1817 – The Mountain
Florence pushed open the bark door of the humpy. Outside she sensed movement in the dense scrub. Black against black beneath a late-rising moon. She stood motionless, waiting for the man to show himself. He ?nally appeared from the tangle of scrub to stand on a rock on the far bank of the creek. The black was a barrel-chested man with spindly legs and a long spear, which he leaned on while watching the humpy. He peered across a slice of moonlit land, the trees threw shadows, the creek glittered. Florence tugged at the shawl hugging her shoulders and turned to check on her son. The six-year-old remained sleeping.
The black had appeared after her man’s leaving. She had no musket for protection, only a sturdy branch resting near the door, which had been used to smash snakes and spiders but not a savage. It was strange but she was becoming used to seeing the black perched on the opposite side of the narrow creek. He came around midnight when the countryside was so still the slightest of sounds seemed inordinately loud. It was usually at the same time that the ?re in the humpy dwindled and the ache in the small of Florence’s back made her rise from the chill of the dirt ?oor. Now the nights had turned cold her boy, Adam, was fractious. He was constantly hungry and in his sleep he kicked and plied at her body as though a mewling puppy seeking the teat.
Scrubby trees framed the grassy clearing and the ? at-topped rock that the black had claimed as his own. He remained motionless. Alone. Watching her watching him. He too must have been feeling the bite of the weather for tonight his dark torso was covered by an animal hide. The cloak was decorated with strange patterns and accentuated his thin, angular legs.
Florence wiped at her runny nose. For four nights she’d confronted this wild man, who stalked her from a distance, and every night, as now, she pulled the ill-?tting bark door closed on him, her heart a lump of fear.
Adam was now sitting upright, rubbing his eyes, complaining of the cold, of being hungry. She shushed the boy back to sleep with the promise of Tom’s return and stoked the ?re until it burnt good and hot. It was impossible not to imagine the worst. She’d heard the stories of whites being speared, of friendly natives turning into murderers. The colonials had the law on their side and the Governor was quick with retribution, but she and Tom and the boy had no-one. Her hand rose to the necklace about her throat. She’d fossicked for the shells on the beach when looking after Captain Harbison’s children and had strung them on a piece of twine. It was the only thing of value she’d ever owned and it reminded her of her old life.
The next morning Florence watched as Adam, sitting on the ?oor of the hut, selected one of two white pebbles and transferred it to a neighbouring pile. There were six pebbles in the week’s pile.
‘Yes, it is.’ In truth, Florence had no idea what day it was. With dif?culty she levered her aching body up from the ground and, opening the door of the humpy, peered outside.
Across the creek a large lizard was sunning itself on the stone. Adam rushed past her before she could stop him and was soon at the water’s edge, throwing sticks. Behind their dwelling, which had been erected against the width of a gnarly barked tree, the bush was quiet.
The morning was brittle with cold. It was not the bone- chilling misery of the Mother Country but it was cold enough to feel the stiffening of joints and to wish for warmer days. Florence felt cramped by the smallness of this place that they inhabited yet scared by what lay beyond the fringes of their world. The sheltered clearing, which had been their home for the last month, was marked by two stretches of narrow grass split by the water and bound by the scrub on either side. It had taken two weeks of bashing through the scrub, across deep and rocky gullies, to reach the spot, during which time she, Tom and the boy had often found it easier to wade along the water’s edge than try to penetrate the dense bush. Exhaustion made them stop here. It seemed as good a place as any to wait out the winter.
As Florence’s stomach growled, she thought of the dwindling stores piled in a corner of the humpy; two potatoes, a pound of ?our, a bit of tea and a twist of sugar. She’d existed on less. When Tom had escaped and begged her and her boy to run away with him, they had spent a week on the fringes of the settlement, holed up beneath a rock ledge. Each day they’d sucked on a strip of salted mutton and sipped sparingly at the water dripping from the overhang into the quart pot. And each day Adam had been happy to be part of a great adventure, but it had gone on for too long. Tom had swapped one gaol for another. Out here, an unknown land kept them all in bondage.
Florence shushed her son to quietness, pointing at the bush that loomed around them. The boy frowned and pursed his lips, kicking at the ground. He was slight for his age, brown-haired, with the beginnings of a determined streak. He had his father’s bearing. Captain Harbison had looked after his female convicts but he expected repayment. For months Florence had endured a quick rutting in the pantry at midnight, her face pressed against a sack of wheat. And although the Captain never looked her in the eye, if the truth be told Florence didn’t mind his attentions one bit. But then Tom Fossey had arrived on the farm. Oh, he was a ? ne man to gaze upon. Too ?ne to be a convict like her. She was like a ?y attracted to a bowl of dripping and so they’d run away and in the doing given no thought to the consequences. Adam had begun to call to her again. She lifted a hand in warning, threatening to smack him. If they found her she would be ?ogged to within an inch of her life, and Tom would be placed in irons and at the very least sent to a chain gang.
Florence walked back and forth along the creek bank, examining the objects Adam brought to her: shiny pebbles, a tuft of grass, handfuls of sludgy creek sand.
‘How long do we have to stay here?’ asked Adam for the hundredth time.
‘Until Tom comes back.’ The man had asked her to run away with him, hadn’t he? So why did Florence have this niggling doubt that maybe he’d abandoned them? One night, he’d told her. Back before you know it, he’d promised. ‘You know he’s gone to ?nd food.’ Keeping the boy quietly occupied consumed her, especially now with a black keeping watch from across the water. Over the last couple of days Florence had taken to scanning her surrounds on a regular basis. She would look over her shoulder convinced someone was watching them, only to be faced with a scuttling creature, while a ?urry of birdsong accompanied her very worst thoughts.
‘But, what if he doesn’t come back?’
‘He will,’ Florence replied abruptly, wondering who she was trying to convince. Anything might have happened to him. At this very moment he could be lying in a ditch with his head split open. Or maybe the blacks had got him. Florence swallowed.
Stirring the outside camp ?re to life, Florence gathered twigs and branches and watched as the ?ames grew and a white-grey smoke rose into the air. Adam gathered his own pile of kindling and intermittently fed the ? re.
‘We should go home.’ Adam poked at the ?ames with a thin stick.
Florence sat the quart pot on the ?re. Last week’s tea-leaves bubbled in the water.
Adam’s memories were of a warm place to sleep, of bits of bread in fat. He wouldn’t remember the rest – the ?oggings, the hours of toil, the hardship. Florence thought of her past life often, for the wildness of this place made a person wish for what they’d run from. She looked to the bend in the trees where she’d last seen Tom, as Adam helped her mix ?our and water together on a piece of bark. They moulded the mixture around two sticks and when the timber was encased in the dough, Florence rested them on the ?re. The concoction cooked quickly in the embers and they picked the sticks clean, ?nishing their meal with the stewed tea shared from a pannikin, before washing up in the creek.
The black was behind them when they turned. He stood between the ?re and the humpy and in his hand held their remaining twist of sugar. Florence clasped Adam to her. The black held his ground. Behind him a spear leant against the side of the humpy. Up close the man was of medium height, with a spreading nose and thick lips. Florence guessed he was aged in his late twenties. The space around his dark eyes was whiter than white and his stare remained unbroken as he extended a hand and dropped a chunk of meat onto the ?re. Florence examined the sizzling ?esh, keeping a cautious eye on the black as he gathered his weapon and quietly merged back into the bush.
Adam struggled to be set free and ran off after him.
‘What are you doing?’ Florence yelled, following him. ‘You’ll get lost if you set one foot in there.’
Adam halted at the edge of the wickerwork of trees. Florence tugged harshly at the boy’s ear and he howled loudly, his thin voice echoing. ‘Shush up.’ She glanced nervously in the direction the black had gone. ‘What if there’s more of them out there, eh? And here you are whining like a dog. Telling all and sundry we’re here.’
The boy quietened. ‘What if Tom doesn’t come back, Ma?’
‘Now why wouldn’t he, eh? Here’ – she took the string of shells from her neck and wound them around the child’s wrist – ‘they’re special to me, they are, Adam, so you look after them.’
They stood on the edge of the scrub, their worn shoes straddling the border between the known and the unknown.
Mother and child carefully backed away.
The meat smelt strong, like mutton almost past the point of eating. Florence didn’t want to touch it. She wanted to throw it in the dirt and stamp on it. Instead she walked into the hut and checked their few remaining possessions. He’d only taken a bit of sugar and reluctantly Florence admitted to herself that it was more than a fair trade. They sat on the ground by the ?re and prodded the roasting meat with a stick.
Florence had taken the knife from the humpy and she unrolled it from the piece of cloth, revealing its ?ne bone handle. She’d snitched it from the Harbisons on the way out the door. The meat was tough and stringy, but the knife hacked through the ? esh, marking the bark plate with interlacing cuts. They ate hungrily, grinning at each other as the juices ran down their chins.
That night Florence lay on her back inside the humpy, the boy by her side. Her head hurt and her limbs shivered and ached and she worried that the black had poisoned them. She lay a hand on Adam’s brow. Her son was ?ne, sleeping peacefully. Thank the heavens for that mercy. The sickness had started that afternoon, followed by a fever that set her body trembling. She wished now for a bit of sugar to suck, for Tom to return. She even wished for the old days, before Tom had caught her eye. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, the sickness lessened. Florence crawled outside to see if the black was watching, but the moon had risen late and he couldn’t be seen among the shadows. Even he had left them.
She laughed bitterly and returned to her hollow in the dirt. Overhead, the smoke from the ?re drifted upwards and out through the opening in the bark roof. Florence was tired of the brightness of the moon, of the stars that she’d never grown to love. She curled herself into a ball and waited for the morning.
By daylight the world had been obliterated, replaced by a dense fog that masked the creek and wrapped the land in a shroud of wispy whiteness. She could hear noises, speech of some sort, but the fog distorted the sounds and it was impossible to know from which direction they came or how far away they were. It could only be blacks. The thought caused her stomach to tighten, but she inspected the hazy surrounds gratefully. For the moment the fog kept the humpy safe from view. Carefully retreating into the hut, Florence closed the door, tied the shawl tightly about her shoulders and placed the thick branch Tom had left for protection by her side. She could only hope that the fog would shield them long enough for the blacks to move on.
Inside, Adam quickly grew restless. ‘Who’s out there?’
‘Blacks.’ Florence roasted one of their precious potatoes to keep him quiet, but too soon the boy had gulped down the food and was on his knees peering through the ill-?tting pieces of bark.
‘I can’t see nothing.’ He slumped down on the dirt. ‘I wanna go out.’
‘Shush up, boy.’ It was then she thought of the ?re. Even if they couldn’t see the humpy, whoever roamed outside would smell the smoke and pick up the scent of Adam’s meal.
‘Ma, what’s out there?’
The thud of something being thrown against the wall of the hut stilled Adam’s tongue. The noise sounded again, and again.
‘You stay here,’ Florence warned softly. ‘Go over there.’ She pointed to the corner. ‘Keep the ?re between you and the door, alright?’
Adam moved to the far wall, the strand of shells clutched in his small hand. Reaching for the stick, Florence took a deep breath and went outside.
Five blacks waited in the lifting fog. Of mixed age, they had pot bellies and matted hair. Each held a spear or a club while one had a dead kangaroo draped over a shoulder. The leader spoke to her brusquely, waving a hand at Florence as if she’d committed some offence. She held her ground, the thick branch clasped before her as the other men’s voices were raised in annoyance, each man revealing a mouth with the front teeth missing.
‘Get out,’ she yelled, ‘get off with you!’ She raised the thick branch as if she were shooing away chickens. ‘Go away.’
One of the men rushed forward and hit her with a club. Florence staggered and fell. There was something sticky on the side of her face and for a moment her eyes dulled. Dazed, she heaved herself up onto her elbows and began to crawl towards the humpy. She pushed at the door as a wave of dizziness came over her. Florence looked at the far wall. A piece of bark had been removed from the rear of the hut.
Adam was gone.
The blacks rummaged through the humpy, stepped over Florence and walked towards the creek. With her remaining strength she rolled onto her side and watched as her attackers disappeared into the bush. They carried blankets and the quart pot, but there was no sign of the boy. The creek gurgled and gushed. She didn’t know how long she’d been lying in the dirt, but the morning was now sunny and bright. Florence thought for the ?rst time how beautiful this place was, how quiet.
The ground grew warm, as though ready to embrace her.
The canoe appeared like an apparition. It slid into her ?eld of vision, gliding along the creek soundlessly, carried by unknown forces. There was a black sitting in it. The black from the rock, who had brought the meat. He looked at her.
Behind him a white child, a boy, reached out his hand and called to her.
Florence closed her eyes.