They say he was here. A horse under his legs and the world strapped on his shoulders, they say he came to rob and steal and rape and kill. They say he had the devil in his eyes and Eden in his smile, Irish blood in his veins and English blood on his hands. They say he cackled and cawed, hooted and howled, like the animal they say he is. A monster, a maniac, a murderer, a madman.
They say a lot about him. But they haven’t even seen him.
Violet Town wasn’t all daffodils and roses in those days. The shade of violet that seemed most popular was the one peppered on the cheeks of the women who asked their husbands not to drink so much. Violet women and violent men. I existed somewhere in between.
I left school when I was thirteen. My mother was pregnant with her fourth baby so I stayed home to work the land and wash the house — to weep when no one was watching. By the time I was sixteen my mother had three boys under the age of six as well as one over the age of forty.
“A matted beard and a stomach of whiskey,” she said to me once, clutching her hand over the sink as drops of scarlet dripped onto the broken plates below. “Doesn’t make a boy a man.”
I tried to teach my little brothers the things I knew they’d never be taught. I showed them love, showed them kindness. I showed them patience, showed them care. I taught them how to hug with both arms and to say thank you after every meal. I taught them how to laugh and to cry and that neither one is less manly than the other. I showed them who they could be,
even if the world told them otherwise. And I showed them all of this knowing full well that they may wake the next day and choose to learn from their father; where I once showed them humanity, they could soon show me the fisted knuckles of their fingers. There’d be nothing I could do.
Sunday was the Lord’s Day in Violet Town. The neighbours and their children performed their worship at the bricked building in town that doubled as a school on weekdays, and God’s house on the weekend. But my parents tended to worship of their own. My father’s temple was the one that served beer, and my mother’s was her house.
Sunday was laundry day for us. While girls my age crossed their hands in front of their chests and prayed on both knees, the only time I would kneel would be to heave my parents’ bedsheets from the washing basket. My mother and I would spend hours washing and pegging the linen in easy silence. We moved around each other like magnets; good girls performing our duties, never getting in the other’s way.
My brothers were a different story. Whether it was their age or their gender that allowed them to play tag, while blisters formed on both my hands — it didn’t matter. They weren’t to clean mess they were to make it. And today havoc sounded early. The cry of one of my brothers from inside the house interrupted the mindless mechanics of the laundry-hanging my mother secretly enjoyed. The cry was not one of upset or of hurt, it was the mere hollow cry of lacking attention.
My mother huffed heavily; air puffed from her nose and flicked stray hairs from her face. Where I used to feel sorry for my mother, I now only felt relief. If she was the one rocking a baby back to sleep, it meant it wasn’t me. I took the duvet cover she was holding, and she folded the mouldy pegs into my hand.
As much as four hands make hanging the laundry half as hard, there are few times in the day the only other breath I hear is the one whistling through the trees. And today, the wind danced. It threw the long grass around my calves, kissing the skin that poked beneath my hem. I stood there for a moment just to listen to the breeze. The crying from the crib inside ceased, or maybe I just couldn’t hear it anymore. What I heard instead were the whispers of the land, the whispers of tomorrow. The whispers of something, somewhere, beyond this washing line and laundry basket. Beyond dirty underwear and socks. Beyond here.
And then the breeze stopped whispering and the wind yelled. She called and shouted and threw her tantrum all around. She pulled at the linen, at the blankets and bloomers, at the blisters of the past hour. The duvet from my parents’ bed waved in the wind — with the determination that hope affords. I watched as it pulled and it tugged, wanting to escape. I couldn’t blame it.
And just like that, a peg snapped, and so did I. I ran after the corner of the duvet, the one dancing in the breeze. I jumped and I grabbed as it flew all around me. It was determined not to be captured by the hands that held it down. It mimicked the sway of the gum trees beyond it, the electricity of mother nature pointing it this way and that. I hitched up my hem and held my skirt to my thigh, my other hand tracing the track the duvet flew. The wind was laughing at me. I was sure I could hear it. Laughing at me as I danced in its lead, victim to its fun. And then the duvet was in my hand and the wind was no longer in my hair. It stopped like the abruptness of a joke that was no longer funny, the game was finally over. Things had stopped being funny to me a while ago now, but I let the wind have her laugh.
Still holding the hem of my skirt hitched up above the bruises on both knees, I tucked it into my bloomers and then pulled the duvet with both hands back to where it belonged on the line. I pegged the corner back up. It was now secure, even if the wind giggled some more. I wiped the mud from my face and the sweat from my brow. Only when the back of my palm traced my cheeks did I realise I was crying. Wet dribbles of tears and silent sobs to match. I looked around our yard and saw an odd sock poking out from where it oughtn’t. Now muddied and ruined, they collected stains in their attempts of escape, stains that now bore evidence of nothing more than their failure.
I turned back around to what clean washing remained in the basket, and that’s when I saw him. From the whispers and the warnings that echoed around town, one might have believed that he was the devil in a man. But what I saw was a boy, a boy of not quite twenty-two. A boy with a beard and a horse and a vengeance for blood, but a boy nonetheless.
He saw me too. Mud freckled my skin and tears kissed my face, my skirt still hitched above my knees. He saw the bruisers and the blisters, the violet and the violence, he saw the life that he once recognised. I saw the life I’d never have.
He dismounted his beast and stood not more than a few feet from me. I didn’t move—couldn’t move—but it was not out of fear. Where others before him may have frozen in terror, the stillness of the air between us was of mutual consent. A handshake shared in our gaze, an acknowledgment of a fellow soldier. We were playing the same side, understood the demands of battle, and we had now found each other on enemy grounds.
He bent down and picked up the duvet, now caked brown and yellow. I watched him straighten up, the holes at the elbows of his jacket ran ladders up his arms. I watched broken blood veins ebb and wane in his face. Violet bruises — an acknowledgement of the town he now visits. When I met his eyes with mine, I was almost shocked to find someone there. And looking at him, I could see what he saw of me. I could see the bruises and blisters, the blood and the mud. I could see all of the scratches and scars, every wound and every welt, and I could see that they were born not out of choice but forced necessity. He could see all of me.
He offered me the duvet, like a choice that wasn’t fatal. Extended in his hand, it felt almost easy to decline. Was there a question in his motion? Because there was a question on my lips. Take me with you, I was going to ask. But then, I didn’t because the piercing cry of my brother sounded, as if to assure me of my home. His cries penetrated the house, penetrated the agreement that no longer was shared between me and this boy. Like I ought to have done, I took the duvet and dropped it back into the basket. I took the hand that I was dealt and tried my best to play. But perhaps, like this boy, I shouldn’t have cared so much for the rules.
I turned toward the house and saw my mother picking up her baby. A screaming mess of arms and legs that would never thank her for giving up her life for his. I couldn’t do it. And so I turned back to the boy, to the one who plays his own game, to ask him if I could play too. But he was already gone.
My mother yelled from the door, “Who was that?”
“The one they all talk about,” I said. “The Kelly boy.”
“Well, you best get inside then. Finish hanging that up and help me get supper.”
My mother’s directions fell hollow. I heard them for what they were. Orders, commands, instructions to be followed. Every day is the same. I feed and wash and work for those around me. I provide a life to my blood when I am robbed of my own.
Wild boys tame horses and raise their middle finger to the law, not out of choice but necessity, out of the price they’ve bargained for the freedom they’ve bought. But I’m poor and a woman; the price will always be too high for me to even make a first bid.
I stood there where I saw him and watched the bush he disappeared into. I knew that everyday thereafter, the one regret I’d carry with me would be not having asked him the question that would forevermore be on the tip of my tongue.
But I didn’t ask him then, nor would I ask anyone ever. Because the boy I saw before me was there and then he was gone. With the horse beneath him and the world behind him, the boy I saw that day had an entire life ahead of him. An entire life to live in just four more years.
And the entirety of my life had ended, in just that moment. I lived and I breathed. And I ceased to live no more. Because whilst he behaved like an animal in the thicket of the bush, while he robbed and killed, raped and stole, while he rode free and far, beyond any property or washing line, I would stay here.
“Oh,” I said to myself, still watching the bush breathe. “Such is life.”