‘Dust to Dust’ – a short story by Justin Sheedy

south-australia

1945

Peter watched from the fence-top as the mob swarmed in, the sheep pressing forward as one.  Seen it a hundred times, still he pitied the buggers…  Squashed together hard up against the rails left and right, no going back, they just kept on – only reason the blue heeler could run across the top of their backs like it did, barking like mad, biting them: That dog was a bastard.

One day, Peter spat, one day one sheep’s shit for a brain would stop working completely – just for a sec – and the animal would stop dead in its tracks.  A gap would appear ahead of it in the mob, everywhere at once the bloody dog’d fall into it, the sheep’s brain would kick in again and the gap would close over the dog.  Stuff-all anybody could do about it, the dog, now regretting it had ever so enjoyed its work, would be trampled to death.

One day…

Still, not today…  Now a bleating bottleneck at the ramp at the end of the sheds yard, a thousand nervy clip-clops up it, though utterly stupid they never fell off it somehow, always made it up the ramp, up off the red, red dust of Bulgunnia and into the shed to be shorn.  Since the year dot that fine red dust in their wool had been blunting shearers’ shears and making the shearers sweat red by smoko – by knock-off they looked skinned alive.

Peter’s dad was Shearing Agent for this shed, just as old Pop had been before him.  Ever since any bastard could remember, Pop said, the wool they sheared in this shed, and from others like it in the district, went down to Adelaide where it was hoisted in bales onto ships.  From there it sailed all the way to Germany – where they paid top dollar for wool on account of it being so cold there – the bales hoisted off the ships in a seaport city called Bremen.  A right solid place it was too, Pop said, full of bloody great buildings all made of brick and which had been paid for, he stressed, by the even higher sell-on price of the wool that had been coming in for so long.  And to think: all the way from Bulgunnia, South Australia.

And no error, Pop said, Bremen really had been built on the wool trade, since way back when he was just a young shearer:  The Germans were right clever business folk, see, and to hike up the price for the wool they imported they washed it real clean before on-selling it, though this left them with what was called a ‘by-product’…

Red dust.

Tons of it.  In fact, millions of tons of it over the years, and the wool importers of Bremen knew there was only one way to get rid of it:  Sell it.  To the city’s many construction companies who were only too happy to buy it for far less money than the sand they normally mixed into their cement.  And the construction companies made even bigger savings from buying dust as they didn’t have to pay the high shipping charges on sand as the dust was already there.  And so it came to be, Pop explained to young Peter, that the grand old brick buildings of the large and prosperous German seaport of Bremen were actually half-German, half-Australian – to be precise, half-German, half-Bulgunnian.  And right lucky it was that the buildings of Bremen had all been built by now as Australian wool imports had clean stopped since the War began…  Now they went to Canada.

The last of the sheep in the shed now, Peter looked out across the yard, sheep shit and countless hoof marks in its powdery dust.  Beyond line after line of wooden fence rails, the horizon was deep red beneath the morning sky.

*          *          *

Deiter loved dinosaurs.

He clutched his favourites close before him right now: the Brontosaurus, the Triceratops, and his favourite of all, the King of the Dinosaurs, the mighty, mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Though the wooden toys were perched atop his knees right up against his chest, Deiter couldn’t make out their brightly painted colours:  Though its iron door was narrowly ajar, inside the safe it was dark, also as cold as it was hard – When the air raid siren had started wailing up above, the Shelter Warden said Deiter should get in.  He’d said so the night before too, but tonight Deiter was ready for it and had his toys with him for company.

How Deiter cherished them – from Nuremberg, city of toys, they reminded him of Father.  He’d brought them home for Deiter as late birthday presents on his last Leave, the last time Deiter had seen Father, and there’d been no letters since.  Mother had said this was simply due to delays in the mail from the Eastern Front – It was to be expected, and waiting for them was a small sacrifice to bear; Father would be home soon…  But then, the day the Americans had bombed, Mother didn’t come home from work.  She still hadn’t and that was many days ago now.  How many?  Deiter had lost track; he hadn’t slept in many nights.  Night was when the British bombed.  They hadn’t come tonight, not yet – Maybe it would be a false alarm, Deiter heard a woman say through the gap in the safe door.  Maybe it would be, but the siren up above was still wailing.

Deiter squeezed the wooden figures.  Yes, Father would soon come home, home for good.  He was bound to; the War was being won, it must be, what with the British now sending Australians to do their dirty work – more Terror-Fliers, as Doctor Goebbels had named them, only this time from a desert on the other side of the Planet: The British must be getting desperate…

Then Deiter heard it, felt it through the iron floor of the safe: the first gigantic impact and long, low rumble that always followed.  As it died away a woman in the shelter began to sob.  The blast hadn’t been very loud; must have been blocks away.  But then came another, this time louder, closer.  Deiter heard things rattling in the shelter, its lights dimming momentarily, the woman crying openly now, some others beginning.  Then another impact, and another – louder, closer each time and falling closer together.  Then one landed very close, objects fully crashing in the shelter, more crying now – even grown men.  Yet amidst all the noise Deiter could not mistake the woman: for the fact she no longer sounded like one.

From her issued a moan.  A moan that rose.  Like some tide of horror and revulsion swelling within her, until, a gasp as if for breath, she let loose…

One long bellow of despair.

Just as the lights went out.

In the darkness, the woman’s voice cut – as had the air raid siren.  Apart from a tiny sprinkling sound and the queerest whimpering, almost bleating noise from somewhere in the shelter, there was silence.

When it came…

Deiter squeezed his toys once more, tightly to his chest now.

Up above, a Tyrannosaurus Rex was pounding down the street.

Step after giant step and coming this way in great, long strides by the sound of it, each step louder, closer, heavier.  The mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex!  Deiter’s favourite!!  God be praised, surely the KING of the Dinosaurs would step right OVER the building!

*          *          *

Deiter tried to wipe his eyes clear; it was no good.  He retched.  Spat.

The terrible dust in his eyes, in his mouth, in his throat.

He stumbled.  Yet managed to remain upright on spasm-ridden legs.  At least he was standing on rubble now, no longer buried under it.  And breathing cold air.

From head to toe he hurt, his body bruised, scratched, clothes torn…  His toys?  Still somewhere down in that dreadful darkness:  He hadn’t seen anything of the shelter on his way out of it – no light and the stuff in his eyes.  In any case, he’d come up into the morning upside down:  A man had dug him out, carried him up and out over his shoulder.

Deiter wasn’t crying, though his eyes were watering profusely.  It made the muck stick to his face, to his hands.  Still, the tears were clearing his eyes a bit now.  He was starting to see again.

Up at street level, there was no one about.  No one at all.  Only rubble.  And broken bricks.  And no street anymore.  For the buildings that used to line it had collapsed and fallen into it.  Now there was just one long canyon of broken bricks…

Deiter turned around.  To where his apartment building used to be.  To where a whole city block used to be…  Flattened.

King of the Dinosaurs?  …It must have been a whole herd of them.

At Deiter’s feet was a bent tin street sign.  He wiped his eyes again – How they stung!

SCHUBERTSTRASSE, BREMEN.

Covering the sign’s buckled surface, covering everything, everything as far as Deiter could see…

A layer of dust.

Of fine, red dust.

*          *          *

To read another short story by Justin, click HERE

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