A wattle Seed, a stingless bee, a crow’s feather, a cicada shell

By Dallas John Baker

For once, winter came on time that year, right on the first of June. The sun rose just as high as it had the day before, but it had a touch less heat to it, and the sky was a clearer, colder blue. When the magpies sang in the dawn that morning, their song had a chilly sound. As did the whistle of the morning freight train from out west, which had carried farther over town than normal. Josh couldn’t count how many times over the eleven years of his life he’d heard the neighbour ladies say Winter’s early this year, it’s gonna be a bad one, or Winter’s late, we won’t get the cold we need for the peach trees to fruit. Today they said, It’s getting cold already, and I don’t know anybody who’s had time to air out their blankets. It seemed no matter whether winter came early or late or right on time, the neighbour ladies found some reason to complain about it.

Every Friday afternoon these ladies, including Josh’s grandmother, congregated under an old mulberry tree that stood where the corners of their four yards met. There the four women chatted while they waited for their husbands to come home from work with Friday night dinner, fish and chips or barbeque chicken from The PF Chicken Bar. No more than a few years in age from each other, all of them were salt and pepper haired. Except for Josh’s grandmother, whose waist-length hair was a cold white. The other ladies said her hair turned white when she found Josh’s father dead in the old timber shed, felled by a bite from a brown snake as long as he was tall, and he was six foot. But they never said that to her face. The shed wasn’t there anymore, Josh’s gran had hired some men to pull it down, but the outline of it was still visible even though the grass had grown over where it once stood. The shape of it in the lawn was like the shadow of a grave. Josh’s gran never walked over it. He made a point of not walking over it either.

Sometimes Josh listened to them talk while hidden behind the old ute that’d sat in the backyard for decades. Wheelless and windowless, the ute was a brown, rusty wreck. Josh’s grandfather refused to have it towed away. It was his first car, once a shiny new FJ Holden, and he said he would fix it up someday. A silver-leafed wattle tree had grown up through the collapsed tray bed. When the wattle flowered, which it did in mid-winter, it covered the old wreck in a sheen of fine pollen the colour of gold dust. A few years back a heavy frost came right after the wattle flowered – making the old ute look like a golden relic on a field of tiny, tiny pearls. Josh was eight then. That was the year his mother had left him there to go live with the barman from the Newtown Hotel. Bernard, the neighbour ladies said the barman’s name was, but mostly they just called him That Man.

Since then Josh had hidden in many places to listen to those fence line conversations. Deep in the shadowy leaves of the choco vine that grew along the back fence. In the chicken coop that, though empty for as long as he could remember, still smelled of feathers and grain and droppings. Under the water tank amongst the fronds of a fern that grew giant-sized from the damp that always lingered there. But the rusted-out ute was the best vantage point to eavesdrop on the ladies’ often whispered talk, which focused on the various sins of their neighbours just as much as on the weather.

From his position beside the ute’s empty wheel well, where he crouched like a thin-limbed, blonde-haired cave hermit, Josh had learned many things. The guy who owned the corner store had been caught wearing his wife’s clothes. His wife mightn’t have cared so much, one of the ladies joked, if he hadn’t stretched out her best high heels. The preschool teacher was having an affair with the butcher. Not a surprise, one of the ladies said, he does a very good sausage, but they ain’t cheap. Mr. Taylor down the street hadn’t spoken for two whole months after having to shoot George Ferguson Bowen, his old crippled dog. A tragedy all round, they said, but still, at least poor old George wasn’t suffering anymore. Dally McPhee, who lived two streets over, was still playing with dolls despite having already turned thirteen. It’s just because Dally likes combing the doll’s hair, Josh’s grandmother said in Dally’s defence, might want to be a hairdresser. This didn’t sit well with the others. That’s all well and good, one of them sniped, but thirteen is just too old to play with dolls, especially for a boy.

The thing Josh had been most excited to learn was this: Abigail Hill, a cock-eyed woman who lived in a falling down house next door to the racetrack, was a bona fide witch. Abigail Hill, the ladies said, cured people of all kinds of things and, for a price, could make wishes come true. It was common knowledge the mayor paid Abigail to make it so that the embezzlement charges against him couldn’t be proved in court. A fifty year old divorcee, whom the ladies described as twice as homely as she was hoity-toity, had hired Abigail to make a young man she fancied fall madly in love with her. There’s no way that kid could ever have fallen in love with that woman naturally, one of the ladies said, as handsome as he was and thirty years her junior. And the whole town still whispered about how Abigail put a curse on the policeman who’d called her ‘spastic’. His lips had grown so bloated, bruised and infected that he could barely mutter a word, let alone another offensive one.

Josh’s heart had quickened as soon as he’d heard that word: witch. He hadn’t known it until he heard the neighbour ladies talking about Abigail Hill, but he had need of a witch. A desperate need. There was something he wanted badly, something he wanted so much his gut ached when he thought about it. Something he was certain only a witch could give him.

Every Friday since he’d first learned that there was more to Abigail than her lopsided eyes let on, he made sure he took his place by the rusty wheel well of the old ute. He waited, barely breathing, until his grandmother came out and joined her three friends beneath the mulberry tree. He’d sat there so often and for so long that his hair and skin had been infused with the smell of old oil and wattle, so that even after a bath he could still smell it on himself. But the ladies had not mentioned Abigail Hill again, nor anything else supernatural, not until that first day of winter, that cold clear day that snuck up on them and had every clothesline in the neighbourhood weighed down with blankets hung out for a last minute airing.