They don’t care out here. This is a place where trees turn their backs and there’s a scent of something almost metallic in the air. I always breathe shallowly when I pass and hope to myself that the spirits don’t notice me.
I make sure that I walk quickly for the last couple of kilometres before I get to the homestead. The dust has gotten into the cracks in the leather of my shoes, and I want to lean down and rub at them with a spittle moistened finger. But I daren’t. If I stop for long the spirits might see me then. Well, they might pay me attention. I don’t want that. So I focus on the flattened plain in front of me, and the dusty white gravel that burns my eyes.
They’re spooky alright. Shapeless wafts of wind that push past you, pretending you don’t matter. My mum says that they never did her any harm as a kid, but you hear about other kids going missing and all I have to do is imagine the hollow, echoing pain of unanswered sobs in this landscape. Well. That’s enough to make me pick up the pace.
I’m not really frightened. Not truly.
Not like when Charmaine’s dad decided to lean in the window of the room we were sleeping in the night of the town New Year’s Eve do, and whisper to Charmaine in that thick, fleshy-lipped voice of his that was soaked in beer. He made all these weird sounds and grunts, and Charmaine went stiff and silent in the bed next to me. He slurred Charmaine’s name urgently outside the window, and said something like “c’mon”, and then he moaned and I could hear him pissing against the wall outside. He didn’t come in though. He fell against the window frame instead and someone else laughed around the corner and he went away. Charmaine didn’t talk after that.
No. That was scary. Not like the spirits in the grass.
I keep my head down when I pass the old tree. I don’t know why. Nothing bad has ever happened there but it just looks a bit like a really angry old woman. She’s kind of glaring at me. The roots of the tree are peeling up out of the earth and I sometimes think that she’s picking up her skirts and getting ready to run at me. So I don’t look at her directly. Just out of the corner of my eye. The old tree seems to hide the spirits, or else they don’t like her either, because the spirits don’t bother me again until I’m over the rise and out of her sight. I get a stitch round about here. There’s a pain in my side that says I’m walking too fast, but I daren’t slow down.
Once I got annoyed at being watched by the grass spirits that I spun around and shouted at no one in particular. I was shouting directly at the grass spirits that no one can see. They knew I was shouting at them. I can’t remember what I shouted. Something like “just shut up”. And they did. The whispering stopped. It only stopped for about a minute, though. They went back to pushing past me and showing their shoulders, and I had to walk even faster. As I did they kept up their whispering and wafting, and then they blew into a gust. They grabbed handfuls of fine gravel dust off the road and swept it into my face and eyes.
Mum said it was just a willi-willi, a gust of air, nothing more. When I got home after running the last bit I was hot and dirty from the dust, and she told me not to be silly. The grass spirits don’t throw stones, was all she said. How could they? Well. I reckon they do. I only feel better when I’m inside the cool of the hallway, looking out back down the gravel road, watching the wind kick up the dust in circles and the unmistakable shadow of the breath of the landscape.
It’s not just the wind, mum, I said. It’s not.
She just looked at me without seeing.
There is something about the Australian landscape that just doesn’t care. It has a flat, grey hide like an elephant, and it doesn’t give a stuff if you live or die. My personal feeling is that the place is humming with a life all its own, you just can’t see it.