Milly shows her mother the scant swish of white inside the bucket. ‘Daisy’s milk has stopped,’ she says.
Her mother stops sweeping and peers inside the bucket. Each day her shoulders seem to sag a little more. Each day Milly wishes she could hitch them up.
‘Your father won’t like this,’ her mother says, then begins to sweep again, stirring up more dust. ‘Let’s wait til he gets home. See what he says.’
It’s Sunday, Milly’s father’s day off. On Sundays he hunts wild pigs. This morning while he loaded his gun, Milly raced out to give him his packed lunch. As she waited for him to take it she searched for something interesting to say.
‘Do you think you’ll get another pig today?’ she asked, finally.
‘Damned well hope so. Relaxes me, shooting,’ he’d said.
‘Okay, then.’ Milly waved goodbye and hurried back to the house, wishing he would never come back, then just as quickly erased the thought. Bad things might happen to the others if she thinks like that.
To stop the dust getting inside the bucket Milly covers it with a grubby tea towel. She wants to tell her mother to stop sweeping, that there’s no point shifting dust from one side of the shed to the other. The dark ring on her mother’s blue singlet is getting bigger. Hair clings to her neck. If only she would care. But Milly knows her mother stopped caring long ago.
Milly dampens a cloth. ‘Here Mum, for your face,’ she says. Her mother leans on the broom and lets Milly wipe her face.
‘With a bit of luck,’ her mother says, ‘his Lordship will come home with the bacon. Softens him up when he’s killed something.’ She says it like she is under water; like she is a long way away. When she begins to cackle, it pulls Milly up sharp. She hadn’t realised her mother was this far gone. She can’t let her slip away again. Can’t let her disappear.
Milly takes the broom from her mother. ‘I’ll do it, Mum. You sit.’ Biting her lip, Milly grabs the dustpan – the brush went missing long ago – then squats in front of her mother’s chair while her mother pushes dirt into the dustpan with her foot. Milly heaves the dirt through the windowless window. ‘That’s better,’ she says, frisking her palms together.
Milly’s father climbs out of his ute and kicks the dark stain on the ground where he butchered his last pig. The ute’s tray is empty. Milly mouth tastes metallic from biting her lip too hard. She finds her little brothers and herds them in for lunch; promises to give them a surprise if they are very quiet.
Her mother dishes up the soup. The family eat in silence.
After lunch, Milly holds her brothers’ hands as they tag behind their parents. Her father pulls Daisy’s eyelids up and down then forces her mouth open. Her parents peer inside. The large Friesian is restless and tries to break free. Milly’s father jerks the rope hard and knees her in her side. Jittery and scared now, Daisy tosses her head side to side, nicking Milly’s father slightly with her horn.
‘Bitch of a thing!’ he says, examining his arm where the shirt is torn. He watches blood seep through his sleeve. ‘Get me the saw!’ He points Milly toward the shed.
Milly’s father positions the saw’s jagged edge at right angles to Daisy’s horn. Milly’s eyes bulge as he saws right through those horns – first one then the other, at the base. Milly crosses her fingers and prays it doesn’t hurt.
When Daisy’s blood oozes freely Milly knows her father has cut too deep. She is sure she sees tears fall from Daisy’s dewy eyes. ‘Poor thing,’ croons Milly, stroking Daisy’s rump.
‘Useless thing!’ her father says, flicking Milly’s hand off the cow. He storms away.
As soon as their father is out of sight the boys squeal and splash in Daisy’s drinking trough. Their mother stares blankly beyond the front gate, past the clanking metal sign Milly’s father hung from chains when they first arrived, Paradise” scrawled in jungle green and dripping red paint. Clearly he was no artist.
She looks around at all the unfinished jobs – the caravan park her father calls the wife’s little project. If only they hadn’t moved to this stinking rainforest.
‘Come on, let’s water the garden,’ says Milly. Picking up her youngest brother she slots him onto her hip and tries to stir her mother by offering her the other child’s hand – a sense of hope when her mother smiles at her middle child, whoops him up and spins him around to her back. His chubby legs wrap around his mother’s waist, his arms circle her neck as he nestles his cheek alongside hers.
Milly finds buckets for the boys, turns off the tap before the buckets get too heavy then fills four more buckets for her mother and herself.
‘I bet those bloody pigs have destroyed the garden again.’ Her mother lowers her son and scuffs the ground.
Milly holds out the buckets. ‘Come on, Mum. Please.’
They head down the track, straining against the weight of the buckets. When they get there Milly freezes. Their little garden is savaged. The earth has been dug up and spread about in great clumps. The red geraniums have been trampled. The bright yellow daisies crushed and torn, their tiny roots frizzled.
Milly’s mother drops to her knees, the buckets spilling around her. As she slumps further into the muddy puddle, Milly rushes around stuffing broken stems back into the soil.
‘You can’t lie down there, Mum. Come inside the van.’ When Milly opens the caravan door she reels from the blast of heat and stench of mould.
She slams the door then squats beside her mother, trying to smooth out her filthy dress. As the boys slither and jump in the mud, Milly strokes her mother’s arm, desperate for a plan. She recalls when they first came to The Daintree, how for a short time everything seemed okay. Their father smiled and laughed and everyone relaxed – until new regulations banning the cutting down of trees were to be introduced. The area was going to be zoned World Heritage. Milly’s father cursed the “morons” who thought they could tell him what he could do. He’d “show the bastards.” Sure enough, before the regulations were in force he had bulldozed every scrap of rainforest, selling off the red top soil to “those bloody hippies down the road.”
The only welder for two hundred kilometres in both directions, Milly’s father was soon working six days a week, sunup to sundown, creating his very own Paradise. Apart from locals needing repairs, Milly’s family rarely get visitors. Milly remembers the family who walked up the rugged driveway: two parents, a girl about Milly’s age, and a boy.
‘Your dad around?’ the man had asked. ‘We’re your neighbours.’
Excited, Milly led them to her father’s work shed.
‘Good aye mate. Ralph’s the name.’ The man had to shout to be heard above the racket. ‘Wanted to have a chat about your generator.’
Milly’s father had kept working.
‘Do you realise it echoes all over the joint?’ said the man. ‘Right over to our place. Kinda spoils the peace.’
‘Don’t have much time for peace, m’self.’ Milly’s father glared at the long-haired man. ‘Some of us gotta work.’
The man drew his boy into his side. The girl stayed close to her mother. ‘Maybe there’s some way you could tone it down?’ the man suggested.
‘Not that I’m aware of,’ her father shouted.
Milly slunk behind the tractor as the man and his family turned away, the ugly sign down by the gate clanging in the wind.
Today before breakfast Milly sets out to check on Daisy. She finds a frenzy of flies feasting on Daisy’s wounds. ‘Poor girl,’ she whispers, shooing flies and stroking Daisy’s dry nose.
Milly looks at Daisy’s teats – normally by now they would be full to bursting. Instead they are shrivelled sacks.
Milly gathers fresh hay, and smiles when the pretty cow sniffs her palm. But Daisy turns her head.
‘I’ll be back soon,’ promises Milly, brushing flies from the wounds.
Milly’s mother is murdering dough for the bread, pounding it up and down. Her brothers push plastic trucks between their mother’s feet, making tracks in the flour spilt on the ground. The wood stove swelters, ready to take the loaves. It is over forty degrees inside the make-shift house.
‘Mum, Daisy is really sick,’ says Milly. ‘She’s not eating and there are flies all over her head.’
Milly’s mother wipes her brow with the back of her hand. ‘Just let me get this lot in the oven.’ She rattles inside the cupboard for the third bread tin. ‘Could you take the little ones outside?’ she asks. Her faint smile makes her worn face look almost pretty. Milly feels almost hope.
She shoos the little ones outside then parks herself in the doorway and watches her mother shove dough into the tins. When the telephone rings, her mother paces around, talking and tidying with her free hand. ‘No, there’s nothing I can do,’ she says, ‘stuck… no, it was my stupid idea to go bush in the first place.’ She slams the loaves inside the oven. ‘What would we be going back to? We sold up, remember? He’d never forgive me… loves it here.’ When she runs her fingers through her hair Milly sees clumps fall on the floor. It is happening again.
Milly tries to soothe Daisy as her mother tugs the holster hard. Her mother wants to seal off the wounds.
‘Be still!’ Milly’s mother swats the air with a tar-laden brush. The cow evades her. ‘Keep still, for goodness sake!’
Milly has butterflies in her stomach. She presses her face harder into Daisy’s side. ‘Shh’, she whispers, but Daisy keeps dodging the brush.
Eventually Milly’s mother tilts the pot and with a toss, launches tar at the seeping holes. An arc of warm black liquid flies through the air, landing in a splosh on Daisy’s head. It drizzles down into her eyes. Milly rips clumps of grass and wipes Daisy’s eyes. Milly’s mother drops the brush then squats onto her haunches. The backs of her fists dangle on the ground. Her forehead is close to her bony chest. Heaving sobs rack her body. The boys paw and climb onto her back. She doesn’t stop them.
Their mother cackles into her lap. ‘Welcome to Paradise!’ she says, rocking back and forth.
‘No, Mum, no!’ Milly drops the grass and grabs her mother’s arms. ‘Come on, get up. I’ll make you some tea.’ She pulls her mother’s arms until she stands then leads her towards the house.
Smoke billows thickly from the wood stove. The heat is too fierce. There is an acrid smell of burnt bread. The boys start playing Cowboys and Indians, chasing each other. One hollers while the other taps his hand over his mouth making whooping high-pitched sounds. Milly’s mother slumps into a chair. Milly yells at her brothers to be quiet while rushes around the kitchen flapping her arms at the smoke, silently pledging she will do anything to stop her mother becoming sick again. She will work harder, empty the toilet, anything, because if her mother goes balmy again, Milly won’t manage. Not on her own. Not again.
Milly stirs two large spoons of sugar into the tea and places the cup beside her mother. ‘Drink it, Mum, while it’s hot.’
As soon as Milly is able she will leave Paradise. She figures she needs to be at least fourteen. Her mother must stay well until then. Then Milly will get a job in town. Her mum and brothers will come and live with her. Two more years, that’s all. Two more years, she tells herself, rocking gently.
‘Come on, Mum.’ Milly squeezes her mother’s hands and then gives them a little shake.
Her mother lifts her head. Dry lips brush her daughter’s forehead.
‘There you are, Mum,’ says Milly, eyes wet with relief. ‘There you are.’
In 2013, Paradise won the Nilumbik Shire section of the Alan Marshall Short Story competition. Arnold Zable was the judge, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that he chose Paradise. From his report: “This is a moving and harrowing story. It is fierce and uncompromising in depicting the rage of the father, the sagging spirit, and encroaching madness of the mother, and the confusion and compassion of the 12-year-old Milly who has to mature long before her time. It is also a poignant tale of lost dreams, and the frustration and irrational rage that it unleashes. Daisy, the cow, her brutal treatment, juxtaposed with the mature kindness of Milly, is both shocking, and poignant. This is tale about disillusion, its terrifying effects, but also the glimmer of hope disillusion paradoxically presents in the way in which Milly confronts it. The moving, yet realistically portrayed of mother-daughter relationship is the thread that holds this tale together.”
To read Arnold Zable’s report: 2013_AMSSA_Judging_Report_Arnold_Zable
Subsequently, Paradise was selected for inclusion in Award Winning Australian Writing 2014: The best winning writing from short story and poetry competitions nationally.