It was around four in the morning when Jean left the Cooper’s timber-slatted cottage. The air was cool, and despite a flush of pink in the east, the sky was dark and filled with stars.
Not yet time, then.
The door to the house opened behind her and Henry Cooper stood there, backlit, his shoulders sagging.
“Miss Jardine, forgive me,” he said. “Let me bring the horse round and I’ll take you home.”
Jean faced him and said, “No. I will walk. Margaret needs you. Go back to her.” She could sense he was staring at the burden she carried and not at her. He breathed heavily.
“Go inside,” she said more firmly, and to emphasise her point turned her back on him and walked away. She heard the door close.
It was an hour’s easy walk from the Cooper’s place at Narrawallee Creek to Milton. The town was perched on the ridge behind the coastline, almost hidden from the Pacific Ocean by forests and hills. By the time Jean reached her home on Wason Street, the magpies were calling in the trees and the currawongs, further away in the Budawangs, were starting to join in.
The sky was lighting up. The air was warming and heavy with the scent of wattles. It would be another hot spring day, something Jean still found hard, despite ten years away from Glenfinnan in the Scottish Highlands, where her childhood spring days had been cold and sharp. She took a deep breath; she had to get the job done before it was too hot for manual work.
She put her burden on the back step before going into the house, for it must not be allowed to cross a second threshold, got the coal shovel from the kitchen and went back outside. She used the shovel’s length to measure the right distance north from her apple tree, and dug a hole about a yard long, a yard deep and half that wide. She returned to the burden and gently picked it up. She reached into the swaddling and closed her rough, red hand around the small ivory one.
“Fàilte, Coinneach,” she said. “Welcome, Kenneth. Aye, that’s a fine name for a boy. Kenneth Cooper.”
Jean placed the burden into the hole and sat down next to it, then looked up into the sky waiting for the first rays of the sun. When she saw them glimmer over the roof of St Peters and St Paul, she took the burden’s hand once more and said, “God and Saint John, christen the child both flesh and bone.” She tucked the hand away one last time and stood up with the help of the shovel.
“Slàn leat, Coinneath, farewell,” she said, and filled in the hole.
Jean slept for four hours then went to Doctor Mayr’s house. He had been called away to Nulladulla, so she left a message with Tilly, his maid, to let him know that Margaret Cooper had lost her child and he might want to look in on her. Tilly tut-tutted when she heard the news.
From there she made her way to the main street and bought fruit and vegetables and lamb’s brains. At the Star Hotel she filled her stoneware bottle with two pints of ale. As she walked home she exchanged greetings with those she knew well, gave smiles and nods to those she knew less well. These days, there was no one in the area she did not know.
She had reached Wason Street when a trap pull up beside her. Its driver, a small, thin man with a light brown moustache and outsized hands, leaned over to her and said, “There you are, Jean!”
“Good morning, Dr Mayr.”
“So formal? How many times do I say to you, it is not Dr Mayr. We know each other too well for that.”
“If you were still in Dresden, Doctor, you would not say that.”
“But I’m not in Dresden, and you’re not in Glenn Filly, so I would say this point is not relevant. This is a new land and because we are here we are a new people.”
“Glenfinnan,” she corrected him. “Well, then. Andreas. Are you back from the Coopers?”
“Please, Andrew now. People here do not like Andreas. And I am on my way back from Nulladulla. One of the crew on a timber steamer has appendicitis. What’s this about the Coopers?”
“I left a message with Tilly. Margaret Cooper lost her baby last night. You should see her.”
The doctor sighed and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief he pulled out of his jacket pocket. “It is too warm Yes, as you say, I shall visit her. That is her second gone, I am thinking.”
“Did you deliver the first?”
“I was not there in time,” Jean said, and could not help frowning. “Henry Cooper buried it. He would not tell me where, and I would not dare push him on it.”
The doctor pulled his buggy around. “You cannot save every soul!” he called out as he drove back down the main street.
Back home, Jean first put the ale under the house to keep it cool. When she reached the front door she found on its step an open sack filled with carrots and cabbages and peas. Underneath was a note with untidy handwriting which read, “We have no money, but these will do. H. Cooper.”
Yes, Henry, she said to herself, these will do. But she could not help wish that more of her clients could sometimes spare pennies instead of peas. She could not buy her ale with vegetables and the Star Hotel did not stretch to credit.
Towards evening it was still warm. Jean retrieved the ale from under the house and sat on the front step with two cups, surrounded on both sides by clumps of cloudberry and sea pinks. She filled one cup and looked west and south towards the Budawangs, which receded in undulating shadows all the way to the Great Divide, forested and dark and close. She had always thought the vestige of highland forest she had known as a child in Glenfinnan was crowded, with its pine and birch and juniper, but here it was almost like a jungle, and almost impossible to make your way from valley to ridge without teams of men clearing the way for you. What trails existed were made by the cedar getters and logging wagons, curling and looping through the forest like secret writing, eventually winding down to Nulladulla where steamers took the logs to Sydney and to Melbourne. She drank her ale, wishing it was whisky, and tried to remember the landscape of her childhood.
As the view melted into the growing darkness, Andreas Mayr joined her. He sat next to her on the step, picked up the second cup and held it out. As Jean poured she said, “How is Margaret Cooper?”
“Fever,” he said levelly. “She will be all right, I think. Strong woman.”
“Yes. The next time?”
“You cannot tell. She might have ten children, healthy and whole.”
“If chance was a fine thing,” she said doubtfully.
They drank more ale. They heard nightjars and an owl. A little later, the first cicadas of the season started up, but their calling was disjointed like an amateur orchestra’s first rehearsal, and they soon gave it up.
“Summer is coming early,” Andreas said. “I was hoping the rains would have started by now. It is very dry. It is hard sometimes adapting to this country. Everything is harder than you imagine it will be.”
“It will rain,” she said with a suddenly fierce certainty.
Andreas splayed his hands out and studied them “I hope so. My skin dries like baked mud.”
“You miss your home?”
“Dresden, you mean? No. I think this is my home, but it took a long time for me to accept it. I’m still not sure what it means for me. And you, do you miss your Glen … ?”
“Glenfinnan,” she finished for him. “Yes. But it’s the home of the girl, Andreas, not the woman.”
“I am making this my home. Slowly, over the years.” She stopped. She had wanted to say more, but did not know how to put it into words. Silence fell between them, and after a few minutes the doctor stood up, brushed down his pants and said goodnight.
Jean felt the weight of the bottle. There was enough for tomorrow. She slipped it back under the house. Before going in she stood on the step, all civilisation behind her, and watched out over the hills and forest. Waiting. When she heard the sound, so far away, she was not surprised. The sound was unmistakeable, the cry of the golden eagle.
Many days later, a call from Sam Billings woke her early. He was tapping on her back window, and when Jean opened her eyes the first thing she saw was Sam’s blond tussle jumping into and out of view. She dressed quickly and opened the front door. There was a buggy waiting outside. “Sam? Round here.”
The boy appeared, flushed and feeling brave. “It’s time,” he said breathlessly. “Da says it’s time. You gotta come.”
“Did he say anything about your mother?”
“She’s making those sounds,” Sam said, wincing. “Like when Harriet was born. But Da says it’s all right. But you gotta come quick. But – ”
“Stop with the butting,” she said. “I’ll need a minute more and then we’ll go.”
When she returned, properly dressed, Sam said, “I’ll drive ya.”
Jean pretended to consider it. “On the way back, Sam. This time, though, I’d best get us there.”
Sam tried to hide his disappointment. “That’s what Da said, too.”
“Well, then,” Jean said, and that was the end of it.
She pushed the horse as much as she dared; it was old swaybacked beast, but surefooted and built for endurance. Sam gabbled all the way, aware that something important was happening, something dangerous for his mother, but not even thinking it could end in her death. It was the virtue of being a child, she knew, where death was always an immortality away.
Jim Billings was waiting outside their home, a half-brick, half-timber place a few miles north of Milton and west towards the mountains. The land first had been cleared for sheep, but the soil was so good, and rain so plentiful most years that like many other farmers in the area, Jim had introduced a few head of dairy cattle.
Jean could hear the moans of his wife, Bridget. They were urgent but not desperate. “You should be inside, Jim,” she told the farmer.
He smiled quickly, but found it hard to meet her eyes. “God knows you’re right, but I fret so, and she sent me out.”
“Boil me lots of water.”
“Clean cloths, like towels – ”
“Lordy, Miss Jardine, it’s all done. I remember last time with Harriet. Please, just go to her?”
The cries from inside went up a pitch. “I’m just in time,” she said to Sam. “You did very well.”
She took a deep breath of fresh air, saw that among the cedars behind the house there were some yew, and even a Douglas Fir.
“What are you going to call her?” Jean asked, rolling her sleeves down after washing her hands and arms. Sam stared at the bloody water. “Jim?”
Jim pulled his eyes away from his sleeping wife and the sleeping baby cuddled up beside her. Harriet, only two, was asleep at her mother’s feet. “What about it, Sam? What do you wanna call the baby?”
“Sam,” Sam said.
“Can’t call it Sam,” Jim said. “It’s a girl.”
“Can’t do that, either. We’d all get in a mess, not knowing who was who.”
Sam looked up at Jean. “What do you think?”
“Well, as a rule I like strong Scottish names for boys, but for girls I think a Christian name. Mary. Ruth. Alice.”
“I like Alice,” Sam said.
“Alice it is,” Jim said. “Well, if your ma says. She might have an Irish one in mind.”
“You’d better be taking me home,” Jean said to Sam, and then to Jim, “I’ll get Doctor Mayr to drop by. I had to put some stitches in. She’ll be sore and cranky as a cat under a wheel for a few days. Let her rest all she wants.”
Sam was smart enough to let the horse pull the buggy back to Milton at its own pace. He held the reins to show his passenger how grown up he was, and talked and talked. Jean nodded now and then, but mostly let her mind wander. Another Australian, she thought. And each one she helped bring into the world made her feel more like one as well, as if she was making a claim with each new bairn.
When she got home she gave Sam a handful of apples from her tree. He thanked her and left, keen to get back to his new sister. Jean watched him until he left Wason Street and then went round back. She checked the new mound. The ground here was low and water sometimes seeped up under her feet, but there was toad and slender rush growing along the fence line and moving up, and they kept the soil together. Further up, near the house itself, bell heather took over, sweeping around the house until they met the flowers out front. She gently pushed down on the mound, flattening it a little. In a month or two it would be as level as all the others. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a quick, brown movement. She glanced up and saw the rear end of a mountain hare disappearing across the road and into the longer heather growing there. If it wasn’t careful, the eagle she heard last night would catch it. A mountain hare that size would give a golden eagle no problem at all.
There was not much for Jean to do over October, and then November came and the rains came with it, great cascades of water born in violent electrical storms that swept along the coast like the angry breath of God. Then, when the rains eased, came the heat, stifling like a closed kitchen, the nights given shape by the incessant calling of cicadas and the birds that preyed on them. But every now and then Jean noticed the air coming off the Budawangs was cooler than usual, and the sound of it in the trees was like the soughing of a breeze through the tops of Scots pines and Douglas firs. The smell, too, was more Highlands than Budawangs.
There were no birthing in the offing until February. Or at least, there were none she knew about, so when Andreas appeared at her front door early one evening, the trap ready outside and his bag on the seat, she wondered what was going on.
“Jean, I need you to come with me. The harbour master sent someone to get me. There’s an emergency on a steamer just in from Sydney.”
“Of course,” she said, already reaching behind the door for her own bag, “but I don’t see what use I’ll be … ”
“It’s a woman,” he said, a little breathlessly, but didn’t elaborate further.
No, not a woman, Jean thought, just a girl. And the problem was obvious.
The steerage cabin, already too small, was crowded with people. The girl lay on the only bunk, barely conscious. She was covered in a fine film of sweat and her dark hair stuck to her face like seaweed.
Dr Mayr knelt by the bunk. “What is her name?” he asked the captain, a long man with a long head and red whiskers.
“She’s not on our passenger list,” the captain said tightly and glared at the quartermaster, who in turn glared at a second and older woman standing by the cabin door anxiously chewing a thumb nail.
“We only had enough money to buy a single fare,” she said. “But Annie said she had to get to Melbourne. That’s where the father lives, she said.”
“Annie’s your sister,” Jean said, glancing between them.
The woman nodded. “Our mum and dad don’t know about this.” The statement seemed so out of place that no one said anything for a long moment.
“How long has she been like this?” Dr Mayr asked.
“Since yesterday,” the sister answered.
“How long has she been pregnant?”
“She thinks eight months. But she is not sure.”
The doctor placed his palm on the woman’s forehead, then felt for her pulse on her wrist. “All right, everyone to leave please, and close the door,” he said. “Except you, Jean.”
When the others had left he pulled back the bed clothes and and felt for the baby. “It’s turned.” He pulled a stethoscope from his bag and listened for the baby’s heartbeat. “Nothing.”
“Can she be saved?” Jean asked.
“She is not in labour. It will have to be a caesarean.” He took a deep breath. “But yes, we can try.”
It was not the sight of all the blood that finally drove Jean to the top deck, but the smell. In the confined space of the cabin it had been overpowering, and she had managed to control her stomach until the dead baby had been cut out and the mother stitched up. Then, with a hurried apology and the bile filling the back of her throat, she had rushed up to fresh air – ignoring the startled looks of the captain and quarter master and the mother’s sister – and vomited over the side of the steamer.
The sister burst into tears and turned away. The captain came to Jean and put a hand on her shoulder. The action was as unexpected as it was gentle.
“The woman … the patient … ” the captain started.
“She is still alive,” Jean said quietly so the sister could not hear. “But it will be a miracle if she survives until night.”
Jean shook her head. “There was nothing we could do. It had already died.”
She pushed away from the railing, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and started towards the sister. The captain held her back.
“Your blouse, woman. Look at your blouse.”
She looked down and remembered how the mother’s blood had soaked into the bed clothing and the thin mattress, a seeping copper-smelling wash. And her blouse. Her gaze was drawn to the tide’s margins where the drying blood faded to brown and then to the linen’s original ivory, a curving coastline scalloped out of her own self.
“God,” she said, and in that moment felt completely lost. She did not know what to do next.
“It’s all right,” the captain said, his hand still on her shoulder. “I’ll tell her sister.”
“Don’t let her downstairs yet,” Jean advised. “Get someone in to clean up first.”
Jean turned back to the rail. The sister may already have seen the blouse, but perhaps not. She ignored the crying and the fuss behind her, the clattering as people passed and up down the gangway to the deck below. She looked out over Nulladulla Harbour. Seagulls swooped low over trawlers unloading their catch. The air pressed down on her, on the whole country and its shore, flattening the sea, making her feel more alien than she had felt for a long time in this strange mess of a continent. Death did that to her, reminded her that when her own time came she would forever be apart from her own ancestors and culture.
Still, she thought. Still, it was a choice. And there’s always redemption for those who deserve it. Redemption from sins, from loneliness, from choices well or badly made. She stayed there for a long while until she saw a pair of otters. They were playing with each other just like otters played with each other in Loch Shiel below Glenfinnan.
When Dr Mayr finally appeared he carried the burden with him and gave it to Jean. “A boy,” he said.
“And the mother?”
“They steam south this afternoon. If she lives it will be a miracle.”
“If she doesn’t?”
“They will bury her at sea.” He swallowed. “They will throw her into the deep, where she is out of reach. God does not go down there. Even the devil is afraid of the abyss. I want to get off this ship.”
He led the way onto the jetty. One of the harbour crew was watching the buggy for them; when he saw what Jean carried he made the sign of the cross.
It was still light when Jean got home, so she immediately dug a small grave, placing it next to Kenneth Cooper’s. As she lay the burden in it she took its hand and said, “Fàilte, Murchadh. I know not your last name, but I will give you mine and the Lord will understand. God and Saint John, christen the child both flesh and bone.” She stood up and readied a shovel full of dirt. Just before she scattered it over the burden, she prayed quickly, “And the Lord will find your mammy; the doctor was wrong. The Lord will find her and bring her home, so don’t be afraid. Murdo Jardine, slàn leat.”
When she was done she knew she had said the right thing and that all would be right for bairn. God understood.
She stretched her back to get rid of the pinching, stomped her feet on the spongy ground. Leaving the shovel where it was she found her stoneware bottle and went to the front step. The forest was dark and away, away to the high land beyond it spread. For a moment she thought she saw a great movement in its shadow, and as she peered into the green she saw it again, the great antlered head of an elk. It paused in its travelling and looked in her direction ever so briefly before moving deeper into the closing trees.
Jean felt half afraid and half exhilarated. You made your own home. This land may have been on the other side of the world from her birthplace, but with every life, every prayer, she put her roots down and made it her own.
[“Welcome, farewell” first appeared in Baggage, ed Gillian Polack, Eneit Press, 2010.]