Ellen, bored of her life on an outback farm, sees an unsettling portent of change; by Tony Dews.
The party had only been a few months ago with champagne, wine, food and conversation that skimmed over reality like ducks over water.
"You look wonderful Ellen."
"I just stood in the middle of the room and said..."
And so the party went as so many had done in the past, gossip that just washed over her these days, needing only a sympathetic nod or a word or a touch. The speakers changed but not the words. They were collected and used only to impress others. She knew there must be something else and she needed it.
It was then that the dingo appeared at the edges of the farm that she and Norm had lived their lives together in for so many years. A life now coming to an end, not from hate or loss but from a desire to know more than the round of shearing sheep and of chickens and eggs and mending fences. When she first noticed it, it was sitting by the shed, ducks and chickens walked past it without noticing, undisturbed by the presence of a killer.
"Norm!" she called out on. "There's a dingo out here."
"A dingo?" He came out onto the verandah wiping his hands on a towel. "Where?" He looked, seeing nothing.
"Over there, by the shed." Ellen pointed.
"Nothing there now. Sure you're not just imagining things?" He turned and went into the house, the next thing that needed doing taking the place of Ellen's imaginary visitor.
Ellen shook her head. She wasn't concerned Norm couldn't see it. He was a man of round-up, fences and figures. Nothing else mattered and if it didn't fit his world, it wasn't there. But it was, a light tan vision. Then the dingo raised itself onto its legs, flicked its head, turned and vanished. Ellen mused about trying to find out where it came from and where it went to but she wouldn't be able to track it and didn't want anyone else looking until she knew more about it. She felt there was more to it than a physical presence and it nudged her subconscious as life went on. Norm mended this fence, put up that fence and busied himself doing anything that would keep him away from the house. Ellen sat outside drinking coffee and reading as the dingo came back, each time in the same place to watch her with its own purpose as she also watched it.
A group of Kooris were gathered in loose knots in a park opposite one of the pubs the next time Ellen drove into town. They weren't welcome at the other pub and they avoided it with a certain gravity, preferring this one to get their grog on pay-days. Most people walked past with studied indifference only wanting to be seen to be unaware. Ellen usually gave them a nod when she walked past them and they would nod back in their chatter. Today they fell silent and watched her as she walked to the library; a gulf appeared, she felt uneasy about and it niggled at her like a flea bite.
At the house Norm scathed her when she returned. "Books on bloody dingoes? Told you there was nothing there then and there isn't now. Too much imagination and too much time to indulge it if you ask me." Ellen shut him out. She wasn't asking him anything, Norm couldn't see it and never would. It existed only for her and she wanted to find out what it meant. The books were little help, they only said they arrived with the Aborigines to become the top predator, now only a pest, a killer of sheep and chickens. That wasn't the dingo that watched her in silence.
"Hey you!" The call was insistent, shrill and demanding. Ellen turned, her reverie broken. An old Koori woman beckoned her over, her skinny black arm like a semaphore. Ellen walked over, drawn like iron filings to a magnet. The old woman looked up at Ellen, wire-brush hair wreathing a face that bore wrinkles and wisdom. "You bin seeing something you have."
"No," Ellen wanted to deny it.
"Yeah you have. You having a visitor."
"No there hasn't. It's nothing."
"Maybe, maybe not. Only you know that. You want to talk you come and see me here, always here, me." The woman turned away. Back at the farm the dingo was waiting for her.
It wasn't a bad town, comfortable and reassuring, it lay just far enough from Melbourne to be like living on a different planet but close enough to get there when you felt the need. The kids did that when they went to university. Some returned but not many. Ellen envied them the freedom even as she chafed herself.
"Hey!" Ellen looked up from the bench and the book she was reading. It was the same Koori woman. Heavy-breasted under a ragged blue T-shirt, red headband and black skirt spreading like ink over the grass. Did she ever change? The arm signalled and Ellen went over.
"Change becoming for you soon."
"Change? Not likely. More like stagnation. Nothing else happens here."
"You might be surprised. Not that and old Koori like me would know." Awareness filled the space in between them, the air swirled and eddied. The old woman nodded. "Yeah, now you feel it don't you? He come to watch you. He want to make sure it happens."
"Who?" Ellen knew as she asked.
"You know who."
Norm wouldn't even mention the dingo as the weeks went past. The topic made him find something else to talk about or wander off to find something that needed his attention. Ellen would go outside with a coffee, sit on the chair and wait. The dingo would soon appear in silence in the instant when she blinked in the spot by the shed. It had seemed to have made its home there and the chickens still paid no attention. Something was coming as the old Koori said. She smelt it like the ozone before the rain, it was the gold light on the edge of the storm and the lightning stalking the horizon. She waited.
Ellen stopped looking at textbooks, they gave her no answers. She was certain that it wasn't natural, even though she still had no idea what it really was but knowing what it wasn't wasn't enough. She realized that the answers would come in time and left herself open to possibility. Then she walked past the Kooris, deep in thought on the way to the library to return them. The old Koori called again. "You looking in the wrong place girl!" Her eyes twinkled with humour. "He's not in books you know, they written by them that's out of touch. Don't know the old ways, the right ways."
Norm was so distant now he was barely present. When she spoke her words came back to her, he said nothing. In bed he slept stiffly. He never touched her, fearing that he might catch something. Her friends, normally gossipy and open were ever more distant.
"She talks to the abos..."
"The lady at the post office says she gets weird books from the city..."
Ellen never heard them, but she knew from the way they looked sideways at her when they thought she wasn't looking and whispered when she couldn't quite hear. Meeting people she knew, she could see the fleeting blankness behind the welcome, the eyes going elsewhere.
"I hope no-one sees me talking to her..."
"What are you doing here?" she asked the dingo one day. "I guess you know I'm not very happy here." The dingo sat and merely stared back, panting, ears pricked. "Jesus look me, talking to a dingo that might not even be there." She snorted laughter. "I must be going mad."
Ellen decided to find the old Koori woman in town who seemed to know what was happening. Can't find answers anywhere else. What do I have to lose? She shook her head. Here I am thinking rationally about irrationality, is that even possible? Its appearance was irrational she knew that but it did have a purpose and the old woman knew it, or so Ellen hoped. The way it just sat there, undisturbed, unaffectedly watching her was irrational too. Even hunting for a rational answer had no rational purpose. Ellen parked on the main street opposite the knotted, chiacking Kooris under the trees. Mostly women and children, the men drifted on the periphery as if unwilling to get involved.
"Looking for old Glad are ya?" One of the women wanted to know. "She not here, said she other things to do. Probably old Bert out at Ten Mile." She cackled with laughter and the others joined in, bending in mirth, heads on their knees and waving their arms in the air like cockatoos.
"She told me to come and see her if I wanted to." Ellen glanced around, flicking a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. "She said she was always here."
The woman looked at her, her eyes sparkled shrewdness. Ellen thought she looked like Glad. They all look alike. The woman grinned. "Oh she's here alright, depending on what you mean by here. Here's a pretty big place you know, lot more to it than just this bit."
"Thanks. Could you tell her I came by? It's important." Ellen turned to walk back to the car.
"Glad knows," the old lady's face was grave. "She'll find you."
She wasn't too surprised to find Glad sitting on the verandah when she got back. Glad was in her usual dress and looked up as Ellen got out of the car. The dingo sat there in its usual place and watched. "Was wondering when you'd get back. Me and him been getting to know each other."
"I was looking for you in town."
"Looks like you found me then eh? Or maybe I found you. What did you want to ask me?"
"About the dingo."
"Ah, told you you'd been seeing something didn't I?"
"Coffee?" Ellen opened the front door. "Yes you did. How did you know?"
"Time to tell you later. Coffee would be bonzer, I like it strong and black. Just like my men." Glad giggled and sat on a cane chair. "Lots of Dreaming here." She said as Ellen brought the coffee out and sat opposite. "White folks don't believe it, or know it, but it's here alright, always was, always will be."
"The dingo, is he part of it?"
"Yeah. Dingo means change coming. Him coming here means it you that's changing."
"Nobody else has seen it though. Norm thinks I'm mad. So would everyone else if I told them."
"If dingo doesn't want to be seen he isn't. He could walk through town and nobody would know. Even some of my people haven't seen him, but they feel him you know? Him like the wind in the trees and movement you can't see. That fellah, if he wants to be seen he is, and he wants to be seen by you." Glad sipped her coffee and sighed. "Good coffee this."
Ellen copied, the coffee was warm and gentle. "I don't think he wants me to see him all the time."
"Comes and goes like a ghost when and where he wants that fella. Nobody sees him in-between." Glad sipped her coffee. "Not happy here are you?"
"I used to be I think. Lately I've started thinking there's more to life than just here. That's when he appeared for the first time. Right where he is now. Never anywhere different. Always just there."
Glad looked at the dingo, knowing sparkled in her eyes. "He's old that one. Been here since Dreaming times. Always brings change. He was here when white fella came, we saw him then alright. People see him when they need something, sometimes they never figure out what that is, sometimes they do. Have you?"
"I think so, now at least. Norm will always be happy here, it's his place but it's not mine. Not anymore." Ellen shrugged. "I don't even know if it ever was."
"Told you he was here for you. Saw the change in you when he came. People who see him carry him with them. Saw him with you so I knew. Change coming and you know what it is. Has to be soon though or you be too late, gotta get yourself moving girl. You got a different path to follow now."
"Yes, I know. I suppose I always have but denied it for Norm's benefit."
"Then don't leave it too late." Glad put her cup down and and heaved out of the chair. "Speaking of late, I'd better get myself moving back to town myself eh? People be wondering where I am." Glad giggled.
Ellen rose with her. "You want a lift to town?"
"Nope, got one lined up already." Glad walked down the steps, turned about and smiled, pearl-white. "He's waiting you know. Not going to wait forever for you to decide. He got better things to do." Glad walked away, blue, black and red shuffling down the driveway, turned the corner to town and vanished from view.
The dingo was still there, expectant and knowing. It wagged its tail. "Yes," Ellen whispered. "I know. It's time." The dingo rose to its feet, nodded its head and slid out of view behind the shed.
Norm was out in the paddocks. It was his routine and Ellen rarely saw him. He'd come in late to eat dinner, go to bed in the spare room and leave the house before she woke. It wasn't the dingo, it went much deeper than that. Separate lives were meant to be that way and there was no use trying. Ellen finished her toast and coffee and went inside to put them in the sink, the remnants of what shouldn't have been.
She looked out of the window onto a morning where things ended and things began. She wrote Norm a two word note, knowing that more should be said but would still not be enough. She carried the cases, ready for their first adventure, outside and waited. Trailing a veil of dust the taxi came up the driveway and stopped in front of the house.