Junior Secondary (Years 7, 8 & 9)
FAW NSW Hilarie Lindsay Short Story competition for Australian School Children.
By Willow Ross
If Elizabeth had discovered anything in the last month, it was that you do get used to the dark.
You get used to the smell, too, of vomit and filth. You get used to the crowds and the screams sleeping on wooden boards. And the hunger, but Elizabeth had gotten used to that before she ever was shoved onto the Lady Juliana.
Her sister Hannah glanced around with distaste. Frances Stadmiller and her mother almost always sat near them at meal time, which is what it might be now- though nobody down there knew for sure. Hannah’s eyes focused on Frances, her swollen, bleeding gums, huddling in her mother’s arms. Frances’s mother whispered to her tenderly, rubbing her thin, bony arms to ease her sore muscles.
“Hannah?” asked Elizabeth, disturbed by the expression on Hannah’s face.
The ceiling creaked and everyone rocketed to their feet, fighting their way toward the hatch where the sailors would come with the precious few bowls of food. Elizabeth stayed in place, staring at Hannah.
Hannah looked back at Elizabeth. “It’s fine, Bethy. I’m fine.”
“No you’re not.”
Hannah sighed, looking at Elizabeth with big moss green eyes just like Elizabeth’s own. “It’s just…I’m sick of starving, of watching you starve. I’m sick of worrying about scurvy and – and the sailors. I… ”
Hannah trailed off. Her eyes started to sparkle. “You know, Bethy? I can take care of the starving and the sailors.”
“Hannah?” was all Elizabeth said, but her expressive eyes conveyed a thousand questions.
“Not now, Bethy,” Hannah said brusquely, standing up.
Elizabeth bit her lip.
The hatch opened and Hannah fought her way over to it.
Hannah came back with empty hands – no strip of salted pork, no crust of bread, no slops of whatever that goopy stuff was. Elizabeth thought it was cold pottage, but there was no way to be sure.
“Never mind,” Hannah announced, flopping next to Elizabeth on the cold boards. “There’ll be food enough tomorrow.”
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. “There never is.”
Hannah looked at her, half slyly, half shyly. “For us two there will be.”
“Why? How do you know?”
Hannah smacked her forehead. “Questions, questions, always questions,” she groaned, but she didn’t really seem cross. “I talked to one of them sailors. I… made an arrangement.”
“You mean a bargain?”
Elizabeth squinted. “But you don’t have anything to bargain with,” she stated, confusedly.
Hannah opened her mouth, then shut it. Finally she said, “Some things…some things little girls don’t know.”
Elizabeth turned her face away. Some things little girls overheard. She had a pretty good idea what Hannah had to bargain with. Rumour was that Julia Weller was already with child.
Hannah shivered as though she too thought Elizabeth’s thoughts.
Elizabeth woke up in the night. At least she thought it was the night…everybody was sleeping, at any rate, except a girl two bunks away, coughing violently. Time was a blur down here, with no clock or even the sun or moon.
She slid off the cold, hard bunk onto the floor and looked at the bunk next to hers, where Hannah always slept.
It was empty, as she’d feared.
Her stomach contorted and she vomited onto the floor. The bitter taste of bile was still in her mouth when she drifted back to sleep an hour later. Hannah’s bunk was still empty.
Hannah was overly chipper the next morning, twittering about anything and everything. Elizabeth lay on her bunk. She couldn’t think about anything but what must have happened last night. She looked at Hannah and noticed the shine of tears in her eyes. Her head ached and nausea and hunger wrestled in her belly.
Hannah only stopped blabbering when they heard a sailor’s footsteps above. “There, Lizzybeth! We can have a proper feast today.”
Elizabeth blinked, trying to get her sister into focus. “I don’t know…I feel sick. I’m not that hungry…”
Hannah frowned. “But, Bethy…” Her face shifted into concern, her hand resting on Elizabeth’s forehead. “Beth! You’re burning up!”
It took three months for Elizabeth to get better again. Three months of lying in bed, barely able to breathe. Three months of headaches and sweating and vomiting, too weak to even lift her head so that the vomit spilled on the floor and not her. Three months of spoonfuls of flour mixed with water being poked into her mouth.
Hannah gave her a looking glass when she was in reasonably good health.
“From your sailor friend?” Elizabeth asked.
Hannah scrunched up her face and pushed it at her.
Elizabeth did not like what she saw. She’d never been pretty per se. She had big jade eyes like Hannah’s, and long hair the colour of rhubarb stalks, like Hannah’s again. But for all that, Hannah was beautiful, while Elizabeth was anything but. Her hair was dry and wispy, and freckles dotted her face, marring the otherwise clear skin. She was thin and bony, her eyes too big in her peaky face. Whereas Hannah had hair with the gloss of glace cherries and a rose-leaf complexion. Hannah was gracefully slender, and she didn’t have the bother of a disproportionally sized facial feature like Elizabeth or just about everybody in the world.
But even though Elizabeth was never particularly attractive she gasped at her reflection. She was skin and bone, with hollows in her cheeks. The skin around her nose was dry and sore and her throat was red and inflamed, which explained the pain when she swallowed. Even her eyes, her one beauty despite their largeness, didn’t look like normal. Their bright green was dulled from a dragon-scale shimmer to a fish-scale glint.
But on closer inspection, Hannah didn’t look right either. Her face was peakier and her forehead slightly creased. But she didn’t look nearly so thin as before. Elizabeth figured that was partially because of the extra food she would have been receiving, but that still didn’t explain her swollen belly.
Hannah moved closer to her. “I’ll see about getting you some stew, Bethy. Dear Lord, you need it.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Hannah. What’s – why – Hannah, are you – are you with – ”
“No!” said Hannah forcefully. “I’m just eating better is all! I’m not – no.”
She turned on her heel and strode away.
Hannah’s pains came soon after breakfast. The day exactly was unknown, lost in the monotony of the ship’s hold, but Frances, who tried to mark down the days, thought that it was late winter. There was no way to tell if that was true, but Frances was the only one who’d managed to keep it up for so long, so she was taken as the authority.
Hannah didn’t complain. She just lay on the bunk and stared at the wall. Elizabeth heard her panting, saw her writhing.
“Hannah,” she said quietly, “Hannah – are you alright?”
Hannah scowled. “I ate some bad stew.”
“Then why are you the only one feeling sick?” Elizabeth plopped down onto the bunk. It wasn’t quite big enough for both of them and quite a lot of Hannah’s legs were hanging over the edge. “Face it, Hannah.”
Hannah rolled off the bed and landed on her round stomach. “Ouch. NO!”
Elizabeth tore at her nail with her big front teeth. She’d taken to chewing her nails. They were bitten down to their beds and some were caked with dried blood.
Hannah pressed her hands to her belly. “I’m just – just a little sick…”
“I’ll be fine in another two days, honestly…”
Elizabeth wiped her eyes with her tattered old sleeve. She didn’t say anything else.
It was the tiniest little thing Elizabeth had ever seen, and a pale reddish-purple colour. It had a squashed, wrinkled face, thin tomato-red downy fuzz covering its round head, and it was slimy and in desperate need of a wash. It was connected to a placenta with a fat grey cord that looked for all the world like a long, curling slug. Its teeny fists waved around and it screamed. It seemed to Elizabeth that everyone in this world and in all the other worlds too could hear that bloody baby squealing.
Frances smiled as she handed it to Elizabeth. Frances had a nice smile, even though her gums were swollen and four teeth were rotten from scurvy.
“Thank you, Frances. You’re amazing,” Elizabeth said softly.
Frances shrugged. “It’s nothing. I have twelve sisters and eleven are older than me. And all of them decided that…other things were preferable to thieving.”
Elizabeth stroked the naked baby’s head and gave it to Hannah.
Hannah’s long hair was damp and lank, and beads of sweat stood out on her forehead.
“I told you,” said Elizabeth gleefully, watching Hannah stare in wonderment at the infant that had been laid in her arms.
“You didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know,” responded Hannah, rocking it. “I knew – I knew – but I didn’t want to know. We’re headed for Sydney Cove, we’ve got 7 years labour…the last thing I need is a child.”
Hannah suddenly clutched it to her, her eyes wide. It quieted down to quiet snuffle and opened its eyes to little slits. Its eyes were a pale, clear blue, like a soft autumn sky.
“Bethy – Bethy, you don’t think they’d take her away? Would they let me keep her?”
Elizabeth floundered helplessly for something to say.
“Shhh, listen,” Frances Stadmiller chimed in. “They’re coming! Here, I’ll see about getting a knife to cut that cord. We can’t have that grey leech rolling about on her stomach.”
Elizabeth flopped down next to Hannah on the floor.
“You, you, you, you, you, you and…you.”
The sailor stabbed his finger in vague directions as he said it. Elizabeth wasn’t sure who he’d pointed at, so she pressed through the crush, with Hannah and Baby in tow, right up to the front of the crowd – and further. The sailor didn’t notice. Elizabeth let go of Hannah’s hand and began to clamber up the ladder, into the sunlight.
They took her to shore in a little tiny boat, cramped with all the people – Elizabeth and Hannah and the baby that Hannah had started to call Diamond, along with five other women.
They all stared around, blinking in the sudden light. Diamond The Baby had only ever known the darkness of the ship’s hold, and she was screaming fit to burst.
The little boat was almost there. Elizabeth jumped off, not wanting to wait even a minute before she could get out. Her old dress was wet up to the waist. Hannah laughed and slipped out of the boat as well, holding up Diamond – the little thing still naked – so that she wouldn’t get wet. They both waded towards the sand, looking at the crowd of people. The people stared, and Elizabeth, suddenly self-conscious, wondered what they saw.
She’d grown very tall in the last few months, and her skirts barely reached to her ankles anymore. She was always skinny, but she’d grown even thinner since her sickness, and no matter what was donated by that one sailor or what Hannah managed to beg, her cheeks were still sallow. Her face was bloodless, ashen, pallid.
And Hannah? Hannah’s dress was dirty and torn, and she’d gotten horribly scrawny when the baby came. She may have been beautiful once, but now she was haggard and peaky.
At least the baby looked plump enough, though the slug-like cord was still pinched with a little wooden peg, and it was ridiculously small. A ring on a fat man’s finger would have served as a perfectly fitted bracelet for baby Diamond.
Hannah and Elizabeth splashed up onto the land. Elizabeth was glad to be on land again – but it was all wrong. It didn’t look like a real place. The sky was too high and blue, the trees pale and straggly, the grass in spiky tufts.
The sand stuck to Elizabeth’s bare feet as she walked up it. More boats moored behind her.
She walked into the crowd and tried to blend into it. She stuck out like a sore thumb, not because she looked so very different but because everyone was staring at her. A woman bustled toward her with an old, mangy basket in hand – a basket filled with several tiny loaves of soda bread.
Elizabeth took the offered loaf and smiled gratefully as she bit into it.
So this was Sydney Cove.
Elizabeth decided to like it.
After all, she’d be here for the rest of her life.
* * *