RIPPLES OF WIND STREAKED the long grass, and tall pines stretched into an orange and purple sky. Rosie shivered and the wind chased her as hersmall bare feet beat upon the earth past old fence posts and tangled barbed wire. Her back yard was the Australian bushland.
Black smoke from her farmhouse chimney billowed into the coming night.
‘Rosie!’ Mama called.
‘Coming!’ She ran full pelt through the grass and hoped no unseen sharp thing got her. A stick once wedged itself so deep into her foot that the doctor had to be called to remove it.
The house glowed from the fire in the hearth and Rosie’s mother hurried around the kitchen preparing the evening meal. It smelt delicious. ‘Set the table, will you, darling?’ Rosie took out four plates, four sets of knives and forks, and salt and pepper. She placed each item in the exact spot she did every night – carefully spacing the distances between objects.
It was lovely to listen to the crackling fire, and to be helping Mama.
At 6pm, Rosie huffed, ‘Where are they?’ They’d wait a while and then tuck in without her brother and father.
‘They’ll be home, soon.’ Mama looked down when she said this, as if she didn’t believe it.
A great wind gushed through the kitchen and the fire and the candles went out. Rosie shrieked. She didn’t like the dark; cold and dead things lived there. Mama raced around the table to soothe her. ‘It’s all right, possum.’ She put an arm around Rosie and relit a candle on the table.
Rosie’s heart took a while to slow its sledge hammer beats, and when she looked at her mama, there was a solemn face looking back at her. ‘Where is Papa?’ Rosie said and a knot formed in her throat.
It didn’t match the sorrow on Mama’s face, though.
Rosie awoke to chattering. She jumped out of bed, hair tousled, nightgown crumpled, and raced into the sitting room. A woman sat in a floral chair by Rosie’s mother and sipped tea. She knew her, Ms Peabody. Ms Peabody was new in town.
She grinned at Rosie in her bright red dress and sunhat. Rosie thought she wouldn’t last long in a town like this – a town where good folk saw the devil in red and every sinner, too. And who wore hats inside anyway? Mama was in her dirty apron from baking all morning, and her hair was all fizzy. She looked upset. ‘Roooooosie, you haven’t even washed your face. Off you go,’ Mama scolded.
‘What is she doing here?’ Rosie stood firm.
‘Where are your manners, young lady?’ Mama finally said, as she got up from the sofa. ‘Would you like a muffin for breakfast, dear? Fresh, they are.’ She seemed to have forgotten Rosie’s unwashed face.
What was she doing here? Rosie couldn’t recall much about her but one thing she did recall about Ms Peabody was that she was nosy. Was she here to ask questions about her father and brother? All Rosie knew was that Mama was fussing, pretending to be fine, and she clearly wasn’t. As Mama went to the kitchen, Rosie walked over and leaned on the chair. She eyed Ms Peabody. ‘Hello,’ she said as politely as she could.
‘Rosie. You look well. How are you?’ Ms Peabody smiled and Rosie saw something slither under the cheek on the woman’s face.
‘What was… there’s …’ Rosie pointed to the spot where the slippery thing moved, and Ms Peabody laughed – a full bellied chuckle.
Then, her eyes were black holes and Rosie edged away. Ms Peabody took a bite of a muffin. ‘What a lovely cook your mother is.’ Ms Peabody’s nose fell off and landed in her tea with a splash. She put a hand up to the hole and a wicked grin slit her face wide open.
‘No.’ Rosie backed away.
Ms Peabody stood. Silver talons slashed through her. Her skin folder outwards and her insides were black. Rosie watched Ms Peabody turn inside out. The thing before Rosie was not a woman anymore, but a horrendous giant bird with hooked feet and beady little eyes. A scream pierced Rosie’s ears. ‘Mama!’
Mama was behind her pulling her away. Rosie saw black feathers and brown muck dripping, she saw teeth and blood, she heard bones rattle. Ms Peabody screeched and came for them. The smell! It smelled like burning bodies. Rosie ran for the door.
The fields were her friend, aiding an escape through brush, grass and trees. Her mother in tow, Rosie ran. And ran.
And ran …
Rosie shrank down under a fallen trunk. ‘What was that? Get down, Mama, you need to hide!’ Rosie spoke in an urgent whisper. She pulled at Mama’s dress, ‘Please, get down. That thing will get us. Aren’t you afraid?’
‘Afraid of what, Rosie?’ Mama huffed. What were you running from, sweetheart? You’ve got me scared out of my wits.’
‘Ms Peabody. She …’
She turned into a giant bird monster and wanted to eat us!
Rosie paused and watched Mama exhale and brush her apron. Then it hit Rosie, like when she jumped off the bridge and plunged into the water below. ‘I saw something that maybe wasn’t real,’ she breathed.
Mama pulled her up and into a hard embrace. She kissed Rosie’s head. ‘It sounds like you saw something awful.’
‘It was. Ms Peabody turned into a bird.’ Rosie began to sob. ‘A horrible black bird.’
Mama nodded her head. ‘Always birds.’
‘What’s wrong with me, Mama?’ she managed to say between sobs.
‘Rosie, let’s do this again. Ms Peabody is your psychologist. She’s here to help you remember what happened to Papa and Chris.’ Rosie held her breath. An image flew into her head. It was Papa. He was on the ground, and a murder of crows pecked at his twisted dead body.
Rosie stared at the roof of the old farmhouse, and Mama was warm beside her in bed making soft snoring sounds. Side by side they lay, and Rosie held a hand on her heart.
Side by side they lay, where her father should’ve been. Not me.
His rough beard grazing with kisses, his enormous arms encircling and holding so tight one could hardly breathe. The smell of the farm on him. The deep baritone voice talking of sun, and beasts, rain and crops.
She should hear her brother’s snores rumbling through the house like an earthquake. She giggled at that. But she wouldn’t hear those snores again.
Tomorrow they could stop setting four places at the table. Her mother could stop cooking so much food, gone to waste, for so many months now. She could stop pretending that her father and brother were ever coming home.
It was a huge relief, and sleep came easily.
Rosie awoke the next day to the sound of magpies cawing. ‘Oh, shush, you!’ She heard a rustle coming from the kitchen, and jumped up quick to see if she could catch her father and brother before they went off to work, but she must have just missed them.