Short Story

The squat creature with its gently striped snout burrowed deep inside the soil, pushing through layers of damp, golden clods. In the dream, she crouched behind the badger with a shovel, a terribly violent urge coursing through her stillness, feeling the weight in her hands, smooth and hard. It was the rustling of hedges, something large moving about under the window that woke her up. Letting out a low grunt of frustration, Lin turned over reluctantly and pushed aside the doona. It was the third time that night she had woken up like this. The morning was cool and dark. Lin dragged her head and bed hair through the neck hole of a fraying jumper and stepped into the kitchen. Kathryn was already up, elbows leaning on the benchtop, fingers curled tactfully around the handle of a steaming mug. Lin did not have to ask – with the ease of a manoeuvre performed many times before, her companion wordlessly poured out her coffee and slid it across the bench.

‘It’s back at it again. The thing outside the window.’

‘Today?’

‘Just now, yeah.’

‘I didn’t hear anything.’ Kathryn sipped her coffee and cast a cautious half-glance at her sleepy housemate. ‘Are you sure it wasn’t just a dream?’

‘It wasn’t a fucking dream, Kathy.’ Lin fiddled with the mug, tapping its sides with chewed-up fingernails. She felt compressed and muddled by the vague thumbprint of guilt. ‘Do you reckon it could be, I dunno, a badger or something?’

‘A badger? A fucking badger?’ Kathryn spluttered in undisguised surprise. ‘This is Australia, not The Wind in the Willows. Why on earth a badger, of all things?’

‘Ah, no reason…’

Neither of them knew what to say. Lin had already spent a good twenty minutes searching for the phantom visitor the previous morning, turning up nothing but grubby knees and a handful of pellety droppings (Possums? Badgers? Giant rats? Oh my). Today, a cursory glance out of the bedroom window had revealed nothing more than a slightly trodden-on flowerbed, most likely from her own clumsy mouse hunt.

Changing the subject, Kathryn strode to the sink and began washing the dishes they had abandoned last night. ‘You’re going down to Woolies today, yeah? Can you pick up some eggs?’

‘Okay.’ Then: ‘we’re still buying eggs?’ They had loosely debated the justifications of eating eggs after the latest supermarket inquest suggested that ‘Free Range’ was little more than a flashy, flimsy label. Awaiting a more conclusive decision, they remained suspended in an ethical limbo, soft and elliptical.

‘They’re good on toast. And my fried rice doesn’t taste the same without them. Get the ones in the purple box, I think they’re one of the better ones.’

An afterthought: ‘Maybe you can pick up something to trap your feral cat, possum, whatever. Cat food, or something sweet, maybe. Something to lure it in.’

Something to lure it in? It was like fishing in the dark. How do you bait something you can’t name?

*

It had been six months since she and Kathryn had moved into the Nollamara rental. Six months of scourging for daily necessities and Lin still could not make heads or tails of the aisle arrangement in the local Woolworths. Tofu had been seized from ‘Asian Foods’ and swept away to be sold with almond meal and chia seeds. Tea labelling was its own murky and hideous web of complicity. It was an utter mess. Lin wished one of them had written a shopping list. Instead, there was the incessant struggle against a distracted memory, mental calculations for onions and toothpaste blotted out by the sudden reminders to sort through emails, or to quit smoking, or figure out a better way to conceal its obnoxious, pungent aftertaste.

She made the executive decision to begin with the eggs. It required grating the disobedient trolley through Fresh Produce, passing apples gleaming under fluorescent light like softly polished candy. Lin drew the trolley to a halt in front of the eggs. Lined up in their straight sharp rows, the shelf was a regimental formation of cardboard jewel boxes, displaying rank and colour. The ones in the purple box, Kathryn had said. It was unhelpful advice. There were three different brands neatly encased in purple packaging, and a fourth with a purple cartoon chicken grinning absurdly from beneath a palm tree. Lin’s hand wavered in the air, slowly drifting like a divination rod. She settled for the lilac-clad dozen, they were the closest to her reach.

(Can’t shake the feeling that she is forgetting something important, that the day is carving itself against her, dividing itself into many mismatched pieces. This feeling comes and goes, like the soft echo of something digging through wet soil, searching for something formless and nameless).

Lin navigated her way through the week’s regular cycle. Bread, dishwashing detergent, bin liners, soy sauce, Neapolitan ice cream. Between the aisles, she tried to consider what she was going to do about this badger conundrum. She did not want to harm her new visitor, but needed a way to stop it waking her up during the night. A golden gleam caught her eye as she blundered past – she backtracked to find a pack of roasted salty peanuts packaged in shiny foil. Lin hastily approved the snack as an excellent titbit to lure the creature out of hiding and dropped it into the trolley, amongst her weekly haul. It seemed to make sense that if only she (or, better yet, Kathryn) could snag a sighting of something scooping itself across their backyard, everything would fall into place. She remembered the backed-up stacks of lecture slides waiting to be revised, tutoring which had to be arranged for her maths students, dinner to prepare – whose turn was it to cook tonight? She was exhausted, irate and intrigued. Was there room in her head to nurse this small and strange creature?

Her phone buzzed violently, jolting her left buttock to life. Shocked and cursing, Lin retrieved the mobile from her back pocket.

‘Hey Kath, what’s up?’

‘Hey. Listen, there’s a package for me at the post office, but I’ve got work later and can’t pick it up. Since you’ve got the car, can you get it on your way back, please?’

‘You ordered something?’

‘Yeah, it’s that boxed set I bought ages ago which got lost in the mail. I don’t know, they found it floating around somewhere and sent it to us, but I missed it. It’s sitting in the post office now.’

‘Small miracles, huh,’ Lin replied automatically.

‘Right?’

(Sometimes reality is fickle enough to fold back its rumpled corners and suddenly that thing you’ve been waiting for simply turns up on your doorstep one day, tactile and alive. Your faithlessness is gently reprimanded in your astonishment).

‘Seeing as your package turned up out of nowhere, maybe Auspost will bring us that thing digging outside the window, too. Wouldn’t that be great.’

A break in the line. Kathryn’s staticky pause.

‘Lin, I really think you’re wasting your time on this. I honestly couldn’t hear anything last night, or any other night, and I was listening for it, believe me.’

‘… Are you kidding me? It’s keeping me up half the night scratching, or poking, or whatever the hell it’s doing. I haven’t slept properly for days Kathy.’

‘Exactly, you’re wound up and overtired. You need to relax. You’ll probably have a better night’s sleep when you’re not so stressed.’

Lin’s stunned, angry silence.

‘Look, it’s not that I don’t believe you…’

‘It sure feels like you don’t.’ Her own voice sounded juvenile, accusatory. It was hers and yet not.

Kathryn sighed. ‘Lin, can you just…’

‘Yes, I’ll pick up your goddamn package Kathryn.’ Lin ended the call (00:01:47). It was not as satisfying as hanging up a phone with the proper, disapproving click.

(Around the corner, a small black and white body makes its path, blurred and out of focus. She follows it instinctively, finds a boy in a Halloween skeleton shirt standing in front of the toilet paper aisle with his father. The golden glow from the slanted skylight gently brushing his back).

Woolies was dispensing toilet paper like there was no tomorrow. Unlike galloping horses or moody cohabitation, toilet paper was always a foolproof investment. Feeling the fat, padded bundle in her hands, a buoyant memory unfurled quietly in the shadow of her dismay: her mother taking advantage of the supermarket special, loading the trolley with deodorants, shampoos and pack upon pack of sanitary pads. A small mountain which would make any self-respecting child cringe and hide, for fear of running into someone she knew. Lin almost chuckled. She threw four twelve-packs into the trolley.

The yoghurt she liked was not on sale, marking a disappointing end to her shopping venture. Heading for the checkout, Lin hurriedly bypassed the cigarette counter and opted for self-serve instead. Stifling an angry yawn, she passed eggs, razor refills and soy sauce over the scanner and into the thin, grey bags, straining under the weight of their daily lot.

*

Kathryn’s bike had already disappeared from its wall mount when Lin backed the car into the garage. She cut the engine and tucked the Australia Post parcel under her arm, hauling the shopping bags to the kitchen in a single trip. Lin unboxed a pack of siu mai from the freezer and flung it into the sink to defrost. The bags and parcel lay strewn over the bench, ballooning grey plastic still exhaling from their hasty deposit. She retrieved the peanuts and made a beeline for the bedroom’s eastern window, finding it already propped open. Lin crouched slightly, peanuts in tow, and stuck her head outside. Directly beneath the window, five pieces of honeycomb had been placed in a neat row, glistening in the sun.

Kathryn hadn’t done anything as foolish as arranging the pieces in alphabet soup formation. SORRY. I BELIEVE YOU. Perhaps the sticky golden ruins could be translated into meanings which were difficult to speak, and harder to swallow. Ants had begun to swarm the offering, but Lin let them be. She opened the pack of peanuts and began to devour them herself, in twos and threes with satisfying crunches. She swept the salty crumbs outside to melt into the sugary treats beneath the window sill. There were no badgers to be seen, but perhaps the alchemic concoction of honeycomb and peanuts would be enough to draw them out.

 

jj

Sarah Yeung is a Perth-based writer, living on the land of the Whadjuk people. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English and Cultural Studies and is due to commence a Masters of Teaching at UWA next year. She enjoys reading about writing and writing about reading. You can find her on Twitter @sairywhy

 

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