Penance

photo of central Australian landscape, red hills in background flat plains with ghost gums foreground

You stand on gravel the size of cricket balls. She accelerates off in a cloud of ochre. You watch the back of the silver Monaro as it fishtails along the road, if you can call it that. You’re sure she shouldn’t do more than fifty on this surface, but it looks like she’s pushing double that.

Where the fuck are you?

This can’t be good. You’ve seen lots of newsreels about people who wander off in the desert and perish.

“He should have stayed with his vehicle,” they always say. Fat chance when you literally get pushed out the door.

It’s eleven o’clock and the sun is high on the equator of the sky. Damn sleep in. Now the only option is to hang in any shade you can find.  There are a few scraggly trees punctuating fields of knee high saltbush and spinifex. You can still hear the Monaro fanging it in the distance, a vague plume of dust visible on the shimmering horizon.

Bitch!

She has to come back for you.

A rank smell wafts by on the hot breeze: the smell of death. No doubt roadkill. You adjust your eyes to the light. Four or five black silhouettes of crows pick at a dark lump. Perhaps a kangaroo or a steer. In the other direction you see something bright blue on the road about four hundred metres up. Water. She threw you a barrel as she drove off, So it’s not murder, yet.

You make your way towards the water. The gravel is deep. Your wooden heels slip on the loose rocks. You choose to walk in the deep ruts carved by years of vehicles sliding through. The ground is rock hard and corrugated.   You reach the barrel to find it’s cracked. A rivulet of your precious water trickles into the rut and evaporates before it has a chance to pool.

Carrying the barrel under your arm, you make your way to the nearest stand of trees. Their shade is almost ineffective in the heat. You throw your leather jacket on the earth and sit back against a brittle trunk.

The land isn’t as empty as you thought. Some birds of prey are wheeling in the thin air above. You almost stood on a large brown pine cone that turned out to be a surprised shingle-back lizard who hissed at you in no uncertain terms. Numerous insects are chirruping and the flies are having a field day around your eyes, nose and mouth. You feel like a tired explorer. Burke, or Wills, or Dampier. They had camels. Maybe even horses. You only have your feet in your black snakeskin boots, the clothes on your back, and your gringo hat. Now a plastic barrel of water, and you realise as you reach into your pocket, a soft pack of Stuyvesant 20’s and a lighter. Small mercies.

The cigarette tastes good.

If you ration yourself to one per hour, they’ll last nearly two days. Surely someone will drive by in that time.

In the corner of your eye you, see something moving on your white t-shirt sleeve. Some bug, mint green in colour, looking like a beetle crossed with a spider. You notice a few more, and try to brush them off, but they’re persistent little buggers. The back of your neck feels itchy and when you reach up, their are numerous smooth lumps there. Again you try to brush them off but this time they’re stuck: ticks. Jesus, you hate ticks. You look over your shoulder and can see they’re all over your back. You rip off your t-shirt to find there are about fifty of them. Your hat is swarming with them too. They’re in your hair, behind your ears, and now you can feel an itch in your groin. They’ve rained down out of the tree in all their opportunistic glory.

If anyone saw you now they’d think you were a madman, flagellating your back with rolled up clothes, blood trickling down your torso where you have managed to dislodge the blood suckers.

You’re back sitting on the side of the road, your hat the only protection. It must be fifty degrees all ready. Better to die of exposure hitch-hiking than be eaten slowly by swarming ticks. The foul smell of that roadkill intermittently appears, permeates the air and your mood, then dissipates.

A couple of hours have passed when you think you hear the low rumble of an engine in the distance. It perks you up, like a piece of chocolate might. Standing to see, you feel dizzy and squat down to save fainting. You must be a sight in your bloodstained t-shirt. You peer into the distance and see a car approaching, the sun reflecting off its headlights and bonnet creating the impression of a shining chariot. You raise your arm in the thumbs up salute.

In a moment the car is there, the smell of brakes and a burning clutch accompanying. You look up to see the Monaro, almost pink in it’s dusty sheath. She leans over and opens the door without a word. Her gaze is concerned, apologetic, but she’s not the one who needs to be.

You walk to the open car door, slide across the red bench seat, kiss her forehead, and say, “Sorry.”

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Venita

Venita is a Melbourne writer, editor and doctor. She loves Australian landscape, music, food and greyhounds. She has completed her first novel titled 'Lonesome Haul'.

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