Butchery & Birthing
The legion boulders of the Monaro are famous both for their proliferation upon the flaxen speargrass meadows of the plains and for the peculiarity of their perfect roundedness of form. The latter property is – so the geologists tell – imparted by the confluence of the region’s cool, clear climate and certain connate qualities inhering in the granite that comprises the famous stones. For each among the boulders is wont to absorb water only slowly – and to a remarkably shallow maximal depth – during even the most inclement of those passing spells in which the rain descends from Kosciuszko to wash clear the treeless waste from whence the great round rocks sprout mounded as massed Basidiomycetes sprung up from coarse pasture. So that, when the savage frosts of wintry nights from April through almost to November settle on the downs, the impregnating water is frozen and expands, thereby prying loose thin sheets of the stones’ outermost skins. It is said that, in this way, the famous boulders of the Monaro resemble nothing so much as onions – the cores of which are, it cannot be denied, likewise exposed by the peeling away of outer layers of papery cellulose and astringent leaves of flesh.
Yet it is almost never observed – in the writer’s experience, at least (and this a poor thing, having little flesh of any kind to clothe it) – that the individual boulder more closely resembles the corpse of a feral fox fell prone and rotting back into the soil where it lies. Of course, the carcass of a fox in an advanced state of putrefaction bears little or no outward resemblance to something speaking so eloquently to the weight of ages as a colossal granitous sphere a-glint with flecks of mica and bathed in the alpine sun. Yet to watch the process of the animal’s decay – from its earliest, cooling phase through to the terminal stage at which the spine and hollow sockets of the skull are stripped clean of all corpus and lie bleaching in the light of that selfsame sun – is instructive in understanding the comparison just drawn. For the body of the fox gone stiff and begun to rot sheds first the fur from out its ratty pelt, which falls as a dropped shroud about the whole, dead concern. Next flee the teeming maggots from the corpse (but only when all of the once-canny creature’s meat is gone), leaving but a thin film of brown-black fascia and connective tissue – along with the tendons, sinews, and gristle of the joints. Finally, this barest covering of certain portions of the skeleton is dried and desiccated by the elements until it, too, peels and lifts from off the bones and is blown away upon the first squalling gale to sweep down from the ranges so to claim it. In sum – and in contrast to the mouldering fox – an onion must be peeled by hand in order that the core might be exposed intact – for, being left to rot or else subjected alternately to frost and thawing sun and rain, it will simply liquefy from inside out.
Yet, though pleasing as the comparison of a dead fox to a boulder may be, it must be owned that the two objects are not wholly alike. Since, while the skull and bones of the fox cannot but recall the living creature’s every pounce and theft and enormity of wile – and, where the beast’s death was come to by violence, the bones themselves are apt to recall this in, for example, the shattering of a rib by the slug of a shotgun pellet or deep grooving of some other bone by action of a knife – the boulder becomes with every shedding of its outermost layer a new and minutely smaller version of its former self. So it is that the remembering of the famous boulders of the Monaro is but the remembrance of a season, whereas those bones as litter the treeless plain forget the traffic of that place at an altogether more gradual pace.
Arriving at Berridale one bleak September, as many – though not yet so many – had done before me, I was certainly moved to comment upon the uncommon landscape of that place – the hills and gulches carved from out the very earth by the alternate encroachment and recession of fearsome glaciers in times immemorial, and these littered all about with colonies of mounded and ice-rounded stones – and upon the vague though nonetheless robust impression it was wont to make upon me. Thus I remarked, in passing – if only for the gratification of he that drove me through those weird frost hollows – saying:
‘It is like the surface of the moon.’
My companion was no stranger to that place, so that I could not but take his silence in response to my assessment for the quiet contemplation of a truth being so innately understood by him to that point that the telling of it by an unfamiliar party caused him to regard the timeless scene with fresh eyes. In any case, the balance of the journey was managed in silence – save for the howling of the wind that buffeted the truck in which I rode – until I arrived at the farm that was my destination none the wiser to my driver’s thoughts on the scattered spherical tors that marked his native soil with its chiefmost outward distinction.
My destination, I was to learn, was not so pale an instance of what passed for farms in those parts as first it appeared, though my foremost impression of it was of a level of impoverishment and dilapidation come to not by the work of generations in and on the soil but by action of the elements coupled with neglect. When all is weighed and told, the place was not of a tenor speaking to thriving enterprise, but rather one being eloquently demonstrative of the hardscrabble contest for life against the every urging of the weather. The sheds – I say sheds, for there were three, although the constituent parts of each combined might not yet amount to a sturdy whole – the sheds seemed as things held together by little more than the collective hope of the shearers, roustabouts and ringers that would wrest their living from the flaking timber boards therein, and the clattering sheets of corrugate iron cladding at their windward faces rattled in the gale with such an infernal clamouring that I could think only of the night ahead and the sleeplessness this would certainly entail. There was, in this, I observed, a little of that singularly dogged occult justice that plagues us all sometimes – the kind that is rough, if not poetic – for I recalled then with a passing pang all of those long, dim-lighted nights through which I had disturbed the sleep of a long-suffering companion with my interminable pattering at the keys of my concomitantly long-suffering typewriter. So that, installing that faithless machine – well worn of its every action and so well suited to the situation into which it was transplanted – installing the typewriter in my Spartan quarters, I drew succour from the sure knowledge that I should bother no one with my writing here. Yet, even as I meditated upon such things – upon quietude and, most particularly, upon its disturbance by my restlessness and bad habits – I fancied that those gusting winds as then encircled the farm delivered to my ears the distant rapping of gunfire from a nearby hillside.
Despite my foremost impressions of the farm, the night following on from my arrival on the Monaro was not so bad. Indeed, what visitor ever arrived in the country that was not promptly whisked off to the pub and stood there with a drink in hand at one end of the bar in order that he might be regarded with, first, curious regard, and, ultimately, embarrassed silence, by those assembled? So it was that I found myself with an elbow planted on a rude timber countertop and flanked on one side by my inimitable, gnomish host and on the other by a young man who was not yet twenty-one years of age and who had likewise arrived in town that day – though in contrast to my own purpose in coming, he had made the journey so as to take up the position of jackaroo on the farm that was to be, thenceforth, our shared adoptive home.
And there upon the bar my elbow stayed until near half-a-dozen schooners had been drained by each of those men party to our impromptu reverie. Despite myself, I cannot but own it that this was a night of welcome if not pleasure or comfort, save for a single incident not yet unpleasant though nonetheless unnerving. For I had not been gone from the snug three minutes – so as to relieve myself at the chill and draughty trough that had been plumbed into the rear wall of the hotel – before I returned to the warmth of the public bar and in so doing interrupted the farmer to whom I owed my bed and board at the outset of a conversation with the youthful jackaroo and two strange gnarled and weathered figures who stood ranged before the sputtering fire that lay dying on the hearth. As I strode back forth across the singed and piebald carpets of the inn, I heard my host to say:
‘I were stood alongside me tractor, an’ – I remember it now fresh as a nun’s drawers – it’d bin a filthy winter, an’ the snowmelt’d made a real bastard bog out o’ my place – me tractor were stuck all over wi’ that blasted cake-batter mud up past the wheel-arches, an’…’
Yet, though the old man’s recollection seemed then poised to take flight – such was the intensity of the farmer’s expression and the palpable weight of the listeners’ every natural expectation of hearing a story having at least crisis in the telling, if not resolution – despite these most pressing factors, the speaker chose this importunate and implacable juncture to cut short his tale and to bury his whiskers in the froth of a fresh-pulled dinner ale. Without ceremony, the old man drained his glass and, planting it back down upon the mantelpiece, turned toward me and said, vacantly, to our young companion:
‘Righto – best be off, then. We’re up at sparrow’s in the mornin’, orright? Night, all.’
‘Night, Rolls,’ muttered the hardbitten men of the public bar as we took our leave and sloped off into the waiting dark and that singular brand of tableland cold that seems so often to be fortified – perhaps even intensified – by moonlight.
Arriving home (home for the farmer, in any case, for the place was still charged with a certain Martian weirdness to my eye), my host retired to the farmhouse and the overseer his cottage, leaving me to stumble on through the dark alone toward the close and breathless cold of the shearers’ quarters that stood sentinel upon the hillside overlooking the stockyards. As I neared my rude accommodations, I caught upon the frosty night air the unmistakable sound of the farmer cracking the top off a bottle of beer in the farmhouse kitchen. Having no other marker by which to steer my course, I strode on away from the sound and was rewarded with a much-abused paillasse and ample draughts harassing me abed from all quarters.
Came the dawn next morning – the weight of it falling more than settling upon the icebound earth, so that vast seas of frostbitten tussock shrank from the hideously elongated fingers of new daylight searching, warming, thawing, and the grasses giving up the countless ghosts of perishing night in fine veils of mist that rose from the earth as breath expelled from a ribcage by crushing force while shadows clung hopeless to their customary redoubts in the gulches and chill hillside depressions and the magpies fell to shrilling unseen from their boulder-top roosts – and a remarkably short while thereafter (I recalled upon waking near six or seven schooners swilled at standing as many hours prior and so marveled at my clear head and thrilling arousal) – a little after dawn I rose from my cot abundantly well rested, having been little troubled by the rattling of the tin sheds in the night (it is, I would subsequently learn, the peculiar habit of the wind to fall with the sun at certain times of year on the Monaro). Yet, while I was at stretching like a wildcat upon the timbers of the bullnose verandah that extended along the full length of my quarters’ valley frontage, I saw it for the first time – it is a wonder I had not marked it upon arriving at that place the afternoon prior – shaking off the night’s sleep thusly, I saw it that those gumtrees as surrounded the homestead and its satellite structures were either dead or else stripped entirely of foliage and so dying.
So nearly comprehensive was the mortality – I say nearly only that a few isolated specimens of whitegum were untouched by the pestilence, and these stood conspicuous among tranches of dead manna, yellowbox and snowgum – that I felt myself as one caught up in some fevered, apocalyptic vision writ upon the dales, and I puzzled at the weirdness of these totems of death that were ranged across the dun pasturage all about me. It occurred to me then that I might question the property’s owner as to the cause of the near-total die-off over breakfast, yet in the very next moment I saw it that the conversation was to be avoided at all costs, since country etiquette dictates that the comprehensive death of anything is scarce ever to be raised with those that work the land afflicted. In any case: blight or fungus; borer, grub – whatever the cause, the trees stood dead and dying all about me and these were fanned skeletal grey against the ashen sky. Aside from this, though, the day held for me no special terrors.
I have already intimated, I believe, that I had arranged my stay on the farm only that I might find a few quiet weeks in which to write, undisturbed, in bucolic serenity – a state of grace that had for so long seemed to me a distant fever dream ungrasped and half-remembered when regarded from the cramped confines of my damp little Darlinghurst bedsit (perched, as that ramshackle corner of some lonely and forgotten circle of Hell was, atop a busy delicatessen – such unsavoury smells welling upward to pervade my working life and space by some hideous inner-city osmosis, penetrating floorboards spiced with decay and musty carpets alike – and flanked on one side by a busy high street and on the other by a lane frequented by men of a kind tending toward intoxication, belligerence and loudness). Such agreeable surroundings as I had long craved, I observed, I had undoubtedly found in the Monaro – even if this was now revealed to be a setting less picturesque than first I had imagined.
So it was that at close of my first day about the farm I had scrawled some several pages of text by hand and, more, had even begun to annotate these in the margins. Yet upon re-reading all that I had written, I found my every paragraph to be near incomprehensible even to myself, such that the thread of whatever I had meant to convey upon composing each such entry was lost some few short hours after first I had committed it to the page. It is with some bitter regret that I must now offer an admission: this was not a problem new to me, for I had been straining against such inexplicable vagaries in my prose for many months already at that time. Thus, in consternation, I rose from my desk in a fug of frustration and made the short walk across the home paddock to the farmhouse for my tea – and what little of social intercourse awaited me at the dinner table.
In the kitchen I met with the farmer and his new employee, who were seated at either side of a scoured melamine tabletop and discussing, in those uniquely dolorous tones that only farming men are wont to render, the most pressing business of the holding. Said the cocky to the lad:
‘Ye’ll need ter plough Butchery ’fore knock-off tomorra – that’s the west paddock – but steer clear o’ the bottom-right corner over near the creek: there’s a flukey old swamp down there that’ll bog the tractor right up to the axles an’ we’ll never get ’er out.’
‘Righto,’ said the young fella, with a jackaroo’s economy.
‘I’ll hook ’er up to the tynes ’fore I go inter town in the mornin’,’ continued the farmer – his Christian name escapes me even now, as is the intractable way of names newly learned in circumstances tending to obscure their every significance for all present purposes (men among men, after all, have little need of pronouns, much less given names) – ‘I’ve an errand or two ter run in town. You’ll be right?’
‘Easy done,’ said the lad, and nodded.
And at that the master and his servant fell to their steaming plates of white bread toast all heaped over with tinned beans and pork sausage.
The governing rhythms of farmstead life being, as they are, at once inexorable as the seasons and unremarkable as sunset on a cloudy day, the ensuing weeks passed with satisfying slowness – though such headway as I was able to make in my compositions belied the steadiness of this. Of fresh air I had more almost than my urban constitution was quite able to bear, for I soon took to taking a short nap each afternoon, and more often than not felt myself unable or else unwilling to break off my rest until after darkness had long fallen on the hills. In truth, it must be admitted, the cause of this slovenly development and my newfound indolence might equally be located in the long and rambling walks I became habituated to take each day, and that were the occasion of my most comprehensive exposure to the bracing – if exhausting – alpine atmosphere. Within a week I had circumnavigated the largish hill upon one side of which the farm lay sprawling and askew (the hand that draws the map and boundary line has not the benefit of walking the oft-variable topography he would enclose), and this both clockwise and in reverse. In so doing, I had passed several disparate clusters of farmhouses and outbuildings that were attached to neighbouring holdings, each walled up in windbreaks grown of mighty Scotch pines and all bearing the stamp of unprofitable follies raked by wind and rain and sleet.
Though scenes of such a kind appealed to by own roughhewn sense of romance – being drawn, as I have ever been, toward severity and wild places – the most remarkable discovery I came to in the course of my survey of that hardbitten landscape awaited me in the bole of an ancient, long dead eucalypt. For, while out walking one day, I caught sight of a tiny fairy wren at flitting play upon a lightly wooded slope; and, being unaccustomed to such displays of vibrant colour in those austere parts, I followed the bird to its temporary perch upon the splintered edge of a greying tree stump. Yet, being leery of my approach – as are birds of all kinds, even when confronted with others of their kind – the wren took flight so to watch me from a distance. Following it a spell, I found myself peering out from behind the broad trunk of a grand old gum that spread its withered, leafless branches against the solemn sky above. Finding then that the bird I stalked had fled, I regarded the hollow formed by action of termites and soil-borne decay within the once-proud tree before me. And here was a queer sight: for I discovered that the recess within the trunk at my feet housed several skillfully-worked cutting edges formed of bottle glass and flinty stone, along with a steel axehead and what I could only take for the rusted doghead of an ancient flintlock pistol. Of these peculiar items, I souvenired but a small, knapped knife bereft of haft, secreting this within a pocket of my coat. Beyond this, though, I found it that the hills surrounding my lodgings held no secrets of any note.
Until one night – one night late when all those in the valley slept or else lay wakeful though in darkness abed – one night I found myself hunched over my typewriter at the rude desk that was then my only empire in all the world – and this measuring, insufferably, a mean twenty-one inches long by-twenty-one inches deep (I say insufferably, for a square desk has always offended my every sensibility) – seated thusly at my desk in the quietest passage of the interminable early-springtime dark one night, I heard the countless frogs of the reedy creek at bottom of the hill to rouse and stir and break into an eerie song.
It is a fact all too infrequently appreciated that the irregular chatter of frogs at nighttime recalls nothing more than the chittering babble of children not yet learned to speak. Yet the frog-song on the air that night was of a higher, keener, altogether more precipitously urgent tenor – though the source of the creatures’ distemper I could not attribute to any earthly cause, for the thawing season was not yet so advanced as to permit me believe that a hungry, roving tigersnake might be the cause of any amphibian disarray (it occurred to me in hindsight that the climate of the icebound creekbed was then of such perishing inhospitality as to beggar belief that the frogs themselves were not at that very moment entombed insensible in swaddling mucosal sarcophagi and encased safely in the soil of the banks); and, being naïve, neither did I appreciate the boldness of a starving fox and so found myself unable to credit it that any example of that pest species might have chanced to venture into the low paddock heedless of the frost-scoured corpses of others of its kind that the farmer had slung by their hocks, with specious care, from the barbed wire fencing at the ford.
Still, what man of mettle was ever moved by the sputtering calls of frogs in the night? Thus I returned to my thankless work and pattered at the keys before me almost until daylight broke sudden so to bathe the ice outside in ghosted fire. Regrettably, upon reviewing all that I had composed in the course of that mysterious fröschenacht – when at last I roused myself from my cot some time after midday the day following – I was not surprised (though yet markedly discouraged) to find it that scarce one word in twenty was, upon revision, worth retaining.
This was a day of note – what remained of it, at least – for between the rising and inevitable setting of a single sun, I found myself to be successively surprised and of myself surprising.
As to the first condition, the cause was, in truth, perhaps less surprising than it was abject. For, as the day was nearing late afternoon, I chanced to spy the farmer of the farmhouse tearful – no – tearful does not begin to touch it – he was unmanned in his weeping, and the proof of this streamed from his nostrils and mouth alike so that the whiskers at his chin trailed dribbling strands of mucous – while he was at leaning on a spade beside the machinery shed. This was a moment of unheralded grossness from the old man, who had scarce uttered five words together in my presence since first I had arrived at Berridale, and none of these speaking to anything but a constitution of indefatigable robustness and a farmer’s bloody-minded vigour. What worse thing is there in this world than to witness a hardy mountain farmer bawling as a disconsolate babe? So that I felt myself as one obliged to render some assistance to him. Yet, being unwilling and, more, fearful of offering him words (or, worse, bodily reassurance) of comfort, I surprised myself and dedicated the last long passage of fading daylight to the task of splitting firewood for the big house’s long-suffering stove upon the heavy woodblock behind the big shed.
It was most surprising to me that, despite the strangeness of such jarring, jolting and abrasive manual labour to my scholar’s hands, I found myself beholden almost immediately to an ancient and compelling urgency in the endeavour – and, more, settled with remarkable swiftness and sureness into a natural rhythm in my work – such that I had soon stacked against the shed’s nearside wall a long, head-high row of firewood ready for burning in the stove (the timbers being stacked steadier, I fancied, than are many walls of brick and mortar laid at Sydney, such was the near-perfect tessellation of the individual pieces).
In truth, I must confess, my motivation in splitting firewood – though the effort was undeniably charitable in and of itself – was in some measure inspired by the mounting frustration I felt then with the limpness and cloudy obfuscation of my prose and my stilting inability to move on from even the most crudely drawn sentence so as to make good on what little progress I was able to wrest from countless hours spent seated at my typewriter. In that moment I found myself all but incapable of recalling even what it was that I had set out to write some three or more weeks prior.
That evening – my pinkish hands were blistered and so frightening to me – I felt myself for the first time alone while sitting with the farmer and his jackaroo at teatime, for the pair conspired – conspired, in fairness, is overly suggestive of collusion and intent formed aforethought – the pair nonetheless fell to talking between themselves almost in ignorance of my presence at the table.
‘Me lad – ’e – we never seen eye-to-eye, me an’ ’im,’ said the farmer to his young hand (whose terms of employment patently omitted to stipulate that he take a shave with any regularity). ‘Me wife’d ’ad ’er schoolin’ at Canberra,’ the old man continued, ‘so she weren’t real bothered that ’e rathered sittin’ on the rafters in the shearin’ shed with a book than ’elpin’ me out wi’ pullin’ calves an’ what’aveyou.’
I was moved then to question the farmer as to the fate of the wife he meant, in so saying, to denigrate, yet country etiquette is a binding force, so that I held my tongue.
‘Mm,’ groaned the jackaroo in answer.
‘Still, ’e liked the pub alright – more’n any shearer I ever met.’
‘Me dad reckoned I oughta take a trade, back when,’ offered the youth. ‘Said there’s no thanks in farmin’. Don’t reckon I’d know ’ow to do much else, but.’
Too tired even to eat (the mechanical swinging of an axe overhead is apt to erode one’s every store and reserve), I excused myself from the table even before the farmer and his boy had started on their tinned mandarins and cream, and thereafter sank into the shapeless mattress of my cot without so much as lifting my half-read book from off the dusty floorboards beside me.
Yet exercise of any kind is implacably productive of restless energy at all hours of the day and night, so that I found myself quite unable to sleep, such was the twitching of my limbs and involuntary arching of my perennially stiff spine beneath the boiled wool blankets that served as my coverlet. So that – whatever one might hold as theft by daylight seems as little more than roguish mischief when it is managed under cover of dark – I resolved to draw a beer or two from out the old farmer’s grime-streaked icebox, so as to ease me into sleep.
Thus I crept with deliberate silence – some conscientious and unsleeping part
nests deep within us all and gives pause to the actions of the larcenous imp that is enlivened at midnight – heightened of my every sense I crept across my own unvisited expanse of timber floor and thereafter trod barefoot across the low and frosty grass toward the house, and thence up three cold, worn concrete steps and on through the unlatched door toward the icebound chest inside.
The thief thwarted is the most pitiable of all earth’s creatures. So it was that, bereft, I found the box to be empty – save for two congealed rashers of bacon and a sweating jar of cream. Yet entrance gained is entrance assured, so that I crept from the kitchen into the frontmost room of the house, wherein the farmer kept an ancient television set and two faded, threadbare lounges – though what I hoped to find there I knew not in that moment, save to say that there has scarce ever been a drawing room in which there was not secreted a bottle of Christmas spirits.
Padding into this carpeted haven, I felt myself drawn helplessly toward the low cabinet that extended along the far wall of the room and atop which were ranged a laughably outmoded radio set and an assortment of bone-china fancies and other such tokens of a feminine presence now departed the home. Sliding open the laminate door of that cheapish sideboard, I marked at first nothing more than the diffusion of a decade’s worth of accumulated dust and a silent cascade formed of the papery corpses of moths. Yet, when the dust settled – as the aphorism says it must – I was surprised to see a shelf well stocked with, among several bottles of cheap blended whiskey, a sizeable quantity of halfway decent port wine. And the age of these was 10 years if it was a day. So help me, I relieved the farmer of one of these, stole outside once again and crept back across the home paddock with my pilfered tipple stowed in the crook of my arm. Scarcely had I unlatched the door to my quarters before I had unstoppered the bottle and drawn a long, sweet, spicy draught from within.
All work, as they say (I consoled myself), all work and no play – all toil and no vivant – makes of Jack a Protestant.So that I drank, and read, and thereafter drank deeper still and read on with slow-waning interest until the words upon the page before me refused to resolve themselves into anything of comprehensible shape, much less rounded sense. Thereafter I saw that I had finished the bottle altogether and so felt myself drawn – helpless – to pull on my boots and to draw my coat about me and to wander, swaying and inconstant, into the icy dark outside. The notion took me at first instance that I might steal back into the farmhouse once again and there exchange the empty bottle for a full one, yet the unsteadiness I felt upon rising to my feet promptly disabused me of this drunkard’s scheme, for I could not be sure of managing a second theft from the loungeroom undetected, being fearful I might rouse the farmer from his rest with so many accusatory bodily thuds against the crowding interior walls of the house.
The drunk – as all who drink must surely know – is a vessel tending to list forwards or else sideways and to veer helpless in the negotiation of a downward slope, so that it is the natural instinct of the intoxicant to march uphill, that he might steady his progress against the countervailing weight of gravity exerted by the incline. Thus I directed my ramble to the high paddock – a paddock known to the farmer and his jackaroo, implacably, as Birthing – and there feeling myself both breathless and unsteady seated myself upon the grass in the windward side of a great heaped mound of rounded boulders and surveyed the frostbound land below me shivering in the moonlight.
I fancied then that I could hear upon the perishing night air the seamless thrumming hum of frog-song lifting from the distant creekbed to the north – though the port wine that then enriched my veins and filled my temples with noisy warmth might equally have been the source of this derangement of the peace. In any case, even as I strained to hear it with anything approaching clarity, the din was suddenly cut sharp short and I was left feeling profoundly dizzy and unseated where I sat at centre of a monochrome whirl of grey half-light spinning, and when this stopped – my vision coming into a soft and woozy focus – I felt it certain I was not alone upon the vale.
As though in proof of my intuition, in the next instant my eye was drawn to the suggestion of movement – albeit movement of near-vanishing slightness – among the boulders that lay strewn about the hillsides below and before me, and sensing this I shivered as one chilled against the cold. Moments later – racked with waves of fevered shuddering down to my very frame and propped upright where I sat upon an arm outstretched behind me (my numbed hand pressed by the weight of my upper body into the frostbound pasture) – I felt the diffuse warmth of the liquor in my belly to condense into a cold bolus of misgiving and, tasting a trace of vomitous bile at the back of my palate, I made to stand and stagger homeward. Yet, even as I struggled to recover my balance sufficient to find my feet, my wavering gaze lit once again upon the sense of something moving in the shadows of the stones. So that, grunting with an admixture of exertion (to stand, for the drunk, demands the utmost concentration of effort) and naked startlement, I could do aught but collapse back into the grass.
Then, sprawling on the earth, winded, I watched awestruck as a troupe of opaline figures crawled out from amidst the several colonies of lichenous boulders upon the slope, and each of these bent-backed and slinking forward on all primal fours before drawing themselves upright until they were enshrouded by the framing veil of stars about their shoulders. In the next instant, these weird denizens of the frozen night arranged themselves in a wide circle and began to dance a waltz of incomprehensible slowness, lagging behind a beat so sparse as to be all but stagnant. Gasping, I drew my breath to me – fearful that the vapour of it hanging upon the chilled and voided montane air might draw the ire of the dancers, or at the very least call their attention to me – and watched in horror as the rite unfolded a few yards from my trembling feet.
Yet fear is apt to smother each of the unlearned human faculties in turn, save, lastly, for curiosity. So that I could not help but watch intently as the figures reeled and spun upon the pasture, and in so doing I saw it that together they made up a great and spectral extended family – ranged in height and age, as they were, from those of very small children to the hunched and stooping forms of old maids and ancient, bearded men. Yet more striking even than the impression cast by the assembled figures were the clothes in which the clan was outfitted, for these consisted in long cloaks of animal skin and fur or else rough smocks of nankeen cloth.
On and on the dancers circled, tamping down the earth with their bare feet and groaning out a cycle of low chanting. Until a cracking report broke off the singing of the dancers and was followed by a short exchange of whooping cheers or cries gave out by parties unseen in the timbered distance. This signaled, so it seemed, something of dire circumstance to the dancers, so that I saw the adults to bundle up the youngest of their brood in panic, pressing them tightly to their breasts in desperate embraces, and to set off running downhill toward the creek until they were quite lost to my sight.
Thereafter, I felt myself suddenly as one disconsolate and most truly alone. So immediate was this lonely sensation that I felt myself scarce able to arrange my limbs in order to pull myself to standing from my seat upon the ground, and even when this Herculean task was managed I did not pause to consider why it was that I did not likewise make to flee before the unseen threat atop the hills.
Here, mercifully, ends my recollection of that night, for I have no true memory of the long march homeward from the dancing place. Yet this solitary journey back to the farmstead I surely made, for I awoke half-dead of thirst some hours after lunchtime the day following and saw – such a pounding in my head! – the cloth sacking that had been tacked as insulation to the ceiling above my cot made to resolve before my eyes.
The days and weeks following on from this most disconcerting evening were, however, almost unnervingly without event. Save for one afternoon not yet eventful though still in some measure confounding. For, while I sat at gazing out the window above my desk at nigh on dusk one evening, I saw the farmer of the big house to stare some several moments too long at the row of split and neatly-stacked firewood I had arranged in reserve against the wall of the shed (perhaps this was a mite too neatly stacked for his liking, or else the logs split too wide apiece to fit the stove). Apparently baulking a moment, the old man raked a furtive glance toward my window, so that I lifted a hand lazily from its rest atop the typewriter in assent to the question posed by his expression. Still, the only answer he gave was not, so it seemed, directed toward me. For the wizened old gnome just stood there staring off into the middle distance and mouthing a string of phrases to himself where he stood, over and again, in a state of unaccountable agitation. To judge by the movements of his lips and the shape formed by his soundless yaw (to the extent that I was able to discern either aspect of the demonstration, given the tangle of wiry grey whiskers that encircled the farmer’s face), he recited something in the order of geddup, mate; come on, geddup – though none among the old man’s sinewy working dogs (such hunted expressions these had, poor, miserable creatures) was then anywhere in sight.
To say that I was a man left wanting for companionship in the ensuing month scarce begins to touch the isolation I felt in that time, for my interest in the several books I had carted with me over four-hundred miles of open road between Sydney and the farm waned steadily until it was all but eclipsed by languor and fatigue, and my writings devolved still further so that I felt I should need to outfit myself with a brace of new red-ink pens so as to manage the corrections they demanded. Still, the spring’s thaw pressed on west and upward into the high country and the days grew long and warmer. Mercifully, we had soon seen the last of the season’s nightly frosts (though the occasional freezing fog contrived still to settle, on occasion).
Until one morning I was roused from what had, by then, become my habitual trance before the typewriter by such frantic bellowing and gesticulation on the part of the old farmer that I could not help but jump up from my seat and rush out of the shearer’s quarters to meet him in my socks.
Racing out into the tamped earth square at centre of the stockyards that stood between the big house and the creek, I met with the farmer, who was in the thrall of a singularly animated state of consternation. He meant, it seemed – by his frantic cries and the doubly frantic waving of his arms – to signal to the young jackaroo – who was then occupied at mowing hay from the low west paddock with the holding’s ancient and rust-cankered Massey Ferguson – that the youth had best avoid a certain portion of that paddock. Yet for all the farmer’s indignation, it seemed his message was not heeded by the youth, for I saw the old man to slump bodily where he stood and thence to saunter off toward the tractor – which had, unnaccountably, come to a standstill by the creek – sweeping and batting at the air before him with the hat he gripped, white-knuckled, in an outstretched hand.
As would a faithful sheepdog, I sloped along in the old man’s wake, treading in the very imprints of his gumboots as I strode (I marveled then that our respective gaits should be to a footfall so alike), until he drew up to the lad who was still seated on the tractor.
‘What’d I tell you ’bout the soddin’ swampy corner by the creek?’ spat the farmer.
‘Sorry, Rolls – ’ pled the jackaroo, paling, ‘ – I couldn’ see the spring fer the lucerne.’
‘Jesus, Mary and pissing Joseph, ye’ve sunk the bastard up to the chassis!’
‘Christ, Rolls, it was an accident! What’ll we do now?’
At this the farmer showed his stamp. For to work the land – be it fertile rich or else marginal – is to encounter troubles unending and preponderantly dire. So it was that the old cocky inhaled a breath deeply, steeled himself where he stood, and without altering his stance or the direction of his gaze, said (and this in a tone of specious serenity):
‘Run on down ter Cooper’s an’ beg a lend of ’is tractor. An’ if Matt’s there, see if ’e wouldn’ min’ comin’ over ter give us a hand, orright?’
‘Easy done,’ the jackaroo said, cowed, and swung down from the machine.
The farmer and I watched him trot off across the flat paddocks of the floodplain until he was lost to sight below a low-slung hill, before the old man turned on his heel and set out marching toward the house, never once acknowledging my presence on the scene.
When both men had quit that creek-side quarter of the paddock, I took it upon myself to survey the damage the young jackaroo had wrought upon the property’s only working tractor – I say it was the only working tractor on the place, for (as is the case with most every station on the Monaro), there were the rusting carcasses of two or three old agricultural engines (all overgrown with horehound, dock and thistles) standing decrepit in the immediate surroundings of the farmhouse. Knowing nothing of tractors, I formed the view that it would be the work of several hours to extricate the machine from the bog.
Turning then myself – being minded to return to my own thankless work in quarters – I was seized sudden of a queer notion, and spun about on the spot so as to inspect the long, deep runnels that the wheels of the tractor had carved into the marshy soil behind it. In so doing, I was robbed by fright of my very breath for the second time in as many months. For, peering at the scars wrought by the tractor upon the earth, I saw that these had laid bare several pearlescent curves of bonewhite. Kneeling down so as to free each of these each in turn from the encasing clay and loam, I was sickened to find that the comparative sizes of those bones being like to other bones unearthed from elsewhere in the mire were so varied as to suggest that I had stumbled upon the resting place of not one soul but of many, and the respective ages of these at the time of death ranging from infancy up to adulthood: skulls all different sizes, shinbones one, two, three too many, ribs a dozen and a baby’s toothless jaw too small to fill my hand.
Struggling to my feet again – my shoeless feet slipping and sliding in the mud – and clambering up the slope toward the house in a cold lather, I was bereft to find that the farmer was there nowhere to be seen. Peering into each of the clustered outbuildings in turn, I found neither hide nor hair of him, and it was more than an hour before the young jackaroo returned – alone – from the neighbouring property. The world-weary cadence of his gait spoke to failure in the errand on which he had been so urgently despatched before he even struck the home paddock.
Indeed, it was not until well into the evening that the farmer returned from his business abroad, and even then the air attending him was nothing if not censorious, so that I was scarce able to utter five words together as he sat at the table and unlaced his boots.
‘There are bones in Butchery,’ said I, haltingly.
Yet, inscrutable as ever, the old man looked right through me and addressed the nervous lad who stood at leaning on the jamb and anxiously awaiting both judgment and sentence.
‘Ye’re orright, mate,’ said the farmer, and sighed. ‘Ye’re not the first ter bog a bastard down there by the creek, an’ you won’t be the last.’
‘I’m real sorry, Rolls,’ said the youth, wringing his hands.
‘Don’t worry ’bout it too much, orright? We’ll get ’er out tomorra, you an’ me. You ’ungry?’
‘You know me.’
‘Righto, I’ll get some snags on. An’ I didn’ mean ter spit the dummy on ya like that.’
‘Ye’re right – I prolly deserved it.’
‘Yer bloody well did, too!’ quipped the farmer, breaking into a short-lived grin that slid rapidly from his face and features as he set about retrieving the frying pan from its cupboard. The jackaroo – as do all young men being newly freed from the entanglement of their mothers’ apron strings – simply sat soundless and watched the old man fry his supper.
‘It’s only that the exact same thing happened on the day me young fella – you know,’ offered the farmer shortly.
At this the lad paled again, and I marked a measure of panicked trepidation to wipe his face clear of all blushing colour.
‘Oh, gawd – I’m sorry, Rolls. Real sorry.’
‘Not your fault…’ the farmer started, vacant. ‘It was…’e were visitin’ from Sydney at the time – come ’ome fer a coupla weeks’ sabbatical, ’e called it – an’ I’d put ’im to work on ploughin’ Butchery. ’E were bleedin’ ’opeless at drivin’ the tractor – ’ated it, too. An’ that day it’d bin rainin’ on all the dirty slush left by the meltin’ snow, so ’e bogged ’er a damn sight worse’n you done today. So help me, I tore a bloody fearful strip off of ’im an’ sent ’im packin’. Couldn’ stand ter look at the dozy mongrel. Corse, ’e made a beeline fer the pub, an’ stayed there ’til near on dark.
‘When ’e finally made to come ’ome – tail ’tween ’is legs, I fancied – I were stood out there by the tractor – takin’ a spell, I was, bein’ half-buggered wi’ tryin’ ter dig ’er out – an’ I watched ’im comin’ across the far paddock all arms ’an legs an’ staggers, stumblin’, an’ the rib jumper knit ’im by ’is nan balloonin’ at ’is chest. So ’e come t’ward the creek a ways ter the sou’west o’ me, over the far side paddock there, ’til ’e stumbled up ter the reeds. An’ then, lurchin’ forward, ’e overbalanced an’ tumbled down the far bank ’til ’e glanced a boulder with the side of ’is ’ead an’ a little spray o’ pink mist went up in the air an’ just sorta hung there a moment. An’ so ’e fell limp inter the reeds an’ jus’ lay there prone. Too far off, ’e was, for me ter mark the bubbles give out from ’is mouth, ’though I ’spect there were bubbles – at first, at least. I thought nothin’ of it at the time – save me! I figured ’e’d come ter rest a ways above the waterline, but ’corse the snowmelt’d swelled the river right up high, an’ it weren’t ’til I’d made me way back up ter the ’ouse – intendin’ ter leave ’im to wake up cold out there in the sodden muck, so’s ter teach ’im a bloody lesson – an’ mouthed off ter the missus ’bout what’d happened, that she ’ounded me back down there ter the creek ter bring ’im a wool blanket an’ retrieve ’im. But by the time I’d run over there, ’corse, it were all still as a millpond, an’ ’e were facedown in it.’
Hearing this, I was at once repulsed and dumbstruck with shock. Yet in the same moment, I was seized and overtaken by a sudden, rending headache. Touching a finger gingerly to my temple, I marked an inexplicable stickiness and stinging pain. Not recalling having hit my head (though remembering all too well my panic on the charnel ground beside the creek a few short hours prior), I brought my fingers thence before my eyes and saw that they were pasted with an ichor of swift-drying blood. Yet before I had quite had time to ponder this most incontrovertible evidence of a head injury, I was taken by a vomiting sickness, the urgency of which I had not time enough to arrest before a great, bitter mass had surfaced from the pit of my stomach. And catching this in my open hands, I felt myself to faint away and all but dissolve as I regarded the writhing mass of tiny frogs and pondweed I had caught.