“Dawn said she’d plant a garden…Then they got stuck into smoking pot and nothing happened”: a short story by Auckland writer Leanne Radjokovich

A storm hit in the night, terracotta pots crashing across the deck. There was a tremendous crack followed by a tearing sound and a thump, and the raw scent of foliage shot through a gap between window and sill. The curtains lifted in waves over my head; I rolled to the far side of the bed. Earlier, I’d listened to a woman who’d escaped from a cult being interviewed on the radio. She’d floated like a spider’s thread, she said, settling in a caravan park in Brisbane. I’d been sorting my clothes into piles and only half-listening until then. “I didn’t want to leave my younger brothers behind. That was the hardest part: going alone, in the middle of the night, knowing I might never see them again.” I was about to make a similar journey across the sea, except my brother had left me.

The next morning was calm. Gulls silently circled overhead and sparrows hopped across the lawn. A branch had torn off the gum tree; I dragged it over to the fence. The silver leaves gleamed – hard to believe they’d been dying for hours. Then I caught the scent of a neighbouring pine and flashed back to the day I’d thrown buckets of hot water and disinfectant down the dogshit-encrusted path to my old family home.

I’d been so mad at my brother Brent, his face frosted with stubble, ash-blonde hair sticking up as if conducting static – he looked as calcified as those turds. The house had always been a tip, so I should have expected it, but he had to be out in three days and nothing was packed. His dog had died a week before and the body was still under a tarp: “What’s the point of burying him? The bulldozers will do it.”

Brent had lived in our house his whole life. All the yards in the street backed onto bush, with paths beaten between. There were cricks and bells of birds year round, and a mazy hum of mosquitoes in summer. A creek lay at the bottom. It was more of a raggedy line of puddles, and when rain came the puddles joined up and eels slipped through like shadows.

By the time I was seven we’d buried in the bush two canaries, a guinea pig and a cat. Brent and I wanted to put Mum there too, so she’d stay close. Dad said no: there was a special place for people and that’s where Mum would go. Brent was such a sweet little boy. I loved him like a teddy. He’d stood there quietly, wearing his toy sword and pirate hat, then he touched Dad’s hand. “You need a lie-down, Daddy,” he said, and led him back to the house.

Later, we wrapped Mum’s heart earrings and a macaroni necklace Brent made at kindy, put them in a baking powder tin and buried them under the flax. Then we rocked back on our haunches looking up to heaven. Had Mum seen? We couldn’t tell.

I remembered Brent and Dawn in the sunshine two years later. He held up a bird’s nest shimmering with strands of his platinum hair and her orange lengths. She’d decorated the nest for his treasures: a broken cup with the Queen’s face on it, a kingfisher feather, a teaspoon in the shape of a cockle shell. He hugged Dawns thigh as tightly as he’d hugged Mum’s, and she called him her human caliper.

Memories like these eddy like autumn leaves. Dawn blowing into our lives – her parents wanted her to have a fresh start and Dad said sure, she could stay and look after the kids while he was at work.

Dawn had a mass of carroty hair, big as a bonfire. Her father had the same fiery hair. When he put his arm around her and squeezed goodbye, her face greyed. After her parents left, Dawn picked up Brent and swirled him around the kitchen, singing “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” She wore a jingly charm anklet and a toe ring, and cooked purple-dyed spaghetti sauce and cheese omelettes stuffed with popcorn. Brent and I weren’t sure whether Dawn was a child or a grown-up. She smoked stinky rollies, and after a while Dad did too. She had a lazy eye which would swivel to the left when she smoked – I never quite knew where she was looking. Then she got fat and five months later had twins.

In the meantime Brent and I played in the bush. I made forts along the creek’s edge, with moats where I floated newspaper boats before letting them free on the current. Brent spent hours watching spiders spin webs. He kept still as a rock because if you moved a millimetre, the spider stopped mid-weave. On foggy mornings the bush glimmered with dew-strung webs. There were so many, hundreds connected with strands of spider silk, that we couldn’t move without breaking one. At first Brent thought stars had fallen off the sky.

Sometimes we glimpsed a rat slinking between grassy toetoe skirts. Dead rats stunk for a week. We wondered how many bones were in the ground under our feet. Not just our old pets, but those rats, birds, skinks. Sometimes Brent dug holes searching for skulls and skeletons.

Carroty-haired babies came home from hospital squawking like ducks. “Colic,” said the Plunket nurse. She made notes in her book and asked lots of questions. “Have you any family support, dear?” The nurse came the next day and the one after that. A few weeks later Dad said he was bloody well going deaf. The nurse said it was time Dawn’s parents came down. When the nurse left, Dawn squatted in a corner of the sofa, rocking.

After Dawn arrived, Brent and I had moved to bunk beds in my room. We had a big section and Dad, who was a builder, said he’d add another room. Dawn said she’d plant a garden and grow grapes, herbs, sunflowers. Then they got stuck into smoking pot and nothing happened. After a while, Dawn planted a tomato garden behind the house. The plants grew huge, with leaves the size of dinner plates – but no tomatoes. She pulled out the plants and hung them upside down in the garage.

When I arrived at our old house, the spoon and rubber tie had fallen to the floor and Brent was slumped, eyes wide, face stretched back as if he were tearing past on his motorbike. He was scrawny and ill-looking. I knelt beside him and put my head against his arm. I felt so tender, now that my anger had rolled away down the path along with those dog turds.

I remembered the day Dawn breathed dope smoke over the babies’ squinched up faces until they’d nodded off. Her lazy eye swivelled and she glared at us – so blazed her eye was almost out on a stalk – then she stomped into the bathroom and locked the door. Brent and I waited to see what happened next. We heard Dawn crack open the window, then nothing. She didn’t come out for ages. Maybe she’d fallen asleep in there? I made peanut butter and jam sandwiches and we crept out of the house, going as far as we could to the tallest trees. There was a strange silence: no breeze in leaves, no birds whistling. We sat on a thick carpet of moss. The night before, the babies had cried and cried while Dawn and Dad shouted at each other about her parents coming down. Brent had climbed into my bunk and we’d lain together, shivering. The next day, sleep-deprived, we sat quietly on the moss mechanically eating our sandwiches, crumb by crumb.

Something thumped on the ground. We got up to see what it was – Dawn’s sneaker. A creak overhead, then we looked up and saw her dangling.

I made Brent and I a cup of tea and sat on the back step as the sun sank. “Come and look,” I said. He shuffled across from the sofa. The sun was a fat orange honey-ball, its rays turning the flax spears into flaming green swords. I saw a crescent moon hanging low in the sky and I don’t know why but I started crying. Brent squeezed down beside me and I sniffed back tears. Birds hooted in dark trees and swallows swept across the deepening blue. “Come to Aussie with me,” I said. “We’ll have fun exploring.”

“Nah, I’m sorted.”

“Where are you going?”

“A mate’s farm.”

“What mate?”

“You don’t know him.”

“Then come over for a holiday. Promise?”

“Sure, why not.”        

I put my head on his bony shoulder and we watched faraway stars. “I love you, Cassie,” he said, and then I cried buckets. It was the first time he’d said that.

It was foggy when he left the property three days later. The fog may have played a part, police said. His motorbike crossed the centre line and collided with a milk tanker.

I went back a month later. All the houses in our street had been trucked off site, trees chopped down, the creek diverted and filled in. Bulldozers had left a smooth brown field and new sections were marked out with gossamer-like string, taut as the frame lines of a web.

I stood on the kerb thinking of everything in that soil: Mum’s earrings and macaroni necklace, Dawn’s sneaker, childhood pets, Brent’s dog.

New houses and families would come; the earth would gather in their offerings, too.

Taken from Hailman by Leanne Radjokovich (Emma Press, 2021), a collection of short stories available from the publisher or from selected bookstores nationwide.

Leanne Radojkovich is the author of short story collections Hailman (2021) and First fox (2017) published by The Emma Press. Her stories have most recently appeared in Landfall, Short Fiction Journal and...

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