From the perspective of the homeowner, if that’s what they were, it must have appeared as if we were taking refuge in the dense scrub just beyond the fringe of the clearing. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for the homeowner, standing at the edge of twenty plus acres of clear-felled land, to assume we’d stolen away into the lantana’s fray from their side of the invisible median hovering silently between us. Neither would it have been unreasonable for the owner – or occupant – of a home so put upon by scrub, with all its implied burrows, creeping stick figures, and lurching shades of menace, to reach the conclusion we were escaping, or absconding from their side of the fringe into the dark cover of underbrush. After all, we were scurrying, and scurrying is among the most suspicious of activities.
The homeowner (perhaps the homeowner’s gardener) – the figure in the clearing – must have wondered why our bodies hunched over as we picked our way through the undergrowth. No one would blame them for wondering if we’d assumed such a uniform crouch-step because our bodies were bent around articles of heavy-duty technical equipment, entertainment systems, or bundles of inherited silverware we were in the process of spiriting away from the homestead’s treasury.
Though of course we had in fact been stealing, both in the sense of moving surreptitiously, and because we each felt our sudden appearance in the brambles had stolen something abstract from the gardener, homeowner, or occupant. Something like their sense of security. We had not, however, stolen any material thing or things, and nor did we intend to, though the figure reacted as if we had, or were planning to. It had stood bolt upright and pointed its gardening shears at a threatening angle, which led us, in later conversations, towards a shared belief that the figure was indeed a homeowner or occupant, or one of a group of homeowners or occupants, rather than a gardener, such was its visible distress at our near-incursion (which, we later agreed, it seemed to take for an incursion). Though at the same time, the figure was dressed and visibly behaved in the role of a gardener, which we later discussed and agreed was something homeowners or occupants might be prone to do when engaged in the task of gardening – to assume the role, for a time, as both a practical and pleasurable pursuit, of one whose vocation it is to garden, rather than one who merely owns or occupies gardens.
As we retreated, we later recalled, each of us had separately, secretly hoped the figure was a gardener. It came out in conversation that we each held the private belief – one we each believed we’d heard on some half-forgotten broadcast, in a language not entirely our own – that homeowners and even authorised occupants were permitted to shoot-to-kill, whereas gardeners, groundskeepers and other personnel were not. And although we knew first-hand we hadn’t trespassed (having merely skirted a boundary), we had each seen that the gears inside the figure’s mind were turning in a world in which we had, and that the gears were clicking from room to room in the homeowner or occupant’s mental diorama of the big white house, mapping its way to the last place it remembered seeing a shotgun or a rifle.
Sometime earlier we had emerged, as usual, as if from nowhere into another clearing. This one we’d navigated many times before, on many previous expeditions. It was an area cordoned off by high, weeping branches. On many occasions it was populated with butterflies in mutual orbit, orange-winged and multitudinous, other times with pale yellow moths, and often with no visible signs of life save for the mushrooms and mosses on its damp logs. For some reason we never crossed the clearing directly, but edged carefully round its often empty, sometimes moth- or butterfly-filled, bower. Later, back at camp, we each confessed our reasons for avoiding the space in the middle of the clearing where the weeping trees poured their obscene surplus of leaves, where leaves of different colours changed colours at different rates, and where leaves covered leaves upon leaves until finally those deepest down were indistinguishable from the soil underneath.
One reason was the snake and its camouflage. Another was the threat of spring-loaded traps. And there was also the possibility, more alive in some minds than others, of mud with the properties of quicksand underneath the leaves. A story had made the rounds of a horse and his boy so hopelessly mired they’d both had to be shot, though personally I’d always assumed the rumour originated with parties unknown, who wished to keep our expeditions from crossing paths with their own.
My stated reason was true and simple: I was raised to revere the middles of clearings, and harboured a long-standing superstition about crossing them.
What none of us expected, we determined collectively, was for one of us to deviate from the edge on a particular day some weeks before we came upon the figure at the edge of their garden, and for all of us to hear their crunching footfalls turn suddenly hollow in the midst of perishing leaves.
When that unexpected turn of events transpired, we all rushed to the middle of the area and raked away the dry, wet, red, green, brown, and yellow leaves. Beneath the leaves was a warped construction panel composed of some variety of compressed natural fibre, half rotted through. Wordlessly we felt out each of its edges, found our purchase on an edge, and wordlessly lifted on the silent count of three.
The opening we revealed was deeper than the tallest of us by half, roughly straight-sided, with a length about one-and-a-half times its width. The sides were sheer, and its floor was covered with leaves of various colours, in various stages of decomposition. Apart from the leaves, the cavity was completely empty.
It was too big to be a grave, or too big a grave to bear thinking of. Apart from the lid there was no evidence of manmade materials that might have pointed towards it having been used as a stockpile or shelter. There were no steps carved in the muddy sides, and no ladder. From the condition of the leaves on the floor it appeared to have been open to the elements relatively recently, but from the density of leaves atop the board we removed, not very recently. Besides, we had passed round the edge of this clearing on what must have amounted to hundreds of occasions, and none of us, we later confirmed, had anything beyond a superstitious belief there might be something in the middle, let alone something that was not a thing at all, but an absence thereof. A rectangle of earth missing from the ground, or a rectangle of ground missing from the earth, no spoil from the hole anywhere in sight. The purpose of the hole seemed entirely unknowable, though it occurred to us later, we agreed, that it may have been the case that its purpose was simply unrealised at that time.
The various reasons why none of us volunteered to clamber into the excavation and explore its interior were never discussed. Eventually I concluded that the reason we did not discuss this, and why we wordlessly shifted the board back over the hole and wordlessly distributed the leaves back over its surface, was because the reasons were not entirely various, and because each of us was better served by the quiet unanimity of our actions than by puncturing the illusion of not knowing why we were compelled to do it. I believe each of us feared the very same thing. I cannot be sure how I know this, except to assert that there were in fact discussions that took place, but not with words. Each of us was afraid, I believe, of being wordlessly elected to be lowered by our wrists and dropped to the opening’s leaf-covered floor, only to be confronted with the hollow board of a false bottom.
I noticed at the time, and have cause to believe others noticed too, and have not mentioned since, and have not heard mentioned since, how a great number of what we perceived as leaves when we were uncovering the board turned out to be the bodies of butterflies and moths when we were covering it back over.
After the encounter with the homeowner-like figure at the northern frontier, having made our way back to camp (which involved skirting the clearing we each had our reasons, individually and now collectively held, to skirt) and having warmed the last of the hidden tins from our stockpile, we gather in to watch the fire swallow its tongue, and eventually I fall to dreaming about the figure. I dream first it is a gardener after all, and that the gardener keeps a journal of his dreams. He drinks black tea and makes daily entries in sloppy cursive at a small table with peeling paint in the warmest corner of his lean-to on the far side of the clearing of the big house. Nothing truly comes out of nowhere, he writes, with very few exceptions. A cyclist comes out of nowhere, so that the truck driver, if his blind spot is lined up perfectly over the threshold through which the cyclist passes, never sees her coming. The truck comes out of its own field of nowhere, and the cyclist, if her blind spot aligns to the same nowhere meridian from its opposite pole, will likewise fail to clock the truck. A kangaroo on a highway comes out of nowhere. A hand on a shoulder in what was thought to be an empty room. The bright colours of an algal bloom.
He rests his pen in such a way that it intersects the centre of the circle of his saucer while he pauses to sip his tea. He is trying to find a way to describe faces he saw emerging from the scrub in a dream he had last night.
When two otherwise visible objects in motion emerge on a collision course from within each other’s blind spots, where could they be said to have met?
The homeowner or occupant, or co-homeowner, or co-occupant – whether this was the figure playing gardener at the edge of the bush, or another unseen figure watching from one of the homestead’s high windows – must, we agreed, we believed, have been fundamentally mistaken about the terms and origins of what, had the figure not been mistaken, they might have termed a “near incursion”.
We hadn't come, as we believed him to believe, from his side of the space between him and us and moved north along the hidden fenceline in the moments before he spotted our faces in the scrub and locked eyes with each of us in turn. We'd come the long way through. We were as afraid of him as he was of us. We were as afraid of him, of his razor sharp shears and hypothetical rifle, and of his ambiguity in relation to the house, as he was of us, of our faces among the native flowerheads bobbing in the deep shadows, and of what in his mind we might have intended to take, or what in his mind we might have already taken and made off with from the huge white house coming apart at its corners, hunkered on its emerald patch in what must have eventually come to be seen by the man standing at the topmost length of its longest edge, trying to remember the faces that still come to him in dreams, as an unwelcome intrusion of light.
Mitchell Welch is a writer originally from Brisbane, Australia. He currently lives in Melbourne and spent the last seven years working as the communications manager at a cemetery trust. He currently works as a freelance communications consultant. His work has been published in a range of journals including Antipodes, Arena, The Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite, Meanjin, Overland, Rabbit and Southerly. His website is www.mitchellwel.ch.