Blue Gum Creek
Long-listed for the TSS flash fiction prize, 2018
She’s young with bright hair – and washing dishes. Pieces of egg swill down the sink. She hums as she works.
Last night’s thunderstorm ripped at the trees and brought singing frogs but now the sky is heavy with cloud; the air cool. Yesterday’s high was 42. We haven’t been in heat like that since 1987. Djerba, Tunisia. I purchased a silver bracelet there. I’m wearing it now.
We left Perth, she says, me and the boyfriend. Nothing for us in the city but skyscrapers and low-paid jobs.
Not many skyscrapers in Leonora, I say.
Leonora – population 556. An old mining town, long stretches of desert; the empty road. But there’s gold. That’s what’s drawn them in. She encases the tiny nuggets they find in the jewellery she makes. She shows me. I’m reminded of birds in cages. I don’t offer to buy.
I ask how long she’s planning to stay.
She shrugs. Who knows? They like the outback, the quiet life and the caravan is cheap.
I rinse our mugs. Tip out the coffee grains.
Yes, I say.
Last year a guy found twenty one ounces of gold near Laverton. But prospecting is not easy.
You need luck.
I turn to go. We must hit the road.
Which way are you headed?
West. The coast. Kilbarri.
Look out for the tinsel covered tree. At Blue Gum Creek. An hour from here.
Will do, I say. Good luck then.
She drops her gaze, tightens her fingers.
Is something wrong?
Yes, she says, crying. I lost my baby close to that tree.
I’m sorry, I say. Because I am.
Look for the tag, she says.
She whispers in my ear. Promise me, won’t you?
We stop at the tinsel tree. It’s impossible to miss – bedecked with shiny gold ribbons. We’re in February and it’s hot again. The earth is deep red. There are swallows in the sky and the bushes are like stars. On the opposite verge a dead cow festers.
The tag is tied to a branch. So that’s what she meant. The words turn me nauseous.
I fetch a knife from the van and cut the ties. I bury the tag.
Why did you do that?
My partner shrugs. We drive on.
I’m not going to call anyone. I made a promise but she doesn’t deserve that.