Red earth smells like my daddy when he’s happy. Like he was before, when he used to sit beside me in the cane fields in his dirty work pants, put his arm around me and tell stories about when he was little like me, and believed in fairies and magic dust. Mummy smelt like milk and canned peaches. I still smell her. I tell the others, but they don’t believe me.
In the golden sun after school, I dig my fingers deep into the earth between the sugarcane that rustles and whispers above my head. “Hush, hush,” the leaves say. “Stay still, sit quiet.” Beads of sweat drip from my face and make dark splotches like tears in the red. I snag a fingernail and it hurts, but I keep digging. I don’t want to stop, not ever. I’m going to make a hole deep enough to hide in, to cover myself over. So I never have to go home again.
I lie on my tummy and use both hands to drag out earth in heavy clumps till my elbows are in, then all of my arms, and the front of my school uniform is covered in dirt. I scrape out the hole making it wide as well as deep, sliding my whole arms up the sides, scooping till it’s enormous, the biggest hole I’ve ever dug. Ever. Maybe the biggest in the world.
When I’m done, I lower myself in.
The hole isn’t big enough. My knees are jutting out either side of my elbows and my top three buttons are out, as well as my head and muddy arms. I feel like crying. But then I remember to ask the fairies to help. I help them, so it’s only fair. Daddy used to say, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Then I’d scratch his back and he’d scratch mine and tickle me too, until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to call out, “No Daddy! Stop!”
It’s not really about itches though, it’s about helping. That’s what Mummy said.
Every afternoon I help the fairies by making tiny houses for them to sleep in – little holes in the dirt with grass for bedding and twigs for roofs, flower petals for decoration. I sprinkle crumbs of cake on leaf platters and fill gumnut cups with water for them to drink. Perhaps an army of fairies will come overnight and dig the hole deep enough for me, sprinkle it with glittering fairy dust and make everything alright again.
“Sam! Sammy! Sa- MAN-tha!”
Anna, my big sister, calls for me across the field. I don’t answer though. She only ever calls me Samantha when I’m in trouble. She finds me anyway, sitting in my hole, head tucked between my knees, hiding. I see her knobbly knees when I sneak a peek out half an eye.
I don’t say a word. Hold my breath.
“I can see you, you know. I’m right here.” She pokes me with what feels like a stick, but I don’t budge. “You’re so dirty! Your uniform! Mum would’ve skinned you alive!”
I keep my head down and swallow hard. “Don’t.” She knows that’s not fair.
She rests a hand on my back, but she’ll never say sorry.
I glare up at her. “I’m not going home. Not ever. I’m staying here in my hole.” Then I remember it’s not big enough and change my mind. “I’ll run away!”
Anna jumps up and claps her hands. “Yeah! Run away!” She pulls me to my feet. “Come on, let’s find a good spot for you. Then later I’ll sneak you food and stuff. It’ll be super fun.” Ever since she turned ten, she’s been saying super a lot. She’s so excited I’m beginning to wonder if it’s such a good idea. She doesn’t usually like my games. We always have to play her games where she’s the queen and I’m her servant. I wonder if she just wants to have my toys when I’m gone.
Hand in muddy hand we run to the end of the furrow, the cane stalks clattering behind us. “Rush, rush,” they say, “run further, run fast.” We come out into the light at the tractor trail at the edge of the creek, and clamber down along the riverbank in the shade, past where the old croc lives. We follow the dark river along till we come to the flat place by the rapids where the sun falls in splashes through the leaves. Grinning at each other we collect branches and palm fronds, dragging them through the undergrowth, lying them across the top of the giant tree roots that rise up like fairy-castle walls. It will be the best fairy house ever. Big enough for me.
“I’m never going home,” I tell Anna.
She nods as if she understands and maybe she does. I bet she’s sick of making us toast and putting me to bed. We’re almost out of Vegemite.
“Maybe you can stay here too,” I say, wriggling over to make space. “See? There’s plenty of room.”
Every morning Anna’s eyes are swollen from crying, but she’s the big sister so she has to pretend that it’s just a snotty nose. But I know. I know more than they think. And though I miss Mummy so much it’s like a part of my insides has gone forever, it’s not because of that I don’t want to go home. Because I still hear Mummy whispering to me at night. I still smell her peaches and milk, and in my dreams she still holds me and tells me everything will be alright. She hasn’t really gone far. I wish they’d believe me.
I can’t go home because of Daddy.
He’s there but he’s not there anymore. He doesn’t smell like him. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t eat. And it hurts my tummy to see him all pale and ghostly without his red dirt. It’s as if someone’s emptied out his insides and filled him back up with something dark and heavy. The air he breathes smells black like poison, so I don’t want to kiss him. But then I feel worse because I know he needs kissing more than anyone. Sometimes I sit on his lap and use my fingers to force the corners of his mouth up into a smile, but as soon as I let go they droop back down again like melting plasticine.
It’s been weeks since the funeral and all the visitors left. We’re down to the last frozen casserole the church ladies made, and all the flowers have gone brown. Daddy doesn’t go to bed at night or get up in the mornings. He just sits in his chair in the loungeroom staring at the wall. Staring at something no one else can see. Something scary and awful and very, very sad. He doesn’t care that I’m going to be a sheep in the school play, or that Anna isn’t winning spelling bees any more. He hasn’t even noticed that other farmers are already harvesting. He hasn’t smelt of earth for a long time. Not since Mummy first got sick and he came home smelling like hospital.
Sometimes Anna and I yell at him and try to drag him out of his chair, tugging his hands like he’s a cow stuck in mud. But Daddy won’t budge and when we let go, his arms fall back limp and soggy. Something inside him is broken. Something so bad even kisses won’t help. We don’t know how to fix him. So Anna puts a casserole in the microwave or makes us toast and we eat tea watching TV around Daddy and pretend that he’s normal. But he’s not. We’re not.
The other night, when we were watching a show with guns we’re never usually allowed to see, out of the corner of my eye I saw Mummy. Looking at us all. I tapped Anna to show her but she just got grouchy and made me go to bed.
Anna and I are down by the river finishing off our hideaway, decorating it with flowers and stones, when we hear it.
A crack like thunder.
We look up, but there isn’t a cloud in the sky.
And we run. We run and we run and we run.
As if our legs are horses, we race towards the house, too scared to breathe.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
Fireworks go off inside the house. I smell them burning.
Anna and I hover at the door. Hearts beating loud into the quiet. I clutch her hand and we walk in together.
Daddy is standing in the middle of the loungeroom holding his rifle. His chair is tipped over on its side. He’s looking up and when we follow his eyes we see the holes he’s made in the roof, light falling through them in shafts of gold, speckled with smoke and dirt and bits of ceiling.
He drops his gun and looks at us, his face all weird and scrunched. He holds out his arms and Anna runs into them and then he starts laughing, or it could be crying, or both of them mixed together. He lifts his head and calls to me. Stretches out his hand, almost smiling.
But I stay where I am and stare as Daddy and Anna stand together in the streams of light. Dancing and alive with fairy dust.