The Fat of the Dog
The fat of the dog is redolent of the master’s table. There lies the old greyhound – all prick and ribs – panting with laboured shallowness in the shade of a carob tree. Mal sits, meanwhile, on a hard cedar bench at the cooler end of the verandah. A battered Lee-Enfield rifle rests atop his thighs. The sparse gums of the flat paddock are chalky white. Their forms waver in a haze of heat and cigarette-paper dryness.
‘Gerrup,’ Mal instructs the dog. ‘Come on.’
Mal rises from the bench. He means to walk into town to see what heel of bread or damaged beef-tin he can scrounge for them today. The dog snores gently in the warm, brown shade.
The dog tries to lift its head. The tip of an ear drags the brittle grass. The dog regards Mal for a moment from the corner of a milky, amber eye and returns its cheek to the earth. Mal hears a coarse screeching some way off in the distance. It tears at the stillness of the day. He rests the butt of the rifle on the timbers at his feet and listens. The noise swells – an ugly promise. It peaks as a flock of corollas – bodies white like the trunks of the trees – sweeps into view. Each of the birds seeks a bough upon which to settle. Mal watches them with quiet intensity, stilled by hunger. After several minutes spent cawing at their roosts, the birds alight as one and swing away to the west. Mal lifts the rifle to his shoulder and fires a shot into the heart of the flock. He holds his breath. A single bird falters on the wing and spirals softly back to earth, head tucked loosely beneath its shoulder on a soft-rubber neck. Its mates turn on a holey dollar and sail away north over the floodplain.
Mal sets out across the flat. He will claim the stricken bird, dead or not. He will pluck it and save the feathers, see if he can’t exchange them for a meal in town, somehow. Perhaps he will trade them to a milliner or a palliasse-maker. The plucked bird he will gut before separating the pinkish breast from the carcass for his supper. Mal knows this meat to taste – sweet and moist, pregnant with the honey of a thousand gum-blossoms and soft with the oil of savoury native seed. To the dog’s lot will fall the viscera, beak and bones, and the sinewy grey meat that clothes the tiny frame.
As Mal approaches, the bird flaps with a final nervous impulse. Its wing pivots slowly at the shoulder as though driven from within by a wind-up mechanism almost spent, ball rotating in socket for the length of a final, sweeping arc. Mal regards the bird. The tip of a rasp-like tongue protrudes from its open beak. As he squats to lift the corpse from the earth, Mal spies a dozen tiny mites crawling among the folds of scaly skin that encircle the dead bird’s eye. He knits his brow, sniffs, and draws a finger stained with poverty along the tip of his nose.
Mal considers his table. He stands, turns, and tramps back to the verandah, leaving the corella where it lies in the middle of the dusty clearing. Softly pants the dog beneath its carob tree. All prick, and lean like a year of summers on a claypan selection.