By early December my brother Hugh and I were ensconced as the caretakers and we were still there in high summer when my life began its next interesting chapter. Lightning had struck the transformer up on the Bellingen Road and so, once again, there was no good light to work by, and I was paying for my patron's kindness by prettifying the front paddock, hacking with a mattock at the thistles around the FOR SALE sign.
January is the hottest month in northern New South Wales, and also the wettest. After three days of soaking rain the paddocks were sodden and when I swung the mattock the mud was warm as shit between my toes. Until this day the creek had been gin-clear, a rocky stream rarely more than two feet deep, but the runoff from the saturated earth had now transformed the peaceful stream into a tumescent beast: yellow, turbulent, territorial, rapidly rising to twenty feet, engulfing the wide floodplain of the back paddock and sucking at the very top of the bank on whose edge the chaste studio was, sensibly but not invulnerably, perched on high wooden poles. From here, ten feet above the earth, one could walk out above the edge of the raging river as on a wharf. Jean-Paul, when explaining the house to me, had named this precarious platform "the Skink" referring to those little Australian lizards who drop their tails when disaster strikes. I wondered if he had noticed that the entire house was constructed on a floodplain.
We had not been in exile very long, six weeks or so, and I remember the day because it was our first flood, also the day when Hugh had arrived home from our neighbours with a Queensland heeler puppy inside his coat. It was difficult enough to look after Hugh without this added complication, not that he was always troublesome. Sometimes he was so bloody smart, so coherent, at other times a wailing gibbering fool. Sometimes he adored me, loudly, passionately, like a whiskery bad-breathed child. But the next day or next minute I would be the Leader of the Opposition and he would lay in wait amongst the wild lantana, pounce, wrestle me violently into the mud, or the river, or across the engorged wet-season zucchini. I did not need a sweet puppy. I had Hugh the Poet and Hugh the Murderer, Hugh the Idiot Savant, and he was heavier and stronger, and once he had me down I could only control him by bending his little finger as if I meant to snap it. We neither of us required a dog.
I severed the roots of perhaps a hundred thistles, split a little ironbark, fired up the stove which heated the water for the Japanese soaking tub and, having discovered that Hugh was asleep and the puppy missing, I retreated out on to the Skink, watching the colours of the river, listening to the boulders rolling over each other beneath the Never Never's bruised and swollen skin. Most particularly, I observed my neighbour's duck ride up and down the yellow flood whilst I felt the platform quiver like a yacht mast tensing under thirty knots of wind.
Somewhere the puppy was barking. It must have been overstimulated by the duck, perhaps imagined it was itself a duck--that seems quite likely now I think of it. The rain had never once relented and my shorts and T-shirt were soaked and I suddenly understood that if I removed them I would feel a good deal more comfortable. So there I was, uncharacteristically deaf to the puppy, squatting naked as a hippy above the surging flood, a butcher, a butcher's son, surprised to find myself 300 miles from Sydney and so unexpectedly happy in the rain, and if I looked like a broad and hairy wombat, well so be it. It was not that I was in a state of bliss, but I was, for a moment anyway, free from my habitual agitation, the melancholy memory of my son, the anger that I had to paint with fucking Dulux. I was very nearly, almost, for sixty seconds, at peace, but then two things happened at once and I have often thought that the first of them was a kind of omen that I might well have paid attention to. It only took a moment: it was the puppy, speeding past borne on the yellow tide.
Excerpted from Theft by Peter Carey Copyright © 2006 by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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