Chapter 1: A Life Ended
The road to tragedy is merely a sequence of moments precariously stitched together by momentum, spinning delicately through time, without hint of their terrible sum. And then, so quickly do these moments pass us by that we rarely have the presence of mind to recognize those whose significance time will render significantly larger. And so, blindly, we continue along what appears to be a cleared path, unaware of the deviation that has taken place. And then, always suddenly, we find ourselves at a conclusion we could have scarcely previously imagined.
Had anything been different, even one minor detail, on such an ordinary day, the events that followed would never have occurred. So implausible was it that all these minor details might one day come together in such a spectacular sequence of singularly routine moments that the outcome had never been prepared for. It was a simple truth. Gods did not make mistakes. But so perfectly were the different players being brought together, so flawlessly were the minor details being interwoven that it can only be assumed that there were larger forces at play. And as Emma followed her life’s clearly marked path, she was strikingly unaware that the winds had changed.
Hindsight casts a strange shadow on the past. Time seems to move faster, as we lose the subtle details. And yet, in this instance it was in the subtle details that the answers could be found. So it was with utter despair, after hours spent painstakingly tracing every moment back, that Emma discovered its origin. Some moments are so inconspicuous we hurry through them and only later will we discover their importance, only at the end. What had ultimately been Emma’s end was the rain.
It had been a strange winter, unusually damp for their part of the world. Their homes were not built for the weeks it seemed to rain. It was that rain, that rain that had ceaselessly pelted the tin roof of the shed on the farm where Emma lived. The tin was old and pocked with rust well before that strange winter. It might have held still, yet the sheer volume of water dropped from the sky that cycle proved too much for it. Eventually the curve of the earth pulled the storms back in amongst the mountains and the Australian lowlands were dry again. But for Emma this came too late. The process of erosion had already taken its full course. Of the six or so patches of decaying rust, only one entirely gave way, leaving a small hole roughly the size of a bottle cap. One hole opportunely placed. From this entry wound the water had seeped in, and, drop by drop, had fallen on the farm’s antique generator.
The electricity malfunctions started immediately after the rains ended. On a Monday night, as the entire family sat around the dinner table, the lights suddenly gave out. Of course, it was entertaining the first time. The novelty of sitting around the living room with candles, thrilled by the eerie light they cast on a once familiar place, was still new. The lights came back on in a matter of minutes, an amusing side event. After three more evenings of suddenly being tipped into darkness, however, the novelty had entirely worn off.
On the Monday morning following the week of the black outs, Emma’s father had gotten up an hour early so that he could drive into town to pick up a charge battery. He stubbornly refused to pay the money it would have cost to have an electrician come out himself to take a look, instead surfing the internet for a simpler explanation. He had found the answer he had wanted to find. So, as Emma and her siblings slept, their father had come downstairs and found his wife tucked away in the kitchen booth, ball point pen poised over a sheet of lined paper. She was up early and foul from a sleep perforated with hot flushes. She looked up at him and he saw the fight sparkling in the corner of her eyes, residual bluster from the previous night’s argument about money. So, their father had skipped around her and the cup of coffee she had tried to divert him with, dexterously weaseling out of conversation by stuffing a slice of bread in his mouth and shuffling out the back door. Emma’s mother was left alone in the kitchen, cradling her cup of coffee, audibly cursing as the dull glow of the kitchen light went out, again.
The children all drifted downstairs of their own accord when the clock struck seven. Not one was late. Over jam toast and cups of English Breakfast, their mother asked Emma and her brother Darren if they could feed the cows in the back paddock before they left for school. Their father usually did this and so it was an unusual request, put forward with a sickly-sweet lilt both siblings knew well. Neither enjoyed being pawns in their parent’s spats of proxy warfare, but it was not worth a battle. So, both left their places at breakfast, mugs of tea still half full. Darren reached the quad bike first, Emma grabbing the grain bucket near the back door. He had already started the bike as Emma swung her leg over the seat, one arm loosely encircling her brother’s middle, the other wrapped around the bucket.
The day was new and had not had time to warm itself; had a damp, coolness that woke Emma from any traces of sleep that still clung to her. It was a pretty morning that promised even better; the kind of morning she knew, even then, that she would miss when she was older. It was there, that reckless joy, folded into the guttural engine growl, dew splatter against her shivering shins, the chorus of cows ambling after them along the fence line. Never to be had again.
By that time, they were too far out of earshot to hear their father’s car returning up the driveway. The Landcruiser rolled in across the muddy yard to the shed door. As he had slid down from the car, he had held the battery under his arm, wrapped in yellow fluorescent plastic. The hinge of the door was decaying, so the base was perpetually being scraped across the dirt. It took a little negotiating that morning, with how sodden the soil was from weeks of rain. When he was finally able to push through into the dry, welcome interior he had been too frustrated with the door to look around him. If he had, he might have seen the hole, sitting at a 120-degree angle from his face. The sun was not high enough to truly reveal it. Instead, it remained an unseen detail, raising no alarm. The generator itself was set back into the shed wall, leaving its other side obscured. Had this been visible, perhaps the true state of the machine would also have been discovered. But, as it was, there was nothing to see. The newly purchased battery he carried with him was placed on the floor as he lowered to his haunches, scanning the floor for a set of cables.
Emma and Darren were far removed from the scene of the error. At that exact moment, Emma was standing holding the bucket beneath the feed silo as her brother twisted the nozzle. Such a routine moment. But, in later recollections, this part she remembered very clearly, remembered that the conversation they had been having had been cut short by the flow of grain and Emma had been alone with herself for a moment. Perhaps it was the texture of the air, or the oddity of the light that early in the day, but Emma distinctly remembered looking around her and thinking that something was off. Something was wrong. She searched the trees around her for movement, glanced at the sky without a clear idea of what she was looking for. But the sudden impression was only a momentary lightning strike and faded as she saw nothing out of place. The flow of grain slowed, and her brother’s voice returned, midway through the conversation they had been having. As Darren had continued to chatter as she lifted the handle of the bucket and walked back to the quad bike. The engine revved, her brother tossed a remark over his shoulder that made her laugh. She forgot about the strangeness, leaving it behind her at the silos as they sped off through the grass. Only to rediscover later.
Meanwhile, Emma’s father held a pair of dusty neon green cables in his hands. He had spent 15 minutes rummaging around in the drawers of the moldy bureau he had moved out to the shed the very day his young wife had first moved into the house, brought along with other furniture more to her city tastes. Now, he swiveled the battery closer to the generator, gingerly clipping the cable-ends to the battery terminals. Rubbing his hands together, he replayed the instructions to himself. In parallel ran the self-congratulatory monologue at having dodged the fee from the electrician. He did not need it; he had grown up in the country, he was not so helpless as those city people. He grasped the other two cable ends in both hands, careful not to touch the electrified tips, glancing down one last time at the instructions to reassure himself. At last, he said a prayer, turned slowly to the generator and delicately clipped the cables to their appropriate place.
It did not work, of course. Emma’s father stared hopefully at the dial on the side of the machine, only to find the output never left zero. He cursed, falling back to sit. His thoughts spun out in front of him. If he went back to the house to make the phone call, he would never hear the end of it from that same wife. Money was tight, why couldn’t he solve his own problems. He bit his lower lip, examining the instructions again with a more critical eye.
Darren and Emma pulled up to the gate of the back paddock and Emma jumped from the bike. With speed that denoted years of practice, she unlocked the gate and shoved it clear. Darren maneuvered the bike through. Another missed detail. Emma did not notice that she had pushed the gate with a little too much force, it had swung back too far. In fact, it had swung back so far and with such force that the chain, used to lock the gate, had entangled itself in the fencing. But she hadn’t seen this, didn’t even bother closing it after the bike was through. The cows were at the other side of the paddock, would be too distracted by the grain to wander out. They would be back in minutes to shut it anyway. It was such routine procedure she had not thought twice about it. Instead, she had remounted and they sped over in the direction of the troughs. Darren lifted himself to standing height as they slowed down, scanning the paddock’s resident herd for illness or injury. As he did this, Emma slid quickly from the bike and maneuvered through, splashing the grain into the troughs. She felt a hard nudge that nearly knocked her off her feet and left a dewy nose print just above her right kidney. She giggled, affectionately pushing the forehead of the young cow away from her.
Her memories always take on a peculiar shade as they near the event itself, vivid flashes submerged in a general vagueness. For example, Emma could remember very clearly asking Darren if he had seen any injuries in the herd. But his answer was lost to her now, swallowed up in cloud. She could not remember their ride back either, though she could recall clearly the features of the road from the troughs to the gate. It was a journey she had made a thousand times. Yet, somehow her memory had chosen to erase this last one. Of course, she could reconstruct for herself what it would have been like: wet earth caking to her legs, hair swept back and knotting in the wind. But she could never quite feel it, and for this she was bitter. It was not that she mourned the sensation for its own sake; a wet field in the early morning was not an experience difficult to replicate. Rather it was the feeling of belonging to it. This place had been hers. Every inch of it was coated in the memories of a lifetime. The loss of that sense of place was what she mourned. And to be able to feel that again, knowing what she did now, would have meant everything.
A kilometer away in the shed next to the house the veins in Emma’s father’s face were dilating with rage. He had detached and re- attached the cables nine consecutive times with no result. Distracted as he was by developing the choice phrases he would use when, in a minute, he called the electrician, Emma’s father was not paying attention to where he placed the electrified cables. That single, innocuous looking strand of wiring, that snaked up the side of the generator, would have sat directly in front of his face. It proved too convenient to reflect on. After all, he was too busy feeling self-righteous to remember what that wire was specifically for. But Emma remembered. That single, indistinct wire was attached to an independent battery that provided the source of the current for the farm’s entire electric fencing network, held at a comfortable 7,000 volts. Another detail. Her father carelessly clipped the limp cable ends to the wire. In that moment, 20,000 additional volts were added to the system and, in that moment Darren and Emma arrived back at the gate.
Events of consequence are generally relived much more slowly than they occur. Significance seems to lengthen minutes, so that one is forced to intimately recall each wrong step. Thus, it was in slow motion that Emma could remember jumping from the bike. She remembered how her feet had landed; the slap of mud as it met her rubber soles, her left leg stiffening to compensate for a weak right ankle. She could remember eyeing the gate and feeling her brother’s eyes on her as she made the final steps, could remember reaching out for the gate’s top rung, her fingers encircling it.
She could remember the charge. It pulled her forward with devastating strength. And in those key seconds her body betrayed her; her muscles contracting around the electricity, expelling the air from her lungs and causing her to hunch over the bar, gripping it harder. Pinned there, she lived out the intimate details of the white fire as it seared through her internal organs, fusing her joints, melting her bones. It was all happening so fast that Emma did not even know she was dying. She knew only this pain, this pain which erased thought and colored her vision with mercurial shadows. That silver was the last thing Emma saw, before she slipped into the darkness of 27,000 volts.