Illustration by Matt Weismantel
Falling Up | Jessica Schefe
In our little part of the country, the drought had hit hard. Eels, leeches, and blue-green algae now festered in a muddy pool that once resembled a dam. This was our part of the bush. There was dry heat and red, rocky dirt. My brother and I played hide ‘n’ seek and had barefoot races up and down the paddocks surrounding our home.
We took turns riding Molly, our white, speckled pony bareback around the big yard. We used an upside-down bin to climb onto her back without supervision. Clinging to her full, ragged mane with little hands, we trotted. I felt her warmth and smelled her sweat. Connected to the earth by hoof, we took turns roaming through the dust, trying to avoid the weed-freckled bushes and cobble pegs. People from a neighbouring property had given her to Mum before they moved away. Mum said they had nowhere to keep her in their new place. She was placid and calm, so there was a freedom about it. I was the happiest version of me. Molly provided a great escape. Molly provided a sort of companionship that I didn’t have anywhere else. The steady hooves, gentle tail swishes and snorting in the air were exhilarating. When I rode her, the concept of time, destination, and worry did not exist. She helped me clear my mind and put everyday life to the side for a while. I felt weightless when I rode her. Brushing her down and talking to her was soothing. She was family.
My brother and I knew we were bush kids. Most of the time, being outdoors gave us a break from everything at home that worried us. During the day, we were left to play with unkempt freedom, but at mealtimes we had to be at the table, clean and quiet. We were taught to finish everything that was on our plates. It didn’t matter if we enjoyed it, or if there was not much to eat in the first place. If there was something we didn’t want to eat, we had the choice of the belt, or to sit at the table until we finished. We were ungrateful.
I have never liked radishes, so every time they were on my plate, the same thing would happen; I would sit until I forced them down, and by then I had warm, wet pants, so I got the belt anyway.
This is my fault.
On most days, we climbed trees, built mudpies, and collected funny-shaped rocks by the dam instead of swimming. We were very aware of our little part of the world and the fact that the drought made everything harder. The water from the tap was never safe to drink. When we had baths, we were only allowed a brown bucket of water. We survived drinking from big plastic tubs of clean water Dad brought home, all the way from town.
Mum told us from a very young age that Dad had lots of jobs. He looked after our property as a "caretaker", and she explained that he also worked as a "teacher" on the other side of the dam. Groups of students from heaps of different city schools would visit and explore things they never got to see where they lived. She explained what "high ropes", "trekking up mountains", and “surviving off rations” were. It sounded super fun to me. She explained “teamwork”, and the way he taught students to stay alive in the wilderness in small groups. Mum said he always believed in discipline and reprimand. I wasn’t sure what either of those were, so when I asked Mum, she used the belt as an example.
Aunty didn’t really visit much, but when she did, she took us for long walks where she knew we weren’t allowed. She would show us the dam that was full of water “just a few short years ago”. We saw the cracked mud that went on for miles, deep in the dirt. There was dead earth all around us, and Aunty said there was water there a long time ago. There were dead tree trunks everywhere, jagged and dark amongst the dry and empty landscape. I lost a shoe in a thick, sticky spot, and got a lecture with the belt when we got home. You knew you were in trouble when he used your full name.
This is my fault, isn’t it?
Sometimes we ate kangaroo Dad captured when supplies were running low. We also ate a lot of what I was told later were sheep brains, because they were cheap and tasty. I felt so icky when I found out. We grew up as crooked-teethed little kids with Dad being busy outside most of the time. When he was inside, there was always shouting and a red-raw bum from the belt buckle. Most of the time during those years, it was hard to sit down because of how sore we were. Mum sometimes had bruises or a funny thing she called a “black eye”, which was never black. It was often purple, yellow, or brown. Frequently, we would be woken up by dishes hitting the walls in the kitchen upstairs. Most times, on the following days, Mum had tiny cuts on her hands from picking up broken dishes. The Tooth Fairy we saw on TV, in cartoons, didn’t exist in our home.
It was our job to help Mum clean the toilet blocks that the campers used, made with jagged concrete, and always super disgusting. Dad always told us to clean what we could reach. This included tasks like scrubbing toilets, changing urinal cakes, and dusting for spiders and webs under basins and benches. We worked really hard, scrubbing walls and taking rubbish from rubbish bins. We would stretch up as high as we could to put trash in wheelie bins. Most of the time there was a fair bit of rubbish on the cracked tile floors and inside shower cubicles. Every so often there were these long pointy things called syringes or sharp, rusty shaving razors. Mum told us that when we saw one, we weren’t to touch them. We would go and tell her, and she would use thick gloves to put them in a little yellow plastic box.
Most nights my brother crept into my bed, listening to our father shouting, along with the odd thud. We never heard Mum shout, but she cried a lot. Sometimes in front of us, sometimes in the bathroom. I would push my face into my soft toy snake as I gripped my brother tight, squeezing out a silent cry. I figured that there would be no reason to worry if Dad had a softer face when he was speaking to all of us, especially Mum. There was no place to hide.
This is my fault, isn’t it?
One winter afternoon, when our father was mowing the spot at the bottom of the big hill we lived on, Mum called Aunty and they gathered a few things. They shook my brother and I awoke from our nap. I was still half asleep, and the first to yawn. We were sleep drunk, shoulders heavy, our heads lolling. My feet felt like lead bricks. Mum scooped both of us up and plonked us in the back seats of the yellow van, doing our belts up. Aunty was rushing, and she threw a big bag into the back next to me. They took turns driving that van for ages and ages. We were little icicles in our t-shirts and shorts, and our freezing, grubby bare feet dangled over the edge of the back seat.
Where were we going? Why were we leaving Dad behind? Why? Would we ever see him again? Would Dad care? What would he do? Mum spoke quietly to Aunty over the grumble of the engine, tears falling down her face.
This is my fault, isn’t it?
Hi! My name is Jessica Schefe. I am currently at the tail end of a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative and Professional Writing) at the Queensland University of Technology. I have absolutely loved writing since I was a child and have found my feet during this degree, refining my writing style, and working my way through internships to get real world experience. I write a lot of short stories and poetry, and I enjoy privately editing manuscripts for publishing. I have a feather baby and a fur baby, and I love gangster rap.