The Chosen Vessel – Intermediate Level

She laid the stick and her baby on the grass while she untied the rope that stopped the calf from moving more than a few meters. The length of the rope separated them. The cow was near the calf, and both were lying down. There was a lot of grass along the creek, and every day she found a fresh place to tie it.

She had to tie it. If she did not, it would follow the cow far from the house. She had enough time to go after it, but then there was the baby. She was scared of what would happen if the cow turned and chased her while she had the baby in her arms.

She had been a town girl and was afraid of the cow. However, she did not want the cow to know it. She used to run at first when the cow cried out angrily against the locking up of its calf at night. This satisfied the cow, also the calf, but the woman’s husband was angry and called her a coward. He had made her run to meet the advancing cow, waving a stick in the air and shouting at it in an angry voice till the enemy turned and ran. “That’s the way!” the man said, laughing at her white face. In many things he was worse than the cow, and she wondered if the same rule would apply to the man. But she was not one who liked to cause fights, even with the cow.

It was early for the calf to go “to bed” – nearly an hour earlier than usual; but she had felt restless all day. Partly because it was Monday, and her husband would not be back until the end of the week. He was a shearer, and had left before daylight that morning. The farm he was working on was fifteen miles away.

There was a rough road in front of the house, for it had once been a pub. A few travellers passed along occasionally. She was not afraid of horsemen. But she was very scared of the swagmen going to, or worse, coming from the sad, drunk little town a day’s journey away. One had called at the house today and asked for food.

Ah! That was why she had brought the calf in so early! She had watched his face as the baby, which had just woken up, beat its hungry hands upon her covered breasts. She was more frightened by the look in his eyes and the way he smiled than by the large knife that hung from his belt.

She had given him bread and meat. Her husband, she told him, was sick. She always said that when she was alone and a swagman came. She had gone in from the kitchen to the bedroom, and asked questions and replied to them in the best man’s voice she could assume. Then he had asked if he could go into the kitchen to boil some water, but she gave him tea and said that he should drink it outside. He had walked round and round the house, and seen that there were cracks in some places. After this, he asked for tobacco. She had none to give him, and he had smiled. There was a broken pipe on the ground near where he had drunk the tea. If there were a man inside who smoked a pipe, there ought to have been tobacco. Then he asked for money, but women in the bush never have money.

At last he had gone. She watched through the cracks and saw him, when about a quarter of a mile away, turn and look back at the house. He had stood like this for some moments, pretending to fix his swag. Then, apparently satisfied, he moved off to the left towards the creek. The creek flowed in a half circle around the house, and when he came to it she lost sight of him. Hours after, watching for signs of smoke, she saw the man’s dog. It was chasing some sheep that had gone to the creek for water. She saw it run back suddenly in fear, as if the man had called it back angrily.

More than once she thought of taking her baby and going to her husband. But in the past, when she had spoken about the dangers she might face when he was away, he had laughed and made fun of her. She need not think she was so good looking, he had rudely told her, that anybody would want to run away with her.

Long before night came she placed food on the kitchen table, and beside it laid the big brooch that had been her mother’s. It was the only thing of value that she had. She left the kitchen door wide open.

The doors inside she securely locked. Beside the bolt in the back one she drove in a metal and scissors. Against it she piled the table and chairs. Underneath the lock of the front door she forced the handle of the spade, with the metal at the other end between the cracks in the floor boards. The long stick used to hold up the washing line, cut into lengths, held the top of the door, as the spade held the middle. The windows were very small. She had nothing to fear through them.

She ate a little food and drank a cup of milk. But she did not light a fire, and when night came, no candle, but crept with her baby to bed.

What woke her? The wonder was that she had slept at all – she had not meant to. But she was young, very young. Perhaps the cooling of the iron roof had made a noise – yet hardly, since that was so usual. Something had set her heart beating wildly. She lay quite still, and put her arm over her baby. Then she put both around it, and she prayed, “Little baby, little baby, don’t wake!”

The moonlight shone on the front of the house, and she saw one of the open cracks, quite close to where she lay, darken with a shadow. Then an unhappy growl reached her; and she could fancy she heard the man turn quickly. She plainly heard the sound of something hitting the dog, and the long flying footsteps of the animal as it cried out in pain and ran away. Still watching, she saw the shadow darken every crack along the wall. She knew by the sounds that the man was trying to find one that might help him to see inside. How much he saw, she could not tell.

She thought of many things she might do to make him think she was not alone. But the sound of her voice would wake baby, and she feared that as though it were the biggest danger she was facing. So she prayed, “Little baby, don’t wake, don’t cry!”

The man quietly crept about. She knew he had his boots off because of the sound of his footsteps as he walked along the veranda. He tested the width of the little window in her room, and how easy it might be to force the front door.

Then he went to the back of the house. The uncertainty of what he was doing there became unbearable. She had felt safer, far safer, while he was close and she could watch and listen. She felt she must watch, but the great fear of waking the baby came over her again. She suddenly remembered that one of the wooden boards on that side of the house was broken and had once fallen off. It was held in position only by a small piece of wood underneath. What if he should discover that! This made her even more frightened. She prayed as she gently raised herself with her little one in her arms, held tightly to her breast.

She thought of the knife, and covered her child’s body with her hands and arms. Even its little feet she covered with its white night dress. The baby didn’t make a sound – it liked to be held this way. Noiselessly she crossed to the other side. She stood where she could see and hear, but not be seen. He was trying every board, and was very near to the broken one. Then she saw him find it; and heard the sound of his knife as bit by bit he began to cut away the wooden support.

She waited motionless, with her baby pressed tightly to her. She knew that in another few minutes this man with the terrible look in his eyes and shining knife would enter. One side of the board moved. He had only to cut away the remaining end and the board, unless he held it, would fall outside.

She heard his breathing as it kept time with the cuts of the knife. She heard the brush of his clothes against the wall as he moved. She knew when he stopped, and wondered why. She was well hidden and knew he could not see her, but also that he would not stop if he could. But she heard him move quietly away. She couldn’t understand what had happened and moved even closer. Then she bent her body to listen better. Ah! what sound was that? “Listen! Listen!” she told her heart – her heart that had kept so still, but now beat so loudly that it was hard to hear clearly. Nearer and nearer came the sounds, till the welcome sound of a horse on the road rang out clearly.

“Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” she cried, for they were very close before she could make sure. She turned to the door, and with her baby in her arms tore excitedly at its bolts and bars.

Out she sprang at last and, running madly along, saw the horseman riding away from her. She called to him in Christ’s name, in her baby’s name, still flying like the wind with the speed that deadly danger gives. But the distance grew greater and greater between them, and when she reached the creek her prayers turned to wild screams. For there was the man she feared, with arms held out that caught her as she fell. She heard him saying that it would be better for her if she stopped fighting and crying for help. But louder and louder did she scream. It was only when the man’s hand was around her throat that the cry of “Murder” came from her lips. As she did this, scared water birds took up the awful sound and flew screaming over the horseman’s head.

* * * * *

“By God!” said the farm worker who was out checking on fences. “It’s been a dingo right enough! Eight sheep killed already, and there’s more down at the creek – a mother and a lamb, it looks like. And the lamb looks alive!” He shut out the sky with his hand and watched the crows that were circling round and round, nearing the earth one moment, and the next shooting up into the sky. By that he knew that the lamb must be alive. Even a dingo will leave a lamb alive sometimes.

Yes, the lamb was alive, and as usual with lambs it did not know its mother when the light came. It had drank from the still warm breasts, and laid its little head on her chest. Then it had slept until the morning. When it woke and looked at the swollen face, it cried and would have crept away but for the hand that still held tightly to its night dress. Sleep was coming again and its small body was moving from side to side. The crows were close, very close, to the mother’s eyes which were still wide open when the farm worker rode down.

“Jesus Christ!” he said, covering his eyes. He told afterwards how the little child held out its arms to him, and how he was forced to cut the dress that was held by the dead hand.

* * * * *

It was election time, and as usual the priest had chosen the person who he thought should win. Everyone thought that his choice was in the best interests of the farmers of the area. Young Peter Hennessey, good Catholic that he was, had promised to vote for the first time in his life. He felt a little uncomfortable about it, and every time he woke in the night (and it was often) he heard his mother’s voice. It either came through the wall, or under the door. If through the wall, he knew she was praying in her bed. If under the door, she was on her knees before the little table in the corner of the living room that held the image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her Child.

“Mary, Mother of Christ! save my son! Save him!” she prayed as she prepared for the evening milking, “Sweet Mary! for the love of Christ, save him!”

The never ending sadness in her old face made the morning meal so bitter that he came late to dinner so as not have to eat with her. It made him so cowardly that he could not bear to say goodbye to her. When night fell the day before election day, he rode off without telling her.

He had thirty miles to ride to the small town to record his vote. He rode quickly along the great stretch of flat ground. There was nothing but small bushes to give shadow to the full moon which lit up the early spring sky. He could smell the flowering night plants and sense the beauty of the night. However, his mind was too busy thinking about his mother to enjoy them. He saw the hurt look that would be on her face when she found him gone. At that moment, he felt sure, she was praying.

Without thinking, he said aloud the words of what would be his mother’s prayer. “Mary! Mother of Christ!” he called out. And suddenly, out of the stillness of the night, came Christ’s name to him – shouted loudly and in a voice that seemed to have lost all hope.

“For Christ’s sake! Christ’s sake! Christ’s sake!” called the voice. When he looked back, he saw a figure dressed in white with a baby held close to her breast floating across the ghostly red earth.

All the teachings of his religion affected his thinking. The moonlight on the red earth was a “heavenly light”. The white figure was not a person, but the Mary and Child of his mother’s prayers. Then, good Catholic that once more he was, he dug his boots into his horse’s sides and ran madly away from it.

His mother’s prayers were answered.

Hennessey was the first to record his vote – for the priest’s man. Then he looked for the priest at home, but found that he was out looking for more voters. Still thinking about seeing Mary and baby Jesus, Hennessey would not go near the bars. He walked about the the town for hours, keeping away from the townspeople. He did not eat all day to begin to make up for all the bad things he had done in his life. He was quiet but very happy. He felt like a child who is sorry after being punished for doing something wrong, and waits only for the next kiss from a parent.

At last, in the gathering darkness, he heard the shouts of many voices calling out the name of the winner of the election. It was well with the priest.

Again Hennessey went looking for him. This time he was at home, the house-keeper said, and led him into the study. His seat was immediately opposite a large picture. As the house-keeper turned up the lamp, once more he saw Mary and Child. But this time she was silent and peaceful. Her half open lips were smiling with love for all mankind. Her eyes seemed to shine with the forgiveness of an earthly mother for her much loved child who has done something wrong. He fell on his knees to pray.

The priest stood up in surprise. In the words of the prayer, he heard, “My Lord and my God! You have you chosen me?”

“What is it, Peter?” said the priest.

“Father!” he answered, full of love for God. Then, with loosened tongue, he told the story of what he thought he had seen the night before.

“Great God!” shouted the priest, “and you did not stop to save her! Have you not heard?”

* * * * *

Many miles further down the creek a man kept throwing an old cap into a large pool of water. The dog would bring it out and lay it on the opposite side to where the man stood. But he would not allow the man to catch him, though it was only to wash the blood of the sheep from his mouth and throat, for the sight of blood made the man tremble.