It was early autumn in Kilcoy and Adelle was excited about wearing her new pale yellow cotton dress with the white lace collar to Easter Sunday services down in D’aguilar with Gammy Ruth. The yellow accentuated her bright cerulean blue eyes and bronze curls, Adelle thought, gazing in the mirror at her fourteen-year-old reflection. She did a little spin, gleeful at the way the skirt billowed above her knees. Her little sister Bethany turned up her pug nose in disgust. Why’d anybody want to be a teenager? she wondered with a certain irritation, knowing she’d have to become one herself some day – no matter how hard she’d try to avert it. The short-cropped brown-haired, cornflower blue-eyed tomboy of ten turned, her head bobbling in disbelief: Adelle was going to the dingoes for certain; that was all there was to it and Beth was sad.
She was sad because only last December it had still been Adelle – a barefooted girl in dungarees, cuffs rolled calf-high – who was her constant companion on those summer afternoons going walkabout along the creek in Silky Oak Park. You don’t wade around in frilly frocks foraging for freshwater yabby. You go to dances in dresses. You flirt on the playground without knowing why. Beth shuddered at the notion; she felt the chill of losing her best friend – Lord! there’d be boys coming around this winter, no doubt – and there wasn’t anybody else to fill that empty place. It was disgusting. It was unavoidable. Adelle was turning insufferable as surely as the leaves were withering, and she couldn’t help it. Beth couldn’t save her. Maybe Jesus could save her while they sat in the sanctuary with Gammy Ruth, but even that seemed unlikely. Beth had tried prayer to no avail. No one answered, and Adelle was sprouting breasts faster than a ‘roo can run. Beth stomped out of the bedroom and hurriedly fled for the front door.
She didn’t make it in time. Gammy Ruth had arrived and was climbing the porch steps. There was no escape. Bethany was greeted with a grandmotherly smile; smothered in a thick stink of matronly perfume; taken gently, but firmly, in hand; dragged back to the bedroom; and pried into a starched white blouse and charcoal-gray cross-strapped pinafore. Bethany sneered at Adelle – who was oh-so too much enjoying the spectacle all the while – and stared sidelong at Gammy Ruth in utter consternation. It was futile to struggle against the gristle of Gammy.
“Now you girls stays put here pretty and primp,” Gammy directed, “whilest I go fetches a surprise from truck,” and she waddled out. She returned carrying two large round boxes with purple bows and inside each was a brand new bonnet with pink ribbons. Beth wanted to die right there. As if it weren’t bad enough to be all gussied up like a cut-out cardboard doll displayed on a tissue-paper flowered float in the dreaded Easter parade, there had to be hats, too. Even worse – oh Lord, take me now! – these hats were identical! Beth felt suddenly faint. It was the most dreadful morning of her entire life.
Paw was strolling in from the field when the three departed for church. A widower, he preferred the open sky to steeples and pews; he held little faith – and less patience – in preachers’ sermons. Nevertheless, out of respect for his late wife’s wishes, he allowed his daughters to be carted off twice a year by Gammy Ruth for questionable lessons about debauchery and benign (he hoped) attempts at unnecessary salvation. “Only them that knows what Sin is can commit it,” Gammy Ruth insisted, paraphrasing (unknowingly inverting) something written by some Irish-American Southern U.S. author she’d read once and probably shouldn’t have. Paw took no stock in such contrary foolishness, and quietly led the girls astray into Nature at every possible turn to protect them from the banal influences of clergy. He deemed such treks enough to counterweigh the credo of guilt so rife in the Word. The girls, especially Bethany, could see their way clear to fend for themselves beyond that. But, just to be on the safe side now that Adelle was shaping out, he’d thought maybe a little shaping up might not be a bad idea… just in case.
He waved to the girls as Gammy’s old truck sputtered past, backfiring out the drive and down the dusty road toward D’aguilar. Beth waved back in desperation, eyes pleading for rescue. It was no use: it was Easter. One can but implore forgiveness and beseech that sunset arrives early.
The morning was hot, the parade intolerable, the bonnet stiff and uncomfortable for Beth. Sunday school proved tedious and she resisted redemption of her miserable soul with all the tenacity of a Tasmanian devil. Adelle’s attention was diverted by the prying eyes of two boys; both seemed intent upon the goffered flounces at the bodice of her new dress. She beamed at the attention while she feigned indifference. Gammy Ruth scowled and harrumphed disapproval. All attempts to free the sisters of their innocence with teachings of resurrection met with failure. Gammy’s assertions foundered; the pastor’s message fell short; the boys would have their own shot another time, away from congregations and termagants.
When services finally concluded, and effusive appreciations were showered upon the rectors, Gammy Ruth joined several other ladies at picnic tables serving afternoon tea with Lamingtons. Adelle attended to slicing Pavlova topped with kiwi slices and distributing napkins, all the while keeping within sight of the lads who continued their furtive glances from not too afar, but just enough to allow swift retreat. Bethany scurried away to play on swings and slides. It was at the teeter totter she met Debra Hutchins for the first time, and the issue of Adelle’s advancing womanhood faded from her concern. Bethany had found a new best friend.
Debra was of similar age and size. She sported a fawn-shaded ponytail, a truly button-like round nose, gray-green oval eyes that sparkled whenever she blinked above her soft twin dimples, and a mere rosebud of chin. There was a certain charm about her, offset by a boisterous snort whenever anything struck her as funny, which was just about everything. An orphan, she had just recently arrived from Perth to live with a maiden aunt, Mathilda, near Stony Creek, midway between Kilcoy and D’aguilar. Their encounter seemed as though ordained. Both Debra’s aunt and Gammy Ruth noticed the immediate connection between the girls, and struck up their own conversation while sharing the contents of a full pot of Madura tea with lemon myrtle.
The women were immediately as comfortable with one another as the girls, and they agreed Gammy would take Debra home with Bethany for the afternoon. They waved the youngsters over to ask if they’d like to do that and both were eager to the point of jumping, bouncing and giggling uncontrollably. Debra could change into some of Bethany’s play clothes, Gammy suggested, and Aunt Mathilda might stay for supper when she came to fetch her niece – if she were so inclined. Gammy had ulterior motives concerning Paw; they would find each other fascinating, she thought, (without mentioning attractive) and so it was settled. Beth and Debra rushed off to collect Adelle.
By five o’clock Bethany had taken Debra exploring all along the turbid water of Kilcoy Creek from Anzac Park to Hopetoun Fields hunting for blue yabbies. The crayfish proved elusive, but they’d captured three good-sized ones and planned to boil them for supper. The April autumn light was growing smoky in the low west; the girls began to backtrack toward the farm. They stopped suddenly at the sound of splashing. A shadow rose from the water, rolled beneath the surface again, then emerged onto the far bank and scampered into the grass. Another lay prone and motionless on the mud.
Debra thought it was a beaver. Bethany said no, they didn’t have beavers in Queensland. A big snapping turtle then, except it had fur on its flat back instead of a shell, so it couldn’t be that. Besides, the snout was all wrong: it resembled a duck, but there were no feathers. The second one, that had lain motionless, abruptly jumped and disappeared into the murk. They didn’t see the creatures again – although they waited, spying from behind a bush for safety – and after a long delay into dusk they decided to race home. They ran with no slight reluctance to step too close to the water ever again lest they be seized, and consumed by the loathsome, formidable beast. Paw would know what it was. Paw knew everything about anything that breathed and most of what didn’t.
The yabbies tasted a little muddy, like a black bass hooked in the heat of summer from a brackish lake, but the girls had caught them of their own devices, so they were delicious delicacies nonetheless. Gammy Ruth cleared the dishes; Aunt Mathilda sensed the girls needed some alone time with Paw, so graciously retreated to the kitchen to help with coffee. She nudged Adelle in passing with a gentle elbow to the shoulder. The adolescent didn’t get the hint – what teenager does? Bethany cleared her throat looking sternly at Adelle, who seemed lost in thought about something – or someone. A second a-Hem! sent the elder sister upstairs in a huff. Paw waited patiently; the girls had something on their minds, that much was evident.
“Paw…” Beth whispered. “We seen something today don’t make sense.” Between their shy uncertainties, the unassuming naïveté of youth, and with a tinge of trepidation – and the ladies in the kitchen eavesdropping – the girls described as best they could the strange furry turtle with a flat beaver’s tail. Paw listened, then sat back in his chair with his fingers interlocked atop his head. He smiled knowingly. His eyes twinkled.
“First thing you got to know is, don’t try to pick them critters up,” Paw warned. “The back feet have a fang, with potent venom – for self-protection against wayward children, and their grownups mostly. Otherwise, they ain’t likely gonna bite or go chasing after you. They kind of keep to themselves, solitary-like, leastwise until somebody with a certain… spirit, happens along,” he told them. Paw always knew about these things when it mattered.
“Even then they don’t always reveal their existence,” he added. “So when you see them again – and you will because you already have – just look upon them as… a holy wonder; and behold, for what you girls seen today is the proof and the presence of almighty God.”
Gammy gasped and dropped a saucer shattering to the floor. Paw looked up at the crash, but all he saw – standing next to Ruth with a glow of breathless understanding – was the face of an angel.