The Cow-girl Chick

I saw a crazy guy on TV once, he sang a song called I put a spell on you. I had a girl put a spell on me, and as it turns out the spell would last my whole life.

Most people where I’m from had already heard of her, but she was fourteen and I was sixteen before I came across the cow-girl chick with flame red hair. I’d started working as a clerk for Bill Levitt of Levitt and son lawyers, not a bad job to get when you live in a small town where the main employment involved dust and cattle. Bill was the ‘Son’ part from the faded sign out front, but when the elder passed on there was no subsequent son to keep the sign valid, nor sit at the scratched and pock marked desk or fill the thread bare chair. That was now my job. A rusty and torn screen door squeaked out front each time the too warm languid breeze took it, each squeak an invitation for another fly to enter, the dust and heat entered whether invited or not. The damn dust and heat entered everywhere.

Mrs Cleary, our only regular client and an old fuss bag with nearly as many ailments as money, had complained about the flies on every one of her visits. One day I came to work and we had a screen door, the next day we had an angry Mrs Levitt yelling from the street as she spotted the missing screen door from her own back veranda.

I’d been reading the newspaper when I first saw her. A farmer had been riding the boundary fences and gone missing. Authorities had searched since the day before with no luck and with the heat by day and bitter cold by night, everyone feared the worst. Eventually the cowgirl had stood, walked outside, saddled her horse and ridden off without anyone noticing. Three hours later, she found her dad, no-where near where he was expected to be, and badly sunburned herself walked him home as he sat on the horse.
The article showed her standing with her horse, her sun-burnt, dehydrated, broken ankled dad and that hair. I imagined what it would look like in colour, a giant burning match. Her cheeks were burnt and the hair was there but the thing that grabbed me, that I have never forgotten, was the way she looked at the camera. Looked through the camera might be more accurate, it may as well have been a rooster or a telegraph pole for the lack of interest it held. There was no shyness, no hint of a child in that look, and even the recognition of what was happening seemed to be missing, but it was the eyes that held me most. Like there was experience on the other side, peering through, a stranger from another time in her head looking out her eyes at something she’d never before witnessed. Maybe she was like the old aboriginals at the mission who I heard carry the ghosts of their ancestors inside them, or maybe she was just born with something in her. The interviewer asked her how she found her dad. I think she must have said something she’d heard at the pictures.

“I just followed my nose”.

I didn’t see her in person til she was seventeen and that newspaper clipping was well thumbed and fading. The rodeo was here and the whole town had worked itself into a lather over the month leading up to it so that on the day even the most lack-lustre ride got cheers and whistles. For me it was just another reason to spend my wage that had barely changed for the last three years on alcohol. It had been a long day sitting in the sun, my attention hadn’t really been held by the proceedings before the beer kicked in, now as a headache and that familiar needing to vomit feeling developed I was barely able to appreciate the heat of the sun or the flies at the corners of my mouth and eyes let alone anything else. It was only a matter of time before I fell off the bench seat we had first occupied hours earlier. I knew people were laughing at me from prior experience at falling off chairs rather than actually being aware of my surroundings, but I stayed down anyway. My head was hurting and spinning and my guts were looking for the best time to rebel against the abuse I had dished out. I contemplated staying down until someone or my guts forced me to get up but something compelled me to open my eyes. A shadow was cast on my face, and through the dust and noise I heard a voice, not familiar, but friendly, younger yet confident.

“Need a hand mister”?

I couldn’t see her face but I knew who it was straight away, the breeze was pulling at her hair and the sun behind made the extremities glow a hot red. Just moments earlier Ginger Rogers could have walked up and asked me to dance and I wouldn’t have moved but here now was the one person I didn’t want to be like this in front of.

My faculties were fast returning and I now realized my mates were laughing and teasing, mimicking her words and holding their bellies at the fact that a girl was offering me a hand. She turned her head towards them and I fully expected they would receive that look, the one I had seen in the newspaper, from inside her head. I imagined it and saw them feel its depth and it moving them into shamed silence. But instead she gave them a smile and I felt jealous.

I needed to right this so I stood quickly brushing off the dust; the adrenalin was stronger than the alcohol for the moment, but I still managed to bumble around in my head for something to say.

“Hi”, was what I came up with.

“Hi yourself, you feelin’ OK”? She was looking at me with some _expression, I couldn’t work it out exactly but assumed it was bemusement.

“Yeah I’m OK, don’t worry I’m gettin pretty good at that”. She laughed, I hoped it was with rather than at me.

“How do I know you”?

“I don’t think we do”. I didn’t want to mention that I knew her, or at least of her. That would sound too desperate and I had already done enough damage to my ego for the moment.

“Huh. Alright see ya soon though”.

She turned and walked off. For some reason I thought we would talk a lot longer so it took me by surprise and I said nothing further although watched her as far as I could, until the crowd hid her.

I thought on that meeting for a long while, way longer than just that day, way longer than just that week, way longer than just that month. I replayed it sitting at my scratched desk or lying in my bed at night. Many times it stopped me from sleeping. I knew every word, I know they weren’t many and I knew every movement. But the hardest part was the hope it left in me, “alright see ya soon…” was when? For some reason I never doubted her whether through hope or because of what I knew was in her, the other person in her head that knew so much more than the rest of us. I believed her totally.

When Levitt died so did his practice. Though I had worked there twelve years my responsibilities and wage had increased little and I was pretty much known around town as good for not much and a drunk, which was true as far as I could see. Both my parents had died over the last few years, the few people I ever called friends had gotten married and started families, and now called others with similar lifestyles friends. Living alone in the run down old house I had grown up in, the addition of Levitt’s old screen door was the only improvement it had seen in many years, I had gotten work on a farm not far from town as a roust about. Work that was usually handled by blokes younger than I before they moved onto better things. For me though it was just about keeping some money coming in, so I could swap it for beer. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending how you look at it, the pub was on my way home and I stopped there every day to buy three longnecks of stout. I remember coming to the pub with dad when I was younger, he would leave me outside with a packet of chips and a lemonade on a Sunday morning and I would play with the stray dog that always seemed to be there and listen to the talk and gradually increasing bouts of laughter from the men inside. Sometimes I would peer in, hoping dad would buy me a refill and I would see the old men, hard faces weathered and set into faces that told of years of hardship. They seemed a million years and miles from me then, but now I was looking down a not so long dusty track and seeing them beckoning, beer in hand.

It was known by all and guessed at by me that the only reason I had a job was through dad. There was some sort of country charity and an old fashioned respect for anyone who passes at play when the old Jamieson told me to start Monday. He and I both knew I had no experience and he probably knew better than me that it was doubtful he’d get his moneys worth. My job during shearing season was to pick up the wool once it was shorn and put it on the sorting table. From there I would remove the daggy bits, infested with sheep and flies and chuck it to a pile, the rest into bins for baling. It was hard and hot work, my back ached and was becoming more dependent on alcohol than food. The shit made me sick daily. In the evenings the shearers would sit around and have a beer before heading home to wives or whatever, I was allowed to join in, even offered beers but always with weary looks and little else.

It was after an evening like this, broken only by a stop at the pub that what I came to think of as her promise came true and I met her for the second and last time. I was turning off the main road into the mile long driveway to home when I misjudged the corner, through bleared vision and impaired faculties, and rolled my old Ute three times and into a ditch. I stayed conscious through it all even though the noise, the failing windscreen that shattered against my face, the steering wheel that broke two ribs, the ribs that pierced my lung, and the door that trapped my legs and arm made no sense at all as we, the Ute and I, rolled and rolled. I wasn’t sure how long I lay there after that, my face was against cooling dirt and I was still inside the car. The silence became even more confusing than the turmoil that preceded it. Gradually though I became aware of two sounds, somewhere, something was making a dripping and cracking sound which half reminded me of the sound made by the water pipe outside after mum did the dishes and let the water out, and the second sound was unmistakably the canter of a horse getting louder.

“You alright mate”? She had a torch instead of the sun to set fire to her hair this time and its glow comforted me, knowing it was her hair. Her face changed as she registered my features below the mask of blood.

“Told you I’d see you. How you feelin”?

“Been better”. I smiled though.

“We gotta get you out mate, your Utes burnin up”. The cracking sound. I hadn’t realized but now I thought I felt its warmth, with her here though it was easier to feel calm. Like the day at the rodeo I still couldn’t see her face and searched for it against the glow of the torch.

“Can you move, you gotta move, can you move”?

I tried, I could move the arm but the rest my body, which before had seemed asleep now awoke one of its senses and I felt an intense pain in a lot of places at once.

“No. It hurts”.

“Yes it’s gonna hurt but you gotta get out. I can’t get to you by myself, you gotta help. You gotta hurry”.

I started sensing the urgency in her voice. This wasn’t what I expected, what I wanted from her, she was the cowgirl chick with red hair. Once I was aware of her panic I was aware of everything. I couldn’t move, if I tried it hurt a bloody lot, I could feel blood seeping down my forehead and my shirt was wet and sticky, and it was getting hot, behind me, the seat against my back was getting very hot. I now realized she had set the torch down, she didn’t need it. The light from the fire was light enough now.

“I can’t move, help me”. I was losing it. Only minutes before and for years before that I could never imagine willfully performing an act that would make me look silly or embarrassed in front of this girl. Many times I had rehearsed our next meeting and it always went with me being in control, a proud man worthy of her attention. Not pissing my pants and wailing.

It was now she got up and moved so I couldn’t see her. I yelled for her, where was she going, was she leaving me, there was no time to get help, and she had to do something now. Maybe she was getting a rope and somehow the horse would drag me out, or pull the car onto its wheels and rip open the door. Then she was back. It was the cow-girl chick with glowing red hair. She wasn’t looking at me, there was someone else, someone behind her eyes that has lived more than she has, more than I have, knew why things happened and what had to be done when things happened. How I wanted to see those eyes again, that look, even now I could reach into my wallet and pull out a picture that replicated that look. I didn’t understand that look, never would, and that’s why I didn’t understand her actions, as the heat cracked and smashed the back window behind me, sending hot glass through my hair, and she raised the gun to my temple and fired one shot.

The Cow-girl Chick

Michael Douglass

Alexandria, Australia

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