Fiction · 01/04/2012

Splinter

You say this is the worst thing I could do.

You almost have it together but your voice snags on the last word. I know this will make you furious with yourself. Your pride is keeping your spine straight and your voice low, but the emotion you show in that one word is unmistakable. I watch you flinch.

You’re not the type to make a scene. You’re not going to stand on the bar and howl my sins for everyone to hear. I know you’ll sit here and smoulder, forever making me guess the words behind your clenched jaw.

I don’t know which reaction is worse.

I’m looking at a chip in my glass. I’m wondering whether it would cut my lip if I took another mouthful of whiskey from the broken side. If I opened my mouth to answer you and blood fell onto the wood of the bar, maybe you’d stop.

But I think you’d just smell weakness, and close in for the kill.

This is not the worst thing I could do.

I want to tell you that I once heard a man in Wodonga tell the bartender he’d been out kangaroo hunting with his wife. They’d roamed away from the truck and eventually, each other. He said he’d heard her gun go off as she fell down the mineshaft, even though he’d warned her this was once gold country, and to test with the butt of her rifle before she stepped on leaves.

He’d warned her, he said.

He stood behind a eucalypt and watched a blue tongue lizard basking in the sun, its head back and eyes half closed. He let his shoulders sag against the bark of the tree, he said.

He stood, and listened to her call his name.

You can go hundreds of kilometres in the Australian bush without running into another soul. In the dry scrub inland, emptiness stretching forever, phones have no use and shouts have no echo.

He knew no-one was coming.

He told the bartender that he lit a cigarette, and smoked every last inch of it.

He wasn’t bragging, or confessing. He spoke quietly, with his head down and voice low, and those of us at the bar barely made a sound.

He said he’d been thinking about her feet. She always had bare feet in their house. The sight of her soles, dusty with dog hair and dirt, used to make his stomach churn.

And he’d stood there, smoking and thinking about her feet as she called and called his name.

This is not the worst thing I could do.

You notice the chip in my glass. This is definitely your kind of place, you sneer. I won’t miss dumps like this. I run my hand along the bar and a tiny splinter of wood jumps up and dives under my nail. It hurts for one bright moment, but I know I deserve it. My gaze flicks to the door and I can almost taste the freedom outside, without the catch in your voice and your fists on the table.

I wonder if you’ll remember me for the chip in my whiskey glass the night I told you, if this is the detail that’ll stay with you long after the rest of me fades. I think of the kangaroo hunter, with his back to the tree, dwelling on the soles of his wife’s feet.

I think of him standing there, listening to her cry out from down in the earth.

And I want to tell you, I want you to know: this is not the worst thing I could do.

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Rijn Collins is a Melbourne writer whose work has appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers and online journals such as Jersey Devil Press, Metazen, Lowestoft Chronicle, and Eclecticism. Her work has also been performed at the Melbourne Emerging Writers’ Festival and adapted for performance on radio by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She writes with bare feet, and black coffee.