Endless Black by Megan Burke
A short story that was written for Emergency Art as part of Winter in Banyule 2012.
The girls walked to the tank at dusk.
Ava snuck out, jumping over the fence and gave Buster a bone to keep him quiet; Jilly banged the front wire door shut behind her as she left.
They met on the dirt track which snaked between their farms.
Ava stepped on a branch and stumbled, and Jilly laughed at her.
“Good one,” Jilly said, and Ava pushed her and they laughed, pushing each other as they made their way down the track.
They reached the bottom of the slope, behind the tank, and Ava could hear their voices carried, far, far, almost to her house.
“Shush will you, the old woman will hear us,” Ava said in a whisper.
“As if. She’s nowhere near us and it’s dark. Plus she’s probably watching some tragic soap opera anyway.”
“We still have to be careful.”
Jilly rolled her eyes and kicked a rock down the sloping grass. She watched it bounce along, before settling on the grass in the fading light.
It was still hot, and Jilly stepped on a bug. She could hear it crunch under her thong and she stopped, wiping it on the grass.
“Gross,” she muttered.
Ava lifted her t-shirt up from her stomach and shook it.
“Surely it should be cooler by now.”
“Come on – last one to the tank!” Jilly whispered in Ava’s ear, before bolting, running sightly weirdly in her thongs.
As Ava raced after her, she thought about the old woman. She couldn’t remember the old woman’s name. Her parents used to know the old woman, she remembered; back when the old woman’s husband was alive. But now, to them, all she was was a water tank – the good kind, with just water in it, not the kind with chemicals in it like the ones on her and Jilly’s farms.
Jilly didn’t know the old woman’s name either, and she didn’t care. She was the one carrying the suitcase, an old brown suitcase, tattered, picked up cheaply from an opp shop, which she dumped at the base of a tree, puffing from the sprint.
They stripped off; Ava in a singlet top and underwear, Jilly just in underwear. They put their clothes in the suitcase – they’d made the mistake the first time they’d come a week ago of leaving their clothes at the base of the water tank and they were torn by some rogue animals.
Jilly grabbed the radio and turned it on, the music blaring from the small speaker.
“Turn it down!” Ava said. She stepped on a twig in her bare feet and winced.
“It’s fine, no-one can hear it,” Jilly said.
The cicadas buzzed as she zipped the suitcase up. She’d made that mistake before too; leaving the suitcase open and coming back to it to find bugs inside it.
They ran on their toes to the tank, trying not to step on any rocks or branches.
“Here,” Ava said, as they reached the side of the tank. She lifted her leg up and Jilly grabbed her foot, pushing her up.
Ava grabbed hold of the ladder and hung, for a moment, off the side of the tank, grasping at the ladder handles, until she worked her way up and was able to put her feet on one of the rails.
“Catch,” Jilly shouted, throwing up the radio. Ava caught it and tucked it under her chin as she started to climb.
“I don’t know why they make these damn things so high up off the ground,” Jilly puffed, jumping up to grab onto the ladder. She tried three times and finally got it, and smacked face-first into the side of the tank. She groaned, and wondered why the old woman’s tank wasn’t made out of something more forgiving than concrete.
“It’s high to keep people like us out,” Ava said dryly, climbing up the side of it before sitting on the cover of the tank. She put the radio on the cover too, a few inches away from the man-hole.
“Yes, but what about the normal people that need to get in the tank?”
“Another ladder I guess,” Ava said, looking down the hill at the old woman’s house. One room was lit up brightly, the rest were darker. She could see the dam, the windmill, the sloping land.
If she looked far enough, she could just about make out her house over the hills.
Jilly climbed up after her, and they sat on the cover.
“Here,” Jilly said, grabbing a hold of the man-hole. Ava leant over and grabbed it too, and they pulled it opened and dropped it on the cover.
Jilly swung her legs over and dropped in the tank, trying not to touch the mossy inside.
The cool water hit her skin and she felt herself go down, down, before rising back to the top.
She’d never been all the way to the bottom before and she wondered how far down it was. It seemed deeper inside than out.
She felt Ava drop in after her, and when Ava surfaced, they both laid on their backs, looking through the man-hole to the sky.
“I can’t feel the heat anymore.”
“I can,” Ava replied.
Ava ducked under water again, and ran her hands through her hair, pushing it out of her eyes. She kicked her legs and sighed, looking down, not able to see her feet. At first it had bothered her she couldn’t see the bottom, nor see what was in the water, but now she just tried not to think about it.
Ava held her nose and went under again; she still wasn’t used to the smell of moss, mould and dead bugs.
It was a big tank: Jilly could swim a few feet without touching the sides. She did it, stretching her arms out, sighing into the water.
“I’m going to miss this when it’s winter.”
“Me too,” Ava agreed.
They chatted, giggled, splashed, and when Ava teased Jilly about the boy from two farms over, Jilly held her head underwater and they both got pulled under, laughing and sputtering and trying not to ingest any of the water.
Their voices echoed off the sides of the tank, and carried off into the night; bouncing around each other, inside and out, jumbling up until you couldn’t tell whom was saying what.
They’d been coming here just over a week, ever since Jilly had been playing on the quad bikes with her younger brothers and they’d rode into the old woman’s property and found the tank.
She’d always known it was here, but the possibility of coming here, of swimming in the tank, hadn’t really occurred to her until she’d been standing next to it. One of her brothers had tried to jump to reach the ladder but he was too short.
Later that day she and Ava had gone for their first midnight swim.
The tank was about fifty meters from the house and they’d snuck onto the old woman’s property, hiding behind trees and followed the shadows so they wouldn’t be seen.
“The old woman can see us up here,” Ava had said after they climbed up the first time, as they perched on the top of the tank.
“She’ll think we’re birds,” Jilly said casually, looking around and tapping on the cover of the tank.
“Is there even water in there?” Ava said, peering into the depths. “It’s all black to me.”
“Let’s chuck something in it then to test it,” Jilly had suggested. She climbed down the ladder, grabbed a rock, and sticking it in her mouth, she climbed back up.
She threw the rock into the black and plonk.
“Perfect,” Jilly had said, before clumsily jumping in.
“Truth or dare?”
“We can’t really do dares in here,” Ava said.
“Okay, truth then.”
“Have you ever… run away from home?”
“You know I have,” Jilly said, rolling her eyes.
They bobbed in the water, two heads, treading water beneath them.
“Have you gone all the way with Jack?”
“No!” Ava squealed and splashed Jilly and they laughed, their laughs echoing around the tank and bouncing back at them.
“Ew, gross, a bug’s on my face! Thanks, Ave!”
Ava laughed as Jilly scratched at her face, removing any traces of bug.
Jilly rolled her eyes again and didn’t answer, instead lifting her hand up and watching water trickle down it.
Ava looked at her. Although it was dark, she could tell Jilly was avoiding catching her eye.
“Nothing,” Jilly said quickly, too quickly.
“What?” Ava asked, more firmly this time, staring at Jilly.
“Yes,” Jilly finally answered.
“You asked if I’d gone all the way with Jack. The answer is yes.”
Ava breathed in, closed her eyes and felt like floating to the bottom of the tank. Instead, when she opened her eyes, she was still there, on the surface, treading water, with Jilly looking at her.
“When?” The questioned lingered in the air, and Ava heard a bird answer far away.
“A while ago,” Jilly finally said, looking up at the sky.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It didn’t mean anything.”
“You didn’t think it meant anything to tell me that my best friend slept with my boyfriend?”
“He wasn’t your boyfriend then,” Jilly said. “And there was no point telling you when you two did get together, you were happy, it was over between me and Jack, the end.”
“I would never have got with Jack if I had known.”
“Duh, and that’s another reason why I didn’t say anything because I knew you really liked him.”
“I can’t believe you!”
“Get over it! It doesn’t matter anymore. It was like two years ago.”
“Two years ago!” Ava said, her voice raising and bouncing off the sides furiously.
“Hey, shut up for a minute. Can you hear something?”
“No,” Ava said slowly. She lied. She could hear something. A bird, an owl maybe, perhaps a few of them. And something on the ground, a small creature perhaps, rustling around. And the music. But nothing of note, and it wasn’t what Jilly wanted to hear.
She splashed angrily, to make a noise, and Jilly glared at her.
Ava looked at the top of the tank, and it seemed further away than it had been before.
“Has thewater level gone down?” Ava asked.
“What? No, of course not,” Jilly said, looking around.
“Seriously, I think it has.”
Jilly bobbed in the water, pulling herself under, and up again, semi-launching herself out of the water. She went up about a meter, and held her hands up in the air. She splashed back into the water, and Ava shook, cold rushing over her.
“I can’t touch the man-hole,” Jilly said, stilted and slowly, catching her breath and starting to look panicked.
“What?” Ava looked up, and the top of the tank was far away, so far away. “What do we do? We can get out, right? Right?”
Jilly looked at the sides of the tank, smooth grey. Faded white paint, probablylisting the depth.
The walls sparkled from the reflection of the water and the moon, shining down from above in the man-hole.
“Where’s the inside ladder? Shouldn’t it be near the man-hole?” Ava asked. She wanted to fold inside herself, but couldn’t, and instead continued to tread water. She wasn’t sure how long she could keep doing it as her legs had started to ache.
“There’s nothing,” Jilly said, as she pulled herself along the mossy grey wall of the tank. “Maybe it rusted and fell off. Who knows the last time anyone actually came in here. Maybe the old woman just keeps the pumps running and that’s it.”
Endless smoothness, endless grey.
Jilly didn’t know what to say. She tried to contain her rising panic because she could see that Ava was also started to panic. She had to remain calm. She could get them out of this, yes, obviously. Any moment now.
She closed her eyes and tried to think. But her mind was a mess of black water and black sky.
She pushed her hands through the water.
“I need to go to the toilet,” Ava said.
“Hold it,” Jilly snapped.
“What do we do?” Ava asked, quietly.
Jilly wanted to reassure her, but didn’t know what to say, so instead said nothing.
Ava didn’t know how much time had passed. Minutes, maybe, an hour.An owl hooted and she shivered. After exchanging panicked looks and hopeless ideas, Ava had come to the conclusion that they weren’t getting out until someone came tomorrow. Jilly had assured her that that would happen. Someone would notice them as being missing and her brothers would lead them to the tank.
Ava was remarkably calm about this, and this surprised her.
She had gotten the fear out of her system and now she was settled, thinking about the future.
Maybe someone would come early tomorrow, maybe even sooner, and rescue her and Jilly and they’d all go home and sleep for the rest of their lives and never break into tanks again.
“I forgive you for sleeping with Jack.”
“No you don’t. You’re just saying that.”
“I’ve decided it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“That’s right, it doesn’t,” Jilly said under her breath.
Ava felt panic rise in her again, and she push down, pushed it back down, down, into the depths of the black water.
Jilly had her eyes closed and was wondering what to do. She was trying to remember the safety training she’d had but couldn’t remember. Something about tractors. Not getting into wheat silo. Something about chemicals, electric fences. Something else.
And certainly nothing about getting out of tanks.
Ava had screamed, for a while, but Jilly didn’t see the point. There was nothing around, nobody could hear them.
Her screams had bounced off the sides and the top of the tank; bounced and echoed and swirled and jumped and came back at them until there were a thousand screaming people in the tank.
Jilly opened her eyes and watched Ava.
She sighed and listened to the music, wishing they’d hadn’t come in, not now, not tonight, not ever.
Ava wanted to cry, but didn’t. She floated on her back and watched the starsand the moon and wondered when the sun would come, and whether she would see it.
Jilly was lying on her back too. She floated over to Ava, reached out, and took her hand.
The only sound, Jilly’s music.
Even the animals had stopped making noises.
Long after the music had stopped playing, the old woman and her friend walked towards the fire water tank.
It had been the first time she’d used it since her husband died. Her own stupidity really; her old hands weren’t what they’d been and she hadn’t been paying attention.
She’d dropped a candle on the couch. She’d been distracted by some birds, an owl that regularly sat on a branch right outside her lounge room window, and her arthritic hands had failed her.
She walked slowly, listening as her friend talked, and looked at her hands. Hardened. Gnarled. Wrinkled where they were once smooth.
They hadn’t failed her. Not really. They allowed her turn on the pipe, pull it inside and put the fire out.
She’d hired some people to come and fix the roomand they hadn’t asked what happened, although she wished they had.
She rarely came down here anymore, but she felt like going for a walk and it seemed fitting to visit the tank, which, only weeks earlier, had saved her life.
They walked back up the path together, talking about grandchildren, when her friend stopped and pointed.
“What’s that doing there? Is it yours?”
“No, I don’t think so,” the old woman said slowly, going closer.
A suitcase, at the base of a tree, zipped up, but a few small holes in it.
“It’s not yours?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Could it be your helper’s?”
“I doubt it. Michael is here to do maintenance on the pumps, windmills and land, not pack for holidays.”
“It’s not his, is it...” the old woman’s friend said, trailing off.
“It’s a mystery then,” the old woman’s friend declared.
“So it seems.”
The old woman and her friend walked up to the tank.
The old woman gave a silent prayer of thanks, then they turned around, and walked away.