|Bio||Joanne studies creative writing at Southern Cross University while living at Kingaroy.|
The Way West
Ah, the fresh scent of cordite on the morning air!
We are surrounded. Wagons form a circle. The old lie inside the dark, listening for the silent enemy. Canvas stretches uneasily over the tautly bent hoops. Scouts are sent ahead and their reports are not good. Smoke signals fire from the hilltops. Other communities struggle. At least we have our food, our bandannas, our burial trenches. They’ve doubled the sentries. Anyone who wishes to come in is sent away, unless they are one of us, and even then they are corralled away from the main folk. Our wagon train is ours, not for anyone else. Each wagon is discrete, self-contained. A large circle of smaller circles. The leaders are reasonable in imposing isolation that undermines reason, generous in handing out printed money, and critical of the nonconformists in a war where conforming saves lives. Watch as they shuffle back from the podium, hoping no one sees the flaws of logic and the true scale of their nightdreams.
The original way west was won by God-fearing capitalists. Now they must unite again and pioneer the frontier of a virus so that everyone, after the appropriate deaths, benefits and is free. How many must we leave behind? I think of my father. Keep him safe, Lord. He’s with a different wagon train where they won’t let me past the sentries. They carry strange arm extensions, black and pipey. We never knew such weapons in the earlier democracy.
Everyone fears the isolation. That is the real plague: how it rots your connectedness like ancient jetty pylons underwater, giving way unseen. Do the wagoners think about their jailed dregs, already isolated, clinging like limpet mines to prison barges? No. Do they think about the wanderers of the world, gathering like slices of paint? Not yet, but they will.
A posse is formed to scavenge further supplies which they tell us we are not running out of, but still … I want to go, to get out of this damned circle and dodge the spinifex footballs, round and hairy. Fortunately I can ride a horse, so I am chosen. I am essential. I saddle up, don spurs and hat and ride out over the purple sage. We come to a burning fort, ignore the bodies and bag the wheat left in the silos. I see a young lad hiding behind the burnt out saloon. He wears a red bandanna. I say nothing. We ride home, bags of wheat across the saddles like hessian bodies.
Back at camp the day flicks to night. The children play ‘A tissue, a tissue, we all fall down.’ Beans again for tea. Someone brings out a fiddle. Everyone’s feet jiggle and tap but iron arms keep to their sides. Suddenly Irish dancing makes sense.
Away from the lamplight there are footsteps.
‘Who goes there?’
Silence. The masked soldier can’t even spit. His wife works in the hospital wagons. She wants him to get more bandannas. He checks every intruder for their secret stash.
‘Kneel,’ he says and the man drops, saying his prayers. His bag is searched, the masks removed.
‘On your way, old man.’ Back out into the night. ‘You are not one of us.’
The old man could be my father or Mr Kolikis from where we used to live. Destined to roam between wagon trains under the starry heat. Refugees are surging in the borderlands. The orange faced chief has intel that they won’t share with us. We imagine the walls will work to keep out the malformed, the insane, the junkies, the other. But we don’t know.
In the morning we will move again. There’s a mountain and we have to get to the top where we’ll be safe and can stay for a long time. This is the story we all live. Not everyone will survive the treacherous journey but we have to try. I pack my few things and visit the horses. They are unsettled, shying from my touch. I mount my favourite, Mayflower, and ride out of camp, keeping away from the sentry posts.
I fear the closed circle too much to stay, so I choose the outlaw path. I ride back to the fort, all charcoal now. I whistle and there he is, Bandanna boy. I heave him up behind me and he holds fast.
We make for the holy mountain, travelling only at night. The wagon train is way behind. They are held up by prayers and podiums. It takes a month of hidden days and ill lit nights to reach the foothills. Bandanna boy makes tea from dandelions. It tastes bad. We ate beans on the plains but now we catch rabbits. All around us is evidence of people, tracks up the side of the mountain, fires down below. A ragtag group of strangers follows us quite closely now. We hear their talk around the campfire. Large wagon trains from all over are making their way here. There are whispers of entire valleys of death. We decide to push ahead even though it’s daylight. One last big effort to reach the top.
Rosy fingered dawn beckons us on, higher and higher. Mayflower falters half way up and we leave her there with our supplies. Bandanna boy trembles with the effort of putting one foot ahead of the other. I take his hand. There’s a familiar sound ahead. We creep up. A blind man plays a harmonica, sounds real sad. His leg is wrapped in a bandage with black blood.
‘I hear ya, folks, I hear ya,’ he says, then launches into a blues chord progression.
‘Are we on the right path to the top of the mountain?’ ask I.
‘Are there unicorns there, like they say?’ says Bandanna boy. That’s his childish totem symbol.
‘Well, yes and no.’ The bleeding blind man goes back to playing.
Bandanna boy runs on ahead. I follow slowly. When I catch up with him, he’s sitting on a pile of stones on the top of the mountain. You can see all around for hundreds of miles. The wagon trains are coming, so many of them, up here. Like ants in soldier lines. Further away, beyond the mirages of lakes and before the dust bursts on the horizon are faint brush marks, fragments of colour.
But whether it’s the cavalry or the other, we cannot tell. We fetch Mayflower and set up camp near a spring. I take the first watch.