Title: Whip-Bird

Author: Virginia Were

In: Sport 14: Autumn 1995

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, April 1995, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 14: Autumn 1995



The woman builds a sandwich and thinks of what she will say when the man comes back. She hears the cry of the whip-bird and says, ‘The bush is taking over.’ She notices the lawn, a small uncertain square of green beside the house. The bush is encroaching on all sides, slowly reclaiming its territory. ‘There’s something I want to talk about,’ she says, practising the words before he returns. An old caravan subsides in the grass. This is where the man slept when he first arrived. On either side of the drive car bodies which belong to him are like the shells of previous lives. She can’t bear to throw anything out—a broken-toothed comb she uses to divide the horse’s mane, a cake of Sunlight soap knotted into an old stocking. She tells herself she should never have let him move into the house.

She looks around the lounge searching for the right words and sees two Siamese cats and a litter of kittens in a cardboard box. She needs someone to take care of the animals while she goes to town to see lawyers, financiers and bank managers. During the boom she made enough money to buy five acres on the edge of the Royal National Park. She cleared the land and built the house with the help of the man. Now she can no longer afford to make the mortgage repayments and the bank is threatening to foreclose. She looks at the crocheted rugs flung across the furniture and the ladder which is strung from the ceiling and draped with wet clothes and she remembers during the night she knocked a glass of milk off the bedside table in her sleep. Some days the illness makes her so tired she can’t get out of bed in the page 106 mornings. Her limbs are made of stone and her body is a boulder lying in the bed of a river. On other days her friends come to visit from Sydney. She meets them at the station and they notice the way she stands on the platform with her legs slightly apart as if she has a strong relationship with gravity. On days like this she is happy because she knows she can manage without him.

During the bush fires in ’94 they packed the car several times and prepared to leave. The phones were jammed and they listened to reports on the radio as a wall of flame leaped from the tops of the trees, crossing roads and rivers and eating into the National Park. Conflicting reports told them the fire was now on one side, now on the other; finally the roads were closed and they were surrounded by a ring of fire. They filled the gutters of the house with water and hosed down the roof. She decided they would stay and fight the fire until the last possible moment. Ash fell from the sky and at dusk the sun resembled a raspberry sweet. She tried to imagine what it would be like to lose the house.

She hears the car coming down the steep drive and wonders how she’s going to tell him.

He sits down at the table and she sees the tattoos on his arms and remembers how she used to like them—a woman’s name—not hers—and an eagle. Also a sailing ship heeled over in a stiff breeze, L O V E stamped across his knuckles. She wonders if she can live without him. When she first met him he told her, ‘I’m a flag and barrel man myself,’ and she saw his short, sturdy body crouched over the neck of a galloping horse. He leaned way out to one side—so far she was afraid he would fall. Wove in and out of a row of 40-gallon drums. He wore leather chaps and rowelled spurs, hand tooled boots. The tattoos were sharper than they are now—a deep Prussian blue. The flags snapped on the ends of the long, supple poles.

She gives him a sandwich and he reaches across the table and puts his thick hand on her arm and she begins to tell him how he must move out. ‘I’m tired,’ she says suddenly and the weight of his hand, its blunt, bitten thumb, pins her down. This gesture of love is unbearable. Her mind floats above the trees and she leaves her sentence trailing, unfinished in the wet, still air—the tendril of a creeper become unfixed from its host branch, dangling in space. He can’t hear her above the sound of the rain which has now begun to fall. ‘There’s something I have to tell you.’ She takes her arm out from underneath his hand and brushes a stray piece of hair out of her eyes. ‘Perhaps it’s not the right time,’ she offers and pushes back her chair and carries the lunch things inside.

page 107

She remembers the time they went to the thoroughbred sales at Randwick and he paced up and down the row of boxes peering through the steel bars at the unruly colts. He took her arm and tugged her in the direction of a black colt he liked the look of and she followed unwillingly, not sure whether to humour him or not. She had no intention of buying a colt. ‘I never want to own a stallion again,’ she said and her words were a physical blow which knocked all the wind out of him. He stood in front of the box and became a child. His shoulders collapsed and he began to whine. He felt a little flame of rage toward the woman who had forgotten about the colt and was now deep in conversation with someone she knew.

He pauses, puts his sandwich down on the edge of the plate with great care. He too is overcome by the weight of the moisture-laden trees, the heat and the chorus of cicadas, the cry of the whip-bird like the cracking of a whip. He stares hard at the bush trying to remember the question he was about to ask—some small detail in their lives, something about the truck perhaps—before she went inside. He can’t remember. Instead he touches his face, presses the hollow beneath his Adam’s apple. There is a thickness in his throat as he looks at the woman who he would like to be his wife. She stands at the sink with her back to him wearing a pair of pink rubber gloves and washes up. He rolls down his sleeves to cover the ship on his arm and goes inside to see what needs to be done.