Dust Country – An Excerpt
I’ve spent almost two years working on my second novel. It’s been a long haul, this process. The first one came naturally, and the process was generally fluid. This one has been different for a number of reasons. First, I’ve never attempted anything this ambitious. The project is way out of my comfort zone, but I went in knowingly. Second, photography and some screenwriting commitments have dominated my time in the last year. My writing has certainly influenced the photos I’ve taken, but I wonder just how much the opposite is true…
I digress. To celebrate the completion of draft two and the start of the onerous editing phase, I went out into the hills to make a few frames. I don’t have a giant stone hammer, but I do have a monopod.
Finally, here is an excerpt from the novel.
The air is heavy. The air is full of dust.
There’s a fire in the farmer’s eyes. He can’t wipe them, his hands too dirty. He knows. This is something he does with unmitigated frequency.
The only cover on the lane is the oak tree and it could fall any moment. He’s in the open, the barrow and his cargo at the mercy of the dust, the wind. The tree is a hundred years old, maybe more. It was tall when the farmer was a boy. Tall and strong and he climbed it with the miller’s children, his friends, children from their neighbourhood. When the others were scared he was brave. Always the bravest. His father taught him well. Brought him up strong, sure, kind. His father was there that day, watching, watching from the house with the miller, proud. He climbed the tree and tied the rope to the strongest branch. He did it when all the others were afraid. They begged him not to. He’d fall, he’d die. That’s what they said. Half way up they were still afraid.
Now they’re gone. All of them like the rope, gone. Two meters of it cut away. As high as someone could climb. Frayed, three strands from one. The tire is gone. The rope swings in the wind, a whip as thick as a man’s wrist. The farmer drives the barrow to the tree. The wind howls. The sky is so many grays. Lightning. He stops. He can’t breathe. Bent double, coughs into his cotton mask. Blood and phlegm, mucous. Three days now, it’s been the same. No clean water. The dust in the air moves fast. Too fast. Razors in his lungs. His face is bleeding. His neck, his hands. He looks to the sky. Rain? Rain will bring grenades. There’s no water left in the rain. When the rain falls it’s tar.
The house is close. He checks his cargo, lifts the blanket. The wind kicks off the lane, swirls, pulls the blanket from his hands. He needs it. Chases it, catches it. Covers his cargo, the face and the torso. The legs he can do nothing about. They hang out of the barrow and dangle over the ground. Skinny, a scarecrow. At least his cargo still has shoes. Worn, old. They’ll have to last. There will never be new shoes again. The wind changes. Not much time but the house isn’t far. He can make it. They’ve come far, they can make it. Their closest neighbour not so far at all. The freedom of the country, the doom of the distance. Barrow is heavier now, but he can make it. He pushes up the hill, past the oak tree and into the open. The grass is still green in spots, mostly yellow. Some grey. It’s happening faster than they said it would. On the TV and the radio. TV doesn’t work. Radio picks up a channel or two, but it’s always the same. They’re liars.
His cotton mask is blown away. He can’t stop. Won’t stop. Lets it go. Catches on a rose-bush in the garden. The thorns are sharp, the petals dry and dying. No more moisture in the air. The rain will kill them all. The wind blows mighty, dust burns his throat, his eyes. There’s one step at the door, concrete and strong. The barrow bounces and strikes the door. Door swings open, farmer drives the barrow inside. He knows the house well, knows the miller and his wife are in the sitting room. He hears footsteps. They appear in the hall. The miller in front, shotgun in his arms. He’s seen him use it, hopes against home. The miller’s wife recognizes the farmer. She’s thinner. Older. Old as the oak tree, but stronger. It’s only been a few months. He stares for a moment. She’s tough. She’ll be the last one of them all. The miller takes him by the arm, just above the elbow. The miller’s face is thinner, the rest the same. His beard is long, thick, wild, eyes heavy, red. So old. Crooked hands, claws. A gnarled spine.
“Jesus,” the miller says. He doesn’t realize it. It’s just a thing to say.
The farmer coughs into his fist, doesn’t look at the mess, wipes it on his pants. Pulls the blanket off his cargo, lays it on the floor. The miller’s wife’s hand goes to her mouth, her eyes go wide, red. The old man in the barrow looks dead. He’s not. He coughs violently. Too weak to cover his mouth. Blood on his shirt. Crimson at it’s deepest. A bib of haemoglobin. His eyes are open but he’s not seeing. He’s covered in dust. The blanket was good for nothing at all.
“They say on the radio the hospital is full,” the farmer says. “Said so on the TV, before she went. And there aint no money for fuel.”
“How long has he been like this?” the miller’s wife asks.
She brushes past her husband. He doesn’t move. No expression on his face. He stares at the old man. The farmer stares at the miller. The miller looks up, past the farmer.
“Few days. Worse now. He aint said nothing since he started coughing.” The farmer’s eyes fill up quickly. He wipes at them, smears blood across his face. He doesn’t notice. He doesn’t care. “Can’t get a thing from the tap and the store in town been all torn to shit. Couldn’t afford no water even if we could find it anyway.”
The miller’s wife looks at her husband, he won’t look back. “Get him out of there and into the sitting room,” she says, taking hold of the skinny legs. They set the old man on the sofa. It’s just long enough, he’s stretched out. Still coughing, blood everywhere. The miller’s wife sets a pillow under his head, another under his knees. She whispers to him. The farmer doesn’t wipe the tears from his face. Not this time. They flow freely now. He looks at the miller. Older by the second, staring out the window. The wind howls, the dust crackles against the windows. The air is full of sound now. It’s dark. The miller’s wife disappears, comes back with a candle and a towel and a bottle of water.
“They can’t afford no fuel they can’t afford no water,” the miller says. He never once looks at the farmer, keeps his eyes on the old man.
The farmer squeezes the wetness out of his eyes. “Please,” he says, the word so dry it’s barely there. The tears race down his cheeks, mix with the dust, become mud, fall to the floor.
The miller’s wife kneels next to the old man. Another fit. She puts her hand on his chest, whispers to him. It’ll be alright. She lies. That’s all they can do. The truth is there, on the other side of the glass for all of them, plain. The coughing subsides, a momentary reprieve. The miller’s wife wets the towel, wipes at the old man’s face. The blood is dried, caked hard. She scrubs. About to use the water again the miller grabs her by the wrist.
“Damnit, you know there’s not enough to spare,” he says. She spins up from the floor, fast, slaps her husband on the face. He looks at the farmer’s eyes for the first time. Walks away, curses, slams a door somewhere in the house. The old man coughs, she kneels again, washes his face. The farmer pulls up his trousers, leans in, hands on her shoulders.
“Thank you,” he says.
The miller’s wife doesn’t answer. Her husband’s words in her mind. He’s wrong. There’s always a little more to spare. Something extra to give. Even when it seems the opposite. Especially. She sets to ordering the farmer, eases both of them, something to do. No idle hands. Remove his shoes, check how swollen his ankles are. Pull him down a bit that way, get his feet up. Stop the blood from pooling. Send it back towards his heart. Listen to the chest, tell me what you hear. She sets the bottle to the old man’s lips. Won’t drink. Can’t. She offers it instead to the farmer. He takes it, lips touch the plastic. He tastes it. Allows himself a mouthful, no more. Spins the cap back on, sets it between his knees.
“You need more,” the miller’s wife says. She takes the bottle, starts to remove the cap. The farmer puts his hand on hers, stops her. Looks at his father.
“No. That’s enough,” he says.
“When’s the last time you drank something?” she asks. Angry.
“I ate this morning,” the farmer says.
“That’s not what I asked.”
“I’ve had more than my share.”
Tears stream down her face. She pulls the bottle away, throws the cap on the floor, shoves the bottle at the farmer. “Now you take this and you drink,” she says, shaking her head. It’s easier to be mad. Like any good neighbour. Mother. “We’ve got the well and there’s plenty of water for us and then some. No one near to come and take it from us and this storm can’t last forever. You’ll see,” she says. Her hands bite into the farmer’s flesh while she speaks. Her talons. Her tears run while he drinks. Her tears are clear, clean. He’s never seen her cry before. Never in his life. Her own children, gone a month now. Not a word. She didn’t cry. Now she does. The farmer finishes what’s in the bottle. He does it for her as much as anything. The old man coughs, gasps. Can’t breathe. They fuss as much as they can, do as much as they can. They don’t hear the miller. He tosses the bucket on the floor between them. It splashes on the floor, on the sofa, on the farmer. It’s not water. Couldn’t be. Thick, black, engine oil. Dirty. The miller’s covered in dust. His surgical mask is supposed to be white. They didn’t know he went outside.
“That’s what’s left in the well,” he says.