She Wears Your Skulls on Her Belt
The trackers have been following Moll all day. She has been out in the scrub and dust for a long time she has ways of telling. She’s wired and hungry, and her senses are knife sharp. She sees the disturbed cockatoos screeching their warnings.
It is harder being solo. The band of lost folk who travelled with her for a time have deserted her now. They had fed her and made her walk after she had burnt her daughter's body by the riverbank, but one morning she awoke and they were gone. Later that day she had found a tiny magpie at the base of a river gum.
The absence of companionship is a terrible thing.
To sense the breath of another living being her was a powerful longing. The youngest of the little band would always spot the fruits on the prickly pears that everyone else had missed, and his father would take the long stick that he had strapped to his pack and hook it towards them. He used it to snap free the fruit from the nopals with a quick tug. The boy was fearless, racing in like a Jack Russell after rabbits and pulling his jumper down over his hands to avoid prickles. They’d share the fruit in whatever shade they could find and afterwards rinse their hands in river water. They were cautious of the corpses that sometimes floated downstream, bloated and turning.
And so it was that a little black and white bird became her saviour. Moll whistles to Magpie, who swoops down and sits on her shoulder and pecks at her ear. She nudges away because his beak is sharp, but not so hard she’d dislodge him. He’s the only real company she’s got. Besides, he makes her laugh. She likes the way he swings off her forearm, plucks at her buttons. They have the intelligence of three year olds, she remembers, or was that crows? She shares worms with him in the soft mud by the river bank. Sometimes she finds fat white bugs nestling under bark. She misses him when he flies too far away from her.
She sometimes wishes he was a drone instead of a living bird. Breathing creatures can be shot down from the sky and can’t be rewired and re-programmed or replaced. Breathing creatures are stolen in the middle of the night and likely cannibalised. She bases this knowledge on given the small bones she finds by campfires that aren’t sheep or ‘roo. Breathing creatures can’t leave you behind when survival gets tough, or worse, collapse in the red dirt and refuse to get up. Besides, a drone could whirr to the south and see if it was men or beasts or both that tracked her, and maybe even what their intentions were, if she could shut down the whirring of the blades so it could silently glide by the periphery of their fires at night.
At the start of this Moll did not know she had it in her to protect herself from such men. She still is unsure. It’s not part of a skill set she’d ever expected to use.
Now, she doesn’t know if she wants to. It may well be easier to stop walking and let them find her. What stops her is Magpie, because she knows they will eat the bigger birds that are scarcer now, shoot them from the sky with home made bows and arrows. She has also heard what they do to woman out here alone. Seen it, too. Watched them drag her daughter from the scrub where she was hiding, throw her across their shoulders whilst she kicked and screamed. Moll had not moved from her hollow in the ground, intuiting she would be better alive to find Sofie again.
Turns out finding her was easier than she thought. She now carries a pinch of her ashes in a wrap of silver foil Magpie had brought her. Swallowing painfully at the thought, she beats her fist at her ribcage, as if to knock away the memory of that small funeral pyre. Time does not heal things. She does not want it to. To heal means she has to leave her behind and that would not do, because the feel of her hand in hers is the ghost she walks with every day that keeps her moving.
As the days go by, she thinks of Kali, the goddess that had always scared her the most. Woman were not meant to be angry – they were nurturers and creators, not wild and vengeful things with belts of skulls. The other goddesses were more her style. But they have served their purpose or become redundant. Lakshmi has left her now – there is little abundance to be found in these parts anyway, unless you count the flies and the bones of trees emerging like the finger bones of the undead from the cracked salt flats. There was hope for a while, but that’s dwindled. Hope is just a black and white bird now who relies on her for worms.
There is no room for Saraswati either, goddess of music, arts and beauty.
At first, Saraswatiwas was useful. Moll found herself creative after all, left with only her wits, fists and a backpack of scavenged things – a knife, the stub of a pencil, a packet of waterproof matches, a slightly damp pack of cotton swabs and two bottles of saline, a twist of copper wire and some tangled fishing wire. She had found a gun with two bullets, tried not to think that of the math of that. Two travellers, two bullets. Some days that was a mantra.
Amongst all the chaos, she found, there was a simple beauty in survival, and she found that if she could turn away from memory and towards the beauty around her, she could endure. A grasshopper on a blade of grass. The sun setting the clouds afire. A willy willy spinning through the dust. The milky way, the Southern Cross. She found solace in the turning wheels of time, as her nails broke and the dust settled into the cracks on her skin and the pads of her feet grew hard as her boots wore down and were finally discarded. There was music in the storms, the tiny birds, her heart beat. And her daughter too, who hummed and twittered beside her, forgetting what she had seen as the cities collapsed behind them and the fires raged in unnatural sunsets to the south and east.
The world had a beauty to it that filled the hunger in her belly.
Even her little Sofie would point and show her the wondrous things. She remembered how her girl had seen a sapling begin to grow from the cracks in the asphalt. It burst forth between the hulks of rusting cars and trucks. All the vehicles had stopped after the solar flares burnt out their electrics and the people had abandoned them, but still, something moved at least - grew upward with tenacity, powered by a solar energy that had bought mankind to its knees.
Another time her girl had found a handful of blackberries. Deep in the brambles she had found the hunting knife and wielded like a little warrior goddess with tiny hands and sparkling smile. As if that blade could save them. It did, for a while. They trapped two possums and a rabbit one week, carved up the flesh and feasted. That week she wanted for nothing. Parent and child ate and were satisfied.
But now she’s the hunted possum, and her body thrums with expectation. There is no time to focus on memory or the beauty of the destroyed world. That night she lights a small fire to keep warm and cook two small fish she had hunted by the creek, trapping them in a pool by shifting stones. She suspects the fire will draw the men in but something is gathering in her now that is beyond fear. It is a dark rage that thumps from her heart center to rib cage. She is not the small thing they think she is. She is not the small thing she was. She is tapping into the power that builds in her pelvis and spirals up her spine. It is orgasmic, liberating. There is nothing to be tamed and no one left to tame it.
They reach her just a few hours sun down, when Venus has risen, the moon darkly watches human affairs with something akin to bemusement or pity. She can hear their boots. Smell them. Magpie sits on a low branch and bobs his head up and down nervously. The hunting men call for her, tell her what they’ll do to her, tell her to run whilst she can. Their voices come out of the darkness from all directions. Moll takes a small burning log from the fire and lights the scrub around them, illuminating their figures as they come toward her. The fire will spread for days, take down everything in it's wake. Maybe Magpie too. Maybe her. But she senses something quite different will arise from these ashes. She calls for Magpie to settle on Sofie's ghostly shoulder, orders those kind beating hearts from her. She will join them later as a different woman entirely, but for now, she is fully possessed.
Thus Kali enters her flesh just when she needs her. She emerges from the night all blue-skinned and red coated. The stars spread behind her like a veil caught in the cold wind and Moll can feel the goddesses icy breath. The back of her neck prickles. She want to drop to her knees. Who wouldn’t bow down to her, goddess of bones and fire and blood? But she has become the goddess of destruction now, and wields the knife in one hand and the gun in the other, because she is going to wear their skulls as a belt, and be damned if that wasn’t the most satisfying feeling in the world.