There’s a Songbird That Sings
‘Look. An old hut.’ 25-year-old Robert knelt behind a eucalypt tree. His arm out protective of Leora his 21-year-old girlfriend. They have been on foot traversing the rugged mountain range since they fled the large mushroom cloud that rose above the capital city. Madness and mayhem, a constant stalker tracking their every move. Young and vulnerable, Robert’s father made him a promise to not trust others as advantage would be taken. In the weeks that followed Robert’s survival skills have been redeeming.
‘The glass windows are intact; it hasn’t been looted. See the weeds growing on the door’s steps? I don’t think anyone has been here for a while. Stay here hidden, and I’ll suss it out. Only call if you are in danger.’
Leora watches as Robert walks within the shade of gum trees that ring the shack. Can’t be an old farm, she considers, no paddocks for livestock. Only sun warming the flat half hectare of shaggy grass that is the house block. Robert wipes dirty windows to peer in. He attempts the front door, and to his surprise it opens without a sound. Quickly inside, a light dust covers basic furniture reminds him of his pensioner grandfather’s house sparse, but neat. He rifles the kitchen cupboards to discover a pantry stocked with tin foods and dried vegetables, flower, baking ingredients and resealable containers of different pastas; others filled with most tempting aromas of herbs and spice. In another room he discovers a bathtub and dreams. The bedroom door is ajar with apprehension. With a light press, it opens to present a skeleton relaxed in a brown checked suit with his hands folded over his chest on the bed. As he approaches the deceased, Robert finds a framed old photo of a young couple smiling in their wedding attire. ‘I hope you don’t mind sir but, we could use solid shelter. This is the best place to hide for now.’ The skull lolls to the left in a gesture of welcome.
Leora sprints across open grass after the relief of Robert’s signal of ‘all is safe’. She’s excited, ‘A real home.’ Her eyes bright. ‘I wonder who owns it?’
‘I’ll introduce you to our host.’
She grips his arm. ‘There’s someone here?’
‘Nothing to be afraid off…’
He takes her by the hand and leads her into the bedroom. Fascination replaces fear as she too lifts the photograph to study. ‘Poor man all on his own.’
‘Maybe his choice.’
‘We can’t sleep in here. Is there any food?’
‘Months’ worth. Come and have a look.’
They wait for darkness before lighting the combustion stove not wanting to attract attention with visible smoke. For the first time in recent memory, they can sit to enjoy a cooked meal off a table.
The next day, Robert discovers filthy, leaf covered solar panels on the roof, deep cycle batteries in a garden shed at the rear of the shack. What remains of the vegetable patch will take some weeding. By mid-afternoon they had enough power to spark L.E.D. lights within. By four of the clock, they laid Mr Reggini to rest facing the warm Autumn sun. Leora takes the dirty dinner plates to the kitchen on return finds Robert with pen in hand, a very rough map of the ghost gum forest that excels at this height along the eastern range.
‘Tomorrow I’ll scout the land to find roads or see if others might be nearby. I will make it harder for us to be found and see if I can find a shielded way out if we need a quick exit.’
Curtains drawn, the dawn of a new age where light from the sun can illuminate the night. In each other’s arms, talk of an imagined comfort in one place, security a distant dream. Tonight, they rest with hope and belief in each other.
Leora has her evening meal ready for cooking. Scanning the surrounds for any movement as the afternoon shade grows long below silent breeze, she watches. From the north he approaches silent. He can feel her eyes on him. We have become so close. She opens the door, and they hug long and sensual.
‘We’ve struck it lucky, there is no roads within five miles and the track leading here is very basic. No sign of anybody. Mr Reggini didn’t want to be found.’ He unrolls his paper map to show. ‘The way I see it, we’re in the high country. The old cattle properties below us are in the decline stage so, the population would be minimum. We have scored big time.’
‘Start the fire and I’ll cook, then show you some of the museum pieces I found today.’
Robert dries and stores dishes, putting on the kettle for tea.
His look questions her sanity.
‘It’s a C.D. stereo. I’ve tried the radio with no return. The only thing that works is the C.D. Funny though the door won’t open and it is stuck on one song.’
‘Bullshit. One song? Just my luck.’
‘Interesting song though. I found myself playing it over and over. It’s not like anything I’ve heard before.’
‘Don’t be a fool. Yes and no.’
‘Yes and no what?’
‘Mystical. Listen. Hear the words he sings.’
‘Who is it?’
‘Wow. Hard punching guitar. My Dad had a heap of that style of rock.’
‘Yeah, but weird with its placid beginning and spectacular crescendo. Its premise starts weirdly. What sort of woman thinks that all that glitters is gold?’
‘I would say a woman from the high socio-economic area. You know, where you came from…’
‘Funny boy. We were middle class, not wealthy. You’re a graduate, what does that make you?’
‘A smart urban boy with attitude.’
‘Well, bless my grandmother. I’ve got a challenge ahead.’
‘Yep, but you won’t be bored.’
After the wakening chorus of birdsong, Robert returns within the first hour of light over the horizon to a welcomed breakfast of warmed powdered milk over wheat biscuits and prized honey.
‘There’s no smoke or movement to be seen from upon the bluff. My old mate certainly knew his biz for being lost. There’re 6000 litres of water, half a shed of cut timber. A couple days in the veggie patch and a bit of water we might have some tomatoes soon. Shame about the chooks. I’ll need to track down the key for the garage.’
‘How long can we keep this up? Sooner or later, we are going to need others. What about a doctor or a dentist? We’re not Adam and Eve.’
He rises to hold her. Gently he lifts her chin, so their eyes meet. ‘I have you and you have me. We’ll find the others later. First, we must get secure. Not today. I declare it a day of rest. Let’s enjoy a bit of quiet time together.’ Their lips meet.
Her nakedness is highlighted by the last of the orange sunrays through the western window of the bedroom. He smiles as she exits, the aroma of freshly washed hair lingers. It occurs to him this is the first time in vague days they have been free from hunting or hiding. On her return she reminds him if he wants a hot dinner. The fire must be ignited. Again, with the curtains drawn, the table lamp brightens their night. Robert instructs Leora in the finer manoeuvres of euchre.
She throws down her cards in loss. ‘I still can’t get anything on the radio. No ABC, nothing. Even if we were invaded, they would have some propaganda blasting over the air waves. We can’t be left to waste away. What’s happened to my family? The dogs, my friends, and neighbours? We can’t be on our own.’ She drops her head.
With a serious numbness, he wraps his hand over hers, his thoughts change from running to tactical conception.
Later in the dark as they lay in bed on a clean mattress. ‘I suppose it is arrogance.’
‘What?’ asks Robert.
‘That woman. She believes with a word she can get anything. How privileged can you get? You can’t buy a house in heaven and expect all the doors to be thrown open for you.’
‘Are you going to keep listening to that one song?’
‘It’s got something to say, and I want to know what it means.’
‘Yeah, it’s good song. I suppose I can sympathize with its sound. It offers comfort to be found.’ Wrapping her in his arm. ‘Your challenge this week is to decode the lyrics and find the circumstances into which it foretells.’
‘Right and every evening you will be required to pose questions and answers to my endeavours. Funny. A friend of mine, Patty, she is or was an Aries. She didn’t believe in any of the Zodiac. Yet that sounds just like her. An artificial confidence that carried her forward in strength yet, too easily, she lost confidence when struck by words that hold two meanings. So, it starts with a woman who has inflated attitude and yet, in the back of her mind whispers of doubt over misgiven thoughts.’
‘Sounds like a superiority complex if you ask me.’
‘Yeah, you’d know all about that.’
‘But no doubts.’
‘You and your ego can sleep on that side of the bed tonight.’
The next day’s cloudless blue sky brings warmth and comfort as Leora watches Robert lift the hoe high to remove rampant grass and other weeds from the vegie patch. She sips tea and ponders her man’s endurance. How long can they last here? Will he be able to provide? She doesn’t want children; she’s too young. He stays tight lipped about his family. They lost their phones, medicines, and maps in a creek crossing. How long before he weakens?
‘Since you’ve work hard today, I’ll cook you a special pasta meal, then you can have a shallow hot bath to relax with.’
‘I suppose I have to break my back to earn my day of leisure. Come summer you might find yourself out there with me.’
He exits the bathroom and wipes the moisture from his hair and ponders the seriousness of her studies. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing. I have written down the words from that song. Are you ready?’
‘Of course.’ He hopes this will keep her from worry.
‘He sings about a feeling when looking to the west because, his spirit cries to leave.’
‘Nice to know which country he came from.’
‘What religion has a meaning or deity in the west?’
‘That’s not in my realm, Jesus, I didn’t like Sunday School. However, it could be like the elephant graveyard. You know, go west to die in the unknown.’
She looks at him, ‘Or Avalon. Hmmm, well, drugs or meditation? Seeing rings of smoke through the trees.’
‘What’s the next line?’
‘The voices of those who stand witness.’
‘Okay, let surmise it is spiritual. Forget about his death. When he meditates, he sees a gathering in the forest? Are they performing a ceremony, are they giving thanks, are they creating? It must be important for those who witness to make comment. And on that thought who are they who witness? They themselves could give authority to what is happening.’
‘Well, the only thing we know is that he himself is a witness. He doesn’t give much away. The next verse says, its rumoured if WE ALL call the tune.’
‘Well, that’s solidarity. Not in this day he won’t.’
‘Yes, but what could lead us to be united?’
‘Those of us who get to live after the rise of the mushroom cloud.’
She clenches the paper; her eyes bore deep into him. He bows his head to think, you’re not helping dickhead. ‘What’s the next line?’ He pleads.
‘Then a Piper will lead us to reason.’
He smiles, ‘Then we all need to call the tune as we need a piper. I only know of two pipers, and it won’t be the one from Hamelin. The other is interesting. It is a story about the piper at the gates of dawn I remember from childhood. A God of some sort who is benevolent to those who share sentient reasoning of equality.’
Her stare is deep. ‘Now I get it. If we all give equality to other lives and they to us, we will hear the grace of God.’
‘You weren’t enrolled in philosophy. How did you work that out?’
‘It’s in the music.’
‘And that is reinstated by the next line which he says, ‘a new day will come for those who believe and again the world will fill with laughter’.’
As they spoon in bed the last rays of an early moon filter through leaves onto the carpeted floor. She whispers, ‘You are right. Even before the bomb we needed unity, equality, and vision to be the best we can be.’
‘I like it when you hold me close.’
Shaking the shack through the light of dawn the thunder of rotary wings has him leaping from bed. ‘Where are you? Get away from the window now. Lie here on the floor next to me. Have you rekindled the fire?’
‘No, I was going to the loo.’ She whispers through shaking hands that hide the words so no other can hear. The Helicopter circles the house twice then slips away over the treetops. They wait until the fear from the sky disappears.
‘What does this mean?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Hopefully, they were using heat scanners. With the fire cold and us under the furniture they wouldn’t see us. It’s hard to tell. I don’t know when they will come. We are going to have to be more vigilant. Come on. Let’s get our stuff and hide for the day and see what happens.’
Leaving their backpacks hidden on the bluff, they walk several kilometres to the road. At the apex that divides the shallow glens they stop to rest and listen. The sun is gentle and warm and holds the vague hope all is well. ‘We’ll camp up on the bluff tonight in case they spring an early morning raid. If they don’t show by then, we might have gotten away without be detected.’ With only what they could carry, another night hiding from the cold fingers of wind in the cracks of rock with no fire holds little relief.
The next afternoon they return to little disturbance from anyone but, the wind spirits. With their plan of action decided they search the house for the keys to the garage. Three hours later with no results, Robert decides to force open the doors. But, how with undue noise? After half an hour of foraging though the shed he discovers a jemmy bar. ‘Woohoo, this’ll do.’
Robert worked hard on the farm for his father. He went to the gym with his mates at Uni but, this door refused to open, try as hard as he might, frustration slowly eats his energy.
‘Come on babe, it is getting dark. We need to eat. Come and light my fire. That can wait till tomorrow.’
‘Well, I never knew you could cook baked beans so many ways. How did you get them so creamy and salty tonight?’
‘I suppose, you country boys have never heard of Anchovy fillets.’
‘Oh yeah, on a ham and pineapple pizza. Goes down great with beer.’
‘Right.’ She pulls out her crumpled paper with the lyrics and notes and starts to examine with meticulous care.
He shrugs his shoulders and asks, ‘What’s next?’
‘And it makes me wonder.’
‘Yeah, for about a week now.’
She looks at him. He has learnt the meaning of facetious.
‘Don’t be alarmed by the noise in the undergrowth. It is a clean for the May Queen.’
‘Do you mean Spring clean?’
‘The goddess of flower appears in spring, well at least in the euro climes. At least that is the old stories from my grandmother’s day.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘That’s what grandmother’s do. Tell stories to get young children to sleep, so they can put their feet up.’
‘There are two roads you can go by.’
‘You go the high road and I’ll go the low road and I’ll get there before ye.’
‘What drugs are you on?’
‘It’s an old Scott’s song. When you metaphorically break it down it basically means the right road as opposed to the wrong road. The path of light rather the calling of darkness. The good road that leads us to love.’
She blinks several times and continues. ‘He believes there is still time to change our direction, to go to the road of light.’ She looks to the words. ‘I know this one. Your head is humming, and it won’t go. It is that feeling of not belonging; you are unable to guess what you are missing. Maybe the lure of the west and the unheard sound of the Piper calling.’
He looks but doesn’t comment at her excitement.
‘Can you hear the wind blow? Your stairway lies on the whispering wind.’
Their eyes’ contact does not waver. And through the silence the wind whispers stories of old when magic filled the air. At the door, a knock, although both know it is not anyone. She reveals, ‘The truth is out there. Do we find our way in nature? Does mother nature talk to us through the whispers of wind in tree leaf? Who have we shut ourselves away from?’
‘I’m off to bed. Don’t stay up too late. I’m going to attack the garage again in the morning. Good night my beauty.’
As she lies wide eyed beside his limp body, multiple images run her mind and she decides she must learn to meditate.
A cold breakfast sees Robert leave before the first rays of sunlight taking purchase. His scouting now brings familiarity and swiftness.
On his return in the late afternoon, he finds Leora scrubbing clothes by hand, long gone are the fingernails of elegance. ‘What’s it like out there?’
‘Quiet,’ he replies, ‘this really is a great spot to be lost. There is open grassland over the low hill. I’ve seen wallabies on the hop. Now to figure how to capture them. We could use fresh meat. Is there hot water? I’ll make a cuppa.’
‘All right, I’ll see if that garage door is willing to open.’
‘I made biscuits last night; would you like a couple?’
A half bucket wash has become something to look forward to at the end of the day. Robert emerges from the bathroom to find Leora on the floor sprawled backwards over the sofa. He shakes his head and proceeds to light the stove. The racket he makes could wake the dead. He turns to find her in the doorway.
‘Washing that tiresome?’
‘No,’ she stares, ‘I was meditating.’
‘Sleeping more like it.’
‘Did you get into the garage?’
‘Oh well, don’t worry. I will show you how in the morning.’
They eat a quiet meal. Their eyes lost in the night yet, hers shine. Under the lamp on the table, she again reveals her project of hidden meanings. ‘This is where the big guitar solo starts then the lyrics of the last two verses are sung in the upbeat crescendo.’
He starts to tap his fingers on the table as the melody floods his mind.
She starts, ‘As we travel down the road our shadows taller than our souls.’
He smiles, ‘The road is easy that’s life. But our souls… How do you measure one’s soul?’
‘That’s what they do at funerals. I suppose it is what is in our souls that makes is what we are. Good people give; give to others and to themselves. Say a tall soul. Then the greedy or predatory are directionless with small souls and no light. Does he relate the two paths? I get it; if we travel the path of light, we enrich our souls. If we choose the other, we are bound to linger in the darkness the weaker.’
He looks at her, his admiration cannot hide. He leans back in his chair and remains silent.
She continues. ‘There is a lady we all know with white light who wants to show how it all turns to gold. What lady do we all know? It can’t be God; isn’t he supposed to be a bloke?’
‘That’s great coming from a feminist.’
She screws her hand into the other. ‘Mother, Mother Earth, that’s what mothers do show us the way through life, through freedom and they give and give. The lady with the light must be Mother Earth.’
‘I can’t find an argument in that,’ He nods slowly.
‘And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last. When one is all and all is one, to be a rock and not to roll.’
She leans back in her chair to stare at him. ‘United in the light with the gentle guidance of our mother. That is the way we will find our path forward.’
He stares at her, and she replies, ‘You need to start meditating.’
‘You got all that through meditating?’
‘Humbleness prevents me from being critically passionate. That and more.”
‘More? More what?’
‘Like the keys to the garage and the car that lies within.’
‘Oh, really? What magic has enlightened you oh great swami?’
‘Where do you leave your car keys?’
‘On my bedside table, so?’
‘And when they are not there?’
‘In my pocket.’
‘So, where do you think Mr Reggini has his keys?’
‘We checked his pockets in his pants, his coats, all his clothes.’
‘Really, before you lay down to die, will you empty your pockets of your closest possessions?’
He sits bolt upright and stares at her. His jaw moving but no voice. He smiles and grabs her hand. ‘You are a genius. Of course, that’s where they are: in his bloody pocket. He thrusts back the chair as he stands.
‘They’ll still be there tomorrow. Why rush?’
He walks around the table, their eyes never parting; he takes her in his arms, their lips meet.
And she’s finding her Stairway to Heaven.
A late start works patience as their wait for the sun to warm the ground. The shovel gently reveals Mr Reggini’s midriff, his pants pocket searched to be relieved of a ring of keys and a hundred dollars in cash bound by St Christopher. ‘Once again, we would like to thank you, Mr Reggini, for your generosity. God bless your soul.’
‘Didn’t like Sunday School.’
‘I was always taught respect. And this man has provided us with sanctuary.’
The green camouflaged garage door swings wide to reveal an old army Land Rover, its tyres bulge from low pressure. ‘No wonder I couldn’t get in. It’s like a bank vault. He tries a light switch, and the fluorescent lights shine bright. Straight away he lifts the bonnet to discover a diesel engine. ‘Oh, you beauty.’ Then opens the driver’s door to discover a dead flat battery. After a search he pulls out jumper leads. ‘Our Mr Reggini is smart. Not a lot of tools but all the right ones. I’ll take the battery out and see if it will take charge from the deep cycles. Then with a bit of backbone I’ll use the hand pump to inflate the tyres then check all the oils and hopefully tomorrow morning we’ll have ignition.’
She smiles at him then leans forward and kindly kisses his cheek. ‘I’ll go and get a special treat ready after a hard day’s work to celebrate.’ Leora leaves not as happy as he is. Even if the car runs, where do they go? But now his spirit is strong, she maintains her honour. After he has washed and eaten, they sit at the table to ponder.
‘What do you want to do now you have resolved the riddle of the song?’
‘If only there was more.’
‘Let me have a look at that C.D. player.’
‘Don’t break it.’
He looks at her. She knows.
He pulls the system forward and starts pull and push then looking at the back he says. ‘Where’s the antenna for the radio?’
‘I didn’t see one. I thought it must be built in.’
He lies on the ground under the small table. Grunts and pulls and mumbles to himself. He then stands and fiddles then sits in front of it. He presses a button. The lights come on. He pushes another.
Good evening, this is ABC news with the six o’clock National bulletin. Today marks the 50th day since the horrific destruction of the state’s capitol city from a nuclear explosion. Australian and international security agencies have yet to identify who is responsible or how they managed to get the device into the country. The Prime Minister today has announced that the army’s contamination response is complete, and he expects no further fallout to spread. The latest death toll has risen to over one million people lost or unaccounted for, with many interstate hospitals taking the major volume of the seriously ill and injured.
Mouth open he looks to her. ‘It wasn’t an attack. There is no invasion. We can go home. We can go home tomorrow. In the car, we can go home tomorrow in the car.’
She leaps to him and pulls him tight. Tears flow and so do their hearts in relief.