HE WAITS IN THE HIDE. It is not the first time he has seen the great cranes soaring, their necks outstretched, or spiralling out of sight on currents, in the air far above the water. But it is the first time that they have nested within walking distance of the house. He leaves Eilish bent over the griddle and Rosanna mooching by the stove to set himself up on his limestone seat near the reeds: sketchbook across his lap, hat low on his brow to block the spring rays of the sun, wedge of bread in the breast pocket of his jacket.
He broods over Father’s comment the night Rosanna came home with Baby Arlen. Skelly is always in the way; not much more than useless. Now the priest has put a proposition to Father and Mother that after Easter Skelly should accompany him to Melbourne, where he will introduce him at a seminary. If he returns to his former jocund disposition, attending to prayer and scripture, the Bishop of the dioscese may find him a place. Until then he must practise his scientific drawings of shells and bones and sharks’ teeth from the ancient seas. He must mind his health and try to be more useful. He must not worry so much about what people say but judge them by their deeds for sensitivity can be a kind of selfishness. He tries. But he has lost enthusiasm—for everything. He flicks the pages of his sketchbook, dipping his fingers in the water to smudge the hard lines of a recent sketch, dabbing away spots of excess with the sleeve of his jacket.
Was it pride that made Father hit out at Skelly, or whiskey, on the night when Rosanna rode in from the cave? If only Skelly could swing the ark of his pain around. He waits for the cranes. He remembers waking to their trumpeting, and how they had shattered the quiet dawn, distracting him from his wounded pride.
At the same time, he examines the yellow striations of a resolving yellow bruise on the inside of his wrist. He strokes them with his little finger. The injury is tender still and angry looking. He does not know how it happened. Blood makes its troubled way around his body, pressing against his skin like a caged animal, swelling around joints, protesting against the least activity. Father Woods has told him that sons of European queens suffer the same complaint, and that he must not mind for it is the will of God that he stay close to his mother, to protect her from harm. Skelly is not much appeased. And he has always been afraid of death. Blood flows in his dreams.
But it seems that after all, he is not to die. Not to run away to the gold with Rosanna, either. He is a grown boy, only half a head short of Edwin. Of late it has been impossible to gain his sister’s attention. Sure she looks at his drawings, but her slow wide smile is for Baby Arlen. She helps Eilish with less complaint than before, but he sees that something has changed in her. Now she has Arlen—and Skelly loves him too—she has no time for him.
Kurr. Kurr. Kurr. Skelly starts. It is the music of courting cranes. The reeds shift in the slight breeze, tickling his chin, and he parts them to see more clearly. The birds alight less than twenty yards from him, and form in lines like choirs of angels: feathered arms outstretched, robes falling in crenulations the colour of Loughrea linen or the underside of mushrooms, dewlaps as vivid as the blood of Christ. Then their dance begins and they lift their heads, stepping forward on their elegant stilts. Skelly sketches furiously. He forgets the visceral disquiet which occupies his mornings as he watches Blinnie and Hugh coaxing smiles from Baby Arlen. He seems always to be confined with babies. And he forgets the way his mind gnaws at the problem of Rosanna, who is no longer thin and quiet and full of immutable longings. The birds advance and retreat, dip their heads, and throw them back again.
Scratched up grass flies around their ears; the largest bird leaps into the air, collapses its wings, shudders; again draws up its shoulders, proud and tender, advancing and retreating on its mate. Skelly’s eyes glaze over in the brightness. He angles his body to hold back the reeds so that he can better see the birds as he sketches them, pushing up his sleeves to accommodate the sweeping arcs required of his pencil to shade the massive fringed wings on his page. Squinting through the sunlight bouncing on the surface of the water, he is so intent on drawing brolgas that he does not immediately notice gold-rimmed eyes watching him. Nor does he hear, between the trumpeting cries of the birds, a shiver of skin passing over tuberous fronds, or the gulp and plash of frogs on half-submerged rocks.
Small black ducks scatter in the shallows. Skelly’s eyes penetrate the foreground of the larger picture, worshipping the yellow variegations, lightly sketched, the mosaic of scales perfectly attenuated on a thick body, the dove shades of the reptile’s fish-like mouth, the black dart of the tongue, and the elegant cord of the tail completing a lap of the body. Sunlight throws apricot tones into Skelly’s composition.
He stops breathing when his heart lurches. He waits and watches. Considers hurling himself sideways. The snake’s head emerges from the glistening coil; it sways and weaves the air; it takes him in. Does it think him predatory? Its body, thicker than wurst made by Prussians in Gambierton but far more beautiful, unknits itself and follows the shining head.
The snake moves towards him as naturally as wind or rain. Skelly feels the light punch of its head against his leg and finally—as his pencil spears the water—the stab of its fangs into his bare arm. He throws up his hands. An image invades his stricken consciousness, of his sister wrapping his sketchbook in oilskin, and placing it back inside the knotted hole of an elderly gum, where he keeps it safe from the babies.
Scrambling hopelessly to his feet, he clutches his throbbing arm as the snake hoops across the open ground towards the house. Skelly turns his eyes towards the bridlepath. His feet squelch. He smells the blue smoke coiling from the house chimney and sees Rosanna, Arlen on her hip, hand to her brow, then pointing up at the soaring cranes. She looks preoccupied, serious, as if it is her only duty to reveal such wondrous things to a new child.
Skelly cries out to her as he bounds from the reeds onto the path, where the slight incline destabilises him, and he crashes full length like a felled stringy bark, air leaving his lungs with a whump. It is too late now to agonise over whether he will bleed to death like the sons of European queens. His sketchbook flies from his hands. He rights himself and staggers forward. The baby waves both hands above its hyacinth head; clouds block the sun; shadows fall in the blackwood trees beside the path. He hears the clicking and whirring sounds of the bush. The great cranes abandon him, crying out as they flap away to the South.
His lips try to form his sister’s name as she runs towards him, the baby joggling at her waist. Where is the snake? He raises his hand. No. And his hatless, grey-headed father, gun jouncing against his brown serge jacket, pounds in heavy boots across the hollow ground, falling to his knees on the rise below the house. Will he be angry? If only Skelly has time to show him the liquid brilliance of the snake now veering towards the outhouse. Gunshots pierce his eardrums. He closes his eyes and thinks of Cúchulainn who cared not if his life would last one day, provided his name, and the story of his life remained.