Creative Print 2020

Mountain Girls

Written by Emily Graham
Graphic by Hengjia Liu

CW: Mentions of sexual violence, murder, sexism.

This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.

Scene 1:

Can you see them? The towers. Peering out of the grey wisps of fog that settle on the mountain’s peak. Two of them. Her needles pushed through coarse, unspun fleece. She watches over the town, a looming guardian, a disapproving mother, casting her long shadow down to the cherry orchards and vineyards beneath her. Like the towers, the mountain divides away into two. Softly curved mounds, the swollen breast of the Central West, the city of Orange nestled beneath.

The local Wiradjuri named the peaks Gaahna Bula long before my family settled ourselves at her feet, but now they’re known as Old Man and Young Man. To me, this is wrong. To me, she is one woman. With delicate, mossy skin and eucalyptus woven into her hair. In winter, she powders her face in snowy white and in the summer sun her cherry orchard lips are stained in satiny reds. Some years, the summer brings with it plumes of feathery smoke that wind up her back and lick her curved edges. She doesn’t struggle. She doesn’t move. One Christmas – the dried up, bony evening of December 25, 1990 – a trail of smoke arose from her. Not a fierce rage but a slow-trickling bloom, weaving between stars, hidden by the inky sky and the blanket of the gum tree canopy. Smoke that brought with it a dark, heavy stench of flesh, acrid on the tip of your nose.

Once, my family found the swollen carcass of one of our Murray Grey herd. She had wrapped a piece of wire about her hind leg so tightly that it had almost severed to the bone. Her blood had become poisonous and the septicaemic rot stuck to any breeze that sniffed at her body before it drifted away. My father gathered together some of the fallen branches and foliage scattered about the paddock to build up her funeral pyre. The smoke was char and meat and leather. It lined my nostrils even after we closed the doors and windows of the farmhouse two hills over. It lingered after the body had long dissolved into ash, then soil.

‘If you’ve got cows, you’ve got dead cows,’ my mother reminded us.

When I hear the stories of how they found the body of the Nonnenmacher girl, I imagine this smell again.

Scene 2:

I was desperate to leave. I resented my parents for moving us away from Sydney, the city, in my imagination, of opportunity. People from the city were glamourous, exciting, worldly. Life here ambled from hour to hour. It intruded on your plans, inquired why you weren’t keeping pace or following the routine. Here, the quality of your character was easily measured by the quality of your potato bake at the RFS Christmas Party.

My mother reckons she can’t bake one. And it is a point of some shame that she brushes away cursorily.

‘I’m not from here,’ she waves.

That is both her first defence and her great sin. None of us are truly locals. All bar my youngest sister – the only one born in the Orange Base Hospital. My mother turned us all out once we graduated high school.

‘You’ve got to spread those wings and leave the nest,’ she says.

‘There’s nothing for you all here.’ 

Scene 3:

Mt Canobolas cradles your voices to her. She takes them to thread her needles with before she sews. The transmissions for television, radio, cell phones and telephone calls. She stitches them together. All our news passes through her.

‘They’re turning him loose.’

Word travelled quickly in the Central West echo chamber. It settled over the town in a fine, silty haze, blown across the paddocks and the vineyards and the eucalypt forests. It was a call from a journalist watching the proceedings from Sydney that had informed Mrs. Nonnenmacher that he would soon be out. Jonathon Davison’s state-issued slippers – laceless and plain – would be swapped for civilian boots. Now they stomped the ground outside of Long Bay, and stirred the undisturbed dirt that had lain there, for the first time in twenty years. The picture in the paper of that blond smirk down the camera lens burns behind my eyelids. We already knew him. The villain in our ghost stories, the secret that everyone knows. Glee, thick and sickly, lined the smirking lips. ‘I’m free,’ the smile said.

The family publish a poem in the Central Western Daily once a year in December, in memory of Dearne.

We are sending a dove to Heaven
With a parcel on its wings
Be careful when you open it
It’s full of beautiful things

Scene 4:

I stare at the clinic wall, listening to the whir of receptionists and the tap-tap of glossed magazines torn from their original covers shuffle on the coffee tables. Today’s Central Western Daily is folded neatly atop the coloured, scattered celebrity photos and bold-printed gossip columns. Last year, they published in that paper that Orange is a city 2.3 times more sexually violent than the rest of the state of NSW.

You have the right to be believed
You have the right to be treated with respect and sensitivity
This service provides community education

The brochure, stuffed into the hard-plastic sleeves on the desk at Orange Base Hospital, between a flu vaccination pamphlet and a cancer-screening flier, promises so much. I can’t help but raise an eyebrow.

The news articles that came after the discovery of her body seem to have followed Dearne Nonnenmacher into the dark. The local paper has repeated the same tired fact in every article about her since: a colleague at worst, a friend at best. There is no hint towards a romance or sex. An advance was turned away that day, that was all. Perhaps she cringed from his hand on her leg? Or pushed away when he pressed his face to her own? Maybe it was something as simple as a no? Only one person can know the beginning of the story. But the consequences? They are published in the same articles, fact-checked, a matter of public record. ‘A post-mortem examination showed she suffered a violent killing involving sexual mutilation,’ they wrote.

You have the right to be believed
You have the right to be treated with respect and sensitivity
This service provides community education

‘You know her boyfriend did it?’ they say. It’s like a children’s party game. Pass the word around the circle and see if it changes. Except it never really does this time. Even thirty years later the same whisper is passed around the circle – mouth to ear, ear to mouth. It’s easier to understand this way, I suppose. At least, it’s easier for the younger members in town. A relationship. A distinct and clear dynamic that looks familiar. They must have already had a relationship. That memory somehow stops the bitter pill from lodging in our throats. The crime is somehow less heinous, someone is somehow less innocent. In a community made up of miners and orchard workers, people are well educated in where to dig, what to collect, and when to cherry-pick.

Scene 5:

‘She was a Nonnenmacher?’

My childhood friend looks at me over her coffee with eyebrows raised.

‘I know them. Mrs. Nonnenmacher runs the pub.’

The surprise is unwarranted, I think. Of course you know them. We all do. We learn each other’s surnames the way we learn the names of celebrities. A Nonnenmacher. The term rolls over and over in my mind. It is more than a name. It is currency. It holds weight and context and value. It tells a story beyond an individual self, the story of your clan, your reserved seat in history. It identifies your place in our world. It’s a family worth breeding with or it’s a family worth forgetting about.

Scene 6:

I am a daughter. I am the relation of. I am Graham first, and Emily second. 

‘You’re Jeremy Graham’s daughter? You must know the Hobbs’.’

He took the tyre from me with familiar hands. Hands that could have belonged to a list of folks around these parts. Hands like thick slabs of rusty iron. Fingers built from steering rams by their horns or turning soil or ratcheting wire fences.

A girl shouldn’t have to know how to change her own tyre. It was admirable in an amusing kind of way. Like watching a particularly cute puppy do tricks for treats.

His sideways looks betrayed his thoughts. Why was I changing my own car tyre on the side of this road when I had a working mobile phone and a good set of male hands at home? I wondered what this would mean for how people would think about Dad now. Would they think he wasn’t a provider or a protector or that he was too tough on his daughters?

Scene 7:

So, when is it your turn to get married?

You got a fella back in the city, then?

Why not? A good-lookin’ girl like you? You’d be wanting to start thinking about a family soon, right, sweetheart?

My childhood friend and I giggle and pretend to gag while we exchange these stories on the veranda overlooking her 21st birthday party.

‘I didn’t realise your dad had a daughter like you.’ She lowers her register, putting on her broadest fair-dinkum true-blue accent in a bad impression of a relative of a relative.

We laugh and roll our eyes.

‘What does that even mean?’ I ask.

‘It means I’m not from around here anymore, I guess. It means I’m ‘exotic’.’ She wiggles slim, city fingers under my chin.

Scene 8:

My little sister can argue the legs off a table and walks the dirt and gravel roads of our property barefoot, a silent challenge to any snake brave enough to dare bite her. Assuming she doesn’t bite first. She wears cut-off shorts in snow, with hair, unkempt around a brown face sprinkled with sun freckles, twisting like barbed wire to her waist. Mum won’t let her cut it, and it has become her most protected possession, rarely letting anyone within reach with a comb. She doesn’t have the patience for boyfriends and girlfriends and all that nonsense just yet. She is too busy drawing cartoons or reading her comic books or chasing the dog up and down the front paddock.

My other sister I didn’t know very well. I didn’t grow up with her. She was a woman in my young eyes, she was sophisticated, she read books, dated boys, did arts and candle making, she thought of herself as the pragmatist the family needed. In my eyes, she was successful. She had gotten out. She moved away the moment she graduated, trading the slumbering countryside for the sleeplessness of Macau. She was my walking role model, my embodiment of envy, the only woman I tried to be – wanted to be – mimicking the movements of her long shadow. As we grew older, and I learned about her again, that shadow has disappeared. The affair that ended a marriage, her realisation that she was not the docile trophy wife that somebody wished she was, a role that she herself might have strode into willingly at one time. She’d had a man’s arm to hold since she was a teenager, and now, watching her try to re-learn who she is without those props, I feel as though I have been ambling towards greener pastures that never existed. Instead, there is only more of our herd, the one that she and I were bred into.

I thought that if you could leave and learn and see beyond your own back fence you were somehow no longer trapped like cattle in the run. You could roam and choose what you wanted other people to see in you, instead of waiting your turn alongside the herd, to be tagged, or drenched or put ‘on the market’. I had told myself to place those who moved away in the box of ‘more interesting, more liberal, more free.’ It gave you wings.

It is the most comforting lie I’ll ever believe.

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