A week after accepting a place at Elizabeth Farm, Mary was summoned on account of some unknown misdemeanour.
Afternoon sun striped the banks of the Parramatta River. Mary followed the groundskeeper across stubbly grass made brittle by a week without rain, wringing her hands at the thought of what her young daughter, Hope, might have done. A squabble with the Macarthur children seemed likely. Hope was a fisherman’s daughter, nothing like the delicate flowers of the affluent Macarthur family. Had she perhaps struck one of them? What would happen next?
In the shade of the servant’s quarters, the cook held Hope by the scruff of her neck. Half a dozen women servants, several gardeners and a stableman all stood around watching. None of the Macarthur children were there.
Mrs Macarthur spun to face Mary.
“When you first came here,” she said, “you were indignant at being mistook for convicts, Mrs White. Now I wonder if it was, indeed, a mistake, or if your daughter has spent so much time away from civilised company that she does not know right from wrong.”
“Please tell me what’s happened, Ma’am.”
“Butter has gone missing from the store. An entire firkin, destined for Sydney Town. Enough to butter your bread til the end of your days, Mrs White. And Cook says when she came in from the house, young Hope was busy helping herself to another. Dragging it up the stairs, as it was apparently too heavy for her to lift.”
“Hope?” Mary prompted.
“I took it, Mama,” Hope admitted, not lifting her eyes from the floor.
Hope didn’t answer.
“Where is it? Tell Cook where it is so she can fetch it back.”
“It’s all melted.”
“Melted? What were you thinking? What use could you possibly have for all that butter?”
But the girl only gazed sadly at the lawn.
“You will have to leave this estate,” Mrs Macarthur said, turning away, but Mary forestalled her.
“A childish notion,” she said. “A foolish impulse, now regretted. Children must be allowed to be children, you said yourself, Ma’am.”
Mrs Macarthur gritted her teeth.
“I’ll give her a whipping, Ma’am,” Cook suggested. “If she do it agin, then send them both away.”
“Very well,” Mrs Macarthur said.
Mary’s throat felt tight.
She had carried her near-unconscious daughter away from the gathered folk, out into the sheep paddocks towards the shearer’s quarters.
Hope now lay sleeping face down on their shared bed. Cool cloths covered her abused shoulders and thighs.
“All will be well,” Mary murmured, smoothing her daughter’s hair. “All will be well.”
She went to stand in the doorway, gazing at the silver glimmer of the river, feeling the hot, humid air turn to a cool breeze that dried the material of her dress and tugged her hair loose from its pins.
Clouds swept in over Parramatta, rumbling and tossing horizontal lightning that never reached the ground. Keeping whatever water they held to themselves, they passed over Elizabeth Farm and eastwards away from the formidable mountains that stretched like a wall from north to south. Purple sky faded to lemon yellow, and Mary marvelled that there should still be so much light, so late. It was more like the Western Isles than London, that feeling of being perched on the edges of a map.
Days were long. Nights were short. She should be resting, but instead she stared at the sheep and wondered if she had changed that future that she had seen, the one where Hope became a magician like her Scottish father, calling the selkies and sirens to the fishing boats as they moved out of the bay. Since her husband’s death, Mary had travelled so far. That vision could surely never come to pass, not now.
Hope was shielded from that dangerous path.
There would be no selkies or sirens. Life in the colony was hard but ordinary. There were lambs to raise. Cows to milk. Everything felt solid and real. All the rules made sense again.
Even being punished for stealing butter. Mary went inside the hut.
It was still dark when Mary woke.
Hope shook her shoulders, again. Mary rubbed her eyes. Cloths hung over the windows to keep out the insects had barely succeeded. Mary scratched at half a dozen new bites, pulling her clothes away from sticky skin. Hope’s face hovered a few inches from hers.
“Come and I’ll show you, now, Mama,” Hope whispered.
“Show me what, my darling?” Mary answered sleepily. “Hope, it’s not daylight yet. Not even close.”
“Close enough. Come on.”
Mary followed the girl out the door and into the already warm pre-dawn. Sheep dozed on the round, rolling hills. The river whispered. Creaks and jingles of a lone wagon echoed in little gullies.
“What is it?”
“Come and see.”
Hope dashed off in the near-dark. Mary dashed after her, biting back a cry. Her bare feet became wet with dew. As they ran, the sky became the slightest bit paler along the horizon. The grass turned to diamond-spangled indigo.
Mary gasped at the beauty of it.
When it seemed they stood at the centre of a jewelled blanket thrown over the world, Hope came to a sudden standstill.
She took a native flower out of her pocket and laid it on a stone.
A faery creature flew down to it. It was furry, with long ears and a long nose. All of its slender body was black, but for a white tuft on the tip of its long, curling tail. It furled wings that in a mortal beast would not have been able to hold air currents; they were skeletal and perforated, a web of hooked tendrils that gleamed red.
The thing regarded her with enormous ruby eyes, unafraid, before picking up the flower in its mouselike hands and chewing it up with relish.
“This is Jerbilliru,” Hope said triumphantly. “Jerbilliru is a water spirit. She lives where there is dew on the flowers in the morning.”
The creature finished eating the flower. It dug in a pouch that was not dissimilar to Mary’s front apron pocket and pulled out an empty wooden tub, which it held plaintively up towards Hope.
“She eats the wax from the flowers, but she also likes melted butter. Very, very much.”
“I see,” Mary said.
Finally, she did see. She saw that what she thought was her choice, to encourage or prevent Hope from following in her father’s footsteps, was not her choice at all. It never had been.
“I like it here, Mama. This was the right place for us to come. I know it.”
“Yes,” Mary replied, surrendering all her illusions. “This was the right place for us to come.”
Copyright © 2011 Thoraiya Dyer.
First published in our Infinitas Newsletter, February 2011.
This page last updated 13th Feb 2012.