Christmas Meat

The dray horse eases the cart along a heavily rutted track surrounded by twisted gums. I walk alongside the front, clearing dried branches to either side while mum sits on top with the reins sitting loosely in her hands. Mum wears a wide-brimmed witch’s hat to keep the blinding sun from her eyes. It shadows most of her face, leaving only her mouth visible, set into a bored expression.

The road splits into two parallel tracks, with a line of twisted lantana between them. Branches cover both sides.

“Ut.” Mum says, pulling on the reins and clicking her tongue.

I step forward and start clearing branches from the left track. I step on a pile of sticks and they crack and fall beneath my feet, revealing a cave that dips down into blackness. I wave at mum to back up and she steers the cart to the right track.

Cool air blows from the cave beneath, inviting in the searing heat of the summer day. I lean my head down and feel the breeze on my hair. I call down into the hole and my voice travels a long way before echoing back.

“Hello.”

“Don’t.” Mum says, “You’ll call Him.”

I step back and lead the cart onwards. The heat has thickened the air like casserole and the forest fills my ears with buzzing and chirping insects. The line of gums finally breaks onto the steep hill covered with sharp grass that leads up to our sheds.

The three sheds are dull grey corrugated iron, one long and squat with several bedrooms for all my siblings, one half open and littered with rusting and cobwebbed farm equipment, and one towering and insulated where we store our perishables.

I move to the back of the cart and push as the dray horse drags it up the slope. We stop repeatedly as I untwist the long grass from the wheels, my thick hide gloves not quite enough to stop the grass from pricking my fingers.

We get the cart to the flat at the top of the hill and my little sister untacks the horse. Mum lowers herself from the cart and starts removing the canvas sheet from the cargo on the back. Several hessian wrapped parcels are neatly packed into the cart’s tray, each labelled with the names of members of my family.

I pile up the parcels and lift them to the living shed, holding the top of the pile in place with my chin.

Inside the shed is dark and cooler, though heat still gathers near the roof and makes my scalp sweat. My family are gathered on disintegrating couches in the living room. Four brothers, two sisters, dad and mum. I bend my knees and let the pile of gifts down next to the plastic Christmas tree, missing half its branches.

My only older brother pulls me aside.

“Come see,” he says, “I’ve ordered the meat for Christmas.”

He grins, revealing one grey tooth sitting amongst the others. He takes me out the back screen door, lifting it off the rails that are encrusted with dirt and bug corpses. It screeches as he pulls it back and forward.

We step out into the heat. Grasshoppers flee us as we make our way through the grass, seeds sticking to our rutted boots. I shade my eyes from the sun and I can feel the top of my hand burning.

He leads me to the storage shed, unlocks the heavily insulated door and it swings open without making a noise, smooth and solid. Inside is dark. White powder dances in the sunlight slipping between our legs. He flicks a switch beside the door.

Fluorescent lights flicker far above and catch, revealing a landscape of meat piled high above us. Red, dry muscle rises almost to the ceiling in rolling peaks, shot through with veins of white sinew. White powder clouds around the lights. The smell of talcum invades my nostrils.

My stomach undulates as my eyes trace the crests of the mountains. I see things moving up there. Serrated bone raised in crooked claws. Sinews tensing and relaxing.

I turn to my older brother.

“This is fucked.” I say.

He looks hurt but I feel too sick to care.

“We gotta get rid of this. This is really bad.”

I push him outside and close the door behind us, trying to be quiet.

“Look,” I say, putting my hand on his shoulder, “We’ll go back inside and enjoy Christmas. I’ll find a place in the bush to dump the meat. We can’t leave it sitting around. He’ll come. Don’t worry I won’t tell the others.”

My brother nods but looks deflated. My mind reels with the task of getting rid of the meat. I want to burn the shed down and run.

We get back inside and I jiggle the screen door back into place. My family is sitting on the floor around the pile of presents, drinking bitter moonshine with the last of our ice cubes.

I head for the hallway to get the shovel from the trunk under my bed. Dad sees me and rushes to his feet, spilling moonshine on the tacky carpet. He catches my eye and I stop as he approaches. He turns his back toward the rest of the family and I do the same.

“I already know what your mum got me.” He says, keeping his voice low. “I can tell from the shape of the package.”

I nod and force a grin, my eyes darting between the hallway and the screen door.

“It’s a new reloading kit.” Dad struggles to keep his voice down. “I’ve needed one since the vapours got into the barn. It’ll mean I can finally restock the 45-70.”

He raises his eyebrows. I nod.

“Yeah.” I say.

“That means proper game. I mean roos are alright but they haven’t got enough on them. This means I can clear those pigs from the dam, filter the water and get us back running proper again.”

“That’s good.” I say, “Look dad I…”

“I’ll get us some deer, do some venison roasts. Maybe I can sneak down to the creek and get us a buffalo. That’ll feed us for weeks. There’s plenty of room in the shed.”

I try to keep my legs from moving but they are starting to ache. Heat pours in from the ceiling. I can hear flies buzzing outside.

“I’ll bring your brother down. You can come too, do some spotting for us. I know you don’t like to shoot but it might be fun to come along.”

“Yeah sounds good dad. Look I gotta do something outside, I’ll be back in a sec.”

Dad raises his eyebrows.

“What’s wrong son?”

“Nothing. I’ll be back.”

I rush down the hall, feeling the weight of dad’s stare behind me. I open the makeshift mdf door to my older brother’s and my room, giving it a shove with my shoulder. It scrapes over the dried corpse of a gecko.

I can hear buzzing outside the small screen window, loud and machine-like. I drag my grey steel trunk from under the bed and it screeches on the concrete floor. I undo the latch, pull out my shovel and tartan bandana.

I hurry back down the hall. Dad has bailed my older brother in the corner, still talking about guns. My brother shoots me a sympathetic glance. I jiggle the screen door open, swear as I try to get it back into place.

The sun is setting outside, red light shining directly into my eyes. I juggle the shovel between my hands as I tie the bandana over my mouth.

I stop short as I see the door to the storage shed, vibrating and bleeding green light from around the doorframe.

I try to take a deep breath but I can’t seem to get air into my lungs. I hold my shovel close to my chest and approach the door. The heat coming off the grey steel walls is unbearable. Humming splits my temples like an axe bit, throbs in waves.

I take on hand off the shovel and twist the grimy steel door handle. I feel the lock uncatch and I push.

The door slides over neat grey carpet, tinged green with the light. Clean walls with a high roof stretch on for way too far. Potted ferns line the walls in perfect symmetry.

At the end of the room is a window, open and flooding green light that is almost solid. Before the window is a wooden desk with a small cactus sitting to one side. There is a figure sitting at the desk, I only catch a glimpse of Him.

A small, twisted body in a grey suit. A giant brown head with greasy black hair.

Something shoots out from under the desk, crosses the room in a second, rolling and bouncing. It cackles.

I drop my shovel and try to slam the door. The handle of the shovel catches between the door and frame. The little creature wrenches the door back, stronger than our dray horse. I kick the shovel away and pull the door back into place. The door crushes the little creature, it squeaks and folds like rubber.

I try to get the lock to catch but the creature is caught under the door. It cackles and squeaks with each pull. I hear the screen door jiggle behind me. Hear my dad talking to my brother as he walks outside.

Tears sting my eyes. I pull and the creature pulls back. Dad makes it around the corner.

“Shit.” He says, comes running.

“Dad…” I say, my arms wrench forward and back. I feel my muscles tear.

“He’s come.

You have to

Run.”

Dad runs up to grab the door handle. I push him away with my foot.

“Even though

I can’t do this

Myself.”

The door starts to twist.

“Please…

Get inside.

Lock the doors.”

Dad backs away, eyes wide. He turns for the back door.

“Tell everyone

I said…”

The creature cackles and squeaks. The light flickers from green to deep red. The creature pulls the door off its hinges. I grab the shovel.

“… Merry Christmas.”

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