OUR ONLY AND MOST LOYAL SPECTATORS
In Ceridwen Dovey’s new book, Only the Animals, the souls of 10 animals tell the stories of their lives and deaths. In this chapter, the soul of a camel remembers Henry Lawson’s trip through drought-stricken NSW in 1892
The Bones Soul of Camel Died 1892, Australia
THE three of us were nodding off around the campfire, the queen’s yellow bones in a sack beside my owner, when I saw the goanna watching us again, the same one that had stalked us through the bush for days.
Mister Mitchell was already asleep on his swag, wrapped in an expensive blanket he had brought with him from Sydney for the expedition. But the poet drifter we’d picked up in Hungerford, Henry Lawson, was still awake. He lifted the square of calico he’d put over his eyes to block out the light of the moon and listened. The goanna was moving through the dry leaves, making them scrape against one another like cartilage.
It was summer in the back country, the night of Christmas. The men had eaten too much dinner – doughboys fried over the fire, boggabri to pass as greens, salted mutton that Henry Lawson had cadged from one of the sheep stations we’d passed along the track. And we had all had too much rum.
“I told Mitchell to put the bones back," Henry Lawson said. "I warned him. Since we were boys together, he’s been stubborn. He was born on the Grenfell goldfields, like me, you know. Hadn’t seen him in years ’til he walked into the pub in Hungerford. His father got lucky, got rich. Mine didn’t. They moved out, disappeared to Sydney."
I waited. In the short time we had spent together, I’d learned that when Henry Lawson was dehydrated or drunk – and he was usually one or the other – he talked to himself out loud.
“He’ll go to hell for it, he will,” Henry Lawson said. “The goanna’s come to take him there. The ghost of Christmas past.” He gave a laugh, but his eyes, almost as big and liquid as my own, were watchful. The goanna had spooked him. It certainly spooked me. It was huge, more like a crocodile than a lizard, with frightening claws.
“My mother used to read me Dickens as a boy, if you can believe it,” he said. “We lived in a tent with a bark room out front, lined with newspapers, a door made of glass left behind in the last goldrush, a whitewashed floor. But still she read me Dickens, and Poe. I can hardly believe it myself.’’
Was he in fact talking to me? It was unclear. Not since my handler, Zeriph, passed away years before in Bourke had a human spoken to me casually, for the sake of conversation. Mostly all I got was “Hoosh!” and “Itna!” Down. Up. Up. Down. I lowed quietly in response, as encouragement, and settled more comfortably onto my thick kneepads on the sand. The rum had made me thirsty, but I knew the waterbags Mister Mitchell had filled with tank water in Hungerford were almost empty and it was no use begging for more.
Hungerford. Of all the strange, half-formed places I’d seen since I was brought here, it was one of the strangest, straddling the border between Queensland and New South Wales, a rabbit-proof fence down the main street, a couple of houses on one side, five on the other. After sampling a few glasses of sour yeast at one of the two pubs (both on the Queensland side), Henry Lawson joked the town should instead have been called Hungerthirst. Then he pointed out with a twinkle in his eye that there were rabbits on either side of the fence.
“That was back in Pipeclay, where our fathers were fossicking on the goldfields,” Henry Lawson said, laying the calico square over his eyes again. “Most of the other diggers had left by then. Their holes had collapsed, their huts were haunted. The first ghost I ever saw came at me from one of those huts, the ghost of a Chinese digger murdered for bottoming on too much payable gold. He used to sit up in the forked trunk of the blue gum above our tent, making the branches sway even on nights when there was no wind.”
I too have ghosts in my past, I wanted to tell Henry Lawson. The ghosts of the other camels who were shipped with me from our birthplace on the island of Tenerife, sold along with our handlers — who had come from somewhere else far away — to an Englishman on his way to Australia. I was the only one of my caravan to survive that dreadful sea journey. The women died around me in the hold, one by one.
And the ghost of the bachelor camel I killed near Alice Springs, who challenged me by grinding his teeth together. I suffocated him, squashed his head between my leg and body, though there were no females around to compete over and we should instead have become friends. Zeriph never let me forget my stupidity, killing that bull. He felt sorry for the other handler, who grieved over his dead camel as if for a child.
“Our schoolhouse — the one Mitchell and I went to as boys — was haunted,” Henry Lawson said, sitting up to suck the last drops from his black bottle of rum. “By the bushranger Ben Hall’s ghost. The troopers had murdered him in his sleep out on the Lachlan Plain. We thought he was a hero of the people. Mother said he was a common thief. Funny thing was, my little brother couldn’t decide if he wanted to be a bushranger or a trooper when he grew up. That was the choice for us boys from the bush – outlaw or agent of the law! Ha!”
He lay back down on his swag, leaving his face uncovered. Slowly he raised one arm and pointed a long accusatory finger at the moon. “At Sunday School we were told it was wicked to point at the moon.” The rum had stopped his shakes. “And we were told our blacks are the lowest race on earth. There was a painting of some Aborigines hung on the schoolroom wall, but they looked more like you, like camels, peculiar creatures that shouldn’t exist, than like the black men we knew.”
But I do exist, I thought. I may have oval red blood cells, three stomach compartments, and urine as thick as syrup, but I exist. I watched him, still pointing at the moon. I felt sick, not just from the rum. Homesick.
“A black man’s ghost turned up at one of my mother’s seances,” he went on. “She had joined the local Spiritualist Society — it was the thing to do in the bush for a while — and she let me come along to one of the meetings. A lot of teamsters had joined, and the first hour of the seance was taken up by them asking the medium to check whether any of the spirits might know the location of their missing bullocks.”
He chuckled, and shook his head hard as if to clear it. “Mitchell’s father was at that meeting. His wife didn’t know he was there. He had come to ask the spirits for help finding gold, but the medium couldn’t answer those questions. Then a different spirit came knocking. It wanted to speak to Mitchell’s father through the medium. ‘ Who are you?’ she kept asking, but it wouldn’t say. ‘ Have you met in spirit land many you knew on earth?’ the medium asked. ‘ Yes,’ was the reply.’’
Henry Lawson lowered his voice. “Then the medium said, out of nowhere, ‘ Hospital Creek. Do you know of it?’. Mitchell’s father’s sunburned face went pale. ‘ Yes,’ he said. ‘ I worked at the stockyard there.’ The medium was silent for a long time. ‘ I’m getting — a fire. A fire of some kind.’ Mitchell’s father said nothing. ‘ Bodies in a fire,’ she said. ‘ A lot of them.’ And at this, Mitchell’s father began to shake, a grown man trembling, but not with fear. With rage. ‘ You bitch,’ he spat, ‘ don’t you know how to keep your mouth shut like the rest of us?’•”.
Henry Lawson threw the empty bottle of rum out into the bush, in the direction of the goanna. The goanna didn’t move, didn’t even flinch. “So the seance ended, and soon afterwards Mitchell’s father struck gold,” he said.
I thought of the place Mister Mitchell had taken me, where he dug in the earth for the queen’s bones. Had it been near a creek? Perhaps, though it was hard to tell; it was the time of year when most of the creek beds were dry. I had been distracted by the goanna from the beginning. It had appeared as Mitchell brushed soil from the bones, clinging with its claws to the carved tree to which I was tethered beside the grave.
My mouth felt dry, and I was gripped by the urge to spit up some of my regurgitated cud, something that Zeriph had almost managed to train out of me, except when I was very angry or upset. Or drunk, I thought with shame. The green fluid landed heavily in the fire, and sizzled a bit as it burned.
Henry Lawson found this amusing. “Now that will go very well with the last spittle I encountered, in Hungerford.’’ He dug around