The Cardboard Castle

It had been a mild Spring, Cool, gusty winds had kept the air feeling alive, fresh, almost disguising the lack of rain. The mild weather had not lasted. Weather-beaten faces looked to the sky, hoping for clouds and seeing nothing but glare and dust. Cars stopped being washed, lawns turned brown and prickly, showers were counted out in half-minute stop-start intervals, and even toilet-flushing became a privilege, not a right.

In the paddocks the stock nosed and lipped at dried stalks, their hooves struck pastureland baked like hardened clay. Their coats became as dusty as the unwashed cars. The Summer air seared, sucking moisture from the land, and the sweat from the backs and brows of the people. Dogs lolled in whatever shade they could find, tongues out in a permanent pant. And still, there was no sign of rain.

The farmer leaned against the kitchen sink, staring out the window.

'That's it,' he told his son who was silent and still beside him.
"That's the last of the water from the dam. It's just the windmill and the pumps from now on.'

The son looked, too. His gaze switching from his father to the window. Brown land gave way to a brown depression being idly circled by dusty sheep. The dam was just an earthen bowl, as parched as the rest of the landscape.
'What about the rainwater tanks?' the boy asked. 'Can't the sheep have that?' The boy felt his father's hand ruffle his hair.

'Well, unlike you,' the farmer said, 'the sheep don't need to bathe. And unlike yours,' the farmer's wide hand drfited from head to ribs, from ruffling to tickling, 'their manure is good for the garden, so they don't have to flush toilets. So, we better keep the rainwater for ourselves, don't you think?'

'Da-ad!' was the half plaintive, half laughed response, as the boy squirmed away from the tickling hand. When he noticed his father was still staring out the window he asked quietly, 'Will we all be okay? The sheep? The dogs?'

'Yeah, we'll be okay. It has to rain sometime, doesn't it? C'mon kiddo, let's get to work.'

Manual labour was hard on school-boy aged hands. The farmer's son did not have palms of leather and callouses of roughened tree bark. Even thick gloves had not prevented the blisters that eventually developed after working at the pump and carting filled buckets to the water troughs.

The boy knew he had worked hard, and he could see his father worked even harder. The boy continued to do what he could to help out: making breakfast (collecting freshly laid eggs, but burning the toast); making sandwiches for lunch (always tinned tuna or egg and lettuce); making dinner (spaghetti with sauce from a jar) - but he would always catch his father staring out the kitchen window, always quiet, always sombre.

The boy had an idea. His idea turned into a plan, and before the plan could become action he needed permission to go to the nearby town.

'Sure you can kiddo, but I can't drive you today. You sure you'll be okay in this heat?'

The boy nodded, he was determined.

'Well, just remember your hat and drink bottle. There's some change in the bowl by the coffee tin, treat yourself to something cold, and be back in time for a wash before dinner - you're going to need it!'

The walk to town was an easy downhill stroll, but the boy knew that in the heat of the day, the return trek would feel three times as long and put a burn in his calf muscles. He walked on - hat on head, rucksack over one shoulder, two water bottles bumping his hip with each step, and the silver coins safe in his pocket.

His first stop was the general store. It was most people's first stop, be it for food, fuel, ice, newspapers or gossip. The boy had a different requirement.

'We keep a bunch over there, help yourself. If you need any more you can come back Tuesday, or try Ned's place or Joe's. Even maybe over at Sally's,' he was told.

The boy bought a bottle of lemonade, took what he could carry, and walked home. The next day he walked back to town and asked at Ned's (hardware store), the day after that at Joe's (bottle shop), and the day after that at Sally's (hair and nail salon). After that he spent the weekend and Monday mostly in his room, and walked back to the general store on Tuesday.

He nodded at the owner and two other customers as he headed over to the corner of the store, but he could still hear the adults talking.

'The boy's been all over, collecting them. I hope they're okay, him and his old man.'

'What could be wrong with him wanting what's one step away from garbage?'

'Well, what do most people need dozens of cardboard boxes for? They must be moving, and you don't move off the land if things are going well.'

'You think things are so bad they're giving up?'

'Well, this drought hasn't been easy on anyone.'

The boy decided he did not want to get involved. He collected what boxes he could carry, nodded politely in thanks, and left.

On Wednesday, the farmer was surprised to find his son collecting rocks.
'No more trips into town?'

The boy shook his head. 'Don't need to.'

Perplexed, the farmer shrugged, 'Well, it's your summer holidays, collect all the rocks you want,' and left him to it.

From idea, to plan to action, and now foundation. The boy took his stones to the dry dam and began placing them in two large concentric circles, right in the centre. Next, he collected a timber rod (nearly as tall as himself). The rest of the rocks he piled in a sturdy cairn to hold the wooden pole upright and stable. Then, it was back to his bedroom to finish off what he had started on the weekend: construction.

On Thursday morning, the boy found his father looking out the kitchen window.

'You building a golf course out in the dam, kiddo? No? Well, today I do need to drive into town. Want to come?'

The boy declined, and the farmer left.

It took the boy seven trips to get the cardboard shapes from his room to the dam. Some of the sheep milled around to see if his activity meant food, but after nibbling his shoelaces and sniffing the cardboard, they lost interest.

There was not much tape, so many of the cardboard pieces had carefully placed slits cut into them. Now, he was able to slot them together, relying on the tape to stabilise rather than join the pieces. Flat, brown shapes became parapets, battlements. The tallest structure - carefully placed over the wooden pole - was the castle keep, safe in the centre, and kept upright with more stones at the base, leaving enough timber poking up through the top to attach a banner. The whole set of structures ringed by the two circles of stones.

Sweat had soaked through the boy's clothes and dripped into his eyes, dust had turned to smears of grime on his knees and forehead. But he had done it, he had built the castle. He was just attaching the tinfoil banner to pole at the top of the keep when he heard his father return.

The boy dragged his father over to the dam, shy, proud and eager. He pointed out the walls, fortifications, barns, where people would live, where animals would live, where weapons and guards would be placed. And where the moat would be, if there was water.

'That's what the rocks around the castle mean, the water would go there and help protect the people in the castle,' he explained.

The father congratulated his son, astonished, impressed and puzzled.

'Half the town thought we were packing up to move what with you collecting all these boxes. Mike from the general store gave me a six-pack of lemonade to give to you. Says he misses seeing you in town. All so you could build a castle,' the farmer mused.

'Well,' said the boy, 'I built it for you, Dad. I see you looking out the window, at the empty dam, and I wanted to give you something more to look at, something better.'

The boy was scooped up into a hug, and if there were tears mingled in with sweat, neither father or son mentioned it.

Much like a castle made from cardboard, the drought did not last forever. But when the rains did come and water returned to the dam, just for a little while, there was a real moat around the cardboard castle.