When I tell our husbands the story of the bad-luck Americans, I begin with Edith because when the Americans came, moving into the airstrip out of town, expanding it with new buildings and sheds and hangars, bringing with them a brass band that practiced in the streets of a Saturday, I thought of the planes that hummed over our newly crowded sky as tiny Ediths with their parrot faces pointed toward the sun. Edith was a short woman, short enough maybe to count as a dwarf, and from the back she looked like our kid brothers. From the front she was about sixty and looked like a parrot. Her lips were pale and hard and fused. Her eyes were small and dark. They rotated backward, first one way, then the other, whenever the kitchen in which she was talking was invaded by a man.
Edith called us Eleanora and Jean Louise, when Nora and Jeanie did at home and everywhere else. She was one of those people who act out every story they tell, waving her arms, reproducing facial expressions, running around our kitchen like a lost and unfamiliar cat. She acted out the air raids on London, a miniature plane tilting at our table, dropping erratic bombs that rattled the teacups. These gymnastics tired our mother. When the Baptists came every few Sundays, leasing our pond to wash their sins away, Edith was always among them, hopping side to side with her parrot step. Our mother would pull the shutters to shut out the hymns and say, "Don't let them come in, not today, and not that Edith. If she comes up inside I'll die of tiredness. I know I'll die. She just tires me and tires me out."
When we saw her in town she was brisk and chatty. It was Edith, for example, who explained to us, one Saturday morning on Merrigool's main street, about the internment camp.
"They're bringing in Chinamen, by the truckload," she said.
"They're not from China," said our mother. "They're from Japan."
"Well," said Edith. "They're all Orientals, aren't they."
I thought of a missionary talk she had taken us to about the work of God in China, the blessed and dangerous work of God among the delicate cups and foods and feet of China, with a woman in Chinese dress telling us not to be confused between the Taiwanese and the Chinese, and especially not the Japanese, and certainly not the Malay.
"God bless the Americans," cried Edith, raising her bird hands to heaven right there on the street, "and our boys."
Despite this blessing, the Americans brought nothing but bad luck—for us, but mostly for themselves. They blustered through town and held dances and attended church, or so we heard, dressed in uniforms so stiff they could hardly expand their lungs to sing. They were shiny and good-looking. After the war plenty of girls packed their suitcases and, clutching letters and photographs, departed for promised love in exotic places like Oregon and Minnesota. With their easy walk and their well-combed hair the Americans seemed brave and fortunate. But as it turned out, they had a strange aptitude for dying on the outside of the war.
Our father, on the other hand, Nora's and mine, died on the very inside of the war. He succumbed to things quickly. When we were young, he panicked at the thought of financial difficulty. Word of crashing markets and worthless bank accounts reached Merrigool by train and newspaper, and our father leased out our farm amid speculations about the future of beef and milk. A little later he sold the farm off, piece by piece, until we were left with the yard, the pond, the gully, the creek, and the bush. Also, the drive reaching out to the Merrigool road, and the yardy, pondy, bushy strip leading from the house back to the hills. Then he left on a truck for Sydney, looking for work, and never came back. At some point he and our mother were no longer married. Frank arrived, and the younger children, and the war. Our father sent us a letter to say he had enlisted, and in the letter, a photograph of him at a wedding day, standing by a woman in white we'd never heard of.
He died in Egypt, in a yellow-walled hospital, in the midst of befriending the nurses, taking sips of smuggled whisky from strangers, cradling a crushed and open arm that eventually was taken from him. He sent more letters, childlike and left-handed, or dictated to someone who added comments in French that we couldn't understand. One day we received a letter from a woman named Hélène, also from Egypt, accompanied by a rainbow school of foil fish, all neatly cut from sweet wrappers by our father's careful, concentrating left hand. There were over two hundred of them. We played with them for a week and then abandoned them in a silver-backed pile. For many years afterward we found stray fish around the house, blue and gold minnows beneath loose tiles, brilliant green sardines swimming in the dust behind chests of drawers. Hélène sent the fish and her sympathy and her admiration for our father. His love for his daughters provided solace to the end. In the valley of death he had heard the Word of God and was comforted.
This letter reached us before the one from our grandmother in distant Melbourne telling Nora and me that he was dead. Our mother wasn't included in either letter, and we felt adult and private as we showed them to her. Nora was sadder than I was, so I learned from her how to be sad. She refused to believe the letters and persisted in a private conviction that someone else had been mistaken for our father, who had lost his memory, been rescued by the Americans, and now lived in New York City. He would find his way back to us, someday. I was three when he left. Back then, he would pick me up and pretend to throw me off the veranda, over and over, and I would laugh with terror, again and again.
For a while after that, the war passed over us. The year between the letter from Hélène and the arrival of the Americans moved quickly. Things always moved quickly in our house. Spiders ran up the walls and weevils hurried through the flour and settled into their crunchy camouflage before you could be sure you'd seen them. The baby was born, white as a turnip. The Americans came, and the Japanese, crammed into the hills around our town, a small piece of the war delivered directly to us, and to Frank.
Edith reported Frank's arrival because a city policeman moved to a country town like Merrigool was news. She didn't know he wasn't really city, but from the part of the city that's scratchy and open, half town and half bush, in the flat, baking plain under the mountains where no one really from the city would ever think to go.
Frank was large and ugly. There was something so definite about him. With our mother things were less clear—she moved in and out of her own shape and even at her friendliest stood slightly behind herself—but Frank was one large and certain bulk, with sharp outlines, bringing himself through the front door. He had country arms, though he was town, and hair the clingy color of cicada shells. He had the use of a car that wasn't his, though we never understood who owned it.
"This car isn't mine," he'd say, stern and formal, whenever we climbed into it. "So watch yourselves."
For a year after his arrival in Merrigool he fought bushfires, came limping and roaring off the football field, calmed the drunken flurries of old men in the streets, and swam the flooding river to rescue a dog that bit his arm. Then he met our mother. She had the best legs in and out of town and carried with her the cloudy and self-sufficient weather of a widow. Their courtship was private: late nights swimming, driving in the car that wasn't his above us in the hills, walking through long grass. Edith, who had always flapped to us with athletic stories of misdeeds and miracles, who always followed the scent of misfortune, of widowed women and half-orphaned children, found one day, instead, the grassy, stubbly smell of Frank, massive on her chair in our kitchen, with his arms laid across the table. That afternoon, she slid her eyes back and front and addressed all her talk to Nora and me. Every time she visited us after that, she peered hesitantly into the kitchen before entering, unsure of what she might find. When Frank married our mother, she stopped coming. She didn't visit their unbaptized babies—one, two, three, eventually four—and rarely acknowledged Nora and me in the scripture classes she taught at our school. Edith continued to sidle reverently on the pond shore, singing with the Baptists, and I watched her from the house and missed her in our kitchen.
Of course Frank wasn't ugly, which I now realize. But he had a mammoth face that loomed over us, and when he brought it to our level, shaded with new hair, blue at the roots, the unnatural slope gave it a subsided look, as if parts of it had caved in. Nora tells me now that he was very attractive to women. "Jeanie," she says, when I bring him up, when I tell our husbands how ugly he was, sculpting his lion's face with my hands, "Jeanie, you know, he was very attractive to women."
One day he came home from work at dusk in that car he had the use of and found Nora cycling back and forth on the road by our drive, toward town and away from town, while I sat on the gatepost kicking my dirty feet. He stopped the car and unfolded himself from it. He watched Nora pedal away from him and began to jog after her, a jog that was long and slow and nevertheless covered the ground between them quickly and unexpectedly. When Nora found him keeping pace with her, his knees lifting, his arms moving through the air, she thought it was a game and threw her head back to laugh. But he reached out suddenly, took her under the arms, and lifted her from the bicycle, which wheeled along riderless, skidding and shaking. I watched Frank carefully put Nora down, still by the torso, and speak to her as he picked up the bike. They walked toward me, Nora nursing her arm. She would not look at me. Often we rode the bike double, her feet moving in a swift blur, mine suspended over the dust-colored road. Now we sat in that car with Frank, cruising slowly down the drive to the house, and Nora wouldn't turn from the front seat to look at me. He spoke to us quietly, his left hand lightly on the wheel, about the things girls could and could not do. He explained to us that when he came home from work he expected to see us waiting for him, clean and ready for dinner.
That was not long after they married. The bike came out later for his eldest boy, clattered over the veranda, and was pronounced too rusty to ride.
Our father had sold the farm but the pond was still ours, sitting down the slope from the house, half hidden among trees in the low folds of the beginnings of the hills. A water hole really, shaded by dry bush, sticky with duck mess, floating in the spring with the froth of the frogs that sang through the summer. The water was soft and brown and took the heat away, momentarily, until we resurfaced and it cupped over us again like a wet hand. The younger children, Frank's, were tied to the big dead gum tree to stop them from rolling down the yard in the way they tended to, irresistibly drawn to the pond, into which they blundered and bobbed like pumpkins. Tied up, they circled the tree, getting tangled and tired in the shade, while Nora and I waded, bug-bitten, waterlogged, and out of sight of our mother. We stepped with long feet over the sunny banks, warm with worms and mud. We lay on the grass and the earth felt dry and clean between our fingers, and the sun was big and good, the flies busy on our foreheads and above our lips, the places where the sweat gathered. We knew we would burn to a purply-brown, and when we did we would lie awake heating the air in our bedroom for hours and make solemn midnight trips to the bathroom to dip towels in cold water. We'd lie under our towels in a humid cloud. And in the subsequent days we'd itch and itch until the skin came off in raspy, silky skeins.
That's how we all became so brown. Brown all year, brown feet, brown ears, brown in the parts of our hair. And white hair, all of us, that later in our teens turned yellow, and then unexpectedly dark, but in the days of cows and Frank and parachutes falling from the sky was stiff and white.
Our mother cut our hair on the veranda every two weeks, in the late afternoon. It grew quickly. Nora's especially, which left uncut shimmered down her back in a wet white coil that distracted the farmhands and diverted the loyalties of dogs. The hair cutting took place on the veranda so we could watch for signs of Frank returning. The land in front of the house was flat as far as the road, and in the dark of winter the lights of the car carried a long way across it. In winter, we knew for five minutes Frank was about to come home and could make ourselves quiet and good.
Summer was different. The sun stayed until eight, the light until nine. The birds stayed too, scratching in the grasses, screaming in the trees. We heard the sound of him in the late light, giving us only a minute to prepare. We all liked to be busy, or hiding. Or we sat in a row on the veranda, knees pressed together, a towel on every knee shining with a lapful of stiff white hair. Our mother poised above us with her scissors.
Frank always took time leaving the car. It wasn't large, but he was. The engine would stop its noise and then he would sit in the car for a minute or more, collecting himself, I suppose. Nora and I—and probably our mother—soon gave up our attempts to predict what kind of mood he was in by watching his dark figure behind the windscreen. We waited cautiously for his arrival in our evening lives, except for the baby, fat as a cabbage, who cooed from a cot and knew no fear. Sometimes the younger children, his, would run down the steps to meet him as he rose from the car. They shuffled around him offering their services for the carrying of hats and documents. They stopped the day there were traces of bad-luck American blood on his uniform.
At first we noticed the Americans only in town. They patronized the pub, playing darts and lounging meticulously in their uniforms on the wide verandas. They crossed the street to talk to pretty girls. They held dances in their hangars, and if the wind blew in the right direction on Friday nights the music reached our bedroom. They played their brass instruments in the main street of town. An American flag appeared at our school, next to the Australian one, and always caught the wind first, the real wind that came from the distant sea.
I performed better at school after the handsome Americans came to teach us about their handsome country. We learned of river chasms miles across, and thick trees, and coyote dogs that prowled the uproarious night. Our own rocks and reefs and strange marsupials paled beside these natural wonders. Our men in the Belgian mud and North African sand had left us in capable hands, and Merrigool felt a kind of blessing in this calm and stylish presence, a safety it loved and claimed to have prayed for, as though the Japanese soldiers were at that moment advancing across the wheat plains with maps of our muddy river.
Frank didn't like the Americans. He said so in the evenings. They were bored, I suppose, and glossy and hilarious. Frank was never those things. They also didn't think much of the local police.
"They think," said Frank, "they are a law unto themselves."
Their behavior on the weekend streets of lean Merrigool did leave a little to be desired. Even Edith's faith must have wavered the Saturday night some descended on the town dressed as girls and painted black. I wish I'd seen them walking past the lit windows, revolving their droll hips. At first there were only these pranks, and flirtations, and lectures at the school. At first there was no bad luck. Then they began jumping from the sky.
They fell on our farm when the wind blew east. From a distance it looked soft—the billowing descent, the padded green, all the silk folding onto the warm yellow grass, like our mother pouring thick cake batter into a tin. Sometimes we were closer, watching the fields from the bush on a busy day of jumps, and saw their light-limbed runs across the paddocks, the wind catching in their parachutes while the cows looked on, sleepy. We watched the morning jumps from our cloudy kitchen windows until our eyes tired from the light and we dragged through our chores. Our mother was never interested. Men fell in the yard and tangled in our washing. They scared her hens. One skimmed our roof and floated away down the gusty drive, his slim legs dancing. Our mother never cared one way or the other.
"Tell me when it's raining," she said. "Tell me when the Baptists are at the door, wanting the pond for their dunking. Tell me when there's cows in the yard and the barn's on fire. That's worth telling. Not those Americans."
The Americans drifted back and forth, even in the night. They carried lights and radios. They carried ration packs they didn't need. If we found them twisted in the long grass, dizzy with gravity and knotted ropes, we helped them find the right way up and they gave us dried apples and chewing gum and smoked beef. They let us flap the green silk into the sky and run underneath it. We loved the terror of feeling trapped, the increased sound of our own breath. We stumbled and rolled and found each other, clutching at arms and shoulders, nostrils flaring, scrambling for a way out. We helped fold the chute, surprised at the size of it spread out like water, and the size of it folded to nothing. The man who had fallen from the sky, in the way men routinely do, shouldered his pack with its great green net inside it. He left in the truck that came for him, always, riding with radios out of the hills.
With the sky full of Americans, I didn't fear war. I didn't fear the Germans or the Japanese. I didn't fear the return of Jesus, though the Baptists prayed for it, wading in the pond, and I didn't fear my father's ghost staggering in the hallways with his missing arm and scratched face, followed by tinfoil fish. I was even less afraid of Frank. I was silent around him, and watchful. For long stretches at a time, I pretended he wasn't with us at all.
Then, one ordinary Monday afternoon in the hot late March of that year, a plane crashed in the hills and all eight airmen died. A routine training flight, readying for tropical bombing over the green Pacific. They had been in our sky, looking down over our yellow town with its yellow river and fields and hills beyond it. All they had seen, before they fell, was the expansive sea and palmy islands and the paths of bombs across them.
When the news broke, the Americans played their brass war instruments so loud and low the hills hummed and the water in our glasses shook. We didn't see the plane go down, though we all claimed we had, somehow skidding across our schoolroom windows and then over the rooftops of the lunchtime town. The plume of black smoke cut the sky in two and brought in clouds that eventually opened and hissed rain at us, halfheartedly.
We spent the afternoon quiet with excitement, and by the time we reached home the smoky dread hanging over Merrigool had completely infected us. Nora and I threw our school cases onto our beds and ran across the yard, down into and out of the gully, and through the patchy bush that separated us from the hills. We wanted to run into the hills and find the plane. We wanted to follow the smoke for days if necessary to see the collapsed airmen, none of them dead but piously calling for our help.
By the time we cleared the trees, however, it had begun to grow dark. The hills rose above us. We knew that Frank would be driving the car that wasn't his down the Merrigool road. Nora and I looked up at the hills and the smoke that was blurring into the scrappy clouds and twilight. We turned around and made our way home.
There was no sign of the rain in the roots of the bush. The creek hadn't risen, hadn't budged from its course. In the dark, among the trees, we thought we could hear the Americans calling for help that wouldn't come. Back in our yard, we paused at the pond to look up at the lit house. Dinner was over. Behind us the plane and the airmen smoked.
"God," said our mother. "My god, here you are. Here they are. Where have you been? Wait, don't tell me, I'm not interested. You disappear like rabbits, not a word, you don't come home for tea. For all I know you've been bitten by a snake, both of you, lying in the bush bitten by snakes. That's the last thing we need. Nora, what do you say? You're fourteen years old, for god's sake, Nora."
Nora said nothing. Our mother pushed us through the kitchen and into the front room that we used only for winters and punishments, both unexpected. She straightened our clothes and neatened our hair and brushed leaves from our legs, as if preparing us to enter a church.
"Here," said our mother, "is your father. Who has been worried sick and is very disappointed in you."
I imagined our father standing in the corner, wringing his hand, his fishy feet worn out from pacing to and fro with fatherly worry. Then she left and we heard her moving about the kitchen, calm now, with no responsibility. She clucked at the baby in the way she liked to. I suppose she must once have clucked at us.
Frank did not look disappointed in us. He sat in the best red chair, which smelt of dogs and used towels, and eyed us thoughtfully, his bare policeman's feet planted square on the yellow rug. In that undersized chair, his vast and neutral face was almost at our level. His knees rose higher than his belly. He wore a vest and his trousers and, keeping up his trousers, a belt.
"My children," said Frank, "never miss dinner."
He ordered us to turn around, and he stood up. I remember his shadow on the wall in front of us. It was strangely diminished by the low-hanging light fitting, his legs lost into the carpet, and the speed with which his arm fell increased as his shadow shrank.
I wondered if the Americans might even then be flying overhead, dangling on their strings, and knew they weren't, because of the smoke in the hills. Frank was here to protect us too, a policeman. And he did what he did. When I touched it much later, after Frank was dead, his belt was old and supple with use. That belt felt soft as a calf the day after it's born.
That night, the American flag at school sat limply, half-mast in the meager wind. The interned Japanese—doctors and painters and wives—wrote letters of panic to the mayor and the police, to the Americans, to the Baptist minister and the Anglican, declaring their innocence in the matter of the crash. I wanted, more than anything, to throw myself into the pond, to touch the surface lightly once, twice, three times, like a skimming stone, and then stay there underwater until the sun rose again and Frank was gone.
Because they hadn't been buried, the souls of the eight dead airmen began to cause trouble in the area. They played with ladies' stockings, tearing tiny holes in them that ran and ran. They bit apples on the trees and left them swaying and rotting, with teeth marks. They sent bugs scurrying through oats, and they spooked cows so no bulls could rut. We saw their shadows at times, swimming in the pond among the knees of the Baptists, delaying the return of Jesus because their bodies hadn't yet been put back together. That, we soon discovered, was Frank's job, with the help of the airbase surgeon.
We imagined the airmen gruesomely neat, each a jigsaw of distinct pieces: arms, legs, torso. We rarely thought of the heads. We learned the names of the Americans: James Milner. Curtis McAvoy. Bryan Brand. We repeated them over and over, skipping them into our games, clapping out the rhythm. Leroy Bump, of North Carolina. Poor Bump had a nasty bump, we joked. Sam Sullivan. Trevor Jackson. David Young, who died once and always young. Thomas Roth. We talked of Frank's methods, the eight tables accumulating parts and the fitting together of a Sullivan arm with a Sullivan shoulder. We thought of mothers fixing dolls, and of the detachable tails of bloodless lizards.
As his task wore on and those pieces stubbornly would not fit back into eight bodies, Frank sat at dinner with us, chewing and drinking. We were impressed by his silence, and at night, in bed, I discussed with Nora his nerve and his courage, his secretive profession, and his strict rules about a subject's suitability for children. No war, no details of other people's marriages, no religion, no dead airmen in a tangled heap. He was unfazed, it seemed, by this difficult and gory work, even when the town, plagued by the dead Americans, became impatient with the time he was taking.
We noticed one difference in him: He became more tender with his children, if not with Nora and me, and seemed to understand the cries of the baby in a way that not even our mother could, walking it on his huge hip and feeding it raisins he had chewed and softened in his own mouth. He read to his children until he became frustrated with them for wanting the same stories over and over again. He taught his boys to play football, and we watched from the veranda as they stumbled and fell on their fat legs, bewildered and violent, knocking each other to the ground.
After nearly two weeks of growing concern from the Merrigool citizens, uneasy in the presence of the Americans, alive and dead, and the interned Japanese, with Frank politely accused of incompetence in every kitchen, word came that Curtis McAvoy of Iowa City had never been on the plane at all. He had abandoned the plane and the base on the morning of the crash and found a truck on its way to Sydney, just as our father once had, where he lived it up in the bars and in the soft, tanned arms of the Woolloomooloo whores and watched for Japanese submarines sneaking into the harbor. The eight airmen, it turned out, were seven, which explained Frank's difficulty with their jigsaw bodies.
Our mother cut our hair that day. We sat on the veranda, watchful, quiet, while the lorikeets picked at the afternoon grass. Because the cut was unscheduled and it was a wash day, all the towels were wet, so our collars filled up with white hair that clung to our necks and worried us all evening, itchy but elusive. Every now and then we'd hear a car above the slow shear of the scissors and sit quieter. Eventually our mother gave up and took Nora inside to help prepare the meal. The rest of us stayed on the veranda talking softly with our ears moving to follow any sound through the dusk. The dogs barked at nothing. They barked at birds and each other. And then finally they barked because he came.
It took him some time to get out of the car. We all stood when he did, and our mother came to the door. Nora watched from the window through the batter of moths. We realized then how dark it was. He climbed the steps purposefully, looking everything in the eye, and then put his hand on top of my head.
"We're all hungry, aren't we," he said, moving his fingers in my hair. "We're a family of good eaters, and we like to sit around a table for our tea."
We filed in, our bare feet soft on the floor, treading our hair into and around the house. Frank's belly growled all through dinner, loud and complaining, and he turned this into a joke, holding it in both hands and soothing it like his baby. We laughed at it and fed the dogs furtively with scraps of slippery meat.
With the seven Americans assembled at last, Frank took a week off work; and thanks to the kindly notice of his family-minded superiors, this free week coincided with our school holidays. His presence made the days tricky and unpredictable. He worked in the yard, beneath sinks, and hidden in the roof until lunchtime. He carefully chopped down the dead gum tree so that it lay across the yard like a giant squid, pale and horizontal, its enormous sideways branches cut back to stumps. But in the afternoons he lurked in chairs and on steps and by the pond, lazy and hazardous, and we played around him, alert, never nearing the water or the bush.
He remained in a good mood, against our expectations, and one day took us driving in the car, setting up an obstacle course of tin cans on stumps and boulders and fences and encouraging us to lean from the front passenger window to grab as many as we could.
"Someone will get hurt," observed our mother, but she did nothing to stop it. She lay on a rug in the yard, dozing with the baby and shelling peas, her long fingers working quickly in the shade. It was so hot, and hotter in the car. Hotter even to feel a breeze, because the breeze came from the desert and blackened our necks and snot. The car bucked over the uneven ground and we barreled from side to side in it, collecting tin cans, missing tin cans, awaiting our turn to lean out over the burning metal and squint into the moving, rolling sun. Nora at first refused to try, sitting behind the driver's seat with the window down, leaving the wind to mess her short hair, keeping her eyes on the horizon. Eventually Frank persuaded her and of course she was the best of us, hanging from the car with one brown outstretched arm and her bum filling the window. Then the youngest boy vomited over the backseat. Frank stopped the car and we all ran and lay on the grass beside the pond, panting and burning. Except Nora, who walked back in the direction of the house. She moved as if she were underwater, lifting each leg higher than necessary, letting her arms trail behind her, and moving her head slowly back and forth. Then she stopped, turned around, and pointed at the sky.
"Look," she said, and we looked. Beside the sinking sun, men were falling. They rocked in the dusty wind, their parachutes opening and catching, and the birds flew away from them and into the trees. We knew where they landed—out on the fields, past the bush by the creek, where the cows had chewed the last of the grass and the ground was powdery ash. Each of us imagined feeling the earth shake, almost imperceptibly, as one by one the men landed, gathering their nets around them and feeling again the weight of the sky. We hadn't seen them jumping since the plane crashed.
Frank was watching, transfixed. He'd never been home when they jumped, and it seemed he'd never watched them from the windows of the station, or his car, or the houses he drove to daily, where thefts and suspicious fires occurred.
"How high up are they jumping from?" he said, and we looked at each other.
"And where are the planes?" he said, still gazing up, one hand shading his narrowed eyes. With relief, we realized he didn't expect any answers from us at all.
"Maggie!" he called to our mother. "Have you seen this? Would you look at this?"
And our mother, to our surprise, didn't say, "Tell me when the soup boils over, tell me when the pond dries up, tell me when the minister arrives, but don't tell me those Americans are falling from the sky again, again, again." She smiled and looked up toward the airborne Americans and said, "Just as long as they don't land in my henhouse."
"They're half a mile up," said Frank, standing now. I knew that to be the distance of our drive from the Merrigool road, so I tilted the dirty gray length of it into the sky and mentally ran along it, tiring quickly, as the Americans followed it down. "Half a mile up or more."
Our mother sat the baby on her knee and let him throw his hands in and out of the peas. The frogs were beginning to sidle out of the pond, their bellies full of hard, cross songs that sounded at the bottoms of our ears. That's how we knew the day was ending. Now we would start to wait for Frank to come home. But here he was.
"And how do they get home again? Do they walk?" asked Frank.
We knew the answer to this. The youngest boy, smelling of pond weed and still a little of vomit, said, "The truck comes."
"The truck, eh?" said Frank, and he turned unexpectedly to me.
"Yes, Dad," I said. "They send a truck, and take them all back to base. Every time." The sky was empty now, and the truck was crossing over the hills, over the fields, filling up with Americans who laughed about holding their breath as they jumped.
"All right," said our mother. "Who'll help cook peas? Who'll help cook the corn?" It was a special dinner, and there was a job for everyone—everyone except Frank. We followed our mother into the house and moved among the different foods while Nora stayed looking from the windows and Frank stayed outside, scanning the sky for a tiny plane half a mile up or more.
It was a special dinner because Frank was returning to work the next day. Our mother had killed two chickens and prepared five different kinds of vegetable. The meal took a long time to cook and a long time to eat. There was fruit salad for dessert—oranges and apples. Frank told us stories about fruit picking in Queensland.
"The queen of fruit," said Frank, "is the mango."
"He told us the mango tasted like sugar and cream and peach and banana all at once. He told us the sap could burn your skin like a hot stove. He told us about German men wrapped in shirts—one for the body, one for each arm and leg—who could pick one hundred mangoes in ten minutes. The possibilities of Frank's previous lives occurred to us all, suddenly, and they tasted of oranges and apples.
"Frank began to tell a story about a woman with one leg he had met in Queensland, but I missed it, because our mother told me to let the dogs out. I chased those dogs onto the veranda, down the steps, and out into the yard. I made faces at them and called them names. They sniffed at my legs and jumped happily over the shapes I made with my shadow on the ground. This was how they knew it was the end of their day with us. Walking back to the house, I saw from the sky's low lights that the Americans were still jumping.
"Time for bed," said our mother when I came back in.
"Time for bed," said Nora, leaning over the table to pick up the last spoons, while Frank watched the curve of her breast above the cream pot. My own breasts were still hidden handfuls.
"Time for bed," said Frank, leaning back now in his chair, looking at the ceiling as if the Americans might dangle there, their limbs whole and attached.
"And tomorrow," said Frank, "I'll cook us sausages for tea, outside sausages, burned on the skins the way we like 'em. Eh?"
"You're working tomorrow," said our mother.
"I know that," said Frank, still inspecting the ceiling. "Saturday then." Only he said it "Sat'dy," the way fathers do, the way their sons do: "Tues'dy," "Thurs'dy," "Sat'dy," familiar and friendly with the long days of never-ending weeks.
"I'll turn in," said our mother, following us into our bedrooms, everywhere at once in the way of mothers, tucking the sheets tight around us so our feet couldn't move and make mischief, sleepwalking in the night. Frank said nothing. He sat and sat at the table, silently. Nora collected the cutlery, the dishes, the cream pot, the mats, carried the tablecloth to the door and shook it into the darkness where the dogs waited, then spread it out over the table again, smoothing the creases.
When I tell this story to our husbands, as I do often, whether or not they like to hear it, Nora prefers me to end here, after dinner. One aviation disaster is enough without another following so quickly on its heels. Nora says she personally would end by the pond before any American had fallen at all. Maybe leave them mid-flight, serene in the atmosphere, watching the paddocks rush harmlessly toward their feet. The family happy and relaxed. But the bad luck of the Americans hadn't run out, and neither had ours. Nora's and mine. Oh, we're fine now. Our bad luck was small when you think about it, and it didn't last. Those Americans had their hands full of it.
That night I dreamed of rain. It started with clouds so low I could touch them if I stood on a chair. They were dense and solid; I could break pieces off and even taste them. They tasted of burnt sugar. I held some out to Nora and said, "Try some mango." The rain came quickly and the noise on our iron roof was terrible. Nora was trying to sing, but no one could hear her. There was nobody else in sight—no American airmen, no Baptists, no brothers or mothers or Frank. Just me, and Nora, and rain and more rain, which looked like white hair.
Nora woke me. There was a gray, thin light, but the roosters weren't yet crowing. I could hear the cows on the move, with their secretive sounds and low songs, and voices in the hallway.
"Shhh," said Nora. I said shhh back at her, thinking the hallway murmuring was one of the boys come with our milk. Or Frank up early for his first day back at work. Who even remembered how it felt to have Frank get up for work? A week was a long time. I wanted to swim back into my noisy dream of rain. I turned in the bed, but Nora was sitting up and carefully listening.
"They're searching for something," she whispered, fully up now and heading softly for the door. "They want to search the farm."
My heart slowed. I thought it might stop. I thought of my hidden fear, a secret until now, even to myself, that Frank had taken Curtis McAvoy, limb by extraneous limb, and buried him by the creek.
"It's an American," said Nora, her ear at the door. "Missing. He jumped and never came back."
"But the trucks?" I said. Nora held one finger to her lips. I thought of what I had told Frank, so confidently, so proudly, calling him "Dad"—"they send a truck, every time"—and I thought of being wrong. I wondered if I would be punished.
"Go back to sleep," she whispered, and quickly and surely she opened the door and stepped into the hallway in her white nightgown. Her hair was unbrushed and her feet were bare. The voices all stopped. Go back to sleep? I thought, incredulous. But, being young, being only ten with mosquito bites on my brown ankles, I did.
By the time I woke up, Nora knew everything. She knew the name of the American but wouldn't tell me. She knew we had watched him fall, shading our eyes and wondering if he was watching us: children lying on the grass by a pond, a mother on a rug with a baby, a father's face tilted to the sky, looking like a family. Nora told me that men had already been searching the bush and the creek and the fields for hours. She took me outside where planes flew low overhead, and she knew Americans with binoculars sat behind glass. The children and I stood in our yard and waved at them, kicking our feet about so the watchful Americans wouldn't think we were one of them, lost and lame and separate from his parachute. We saw men we recognized and some we didn't climb out of the creek gullies to be served cold drinks by our mother. Frank led the search. We spent the day watching him, proud of his authority, proud he was stern and unforgiving, and pleased to see lesser men try to satisfy him. We stayed far from him and kept quiet, and managed through a combination of helpfulness and invisibility not to be sent away somewhere less exciting.
We heard the sound of dogs at the creek and drew our feet in beneath us, squatting on the veranda. Other women came and we listened to talk of farmers leaving their families, no money, not enough food, heading for the bigger towns to enlist. People thought maybe this American had done the same: walked up the weary roads, found a traveling truck, and disappeared like Curtis McAvoy. We heard these things could be contagious.
An old man stood with his foot on the veranda rail and said, "What we need right now is a tracker." Everyone laughed and then nodded silently, as if to say, "Yes, we need a tracker." But there was no prison in Merrigool anymore, no mission, and only the small police station. Frank didn't have a tracker working for him the way he might have years before. There were no black men in Merrigool.
In the late afternoon we helped our mother by peeling potatoes. We knew by the density of the air around the house that the American had not yet been found. I quizzed Nora because her secret knowledge of clearing tables and waking to dawn voices and the identity of the American led me to believe she was wiser than she would say.
"Where is he?" I asked her, my hands brown with sticky dirt.
"God knows," she answered.
"But he must be somewhere. Where is he?" I asked again. She shrugged.
"Maybe in heaven," she said. I thought of all the things I had done since watching the parachutes fall the night before. I had washed and eaten my part of two chickens. I had learned about mangoes, and German men in shirts, and dreamed of rain. I had helped my mother bake scones and carried them to the gathered men and waiting women, fully conscious of the importance of my task. I had served drinks and peeled potatoes. The American had been outside the whole time I had been in, and more.
I realized suddenly that any of the men we had helped untangle, who had fed us army-issue chocolate and showed us photographs of their sweethearts, could have been on the plane that fell in the hills, could be this American who never came back. I felt the way I did when I ran under chute silk into a green world without sky or air. Then I ran back out again. And there was Edith. She had arrived at our house with the sixth sense of lonely and loving and meddling people who fancy a crowd and an emergency.
"Jean Louise," she said, in the old way, the way she used to before I was just another girl in one of her scripture classes. "Follow me. And you too, Eleanora. Follow me. And we'll pray together for the return of the American."
She spoke with kindness and authority, as if she had never stepped out of our kitchen and left us alone with Frank. We followed her, and no one saw us go.
The pond was gold in the late light, the color of good wheat. Edith took us there, I suppose, because she was used to praying at the pond, a place of wet and joyous rebirth. Her footing over the sloping banks was uneasy, yet she maintained her constant bird chatter to God on the subjects of rescue and redemption. She held her tiny arms out like airplane wings to steady herself over the grassy rocks. And in her effort, praying and balancing, she didn't notice what we noticed.
The American floated above the pond, his feet partially submerged, greenish with weed and his parachute. I don't know how he got there, or how they had missed him. The trees had caught him and hung him by his strings on the edge of the bush and the war. He had a scratched face and one arm, whiskey breath, and the fish that swam at his booted feet were silver as tinfoil. Seeing his face was the very worst of our luck, Nora's and mine. But as I tell our husbands, it didn't last. We grew up, didn't we. We left Merrigool, Nora first, me later, and found our husbands. We instructed our half-siblings on methods of escape and eventually they did, to other lives that rarely involve us. We made telephone calls to our mother, and when Frank answered, he never spoke to us for long.
Our mother died, and then Frank, and we returned to the house to clear it out. We walked to the pond, dry in the drought and empty of ducks. Once again, we heard Edith praying with her face to the late sky. We heard Frank calling our names, his voice soft as leather, only this time we didn't go to him. And the American still danced on the water, turning in the wind, and the wind smelled of dinner.
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