A bit of chapter eight from my latest novella, The Scholars. This story continues with Geoffrey and Adam as they travel to the budding penal colony of Sydney in New South Wales. Back then, it wasn’t even called Australia. Taking place in 1791, the colony has only been around for three years. But they find more than aborginies and dingos. They find Geoffrey’s father, Alfred, who abandoned his family over four hundred years ago.
Broken Bay, New South Wales
A once clear blue sky was now darkened by pregnant storm clouds that had yet to let loose their torrents. The air had long been electrified with the coming tempest as Geoffrey neared his father’s hut in the tree grove. All he had to do was follow the most-hated scent trail.
He had walked all night from Prospect Hill where he left the injured settler to be discovered by his neighbors. Heeley and his small gang would no doubt tell them of the attack on the homestead and an investigation would be taken up soon enough. With hope, they would all forget about the one bolter that disappeared. Perhaps Heeley would make up some story that Geoffrey was carried away by the natives. It wouldn’t be unexpected.
What piqued him more than the long journey from Prospect Hill, more than the days he had spent in captivity amongst convicts and scoundrels, more than the constant evasion of natives or the moments he wasted feeling lost in this strange wilderness without a guide, was what waited for him when he came to the grove.
Nothing. The scents were stale and about to be obliterated by the rain that now fell to strike on the leaves of the canopy over the grove. Not a sound disrupted the silence in the clearing, neither breath nor movement. Geoffrey, his stomach growling and wolf bristling in agitation, went to the vacant hut to confirm it.
Neither Alfred nor Adam were inside, and it was enough to make him want to tear the house down. Heavy raindrops landed on the thatched roof and all at once, the sky opened up to let the rain come pouring down. Inside, Geoffrey was dry, though there was a leak toward the back of the hut.
On the poorly pieced-together table, he saw some parchment with words written in Adam’s hand.
Gone to the mountains. Will return soon.
Geoffrey crumbled the paper and let his now unsheathed claws rip into it without mercy. Why would they have gone to the mountains? How long had they been gone? Why didn’t Adam do as he asked and come to look for him in Sydney when he didn’t return?
Adam wouldn’t have disobeyed him, not after his show of concern before they parted ways. Had their argument aided the decision to leave the grove before Geoffrey came back? This had to be Alfred’s doing. His son wouldn’t have changed his mind so carelessly.
He let the mangled and wrinkled strips of paper float to the dirt floor, drove his heel down to bury them in his anger, and then turned to the open doorway. The veil of heavy rain that drenched the grove encouraged him to stay. There was little use in trying to track them now. Their scents would be washed away by the storm. With luck, the note would hold some truth and both of them would be back before nightfall. Although, he knew he would need to go hunting before then.
At least thankful for the shelter, he sat on the edge of his father’s thin straw mattress and hung his head in his hands. Patience was never his virtue. Waiting was a nuisance that brought more pain than pleasure, even when it was at its end. Sitting now, with only the din of rain to keep him company, a heaviness settled over Geoffrey.
He looked up, his eyes falling upon the slivers of water that snaked through the blades of grass to darken the dirt around the doorway. He watched its slow, creeping progress as the puddle formed and widened in the dip that had been dug for the express reason of catching any intruding rainwater.
With the heaviness came a numbness that tingled across his skin, and a feeling that speared through his chest. Loneliness.
At least when he journeyed to Sydney, and then from Prospect Hill, his mind was occupied with the task at hand. But now, with nothing to distract him, he felt it so acutely that it made his hands tremble with the need to be employed.
Geoffrey stood abruptly and paced the length of the floor. If his hands couldn’t be busy, then his feet might as well be. With each turn of the one room, he studied every detail. How the furniture was made, down to the angle of the cuts that were applied to the wood and the stitching on the mattress cover. The rain proved incessant and what might have seemed like hours, were only moments.
The one other constant torment was in the scent that saturated every article of the hut. His father’s scent. In those brief seconds when his mind had nothing else to think of, nothing else to examine, memories from centuries ago resurfaced. Memories he thought had long been dead and buried with his mother in England.
He remembered running to Alfred once when he had jammed his hand between two logs of firewood. His father had tested the bones and assured him there would only be a bruise, just as Geoffrey had done with James Castles the night before.
He shook his head to banish the mawkish scene from his head, but another soon took its place. The four of them were working in the fields together. Hugo and their mother carried the bushels as Geoffrey and Alfred tore the ears of corn from their stalks. There was laughter, sunshine, and a feeling of family togetherness that was soon forgotten in the events that unfolded just a week later.
Geoffrey held onto that next memory to destroy the happy ones that came before. The one of his mother crying in their bedroom, clutching one of the few remaining garments that her husband had left behind. The one where tears streamed down all cheeks except for his own. He could shed none, not while the rest of his family suffered. Geoffrey had to pick up the pieces and be the patriarch, filling the role his father had discarded.
That familiar, comfortable rage came and fought away the loneliness. He looked around the hut once more and hated it again, as he should. But fresher images came to taint that wrath and stayed his hand from tearing the place apart.
His father’s reasons for leaving were now known and he couldn’t discount them, nor the selflessness that spawned it. Alfred left because he wanted them to be safe. He didn’t want that once bruised hand of his son to be marred beyond recognition by a beast who didn’t keep his distance. He didn’t want that blissful family picture to be missing a member because he lost control. He didn’t think that he would cause so much pain, because if he stayed, he thought he would inflict much more.
Geoffrey stood in the center of the hut and flexed his fingers, trying to make sense of it. Staying too long in this place was toying with his mind, making him believe that Alfred was worthy of some pardon for his actions. He resisted it, until his gaze fell upon something that snagged his attention.
It peeked out from beneath the edge of the thin blanket on the mattress, creating a sizable lump beneath the covers. If Alfred were trying to hide the thing, he did a poor job of it. Geoffrey, desperate for anything else that might villainize his father, snatched it up.
A figurine, only slightly bigger than the palm of his hand. The dry wood that had been whittled away over time looked old and brittle. Its edges were smooth to the touch, all splinters and uneven edges had been filed down. What he held was another ghost from his childhood, but back then its shape hadn’t been so refined.
When he was a boy, Geoffrey had sat on his father’s knee to learn how to carve. The sculptures were rude impressions at first. Lopsided balls, disproportionate squares, failed attempts at capturing the likeness of his family. Alfred had always been an excellent carver, but not quite skilled enough to be a master craftsman. Reduced to the occupation of a farmer, he still practiced and willingly passed on his self-earned knowledge to his son.
Before his father left, Geoffrey had begun a carving of a dog. Only the head, ears, and neck had been cut from the wood. The day before Alfred disappeared, Geoffrey grew frustrated with the project and tossed it aside, ready to begin something new that didn’t require him to fashion so many sharp and delicate features. When Alfred vanished, so did the partially finished dog. Geoffrey had supposed that it was lost or his mother threw it away, since her son had not taken up a carving knife since his father left.
Now, he knew the truth. Alfred took it and finished the dog.
He lowered himself to the edge of the bed again as the rain began to lessen. A light breeze blew in a cooling mist that calmed Geoffrey’s now dissipating ire. He stared at the carving and how his father had perfected the finer details of the dog’s fur, eyes, and even the claws on its feet. Turning it over in his hand, he could feel the senseless anger leave him.
A less sophisticated marker along the underbelly caught his eye. His initials were struck into the wood, claiming it for Geoffrey, even though his father had no plans to ever return the dog to its rightful owner.
He kept it. The bastard kept it after all these years. Geoffrey wanted to break it, to snap off the finely formed legs, the ears, the muzzle, the tail. He wanted to smash it under his foot and bury it in the dirt where he stood until there was nothing left.
But his fingers wouldn’t comply. They squeezed the dog figurine, but not hard enough to cause the wood to crack. Hot tears came unbidden to the corners of his eyes. Geoffrey didn’t know if they were shed in rage or from the heartbreak, culminating after years of wishing things could have been different.
He thought of his family, how they would see Alfred now and what they would think of his excuses. Would they forgive him? Would his mother understand, since she saw the danger in letting her husband stay? Would his brother see his side of things since he, too, forsook his own family for the sake of sparing them the truth of what he was? Would they have embraced Alfred and accepted that the past was behind them now?
And then, what should Geoffrey do? Could four centuries of hate be snuffed out by a silly sentimental thing like this? Could words alone erase all that Alfred had done? And if actions were required, would this be it? This child’s toy that he kept and cherished.