Where the great wandoo forests abut open farmland, there’s a sense of possibility that can corrupt as much as stimulate mystery. The edge-effect has implications that police and locals are all too conscious of. Casual dope-smokers get ideas into their heads and think about the depths, the centre, hiddenness and obscurity. Statistically, it’s males who get busted growing dope plantations in the forest, but this is a story about the enchanted queen of plantations, the Sissy of the dope world. From her small farmhouse on a rundown horse property of no more than a hundred acres, but snug against thousands of acres of state forest, Sissy sent her ‘boys’ out into the ocean of scrub and ghostly trunks of white gums to plant, nurture, defend, and harvest premium heads of marijuana. A natural girl at heart, she eschewed the easier hydroponics bonanza for good old-fashioned outdoor dope. She sold it by the ounce, the pound, the kilo. She’d done it for years, and never looked like being caught. And when various crops and various boys fell to the law or to rivals, she came out smelling of roses.
Sissy recruited her followers—her ‘assistants’—in a variety of ways. First, by advertising for farmhands. Low pay, but free room and board. Second, by inviting strangers at the pub home for a ‘smoke’ if they looked the type (and who’d say no? She wasn’t a beauty, but was ‘unusual,’ ‘compelling,’ even ‘hot’ and ‘enticing’). Third, by giving lifts to hitchhikers, especially backpackers from elsewhere in the world, out on the bush roads looking for casual work and adventure.
Raj met her while backpacking after finishing university. He was from Sydney, but had studied in India and Cambridge. Raj was on the eternal journey around Australia, and wanted to get ‘off the beaten track’ as much as possible. He wanted a change—no, changes. Constant difference. He was sick of ‘the same.’ He knew he’d go back and become what everyone expected of him, but for the time being he was taking the chances, the ‘anythings that go.’ He told Sissy as much when she picked him up in her four-wheel-drive.
She sussed him as a smoker straight away and threw him a deal-bag full of Thai Buddha. She’d imported this one, paying for it with her home-grown. Roll a joint, she said, there are papers and tobacco in the glove-box. You’ll find a lighter there as well. Raj didn’t need telling twice. He took liberties (which she liked to see) and rolled a ‘three papery.’ Phew, instant hit. It was a solid stone, but he could handle it.
Would you like to come by my place to meet the boys? They’re from all around the world. Otherwise, I can drop you into town. Raj wondered about the ‘from all around the world,’ being as Australian as anyone, his parents’ parents Sikhs from New South Wales. But he looked at Sissy out the corner of his eye, beguiled by her radiance, her sweetness of intent, her green, almost feline eyes. There’s no prejudice in this flaxen-haired woman, he said to himself, she’s just generalising because I am a backpacker on the road. No worries, mate, he said. Then: Yeah, sure, that’d be great. I’ve got time on my side—it’d be great to see your place, he said, arcing up the joint, inhaling, then passing it over as etiquette compelled.
You’re a sweetie, she said. What’s your name? Raj, he replied, and with that the next leg of his journey was decided. He quietly congratulated himself on his good luck. It’s a random world, he said, euphoric with dope and company.
Raj kept an eye out for any rival as soon as they left the bitumen and hit the gravel. A pair of old wagon wheels stood sentinel on each side of the open gate. Horses in poor condition dragged themselves around the paddock to the left, and the odd donkey chewed stubble in the paddock on the right. The vehicle crunching along the corrugated drive didn’t deter or disturb them at all; they took no notice. Wagtails picked insects off their backs.
They don’t look too well, Raj said. The driveway seemed inordinately long. He could see a work shed in the distance, but no sign of a house.
Rescue-animals, Sissy said after a while, and gave a little laugh. I look after them where others would send them to the knackery. It’s a reward for having lived a life.
The drive curved suddenly around a clutch of great pepper trees as they passed the shed, gleaming a sickly silver in the sun. Then suddenly they were in front of the house, tucked in a gentle fold in hills he’d not even registered before. Behind the house, the vastness of the forest. Gee, he said, you’ve got nature at your fingertips. That I have, Raj, that I have. Now grab your kit and come in and have a beer and a few bongs. He couldn’t quite believe his luck.
Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was blaring as they entered. One of the boys is rocking out, she said. Retro, said Raj. The music was really loud. Raj’s voice made a vibrato against the trembling air. It was like being on the diaphragm of a speaker. He could see decorative mugs shuddering on the kitchenette. Wow, full-on! he yelled. Pulling a chair out from the table for Raj, and motioning for him to sit, Sissy disappeared. A few seconds later the music was turned down and she was back in the room with a deal-bag and a bong. She took a bowl from the kitchenette, a pair of scissors from a drawer, and managed to procure a couple of beers from the fridge as she passed, closing the door with her heel. She moves with such grace, thought Raj. This is so cool.
As he took a few swigs from his can, she mulled up. He was bursting with questions. Where will I be sleeping? There was an edge to this thought. She looked so fluid under those baggy work clothes. Did any of the ‘boys’ share her bed? When would he see them? He felt like poking his nose into the other rooms, just to look. Then he had a sudden urge to piss. But before he could ask for the toilet, Sissy said, Toilet’s down the corridor to the left. She pointed ahead, in the opposite direction to the doorway the music had come from.
Raj knew she could see him all the way. He went straight to the toilet and pissed. Wash your hands in the bathroom—use any towel. He pushed a door, found the sink and a towel. The bathroom window was open—he looked out onto the forest. There were a couple of people, a couple of creatures emerging, carrying pots, sacks, and shovels. Their age was indeterminate. They were male, but covered in vast amounts of unkempt hair, so it was hard to tell much else. Their clothes were rags and they looked filthy, stooping, and with a loping gait.
Raj shuddered as they approached, though they clearly couldn’t see him, their eyes fixed on the ground. He half-imagined they grunted. They turned right angles suddenly and broke off in the direction of—well, the shed. That’s where the shed would be from their perspective. They didn’t look up, though, so perhaps they had no perspective. They were following a well-worn path. Sissy called, You all right, Raj? Billy time—smoke up!
He picked up the bong and a lighter, and pulled. He coughed hard. He was a hardened smoker, but the weed’s strength caught him by surprise. Sorry, sorry. A bit harsh? asked Sissy. No, no, hacked Raj, it’s mega-sweet, just really strong. And it hit him hard. He felt as if he were falling through a projector, a flap of black and white film fluttering against the lens, making a waterfall on the screen. Yes, Raj, my weed is the best. Once bitten, twice shy, my love; once bitten, twice shy.
It was exquisite there when the sun rose over the trees. Raj had learnt to embrace the ghosts of wandoo as they retreated deep into the heart of the forest with day’s arrival, in the same way they drew him towards them when evening fell. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been at Sissy’s place, but he felt one with the land, with Sissy.
He had enjoyed the comforts of her bed for a few weeks, then moved into the shed with the other boys. He was OK with that, it seemed evolutionary. He followed the others out into the forest and planted and tended the marijuana crops. It was autumn, and in a few months it would be harvest. Sissy said his job would be done after the harvest and he could retire to the farm and enjoy the fruits of his labour.
Raj no longer saw the old horses and donkeys filling the paddocks as sad and lonely and worn-out. They were rescue-animals given new life where no life had remained. No one asked anything of them. They were fed and watered and left to contemplate the eternal beauty of the place.
It had been a fine harvest. He no longer needed to smoke or eat the dope to enjoy the fruits of his labour. He was one with the cycle of growing. He no longer needed to look where he was going; he could smell his way. He knew the trails as if they were his veins. Coming out of the forest he happened, unusually, to look up and saw a handsome young man—yes, handsome—looking at him through the bathroom window. You lucky bastard, he thought, you’ve got it all before you.
And then he smiled to himself, a strangled laugh from deep in his throat. He hoofed at the ground, and snorted the dank air. A wagtail worked at his hair. It’s feeling a little matted, he thought. How long since he had washed almost crossed his mind, but it was lost with the effusions of the environment. Soon, soon, he would be grazing the paddocks. Soon even the last of his worries, the last of his yearnings, whatever they were, would be gone.
John Kinsella is the International Editor of The Kenyon Review.