Parenting a toddler alone can be hard, but in this outback horror story it is both isolating and terrifying.
Between the Sun and Moon
They had said goodbye to daddy at dawn, waved from the street as he coaxed the road train to life, listened to the deep rumble as the engine swallowed every other noise. The truck rattled and shrugged off the rusty iron dust left by the night. Dense diesel fumes warmed the air. Dan waved down from the cab, high above the road, as the little boy squirmed in his mother’s arms, clinging too tightly, his fingernails in her neck. She tried to catch a glimpse of Dan, tried to catch his eye one last time, but his face was already turned toward the highway.
They stayed until the truck had found the vanishing point on the horizon and was swallowed by the gorge country on the road south. Now would come the familiar loneliness that settled in her bones, the extra depth to the shanty-town shadows, a longing that continued like a dull ache until he came back.
The first time Dan left, Jessie stopped talking for three days. Since then, Courtney followed a clever ritual to keep him talking. She would bring the boy inside and they would trace daddy’s journey with a matchbox truck across a map of Australia. ‘Here we are!’
‘Here we are,’ he would mimic, a child’s finger finding the place. She’d let him colour in their town on the map with a red crayon, to match the sand and blood sunsets. He’d scratched a jagged black line to show the gorge country to the south. At the bottom of the map the boy had stuck some houses and hotels from an old monopoly game. ‘Ad ah laid’
‘Adelaide,’ she confirmed.
‘Yes, that’s right. He goes on to Sydney.’ A few more houses and hotels represented the other city. The boy would often giggle then, and trace the next part of the journey north to the Top End and then back to the starting point; a simple triangle on the map, but a round trip that took almost a month. ‘And then he comes back.’
‘Like the moon.’
‘Yes honey. Like the moon.’
Today, the map ritual had not worked. She could feel the little body stiff and angry against her chest and she tried to relax him, to coax him to talk. He had thrown himself backwards into her chest so fast and with such anger that his skull had split her lip. He howled in his room while she wept hot tears in the kitchen. Dan did not understand that life with a toddler was a lonely life. Feeling guilty, and in an effort to sooth them both, Courtney packed the car for a trip to the waterhole. The river would be a mucky semi-dried-out billabong at this time of year, but it always calmed the boy and if she was lucky, he would sleep on the drive home.
The waterhole felt like a natural temple. There was something sacred about water during the dry, and the white trunked gums that encircled the pool shed their bark in long strips, staining the water the colour of Black China tea. There was a rock ledge over the deeper end and a shallow sandy end. If you were careful not to disturb the slimy, dead leaves on the bottom, the water stayed fairly clear. But while she was unpacking, Courtney didn’t notice Jessie wander towards the rock ledge. From the corner of her eye she saw a soft quick wisp of white-blond hair and then the sickening sucking sound of a small body slipping under the surface and then…nothing. The deep end. The darkness.
In slow motion she jumped in after him. Below her, blackness, and as she went deeper, the light above became a distorted dream. She thrashed around, feeling for him. Desperate against the murk she tried to calm the panic and, blinking through the brown, just made out the rays of light that slipped through the triangles of a small-fingered hand, like a skeletal shadow-puppet. She grabbed at his arm and kicked against bursting lungs to the surface. As she gulped and swallowed the air he began to thrash, his tough fingers trying to pry off her own. It took all her strength to get him to shore and when she held him, laboured to breathe, she noticed her shoulder and was covered in round-mouthed bite marks. He yelled at her then, saying he wanted to die, saying it over and over. And then the screaming started. Screaming until blood began to flow from his nose, screaming until blood flowed from his ears, screaming as she strapped him in the car seat, screaming all the way home as the black blood congealed and crusted in the heat.
He had gone back to being semi-catatonic and she could barely look at him as she cleaned him up for bed. She gently lifted his exhausted body onto his mattress. He turned his face away when she tried to kiss him. On silent feet she left the room, and more for her own benefit said, ‘I hope you’re feeling better now. We’ll see the doctor tomorrow.’
Doctor Ryan’s surgery was little more than a shed. He flew up from Adelaide once a month, unless there was an emergency. The small corrugated iron building let out increasingly frequent groans and tings as it warmed and expanded in the heat. The red sand had crept in and lined every crack in the concrete slab. The all-pervasive red dust; she hated it. The ‘surgery’ itself was a small partitioned room and the rest of the space was filled with a circle of white plastic chairs. There were a few families there, but none that she recognised. They’d probably travelled long distances for check-ups, immunisations and assurances that their children were normal. There was one other family in the town whose dad was a long haul truck driver, but they had three children and seemed….happy, self-contained. Two other families had dads working in the mines, about a half day’s drive north-west from here. It did seem strange that there were no Aboriginal families here. Courtney had done some research. The town had been much bigger about 10 years ago. She guessed times had changed, people moved away. In the centre of the waiting room was a basket of odd toys where Jessie sat with his matchbox truck, driving it in a big triangle. She observed him now, seeing him as the visiting doctor would see him. He would probably say the boy was underweight, that he should be talking and eating more by now, that the tantrums should be easing and the bed wetting should be less frequent. She dreaded the part where he examined Jessie’s body.
‘Come in Jessie. Mrs Paterson. How are you?’
The boy smiled and shook the man’s hand ‘like a big boy’, and Courtney was reminded of how much she loved to see him happy.
‘I’m guessing the boy’s father is away at the moment? How is that going?’ She bit her lip and looked down at her hands.
‘This has been the hardest one so far.’ She wondered how much she should say in front of the boy. She was torn between her own insecurities- that it was her own fault, her inept parenting- and a desperate need for adult help.
‘Sometimes he won’t respond to me, won’t talk, won’t eat. He’s very irrational. Yesterday he ran into the waterhole and then struggled when I tried to save him…’
‘To save him?’ The doctor stood up and looked from the woman to the boy.
‘Yes. I think he wanted to kill himself.’
‘Mrs Paterson, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a talk with your boy alone.’
She sat for a long time in the waiting room. While she couldn’t make out words, it was clear that the boy was talking freely with the doctor, and she felt a twinge of sadness for the disconnection that had developed between them. In an effort to distract herself, Courtney looked at the various posters; an outdated poster for the Mary Poppins musical, an advice poster for correct teeth brushing and various Aboriginal Medical Service fact sheets. She noticed a faded illustration of Nami Gorge and the waterhole where they had been the day before. Below it was a short recount of a local dreamtime legend:
In the Dreaming, Walu the Sun-woman lights a fire each morning. She paints herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the colours of the dawn sunrise. She journeys by day with her torch, then returns in the darkness to her camp in the east. But she is jealous of her husband Ngalindi, the Moon-man, for he can be seen at night. She cuts off pieces of him with her axe until he is gone as though dead for 3 days. Then he gradually returns, devouring the Sun-woman’s light until he rises full and angry. Walu and Ngalindi have an angry and restless son who grows so tired of their constant battle that he calls on lightning to destroy them both. But the sun and moon are eternal and the lightening instead takes the life of the boy. His screams become the thunder, his body becomes the rocky gorge and his blood becomes the water of the sacred pool, Nami. Every day the Sun-woman weeps for her boy and every night his father remembers him.
Note: Today this region is still known for its red dawn and sunset and for its lightening and dry electrical storms.
The doctor brought the boy out and sat him down to play with the toys. ‘I’d like to talk to mummy now, okay?’ Jessie nodded. ‘Please, come back in Mrs Paterson.’
‘Courtney.’ Closing the door behind them, he motioned for her to sit.
‘I found some bruises on his arms and legs. Can you explain them?’ He took out a small notepad.
‘I told you. I had to drag him out of the waterhole.’
‘Ah. Yes, of course, it’s just…some of the bruises appear to be older, in various stages of healing.’ She shifted in her seat, and smoothed her skirt.
‘He often tries to escape from me, to run away. Most nights it’s a battle just to put him to bed. He is often up in the night. He has run away a few times at night and it scares me. I usually try to grab him before he bolts. He always tries to break free so I have to hold him tightly. He’s little but he’s strong. And he’s fast.’ The doctor jotted down more notes.
‘He said you like to hurt him.’
‘What! I don’t like to hurt him.’ She shifted in her seat, could feel her cheeks turning red.
‘Please stay calm Mrs….Courtney’
‘I am calm. It’s just that…’
‘He scares me. And I feel so isolated. I worry what he’ll do next. I worry what he’ll make me do.’ The doctor took out a prescription pad.
‘It’s a script for Valium, for you. Put him to bed and get a good night’s sleep tonight, it’ll help. I’m going to make a special trip up in two weeks and I’ll bring a child psychologist. Until then, try to rest, eat. Some form of companionship might be good for Jessie, maybe try to get him a puppy or a kitten.’ And that was it. The rest of her day was spent on the phone asking around if there were any pets for sale locally.
That night she called Dan on his CB radio. She could see Jessie playing on the path with the new kitten and allowed herself to smile. ‘He seems happy today. Yes. He’s playing with it now. A tabby. I know what we said, but you should see him, he’s actually smiling. I miss you Dan, can’t wait to see you.’ She allowed herself to think of him, being held, kissed, having an adult to talk to, to eat with. She missed him so much. Then came the sickening sound, the arc of the boy’s hand as he cracked the kitten’s skull with a rock. It let out an involuntary squeak before he bought the rock back down, again and again, and the tiny body became a mangled mash of fur, guts, bone and blood on the path. ‘Oh fuck. He’s killed it.’
‘I’m coming home…’
In Jessie’s room, his screaming had finally become a guttural whimper. Courtney had found an old local newspaper in the shed, to wrap the kitten’s remains. As she folded out the paper, she was struck by the headline dated from 2005: Local boy, 6, killed in road-train freak accident. And the caption below it: Local Aboriginal elder claims town, waterhole, is cursed.
That night, the small muffled voice came again, the only noise in the moon grey night. Courtney listened closely, hoping he would go back to sleep on his own. Then she heard the familiar thump of his feet on the floor and what sounded like a rattle at the window. The Valium had come on so fast, she couldn’t remember if she’d locked it. She peeked into the room through the keyhole; in the half-light she could see his silhouette, frozen at the window, the mist of his breath fogging the glass. She could hear her own heart beating in the back of her mouth. She was too afraid to enter the room.
Back in her own bed she listened as he slid the window up, heard his soft feet on the path and the creak of the gate as he let himself onto the street. She lifted her head to see the little frame as he ran off down the road. And then she closed her eyes.
It was difficult to see in the dawn light. Dan was so tired and anxious to get home that he was still travelling highway speed as he rounded the bend towards the little town. Dead insect carcasses speckled the windscreen, and the setting full moon in the morning light removed all shadows, making it impossible to see the small grey shape that darted out in front of the truck.
In that final moment the woman would swear she was able to feel the earth shudder and sigh, and then stop. In the East the sun was rising above the rocky gorge and Walu’s ochre stained the clouds orange and red. In the West the silver moon of Ngalindi was setting on a parched and ancient land. As the day turned, blood returned to earth, bone returned to dust and another mother and father wept for their son.
 A waterhole formed when a river stops flowing during the dry season