Away from the sounds and busyness of the city the senses come alive. Perhaps it is the familiarity of the drive south, from Bunbury to Walpole. I’ve now been doing it for over twenty years. The first trip was as a backpacker late at night in a car full of new friends. I remember the tall karri trees in the headlights as we sped along the road. I had never seen such huge trees.
Once we pass through Manjimup the air changes, becomes cooler, fresher. I now anticipate the twists and turns in the road and recognise landmarks as we count down the kilometres to our turn onto the gravel road.
After the horrific fires in 2015 the bush changed. From blackened, charred trees, greenery began to sprout. Red flowers carpeted the ground and a white creeper crawled up trees. This trip the paperbarks are covered in white flowers, and they resemble cauliflowers. The sky is so blue against the green trees and even after all this time I’m caught up in its beauty.
This landscape inspires me, it weaves its way into every story I write. It is a prominent character and requires just as much page time as the human protagonists. Every time I look at the bush I see something new and amazing. I’ve watch in awe as a kaleidoscope of white butterflies descended on the garden. Birds darting from tree to tree, fossicking for bugs. Their song only dims on very hot days. The wind riding through the tree tops like a surfer on a wave.
The bush is alive and I like to walk through the forest in front of the house, where cicadas fill the air with their song and I feel like I’m surrounded by them. Skinny sheoaks with their rough, lichen-covered bark mingle with giant marris and karris. The air is always cool and the sun hidden in treetops. Nearby a giant marri lies across the ground. It is wider than I am tall, and in the spring it is covered in pink fairy orchids. When I’m in the bush I lose my bearings. Although I know I will eventually find the road or the property boundary, there is a frisson of fear that adds to the walk and I understand how people lose their way and wander in circles.
It is this Walpole landscape that has shaped my writing. I’m mesmerised by its beauty and the danger hidden within. This space is the setting for The Day the Rain Stopped Dancing, which recently won the Southwest Prize in the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition. One October we spent a very wet week there. I pulled up to the house and the rain started before we could get out of the car, and it didn’t stop for days. The children played in giant puddles, caught tadpoles and ran out of dry clothes. The sky hung low and grey and I wondered if the rain would ever stop. It did eventually, but it left behind the memory, which in turn worked its way into the short story.
The story is full of memories, not only from that week, but from my childhood in Ireland, where I would stand in the doorway of the cow shed and watch my Granda milk the house cow. The feral cats would wait in turn for milk and only my Granda touched them, anyone else felt their needle-sharp teeth. My Granny would skim the cream from the top of the milk and if I was lucky I was allowed to help with the churning and watch as the cream turned into butter. These happy memories were woven into a dark story, and they sustained the protagonist when everything else was gone. A little slice of light in the darkness.
Rachel McEleney’s short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Seizure, Ghostly StringyBark Anthology, Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies and An Alphabetical Amulet Anthology. Her poetry has appeared on the UWA Poets’ Corner in Perth. Rachel lived in several countries before settling in the south-west of Western Australia. The south-west landscape has inspired her writing and she likes to spend a lot of time in the bush, particularly in spring so she can search for orchids. She is a PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University’s South West Campus.