When Marceline entered the kitchen with mud caked down the front of her new white dress and face, Mum flipped her lid. Actually, that’s an understatement.
Just moments before, she’d been bustling around the kitchen fixing tea for us kids and nagging me about my homework, while I sat perched at the bench making a show of my algebrae efforts. Harry was producing loud brrrm-ing noises from the hallway, clacking together the two Hot Rods he’d found buried in the park near Dad’s place. His noises were getting louder and louder, his laugh more maniacal (even for a two-year-old), and I could sense Mum’s irritation building. There was sweat under her arms and on her top lip. Her face was flushed from the oven, wispy brown hairs flying loose around her face.
And then, just as Mum placed the meatloaf down onto the bench with a thud, my younger sister Marceline came in.
Mum’s eyes stretched wide, taking in the mess of her daughter. The pretty white dress – which had been freshly ironed this morning – was nearly brown all over. I could tell from the colour that Marceline had been sliding down the clay ridges up near the bush fence.
Mum’s tired, watery blues seemed to keep on widening to their utmost limit, and then internally widened some more. Those were eyes of rage.
Marceline’s little fingers shot up to her mouth, and she glanced at me for help, then back at our livid mother. But, just as Mum seemed about to burst, her eyes did a weird thing. Like, they slackened. Glazed over. I’d never seen them do that before.
Her right hand grasped onto the knife she’d been about to plunge into the steaming meatloaf, knuckles going white under the strength of her grip.
“Marceline -” Mum’s voice was weird. High-pitched. Stretched. Oddly calm.
“Mama! I’m sorry -”
Tears were reddening Marceline’s eyes. Her small, grubby hands clutched at the folds of her shameful dress. In the next room, Harry had gone quiet. Even he knew something strange was going on.
I looked back at Mum, who was now expressionless. She dropped the knife to the floor and stomped over to my little sister, grabbing her by a chunk of her knotted, light brown hair. Marceline screamed. Harry started crying for Mum.
But Mum was mad. Not angry, mad. She yanked Marceline by her hair out of the kitchen, and then out the front door. Marceline screamed and kicked and thrashed the whole way.
“NO! Don’t!” I’d had a delayed reaction, my body feeling paralysed for a moment, but now my brotherly instincts suddenly kicked in, knowing I had to help my sister. I leaped off the stool and ran to a wailing, wet-cheeked Harry. His tiny fingers reached out to me. I picked him up and held him tight to my body as I rushed out the front door.
A strong autumn breeze met me outside. Gumtrees were thrashing wildly all around, and the brown grass in the paddocks lay flat by the force of the wind.
Mum already had Marceline halfway to the dam. I could see my sister’s red face twisted in pain and fear.
She was scared, but at the same time she was calling out for Mum to help her.
“No!” I yelled out. “Mum! Stop!”
It was hard with Harry in my arms, but I ran as fast as I could after them.
Somehow I knew that something was really wrong. Mum always yelled at us, smacked us and kicked us when we played up. When she got super angry, she’d usually leave the room, close her bedroom door and yell and sob on her bed. She was always tired, always moving, and I’d learned to be gentle with her, not to awaken the beast if I could avoid it. But, always, I knew there would come a breaking point. And this was it.
Mum was starting to struggle. Marceline was digging her heels into the soil and resisting, and I could hear Mum grunting and heaving with all the effort. I don’t know why I knew it, but she was going to throw Marceline into the dam. My little sister had only learned to swim a few months ago, and still wasn’t very strong. I had to stop Mum. I had to punch her and kick her and do whatever it took until she gave up and went to her room to cry.
“Mum! Stop it!” I yelled again, but she didn’t look up. I was getting closer. Harry was clutching my neck tightly, but let me pry his hands off and place him down gently on the grass. “MUM!”
I leapt at her, clawed at her hands to get them off Marceline. Threads of hair were snapping and coming away in chunks and Marceline was choking on her own tears.
Suddenly she was free. She fell back into the mud and scuttled away like a crab.
Now it was just me and Mum, still tackling in the mud. Just our arms and legs and hands, fighting. My leg slipped out from under me and we were falling, slipping and toppling towards the dam. We were underwater, with a crash and splutter. My stayed eyes open under the dirty water, seeing the vague shapes of our hands and arms. We were still fighting. And then we weren’t. Mum had wrapped her arms around me tightly. She held me, desperately, like she hadn’t held me since I was Harry’s age. And she just kept holding me as we sank and sank.