Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Verge 2013: Becoming

THE VERGE 2013 FICTION PRIZE

FIREFLOWERS

Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Who can believe in God in a place where nothing ever blooms except after fire? Who can believe in God when the seedpods are so hard they need hell-flames to crack them open? I have seen acacias catch alight like girls in yellow party dresses standing too close to the fireplace. I have seen girls in yellow dresses catch alight like acacias in full summer blaze. Who can believe in God after flowering in fire season?

I hated Kimberley for being younger than me. I hated Kimberley for having trust in me. I hated Kimberley for simply being alive. When she was five and I was ten, I put fire ants down the back of her dress after she followed me around the back garden for a whole afternoon. When she was six and I was eleven, I rode my bike so fast ahead of hers that she fell in a ditch trying to catch up. When she was seven and I was twelve, I left her behind on Old Man Beezley’s roof after we climbed up to spy on him getting drunk. Old Man Beezley didn’t have a job and spent most of his days drinking outside, occasionally kicking the dog or beating on his sons, Ryan and Jason. Jason was my age; Ryan was a bit older, a sloe-eyed teen who’d already been in and out of juvie by year ten.

I didn’t hate Kimberley for being Mum’s favourite. I didn’t hate Kimberley for her red hair and freckles or for the sweet way she handled the rough collie pups our mother bred. If I was truthful, I didn’t hate Kimberley at all—only the part of myself that she reminded me of: the little kid that I longed to run away from. I was reminded especially when I saw her strip off and step into the bathtub, her chest flat and tummy sticking out, as mine had at her age.

Summers always lasted longer than the school year, or seemed to. Fire warnings would go up and Mum would start raving about how lucky it was that we had the dogs with us—they could sense disaster long before it happened. She claimed that dog babies were sweeter than human babies and that her life would have been easier if she’d given birth to a litter of puppies instead of us. I came unwanted, when Mum was only seventeen, and Kimberley five years later when our father reappeared briefly between stints at Acacia for armed robbery. In his absence she’d acquired three bitches, all of which gave birth twice a year to litters of seven or eight pups.

The Beezley’s mutt often came sniffing around when our bitches were in heat. He was an ugly, square-snouted thing called Bullet with balls that dragged along the ground. Kimberley and I knew Mum would be furious if one of our pretty bitches—our Josie, our Bella, our Diana—got pregnant by a mongrel and we would stand at the fence warning him off, shouting and waving our arms like angry matrons. Ryan and Jason would look on from their front yard, hooting and howling and humping the air in Bullet’s honour.

The summer that I turned fourteen Kimberley and I were walking Bella and Josie in the bush. It must have been forty degrees and the heat made my whole body feel heavy and pungent. Banksias were blooming like clown pubes after the fire two years ago, which burned down the Beezley’s outhouse but didn’t make it to our property. There were twenty-eights foraging in the branches of a blackened eucalypt and the birds were making Bella anxious. At least, I thought it was the birds.

It must have been for Christmas that the Beezley brothers got their dirt bikes. I should have known it was them, stirring the bush, shaking the earth. I should have known that Bella would never be so afraid of birds. The dogs were growling and yipping by the time the boys were close enough for us to see the cloud of dust and the dark wheels and muscled arms of their approach. One of the boys made a V with his fingers and waggled his tongue between. The other one called out to us.

‘Bitches! Hey, bitches! You smell like blood.’

As soon as they’d come they were gone, leaving our world smelling of dirt, burnt rubber, sweat, and, yes, blood. Josie and Bella howled and strained at their leashes. Kimberley quaked at my side. My face burned like a fireflower.

I started to bleed ten months ago and Kimberley knew all about it. She wanted to bleed too. She thought pads looked fun to unwrap and that used tampons were fascinating. She wanted to wear a bra and to shave her legs and underarms like I did. When I took a bath she hammered on the door, as eager to look upon my new body as I was not to look at her. One day that summer I came out of the bathroom to find her rifling through my underwear drawer and I set upon her with my hairbrush, striking her legs until blood pooled beneath the surface. Hot weather had a way of bringing out my cruelty.

By midsummer I was certain that Jason Beezley wanted me. He’d gotten into the habit of riding past our house on his dirt bike at all hours, calling my name until the dogs were howling and my mother swearing that she wished I’d never been born. ‘Tash-aaahhh! Tash-aaahhh!’ He had a way of stretching the two syllables so that they seemed to go forever, like an animal’s cry, filling my empty days and nights. I knew that I shouldn’t respond, that I was far too good for him, that he called me like a dog and would treat me no better. Still, the summer was long and I was in heat.

Old Man Beezley continued to drink in his back garden as I paraded around our own in my sunburn and pink bikini. He had the same pug nose and narrow eyes as his sons. His hair was black and curled like theirs too, though peppered with grey in places. He wasn’t lean and muscled like his sons: his belly was huge and almost concealed the bulge in his shorts. I practiced my movements in his eyeshot, knowing he was too fat and drunk to do anything about them. Then I threw on a dress and went out in search of trouble. Kimberley abandoned the pup she was cradling and chased after me, screaming, ‘Tasha! Tasha! Wait, please, Tasha!’

Without the dogs with us we were easy prey. Kimberley complained that she was thirsty, that ants were biting her and that I was a meanie for not giving her time to leash Josie, Bella or Diana. I was telling her to shut up and that nobody had asked her along when a cracking of twigs to our right announced Jason, lurching out of the bush. He had a can of Emu Export in hand, presumably stolen from his dad. His eyes were bleary and bloodshot. ‘Tash-aaahhh,’ he drawled. ‘Hey, Tasha, you’ve gotten hot.’

I looked at Jason’s black curls, narrow eyes and pug nose. I looked at the muscles in his arms and the sweat glinting on them. I decided that he was cute in a roguish, animal sort of way.

‘Thanks,’ I said.

He waved the can in front of my face. ‘Wansome? I’ve got loads.’

‘Where’s Ryan?’

‘He cleared off.’

I hesitated. I sensed Kimberley quivering at my side. I felt a mean, hot rush of desire. ‘Sure, I’ll have some.’ I took Jason’s arm and followed him back into the bush. Kimberley wiped her nose and followed me through a curtain of yellow.

Nobody in my family had been to church for at least two decades—not since bushfires set the old farm alight and destroyed our only bible. I was willing to bet that no one in Jason Beezley’s family had been to church for at least as long. He didn’t take me like a bitch, as I’d expected—he took me like a missionary, on my back, among the empty beer cans. Kimberley guarded the parked bike, bruised knees drawn up to her chin, hair aflame under the high white sun.

While walking home through the dry leaves and dust that first afternoon I told Kimberley not to go dobbing to Mum about me and Jason. She shook her head, her lower lip trembling. I felt a stab of guilt and squeezed her hand. ‘I love you, Kimmie.’

I hated her again the next day when she insisted on coming out with me once more. She leashed Diana as I was leaving the house. The sky was a harsh, godless blue. I tramped ahead, hips swivelling, denim skirt hiking up my thighs. Diana and Kimberley panted at my heels. When Jason stumbled onto my path I smiled and tugged at my skirt.

Tash-aaahhh.’ He said my name like a beer can opening and then noticed Kimberley in my shadow. ‘Can’t you lose the little cunt?’

‘Sorry.’

At fourteen, fucking wasn’t a pleasure: it was twigs sticking into soft places; it was ants crawling by my mouth like a trail of saliva; it was the clumsy terror of a turtle flipped onto its back. It didn’t help that Jason did everything roughly or that he squeezed my new breasts as if juicing lemons and punctuated his spasms with four-letter words. When he was done he insisted on taking my underwear home with him as a trophy. He tore off on the bike that Kimberley had been guarding. We shielded our eyes from the dust.

I walked back with my thighs pressed together in fear of bugs flying up my skirt. Kimberley asked if I loved Jason. I told her no, of course not. What I did love was the fuzzy, numb feeling that came over me after I’d been with him—a feeling that made my days seem less empty, the blueness of the sky less stark. I loved going home and collapsing among the litters of soft, rollicking pups.

‘For God’s sake, Tasha! Put on some underwear,’ Mum yelled across the garden.

One afternoon Jason met me with a black eye.

‘That’s a big bruise,’ Kimberley said breathily. She was no longer afraid of Jason and had taken to tarting herself up, putting on lipstick and stuffing tissues down her dress front whenever she came with me to meet him.

‘Fuck off,’ Jason spat. We left Kimberley guarding the bike with Stella, a puppy Mum was keeping as a show dog. Once we were alone in the bushes Jason started ranting. ‘I’ll kill him. Fat old fuck. One day I’m gonna kill him, I swear.’

It wasn’t long after that day that Jason presented me with the perfume. He stole it from his dead mum’s things, a dusty bottle that he swore was French. It was probably a knockoff. I sprayed it and coughed. The air danced with dust motes.

‘You smell sweet as fuck,’ Jason said.

I let Kimberley drench herself in the cat-piss coloured perfume the next morning in exchange for her silence about the sherry I’d filched from Mum’s bedside. We stepped into the midday furnace with Bella, me in a short pink dress, Kimberley in a yellow one. Once the house was out of sight I took a swig of sherry. My throat burned.

‘Can I have some?’ Kimberley pleaded.

I looked around. A lorikeet took wing from one paperbark to another. I shrugged. ‘Fine.’

Jason’s bike lay in the dry grass, its mirror blazing, throwing off shimmering coins of light. Heat wavered in the air. Jason was crouched beside the bike. When he saw me he stood up, scratching his balls. I drifted into his arms and kissed him with my sherry-sweet lips.

‘Hey bitch, watch my bike,’ Jason told Kimberley once he was done swirling his tongue around my mouth.

Kimberley stood swaying in the sunshine. She’d been looking in the mirror a lot lately, pouting her lips and sticking out her chest. She’d been drenching her hair daily with lemon juice in an effort to turn its Raggedy Ann red into my strawberry blond. Kimberley was nine years old, but would’ve given her soul to be fourteen.

In the privacy of the bushes Jason grunted above me, twisting inside me like a corkscrew.

‘Fuck. Bitch. You like this?’

I stared at the white sunlight around his head. Dry leaves crackled and crunched beneath me. A drop of sweat fell from his nose onto the flat space between my breasts, hitting me like frying oil.

‘Fuck, yeah. Take it, bitch. Take it.’

Parrots flung themselves into the hard blue sky like suicides. I felt the burn of fire ants. Bella barked anxiously.

‘Fuck. Bitch. Jesus. Fuck.’

At the corner of my field of vision something ignited like an ancient film reel. I spread my legs wider. Beside a steaming dirt bike a little girl with tissue breasts stood dreaming of sex. In the heat of a dirt bike’s mirror a perfumed little girl blossomed. She screamed and then rolled on the ground. The dog kept barking. None of this mattered. Our whole world was kindling and we didn’t believe in God.

Verge 2013: Becoming

   by Peter Dawncy and Camille Eckhaus