The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 20, No. 3


by Jim Shepard

By the time Gladys May Sparks dropped her soaked leather portmanteaus on the veranda of her new home in Barrow Point, Queensland, the rain had started to come down very heavy. Her new husband, Tommy, busied himself with a welcoming pot of tea and she remained where he'd left her, a puddle spreading around her feet. It seemed unlikely that a single item inside the portmanteaus was still dry. Her first impression was of a place where everything was covered with vines, including the two cane chairs and the breakfast table and the hammock, and out front she noted a mandarin orange tree and a prickly pear hedge. The rain was now so heavy the mud was strewn with bougainvillea petals, and when she stepped inside the house all the crawling things had come out: a fat bird spider was creeping up the curtains and ants had gotten into the jam. Tommy helped her with her wet clothes. Something was wrong with the fireplace damper, and as much smoke was pouring into the room as was going up the chimney, and that gave her license to cry. He put his cheek to hers and his hand on her shoulder; while he rubbed some warmth into it she looked out the little kitchen window. Where he had cleared, in the downpour a magpie was bathing in one of the stumps.
     The entire journey had been demoralizing. On the railway north from Brisbane the heat was a clammy misery, and once the rain commenced the road beside the tracks became a channel of mire. She passed any number of drivers of bogged drays like sailors atop foundering ships. In some ravines the road disappeared completely and the jungle swept right down to the train windows. Every so often boys on horses would appear in the clearings for mail sacks thrown from the locomotive, waving gaily at her as it raced by. In more open areas they passed enormous, queer–shaped tombstones that the conductor explained were anthills, and on her only trip to the toilet she discovered a monstrous yellow frog in the washbasin.
     She'd had to take a Cobb & Co. coach from the rail terminus, and for two hours was the only female passenger. Then, once the other passengers disembarked, she was entirely alone. Soon she was in such immense distress at having to relieve herself that after peering out her window at length into only wildness and turmoil, she seized on the sizable crack at the bottom of the coach door and arranged herself as closely to it as she could, and upon arrival she begged the driver's pardon for having spilled a bottle of wine, and after hearing her out he sniffed the carriage floor and said that if she liked he had a cork that would fit that bottle. She didn't tell her husband this when he rode up in his trap.
     They had met when she worked at an inn that served as a changeover stop for that same coach company, and Tommy returned three or four times after she'd caught his eye, and once they made their affections known they hadn't been at all dilatory in settling the matter of their love.
     At that point he'd been working as a railway fettler but had enough money saved for a selection up north where he intended to breed cattle. Before that he had started a fruitless venture involving a plantation cultivating a palm tree that he claimed would have made splendid billiard cues. Gladys had been the last daughter living at home and her responsibility for a full year had been to her ailing parents, until her father passed on in his sleep and then within the week her mother had risen from bed one night, washed and dressed herself in clean linen so as to not give trouble, and lain back down again with her hands folded on her breast, and by the morning Gladys and her siblings were orphans.
     She and Tommy married soon after and spent their first week together in Brisbane, while he was embroiled in a dispute with his drovers. When he returned to her each evening burdened with care and strife, she understood it to be her periodic task to remind him of the silver lining of their intimacy. One morning he wrote her a love note that he left at her breakfast seat explaining there were many things he ought to say to her that were better put to paper than spoken directly. But as often as she reread his words, even before he left for Barrow Point, for all her contentment she felt that she had held her soul away from him, and wondered if he'd done the same. Still, she said nothing about it, perhaps because, as Tommy sometimes teased her, she disliked skirmishes even with her cow. She did think, though, of that adage about sailors in a storm: They vow to amend their lives, and yet they don't, because if drowned they can't and if saved they won't.

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