My first dugout in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, where I lived from 1989 to 1991,was not cut deeply into the sandstone rock, and that was its drawback; I couldn’t hide far enough in, either from the light as it streamed through the kitchen windows set at counter level or from visitors when they happened to knock at the door. Mostly, they did not.
A dugout, cut into the side of a sandstone hill, smells of minerals: a distinctive, primeval smell that you don’t find in most houses, although you realize that only once you’re back in the city. Until then, the aroma permeates the clothes of a dugout dweller, an underlay of the earth’s deep smell.
My second dugout, less than half a hillside away from the first, had originally belonged to one of the early opal miners. He had chiseled the ceiling and the walls chip by chip—prettily, I should say—carving outa small room that was now a pantry and a shelf above the stove for his bags of flour and sugar and tea. Much more recently, a new section had been tunneled by machine: A few steps down, a large living room opened up, which ended in a long seat, cleanly cut out of the rock against the back wall. Off to the side, there were two bedrooms, one with a carved sandstone sleeping alcove. I never slept in the alcove for a full night, though sometimes, in the afternoons, I lay down there to feel the deep quiet of the earth against my back. The walls had been painted white, the white of a gull’s wing, but inside the cupboards, their natural color was revealed—deep swirls of apricot, ochre, red. It was here the smell was most intense, and if I could have fit inside, I would have curled up in there and read or put my ear to the walls and listened.
On moonlit nights, when the moon was fat and round, poised on the very edge of the stony driveway, I sat outside with my dog and the stark outline of a Hills Hoist clothesline, trucked up,like everything else, from Adelaide, and watched the stars. I drank wine and thought of people I’d like to transport the 850 kilometers from the city of Adelaide to here for an evening. Old friends. A new lover. I shared my piece of sky with them and imagined their silhouettes strolling along the ridge above me, on top of the little hill that formed the roof of my dugout, bending as they tried to peer under the conical tin hats of my air shafts, the fairy-tale tin chimneys that grew out of the earth. I talked to myself a lot and to my friend A., who would magically appear unexpectedly, burning up the driveway in her mustard Volkswagen Beetle. My dog, which looked like a dingo hybrid in the desert light, thumped his tail in the dust at seeing her, and we retreated out of the heat of the afternoon or a hot summer night, into the temperate cool of the dugout, always about 24 degrees Celsius, to talk, to eat, to drink tea. “Seven steps down, and I’m safe,” she would say when she arrived at the entrance.
She must have smelled of dugout, too; she was living two hillsides away, though you couldn’t see her place from mine. You had to cut across narrow dirt roads or go back down Frank the Painter’s Road, then a short way along Oodnadatta Road, which was more like a track and often closed in rare rainy weather—I could see it from my hilltop as it wound into the desert horizon, disappearing into the unknown—and, from there, make a left turn. Her dugout, which she shared with a chef and a waiter and two cats, seemed, at first, more like a real house, its kitchen door opening onto a small patio with potted plants, geraniums and a chair, but once inside, the dugout went quite a long way back and then down, into a room where the earth walls were yellower and lighter, not unlike the color of pale spring flowers, city flowers. Sometimes, A. fell asleep down there, curled up with the cats on the sofa, while the chef made pasta and hung it out to dry on the backs of the kitchen chairs at ground level. That was before he drove off Oodnadatta Road in a temper one morning, after a night’s drinking, and rolled his car and became a paraplegic. The Flying Doctor had to come and wrap him inMylar and take him away down south.
The desert snuck into our bones. It started by depriving us of color and water. We were up there for months at a time without getting out—me to teach, and A. to waitress and then to work in a boutique, before she, too, took up a teaching life—and we would begin to forget what color green was. The succulent ground plant, pigface, didn’t seem to count; nor did the tea trees, which whispered like gossiping neighbors along the lines of galvanized iron front fences. Disturbing gossip, sometimes. Nor did the gray scraps of spindly saltbushes, though they covered the ground when you looked out toward the broken ranges, The Breakaways. The red of the desert swallowed the green in one gulp, like some monstrous-jawed creature left over from the inland buried sea the guide books told us about. We saw everything in shades of rust, sienna or smudged pink, mottled with darker, more forbidding blood reds, depending on the color of the sky and the season. If one of us escaped south for a weekend, on our return, we would report the colors we saw there. If it was autumn, we brought back a handful of leaves. See, one of us would say, this is what I picked up along the street. And the other would admire the leaf, like a gold ornament. When it was winter, we would exclaim about the green of city ovals and parks. “I can’t believe it’s as green as that,” A. said. “It’s such an English green, they must have put dye in the water.”
A glimpse of opal green did nothing to quench our thirst. We didn’t find any opal, or, if we did, it was “potch,” dull and colorless and not worth much. In the opal that I did see—usually trapped inside a ring on someone else’s fingers—the seduction of colors included a bewitching green. In miniature, the colors gleamed, like little temptations, but they were not the green of suburban cut grass, not the green coating the Adelaide hills in winter and not the green of parsley growing by a garden tap. Not any green we’d grown up with or longed for.
On Sunday mornings, I lay in bed in semi-darkness. In the living room of my dugout, there was a tiny window—the only window—too small to squeeze through and higher than my head; I had to stand on tiptoes to see out. To stop the afternoon sun from blazing in, I had hung a pair of curtains there, old curtains that used to be in our family’s sunroom in the city, where I once practiced my scales and arpeggios on the piano. My mother had altered the curtains for me, packing them in dry cleaner’s plastic to protect them from the dust on the long car journey north. In my reveries, helped by the darkened rooms and the diminutive curtains splashed with vivid green bamboo plants, I dreamed of water. I imagined, first, that the town council had enough money to build a fountain in the main street, perhaps in the front yard of the underground church because there was space there; then, that the councilors had planted gum trees and could pay to water them regularly; and, finally, that people gathered here to sit and talk as if in a European village square. I imposed this vision on the one that existed: a quasi-village space where, in the dust under the happenstance shade of one or two scrawny eucalypts near the public telephone box, Aboriginal men and women often sat talking in Pitjantjatjara—a language with a lot of loose tongue movements, it seemed, lugubrious but sometimes rising to a more high-pitched fever that I wished I understood. I didn’t go as far as to imagine whether the group remained there or not, because it was the fountain that was key: the magical sound of running water.
Quickly, the fantasy shifted to my own front yard. One morning, I wokeso saturated with longing that I was convinced that when I rose to go to the bathroom—a small, hot room above ground, tacked on to the front of my dugout like a fisherman’s shack—I would find a miniature lake, stocked with gold fish, in the front yard. Knee-deep in the lake, which lapped against its sandy desert edges, stood a pair—at least one pair—of flamingos. Each balanced on one leg, preening its feathers, diving into its lustrous pink body, and then nonchalantly looked about as if she and her handsome companions were living in a perfect flamingo environment. Not a streak of desert dust adulterated their blush-pink bodies.
The only drawback to my second dugout (apart from the bathroom, where I’d nearly expire in summer) was the creatures. A clutch of daddy longlegs lived in a corner of the kitchen, undisturbed. I let them catch whatever they liked. But I feared centipedes in particular. I feared them more than scorpions, which I never saw. One night when A. had dropped in, the skies cracked and threw down buckets of rain. In an instant, everything about the desert world shifted and smelled different. Insects came running down the stairs into the dugout: beetles, little spiders and a large centipede. A. always said they could drop you in seconds, so I grabbed the broom from the hand-dug pantry. Thwack! I brought the handle down on the kitchen tile. A. grabbed it. “Give it to me, you dork,” she said, and turned the head of the broom down so that the more effective brush end would hit the centipede. I took it back. We stamped and thwacked. Each little leg of the creature wriggled and writhed accusingly. Doubled with laughter, guilty about the death of the creature, we swept it into the dustpan and chucked it out into the wet yard before A. roared away to see what centipedes were advancing across her doorstep.
After school on Fridays, I’d sometimes wander into the new underground motel complex, Desert Cave. Some of the teachers would be in the bar. I went to the underground boutique—the “frock shop,” we called it—where A. worked for a while. Sometimes she and an old friend, S., were there, opening a bottle of champers, wrestling the cork, letting it hit the earth ceiling with apop. The shop sold beautiful clothes; I’d try something on in the changing room, come out to see what they thought. “Go on,” A. said. “Do a little bit of a spin.” I’d twirl. They’d nod.
After one vacation south, I came home to find a couple of rocks had dropped from the ceiling of my dugout. This was serious. Workmen propped up the living room with steel struts. The new school principal tried to convince me to move out and stay with him, but I couldn’t give up my single life to share a table with a family I barely knew. Anyway, I had only a week or two left before I moved south, not all the way back to the city, but to Whyalla, a midway point on the gulf, a former ship-building town. I would wait it out. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say the whole roof could have caved in and if it had, I’d have been found crushed and smothered. I took it as a sign that I was meant to go, and I did, though I could hardly bear to. When I left, I kissed the hand-dug walls, feeling the tiny chiseled planes against my lips. I knew that I would never again live underground. As it turned out, it was a close shave. After the roof was fixed and a new teacher moved in, the bedroom caved in. She had a luckyescape. It was, as they say in mining circles, bad ground.
No fountain was ever built, of course, though the council sanctioned the use of “graywater,” recycled from washing machines and showers, to husband a tree-planting plan. When I visited many years later, the green tops of trees—blue-green, not English green—were visible from any high point in the town. I stayed in an underground motel, and my pajamas sucked up the smell of the earth. I zipped them into a plastic bag and haven’t washed them since: Every time I want to return to Coober Pedy, I open the bag, take a whiff. Moonlit, starlit nights—such rarities return, along with the elusive smell of my dugout and its pink flamingos, which carries me, once again, deep into the arms of the earth.