‘Tributary’, by Nadia Bailey

Photo courtesy of PhilipThompsonPhotography. Reproduced under the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

A few years back, my father inherited a block of land near Darraweit Guim, a phrase that’s said to mean “the meeting of the waters”. The land my father tends there is desolate and vast. On the road to the property, there are signs that warn of the countryside’s potential to explode into flames: low, moderate, high, severe, extreme, catastrophic. The property is accessed via a narrow, winding road, which turns to a narrower dirt road, ending in a heavy metal gate hung on wooden posts that needs to be hitched from its lock and manoeuvred open. After you inch down a steep driveway spiked with hairpin bends, you arrive at a large metal shed, surrounded by old machinery, car hulls, rusted scrap metal. The shed is the only building on the property. Around it, the land is as bare as a tabletop.

My father is something of a hoarder — not pathological, but the way he accrues things goes beyond the realm of being a collector. Objects comfort him in a way that people don’t. In the shed on his property, every wall is fixed with shelves and on every shelf are boxes and every box is full. Cabinets are affixed with neat labels that say photographic lenses or drill bits or lathe components. There are great, hulking machines on the ground floor, crowded together and turning to rust. When I visit, we perch on dirty chairs and drink tea from a thermos. You can pick a path from the entrance to the kitchen, or from the kitchen to a raised mezzanine where sleeping quarters hug the roof, but to do so comes with a certain level of risk. Beneath the ceiling, in heavy boxes stacked so close as to become walls, on shelves and trolleys and perched on towers of upturned crates, are objects enough to furnish a museum or entomb a person beneath them. My brother stayed overnight once, in an old caravan parked on the gentle slope of a hill. He says you can see the whole Milky Way out there, away from the city’s light pollution. Shooting stars and everything. It was cold, bitterly so, and a feral cat my father coaxed into tameness followed him into the caravan and slept at his feet all night.

When my parents were newly married, they lived in an airy Art Deco flat in St Kilda, which was close to the beach and that they both swear was haunted. After my eldest sister was born, they moved almost 90km away to Castella, where they built a mudbrick house with slate floors and seagrass ceilings. It was large and dark and hedged on all sides by stateowned national parks. This is the house I was born in. Castella is not really a town so much as a series of loosely connected landmarks: a pub, a church, a roadhouse. You drive for an hour out of the city and suburbia just drops away. There’s not much to do from the passenger seat but study the scenery. Paddocks. Distant blue-green hills. Dense sprawls of bushland. Sky as clean and light as muslin.

I have almost no childhood memories of my father. He worked in town, so rose early and rarely got home before dark. It was only after my parents divorced that he seems to have emerged as a distinct person. Before that point, almost nothing. Not even false memories created by photographs. He was always the one behind the camera—an implied presence. I am trying to create details. My family, all eight of us, around the dinner table. A large family, even by standards then. What did we talk about? Decades later, these memories have the unreal quality of dreams. The manic laughter of kookaburras. Pink, orange, blue squares of light sliding across the wall from a stained-glass window. A bathtub wriggling with mosquito larvae. More distinctly than anything, I remember my father’s chair. Grander than the rest. Antique. Dark wood and leather, stuffed with horse hair, tamped at the edges with smooth metal studs. The leather was worn, burred in places. The horse hair tufted out, becoming animal again. We kept cats and a large German shepherd, all thick fur and gloomy eyes. Not long ago, my father told me that before I was born, when my brother was a baby, they’d owned a Kelpie. One day, unprovoked, the dog attacked my brother. Afterwards, when he was safe, my father killed the dog by shooting it. Gentleness has been my father’s trait from the beginning. This act seems unimaginable to me.

The only time I recall him showing anything but reserve was the day I stepped out on the road into the path of an oncoming car. I was eight or nine at the time. A careful child. I don’t remember what distracted me. Did he yank me back to the curb? Raise his voice? More than specifics, what I remember is the shock I felt at the eruption of anger, though I now understand it to be an expression of fear. Even now, when I reach for it, the memory still smarts.

Emotional displays make my family uncomfortable. We’re horrified by posed family photos, declarations of affection, telephoning for no particular reason. To this day, I’m wary of sentiment. My unwillingness to say how I feel feels like both armour and cage. Words don’t come easily. At my grandmother’s funeral, the rabbi observed that we are, as a family, undemonstrative. How I turned the word over in my mind, wondering if she meant it as criticism. Our lives have always tended towards the solitary. My father’s most of all. What I know about his life is this: that he was an only child, that he grew up speaking Hebrew and Afrikaans as well as English, that he left Johannesburg for London as soon as he turned eighteen, that his parents wanted him to be a rabbi or a doctor but he trained as a photographer instead, that he settled in Australia, that he lost his accent and his faith in the manner of someone who wants to assimilate, that he likes mechanical things and remote places. After he and my mother divorced, he never remarried.

One spring, several years ago, my sister was found wandering a suburban highway, unintelligible, feverish. Shining with sweat. The glitter of madness about her. The police who picked her up took her to St Vincent’s hospital where she had to be restrained to the bed. They did blood tests, an MRI, a lumbar puncture. Years of heroin use had ravaged her body. When she recovered from psychosis, she was sent to a women’s prison in Deer Park. My father visited her often. I went only once. He is patient with her in a way that makes me feel ashamed. Sitting across from him in the prison visiting room, my sister’s face was that of someone who’d been forgiven.

I visited my father’s property recently to watch a friend of his shoot an antique Martini-Henry rifle at a target so distant that it could barely be seen outside of the scope. A lone white square attended by blackened trunks of dead gum trees. My father’s friends are all like this: peculiar in their devotions. The gun made me think of the Kelpie: my brother nearly savaged, my father’s matter-of-fact retelling of how he shot it. It was a practical decision. I have come to understand the care in such acts, the everydayness of it. Love, for some of us, is in these ministrations.

Not long after my father inherited the block, there was a bushfire season that razed half the state. It was reported that Black Saturday, as it came to be known, was caused by a combination of an exceptional heatwave, high north-westerly winds, an incorrectly rigged power line in Kilmore East and a man operating a power tool in Narre Warren. The Premier at the time had warned that the state was tinder-dry and it went up just like that. One hundred and seventythree people died. The property next to my father’s succumbed — the fire beat its way through like a bully, but burnt out short of the land my father tends. Eight years later, the landscape retains an impression of ambivalence: dead, blackened trees on one side, living ones on the other.

This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.

Nadia Bailey is a writer and critic based in Melbourne.