by Greg Barron
Here, amongst the forest giants, death was an everyday thing. The detritus of generations past littered the earth. Elks clung with parasitic ferocity to their hosts, beautiful and savage, and fern trees bowed their senseless heads as if in homage to the grandeur of the trees.
Doug Fraser had stacked three quarters of a tonne of firewood into the truck when he heard the bough fall. Already he was thinking of telling the boy to stop cutting and help with the loading, for the sectioned off hardwood blocks were heavy and slippery with soil and last night’s rain. His breath rasped in his throat, and sweat dripped from his forehead.
Born and raised in the bush, the tearing crash and heavy thump of falling timber was jarringly familiar. Even before the echoes faded he dropped the lump of wood from his arms, and started to run, heavy boots clumping, tripping on bracken fronds as he ran.
The boy lay on his back, blood seeping from the crown of his head. He did not move a muscle, not even a dead man’s twitch. The murdering bough, thick and heavy as a pylon, lay beside him, ready to begin the long process of decay.
Kneeling, Doug felt for a pulse, hairy belly hanging out of his singlet. Nothing. That pretty face with high English colour and straight white teeth had already taken on deathly hues. Settling onto his ankles he stared up at the fresh scarred trunk where the branch had come away. They fell so fast, he knew, without warning, oblivious to what lay beneath.
‘Flooded gum,’ he muttered under his breath, ‘bloody widow maker. I warned the stupid bugger – a dozen times.’
Flies settled on the body. Doug swiped them away. The dead boy was a backpacker from Liverpool, England. Hitchhiking south, he had cheerfully admitted to overstaying his visa, fresh from two weeks in Byron Bay, cashless and broken hearted, stale bourbon steaming from his pores. Eagerly he accepted the offer of work – cash money, no questions asked, sleeping in the van out in the yard, paying a pittance in rent in return for sporadic, if heavy, labour. Now Doug pondered the wisdom of that arrangement. The cops would get involved. Maybe even lay charges. There was a small matter of safety equipment. A grieving family was sure to turn up—blaming him, causing trouble. Lawsuits. Accusations. Bitter fear threatened to rise up from his belly.
One of the tools on the rack behind the truck cab caught Doug’s eye – the long handled spade. All his life he had dealt with his own problems and never troubled the police. Why shouldn’t he do the same now?
Hesitating, Doug pondered this obvious solution. Only Ethel Turner, his closest neighbour, knew of the boy’s existence. A born busybody, her house stood like a watchtower across four hundred yards of fireweed and kikuyu. Just yesterday the boy had laboured for an hour, mowing Ethel’s back lawn while Doug spent his afternoon blowing froth off a few at the pub.
Raising his eyebrows, he mimicked Ethel’s voice. ‘Where’s that nice young Englishman you had working for you?’
‘Moved on, Ethel, you know what those young fellas are like.’
‘What was his name again?’
‘John, Ethel darlin’.’
‘Wasn’t it Matthew?’
‘No, you got it wrong again, Ethel darlin’. You can’t remember nothin’ straight.’
Doug nodded coldly to himself. Why not solve this once and for all, then shut his mouth and get on with life as if nothing had happened?
At first he tried dragging the body away by hand, but the deep forest, where the canopy closed over and vines snaked from limb to trunk was still a football field away. Too far. He stopped, chest heaving, and went for the truck, backing up near the corpse, tying fifteen feet of grubby rope around both ankles and to the truck’s tow ball. As an afterthought, he picked up the fallen chainsaw and examined it for damage. Satisfied, he placed it in the tray before climbing into the drivers’ seat and easing into gear.
Doug drove deep into the forest, where the wheels crackled on a cushion of fallen leaves and vigorous green growth blocked out the sun. Leaving the cab, he took the spade from its rack and started to dig. He planned to go six feet down, but after an hour of sweat and blisters the grave was just half that depth.
Unable to endure another bout of hard labour, Doug rolled the body into the shallow grave and spread soil back over, throwing handfuls of dry leaves at random, until the surface looked natural. When it was done he felt strangely reluctant to leave, squatting beside the spot muttering half remembered prayers. Even wiping away an unexpected tear.
Driving back to town, Doug’s hands loosened on the wheel. His breathing slowed to normal. Now and then a secret smile stole onto his lips—his quick thinking had saved a world of hassle. Sure, he felt sorry for what had happened, the kid had been a good worker, but he was gone, nothing would bring him back, so why ruin his own life as well?
Turning into the main street of town, with its rows of poplars and low chain mesh fences, two kids on bikes stopped to stare. Giving them the finger, Doug drove on.
Regular drinkers had gathered on the pub veranda. Doug recognised some faces and imagined how nice a cold schooner would taste. Just one, he decided, then he would deliver the load in the back of the truck. It was short on weight, of course, but the elderly customer would not notice.
As he swung over to the roadside, switching off the ignition and engaging the handbrake, a commotion developed amongst the drinkers. A woman screamed. People stared. The veranda crowd thinned as men and women alike fled through the open doorway. Shouts and upraised voices continued from inside, and faces appeared at the windows. Even the publican’s dog, a fat blue heeler, lumbered to its feet and let out a single, excited yip.
Stepping out onto the bitumen, Doug slammed the truck door and glared back. ‘What?’
No response, only cold and frightened stares.
Muttering to himself, Doug lumbered back alongside the vehicle, studying the load of firewood, wondering why he had attracted so much attention. Then, level with the rear bumper he stopped, dumbstruck, unable to breathe.
The bloody and tattered corpse, rope still neatly tied to the ankles, lay in stiff and untidy repose on the bitumen behind the truck. Shirt and skin had been partially stripped away, leaving raw red flesh with smudges of black soil from the temporary grave, pock marked with embedded blue gravel.
Doug’s mouth opened and closed like that of a fish. He looked up into the glazed eyes of the few hardened drinkers who still leaned on the rail. Turning desperately, he saw the town cop on his way across from the station. Pointing at the corpse with one stubby forefinger he cried, ‘It wasn’t me – a bloody widow maker, that’s what did it.’
Four years passed before Doug returned to town, and by then the story had settled into folklore. Twice a week he’d walk to the store, children skipping behind.
‘Don’t forget to untie the rope, Mister, untie the rope.’
‘Shut up,’ he’d growl, while the children sprinted out of reach.
‘Widow maker, widow maker, just a bloody widow maker,’ they’d cry in singsong voices.
Doug bought a second-hand five-tonner, soon back into the firewood business like he’d never been away. Even hired the odd backpacker.
One habit Doug could never quite shake, and men would watch and laugh. Every mile or two he would pull the truck over and inspect the rear end before climbing back into the cab and driving on.
People say many things that aren’t true, but it seemed to most that Doug was afraid the body might still be there, dragging behind like the guilty secret of a careless man.
Copyright Greg Barron 2012