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by Neale Sourna
Coober Pedy, South Australia; 1919
I’d come from a lush
place, of trees and wide rivers, and had sailed a long, exhaustive time,
thousands upon thousands of miles from my home, a half a world away, after
receiving his letters and deciding I’d be his wife; even though I’d never met
Pete’d waited several
days at the port, her ship was late, and he’d wondered what she’d actually be
like. People often weren’t like their letters. He’d read every one, more than
I sighed; there wasn’t
a tree for miles round, not even a decent bush, as Pete drove the wagon into
the interior. My God this is a large country, and barren. And my future
brother-in-law seems a nervous sort, as he fidgets beside me and barely speaks
The woman made Pete speechless,
this soon-to-be sister-in-law. Just being beside her made him nervous. She
wasn’t beautiful, but she was a fine looking woman, fine enough that—.
“Pete, we’re to be
brother and sister, call me Maddy.” He didn’t touch her name, as if it were too
intimate a thing for him.
“Why’re you here,
ma’am, a … a fine lookin’ woman like yourself, and smart too, well spoken, you
could have anyone. You even read and write, but you come all the way HERE?”
“For your brother.”
Pete was silent a long while, then quietly asked.
“His letters that
“Well, I….” I was
alone with this work-hewn stranger, hundreds of miles from any other person,
whether friend or foe, so my lot was cast, as I stared at his strong, and
possibly deadly hands. I’d never done such a dangerous thing before in my life,
but his tone was—.
“Your brother’s letters
showed personality, wit, and vision for this land. He’d said it’d be barren,
but I’d never thoug‑.”
“Thought it’d look like
the lifeless moon, after Armageddon?”
“Yes. Are there
booming, and there’s new men in everyday. A few smart enough to bring a wife
with them, or selfish. And there’s the Abos, some hate ’em, but I find ’em
kind. They were taken care of Joe when I left. That fever was kicking his as—,
um, well. He’s not so young anymore, y’know.” And he chuckled, good-naturedly,
teasing a beloved and absent brother. I liked that, big brothers are a special
thing in this world.
“I’m not so young
“You don’t look it.” He
blushed then, and pushed his lips tight together, as if afraid he’d say too
much to me. He’d not talk after that and, an hour or so later, we camped for
the night. We’d be camping for several nights before arriving.
Pete watched her, Miss
Maddy, do things only women do so well, besides cooking, that is, things like
laughing as she talked, or singing softly to herself, as she brushed out her
hair, or looking at him, almost as if she were here for him, and not Joe.
Pete sighed, for it was
he, who’d told Joe about the mail order bride catalog. Joe had said, “No,” but
it was Pete, who’d searched through it anyway and picked out a good letter from
a well-spoken woman, and he’d read it to Joe, who’d stared at the fuzzy
picture, wondering if the woman herself was as fuzzy and out of focus.
Pete looked at Ma—, Miss
Maddy, now, she wasn’t fuzzy, she was clear and true and he looked off trying
not to think of her, or feel for her. Joe had written his letters, but it was
Pete, who’d berated him and made him write them over, and better, helping put
flesh on the bare bones of his elder sibling’s sterile, lacking prose.
No poetry, not exactly,
but she was a quality woman, who wrote a really good letter. Pete’d kept that
first catalog letter and the fuzzy picture locked away in a safe place, as busy
and distracted Joe, after Pete’s nagging, had finally liked her enough to foot
the expensive outlay to pay her passage. They were making money, but not enough
for two brides. One would marry, the elder, and the other would wait his turn
for warm bed.
Pete wished his turn
“Goodnight, ma’am, Miss
“Just Maddy, please.”
He nodded and watched over her as she slept and the dingoes howled and yipped
all the nights of their trip.
Pete distracted me from
thoughts of Joe. I’d ask him to tell stories of their youth; or of how to mine
precious opal; of what was it like to live in a house underground, carved from
rock; anything to make Pete talk, he spoke in a way that made fertile visions
grow in my mind. Including one I wished with all my heart; to be here for Pete,
but Joe’d written such fine letters and I’d promised.
“You wantta stop and
freshen up, M-Maddy, before I take yah to him?” Was it my own guilt or did he
want home to be another day or week away, too? But it wasn’t.
“We’d better go on now.
I-I should meet … meet my husband.”
But I never did. We’d
had a funeral instead of a wedding, and poor Pete was utterly bereft, and lost,
but a month later, I took his hand in mine, and neither of us has ever let go.