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Posted on 17 Apr 2020 in Extracts, Fiction |

MIRANDI RIWOE Stone Sky, Gold Mountain: extract

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Mirandi Riwoe’s second novel (her first, The Fish Girl, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize) is set on the Palmer River goldfields of far north Queensland, and the neighbouring settlement of Maytown.

Gold was discovered on the remote Palmer River in 1873, and the ensuing rush attracted more than 20,000 miners at its height; by 1877 more than 18,000 of them were Chinese.

Stone Sky Gold Mountain evokes the rawness of the goldfields, the tensions between the whites, the Chinese and the Indigenous population, and the often desperate hopes of those who have come to seek their fortune. Siblings Lai Yue and Ying have left their home in China believing the goldfields will rescue their family from poverty, and their story is woven with that of Meriem, a young white girl who keeps house in Maytown for the beautiful prostitute Sophie. Mirandi Riwoe reveals both the fragility and the resilience of hope, and illuminates a little-known corner of Australia’s history.

Extract courtesy of UQP

Chapter 5

The clouds crouch low, an iron dragon, exhaling waves of grey vapour. Lai Yue can almost feel its breath press against his skin, but there’s no breeze, no whisper of air, as the heat – cloying, suffocating – envelops him. Trickles of sweat form gullies behind his ears, streak down his neck in tributaries that drench his shirt.

He whittles away at a piece of wood with rhythmic swipes. Its heft fills his left hand, its splintered edges jagged in his grip. Shavings curl and fall away with each stroke.

He’s carving a figure of a bird, something like the rosefinch of home. When he’d picked up the fragment of branch, fallen from someone’s fire, it was already in the sway-shape of a bird, and the timber’s blushed hue matches that of the finch. When it’s finished, he will give it to Ying. Back home, hidden in the pots of herbs with which his mother litters the courtyard, are all the figurines he’s sculpted over the years. In the pot of parsley a snail traverses the moss, while a frog, a little wonky and sculpted from soft soapstone, guards her wolfberries. It’s been many weeks since Lai Yue’s fingers haven’t been too sore, stiff, to wield his sharp knife thus. He hasn’t carved anything since the sloping pipe he made for Ying to disguise her femaleness when she passes water. He’s not quite sure what she does, but somehow, standing with her back turned, she guides the trickle to the ground like any other man.

The knife stops mid-scrape as he glances towards their tent. To where Ying lies, unconscious, for the third day now. Returning to his knife-work, he tries to concentrate on the wicking sound of blade against wood, each scrape steadying the competing thoughts that muddy his mind like writhing, splashing carp, searching out bits of dough.

He lifts his eyes, takes in the water, as dark as soybean paste; the patches of rocks he has slipped on countless times, rolling his ankle, straining his neck. The dull green of the leaves, how they crumple underfoot. The sandy earth that somehow finds its way into the very seams of his clothing, the cracks at the corners of his mouth, his eyelashes. Nothing like how he imagined it would be in the weeks they careened across the sea. Hadn’t they been told that this southern land was a heavenly refuge? Heavenly. Conjuring up images of trees heavy with ripened peaches, pigs fattened and content. A land fertile with hope, yielding reefs of gold. Reefs. Layer upon layer of gleaming metal.

All they had to do was get themselves there, they were told, and the riches would come easily.

But this land is barren, hardened, unwilling to surrender its fruit. The heat’s hostility like a bite to the hand. And the white people. Those ghost people. Just as unwelcoming. He thinks of the hiding they received that night when their pickaxes and metal pan were taken. The sharp taste of blood in his mouth where his teeth punctured lip. How the stinky curs had gasped with glee, doubled over, winded with the exertion of it, as they fired shots into the ground, spurts of dirt showering ankles.

Lai Yue’s knife slips, slicing the bird’s wingtip from its body.

‘Is your brother any better?’

Lai Yue looks up at Ah Poy. The doctor is a small, plump man. The pores on his shiny nose are wide, craterous, and hairs creep from his earholes like ferns reaching through a crack in the wall. His stance is lopsided due to the weight of the wooden box he carries by its top handle.

‘Yes, yes, I believe he is,’ Lai Yue says, taking to his feet with a grunt. He didn’t ask the doctor to return. Why is he here? Lai Yue feels the familiar tap-tap of irritation. ‘He seems much cooler today. Less flushed.’

But was she? Maybe Ying’s lack of colour was a bad thing; maybe her energy was slowing down, making ready to leave this world.

‘He was in a dangerous state when I saw him two days ago. I would’ve returned sooner except I was called upriver to a man who was crushed by a wagon.’ The doctor shakes his head, tsking tongue to teeth.

‘You needn’t have worried about us.’ Even as he smiles, and bows respectfully, Lai Yue’s shoulders stiffen, his stomach tightens. His thoughts alternate between a desire to retain each skerrick of gold he owns and a fear that his sister might be in dire trouble. He doesn’t want to hand over any more of his meagre riches to this charlatan of a man, with his box of powders and leaves. The more gold he and Ying can collect, the sooner they can return home, repair all the damage. He stares at Ah Poy. He’s sure there’s an acquisitive gleam in the doctor’s eye, that his free fingers itch for Lai Yue’s gold. Lai Yue wants to kick the cotton seat of his pants, chase him from his camp site, but a rumble of unease for Ying gives him pause.

Ah Poy enters their tent. Inside, the air is close; it has a feral, sweet note. Ying lies on her back, eyes shut, her shadow a silhouette of sweat seeped into the bedding beneath her.

‘The swelling in his feet has not come down. See here? And here?’ Ah Poy says, pointing with his little finger, its untrimmed nail a good two inches long, as yellow as a piece of elephant ivory. ‘Did you manage to buy any ginger water?’

Lai Yue is forced to look at his sister’s feet. They’re bloated – sallow and stippled in dark smudges like the skin of a bull frog. She isn’t better after all. He doesn’t have time for this. He doesn’t have the money. The ants have returned, marching over his bones, nipping at his skin. ‘There is none available. Only rice wine or whisky.’

‘You must buy your brother as many green vegetables as you can afford. Catch some fish.’

Lai Yue does the calculations in his head. By the time he pays the doctor, buys extra food and herbs for his sister, their meagre stash will be greatly diminished. They will need to spend more months in this place. He imagines their ship home is far out to sea, too far to swim to, too far to call back.

‘Have you been using the poultice I left with you?’

‘Of course. Can you not smell it?’ Lai Yue points at the lump of cloth tied to Ying’s infected hand.

The doctor lifts his nose, sniffs. ‘The onion is decaying. I will make a fresh one. I have managed to come by some herbal powder that will be perfect.’

He leaves the tent and squats, opening the lid of the box. First he lifts out a stone mortar and pestle, which is much bulkier than Ying’s set. From a hessian sack he takes an onion. He whisks the peel away, starts pounding, so that specks of onion pulp splatter the fallen leaves and dirt. He rummages among the bottles and trays of herbs in the box. He mutters to himself as he reads the label on a blue jar, before replacing it to bring out a small cane basket of cloves. After tossing a pinch of the spice into the mortar, he returns to his box to lift out a tiny glass vial. Carefully measuring out a portion of the yellow powder, he sprinkles it across the onion, where it settles like a layer of silt. Taking up the pestle, he grinds the mixture together.

‘How did you want to pay me today?’ he asks Lai Yue. ‘I’m happy to take gold again, or your coin is good enough too.’

Lai Yue clenches his teeth. He feels a bit sick at the thought of parting with even a flake of gold but, glancing through the open flap of the tent at his sister, motionless, with cracked lips and sunken stomach, he knows he will have to. It’s as though he’s drowning in sand – as soon as his feet find purchase, he sinks backward again.

But where does the doctor think someone like Lai Yue would come by money? Is he being tricked? Does the doctor somehow know something? Lai Yue’s eyes dart around his surrounds. A few men pan by the river despite the sun sinking behind the distant mountain range. The Wu brothers, who’ve taken over Chee Fatt’s tent, pass a pipe between themselves, while the youngest one scrapes mud from his slippers. Have they been watching him? Do they know what he’s done? Is this a trap?

The rabble of grey birds make a racket in the brush, their gravelling uproar piercing Lai Yue’s unruly thoughts. He watches as the doctor continues to pulverise the poultice ingredients.

I told you there would be trouble when you stole Chee Fatt’s things, Shan whispers in Lai Yue’s left ear. Didn’t I tell you? Her voice is sad.

But you were there, he thinks. You were there, Shan. You didn’t try to stop me when I took Chee Fatt’s purse.

Mirandi Riwoe
Photo: Claudia Baxter

He’d felt horrible, sick, when the white men had taken Chee Fatt. He would never have stolen his money, his paperwork, if he’d known the warden and his mob of thugs were going to inspect their camp. Chee Fatt lives here now, in this land that smells of dried bay leaves. He’s never going to return to their homeland. He can stay here, find more gold. He has time. Shan knows how important it is that they return home as soon as possible. Find the children. Save his mother.

Guilt tugs at Lai Yue’s heart, though, as he remembers the jangle of chain, and Chee Fatt’s bowed head as he was led away. Lai Yue closes his eyes for a moment. Chee Fatt still has time.

Lai Yue’s gold remains nestled in the belt around his waist. Hard little nuggets he sometimes imagines might melt with the heat of his skin, liquefy, dissolve into his body until he and the element are melded together, a golden man.

He can’t bear to give any more away. Each time he hands over a piece of gold, he feels as if he is parting with that exact shape of his younger brother’s flesh. He decides to offer the doctor some of Chee Fatt’s money.

‘I swapped some gold for coins the other day.’ He watches the doctor’s back, alert to his reaction, but Ah Poy continues to stir, stone grating stone. ‘A trader came through the camp. Said it would be easier for us if we carried some money instead of gold. Offered good rates.’

You talk too much. Shan’s voice is sharp.

Lai Yue jerks his shoulder at her. ‘I’ll fetch it from the tent, Ah Poy.’

His fingers scrabble in the dirt beneath Ying’s bedding until they touch the silk of his purse. He burned Chee Fatt’s suede pouch in their camp fire the night he stole it, watched Chee Fatt sip tea at his own camp not four strides away while the leather charred and warped in the flames.

When Lai Yue exits the tent, the doctor stands up, his hands pressed to his back as he straightens. ‘I’ve made you up a new poultice. Just bind it to your brother’s hand again, like you did the last time. Throw away the stale one. And find him some greens to eat. Mush them up if you have to, add them to his porridge.’

Lai Yue nods. He shakes several muddy-coloured coins into the palm of his hand. They have the metallic whiff of blood. He holds them out to Ah Poy, who picks through them, choosing a tarnished silver coin and three pennies. The doctor’s hand hovers a moment, his index finger twitching as though it’s smelling the money, before he plucks up one more.

*

Lai Yue slumps to the ground next to his sister. He’s disturbed her slumber by swapping over the poultices, but her eyes are still closed, her breathing a little ragged. He thinks of the doctor’s last words, as he made his lopsided way to another part of the camp site: ‘You’d better get your brother to Maytown before the wet season sets in. He’ll never survive in his state, confined in that damp tent.’ They’d both looked up at the foreboding sky, laden with dark clouds.

There will be more of those ghost men in town, Lai Yue knows it. Again, he thinks of the beating they received. The clump of dirt in his hair muddy with blood. ‘They’re not all like that,’ Ah Kee tells him and Ying almost daily. ‘I have met friendly Englishmen. Really, I have.’ But Lai Yue isn’t convinced. He stares at Ying. Without her, how would he even understand their jumble of strange words? His throat tightens at the thought of mixing with them. As always, the embers of dread fuel his simmering rage.

Clenching his fist, he imagines ploughing it into a white man’s dog-stomach. He can’t be scared of them. He pulls his shoulders back, breathes air into his lungs, ignoring the flutter of fear in his chest.

From Mirandi Riwoe Stone Sky Gold Mountain UQP 2020 PB 264pp $29.99

Like to keep reading? You can buy Stone Sky Gold Mountain from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.