Rosa's Day by Brendan Carson

Things can remain the same even in a new land.

When your grandmother Rosa was coming across from England, a wave came over the side of the ship and took her grandfather away. One moment he was there, a severe, thin man, black-jacketed, stern, watching her, the next minute he was gone. All water over the decks, nothing of him left, only his daughter. It was as sudden as an act of God. They comforted the girl, her so small and shaken, red hair and pale blue eyes, pale as the sea that tore the old man from her. Orphaned, almost, because her grandfather had been the one who had raised her since her father had had to emigrate. They were finally going over to Australia, and now he was dead. She was pale and shaking, but she never cried. She had this strange expression on her face, some look in her eyes. You've got that look about you sometimes.

Anyway, Rosa, she was fifteen that year she arrived at Sydney Harbour. What else was she to do? There was her father waiting, and her uncle, and her uncle's children; that would be Leo and Daniel, and old Solomon, your mother's uncle, but she had no grandfather with her. And the little girl with her face as pale as bone, dark under her eyes like a skull. The women whispered and wept, but not Rosa. Poor little thing, she'd been through so much, they said. Well, they got the rabbi to say a few words, and then they just had to keep going.

It was a shock for her, I am sure. Flat and dry and burnt, trees with leaves that don't fall, strange birds shrieking in the trees. Miles and miles and miles of open land, after the green hills and the close ghetto of Amsterdam. After that, Rosa moved inland, to Copper Mountain, to run a store. She said she wouldn't marry a man. Her mother and her aunts, they wept again, but Rosa was sure. Copper Mountain, that's where she was going to. Where they found the copper and silver and arsenic and gold, where the miners were. Five hundred miles from the sea.

"What's in Copper Mountain that's not here?" said Sol. He tried to look after her.

"The blackfellas," said Rosa. That's what they called them then.

"And what have the blackfellas got that your own folk haven't?"

"Old stones," said Rosa. "Old stones and old ways." She was full of mad ideas from old Jacoub's books. "The old ones walked here once, stayed longer. The blacks know."

"Old stones, old ones? You're mad," said old Sol. "Who will look after you?"

But Rosa smiled that stretched smile she had, which wasn't a smile, and said, "I've got friends as will come if I call them." Sol didn't know, he shook his head. Her with only old Jacoub's books and hardly even a trade. But she went. She bought a bay mare and got a Chinese servant and tied her bonnet over her head and rode off.

Copper Mountain then was no place for a woman, not even a woman like your grandmother. The men were animals. No place for what she had, which was book learning and beauty. A woman was for cooking and beating and scratching your itches, if you'll pardon. There were some fancy women there, like everywhere, and the blacks' women, but they mostly kept out the way. Even the Chinamen would leave their wives for months and come home with money, rather than settle on Copper Mountain. There was no law of God or man.

And Rosa was a pretty one too. Same red hair as you, red as copper in the sun, same pale skin like bone, same blue eyes. You wouldn't think it now, to see her, all withered and small, whispering away to herself. But she was a beauty. She bought a house (old Jacoub had left her a pretty sum of money, she never had to go without) and settled just outside the town. She never really started with the store, she never meant to. A man came from the General Store and brought her supplies every week, and she kept herself to herself. That didn't go down well with the menfolk. And she spoke with the Chinese and the blacks, and that was worse.

Every few days she went out on the mare and rode all about the stones that the blackfellas put up. The blackfellas weren't allowed to stay in the town excepting to work, and nobody paid them excepting grog and flour. They were the lowest of the low: if a blackfella killed a dog he died for it. They reckoned the Chinese were all lusting after the white women and smoking all the time, and they worked too hard for too little money. Same as they said about our people, excepting we were moneylending instead of smoking opium. But Rosa learnt the blackfella tongues, and the Chinese. They say she scratched in the sand with them and they say she took off her clothes and danced their secret dances with them, naked, her white body under the moon with the blackfellas. White fires burning in the night, sounds that weren't bird nor animal, sounds that human beings couldn't make, screaming sounds. And Rosa screaming with them, new moon nights. Sunk in sin, the people said. The blacks, they listened to her, they talked to her. She was an equal with their witchmen: someone who knew what they knew.

Anyhow, there she was, up on the outskirts of Copper Mountain like a hermit. Like dry bush before a fire. One day the local churchman, Pastor Wakeman, he went up to see her. She said he was a fat, smiling, slow-talking man, but he could see through a rock if you gave him time. He went up seeing if she was baptised.

"Mercy, no, sir. I am a Jewess." She served him strange bitter tea in stone mugs.

"We are people of the Book," says he, saying that we Jews and the Christians came from the same root, from the Torah, and Abraham and Jacob.

And she smiled, and she said, "I am a woman of many books, sir. It is to study them, and to look for confirmation of their lore among the natives here, that I have come."

Pastor Wakeman waved his hand, to say the natives were no matter. "You seem to avoid the communion of your own race."

"Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman," said Rosa. "Under the skin perhaps I have more in common with these people. They are become aliens in their land, as I was."

"The blacks are sunk in sin," said Pastor Wakeman. "Ignorance, alcohol, disease are doing away with them. I do what I can to ease their passing, but they are a dying race. This is a land where Mammon and the animal instincts of men govern. I beg you: a single Christian woman would have more protection than a Jewess in this land."

"Thank you, sir," she said. "I appreciate your offer. But I already have a Protector, and my Protector will not fail me."

What could Pastor Wakeman say to faith like this? He expressed his hope that this would be the case, and he said that the church was always open to her, and he asked if he might pray for her, and he did. He bent his head, and Rosa stared at him all the time, soft deep blue eyes, a kind smile on her lips. He left her there and went back to the town, and Rosa returned to her books and her stones and her meetings with the blacks and the Chinese, to the mumbling and chanting and the shaking of rattles and burning of bitter herbs.

But nothing lasts forever. Pretty soon one of the local animals got sick of her smiles and her books and her shakes of the head and rode up with two of his animal mates and grabbed her. The servant put up a fight and they shot him dead. They came in and they raped her, they hurt her. The doctor said they beat her pretty bad. Men who do this, if you can call them men, they hate women, and they especially hate women who don't do what they reckon a woman should be doing. They got really vicious, like they were mad. One of the men, the one who lived a few hours, before he died, he said the thing that made them mad was her face, the expression in her eyes. It never changed. From the moment they came in, and she saw Su Chee lying dead, her face never changed. The same cold stretched smile, like she knows something that you can't understand. Sometimes even now she looks around her, like the world is just a thin old sheet thrown over something else that she knows is really there. Her look.

If she'd kicked and she'd bit and she'd scratched, he said, fought like a burnt cat, or if she'd screamed for help, maybe they wouldn't have kept at it so long. But what's one against three, and them big mining men? They hit her around the face, and they pushed her head in the watering trough until she nearly drowned, and they tore her dress off her and left her naked on the floor. Still with that look. They stayed most of the day and they rode off around sunset. From what the police said, they spent most of the night in the hotel, drinking. The last time anyone saw these three men was when they got thrown out the hotel close on midnight.

That night Rosa went out to the old stones. She didn't go to the doctor until the next day. She dragged herself to her horse, half naked, still bleeding, and went out to the stones. That was new moon night, dark as velvet. The blacks knew she was coming, they lit a fire, burned the herbs that made the white fire, filled the night with bitter air. They were singing and dancing when she rode in, all the women and the men together, a korobori, a sacred time. Rosa rode up there and fell into the arms of the witchman. She whispered to him, just a few words, and then she just fell in a faint.

The blacks got all excited. This is what the police said. They threw more herbs on the fire, and there was all the chanting, the shouts and the screaming. "Yaga sataja, yaga sataja," they sang, and some of the blacks shouted out the names of the men: Newbury, Martin, Gibb. And then the alien words, the blackfella words, the calling of the wataga-wakanja. She still says it sometimes. "Yaga sataja, ia, ia, yaga sataja." She stayed out there with the witchmen all night, rode back just before sunrise.

The next morning they brought in the bodies of the men. They went and got Rosa, took her to the doctors and the court. She told freely where she'd been. She didn't try to hide anything. She'd done nothing to be ashamed of, she said.

When they brought in the bodies, all stretched and out of shape, with the skin too big and the bones all bent and fused, with the eyes and mouth stretched all animal-like, eyes like owls or flies, eyes glistening over half their face, she stood there staring ahead. When they said how one of the men was still breathing, one of them had tried to make sounds from the floppy nerveless mouth, she sat and listened. When the police officer said that the blacks had gone, vanished in the night like mist, leaving only the fireplaces with cold ashes and the dried bunches of smouldering herbs, she nodded, just once. And beyond that she said she knew nothing.

What could be done? The police looked at her, the small slight woman with the black bruises over half her face, and then they looked at the three men, if they were men, wearing the clothing of Patrick Newbury, Jack Martin and James Gibb. They had been big men, strong and determined. They looked at her tiny hands, and then at the stretched skin and shapeless flesh of what was there now. They stared at her face, and they remembered one of the things, it said it was Jack Martin before it died, hissing about something moving in the sky, the squirming sky, things flowing and moving, a thing with a thousand eyes reaching in and shifting the skin of his face. He died a few hours later, drowned in his own saliva. There were glands where there shouldn't be glands, said the doctor. Like man and wife, he said, body and mind do not always die together.

Of course, that was all years ago. Most of it I have pieced together, nobody sat me down and told me. The doctor told me some when we went up there to get her, the pastor, Rosa, herself, one night when she was weak. It all happened close on fifty years ago. Everyone is dead now.

Except for Rosa. Her mind has gone now, of course. She sits there and whispers, we feed her and bath her. Doctor Schwartz says it's only a matter of time, the blood is thick in her body, it clogs and solidifies in her brain and heart. He asks us, do we want to consider sending her to a home? I tell him never, she would hate to go to a home. He thinks we are a very loving family. He doesn't know: some things are stronger than love.

See, sometimes I listen to her. Most of the time, I keep myself busy. The nurse who comes to see her, the doctor himself, your mother, nobody listens. Just the ravings of a senile woman, the dead mind in the dying body. Nobody pays her any attention. But I do. I listen sometimes. I hear her. And I know what she is saying is dangerous. She knows things, she can do things. She can call things to her, she has a Protector. You know how great-great-grandfather Jacoub died? Swallowed up into the sea? That was no act of God. She must have learned to trap it from old Jacoub's books.

And the three men at Copper Mountain, twisted into horrible shapes.

And that nurse she hated, the blonde one, who went away and never came back, died in hospital, very hushed.

She knows things, she says things. I don't want her to hate me, to be angry at me. She would hate to go to a home, and she knows that Doctor Schwartz says it is my decision. I won't do it. I lie awake at night and fear, I live in terror of hearing her speak my name, seeing her look at me with that same old alien look. I don't want her to hurt anybody else, I don't want her to do anything wrong. But I don't want to hear her call out my name, call it out mixed with that old name, the name of the Old One. "Yaga sataja, yaga sataja! Ia! Ia! Yaga sataja!"

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© 1999 Edward P. Berglund
"Rosa's Day": © 1999 by Brendan Carson. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1999 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: August 17, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004