BOX FOR THE SAND COUNTRY
by Clayton Hansen
The Missus will be weeping for she knows our schedules and she must know that this expedition is miserable slow work. A second pair of boots, decayed and cracked by the sun, is now reduced to pieces that I put in my pockets. Wilson and Piggot busy themselves with trapping and hunting. Today they brought in two impressive goannas that roasted a treat. We are camped in a stand of desert oak. We have spread our scant belongings along the sand of a dry creek bed.... the scattered possessions of wanderers. A thin smoke rises from our fire through the stiff branches.
Brown hawks circle endlessly as if tethered by string, disappearing on thermals only to return like kites, hovering, shifting, patient but unsure of what to do next .
The horses are in passable condition but water is scarce and the hard red cobble of this stony plain plays hell with their feet.
I contemplate the sweetness of dates and the touch of fresh linen. These thoughts are destroying me. The land is punishment enough. Wild ravines with perpendicular faces often intercept our course. The horses are skittish at such obstacles. If God intends distracting us then he is at home and we mere visitors.
Piggot complains of his clothes being torn to pieces. We all carry scars and stinging torments from thorny acacia. The mulga stands undaunted against the soft flesh of men and horses. Even leather saddlebags are frayed and scarcely holding.
Piggot and Wilson play like boys when they should rest. One hangs from a tree screaming like a monkey. The other throws sand. Is it the theatre of dementia? Uncoiling minds like snakes?
The monotonous blue scarf is about our heads again. The sun pounds its fists down on us reaching through the shade to goad and heckle. We long for rain. We cherish the memories of the cool sweetness of falling water. Wilson has confided that he keeps sandalwood for such an occasion. He is right to dream: to replenish. The heat draws our spirits from us.
My beard needs trimming. My limbs ache and termite mounds resemble eerie gravestones. Even sleep becomes a hard, withered thing. We set out again at sunset.
We are familiar with the moon. It is one of us. When it leaves like a startled crow frightened by clouds, or at some moody juncture, we are a sombre party and truss the horses with cans so that we may follow each other blindly. Many nights of travel have stretched us on thin cords from civilisation and the one sure thing in the black night is the milky light of our favoured pendant. This same light as my wife and child might see like a line through the heavens to home.
Wilsons head faints in sleep as he rocks on his horse. Piggot has moved ahead.
These past few nights we have been beset by the attacks of wild yellow dogs. We keep our rifles ready to ward off these curs but rounds are low. A horse has been badly bitten. I fear infection in the mares hindquarter. We treat it with salt and molasses, but the molasses brings flies and the problem compounds.
Piggot feels the beasts distress. He has the brawny arms of a farrier and would carry her. But we are all failing in our strength.
Piggot is first. He has lost significantly. He has taken to eating his meagre ration at a distance from Wilson and myself. We do our best to jolly him but the heat is a stone for the neck of such a large man. He is first charged in the suns court, and we, prisoners in the dock.
Today our molasses ended. Piggot was partial to its sweetness. We three are touched with scurvy. Joints swell painfully.
This night we cross a treeless plain.
Dry grass is at the horses chests. It shifts in ripples and the snaking patterns of water. Yet we are on a fretful, jarring path and the horses constantly fall in ruts and holes they have no chance of seeing. Wilson has been dislodged twice, swearing mightily on his way down. I believe he has broken a finger. Piggot is many yards ahead. We see his frame swaying and can hear his songs enchanting the night like the call of sirens. My legs bleed as the wiry heads of grass seed spear and tear through breeches and socks and needle my skin. On this sea of moonlit grass we are all slowly sinking.
The range that we have struck out for these many days beckons. It is the island to which we paddle. It seems no closer though hours pass and we ride relentless. We seem becalmed like painted ships on a painted sea.
Night rests its shrouds on the ranges hulking form. It awaits lonely men in a brooding grandeur like the sleeping arm of God.
Piggot is plagued with turbulent dreams. He screams and cries. The energy that sleep takes leaves a shell and despondency twists him.
Wilson begins to wander, perhaps afraid of sleep, for what we see in Piggot damns us both. He will not accept treatment for his hand. Though bound it has swelled to crippling proportions. He is unable to mend his clothes or saddlebags and accepts no quarter.
The range has been kind. We have camped a day and found water in two small holes. We are intent on making the summit to search for providence and fortune in this great passage. Wilson and I begin at dusk. Piggot shall remain at camp.
Savage yellow dogs beset us again as dusk enters the plain. Their snapping teeth and fury are frightening. They encircle the camp, howling, attacking in small groups, testing their strength and gauging our supremacy.
Piggot is possessed, as if by ghosts, and sets to wring the necks of as many as he may gather. But the dogs are quick and sense in Piggot a fear that whets patience in the knowing hunter.
Wilson and I down two dogs with shot, setting the rest to scurry like demons into the shadows of the dry grass and ravines. The horses have fled into the failing day. Piggot has gone calling them. The summit is foregone for the recovery of our horses.
We return to camp as night pushes in with only one beast secured and four still missing.
My sleep is painted with the sound of screaming horses. I wake beaded with sweat and listen for the echoes of my dream. Nothing. Lucid eyes are useless. My ears are lost to weeping and shattered nerves.
Wilson thrashes in tormented sleep.
Piggot sits against a tree, rifle on his chest, rocking slowly. He has forsaken the terror of sleep. I spend the night looking east, waiting for the sun. It cannot come soon enough.
Weve travelled six months with provisions for five. Our mouths and gums are so bad we are obliged to eat flour, boiled water, and what soft meat we can catch. The pain of scurvied limbs is insufferable yet, as morning breaks, we set out for the horses like new men. We are doomed without them. Wilson draws the horse and turns it south for the search. Piggot takes the north and I head into the sun. We each are with water, rifle and the last of our rounds.
I count steps as I walk from camp. The tracks of dogs lead off this way and I am cautious to check in all directions as I go. I call the horses from the top of steep-sided sand ridges, but can hear only the wind whistle back through the spinifex. It is a woeful lonely place. The sun is murderous hot and it is only middle morning. My endurance fails and I rest.
Never a tonic made a man grow than the sound of gunshot. Now, upon resting only moments, I have heard two to the north. I make what haste I can in the general direction, on perilous weak legs, and some minutes later am greeted by a third shot, snapping like thunder through the dry veins of the country. Dust devils blow round my feet like hells tentacles scrabbling for purchase.
Wilson is calling. The sounds of his thin voice drift and vaporise in the hot air.
I hear him to the west and respond with whistles and clapping. He brings the horse in and together we ride north, calling to Piggot all the while. There is no response from Piggot and we are soon to converge on the reason.
Pushing through acacia we discover a ravine with steep walls. The sight of two horses shot clean through is gruelling. I dismount and climb slowly down to the ravine floor. Wilson doggedly continues his cry to Piggot.
The horses broken legs confirm their flight through the darkness ahead of dogs that knew where to drive them, their deaths brought mercifully by Piggots gun.
We are lost of mind, lonely and stunned, when from scrub further along the ravine we hear movement. We move quickly, tearing ourselves on wicked bush, calling, hoping to hear Piggots voice return. Some hundred yards along we find an anxious horse tethered to a tree. At its feet, the injured mare, stiff and savaged, her eyes gone with dogs, her blood turned syrup-black. And there upon her dull flank, poor Piggot reclines. The tracks of tears etched through the dirt on his face, his arms stiff, his fingers pointing home. There is a hole like a fist through his heart.
There is no singing.
No words wrought of God or man.
No tree to mill. No timber for a box. No markers.
From a distance, midst our sea of grass, we pause to look back at the billowing column of white smoke. Piggots soul ascends. With him go forty nails, twine and a fine Sheffield hammer. The smoke circles up through the still desert night and the moon reaches down with ivory-flecked shawls to greet him. There, in opalescent light, he dissolves into the Saints of heaven. Somewhere in the pyre two coins glow like stars.
|© 2000 Clayton
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Clayton Hansen lives in Warwick, Queensland where he is an elementary school principal. Work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Prism International (Canada), Outposts (UK), Takahe (NZ), IMAGO, Antipodes (US), The Fiddlehead (Canada) and Ulitarra. He recently won the Fiction Prize in the 2000 Verandah Literary Awards. His first book of poetry and short fiction is due for release in March 2001 through Interactive Publications.
|navigation: barcelona review #20 september - october 2000|
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