Jim finds himself blinking up at the sky from the ground. He watches clouds pass, diaphanous and wispy as they melt one into another. He tries to mark his position for the stretcher-bearers, but his hand feels as if it has “dissolved,” followed by his arm and shoulder. He then tries to wrap himself in the bandage he always carries, hoping to stop his entire body from “dissolving,” but he doesn’t know where he has been hit, and the bandage seems too long to handle, as if it could unfurl and roll “halfway round the world. To the Coast. To home.” As he tries to handle the field-dressing, a “slow shadow” comes down upon him, “blurring the shape of things.”
Malouf’s use of the word “dissolve” in this moment—after Jim has been injured on the battlefield—brings to mind the idea of impermanence and transience. Although Jim may be on the verge of death, the language Malouf uses speaks of transition and transformation more than it denotes a sense of finality. As Jim fades away, his mind returns to Australia, proving once again that the human psyche is unbound by physical limitations.
Jim blinks and finds himself staring at the top flap of a canvas tent. The tent is crowded with men who are “maimed and crudely bandaged, each with a white label tied to a button of his tunic.” These men have what Jim identifies as “an air of eternal patience,” of “having given themselves up utterly to a process of slow dissolution.” Nearby, a man wearing a bloodied butcher’s apron works at a “block,” which Jim thinks he can smell. “I am in the wrong place,” Jim thinks. “I don’t belong here. I never asked to be here. I should get going.” All the same, he understands that he must wear the same expression on his face that all the other men have in the tent—after all, they are “a brotherhood” and always have had been “a foot from the block and waiting, even in safe city streets.”
Given that the men in this tent have tags on their tunics, it seems likely that they have died. This would also explain Jim’s feeling that they all have “an air of eternal patience” on their faces. However, Jim’s consciousness is still active, suggesting that he hasn’t yet fully passed into the world of the dead. When he thinks of the people in the tent as “a brotherhood,” he suggests that all humans are united because of the fact that they are always nearing death, eternally growing closer to mortality’s chopping “block.”
Jim closes his eyes and hears a voice calling his name. The voice, he knows, belongs to Ashley Crowther. Opening his eyes, Jim finds Ashley by his side, “also in the shambles.” Like the others, Ashley is wearing a white tag. Apparently, Jim and Ashley have seen each other twice since coming to France. The first time, their companies were “in the same line,” so they stood next to each other for a moment and smoked. The second time was a month later, when they found each other in an abandoned château where some other soldiers had set up a bar of sorts. When Jim woke up in that château the next morning, it was to the sound of Ashley playing the piano.
When Jim sees Ashley during the war, his two lives—past and present—meet up. Although he feels as if there is a demarcation between his prewar existence and his life as a soldier, Ashley’s presence provides him with a strain of continuity in the same way that the birds flying overhead connect him to his past days in Australia.
Back in the tent, Ashley asks Jim if he can hear him. When Jim confirms that he can, Ashley says they need to leave this place, revealing that he knows the way out. Looking at his friend, Jim notices the small mark of a cross on his forehead but doesn’t know what to make of it. Once he manages to stand, Ashley helps him out of the tent and leads him to a stretch of moonlit woods. “Here it is,” he says, and when Jim looks around he realizes that he has been here before—this is the place where he saw the old man digging in the garden. The “blasted” trees, he observes, seem to have “renewed themselves with summer growth,” and several birds sing in their branches.
Malouf never clarifies what, exactly, Ashley has on his forehead. If Jim is correct and there is a cross drawn above his friend’s eyes, then the mark is perhaps the same sign that Christian worshippers draw on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, a day of prayer and repentance. Importantly, priests repeat this line as they smudge ash on a worshipper’s head in the shape of a cross: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Although Fly Away Peter doesn’t deal explicitly with religion, the message of impermanence that comes along with Ash Wednesday reminds readers of the novel’s engagement with death, change, and ephemerality.
Jim lets go of Ashley’s arm and moves toward the garden, where a number of men are on their knees and digging. The earth smells good, with “a smell that belonged to the beginning of things.” Jim gets on his knees and puts his hands in the ground. “That’s it, mate,” says Clancy Parkett. “That’s the style! Dig!” Startled, Jim looks up and is disconcerted to see his old friend, who died almost a year ago. “I thought you’d been blown up,” he says. “You just disappeared into thin air.” Clancy responds, “not air, mate, Earth.
With the appearance of Clancy, it’s clear that Jim has either already died or is on the verge of death. The act of digging, it seems, is what will take him to a new plane of existence, where people like Clancy will join him. Clancy’s assertion that he disappeared into the earth itself suggests that people don’t simply vanish when they die. Rather, they become part of the natural cycle of life, returning to the earth. As Clancy encourages Jim to dig, readers come to understand that in death he will fade into the earth. As such, the boundary between life and death becomes nebulous and ill-defined.
Clancy tells Jim that he and everybody else in the garden are “digging through to the other side.” When Jim points out how long this will take, Clancy simply laughs, saying, “There’s all the time in the world, mate. No trouble about time.” Jim looks around and sees hundreds of digging men with long beards and tattered uniforms, a gentle morning light accentuating the subtle “curve of the earth.” Since so many others are digging, he decides it must be the right thing to do. And anyway, Clancy wouldn’t steer him wrong. He begins to “dig in earnest.” When he looks around to find Ashley, he discovers he’s no longer at his side.
Jim is still considering one of the most fundamental problems of mortal life: not having enough time. In death, though, there is “all the time in the world.” Knowing this, he can dig at his leisure to “the other side.” It’s important to note here that Jim doesn’t know anything about this “other side,” and yet he still digs. In other words, he’s not afraid of crossing the boundary between the living world and the world beyond, perhaps because he no longer feels as if the distinction is significant. On another note, Ashley’s disappearance suggests that he isn’t ready to cross this threshold, indicating that he will survive his injury.
Jim digs with the rest of the men, feeling the “rich” earth, which is “warm” in his fingers. However far he must dig, he knows the “direct route—straight through” is best. Having thought this, Jim turns to Clancy, and his friend returns his look with a “humorous gaze.” As both men smile, Jim goes back to digging, thinking that this, perhaps, is what hands “were intended for, this steady digging into the earth, as wings were meant for flying over the curve of the planet to another season.”
Jim looks up at Clancy because of something Clancy once said to him before heading to the frontlines. “The straight way through never got a man nowhere,” Clancy said, urging Jim to tip-toe around the rules preventing them from leaving their company to go to a bar. In retrospect, this sentiment seems incorrect, since in this context Clancy and Jim must dig “straight through” to “the other side” because it is “the direct route.” However, it’s worth considering that Clancy’s original advice may still hold true for people living in the mortal world—the ways in which a person travels from one place to the next or transcends a boundary have to do with the surrounding context. What made sense in life might not make sense in the afterlife, where Jim must learn new ways of perceiving the world. This aligns with his sudden realization that hands are perfect for “digging into the earth,” since this thought reframes something ordinary and lends it new meaning.