Mike Ironbark drove the shovel into the hard dry ground. He glanced at the year-old oak seedling in the pot nearby, and wondered how many years it would take for the tree to shade the farmhouse. “This is for you, Dad,” he said.
Dad had believed that everything is connected, and he died twelve months to the day. They had potted the acorn that night in his memory. Today they’d plant the seedling in the ground and celebrate his life again. Mike’s arms and shoulders ached from the compacted soil. He blamed the early onset of summer. He stood, straightened his tight back muscles and removed his worn wide-brimmed hat. He wiped the sweat off his brow and stared at the small rise of hills in the distance. They marked the edge of the farm and had already turned a deep shade of rusty-brown. In front of them, the heat shimmered above the expanse of wheat. How could it be so hot in the morning? “Curse this heat,” he said and looked around for his crowbar. He stared up at the cloudless, indigo-blue sky, proud of his successes on the land. This was Dad’s farm, his legacy.
He turned at the sound of the back screen door spring stretching. Anna, his wife, stood by the door of their farmhouse, a towel wrapped around her slender body and her long wet hair stuck to her. Mike couldn’t help but smile. She looked beautiful, and he was the luckiest man alive.
“Mike, there’s no water for Maisie Jane’s shower,” she said.
“Have you checked the tank?”
“Yes, it’s dry.”
Mike’s heart skipped a beat and he frowned. Out here, water was their livelihood. Without it everything would die, the crops, the animals… people. Showers were the least of his concern. But it was odd. The bore pump should have automatically filled the house tank overnight. The breaker had probably tripped; it had done that a few times of late. Salt or contaminants became lodged in the pipes that stretched deep underground, into Australia’s Great Artesian Basin.
“Have we got power in the house?”
“Okay, I’ll go check.”
“Daddy, Daddy.” The outside screen door opened wider. Their daughter, Maisie Jane, ran around Anna and made a beeline toward him. He smiled and squatted down. She threw herself into his arms, the spitting image of Anna, except she was tall and her eyes a deeper blue—something she’d inherited from him.
Maisie Jane still looked too pale and thin, but the doctors had said that her leukemia was in remission. He hoped so. “Sleep well, Mouse?” He ruffled her uncombed hair.
The six-year-old nodded. Maisie Jane looked around him, to the small hole in the ground, at his shovel, and the oak tree. “Grandpa’s tree,” she said.
His throat tightened, and he swallowed several times to work it away before speaking. They’d made many promises on Dad’s deathbed, but it had been at Maisie Jane’s insistence that they planted an acorn in his memory.
It didn’t seem a year ago that his father had leaned forward and put his paper-thin hand on Maisie Jane’s cheek. “Mouse,” he said. “You can tell your grandchildren it was Grandpa’s tree because he loved you so much.” She’d nodded. “And by the time the tree is well established, then you’ll have the Poseidon Stones I gave to your dad. Magic stones, like Poseidon, the god of water.”
Dad had chuckled and made one last joke before he passed shortly after, his hand on Maisie Jane’s arm.
Mike’s throat tightened again. Dad had always been bigger than life, and he hoped he’d be the same for Maisie Jane. His hands went to the chain around his neck, to where the three small emeralds were cocooned in silk and their separate hessian bags. Poseidon Stones. Even now they glowed hot as if they had lives of their own. They seemed to call him. Unfamiliar images formed at the edge of his vision, and—
“Don’t cry, Daddy.”
Mike pulled himself from his memories, forced the stone’s images aside; they could wait for another time. He wiped away the tears he’d been unaware of until Maisie Jane spoke and ruffled her hair again. He didn’t trust his voice not to be twisted with emotion and nodded.
“Maisie, come inside and let Daddy check the pump.”
Maisie Jane leaned closer. “Remember?”
He nodded again, and swallowed. “If I see any, I’ll let you know.”
“But don’t hurt them,” she said quickly and held up a tiny index finger in a determined way that reinforced the impression she was such an old soul. At times she seemed years older.
“I won’t.” He stood and watched the young girl run back inside. He smiled and shook his head. There was so much of his mum in her, it was uncanny. He regretted that Mum and Anna had never met, but Mum had passed years before from the cancer. Maisie’s obsession with dragonflies always amused him and especially Dad who had given Maisie Jane his wife’s anniversary gift of an intricate, gilded dragonfly. But Maisie Jane was right; they did tend to dart around near the small, bore pump shed in search of water. They might even be at the header tank, hovering over a broken pipe that fed the farmhouse.
Mike stood at the empty water tank and a sense of urgency gripped him. It clawed at his chest like a wildcat intent on ripping him apart. The stones at his throat seemed to lick him with fire and he swallowed hard. He pushed away an image of vivid, lush green pastures with their horses frolicking across the paddocks and stared at the harsh, dry hillside. Far to his left, a flock of his sheep gathered near a clump of trees, and he could hear the horses in the stables kick at their pens and whinny for food.
A dragonfly appeared. It moved straight up above him, flew backward, stopped and hovered a short distance away, almost as if it waited for Mike to do something. But he couldn’t. The dragonflies would die soon as the remaining water vanished.
He had a bad feeling. Water was everything, and he didn’t have the money to truck in supplies. Not this year. His two thousand acres of land were worthless if he didn’t have water to last the dry summer. He took a breath, slow and deliberate. Worrying too much, as always, never helped. He had water. Everything would be fine, and he strode down the hill to the pump shed, convinced the breaker had tripped again. Maisie Jane’s shower would follow. Anna could wash the soap from her hair.
Mike pulled open the pump-shed door and stepped inside, careful not to bang his head on the low roof. His stomach churned. If water was their life’s blood, then the pump was at its heart. He’d heard of farmers leaving their land once the water supplies ran dry. But out here, he had been blessed. The Great Artesian Basin was an ancient and enormous holding of water, buried under a third of the Australian continent. It had been here for an eternity, and it would remain so. He glanced about the small space, to the pump head in the middle of the floor, and the outlet pipes that fed the holding tank up on the hill a short distance away. Everything was as it should be.
He flicked on a light switch by the door, but nothing happened, and so he clambered over generations of accumulated rubbish strewn across the floor to the circuit breaker and smiled. It had tripped. It happened from time to time. He reset the breaker and dull light shone from an overhead globe above the pump. He breathed a sigh of relief, and the churning in his stomach lessened. The pump would kick in. He leaned over and pressed the reset on the pump housing and waited for it to automatically start and fill the header tank.
A pump light glowed, one that he’d never seen, and his heart skipped a beat. He stepped outside and cursed in the knowledge he wouldn’t be able to fix it. The water level had fallen below the pump inlet. But how? There was supposed to be enough water to last generations.
He sat in the dirt, unsure what to do next. He didn’t have the money to drill a new bore site. The farm was already in debt. How was he going to afford a new pump that could take water from a deeper well?
Perhaps he had overreacted. It might only need priming. Even as a glimmer of hope appeared at the idea, it died. Inside the shed again, he shut off the pump, and wrenched open the top of the pipe that descended deep into the precious artesian water. He grabbed a graduated test probe on a reel, switched it on, and inserted it down the pipe.
Mike checked the circuit to ensure the water light was functional. It was. He unwound it bit by bit, down past previous water level markers etched on the bore inlet years before. He stopped at the point where the next marker highlighted the end. Mike stared at the light that would flare once the probe hit water. He unraveled the cable a tiny amount at a time and watched and waited. A quarter of an inch… Half an inch… the light glowed. Mike sighed. Half an inch. It might as well have been ten miles for all it mattered.
He switched off the probe and stepped back outside, up the hill to the farmhouse. He had no money to extend the pump. And without it, the farm would die. He’d be unable to water the sheep, and the horses, and grow their food in the garden. He’d have to sell the farm. Put their organic lifestyle behind them. He’d have to move closer to the city, away from the support network of the church for Maisie Jane. Anna would lose her friends. He didn’t know what he was going to say to her.
Mike entered the cool, dimly lit farmhouse kitchen and he threw Anna a half smile.
“It’s that bad?” She frowned.
He nodded, uncertain where to begin, unsure how to put how he felt into words that would make any sense at all. “The pump has reached its limit. I need to extend the inlet, and to do that I need to replace it with a bigger one, and we—”
Maisie Jane entered the room, and without a thought he squatted. She ran into his arms and hugged him. He closed his eyes. How? How could he sell the farm and move when everything they could want was here? He looked across the table to where a scattered array of church notices were, and he lingered on a recent one condemning the process of hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas from miles below the surface. Chris Owens had visited a month or so back and asked to lease the corner paddock. The church was against it. Against soiling the land. Against getting rich and using the money to spend on useless unneeded things. He chewed on his bottom lip and weighed up the wrath of the church elders against the promise he made to his Dad about keeping the farm. Either alternative had consequences.
He stood and faced Anna. “There might be a way.”
Her eyes lit with expectation. She seemed taller. “What?”
“We can take up that offer from Chris Owens to put a hydraulic fracturing well here and extract natural gas.”
Her shoulders dropped, and she became silent. She shook her head.
He could tell she was recounting the church elders’ recent sermon about the risks of the deep wells. He had to agree. “I don’t see any alternatives,” he said softly and touched her shoulder.
She stepped closer to him. “Isn’t there another way?”
Mike couldn’t think of one.
“Your nest egg,” she said and looked at where the stones lay under his shirt.
“The stones?” His hand went to his neck, to where they rested beneath his shirt. They felt warm and licked him with fire, as if they sensed his dilemma. He’d alluded to Anna once that there was a cache of emeralds on the property, and joked it was their nest egg, their pot of gold that could get them out of trouble. But he’d made a promise to Dad when he was a boy to keep the knowledge safe, and not to do anything with them. They were magic. The stones at the end of the chain around his neck were a reminder of that day.
He had never considered the emerald mine as an option unless there was no choice. But the mine… Another promise… his soul was filled with them. He closed his eyes and tried not to remember, but the images from the past swamped him, from a time he was only ten…
How long had it been? The years fell away as he remembered that time, when he, Dad, and Lucky, their black-and-white border collie had gone out camping in the back paddock. It was just after Mum had passed from the cancer. Dad was still hurting bad; you could see it in his eyes. The pain of losing his best friend and the loneliness. But he’d pushed on because of Mike. Back then there was a small lake out by the corner paddock.
They’d set camp near the water’s edge in the small valley. A campfire crackled from the dry kindling. The air filled with spicy gum smoke, and burning ashes soared up into one of the darkest skies Mike could remember. They’d stared into the heavens and named one of the stars in the constellation of Scorpio after Mum. Dad had smiled and said it was nice and Mum would have liked that.
Lucky ran off when one of the logs in the fire exploded and a crescendo of sparks flew everywhere.
Dad called her, and when she didn’t return, he told Mike to stay put, so he could go and find her, but Mike had told him no. Mike knew what Lucky meant to him and Mum, and Mike went with him and searched for Lucky. It seemed like they’d searched forever, and it seemed like they’d stumbled around in the dark for hours. Apart from Mike, Lucky was the only other thing alive that reminded him of Mum.
It must have been about three in the morning, and they’d all but given up hope. Mike shivered hard from the cold, and he was tired. He’d fallen over a couple of times in the dark and cut his knee open. Dad was distraught. It didn’t help that he was slowing him down. Mike stared up at the star he’d named after Mum and asked for a miracle. He wanted Dad to find Lucky so he could stop tearing himself up inside. It was about the same time that a meteor flared across the sky to the south-west.
“Look,” said Mike and pointed in the direction. “It’s a sign.” He stumbled across the valley with no idea about what he’d find, determined that it had been Mum’s influence. He stopped at the hillside and looked around. Mike couldn’t see anything, but deep in the ground he heard a muffled bark.
“I found her. I’ve found Lucky,” cried Mike.
Dad ran to him, his eyes shone with hope, and he smiled and put his arm around Mike’s shoulder but couldn’t speak.
“Mum found her,” said Mike. “She sent a shooting star from heaven.”
Lucky had managed to squeeze through a fissure in the side of the hill and became trapped behind the stone. They dug away at the clods of grass and dirt with their bare hands, pulled away the small rocks until the opening was barely wide enough for Dad to squeeze through.
“Stay here,” he said. “If I’m not back in an hour, then run and tell Joe Pearce where I am.”
Mike nodded. Joe Pearce was their closest neighbor. Mike sat by the narrow cave entrance and stared up into the dark sky, to the star in Scorpio he’d named ‘Eternity’ after Mum. Soon enough, he heard Lucky barking at the entrance, and they exited the cave safe and sound. They all marched back to the campsite and clambered into the tent and slept.
The next day they went back to the cave and Dad took another look inside. He came out a while later carrying a kitten. They could never be sure if Lucky had gone in to chase it, or to rescue it, but Mike always remembered because that was the day they found the stones. Three emeralds. All had been together in the ground before he found them. Mike remembered his father rolling them around in his hands until he became light-headed. He had to sit down. He rubbed his head as if it hurt or he’d been overcome by something. He said, “There’s magic in these stones.”
Dad told him there were more down there. Lots of them. More than enough emeralds down there to make them wealthy a dozen times over, but that it would be their secret. Mike realized that Mum had been looking down from the heavens at them and she’d taken care of things in her own way. Dad made him promise not to tell. Mike did. Mum would have wanted that.
Mike shook the memories free and faced Anna. Over a course of twenty-five years the place had dried up and the dragonfly swarms had gone. Mike never saw them again, and like the water once in abundance, it too had vanished, leaving a dry dust bowl in its place. But the cave was still there with its hidden cache of emeralds. Mike had always wanted to go in and explore it but never had. He didn’t want to change any of the memories of that night when Mum had touched them all. He never wanted them to fade. From that day on it had always been a magical place.
He smiled at Anna with regret. “I can’t. I promised…” he said. “I’m going to see Chris Owens today and sign that contract. I might not be completely happy with drilling for gas on our land, but it’s for the best. Mike rubbed Anna’s arm and smiled. “You’ll see, everything will work out fine.”
Mike stepped inside the café, a small roadhouse on the edge of town, and he wiped the beads of sweat from his brow. The cool air from an overhead fan and the dim light was a welcome relief. In the far corner of the room, Chris Owens sat at a table reading. He looked up and waved. “Mike,” he said.
Mike nodded and walked over to him. Nervous cramps twisted his gut. He felt trapped as if there was no way out of his dilemma, but he assured himself this was the only way.
Chris Owens was a middle-aged man, balding with short-cropped hair. He wore a business suit, but his tie was pulled loose away from the top of his shirt, and it made him look less formal, approachable. He smiled and shook Mike’s hand. The grip was firm, confident.
“Mr. Owens,” said Mike. “Good to meet you.”
“You too. Call me Chris,” he said and smiled at Mike. “I hope you don’t mind meeting here, it’s a less formal, and we’re not about pressuring anyone.”
Mike nodded and sat down across from Chris. The tension in his stomach lessened.
A waitress stepped over and wiped her apron. She pulled out her pad and pencil.
Mike didn’t know her. He didn’t come into town often, and it had grown in recent years.
“Coffee?” asked Chris.
“A glass of water,” said Mike and smiled at the obvious joke. Here for the town folk water was not such a precious commodity.
“Two waters, please,” said Chris, and waited for the waitress to leave.
Mike sat and didn’t speak. A part of him felt uncomfortable, dirty, with his decision to come and discuss drilling on part of the farm. The other part said he had to be a realist if he was going to survive. His stomach churned again with uncertainty, and he sat with his hands under the table, clenching and unclenching them.
The waitress returned with two large glasses of water filled with ice. Chris pushed an empty coffee mug aside and frowned. “Is it that bad?”
Mike told Chris the story about the pump and the water level. He had nothing to lose being honest.
Chris Owens opened up a survey map of the land surrounding the farm. He tapped his finger on the area out by the corner block. “This is where we’d like to drill. It’s close to the road, so we won’t bother you for access. It’s far enough away that the noise will be minimal. You won’t even know we are there.”
“Is it safe?”
“You’ve got a young girl.” He looked down at his notes. “Maisie Jane?”
“We’ll fence it off. It will be safe. Nobody will be able to get near—”
“It’s not what I meant. Is it safe? The drilling? It’s not going to destroy the land?”
Chris Owens laughed, and he pushed his chair back from the table. “We get that a lot. Trust me. Hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracturing, is completely safe. It’s one of the cleanest and safest methods to extract natural gas. It’s great on the environment. All clean energy.”
“What about leakage? I’ve heard there have been problems.”
“The early wells were poorly designed. Nowadays we encase them in steel and cement to ensure there is absolutely no risk of contaminating any groundwater.” He slid a brochure across the table. “Take this. It shows our unique design.”
Mike took the brochure and leafed through the pages, filled with testimonials from other people who had signed up. There were pages of design drawings showing how the shaft would be drilled and fitted out.
“I won’t lie, Mike. There are always risks, but we strive to minimize them. I’ve conducted a geological survey of your land, and I can see that there won’t be any problems. So, what do you think?”
“I’ve drawn up a contract.” He slid a thick wad of typed paper across the table. Chris tapped a spot on the front page. “Take a look. I think you’ll find that we’ve been more than generous.”
Mike leaned closer and glanced at the figure. It was much more than he’d expected. More than he’d average over five years farming. He’d be able to buy a new pump. It’d see him right.
Mike looked up. “It’s very generous.”
Chris smiled. “Take it home. Talk it over with…” he glanced down at his notes. “Talk to Anna about it, and see what she says.” He stood and held out his hand. “I’d just ask that you keep this between us.”
“Of course.” Mike shook the man’s hand.
“And it’s a minor point, but this is the best offer we can give you. It’s only valid for five days. I’m sure you understand. After that, I’m afraid we tend to reassess the situation downwards.”
“So how long before the drilling would start?”
“Well… we could have a team in place within a month of signing.”
“And the money?”
“As soon as you sign the contract, Mike. I’ll leave you to think it through, but from what I heard, it’s going to be a hot summer.”
Mike nodded. It was going to be a long dry summer. He felt it in his bones.
“You all right if I visit in a couple of days, Mike?”
“Excellent. If you’ve got any questions, perhaps we can go over them then?”
“That would be good.”
“Nice to meet you, Mike.”
Mike shook his hand again. He sat for a few minutes and waited for Chris to leave the café. He leafed through the contract, but nothing seemed out of place with the offer. Things were looking up after all.
Mike stepped out from the café into the heat. He ambled down the street to his car.
Mike stopped. He turned and faced the man.
Pastor Matthew strode across the street, hand thrust forward in greeting.
Mike shook the church elder’s hand. “How are you doing, pastor?”
“Always good, Michael, always good.” He looked over at the café Mike had just left and frowned. “What have you been up to? I heard you had a meeting with Chris Owens.”
Mike opened his mouth, speechless. It wasn’t any of the pastor’s business.
“Anna called,” said the pastor. “She said you might be acting rash.”
Anna? Mike chewed at the corner of his lip. Why would she have done that? “I was discussing cash options to buy a bigger pump.”
The church elder’s forehead twisted with genuine concern. “Problems with your water supply?”
“Funny, a few of the congregation have said water levels have been dropping. We did some tests, and found the water quality has degraded, too.” He looked down at the contract in Mike’s hand. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Did they tell you about the risks?”
“They mentioned they have a new design,” said Mike.
“Did they say they pump disinfectants, acid, detergent and salt down these wells? And sand and ceramic particles?”
Mike cleared his throat. “No.”
“Did they say that the wastewater is stored on your land and contaminated with radioactive material, heavy metals, and other toxins?”
Mike shook his head.
“They will throw benzene and toluene and who knows what into the air and poison your farm, and they won’t care. Who knows what the risks of long-term exposure will be. Birth defects. Blood disorders. Cancer. Of all people I don’t need to tell you about that.”
Mike didn’t need reminding about what Mum and Maisie Jane had gone through. His throat tightened. “You seem pretty much against the idea, pastor.”
“Fracking is a problem.” The pastor pointed to the café where Mike had spoken to Chris Owens. “They are poisoning the land, tainting our water. The Great Artesian Basin supplies water to half of Australia. Here!” He pointed to his feet. “Right below us. It’s not right, Michael. It’s not the church’s way. God wouldn’t approve of this.”
Mike squeezed his hands together. “None of those things have been proven. Anyway, what choice do I have, pastor? I can sell up, move to the coast. Leave everything behind.” He squeezed his eyes shut. Fail. Mike took a deep breath, opened his eyes and sought for understanding within the pastor. “Without water the farm is worthless. Without a pump there is no water. Can the church loan me money for a new pump, pastor?”
Mike heard blood pounding in his ears while Pastor Matthew stood silent. Mike watched the pastor’s forehead twist as he wrestled some inner turmoil.
The pastor spoke in hushed tones, and his voice caught every so often. “A little for food, perhaps…” He shook his head slowly. “Charity has boundaries, I’m afraid… and if I recall, Michael, you have an outstanding debt with the church elders?”
Mike closed his eyes and nodded. The church and the community had pulled together to provide the money to pay for Maisie Jane’s leukemia treatment two years ago. But Mike had been unable to repay the debt. “You don’t understand, pastor. I have no choice. I need it for my family to survive.”
The elder smiled. “I understand, son.” He stepped closer. “You always have choices, Michael. I would suggest that you just ask Him.”
Mike stepped back a step. “But it’s not that simple, pastor.”
The pastor smiled. “You’ll find a way. I have faith in you. God works in the strangest of ways. I know the answer will arrive for you in time.”
Mike nodded. He didn’t believe a word of it. All the pastor had done was to paint him into a dark corner.
“Sleep on it,” said the pastor. “Do that at least. I’m sure your father would have wanted you to.”
Mike nodded. Perhaps there was another way. He stared at the contract in his hand without any idea what to do.
When he looked up, the pastor had gone, and the stones, millstones, burned with a fire hotter than the afternoon sun. It was as if they called to him, almost beckoned him to do something. But what?
Mike stood at the base of the water tank and rapped his knuckles on the side of the corrugated tin. He did it on every rung until he had reached the lowest; the one below the outlet, and it was only then that the hollow tone changed to indicate water. Maybe he’d be able to use a hand pump to scavenge the remains. But that didn’t help him. It only confirmed what he knew.
He sat on the floor with his back resting against the empty tank and stared at the distant hills. Two days had passed since his meeting with Chris Owens, and with it the final drops of their main water supply. He didn’t know what he was going to do. His flock of sheep stood idle in the midday sun around the water trough. Empty. The horses frolicked in another paddock unaware he couldn’t top up their water. It couldn’t get worse.
He tried to massage the tension away at the side of his head, but it made little difference. Chris Owens was visiting at four in the afternoon, and Mike would sign the contract, but he couldn’t wait. He couldn’t sit idle. He’d go now and get it over with before his head exploded. Pastor Matthews and the church would turn their back on Mike’s family. He knew they would, but Mike would rather keep his farm, and continue living the life expected of him. A lifestyle he loved. He’d take care of the family in his own way, and if that meant they would frack his land, then so be it.
He heard Maisie Jane and Anna laughing inside the old family farmhouse. It filled him with joy. Maisie Jane had been immune to what was going on around her thanks to Anna. He couldn’t sell. It was all Maisie Jane talked about while she recovered from her illness. He wouldn’t make them move.
They would find a way to survive on an old corroded tank by the side of the house, one that took water from the farmhouse roof. It was a small tank. The water quality wasn’t the best, and he’d need some of it for the sheep and the horses. There’d be no showers, but it would have to be enough for cooking and drinking, and the toilet. What was the old bush motto: if it’s brown wash it down, if it’s yellow let it mellow. He grinned in spite of his somber mood. They’d survive. They had to! It wouldn’t last more than a few days at best, but he’d find the best outcome he could.
He stood. He’d be with Chris Owens within the hour and sign the contract. He marched down the hill to the farmhouse and crept inside and grabbed the car keys, intent on letting Anna and Maisie Jane play in the next room. He didn’t want to break their mood.
On the way into town he took the longer route, the one that went past the bottom paddock where the hydraulic fracturing well was going to be sited. He pulled the car up on the verge and stopped. From the side of the road, the area looked picturesque. A small valley with gentle hills to the left. The quiet solitude embraced him. He stepped outside, and the morning sun warmed him. Sound pollution would probably not be an issue: it was a reasonable way from the house. They’d probably still hear something, but it wouldn’t be too bad. It’d depend on the way the wind blew at times.
Mike clambered over the fence, and it was as if it triggered the stones in the canvas bags against his chest. It always happened as soon as he walked the land near to the cave that the three emeralds had come from. Fire smoldered at his neck. He ignored it as best as he could, unsure why the stones always became agitated around this place. It was as if they had a life of their own and they yearned to be put back in the ground where they had come from. Mike would never do that. But he twisted his neck uncomfortably against them. There was a power within the stones that he couldn’t ignore. Dad had joked several times and said they were magic, and he’d said never rub them together unless he wanted to start a fire. Everything is connected, he’d said. Even the Poseidon Stones.
Mike had ignored the warning once and dared clamber into the cave. The dark narrow cavern hummed. All the hairs on Mike’s body stood erect. It was a magic place. Mike clambered out of the cave as fast as he could. Dad laughed when he found out, and had told him of a time he’d taken the stones out and rubbed them together. “You’ve never known power until you do,” he said. For years after, he laughed and said, “Don’t ever connect them. Keep them apart, like insolent children.”
Mike pulled them out, away from his skin and breathed a sigh of relief. He had to admit that they were magic. In their own way, they were alive. He’d never taken them out of their silk cocoons, never removed them from the hessian bags. Who knew what they would do. Fire? Magic? Either way, he’d promised to take care of them and the land here.
The once-wet depression was bone dry. The dragonflies that once hovered over the water pools were gone. Mike vowed once again that he’d never go. In the distance, off to his left the low rolling hills were already burned gray from the early start to summer. Nothing lived at this spot. The drilling company was welcome to it. He put the fiery stones around his neck back under his clothes and took comfort in their closeness. The other stones in the cave would remain intact, far enough from the clutches of the miners and their drilling for gas. It sat outside the drilling area, and that was all that mattered.
Everything was quiet in town, as if it slept in the midday sun. Mike strode into the mining office this time and asked for Chris Owens.
The man looked a little startled when Mike held out his hand and announced that he was here to sign the contract, and he didn’t want to put Chris out with the drive.
“Come this way,” he said and ushered Mike into a room. Moments later, a tall woman that he couldn’t quite recognize, although he was certain he had met her family years before, brought in the contract.
Mike signed it without any hesitation and sat down in the comfy black leather armchair.
“Did you have enough time to read it?” asked Chris Owens. His face showed surprise.
“Yes,” said Mike. “Everything was fine.”
“No,” said Mike. He waited until Chris Owens signed it. “That’s it?” Mike asked.
“That’s it.” Chris held out his hand and Mike shook it.
“There was one thing,” said Mike.
Chris Owens smiled. “Name it.”
“I wondered about getting a down payment. So I can buy in some water. Get that new pump,” said Mike.
“Soon,” said Chris Owens. “It’s normally about a week.”
Mike’s mouth fell open. He leaned forward. “A week? I thought it’d be quicker.”
Chris Owens smiled again. “There’s a three day cooling off period. You know, in case we find anything different from what we had initially expected.”
Mike frowned. “Different?”
“Don’t worry, it’s a formality. I’ll organize the team to come out.” He looked at his wristwatch and nodded. “There might be time to get them out later this afternoon. Tomorrow at the latest. It’ll speed up the process so you can get paid.”
Mike hesitated. “Team?”
“They’ll double check the earlier survey. Fence off the site. Get the dozers in.”
“Dozers?” Mike wasn’t clear on any of this.
“To level the site.”
Mike’s stomach knotted. He wasn’t comfortable with what he was hearing. “Why does the site need to be flattened?”
Chris Owens shrugged. “It’s what they do.” He looked at the wristwatch again. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another meeting. I can get one of the site guys to take out your copy of the contract if you like? Saves you waiting around.”
“I should be able to get him out today.” He held out his hand again and smiled. “You’ve made the right choice, Mike. We’re all going to get rich mining gas. You’ll see. You’ll have the best farm in the district.”
Mike left the office. He should have felt relieved now that he’d signed the contract, but he didn’t. Instead, an uncomfortable knot twisted in his stomach. Somehow, he had to find a way to make their supply last over the next week.
Mike sat in their kitchen across the table from Anna.
She stared at him. “So it’s done?”
Mike nodded. She didn’t look comfortable when he had told her. “I’ve organized a water truck delivery for the end of the week. We’re rationing until then.”
Anna didn’t speak. Concern swam across her face and twisted the corners of her mouth.
He frowned. “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right. I just thought you’d find another way somehow.”
“What should I do?” he asked.
She shrugged. “It’s your farm. You know I’d never get in the way. If it were me I’d see if the church elders would give me a loan.”
Mike nodded. “They told me our credit had expired.”
“Still, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
“I’ll think about it.” Mike chewed his lip. The elders were quite clear there would be no more credit last time Mike had asked, although Anna wouldn’t know that.
Mike frowned. “I did what I thought was right for all of us.”
“But bulldozers leveling the paddock… Is that what you want?”
Mike stood and raised his voice. “I had no choice. We’re out of water. The animals are out of water…” He took a deep breath. His throat tightened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I’m going outside to get some fresh air.” He walked around the table and ran his hand gently along the side of her face. “I thought you’d be pleased,” he said, his voice raspy with frustration.
Mike pushed open the door and strode outside. What had he done? Why wasn’t Anna happy? Couldn’t she see that he’d done it for them? What did she want him to say? That he wasn’t happy they were going to bulldoze the site? If only he had asked before signing.
A dragonfly darted back into the shade by the water tank. It positioned itself in a pocket of shade. To Mike, it looked as though the beautiful insect had minimized its body to the sun, and it used its four huge wings as reflectors. Mike couldn’t blame it. The heat was draining.
He remembered that the cave where the emeralds were located was next to the edge of the site boundary. What if they damaged that area by bulldozing it? What if they uncovered it? Goddammit! What had he done?
In the distance the sound of a hammer striking metal made him stop in his tracks. He looked at the time and realized that Chris Owens’ team had wasted no time in getting here. He heard an engine start up. A bulldozer. What had he done? Fear kicked in and he ran toward the bottom paddock as fast as he could. The stones around his neck came alive like wildfire.
Mike looked around, amazed at what he could see. The corner paddock looked like a construction site. A perimeter fence was going up, and men were banging in posts. A bulldozer was leveling the land nearest to the roadway. Ripping up the vegetation into a mound.
“Stop!” He ran toward the bulldozer and waved his hands in the air.
The driver of the dozer stopped and turned off the engine. He stepped down off the heavy machine. “This is a drilling site. You’re trespassing.”
“It’s my farm,” said Mike. His chest warmed where the stones were, and he moved them.
“I don’t care. I was told you signed a contract. You agreed to all of this.”
“I did,” said Mike.
“Well, then you need to get off the site. I’ve got to level it before the end of the day. The drilling head is being installed tomorrow.”
“Dave!” The dozer driver waved a man in a suit over.
The man strode over and offered his hand to shake. “Mike?”
“I’m Dave Myers. I was heading down to deliver your signed contract. What seems to be the problem?”
“I just need a moment.” He turned away from the man and stared at the line of pristine hills. A dragonfly whipped past. He’d seen them do that a lot recently. They darted about, intent on their solitary missions.
Mike looked around, back where he’d spotted the dragonfly. It hovered in more of a dance than anything else. This was where they had camped all those years ago. Back when there had been water and the dragonflies swarmed the place in abundance. The cave entrance, hidden by a large rock beckoned. Lucky had been lost there … and where they’d found the emeralds… If he did this he’d never be able to take Maisie Jane camping here. He’d never be able to sit her down at a campfire and pass on the story of that night.
It wasn’t right, but he had no choice. He was as trapped as Lucky had been that night in the cave.
The dragonfly returned with another, and they hovered nearby. Mike watched the prehistoric-looking insects with interest. Dad had always called them the jewels of the sky. In the sunlight they dazzled. Their large green eyes looked like big emeralds. Mike touched his neck chain. They looked like the stones.
One hovered, and the other zigzagged left and right. It stopped and then flew backward. It seemed so random. The first one swooped over Mike’s head, made a hairpin turn, and they both flew off toward the area where the lake had once stood. Before, when there was water.
Almost in response to his thought, the stones flared.
Mike smiled. It was like a watershed. The tension fell from him. Why hadn’t he listened? Why hadn’t Mike taken more notice about the world around him? He pulled the stones out from under his shirt and removed each of them from their small hessian bags. Even through the silk cocoons, they burned in his hand.
It all made sense now. He turned back to the man who had stood patiently. There was another way. He smiled at the man. “Dave, was it?”
The man nodded.
“You’ve got the contract?”
“Yes, here.” He pointed to a spot on the paper. “All signed. Endorsed by the local company director.”
“Can I see that?” Mike held out his hand for the contract.
“As you will see, the area is ours now, Mr. Ironbark. I would like to respectfully ask you to move away from the site until we can put up a perimeter fence.”
“That’s not going to happen,” said Mike.
“I’m not leaving.”
“For your own safety, you must leave this area. It’s an industrial requirement. You can watch the works from the other side once the perimeter fence is up.”
“No, I didn’t make myself clear. This…” Mike waved his hands in the air, “…this isn’t going to happen. You have a three-day cooling off period before you can start.”
“Yes, but we’ve elected to start early. We’re happy with the site location.”
“I’m not. I have the same three days to change my mind.”
“I’m not sure. I’d have to check—”
“I’m sure,” said Mike. He tore the contract in half and in half again and threw it onto the ground. “I have elected not to go ahead with the fracking on my land. You are now trespassing, and I would respectfully ask you and your company to leave. Immediately!”
The man stared back at Mike for the longest moment, and finally he smiled. “Okay. I can see you’re not going to change your mind any time soon.”
“No, I’m not. Tell Chris Owens thank you, but I don’t need a new pump. Tell him I have all the water I need.”
Mike strode from the drilling and construction team. They’d leave soon enough. They had no choice. He made his way near to the cave and positioned himself on the high ground, where he had camped all those years ago. Who’d have thought it would have been the dragonflies that would solve the riddle for him. He grinned. Dragonflies were an ancient insect, and had taken to the air long before any of the dinosaurs walked the Earth. Dragonflies couldn’t live without water. They always appeared around ponds and lakes. He’d always seen them around the animals’ troughs, skimming the water’s surface.
And there they were. Not one or two, but hundreds of them. They hovered in the dry paddock where the lake once was. Like a sea of emeralds. Mike stared at the three silk parcels in his hand. Never let the stones connect, he’d been told. But everything is connected, and all this time the power of the Poseidon Stones had been hidden in plain sight. Poseidon was the god of water, and the dragonflies, with their big emerald green eyes had hinted to where there was water. Why else would there be so many dragonflies in abundance? It was as if they hovered and waited for him.
He pulled one out of the stones from its silk cocoon and let it fall onto his hand. He winced. It was as if someone had slid a rough piece of wood along the side of his head. The warm stone seemed to come alive. It pulsed inside his head.
He pulled out the second stone and placed it alongside the first. Pain shot through his head and it grew to a deep throb within him. His hand shook. He wanted to let go of the stones. They burned like nothing he’d experienced. Quickly he let the third stone fall onto his open palm before he lost all courage.
It was as if someone had smacked him on the side of the head with a brick. His heart skipped a beat. His hand felt as if it was on fire. He closed his eyes and bit his lip until he tasted blood and fought not to let go of the stones. He took a breath and braced himself, then closed his hand around the stones so that they joined. So they connected.
He thrust his hand out. The pain in his head grew and he doubled over. The ground shook around him and the fire seemed to burst from his hand, or the stones. A bright flash illuminated through his closed eyelids. He winced and shut them tighter. Still the pain continued to grow until he couldn’t tolerate it. He opened his hand and let go of the stones.
They fell, and the pain vanished. He opened his eyes, convinced his palm would be burned, but it was unscathed. He bent and retrieved the stones, one at a time, and he placed them back in their silk cocoons and returned the magic Poseidon Stones to the small hessian bags on the chain.
He glanced over at the spot where the lake had once been and smiled at the massive swarm of dragonflies. In that small moment, the swarm had multiplied and there had to be a thousand or more there now. They hovered over the old lake and darted in chaotic style just above the ground, to where water bubbled up from a rent in the Earth.
Mike and Anna stood in the bottom paddock, at the edge of a lake that hadn’t been there three days before. In that time he had unshackled the water pump and moved it beside the edge of the lake. It hadn’t been difficult to rig up the inlet to take the fresh spring water, and now the farm tank was full.
Mike watched Maisie Jane run in and out of the water and splash in it. A car pulled up by the road and a man stepped out. Anna waved, and Mike recognized Pastor Matthew.
He strode down and joined them. “I heard that you’d experienced a miracle,” said the pastor. “I had to come by and see for myself.” Pastor Matthew laughed.
“I told you you’d find a way. Your dad would be proud of you, son.”
“I’m proud of him too, pastor. Imagine there being water just below the surface all this time.” Anna grinned at Mike.
Mike grabbed Anna’s hand and squeezed it. There was more than enough water for the animals and the family, and Mike would be able to lavish the oak seedling they had planted. It would flourish.
Anna squeezed his hand back. “Would you like to come in for some afternoon tea, pastor?” She grinned again. “A glass of cold water perhaps?”
Pastor Matthew chuckled. “I’d like that.”
“I’ll grab Maisie Jane,” said Mike. He stood and watched his daughter stalk something near the water’s edge. He saw several dragonflies and smiled. One darted backward and hovered above her head. Its emerald colored eyes glistened like the stones. They made him feel more alive. More connected to the world than Mike ever thought possible. They pulsed with a beat deep inside him. One day they’d be Maisie Jane’s, along with the farm.
David Kernot is an Australian author living in the Mid North of South Australia and when he’s not writing, he’s riding his Harley Davidson through the wheat, wine, and wool farming lands. He writes contemporary fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and is the author of over fifty published short stories in a variety of anthologies, magazines, and e-zines in Australia, the US, and Canada, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror, and Award Winning Australian Writing. More information can be found at http://www.davidkernot.com