Billy lifted her chin into the rush of dry hot air coming from the moonlit bush, her body quivering with the rackety tappets of the old Dodge’s engine. Reeling and swirling through the night she rode the ute’s running board, half limpet, half hunter. The deadeye of her spotlight calmly probed the bush and rocky outcrops. She hardly noticed Tori’s hands, slamming and twisting the steering wheel inside the open window next to her.
Then she had them, six or eight rabbits’ eyes glistening, posed in the round white moment. “Yes,” was all she said. She handed in the spotlight, felt around for the axe handle and jumped.
Her leap off the decelerating vehicle into the darkness underfoot snapped a moment in her life that held everything. Her focus never waivered but the leap was a beautiful thing, full of grace and purpose. If there had been an audience, every soul would have risen to their feet to applaud the sheer athleticism of it. Billy, at age seventeen, was tall and lithesome. She had an absolute and unfathomable trust in her body that was rare for even a fit and strong teenager. Wherever her feet landed the rest of her would know how to respond. She didn’t even think about it.
But it wasn’t about the leap for Billy. She was full of big needs. One of them was a need for dead rabbits, skinned and cleaned, neatly dead rabbits. She had only a few night hours to get a car boot full before she could even think about a trip to the cooler room trailer parked on the outskirts of town.
The cooler room man had curled his lip and spat a nose-sucked glob into the dust at last weekend’s bounty. He had no respect for two seventeen year-old girls who thought they were weekend wonderwomen. Even when there were no regular rabbit or roo hunters checking in with their kill, he always made them wait. He had taken to staring at Tori’s breasts and then slowly rolling a new cigarette or nonchalantly checking the doors to the cooler room trailer before he looked at the rabbits they had brought him. Although he wouldn’t have been much more than twenty years old himself, he already had the bushman hallmarks of missing teeth and blackheaded pits on a nose that hadn’t been scrubbed properly for years.
“Not bad,” he had said a week ago, as he fingered the dead and freshly skinned rabbits. “Broken ribs n’ stuff n’ bullet holes, are worf nuffin’.”
He said nearly the same thing every week.
“Yeh,” Billy had replied.
“Yeh,” he repeated, laughing at his own mimicry. Then he had slowly counted, flicking his fingers at each carcass.
“Nine TEEN,” he finished, using both hands to massage the rump of the last one.
The bush kid in Billy was used to the cooler room man and other bushmen like him, her burgeoning womanhood was not. She wanted to dump the biggest, most perfectly killed and cleaned, set of rabbits that he had ever seen, at his feet on Monday morning but her urge to kick him in the balls and poke his leering eyes instead, was fierce.
She might even do both this time, because the certainty that this could be her last hunt was growing in her like the juices in an empty belly. She was a seventeen year old with an angry father, a newly dead mother, and two much younger siblings who needed mothering and fathering but were getting neither.
The place where Billy and Tori were hunting was hard land. The scrub and boulders were good for nothing save grazing a few sheep. If you had a mind for raising sheep and the money for fencing that is. It was true mongrel country, scrappy and mean.
This night it felt nastier than ever because Billy knew some words were coming that she would have to say and some things were coming that she would have to do and none of it would be afternoon tea-time stuff. But Billy had enough of her father in her to know how to keep going when life was pricking you from every direction. She was called Billy from when she was a toddler because she was so much like Bill, her father. She had learned from the day she could get to her feet and follow him around how to be like him. She walked like him, kept her stuff to herself like him, she grew to be able to farm and even weld like him. She even knew, rock solid, she could probably end up being a better old bastard than him, and he was pretty good at it.
The problem was she didn’t want to be any of that any more, at age seventeen. Hunting rabbits in mongrel country was one thing but thinking about going back to the family house in town tomorrow morning was like standing with your toes over the edge of the old quarry tip. Everything you could see ahead and everything you could smell around, was bad.
Her youngest brother, William, had been killed within weeks of the family arriving at their house in town in Inverell six years earlier. He had been playing in the red dust in the back lane. Born a farmer’s child, William was always up as soon as dawn slipped under the door of his shared bedroom. The privacy of the back lane had called him the way the paddocks had called him on the farm. There, in this new and strange urban landscape, he could run his toy truck and Matchbox cars with as much loud throaty sound effects as he wanted with no one hushing him.
The garbage truck man did not see William. Even if he had been expecting a child in the back lane at such an early hour he probably would not have noticed the boy squatting in the deep car ruts, small, bare kneed and sandy haired. He blended into the dirt lane better than any rabbit or roo ever did in the bush.
The family came running to the awful wails of the garbage truck man. William had been crushed. He was bleeding everywhere and silent. His father lifted and held him. He looked from his youngest son to Billy. His eyes flicked through the clamour, panic and shock and then back to her. His wife was screaming.
“Hospital,” was all he said.
Billy climbed into the back of the family station wagon and her father handed William in to her. As they sped away from the back lane, her father driving, Billy held her little brother in her lap. Prayers spilled out of her head with her tears, but she never said a word. Her father never said a word. The station wagon’s engine squealed at the closed mouth effort of taking the three of them across town.
Then in a hitch of quiet as her father changed gears to turn a corner, she said, “Dad he’s gone.”
Billy’s father did not respond. They drove on to the hospital. When he took William from her arms he tried not to look at her but he could not help himself. Fear poured out of his eyes faster than any tears ever could.
He disappeared with William’s body. Billy sat in the back of the station wagon until he came out again, much later. She stayed there, blood from the end of her brother’s life now long dried on her arms, as they drove home in silence.
They never spoke about William ever again. If there was a funeral, surely there must have been a funeral, the children did not go to it. Billy and her father never spoke to each other about what happened that day ever. Not once. She never heard her father talk to anyone else about it either, not even to her mother.
The truth is Billy and her father never spoke about anything much at all. There were expectations, begrudging strong connections, many moments of anger, certainly love but most of all, desperate and deep needs. Billy and her father never spoke about any of it.
Billy’s mother only lasted another six years. It was probably Inverell. It was probably losing the family property, Cartlands that had forced the move in to Inverell. It was probably William’s death. It was probably the noise of the town and the silence of the family.
The doctors said it was a stroke. It felled her in the toilet in the Inverell house. Her unconscious body held the door shut so tightly that Billy’s father had to take the louvers off the small outside window and help Thomas, his eldest son who was only just small enough, to climb through and pull her way from the door so they could get in.
Just three months ago to this hunting night, her mother had still been there and Billy was still a daughter with a mother. She was still a daughter with only a few weeks of school and her last ever exams to go. Still a daughter looking forward to finishing a school education that her father cared nothing for, but her mother had lovingly and quietly encouraged. There was always going to be a fight over her wanting to leave for the city and maybe study more, maybe work or God knows what. Mum would have helped. As sure as Mum cooked tea, fed the chooks and dusted her own mother’s cedar sideboard, she would have helped. Billy knew she was probably going to get Aunt Sal, Billy’s father’s younger sister, to help as well. She had heard her asking the operator for a line to Glen Innes where Aunt Sal lived. That was all just three months ago. Now there was this.
Aunt Sal had come for the kids while Billy and her father followed the air ambulance to Sydney in the station wagon. It had been a worse trip than the one across town with William six years earlier because the hours on the road had kept coming, and through every one of them they knew Billy’s mother was still alive in the hospital in Sydney. But she never woke up. They had sat together in their motel room after she died. Billy told her father she did not want to take the body back to Inverell. Her mother had hated being in Inverell so much. So they buried her in Sydney. It was another funeral the children in the family did not go to.
Years later all Billy could remember about her mother’s face was her smile. It was such a lovely smile. That hunting night when she was seventeen she thought about her mother every second. Her mother’s death had given her father a new grip on her that was like tendon from bone to bone. Something would have to be torn and ripped to get a proper separation of father and daughter now. She knew it.
The first clear moment of understanding her father’s expectations of the daughter in her came when she was fifteen years old, while her mother had still been alive. He had told her he would pay nothing more to keep her at school. Old enough he had told his wife. Time for a daughter to leave school. Not that there were any fancy fees to pay, as his own father had paid to put him through the posh private school, Barker College, in Sydney as a privileged boarder. None of that for Billy. She was just a public school girl in Inverell.
The costs were for books and school clothes, a hockey stick to play in the school team, then a better one to play in the state-wide school team, bus tickets to school sports competitions. Not much, but too much for a father who told his daughter “Nothing.” Mum and Aunt Sal said what they could to him but he never resiled from his “Nothing”. Billy took hold of it and could not warm it up. Now her mother was dead she knew she probably never would.
Nothing was what her father must have thought he had ended up with after years of planting his sunbaked hope in Cartlands, his soldier settler’s block on the northern slopes of New South Wales. The block had been a gift from the Australian Government for serving his country on the battlefields of World War II. It was good country not like the mongrel paddocks where Billy hunted that night. The block was way out of town, far away from anything much, but you could grow wheat and graze cattle on it. As with all soldier settler blocks it had been pure bush when he took it over. It had to be cleared and fenced, planned and planted, buildings built, dams dug and things grown in places for the first time. As with most soldier settler blocks Billy’s father did this work alone, with family and neighbours helping when they could. Sometimes he had the extra hands of a passing driftabout who worked for little more than food and somewhere to sleep overnight.
In one way Billy’s father was lucky. For many soldier settlers the gift was worse than nothing. At least he did not throw a rope over a rafter in his half built house, or a branch from a tree in the never-to-be-cleared field, to hang himself, as many other soldier settlers did when they finally realised there was no point in chopping the next tree or digging another furrow. Billy’s father never lost the need to see another sunrise through the gum trees or the joy of sitting in front of the biggest open fire a house could hold. He always loved the evening cold of the bush on his shoulders, even after he gave it all up and took his family to live in town.
He worked right up to the day the farm was sold. There was no hesitation in his hard arms as he lifted his then eight-year-old daughter, and oldest child by many years, onto the tray of a borrowed truck to catch forty-pound bags of wheat. He did not temper his anger or voice when he swore at her because she didn’t have the strength to haul the bags into place. If Billy’s father ever felt any regret that he spent every penny earned, even from the sale of his wife’s own inherited farm, to develop and keep Cartlands, Billy never heard or saw any of it. His was a gut-busting, furious failure.
He tipped his work ethic onto his eldest child as easily as a priest dribbles font water onto an innocent forehead. And with the first bag of wheat he threw at her on the back of that truck he gave her a life-long quest to show how physically strong she could be. So the prospect of going to school all week and then spending most weekend nights hunting rabbits, sleeping in the outhouse at Tori parent’s farm or better still on a tarp in the starry night bush would never be a problem to Billy. The doing was easy. That was how she could pay her own costs at school. It solved one problem and helped with others. She left town on the weekends, used her body so that every muscle grew lean and strong, had at least one evening with Tori talking about school work, as only classmates could, and she made money.
Spending hours on some kind of challenging physical activity became a need in later life for Billy. She would choose the most blustery days to kayak for hours on Sydney Harbour or run in the winter rain across ten suburbs, expelling the deep worries and fears of the time with every stroke or every stride. But when she was seventeen on that night it was the catching and killing of rabbits that she needed to do. Doing it properly and skilfully was important. Doing it hard was everything.
As the cooler room man had so helpfully pointed out you can’t just kill a rabbit. Dead is not neatly dead. Neatly dead means no smashed bones, no holes, no slashes and no bloody bruises on the fresh pink skin of the body anywhere. Death from the neck up is the only type of dead that would work for the cooler room man. It is the type of dead that is easy to achieve in an abattoir, slickly simple in fact, because animals are held in specially crafted contraptions that hold their limbs still, often upside down. They are stunned and their throats are cut or their heads chopped off. Bump, slash, dead.
For a bush hunter such a swift kill is rare, especially when guns are not involved, and Billy didn’t even think of using a gun for hunting. Not because seventeen year olds couldn’t buy bullets. That would have been easy enough. And they already carried Tori’s father’s loaded .22 rifle in the dodge in case they needed to kill a snake, even though they never did. It was because bullets were simply too expensive for a hunter who wanted money to stay on at school.
That hunting night Billy was on top of the rabbit stage within a few strides. The wooden axe handle felt cool and smooth in her hand. She held and balanced it with all the precision and intuition that came with being an elite hockey player. Strike forward, strike back and hit down. The first two rabbits plopped and were still, like two little pillows, the third scrabbled with go-nowhere feet, its skull caved in.
As others scattered just one stood alone, transfixed in the light. Billy calmly leant down and picked it up by the ears like a farmer might pluck a weed. Then with one hand around the back of its neck and the other on its shoulders she stretched hard and twisted. It was quick and efficient. She didn’t even think about the strength she was using. Whatever it was, it was proper. The rabbit did not kick. She stood in the scrub in the night and waved back to the spotlight glare and the rattle of the idling engine. This would be a good hunting night after all.
Much later, as she lay on the tarp under the black bush sky with its million pricked stars and listened to the sleep noises coming from her friend beside her, she counted the bounty again in her head with great satisfaction. They had killed and cleaned thirty-eight rabbits before tired arms and slow feet had made them stop. It was the best count ever. There was something very right about that.
Billy listened to the familiar rustling noise of a scorpion in the leaves nearby but her scorpion catching jam jars and the big torch stayed in the dodge. There would be no entrapped scorpions on the bush floor tomorrow, waiting to see their last sun rise from their downturned glass prisons. School’s over. No more specimens needed. That’s all over. Everything is over. She let go of the rabbit count, all the scorpions in the world, the starry sky and her dead mother and slept like the child woman she was, on her tarp in the middle of mongrel country.
The next morning the cooler room man was not surprised to see them so early, but he was when Billy said, “Get over here,” to him as she opened the car boot. He forgot to spit.
“Struth,” he said as admiration slipped slyly past his grubby nose into the boot full of neatly dead and neatly cleaned rabbits. He remembered himself in time to bargain for tuppence less per rabbit than usual.
When Billy got to the front yard of her house in Inverell the sun was only just properly up. She felt the heat on her back and the cool of the first morning shade from the verandah on her face. She passed Aunt Sal’s red-dusted car in the driveway. That meant her father had just spent a night with his sister or she had turned up at dawn to wake him. Either way Sal had driven in specially to talk to her older brother. Billy loved her for it.
The tea mugs were cold and empty, sitting on the green laminex tabletop between them when Billy walked into the kitchen. Aunt Sal’s face was flushed and her lips stretched thin from too many words. Her father’s eyes were full of fright when they both turned to look at her. Billy knew that look so well now.
“Dad,” she said. Her voice was clearer and more womanly than it had ever been in her life.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
I thought it was time to post something new. Yes I am still writing. (Perhaps thankfully, life intervenes.)
This is another true story.
Billy is now in her sixties, still fit and strong. She is the one who carries the heavy boxes, does the rowing, and knows best how to cook over an open fire.
How to Kill Rabbits by Maralyn Parker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.