Dust kicky on a hill path, under a blue heat, Mother led Sheila into a field. They pitched the tent. Each familiar with particular tasks. Mother, connecting carbon poles, Sheila, untying guy lines and lining pegs. The sun bossed a sea sky. Thirsty worn, Sheila sipped from a water bottle.
‘We can top up at the stream,’ mother said.
‘I hear it.’ She tucked her vest into her shorts. ‘How did you know it was there?’
‘We camped here before.’
‘Your third birthday.’
‘That was ages ago.’
‘Four years isn’t so long. Feels like yesterday to me.’
‘Was daddy with us?’
‘It was his idea. He loved the outdoors with you.’
‘He called me sweet bird. Always said it.’
‘He waited a long time for you. Few women have a baby at forty.’
Tent fixed, sleeping bags set inside, Sheila spread a blanket on the grass. Mother uncorked a flask and poured two beakers of tea. They sat on the blanket, glad the pitching was done.
‘Wish I had a cold drink,’ Sheila said.
‘Tea is good. Cools you down.’
‘Something to do with sweating.’
‘I’m sweaty enough.’
Mother bunched her hair. ‘There’s a pool nearby.’
‘Can we go?’
‘Let’s rest a bit,’ she said, and lay on her back and sunbathed.
Sheila watched the woods. Quiet thick trees. She felt allured to there, something intimate pulling her, a pleasant fascination.
Deep afternoon, mother cooked them rice and raisins on the gas burner. They ate and drank and changed into bathing suits and followed the stream to the pool.
Mother toe-dipped the water. ‘It’s warm.’
‘How warm?’ Sheila lingered on the grass.
‘Nice.’ She held Sheila’s hand. ‘Let’s go.’
They waded into the pond, lime leotards shiny with sun. Sheila bent to sit. Hesitated.
‘Don’t worry. It’s shallow,’ mother said.
She sat and the wake caressed her chest. ‘It’s like a big bath.’
Mother clapped the surface and Sheila laughed and turned away from the spray. She saw an overflow in the rocks. ‘Mum, the waterfall.’
‘I was on daddy’s shoulder.’
‘So you were.’
‘He told me to hold my nose. We sat under the fall.’
Mother pointed at a granite shelf. ‘You sat there with me.’
‘We played a game.’
‘The leaping mermaid.’ Mother folded on her knees. ‘You jumped into your father’s arms.’
‘I remember. I do.’
‘I hoped you would. It was a perfect day.’
‘Wish daddy was here now.’
‘Me too, baby.’
After the pool they picked brambles, feeding from the bush. Near dusk, mother filled bottles at the stream and headed to the tent. They settled on the blanket and relished evening’s slow fall.
‘Feel better?’ Mother brushed her damp hair.
‘Much,’ Sheila said, applying lotion to her leg.
‘Mind and do your face.’
‘Why do I have to use it every hour?’
‘Fry like a pancake if you didn’t.’
‘It’s so stuffy.’
‘Humid,’ mother said. ‘My hair’s sticky.’
‘A breeze would be nice.’
‘It’s the hottest July on record.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘Heard on the radio.’
‘Listen, mum. A cukoo.’
‘So it is.’
‘Thought you only heard them in the morning.’
‘It’s a bedtime song.’
‘Listen for yourself. It’s been here since April. Flew from Africa.’
‘Why did it leave Africa? It could watch elephants all day.’
‘Visiting it’s Scottish cousins.’
‘You went to Cornwall to visit your cousins, didn’t you.’
‘I loved it there,’ Sheila said, her eyes lit.
‘The cuckoo loves Loch Lomond.’
‘Not in winter, I’ll bet.’
‘Oh no. Be long back in Africa by then.’ Mother opened the soup flask. ‘Tribal hunters trap cuckoos there. Keep them in cages. They believe it keeps springtime eternal.’
‘That’s stupid. The hunters should be kept in a cage.’
‘Can’t hear it now.’
‘Probably sleeping. I love twilight when it’s hot.’
Sheila woke in the tent. Mother’s sleep breath was loud. Nighttime far cast. She lay darkswept thinking over her dream. She had dreamed of hovering above the forest canopy, stepping treetops, silver leaves licking her feet. She rose from her sleeping bag and crawled to the door and unzipped the mesh and stepped barefoot onto the field. She strode toward the woods, tasting nettle air, her white gown lunar aglow.
Moonlight bronzed the trees. She skipped through the stream, up a moss bank, down over cobs of oak root, driven on intuition. On a grassrise she touched the oak. Beyond the tree an acorn path wound uphill. Hilltop the moon dunked a crest as if fallen from the sky. A silhouette figure came over the hill, longshadow down the slope, moving slither, like a hunter snake.
Sheila climbed the oak and sat on a bough.
He halted an arm-stretch beneath her and reached and scratched her toe. ‘Missy.’ His fingers were lean and bristled. Noduled like twigs.
Sheila pulled her foot. ‘Mum’s in the tent.’
‘Sound as the dead, I’d wage.’ His eyes blinked glinty, black bloat. Like fat leeches. ‘What about father?’
‘Daddy got sick. He’s in heaven.’
‘Father’s have a spot for their fillies. A protective thingy.’
‘I’m his sweet bird.’
‘WERE his sweet bird.’
Her fingernails strained into the bark. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Depends on the occasion.’ Ham lips pursed and popped. ‘Tonight it’s Mr Swain.’
‘Why are you out late at night?’
‘I was about to ask you that.’
‘I was checking on something.’ He bent and slapped his thigh. ‘Drop on my back. I’ll show you.’
‘I like it up here.’
‘Missy.’ He stood and kicked the trunk. Oval boot-toe chipping the bark. ‘This oak is beat. Scabby as a corpse.’
‘It’s a grandfather tree.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘Did he mention gramps is choked in bugs?’
‘No he’s not.’
‘Come on down.’
‘So I can have a closer look.’
Sheila shuffled along the bough. ‘Are you bad?’
‘Why ask that?’
‘You don’t smile. And your eyes are funny.’
‘Trick of the dark.’
‘But it’s bright here.’ She waved at the celestial splatter surrounding the oak.
‘Is that why you chose this tree?’ His eyes shrunk to worm slits. ‘Because of the light.’
‘Not just that.’
She pointed to the base of the trunk. He crouched and read an engraved scrawl – Daddys sweet bird.
‘Daddy’s rot rotten,’ he muttered.
He straightened, scuffing his hands. ‘Daddy’s not forgotten.’
‘We had a picnic under the tree. I remembered in the tent.’
‘Marvellous.’ He squatted and hip spanked. ‘Jump on here. Tell me about it.’
‘I can say from here.’
‘Hmm,’ he goaned, rising. ‘I tasted you.’
‘You mean a smell.’
‘Yerp. Ate it on the moor. Made my nose run.’
‘What do I smell like then?’
‘I know what that means.’
‘It’s a way of saying clean.’
‘I still don’t want to come down.’
‘Then I’ll come up to you.’
A man in a coat, fresh with youth, stepped barefoot from behind a beech. ‘Mr Swain,’ he said and lifted an acorn. ‘You’re grounded. Remember.’
‘Missy is stuck.’ He thumbprod his chest. ‘I gave a hand.’
The man opened a lock knife. Peeled the acorn like it was an apple. ‘She has my hand.’
‘I know that stench. You’re a long way from base.’
‘Not so far.’ His bare heel stamped the soil. ‘Consecrated.’
Mr Swain hissed and sucked and blew, uprooting grass and shrubs, scattering leaves. ‘Druid pits,’ he shouted.
‘Ours.’ The man wagged a blessing.
Sheila cuddled a branch. ‘Who are you?’ she said to the young man.
‘He’s smoke,’ Mr Swain said. ‘Bog fog.’
‘There are laws,’ the man said.
‘Laws are for barristers and monks.’
‘Preach your puke to the gullible.’
‘She’s a child. Not for you.’
‘Who says? You with your beatified toy.’
‘She’s not your type. You know that.’
‘Turd gob.’ A rodent scurried in the undergrowth. ‘You stink of nepotism.’
The man walked in a slow arc, closer. ‘A friend once told me, better to be humble than to battle and tumble.’
‘A savant rant. Pally was an oaf. Like you, fog.’
‘I could be the mist on your swamp grave.’
Mr Swain took a backward step. Black eyes vacant. Void of courage or fear. Death emotion.
The man didn’t falter. He stalked nearer. ‘Aren’t you tired of malice?’
‘I have berthed in your lodge. All that lint.’
‘Your pew remains empty. A token of your spite.’
‘I’m here by choice.’
The man sliced the acorn in half. ‘You have a choice now.’
Sheila shook the leafy branch. ‘Mr Swain.’
He spun to face her, fingers stretched on his hip, spine arched like a supple vine. ‘What grates you, missy?’
‘I don’t think you’re bad.’
‘You’re sad. That’s why you don’t smile.’
‘Ha,’ he said and faced the man. ‘Fruity, isn’t she.’
The man knew him a thinker. Scholar of deception. Impartial to chance unless a back was turned. He asserted his advantage. ‘You’ll be down the road then.’
‘Maybe this time.’ He glanced at Sheila. Inhaled her candour and confronted the man. ‘You’re fortunate we’re in your gang infested hollow.’
He whirled and bowed to Sheila. ‘Your homage is a tickle.’ He rose and flexed his fingers and ballooned his chest and swanked up the hill, his wispy gait dissolving into the low moon.
The man locked and pocketed the blade. ‘What a scamp.’
‘You sure he went away.’
‘Sure as a stoat.’ He reached up to her. ‘Let go. I’ll catch you.’
A fast breath, she dropped into his arms. Her hands joined around his neck. Her mouth at his ear. ‘Carry me.’
‘Bet your chin on it.’
He clasped her cheek to his shoulder and strolled among the trees, stepping over old piped oak roots, through the stream and across the field. At the tent she was bundled against his chest. Safe in sleep.
He entered the tent on his knees. Laid her in the sleeping bag. He stayed a short time. Watched Sheila and mother. The rise and fall of breath in moon lent light. He leaned over mother and shut his eyes and breathed. Then he went to Sheila and touched her hair and whispered, ‘I will always carry you, sweet bird.’