Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Bones of a Tale of a Tyger

He needed to revisit the desert sands that formed the plinth of his career.
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.

She was born with teeth, needle sharp little 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 fifteen years.

This was the time just 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 Grandmother'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 for food and were bejeweled in toothed necklaces of the ones they'd eaten on the journey.
These dogs without pouches were welcomed. Dogs didn't compete with the people like the tigers did. They 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. The old women said that's when things began to change.
Some nights when the moon was full, the dogs left the camp silently in rows like militant wraiths. Then the cold, dry air was fraught with the smell of terror and blood. They yipped and howled as they sniffed out den after den of tigers, tearing apart the marsupial bitch in a cramped little cave and devouring her babies.

He would track her out into the scrubby mulga, always careful that she didn't see him. He was curious about her absences. He followed her throughout her life but he never saw before what he saw that day.
She lay in a sunny clearing with tigers. People spoke of them as the past, since that lifetime of bloody nights.
The brindle tiger pups 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. Her fingers stopped, frozen.
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 thylacene 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 some people down here. You have to work out where the ring begins and ends," he rustled the bunch of spiny grasses he'd picked at the site. "I think there's more."

Around a frugal flame, the elders sat for three days and discussed the matter. Nobody saw the dogs leave.

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.

He couldn't leave it alone. He was twitchy with it and the old patience of a dedicated bone digger deserted him. 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 paced 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 knew that if he found the dogs, he would find the girl. He began running, 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 babies as they died. He ran faster into the night towards the noise, expecting his exhausted body to betray him.
The circle of tigers faced out to the dogs. The girl 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 glinting with pleasure, laughing as they took him down, yelping as the rock glanced off one of them. It was not an orgiastic flurry. It was quick, merciless and brutal. He saw her search the barren soil for another weapon.
The dogs silently 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 the hour. A perfect circle, twelve metres in diametre, of purposely interred thylacines is news. Television camera crews and journalists rolled out brand new swags in the student camp. The old archaeologist could not stand still for interviews. He still thought there was more. He let his colleague do all the talking.
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 think there is more. It's your dig now. Tomorrow, on your own. There is something here where I stand, here, in the centre."

He saw that she was the last and that the new order of dogs had begun. He had saved her from death once before and this time he had failed but he would not let the dogs have her.
He buried her first, very deep, with all the tiger pups laid over her belly. He buried the adult tigers where they fell defending her, facing outwards.
When he lit the fires, the dogs waited, uneasy and triumphant, at the edges of the light.

Monday, September 29, 2008


I think it is time to write about Bob. It's been a few months and like any catastrophe, time is needed to process how we really feel. It's difficult; time also hardens up a story into something solid and unmovable. I want to do the experience of knowing him and seeing him go some kind of justice. This may be an extended post... bear with me.

Recently there has been some comments posted on this blog from people I don't think I've ever met, who learnt of Bob's demise from afar and expressed a kind of sad disbelief to hear that he is gone. This story is really for you and it is only one story - mine. There are so many others.

It has been pretty direct. I live in his house now. I inherited his black cat Ebony. On nights late I see her lurking, panther like and talking to me in that siamese cat manner and i think, "There he is. She is Bob." Mad, I know. I tell myself that. I think, she's just a cat and she misses him too.

He was the strange long haired man I met twenty years ago, playing guitar on the staircase of the old whale chaser. I always loved the way he'd pull out a guitar and subject us to his songs. "Sweet Fortunata" was my favourite. He was so excited about that song, he came over and played it the same day of composition.

He possessed an occasional maniacal intensity, other times he was gentle, always eccentric, always a THINKER and always a bloody Pisces, acutely sensitive and willing to shovel out the shit at the same time.

He worried about me. When I was going through a particularly nasty emotional patch, he sat with me at the State Records Roadshow at the museum and said, "What's going on Sarah? Are you pregnant?" (He knew I wasn't, he was fishing.) He worried about me and I worried about him.

The conversations I will miss. We'd sit in his kitchen, I'd make the tea and off we'd go. History, vague theories on love and lust, Nyungar stories, writers we love, what we are reading right now, feminist/postmodern/gender/music theory, then we'd fall into unabashed gossip. He was THE best for gossip.

Intellectually he was twenty years ahead of the rest of us. His brother told Aussie of a family fight in 1974. It was your classic family fun Christmas day where the fight spills out onto the footpath. It started because Bob told his father that the world would run out of oil in 2040.

A few years ago, christmas day again, he told us that the polar bears would soon start drowning because they would have too far to swim between ice floes. I know how his father felt. We all told him to shut up and let us enjoy our christmas lunch. And hey - the polar bears are drowning as I write this.

He made talking about the weather into an art form. He could sing Yothu Yindi's "Treaty" in language. He was a pain in the arse pit bull terrier at town council meetings. He would patiently explain my flaws whilst smelling like a chookpen, in unwashed clothes. He was always there for me. He could have made a million dollars fixing all the computers he did, but he got fed instead and was happy with that.

When I think back, I used to get so frustrated at all the work he did for other people and not ask to be paid. I used to think that maybe he didn't feel worthy enough to expect it and that he was being used. But now ... the legacy he leaves is one of good deeds.

When he first got sick, he was so full of anger. His teeth were giving him the shits and the government dentist wasn't listening, ripping out teeth or just filling them in and not listening when Bob came back and said that something was still wrong. It is a long ride on a push bike, all up hill to the dentists clinic from here. The saga dragged on and on. So it was cancer under his teeth and I think about that every time I roll up another coffin nail and smoke it.

Secondary arrived six months later and things got serious. People were shocked. Bob worked harder than I've ever seen him work. He built another chook pen, wrote and presented an amazing series of lectures on Nyungar history, chopped down the Mulberry tree that had kept his house dark and damp for years, let the light in. He played in his band "The Hughs" that he nurtured every thursday, kept up his pilgrimage to Cosi's Cafe, worked on getting the fish pictures published. He was running out of time.

He rang me one night and told me he wanted to have the party to end all parties. I dissolved when I hung up the phone. My daughter said, "He's dying isn't he, Mum," and I just nodded because I couldn't say anything.

He turned up at the nursery where I worked, with Aussie and Irish. "Can we have the party at your place?" It was to be a Mexican Festival of the Dead, to laugh in the face of death, with a Freida Khalo theme. I found a self-portrait of Khalo with thorns and a blue bird at her throat. "Yes!" said Bob. In the end though, we decided on Clarissa, a kind of gory patron saint of the festival

Both of us began inviting people. I was moving house and I had a shit head cold, so I couldn't visit him at all for a few weeks. The knowledge that someone you love is going to die soon is easy enough to avoid with black humour and a busy lifestyle, until one encounter happens to be so terrifyingly and acutely REAL, that this knowledge cannot be avoided anymore.

This happened on his verandah, when my cold was gone and we chatted. It was winter solstice, exactly a week before his party. He was in good spirits, not in too much pain and this kind of essential goodness shone out of him. I told a joke, it wasn't even really funny and he threw back his head and laughed and laughed and laughed. The first shock was seeing his completely naked gums. It was like surprising somebody stark naked. I was shocked! But then it was the joy. He was so joyous, it was radiating from him in waves. He was up there with the Dalai Lama and this is not written lightly.

People flew and drove from all over to say hello and goodbye at the Mexican Festival of the Dead. We decorated the whole house with flowers, skulls, armloads of bracken and candles. We found a wheel chair for Bob and decked it out with plastic roses.
SilverBeat and the Freedom Police, his old bands, were revived and cranked out the favourites on the verandah. The Nyungar elders arrived. We burnt the Mulberry tree in a massive bonfire out in the paddock. It rained all night and it didn't matter.

Bob's son Aedan was there, helping out. He'd just finished his exams, otherwise Bob would have held the party on the Solstice. Bob was happy, there were a few surprises for him in the way of dedicated compositions and long lost friends showing up. He held pride of place, sitting in the flowered wheel chair with a disco light spinning on the floor behind him. Women draped themselves around his feet. (No really, they did.)

Bob died at Hospice four days later, age 56. No one except perhaps for himself expected it to happen so soon. He crashed on Monday and went into a kind of coma. The party was the last time we ever talked together. I wasn't really sad, until the day after he was put into the ground. I was joyous, like some of that joy in him had permeated my shell. The last few days spent with him at Hospice were so exhausting and beautiful. It felt the same as being at the birth of a child. When I entered the outside world again - I knew that everything had changed and nothing would ever be the same.

Yes Tim, Aunty Avril spoke in language at Bob's funeral. She talked about how much he had done for the Nyungars. His coffin was draped in the Aboriginal flag and when he was lowered, Glenda and Vern folded it and gave it to Aedan. On the way there, I saw six red tailed black cockatoos fly over the sheoak hill, a rare sight in these parts. They flared that brilliant red against their black feathers and the pale blue winter sky.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

the bicycle sagas #1

This was a mad night peopled with Mauritian Patagonian Toothfishermen and glamour. The South Bound Champion is in town with a story to tell. Blowing a con rod five days out of Mauritius and then lying up for two weeks at sea, the crew borrowed each other’s DVDs, raided the alcohol stash and got bored out of their brains. They limped into town a week ago for running repairs and have been setting hearts on fire ever since.
Becoming a town mouse has changed my social life somewhat. Being without a car or a CentreLink approved job for a while has too. (I’m starting to feel like Bob. Dammit, I’m even starting to look like him. Mr Moon’s eulogy for Bob mentioned his pink tredley, polystyrene helmet, bicycle clips and perpetual poverty. Hmmm.)
So last night I pedalled off into the metropolis to attend Shark’s exhibition of photography, images I’ve seen before but are thrilling all over again on the wall. Trousersnake boys mingled, shared canapes and a brilliant local whisky with the Glamazons. It was. It was a glamorous affair. Lots of great shoes.
This story is not about exhibitions or con rods. It’s about more pressing and important matters than that. This is the sordid and complicated history of how I got drunk and fell off my bicycle. Twice.

An artist recently criticised me, for being a fish murderer and plundering the ocean’s resources for cash. He took a pin to my ballooning ego, at the crucial moment when I was being greased up to feel like a ocean going hero by everyone else, an intrepid fisher woman with biceps like a … a fisher woman.
This is rather small scale plundering though, when you compare it to the Toothfish industry. The Patagonian Toothfish has only recently been discovered in the deepest of Antarctic waters and is probably the ugliest fish you’ve ever seen. They grow to the size of a man and weigh about the same. They can live for 120 years. Because they are an oily, ice water fish, their omega 3 count is through the roof. And that’s about the extent of our knowledge of this fish. We don’t even know how many there are. We do know that people will pay lots of money for dead ones.
Toothfish poachers led the Australian Navy on a merry chase through the Antarctic a few years ago. The poachers – the age old gamers, the modern day pirates, chancers with a visionary streak and one eye on the horizon - were portrayed in the media as mercenary thieves in dastardly rusting hulks.
The Fed’s issue with toothfish poachers is not territory or ethics but money – serious money. If it was about territory, conservation or the ethical marauding of natural resources, then perhaps we would see the same reaction from the Navy, when the Japanese whalers cruise through Australian territory and the Antarctic whale sanctuary to slaughter Minkes.
The fleet of Australian owned Toothfish boats (read – Australian = non poachers, folks) head down to hunting grounds around Heard Island for a bracing three month’s sojourn. For a few years, they returned to Albany for the boat unload, a seasonal employment bonanza for strong young men who didn’t mind a touch of frostbite, hurling 100 kilos of leviathan from one freezer to another. Now they unload in Mauritius, closer to the market action and a source of much cheaper labour.

Sitting outside Shark’s exhibition last night, I watched the extravagant scene unfold through the window. The menswear shop was decked out with a kind of Zen opulence (an oxymoron perhaps) and peopled with the most sublime creatures I’ve seen in a long time. Shark’s ethereal and gritty desert images completed the vision.
I was woken from my whisky induced reverie by a bunch of sturdy young men, one of whom I’d met a few days earlier. What an assortment! Please refer to my theories on this in "Overpaid, Oversexed and OverHere. (Haven't worked out the link thang yet). Mauritius, South Africa and New Zealand, the United Nations of Toothfishermen stood before me.

“Hey, Sarah! I’ve gotta ask you mate. Do you know where we can get some … you know … some hootie?”
I get asked this by strangers all the time. Maybe it’s because I look like some kind of shaggy stoner. ‘Hang on,’ my internal polylogue explains patiently, ‘he said Hootie. Not Hooch. W t f? O-Oh.’

“I’m kind of out of the loop with those things,” I explained apologetically. Why was this nice young man asking me to pimp for him? I got all flustered. His Mauritian mate smiled at me with carnivorous intent and took my photo with his mobile phone.

Mr Mauritius, the small dark man of tarot and myth, took another hour or so (roughly on closing time at the pub) to decide he was definitely coming home with me. He was a decisive sort and there was no changing his mind. Small Dark Man was on a quest to uncover the sensual gifts of a true Albanian. He would not consider ‘no’ as a reasonable obstacle. Unfortunately for him, he was dealing with Sarah Toa, the Warrior Princess and she possessed a bicycle.

I fled into the WineDark night. I am fleet of foot but fleeter by wheel. I could hear his footsteps thudding behind me and his anguished, throaty cry. “Sarah! Sarah!” I rode that bicycle like a demon. My heart thumped with whisky and hubris.
I made it all the way up the main drag in one piece. Don’t know what happened to the polystyrene helmet, collateral damage I expect. Took the corner at the town hall and gunned it home.

Well. It sounds good. Gunned it. Like I ramped the throttle on some iron charger throbbing between my thighs and performed an attention seeking rumble-streak down the highway.

The truth is I came to grief quietly and in slow motion when I hit the kerb outside the day care centre. The whole Christmas party came down with me, 2 half empty (yes, not half full) bottles of wine, handbag, mobile phone and my beautiful grey coat which I still haven’t retrieved from the gutter. (If you find it, give it back. You will never be able to wear it in this town and anyway, it’s itchy.)
It hurt, but still my my whiskied adrenaline helped me to my feet and I rose to travel the road once more. I’d forgotten all about my bereft toothfisherman and was alternately giggling and nursing a rapidly expanding elbow.
The second crash really hurt.

(With aknowledgement to Banjo - who can spot the lifted line?)

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Selkie Bodice Ripper!

The Red Curtains.

"The supposed sightings of Selkies on the southern coast have been dismissed by those more sensible souls as nothing more than the desirous fantasy of sealers long deprived of female company." Colonial Times, 1 June 1831

"They have been known to abduct the native women. These dusky women of the mainland come down to the water to collect limpets or catch fish in the labyrinthine stone traps that they build on the mudflats. The sealers will lie in wait until the men are gone and then spring out to overpower the women and bundle them into a boat. All around the coast of this country, sequestered in miserable camps and windswept rocks of islands, native women are kept by these worst examples of men." Chief Protector, Report on the Moral Preservation and Status of Vandemonian Native Women 31 July 1831.

We were on the shore when he stole me. I was in the process of examining my new plume of red hair. The others fled into the water and I forgot my skin. I sat out in the water naked, terrified, and watched as he scooped up my skin from the sand, gritty seashell-pieces sprinkling to the ground. He was laughing, this wild white man.
My sisters had already begun their keening, for they knew what happened next. We’d all heard stories about them stealing women away, women who were never seen again. This man came alone in a boat, a long wooden boat with a bow at each end, and the rowlocks set in neat rows, three to a side. He bound me, tied my wrists and ankles together and dumped me in the belly of the boat, the rough boards cushioned by a pile of skins from the wild fur seal.
The one who claimed me smelt like a fox. He wore shoes made from the skins of wallabies: grey fur showed around his ankles and they were laced with some kind of gut or sinew. I noticed his shoes because I was looking at them while he wrenched at the oars, my eyes at the level of his feet.
He suffered - it was too large a boat for him, and the wind blew up halfway across the pass. The skins smelt rancid, fatty, days old. Flies buzzed around my nose and eyes and butted at my mouth. They were ferocious and one repeatedly bit me on the cheek, my cheek now clad with silly, soft skin that did not protect me against even a fly.
I felt the man move and looked up to see his shoe coming straight for my face. I thought he was going to kick me but he only waved his foot around my head and shooed the flies away. I knew he’d folded my skin neatly and was sitting on it. It was a strange sensation, the desire I felt when I saw the tip of my flipper, the piece that concealed a tiny black claw, flapping under his thigh.
My skin is like a seed: it is permeated with the memory of my ancestors and the instructions for my future. Without it I have no purpose, stranded in this strange body that can be cumbersome in its unfamiliarity.
The wild men know that. They know things intuitively and they learn them from long journeys, time spent only in the company of their own minds and desires, or those of a few other souls. Time enough to understand certain strange ways of the sea.
This man rowed all day; his breath whistled under his moustache. Sometimes, when the sun wasn’t in my eyes, I could twist my neck and watch him. He was often hidden beneath the black hair that flailed around his face but I could see that his eyes were blue and that he’d been living rough for a long time. It wasn’t the smell or the ingrained dirt or the bleeding cracks in his lips - there was a feral insolence to his being. He’d been dropped off the edge of the world and liked it there.
The sun dropped lower and a chill crept over my burned skin. I had a feeling in my stomach, like I would be sick. Lying in the bottom of the boat made me feel ill. I was not accustomed to the sea doing this to my insides. When I finally heaved, I vomited into my hair. He laughed again and stopped his rowing to bale a bucket of salt water over me. I lay there with my own muck swilling around my head.
There were no clouds but the sky was turning pink and then, suddenly, we were in the lee of some land. Surf crashed around me. It felt as though we would slam into the rocks and smash up the boat. He coasted in and I felt the keel connect with sand and run up onto the shore. We stopped with a lurch. A scrubby cliff towered over me: the rocks were different, reddish-brown and sandy looking. Seagulls flew overhead, on a mission to their roosting grounds for the oncoming night.
Since I’d encountered him, this man had not spoken, only whistled or laughed at my misfortune, or grunted over the effort of the oars. Now he stowed those oars and muttered something at me, jerking his head towards the shore. He lifted up my body until I was standing, wobbling on the cross section of the boat, with heavy metal studs under my toes. He pushed me to sit upon the seat and untied the ropes that bound my ankles.
We climbed along a little track that wriggled up the cliff . He led me by the rope that tied my hands together. The dark red sand poured down the track, carrying the heat of the day and burning the soles of my feet. Twigs scored my limbs as the blood rushed back into my veins from the long cramped day, pins and needles prickling my new-found legs.
A thicket of peppermint trees hid his home from the top of the track and as we stood there, breathing heavily and limbs shaking from the climb, I almost didn’t see it. He smiled then and I saw his white teeth under stretched and broken lips. He gestured towards the house and then to me.
White cockleshells dotted the mortar between the orange stone. The timber rafters looked freshly cut. Red cloth curtains hung behind the open shutters and fluttered lightly in the dusk.
I realised that even though he had taken me with such force and cruelty from my family, and kept my skin so that he might bind me to his every will, despite all this, his offer of a home was made with naïve hope.
I looked at his skins, his cloak that made him look like a native and the shoes bound with sinew, at his eager expectation of my acceptance of his craftsmanship, his very being.
I looked back to the fine red curtains. How long had he known me? How many full moons had he been lying in wait, to see me shed my skin and dance with my sisters?
His smile faded as he heard the keening from the rocks below, the same keening we’d heard when I was taken. My sisters howled, breaking the strange, quiet calm that precedes the night.
I could see it in his eyes, remembering that he’d left my skin in the boat. He spat and cursed as he tied me to the verandah post. He snatched up a spear before disappearing over the crest, jogging, with the weapon held at his hip.
As soon as he’d left I answered my sisters, yelping and howling in return, until my throat was sore and I began coughing. I tried to wrestle my way out of the ropes but they held fast. Kelp tightens its silky grip with a frantic struggle and these ropes behaved in the same way.
It was quieter and the only sound I could hear was the slap of a bronze wing pigeon as it flew overhead. Heavy breathing broke the quiet and the white man lurched up the slope and into my sights. He didn’t have my skin.
He threw the spear into the ground with another curse and sat on a rock, dropping his head into his hands.
We don’t experience what humans call love. Our existence is determined by seasonal storms, the swelling of the moon and the grey sharks that eye off our babies. From what I can fathom, our closest sensation to that of love is a sense of yearning, for our homes and our blood kin. Our mating is perfunctory and more seal than human in its manner.
However, when I assumed my human form and lay on rocks in the evening that held the sun’s warmth, I could feel the swellings of new feelings in my heart. Something new began to emerge from the liminal regions of my core. But I had never before been human long enough to understand or acknowledge these feelings. Now, I had been without my skin for longer than ever before - I’d been human for hours and the feelings of humans were seeping into me, like salt through my delicate new pelt.
I looked at this wild, white man with his head in his hands and I looked back to the red curtains in the window of the little hut. I didn’t understand the feeling I had. I called to him gently and, when he finally took his head from his hands, I nodded towards the rope. He nodded too and untied me.
I froze when he stroked my red hair and muttered something in his own language. He took hold of a long hank of hair and wrapped it around his fist. His knuckles nestled into my left ear. I breathed so quietly that my lungs went without sustenance.
With his face close to mine, he laid out the words in my mind, the way that the ocean ripples out its secret language on a sandy bed. Do you want to go back? I shook my head. No, not in answer but to rid my being of his voice that swirled and moved through my mind. I felt so unnerved and confused; I stepped back and stared at him.
He let go of my hair and asked me again. Again I shook my head. So he led me into the little house and gave me a fur cloak to cover my nakedness and keep me warm. He set about the makings of a fire and chopped great chunks of red flesh and vegetables into smaller pieces, putting them into a large pot.
I watched him all the while and wondered at humans, their way of living inside these square confines, how far they are from the real wild men and women.
We swim in the ocean, we even sleep under water, rising up every now and then, bottling for air. We are confined by the limits of our bodies, not by stone and wood and mortar.
But the glow of the lamp and the warming room lulled me into a languid demeanour and I lay back on the pile of skins near the fire and watched him. He stirred the pot, his hair falling over his face and his lips working their own songs and prayers.
At one point he came over and combed out my hair, beginning at the ends and ridding it of the mess I’d made in the boat. When he’d finished, he stroked my fine hair, saw that it was smooth and clean.
We ate human food that was good and nourishing, warm food that filled my belly and made me sleepy. I never rose from the pile of skins but fell into an exhausted sleep near the fire.
When I awoke it was dark and embers glowed from the fireplace. I could hear my sisters through the still night, crying for me. They knew I was somewhere near. They had my skin, they wanted me to come back and own it, to swim away with them.
I thought that he was sleeping on a swag of skins near the fireplace. The door was open and I shed the cloak and crept out, as naked as when I’d arrived. At the doorway, I looked back to see the glint of light from one of his opened eyes.
Come back to me - next moon, he lay out the words in my mind again.
I ran down the dusty goat track to the rocks where my sisters were waiting, their hopeful faces turned towards the shore. They broke into whoops and yelps as they saw me. Sometimes I’d see him, rowing his boat against the wind. Can a hermit be a good man? He’d been alone so long that it seemed he was without the perversions of other men. I thought of him alone behind those red curtains, reconciling himself after a day of slaughtering seals, to his need for me. I thought of the way he filled me with his language and yet rarely said a word.
On the next full moon, I swam all the way to the island and waited in the water until dusk. I saw him come out to the cliff face and stare out to sea. Always, throughout the months, I had a strange feeling in the pit of my belly.
Finally, on the third full moon since he’d tried to steal me, I did something that is unknown for females of my kind to do. I swam to his island and removed my skin at the water’s edge. My precious skin I stashed in a secret place and then I scrambled up the steep track to his little house.
The red curtains glowed and the open door showed the white man sitting at his rough table by the fire. He held a sharp little knife and a piece of wood. As I crept closer to see, he looked up but did not rise from the table. A waft of gladness glowed from him. He offered me the carving. I turned the smooth wood over in my hands. It was a carving of a woman, a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair and the tail of a seal.

As published in Shadowplays, an anthology of speculative fiction. 2007

Selkie image

Derelict Ukulele Wielding Asylum Seekers

Now it is not in my best interests to sell you guys real estate. Most of us poor sad bastards couldn’t afford the piece of heaven I am writing about anyway. I am about to embark upon a Spray about real estate agents and in particular that covert and exclusive club; the real estate agents of Nullaki Peninsula.
From now on they will be referred to as REANP. REANP, in the true spirit of the universal pimp, will get hard-ons over your grandma – but only if she has sea views.

Nullaki is special. It has a beached baby humpback whale, a bay they call the Natural Aquarium - because on a still day you can look into the waters and see anything you want to see. It has a beach scattered with the petrified bones of ancient trees. There are rolling dunes populated by that kind of vegetation that is both resilient to the howling salty southerlies and absolutely vulnerable anything human. (Anyone familiar with trying to grow Pimelia ferruginea in their home gardens and then see it growing on the side of a sand dune down the beach, flowering gloriously, will be aware of this incongruity.)
I digress. Real Estate Agents. Nullaki Wilderness Estate.

Seven years ago a British investment banker bought most of the peninsula. He’d looked at Margaret River and decided the prices were outrageous. So Chris Langslow bought 100 acres of Nullaki instead for about $410,000.
Today, packages of land are selling there for between 2 and 4 million. They are pretty amazing and more outrageously priced than Margaret River funnily enough. They are pig-out blocks, beach front with views to Antarctica on a good day. (Not really but you get what I mean?)

To achieve this real estate coup and keep the EPA and local councils happy, the place had to be fenced off. The whole peninsula. To keep out ‘the vermin’. There are rules. No pets, no grazing, clearing only on the house site.
The problem however, with spending 3 million on a block of land that you can’t produce anything with, is that only investment bankers from Hong Kong can actually afford to build a house there. They can’t live there because they need to be in Hong Kong making money, so it really is a wilderness resort for these sorts to helicopter into on long weekends. (Squatters note - These palaces are empty – a lot.)

So….. they need caretakers and with caretakers the need for them to have a separate abode – as far away from the ranch as possible, so the investment bankers and Yakuza can carry out their weird parties away from the rabble.
The E.P.A. has thankfully stymied their latest attempt to double the amount of housing and the consequential effluent, phytophera dieback and clearing of land, citing that "the EPA considers that this proposed scheme amendment is by its nature incapable of being made environmentally acceptable." (City of Albany Town Planning Scheme No.3. Amendment 247 – Nullaki Peninsula.)
The caretakers are now not human, but made of razor wire, electric fencing and keypad entry. Out in the bush, security is a big issue, especially if you are not even allowed to keep Dobermans.

A few months ago Shark and I took a mental health day off. We went shopping first, bought some bread, wine, honey, a ukulele and a kazoo and then headed out to Nullaki. He knows how to have fun, this Fishy. (Mental note – must not call him Fishy. It makes him upset. Must call him Shark.)
I drove my sister’s banged up old van that sways in the breeze and goes like the clappers. Shark played "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" on uke and I accompanied on kazoo, a brilliant instrument because you can play whilst driving. How cool is that?!

Anvil Beach was getting hammered. "Why Anvil?" Shark asked me.
"Because of that anvil over there," I was making it up and he didn’t believe me. But it’s true! Where the reef folds around the bay there is calm water through which rises up limestone plinths in all sorts of shapes, all gnawed at their base by the sea. One is a perfect anvil.
The wind tolled. Water fell over the reef with the incoming tide and spilled into the natural aquarium and ‘outside’, the ocean boiled. It’s a wild place.

Back in the carpark, we decided it was time for a bevvy and some lunch. Half a kilo of honey, a loaf of bread and some red wine later, we were wondering why the sea air makes you so goddamn hungry and whether or not we should throw up. It was total honey overload.

But I did have to compliment Shark on his skills as a wino, something he was unsure how to take. His skill with a pocketknife and an empty spring water bottle to create two functional wineglasses is difficult to better. Man, I get jealous of how clever he is. A Sense of Occasion always happens to me when I drink wine out of plastic with Shark. At 11 am. In the back of a van.

So we thought (drunk) "Let’s go and check out the gated properties and try to get in!"
I have this idea that when the Apocalypse comes, we need a place we can go, and it’s best we start scoping these places now. Fresh running water, food, shelter and a wine cellar is all I need. Then when it happens we can retreat with a select few and begin rebuilding the master race.

Those big fuck-off gates with electric fences and keypad entry really are something else. I mean I’ve never seen a fox or a rabbit doing their heads in over a pin number so they can get in and wreak havoc on marsupials. It’s a different kind of vermin these guys are trying to keep out.

98,978 combination attempts later, the gate slid open! Far out! But it wasn’t our tenacity; it was the flash 4WD coming the other way that opened sesame. Bugger. Real estate agents.
We sat in the little rusty van (drunk), ukulele at hand. The driver slid down his window. We could see the Mr and Mrs Investment Banker in the back seat, looking utterly terrified.

"Is there a problem?" REANP asked, his face stretched tight over forced cordiality.
To tell you the truth, I was beginning to commiserate with them. Keypad entry gates and electric man-barriers do something to people and totally infect the very sense of safety they are trying to enforce. The gate is wide open. There’s derelict ukulele wielding asylum seekers who have nothing to lose, waiting for the Apocalypse so they can invade. I mean, it’s a frightening scene.

I did, I felt sorry for them. So I said, "We’re lost." To which everyone laughed too loudly and sounded very relieved. Then they waited to make sure I was going to follow them out.

I know they must have passed the girl. Maybe REANP explained to his clients that she came with the estate as a kind of quaint aesthetic package. She was another kilometre or so along the road, riding her deadly tredley out to Nullaki. Her face flushed with cold winter air, long tousled blonde hair. Tracey and her rusty old trusty with perfectly oiled chain and glad wrap on the handlebars. Tracey, who grew up a farm girl out this way, the cold thrill of her cheek, no helmet, brown bare feet on rat trap pedals. Off to Nullaki for free.

Thankyou Shark for black and white images.

Friday, September 12, 2008

WineDark WhaleTracks

Tonight the humpbacks visited whilst we waited for whiting to mesh in the nets. Just after sunset they mesh, so we set at dusk and then wait...twitchy with the need to pick up and see what's there, making ourselves wait just that little bit longer - but not too long in case those dastardly squid eat the lot.
Sometimes the waiting is easy. Something is going on, or the weather is still and warm. Sometimes we sit in the tinny while the wind blows across the stern and slops water everywhere. I get cold, grumpy, (I get grumpy when cold) and just want to go home.
Tonight the sun set over the elite houses and scrubby dunes. At some indefinable moment of half light, (which moment?) all of the motorbike frogs started up from the swamp behind the primary dune.
A fishing couple on the beach turned on their gas lamp. Mare's tails and mackeral scales, a sure sign of storms to come, dotted and streaked the sky with crazy colour. On the other side of the dinghy the distant island glowed magenta and monstrous white water crashed against her rocks.
Three humpbacks. Two of them cruised out of the bay when I cut the motor. The third kept his distance but nearby. I watched his footprints just moving slowly across the bay.
(Footprints: caused by the massive displacement of water on the downward thrust of a whale's tail underwater. The water rises to the surface, incompressible, and leaves a flat oily circle, unbroken by wind, wake or wave.) They stay on the surface for an age.
Of course there was an old whaler on board and he explained all this to me. I am enchanted by these footprints, by the closeness of this beast, his massive bulk beneath the surface betrayed by these circles of calm.
Then he surfaced, presented a mottled fin and rolled sideways to look at us. His head was all bumpy and alien, cowled in barnacles and glistening with brine. He blew and then arched straight over into a dive.
"That means he's diving deep," Old Salt told me. "The way he arched so sharp like that. He won't come up for a while."
We began looking around for footprints. Like a horse, when you sit in a paddock and ignore it, eventually the horse cannot help itself. Curiousity gets the better of studied indifference as the horse eats its way in a spiral to your feet.
Suddenly there he was! About 20 metres from the boat! We both stood in the very little tinny. "Jeez," said Old Salt, "Hope he doesn't have any barnacles he wants to rub off."
He dived again. Then a footprint right next the boat. I was spinning around trying to find the next one. I turned the wrong way.
Finally, turning clockwise instead of withershins, I saw it - a perfect clock face of footprints. We stood in the centre like two hands.

The whale had circled us completely and when we saw him again he was heading out into open water, blowing and then arching into another deep dive.
"Well." Said I.
The water was completely still, glassed off, sun setting, silent except for those frogs. We stood in the dinghy, in a perfect circle of whale tracks.
"This is quite unpleasant," said Old Salt. "I can think of better things to do, like sitting on my lounge, watching T.V. or something."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Overpaid, Oversexed and Overhere

It is September 11 and an auspicious day for people with their minds on America. However this is not my focus at 5 am in the morning, when the heater is blowing its blessed little guts out and streetlights still flood the backyard.
The focus this morning is not even the Great White Fleet and its celebratory centenary that is happening in lil ol Albany today. One hundred years since the greatest assemblage of military might this outpost has ever seen. The local newspaper printed a special wrap around for the event, copied my very own sepia format with ancient photographs and completed it with an article that was stirring stuff indeed.
"Why were they named The Great White Fleet?" I asked Old Salt. "Was it because they were all white folk?"
Apparently not. Something to do with hastily painting the old hulks to tidy them up a bit. Anyway, the arrival of thousands of American sailors is present in my mind, not because of the historical or military implications, sepia photographs or marches in uniform down the main drag to sound of bagpipes and baying dogs. It’s not about the Morris dancers who will invariably show up, or even the Port Authority deeming us lucky enough to hang around our own port for the day without being arrested.

It’s about sex, the city and sailors. What is with this?

I have theories, lots of them. One of them involves men cleaning toilet bowls, another – something about doctors and nurses. My friend has a theory involving civilisations with domesticated quadrupeds being the only ones that indulged in slavery. All these theories I will go into one day. Today’s theory involves bikie gangs, American sailors, Captain Cook, rampaging Mongolians and yes, juicy young women in full oestrus flush.

Except for the women, all of the above are mobs of men on a mission, mobs with a rigid hierarchy structured much the same way as ape societies or the office beach volleyball team.

Hunter S. Thompson spells it out in Hells Angels. (Read it. I gave it to my ex, so I can’t find the quote. Thompson discusses the irresistible allure and attraction that some women have for heavily scented and chauvinistic bad asses.) They roll into town on iron steeds like raucous black cockatoos. Their hierarchy is distinctly military. They are not skippers and first mates. They are Sergeant at arms, lieutenants and privates.

A few years ago, when the sailors turned up, there was a siege in the main street of our very own Tumbleweed. The local outlaws, the 1 percenters, cordoned off the street top and bottom. The sailors were in the middle. That other structured male power base, the police bless them, were freaking out on the thin blue line, and trying to maintain some semblance of authority. The CBD was essentially shut down as the bikies and the sailors waged a fraught little war over territory and breeding rights.

A friend said to me once, "War is created simply so we can go into other countries and fuck all their women." Hmmm.
Maybe woman, in her inimitable style, drops the germ of war into man’s brain (so he really thinks it’s his idea) purely with aim of diversifying the gene pool?

As Dr Karl says in his ‘Sleek Geeks’ roadshow, of Genghis Khan. "Just look at the man’s cheekbones! Who would not want cheekbones like that? Just look at his jaw! This is an Alpha Male we are looking at here."
Never mind the fact that his Y chromosome, which started as a single ‘issue’ from the man himself in the 12th century, is now present in 16 million men in Central Asia! (How do they know these things?)
‘Dr DNA’, Brian Sykes, author of Daughters of Eve argues that "If you trace the Y chromosome's fingerprints back through human history, you see that it reports some very unpleasant behaviour." What kind of behaviour? "Well, when (Genghis Khan) conquered a territory, he killed the men and systematically inseminated the most attractive women. A thousand years later, his Y chromosome has survived and proliferated, which is sexual selection on a very grand scale."
For rampaging Mongolian Alpha Males and scientists following their exploits via the Y chromosome, I guess the outlook on sexual selection is a decidedly male one. You know, invading armies, raping and pillaging, the spoils of war etc.

Then get out into a paddock with some heifers and a randy bull. Check out who is making the rules about insemination. Sure the Alpha Male is the one who gets laid the most but he ain’t getting any juice unless there is a cow with her tail hooked up over her fanny and putting it right in his face. A tad too agricultural for you? Okay.

When Captain Cook bounded onto terra firma, he and his crew laughed behind their hands at attempts of the local Aboriginal men to offer them their wives. Thus began two centuries of tragedies and massacres resulting from this basic cultural misunderstanding.
Initially, in Aboriginal 101 classes, I would be internally frothing at these stories. How could they even own their wives, to be able to trade them? Righteous indignation would follow and my tutor (a quiet and dignified young man) pointed me towards some answers.

Ian Keen’s book Aboriginal Economy and Society: Australia at the Threshold of Colonisation, is a beauty for its studies on several different Aboriginal nations and societies. For small societies that travelled mostly in family bands, genetic diversity was paramount in the organising of kin. The kinship systems were, and still are, incredibly sophisticated to ensure maximum genetic diversity. I could go into moieties and skin groups here but I won’t because they are almost algebraic in complexity. Another day perhaps…

Imagine having to walk hundreds of kilometres laden with pearl shell or flint to find yourself a wife. Some would argue the Internet is quicker and easier on the feet. What if the answer to genetic diversity rowed to your front door and presented themselves as friendly?
As a result of this cultural misunderstanding that began with Cook other deals between Aboriginals and white men, with the intention of extending the gene pool and cementing social networks, began to go horribly wrong. The Coniston massacre in the Northern Territory in 1928 occurred because the dingo hunter simply wouldn’t give her back.
Blame Helen, she fucked it up for everyone.

So arrives the Great White Fleet to Albany after 100 years, another variation of the grand genetic moveable feast. The military and similar structures provide greedy girls with the whole gamut of Alpha Males to choose from, borne from exotic locations and bearing silk stockings, pelagic tales and alcohol.
It’s just a theory. Maybe I’ve been living in Albany too long.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Battle of the Kangy Angy Caravan Park

It all began with an insult.
'Shrek' Jones told one of the Smith girls she'd marry a Scotsman.
The fight to avenge her honour was to be at dawn,
a mighty clash of Romany enemies beneath Australian skies.
Instead the Smiths crept up on the Jones' camp
as the midnight moonlight dappled through Eucalypti.
Old Mrs Smith threw the first punch and took down 'Shrek' Jones,
laid him out like a slab.
For that she was clouted by the Jones matriarch
and it was then that the knives came out
and the socks full of ball bearings,
the star pickets,
the machetes,
the meat cleavers,
and the hammers.
Romany Smiths and Romany Jones
saw the whites of each others' eyes
at the Kangy Angy Caravan Park.

Tall tale and true!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Salmon Stories

* Same Tribe As Me

He was burly and sad and smelt vaguely of mutton. He handed me an apple and talked about fish.

“They’re not real salmon y’know. That was all Captain Cook’s fault. He looked at one and said ‘Well...they’re kinda like a big salmon really’ and the name stuck. They’re actually an overgrown herring.”

The fisherman looked to me for a response. Folds of skin nearly obscured his keen eyes. Scabby cancers colonised his nose. “You eat an apple just like I do.”

“Core and all?”

“Yeah...don’t those seeds taste good?”

* Dogs of the Past

Red flowering gums flared crimson when salmon flew in silver swathes along the coast.
With fires on the beach
and a sticktapping clever-man, Mineng sang the dolphins in.
An old linguist who was really a Count wrote all about this.
Twertwaning; ‘old past dogs’
were dolphins who worked with the people.
Dogs of the past drove the salmon right up to the lacy waters’ edge to be speared and gathered.
Dogs of the past gobbled a warm meal of regurgitated pilchards for their efforts
like kelpies falling on chop bones.

* Bittersweet

In reality, she was a decrepit failed restaurant venture, tethered in disgrace at the end of the Deepie but that night was the pinnacle of the old whalechaser’s career as an eatery.
We weren’t supposed to be there, something about asbestos and public liability but my father was the caretaker, so...there we were.
Candles glowed in the jarrah-lined innards and a strange, longhaired man played guitar on the iron stairs. Cast iron cauldrons of Dahl and rice sat steaming on tables beside huge mounds of baked salmon covered in lemon and strips of bacon.
Dad wanted to introduce his daughters to the woman he would later marry. Together, they’d put on a feast. My guests, my silent beau and the ancient, drunken Scot, were the escape plan if things got too strange.
We slid into red velvet booth seats, shared green ginger wine, peeled away silvery salmon skin, and broke flakes of juicy flesh from the bone with our fingers. The taste of bittersweet iron made my teeth hurt.

When Hector finally succumbed to his Drambuie on the booth seat, (crumpled kilt, legs askew, it was not pretty) Ben and I climbed back out into the clean night air and stood together on deck. Under the full moon, yachts flew like white moths across the harbour on their annual autumn migration.

* Her Dad

“Dad always said ‘Never shoot here when it’s onshore or too rough. Don’t waste your life or your gear. Most of all - don’t be greedy.’ The bastards got it all wrong – look.”

She gave me the binoculars with shaking hands. “Net broke. Too bloody greedy.”
Black marks on the white sand below looked like itinerant seaweed but then I focussed in on dead fish – tons and tons of dead fish.

“Look along to the main break, where the inlet comes out.”
Surfers sat upright in the water, the tips of their boards just visible. But there were other tips too, gathering around them like black leaves. Fins, the fins of dead salmon. The surfers sat on their boards in a sea of dead salmon, patiently awaiting the next set.
“This used to be our patch. This would never have happened if Dad was still alive,” she said.

* This place is not civilised yet

It’s a beautiful thing, to see a green wave rise up and reveal salmon in its window. There’s a boardwalk, toilets, interpretive plaques – but this place is not civilised yet.
On a still night, I can hear the swell from my bed, roaring, a pestle grinding rocks into sand.
The names of the prisoners who built the original stairway are visible on a low tide, carved into limestone tablets. Water boils in sucky holes and the rips stretch a turquoise scar right out to sea.
“Where’s the pirate treasure, the skeletons of drowned sailors?” My friend skips across a tiny beach. We share a mutual goosey moment when we find the white cross poking out of the wild rosemary. Nearby crouches the decomposing four-wheel drive that landed there in 1994. Both of us stand in the sand and stare up the dizzying cliff.
Trembling, hundreds of stairs later, I can still see the shoal of salmon. The white lace of a broken wave regularly obscures the black drifting disc.
A dark shape moves in from the deep. The salmon circle into a solid grain, trying to become impenetrable. They fail.

The Noah breaks up the outer rim and wriggles lazily into the centre like the triumphant spermatozoa in that vital moment. The salmon fold away from the darkness, creating a lime green channel in its wake.