was born in Melbourne in 1942, raised in Queensland, and has lived in India, USA and Canada, while regularly returning to Australia where she is Professor of Literature at La Trobe University in Melbourne. She is the author of two collections of short stories, Dislocations (1986) and Isobars, a selection of which is now being published in Czech. Her novels include The Ivory Swing (1982), Borderline (1985), Charades (1988), The Last Magician (1992), and her most recent, Oyster (1997), set in an opal mining town explores the dark side of human psyche through the story of a messianic cult. Her writing, innovative, rich, sensuous and disturbing, embraces the theme of dislocation, of “crossing the borders of class, gender, race and culture”.
If rain had come, things might have turned out differently, that is what I think now; but there were children in Outer Maroo who had never seen rain. We prayed. We cursed. We studied the hot empty sky and imagined clouds. We waited. We waited for something to happen, for anything to happen, we were avid for some event to unfold itself out of the burning nothing to save us. We were waiting, as the desperate do, for a miracle.
Unfortunately, we got it.
Then, within the space of a few months, there were more transients than there were locals, and the imbalance seemed morally wrong. There were too many foreigners in Outer Maroo.
There was also, and still, the drought. More than that, perhaps the worst thing, was a sort of mephitic fog, moistureless and invisible, that came and went like an exhalation of the arid earth itself. We gave it a name. We thought, I suppose, in some primitive way, that if we mocked it, it might decamp and leave us alone. Old Fuckatoo, we called it.
The Old Fuckatoo is roosting again, we would say, pressing handkerchiefs against nose and mouth.
The Old Fuckatoo could brood, close and suffocating, for days, then it might lift a little, depending on the sway and twist of convection in the desert air. Mostly, when it nested and tucked us under its fetid wing, the stink of dead cattle would predominate; or else that particular rank sweetness of rotting sheep. On certain days, when hot currents shimmered off Oyster’s Reef, we could detect the chalk-dust of the mullock heaps, acrid; or, from the opal mines themselves, the ghastly fug of the tunnels and shafts. Sometimes there was almost nothing, just the blankness of the outback heat, and this felt like a grace newly recognised. On other days – there was no escaping it – an altogether more disturbing trace prevailed, some terrible and indefinable emanation that suggested… but no one wished to think about what it suggested.
Some, in retrospect, claimed it was moral decay; though it was probably the simple stink of fear.
By cunning intention, and sometimes by discreet bribery (or other dispatch) of government surveyors, Outer Maroo has kept itself off maps, and yet people do stumble into town. A man, let us say, may find himself west of the Warrego River, then west of the McGregor Range, after which he sees nothing but acacia scrub and saltbush and the dry riverbeds that tangle and untangle themselves in pale scribbles against the red earth. The man strains his eyes and scans the horizon. Here and there, a salt-pan lake, shimmering in the heat, almost blinds him, but he knows better than to believe in water. Beyond the salt pans, beyond the butter-coloured ribbons of creek sand, somewhere far far ahead, according to his map, are the dotted lines of the South Australian and Northern Territory borders, but he can see no sign of these poignant ideas of order. They leave no trace on the land.