Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Tyger Tale

He was alone when he excavated the first tiger, 25 years ago. It lay under beds of ash, interred and then cremated, almost as though to sterilise or negate the soil that it lay in.
A few days before his find, he'd taken pity on the team. With a dearth of artifacts the students were hot, bored and his young colleague's wife was expecting a baby any moment. They packed up their desert camp and left him out there alone, where the Southern ocean bit off the country and little black stars fell to earth.
He returned weeks later to the city, triumphant and bore with grace his colleague's jealousy and regret. His name was instantly cemented in professional circles, subject to an intense scrutiny of process and umbilicly connected to a pre history with no written word, only songs.
Now he needed to revisit the desert sands that formed the plinth of his career.

She was born with teeth, little needle canines. Her mother refused to feed her and considered exposing the strange baby, whose eyes remained glued shut for half a moon.
A young man who saw her teeth knew there would be trouble. It didn't stop him from presenting food, skins and flint to her parents and he continued this betrothal promise faithfully for thirteen years.

This was the time after the coming of the dogs, when everything changed. A barren woman, who carried a ginger pup strapped to her belly, told the girl her Granny’s story of the strange men who sailed in from the north. They wore spiked helmets fashioned from stonefish and breast plates of thick, felted coconut fibre that repelled even the death spears. They brought the dogs with them to eat and to hunt and they wore the toothed necklaces of the ones they'd eaten on the journey.

These dogs without pouches were welcomed. They didn't compete with the people for food, like the tigers did. Dogs hunted in teams and brought food to the camp, where they sat on the outer rim of firelight, their jowls resting on their paws, ears cocked, waiting their turn.
With them came a new mammalian knowledge of fatherhood and birth. That's when things began to change, the woman told the girl.

Nights when the moon was full, the dogs left the camp silently in rows like militant wraiths. Then the cold, dry air thickened with the smell of terror and blood. They yipped and howled as they sniffed out den after den of tigers, tearing apart the marsupial bitches in their cramped little caves and devouring her babies.

He tracked her out into the scrubby mulga, always careful that she didn't see him. He was curious about her absences. She lay in a sunny clearing with tigers. People spoke of tigers as the Dreaming, since that lifetime of bloody nights.
The brindle tiger joeys sprawled over her dusty brown skin and chewed on her hair. The girl suckled from the bitch, her face obscured by the furry pouch. He could smell the warmth coming off their coats. Her fingers stroked the stripy pelt. Her fingers stroked and scratched and kneaded and then ...froze.
She whipped around to face him, grinning at him with her sharp little teeth dripping opalescent milk. She was daring him to say or do something. He knew then why the dogs never liked her. He stood, habit, like a tree. And then they were gone, the whole mob turned into the country, including his promised wife.

The reason for archaeologist's return was to impart something to his old colleague and to follow up a rumour. He knew the thylacine he’d found twenty five years ago had been buried, probably by human hand and then a fire lit over the ground. Radiocarbon dating on the charcoal was three thousand years. Twenty five years of research crossing all disciplines and he was still guessing the rest. He was running out of time. At seventy five, it was time to hand over his baby.
"You need to get some people down here. You have to work out where the circle begins and ends," he rustled a bunch of spiny grasses in his palm. "I think there's more."

Around a frugal flame, the elders sat for three days and discussed the business of the girl. Nobody saw the dogs leave. The dogs ran silent and hungry across the earth, teeth bared, nostrils flared, their long red tongues flicking against their jowls with every bound. It was the next night, a frozen five-dog-night, when the people realised they were gone. All but one man curled up with their backs to the fire, grumbling with cold and tired from all the talking.

The old patience of a dedicated bone digger was deserting him. He slapped a switch of mulga leaves at the flies and paced. A new generation of students straightened their backs in shallow trenches, watched him and then glanced at each other, eyebrows raised. They knew the history. He walked in circles, always circles, always trying to find the centre, muttering "Tyger, tyger, burning bright..." and slamming his canvas hat against his thigh.

She ran for the sea. She could smell it getting closer. She ran in a short choppy gait, jogging along with the very last of her totem. They stopped at the night well and drank and then ran again. She chewed sweet red flesh from the berry tree and spat out the spherical nuts. The flesh she savoured in her mouth and it sustained her for hours. They headed for the caves on the edges of the ocean. She would light a fire there and be safe for a little while and perhaps her kin could be too, for a little while.

The promised husband ran too, his eyes scouring the earth, back tracking, finding a trail again, running, running, always running and searching the ground for signs of the dogs.
It took two days but he found them.
Terrible sounds hung floating, suspended under the constellations, shot through by the sharper, piercing screams of the straggling tiger joeys as they died. He ran faster into the night towards the noise, expecting his exhausted body to betray him.

He saw the tigers crouching in a circle, facing the dogs. They protected the girl who stood in the middle, teeth shining like the white stone in her hand. He saw the dogs stalking around the largest male tiger. Their yellow eyes glinted hard and sure as they took him down. One of them yelped as the white rock glanced off him. It was not an orgiastic flurry. It was quick, merciless and brutal. He saw her search the barren soil for another stone.

The dogs split into groups of three or four and quickly killed the other adult tigers, the leader of each pack picking a tiger up by its neck and shaking it lifeless.
He was running towards her when the dogs hit her as a deadly circular body, with a shattering single thump of flesh against flesh.

The helicopters bristling with cameras arrived. The news was satellited around the world within hours. A perfect circle, twelve metres in diameter, of human-interred thylacines is news. Television camera crews and journalists rolled out brand new swags in the student’s camp. The old archaeologist could not stand still for interviews. He still thought there was more. He let his colleague do all the talking. The students put both hands to their faces often or knelt on the ground and felt the earth, amongst all the activity of the media.

Later in the evening, he invited his colleague out into the field. The stars were brilliant, despite the generator lights, the celebratory bonfire and the full moon. "I'm going home in the morning," he told the stunned man. "But I know there is more. There’s something here, right where I stand, in the centre. It's your dig now, friend."

The promised husband knew that she was the last one and that the new order of dogs had begun. But the dogs would not have her. He buried her first, very deep, with all the tiger joeys laid over her belly. He buried the adult tigers where they fell defending her, facing outwards to protect her forever.
When he lit the fires, the dogs waited, uneasy and triumphant, at the edges of the light.


  1. Brilliant. Love it. In order to properly appreciate the past you have to be able to connect with it. Thanks. The idea of reconnecting is one thing, but there's something extra about these stories, something really good about bringing them out. Giving identity and voice like this - telling the two tales simultaneously - is not only informative and insightful, but there's a ring or proper purpose about it too. Good karma just to read.

  2. Wow thanks Ciaran. I've gotta work this story a bit more ... I wrote it after hearing something on the radio about the ancient desert burial of a girl being found, with her surrounded by the interred bodies of dingoes. Try as I might, I never found that story again, maybe I imagined it.

  3. Imagined will do Sarah if it means these stories are being written. I really enjoyed this, the story itself as much the idea that the forgotten and unknown may get a second chance, from someone, somewhere.