It is time to wake after a night on a sinking mattress, the cold earth grabbing at her bones like arthritis. The zip shrieks twice, once to let her out, and again to close up against the dawn. She does not want anyone to wake. Six a.m. is not for answering questions.
The path leads quickly into the bush, a straggling line of ochre that is flanked by mallee gums and scrappy melaleuca bushes, patchy with large rocks. She kicks at them, thinking that this is the ground she slept on. Rough enough. The path climbs upwards, and she can feel the damp heaviness of the night in her face, behind her eyes. She pulls the woollen beanie over her ears. Back at the campsite there is an owl that hoots constantly, like a feathery metronome. Here there is nothing – silence. The long night matters less, here, but it is still stiff within her, creaking as she climbs.
The trail loops around to run across the ridge of the range. The rolling hills have been smoothed by coastal winds like pebbles in surf. It’s all low scrub up here – tough, drought resistant plants with spiny, scratchy foliage. There is a dull ache in her neck. There are wildflowers up here, too, little prickles of colour against the rocky brown earth. The bright star of native bluebell. The lemony buds of false boronia. Spiny mallee bush peas blooming amber and blood red. Even the samphire has long thin green leaves that spin purple at the tip; and the cassia bushes bubble with fierce yellow cups. The virtue of rain. She did not bring any water – she wanted to have free hands to swing as she strides, unfettered, along the crest of the hill. She catches sight of the ocean – a snatch of hazy salt-blue splaying out from the plains to the west. The morning smells of wet clay.
They took a hike as a family the day they arrived, a short loop around an old homestead guided by information panels scorched by the long, hot summers, the paint buckled and cracked like old parchment. The day was cold and dark. Heavy clouds hung low above the patchy paddocks, blown in by strong winds and threatening rain. “It’s creepy,” her son said mulishly, stopping on the track. Her daughter pointed out a pet cemetery on the faded map and he shook his head, refusing to go further. One information panel explained that the area was originally leased as “waste lands of the crown”. Barren, miserable plains, the early colonists wrote. The final information panel had been obliterated by the sun, and was simply a mounted rectangle of bleached paint. It was almost beautiful as a map of cracks, with hundreds of streets of grey criss-crossing the panel where the paint had shrunk, the larger slabs looking like tiny parks, or lakes. In the bottom right-hand corner there was a very faint remnant of a roundel. She could just make out the words “fatal”, “pastoral” and “despair” bleached between the cracks.
At the top of the hill she sits stiffly on a small wooden bench that overlooks the valley and the forest. She can track the creek by the line of redgums that run along the bank. They had looked monstrous in the night, their dead limbs, split trunks and burnt out boles all welded together like hideous scrap-metal sculptures. The giant eucalypts with gnarled limbs are dormant in drought conditions, sprouting new leaves at the tips of their creaking, ancient branches when the floods come. Ready to sleep, ready to wake. On the other side of the dry creek bed is a field of Salvation Jane – a scratchy, vibrant weed that erupts purple and turns blue as the flowers die. It forms a haze of violet that carpets the valley between the low ochre cliffs and the native pines. After locating the creek and the cliffs she stretches out to lie down and stare up at the sky. Can you fix an ache with all this space? she wonders. If she lay here long enough, would she rise warm, rested, satisfied?
She begins to sniff, and scrambles around in her pockets for tissues. She finds an old one, crumpled with use, and blows her nose, getting her fingers wet with stringy snot. She wipes them on her hoodie. She peels herself up off the bench. She does not ever feel more beautiful than she does up here, on these trails. There is an impossibility to the space that feels somehow reckless – those faraway mountains, the vaulting sky, the armfuls of coast all stretching out from where she stands. Her feet on the rusty red track looping her away from – and then back to – the campsite. How far away is the ocean? How long would it take to get there on foot?
There is a jogger coming up the trail she takes, pulsing up the mountain in short, muscular bounds. She steps out of the way to leave a comical amount of space, almost tumbling down the hill in her effort to demonstrate how accommodating she is of this athletic endeavour. She smiles encouragingly but the jogger is looking upwards in grim concentration. The memory of running. Could she make it up this hill? She glances back up the trail. Whatever she lacked in fitness she knew she could make up for in dumb determination. She stretches her arms out like a bird, as if testing the wind patterns for take-off.
There is a long moment of stillness. Nearby, a silver banksia, charred black at the base by bushfire, shakes its sweet, pale cylinders in the breeze. She turns suddenly on her heel and starts to stride down the hillside, her steps quickening. Perhaps they will be awake. She imagines her son in the camping chair that is too big for him, his legs dangling under a bowl of warm Weetbix. Her husband rubbing his hands above the steam of the kettle, her daughter balancing on a fallen log. But when she arrives the campsite is silent. She takes a long drink from the water bottle next to the gas stove, watching a small wallaby in the creek bed that is also watching her. She hears the quick whine of the zipper, and her son pokes his head out sleepily. “Hello Maman,” he says, his voice thick with sleep, and he scrambles quickly out of the space he has unzipped for himself and into her arms.