Archer's Bow

The Archer’s Bow

It’s the end of a wet school day and I shelter under the elm tree. My irritation grows as each bus pulls away from the school gate. Teachers leave one by one, some asking me if I’m okay.

‘Yes thanks. Just waiting for mum,’ I tell them, more embarrassed as each car drives off.

‘Should’ve ridden to the bus stop,’ I mutter. ‘Bugger the weather!’ I kick a half-buried acorn. This is one occasion where living in town would be good: just to be able to walk home from school with friends instead of relying on mum’s absent-mindedness. Because of her I am late for brownies, for ballet and church. Why? It’s not even rhetorical any more.

I select a green acorn from the pile at my feet, and peel off the cap with my fingernails and teeth. There are only so many things even an inventive child like me can do with an acorn, and I reach my limit just as the ute slides to a halt beside me.

‘Had trouble with the gears again,’ mum explains, already clicking her dental plate. We avoid eye contact as I slide in beside her, dumping my school bag on the floor. Even with two large cushions under her rump, she cranes to see over the dashboard and must stretch her legs to reach the pedals. Finally we surge forward, and the battle with the gear stick resumes. The three miles pass in silence, our anger thick and unfathomable.

Arriving home, I step out of the vehicle beside a swathe of cut branches strewn around the perimeter of the big cypress tree in the centre of the yard. Husso greets me at the garden gate, his white-tipped tail waving. Dad must be having a quick cuppa before milking.

Recently a late summer storm announced the onset of autumn, a time of preparation and catching up. But trimming the cypress this hard is new. I dump my bag at the back gate, and return to inspect the desecration. There are no broken limbs, but a closer look reveals trimming along the north and westerly sides, facing the hayshed and workshops. Above me hangs an electrical wire, crossing the yard between two poles. It is along this wire that dad has pruned. I reach for one of the clippings, grasping it as an archer would a long bow. The stance touches something within me and I take heed, selecting five more, setting them aside in a corner of the machinery shed for later.

I decide not to let my surliness towards mum spoil the harmony of the past week. Dad stands at the kitchen sink, draining his cup and gazing out the window. Mum is telling about a tiff she’s had with CWA women: the reason why she was late, I assume. There have been several scraps lately, bickering over projects and committee work. Mum is tired of it and keen to start a new craft organisation.

‘I’ve made some inquiries about a second hand potter’s wheel I saw advertised in Warrnambool,’ she says. ‘A treadle wheel. They want one-seventy-five for it.’ She has already transformed the laundry into a studio, and produced coil pots and plates after classes in Warrnambool. I look to dad for a reaction, but he’s glued to the window, giving nothing away.
‘I’ll have a look tomorrow, before class,’ mum continues.
‘Good idea,’ I suggest, although privately I’m not so sure. ‘How will you know if it’s any good?’
‘I’ve been using a wheel at classes for a few months, dear and have a good idea what to look for.’
‘But they’re electric wheels, aren’t they?’
‘Yes, and far more expensive.’ Her tone is changed. ‘I’ll leave for Warrnambool earlier, straight after picking you up from school.’
A punctual pick-up at last.
‘And you’ll have to cook the dinner.’
‘Okay by me, mum. Chops and vegies?’

I begin clearing the table. ‘Dad, what are you going to do with all those prunings?’
He turns, still with a far away look. ‘Hee!’ and thinks a moment. ‘Add them to the pile in the horse paddock, I s’pose. We’ll burn them in the spring.’
‘Why not keep them for Guy Fawkes Night, Merlin.’
‘Not anymore,’ he sighs.
‘Why ever not?’
He reaches into his overalls for a handkerchief and wipes his nose. ‘Not allowed. Not since Eldrige’s haystack burned. Fire-bans start in November.’
‘Well, ‘I’m off to feed the chooks,’ I announce. ‘Want any vegies, mum?’
‘Dad’s brought in some carrots thanks, dear. Gather a few Grannies from the orchard, will you? Windfalls will do.’
‘Right.’ I grab the wicker basket and head out.

Most of the apples have grub holes but they’ll be fine for stewing. I deposit them at the back steps on my way to the chook-house. A couple of hens dawdle at the rear of the shed. I call the late-comers, ‘Chook-chook-chooky,’ quite loudly. Chookie is also the nickname of one of the neighbour’s sons, and he’s milking in the dairy across the road. After topping up the water bowl I grab the only egg, and latch the door.

With the egg safely deposited in a nest of nails on the workshop bench, I slip dad’s bone-handled paring knife into my pocket and head out to gather the cypress prunings into piles, ready for the trailer. Once the chore is complete, I retrieve my stash of branches and strip away the twigs and leaves with dad’s knife. Peeling green bark exposes the damp, resinous pale wood. Any remaining lumps and bumps are sliced with the blade.

I hold the most promising branch before me, checking its balance, flexing it over my knee, all this with an instinct I cannot explain. I will need good cord for a bow string. Mum has plenty in her stationery cupboard. I return dad’s knife, deposit four of the bows behind the workshop door and toss the other into the pile outside. As I pocket the egg I realise stringing must wait, it’s almost sunset.

I arrange the apples in a stoneware dish, one of mum’s first pieces, glazed the colour of golden syrup. Mum scrubs carrots.
‘You’d better get onto your homework,’ she reminds me.
‘Haven’t got much. Just reading and sewing. I’ll do it after dinner.’
‘All right. Just don’t get behind.’ She knows I loathe school sewing, yet enjoy embroidery, cross-stitch and tapestries she provides. Mum has old-fashioned expectations: and encourages me to prepare for marriage, with a fine collection of home-sewn linen, crocheted doilies and decorative pieces for my trousseau.

While mum is distracted, I raid the stationery cupboard, and shove the ball of waxy, white cord in my pocket. A saucepan lid clatters to the floor. I move forward to help, detecting the aroma of charred lamb shops and the buttery sweetness of mashed potato.

* * *

In sewing class, I tell Elizabeth about the bow I am making. She listens, bemused, as I explain how I prepared the branches, and plan to attach cord as a bowstring. She knows me well, and is neither surprised nor impressed with my latest project.
‘What about arrows?’ she asks. This is something that has completely escaped my attention.
‘Dunno, haven’t really thought about that.’ I’m aghast at forgetting such an important part of archer’s kit. What kind of warrior would overlook that? I return to my chain stitch sampler, frustrated at spending the whole afternoon wasting so much time on sewing.
‘Well,’ I declare, after some thought. ‘I could use some cane from the stand in the orchard.’
‘What cane?’ She knows the orchard well.
‘You remember. As you go in through the archway in the hedge? It’s right there in front of you, a big clump of cane,’ I prompt. ‘Near the mulberry tree.’
‘Oh, yeah, I think I remember. We played hidey in it.’
‘That’s it. So, lengths of that should work as arrows. What do you reckon? All I’d have to do then is find a way to make arrowheads.’
‘And a quiver to put them in?’ she reminds me.
‘One thing at a time. Gotta get the bow and arrows working yet.’
I can’t wait to get home now.

Mum is still the last parent to arrive.
‘Thought you were in a hurry to get to Warrnambool,’ I remind her.
‘Just get in! I’m running a bit late, that’s all.’

She pulls up outside the house, ready for a speedy departure, and shows me what she’s prepared for dinner.
‘I’m dining with some classmates at the Palaise,’ she says. ‘Now, there are two chops for dad and one for you. Your father’s in Noorat and should be back soon. He’s been gone an hour.’

I note the use of the word ‘father’. This means there’s been a disagreement between them. Already dressed, mum pays a final visit to the bathroom and, in her absence I nip up the hall and change out of my school clothes.
‘I’m off now,’ she calls. ‘Should be home about ten-ish.’ Her tone is business-like.
‘Okay. I’ll tell dad. Have a good class and stuff.’
Her footsteps fade through the kitchen. As the car door closes and I hear the engine start, I breathe a sigh of relief.

With the roll of cord still in my jeans pocket, I grab mum’s secateurs and head for the orchard, circling the stand of cane. From various thicknesses I choose four, cutting them several feet long, and trim off the branches. Then, down at the workshop, I select my best stave and get to work with dad’s rasp, smoothing knots and making a groove at each end for the bow string. I fasten the cord round the thick end first, then stretch it to the top, securing it in the groove. Bending the bow, I loop the cord around the top again, tightening it some more. Now, as I hold it aloft, it really looks and feels like a long-bow. I draw back the string, measure the length needed for arrows, and release it with a menacing slap.

Selecting a stick of cane I make a notch in the thicker end, fit it to the string, and draw it back. But the bowstring slips from the groove and grazes my forearm. I try again, wary this time. The string sits firmly in the notch and I draw it further, until the bow is a semi-circle. I step out of the workshop door, aiming towards the big cypress, the arrow tip resting on the web of my thumb. It flies a few feet, landing sideways. Segments of cane have caught against both the bow and my hand, slowing its flight.

I rasp the nodes smooth, polish them with fine sandpaper and try again. The arrow fires better but goes no further, or straighter. The shaft is too light. I cut a thicker length of cane and prepare it the same way. However the segments are bent and the arrow flies sideways and lands flat. Obviously cane is not suitable; I need proper wood, perhaps a finer branch from the cypress prunings.

I grab dad’s knife and enter the horse paddock. The bonfire pile is covered with a layer of green prunings. I search for thin, straight saplings, cutting and trimming a piece, but it’s clearly not straight enough and tapers too quickly. The next is bowed and too heavy. Disheartened, I fling them back on the pile and feed the chooks.

‘Another hungry night ahead for Mr Fox, girls,’ I chirp. ‘Maybe I’ll be able to hunt him down with my bow and arrows.’ The hens look quite impressed, eyeing me sideways from their perches. ‘Well, no rest for the wicked.’ As I replenish their water, I hear the ute thrum over the cattle grid.

Dad is unloading drums of chemicals at the storage shed.
I greet him warmly. ‘Can I help?’
‘Hmm,’ he grunts. ‘Your mother’s gone, I see.’
‘So your chief cook and bottle washer?’
‘That’s me, dad. I hope you live to tell the tale.’
He grins. ‘Here,’ he hands me two bottles. ‘Take these down to the washroom, will you.’
As I emerge dad is reversing the ute in, beside me. We empty bags of bran and buttermilk into the storage box.
‘Thanks dear.’ He pockets the keys and dons his toweling hat, turning to go.
‘Dad?’ I tag behind him.
‘I’ve made a long bow from a cypress branch but I can’t find anything straight and heavy enough for arrows. I tried cane but it’s too light, and the cypress prunings are all bent. Do you have any idea what I could use?’
He stops, regarding the vegetable garden. ‘What about doweling?’
‘Doweling? What’s that?’
‘Wood used in carpentry to join things, to make pegs. Like the wood on your mother’s clothes drying rack.’
‘That’s way too thick.’
‘Comes in different sizes.’
‘Oh.’ Hope wells again.
‘What size do you want?’ he asks.
‘About the same as my little finger.’
He rolls his lip. ‘That’s pretty fine. Think you can get it, though. Come into town with me on Saturday and we’ll get a couple of sticks.’
‘Thanks dad.’
‘What are you using for arrowheads?’
‘Dunno. Got any ideas?’
‘What about copper. There are scraps of it under the workbench you can use. You can cut it with tin snips.’

Saturday is what dad calls a stinker. The sky is bleached already and, as I climb into the passenger side of the ute, the desiccating northerly grabs at the door.
‘Good day for a fire,’ hr says, climbing in.
‘Reckon. What are you getting at the timberyard?’
‘Your dowel.’
‘I thought you had to get something.’
‘Yes. Welding rods from the hardware next door, and there’s a parcel at the railway station for your mother. Some more glazes for her pottery, I s’pose.’

The timber yard is already abuzz, with utes, trucks, dads, kids and dogs. I seem to be the only girl there. Our neighbour, Ken, has parked nearby and his wife remains in truck.
‘Hello Mrs Fahey,’ I wave shyly.
‘G’day Joanne.’
Grrr. How hard is it to get my name right.’
‘Ken’s inside,’ she adds.
Ken the guy who helps us cart our hay most years and, in return, dad lends him farm implements and tools. Dad says he’s a good bloke; that he takes care of things and he’s thorough. He and Shirley have three kids including twin girls, but they’re all a bit young for me to play with.

I traipse in after dad, keen to choose my own dowel. It feels odd, milling around among so many males. I feel out of place, a trespasser. I nose along, watching dad inspect shelves of timber. Finally he stops and pulls at some lengths of dowel.
‘Here.’ He hands me one. ‘This is the size you want, isn’t it?’
I picture my bow. ‘Is there a finer one?’
Dad steps back and peers into the shelves, finally hauling out a slender stick.
‘Yep! That’s the size. May I have two, please?’ Each stick is about five feet long. ‘How much are they?’ I ask, taking hold of them.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll book them,’ he says. ‘You keep your pocket money.’
I smile broadly in thanks.
‘There are birthdays coming up.’ He grins. ‘Not just yours, either.’

We join a group of men gathered at the door of the cashier’s office. When it’s our turn, dad sticks his head in: ‘You can book these, Jack,’ and turns. ‘Put these in the back of the ute, Jo, and wait for me there. I’ll only be a minute.’
‘Can’t I come inside, too?’
‘Alright, if you want to. I’ll wait at the top of the stairs.’

I slide the timber into the ute’s tray and scurrying back to catch him. We enter a dim passage way and follow steps down to a basement. It’s a general store, really. Different levels for each department. Clothes are on the mezzanine floor, Manchester and groceries at ground level and the hardware below. There’s a belief among children of the town that Santa Clause lives up stairs, behind a grilled gate that is guarded by a Doberman. I’ve seen the dog but I’m not sure about the myth. If Santa exists at all, he wouldn’t have a savage dog at his house.

The store is cool after the furnace of the morning. While dad heads over to find his welding rods, I admire all the hand tools, fascinated, even though I have no idea what most of them are for. A large saw beckons and I lifted it down and study its teeth. The metal is flawless compared to the dark, mottled steel of dad’s saws, but the handle lacks the smooth grip of the ones I use.
‘You should consider carpentry instead of nursing,’ says dad, sidling up to me with a long thin box in his hand.
‘What’s this saw for, dad?’
‘Ripping timber.’ He sees my puzzlement. ‘For raw wood; timber for building houses and sheds.’
I turn and follow him up the stairs into the glaring day.

Back home, I measure arrow lengths and cut the dowel, before making a notch in one end. I have made four arrows, ready for tips. I’ve researched arrowheads in my National Geographics. Most are made of flint, and glued on with black gummy stuff. The European ones are of bronze and iron, worked by a blacksmith, way too hard for me to make. And they all have feathers on their tails to guide their flight. Too hard, I decide.

I locate the copper scraps dad mentioned. Some are already triangular in shape. I trim one piece to the shape of an arrow, and flatten it with a hammer; then file the edges sharp. The metal is soft metal, like roofing iron, and I like the brightness of the freshly worked edge. And it has a strong smell. There’s copper wire on the bench, too. With pliers, I grip and work it, binding the trunk of the arrowhead to the shaft, pulling and twisting it tight. I finish one and head out the door to give it a try.

As I climb the wide gate, I sense a wave of energy, and feel as if I have walked into bright light. I fit my arrow to the bowstring and I draw it back, tilting the bow high. I hold my breath I release it and let it fly, watching the shaft sail high, landing some forty feet away, the arrowhead buried menacingly in the ground.
‘Yesss!’ I hoot, elated and retrieve the arrow and take a second shot, aiming at the craggy trunk of a pine. The arrow sails passed the tree and skids into a bed of pine needles. Undeterred, I fire again. The arrow travels a steady fifteen yards, thudding into the soft bark. Very impressive. But the tip is bent and loose. I bind the next one on the shaft like the leaf of a lily, giving it strength and simplicity.

With repairs complete and four arrows tipped, I bound over to the house, a fully armed warrior ready for nearly anything.