Tom was stranded by the roadside thirty miles north of Ti Tree. His supplies, which had been meager to begin with, had diminished to a few tins of bully beef and half a canteen of water. He had felt no misgivings a week ago when his ride, a Land Rover from a local cattle station, melted into the desert, but he knew he would soon have to decide whether to continue on to Darwin, still three hundred miles north, or return to Ti Tree for as long as it would take him to replenish his supplies and then hitch another ride north. The thought gave him the first sense of anticipation he had felt in days, a small thrill of novelty that persisted even though he knew the option was false. It had been two days since he had seen a vehicle traveling in either direction.
His situation was precarious but not uncomfortable. He had made his camp in a tiny grove of paperbarks where he could erect his groundsheet into a shelter against the rains. The rains, though unusual for the Red Center, had been hammering down for fifteen minutes every afternoon, a routine he had come to look forward to since it gave him some relief from the flies and the sultry heat. And afterwards, when the clouds again parted, the trees would be suddenly ablaze, not with the splendor of renewal—the bark was too worn and flaky—but with a hint of dispensation, a short reprieve from their aura of obsolescence. The sight was so ghostly and rare that it hinted of otherworldliness.
Three weeks ago he had been in Sydney, but the memory of Sydney did not tax his complacency. This was probably because Sydney had become an even greater monotony to him; he had been roaming the continent for the better part of a decade and it seemed every year or two brought him back to Sydney—a city he enjoyed for its white surfing beaches but which grew tiresome to him when the surfing was poor. Nor did Darwin, his destination of the moment, provide him with a sense of mission. He was still attracted to the far Northern Territory, but the tolls of Outback living—ravenous flies, skin ulcerations, hips stiffened by long days on horseback—had begun to diminish its lure. Darwin now struck him as secondary to the direction he had chosen for his return: a familiar jaunt through the MacDonnell Ranges and the ghost gum country of Alice Springs. The scenery was a little too spectacular since it reminded him of the dilemma of travel—that the process was generally superior to the arrival.
He was a tall American in his late twenties, finely boned, with eyes too distracted for spontaneity though he persisted in thinking of himself as an adventurer. But the seven years he had spent on the continent had been apportioned a bit too neatly among the Outback cattle stations, the townhouses of Sydney, and the fishing boats of the Tasman Coast. It was as though his adventures came with a six-month warranty after which they acquired a redundancy that made them too weighty to endure further. Still, there were worse deceptions than wanderlust, and he wondered only rarely what had set him adrift on an island continent. The Vietnam War was a credible excuse—he had participated in a march on Washington before dropping out of college years ago—but he had sacrificed little in dodging the draft and suspected his sojourn could better be attributed to a shortage of imagination. He had realized his banality the last time he was in Darwin; a New Zealander had made him aware of it by alluding too bluntly to three months he had spent as part of the hippie colony of Lamaroo Beach. “A Sodom and Gomorrah they call it here, mate. A den of iniquity if you want to believe the newspaper. But look at who’s been here longest of all—a quiet American with a bagful of books.” Tom would have forgotten his ineptitude by now had it not been for a band of Aboriginals he had met a week ago in Coober Pedy. He had been perched by the highway for several days, waiting for a ride to take him beyond the Great Victoria Desert, when a group of them approached him. “You stay there,” they had insisted. “You wait for truck. Don’t try to walk it alone.” The advice had been so empathic that he suspected that a few of them had actually attempted to cross the desert on foot.
A flock of galahs, noisy parrots with gray and pink plumage, was now collecting in the skeletal branches above him, invading his space with their chatter and distracting him momentarily from his book. He had been reading The Iliad for most of the week, concentrating on it for several hours each afternoon before beginning his regimen of exercises. The classic, despite its shopworn imagery and repetitious slayings, was liberating in its conceit: its assumption that fortune did not spring from chance but from the handwork of deities. He did not trust the gods, celestial playboys whose fickleness belied their status as Olympians, but his predicament had rendered him susceptible to the most improbable of saviors. He took hope in their tendency to favor some mortals over others, an intimation that his fate, a matter he could no longer take for granted, might be trusted to whims less dispassionate than his own.
He put down the book, tired of it now, but the lingering blur of the trees reminded him that he that he had been reading it for most of the afternoon. It was a full minute before he could identify the subtle images alongside the road—forms he mistook for gods before his recovering vision identified them as rock wallabies. The animals, evening feeders, were approaching gingerly over the highway, clearly distrustful of the simmering asphalt that separated them from the grove, and he admitted, as he watched them creep nearer, that it would only be moments before the sun set upon his campsite for the seventh time. He still anticipated the sunsets, that sliver of day when the spinifex grass softened and the rocks, as though preparing for the chill of a desert evening, appeared to be lit by an internal glow. He sighed softly, conceding to the pleasant monotony of another day lost, and he pocketed the book. Moving stiffly, as though shaking off sleep, he began to gather scrubwood for his fire.
On the eighth day of his sojourn he had an adventure. It took place in the early afternoon, several hours after he had broken camp to await a ride; it was then that he noticed what appeared to be a watery figure approaching him alongside the highway. It was coming from the far north and its outline, inconstant in the vapory heat, gave it the quality of a mirage. He was hopeful, as the outline slowly grew bolder, that it would indeed prove to be unworldly—if not a rescuing spirit then at least a dismissible haunt, an entity sufficiently earthbound as to offer no interruption to his routine. That the form might turn out to be a woman—a probability given its enduring fragility—did not dampen his hope that it would prove impalpable. There were several erotic books in his knapsack, so he was used to the consolations of fantasy. His taste for erotica, in fact, seemed less of a perversion than an adaptation to his nomadic lifestyle.
Twenty minutes passed and he sat attentively upon his knapsack, watching the figure as it fluctuated in the desert heat. It did not appear to have grown any larger, and he suddenly wondered if it had spotted him as well. Perhaps it had taken note of his exceptional circumstances and—deeming him too eccentric a figure to approach—was retreating back into the desert. Abandonment, after all, seemed the legacy he most deserved—a fitting Karma even if administered by an emissary from Olympus. Had he not himself abandoned a country at war, proclaiming it to have been duped by a duller siren—a sprite unworthy of his critical eye? His severance had come with a minimal jolt—he had simply booked a one-way passage aboard a tramp freighter—but the momentum of his journey had persisted years after he had arrived in Sydney Harbor. So compelling was the option to drift—so unobtrusive an addiction—that a country no smaller than his own had acquired for him the status of a playground. Jenny, a prostitute he had shacked up with years ago in Sydney, had said it best. “You’re a swagman, Tom Hemmings—a bloody desert rummy. Rob you blind, they will, and go walkabout by morning.”
The figure, now just half a mile away, appeared to be moving at a trot, and he could tell, at this distance, that it was a female. This was not because of its shape—even at a closer range it remained pencil-thin—but because of the grace with which it moved. Its gait was unusually comely—still fluid although it had outrun the heat waves—while a shock of dark hair was bouncing gently upon its shoulders. For a second, he thought that he recognized her, not as an intimate—the shape was too boyish to suggest a former lover—but perhaps as a dancer attached to a carnival he had traveled with a year ago. He had worked a sideshow at the time, erecting a tent for the Princess Atasha, a skinny stripper who, with the aid of mirrors, was transformed nightly into a mighty ape. His carnival tour, which had taken him through Queensland, New South Wales, and most of South Australia, had been prolonged by an eight month affair he had had with his foreman’s wife, a disheartened woman of forty who had seen him as a soul mate. He suspected he would have tired of her sooner had it not been for the chance that they would be discovered, a fear that had given their affair an unconquerable excitement. He remembered the intensity of their couplings, performed quickly in the back of a truck, and regretted that he had not stayed longer with the carnival.
The figure was now close, about fifty feet away, and its features had sharpened into those of a very young woman. Sadly, she was not a specter: her feet, bony and bare, were stained reddish brown from the roadside dust, and her aggravated squint implied that she had recently lost a pair of spectacles. Her dress, a black sheath, did not cover her coltish legs, yet it all but concealed the slight swell of her breasts. Her eyes, contemptuous of her shortsightedness, were examining him carefully as she approached, but the neutrality of her expression convinced him that he was not a priority to her.
He rose from his knapsack, slowly so as not to alarm her, and slapped some of the dust from his jeans. The gesture was optimistic since he half expected her to trot on by, dismissing him as an unimportant bit of scenery, but a show of manners seemed called for under the circumstances. It was perhaps the airiness of the moment, its similarity to a daydream, that inspired his courtesy, and he was therefore disappointed when, after jogging the final few yards that separated them, she halted. Her manner remained impersonal, as though he were a sentry she had come to relieve, and he suddenly felt conspicuous.
“Would you like to throw the first match?” she said.
The question, though inane, did not surprise him. It struck him instead as an opportunity—a chance to diffuse the encounter with a flash of wit.
He said, “I don’t smoke.”
She did not answer him at once. Her eyes, which were continuing to examine him, retained their squint, an exertion that suggested her myopia was very severe. He did not pity her her handicap, however, since its overall affect was one of temperance. Her sharp features, particularly her long narrow nose, made her resemble a bird of prey.
“Don’t mind me,” she said at last. “I’m just a snotty little boy.”
The remark was also unintelligible, but it seemed to have ended the conversation. He took some comfort in the reward that followed: a forgivable view of her hips, which continued to roll innocently as she trotted once again in the direction of Ti Tree. She was running on her toes with a slow looping stride, and her imprints in the dust were like those of a small animal.
He knew that she was about to disrobe. His anticipation was so strong that he suspected he had willed it when, after a few seconds, she halted once again and began to unfasten the top of her dress. The garment, unimpeded by her boyish hips, fell neatly to the ground, becoming a dark puddle from which she freed herself with a hop. She ran on methodically, traveling a hundred feet or so before stopping once again, as though hobbled by the afterthought of her bra and panties. She bent over, tugging impatiently at the strip beneath her waist, and he saw a whisper of pubic hair as the cloth dropped to the ground. Her bra, which she relinquished with a high toss, sailed a remarkable distance before falling onto the asphalt, a flight that impressed him as something of an overstatement. Her breasts, smaller than plums, did not seem to deserve so dramatic a liberation.
He stood motionlessly, his eyes riveted upon her as she continued to jog along the highway. Since her nakedness seemed more pubescent than sensual, the insistence of his arousal could only be extravagant. It was in fact an irony that his jeans, a drifter’s rugged garb, had acquired a large and uncomfortable key. Still, the moment had clearly defined itself as something beyond reason, and the comedy was only enhanced by the jiggle and roll of her buttocks, a rhythm now in keeping with the hammering in his ears. He stood for a half-hour—the time it took her figure, already pale and twiggy, to lose its definition completely. Only then did he glance about him, diverted by a silhouette, a shadow belonging to a wedge-tailed eagle soaring in wide circles above the grove. He looked in the direction from which she had come, not in hope of spotting a clue to the incident but in the manner of a thief hoping to elude discovery. The highway was barren, its stillness broken only by the returning shadow of the eagle.
He did not contemplate the matter for long. Speculation was impossible, scenarios seemed empty plots, and he was more impressed by his vulnerability to the event than whatever had set it in motion. He was therefore startled when a southbound vehicle pulled alongside of him an hour later: he could tell at a glance that it was the same battered Land Rover that had dropped him off a week ago. He did not recognize the driver, a bull-necked man wearing a damp singlet, yet he regarded the man with a sense of fraternity as he leaned out of the cab.
“G’day,” the man said.
“Good afternoon,” he replied.
“Ya see a nude sheila come runnin’ this way?”
Tom pointed in the direction of Ti Tree feeling, at that moment, a pang of utter betrayal. The man’s sweaty face was far too enthusiastic to suggest anything other than a superficial regard for his quarry. He seemed loutish, contemptible, a voyeur of an inferior grade, and Tom looked at the man with distaste as he ducked his head back into the truck.
“Good on ya, mate.”
The statement, too patented for the uniqueness of the event, was chastised by a stern rumble from the heavens as the Land Rover hurtled forward. Within minutes the desert had reduced the vehicle to a fading plume of dust. When the dust had evaporated completely, he tugged at his knapsack, removing his rain jacket from behind the flap. He would have preferred to re-erect his groundsheet, a more sensible protection from the afternoon rain, but he had no desire to abandon his vigil by the highway to return to the cover of the grove. This was not because his chivalry had endured, but because he did not want to be distracted; he did not doubt that the incident, like a stone thrown into a pond, would relinquish a final concentric ripple before sinking into oblivion.
It was another half-hour before the police car appeared, a white sedan belonging to the cop shop in Ti Tree. He did not recognize it as an official vehicle until it had come to a full stop on the opposite side of the road, and he felt his pulse leap when a short stocky man, heralded by another roll of thunder, popped out from behind the wheel and strutted towards him. He was wary of the authorities, having experienced several roadside interrogations during his past travels, but his fear, as the man approached him, seemed attributable to a different script, as though he were observing not a Territorial policeman but an angel from a court of Heaven.
“Hello,” the man said in a clipped voice. He was holding a notebook and a small gold pen.
“Can I help you?” Tom replied. He sensed, as he made the offer, that he was unlikely to incriminate himself. It was evident from the man’s attention to his notebook that Tom was not the object of the query.
“Did a woman pass this way, sir?”
“She say anything about a fire?”
“Not much,” he remarked. “She asked about a match.”
“I see,” the man said. He did not seem to have comprehended the pun and his pen, as he held it over the notebook, wiggled like something autonomous. The aloofness with which he scribbled suggested that no further light was likely to be shed upon the incident.
When the man had finished writing, he closed the notebook with a snap and tucked it into the pocket of his shirt. He seemed satisfied as though the incident, if not comprehensible, had at least been sanitized by the report. He bore an attitude of official complacency, a bureaucrat’s insularity to the irreclaimable.
“Anything you need?” the man asked him. “Some tucker perhaps or maybe a lift into town?”
“Some grub ought to do it,” he said.
The man smiled. “There’ll be a mail truck out this way tomorrow. I’ll see to it the driver brings you a bit of tucker. Oysters if you want ’em.”
“Anything will do,” Tom replied, unwilling to acknowledge the jibe.
The man chuckled hollowly as though embarrassed by the joke. He appeared to be grateful for the thunder, the change of topic it provided him, and his eyes settled briefly upon the cumulus. The rain would be pouring down at its usual hour.
“This bloody monsoon,” the man muttered. “Bit of a bore, sir, these afternoon soakings. You’d think we’d be quit of them by April, wouldn’t you now?”
A few minutes later, as Tom watched the police car vanish into the desert, he conceded reluctantly that the matter had come to an end. He still felt no urgency to erect his camp, but the effort was now overdue: the clouds had acquired a dark abundance and the first heavy drops were imprinting the dust. It consoled him that the dress lay forgotten upon the highway—a suggestion, perhaps, of Olympian grace or at least an indication that he might have overrated the incident. A tongue of cold light seemed to set it aflutter, affording it a bright but soundless illumination as he fitted his knapsack to his shoulders. He picked up the dress, folded it neatly, and set it beside a milepost.
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