Mild trigger warning for domestic violence. Nothing explicit, slight implication. Reader discretion is advised.
He stepped over to the corpse of the wallaby, and knelt down. He placed a hand on the marsupial’s face, then leaned down and pressed his forehead deep into its fur, muttering as he did so. After a few moments, he stood up, wiping his bloody hand on a shirt that could once have been white cotton but was now yellowed with age – and covered in rusty stains. He stood there for a moment, the kookaburra cackling madly overhead, the wallaby’s blood streaming into the creek, carried away by its current. He drank in the still air of early morning, the still-lingering smell of gun smoke, and the warm sunlight pouring lazily through the trees, and knew it was a gift from his god, bountiful is he, as is the plentiful stream in which the Fisher hunts for his catch, and he knew it was good. The kookaburra sounded its agreement, raising its voice in a hearty laugh and casting it towards the early morning sun. Satisfied, the redheaded man turned, and began the long walk back to town.
Sometime later, he emerged from the bush and stepped onto a dirt road, down which he began to walk. Five minutes later, he arrived at his driveway, a long, gravel path which led through thick scrub and bush and ended just in front of a small, colonial-era house, paint cracked and peeling. Somewhere in the back, a dog was barking. He yelled at it to shut up, stepped onto the front porch, and paused. He took a deep breath, and wiped his boots on the welcome mat, scraping away the creek mud. Then he stepped through the door, and moved through his house to the master bedroom, dodging stacks of books and boxes as he went. He retrieved a change of clothes from his wardrobe, and showered, savouring the hot steam and the feel of the water on his face, running through his beard.
He turned off the water, got dressed, and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. He sat at the kitchen table for a while, drinking deeply. He planned his day in his head. Stop by the church on the way past, to do some weeding and get a quick morning prayer in. Then off to Salvatore’s farm, where harvesting season was in full swing. Pub with the lads afterwards, briefly, then back to church for a prayer meeting. He had been calling prayer meetings every week lately, in preparation for mid-March. It was a busy time of year, harvesting season. Then back home, and perhaps a reading before bed.
And of course, pick up and drop off. He mustn’t forget.
He threw away his used teabag and placed the mug in the sink, then crept up the hall, and stopped in front of a door, which he opened, trying not to make a sound. He stepped lightly across the room to the window, where he drew back the curtain, and watched as sunlight spilled across the sleeping form of his son. He treasured these early morning moments. More so than ever, since the boy’s mother had gone. That had been a tough time for the both of them. It was around this time of year, in fact, many years ago, when the child who lay sleeping before him was barely longer than his forearm. Now the boy was almost eleven years old. Soon he would be helping with the harvest himself. But not yet. Not today. Today, he was still a child, and had to go to school.
The sunlight on the boy’s face finally stirred him awake. The man reached down and stroked his son’s face.
“Joseph, it’s time to wake up. You have to get ready for school.”
Joseph rubbed his eyes, and sat up in his bed. Dust motes danced in the sunlight.
“Can’t I come with you to work today, dad? I don’t want to go to school.”
The man shook his head sternly.
“Not today. You have to go to school, Joseph.” He looked his son dead in the eye, his voice low. “Or the Fisher will take you.”
Joseph nodded. As a young boy, his father’s warnings about the Fisher would frighten him, often to the point of tears. But he was ten years old now, almost a man, and men were not frightened of the Fisher. They respected it, and were wary of it, but they weren’t scared, and certainly didn’t cry about it.
The Fisher was a recurring threat in their household. The Fisher waited, baiting you with temptation, until you gave in, and it took you away for being unworthy. According to his father, unworthiness could cover any number of sins, from skipping school, refusing to help with chores, or talking back to your parents.
Once, his father had been out especially late after work and came stamping in, ricocheting off the walls and startling Joseph awake so suddenly he almost fell out of his chair, which he had fallen asleep in while waiting for his father. He had laid a rough hand on Joseph’s shoulder and squeezed so tight it hurt. Joseph had said nothing, though. His father looked to be in one of his ‘preachin’ moods’, and he knew better than to show weakness at these times, especially when his father’s every breath carried with it the stink of beer. His father had looked him in the eye, and Joseph stared back at his father, whose own bloodshot eyes were moist. He wasn’t crying though, Joseph knew – his father was a man, and men don’t cry.
“Joseph,” his father had started, then stopped. He seemed lost in thought. He began again.
“Joseph, never lay with a whore. Fuckin’ whores. They’ll tear your damn heart out.”
His father stopped again, then went on, in a much softer voice. It seemed to Joseph like he was reading off some script in his head. A well-worn one, oft-read.
“The jezebel will make a sinner of you, Joseph. She will tear your heart from you and without it you will become as a sinner and she will damn you, and there’ll be nothing for you then but to await the Fisher.”
With that, he had given his son’s shoulder a final squeeze and lumbered off to bed. So Joseph knew that laying with a whore – or a jezebel, he wasn’t quite sure – would also lead the Fisher to you. He didn’t know what a jezebel was, but he heard the older boys at school talk about whores sometimes, and as far as he could tell there were photos of them in magazines and on the computer, but you could only see them when you were older, so he didn’t worry about that one. Just to be safe, though, he had made a promise to himself that night never to lay down next to anyone.
His father smiled, and left the room, leaving Joseph to dress himself for school. Joseph took great pride in dressing himself – keeping his clothes clean and folded neatly, carefully brushing his hair every morning. He thought maybe one day, once he was old enough to have a job, he might even make his own clothes. Where other children were drawing pictures of superheroes and animals, Joseph would draw people wearing all kinds of clothes. Dresses and shirts and suits, in every colour. Yes, Joseph knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
In the winter, of course. He always remembered that. He could do whatever he liked in the winter. Not in summer, though. Because summer was harvesting season. And he was going to help his father.
Joseph finished dressing himself and went to the kitchen, where his father had fried two slices of bread for his breakfast, which he ate with peanut butter. His father made himself another cup of tea, and poured Joseph a glass of milk, and they sat there in their kitchen in the early morning sun, and Joseph thought it was just fine.
Henry’s prediction, that Carter’s presence at the Wanderer would spark the curiosity of Fisherman’s Creek, came true far sooner than even he expected. Stacey and Lauren had spread the word quickly, and by mid-afternoon the Wanderer’s dining section was half full, and still more people were coming in. Gwen and Henry were being run off their feet, and in the kitchen Carter himself was undergoing a baptism by fire, trying to simultaneously learn a new menu and keep up with the orders. By four o’clock, when lunch service ended, he was sweating, and his hands had more burns from oil splashback than he could count. Still, it felt good to be working. He hung up his apron on a hook by the door and stepped out into the Wanderer proper, to see if Gwen needed any help.
He felt as if he had stepped out onto a stage and into a spotlight. It seemed that no one had left their seats since finishing their meals, and four dozen pairs of eyes turned to look at him, and evaluate him. There was a noticeable change in the volume of conversation – previously loud, boisterous speakers switched to hushed tones. Carter stepped self-consciously over to the bar, where Gwen was cleaning glasses.
“Why is everyone looking at me like that?”
Gwen smirked at him.
“It’s like we said. Fisherman’s Creek doesn’t get many visitors, especially ones who don’t have relatives here. Until they figure you out, you’re better than television. Watch yourself – they’re going to pick you clean.”
Carter moved around behind the bar and began cleaning glasses. He was acutely aware of being watched. He looked down and concentrated on his work. He was used to being a piece of news in a new town, but he’d never felt so scrutinized before. It seemed at least some of the warnings he’d heard about Fisherman’s Creek were true. He wondered what else had been truth.
He was suddenly aware of being stared at. He looked up, and met the gaze of a sixty-something year old woman, standing at the bar. She watched him, saying nothing. Beside him, Gwen was grinning at the glass in her hand. After a few moments, he felt obliged to say something.
“What can I get you?”
The woman stared at him, eyes full of suspicion.
“You’re not from some property developer, are you?”
Gwen stifled a laugh. Carter looked confused.