Nilofar Zimmerman is a writer and lawyer living in Sydney. She is currently undertaking a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney and was the runner-up in the 2022 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing.
Girl dangled her legs over the back of the truck and swung them playfully while she watched Papa and Brother. The first thwacks of the machetes were jarring. Thwack. The stem. Thwack. The leaves. Thwack. The cane trimmed for transportation. But their rhythms quickly became melodic, like an ode to the rains that had come down enough and the sun that had taken over in time.
Half-way through the first row, Papa left Brother and walked further into the field to inspect the crops, disappearing beneath a canopy of green. Girl slid down from the back of the truck, her bare feet landing gently on the dirt. As she moved towards the maze of sugarcane, Brother stopped and watched her.
The thwacks were muffled as she ran deeper into the field among the rows of brown stalks and green leaves, which brushed her body as she weaved through the narrow spaces between the rows. She was Mowgli now. She crouched down into a gap where the stems of two plants had bowed towards each other to form a small hollow. It was the perfect den for a wolf-child. Baloo came to visit in the den and the bear told her stories about the law of the jungle as she paced along the soil on her hands and knees, practising her hunting skills. Don’t fight with the lords of the jungle, he told her. Bears, tigers, panthers – they must all be respected, just like the pack. Do you remember the pack, Mowgli?
As she pulled aside a stalk of sugarcane searching for prey she nodded and repeated to herself, the strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf. She pretended Rikki Tikki Tavi, the mongoose, was hiding behind the stalks and pounced over and over again, practising her surprise attack. A faint thwacking began pulsating towards her and she crouched on her legs with her back straight and her head up, still and listening like a wolf alone in the darkness. The thwacking slowly became louder as the field fell in line with the season. Run, Mowgli, Run, she thought. Shere Khan is coming.
When the light waned, Papa called for Brother to put his tools down and store them in the trailer of the truck. Girl sat in the cabin of the truck wedged between Papa and Brother. The air inside was thick with sweat and exhaustion and their wet bodies jolted against one another as they drove along the dirt road running down the middle of the sugarcane fields for the three-minute journey to the house. The dirt road led to a two-bedroom house made of light blue weatherboard with a corrugated silver tin roof, which was fenced in by the fields on each side and dusted with dirt blown up from the ground.
As she walked into the house, Girl was hit by the sweet smell of the tropics mixed in with the warm air that filled the living room. The fruit bowl on the counter of the adjacent kitchen was overflowing with pineapples, mangoes and a bag of apples from yesterday’s trip to the market. She picked up an empty pitcher from a dining table with a white tablecloth and a clear plastic covering on top and took the pitcher to the sink to fill it with water. She began carefully measuring out spoons of Tang and mixed the orange crystals into the water, tapping the rim of the spoon three times on the rim of the pitcher when the drink was ready, just like Mama used to.
Brother shouted for his drink as he lay sprawled on the green linoleum floor in front of the television with his back against the foot of the sofa. Papa sat in his armchair under the gentle whipping of the ceiling fan, sorting through mail. Girl climbed onto her step stool, slowly pouring the orange drink into two glasses and adding three ice cubes to each. ‘Here’s a cold drink, Papa,’ she said, using both hands to pass him the glass.
His face broke into a smile. ‘What would I do without you, sweet pea?’
Brother stared at her as she handed him the second glass. ‘I’m hungry,’ he said, his eyes red and impenetrable. Kaa, thought Girl, as she returned to the kitchen to put on a pot of beans. No. The snake is Mowgli’s friend.
She picked up an apple and began methodically dicing it for Brother, just like Mama had taught her. As she went to hand Brother the apple, she stopped to watch the laughter coming from the television screen and couldn’t help smiling along with the laugh track as the family on the screen gesticulated with frustration at one another. As soon as Girl placed the apple in front of Brother, he began scooping handfuls from the bowl, his eyes always on the screen. Brother began to cough and Papa let out a chuckle as he leant down to tap Brother’s back. ‘Go easy, boy,’ he said. ‘The market isn’t running out of apples.’ Brother smirked and continued staring ahead, putting another large handful in his mouth.
Papa beckoned Girl. ‘You have a package from Cousin Sister’. She clasped the brown envelope with both hands, brushing her fingers over the top right corner, which was filled with stamps bearing the Statue of Liberty. Cousin Sister was Mama’s favourite niece. She was a manager of Wendy’s now in San Francisco, Mama had told Papa proudly. She had 20 employees working under her, Girl remembered Mama saying with a smile so wide, Girl could almost see Mama’s back molars. Had left that man, Mama told Papa. He punched her and she punched back. Found a place in a shelter and never went back to him. America was really something, wasn’t it? Girl remembered the way Mama and Papa nodded their heads in agreement. America really was something.
Girl tore open the package and jumped with delight. ‘Another Babysitter’s Club book, my fourth one. It’s Mary-Anne Saves the Day,’ she said to no one in particular, waving the book in front of her. She opened the first page and sounded out the unfamiliar words, just like Mama had taught her. As she walked back towards the stove, she pictured herself walking through the tree-lined streets of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, through the front door of a weatherboard house and up the stairs to Claudia’s bedroom for the club meeting. Where have you been, Girl? They would say. Come and join us.
Girl looked out the kitchen window as she dried the last dish but outside everything had merged into darkness. She hung up the tea towel for the morning and went to get ready for bed, washing away the day under a cool shower before haphazardly drying herself and wrapping the towel around her body, eager to read her new book. She darted across the hallway into the bedroom and straight to the dresser sitting between her bed and Brother’s bed. She straightened Mama’s photograph of Princess Diana, which was hanging askew above the dresser and pulled out her clothes from the top drawer. As she slipped on her underwear, she remembered Mama’s old atlas on the bookshelf. She pulled it off the shelf and crouched over it. She flicked through the index looking for ‘S’ and ran her finger down the page but she couldn’t find Stoneybrook, Connecticut anywhere. She found Stamford, which was close enough. The babysitters sometimes went there. It was real. She found the map and was tracing the east coast of America with her finger when she felt movement near the door. She looked up to see Brother standing at the bedroom doorway, staring at her, his eyes darting with curiosity across her naked torso. She quickly picked up her nightie from the floor next to her, pulled it on and went to push past him. He put out a long arm and blocked the doorway. She returned his stare. He relented and she ran over to Papa, who was reading in his armchair.
‘What is it?’ Papa asked.
Girl looked over at Brother, who was walking over to the television. Remember the law, Mowgli. The wolf that follows it will prosper. Keep peace with the lords of the jungle.
‘Nothing,’ she said.
Throughout the market, dotted with plastic tables topped with crates of fruit and vegetables, stall holders sat on folding chairs playing cards or throwing around lethargic banter under the sun. Girl hopped and skipped over the dry dirt, breaking the market’s docile rhythm as she followed Papa to the truck for the hour-long drive from town back home. She held a large piece of taro like a rugby ball and pretended to toss it to Papa. He laughed as he loaded the truck and handed Girl a bag of apples to hold in her lap
‘We wouldn’t want these to get bruised,’ he said to Girl as he climbed into the driver’s seat. ‘Brother has been working very hard.’
Girl fiddled with the dial on the radio with one hand while carefully holding the bag in her other hand as they jostled down the dirt road, following the island’s curve along the coast. The radio crackled as she turned the dial and once she landed on the right song, she nestled back into her seat. Roam if you want to, the B-52s sang to her from across the ocean. Roam around the world. Roam if you want to. Without wings, without wheels. She gazed out the open window at the Pacific Ocean stretching endlessly to their left, her bare arms peeling away from the warm leather seat like sticky tape as she sat up to get a better look.
‘Papa,’ she said, ‘How long would it take to get to America?’.
‘It would take many hours, my darling.’
‘Would I need to take an aeroplane, Papa?’
‘Yes, you would. A large plane. It would cost a lot of money.’
‘Papa, I want to earn money to buy a plane ticket and live in America. I’ll work in a restaurant and have a big American house, just like the Babysitter’s Club.’
Papa chuckled. ‘What about your Papa, my darling? If you lived in America, who would look after me?’
Girl smiled at Papa, then looked out across the windscreen at the ocean to the left and field after field of sugarcane on the right. ‘Of course, Papa. Don’t worry, I’ll always look after you.’
They arrived at the house as the light was starting to fade and Brother was pulling up on his bicycle. Girl put the bag of apples on the seat and slid from the truck before carefully lifting the bag out with both hands. She walked over to the front door watching over her shoulder as Papa patted Brother on the back.
‘You’re doing a fine job, boy,’ Papa said. ‘I think we’ll get a good price for the harvest this year. In a few weeks, we’ll be ready to the take the first batch to the mill.’
Girl walked straight to the kitchen counter, taking an apple from the bag and washing it. As she slowly diced the apple for Brother, she remembered Mama’s gentle encouragement. A little smaller, a little smaller, Mama would say to Girl, showing her how to cut the apple.
Girl sat in her nightie on a bundle of cane under the moonlight, watching Papa tie down the stacks of cane piled high onto a large trailer attached to the truck.
‘Can I have a go, Papa?’
‘I’m sorry, my darling, I need to make these very tight. Otherwise, I’ll be dropping parcels of cane all the way along the coast.’
‘Why can’t I come with you, Papa?’ Girl said. The bundle of cane she was sitting on jiggled slightly as she fidgeted one leg.
‘Who will look after Brother while he carries on with the cutting? That is your important job for the harvest and I know you will do it well. Now it’s time for bed for all of us. I’ll be leaving at first light, but I should be back at night.’
Girl woke up several hours later and looked across the dark room. Slap. Slap. Slap. The sound was faint but certain. She could just see Brother’s eyes fixed on her from his bed, his hand moving up and down under the covers. Her heart was beating quickly and forcefully.
Kaa is watching.
Kaa is waiting.
She took a deep breath before getting out of bed and walking softly across the hallway to Papa’s room. She lay down in bed next to him and closed her eyes.
Remember, Mowgli, remember. If you fight with one of the pack, you must fight him alone and afar. Lest the pack be brought into the quarrel. Lest the pack be brought into war.
With Papa gone at sunrise, Girl spent the morning at the house doing her jobs. Papa will be so pleased, she thought, as she wiped the dirt from the outside of the doors and windows. She imagined she was Pippi Longstocking getting Villa Villekulla ready for her sea captain father who was coming home from an expedition. As she pulled towels down from the clothesline, she put her face to them and breathed deeply. They smelled like Mama to her. A mixture of detergent and the crisp cleanliness that only came from a day of baking in the hot sun.
At lunchtime, Girl packed a shopping bag with a thermos of Tang and a plastic container of fried cassava, rice and beans and walked down to the field nearest to the house, which hadn’t been cut yet, squinting into the distance to look for Brother among the sea of green. She took a deep breath and walked further down the dirt road along the edge of the field, holding the bag with one hand and brushing the leaves of the sugarcane with her other hand. As she wiggled her fingers in the empty space between one of the rows, a hand lunged forward and grabbed her wrist tightly, pushing her against the crops. ‘You’re late,’ Brother said, glaring at Girl, his face and chest centimetres from her own, the beads of sweat on his forehead hovering over Girl like they were daring her to move. She dropped the bag onto the soil and as Brother released his grip, she clutched her wrist and ran deeper into the field, weaving between the rows of sugarcane and looking for a path through the jungle.
Brother came in after the day of felling, slumping down at the dining table and turning on the television. His shirt was wet; the day’s heat had defeated him. On cue, Girl began cutting his apple. A little bigger, she thought, a little bigger. She put the bowl of apple in front of Brother and turned towards the sink to prepare the pitcher of Tang. Measure the powder carefully. Mix it into the water, just like Mama said to. Then a hard thumping interrupted her evening ritual.
She turned around to see Brother holding his throat with one hand and banging the other on the dining table. She dropped her spoon and stumbled backwards in surprise, catching herself against the counter. Kaa was gasping for air. His steely eyes demanded attention. Help me. Mowgli, you must help me.
Girl stood immobilised. She began to move forward but hesitated and turned back to the pitcher, closing her eyes.
Drink deeply but never too deep, Kaa. That is the way of the jungle. Mowgli watched as Kaa struggled for breath until finally, the snake fell to the jungle floor with a thud, its gaze fixed towards some distant place.
Girl opened her eyes and turned towards the dining table, swiping the tears off her face with both hands. Then she reached into a cupboard and picked up a packet of rice. Papa will be hungry.