They scramble over sand hills, tear down to the ocean which seems to stretch ahead forever. Skinny, ten-year-old, Tommy sucks in salty air and his dream of the sea envelopes him. He hears the whistle and snaps to attention. He runs to join the others who stand obediently in a straight line, backs to the sea, eyes straight ahead. A rag-tag bunch in third-hand clothes and boys' home haircuts. The roll is called and Tommy listens for his number. They are all given coveted penknives and scraps of rubber to make shanghais. The supervising officer drones on about the special privilege he is allowing them to have these things which are specifically for their stay at the Coorong. Each item must be handed in again when they pack up to leave, he warns. Then they open up the Nissan huts to air them out, chores are assigned and they set up camp.
Tommy is sent to collect kindling. Some of the boys are fourteen or fifteen, almost men. They are checking the underground water tank for live snakes and dead lizards.
Teddy Binbilla calls out, 'Hey, Cherryulla', using Tommy's nickname, the one given because his white backside turns cherry red after a hot shower or licking with the strap. 'Pick seasoned wood. We don't want no shit wood smoking us out.'
Binbilla is a big bloke, must be fifteen. Tommy remembers the day he was brought to the home from the mission up north, his hair still stiff and red from the bulldust. Binbilla refused to eat with a knife and fork or sleep in a bed. The officers gave him a good hiding to smarten up his ideas.
Pelicans bob close to shore, huge eyes watch with solemn curiosity. They look like picture book drawings, Tommy decides as he gathers driftwood and looks for stones for his shanghai. All afternoon he goes backwards and forwards adding to the pile of kindling.
Other boys are unloading stores of flour, potatoes, salt, milk powder, golden syrup and lifebuoy soap; they fetch and carry shovels and rakes and buckets; they dig latrines and rubbish pits and build a campfire.
As the Southern Cross rises, Tommy sits with the other boys around the fire. They dig potatoes from the coals and sprinkle them with milk powder and salt. Afterwards, there's damper with golden syrup and mugs of billy tea. From tomorrow they'll have to hunt and fish for food or there will be no relief from potatoes and damper.
Later, inside the Nissan hut, the boys toss and turn on chaff mattresses and fight off mossies big as budgies. Tommy hears whispers. He strains his ears to catch the words, 'First light-a rabbit hunt'.
He wakes with a start. Morning is an orange promise on the horizon. He follows the others out of the hut and feels sure that he stands out like dog's balls with his pale skin. He knows he'll be the only one who will return empty handed but he can't stay behind like a sissy. He tests the rubber of the crude shanghai he has fashioned.
Wings flap overhead as pelicans head out to sea. Boys fan out soundlessly till Tommy can no longer distinguish their shapes. He heads out over bone-white sand, towards a neck of fresh water that leads to rocky outcrop and scrubby bush. Damp sand coats his feet. Crumbed cutlets, he thinks. It is a long time since he has eaten one. His mouth waters as he remembers and his stomach retaliates with a grumble.
He crosses the fresh water to the scrub grass beyond the dunes. Then he sees them, two rabbits up on hind legs, sniffing the air. As he watches one keels over, then the other. Binbilla appears from nowhere to scoop up his prey; half a dozen corpses hang from his belt. Then he vanishes.
Tommy sits down on the ground, there's no point in walking any further. He may as well stay put until the whistle summons him back for roll call. The whistle that will show him up for what he is-a no-hoper. He knows full well that he is only tolerated on this trip because no one would take him over the Christmas holidays. For the others it's a chance, just once a year, to do all the things they hunger to do. He has no skills, though, in chasing emus to find their eggs or catch their chicks. He has never learnt to catch a fish. He can't even knock over one miserable rabbit.
A crow lands on an overhead branch. It moves its head from side to side as it looks inquisitively at the ground. Tommy tightens his grip on his shanghai and rolls a stone between his fingers. A slight movement attracts his attention and he sees what the bird is watching; there is a rabbit in the scrub. Just a kitten, it seems a bit wonky, as if drunk. It is nibbling a patch of new shoots. He rises up on his knees and takes aim. As he fires the bunny lifts its head, looks straight at him. He feels his stomach flip. How can this dumb creature not know it's a sitting target? It's too easy. The bunny falls. 'Thank you, God', he whispers. He's elated, for one brief moment he's become the hunter.
He picks up his game and notices for the first time the patchy pelt and dried puss crusting white marble eyes. Diseased. God has played the kind of trick Tommy has come to expect from the officers. He knows he's not worthy of the grace of God, he has been told it often enough. He hears the whistle and turns for camp.
Then he hesitates. If I skun it, he thinks. He turns back for the shabby corpse and slices through the pelt with his penknife. He's made a dog's breakfast by the time he's finished but the disease is no longer obvious. He hopes the meat won't poison anybody. He washes the meat and the stickiness from his hands as he re-crosses one of the narrow tributaries of fresh water.
'Onya Cherryulla,' Binbilla calls and comes over to inspect the kill. 'It's about time, mate.' He looks long and hard at the mutilated carcass and then at Tommy who can see he isn't fooled. 'Better teach you how to skin a rabbit, eh?' Binbilla says with a huge wink.
And in that moment of complicity Tommy's chest fills with unaccustomed joy.
Sharon Rundle © 2006
Cherryulla is published in
ENCOUNTERS: Modern Australian short stories
Edited by Barry Oakley, this anthology has stories by Tim Winton, David Malouf, Peter Goldsworthy, Sandy McCutcheon, Sophie Cunningham, and many other Australian authors
Published The Five Mile Press, November 2006
SHORT FICTION 2 -- ROOM SIX