line where the white hairs of its diamond-shaped star merged with the brown. Mustard stamped a foot to drive the fly away again and stepped closer to Carmel. She reached out and ran her hand across the vast wall of its neck. Twitches and shimmies quivered across its muscles and the big warm animal glowed chocolate and caramel in the slanting afternoon sunlight. A car horn blared but Carmel kept her eyes on the horse as her uncle leaned out the window and sang, as he always did, well lookie look-o, it’s sweet Caramello! He gunned the car up the stony driveway to her house, gravel spitting out behind with a sound like hailstones on a tin roof. The tip-tapping noise increased as cold shadow air bit at Carmel’s bare legs. She could hear Bobby’s car revving loud to excite her brothers. She heard Dad shout at Bobby to cut it out! And at her brothers to get that bloody kindling in before it rains! The light around her grew dim like a storm was on its way and the noise above was like a million beaks snip-snapping louder.
Carmel gave Karen McEvoy’s horse one more pat, then extended her arms out slowly. She stretched her fingers wide apart. She pulled her shoulders back and swung her arms down in one lunging wingbeat that lifted her smoothly up into the air. Above her, the mass of clacking beaks drove across the sky. The crush of black and white feathers was like a blanket of cloud promising snow. The magpies kept moving resolutely on, even as Carmel got closer. She flew just under their snicking and chortling, and gazed down at the land below. She could see the labyrinth of tracks running over and around the hills behind Waterloo Street. She saw her brothers, her father, her uncle, clustered around Bobby’s car, like sugar ants around a crumb. As the great shadow of birds fell across them they all looked up, shading their eyes. Mouths open. The tips of her feathers riffled in the wind for a moment, then she pointed herself at them, beak first.
She pulled her wings back. Plunged. At the very last second, just above the four heads, she swung her black claws forward and snatched a tuft of foxtail off the aerial. Bobby yelled Jesus! Dad covered his head and swore. The twins ducked for cover behind the car. The feathers at her neck ruffled as she climbed up high again through the cold air. Looking down she saw the red-brown oblong of scraped earth near the waterfall, where the bus driver had tried to hide Karen McEvoy and the policemen had found her. She soared in a smooth arc back towards Mrs Blake’s and looked down at the lonely horse. She could barely hear the shouts her brothers made as they flung stones in her direction. Swooping low over them again she clacked her beak at her uncle who cowered behind his car. She whipped the air above their heads, fixing them with a black-eyed glare of joy, then effortlessly swung upwards to meet the last few birds heading towards the pale sunset. From this high up the bush behind the houses, with its web of tracks, looked like a puzzle to be figured out. Some kind of solution fluttered in the air at Carmel’s wingtips, in the curl of her claws. She let out a boiling-water warble from her merciless beak. The sound of the pack dimmed to a crackling static as it grew distant in the west. Carmel let her wings fold as her feet found the ground.
Karen McEvoy’s horse, she saw, badly needed a brush. Grass seeds clumped in Mustard’s mane and tail. She’d do it tomorrow. She’d ask Mrs Blake if she could. Dad wouldn’t care, he’d be busy building stuff. Reaching down, Carmel saw the spitfire steadily traversing her schoolbag. Disgusted, she flicked it off with a stick, then kicked her bag over a couple of times, in case there were more.
What would Anita say about the good-looking boy? Would she still want to go to the lake to perve on him? Carmel wouldn’t go with her. She’d be too busy now, looking after Mustard. As she hefted her bag onto her back, she carefully touched her swollen eyebrow. If anyone noticed the mark, she would tell them the magpie finally got her.
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