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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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