The second-last edition of our summer-reading series sees us return to Bruce Pascoe's 'Big Yengo', from Griffith Review 42: Once Upon a Time.
In this piece of short fiction, a father is moved to see his son, now a man, so at home on the land – proof, it seems, of his having come of age. But before long he finds himself plunged into grief for a very particular past: for what was, and for what might have been.
Bruce Pascoe is of Bunurong and Yuin heritage and a member of the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative of southern Victoria. He has worked as a teacher, farmer, fisherman and an Aboriginal language researcher, and was the director of the Australian Studies Project for the Commonwealth Schools Commission. His publications include Fog a Dox (Magabala Books, 2012), which won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (Young Adult), and Dark Emu (Magabala Books, 2014), which won Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. In 2018 Pascoe was awarded the Australia Council for the Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, won the UTS Human Rights award in 2018 and was named Link-Up’s Dreamtime Person of the Year. Dark Emu was also performed by bangara Dance Theatre in the same year.
HE’S GOT A temper on him. You have to watch your Ps and Qs. Sometimes the entire alphabet. But he can cook, sing, play the guitar, set up a great camp. Bastard.
He patronised me a bit. Never had previous opportunities so this was his time to be in charge. Watch your lip.
‘There’s something I want to show you,’ he said. I’ve made it sound like he was looking down his nose, but he wasn’t. Just particular about what wood went on the fire, how it was stacked, where the billy sat. That’s alright, I knew where he’d learnt it. From an expert. Damn near genius.
‘Good,’ I replied having no idea what he thought I should see.
This was his job. Tracking feral animals. I drove the 4WD and he ran ahead as we travelled the kilometre between each of the sand pads. Fit as a Mallee bull. I was proud. He was a man in his prime; and a good one at that.
He was showing off to his father, but only a bit, just needing to convince me of his strength and capabilities. And I was.
He didn’t need me there but it was an OH and S thing to have an offsider and his footy mates were over it or in Afghanistan. He played in Richmond, near the air force base. Their political discussions were proscribed.
I liked that about him. No point hating people just because you disagreed. And half the flying lads knew it was a dud war. But dud wars were how they made a living; and retired early on a comfortable pension. Attractive package. If you don’t get shot.
‘It’s over there.’ He pointed toward a high ridge line just visible through the forest. ‘Look down over the whole valley from up there.’
He finished recording the tracks on the sand pads, checked the images on the movement sensor cameras. He was after cats and foxes but most of the visitors had been wombats and wallabies.
He shifted me out of the driver’s seat and took over for the climb up to the distant ridge. Creek crossings, switchbacks, fallen logs across the track. It was almost dusk when we arrived.
We stood on an exposed ramp of granite.
‘See them,’ he said, ‘the emu feet?’ He pointed at them as he walked up the sloping granite, ‘and this, where they stop, is where Baiame left the earth and went up into the sky.’
My son telling me about Aboriginal heritage.
‘They’ve drawn his…well not drawn, chiselled his image across there, can you see it, same as in the Milky Way, the Dark Emu.’ We were silent, looking at these ancient marks of god’s passage.
‘Darug mob did it.’
A third of Australia believed in Baiame as the creator, but this was his story, the Darug had shown him and so it was his story to tell me. I was moved, it meant a lot to me. Not just Baiame’s ascension from this granite tor, but that my son should find it precious, and beautiful.
We were almost silent on the way back to camp. We’d be more animated in the morning when we discovered a goanna had swallowed my sandshoe but now it was dark and we concentrated on the curry which had excelled itself sitting in the bed of warm coals. There was a smokiness to it. He’d chosen blackwood for the fire and its smoke was just the right flavour.
He handed me a cold beer he’d stashed in his chiller, a lovely surprise. He picked up his guitar and sang all of his blues including two I’d sung to him from the day he’d been born.
'Black girl, black girl,
Don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night.
In the pines in the pines where the sun never shines
I was shiverin’ the whole night through.’
We disagreed about the lyrics but he was insistent. He’d Googled them. I’d been wrong for fifty years. Except everyone had sung this song and the lyrics changed depending on whether the singer was incarcerated, black, white, rich or poor. But not worth arguing about.
He found two more beers as the owls began to call. I let him tell me which owl was which.
He strummed away and then found his way to Woody Guthrie, another song I’d sung to him while he was still a baby. He wasn’t to know my version of the lyrics were as accurate as poor memory and deafness would allow.
‘Snow, snow, falling down
Falling down all over the old town,
Smothers the garbage dumps, smothers the tracks,
All of the footsteps of those who knocked me back.’
I began to wonder about the man who would sing those songs to his babies, but before regret could become guilt, he was singing,
‘Keep a watch on the shoreline
There’s a boat that’s lost out there…’
WHEN HE WAS a baby, a baby who found it difficult to sleep, we used to take him at dusk to a sandstone ledge from where we could see the Cape Otway Lighthouse begin its watch on the shoreline.
It was a habit, a ritual for our tiny family, and we knew it was imprinting itself on each of us, even the dog; too lovely for even a border collie to ignore.
Anytime my wife and I see a lighthouse we still call out, ‘Look out, look out, there’s rocks out there’, and look at each other wishing that period of our lives could last forever…rubbish, he was a baby who hardly slept and we had so little money we didn’t have two cups that matched.
We can grieve for that time of his innocence, but it’s a luxury, a trick of memory, because now we own a complete set of cutlery…even if our cups still don’t match.
I look at his camp things. He goes for the classical. Camp oven with a dished lid so you can pile the coals on to cook bread. Old fashioned enamelled mugs, a billy as black as the inside of a dog. Classical.
The owls call for five minutes, maybe longer, but I was asleep as soon as I’d drawn the sleeping bag up to my neck. Happy as any man the universe had created.
Next day he waves me down as I draw the ute up beside his sand pad.
‘Something else you’d better see.’
It’s not grudging, patronising, I can tell by now that it delights him to show me something I’ve never seen. Who’s the big man now?
We sit on a grassy bank to take off our boots so we can wade across the stream to a low broken plateau. He has to check his bearings and make corrections to our course until finally we are below the edge of the escarpment.
‘In here,’ he says and we climb behind the boulders and up into the cave. He’s not looking at me, waiting to see if I can see it. The hands. Three sets of hands, one big, one with two fingers missing, one tiny. I’m broken with grief, surprised to have been so vulnerable to the ambush of story.
We’re still only half way through the day’s work but I give up the driving and he doesn’t even mention the fact that I’ve left all the work to him. I have a pad and biro and grapple with both as the ute bucks and climbs and slews its path around the mountain.
LAMENT FOR THREE HANDS
(For Jack and the last three hands at Big Yengo)
We were both married to other people. Now we’re not. She’s got this kid. Looks at me as if I’m not his father. True. I’m not. Can’t be helped. That’s how it is.
She looks at me as if I’m not her husband. Correct. But that’s not my fault either. But we’re living together. The way it works out. She looks about the new joint as if she’s lived in better places.
Doesn’t say anything. Looks after the place: keeps it clean, cooks, keeps the kid quiet. Brings it in to bed with her though, when it cries.
Not a bad kid. Not saying that. Not at all. But my guts are twisted up with its sorrow. And hers. And I’ve already got my own. None of us would have chosen this. None of us.
But that’s how it is. So I’m sitting out the front frigging around with a stick, just stripping the bark off it. Nothing particular in mind. Looking out over the valley. Thinking.
It’s a million dollar view. Grassy flats beside the winding river, forest climbing the mountain behind it. Beautiful. Anyone would say so, but we’re not from here. The previous owner’s pet bird is dancing around in front of me. Chitter, chitter, chitter, sweet, sweet, sweet. Yes, yes, I know, we’re strangers. No, I have no idea where your mates are. Although I could guess. But how’s that going to help?
Meat and potatoes cooking. Smells alright. Nothing wrong with her cooking. And she brought me a drink. Handed it to me. Said nothing but looked at me as if to say, I’m trying. We all are. Even the kid. Washed the potatoes. Didn’t have to be asked. Put ’em in the oven. Helped his mother do the meat. He’s having a go. No doubt about it. Just can’t bring himself to look at me. Much. Better off without the much.
She’s younger than my first wife. Happens a lot I suppose. And there’s no doubt that she’s prettier. Well, the old girl was getting on fifty-five. The breasts, you know what I mean. Not cheeky, not pouting, not thumbing their noses at you like this one’s are. And the old girl’s bum, you know what I mean.
But I’d have her back tomorrow. Except it can’t be.
Oh I’ve fucked this one. Too right, and even though her heart wasn’t in it, it was good. You know what I mean, a young woman’s body. The hardness, the springiness of the waist, those firm little tits nudging at you, like possums giving cheek. Oh I enjoyed it alright. And I’m not ashamed. It’s how it is. Now.
But, yes, I’d take the old girl back, slack belly and droopy tits notwithstanding. She used to run her hands all over me. If she felt like it. She’d even take a grip of me, take things into her own hands so to speak. And when we were into it her hands would roam over my back and neck…but this one, her hands are still. Just waiting. For it to be over.
Chitter, chitter, chitter. sweet, sweet, sweet. Yes, yes, I know. Grown man crying. Yes, a sorry stage of proceedings indeed.
A quarkel doo, kool parkle dark, koo dool poo keep. Bloody friar bird, clown prince with a buckled nose. Of course I know all their names, know their stories too, well, we’re country people after all. Still no reason to laugh at me.
Those birds should be our comfort, our balm, we should be reassured to hear them, but all they’re saying is, you’re not from here, you’re not from here, I want the lady who fed me crumbs.
Well it’s not my fault I can tell you, living in someone else’s place. Sleeping in their bed, cooking in their oven. Not our bloody fault. None of us.
We sat together and ate, but she served me first, gave me the best bits, the leg and breast, the kid got the wings and rib cage. Still nice what they had, but she’s making sure she does it right. To please me. I appreciate that. I really do. A tiny comfort.
Neither she nor the kid say anything, don’t meet my eye. I finish my meal, wipe my hands. Look at them.
‘Alright, I know what you’re thinking, I know you wouldn’t have chosen this. Me. But that’s how it is, we’re stuck with each other and we’ll have to make the best of it. This,’ and I indicated the room where we sat, ‘this is as good as I can do. I wish we could be in the old place, but…things have changed. You know…you…look, none of us wanted this but…but I’m telling you this is the best I can do for us. What I’m saying is we’ll have to make the best of it. If I could find us a better place I would, but look… I mean we’ve got the river, the hills, it’s not bad. Not as good as the last place but…I think we should make the best of it.’
The boy had his head down, pretending to be engrossed in getting meat off the wing. At least he was eating again.
I stared at her and she looked at me askance. I indicated the boy with a jut of my chin. Her eyes understood.
‘I think we should see if we can…just make the best of it…try and make it a home, make it ours.’ I looked around the place again, saw how stark it was.
‘Don’t think I’m proud this is the best I can do. I’m not. And don’t think I’m not feeling…just…what I’m saying is…what alternative is there?’
They said nothing. They weren’t rude or anything, they just couldn’t get their spirits up. And I couldn’t blame them.
But that’s what I’ll do tomorrow, I’ll bring home something really nice to eat. There’s enough potatoes and salad vegetables in the previous tenant’s garden. They’d obviously put a lot of work in. Sorry they’re not here to see the fruits of their labour. You could see they loved their fruit and vegies.
You wouldn’t change anything, the way they’d organised it. Wonder how long they’d been here.
When I got up next morning, nothing much had changed. But she did look at me, didn’t smile, but it was like, sorry, I can’t help it. I knew that. But I was grateful for that look. Small mercies.
Bugger it, that look lifted my heart enough, just enough, to think bugger it, I’ll go fishing.
There was a corner where the river did a big turn hard up against a dark, flat wall of rock. Maidenhair ferns cascaded off the terraces where the rock was flawed and fissured. Nice. For a bit of a quiet fish. I wish…now, now, what did I tell myself about thinking like that. It’s over and she’s not coming back…this is now and besides…there’s fish.
These scrub worms are just fantastic bait. Look, he’s picked it up, feeling it, ready, ready, careful, there he goes, off like a shot, let him go a bit, let him swallow it, hold, hold, hold, steady, got him, big bastard…oh this will do it, surely, bring a smile…but really, maybe even the biggest perch I’ve ever caught may not be enough. Still, we’ll see.
I looked at the fish in my hands. A grand animal. The undershot jaw giving it the look of a real hunter, a sharp shooter of the pool.
I put him in the basket and threw another bait in, knowing I probably wouldn’t get another fish out of this hole. Leant back against the rock feeling the cool shade on my face. Dozed a bit. Thought about her. Getting home. Trying to make it up to her. And the boy. Not his fault.
Platypus. I woke up and a platypus was drifting in the middle of the pool. Looking at me. Well, in my direction, anyway. Short-sighted little bastard. Something else to tell them about.
And when I got back, the oven was ready and she had the barbecue prepared for the fish. Her confidence pleased me. I tried to catch her eye. Not biting.
It was a terrific meal. She got the coals on the barbecue just right. The skin of the perch blistered away from the perfectly white, juicy flesh. It heartened me. If we kept doing this for a while, we’d…you know, just kept going…
‘I know,’ I said as she was cleaning up after dinner, ‘let’s paint the house, together, brighten it up a bit.’
They looked at me. Waiting.
‘It’ll be good, make it ours.’
They turned away so I got up and ground up some pigment and mixed it with water.
‘Here,’ I said to the boy, ‘come on, you first. Put your hand like this.’
Dutifully, and I’ll have to say it, sorrowfully, he put his hand against the wall and I scooped a handful of ochre yellow, put a portion in my mouth and stencilled around his hand.
‘See, look at that,’ I said, ‘that’s fantastic.’ This cheeriness was killing me. Specially with a mouthful of ochre.
I put my own hand against the wall and sprayed it with colour.
‘Now you,’ I said, as brightly as I could manage and tried to smile at her, but even to me it felt like the creak of a girth strap.
She put her hand against the wall but averted her face, looking neither at me nor her hand. I held her wrist as I sprayed the ochre.
When I came to the gap between the first and little fingers I thought I felt a sort of spasm in her arm, but I held it and completed the job.
Kept hanging on to her hand, holding it there to make a good impression. Such a young hand to have two missing fingers. For the two dead husbands lost in the war.
I rinsed my mouth but never let go of her wrist.
‘There,’ I said, ‘chez nous.’
YOU HAVE TO treasure the moments of happiness. The cave torched mine.
We made the old homestead paddock of the abandoned Big Yengo station our base for the final days.
We were going to use the kitchen in the shearers’ quarters but didn’t because of the smell of rats and damp mattresses. We sleep outside by the fire.
There’s cold beer again because the kero fridge that hasn’t worked for years is almost the same as the one we had when he was a child.
He mucked around with the curry and I pulled out all the gas jets and flues and cleaned them with a tooth brush and fencing wire. Act of genius. I earn my supper and a cold beer. Well, coldish, I wasn’t that successful.
The owls call, the guitar plays but my heart is caught in a cave as I stare at Baiame, the Dark Emu, a vast black shape in the Milky Way with the tail of Scorpio twining around his belly. Oh why hast thou forsaken me?
At dawn I follow wombats as they go about their task of undermining the old dairy. I fossick amongst ancient machinery for hours: checking the set of plough tines, examining the oil in an old Allis-Chalmers tractor sump, testing the action of hand shears, trying to read the instructions poked between post and wall iron for a machine that sounds like it might have been some kind of boiler.
I wander about the garden to see what sort of woman lived here and in what degree of happiness, but my heart wasn’t in it.
Those cave hands are so new they may be separated by months, perhaps not even that, from the woman who liked to plant columbines and the man who kept instructions for every machine he ever owned. Maybe those hands were still being stencilled while the first fences of Big Yengo were erected by the father or grandfather of the man who liked machines.
The machines that ploughed the land, husked the grain, pumped the water and cut the wood on a farm that showed not one ounce of profit, but nevertheless had been taken, perhaps, for we shall never really know, from a man whose new wife had lost two husbands and ran out of time to remove one more joint to celebrate one final loss.
I’ll never forget what you showed me, my son, of yourself and of your world, but all it revealed is that we, you and I, are never far from the horror of the past.