run­ner-up

THE BUSH HUT

Country Style - - SHORT STORY COMPETITION - BY IS­ABELLE MILLER

Her friend said she could live in the hut for a while, for as long as she needed, over the win­ter. He had in­her­ited the hut along with the bush­land it was on from his fa­ther, and didn’t have time these days to visit it him­self. He would need it back in spring, when he rented it out to city dwellers look­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence what they thought of as the true Aus­tralian bush life­style. But for now, for the bit­ingly cold win­ter, she could have it. He made a mud map on the back of a su­per­mar­ket re­ceipt and she fol­lowed his di­rec­tions up into the moun­tain­ous bush. The drive started in the white sheep-flflecked open­ness of hilly farm­ing coun­try, cleared more than a hun­dred years ago by colo­nial set­tlers. Quickly, how­ever, the tame grass slopes gave way to the blue-tinted hues of tow­er­ing gums and the raggedly, cu­ri­ously bent grass trees, their long scapes stick­ing con­fi­fi­dently sky­ward. Her dog, old and frail, sat in the front pas­sen­ger seat of her car, his rheumy eyes un­fo­cused on the road ahead. There was a fi­fire­place in the hut and an out­side dunny with a big drop and a per­pet­ual stink, even in the dor­mancy of win­ter. There was no elec­tric­ity, no run­ning wa­ter, noth­ing of 21st-cen­tury life. She gath­ered fi­fire­wood from the stack out­side in the last of the af­ter­noon light, watch­ing the breath curl out of her mouth in frozen wisps. Long shad­ows cast across the clear­ing. A blan­ket of fog was al­ready rolling down from the top of the moun­tain, eerily be­tween the ghost gums and the thick, scrawl­ing mess of un­der­growth. It was warm in­side the hut with the fi­fire lit and the two of them curled up un­der a blan­ket on the lonely thread­bare arm­chair. At night, at around 7.30, with noth­ing else to do, she would climb into the sin­gle bed with the sag­ging mid­dle. It was an old bed that creaked when she moved, piled high with oil­skins and furs and thick, dusty doonas. The fi­fire would go out at around four in the morn­ing. She would wake up to the cold air press­ing on her face and a full, heavy blad­der. For the few hours be­tween wak­ing and the dawn light, she would lie on her back us­ing the power of her mind to over­come the most hu­man of needs. “Why are you do­ing this?” a friend had asked her be­fore she left. “I need a break.” “Are you go­ing to take a weapon? A woman alone in the bush will need a weapon.” “No-one is go­ing to bother com­ing up the bush to at­tack a mid­dle-aged woman like me,” she re­torted. She was difff­fer­ent in the city. She was al­ways the di­vorcee, the one whose hus­band left her with a cou­ple of young kids all those years ago. Her friends thought she needed them to look af­ter her. “And then imagine,” she thought of the peo­ple around her say­ing, “imagine los­ing all that money on top of ev­ery­thing else. No-one has been that un­lucky in their life.” Peo­ple treated her difff­fer­ently in the city. She was al­ways the pity in­vite, the third wheel, the lonely friend they needed to set up with some­one so she could go on dou­ble dates with the hap­pily mar­ried. They’d look at her with sym­pa­thetic faces, pat her shoul­der and earnestly ask, “Are you okay?” The at­ten­tion was sufff­fo­cat­ing. In the brisk cold of the morn­ings in the bush, rein­vig­o­rated in her new en­vi­ron­ment, she would walk the dog along the creek that ran from the top of the moun­tain to the val­ley be­low. The air would be fi­filled with the call of lyre­birds, of blue birds, of the rustling sigh of ferns against her an­kles and knees. There was a mob of wal­la­bies that froze when she ap­proached, their eyes fo­cused on her, wet noses twitch­ing. Then they would bound grace­fully away to be swal­lowed by the bush. Kook­abur­ras started up a deaf­en­ing sym­phony of cack­ling laugh­ter from the ghost gums above. She watched her step as she nav­i­gated the slip­pery rocks be­side the creek, the dog lag­ging slowly be­hind in old-age lethargy. The af­ter­noons were warm enough for her to read out­side in the dull, white glow of the win­ter sun. She re­vis­ited Chekhov and drank the red wine she brought with her. The dog dozed at her feet. “This is the life,” she thought. In the af­ter­noon light, she could imagine dig­ging a vegetable gar­den and plant­ing an or­chard along the far fence line of the hut’s lit­tle cleared yard. Per­haps she could buy some sheep or goats. And there would need to be a new toi­let, prefer­ably in­side, and so­lar pan­els just for the ba­sics like light and heat. With a lit­tle efff­fort, a self-sus­tain­ing life­style seemed mo­men­tar­ily within reach up there in her bush­land haven.

For din­ner that night, she cooked some toast on a rack on the open fire, burn­ing the crusts a lit­tle in her camp­ing clum­si­ness. She hadn’t yet mas­tered the art of fi­fire cooking. A tin of baked beans, heated in the black fry­pan, was enough to mask the flflavour of char­coal. By night­fall she was tucked in bed with the dog snor­ing loudly by her feet. She used to be very good at sleep­ing. But then one morn­ing she awoke to fifind her hus­band’s things gone and with them her hus­band. No fairy­tale of his de­par­ture could stave offff her chil­dren’s ques­tions for long. “Will Dad be com­ing home?” they would ask. “Yes,” she replied, know­ing that it wouldn’t be their home he’d be com­ing home to. Sleep had been, since that morn­ing, a flfleet­ing thing. In the bush hut, at an un­known time in the pitch back, crow black mid­dle of the night, she awoke, acutely aware of the sounds around her. The dog whim­pered by the door, its front paws scratch­ing in­ces­santly on the wood. He was de­ter­mined to go out­side. Per­haps there was some­thing out there, she thought. Some­thing dan­ger­ous. If she lay very still, and made her breath as shal­low and quiet as pos­si­ble, per­haps the thing out­side would leave her alone. She could hear the blood rush­ing in her head, the fu­ri­ous pound­ing of her heart. The dog continued his strug­gle. Some­thing, some sort of great, in­ner strength, pos­sessed her to rise from the safety of her lay­ers of bed­ding and click the torch on. The beam swept over the room like a light­house, over­shad­ow­ing the glow of the fi­fire’s dy­ing em­bers. Just a few paces across the room, the door, a han­dle, a step, and she was out­side in the dark­ness. The dog pushed past her into the night. For a mo­ment her heart stopped beat­ing as she con­cocted some axe-wield­ing, movie ma­niac be­yond her torch’s line of vi­sion. The torch’s beam roamed, her sin­gle bea­con of hope, along the tree line. It passed the se­nile dog re­liev­ing him­self on a fence post. Moon shad­ows played in soft grey light on the tree­tops. There was noth­ing more out there. She slept, soundly, for the fi­first time in a long time. And then the sun be­gan to rise, as she knew it al­ways would, and the night­mares of the dark­ness seemed to dis­si­pate with the rays sneak­ing past the cur­tains of the bush hut. And she knew, some­how, that ev­ery­thing would be fifine. To read pre­vi­ous en­tries in our Short Story Com­pe­ti­tion, visit home­life.com.au/coun­try-style/short-sto­ries

She could hear the blood rush­ing in her head, the fu­ri­ous pound­ing of her heart.

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