ICYMI | From Issue 2: Jane Williams' "The Cane Cutter's Son"
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS | Dear readers, we ask that due to copyrights you do not reproduce this work, in part or in whole, without the explicit permission of the editors or author.  Copyright, The Sonder Review/Jane Williams, 2015


The Cane Cutter's Son

Jane Williams


When the boy is still a boy the world is made of sugar. His father cuts long canes of it all day in the steamy north Queensland heat. Sometimes, the boy chews on the stringy fibre and pretends it is chewing tobacco and that he is an American cowboy. In reality, at school, he is always made to play the part of the Indian. 


The boy's mother makes cut lunches for him to take out to his father in the field. Ham and cheese with golden rings of pineapple. His father likes to set an example to his crew and looking up at the sun's position in the sky, stops work at exactly the same time for lunch every day. When the boy arrives, he pats his stomach and says, ah, perfect timing, though he never wears a watch. The boy thinks this is a kind of magic and wishes it for himself. To know things without having to ask. 


His father is a ganger and the boy learns this means he is the boss of his crew. Because he is a ganger, and has a wife and child, they are not expected to share accommodation like the other workers. They are given a whole house to live in. The house is called The Barracks and consists of a row of single banked rooms and bare concrete floors. His mother calls it making do. From reading old war comic books the boy knows Barracks are also a place where soldiers live. Sometimes he wonders what it would be like to be a soldier. To have something to fight for and somebody waiting for you at the end of it all. Or a sailor, like Sinbad, sailing forever from one adventure to the next.


Because of the heat, the front and back doors of The Barracks are often left open and cane toads run through on warty legs like miniature dinosaurs. The boy believes people from the city would think toads hop like frogs. But he knows better. He's watched the cane toads and knows only the baby ones hop. Such knowledge makes him smile a secret smile of belonging, though most nights he dreams of leaving.


His mother smokes and his father drinks. And the boy knows these are things they do not like in each other but that are, in the beginning, small things beside their mutual attraction. The way they look at each other in the beginning warms the boy from the inside and can bring tears to his eyes, making him feel that he is one of them and that they are a real family.


The boy knows the cane cutter is not his real father. Where the cane cutter is blue eyed and fair skinned and speaks in softly accented tones, the boy has dark, restless eyes and hair that will not be tamed. His mother cuts his hair using a mixing bowl over his head. Once, she tries to cut all his curls away but after a few minutes puts the scissors down and, sighing, sends him outside to play. Outside the boy looks back through the kitchen window and sees his mother sweeping up the crescents of his hair from the floor. She is doing this very slowly and he can tell from the way she has sucked her lips in and from the way she moves her head from side to side that she is crying as she sweeps. He thinks that somehow this must be his fault.


The boy and his mother are like clouds drifting over each other in search of their true shapes. They don’t touch each other the way he thinks other mothers and their children must touch. But he is never hungry or cold, rarely gets sick, and has been told enough times for it become truth, that he should count his lucky stars.


Sometimes, he wonders if his mother loves him. If asked she might say, you're my son. As if it is a given. But this would only be the fact of the matter and not the words he longed to hear. Even as a child, the boy believes he reminds his mother of his real father. The one he would learn, many years later, was passionate about three things. Drink. Song. Women. Though he would not learn this from his mother. The boy tries but cannot remember his father and he knows it is best not to ask. Instead, he tries to mimic the cane cutter's gentle voice and deliberate ways. 


Sometimes, when it seems she has been avoiding looking at him for days on end, the boy’s mother will suddenly hold his head firmly between her hands and stare into his eyes as if searching for some precious, lost thing. On these occasions, he can smell her tobacco fingers and the sweet, waxy scent of her bright lipstick. His mother stares hard and long, until the boy feels afraid and happy and sad all at the same time.


Just before the boy turns fifteen he runs away from home and tries to join the navy. He is too young and his mother must sign a letter of permission. The third time he runs away, she signs the letter and packs his bags and says, stay away from the drink and you might make something of yourself.


The boy spends the next seven years learning how to be a sailor. How to take orders from someone other than his mother. When he first hears the expression distance makes the heart grow fonder, he imagines a key waiting to turn in a heart. In her heart. In his heart. He becomes a diver despite his fear of sharks. He tests himself in other ways. Learns the difference between soft and hard drugs. Free Love and love paid for by the hour. 


The boy sends his mother exotic postcards from far away places. They exchange birthday letters and he learns his mother eventually leaves the cane cutter and becomes a hairdresser in a larger town. She lives on her own but is not without friends and admirers. Once, every few years, he visits and his mother tells him he needs a haircut, waiting as if this is a question, but the boy, now a man, changes the subject. They share a meal together on these visits but he never stays the night. She still smokes and he has taken to drinking. There is guarded politeness and selective reminiscing. 


After years of discovering all of the things a man can try on for size and keep or discard as he sees fit, his hair, though still thick and wavy, has turned prematurely white. And, after all of this, the man feels himself becoming something closer to the boy he was when the world was made of sugar and there was still time for a mother and a son to find their true shapes.


The man visits his mother, who now cuts hair from her home for a handful of regulars sitting out of loyalty beneath a cloud of tobacco smoke. His mother is forgetting things. Putting salt in his tea. House keys in the freezer. Asking him why he hasn't brought a wife and children. Why he's always leaving. 


One day the man sits unasked in his mother’s chair.  He sits in front of the mirror beside the trolley of scissors, combs and spray bottles. Their reflected eyes make contact and hold, and a story unfolds as naturally as if they were picking up a thread of interrupted conversation. It is the story of a restless girl from a red-neck town and a boy whose singing, sweet as golden syrup, drew her to him time and again, until she could no longer tell their futures apart. 


The man feels some tightly wound thing begin unravelling, some long wait coming to an end, as his mother speaks of boundaries, real and imagined, of easy abandonment and hard choices. Of coming home. As she moves to lay her hands on him. As he lets her.