This piece is part of our ongoing series 'Short Story of the Month'. Every month, the Writer's Edit team selects their favourite submission and provides detailed feedback to the author.
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Aunt Merle by Linda Godfrey
Jack sauntered down the dirt road holding Harriet's hand. Harriet’s legs moved faster to keep up with her father. Her arm stretched up high to reach his hand. There were tumbleweeds rolling down the road. Burrs stuck into Harriet’s socks. There was a slight breeze. The way her arm was fixed above her made her head droop, so she had plenty of time to watch the dirt as she walked. The dirt was fine, but it had jagged, speckled rocks all through it. Her sandals shifted the stones, others rolled ahead of her father’s boots.
She lifted her head to see a man on a horse go by. He had a hessian bag on the back of the saddle filled with lumps. Harriet put her other arm round the leg of her father when she saw the bag was leaking sticky blood down the flank of the horse.
‘It’s OK,’ her dad said. ‘He has a bag of rabbits most likely.’ He squeezed Harriet’s hand a bit tighter and she inched closer to his leg. ‘I won’t let the big bad man get you,’ he said. Harriet watched the rump of the horse move away from them.
Aunty Merle lived in a house sinking into the ground, its eyes closed against the world. It was low with wide verandahs, covered in dark red bougainvillea.
Merle came to the front yard, brought out by the dogs barking. Dusty blue and red cattle dogs, chained to their kennels along the fence, pulled at their chains, barking and leaping, baring their fangs. Aunty Merle, with her small, incredibly lined face and long hair pulled back by a scarf tied round her head, swore and cussed, swinging her arm in the air, and shouted, ‘Garn, Garn, shut up the lot of you.’ Then, turning to Jack and Harriet, said, ‘Bloody dogs never are quiet. Come on, they ain’t gunna hurt.’
The rooms inside were on an undulating dirt floor, covered in carpet. There was a bedroom that Harriet never went into, a lounge room that was used as a storeroom. All the windows were dirty and infested with cobwebs. Those parts not covered in cobwebs were grimy. You could not see out, and Harriet was sure no one could see in.
‘Come on, I’ll make a cuppa.’ Merle led the way to the kitchen, a lean-to at the back. One wall was an open fireplace for a stove, big enough for an adult to step into. Blackened pots hung from a hook inside the fireplace. The room was foggy, sunlight streaked with smoke.
Aunty Merle swung a kettle over the fire, took the lid off to make sure there was enough water. While they waited for the tea to boil, Merle took the enamel pot and threw the tea leaves out onto the red geraniums, took the pot and enamel cups down to the tank and rinsed them.
Each time Harriet had visited, there were a couple of litters of pups, blind with big round bellies, and this time was no different. The mother dogs lay on their sides, panting, looking up at her with yellow eyes, showing her all their teeth, and Harriet thought, asking her to admire the babies.
Merle grumbled about the bloody dogs and how she was going to get them all put down. However, when she fondled the pups her wrinkles seemed to soften. It did not seem to Harriet that Merle minded them at all. With the hens and their new chickens, she let them out into the yard and threw handfuls of wheat. She showed Harriet the nests where some hens were sitting and then took her further along to collect the eggs. Harriet would remember the smell of warm hens mixed with their manure, with the feel of the eggs under her fingers.
Sitting with their cups of tea in enamel mugs in the sunshine outside the back door, Jack asked, ‘Coming to the party, Aunty?’
Merle had a look of disgust on her face. ‘Na. Don’t need to see any of them. Most of them make their way down here at some time anyways.’
Aunty Merle had a special treat for Jack and Harriet. She wanted to show them a new yard built across the road; there was a bull in there.
‘Give the girl something to look at,’ she said. ‘Toughen her up a bit, Jack,’ out of the side of her mouth, and her head on the side.
The dogs were barking, not sure why they were not going on the walk too. The fence was hand-hewn split post and rail. The wood, the colour of pale honey and rough, as if Harriet’s hands would be full of splinters if she so much as touched it.
Harriet could see the bull, a long way off. It looked small. Nuzzling around at the dirt, it seemed desolate, yet there was a sheen on its coat, and muscles bulged under its rump.
There were flies everywhere, sticking into her eyes, and she could see hundreds on her father’s back. Aunty Merle had a switch of tree branch that she had broken off and was waving back and forth. Her father was using his hands to brush off flies and spat out one that he had sucked into his mouth.
They stood with their arms resting on the railing, watching the bull. Imitating their actions on the lower rung, Harriet crossed one leg over the other just like her dad.
‘What do you think Merle, can bulls really see red?’
‘Don’ reckon they can, Jack. They’ll run at anything if they’re riled.’
‘Harriet,’ Jack said, ‘want to go into the paddock with the bull?’
She looked up at her dad. There was not a trace of emotion or concern.
‘Be a good story when you got back to school, that you tested a theory on a bull and it was wrong.’
Merle laughed, ‘You weren’t so keen when you were little.’
‘Every one of us has done it and lived to tell the tale. Part of growing up.’
‘My kids all did it. Your father, ah Jack, that was a sight. He couldn’t get the bull to charge at him. In fact, the bull wouldn’t look at him. He was running around with a red shirt, waving the bloody thing. He almost went up to the animal, and pulled its tail, it was that docile.’
‘That’s what he used to tell us too,’ Jack said. ‘He told it like it was the bull that was scared of him, that it was in the corner shaking in its boots. We would laugh and laugh when he walked into the corner of the room and held his shaking hands up to his head, making the horns of the bull.’
‘Want to follow the family tradition?’ Jack put his hand on Harriet’s head.
Harriet was not sure. She had a feeling that her legs were sticks, that she had no strength in them, that she would break in half just standing in the wind. She looked up. Merle was smiling down at her with the same expression she used with the dogs and their pups: indulgent and wolfish.
Harriet was spooked. She turned back to her father. He had moved to sit on the top rail. He had a straw in his mouth, chewing on the grass.
‘You know, bulls can’t really see red. Like all animals they’re colour blind. So you could go in there with one of Merle’s scarves and he would be as quiet as a lamb.’
Harriet looked into the distance. He was her father. He was tall and solid. He knew what he was talking about. He would not let anything happen to her.
She climbed up on the fence next to him. Her stick legs bent and flexed, as they should. She watched the bull for a while. He was standing in the farthest corner next to a tree in the shade, switching his tail against the flies and leaning on the fence to scratch his side. She said, ‘If you come with me Dad, I’ll go.’ Her stick legs were stronger. They felt hard against the fence.
‘You’ll need something to wave at him.’
‘Give her your shirt,’ Merle said.
Jack took off his shirt and gave it to Harriet.
Merle looked him over, as if he was a piece of meat and said, ‘Shoes good and solid? She’ll need ‘em. To run.’
They laughed. Harriet laughed with them, though not sure why. That feeling came back to her legs and she moved closer to her father. She got a splinter in the back of her knee.
The bull had turned his head and was watching them now. He had a ring through his nose and a trail of snot to the ground. His skin was twitching, and the sheen of his coat moved over his muscles.
Harriet was scratching the back of her knee where the splinter had irritated her. She stared at the bull and he was looking back. ‘What have they got a ring for?’
‘You remember the rodeo at Goondiwindi and cowboys riding bulls? They had rings so the clowns could catch them.’
Harriet remembered the rodeo. The stands were fullest when the cowboys were riding the bulls. The bulls in little pens could not move until the cowboys were safely in the saddle, and held tight to a thick rope. When the cowboy fell off, the bull continued to jump and buck, sometimes he ran into a fence, other times he put his head down and pushed the cowboy round on the ground until the clowns ran at him.
They had been sitting in the stands and one bull had run at the fence and tried to jump over the wall. Up close, his eyes were red round the edges. There was a milking cow at her grandmother’s and her eyes seemed big in her head, brown but quiet and peaceful. Harriet was sure that the bull had been frightened at the rodeo, she could understand that. He was scared and wanted to run away. The clowns had herded him to a pen at the side of the ring.
‘So, you going in, Harriet, or ya just gunna look?’ Merle said.
‘You coming with me, Dad?’
‘I’ll be right behind you.’
Harriet jumped down off the fence. Took a step into the paddock. Heard her father jump down beside her. She had the shirt in her hand. She waved the shirt. The bull moved to face her. He was twitching his tail. He put his neck out and bellowed. Harriet jumped. She felt her father move just behind her.
‘Wave it more, Harry, otherwise he won't come over.’
Harriet was not sure she wanted the bull to come over. She was feeling brave, she was doing it. She could go back and tell her school friends and her teacher about what she had done in the country.
The bull trotted into the middle of the paddock. He stretched out his neck and bawled at them. Then stood still again.
‘Wave the shirt, Harry.’ Her father’s voice seemed to have moved away from her. She turned and saw that he was sitting on the fence again. Merle was staring intently at Harriet and then at the bull, judging the distance.
‘Dad,’ Harriet screamed.
Jack went to get down off the fence. Merle put her hand out, holding his arm, ‘Na, leave it a sec.’
Merle said to Harriet, ‘You’re safe. Keep an eye on the bull, though.’
Harriet turned back and he was walking towards her again, shaking his horns. She watched the space between herself and the fence. It was a long way. She felt that the ground was opening up underneath her, that she was going to fall into a black hole with no sides and fall and fall and fall. She was rooted to the spot. She could not move at all. She twisted round, screamed, and put out her hands to her father. He seemed to pulse in and out of view. He was there on the fence and laughing. Merle was watching her too, her leg up on the lower rung of the fence. Harriet could not catch her breath. She looked back at the bull. It was standing in the same spot in the middle of the field, as if it could not understand what was going on. Harriet’s arms fell to her sides. She wet her pants.
‘She’s lost it. Get her out,’ Merle said.
Jack took the piece of grass out of his mouth and threw it on the ground. The bull was spooked and started.
Harriet was floating above herself, watching what was happening. It was all silent, just the rush of wind past her ears. She could see herself standing there, she could even see the back of herself, she could see the bull do a skip sideways and wave his horns. She could see Merle and Jack sitting still on the fence, smiling.
The bull took two steps forward.
Jack came up behind Harriet, scooped her up and put her through the rungs of the fence, then climbed through himself.
Harriet came back into her body and held up her arms.
Jack said, ‘I’m not picking you up, you’ve wet yourself.’
Harriet had spots before her eyes. She was aware that her pants felt awful between her legs and there was hot urine stinging her skin. She stopped and pulled her pants down.
Jack said, ‘Not in the middle of the road.’
Harriet glimpsed the road stretching off in the distance, to nowhere.
At Merle’s the old woman took Harriet into the kitchen while she boiled the kettle. She poured the water into a bowl. She carried first the bowl and then Harriet outside to a faded wooded table near the back door. She stood Harriet on the table and washed down Harriet’s legs. ‘There, there. Nothing was going to happen to you.’ Dried her with a towel, dull and scratchy.
Merle took off Harriet’s shoes. She gave them to Jack, ‘Here, take these and dry them off. I’ll wash the socks in a minute.’ She washed Harriet’s feet one at a time in the bowl.
When that was finished, she sat Harriet down, rinsed the corner of the towel and washed her face. ‘That silly old bull wasn’t gunna get ya. He was looking at you wondering why you were making such a racket, that’s all.’
Harriet was hot and sticky but the sweat was drying off.
‘Now, let me look at those hands.’
Harriet turned both her palms up.
‘They’re filthy. What will your mother say?’
Jack and Harriet walked back up the road from Merle’s into the setting sun.
‘Party’s about to start,’ he said and gave her hand a little shake. Harriet stared at the road. ‘You’ve been quiet all afternoon. You tired?’ Harriet nodded. She wanted to be in her bed at home, with her pillow, cold against her cheek.
Back at the house, there were groups of men in the backyard, beers in their hands, standing around forty-gallon tins filled with fire. Jack took Harriet through the house to their verandah.
'Here we are,’ Jack said.
Harriet stood quiet.
Her mother was in her party outfit, pale lilac chiffon with her high-heeled white sandals, bending over a mirror propped on the windowsill, applying her make-up. ‘She looks worn out. What did you do to her?’