The first sign that the storms were receding came on the fifth day, when the rat left the shanty through one of many holes in the walls. The sudden absence of its small, grey body was at once a relief and a shock to the two women living there: it was as though the logic of its shelter-seeking presence had masked from them all the fears of a foreign climate. The departure of the rat coincided with the final day of rain – though it would not be until the following day that they would find the boy.
The walls of the shelter ran about nine paces by four, and were of a thin corrugated iron fused with rust at the corners. For days the true barrier against the sluicing brown waters had been seven flour bags, stuffed with clay from the pit, a muddy wound in the shack’s centre. Three times each day one of the women would lean in, plunging her arms so deep into the mud that her chin skimmed its surface, while the other held the sacks ready, their unfamiliar script stretched wide and ugly. These bags were then humped against those walls most riddled with holes, to pause the deluge until the clay itself was washed away through the fabric. The clay was fed by rapid arteries back to the pit, ready for re-collection, so that they must begin again. The women’s arms were permanently discoloured, their lips blue with cold. Veins and blemishes bloomed violet on their faces like curdled knots in milk.
Then came the day the rains ceased. Hugging each other about the middle with joy, the women emerged from the shack. A pale sun touched their faces.
And there was the native boy, sitting upon a rock.
They offered him their last scraps of rice, wrapped in flaking newspaper, and he shovelled it into his mouth with quick, brown fingers. The fairer-haired woman pushed the hair back from his face, and tickled him under his chin. It was suddenly as though he had always been there, perched in the dark, damp hay in the corner of their home.
Do you believe in fire? he asked.
Of course, the women laughed, and he looked crestfallen. He snapped his fingers and a small blue spark flared its head, burning from his inner wrist. They were startled.
How did you do that? Show us! How are you doing it? they cried in delight.
The native boy showed them a tiny stone and flint, hidden beneath the folds of his sleeve. The women laughed and clapped. Go to sleep, they said.
He lay his dark head on the coddle of clothing they had made for his pillow. Every few hours, however, he would wake them, black eyes burning with the white fires of the heavens, to ask them if they believed in something, if they truly believed. Always his question would be delivered with an action – always a charm, a veiled unreality. Did they believe that he could conjure up a herring? That he could cause a tree to grow between his toes? That he could walk on water?
Each time his tricks quivered with all the allure of those of a penny magician. His dark skin would glisten with sweat.
One day the darker-haired woman was gathering clay for the sacks when she found the boy hovering over her, peering with his sad, haughty eyes.
Do you believe, he crooned softly, so softly that she had to strain to hear him, That I could make the world? That the world would hear my footfall and laugh with fear, behold my age, my newborn’s beard, my breasts made milk, my pearl-black foot? His voice, strong and unfocused, shook with the timbre of low things, of growing things, of soft grubs in the soil and tangled blind roots, interconnecting deep, deep down there, below her feet. She shuddered. He came a little closer. Do you believe, he asked, That I could make for you a world without clay, without these walls that creak and without these bloated sacks? This waste? Her mouth seemed sucked dry and arid; she said nothing. The woman and the boy gazed at each other for a stoppered moment, before, shoulders slacking, his eyes drifted from her face, and he shuffled beyond her to his bedclothes.
The woman was much perturbed. Thoughts swirling like sand in a water-filled cup, she gathered the remainder of the clay, the renewal of the latest barrier, and went to her companion. She found her busy grinding seeds to make flour, a trick the boy had uncovered the day before. A glance revealed his still body, half covered by a thin blanket. All he did was sleep, and when he slept he didn’t dream. She could tell. And when he woke, he would show them his tricks, his feathered fancies, before falling back to his unshakeable stasis, back to the bed. At this moment he simply lay there, watching her, the whites of his eyes like duck eggs in the gloom. Her head was full of worms; unreason clutched at her heart. She turned back and, hushed, the two women gazed into each other’s eyes, seeing not what they had seen there for months and years and days, but a wholly new appetite, a heresy of avowal. He turned over, exposed skin like a smooth, dark pebble.
The boy soon presented with a curious ailment. His tongue had turned black like his body, and swollen like driftwood on sea foam. The women peered at him and prodded and fussed, but could make no sense or rhyme of the matter – and in any case he could still talk. He still moved from one, to the other, to the sleeping place, asking for their belief, performing his false miracles.
Do you believe, he asked the dark-haired woman, That I can turn this stone to food? She watched as he picked a stone from the earth and patted it in his horny brown hands, blowing the excess earth from its skin. And behold – in his hands now it was a potato, pale and speckled, like a very large snail. She watched, and she saw a potato where before she had thought to see a stone, and the doubts eddied and coalesced in her mind. The fairer woman passed, and kissed his stubbled cheek.
The storms began again in earnest, slapping and pummelling at the little shack.
Before long the boy’s left leg had gone lame. They didn’t see how he could possibly have done it – there was nowhere he’d been the previous day, no hard labour done, no heavy pans to trip over – but there it was, all the same. They set him to rest in the driest corner of the hut, where he could stare out the gaps in the walls as through a window. The sinews above and below his knee protruded, stark and ugly purple and cramped up with pain. He shuffled about the shack with his useless leg and fat, dumb tongue.
A mysterious string of afflictions set upon that native boy. White sores appeared on his body, from the corner of his mouth to his scalp, and under his hair. His left hand grew puffy and infected. One of his eyes lost its sight and constantly roved, mad and milky, over the walls of the shack.
Still he shuffled about, wracked like a scurvy-ridden sailor, mumbling his questions of unfaith. In one woman grew the seed of yearning, a hunger – in the other the spores of doubt.
As the rains grew harder, they blew and blew against the sides of the shelter, causing a deluge of water under the clay sacks. Ochre streams poured into the pit, to rise and cake on their faces and in their hair.
The women decided that they couldn’t take it anymore. Boy, called the fairer. Boy! Will you take these things outside, sweet, so that they don’t muddy the floor? They’re doing no good here, any longer …
The boy looked at her, his sickened front revealing, to her, a mute grimness of the soul. His mouth opened and, wounded though it was, spoke the last question, the final trickery – but his voice so quiet, and the thunder so very loud, that the others could not hear him. His speech was silenced.
He dragged the heavy clay sacks outside, one by one, and lined them in neat, funereal rows beyond their doorstep. He sat himself upon the rock. Vivid white lightning seared the sky as the great storms were unleashed upon the world. Heads of Spinifex grasses were tossed and danced by a mirthful wind, the violet sky mated to a youthful, growing green.
The waters eddied and rushed at the shelter. With a shriek of metal, muffled by the eternal rain, the shack groaned and folded, washed away immediately by the warm, brown waters. His flesh burned, healed and gleaming in the flood.