Snowflakes in Drought

Hannah McManus

She raised her hands slowly, deliberately, noticing the deep wrinkles that spread over them like the cracks in the scorched earth just outside these walls. She almost smiled. The drought was never far from her thoughts, even at a time like this. Her weathered hands wrapped around the barrel of the sawn-off shotgun, and without so much as a tremor, she pushed it harder underneath her chin.

“You won’t do it,” she said to her husband. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Her voice was as steady as her hands. Her snowflake eyes holding his bloodshot ones, watching how they slipped to the left of her every few seconds, looking at the double of her the whisky created. The screech and slam of the screen door didn’t break their focus. Neither did the sound of a car hightailing it up the driveway, her husband’s drinking accomplice behind the wheel. Chicken-shit, she thought dismissively.

His breath was warm on her face, the fumes of the whisky almost thick enough to see. But the faint smell of the spaghetti bolognese on the kitchen table was slicing through it. Taunting her. Was she really about to die over spaghetti fucking bolognese?

He inched closer to her. “When I’m done with you, I’ll toss your body in the tip and cover it in acid,” he slurred. “Your family will never find you.”

The jagged metal pressed its claws into her chin. She didn’t know whether the gun was loaded or not, but she brought her face even closer to her husband’s, almost touching the angry purple veins that spread across the tip of his nose like a spider web.

“My family might never find me,” she whispered. “But you can fucking bet that they’ll find you.”

Every artist has their vice. Her husband had his in spades. She’d once believed that she was the love of his life, but she couldn’t compete with a whisky bottle. Hell, she couldn’t compete with a cough medicine bottle if it came down to it.

“It comes with the territory,” he’d grunt, balancing a cigarette in paint-stained fingers on one hand, nursing an almost-­‐empty whisky glass in the other. And how could she argue, when the artist’s process was as foreign to her as art itself?

She was 11 when she started school, and just 14 when she left. The drought filling her family’s home with nothing but dust, forcing her to work at the corner pub so they could put something on the table that wasn’t shot out of the sky and plucked in the kitchen sink. Art couldn’t have fed them then, and it doesn’t feed her husband now. His paintings of barren river beds, an unrelenting sun, and the arid land surrounding them would never quench his thirst.

He’d painted them once. Or so he said. The two people were standing motionless on a cattle trail. The red earth was carving its way through eucalypt and gum that kissed softly above their heads in the breeze. The people were holding hands, facing the world with blank faces.

She reached out and touched the brush strokes. The dry, rough paint moving through the ridges of her fingertips as she traced the cracked earth to the feet of the woman. She moved slowly up her blue dress, cautiously over her red lips, only stopping when she reached the black hair. It cascaded over the woman’s shoulders, framing her delicate, impassive face. It was the woman’s defining feature. It was almost the painting’s defining feature. The only problem was that it wasn’t hers.

She tucked a strand of her own hair behind her ear.

“Angel’s hair,” he’d said to her when they first met.

“Like the pasta?” she grinned wryly.

“Like gold. Like the sun. Like an angel.”

She was 65 then. He was tall and enigmatic, with skull tattoos and a ponytail of silver curls held back by a rubber band on its dying breath. He was the most interesting person to ever walk into the rural dance hall. And she couldn’t take her eyes off him.

A gentleman in wolf’s clothing, she’d thought as he opened her car door, slipped an arm underneath her legs, and carried her through the cloud of red dust into the shearer’s cottage where she lived. He was nothing like her first love, a miner with coal under his fingernails who left her when she was 17, still working at the corner pub, and six months pregnant. Or her first husband, who stumbled his way through their marriage in a drunken haze, hurling abuse and scaring their children. No, this man was nothing like them. He wore his danger on his sleeve, but showed only the sincerity he had inside.

She married him in the tin dance hall that creaked as they danced and exhaled as they left. She wore blue. He wore a new rubber band. She was watching the stars as he drove them home, noticing their ferocity in the peak of winter with no clouds to dull their glare. He stopped the car and she smiled, keeping watch on the heavens while she waited for him to open her door and lead her inside. But the sound of the screen door clanging behind him was the only thing to welcome her home. To wedded bliss.

Doors opened less, bottles opened more. And six years on, simply cooking spaghetti bolognese in place of the steak he’d drunkenly promised a drinking buddy now constituted a fucking gun being held to her chin.

“I said do it,” she whispered.

His eyes narrowed. She could see him turning her words over in his whisky-­‐addled mind. Warm rivulets of blood trickled from the jagged metal claws to her collarbone. He inhaled and slowly pushed the gun deeper into her chin until she was looking at the yellowed paint on the living room ceiling. His warm breath was at her ear, the blood on her neck was already beginning to dry.

“This,” he growled, “is your last fucking warning.”

The claws let go of their grasp on her chin. He stalked towards the kitchen, the floorboards groaning under each step. She breathed deeply, steadily, and walked through the front door.

The sound of a plate smashing pierced the air like a dagger, sending a mob of galahs shrieking through the sky. She didn’t flinch, and she didn’t look back. Without shoes, she walked over the cattle grid, feeling the metal burn the soles of her feet, still holding the heat of the day. The night air was thick with dust that turned her throat to sandpaper. Flies swarmed at the dried blood on her neck. Her nails pressed deep into the palms of her hands. But her eyes were steady. Focused only on the dark horizon ahead.

While she walked, barefoot in the red earth, her husband walked through broken porcelain and bolognese, bottle in one hand, gun in the other. He knelt beside the futon and pushed the shotgun underneath it.

A gun that five weeks from now, her granddaughter will pull from its hiding place, feeling something cold and strange while searching for Monopoly dice.

A gun that four months from now, he will use to decimate a family of cockatoos gathered at her birdbath, painting her roses with their blood.

A gun that just eight months from now, he will take in his paint-stained hands, and fire at a man he does not know for money from a man he knows too well.

She will wake up to police at her door with a story of attempted murder. She will hear of how he was arrested and forced into a paddy wagon. Of how he removed his shoelaces. And of how, in the darkness of a truck that was too small to stand in, he made a noose and hanged himself. Too scared to face life in prison, they will think. Too scared to live life without his one true love, she will know.

She will sit on the floor, reading the newspapers that cover his death in gory detail, with tears that will spill on the words in an attempt to blur their meaning. Her granddaughter will stand in the hallway, watching, not knowing how to comfort the strongest person she has ever known.

Eventually, her granddaughter will grow up to wonder if the police ever noticed her little fingerprints on the murder weapon.

She will wonder if her nan cried for her loss or cried for her freedom.

She will wonder why her nan ever went back to that house, with a drunk, a liar, a manipulator living under its roof.

Her granddaughter will listen to these stories and will wonder what these moments felt like for her nan. She will attempt to put them on a page, to live them, to read them back, and to understand them. To try to understand him. To try to understand her.

Soon, all of this will happen.

But for now, she was in the bush, walking under a moonless night illuminated by the southern stars, feeling the day’s heat radiate from the earth to the soles of her feet, and breathing in her momentary freedom.