“If you value your life, don’t you cut that sheep,” I tell the lad. “You hear me, boy? Don’t let a single drop of blood fall.”
“Yes, Mutton.” Stewie looks up at me through ginger dreadlocks. Despite his tender years, his sun-tarnished skin is dotted with sunspots, just like everyone else living out on the Lost Plains.
“These are wrinkly things. Hard to shear.” I run my own clippers across its skin as if it were as smooth as glass.
“Not as wrinkly as you, Mutts,” Stewie whispers.
“What was that, boy?” I pretend I don’t hear.
“Nothing,” the boy says with a fey grin.
I like this lad. Bit naive, like most who come from the settlement, but at least he has spirit and a touch of cheek. I hope he lasts longer than the last farmhand did.
I shear off the last tatty dreg of wool and let the sheep slide down the ramp out onto the plains with the rest of the flock. It trots off with its hooves kicking fine dust up into the air.
Stewie manages to get the fleece off in one piece. Not too shabby for a novice. He heaves it clean-side down onto the wool table. Pink dust and grit rain through the wooden slats onto the floor.
The sheep has lost its red hue and now appears as white as a newborn lamb. Except for . . . a dot. Just one tiny red dot.
He sees it just as I call. A tiny nick, but a cut nonetheless. Stewie doesn’t hesitate. He dives down the ramp into the bustling sheep pen.
I tumble after him, landing hard on the dust, flaming well nearly break my back. Naively, the sheep nuzzle me expecting food. I rally to my feet.
Stewie pushes his way through the flock trying to find the sheep with the cut.
The denuded landscape is silent except for the fifty head of bleating sheep. There isn’t even a whisper of wind. A few dead gum trees dot the horizon, along with the launch site. Dust is banked around the base of the rocket as it stands idle. Nothing has come since this last flock were delivered months ago from Orbital Three. I can’t lose another flock.
“You found her yet?”
Stewie checks the flanks of each sheep he passes until he is encircled by the bleating white mob.
Dust rises near my feet. I peer down and see a patch of blood on the ground.
“Get inside!” I scream.
Stewie pushes past the sheep towards the shed door.
“Shut the windows!” I herd what sheep I can towards the door. Static bristles in the air, causing my arm hairs to stand on end. Three freshly shorn sheep clutter at the far end of the pen.
It won’t be long before the plains ghosts arrive. I dart towards the sheep, grab one by its scruff and drag it towards the door. Stewie takes over. His back is young and arms muscular; he drags the sheep inside more deftly than I ever could.
“Mutton, there’s no time left!” he screams at me.
Frenzied dust dances around my feet; the sunlight catches on individual particles as they coalesce to form a swirling mass. I back away as it takes form. From behind the dusty haze, dark eyes set beneath black curly hair glare in my direction.
Not him. Please, not him. He waves his arms as if trying to hit me. He is there for mere seconds before the mass of dust spirals and sweeps off towards the sheep. The plains ghost skirts around the stock pen as if tasting the timber frames.
I manoeuvre behind the remaining two ewes and slap their flanks in a desperate attempt to get them to move. One darts towards the door. I trust Stewie to take care of it and try to lead the other sheep in the same direction, but it bolts further afield, colliding with the wooden struts of the enclosure. Daft beast has a death wish.
“Mutton!” The raised inflection in the boy’s voice is enough to tell me I’m out of time.
Wind intensifies. The plains ghost’s gritty breath catches my leg like sandpaper. I yelp with pain as I run back to the door.
“Close her up!” I yell at Stewie. The wooden thump of windows closing echoes above the bleats and wind.
I limp in the shed and lunge for the rope holding the door up. It falls with a metallic ruckus.
I peer out the window. Four plains ghosts now skirt around the perimeter of the stockyards. They find their prey. The bleating lasts less than a second. They strip the stray sheep bare with their abrasive bodies, like peeling off baked salmon skin. Bones clatter to the ground. I turn away, walk to the horses in their stalls and rest my head against Starlight’s side. She gives me comfort. If I don’t watch, I can fool myself into believing the speckled bombardment against the glass and tin is just the sound of rain. Of course, it hasn’t rained in weeks. The reclamation bots cleaned up the toxins and scorched sky and of course all the bodies from the war, but they could have done so much more. It is as if they wanted us to stay orbital-borne.
The granular assault finally desists and the bleating inside fills the silent void, along with Stewie’s heavy breathing.
He squats against the far wall amongst the ewes with his hands clasped to his ears.
Outside, the bones are strewn across the dusty ground. I clench my fists and take a deep breath.
“Twenty Orbital Credits you cost me,” I try to keep the anger from my voice but the disappointment seeps through. “It’s coming out of your pay.”
He looks at my leg. “Mutton, I’m so sorry.” There is genuine concern in his voice.
“Just a graze. They barely made it through my jeans.”
“And the sheep?” he asks with a slight quiver to his voice.
“Just the one.” I pull on the rope to lift the shed door. “It was quick,” I add trying to reassure him, or possibly reassure myself.
The air is still again. We walk outside tentatively.
Stewie inspects the bones and sieves the dust through his fingers. “I never really let myself believe it,” he says. “I mean I saw a brawl outside the settlement’s tavern but we all got inside in time. It just looked like an innocent willie willie. I never thought dust could kill.”
“The plains ghosts aren’t just dust,” I tell him.
“But they can’t really be ghosts. Can they? Maybe something went wrong with the reclamation process.”
He’s sceptical, but I’ve seen one of the ghosts, with his dark eyes and hair. I know that one died. I know because I was the one who killed him.
A squawk draws my attention to the sky. Three birds of prey circle above, hopeful that something is left of the sheep. One has young plumage. Despite everything it is reassuring there are still some vestiges of the world that was, but there is nothing left to scavenge here.
They are not the only scavengers out here. Two dots emerge on the horizon.
“Head on into the shed and check on the flock before tomorrow’s droving,” I instruct Stewie.
My eyesight has adapted over time. I know he can’t see that far, but my voice betrays me.
“What’s up?” He comes to my side; follows my line of sight to the horizon. “Something out there, Mutton?”
“Just get inside.”
He kicks the dirt in protest, but obeys.
A man and woman approach. As they near, I see a rifle strapped across the man’s shoulder, the woman grasps a sword by her side. Why would they risk shedding blood? Must be new settlers.
“Morning, grandpa.” The man says as he finally reaches our little farm. He leans against the sheep pen and smirks.
“Morning? You must be settler folk,” I say. “We start early out on the plains. Been up for hours. Hardly morning anymore.”
“Suppose not.” The man grins with a slightly misshapen square jaw.
The woman’s hand hovers above the hilt of her sword. The definition in her forearms tells me she knows how to swing it.
Some shiny Orbital technological contraband is strapped to the man’s hip. “We detected magnetic energy out here,” the man says tapping the device, “and were wondering if you had any tech for . . . sale.” There’s a sly undertone to his voice.
“Sale?” I ask.
The glint in the man’s eyes says everything.
“No tech here,” I say. “That magnetic energy came from the plains ghosts. Got one of my sheep today.” I stroll towards the shearing shed door ready to flee if things turn sour.
The woman laughs. “Ghosts?”
“The settlers harp on about ghost stories and living dust rising to stop people fighting, but I didn’t think that supernatural lunacy was so widespread,” says the man.
These folk really are newbies. They’re willing to shed blood.
“They’re not stories. The ghosts of the past won’t allow any more bloodshed.”
“Isn’t that convenient,” says the woman with a vocal rasp as abrasive as the dust. She takes a step forward and unsheathes her sword.
“Off with you!” Stewie appears in the door with my rifle. The daft kid’s going to get us all killed.
“Stewie?” I try to keep my voice calm.
“You can shoot, but we are closer to the shed doorway.”
Maybe not as daft as I first thought.
The man looks left and right as if expecting something to jump out at him. The woman lowers her sword just a fraction. Even the most ignorant settlers get spooked by a ghost story.
Stewie cocks the rifle and takes aim.
“Fine,” says the man. “Stay safe out here. I wouldn’t want any ghosts to get you.”
When they are out of earshot, I turn to Stewie. “Get our horses ready. We head out tonight.”
The stock route is seldom used and barely visible. I only notice it at all because the odd saltbush are chewed more along the track than elsewhere from our last droving.
“How do you know which way to go?” asks Stewie as he follows behind the flock on his horse.
“We head for Orbital Two.” I look up at the spherical speck plastered in the sky.
Stewie scans the sky, north and south, up and down til his neck is surely sore.
“Found it yet?” I point to the Orbital.
“Sheesh! It’s smaller than I thought.”
“The satellites are huge. Giant arcs. You grew up in the settlement then?” I ask.
“My ma got sent here for protesting against the Orbitals.”
“Smart lady,” I say. The fear everyone once felt when we retreated to the Orbitals has come full circle. Some are finally making a stand.
Stewie raises an eyebrow. “I guess, but at least they kept us alive and you can’t deny they fixed the planet.”
I don’t have the mental strength to retaliate. The counterarguments bring up too many memories.
“You been up there?” he asks when I don’t respond to his nonsense.
“I came from there.”
“Ever thought of going back? Surely droving’s given you enough to buy a ticket?” asks Stewie. “All those settlements popping up along the coast need meat and wool.”
“Spending life up there with the brains dictating what work and recreation I do; when I take meals and when I take a dump, no thanks. There are better ways to make sure everyone behaves to their social standards. My wife didn’t cope. I don’t think I could either, not now that I’ve known freedom.”
I’ve never spoken of her to any farmhands before. I hardly know this lad. What’s wrong with me?
“Mutts?” He prompts. “Did she divorce your ugly mug face?” I know he’s being cheeky and he chuckles with a nervous undertone.
I don’t respond. I can’t. Can’t get close.
“Did the plains ghosts get her?”
I shake my head. At least I think I shake my head. They came, but they came too late. The blood that dripped from her wrists took her life before the ghosts could.
“You’re letting a few go astray.” I point to the sheep wandering east to a lone saltbush. “There’s an old water trough that should still be connected to the windmill and bore water not far ahead. Herd them straight.”
Stewie’s horse gallops around the flock and herds them back in. He knows not to press me further.
“So what’s your real name? Surely it isn’t actually Mutton?” he asks.
Chatty son of a gun. “Philip,” I barely manage to get the name out. “But never ever call me that.”
That name is as cursed as the Lost Plains.
The second day of droving proceeds without incident. Every day without encountering thieves or ghosts is a good day. The sun has been harsh. Every few minutes I dab the sweat beading at my temples, but eventually the sun dips towards the horizon, its heat relents, and it transforms the dusty plains to an ominous red. On the horizon, the settlement’s tents are tiny triangles only just visible even with my eagle eyes. Halfway between is my first house, put together with metal sheeting from the old rockets and the odd timber beam from dead trees.
“What a quaint little cottage. Are we staying there?” asks Stewie.
He seems startled by my abruptness and I look for an excuse to carry on. “The settlement isn’t much farther and the hut is a perfect place for an ambush.”
“I guess so.”
There is doubt in his voice. His pace has slowed. Maybe it is cruel to force him and the stock to keep going after the days’ heat, but we can’t stay there.
“Can we at least check if they have running water? It’s been hotter than usual and I’m getting low.” Stewie reaches for his water canister, flips the metal lid and guzzles heartily. As he flips the lip back, the metal catches his thumb. Blood squirts from his hand, down his horse’s flank and onto the ground.
“Drop the gear. Bolt for the house!” I yell.
The lad’s too slow. He hasn’t even noticed the cut.
I ride up to him, grab my knife and slash the straps from the horse. “It doesn’t need the extra weight.” The supplies slip from the horse in a heap.
“Go! Open the house up. Key’s under the doormat.”
“What about you?”
“I can’t lose another flock. Go!” I slap his horse and it bolts.
I make a large sweep with my horse around to the back of the flock. Some sheep dart sideways. They can sense the magnetic energy in the air but they have the IQ of a pebble.
“Daft fools. There’s shelter ahead. Move!” I circle left and gather as many as I can.
The magnetic fury tingles my ears and dust burns the back of my throat. “Come on. Come on.” My plea fails. Stragglers fall behind. The first piercing bleat of a sheep falling reverberates deep in my chest. I don’t turn. Can’t look. Can’t look. Keep going, I tell myself.
The house is near. Stewie has managed to get the door open. He races out towards the sheep and herds those nearby into the house.
“Come on!” I scream at what few sheep I have in front of me.
They stampede into the open door, guided by Stewie who is back on his horse.
“Get back inside!” I scream at him.
My horse bucks me. I fall, somersault on the ground and catch the quickest glimpse of Starlight encased in thick abrasive dust. The ghost is there. It is him again. His curly hair peeks through the haze of dust. He is the spitting image of me when I was younger; back when I had more hair. He waves his arms as if swatting flies.
“It’s just a cut. No one was fighting, you daft ghost. Why are you tormenting me?”
He wants to hit me. He wants me dead. I don’t blame him.
Starlight neighs with a high pitch. Then she is silent. My heart sinks and for a moment, I am paralysed with grief. The ghost moves towards me.
Get up! I plea with my legs. They stand and I am running, but my head is in a daze thinking of Starlight. Running in the dust of the Lost Plains is like running in quick sand. My ancient thighs and calves burn with lactic acid. At some stage, I will have to admit I’m too old for this. But now I need them to pretend they are young again and get me to the house. I want to turn back and see if his ghost is there, but I can’t look at him again.
“Mutton! Come on!” Stewie’s coaxing helps.
I feel the wind whip against my back for a split second. I sprint the final few meters, enter the house, stumble over a sheep and land flat on my back. Stewie slams the door shut and there is a walloping thud against the door as the plains ghost hits the wood.
I peer at the iron-clad ceiling with its rust holes, hoping they are small enough to keep the ghosts out. I climb to my feet. Cool air drifts against my back. I spin the base of my shirt around and find the fabric shredded. My back feels fine though. It couldn’t have been a closer shave, and then I think of Starlight and my stock. I glare at Stewie.
“Mutton, I’m sorry. I just . . .”
I clench my fist and swing it in his direction.
His words trail off as he ducks.
I go to swing again but stop myself before I deliver the blow. “Shit. Philip, I’m sorry.”
“Philip?” Stewie stops cowering and rests his hand on my forehead. “You might have a bit of heat stroke there, Mutts. Take a seat.” He leads me to a frayed lounge suite.
Despite everything, I flop into the soft seat and rest my head back. I inspect my fist. The old scars across my knuckles still haven’t tanned the same colour as the rest of my hand, despite the blistering sun. Like the ghosts, they are a constant reminder. A reminder it’s all my fault. I rest my eyelids and sleep takes hold.
“Of course it’s your fault.” That’s Philip’s voice. His curly dark locks shimmer in the light falling on a billowing cloud of dust.
“Am I asleep, Philip?”
“Don’t call me that.” He drifts through the dust and glares inches from my face. “Don’t call me Philip, or Phil, or Junior. I am not your namesake. And as soon as we make enough from your droving I’m heading back to the Orbitals.”
“Please, you don’t want to go back there. There’s freedom here. Life was stifling and oppressive up there. You were young. You wouldn’t remember how bad it was.”
“Yes, life was sterile and restrictive, but they kept us safe. They kept Mum safe.”
“She was ill. She was so doped she could barely get out of bed.”
“She was alive. You brought her here. You killed her.”
“Inconsiderate brat.” My fist swings towards my son’s jaw before I can stop myself.
Amid the sound of bleating sheep, there is a crack. A tooth flies, along with blood.
Philip falls, clutching a bleeding nose in both hands.
I curse, grab him and pull him to his feet. “Sorry. Sorry. We can make it back to the house.”
Hairs prickle the back of my neck. The sheep’s ears prick up as the wind begins to gust.
Philip Junior staggers to his feet and clocks me on the jaw with a half-hearted punch.
“What are you doing?” I clutch my mouth. “We need to go.” I run and almost reach the door, but strong young hands grab my shoulders and flick me around. Philip knees me in the groin and the world goes silent and dark to nothing but the pain. Curled in a ball, I clutch my privates and pray my son has made it inside, but as my senses return, he is above me and the static in the air is furious. He pins me to the ground with his knees and delivers a deft punch to my cheek. “We need to . . .”
And another punch. I can feel the trickle of blood down my chin. Wind skirts around my ankles and clothing.
“ . . .get inside.”
He lays into me again, not listening to me or the pack horses rearing and neighing as the plains ghosts take them down.
“Philip . . .” Dust catches in the back of my throat. “Get . . . inside.”
Something rips him off my chest. Free, I scramble to my knees, crawl to the door. I glance back.
Philip falls in a tornado of dust. The whipping of wind lashing against clothing gives ways to screams.
A plains ghost spins towards me and I slam the door shut. The woeful bleating lingers even inside. When it dies down, I stagger outside to find a doorstep of bones. My face is bleeding, my knees and hands grazed, but I no longer care.
“Come on! Take me!” I scream.
The ghosts don’t answer and my hurts begin to surface. There are broken bones, my knees ache and my leg . . . something is hitting my leg.
The smell of manure wrenches me from sleep. My eyes snap open, not to dust but a sheep head-butting my grazed leg. Nearby, another stands on the coffee table.
I glance around. Stewie is sitting on an old crate with a few sheep tap dancing on the wooden flooring. They crowd around a bucket of water.
“You were out of it for hours. All night in fact,” he says.
I shake my head. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” He seems confused. “I lost you half your flock. Don’t you remember what happened, Mutton?”
Stewie stares at me for a long time. He must think I’m insane, like everyone else does at the settlement. Crazy old, Mutton. I hear them talking behind my back. I pretend I don’t hear. They’re all too scared to say anything to my face in case I follow in my wife’s footsteps.
“We should go,” I tell Stewie.
“You sure you’re okay to travel?”
“I can’t be here.”
He can’t possibly understand, but Stewie nods. “My horse is in the bathroom drinking out the tub,” he says. “I’ll saddle her up. You should ride her.”
Stewie walks for hours without talking. Saltbush pops up along our track more frequently. There is even the odd tuft of grass. The few dozen sheep that remain, relish the fresh growth. I know the coast must be getting closer.
The heat is still intense. All we have left is my canteen of water, barely enough to get us to the settlement. I take a sip and hand it to Stewie.
“I saw it,” begins Stewie breaking a long silence. “There was a teenager behind the dust. What do you think they want?”
“They’re punishing us.” Punishing me. “Keeping us from repeating the bloodshed of the past,” I suggest. “I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Stewie lets the silence resume.
The homestead dwindles behind us. The horror house where I lost my entire family, now too far to retreat to.
Ahead, the mishmash of tents and makeshift housing are surrounded by bits of rubble the ancient reclamation bots failed to transform.
The sheep fill the alleyway leading to the central part of the settlement. Stallholders gaze through goggles and masks as we walk past.
The settlement has its appeal. There seem to be less dust and fewer ghosts here, even though there’s more fighting. I could retire, and yet there is something calling me back to the Lost Plains. Is it the memory of my wife and the expansive freedom she longed for?
“Mutton!” Stewie snaps me out of my reverie.
The click of a rifle behind us brings the present back into resounding clarity. The man and woman who threatened us saunter up to us with weapons poised.
Settlers dart inside, aware of the imminent threat. Tents are zipped up; corrugated sheeting placed against openings; windows slammed shut.
“You didn’t think you’d get by us, did you?” The man swings his rifle in my direction.
“Look the plains ghosts—” I begin.
“That’s enough of that nonsense,” says the woman. “We’ve been here a week and haven’t seen a ghost yet. Now hand over your stock.”
“Why do you think everyone’s retreated inside? It’s not because they’re scared of you?” I try to sound confident, all the while scanning the alleyway for shelter. Behind the thieves is a settlement garden with four walls of corrugated sheeting. It couldn’t be more than a metre high, but there’s a chance the plains ghosts won’t jump it.
I nod at Stewie. “Herd them on.”
“But, Mutts . . .” He gazes at me intently then nods, the kind of nod that suggests he trusts what I’m doing. The kind of misplaced trust that my son and wife had when I suggested we leave the Orbitals.
I dismount and hand the reins to Stewie. I gaze intently at the gardens and hope his gaze follows mine. He steers the horse behind the flock, shepherding them towards the thieves.
The stock surrounds the man and woman, hemming them in. The man still has his finger ignorantly poised on the trigger.
“No need to shed blood,” I say. “There are innocent people in town.”
The woman chuckles. “We can’t risk retaliation. Down here, it’s survival of the fittest. No-one from the Orbitals are coming to save you.”
She’s serious. If anyone is going to take me, it’s going to be my Philip, not a gun or sword. I slip my own knife out and press it against my palm. I let it drip. I let them see. The woman lowers her sword, her mouth agape.
“Mutts?” begins Stewie. “What are you—”
“Drive the stock behind the tin!”
It doesn’t take long for dust to rise from the ground like smoke from a flame, congealing and spiralling and searching for us.
“What the heck?” The man steps backwards but a ewe blocks him. He stumbles and falls amongst the stock.
Stewie gallops behind the sheep and forces them forward. They trample the man. As daft as they are, the sheep know what is happening and have no desire to stay still. The man’s screams blend in with the fearful bleating.
Behind a wall of dust is Philip: curly hair and dark eyes glimmering through the haze. His glare has so much hate. I am ready for him to take me.
I forget about the thieves and scream at him. “Come on then! If you hate me so much, take me.”
He waves his arms in frantic motions. Philip’s ghost seems to be swatting the dust away. He sweeps his arm and the dust detours around me towards the woman. Skin sloughs off her bones. Satisfied with its first victim, the spiralling dust swings back towards me.
There is an instant of pain like no other.
Philip races towards me, arms waving and swishing and swatting. Suddenly he is up close. I expect him to hit me but he reaches out a hand. It’s like he’s made of a hundred thousand ghostly particles all drifting in the haze. I reach out my hand too and see its transparency.
“Mutton!” someone is screaming my name.
I look at my hand. A thousand ghostly particles twinkle and dance in the air.
“Oh.” I speak, but words don’t emerge. The realisation hits me, but I don’t feel sad. Philip’s energy hovers alongside me. As the dust collides against the tin sheeting, green lights of billions of ancient reclamation bots twinkle amongst the sand. In life, it just seemed like sunlight dancing on the spiralling haze, but from this side I’m alerted to new kinds of energy.
“Mutton?” Stewie ceases cowering behind the corrugated tin and stands without regard for his own safety. Red eyes, fresh with tears, stare in my direction. He sees me.
I call back but all Stewie does is cradle his head in his hands. Bloody hands. His thumb! He didn’t bandage it up and with all the action it must’ve started bleeding again. Blood drops to the dusty ground.
The twinkling lights sense the new blood. The reclamation bots stir amongst the dust in a magnetic frenzy. They coalesce and spiral towards Stewie.
Oh, you daft daft boy.
I look to Philip. He has that hateful look in his eyes. He tries to swish the tiny bots away from Stewie. I finally understand. We thought we were free from the Orbital regime, but their reclamation bots are still here, programmed to keep us in line, stop any more bloodshed, prevent us fighting. I join Philip, waving my arms as the bots in the dust tower above Stewie and my stock. The bots feel the brunt of my own ghostly energy and Philip and I divert them towards the thieving man lying bruised and battered on the ground.
Philip reaches out to me and I take his hand. We follow the reclamation bots, droving them away from town until they slink back to the ground.
• • •
Copyright © 2017 Melanie Rees