Once a Jolly Swag-Man

The scorched brown land shivered under the sun.

Even if the man wiped the sweat off his brow, it would immediately be soaked anew. Fanning his sun-browned, cragged face with his hat, he surveyed the dusty drive that lead up to the shearing shed. Unconsciously he flicked away the flies. The man stretched out to his full imposing height, tested his wiry muscles, sighed into the electric blue sky dominating the rolling plains around him, slammed the ute’s door shut and headed up the path.

He was used to the process, it was one he had repeated countless times, he could usually walk up to a corrugated iron shed and do his job on pure muscle memory. Usually. He was a travelling shearer, one of the dying breed who would drift with the dust up and down the island continent. One of the best too. Not that he was here on some special summons or anything, earlier that day he had blown into a small station, and the elderly couple who tried to keep the wheels from falling off asked him to shear their lone girl. A hefty warning was attached.

Well, he hadn’t gotten this far just on luck, he knew how to handle himself. Still, he’d be careful. He still enjoyed his itinerant lifestyle, no girlfriend had ever convinced him to settle down, to get a shitty job in some country town. He couldn’t find much of a reason. He just felt his chest tighten and a sense of loss encroach of his happy stasis whenever he thought about the required procedures inherent in a marriage. Not when he was free to do whatever he liked on the empty roads of the outback or the winding trails of the bush.

The rusted, dilapidated shed filled his conscious thought. Jolted back to reality by that most sacred of Australian country architecture. The Shearer cracked his neck, looked up at the vicious sun high above, and stepped into the shadow of the door.

His fist connected with a sheet of the corrugated iron, nearly rattling it off it’s rusted through nails.

“G’daaaay! Oi! Y’here miss?”

“Eh, uh, I’m here bru,” the response more staggered out of the gloom than called.

In the back of the small shed, shielding her eyes from the hostile glare of the noon sun that crashed through the shed’s open northern wall, a pretty pathetic sight pulled itself upright. The Shearer clicked his tongue.

“A kiwi huh?”

“Got a problum wuth that bru?”

“Nah mate. Y’know the drill?”

“Yeah, thus ain’t the first time I’ve hed to be shorn bru. I’m dying in thus heat bru.”

To the Shearer the girl just looked like she was dying full-stop. A head shorter than him, dripping wet not even half his weight, stood the station’s lone sheepgirl, shoulders bowed beneath some unknowable load.

“Ya alright girl? Whats yer name?”

“Ah. I’m fine bru. I’ll tell ya as we go. Arianne.”

“…Azza?”

“Don’t shortun my name like thut bru, it’s gross. Fuckin’ Aussies.”

The Shearer tipped his hat, took it off, and hung it on a convenient peg. He had another look at the girl. Even with the wool there didn’t look like there was much of her. A fluffy shock of white hair nearly hid the dark rings that circled her dulled eyes, her pretty face possessing a morose cast, even standing seemed more of an ordeal than a habit. The warning slowly turned over in his mind, spark plugs quiet. She turned her small back to him and headed back to the stall she had earlier occupied. The sheepgirl looked over her shoulder, beckoning the shearer over. A wry smile cracked the bottom of her face as she mock curtsied, inviting the shearer to take up a position in the stall.

He did just that, dodging the giant nest of old, but well maintained wool, he searched for the hanging chord to plug his shears into.

“Arianne, yer a kiwi right? How’d ya get all the way out ‘ere?”

“I thought the change of scenery would help me, I just ended up being takun un by the family, so I stayed. Thus us comfortabul enough f’me.”

The Shearer thought about that for a while, he had seen enough sheepgirls to know something was off about the New Zealander. He was curious. He wanted to know what this girl was hinting at, even as she plunked herself down in his arms, her back to his chest. He readied his shears.

“So? What’s wrong with ya Arianne?”

The sheepgirl seemed to reply from a far away place, nearly cracking the Shearer’s chin with one of her curled horns when she was shocked back to reality, “heh, I like that abut Aussies, yer straight shooters.”

The Shearer rested the girl’s head on his crotch, towering over her, he took a leg in hand below the knee and started shearing off the wool of her calves. Usually he had to stop the girls from inhaling his tackle at this point. This girl just nuzzled in, settled down, looking up at the Shearer through heavy lidded eyes.

“I’m a but of an aberration shearer, an insomniac Sheepgurl,” was her yawned answer.

“…just a bit of an aberration. How does that even work? C’mon, other leg.”

“I dunno how ut fuckin’ works, but I haven’t slept un like sex days now.”

“Sex days?”

“‘6’ smart arse.”

The Shearer thought on that as he sunk his hand into the girl’s soft thigh and begun carefully shearing off the wool there. The odd content sigh escaped the girl’s barely parted lips. He wondered; hadn’t he read that if you don’t sleep for a week that that can be a fatal issue? The girl seemed to be on top of it though, but still.

“You’ve gone quiet Shearer.”

“Want me t’hum you a tune whilst I work?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just letting the tune vibrate out of his chest.

The girl immediately shifted under him, almost cutting herself on the shears near some delicate places, “Christ! Not Waltzing Matilda! You’ve got a seck sense of humour Shearer.”

Still she quietly laughed and settled down again.

“I could sleep when I wus younger. But then… Wull. My mum died and I found I couldn’t sleep.”

The shears stopped their staccato crackling.

“That’s pretty simple.”

“When I put ut like that ut us bru.”

The shears started up again, the shed filling with the harsh mechanical buzz of an angry wasp nest.

The warning changed pitch in the Shearer’s head.

Dust fell from the ceiling and caught the lowering sun’s rays. In the gloom the girl’s breathing slowed.

“Want a story?”

“…mhmm.”

“My Dad was a Vietnam vet, so I’m told, I don’t have any memories of him though.”

“Did he leave before you were born?”

“Ha, that’s the funny thing, he stayed with us until I was nearly 10. I just have no memories of him. I remember my mother though.”

The Shearer felt a small, soft hand grab at his pant leg, stroking up his calf in that kind of unconscious, soothing, way that just comes. He continued.

“Well, he left when I was young. That’s it. I have no interest in ever dealing with him again. Mum said he was a differen’ man b’fore the war, but of course I never knew ‘im like that. Just the fallout of the rages, the scars of rejection, the powerless misery of those who can’t do anythin’ abou’ the pain of those they love.

“Hmmm. It was around my 16th birthday that my Mum finally, well. I didn’t need any more school, I didn’t need to stay in tha’ town, I didn’t need any ties, so I apprenticed myself to a shearer, and here I am, more or less whole, right Arianne?”

“That wasn’t a nice story at all bru.”

“Ha, I guess not.”

“Still. I guess thut explains why ya hands feel… so kind bru.”

“…I’m nearly done Arianne, gimme y’other arm.”

“Really? You’re quick bru.”

“I’m actually going incredibly slowly.”

“…F’me?”

The Shearer didn’t answer that, even as he clippered off the last of the girl’s wool. Around this time he’d have to start to get a little rough. It was just the nature of the job. The girls all knew the rules. Still.

Arianne stirred even as the Shearer tensed up, adrenaline rising, ready to stand, muscle memory centering his mass, tightening up his fists.

“Hey… Shearer,” was all she managed as she squirmed around in his lap, facing him now. Her dull eyes had found a bit of spark in the wells of those dark rings. A gold afternoon warmed her curves even as she looked up at him through her lashes, hidden in her own silhouette, hands tightening to balls on his sweaty shirt.

“Hey… Y’know, I think I can fall asleep like thus… Hey, Shearer, please?” It wasn’t a fair request, the girl was already snuggling into his chest. She spoke from the path to her dreams that she had finally found again.

The Shearer wiped the sweat off his brow and looked at the girl softly, slowly, barely, breathing on his chest. He settled back into her freshly sheared wool. Even though he had a bit of a resistance to the stuff he felt his lids grow as heavy as tectonic plates, crushing down.

“-ood, she finally fell asleep. Here, some dinner. Stay as long as y’both need.”

It was the Station-Owner’s wife, gently shaking him awake. He thanked her despite the knowing grin the old woman sported, and ate a small amount of the offered stew. The summer sun, summer heat, had long ago left. He gently shifted the sleeping girl closer into his embrace, a ward against the cold for them both. Soon he fell back asleep.

A delicate softness at his lips woke the Shearer.

The dark rings, diminished but not gone, filled his sight. Arianne’s heavy lidded eyes fluttered open as she broke the light kiss, cheeks reddening.

“Hey bru, g’morning.” Even after a full night’s sleep her eyes barely sparked, her heart barely kept it’s pace, her limbs shuddered in and out of motion. She let her fluffy white head hit his chest, her horns clunking his collarbones. The Shearer tried not to flinch.

A huge yawn, “hey… Thank you, f’letting me sleep some. The nightmares weren’t s’bad as usual either. Y’really are as kind as y’feel.”

The Shearer had nothing to say.

The Shearer was struck with the terror of what he found in that girl’s eyes.

The Shearer wanted to run.

The Shearer wanted to be on the other side of the world to this insomniac sheepgirl.

The Shearer was afraid to the very core of his being.

“Hey… Shearer… I… Think I need you. I want you to be wuth me wherever I rest my head… Hey, Shearer? Will you let me walk with you?”

The Shearer put away his shears.

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4 thoughts on “Once a Jolly Swag-Man”

  1. I find this story difficult to read, I think the author should have played it a little safer because the Assuie English is so difficult for me to read, if it wasn’t for that I would have assumed this one was a dead winner it has it all very detailed heartfelt and even humorous.

  2. Goddamn, but that was good. I had no problem with the voice once I found its cadence, which was frankly spellbinding. Beautifully understated, the whole damn thing. Well done.

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