I remember the first time I cut myself. I was standing in a field of tinkling oats on a still, hot summer’s day — the kind of day that makes you want to stretch your arms out in the hope that you can absorb more of the world. The blue sky seemed endless and so clear that I could see across the ocean to the nearest island, its lighthouse flashing every now and again like a perpetual falling star. I was a child, but even then I felt how special it was to be standing on that country, as I imagined others had for tens of thousands of years, so isolated and so connected. It was my real home.
Although the sea was calm, I could still hear the waves thundering onto rocks below. The wind carried the sound up to me on the clifftop, like a gift from a distant relative in Antarctica. A screech from a wedge-tailed eagle was the only other sound that interrupted the clack clack clack of the header as it travelled around the paddock. Its rhythm betrayed how old it was, like an elderly woman’s knees creaking as she walked up stairs, its dutiful movement unappreciated as it trudged up and down the steep hills. My dad was reaping the oats before the wind, rain, or some other act of nature or of man could ruin them.
Dad and the header circled round and stopped. Another fistful of grease went on the old woman and I could hear the rush of grain being poured into hessian bags. A few jiggles of the handle and the bag settled, open and ready for me to do my job. I loved being old enough to sew bags at Waitpinga all day. A whole day away from the home farm and the expectations there. I’d been taught how to sew ears on the bags and sew the sides together so that they could be lifted on to the back of our old Dodge for carting. I wasn’t strong enough yet to lift one, I was only eight or nine years old, but I could wiggle them enough to correct their posture.
The oats inside the bags smelled like heaven to me. I used to plunge my hand into the bag and feel their pointy ends scratch my skin and middles massage, so smooth and prickly at the same time. At the end of each day I would pick the white oat dust out of the corners of my eyes with some pride, just like my dad did.
It wasn’t just me sewing bags that day, but my cousin Gavin and his friend as well. Instead of the companionable silence in which we usually worked, the two of them were sniggering and playing their grown-up games together. For the first time, the eighteen months between us felt like a lifetime.
I wasn’t yet strong enough to cut the twine we used to sew the bags with a deft pull of the needle, so I was trusted with my dad’s shears. These always sat under the seat of the ute in case we came across a fly-blown sheep that needed tending. Then, the shears would be pressed into action to cut off the dags — the shit and matted wool around the sheep’s flank or back — to expose the skin and maggots to the air. I’d pour insecticide on the wound and Dad would smoosh in the milky liquid with the flat of the blade. Dad’s vigourous rubbing sent maggots flying through the air towards me and I wondered what it was like to be eaten alive. This is not an entirely unpleasant memory, and the scissoring of the shears — so light and raspy — reminds me of other times spent with my dad on the farm and at hand shearing shows across the country.
My dad, driving round and round the paddock, my cousin and his friend all kept me company that day, but for some reason I felt as if I’d been left alone on the island I was watching across the ocean. Despite the sky’s impossibly bright blue and the gleaming oats in the field, my world felt suddenly black.
Nobody cares. Nobody loves me. I could die and nobody would notice, whispered my inner voice. It sounded strong and loud despite its timbre being eclipsed by both wind and waves. I don’t think I understood what dying was when I was nine years old, but I was sure that I would become invisible and obsolete like the skills I’d been learning. I was certain of this, despite the legacy I’d been creating with my hands that day, despite the knowledge that my tightly sewn bags of feed would nourish our sheep in the years ahead. What if I hurt myself? What would happen then? Would the world stop? Would I be loved? Would I be missed?
My shears offered the answer. I’d been carefully holstering them and carrying them from bag pile to bag pile as I worked my way around the paddock. I unsheathed them and briskly snipped into my thigh.
I didn’t feel a thing. The blood started to flow but not enough for me to be satisfied, and the spectacle I was trying to create went unnoticed. I snipped my jeans open a bit more to check, pulling at the fraying edges with my fingers. The gash in my leg only stretched for a few centimetres wide and maybe one centimetre deep, if I was lucky.
“Ow,” I snapped, for my cousin’s benefit. “I’ve cut myself.”
“Look at your jeans, you’ll get in trouble for that,” he said.
Gavin was all about getting me in trouble. Years later, my mum would tell me how he used to hit me and my Aunty would encourage it, or at least pretend she couldn’t stop it. I was pushed down stairs and beaten but kept wanting to play, until my mum realised she couldn’t trust them with me and I wasn’t allowed to go. I don’t remember this time in my life, and I find it hard to imagine now of my cousin.
“How did that happen?” Gavin’s friend asked.
“I was going so fast sewing that I pushed the needle through my skin and it sliced me open.”
He looked at me in horror as Gavin kept working, not pausing to take a second look. Click clack click clack. A small cut was not reason enough to interrupt my dad reaping, but I caught him when he started to bag again.
“Dad, I’ve hurt myself.”
“What happened? Are you ok?”
The blood on my thigh had blended into my dark denim jeans and as I’d walked towards him, the slit in my pants no longer lined up with the slit in my thigh. The moment had passed, and now there was nothing there for him to see.
“Yep, I’m fine.”
And back on he went. And back on I went, sewing bags in the sunshine.
The scar on my leg has now faded to a silvery blue and is barely recognisable, but I wonder: Was this the first time I cut myself? The first time I lied? Or the first time I made myself the victim? I can still hear the tinkle of oats on their stalks, clinking together within the rustle of wind rushing over the hilltops. These sounds are summer and home to me. I want to go back there so badly. One day I imagine I’ll be called on in an emergency to sew a bag with ears, hand-milk a cow, or hand shear a sheep. My special skills now seem so pointless.
My mum kept some of my dad’s tools and lacquered them with thick black rust-proof paint. I have his two-person saw in the entrance of my house, waiting for the right time and equipment to put it up on my wall; yet, I still keep thinking of those feather-light iron shears. I’ve been holding them close all of my life without even knowing it. It took a long time for me to find the connection between this first in childhood and the many other unremembered or supposedly unrelated firsts dotted throughout it and beyond.
All of those snips, inside and out, and not feeling anything. All of those snips and the world not stopping. It’s been over thirty years now since that first slice and I think I’ve discovered all of the secondaries. One by one, they’ve been removed with equally purposeful snips leaving only the faintest of scars. Now, the shears I clung to for so long are lacquered and hanging on a family wall somewhere, no longer needed but admired for a completely different reason than my own.
Angela Lush lives up to the dual meaning of her name in many ways. She has been a scientist, tarot card reader, and many other jobs in between, all the while travelling through most of her life incognito. Now after much trial and error she works as a copywriter and editor in Australia. This may all be about to change. Follow her on Twitter at @angelalush.