She wakes in a sweaty puddle on the couch. Though her nightmares come less often lately, when they arrive, they are brutal and unforgiving. Her heart is pounding, loud and irregular, the beat of a cracked skin drum.
Lightheaded, she sits, illuminated by the freestanding lamps that she leaves on while she sleeps. She practices her breathing and tries to shuck the feeling of her dream but it clings around her brain like slime.
He was in her nightmare. He always is. Sometimes he doesn’t look like him, but she knows. Of course, she sees him everywhere. She sees him in the street, she recognises him at the movies, and she sees him buying lemons at the grocery store. Each time, in the instant before his face dissolves into the features of an unknown person, she feels her heart will liquefy and seep right out of her chest.
Throwing the blankets off, she gets up. She doesn’t want to go back to sleep. She always fears sleep but it is inescapable, so she makes concessions: the couch instead of a bed, the light on, the radio playing. Though inescapable, sleep can be delayed. She delays it whenever she can, trading lethargy and deep dark circles for dodging bad dreams. She delays it now.
Not only has the nightmare coated her arteries in black ice, but the room is draughty and she can’t afford to heat it. She pulls a hoodie on over her sweats.
The carpet of her rented, one bedroom apartment is dusty. No matter how many times she vacuums, the fibres remain clogged with years of dead skin from the apartment’s previous inhabitants. The grout in the bathroom is yellowed. It flakes when she scrubs it.
She loves her apartment.
It is hers and here she answers to no one.
Moving past the green cupboards of her kitchen, she opens the bedroom door. She owns a bed but it is always covered in plastic painting sheets. Paintbrushes sprout from mugs on the side tables. At the foot of her bed, in an easel, is her latest work. It is large; it dominates the room and imbues the space with the scent of fresh paint.
She stands before it in the early hours, considering it. Massaging out the ache from her sore fingers. Trying to take away the chill. It is a painting of a grazier herding sheep.
She tends to think of her life in before and after.
Before, she was a wife; she lived on her husband’s sheep farm an hour north of Hobart on a good day. Her name was Sharon. Shazza, at school.
After, she lives in the central coast, south of Port Mac. She is a painter. Her name is Michelle. Mish, down at the gallery where she works part-time.
Shazza’s sheep appear in most of Mish’s paintings. She’d participated in a show recently, at the gallery, and most of the pictures included sheep in some way. She paints Shazza’s sheep with curling wool and secretive faces. She paints a man, a grazier, constructed from black and red vines, featureless head hanging low, almost inhuman. When he is there, he is always in the foreground, herding like some footless demi-devil sprouting up from the hills and lording over the landscape and everything in it.
She misses Shazza’s sheep. There are moments, unexpected, when the weight of the guilt absolutely crushes her. Those sheep were there for her, they’d looked after her, they sat with her when she cried and she abandoned them. He wouldn’t care for them the way she did. He never cared for them. She misses them.
She does not miss the blood in her urine.
Tasmania is always dour in her paintings. The sky is always grey, choking with storm clouds. The grass is always too green. It was never that ominous. And she knows the grazier isn’t that large, that he doesn’t have the power or the presence of a demi devil. She remembers it wrong. Except for the sheep. The sheep are perfect.
She paints Shazza sometimes, always on the porch staring out, always so much smaller than a woman should be. No one ever asks. Mish’s paintings are strange. Size distortion is the last thing people notice.
She leans close to the flock of sheep in her latest project, breathing fresh paint. Shazza’s sheep, with their whirling wool, are furtively rebellious. They are always cheeky, but she realises these faces are more vicious than her other paintings. Their teeth are sharp.
Head still sticky with the nightmare, she doesn’t remember painting them that way. Some crowd the grazier, turning on him, inundating him. Some run from the man, free and brave, uncaring of his rabid dogs.
Her design pleases her, seemingly new.
Returning to the green cupboards of her kitchen, she finds a mug and makes a cuppa. Her cold fingers ache from cracks long since healed as she waits for the kettle to boil. The radio plays. Her frigid fingers hover over the steam wafting from the kettle spout. It doesn’t warm her and it doesn’t melt the ice in her veins. When the mug is filled she curls her fingers, laced with Shazza’s aches, around the ceramic. It’s too hot. It burns. She sips it, scalding her mouth. It starts to melt away the cold from the nightmare.
He never cared for Shazza’s sheep, she thinks as she sips her hot tea. They were inheritance, one taken coolly.
Anger seeds in her chest. It takes form: a silky, radiant flower. It comes so often now. Anger was never a part of Shazza’s life, but Mish dealt with it in rapidly recurring bouts. As if she were exchanging her fear for thorny anger.
He dragged the sheep around without respect. He hurt them carelessly. When Shazza asked him not to, he laughed at her. When she pleaded, when she tried to make it about the money they were losing due to broken limbs, he grew violent. Like he was jealous of her sheep. Maybe he was jealous of her empathy; something he was clearly lacking – though could produce an adept mimicry of at will.
She wonders what happened to the sheep in the after. Sometimes she hears them bleating from the paintings. Maybe they blamed her. Maybe they hated that she up and left and started a new life.
Maybe they blamed him.
She found herself absurdly hoping the sheep understood that she couldn’t stay. They say animals have a sixth sense, maybe they knew she would have died if she stayed. Maybe not this year, or next year, but eventually. So she’d cried as she whispered goodbye to her sheep, and drove to Devonport and waited for the nine a.m. ferry. She’d left his car. She’d left her sheep. And she’d left Shazza. Unzipped Shazza like a dress that could be shed and left her on the docks.
She feels the angry tears threatening, her eyes hot and portentous. The air before a storm. She drinks her tea and stares out the dark kitchen window at the empty street below.
She had to leave her sheep. She had to unzip herself because of him. And she hated him. Her hate for him, that glossy, burning flower in her chest that slowly feeds on her freezing fear, her hate burns incandescent for a moment. It fills the kitchen, it presses down against the dusty carpet, and it crams against the walls. The tiny apartment is too small to contain it. Angry, frustrated tears spill over her cheeks. The anger burns too bright to sustain and it cedes control of her mind, retreating back inside.
She is worn out by the time she returns to the bedroom, returns to the paint vigil. The painting is unmoving. She falters, her teary eyes narrowing. Drying.
The sheep are swarming the grazier. They are too close.
Her mug of tea is steady in her hand. Something is amiss because she didn’t paint them that close to the grazier. She knows that. She wouldn’t dare.
Instead of holding his hands out to strongly guide the sheep, the man now looks as if he’s almost pleading. Scared? He is never scared. Why did she paint him that way? He seems small.
She can hear the sound of her breathing over the muted music playing in the other room. The unhinged feeling that she’d felt for so many years, the feeling of being a heartbeat away from losing her mind, surfaces from deep within her the way a whale emerges from the sea.
She watches the painting, the sheep swarming the grazier. She feels that glossy anger from the kitchen, beating secret deep. It bids the sheep, it sings to them. It spurs them on. Closer. Get closer.
It was that anger that painted this, she realises. She didn’t even notice what she’d done before. Subconsciously, she painted Shazza’s sheep as sharp-toothed things; her anger cowed the grazier, made him small. Her anger is in the painting and it is dreamlike and goading. She smiles, and she can feel her teeth showing far too much.
He is the reason for her anger and she’s glad she painted this. He made her fear and he hurt her. He fogs her dreams, even now, and he chills her blood. He stole Shazza from her and she wants him to pay for it. That’s why she painted this, and that’s why it looks different. She wants Shazza’s sheep to take the grazier down. She wants the grazier to cower.
When she looks at the painting, she can’t deny she wants revenge. At the very least, her angry subconscious wants revenge.
She feels sapped. All that anger and fear she’d felt was sucked away, like the realisation of why the painting seemed so strange had absorbed them from her. The painting absorbed them from her.
She watches the painting, her ego stripped bare, sipping her tea until the mug is empty. Too tired to avoid sleep any longer, she returns to the couch and allows the dreams to conquer her once again, the radio playing behind her head.
She wakes, immediately and without transition. She is suddenly and sharply conscious and she feels well rested, better than she’d felt in months.
The radio is still on, now playing talkback. The hosts are chatting about a freak death in Tasmania. A man, living alone on a sheep station.
This is why she woke up. Her ears are receptive; they caught the words and woke her up. Her spine is a steel pole. Her hands are damp. Her eyes are open, bright stars.
“...what looks like a pack of wild animals.”
The words ring in her ears. And in an instant, she knows.
Deathly still, she sits in Mish’s one bedroom apartment, dusty carpet beneath her toes.
As if in a dream, she stumbles on sleepy feet to the bedroom, breath held in her lungs and limbs cold. A weird certainty gently folds through her, thickening with each lumbering step. Opening the bedroom door is like opening the fridge; cracking the seal on a bright and cold dimension.
Everything is normal. The plastic painting sleeves still sheet the bed and her bedside tables are pot stands for mugs of brushes. Everything looks normal. Everything should be normal. But she sits dumbly on the bed, facing the painting, the plastic sheet crinkling beneath her thighs.
The painting still has verdant hillside and the grey sky still hovers gloomily. But the crowd of Shazza’s sheep, and the black-vine grazier, are gone.