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Salt City Runaway

A sheep has escaped from the abattoir. It’s loose on the railway line that runs along the coast to the harbor and they’ve stopped the trains. You hear on the radio, the activists are out with placards, Meat is Murder, Ban Sheep Ships and the like. The police have been called. Your mum thinks she might head down to help, she knows someone with a rescue farm if only she could remember where she put the number. A port city is a tough place for small creatures on their own.

You take the long way to the beach to avoid the commotion. You walk past the docks where orange and white container cranes stretch their tall necks high. There are no ships in today, no live trade trucks to avoid looking at too closely. You keep walking and don’t think about a poor trapped thing, skittering along the tracks, eyes rolling, people running this way and that, shouting.

They’ve been trying to close the abattoir for years. It’s too close to town, infecting the beach with washed-out gruesome remnants. On still days the shallows are brown and soupy but you swim regardless because everything’s expensive but the ocean is free. You keep your head above the surface and stay on the move, in a straight line out deep.

This sea has its own moods. Tomorrow it might be green, clear as glass, marbling the sand below the surface with shifting light. You’ll go with a friend and linger, chasing small schools of minnows sparkling past under a white sun. You’ll hurl yourself at rolling breakers, body surf the biggest waves to shore, you’ll spit sand then go again. But today the foam that collects on the shoreline is oily and yellow, the air is sweet with decay. It sticks in your nose and the back of your throat. You won’t stay long.

Your mother encourages independence. A swirl of colorful caftans and cigarette smoke, she hates wearing shoes and doesn’t own makeup. There’s not much steady work for single mums around here, she’s tried the tanning sheds near the abattoir but it made her sick, all those skins draped in rows drying in the sun, a washing line grim and stinking. Instead, she writes horoscopes for local papers, reads tarot cards for strangers in her low lamp lounge with beaded curtains and a crushed velvet couch.

She left your father years ago, drove along the coast to settle in this port city where there are plenty of places to cash a child endowment cheque if they know you. She needed to see herself anew, without the encumbrance of tradition. She wants you to go to university and keep your name if you get married.

At the beach, you’re free from picking at the past and wishing things were different. You forget you’re the only kid in your class without a dad to drop you off on his way to the city, to coach the local footy team, circle the keg at cricket parties while the women gossip over salads in the kitchen. You forget your uniform is second hand and there’s no money for takeaway dinners, not even for special treats in your lunch box, tiny packets of sultanas, or homemade cakes with lemon icing.

Your best friend is the prettiest girl in school and you’re not but you don’t mind. When you look at her, you’re filled with love, envy, and a kind of relief. It takes so much energy to be on your own. Your friend’s skin is brown and smooth, her hair is always shiny and she doesn’t need to watch for second guessers. Her family lives in a split-level house with a swimming pool and her mother doesn’t like you. Nothing’s said directly, but they don’t invite you to dinner or for sleepovers.

You swim together when you can, it’s your favorite thing to do, side by side, your strokes strong and steady, you never get tired. In good weather when the waves aren’t high, she’ll stand behind you, waist-deep in water, comb your hair free of tangles with her fingers. She’ll say it’s slippery like silk when it’s wet and it’s the closest you’ll ever come to feeling beautiful. If the current is kind, you’ll float and stare up at the clouds. You’ll talk about songs you might request on the radio, dedicated to boys you like, if only you were brave enough to pick up the phone and speak the words aloud. The two of you will stretch out your arms like angels, or the Jesus on the cross in the church up on the hill.

Today the sun stoops under the weight of a heavy sky and the smell from the abattoir is thick. You swim alone and go home early. Your mother didn’t go to the protest after all; she couldn’t start the car so she stayed home and kept up with the latest on the radio. She cooks up beans left over from the night before and butters brown bread. You set the table on the verandah, you pick lavender from the garden and arrange it in a teapot, you know the correct position for knives and forks, and where to put the water glasses.

They shot the sheep. You don’t understand why they couldn’t let it go, just this once. Your mum says it was quite the ruckus. They blocked off the road to keep protestors at bay and brought in a vet and the rangers. It wouldn’t give in; it wouldn’t lie down for their clutching hands or duck its head into the noose on their catch poles. It was heading for the ocean and nearly made it too.

Gillian O’Shaughnessy is a short fiction writer from Fremantle in Western Australia. She has work in Jellyfish Review, Splonk, SmokeLong, and the inaugural Fractured Lit Anthology, among others. You can find her online @GillOshaughness or

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