He was attempting to collect his thoughts, to remember why he’d ventured down this way, when he found her standing by the river. She stood with her back to him, staring out at the snake-brown water. Jake didn’t know where the woman was from, or where she was going. He’d never seen her before; yet there she was, lingering on his land as if doing so were the most natural thing in the world.
He moved through shade thrown down by the cottonwoods, leaves crunching beneath his boots. The woman turned and found his gaze. She appeared to wait for him to speak, so he called out: ‘Hello there.’
He stepped forward. ‘Do I know you?’
‘Thought not.’ He removed his hat and scratched behind his ear. It was difficult to discern the woman’s age. A few lines traced the angles of her face, but her eyes were clear and wise-looking. ‘I’m Jake, and this is my property.’
She didn’t answer.
‘Some would say you’re trespassing.’
The woman examined the sky with apparent indifference.
What on earth was she doing here? He looked at the ground, then back at the woman. ‘Can I help at all?’
‘See that bird?’
He followed her gaze and spotted an eagle wheeling, navigating currents of wind as it searched for prey. ‘Yeah, what about it?’
‘It doesn’t need a reason to be here—it just is. Flying, hunting, existing. When the time comes, it’ll be gone. It would have lived and died, no questions asked.’ She spoke with a steady voice, her chin tilted skyward. ‘Humans always complicate things, searching for meaning, explanations. Truth is, people are what they do—that’s what counts. In the end, that’s what decides everything.’
Truth is, people are what they do—that’s what counts. In the end, that’s what decides everything.
There was a low security women’s prison not far away and he wondered if she’d escaped. He considered, too, whether she might be dangerous, although she didn’t seem the least bit threatening. ‘Look, I’d love to continue this conversation, but I’ve got work to do. This here’s a cotton farm and I’m in the middle of a harvest.’
He kicked a small rock and watched it tumble across the ground. ‘Well, if there’s nothing else, I’ll be on my way. Wouldn’t hang around long neither if I were you. There’s snakes and wild boar and it’s real easy to get lost.’
The woman kept quiet.
‘Okay, then.’ Jake put on his hat and tipped it. ‘Guess I’ll see you around.’
He headed along the dirt track that led to the homestead, reflecting on their strange encounter. What could she have possibly wanted? And he still couldn’t remember why he’d headed to the river. Moments later, he stopped dead. At the base of the slope leading down to the riverbank, the tractor lay overturned; a leg protruded from beneath its metal shell. The limb was bent at a grotesque angle and he understood that it belonged to him. Jake glanced down at his body, which appeared intact. How could that be? The situation seemed completely illogical—nothing made sense. Words eluded him as fear took hold. He looked at the woman, who shrugged.
‘It happens,’ she said. ‘People die.’
The woman regarded him as if he were a little slow, before gesturing towards the scene behind them. ‘Pretty obvious, ain’t it?’
He examined his body once more, then stared at his hands, turning them this way and that. Jake noticed his vision had grown hazy, as if he were seeing through opaque glass. He returned his attention to the woman. ‘So who are you? A ghost?’
‘You can call me that if it helps, but ghosts are normally stuck—they can’t get from A to B. I ain’t stuck. Know what I’m saying?’
Jake gave no response as he struggled to process what she was telling him. Maybe he was dreaming, or even hallucinating. He and Nell occasionally indulged in magic mushrooms and it could have been that his brain was playing up. Thinking this, a terrible ache plumed across his chest. ‘What about my wife?’
‘She’ll be alright.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I’ve seen it—flashes of the future. She copes.’
‘I’d like to see her again, just once more.’
‘No can do, I’m afraid. That’s how folks get lost, trapped between worlds so to speak. We need to move off.’
‘And go where?’
‘Some place other than here.’ The woman’s mouth curled into a wry smile. ‘You ready?’
‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘No, I’m not.’
‘That was a rhetorical question. You don’t actually have a choice.’
‘Nope, your time here is done. Now, come on—we need to make tracks.’
He looked behind him once more: the tractor was still there, along with the protruding leg. It would be Nell who found him, he realised, and he wished things could be different. Fear returned, writhing in the pit of his stomach. ‘Have you done this sort of thing before? Taken people where they need to go?’
‘Sure ask a lot of questions, don’t you.’ She turned and began to follow the river’s snaking bank.
Jake trailed after her, watching as the water reflected a slab of sunlight. His vision became increasingly blurred and it seemed like they were being enveloped by a blanket of brightness. A buzzing sound filled the air and it occurred to him that a bee hive may have been in the vicinity. Then his entire being—his skin, his muscles, his insides—began to tingle, as if absorbing some sort of electrified energy. Or perhaps the energy was absorbing him. The sensation wasn’t unpleasant and he surrendered to it. All noise melted away. His body felt light now, almost weightless. He cast a sideward glance and saw the woman nearby; they were floating through space, drifting amongst blazing stars and spinning planets, sinking into deep silence. No longer afraid, he closed his eyes and sensed himself turning, falling into the embrace of a distant, waiting world.