MJW: I was inspired to write The Beasts and the Birthday after reading Garth Nix's Shades Children. I started thinking on books that put their characters through such brutal situations, like Shades Children and The Hunger Games, and then leave them to get on with their lives, make families. After coming across a few articles on intergenerational trauma, I decided to write a story about a family living in the aftermath of a massive, worldwide event.
I really like writing domestic stories, things about the small scale of huge events. I also found it really interesting to write about a big family and wonder about the dynamics of that. I am an only child and while it might not seem like a huge stretch, it did take a lot of imagination for me to think up a big family and wonder at what their relationships might be like.
I thought this story up while sitting in my backyard, smoking rollies (back when I used to smoke), watching the fruit bats tear up the fig tree in the neighbours' yard. I like to include little scenes from real life in my stories, and reading over this one took me back to the cool autumn nights out back, puffing and listening to the bats fight and scream.
This story was originally published in Aurealis Magazine, Issue 90, May 2016.
The Beasts and the Birthday, by Marlee Jane Ward
“What is this shit?” my grandmother asks as I put the plate down in front of her.
“It's wallaby, Nanny. Poll slaughtered it fresh just yesterday.”
She screws her face up.
“I never ate a wallaby in my life before the fuckin' march. I want a steak. I ever tell you about steak, Georgia?”
Polly rolls her eyes because Nanny has told us about steak near on every bloody day of our lives.
“They sold it right from the shops,” she starts, all the while cutting the fatty bits off the chunks of wallaby in the stew. I mouth the next part along with her. “Wrapped tight in plastic.”
Every gristly part she drops by her plate I gather up and put into the bowls for the kids. We don't have enough to waste, but Nanny doesn't understand that. She's from a different time, that's what Mumma says.
“No gristle,” she says, spooning up the little bits into her mouth and moving 'em around to get them between what teeth she has left. “Just pure red meat. Eye fillet, organic grass-fed. Forty-five dollars a kilo. You'd ever tasted it, Georgie, you'd know what I mean.”
“Well, we can't, Nanny,” Polly says. Poll's nineteen, three years older than me and she's got no time for Nanny's speeches. She's busy keeping the little mob of wallabies for the family; does all the slaughtering.
Mumma and Daddy can't do it, they both go white at the sight of blood.
“We can't 'cause there isn't cows anymore.”
Nanny doesn't listen. She just keeps going on, picking the tail-end of a carrot out of her stew and dropping it by the side of her plate. I scoop it up and put it in my bowl.
“We never ate the ends of the carrots either. Just cut them off and threw them in the bin.”
Nanny's forever going on and on about what things were like before the march, when there was so much. Whose got carrots enough to throw bits of them away? Mumma and Daddy though, they don't say a word about it, or the march itself. Neither of them say much at all, really. Me? I wasn't born before but during, and I don't remember none of it. Polly says she can recall a few things here and there, flashes of the beasts, the way they sunk their teeth in at the necks and made people into puppets. When she tells me things like that, I'm glad I don't remember.
Mumma's having her night screams again, and I hear Daddy murmuring to her in the dark. Beside me, Polly thrashes, her body going rigid, relaxing, rigid again. Poll don't scream, just whimpers a little. Sometimes Mumma will come alive in the night, her eyes blank and she'll drag one or another of us up, pleading with us not to stop.
“For the love of god, don't stop! They're coming!”
I don't know what she means by god. She says it a lot, over and over. Oh god, and my god and there is no god, and if there's no bloody god, why does she keep talking about it?
Between the night screams and the heart thumps when I wake, I don't sleep much. Even though I don't remember the march, it's like it came through my Mummas blood cord and into me, into us all. Even the little ones cry in the night.
I roll off my side, away from Polly and her dark shakes, and look to the ceiling. I know all the cracks there better than I know my own face reflected in a mucky puddle. In the silver-grey moonlight, there's a trail of ants crossing the long edge of the roof. I watch their passage and hope it might lull me to some rest but it don't. It all comes back to the march. In the dark I hear the quiet rock of Mumma and Daddy making the love noise. She's already half-gone with another little one, but I guess that's how they forget all the death, by making life.
Polly takes the mob out early, so I grab Benben as she fades off into the distance.
“Beny,” I say, pulling him in close. “I need your help.”
He shakes my arm off. Beny don't like being touched. “What for? I gotta jam it out to the 'tater fields.”
“It's Polly's you-know-what soon.”
“Is it?” he says, face scrunching.
“Yeah. In two days. Don't you remember?”
He looks of into the middle distance. “Why would I?”
“'Cause she's your sister, fuckwit. Anyways, I'm gonna make her a little party. We can have it out by the stream. Sing her a song, make a few gives, cook up a sweet loaf or something.”
Benben kicks a rock at his feet. “If Mumma and Daddy find out...”
“They won't if no one tells 'em. Anyways, can you get me some honey from the Dixon's place? I got trade.” I hand him a couple of roo-hair brushes I made special for the swap. “Ennie Dixon told me this was equal for a pot, can you get it on the way home?”
“Waste'a good trade,” Beny says, shaking his head, but he tucks the brushes in his pocket anyway, walks off, his face a storm like usual.
“I just want to do something nice for Poll,” I tell his back and he just flaps a hand in the air, swatting my good intentions away like a fat, slow blowfly.
Everyone clears off for the day and leaves me with the little ones like usual, so I wrangle them as best I can while making the house up nice. There's this chain of command over the kids where the older ones keep an eye on the youngest ones and it goes up the lines to me. As long as the biggest is doing fine, I know the rest are okay. Of course, I gots the tiniest one strapped to my back 'cause she's still headsoft and tender in the neck but she just sleeps a bunch anyway, and only wakes when Mumma wanders in from our little garden and peels her off for a feed.
Mumma's cradling Gennie, her little face hidden in a swell of breast, when I notice the kids have gone quiet. That's a bad sign. I lean my broom with the notion swirling that I might go look out for them when I hear the first scream. I race out to the porch and Mumma's there, gone pale. Her arms flop and Gennie falls into her lap, little fingers grasping and she starts bellowing but Mumma's just staring, her lips fading through white to blue like a split cloudsky and I scoop Gennie up as I run by.
“Mumma! Careful!” I say, slinging Gennie over my arm.
There, coming in from the west field, is Hal and Sy running hard, and Sy's got little Kata in her hands. The blood coming from Kata's head is a bright shock of dark red flowing over Sy's freckled arms. I race down the steps as Sy lays her out in front of me.
“She fell, she fell!” Sy tells me, wiping the hair outta her face, wiping thick red blood across her forehead. Kata don't look good. She's white like bone and her eyes are open, staring. I hand Gennie over to Hal who holds her carefully, his little hand cradling her neck like a second nature.
“Mumma, quick, help me here!” I say, but she don't make a move.
I pop Kata's buttons, resting my head on her ribs, trying to hear a heartbeat. Nothing.
“Shit, shit,” I say, the words sliding on my fast breath. I start to chest thump her, like they say to do when there's no sound there.
Thump, thump, thump.
I seal her mouth and nose with mine and blow. Nothing. My heart goes double time and I'm trying so hard to push some of mine into hers 'cause I got beats to spare, but there's nothing. Nothing. I look up, feeling Kata's blood drying in the warm wind across my mouth. Mumma's there, on the porch. Just watching, but not seeing.
“Help me, Mumma,” I plead to her, but she don't move. I thump and blow and thump until I can't find the strength to thump any longer. It feels like no time and forever. Kata's going cold under my hands as I try to find the strength in me to keep going, to push some squeeze and pull into her heart. It's too late. There's nothing else I can do.
I take her up in my arms, her little brown eyes looking into mine, but she's not there no more. There's nothing, nothing.
Behind me Sy's sobbing. “I told her not to climb the tree! I told her. She was too high. She was so high, Georgia.”
“It's okay, Sy,” I say, feeling the weight of Kata in my arms. Was she ever this heavy? I turn to Mumma, who's just rocking there on the steps. I want to slap her but Kata's dead in both my arms so I fling out a foot, catching her on the shin, dead centre. She don't even flinch. I let Kata fall into her lap but it's like she doesn't notice the weight of her there.
“You just gonna fuckin' sit there?” Nanny asks Mumma from the front door. She's managed to make it from the bed all the way out here, something she hasn't done for years. When Mumma says nothing, she does that thing where she draws across her breasts, then up and down from chin to belly-button. She shuffles inside, and I'm left there, all the kids wailing, Mumma staring off into the middle distance, Kata hanging limp across her thighs and there's nothing more I can do.
Mealtimes is quiet usually, but none ever been this quiet. Mumma and Daddy don't look at each other, just down at the floor. Polly's face is all fury but it's a hushed rage. Every so often little Gennie will make a noise and her coos and gurgles are axe-chops to the still. Even Nanny don't say a word, just picks the chewy bits and carrot ends out of her stew in silence. The soft, wet thunk of each piece hitting the table rattles me.
We all go to bed quiet, but we all wake up screaming.
I'm kneading the dough to make Poll's sweet-loaf, elbow-deep in flour. I thought about just calling a quit to the whole thing after what happened with Kata, but then I thought other of it. Like, we're one less, why not cleberate the lifes we got left? I don't know. Maybe it's that I'm not sure what else to do, so I just gotta do something.
“Why you wasting good honey in that loaf, Georgie?” Nanny says from her rocker by the door. She's got one eye on me and the other out in the yard watching Mumma and the kids out in the garden. Mumma won't let none of the kids outta her sight, so they're bouncing round the rows, crushing all the new seedlings.
“Can you keep a secret, Nanny?” I ask her, wiping my sweaty face with a forearm and probably dusting my face with flour in the process.
“Nah. But tell me anyway.”
“I'm gonna throw a birthday party for Polly.”
Nanny stops the creak-whine of her rocker and steels me with both eyes, the milky grey of 'em boring into me.
“Your Mumma and Daddy won't like that, Georgia.”
“I know, Nanny. But why can't we have a party? Why can't we just have a nice time and celebrate a good day?”
“The birth of a child on the march wasn't something to be celebrated. No one wants to remember a day like that.”
“That's not Poll's fault though.” Or mine, I think, but don't say.
“You weren't there. You don't know what it was like.”
“I was there, but.”
“I guess you were, in a way. I helped birth you myself. Polly too, and Glen. Your Mumma only paused a moment every time. Any longer and they would have torn the both of you to shreds. She was so strong back then. You woulda been surprised to see how strong she was. Nothin' like now. She's just a ghost now.”
I marvel to think of Mumma being strong. She's just so insubstantial now, like a bedsheet flapping on the line. The only time she seems like she's whole is when she's ripe due with a little one, like the buildup to birthing out the life fills her up with something.
“What was she like?” I don't pause my kneading, I don't wanna break Nanny from her reverie. It's so rare for anyone to talk of times in the march and I feel like any sudden movement might snap her away, back to her grumbles.
“Oh, she was a handful before! Always backchatting and raising a ruckus. Then, the beasts came and she funneled all that into surviving. We all did our best, but your Mumma was something else. I don't reckon I woulda made it without her dragging my sorry arse along behind her. She did things you wouldn't believe, Georgie. She was a fighter.”
I try and picture my wan Mumma pulling her mother behind her, full of fire and rage. I just can't see it.
“You should have seen her.” Nanny goes on, eyes clouding with the remembrance. “One time, she would have been 'bout ready to pop with you, and Polly still on her back. There was this marchguard, this poor fellow with a big old beast clamped right into him, so huge I don't even know how his neck held it up. Anyway, the beast-preyed fella came up just as your Daddy was faltering. This was right at the end, you know, and he was in a bad way, the gangrene had took his leg already and he was trying to make it along and recover from the cut. The march guard tried to haul him off to the meatworks, and your Mumma, she cut him down. She was like a fury, a fuckin' angry goddess. Killed him with her bare hands, ripped the beast outta his spine and tore it to bits. I never seen anything like it, before or again. Your Mumma, Georgie. It makes what's come of her now all the sadder.”
I look to Mumma again, watch the way she plugs the seedlings into little holes in the ground so sadly. Maybe she put everything she had into making it through the march, maybe there's nothing left of her.
“All everyone talked about during the march was how it was gonna be when the march was done, when we defeated the beasts. It was this golden thing that kept us going. We didn't realise that you can't ever get over something like that. The pain lasts forever, and it's coming through into all you kids now. You inherit it from us, through the blood or the genes or maybe through the way we raise you up, I don't know. Maybe both.”
She's saying things that I've been thinking, about the blood tie to the horror. It's the most sense Nanny has made in a long time and I wonder how long it might last.
She slips into quiet again and for a long while the only sound is the rhythm-squeak of her chair and the thump-roll of the loaf under my hands.
“It's in you, Georgie,” she says, sudden. “The horror. All the kids got it. But you got hope too. You should have a party for Polly, even though she'll be too mad to enjoy it. That girl wouldn't enjoy a cool breeze on a hot day. But we need some hope here. It's too fucking sad otherwise. If you can put the wheels to my chair again, I'll come too.”
I smile down into the flour spread across the bench.
I do got hope. Horror too, but hope as well. Maybe if I practise it, it'll get stronger.
Glen and me take Kata down to the back paddock and start on a hole there for her. Sylvie and Stan made her up a little marker, but I don't see the point, because no one will come visit her out here. If they wanted to remember her, they'da get us to bury her close. It falls to me and Glen to put her to ground, no one else has the stomach for it. If it was up to them, they'd leave her in the shed, hope that she just disappeared.
Glen grunts into the push of the shovel. “This earth is like stone.” He walks a few paces over and slices the blade in again. I wince at the sound it makes.
“Nuh,” he says to himself and keeps pacing. This time, when he presses the shovel in, it disappears halfway. “Here, it's looser here.”
We turn away from the little shroud-wrapped body and get busy making the grave. The sun comes out from behind a cloud and soon there's sweat beading across my brow, running into my eyes and making them sting.
The hole is almost done when we find it.
Glen goes pale as he lifts a shovel-load off its face. If you could call it a face. The beast is desiccated and brown like the dirt that covers it, but little flecks of the brilliant red of its carapace come through. He throws his shovel down, swearing. It sticks in the hard ground like a marker. Glen and Poll both just get mad when stuff hurts.
“Fucking beast! That's why the earth was loose here! We can't bury her here, Georgie. We can't.”
We can't. Glen takes his shovel and heads off across the paddock, muttering to himself. I take up a load of the loose dirt from the pile we just made and go to pour it back in. Something catches my eye, in amongst the shovel-load. It's a sliver of carapace, sliced off in the dig. It's a quarter the size of my palm. I pick it out of the dirt, spit on it and rub the earth off with a corner of my shirt. The smooth surface of it catches the light, blinding me with ruby. I don't know why, but I slip it into my pocket and all through the day, I find myself feeling for it, like a comfort stone, but the opposite.
Benben comes home after all the house goes to bed. I'm up, still, perched on Nanny's rocker, looking out the window, thinking of the beast. I turn the little piece of carapace in my hands, over and under. The red side feels like polished wood, the grey side, hardened sandstone. I see a dark shape move across the yard and even though I know it's Beny, my heart pounds.
He opens the door real quiet, screws up his mouth when he sees me there.
“What are you doing up?” he asks, his voice hushy and low.
“We buried Kata today, me and Glen,” I tell him, like it's some kind of explanation.
“Come outside, I have something we can share.”
I follow, my roo fat lamp in hand, trailing Nanny's rocker blanket across the porch.
“Bryda found a stash today.” He holds out his hand. There's a fold of cloth there. I pick apart the corners.
“Tobacco?” I ask.
He grins wide. “Yeah, you ever had it?”
“Once,” I tell him. “What else was in there?”
“Oh, some busted up tins. Way past eating, almost bursting with the bot. A knife, a straightrazor, some useless shit. A buncha this stuff.”
He puts a fat pinch inside some brown paper, rolls it into a tube and licks the edge, holding it long to try and make it stick. Then he twists the whole thing around a bit, pinching off the ends. He leans in close to the lamp and lights it from the wick.
I put the lamp down and we both sit against the house, backs to the boards. Beny takes a breath of the roller, passes it to me. I know to be careful. Last time I threw up everywhere. I don't want to get sick again, but I do like this moment with me and Beny. He's usually so far away. I pull on the scrunched wet end and breath it back just a bit, blowing the smoke high into the air. It swirls up to the stars and I feel a sweet singing in my veins as the tobacco stuff rushes in. The shiny specks up there pull further away. I take another breath of it and pass it over.
I think maybe we are gonna talk, Beny and me, but we don't. That's okay too. We watch the stars, watch the tree by the house sway as the bats fight over the fruit on the branches of our fig tree that have come free from a tear in the nets. I know I need to fix it, and Beny's probably thinking the same thing, but neither of us makes a move. Tomorrow. Our heads swim separate and silent, but its nice having him by me, passing the smoker back and forth.
I break the quiet, though.
“Do you miss her yet?”
“I dunno. She was so little, I didn't really know her. Maybe if she'd had the chance to get older, I mighta been able to know her better. But she didn't.”
“Do you think she's up there?” I point to the stars. A bat pulls away from a branch and swoops low across us, his wings beating fast twirls into the smoke swirling up. I don't know what I'm saying. I feel a little sick so I wave the smoker away.
“I dunno, hey. Probably not.”
“Yeah, me either,” he says.
“They came from up there.”
I pick out the part of the sky where I know they came from. It's black, the blackest void in the brilliant sky. I don't want to think about that.
“I wonder where she went to.”
“I wonder where they all went to.”
I can't trust none of the littles to not squawk to Mumma and Daddy, but Olivia is old enough to know about secrets and how to keep them too, so I got her in on it and now she's stringing some bunting we made between the swampy oaks by the river. Beny got the wheels on Nanny's chair and it took me an hour to roll her over the bumpy path to the river. She's chocked up by the river bank, milky eyes squinting against the glare 'cause she's not used to it, and she keeps breathing in the air and muttering about how fresh it is, how she might get the new-moan-ya, but I can tell she's really happy. She's not exactly smiling, 'cause she don't like showing off her gappy-tooth mouth, but she's not frowning either.
It feels like a good day. I've made a ball outta this bunch of rubber bands we found ages ago, it's a good fist-size and I mark out a nice spot of stomped earth where we can play hand-wars.
I can see Beny leading Poll down, a scrap of fabric across her eyes, followed by a wobbly string of all the little kids, and from here I hear them shouting and see them dancing with the excitement of something new. When they get to me I hush all the kids with a finger over my mouth and whip the blindfold off Poll's eyes as she curses me out. She looks around, sees the decorations and the sweet-loaf and rolls her eyes.
“Happy birthday, Polly!” I cry and all the kids clap and start to chase each other about, squealing and smiling.
“I knew you were planning something, you pigger,” she says, frowning, but I don't believe it for a second. There's a smile behind her eyes she don't want me to see, but I can see it anyway. “Mumma and Daddy aren't gonna like this.”
“Mumma and Daddy are out doing Sunday trade with the Micks on the other side of town,” I tell her. “So they won't know if you can keep your mouth shut.”
“I can, but the kids won’t.”
“They will. I'll tell 'em. They'll have so much fun today, they will.”
I cut everyone a slice of loaf and give the ball to 'Livia, who groups the kids into teams and tells them all about the rules of hand wars as they sticky up themselves, shovelling handfuls of sweet bread into their mouths. Everyone’s having fun and the gloom from Kata and the regular gloom of just life and everyday seems to have lifted a bit, so when Poll pulls away from the hand war square and hisses that Mumma and Daddy are coming, I’m not surprised. I knew it couldn’t last.
Mumma comes up to me with a look so fierce and raging on her face that I barely recognise her. Daddy’s limping behind her and he looks bewildered as he tries to keep up. She walks right up to me, like she just knows I’m the one behind all this, and before I know what’s coming, she lifts her hand, pulls it back, and slaps me hard across the face.
The crack of her rough palm across my cheek sends a ripple through the crowd. Everyone winces, freezes.
Mumma and Daddy, they don’t hit. They’ve never hit. Not like the Pearsons over the other side of town, whose kids come over for end-week trading with their heads all knocked around. Mumma’s usually just sad, not mad, not wanting to make everyone hurt on the outside like she hurts inside, but she don't realise that hurts too.
As my head reels around and there’s this low whom whom noise in my ears, I think about how it’s funny ‘cause sometimes when we’ve done wrong and she just looks away, looks out across the yard and I’ve thought, just hit me, just hit me so it feels real! but now she has and it’s not like I expected, so I wonder why I thought that so many years.
“What is this?” She’s saying to me and I didn’t hear her before, so I think she’s been asking me over and over. “What is this, Georgia? Tell me right now!”
“It’s a party. It’s Polly’s party for her birthday,” I tell her, but she knows, she knows, so why is she asking me?
“Why would you do this?”
“Because we love Poll and she was born today and we need something good, Mumma!”
She grabs me round the neck, pulling me up. I clutch at her hands but they are like ironwood around my throat.
“You don’t know, Georgia. You don’t know what this day is, what it was like. I don’t wanna remember it!”
Polly’s at Mumma, trying to get her hands off me. Everyone else is stilled, mouth-open, watching. Through the creeping-up fog in my eyes I can see the littles clustered round each other. Sy has the rubber ball, raised-up, mid-serve and it finally drops from her hand and rolls away. I watch it tumble, uneven, down the bank and into the river. It floats away and I feel myself floating away too, but then Poll finally pulls Mumma off me and I kinda puddle into the dirt.
“We were there, Mumma. Me and Glen and Georgie. I remember! I remember when Georgie was born! You were so strong and so brave and you did it, we survived. What was the point of making it if we just let them rule our lives now like they ruled it on the march?”
Mumma don’t got nothing to say to that. None of us got nothing to say to that. I never heard no one put it so right. It’s the question I been thinking but didn’t know the words to ask. Nanny, whose been watching, curl-lipped, from her chair, she pulls herself up onto shaky legs and she brings her hands together in slow, sharp claps.
“Well said, Polly, well said,” she mutters.
I wonder how long Polly’s been waiting to say it. Me? I been waiting for someone to say that my whole life.
When everyone's left I stay behind to gather the bunting and clean up the scrap fabric wrappers from Polly's gives. As I bend down to grab a piece of twine that we can make use of again, something sharp stabs me hard in the thigh. Blood wells up and sucks out into the fabric of my pants, spreading red through the dull brown cloth. It keeps coming so I rip a chunk from my shirt. It comes away easy 'cause it's almost falling to rags anyway. I bundle the cloth and press it tight over the wound. With my other hand I rifle through my pocket, looking for the culprit. My hand catches on the beast shard I've had hidden there. I take it out and turn it over and over between my fingers. It catches the light and blinds me with a red flash.
I take aim and chuck it into the river. I want to watch it float away, but it sinks right to the bottom, right outta sight. I sit a while by the river, pressing the cloth into the gouge in my leg. Eventually, the blood stops flowing.
Later, when Poll wakes shaking with the night screams, shuddering the bed with her darkshakes, I turn to make sure she’s okay. But Mumma’s already there. She’s quiet like always, but she’s holding onto Polly tight, and she starts rocking her like she’s a little one. Then she says something so soft that I almost can’t hear it, but I do, just.
“It’s okay, Polly,” she’s saying. “It’s gonna be okay.”