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John Howard Reid

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"Keep Watching the Skies" is an anthology of prize-winning prose from one of America's richest writing competitions, namely the annual Tom Howard Short Story, Essay and Prose Contest, which is open to all writers worldwide. The book contains 16 winning prose pieces from the Tom Howard Contest (especially selected from three of these annual events), plus a bonus story, "Jo's Heaven", by the Contest's chief judge and anthology editor, John Howard Reid. ("Jo's Heaven" was Highly Commended in the popular Scribblers Literary Competition in 2002).

 

Jo’s Heaven

by John Howard Reid

 

My name is Sarah Johnson. I need to confess all I know about Jo’s Heaven.

I’d always wanted to go to Jo’s Heaven. Ever since I was a kid, back at Hedley’s Creek. Every day, walking home from school, I’d pass the turn-off — a narrow, sandy track, scarcely wide enough for a single car. I used to dream of that old signpost, leaning back at a crazy angle, pointing to the sky: Jo’s Heaven, 117.

Finally, I plucked up enough courage to ask mum, “Ever been to Jo’s Heaven? What’s it like?”

“No, I never. And I never been curious about it neither, young lady. One hundred and seventeen miles of nothing. Just mulga. Who’s ever want to go to Jo’s Heaven? Not me, that’s for sure.”

“Why’s is it called Jo’s Heaven?”

“Who knows? Who cares? I got no time for your silly questions, Sarah. Dad will be home any minute now, wanting his dinner. If you’ve got no homework, you can help me here in the kitchen.”

Dad took me to school in his truck every morning on his way to work at the timber mill. But every afternoon when I walked home, I stopped at that crazy signpost and craned my eyes down that sandy track which ran straight as a grayish ribbon through the mulga scrub to the horizon.

One afternoon, I had a surprise. Someone was using the track. It doesn’t rain much in Hedley’s Creek. But after that morning’s downpour, I saw fresh tire marks in the wet sand. I even followed them for about a mile down the road, just to make sure there wasn’t a nearby house or farm, hiding in the mulga. I’d never heard of anyone living on the road to Jo’s Heaven, but it was just possible.

I kept dreaming about Jo’s Heaven. I imagined all sorts of romantic variations from magic kingdoms and ensorcelled fiefdoms, to luxuriant valleys brimming with wildlife, to stony deserts cold and bare as a hermit’s heart.

Finally I realized my dream. I was eighteen years old, and had a good job at Fraser’s Family Store, which enabled me to pay off a little car of my own. I told mum and dad I intended to stay overnight with my friend, Kate Fraser — which was true . She’d offered to accompany me, but at the last moment, she chickened out. When I turned my little Datsun Bluebird down the path to Jo’s Heaven early that Saturday afternoon, I was alone.

About thirty miles down the track, I stopped the engine. I couldn’t pull over to the side of the road. No room! Lord knows what I’d do if another car came along. I suppose one of us would have to back up to a natural clearing where the stones and boulders were less prolific and the scrub at its thinnest. Anyway, I stopped and listened. You didn’t pick up much over the noise of the engine, but now I could hear a couple of crows cawing over a dead fox or some other little animal. I could also make out the steady hum of insects and the gentle sound of the wind stirring dust and leaves. All the usual music of the bush country, but here the notes seemed underpinned or overlaid by something else. The scrub itself seemed to radiate a high-pitched melody of its own, — a sound made visible in the heat-haze that hung over the near horizon, a sound you could almost touch in the flickering shadows and sparks of light that gleamed from stones and shiny pebbles in the gray-sandy soil.

Ten miles further on, the road dipped and then rose sharply up a steep hill. Ever had the feeling you were driving right into the sky? That was it. I expected to catch a marvelous view from the crest, but my hopes were dashed. An identical mulga scrub spread out before me in exactly the same monotonous pattern I’d left behind. Only the sky with its wispy bank of ski-tracked clouds presented any visual challenge.

The road never veered to the right or the left. At times, thin, gnarled branches brushed up against the car, trying to stop its progress. I ploughed on regardless, keeping careful watch on the mileage indicator. Perhaps there was nothing at the end of the road. No settlement, no houses, not a sign of civilization at all. I might drive right through Jo’s Heaven without knowing it and end up in the desert.

116! The mulga showed no sign of thinning out, the track itself no sign of coming to an end. Another half-mile clicked by, and no change. Wait! A strange twinkling and flashing of light ahead. And the track was definitely curving to the right. Relief at last in this road that had no turning.

Rounding the bend, I almost ran straight into the back of a battered old pick-up truck, parked in front of a tumbledown shanty, built of hessian and wooden crates. And here the road really did come to an abrupt halt. No turning circle. It simply stopped short at a ridge of stone and sand — ten or twelve feet high — that seemed to run right around the basin.

Resisting the impulse to climb the hill straightaway, I walked up to the shack that sheltered in the hollow between ridge and road. It was a job to find the entrance. Turned out to be no more than a hessian curtain in the back “wall”, but I pulled it aside and shouted, “Anyone home!” Just to be on the safe side. There seemed no windows in the shack and I didn’t waste further time trying to see through the gloom. Anyone for miles around would have heard my car coming and noticed the clouds of dust it was stirring up along the track.

So this was Jo’s Heaven. What a disappointment, after all those dreams! All those romantic fantasies had come down to an abandoned truck and a stinking shack. Yes, it did smell — to high heaven all right.

Driving all those miles through endless scrub for nothing.

I’d climb the ridge anyway and take a photo to prove I was here. A timely reminder to forget any tempting fancies in the future.

Wrong again! At the top of the ridge, Jo’s Heaven spread out in an endless field of multi-colored stars. Clear to the horizon, the gibber desert, thickly mantled with wind-polished stones and pebbles, shone in a dazzling array of light — mostly flecks of bright red with occasional layers of reddish browns and purples. No trees or shrubs, no grass. The only relief from its thousands of twinkling mirrors, a series of irregular light red or dark gray hollows where the wind had scooped out all the quartz pebbles and translucent stones, exposing the desert’s red dust.

Picking up some of the pebbles, I let them roll against my hand, watching them flash red, brown and blue as they caught the sun. Then I threw them in the air, marveling as they gathered up companions, all glinting like so many multi-colored marbles as they tumbled down the ridge.

“Is someone there? Someone there?”

The cry came from behind a small boulder on the desert floor. Clambering down on the slippery stones, I just managed to avoid a few nasty falls before I found the old man. A bundle of torn and dirty rags, sheltering in the shade.

“A king brown got me,” he said.

“King brown? A mulga snake?”

“Early this morning. Right leg. Just above the ankle.”

I looked down. Below the worn cuffs of his trousers, the leg was an ugly red, swollen to almost twice normal size.

“Leave me be! Don’t touch it! Hurts like hell, but there’s nothing you can do. I don’t want to die alone. Thank God! Thank God!”

“I’ve got a car. I can take you back to Hedley’s Creek.”

“Don’t be stupid, girlie. Can’t move. Couldn’t even make it to the top of the ridge. Get me some water. From the shack. Don’t want to die of thirst. You’ll find a jug on the shelf. Fill it from the tap. Tank water. But don’t drink it yourself. Should be boiled. Doesn’t matter no more, — for me.”

“I’ve got water in the car.”

“Just fill up the jug, — it’ll do me all right.”

 

“You’re sure you want to stay here?” I asked.

“Can’t move, I told you. I’d like to get up. But I can’t. I don’t want to die. But I will. Even if you got me to Hedley’s Creek, there’s not a thing anyone could do. Not a thing in heaven or hell. Not anti-venom against the king brown. That’s why he’s king. Just stay with me ’til it’s time. Won’t be long. Maybe I’ll see the stars come out. For the last time. That’s a sight to see, girlie. A sight to see. And promise me one thing. Just leave me here when I go. Don’t try to bury me. Don’t gather up any stones. I don’t want a marker. Nothing. The gibber looks after its own. The foxes and the dingoes and the crows can have me, — and I’ll be part of the desert. I’ll be one with the gibber at last. But don’t leave ’til I go. Funny thing. Lived alone, you know that? But I don’t want to die alone. Promise!”

I nodded my head.

“Promise!” His eyes were glazed.

“I promise.”

A deep sigh pulled his lips apart. “One good thing anyhow, girlie. No more making that two thirty-four mile round trip to Hedley’s Creek. A big deal once a month. For supplies. Can’t grow a twig in the gibber. Nor the mulga, — just dust and scrub.”

“Is the gibber always like this? Thousands of colored stars?”

“Yeah. But sundown, — that’s the real glory time, girlie. That’s how the place got its name, you know that? It’s heaven upside down.”

“Are you, Jo?”

“No. No way! The name’s Dave Gould. Used to work for a scientist bloke. A long time ago, girlie. A long time ago. Took part in the first atomic test, you know that? I know this country. Every waterhole. Every tree. Every shrub. Every blind inch of this desert. I know it all.”

“Why’s it called Jo’s Heaven? Who’s Jo?”

“I haven’t the faintest, girlie. Not the faintest. Maybe the real Jo never saw this place. Maybe some old prospector called it Jo, after his favorite wife, — or daughter. Or just some girl he knew. Or maybe he just couldn’t spell. What does it matter? Only the wind knows for sure. But Jo’s Heaven is like most other places, girlie, — it’s heaven or hell, just the way you make it yourself. Glory or damnation, the gibber don’t care one way or the other. Not one damn way or the other.”

“How long have you been here, Dave?”

“Ten years. Twelve. A man loses count of time in Jo’s Heaven. Only months matter. When his supplies run out.”

“No electricity. No water. Tank almost empty. Just sludge. How did you manage all these years?” I asked. “Don’t you have a family? A pension?”

No answer.

“Dave!”

I nerved myself to touch his forehead. You could feel the heat rushing out of him. His eyes were closed, his lips drawn back. He was dead.

I waited for the dying sun to light up the gibber like a fairyland, an enormous pontoon of party lights stretching at least ten or maybe twenty miles to the horizon. As the first stars hit the sky, I kept my promise.

Leaving everything as it was, I turned my car around at twilight and just headed back to Hedley’s Creek. In the distance, I could hear a pack of dingoes howling. Somewhere close by, a snake, a king brown — the serpent of Jo’s Heaven — stirred himself from the rabbit or goanna burrow in which he’d sheltered throughout the day.

And now the king was truly king.

 

He ruled Jo’s Heaven alone.

 

 

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