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Summer 2013

Table Talk

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Caitlin Maling

In the heat, the old Narrogin-Dryandra road scarifies. For a week there has been nothing to do but wait out the mercury. In the old logging cabins of the Dryandra Adventure Park we hold on to our own dark corners, our own wet towels and iceblocks. So hot even the snakes have sought shelter.

Nights we play laser-tag, the dry grass and burnt bitumen warm and rustling underfoot. The bright sights of the guns find us through the red dust like eyes. When we die it’s a silent knee-drop to gravel, a staggered collapse onto the broken porch swing.

When the weather clouds, we go into the bush on bikes along the corrugated fire-break road where the clay has settled and hardened into rivets. We ride to the abandoned fire-tower, climb over the fence through the barbed-wire gap, then tread up the rusting steps and ladder—at twelve I am still light enough not to break the bars. From high, pockets of trees blackened by wildfire blister across the bush, while the breeze sways the tower like a heron’s neck.

At the mallee-fowl scrubland there’s an old sign-posted walking track from after the last of the loggers had left and they turned the old mills into something they hoped tourists would visit. It leads to a Nyuungar Ochre Pit, rich with the idea of sacred ceremony and corroborree. We three little girls pour our water bottles into the dirt and clay. We paint each other brown, the coolness of the mud intoxicating. We run round the dug nest of the mallee-fowl and invent summoning dances. But the mallee, eaten for too many years by foresters, does not emerge from the Dreamtime. By the time we get back to the cabin the ochre is dried and cracked, it flakes off our skin like bark after a bushfire, our whiteness listless and drab like a shadow.

One day Dad packs me into the car to drive into town. Narrogin is the closest. The haze of the asphalt is stultifying. I spend the drive trying not to leave parts of my thighs in the cracks in the leather of Dad’s bucket seat. There haven’t been enough people for all the buildings since the mills closed, and every other store has dead windows and decaying eves. But their brick facades are sterile and immaculate. This is a place where the label “tidiest town” has a non-nostalgic meaning.

After we buy what we need at the TargetCountry, Dad takes me to the pub. I’ve left my shoes in the car but they let me in anyway. A few tattered men sit up at the bar, fingering the condensate on the outside of their stubbies. They tap their hats to me. Dad and I play pool, the thwack as the colored balls hit one another startling. On the local notice-board next to the Darts League Table and expired ads for the Country Fire Association’s Meat Raffle, a half-stapled paper has Pauline Hanson’s face, a call for all True Australians to come hear what One Nation has to say. Someone has underlined in pen True Australians. Dad lets me have fire-engine after fire-engine, the grenadine making my blood fizz. When he goes to pay, the publican waves him away, says it’s a pleasure to host such a lovely young lady.

On the drive out of town we pass a faded billboard, what it used to sell long gone. Someone has spray-painted a swastika and inexpertly marked the words “white power.” I aim my white fingers out the window and pretend I have the power to set the crops on fire.

Caitlin Maling has published poetry throughout Australia, including in Best Australian Poems 2012, Australian Poetry, and The Australian. Her first book, Conversations I’ve Never Had, is forthcoming from Freemantle Press in 2015. She currently lives in Houston.

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