Flies settled on the corners of Ruby’s lips, but she didn’t swat them away. Not even a lick. She just pushed the cream fabric of her dress between her legs and waited on the concrete steps outside the country chapel for Mother. Mother rounded the corner, fanning herself.
‘Ruby!’ she knelt down and pulled out Ruby’s skirt. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I don’t like this dress. It’s itchy and tight. Why can’t I wear trousers?’ Ruby kicked the step.
‘We wear dresses to church, like all the other pretty girls.’ She stood, straightened her own dress and dragged Ruby inside. Ruby knocked her knee on the oak door, but said nothing — she was used to the pain. Instead, Ruby counted the fingertip bruises on Mother’s calves. They were scattered like constellations. Her favourites were the Big Dipper near Mother’s ankle, and the Southern Cross on her left thigh. Ruby had three green bruises on her knees. Her own Orion’s Belt.
It was their third Sunday in the church, each week moving a few pews closer to the front. Mother sat two rows from the front, straightened her pleats and glanced to see if she was being watched.
The church was large, made from mismatched bits of timber and painted white. All doors were open; still the air smelled sour, like stale sweat and dusty bibles. The roof peaked high above them. It was the tallest building Ruby had ever been inside. She wondered why the church needed such a high roof. Did it help the singing get to God? Did the crack in the top right corner let all the prayers out? She wondered if she climbed to the rafters near the crack, whether God would hear her better.
Then the man dressed in black stepped up to the front. A priest, Ruby had been told, although she didn’t know what that meant. His face was red like he’d been slapped all over. The organ sounded. The people started singing. Ruby made up the words to songs she didn’t know until her voice went hoarse and she forgot about her stinging legs. The priest asked if anyone had anything to share. Mother rearranged her legs. Vinyl cracked as she shifted.
An old man stood and talked, with hunched shoulders and palms pressed together, about marriage and the duties of a wife. Ruby counted the liver spots on his head and wondered how anyone could marry someone with such bushy eyebrows. The man talked and Ruby felt Mother rummaging in her purse. She heard her sniff. She turned to see tears filling her wrinkles. She had never seen Mother cry before. Not even when she had bruises around her throat.
Ruby pressed her fingers into her bruises. Felt that bite, and then the calm that always came after.
The church creaked. People slid to their knees. The priest started praying. Ruby watched his words float in the stale air, up towards the rafters and out the crack in the top right hand corner.