Miriam Sykes had been called many things and not all of them were kind. A witch, a gypsy. Hermit. Lunatic. Satan. But Miriam Sykes was just a woman—a woman who was very good at finding things.
Miriam lived a good twenty minute walk from Sturtville station. Trains didn’t stop there anymore. Well, not trains for moving people anyhow. There weren’t many people left to move in bum-fuck nowhere South Australia. That’s what my brother called Sturtville: bum-fuck nowhere. He wasn’t exactly wrong. Sturtville consisted of opal miners, a high school of about fifty kids, a Woolies, and one sad little servo that sold over-priced fuel. That was our town. Village. Hole-in-the-ground. We didn’t have a lot in Sturtville (more than one doctor, for example) but there was one thing we had that no other place in Australia did. And that was Miriam Sykes.
My mother called her Mad Miriam, as did pretty much everyone else in town. Everyone knew her, or knew of her, at least.
‘See that sheila the other night with the crazy hair?’
‘Who, Mad Miriam?’
‘What about that bird in Woolies with no shoes on, hey?’
‘Probs just Mad Miriam mate.’
Conversations like that were as common as flies in Sturtville. Everyone loved to share their Mad Miriam sightings. But to those who actually knew her—her clients—she was simply Aunty Mim.
I first heard the name Aunty Mim from Wendy McDonnell in Year 5, when I’d lost my favourite book. I’d been looking everywhere for it—my backpack, tote tray, even the school’s lost property bin. Nothing.
I was tossing my tray at the back of the classroom, worksheets and old newsletters taking flight like snow caught in an updraft, when Wendy said, ‘Why don’t you ask Aunty Mim to help you find it?’
I stared at her, crazy-eyed, for a good minute. ‘Who’s Aunty Mim?’
‘She lives in a tree out by the station.’
Oh. Mad Miriam.
‘She helped my Mum find the pearls she got from Grandma when she died,’ Wendy said. ‘Aunty Colleen had them all along. Turns out Aunty Colleen had lots of things Mum’d lost.’
I really did like this book. And I did want it back. But how could some crazy old woman living in the bush help me? It was worth a try. I asked Mum that night if she’d take me to Aunty Mim’s to get my book. I knew she’d say no but…
‘Who’s Aunty Mim?’
Mum made the same face I did when Wendy told me.
‘Mad Miriam,’ I clarified for her.
Her face now went ‘Oh’. She said, ‘Now darling, that isn’t very nice, calling someone that.’
‘That’s why I called her Aunty Mim.’
‘Right. Well. I don’t think you should go see her.’
‘Because she’s a stranger, darling. And strangers are dangerous. Remember Mr Paul at the supermarket? I’ll tell you what: if you don’t find this book of yours by the weekend, I’ll buy you a new one.’
Mum never offered to buy me stuff just because. She must’ve really wanted me not to see Aunty Mim. And sure enough, when my book failed to turn up, a new copy arrived from the internet two weeks later and I forgot all about it.
We didn’t talk about Aunty Mim again. Didn’t even think of her really. She went back to being that eccentric oddity the town gossiped about and not a real person with a name. I wasn’t a careless child and I didn’t misplace things often so it was easy to forget ever hearing about Aunty Mim and her mysterious lost and found service. But when my dog went missing two years later and our month spent searching and sticking reward posters around town proved fruitless, Mad Miriam once again made her way into my thoughts.
‘Don’t remember my art teacher ever sending me on some bush hike sketching bullshit,’ my brother, Jacob, moaned as he pulled up out front of the old train station. He’d just gotten his Ps and if it wasn’t for the excitement of being able to get behind the wheel without Mum nagging his ear off he never would’ve agreed to take me and Wendy anywhere.
‘Did Ms Petty even teach there when you were in Year 7?’ I challenged. If he figured out we were going to see Aunty Mim and somehow decided to blab to Mum I’d be in deep shit.
Jacob just grunted and pulled out one of his funny homemade smokes. ‘Just be back in an hour so I don’t have to go looking for you.’
He snatched the bag of salt and vinegar potato chips from my lap and all but pushed me from the car.
‘Does she really live in a tree?’ I whispered to Wendy, even though we were well out of my brother’s earshot. He had the windows wound up tight; thick plumes of white smoke filled the car like fog.
‘I … don’t think so,’ Wendy said. ‘That’s just what people say, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure Mum said it was a bus. Or a caravan. But it’s parked under a tree, so I suppose that’s where the stories come from.’
It was warm for August—sunny and mid-twenties. My feet sweated inside my boots. Mum always made us wear these daggy leather work books whenever we went outside, even in the winter ’cause she’s paranoid about us getting bitten by a snake. Wendy looked like a tourist going on a luxury hiking trip: New Balance cross-trainers, Lorna Jane tights, light weight windbreaker, some other brand name sunnies over her hazel eyes. Wendy’s family were sea-changers from Melbourne. Something about needing to get out of the city and start again after her grandparents died. Scott McDonnell was our lone doctor in town and his wife … I didn’t really know what Wendy’s mum did. But the McDonnells were exactly the kind of people who’d avoid Mirm Sykes. And yet, they were the only ones in the whole of bum-fuck nowhere who didn’t call her by some nasty name. Mum’d always said city people were rude.
We walked for ten minutes along a noticeably worn path through the spinifex and saltbush before the gum trees grew tall before us. Aunty Mim’s caravan—and yes it was a caravan, no car attached—was parked under the biggest ghost gum I’d ever seen. It had smooth creamy pink bark and gnarly branches reaching right up to the patchily clouded sky above.
‘That’s her,’ Wendy said, removing her sunnies.
Aunty Mim had a mane of salt and pepper hair and leathery skin tanned dark by the sun. She had shocking eyes the colour of ice and wore a blue boho-hippy dress patterned with swirling silver lines that glistened faintly like snail trails left behind after the rain. She was wild and beautiful and crazily alluring. I wanted to tell her all my secrets at once.
‘What could you lovely little things possibly have lost, hm?’ Aunty Mim asked without looking up. She was barbecuing something over a charcoal grill. I half expected some exotic bush delicacy given her living situation; as I got closer my eyes and nose confirmed it was portobello mushrooms steaks she was grilling and not witchetty grubs.
‘I’m … I’m Lydia Gardiner,’ I said. ‘This is my friend—’
‘Wendeline McDonnell,’ Aunty Mim said, curls bouncing as she nodded. She turned the mushrooms with a sizzle and a lick from a golden tongue of fire. ‘You look just like your mother. How is Sally-Ann? Lose any more heirlooms?’
‘Nope!’ Wendy beamed. ‘She even found a bunch more.’
Aunty Mim smiled. ‘Well, lost trinkets often wander in pairs. And you my dear’—she looked right at me, pale eyes almost glowing—‘What is it you need found, hm?’ Having grabbed a nearby plate, she started stacking the mushrooms up one, two, three, like fat chocolate pancakes. ‘Your father, perhaps?’
I looked at my feet but didn’t say anything. My father didn’t need finding—he wasn’t lost. Mum said something about Sydney and other woman and that was enough explanation for me. Didn’t matter where he was, only that he wasn’t here. No. My father didn’t need finding.
‘We’ve lost our dog,’ I said at last. ‘She’s been gone for weeks and it’s not like her. She doesn’t wander around at night because we have a kennel and little dog yard to lock her up in to keep her safe.’
Millie’s yard had been there since before we even got a dog. The two by one metre pen was encased by chicken wire walls taller than I was and held sturdy with iron fence posts. An old wooden screen door had been appropriated from the house after some sort of reno and attached with a bolt lock. We put Millie to bed in there each night—she was always sad to go at first, but her kennel was big and warm and full of old blankets, dirty socks and some mangled chew toys.
I must’ve started to tear up just thinking about her because Aunty Mim threw a bottle of water over the hot coals and ushered us inside her caravan. It was bigger in there than I pictured and I was overcome with that sense of disorientation like when you step inside a circus tent and find out how truly massive it is. Aunty Mim’s caravan was no circus tent—not in size, anyway. But it was comfortably spacious. In a cosy, cluttered sort of way. There were trinkets everywhere. Knickknacks and ornaments, collectable spoons and seashells of all shapes and sizes lined the window ledges and shelves around the bed. The dining table, which was more like a booth for two at an American diner I’d seen on TV, was stacked with old magazines. An elephant with its trunk raised skyward, carved from some sort of soft wood, served as a paperweight atop the pile.
Aunty Mim set the plate of mushrooms steaks down on an empty spot. She slipped into the booth; Wendy and I squeezed in together opposite her. Aunty Mim reached up for a pull cord and tugged it until the overhead light flickered on; it was dark inside the caravan now the sun had shifted away from the windows. The light was covered with a crocheted lampshade that had all sorts of beads and ribbons hanging off it. It looked like a jellyfish whose tentacles were coming down to get us. I didn’t want to look at it.
‘This dog of yours,’ Aunty Mim said. Her eyes narrowed almost as if she didn’t believe me. ‘Do you have anything of hers?
Wendy had told me to prepare something for Aunty Mim to ‘anchor’ on to. I rummaged through my backpack, pushed aside the art diary and pencils I’d brought to keep up our ruse, and pulled out Millie’s first collar. It was pink and studded with little blunt spikes. Jacob wanted something butch because Millie was a boxer; I wanted something pink because Millie was a girl and I was six years old when we got her. I passed it to Aunty Mim.
She sniffed the collar. That would have be shockingly weird under circumstances that didn’t involve sitting in a caravan with hippy and her lack of footwear. Neither Wendy or I said anything as Aunty Mim turned the collar around in her hands. Her brow furrowed, adding to the number of lines that already creased her aging face. She opened her mouth to speak once or twice but reassessed and sealed her lips tight.
‘To have something found, something else must be lost,’ Aunty Mim said at last. ‘That is your payment.’
‘So you know where she is? You saw where Millie is?’ Excitement pumped through me so ferociously my body had worked itself into a half-standing position. My hands curled into fists on the laminate tabletop as I drew closer to Auntie Mim. ‘Is she far? Is she okay?’
‘You must pay the price, lovely.’ Her words were direct this time. ‘What will you lose to find this dog?’
‘Be specific—but do not name a person. That kind of trade always gets messy.’
I closed my mouth before I could reflexively say Jacob. There were plenty of things I had but didn’t want any more. I took inventory in my mind of everything I possessed; I could feel Wendy doing the same beside me. I couldn’t trade anything too big, too noticeable, like the main school building or Jacob’s stereo.
‘My bike,’ I said in a burst of decision. It was perfect: it just sat in the garage growing cobwebs. Dad had given it to me for my eighth birthday. He was always going to spend his next free weekend teaching me. He never did. Now the pink paint had faded to a dirty white; the wicker basket had perished and fallen off; and the tassels streaming from the handlebars were now braided tightly together with thick, dusty spider webs. It still had the training wheels attached.
‘You can have my bike. I will lose my bike to find my dog.’ I repeated myself with finality, in case I needed to be overly explicit in order to evoke the power of whatever magic Aunty Mim conducted.
‘Okay then.’ Aunty Mim handed the collar back to me. ‘Visualise this bike of yours. Are you visualising?’
‘Y-yes. Yes, I am.’ I closed my eyes and thought about the dirty little bike in our garage. Aunty Mim pressed her finger to my forehead. It was a hard press, a push really. My head sprang back with the force. When I opened my eyes she was already standing and clearing the plate of barbecued mushrooms no one touched.
‘Okay, well it is done,’ Aunty Mim said. ‘When you get home, look in the backyard behind the woodpile and you’ll find your dog.’
I wanted to hug her. I did, actually. I just threw myself at her, awkwardly twisting myself away from the plate she held in her hands. I don’t know if she liked it; in fact I’m pretty sure she didn’t. She stood there, confused, and hard as a rock until I pulled away.
‘Thank you, Aunty Mim. I’ve missed her so much. Thank you!’
Her smile was placating but not sincere, but I didn’t realise that until later.
‘You lovelies take care of yourself. Don’t lose anymore things.’
Wendy and I hurried back to the station. My head buzzed, heart beat eagerly. Jacob was still parked where we left him. Even from the other side of the road, I could hear the heavy bass thumping from the car stereo. He butted his cigarette into an empty Coke can the moment we opened the doors and started swatting away the traces of smoke as if that would somehow hide what he was doing.
It seemed to take hours for Jacob to drive the five ks back to town. I said goodbye to Wendy with a promise to call her later before we rounded the corner into our block. Jacob had barely switched off the ignition before I was racing out of the backseat and into the yard.
The woodpile Aunty Mim had been talking about wasn’t a pile of wood for the fireplace but a pile of shit left behind from previous owners. Pine offcuts, broken window frames, smashed up palettes: it was all stacked up there at the edge of our backyard, a glaring fire hazard rife with snakes. Mum never let us go down that far. But I had to. Millie was there.
The grass was long and brittle behind the shit pile. No one ever mowed up here because it was narrow and awkward and full of rocks and protruding tree roots. I smashed through the calf-high grass, snapping sticks under my big boots. I was about to call out for Millie but then—
Then I stopped.
A patch of disturbed soil lay nestled amongst the unkempt lawn of our back yard. We didn’t garden or weed or anything here. There was no reason for someone to be digging around. No reason except—
Mum approached with the same crunching footsteps. I turned to see her tear-clogged eyes.
‘Oh darling,’ she choked. She reached out and pulled me close. ‘I’m so, so sorry.’
Face buried in the side of her neck, I tried my best not to cry like she was. ‘What happened?’ I managed to ask, dry-eyed.
‘I got up to let her out of the kennel and… She must have tried to get out during the night. Jumping and pushing the door back. She got her head stuck and—’
Now it was my turn to cry. It came out in ugly, chest-shuddering sobs. My face was hot, my nose was running, and my breath hitched in my throat. I felt cheated, lied to. Angry at Mum, angry at Aunty Mim. But Aunty Mim never lied. She’d said I’d find Millie. And she was right.
‘I’m sorry darling, I shouldn’t have hid it from you,’ Mum said, squeezing me close. ‘I just didn’t know how to tell you. But you’ve been worrying all this time and I’m so sorry.’
I had been worried. Had Millie been hurt? Scared? Alone? I guess she’s none of that now. I cried harder for a moment, then not so much. Mum kept hugging me, stroking my hair and rocking back and forth slightly as though I was still a little baby. It did make me feel better. Only a little.
We stood there for a while until my tears stopped and I finished saying my goodbyes to Millie. Mum was quiet, just there with a comforting hand on my back. There wasn’t anything more she needed to say. Eventually we turned and walked back towards the house.
‘I’ll cook your favourite for dinner tonight, okay?’ Mum said. ‘Chops and gravy?’
‘Yeah, that’ll be nice. Thanks Mum.’
Mum paused as we passed the garage, something having caught the corner of her eye. ‘Hey, what happened to your bike? Did you move it?’
I followed her eye line to where my bike should have been, leant up against the corrugated iron side of the garage. There was a vacant spot now, a break in all the dust and cobwebs. A pang of guilt stabbed my chest at seeing it gone.
I shrugged. ‘Guess I lost it somewhere.’
This was a madlibs writing challenge where I was given the following words to craft into a short story: potato, train, fire, golden, elephant, glow, pattern, snow, flight, pancakes, jellyfish, circus, snail, sky, hazel.
Comments and critiques are welcomed and encouraged.
(My indents are trash and I’m sorry)