“You say a fig leaf, brother?”
“A fig leaf”.
“A girl holds a fig leaf in her hand, a valley girl?”
“Tell me about the valley.”
“Cracking, broken just like an old bottle broken open in the sun, you see the sun come from everywhere, not from the same place any more. The sun gets broken when the breaking happens and how do you know which sun any more? How do you know which sun?”
“Moss, I know you don’t want to tell me…”
“Not don’t want, brother, don’t can, can not, if broken cannot.”
They sat awhile in the quiet. Dale wondered if he’d been wrong to stir up the old man like this. He deserved all the peace he could get. But there were others, there were strange things going on. People could be in trouble. Then there was that sign of fertility. Fig trees didn’t grow in the salt. The nearest place you might find one was a long way south, in the folded hills where hippy communities worked the land and grew food for themselves and for sale. If there was a valley out east that could support fig trees, it was worth knowing about.
“What’s the song of the families?” Dale asked, almost casually.
“How do you know about the song of the families?” Moss was suddenly alert.
“You mentioned it.”
“Beginning song, keeping song. Everything good song.”
“Can you sing it?”
“Forget or want to forget?”
“Want to remember. Want to remember but broken into pieces.”
“Sing me a piece.”
“I want to but where is it hiding? Little piece is hiding somewhere. Little piece, only. Sing you when the sun shines on the pieces.”
“In the morning?”
“Sing you a piece in the beauty of the morning to you. Beauty of the morning piece, brother.”
“OK, I’ll wait till morning.”
Dale could see that Moss was getting tired.
“Moss, old friend,” he said, “Would you come back to the metro with me?”
“It’s important. I need your help. I need you to help me find the others, and I need you to help me talk to the lost girl.”
“Just be there. It will be good for her to have someone who knows what she’s been through. She will be able to talk to me better if she doesn’t feel too alone.”
“It’s sharp in the metro, you said.”
“Yeah. I told you, didn’t I. It’s mean and it’s rough and you need to watch your back. But I’ll be with you, so you don’t need to worry.”
“Why is it so big with importance that you ask me to go over salt all day and then watch my back every minute in the metro? What’s the big deal of it?”
“I’ll try to explain. Living out here it’s pretty quiet. You don’t have to worry too much about anything. But back in the metro, it’s tough. Life’s raw there, it’s hard and it’s uncertain. People have forgotten what it’s like to be safe and steady and comfortable. Even the Hillies – the rich families that live up on the higher ground – they have no kind of a real life. They’ve got their security and servants, but they are isolated from everyone else. They can afford to employ private musicians and commission original body art, but they’re too scared to go out at night, scared some lowland lowlife will give them a germ they can’t kill, scared their kids will run off and join the gippies. It’s happened often enough.
In the delta it’s hard and its ugly. How can families grow up properly when there’s no space, no peace, no proper food that they can afford? Most of the population can’t do more than scratch around trying to survive on yams and deltafish.
I know there was a time before the salt, even before the wheat, when trees grew here. I think it must be possible to grow trees here again, trees that can feed people. Make shade, drop leaves, build up the soil again. So if someone, somewhere has found a way to make figs grow three days east of Checkpoint 5, I really want to know about it. That’s why I want you to come and talk to the fig leaf girl. Will you come with me?”
“If you have trees, maybe birds can fly back too.”
“Will you come?”
“If you stop talking now and let your old brother get some sleep.”
Dale unrolled his sleeping mat. The night was mild, no need for a quilt. He brushed his teeth out on the verandah then strolled a little way under the bright night sky to pee behind a saltbush. Inside again, he took off his boots and his pants, lay down and pulled his sleep sheet up to his waist. Lucille lay close by him on the woven rug. On the other side of the room Moss coughed and fidgeted for a while before settling down. Before long his breathing was quiet and steady.
“Dale, brother, ” he said in a low voice.
“Thanks to you.”
“I feel like there are not so many pieces now. You talk to me, I’m not so much broken.”
“Good. That’s good, Moss. Get some sleep. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Back with Dale and Moss today.
And you can see I have started trying to keep track of where the story is going! How do novelists do it?