The Cedar-getter’s Granddaughter
excerpt from a new novel by Diana Plater
Meg noticed her dirty cream calico pants had turned bright red. Blood ran down her leg where a huge leech clung on. The smell reminded her of a new penny turned in her hand — the smell of iron.These leeches seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, fiercer and fiercer. The rain made them worse. And when you had to sleep in wet clothes day after day it didn’t help. Wet from rain or the river, rolling the logs, then guiding them downstream. Sometimes on cold, frosty mornings, they had to swim across the river with their axes in their belts — always on the hunt for more cedar.At night she and Jack would wrap themselves in a blanket and go to sleep next to the fire. When they undid their blankets at dawn, steam would rise from their clothes.
Rain, rain, rain. When would it ever stop? It poured into their little shack and she kept having to find leaves or branches to plug up the holes. How could she bring a baby into this environment? She felt her stomach. The baby had just begun to kick and make its presence known. It was going to be an active, little bugger.
Her frame was tiny — she didn’t stand more than five foot. But she had all the power of a man a good six inches taller than her. She could hold a pit saw as well as any man and help with placing the good cedar logs, one at a time, above a pit. Jack stood on top of the log while she was in the pit underneath. Between them they worked the larger saw up and down until the log was all cut up.
Just her and Jack. Came out on the same ship together. In irons. They didn’t need to explain anything to each other. They knew where they came from. But he was still the man, and wanted to lord it over her, despite her working just like a man. She looked up to the jungled vines and trees on the escarpment ringing their bit of forest. Not brooding, just ever watchful. The last bit of sunlight caught on the rocks and caves. Maybe they should make camp in one of those caves. Easier to keep the rain out. She’d suggest that to Jack — if he’d listen to her. Well, it was because of her that they’d found this grove of cedar — red gold — as it was known.
The natives called it “polai”. B had brought them here — shown them the tallest of the tall trees after she’d persuaded Jack it was the path to their fortune.They’d followed his peoples’ ancient track through the forest. You could glimpse the red leaves in the distance but it would have been impossible to find the cedars through the thickness of the jungle without him.
Meg pulled the leech off her leg — fat and swollen and full of her blood. She poured some salt on her thigh, hoping it wouldn’t turn bad. She spoke to her unborn baby.
“I hate this forest. And its creatures. But by God, my baby, we are going to get rich from it. And never have to come back down here again.”
The baby kicked so hard it jolted her and she almost fell back in the mud.
She laughed. “Glad you agree with me, my baby.”
The afternoon sun was shining straight down on the biggest boulder of the creek. It formed a pattern on the rocks, a shady place to sit on one side and on the other a warmer spot to sunbake and contemplate the path of the water. It had rained and rained and rained for thirteen days and nights — biblical in the sense of a flood that swept all in its reach. Leaving islands where the cattle sheltered, the ground gradually dissolving into the water so that they were left with almost no room to stand. The calves born in the midst of this were overwhelmed with the extent of the water, and surprised to see a gold mass finally emerge.
The track up through the rainforest was still muddy, and Jean’s boots squelched. She had to be careful not to leave them behind, swallowed by the brown ooze. She jumped from section to section to avoid sinking into the quagmire. But when she spotted the boulder just on the spot where the creek did a dog leg she smiled. There was soothing sun at last. She took off her boots and socks, and gingerly crossed the creek, being careful not to slip on the stones. Everything was so slippery.
She knew about accidents in the bush. They caught you unawares and could ruin long walks, when she’d hoped to stay away for hours. Brushing past stinging nettles, getting attacked by leeches or tics, slipping on rocks and twisting her ankle or falling and splashing into the water with drenched socks and boots. No, she was being super careful today. This was her first long walk after all that rain. It was the best time to see the creek — so full but no longer dangerous. Clean, clear water right off the mountain top. The best time to go swimming. Freezing cold but so refreshing.
She lay on the boulder and breathed in the warmth, worshipping the blue sky. A lyrebird whipped in the distance. The air sweet with rainforest trees. No sweet perfume. Just the subtle smells of the bush. She thought of the children of the cedar-getters, one of them maybe her great grandfather. Playing down in the creek, pale, jaundiced — yellow skins so shiny you could rub a stone across them and it would come back streaked like gold. Jean could hear their voices echoing across the stepping stones — like ghosts come back to haunt her.
Ah, the sun. She took off her shorts and tank top and slid her bottom down the rock into the creek, feeling the tingling, gasping of her skin as she touched the liquid. Oh God, it was good to be alive!
© Diana Plater 2022.
Diana Plater is a writer and journalist, based in Foxground, NSW and Sydney. Her latest book, Whale Rock, won the Gold award for Popular Literary Fiction in the Global Ebook Awards, 2019.
The excerpt above is from The Cedar-getter’s Granddaughter, a novel-in-progress. Diana was working on the first draft at the Easter Writer’s Retreat led by writer/teacher, Jan Cornall at Namgyalgar, in Qld’s Glasshouse Mountains.
Jan Cornall leads international writers retreats and workshops. See pics here.