Stone cairns

On bushwacking, wilderness and leaving some stones unturned.

Art by Isabella Henderson.

Joey’s burly right arm hangs out of the window, sizzling like a chop left on the barbie to blacken. The steering wheel is comically small in the grip of his left palm.

When the car hits Emu Plains, the sky falls open and the horizon fizzes blue. Heat reverberates across the land. The Big Smoke dissipates behind us.

Joey is the type of cunt liable to tell you he’s related to Ned fucking Kelly, and then pull a doctored family portrait out of his ass. So when he told me I couldn’t be a true revolutionary until I’d learned a few survival skills, I listened. ‘DIY culture mate’. Something about praxis and too many communist LARPs in Australia. Etcetera etcetera. 

Joey’s voice fills the space inside the beat-up Jeep, pressing me into the side door, bending my neck.

‘Pass us a dart, would ya?’

‘Thought you’d quit?’

‘Fucking hell cunt, I’m on holiday.’

‘I promise I won’t be your mum all trip.’

Joey’s cig extinguishes itself as all the air evacuates the vehicle. The vacuum pushes me into the folds in the seat. I sink into myself.

*  *  *

As we pass through the lower Blue Mountains, I flick through my mental photo album, hovering over childhood holiday shots.

  • The mangled chestnut tree in Grandma’s garden leans over into the neighbour’s backyard, bending the white picket fence, spying.
  • Silhouetted against an orange dusk sky, the ruins of Eurama Castle Estate look like the remnants of a Medieval fairy tale.
  • I am in front of a shed holding a freshly-chopped log like a prize barramundi.
  • Mum holds me, a mere baby, at Echo Point. Behind her the land falls away and eucalyptus trees bristle like the coat of an echidna, their emerald leaves shimmering in the breeze.

Among the photos are scribbles, jottings in the column, clunky poetry. I used to endlessly fantasise about these ancient mountains as a child. Some words are indecipherable now. Others stand out in bold: ‘Gondwana’, ‘untainted’, ‘wilderness’. But all those word vomits I did as a kid after returning from holidays in the Mountains are incomplete. There was always something sad about the Australian bush as if the trees were frowning at you. I never could capture that nuance.

Joey doesn’t have family memories. Not with his bloodline anyway.

*  *  *

We’ve been walking for two hours and already my forehead is clammy with sweat. My pack weighs heavy. Through the thick foliage, perpendicular rock faces rise like battlements. Bars of sunlight pierce the forest top and rescue us from the creeping cool of the afternoon. Joey strides ahead, machete poised like it’s a pirate cutlass. The sheath hangs from his Reebok bum bag. The head of a hatchet pokes out from the side pocket of his backpack. Sticks splinter under my boots.

As the sun sets, shadows jump at me. Leaves rustle in the wind but I otherwise hear only silence, as if the land has swallowed everything up and left it bare. Every turn in the track, every tree, looks the same. We could be retracing our steps for all I know. I crack open a tinnie as I walk.

The track narrows and suddenly the trees disappear and we are striding atop cliff ramparts. There is a stone cairn in front of us, protruding. The stones are smooth as if caressed and moulded across eons by wind. On the cliff’s edge, they stand resolute. I hover over the cairn, scared, for some reason, to touch it.

‘Probably some hiker’, Joey mutters.

I swear I hear voices. Whispering. Everywhere and nowhere.

‘Gimme a minute. I wanna get this on paper.’

Joey looks over his shoulder.

*  *  *

Allowed space to breathe around the campfire, I joke half-heartedly: ‘I’m bloody glad you got that machete.’

Joey agrees. ‘Nothing like a sword under your pillow to help you sleep at night.’

See, the nights sound different out here. I thought for hours that someone was following us along that track.

Joey is rambling now. Globs of saliva exit his mouth. He pauses to take swigs from a cup of Bourbon and Coke. ‘I built my own family… Practically built my own home too. You know I used to live in a squat right? When I ran away from home… That’s where I got all the tattoos and piercings… I wanted my foster parents to be scared of me if they ever saw me again… I wanted to see another person in the mirror.’ Joey stares deep into the fire as if trying to find a reflection of himself in the embers and flames. He recedes into his fold-out chair, his cup slanted at a precarious angle, leaking grog and swimming in a whirlpool of memories, fighting against the tides.

There is no magic word I can offer. All I can do is present a pair of ears.

Joey is still throwing words at me. I look at the pencil sketch in my hand. I’d sat down to capture the view from that cliff top as if I had some preordained duty as an art school student. But I spent more time swatting flies than sketching. I gave up before I even finished the fucking thing. I scrunch the paper into a ball and peg it in the fire.

*  *  *

When I crawl into my sleeping bag and go to sleep, I’m haunted by dreams of stone cairns.

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