Edition 14: The Bush Bride of Badgery Hollow by Angela Rega
Only at home in the bush, the bush brides are not meant to be owned, yet Midge has a yearning. But conquerers never understand that the Australian wilds are not meant to be tamed. SY
Where you see the skeletal remains of a wattle and daub cottage set against the low dry hills of Badgery Hollow, you know this is where an old colonial tried, but failed to keep, a sugar glider bush bride.
The wind whistles here; it is a desolating lament for early settlers. It sings between the branches of brittle trees, across this yellowed land. There is movement in the burnt out tree stump and inside is the remnant of her story: the sugar glider bush bride.
The changeling woman stretches out two webbed wingfolds and glides from arbor to arbor; she is a native of this Australian landscape. She is fresh like the morning dew glistening between her long eyelashes, her hair is a memory of sugar glider markings; silken and silver, except for the ebony streaks on either side that reach the tips of the hair that fall to her waist.
Old Barnaby had warned Midge not to pursue the love of a bush bride.
“Especially those marsupial girls,” he’d said, “who carry their babes in fleshy pouches at the bottom of their bellies, their fingernails like claws, their eyes always wide-eyed. You gotta watch those bush brides.”
Midge nodded at Old Barnaby but wouldn’t answer with any kind of verbal agreement; they were sitting around an open fire, mugs of tea in hand and he had already seen her from a distance at dawn. He was hungry for her silvery hair with coal black streaks, those protruding dark eyes and her wet, wet pink lips.
When Old Barnaby departed, his cattle dogs pulling his buggy instead of horses, Midge knew they were different people. Old Barnaby didn’t hunger for this kind of love. He waved him off and desire burned in his groin.
The next overcast morning, he left, trying not to disturb the cobwebs, and took a gift to Eudora, the old widow down the bottom of Badgery Hollow who knew the secrets and stories of this mysterious bush. She’d cackled when he told her he wanted a marsupial bride and for a small price of chopped wood for the winter and a bag of pig ears for treats for her dogs, she told him how to capture one.
“It’s sugary nectars slow in the cooking they’re wanting: eucalyptus leaf, acacia seeds and sap, chunks of sticky honeydew.”
Midge wanted to hug her but Eudora waved him away. Muttering about weakness and possession and the words “intimacy” and “distance”. He ignored her raving and whistled home.
Patience. He’d been doing this for ten mornings. It had become like a ritual. He’d place the bowl down at the base of the tree stump, step back, and wait, crouched against a boulder.
On the tenth morning, just as he was about ready to believe the words of farm folk that told him Eudora was as mad as a cut snake, Midge looked up at the branches where the rosellas squawked and fluttered and, at that moment, heard a crackling of leaves. He looked down and there she was, creeping towards the bowl. Midge’s eyes widened. He’d never seen her up close. Her toenails really are like claws, Midge thought, as he watched her stalk like a hunter to his bush breakfast.
He could trim them like he clipped the dogs’ toenails, he thought—but then a yearning overcame him. He watched the way her lithe muscles in her thighs seem to quiver with each step forward.
He wanted to love her then and there, in the dry grass and dusty soil, the debris of autumn leaves blanketing their love with the rosellas squawking a cacophony of climax but he stayed still. An intimate distance, he remembered Eudora’s words.
She leaned forward to the bowl, put her hand into the nectary porridge and licked her palm and clawed fingers clean. She looked at him with those bulbous dark eyes and dipped her hand in again. Midge felt a lump in his throat.
She ate from his bowl. She let him see her in the daylight. Still crouching, he lunged forward, outstretched his palm to the sugary syrup, dipped his hand in and licked it, too. He cringed at the taste, way too sweet for him, but Eudora and Old Barnaby had told him that to win a marsupial bride, you must share a meal together. He tried not to grimace or gag. The sticky sweet juice trickling down his throat was accompanied by ants.
He dipped his hand in again and outstretched his palm for her to eat. She lapped at the syrup in the tickly centre of his hand; he gasped in surprise at the sandy, grainy texture of her tongue.
“I’ll feed you all the nectar you want if you marry me.”
It was a surprise, like the lump that had formed in his throat. She smiled and a chirping sound gurgled from her throat. He swallowed and smiled back. Those dark eyes. Silver and black tangles of hair covering the gentle curves of her body.
She pulled her long hair back to reveal a gown of Huntsman cobweb worn as a silken membrane. The rosellas swooped and circled and a small shower of vermillion red and blue feathers fell around her feet. Then almost without Midge realising it, they were lying together on feathers and leaves. He uttered those words that Old Barnaby said were carved into the rocks down near the old hollow stump on his land.
“Marry me marsupial bride.”
He brushed his leg against hers and shivered at the tickle of the faintest bristle of silver fur against skin. He had never seen a real woman naked before, except for in those magazines Jim Bo kept stashed in the barn and now he was red-faced and fumbling with his trousers and boots. He put his fingers in her mouth and a small squeak of surprise left his lips. Inside was not all the softness he imagined, her teeth were rodent sharp. A fear overcame him but it wasn’t as strong as his desire. Eudora had told him, all he had to do was love her after the sugary feeding in her habitat for her to be his. And he has never wanted something more. He outlined her lips with his wet finger.
“Beware of the old bush magic,” Eudora had warned after he handed her the dried pigs ears. “It is hard to keep an intimate distance. A man’s love is a greedy hunger only filled when he’s conquered. You can’t conquer a marsupial bride.”
Midge filled with a desire of conquest and euphoria. It washed over him, breathing in the fresh country air; new, alive and strangely empty. He made love to her like she was a part of him. Then he lay back and beckoned her to rest her head against his chest. His bride. Being crepuscular, and the sun at its highest, she fell into a deep sleep. He let her use his chest as his pillow.
And then he saw it; a streak of red brushed through the bracken. A fox.
Midge’s calf muscles tightened. The outback disdains the fox for he is not a native to the land, and has been known to eat a sugar glider or two. He put his arm around her torso, as if to protect her.
The fox approached. He was twitching his nose and yapping in protest that Midge had married a bush bride. Now that he’d married a marsupial, he could, as old Eudora told him would happen, understand the language of animals.
“Him silly billy marrying bush bride! Him not follow the bush laws him knows it. Mortals can’t marry bush brides.”
“You aren’t of the land either, killing for the fun of it, not just to fill your belly.”
Fox laughed and it sounded like an evil whimper. “Him kill for fun, Him come here by boat and bring me with him!”
“She loves me.”
“She loves bush more. Nocturnal. Day she is your wife but night she belong to bush.”
The fox whimpered a laugh and scooted off through the trees, back over the last hills of Badgery Hollow. Midge watched the fox become nothing but a red speck on the horizon. He stretched his stiffened legs out.
“Wake up.” Midge shook his new bride from the leaf and cobweb debris but she didn’t stir, curled into a foetal ball of deep breathing.
Midge picked her up, hoisted her over his shoulder; she was light but so strong, he could feel her lean stomach muscles against his chest.
The rosellas screeched and the rare black cockatoos swooped and circled as if they had come to witness his crime of taking a marsupial bride, removing from her natural habitat and to his homestead.
“You must resist temptation, and not take her home,” Eudora had warned him as she had fed her hounds the pig ears. “A bush bride belongs there—in the bush not the homestead. No man has ever resisted the urge. The laws of the bush are more sacred than those of any chapel you men preach at.”
Midge pushed through the rubble, ignoring the memory of the sound of Eudora’s voice and the dogs crunching up those ears. For a moment he wondered what the consequences of breaking the laws of the bush would be. But colonials had been doing that for years.
“It’s a timber house,” he said in the sleeping glider girl’s ear, “it won’t be that different.”
He yelled out and shook his spare fist at the sky. In the distance, he was sure he heard Eudora laughing and those dogs growling.
In the house, his bride stirred at sunset, she stretched her arms and shook her tangled hair and looked for a way out. She slammed the kitchen cupboards open and shut and scratched against the kitchen window above the sink. She tried to scratch at his skin, a look of panic made her eyes look glassy to him.
Midge circled his hands around her skinny forearms and squeezed hard to keep her still. It was natural, right? She would get used to her new home, just like all brides did.
“You should be preparing the dinner, now,” he said to her. “I’ll be out during the day, workin’ the land while you sleep and then I’ll come home and you’ll prepare the dinner.” He opened the cupboard and took out a bag of flour and a packet of sugar.
But now she was crying, scratching and trying to open the back door. Midge kept his hand in his pockets and fumbled with the key in his pocket. He would have to find a good hiding place for it.
“You’ll get used to it here,” he said to her patting her hair. He noticed her scalp felt damp.
That night she pressed her nose against the window, staring out as the wonderful nocturnal dreamings awoke and passed by her window; she made little whimpering sounds like a lost baby bird. Midge lay in his bed alone, listening to her crying. He wouldn’t comfort her. She was his. She should obey. He turned in bed towards the window. In the darkness, all the things he’d built with his own hands were out there. His farmed land of crab apples, the chicken coop, the pigpen, he’d made them with his own hands with wire and blood.
“Possession is nine tenths of the law,” he whispered to himself.
He gave her a name, Millicent; it was his mother’s name and thought it would do nicely. Each day he’d lock her in to the house, leaving firewood out for her to sit upon and gave her the sugary ingredients to make up the syrup he’d used to woo her.
She didn’t answer to Millicent. She couldn’t speak his language. She was lost, deaf and living only inside her own head, sleeping during the day, dreaming of the time that lived in her tree stump gliding from branch to branch with the music of the birds and the wind in the trees for company.
Midge would come home, wanting to possess her. Why didn’t she enjoy it like she did out in the bush? He did. It was the same for him. Why wasn’t it for her? She no longer wore silken cobwebs; instead her skin was furry, her eyes devoid of colour, her hair matted and her teeth oh so rodent sharp that he no longer kissed her when they made love.
He hurled insults at her. Called her ungrateful. Look what he provided! That she was nothing but a feral; he had made her into a fine respectable woman and look at the thanks he got for it.
And Millicent, who didn’t answer to that name but the to call of the full moon, an overcast sky and Eudora’s yapping dogs, let out a shriek. It was a shriek of high intensity, of scratching glass and cats yowling and it awoke Eudora who only slept very lightly at night.
The eldest hound that slept at Eudora’s feet lifted his head from the bed and howled. The youngest stretched and growled. Eudora slid out of the bed and put her gumboots and oilskins on. She clicked her tongue for her dogs to follow and grabbed her matches, some rosella feathers and homemade nectar. And set off.
She was of the bush and understood the true nature of love. No bush bride could be property and no colonial understood that love was not possession. For a moment she was riddled with guilt for accepting the gift and telling the boy the recipe to get a wife. But she had watched him from a distance and he seemed different to the other colonials. She thought he’d follow the law of this sacred ground.
Eudora understood the love of the wild bush women. Had loved one herself. She hadn’t been hers to keep but to savour as a mere moment of beauty. She quivered at the memory. The dark abyss of liquid pleasure, the quiver which lingered like a cobweb on skin.
When Eudora wanted not to sleep alone and eternal company—she chose her hounds.
Eudora had never loved any man. She saw it in their eyes—the way they wanted to possess a woman. Tame her. Just like they had tamed the land. They had a lot to learn.
She traipsed through the bracken, the dogs bounding ahead, their jaws slathering, a long dried out ghost gum branch in hand. Colonial houses were so easy to break into. She preferred the camouflage of the bush. And the laws of the bush were the only ones she followed.
Eudora set fire to the cottage with her stump and matches. The timber was wet with the juices of young timber that still remembered the time when it was a tree and it still contained tree spirit. Any wood that has tree spirit still in it loves to burn. The first rule of the bush. Wood is a phoenix when burned.
She wanted to burn him, too. Burn the mortal man that broke the law of marrying a bush bride and capturing her. These marsupial girls were so vulnerable and so few of them remained. Endangered species. But it was enough to save her and burn his land.
Midge came out onto the flaming verandah, pistol in hand and fired shots into the night air.
Eudora sicked her hounds onto him, brandished the burning torch under his chin.
“Leave Badgery’s Hollow. You who have broken the law of this land will see what happens if you remain. The land will never be kind to your cattle, their milk will sour and your land will be fallow.”
“Don’t kill my cattle. I’ll leave.” He fell to his knees as his timber cottage blazed behind him.
“A warning if you stay,” she said and singed the hairs on his forearm.
Midge rolled on the ground to smother the burning arm hairs, and then crawled towards the stable.
“Ride your horse to the devil or the next pub!” Eudora yelled out. “Send Ol’ Barnaby to get your cattle.”
Eudora slung the sugar glider girl over her shoulder as if she was an evening coat and traipsed back home. She would keep her there to rest until she was ready to return to her tree stump in the hollow.
The house hissed and snapped as it crackled and burned. Eudora’s flames would leave a husk of a house. A message to those colonial boys about nature never being tamed.
Angie’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror, PS Publishing, Ticonderoga Publications, Fablecroft Press, Cabinet Des Fees and Little Fox Press. She is a lover of folklore, fairy tales and furry creatures and works as a Teacher Librarian in an inner city high school.
She is a graduate of the Clarion South workshop and is currently studying for her Masters Degree in Creative Writing. She drinks way too much coffee, often falls in love with poetry and can’t imagine not writing.
She keeps a website here: http://angierega.webs.com/