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In the Clearing
By JP Pomare
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Four days to go
Amy has only ever known life in the Clearing, amidst her brothers and sisters–until a newcomer, a younger girl, joins the "family" and offers a glimpse of the outside world.
I love children.
Here are two things I learnt today:
1. My brothers and sisters were all saved from the world outside.
2. I have a meanness in me, something black and rotten that swells like a lymph node. That’s how I imagine it, as a growth you could cut out.
I don’t know why, but I wanted the girl to feel pain–I wanted to see her vulnerable but only so I could comfort and soothe her. People can be kind and mean at the same time.
Adam shared the plan with us this morning. It sounded so simple; all we had to do was stop the van by the edge of the road, pull her into the back, then fly away with her to the Clearing.
Riding in the jolting van, I was so giddy that I couldn’t keep my hands still. Adam, sitting up front with Susan, was opening and closing his blade. It’s about an inch long and when he punches it between your ribs it sucks all the air out of you and replaces it with a burning.
Twenty metres from the bus shelter we waited under the shade of the big eucalyptus until we heard the school bus groaning along the road. The bus was nothing like I’d imagined. It was longer, with windows all along the sides. Adam folded his blade away and picked up the stopwatch. He knew exactly where the girl sat, up towards the front. Even if the rest of the bus was empty, she would always be there on the left side, looking out at the trees whirling by.
Adam knew that most days she had a ponytail swinging down over her pink backpack. Adam had what he calls a ‘watcher’. Someone out there studying the movements of the people around the child.
That’s how he knew that today, and every Wednesday over summer, the girl’s grandfather had a tournament at the bowls club that didn’t finish until three-thirty, so he wouldn’t be home for another twenty minutes.
Their neighbour, Roger, was out in the paddock most days feeding the calves on his farm. Roger normally waved, and the girl waved back. Adam knew that today Roger was meeting with his accountant in the city.
Adam knew everything. He always knows everything. He made us recite the distance she had to walk once she got off the bus: one hundred and sixty-one metres. There were three straights and two corners. The first straight, where trees hang over the road, was seventy metres, ending in a gentle hill. We couldn’t grab her there because you could see it from the main road. The next straight was forty-eight metres. That was where it needed to happen.
I was nervous at first to see the world outside; it was all so strange and new. On the drive out there, we passed through towns and I got to see all the cars and the houses. Then we were driving beside endless plains of pale grass. It reminded me of the story about Freya in the woods.
Adrienne told me about the woman who calls herself Freya. She is free, she cares for nothing but her family. Freya has a secret. Adrienne said her secret is so sharp it could cut her. Adrienne wants me to understand something about Freya, but I don’t know what it is yet.
Adrienne knows everything, too. Adrienne makes things happen just by thinking them. I love my mother.
We were ready in the back of the van. I knew the plan by heart, and I could repeat it back to Adam in his words. Our sister was coming home to us. Susan started the engine again as the bus lurched around the bend towards the shelter. I was squeezed in between two of the minders, Tamsin and Indigo. Tamsin is small and wiry; she has strong arms and a mole with a single hair poking out beside her nose. I could smell her sweat. Indigo is shaped like the fridge in the Great Hall but with rounded shoulders. She was so calm, like she had done this many times before. Tamsin and Indigo were nurses at the hospital where Adam used to work. That was before Adrienne changed their lives.
Adam turned around to face us. I knew he was the same age as Adrienne but he looked older. He had two wrinkles running up from between his eyes when he said, ‘The first impression is the most important. We don’t want the child to fear us. Her caveman instincts will be flight or fight. We cannot calm her down out here and we do not want her to develop any associations with us, negative or otherwise. Not yet.’ He turned back to face the front, still speaking. ‘Capture a child’s trust and you will have its mind.’ I have heard that before at the Clearing. If she didn’t remember us or the collection, the child would simply wake up in her new home as if placed there by the hand of God. Which, now that I think about it, is true.
Her grandfather hurt her. She was my sister, and someone was hurting her, so I had a duty to help. It was my duty to Adrienne and to God.
The bus shuddered to a stop on the side of the road, the door hissed open. The weather was hot and the wind pressed the side of the van. We’re in drought, Adam had told us, and today was hotter than I can remember it being. Sweat trickled down my forehead and into my eyes. I swept it away with the back of my hand. I needed to be able to see the child.
She was big for a seven-year-old; even bigger than Annabelle, who is eight. She shrugged her schoolbag onto her back and started walking up the road towards her house.
In the front seat, Adam had his eyes fixed on the girl. I wasn’t breathing at all in that moment. I had to tell myself to inhale, to focus. Adam looked at the stopwatch, then at the girl. When I gripped the brown bottle in between my thighs, I could barely turn the cap. My hands were too sweaty.
When she was around the first corner, the van moved forwards.
‘Wait,’ Adam said. He raised his hand, his eyes still shifting between the watch and the girl.
My heart was thunder, but my breath was an ocean tide.
‘Now,’ he said, and the van moved again.
The road was all shimmering with heat but there were no other cars. I opened the bottle as we started up the hill. Liquid spilt over my knuckle and the pungent sweet smell filled the van. It stung my eyes.
Adam said my name. ‘Amy.’
The van hummed along. I held the bottle up to see how much of the liquid was left. It was half full.
‘There’s still enough,’ Adam said. ‘If she remembers the collection, it will take longer.’
The van engine was humming like it wanted to give up. I tipped the remaining liquid over the cloth, bunching it up in my hand like Adam had showed me.
Hold it against her mouth until her eyes have been closed for two seconds, no more, no less.
My own eyes began to water from the vapour, but I blinked the tears away and focused on the world outside.
The van turned. We were close. It was magical; I knew the engine and the wheels were loud, but it seemed silent inside, as if even the van was holding its breath.
I could see her. A smudge of blonde and pink, a yellow skirt, walking in the dappled shade of the trees on the side of the road.
The van was moving slowly, but it still squealed when we stopped. She turned. I saw her eyes. Did she know what was about to happen? Was she afraid? Did she realise her life was about to become so much happier, safer, better? Was her heart thumping in her chest like mine?
Her blue eyes widened, her mouth became an O. The door scraped open. Hot air rushed in. It was over quick. Quicker than I thought possible. Tamsin and Indigo tore her from the road’s edge into the van, wrestling her like a lamb. Her head rested on my lap with Tamsin’s dirty fingers covering her mouth, just how we had planned. It was perfect, everything in place.
She looked up into my eyes. I hesitated.
‘Go!’ Adam screamed at me.
I pressed the cloth down hard over her nose. She began jerking. It was taking longer than it should; there wasn’t enough liquid on the fabric, I wasn’t pressing hard enough.
Everyone was watching me, except Susan, who was driving again. The world outside blurred by. I looked down into those gas-flame blue eyes, disappearing and reappearing as the girl’s eyelids fluttered. I was jealous of her long lashes. She looked so much like Adrienne then. So beautiful.
Her blinks slowed. Eyes closed for a second. Open again. Closed for two seconds. Barely opening. Then she was gone.
The liquid had spilt beneath me and the van was full of the fumes. Adam wound the window down to let in a gust of fresh air. The girl’s body was limp now. Lashes long and thick, cheeks pink. I peeled the cloth away, and leant back to ease the tension from my fingers, my arms, my neck and back. It was done. Our sister was coming home.
PROTECT THE QUEEN.
GOOD GIRL, KEEP GOING
Four days to go
A CHILD WAS taken, it was on the news, and I just had to get out of the house. You see, there are some things Freya Heywood–that is to say, I–can’t see without changing. I’m like you, but then again I’m different.
I wear the skin of others the way you wear clothes. Not in a Silence of the Lambs kind of way–although, now that I think about it, I do have something of a dungeon, and a dog that I care about more than I do other people. No, this layer of skin I wear is pure metaphor.
I learnt how to behave by watching others, slowly building up an ideal of a person, but if you were to slide a scalpel from my head down to my toes, an entirely different woman might climb out. There’s an art in the small details, the idiosyncrasies that make someone convincing. It’s not easy to be this person twenty-four seven, while everyone else is just so natural.
I could be the neighbour you’ve only met a few times, or the woman you’ve seen reading the nutritional label on a box of muesli at the supermarket, or someone at your local cafe, rocking a pram with her foot while she googles the answers to the crossword. If you watch me for a day, you might be fooled, but if you watch me closely for long enough you would see the moments when the other woman comes out. They are only brief, these moments, but they are impossible to miss. When I saw that news story about the missing girl today, the skin began to slip.
We all act; I’m just better at it than you. You do it when the service station attendant asks how your day is, and you smile and say, Good, thanks, because that’s what’s expected. You’re doing it with every small lie, every interaction in which you must consult that ideal inner version of yourself before you respond. Unconsciously you are always asking, What would a normal person say or do? You’re exactly like me; the difference is I’m prepared to admit what I am. I’m doing it right now, as I walk my dog down to the river. In a way I’m like an actor, except that most actors yearn to be seen while my aim is to disappear.
Freya Heywood drinks kombucha and believes that it will counter the effect of last night’s two glasses of pinot noir. Imagine being so gullible; as if a fermented tea could really make up for washing alcohol, a known carcinogen, through the sensitive human digestive tract. I want to be one of the normal people with their strange and fickle ambitions, the types that become accountants or chefs or, in my case, yoga instructors. Normal people eat organic, if they can afford it, and stop having sex somewhere in their forties when they have had children or have given up trying for children. People don’t need to know about the violence beneath the surface, the coils of razor wire turning inside like the inner workings of a watch. That’s all I ever wanted: for people to know and love Freya Heywood. Is that so much to ask?
Today is different. I can feel it in my bones, feel it in the scar below my belly button. The air is weighted. Maybe there’s pollen on the hot breeze, maybe it was the news report about the girl, but as my Rottweiler, Rocky, disappears around the bend ahead, I feel an avocado stone grow beneath my sternum, my limbs tingle like the moments after you take a drug. Something is going to happen.
The sky is a hard ceramic blue. The heat seems to flow down from the hills, collecting in the valley among the native bush lining the river. It’s been hot for weeks but this afternoon the temperature crashed through forty-five degrees. Those few leaves still on the trees are frayed and curled. Leaves are the respiratory organs of trees. What attracted me to this place was the private river access, the isolation–sometimes I could go weeks without encountering strangers.
The air is so thick with humidity that it barely fills my lungs and only the flies seem to have the energy to move in the heat, hovering in a cloud over something dead near the track’s edge. The flies, and the indefatigable Rocky, whose tongue drips as he huffs away from me. The bush opens a path down to a mud flat beside the river where the water is still and silty. This is where I expect to find him rolling about, snapping at the nub of his tail. I carry the chain in my hand and the tennis ball with the receding hairline in my pocket.
Instead, Rocky is growling low and fierce. Has he seen a snake? Or a wallaby in the scrub, maybe?
Squeezing the clip of the leash in my fist, I pick up the pace. Beside the river I see Rocky, his body angled low, fur bristling, his lips drawn back to reveal the white stones of his teeth. Only then do I notice the smell, something that casts my mind back to my late teens. The tangy herb, as rich and potent as body odour. I think of the back seat of Wayne’s Datsun. Carpet on the dash, cigarette butts stuffed into the ashtray. I can almost taste the cheap beer sipped from dusty cans, feel the heavy Doc Martens on my feet. I can almost see the Melbourne cityscape from Ruckers Hill. I once loved Wayne so much–or I wanted to–which is exactly the same thing.
‘What is it, Rocky?’ I say, striding towards him.
A shape steps out from the shadows in the enclave of trees. A man.
‘Oh,’ I say, resisting the impulse to apologise. I clear my throat. ‘Hi.’
Sitting behind him in the shade is a young woman, nude but for her white cotton underwear. They seem young, despite the man’s patchy facial hair.
‘Can you get him away from us?’ the man says.
‘Rocky,’ I say, stern. On my command he would latch on to the man’s forearm, and I can’t say I’m not tempted. The man wears mascara and his earlobes are stretched to the size of a five-cent piece. His nose is drawn up in a sneer but there is something vaguely familiar about him.
Rocky backs away.
‘What are you doing here?’ I ask.
‘Having a swim,’ the man says. ‘Free country.’
‘Right.’ I let my eyes linger on them for a moment longer.
A hot breeze pulls through the trees and the smell of dope fades. Did they know to put the joint out and bury it in a matchbox? Did they know that when the bush is this dry just a single spark could devour hectares in minutes? I imagine the undergrowth exploding, the trees aflame, fire spreading like spilt ink and the sky disappearing in smoke.
‘Follow, Rocky,’ I say with force, showing these people that my dog is trained and obedient. This is private property, I could add for effect. The river’s edge technically does not belong to me–anyone could come via kayak–and the land across the river and north of here form part of North Tullawarra National Park, but this pair has walked across my land to get here. I whistle and jerk my head. Rocky barks once then runs to my side.
The couple will move on. Rocky has given them enough of a scare. They’re harmless, I’m sure, yet I can feel the man’s eyes following me as I walk away.
I fiddle with the tennis ball in my pocket, scratching it with my fingernail. As I climb the next hill, I bounce it once on the hard earth, thinking about Billy.
I can’t help but imagine Billy choking, or drowning, or swept up from a roadside. Perhaps that’s an affliction of motherhood, the way we evolved; mothers must always consider the worst scenarios in order to prepare for them, to keep us alert. It was the same with Aspen, until one slip and he was gone.
My connection with Billy is not something you can fake, the bond forged in childbirth; the earthy mud smell, the feeling of being split in two, the overwhelming sense of relief when the nurse wrapped him in cotton with my blood drying in his hair. I think about my own mother, how her indifference tempered me. The brief glimpses of love she did show drove me into a frenzy for more; the slightest hint of affection could make me buzz.
I bounce the ball again and Rocky leaps up, barking. ‘Just a little further,’ I tell him.
The trail follows the curve of the river, the incline levelling out. Looking down, I can see the couple still watching me. Their voices are low, reaching me as a hum. So long as they’re gone by evening it will be okay. So long as they leave and don’t come back.
I continue on, walking much further than I’d planned to, all the way to the next gap in the shrub. I hurl the ball into the water for Rocky, who swims out, ploughing through the mirrored surface.
Eventually, I clip him back on to his leash and head for home. The leash is for show; he obeys every command. I could take him anywhere and he would only listen to me, but people feel more comfortable when he is leashed.
Four eyes track me down around the bend beside the river, then through the bush. Their voices are quiet and rushed over the trickle of the river. Rocky walks stiffly beside me. That grey washing sensation in my gut comes back.
‘Good boy,’ I say. ‘Good boy, Rocky.’
Inside, the clock reads 1 pm. I look out over the sun-bleached yard to Rocky who flicks his legs back with military decorum, his post-shit dance. I’ve locked him out so he is lingering down in the shade at the fence line. Even in the cool breath of the air-conditioning, I still feel the burn of the walk. Despite the efforts of surgeons and the ‘wellness’ industry, we all age, we all wither. After exercise, I’m reminded of my age by the tightness in my muscles. Yoga helps, I suppose, but seeing all the petite yoga-toned mums in their late twenties doesn’t.
There’s a white-tailed spider in the corner of my bedroom. I use a glass from the kitchen to trap the spider before sliding a piece of paper underneath. I carry it out into the garden to set down near the paperbark tree.
Back inside in the lounge, I do my push-ups, three sets of twenty, then step into the cold shower, my skin prickling and my legs becoming blue. You don’t get used to cold showers; even when the mercury hits the forties, it still feels like hands slapping all over my body.
I turn the TV on and head to the room to get dressed. A quirk of the open-planned home means my kitchen, dining room and lounge are all one giant L-shaped room–I can watch the afternoon news while I down my tonics and eat a chia bowl at the kitchen bench. On TV, they’re talking about the Great Barrier Reef again, sixty percent bleached and not coming back any time soon. Run-off from a new coalmine in Queensland will hasten the decline. I open the fridge and pull out my bottle of kombucha, twisting off the cap.
Another news story is running: ‘… the girl went missing yesterday afternoon between three and four…’
I face the TV as the news cuts to an aerial view of a paddock with a line of people walking slowly, heads bowed, scanning the long grass. I rush to the remote and snatch it up.
‘… police are asking for members of the public to come forward with any informa—’
I mute the story and turn to watch the backyard, feeling the anxiety continue to churn within. The girl went missing. I know what the parents are going through.
Rocky stands at attention, watching something on the other side of the fence. Maybe it’s the couple walking back up to the road? I want to wait, to be certain that they have left, but I have a class soon and a boss–or she prefers ‘spiritual coach’–named Milly who is all Lululemon, meditation and sunshine until you are late, then she is Old Testament wrath. When I had a flat tyre she reminded me that it might have been ‘negative energy’ that caused it, and that it was something I should work on. I sense the studio is just a tax write-off for her wealthy husband.
I sip my kombucha and turn back to the TV. There is an image of the child on the screen now, a school photo, hair back in a ponytail, wide grin, blue eyes shining. The type of child designed for the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I drum my fingers on my lips. It won’t happen again, I tell myself.
I open the door, call to Rocky, then aim the hose at the grass to clear it of hot water before filling his steel bowl. I lock the house and, for the first time in years, I set the alarm and roll down all the external aluminium shutters over the windows and doors–to keep the house cool, but also for security, because Freya Heywood doesn’t trust strangers and those people at the river were verifiably strange.
My front door opens into the dining room, and when I go to leave I find a bouquet on my doorstep. My heart stops. I glance up towards the road and about the house. A spray of yellow wattle, bunched in native fern. I don’t pick up the flowers; I simply kick them away from the door. There is no note, nothing to indicate who has sent them or why. Heat floods my cheeks. Anger or fear? Is this a sick joke? Taking a few deep breaths, I manage to calm myself, the facade restored. I walk out to the car, alert but not tense. I watch for movement in my periphery.
When I shifted out here all those years ago, the road to the house was muddy and my hatchback got bogged. Derek, the stooped retiree from next door, backed his truck up and winched me out.
‘Gunna need something with a bit more guts out here, I reckon,’ he had said. I looked at his Land Rover, the badge on the side reading Discovery. ‘Good rig, especially when the river floods or the track is washed away. You ever need to get out of here in a hurry, you’re gunna need something like this,’ he said, patting the bonnet.
Thank you, Derek. I went out and bought my own Discovery. The very had chipped off the side leaving only Disco. Now I tote my cork yoga mat out to the Disco and take off, gravel spitting out from beneath my wheels and a dragon of dust rising in my wake. I love all the euphemisms I have picked up from that old man, pocketing the vernacular like pretty flowers or perfectly shaped river stones. Bogged–now there is a word that Freya Heywood loves. Roo, Disco, crikey; I could never speak them out loud myself, but I love the sound of them when they come from Derek’s tobacco-stained mouth.
My road is too narrow for cars to pass, so I pull onto the shoulder with a wave as a car comes the other way. Derek must have visitors. I’m running late so I speed along.
At the dip where the drain runs out beneath the road, I slow and glance at the flattened road’s edge where visitors to the national park leave their cars. There is an old white kombi van parked with tinted windows. I repeat the first three letters of the number plate to myself. OUP. It sounds like a mantra. O-U-P. O-U-P.
In the rear-view mirror the van disappears in the dust.
‘TAKE IT EASY, both hands on the wheel, eyes ahead. Don’t speed. Indicate. Everything is on your shoulders now, Susan.’
I can feel the warmth of my new sister in my lap as she sleeps the deepest sleep. I cradle her head, thumbing her tangled hair back behind her ears.
‘Forty-eight hours, then we’re in the clear.’
I feel so warm and happy. We have her. The van eases back onto the main road, merging into traffic. We all stay low in the back, holding the girl still, while Indigo takes the needle and syringe. She holds it up as the van jigs from side to side, eyeing the liquid in the light before plugging the needle into the girl’s arm.
‘The hard part is over, Susan. Eyes on the road. Deliver us home.’
We stay flat against the floor of the van for an hour or more. All the while I stroke the girl’s face, holding her against me, making sure her head is cushioned and her body is comfortable.
As we drive along the gravel track towards the Clearing I sit up. The entry is well disguised. A barred steel gate crawling with blackberry bushes. On the other side of the gate, the grass is flattened where the wheels roll over it. Branches squeal against the sides of the van. The trees are tinder-dry with curled leaves. I miss Autumn, when the bush is cooled and green, when mushrooms ladder up the sides of fallen trees.
We keep driving.
Tamsin climbs out and opens the last gate, and we drive through, crossing the expanse of grass where the bush has been cleared away. As we near the Great Hall, where the kitchen and our classroom are, I see my brothers and sisters and the other minders burst from the building and rush towards us. Everyone knows the precious cargo we are carrying and their palms bang on the windows as we pass. My chest fills with pride. The enthusiasm of the others is infectious. Susan honks the horn, waving to the children outside, and then we are heading around the Great Tree, then beyond the Burrow, where we sleep and bathe, making our way to the Shed at the south-east corner of the property.
We pass the child through the door of the van and into the waiting hands as though delivering a baby. Her small body seems to float into the Shed. We lay her down on the stained cotton cloth covering the bench. Adam has rigged a square in the sheet-metal roof on a pulley so when my brother Anton–the only child older than me–turns the wheel near the door a perfect diamond of light falls through the ceiling and across the girl. We circle her, to be close, to look at her.
‘That’s enough,’ Adrienne says. ‘We need to get to work.’
I know that soon the child will wake and when she does she will be hungry and thirsty. I know we have chores to do, but it is so hard to walk away.
- "Pomare captivates in this haunting novel, In The Clearing. I was utterly gripped with the stories of Amy and Freya from start to finish, and fascinated by the unexpected way the two came together.Thrilling, atmospheric and with twists abounding, this book held me in its spell long after the final page. A sure-fire bestseller."—Sally Hepworth, bestselling author of The Mother-in-Law
- “Spine-tingling . . . Pomare is able to pull off red herrings galore and crafty, satisfying twists. A heart-pounding novel made heart-rending by its reflection of real-life events.”—Kirkus Reviews
- “Bombshell-laden . . . Pomare is a writer to watch.”—Publishers Weekly
- "A dark, chilling, atmospheric thriller populated with mysterious and wonderfully flawed characters."—Christian White, author of The Nowhere Child
- "There's no doubt about it: Pomare is a master of the carefully constructed, impeccably paced psycho-thriller."—Weekend Australian
- "Sets its hooks on page one and doesn't let go until the final, chilling line."—Chris Holm, author of The Killing Kind
- "A story of motherhood, damage, and a nightmarish cult . . . An outstanding and compulsive read."—Jen Conley, author of Cannibals
"A pared-back firecracker where the danger is clear and present--even if its exact shape remains opaque until the book's climax and final gasp-inducing twist."
—Books & Publishing (Australia)
- "Past and present collide in this taut and unpredictable thriller ... Twist follows twist and nothing is as it seems."—Chris Hammer, author of Scrublands
- "A riveting read that kept me locked in from page one. Textured, complex, and equally fast-paced and memorable, JP Pomare weaves together cults, the plight of motherhood, and family strife to create a book that will linger with you long after you've read it. The past is ever-present here, in ways both relatable and surprising. Don't miss this one."—Alex Segura, authorof Blackout and Miami Midnight
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Mulholland Books