Sandra Arnold

Cry to the Moon

 

When Tiffany was an hour old her father carried her to the top of the highest hill on his land. He held her up to the sky and promised her that even though she wasn’t the son he’d hoped for, he would teach her the virtues of strength, courage, independence and fearlessness that his own father had taught him. He’d see to it that there would be no situation in her life that she couldn’t handle. That would be his gift to her, passed down from father to son in every generation of his family and the gift she could one day pass on to her own child.

Despite protests from her mother, he taught Tiffany to ride a horse when she was three, to drive the tractor when she was twelve, to suffer in silence when she was hurt, to help him slaughter sheep without fainting, to keep a stiff upper lip when her pets died. He taught her the most efficient methods for eradicating rabbits, stoats and possums and other assorted pests. He showed her the precise spot to shoot her sick stallion in the head and made her do it herself. He told her how proud he was that she stayed staunch.

When the bull gored him and tossed him against a fence he was out of action for two months. He fretted about the horehound he’d been planning to clear from one of the paddocks.

“You’ve got to pull it out by the roots before it starts seeding,” he said, “otherwise it’s a bastard to eradicate. See what you can do, eh Tiff?”

Tiffany dug and poisoned and burned every evening and every weekend for eight weeks. When her father came home from hospital she showed him the cleared paddock. His jaw dropped. He thumped her on the back and roared,

“My God, you’ve got balls!”

 

On her seventeenth birthday she received her acceptance letter for agricultural college. She waved it at her father and for a split second she thought she saw tears well up in his eyes. Before she could be sure, however, he turned away, made two fists and pumped the air. “If you’d been a boy you couldn’t have made me any prouder.”

That night they climbed the hill under the full moon so he could show her how it edged the whole of his land in silver light. “Most beautiful sight in the world,” he said. “And it will be yours on the day you graduate.  I have no doubt that you’ll be their top student.” He whacked her between the shoulder blades and laughed. “Just make sure you don’t get distracted by those young farmers, eh!”

But she did get distracted by one in particular who told her she was beautiful, promised her the moon then vanished. On graduation day she was in a home for unmarried mothers bringing Holly into the world. Her father told her by letter never to darken his door again. Her mother came to see her in secret, gave her all the money she had and the family christening robe. She left with her tears bottled up inside. In the empty room Tiffany listened to her daughter breathing and made plans to put as much distance as possible between herself and her family.

 

On Holly’s seventeenth birthday Tiffany dreamed of her mother surrounded by all their female relatives. A week later an aunt’s letter arrived from the other side of the world. “She spoke your name,” her aunt wrote. “It was the last thing she said. Your father’s not coping.

“Write to him, Tiffany. It’s what your mother would have wanted.”

After tearing up the letter and burning the pieces and grinding the ash into the earth with the heel of her boot, Tiffany looked through the kitchen window and saw Holly swallowing pills. She ran inside and asked her if she was having sex with Xavier.

“What a question!”

“Those pills?”

“Panadol. Another headache. Too much study. That entrance exam is really hard.”

“Are you using condoms?”

“No.”

“What!”

“He doesn’t like them. But don’t worry, he’s careful. He’d give me the moon if he could.”

 

The day Holly was due to start university the surgeons diagnosed the source of her headaches. They talked in low voices about recovery statistics. Xavier vanished like a ferret down a rat hole. Holly didn’t cry. She stopped eating instead. Tiffany reminded her how she’d galloped bareback up hills, swum across the harbour, climbed mountains, finished a cross-country marathon.

“Did you ever think you might fail then?”

Holly looked at her mother as if that was the most stupid question she’d ever heard. “Of course not!”

“Don’t think it now,” said Tiffany.

That night she dreamed of a paddock choked with horehound and her father pumping the air with his fists, willing his tears to stay behind his eyes.

Surgery. Chemotherapy. Radiation.

“We think we got it all,” the surgeon said.

Six months later he shook his head.

“Microscopic seeds.”

Holly told him that wasn’t possible. She’d made plans. She had dreams. After she finished  university she was going to travel round the world. Trek through the Amazon. Float on an iceberg. Dive in underwater caves. Ride a camel in the desert.  Fly to the moon and collect stars from the sky.

The surgeon patted her arm.

Tiffany wrote to her father. She included a photo of Holly on her mountain bike winning her last race, fists pumping the air. She told him there were some tears that could not be contained.

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Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer with a PhD in Creative Writing. She is the author of Sing no Sad Songs, Tomorrow’s Empire and A Distraction of Opposites.  Her short stories and flash fiction have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally.  Her work was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize and the 2017 and 2018 Best Small Fictions. Her new novel, Ash will be published by Mākaro Press (NZ) in 2019. She is on the advisory board and a guest editor of Meniscus: the journal of the Australasian Association of Writing Programmes.