Co-published by Get YA Words Out and edited by Seth Malacari, An Unexpected Party brings together the stories of emerging authors from the LGBTQIA+ community.
Read a short story from the collection.
OUR TIME, OUR HOME
by Alistair Ott
Sleep flung themself between the soggy wooden fence slats, almost slipping on the mud below. With a relieved sigh, they collected themself and glanced back at the old farmhouse, its porch light flickering in the storm. I’ll only be away till morning; she won’t even notice I’m gone. If Aunty caught them running off again, Sleep would be in for yet another lecture about the dangers of the whitefullas night.
Aunty remembered her time in the Northern city, where people never slept, and she and her wife had kept close when walking alone in the dark. That was what night meant for her. For Sleep, night meant they could freely explore the desolate streets and the bush surrounding them without any suspicious glares or whispers. This land was their family’s country, where their aunty and mother were born, but Sleep was nothing but a bored stranger to the locals. When Sleep first moved here, to the town called Otherwhere, Aunty ran around all day working for others. She never had time for herself, let alone them, even if she was always quick to tell them what they were doing wrong. Too lonely, too quiet. Sleep just didn’t know how to speak to her.
Sleep jogged down the gravel road and into town, water sloshing around in their rain boots. When Sleep could no longer see the porch light behind them they stopped, resting on a tree trunk and trying to calm their hammering heart. Not too long now. The lights of town glowed just past the bend in the road. The rain and wind called for them to push on through the storm to their place, the tall grass beneath them pulling them onwards.
Rain pattered onto the pavement, falling from the rooftops and slinking into the gutter. This time in the evening was Sleep’s favourite — these moments when the streets were empty of people and alive with everything else. The night took over, and it felt closer to their time. Just like the stories Aunty would sing as she baked, watching them from across the kitchen counter, never daring to close the distance and hold them like their mother once did.
Trudging down the pavement, Sleep finally made it to the other side of town. To the end of Otherwhere before the bush took over. They lifted their hands towards the falling sky – raindrops sizzled and sparked as they bounced off them. A deep caw rang out from the trees behind them, crawling up their spine and tussling their hair. They spun around, trying to catch what bird could be about this late in the evening, but only rain filled their ears. The moon impatiently rose over the horizon. Sleep picked up the pace, running off the mud-slick highway and into the retreating scrub below with a newfound fever.
Time sped past as Sleep made their way further into the bush and finally found what they sought. An old mossy sign, which once must have stood as tall as them, now leaned onto a fallen gum tree. They could just make out the carved words ‘Recollection Falls’. Sleep always wondered what this place’s true name was. His mother would tell stories of the rivers being shaped and carved by a great being, but never of this place. Although the tingling that spread from Sleep’s fingertips and deep into their belly told them it was special, sacred.
A short walk from the sign ran an impossibly deep river etching through the bush before disappearing seemingly without a trace. Well hidden by blue gums and brush sat a sinkhole, where the water fell from the river into a magnificent waterfall. Sleep was careful not to fall over the ridge as they slipped between branches and down the cliffside.
To get to its floor, Sleep carefully climbed down carved stairs, permanently slick with water sprayed from the falls. Forgotten by others, this was their special place, where roots twisted and told forgotten stories and moss-covered sandstone surrounded a pool of deep, chilled water. Slivers of quartz and mounds of opal shone amongst cracks in the walls. Despite the overcast sky the rock walls gleamed with their own light, their colours reflected off the pool in an iridescent rainbow.
The storm above raged on, full of fury and frustration, but it died before it could meet the water below. The towering gum trees above and the undisturbed sanctity of the falls protected Sleep. They moved around the pond’s edges and sat in a dry spot next to it. They took off their gloves and tried to massage warmth into their hands; their raincoat could only do so much. Sleep had waited impatiently for weeks for this storm to pass before returning here, but it just raged on. And during those weeks they had found themself unable to rest: nothing was as calming and safe as these falls, where the air around them sang stories lost to time and the water called out to them from deep below its surface.
Leaning over and dipping their hand into the pond, Sleep found it just as icy as the air around it. The deep blue seemed to go on forever, no bottom to be seen despite it being as clear as glass. But just as they truly relaxed, a flutter on the other side of the pond caught their attention. Eyes met eyes. Sleep scrambled back as the crow on the other side cawed with delight. The crow danced around in the falls before skimming the surface of the water and landing in front of them. Sleep clenched their hands as it cooed and rattled, pecking at their rain boots.
‘You were the caw from before?’ Sleep leaned in. They laughed as the crow fluffed up, cocking its head at them, before strutting around them and returning to the water to play. Sleep knelt up, crawling closer to the water’s edge. Trembling, they dared to reach out, brushing against its tail feathers.
‘Whatcha following me for?’ Sleep asked as the crow cawed softly, snuggling into the palm of their hand.
The crow ducked down and settled at the water’s edge, cawing in what they assumed was approval as Sleep joined it. It peered down into the pond, lowering its head and drinking. The water sparked and hummed as it did. Smoke filled Sleep’s vision and they remembered their mother’s stories: she’d told them tales of their family’s moiety, Crow, a crafty and wise mischief maker. Although they may find themselves far away from each other, Sleep would see Crow and feel her spirit through it.
Crow fluffed up and peered over at Sleep, before shooting up and flying straight down into the pond, disappearing into its depths. The water around it crashed and swelled, rainbow light glittering around the sinkhole.
Sleep watched as the water calmed back down into soft waves. They shuddered, their whole body electrified, and stepped forward. Deep below the surface, warm orange and purple light shone through the water, calling out to them. They gazed back up, where the stretching leafy branches hid the storming sky, and grinned. They took a deep breath and stepped into the water.
And fell …
And fell …
They finally emerged back onto land. Coughing up water, they pulled themself out and touched not cold sandstone but warm sweetgrass. Their lungs burned, but as they stood and patted themselves down, they found their clothes and skin were dry. Rather than a sinkhole cocooned in moss and quartz, they found themself next to a lagoon covered in nardoo and bulrush at the top of a flowering hill. Opalescent scrub and white gums that glowed like moonlight covered the valley below. The sky was deep dark indigo and covered with more swirling stars than Sleep thought possible. Even though it was still night, everything was clear and bright; the stars’ collective light shone as bright as a single sun.
A deep honeyed voice cawed out from above them. Sleep whipped their head around and up. Looking down at them was Crow, its body spread out immeasurably on the eucalypt above. Black wings dripped down to the ground from where it sat. Its feathers were black as night, splattered with swirling stars akin to the sky. Its beak curled up in a smile, peering at Sleep in amused consideration.
‘Crow? You … ah … you brou –’
It interrupted, preening its feathers. ‘Brought you here? No. You jumped in all by yourself.’
‘I – I guess. Why?’
‘Oh, because you were doing so much where you were, huh? What a busy human.’ Sarcasm dripped from its beak.
‘I’ll just go back then, huh!’ Sleep turned, face hot. The water below was still in anticipation. Crow swooped down, landing on the other side of the lagoon. At full height it towered over Sleep.
‘Well, you could go back. Just jump in. Or …’ Crow spread its night-sky wings, gesturing to the land before them. ‘Do you reallyhave anywhere you need to be?’ It sang out, a cawing laugh.
Sleep mulled their choices. Their heart hammered in their chest. Excitement and fear spread from the ground and filled them from toes upwards.
‘Go on child. I’ll be right behind y –’ Before it could even finish, Sleep spun around and ran down the side of the hill. They heard a burst of joyful barking laughter follow them down before they slipped between two enormous trunks and into the bush. She won’t even notice I’m gone. They made that promise one more time. This was just the adventure they’d been looking for!
Sleep strolled through the glowing white gums and weeping willows, jumping over jingling lilly-pillies and swerving out of the way of dancing waratahs. They kept an eye out for the black feathers in their periphery and followed the silver river that spread across the bush, watching the honeybees and butterflies sway and bop across the still water. They passed a great fen spotted with water lilies and rushes, walking just a little bit faster when they spotted a broad grey croc sitting in the wetland, watching them with keen interest.
Pushing their way through thorny brambles, Sleep found themselves in a vast valley. In front of them stood a mountainous silky gum, its branches spanning the horizon and its bright golden-orange flowers contracted against the night sky. Birds of all colours sang and danced amongst the foliage and cuddled up in the shade. Nectar seeped down from the great flowers and formed streams where they drank. A grand old sulphur-crested cockatoo spun its head around and fluffed up when it spotted the teenager standing at the end of its domain.
‘AH! A Spirit? Or a Human?’ It bellowed out with curious excitement. ‘Who approaches? AH!’
A band of lorikeets, rosellas and galahs rose from their perch and surrounded Sleep before they could step back or explain themself.
‘It’s not a ghost!’ ‘Look! It’s bruised.’ ‘I don’t trust it!’
‘It’s real, it’s real!’ ‘Who let it here?’
The birds fluttered around Sleep, softly brushing up and clambering on top of each other for a peek. Sleep tentatively reached out and stroked them in greeting, relieved when one by one they nestled up and chirped in response. A smaller galah sat down close to the crowd, watching them with wide curious eyes.
The great Cockatoo rose from the tree and plunged down. The breeze made by its giant wings pushed Sleep back off their feet and scattered the other birds. This one was much bigger than Crow. It ducked down to meet Sleep’s gaze, cocking its head side to side.
‘AH, did you fall here child? This is not your place. Not yet …’ Cockatoo chuckled, its kin around it joining in and echoing laughter across the valley.
‘Yeah, something like that. I’m kind of just, travelling I guess.’ Sleep tucked their hands in their raincoat pockets, shrugging, realising its shiny black plastic stood out amongst the colourful birds.
‘Travelling? Or seeking something? It can be quite dangerous here. Follow me, child.’ It rose and tottered down the valley, following a stream of nectar past coves of bumbling bees.
‘Dangerous? Yeah, I guess. I’ve seen that big croc,’ Sleep snorted.
‘Oh child. Not Croc. You keep running too far and you’ll lose your way home.’ Cockatoo waddled further down the valley, where chirping chicks nestled together in fluffy nests.
‘That doesn’t sound like the worst thing,’ Sleep retorted.
‘Wouldn’t you miss someone?’
Sleep scrunched up his face, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Maybe, but I don’t think I would be missed.’ Unable to stop the words from tumbling out, their heart fell at their own confession.
‘And how could you know that?’ A familiar voice bellowed from behind them. Crow swooped down and settled next to the now glaring Cockatoo.
‘AH! So you’re how this poor human got here!’ Cockatoo squawked, flaring its crest.
‘Nice to see you again, Cockatoo,’ Crow preened.
‘Well, if Crow’s your guide you best go on, you have elsewhere to be!’ Cockatoo cried, puffing up, before rising and sweeping Sleep off their feet with great gusts. The others rose from their perch, diving in and circling Sleep with a furious roar.
Sleep clambered back trying to escape the flock. They felt a tug on their sleeve. Looking back, they found a small galah that stood crouched under the mob pecking at them, pulling them under the birds and towards red soil. Rolling onto their belly, Sleep crawled until they hit dry grass. As soon as they were free from the hoard they jumped up and ran down the gully. Sleep stopped, realising they had lost their little saviour, only to see it and Crow fly past their head and disappear toward a vast empty desert. The other birds dared not to follow, retreating to their mother tree.
Sleep caught their breath before trying to trace the path of their guides. Parched dirt cracked under their soles. The air was thick and arid and left a film of ick in Sleep’s mouth. The trees here twisted unnaturally into each other, creating a path for them to follow. Sleep’s footsteps echoed, and every breath bounced down the desert no matter how they tried to silence themself. Greenery peeked from the deadness in front of them. They quickly started sprinting towards the hope of the lush bush. The numbness trailing up from their feet and fingertips left their body as soon as they stepped onto fresh grass.
The tall grass hummed as Sleep slipped past it. It gradually got taller and taller until Sleep couldn’t see over it. Jumping up, they could just make the tops of the stems. The buzz of cicadas echoed around them until it was almost deafening. They kept wandering, getting deeper and deeper, worried they would be forever lost in this ever-growing meadow. They stumbled through the stalks, hope draining with every step, until they fell through the grass and straight into a patch of mud.
Spluttering, they stood up. In front of them was a farmhouse: their aunty’s farmhouse. The wooden building stood amongst the towering grassland. Blue-green flickering Christmas beetles wafted around the house, bumping into each other. Stepping closer, Sleep realised the house wasn’t man-made from planks of wood, but rather carved out from a single giant gum. The rest of the trunk lay behind the house, flattening the grass around it. Sleep looked back at the sea of wild grass. Uncanny as the farmhouse might be, it had to be better than being lost.
Their rainboots clunked across the wooden porch as they walked toward the front door. Instead of a door, this farmhouse had a fist-sized hole and a perch where the door knocker should be. Sleep tentatively lifted their hand and knocked just beside the perch. Their knocks resounded throughout the farmhouse. Silence.
Sleep shuffled their feet. They felt just as at home here as they did in their aunty’s house back in Otherwhere: That is, not much at all. They stepped back just as the familiar galah appeared through the hole with a fluttering of feathers and landed on the perch.
‘Oh, um, hello! Thank you, you know, for earlier,’ Sleep said, running their fingers through their curls. The galah preened and tweeted, before disappearing back into the hole. A glowing line appeared and travelled from the hole down and around the wood creating the shape of a doorway. Clicking into place, a door appeared and snapped open.
It opened into a living room that mirrored their aunty’s, but in place of furniture and clutter sat roots, moss and mushrooms. The galah fluttered in the roots, moving lichen and sapphire flowers around the room. Sleep took it as an invitation and stepped inside, swerving to miss a buzzing beetle. The room was lit up, but Sleep could not find the light source. Everything glowed, soft and warm.
‘Why did you help me … um?’ Sleep asked.
‘Ohhhh honey, my name’s Galah!’ It fluffed up, bouncing around the room and never taking its eyes off Sleep. ‘And I’m sorta a friend of Crow, thought it was right to help you out!’
‘Sorta? And you live here?’ Sleep wandered around. Where their aunty’s couch and old box TV normally sat was a snoozing goanna on a bed of moss. Instead of a kitchen there was a patch of blooming lavender and a native bee nest. The bees buzzed around like kitchen clutter. Sitting on a giant toadstool sat Crow with a wide smile, one great claw wrapped around a mug made from thick quartz.
‘Not going to run away again, huh? You are good at that,’ Crow teased.
‘My human lives here, and Crow helped me get my colours! Look at me now!’ Galah spoke up, ignoring its grinning friend. It lifted its grey and pink wings, twirling around in the air.
‘Your human?’ Of course, their aunty’s family were galah people. ‘Why is her house here? Is the whole town here?’ Sleep questioned.
‘It’s here for you, for you to come back home.’ Galah directed Sleep to a neighbouring log and they were surprised at how soft it felt. Sleep stiffened up as Galah sat on their shoulder and preened their hair. No one had done that since …
‘I don’t really have a home.’ Sleep shook their head, overwhelmed by all the sensations prickling at their skin.
‘Home is what you make of it, sweetheart, and it’s there waiting for you.’ Galah darted past them to collect a beakful of river mint and lemon myrtle.
‘And you ran so far away from it you fell outta your world, didn’t you! Worrying your aunty,’ Crow laughed. Galah swatted at it with their wing as it flew past and returned to Sleep, decorating their hair with the herbs. Sleep leaned down and grazed a tuft of flowering buds. Their aunty was worried? How long had they been here? They tried to count the minutes, but time warped and blurred together. Galah’s loving stare matched Aunty’s and Sleep felt homesickness well up in their chest.
‘I … I should probably get going,’ they mumbled, fiddling with their sleeves.
‘Oh, of course! Got places to be, I get it,’ Galah clucked, flying over and snuggling into their neck. Sleep stiffened but raised their hand, and half hugged the waggling bird.
‘Hugs are good for ya, ya know!’
Sleep laughed at Galah’s disapproving tone.
Crow followed Sleep out of the farmhouse and back onto the porch . Standing there together they watched as the sun began to rise in the east, and the sky brightened to bedazzling pink and yellow. A wave of humid warmth blew past Sleep before they were cooled by a gust of shade covering them – Crow’s wing stretched out overhead.
‘So, how’re you getting home then, fulla?’ Crow asked, looking away with feigned disinterest.
‘Well! I’ll …’ Sleep jumped down the steps before pausing. Tall grass surrounded them, their shadow coiling at their boots and beckoning them in. ‘How should I get home then?’ They bashfully looked back, becoming quickly sceptical of Crow’s widening grin.
‘Home! I can get you home, c’mon kid.’
Crow bounced off the patio and behind the house where the wide tree trunk lay. Sleep rushed to keep up, vaulting up behind it. Their boots slipped on the loose bark, and rollie-pollie bugs scuttled out from under it and down the wood into the soil below. Crow stood tall and shook their feathers out, fluttering around like Galah with its always-blooming flowers. Above them the sky splintered and Sleep swore they saw visions of Otherwhere flash across the sky. Crow waved them to join it. A hot flash passed through their body and they felt their face redden.
They closed their eyes and remembered their aunty, their mum and dad, their cousins, their mob. They joined Crow’s dance, their black raincoat like falling feathers. A thunderous stampede of caws, squawks and shrieks descended from the sky above in a furious melody, rumbling the farmhouse. Sparks of sunlight and rainfall flew from their fingertips. The sky fissured and rain fell hard down where they both stood.
Then, all was silent.
‘Why’d you bring me here, why let me run all o’er the place?’ Sleep asked, opening their eyes feeling lighter than ever.
‘You had your own path to follow.’
Sleep sighed and glanced up. Above, the waterfall whirled around itself, its language both unknown and familiar to Sleep.
Sleep snorted. ‘You’re – you’re like my mum!’ They shot up a brief painful smile, remembering her wonderfully tough love.
‘Oh? You’re a crow person too, ey? Who says I’m not you?’
Sleep looked back at their strange friend with a soft smile. ‘I just know,’ they said, before turning back and jumping up through the water. It spun them up with ferocity, flipping them around and around until it felt like they were falling back down. And so they fell.
And fell …
And fell …
They found themself back next to their sinkhole. Breathing in the chilled morning air, Sleep looked up to see the wild storm had moved on and a gentle dawn had taken its place. Feeling better rested than in months, relief filled their body. Almost home.
Climbing out, the morning sun hit their back. A caw rang out from the trees. Sleep stifled a groan and peeked up to see Crow sitting above them, smaller again now. Its black eyes betrayed the smugness behind its seemingly emotionless face. It cocked its head before swooping down and flying up the path toward home.
‘Back to following you again, ey?’ Sleep huffed. Another caw rang out and they sighed. Fine.
Sleep followed the black bird as it bounced from branch to branch, quickly gaining enthusiasm. They spun, skipped and laughed past the sign, through the bush, and back onto the highway and into town. Crow dipped up and down above them — disappearing into the sky and away from other townsfolk when they approached the main street.
‘CHILD! You had me worried sick!’ Aunty’s voice cried out from behind a group of tottering tourists. She barged through the group and beelined to Sleep. ‘Gone all night! Not in bed! Were you lost? What happened?’
‘I’m okay, Aunty! I’m sorry,’ Sleep said, interrupting her ranting. Aunty caught her breath and held her hand out to stop them. Sleep noticed her slight tremble.
‘I don’t understand what I need to do. I give you as much space as you need and … and nothing.’ She shrugged in defeat.
Sleep tried to explain. ‘I’m just lonely, I guess. And sad. And scared and … ’ Despite quickly losing steam they seemed to get their point across.
Aunty deflated, sighing. ‘Why didn’t you tell me, love? I thought you wanted to be alone, after ya mum.’
‘I didn’t know how to. I felt bad that you had to take me in and come back here, just cause I had no one else.’
‘I didn’t take you because I had to. I loved your mother, and I love you. I wanted this to be a new start for us both.’ She placed her hands on their shoulders, smiling down at them. Her hair was a mess, the lines on her face deep from lack of sleep, but her hands on Sleep’s shoulders were warm and strong. They leaned into her.
‘Is now when I come out to you too?’ they whispered.
Aunty burst out laughing. ‘One thing at a time! But of course. I love all of you. This is your home now.’
Crow caught a gust of wind and flew up, joining a familiar galah on the telephone pole above Home. They watched Sleep run down the main road and down the dirt path with a relieved Aunty. She was fuming, but Galah could see the joy in her eyes. Galah nestled into Crow, squawking when Crow huffed and kicked Galah away with an eye roll and a smile. A stray branch from a nearby tree shot out, throwing Crow off the pole with a burst of feathers. Galah squawked out a laugh, thanking Earth for having its back.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alistair Ott (they/he) is a Wiradjuri Queer artist. Born on Gundungurra and raised on Ngunnawal Land, they were taught Dreamtime stories and their family’s language and culture from their Ngama and Mudyigang.
These stories, his time on country with mob and family, and his queer community inspire his writing; these are the spaces where his spirit resides. When they aren’t writing, Alistair spends their time working in LGBTIQA+ community services and on their PhD at the Australian National University.
He hopes to continue writing stories that spark joy for queer blakfullas like himself. Dyiramadilinya badhu Wiradjuri!