SAUL TURNS OFF the bitumen onto the dirt road and drives due west. The ute rattles along over the corrugated track; its tyres rumble over cattle grids between immense pastures. The land before him flat and featureless; everything – the rocks, sand and thin scrub – leached pale by the sun. The sky cobalt but for a distant spittle of cloud to the south. Behind him, miniscule against the sky, a range of hills and a line of electricity pylons. He crests a rim where it seems the whole country suddenly drops away before him, so vast and flat and desolate he is overwhelmed by a sense of vertigo. A nothingness out there terrifying in its extent. And as he drives down into that nothingness, he knows his search has ended.
He reaches the base of the escarpment and continues along the straight track toward another dusty horizon, all the while scanning the countryside for a place to stop. He will need shade, and there is precious little of that out here. After a while he makes out a lone tree on a plain in the far distance, and decides that will have to be the place. But then he catches a glint of sunlight off the iron roof of a tiny, dirt-brown house near the tree, swimming behind heatwaves. The house appears to lie at the end of the track and is the only dwelling Saul has seen since turning off the main road. The sight irks him; he had hoped to be spared the bother of people. But if he wants that tree for shade he will need to speak to whoever lives there. He hopes it is deserted. As he draws closer he sees around the house a windmill and water tank, an open garage and shed, a few citrus trees, some broken fences and a collapsed loading ramp marking out a paddock empty but for the rusted hulk of an old truck. That solitary tree, in the open plain beyond, the only other feature against the horizon. A battered early model LandCruiser parked in the garage. The stone house itself seems of the earth around it – small and crude, unpainted, surrounded on two sides by a veranda. Spying the approaching vehicle, a small dog stands barking at the edge of the veranda, soundless to Saul in the clattering ute.
He pulls up in front of the house, a cloud of dust enveloping the vehicle, and switches off the engine. Just the clucking of some hens behind the house and the frenzied yapping of the elderly fox terrier compete against the deafening silence.
A grizzled, white-haired man in shorts and a sweat-stained blue singlet emerges through a screen door, a pair of reading glasses dangling from one hand. He yells at the dog, ‘Jake! Shuddup, for Christ sake! Come here, boy!’
The cantankerous old dog retreats, bristling and stiff legged, to his master’s side, firing broadsides at Saul.
The man surveys Saul emerging from the ute, arms akimbo. ‘Excuse the bloody dog. You know foxies – born to bark. He’s a biter, so don’t pat him.’
Saul stands below. ‘Takes his job seriously, sounds like.’
The man laughs and blows out his stubbled cheeks. ‘Stupid mutt. Completely unsociable.’ He leans down and pats the dog. ‘Just doing your job – that’s what you think, hey, old fella. A first-class pooch doing a first-class job.’
Jake wags the stump of a tail and quietens, reluctantly, blurting out a final bark.
‘Always gotta have the last word, hey?’ the man says, straightening up. Lanky, emaciated. Withered skin like furled sails on his arms. ‘What can I do for you, mate? You’ve made one helluva detour. I’m Bob Booth.’
Saul climbs the steps into the shade and introduces himself. They shake hands. Bob’s grip dry and calloused. Saul tries to explain his business but he has not prepared himself for such a necessity and his words seem hollow, foolish. Besides, how can such a thing be explained? As he talks of how his ancestors once roamed the land, Bob’s smile fades and his bleary green eyes narrow with anger and suspicion. Bob nods to himself as if he understands some hidden agenda and before Saul can finish, he interrupts bluntly. ‘Damn nerve you got wasting my time with your bullshit. You got no claim here, mate.’ He points back down the track. ‘This is where the conversation ends. I want you to get in that boneshaker of yours and go. And keep on going.’
‘I’m not after anything. I just want to camp under that tree–’
Bob jabs his finger at Saul, then again at the track. ‘You’re going, mate. And you’re not coming back, you hear me? You got no business here. You come back and there’ll be no friendly welcome next time. I’ll put a bullet in you, I swear.’
‘Please, Bob, listen to me. I’m not going anywhere. I need to be here–’
‘And I need you to piss off and never come back. And don’t Bob me – we’re not on first-name terms anymore. I know your caper. Letting you camp out there will be the thin edge of the wedge. This’s my land, not yours. End of story. Now, are you going to hit the road, or do I throw you off this veranda?’
Bob seems oblivious to the absurdity of his threat. Given his feeble frame, it is doubtful he could throw a child off the veranda, let alone a full-grown man. And Saul is bigger than most, despite the illness that has been eating away at him. Yet there Bob stands, glaring, bristling, resolute, every fibre in his being signalling that he will not shirk his duty in defending his turf. Something in Saul loves him for this and something hates him. They stare at each other, Saul beseeching, Bob unyielding. Jake starts yapping again. Realising any further exchange would be futile, Saul turns and makes his way down the steps and across the dusty yard to his ute. Jake darts after him and nips him on the ankle, more humiliating than painful.
As he climbs into the ute, Saul calls back at Bob, ‘You’re blinded by prejudice, Bob. It’s robbed you of a heart.’
Bob just glowers at him, the dog yapping away.
Saul drives off. In the mirror he can see Bob, watching him go. He is suddenly engulfed in misery. Tears blurring his eyes, he drives back towards the escarpment until he is out of sight of the house. Then he stops to compose himself, the old ute’s engine idling faithfully. The great brown desert stretching out around him, empty, alien, but indisputably home.
THERE’S AN AMBER glow along the horizon when he returns. A single light burns in the house. He leaves the ute out on the plain and lugs his things to the solitary tree, stark against the last light. A kitbag containing his personal effects plus a few odds and ends: a blanket, bottles of spring water, packets of dried fruit and nuts, boxes of rye bread, his supply of painkillers. A generator drums in the twilight. The old dog yaps on the dark veranda.
The tree is about three hundred metres from the house. Saul spreads out the blanket, then goes back to the ute. He opens both doors and sloshes petrol around the interior from a jerry can and flicks a match inside. He stands back, mildly surprised at how quickly the vehicle becomes an inferno. The front tyres burst; the driver’s airbag deploys, quickly melting into a bubbling white gum. The petrol tank erupts, sending a fireball heavenward. The rear tyres pop in quick succession, like a shotgun. Saul takes off his watch and throws it into the inferno. With flames roaring, he returns to the tree and sits on the blanket with his back to its trunk, watching the orange tongues licking at the evening stars.
Now Bob approaches, accompanied by the ever-voluble Jake. Jake is equipped with a small muzzle; still, he manages a shrill, muffled tirade. Bob is carrying a rifle. He stops a few metres away, his deeply lined face lit up by the flames, and watches the ute burn. Jake sits at his feet, silenced by the spectacle. A tiny Hannibal Lecter with his muzzle and glinting eyes.
Bob shakes his head. ‘You mad bastard.’
‘Told you I’m not going anywhere.’
‘We’ll see about that. Ever heard of trespassing?’
‘What’re you going to do? Call the cops?’
‘Damn right I will.’
‘I’m not going anywhere, Bob.’
‘Or maybe I’ll put a bullet through you and bury you right there. Who’d think to look for you?’
‘Go ahead if you’ve got it in you.’
Appearing to tire of the conversation, Jake moves closer to the burning ute and lies on the bare ground, basking in the warmth. Bob looks at the black wreath of smoke rising into the darkening sky, the stubble on his chin glinting like golden salt.
‘You mad bastard. I told you to piss off. You got no right to be here. No right. There’s nothing for you here.’
‘What about my ancestors’ bones?’
‘Bullshit. What bones? Where?’
‘All over, Bob. You’re probably standing on some.’
Bob grunts sceptically. ‘So, you just decide to rock up this morning and tell me this place belongs to your people? That you’ve just decided to come back. And me – never having heard a word about you or your bloody people – you expect me to say sure, mate, here’s the deeds to my land. Here’s the key to my house. I’ll be on my way. It’s all yours now. You expect me to say that?’
‘You know I never asked for that.’
‘And what did I say?’
Saul does not answer.
‘I told you to get off my land and don’t come back. I told you to piss off. Now what part of that don’t you understand? What you say your name was?’
Bob gives a bark of laughter. ‘Bellamy? You and me got ancestors from the same place, mate.’ He shakes his head and goes over to where Jake is lying. He crouches down, knees clicking, and strokes Jake’s head thoughtfully, then straightens up again. Wavers a bit. It occurs to Saul he’s not quite sober.
‘You got me in a bind, Bellamy. I don’t know what to do with you. You’re right. I don’t have the nerve to shoot a man in cold blood. And I’m not about to waste my time running off to the police. You never know where that might end. You bastards have got legal aid and God knows what else behind you. I can’t afford fucking court cases. Damn you. Coming here and causing trouble. I’ve lived here all my life. Talk about bones. My grandparents and parents and two uncles are buried back there next to the house. And my wife and babies that never got born. I’m all that’s left…’ He waves at the land. ‘This is all I got. Part of me wants to thank you for reminding me how much my people belong here. How much a part of me this ground is.’ He turns and spits in the direction of the fire. Rubs his chin. ‘I think I’ll let the desert decide. You want to stay? Stay, then. We’ll see how long you last out here in winter. You’ll freeze your arse off at night and fry in the day. Just don’t come crawling up to the house. When you get tired of sitting under your tree, town’s a pleasant stroll in that direction.’
He points south-east to a dim glow on the horizon.
‘I’m not going anywhere, Bob.’
‘Yeah? We’ll see. You just keep away from the house.’ He gestures at Jake. ‘This little bugger’ll let me know if you come anywhere near.’ Brandishes the rifle. ‘You’ll have this to contend with if you do.’
‘You don’t have to worry about me, Bob.’
Bob grunts and starts walking back to the house. Jake eyes Saul suspiciously, at the same time he appears reluctant to leave the warmth of the fire. Saul clicks his fingers at him. Jake snarls and follows Bob.
AND SO HE stays. Above, through the jagged branches of the tree, a vast, glittering spray of stars, as though the night sky is just threadbare black fabric separating the world from some unimaginable radiance. A waxing moon rises and traverses the sky, bathing the desert in a cold grey light. Now and then a fickle wind carries the toxic smell of the burnt-out ute, still smouldering fifty metres away.
Exposed to the elements he shivers from the cold. The sand on which he lies is hard to a body not used to the outdoors. Wrapped in his blanket he turns continually, trying to find the position least uncomfortable. Somewhere in the night the drumming of the generator ceases. A candle flickers inside the house. The big desert town’s glow is brighter in the full darkness. He begins to wonder how long it would take to walk there but quickly banishes the thought. He will not be walking to town – he is no condition to, anyway. Nor will he go crawling to the house. He didn’t expect it to be so cold though; he is wearing every shred of clothing in his possession – the extra jumper and T-shirt, two pairs of socks. He wonders if his minimal warmth might attract unwelcome companions, and recalls stories of campers waking to find snakes curled around their feet. He wonders if it’s possible to freeze out here at this time of year. Then he wonders why such a prospect bothers him at all. Defiantly, he surrenders to the cold, commanding the night to do its worst. Freeze me then, damn it! Turn me to ice, if that must be my lot. Is this the mindset of the old people who once lived here, they who lived in tune with the land and who banished hardship by embracing it?
No, he is simply a man waiting. A city man who knows nothing of his ancestors or their land. A man waiting for the land to take him back.
HE WAKES IN pain to a dreadful croaking and cawing in the tree above. Two crows take noisily to the air when he sits up stiff and aching from the cold, and flap off toward the spilling sunrise, still cawing at each other. From behind the house, a rooster announces the new day. Jake starts to yap. Saul whistles and, to his surprise, Jake jumps off the veranda and comes across the bare plain towards him. He stops a few metres away and sits, watching Saul, sniffing the air with a nose somewhat out of joint. Saul supposes he has occupied an outpost of the old dog’s territory, painstakingly anointed each day with a squirt of urine. Jake barks uncertainly; Saul shushes him and snaps his fingers. Jake turns and stalks back to the house, hackles raised.
Smoke starts to rise from the chimney. Bob comes out onto the veranda and fusses with the dog. He stares in Saul’s direction, then goes back inside. After a few minutes he comes out with the rifle. He aims it vaguely in Saul’s direction, then goes inside again. Saul finds himself more intrigued by Bob’s paucity of options than by such feeble posturing.
He shivers uncontrollably. His hands and feet are numb. God, how he suffered last night! That single blanket was hopelessly inadequate. He scoffs at himself. How ill-equipped am I for such rigours! The city man reclaiming his primal state! He drinks some water and swallows a few pills. Then he eats some rye bread and a handful of dried apricots. He feels the pills beginning to work, beginning to subdue the gnawing pain deep in his gut. He will need to be sparing with them; he hopes his supply will last.
The apricots have an almost immediate effect on his bowels. The thought of such basics never entered his head when he hurriedly bought his few odds and ends for this journey; now he finds his desperate mission trivialised by the absence of toilet paper. He gets up and walks in search of somewhere private to defecate. Then he stops, realising that in all this vastness there is only one other human being here to witness his ablutions, and for him he cares not a jot. So he drops his pants and squats in the open, the air freezing on his bare arse. He shits and wipes himself with bits of brush. Despite the cold, a lone fly, iridescent green, arrives for the feast before he is done.
Back at the tree, he shakes out the blanket and sits again with his back to the trunk, enjoying the warm touch of early sunshine. But as the sun climbs his layers of clothing peel away until he is down to just T-shirt and underpants. In the dappled shade he sweats and burns. The European in me sweats and burns, he thinks. The part of me that I used to present to the world as my entirety. The part of me that is now relinquished. Flies arrive in their squadrons, a torment he never anticipated. Futilely, he waves them away. After a while he just swats the big ones that bite. He sips water sparingly. Birds he cannot identify come from nowhere and alight on the tree. Chirp or squawk, then fly off.
A screen door at the back of the house slams. Bob appears around the side and begins watering the citrus trees with a hose. He scatters some feed for the chooks. The screen door bangs again. Saul sits there baking in the sparse shade, debating if a book should have been included among his supplies, along with insect repellent and toilet paper. But what on earth could exist in the written word that would hold his attention for more than a minute? His presence there is, in part, to still rather than stimulate his tempests of thought. To still both thought and time. In yielding his watch to the flames last night, was he not surrendering to stillness? How else will he exist inside his skin? For that is where he must live in what is left of his life. He has put his trust in the land. He believes the land will teach him to prevail. Hard going, now, when the land mocks him with its torments. Yet he hopes that soon he will ignore the cold, the heat and flies. That he will not be swayed by hunger or thirst. Or recoil from the stale onion stench of his armpits.
At midday Bob comes out onto the veranda; he sits on a deck chair, his rifle leaning against the wall nearby, and eats from a bowl. Stares at Saul as he eats. His unwanted guest, waiting like a decrepit Buddha under his tree. When he finishes he reaches down and scratches Jake’s ears, then he gets up, takes his rifle and goes inside. Every so often, Saul sees his face at the window gazing out at him. He wonders what occupies Bob’s thoughts, and wishes this standoff had not occurred to complicate matters.
Out on the plain, the charred hulk of the ute stands. It broke Saul’s heart to torch it. Like putting down a faithful dog. But now its burnt corpse seems curiously at home among the sand and stones, as though fire has hastened its return to its mineral origins.
And beyond that, the circle of hot desert, its rim rippling…
IN THE EVENING, Bob comes out again, rifle in one hand, a longneck in the other. He leans the rifle against the wall and sits on the deck chair. Jake jumps up and settles on his lap. Bob swigs from the bottle. Saul can almost taste the beer slipping down Bob’s throat. Not that he cares. He is content to worship the coolness of the evening after the interminable day. The illness that set him on this journey has dogged him all day. His head still resounds with the buzzing of flies, as though swarms remain trapped inside his skull. His skin is red with sunburn; there are angry lumps from fly bites. His hair and beard stubble are stiff with dust. He has barely eaten.
Bob rises from his chair and goes inside. Music filters across. James Taylor. Saul rests his head back against the tree and listens to the lilting sound of ‘Sweet Baby James’.
Bob returns outside. He stands leaning against a veranda pillar, bottle in hand. Belches loudly. A mosquito whines next to Saul’s ear and he curses out loud, ‘Bloody hell! Where, in God’s name, did you come from? Nothing but dust and stone, and here you fly like a tiny angel miraculous. Drink then, angel. Drink my blood which is given to thee. Go forth and multiply.’
A shot shatters the stillness, followed by another. Whip cracks overhead and a sheering sound as the bullets tunnel off into darkness. Jake going berserk.
‘Fuck off, you mad bastard!’
He is leaning against the pillar, rifle pointed at Saul.
Saul’s reply comes as a ragged croak. ‘Not going anywhere, Bob!’
Another shot clips a thin branch high up in the tree which clatters down to the ground beside Saul. Jake yapping away. Saul knows Bob is aiming high.
‘Still here, Bob!’
Bob lowers the rifle and stoops to pick up the bottle at his feet. Takes a great swig, belches and goes inside.
A pleasant surprise: Jake, no doubt also cold at his guard post on the veranda, comes to Saul in the middle of the night and curls up under the blanket, growling cantankerously. More irate snarling when Saul strokes his back, before he finally stretches his legs, emits a contented sigh and begins to snooze. Saul almost weeps in thanks for Jake’s company, so meagre yet enough to still his shivering.
Saul lies on his back, head resting on the kitbag, staring upwards as his ancestors must have done with growing wonder. The stars sparkle across the black firmament. The gibbous moon a smoke-white marble. The aeons it must have taken for the patterns to be interpreted. Wondrous interpretations, he thinks, as rich as any contained in faith, fable or song anywhere – richer, perhaps. Interpretations of which I know nothing. Interpretations lost. Or perhaps I underestimate those old people. Perhaps it did not take aeons. Perhaps the stories were waiting. As I am waiting. To be found, to be sung or spoken, and so be returned to the fold. Perhaps everything in the beginning was precisely the opposite of what modern minds construe.
Saul feels his great ignorance. He laments his ignorance, for he has nothing to dispel it. Certainly not the science of his education. His education offers no comforts in the matter of existence and extinction. All science does in exploring the void is set loose inexplicable new terrors. He once owned a telescope through which he could see faint glimpses of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. At the time he had felt wonder. Yes, astronomy had been an abiding passion. Yet here under these stars that passion seems so puny, so quaint. Part of his great ignorance.
He drifts into sleep and dreams that he is drinking with Bob, in a dark bar where evil eyes glint in shadowy corners and men grunt like beasts. They are very drunk. Bob speaks with the lyric beauty of a poet, a latter-day Keats, but then he morphs into a tattooed bogan. Bogan Bob insists on taking him for a spin out into the desert in his black hot rod. Mullet hair. The careless stare of a hoon. They careen down barren mountainsides and out into a vast red sea of dunes, the engine roaring. Terrified kangaroos take off, feet ablur like giant comic rabbits. Bob points ahead. In the far distance an old ship lies bogged in sand, its masts broken and sails shredded. As they approach he sees its decks are packed with camels. A bearded woman stands at the helm, her silver clothes flapping.
He wakes to Bob vomiting. Ferocious caterwauling. Hawking and spitting; great plaintive wails. The drunkard’s anthem. Saul listens, disgusted. New stars above. Moving his legs elicits a furious snarl from his sleeping companion. He stares at the stars and realises how by opening our eyes only to the day we blind ourselves to cosmic distance. How shut off from truth we are by light. Only in darkness can we glimpse our celestial place – a speck among shining specks. Only in darkness can we see forever.
ANOTHER FREEZING DAWN spoken for by crows and chooks.
Jake crawls out from under the blanket, stretches his legs and trots stiffly back to the house without so much as a backward glance. Saul sits up, rubbing his eyes, feeling decidedly ill. His face burns, his body aches. Already his skin is peeling. The burning not just from sunburn. He drinks some water and takes a few pills. A wave of giddiness overcomes him as he gets up and he must steady himself against the tree. Shrouded in his blanket, he walks out into the open where he squats to defecate but cannot. When he stands again, he nearly faints. Though he knows technically what his illness is, he questions its deeper origin. Is his body simply in accord with its ailing spirit? With its lost, dislocated spirit? He can think of no other cause. Back at the tree he forces some dried fruit and bread into his stomach. He stands for as long as his legs can support him, then sits against the tree in the rising sun’s meagre warmth.
Bob comes through the screen door onto the veranda, rifle in hand. He leans against the pillar and fires three shots in Saul’s direction. One bullet strikes the tree a few feet above Saul’s head with a pock sound. He feels its impact vibrate down the trunk but he does not move. In his croaking voice he calls, ‘Still here, Bob. Lower your sights, mate.’ Bob curses and goes back inside.
Through a delirious mist, Saul wonders why he has insisted on this spot. Why so close to this house and this man who spurns his presence. Why did he not find another place, out of sight – perhaps somewhere down that great escarpment where there would have been abundant shade in crevices and caves? Why antagonise this poor fellow, this solitary driven to drink with his own soul-sickness? What does he want with Bob? He feels he is acting out some inner compulsion over which he has no control. It is as if this has all happened before, in another time, another life.
The sun is high when Bob comes out again. He makes a big show of locking the front door before crossing the yard and climbing into his battered LandCruiser. He starts off down the road, then stops and backs up to the tree. The puffy, hirsute visage peering down at Saul very much the worse for wear. Fried eyes. A quivering chin.
‘Bush Tucker Man himself,’ he growls. ‘How’s the outdoor life, mate?’
Saul gives him a stoic thumbs-up.
A florid sneer. ‘Yeah, we’ll see for how long. Listen, happy camper, I’m off to town. If I find you’ve been anywhere near the house while I’m gone, I’ll have the coppers onto you before you can say kiss my arse.’
‘Hang on, Bob, I’ve got a grocery list.’
‘Fuck off, you dill.’
He roars off, wheels spinning. Saul sits in a cloud of dust watching the vehicle disappear down the road.
The day drags on. Enervated, Saul strips off his clothes and sits against the tree, drifting in and out of sleep. The heat like a weight on his shoulders, so heavy and dry he sometimes thinks he might just collapse like an old ant heap and dissolve into the dirt. Flies – what swarms! When they rest on him, it’s like he has a writhing black fur. He wakes once to Jake licking his face, a chore completed with solemn thoroughness. When Jake finishes he sits back and looks expectantly at Saul. He gives a faint, mournful whimper. Saul reaches out; Jake sniffs his hand and lets him scratch his ears. He wonders if Jake can smell his illness.
He sweats and shivers, his limbs heavy, feeble. The pain deep in his gut growing. The sky above blue and infinite. He gazes for so long into the blueness that for a special moment he seems to float, before drifting off to sleep again with Jake beside him. When he wakes Jake is back on the veranda, staring down the road. He wonders what Bob has been doing in town. Whether he has decided to go to the police. He imagines being taken away from this place. The thought of it fills him with despair and he wills his illness to hasten. Then he notices for the first time a bush nearby, resplendent with red, bell-shaped flowers. For a moment, he thinks he is hallucinating. The flowers are so delicate and exquisite it seems impossible they should exist in this savage place. And yet there they are: tiny, magenta-red bells with pale-yellow stamens bursting out like shooting stars. He stares in wonder. How did he miss these little treasures? Did they blossom inexplicably while he slept, or is he simply losing his blindness for this old world?
He tries to eat but pukes. Late in the afternoon, a bull ant nips him under the thigh. A sudden, immense pain, completely disproportionate to the bristling little fiend there on the ground still aiming its tiny pincers at him. So intense, Saul breaks into a full sweat. When he tries to whisk it away with his shoe the ant keeps on coming straight back at him. Nothing will deter it. Only death. As Saul swats it with his shoe he senses the void to which all are consigned, and weeps in fear and acceptance.
JUST AS THE sun is setting a long wispy dust trail appears far off down the road. The gentle breezes of the day have become gusts. He watches as the LandCruiser makes its none-too-straight course, entering the yard and coming to a shuddering halt in front of the house. Bob spills out of the driver’s seat and staggers up the front steps, a clinking crate of bottles on one shoulder, ignoring Jake’s exuberant welcome. After a while the generator starts up and the house lights come on. Music issues through the gusty wind. Early Rolling Stones. Bob comes through the screen door with a pot of food for Jake. He leans over to put the food down and topples over in the process, provoking a scolding from Jake. He gets unsteadily to his feet and stares for a long while out at the twilight, then goes back inside.
Saul wonders if, during Bob’s inebriated encounters today, he has been a topic of conversation. If Bob has had his rights as a landowner confirmed amid the colourful repartee of barflies, including the right to evict. Including offers of assistance to evict. It is the only thing in this world he fears.
It’s dark when Bob emerges again. Saul sees him kneel down and clumsily fit the small muzzle on Jake. The Stones still banging away. He goes inside and emerges once more, this time backing out of the lighted rectangle of the doorway, a bowl in one hand, a bottle and a six-volt torch in the other. He descends the stairs and comes across the yard, walking as though he were on the deck of a heaving ship, the torch beam glancing about. Jake accompanies him, keeping a wide berth, snarling in that ridiculous muzzle. Miraculously, Bob reaches the tree without mishap. He hooks the torch over a low branch and directs its beam onto the ground in front of where Saul sits, then stoops and places the bowl at his feet; he teeters precariously and starts to fall but somehow manages to turn his tumble into a casual lounging motion, as if it were deliberate. Sings like a buffoon, ‘Roll me ovah in the clovah, roll me ovah, lay me down and do it again!’ Guffaws and swigs from the longneck. Then, shielding his face from the wind, he lights a cigarette. Jake settles in next to him.
‘One thing I can’t stand,’ Bob slurs gruffly, ‘is seeing an animal suffer. There, get that bloody soup into you.’
‘I’m okay, Bob.’
‘Like hell you are. Saw you wobbling around this morning. I want you to piss off, not cark it. Go on, eat, before I force it down your gullet.’
Saul reaches down and picks up the bowl. Chicken soup with bits of toast in it. He ladles a spoonful through his chapped lips and feels it running down into his gut. An exquisite explosion of taste. Another spoonful; his stomach heaves, but it stays down. Bob watches him loose-lipped, swigging at his beer and smoking. Jake watches too, eyes like embers. Saul eats as much as he can then he puts the bowl on the ground and clicks his fingers at Jake. Jake comes to him and he removes the muzzle and lets him have what’s left in the bowl. He tosses the muzzle over to Bob.
‘Since when did you two become sweet?’ Bob asks.
‘Jake? Beneath that cranky exterior beats a heart of gold.’
‘Well that’s expanded his circle of friends to exactly two. Me and you.’
‘I’d say he’s doing better than both of us.’
A phlegmy laugh. ‘Yeah, old Jake. The last man standing of a once-illustrious pack. Two collies, a bluey and him. He was top dog, even with them bigger dogs. Hey, old fella…we were all quite a team, weren’t we boy.’ He reaches over and strokes Jake’s back. Jake bares his fangs and snarls. Bob chuckles and turns to Saul. ‘You want something to drink?’
‘Beer, water – whatever.’
‘I’ve got water, thanks.’
‘Suit yourself. How was the soup?’
‘You look crook, mate. Like I said, I want you to piss off, not cark it. You sure you’re all right?’
‘I’m fine, Bob.’
‘You don’t look fine.’
‘Looks can deceive. You say you were a team? A team doing what?’
‘Doesn’t look like it now but this place used to be crawling with sheep.’
Bob flicks his cigarette butt off into the darkness. He shields his face from dust whipped up by the wind and answers in a whisper. ‘Yeah.’
Bob’s voice carries a profound sorrow. Saul decides not to press the issue. He watches as Jake licks the bowl. Over at the house, Mick is belting out ‘Street Fighting Man’. Jake finishes with the bowl and sidles over to Bob. Saul leans over and shoves the bowl towards Bob.
‘Thanks,’ he says.
‘You sure you don’t want some beer? Plenty in the house.’
‘You a bloody saint or something?’
‘All the more for you, Bob.’
Bob nods slowly, as though Saul has imparted a great wisdom. He stamps a pattern of intersecting circles in the dirt with his bottle, mumbling incoherently. When he looks up his eyes are filled with tears.
‘My wife and I ran this place. My wife and I and that pack of dogs. That was the team. For a while my brother helped but he was a lazy bastard and eventually buggered off to the city. Didn’t have farming in him. Still doesn’t. Nor do his kids. Useless fuckers. Been ten years since they last visited. Reckon they’re all just waiting for me to kick the bucket so they can sell the place. Couldn’t give shit who’s buried here.’
He stares bitterly at the circle of torchlight on the ground. ‘Not everyone’s got a feel for the land. But them that do should be respected.’
A trembling sob bursts from deep within him, startling Saul.
Bob wipes his eyes. ‘What I’m trying to say, mate, is you’re not the only one with bones in this ground. That’s if you’re fair dinkum. I got as much claim as you to this ground. More!’ He shakes his head, brooding. ‘The thing you don’t understand is the futility. It all comes to nothing, mate. Nothing – fuck all. We all come to nothing. Your people…all that time here and not a trace. No one, not even you, knows hardly a bloody thing about them. My people…you get a family like ours that works the land for generations and along comes one useless generation that doesn’t give a shit, and – poof! – it’s all fucking gone.’
‘Surely there’s purpose. You wouldn’t be here unless there was some purpose.’
‘Only if you’re talking temporary. Short term, maybe. Long term, we’re all just passing through. Nothing’s permanent. Nothing’s forever. Your people, my people – we’re all just temporary. Here one minute, gone the next. Human beings are temporary. A temporary species that one day will be extinct, and probably just as well. One day the sun will blow up and burn this planet to a crisp and then everything will be extinct. Every damn living thing. Then what will all our books and buildings and graves amount to? Nothing.’
‘Nothing, unless there is more than the physical. Or, rather, more to the physical. Have you ever considered that we’re all – you, me, everyone – the centre of existence? The centre of the universe. Right slap bang in the middle of infinity.’
Bob scoffs. ‘Centre of the universe…fuck. Wasn’t that proved wrong centuries ago?’
Saul smiles. ‘I don’t think what you or your wife or your family achieved on this place was futile, Bob. You wouldn’t be holding on to it if it all was futile.’
Bob lights another cigarette and takes a deep drag. ‘No, but once I’m gone it will be. That’s why I say long term everything’s futile. But right now the only thing standing in the way of futility – my futility – is me. The only thing that’s standing in the way of my family losing this land forever, is me. I won’t go. I’ve had a lot of pressure to sell up but I won’t. That brother of mine and his brood are just waiting to bury me next to my wife and the old folks so they can sell up and feather their bloody nests. Well, they’re just gonna have to wait until I disappear into this ground. They know I’ll never leave my wife buried out here without me. Fucking vultures!’
The words seem to flow from his mouth like lava. Saul wants to say something, to tell him he is also waiting to disappear into this ground, but Bob keeps talking.
‘Jake’s all that’s left of the team. I wish you could’ve seen us in our prime. I wish you could’ve seen my wife. Not many women in this world like her, I swear. Never seen such energy. Never seen such positive…what’s the bloody word? Optimism. Yeah…always optimistic, always happy. Full of hope and plans. Best business brain I ever knew. We ran thousands of sheep. Big operation, mate. Money in the bank. Loved each other. Never fought, hardly. Only trouble was we couldn’t have kids. She had three miscarriages before the doctor told her to stop trying. And there’s my brother breeding like a fucking hamster, and us nothing. We thought of adopting but never did. I guess we were enough for each other. Then she went and died. Got her arm caught in the driveshaft of a fence-pole auger.’ Saul winces and Bob nods morosely. ‘Yeah, spun her around and ripped her arm clean off. Bled to death.’
‘Jesus, Bob, I’m sorry.’
Bob looks at him bitterly. ‘You got no idea what that woman meant to me. She was an angel, I swear. My reason to breathe. My purpose. And when she went, everything went. I had no kids to keep the purpose going. And, like I said, none of my brother’s useless brood was interested in farming. I hoped at least one of them would be but none was. So it all went downhill. I got rid of the sheep. The dogs died, one after the other. Just old Jake here, and he hasn’t long to go. And I guess I’m just waiting too.’ He wags a finger at Saul as he takes a drag on his cigarette. In that moment Saul sees a change of mood. A look of embarrassment, quickly followed by anger. ‘And now you come along like a bloody thief in the night and tell me this ground isn’t mine! Fuck you, Bellamy!’
‘I don’t want to take anything from you, Bob.’
‘Bullshit. You got no idea what my people have paid to be here. You bastards and your claims to everything. In your heads you’re the only ones who matter. The centre of the universe – yeah, that’d be right. No one else matters. You want something–’ he snaps his fingers, ‘–others must give. Others must make way.’
Saul shakes his head. ‘We’re the ones who had to make way, Bob.’
‘I got news for you, Bellamy. You’re not the centre of the universe. No one is. Not me, not you. Not my people, not yours. We’re all fucking nothing.’
A wave of tiredness overwhelms Saul. He is having difficulty keeping track of Bob’s meandering. ‘I don’t want to take anything from you, Bob. I just want to be here. I just want…’
Bob flicks his cigarette butt away. ‘Just want what?’
Saul can’t bring himself to say it. They stare at each other. Over at the house, the music has stopped and there is just the gusty wind. Then Bob wipes his eyes and nose on his sleeve and stares off into the darkness. ‘Yeah, you bastards don’t even know what you want, do you?’
‘I can’t say I know what your people have paid to be here, Bob. I’m sorry to hear about your wife. I can’t imagine what losing her was like but it must have been unbearable. All I can say is I know what it’s like to feel futility. I know what it’s like to have your life – your purpose – sucked dry. That’s why I’m here. Not to take anything away from you. Just to be here.’
Bob shakes his head sceptically. ‘Shit, I dunno. Tell me…explain to me how you just happen to arrive at the idea that this – this one particular spot on planet Earth upon which your arse is now sitting – is where you originate.’ Waggles a hand in the air. ‘You psychic or something?’
‘Don’t mock me.’
‘I’m not mocking you. I’m just interested in how this works. What is it? Intuition? Clairvoyance?’
‘All I know is my ancestors came from this area. I’m talking long ago. That’s what I was told, but all my life it seemed so removed that I never bothered with it. Then one day my world turned upside down and I realised my life had been a complete and utter lie. I realised I’d never been myself. So I climbed into that ute and came searching. Searching for my soul. Searching for my ancestors’ spirits. Drove all over. When I got to this place, I knew: This is it.’
Bob laughs. ‘This is it? Seriously, is that the basis of your land claim? You just knew?’
‘You are mocking me, Bob. And for the last time, this isn’t a land claim.’
‘And so – what? You feel spiritually connected here?’
‘I’m sorry, mate, it’s just hard to get my head around that. Put yourself in my shoes. Some bastard comes out of nowhere looking for some spiritual connection. Looking for his fucking soul! And I’m supposed to say, Ooh! Bully for you!’
Saul stares down at the ground between his feet and does not answer.
Bob persists. ‘So tell me, where does this end, hey? Is there some kind of objective? Some kind of nirvana? You just going to sit here, and…?’
‘Does it really bother you if I do?’
‘Not if you’re just going to sit here.’
‘That’s all I ask.’
‘So that’s all – you’re just going to sit here? Nothing more.’
‘I don’t know, Bob. Until I find nirvana.’
Bob shakes his head, his brow contorted. ‘Now who’s taking the piss? No sane person just finds a tree in the middle of bloody nowhere and just sits.’
‘It’s not much different to what you’re doing, Bob.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Saul does not answer.
‘You’re a weird one, Bellamy.’ Bob takes a hefty swig, his eyes glazing. Belches. ‘Yeah, life throws up some shit, doesn’t it?’ A long silence. Then Bob turns and spits at the darkness. ‘Anyway, I probably won’t even remember this conversation tomorrow.’ He spits again and looks at Saul. ‘Look, if you want I could make up a bed in the house. Saw you staggering around this morning…’
‘I don’t want you getting crook on me, mate…’
‘Don’t worry, Bob. I’m okay.’
‘Suit yourself. The offer’s there.’
‘Thanks, but I’ll wait for it to come from you sober.’
Bob laughs and finishes his beer. Picks up the bowl and Jake’s muzzle and gets laboriously to his feet. Unhooks the torch from the branch. ‘Yeah, well, that might be forever, mate.’
‘I live in hope.’
He stands there, swaying.
‘Hey, Bob, before you go: what’s that flower over there?’
‘Flower? What bloody flower?’
Saul points at the bush with the red flowers. Bob shines the torch on the bush and peers blearily at it.
‘Oh, that. Emu bush. Poisonous, except for emus.’
‘Lucky emus. Wonder if they appreciate being specially blessed.’
Bob gives Saul a sidelong glance, one eyebrow raised, and shakes his head. ‘Yeah, well, I’ll leave you to wonder by yourself. Appreciate being blessed…fuck.’
He turns and negotiates the heaving deck back to the house. Whistles for Jake but Jake stays put.
SAUL SLEEPS FITFULLY. All night a furious wind kicks and pummels him, never letting up. He thinks of the day his world turned upside down. Not the day the first tumour was detected. No, the day they told him it had spread and there was nothing they could do. He thinks back on his life and feels the deep, lurching emptiness – the revelatory emptiness – that had come when he learned he would soon die. He thinks back on his life’s happiness and realises there was more than he had cared to remember. Just as his unhappiness was less, yet still greater and more profound. He briefly revels in those forgotten happy times, before they are eclipsed by the bad. He mourns his loss of self. He cringes at his misdemeanours, his heartlessness with loved ones, his betrayals, his failures. All committed as a soulless wanderer. And he realises this is his time of atonement, that now he must clear his conscience.
Conscience, he thinks, why have I been cursed with conscience? Those of us cursed with it can only hope it means something in the end. That’s also why I’m here, waiting. A helpless penitent, pure and simple. Waiting to see if there is absolution for me. Waiting to see if there is some gentle embrace in the black beyond. Some home in that endless darkness that opens its door.
He can only wait. With his naked conscience, lost for words.
A hazy yellow moon rises and begins its climb. Stars glimmer dimly. Jake snoozes, curled up next to him.
You’re not the centre of the universe…
No, Bob, he thinks. That’s where you’re wrong. We are, each of us, the very centre of existence. A fulcrum of infinities.
HE WAKES IN the endless night, choking. His eyes and nostrils caked with dust, his mouth filled with grit. Jake delivers a shrill rebuke as he lifts his shirt to use as a mask. Overcome by a terrible claustrophobia, he tries to breathe calmly, while the wind kicks and flails. A ceaseless sifting of sand. No moon, no stars.
NO BIRDCALLS IN the apocalyptic dawn. The wind moans and hisses, the branches thrash, barely visible above. He huddles under the blanket with Jake, choking with the dust. A blood-gold sun pursues its trajectory across the yellow sky. Near its apex, the wind suddenly drops. An eerie quiet. The yellow light slowly dilutes as the airborne dust precipitates. The house reappears like a dream gathering substance, then the land with its blurred horizons and, finally, the blue sky. A red world. New sand drifts up against the veranda, and red stripes where it has gathered in the corrugations of the roof. Small pyramids on the LandCruiser’s roof and bonnet. The remains of his ute bogged in sand, the windward metal burnished silver.
Jake emerges from under the blanket, shakes himself, sniffs the air, sneezes, and trots off to the house. A drift of sand has formed against Saul where he lies. Another against one side of the tree. Nearby bottles of water stand one-third buried. A cloud envelops him as he shakes off the blanket and gets to his feet. His head swims and he must steady himself once more against the tree. There are dark stains on his shirt from where he held it to his mouth to breathe. His teeth crunch with grit.
Gingerly, he walks over to the hulk of the old ute, his knees stabbing with pain. The back of his thigh still swollen from the ant bite. These aches nothing compared to the agony in his gut. He pisses in the dirt, the stream of urine creating a thick sludge. He rubs his hands over the scoured metal of the ute’s buckled right fender. The old workhorse looks strangely magnificent, organic, as though it were some black-silver genus, grown from the desert itself. Around him a burnt-sienna ocean. An emptiness devoid of man. Just what will be when we are long gone.
All day, the eerie quiet. Bob emerges just once from the house to feed Jake.
THE GREAT SWARMS of flies have gone, also blown away by the storm. Just a few survivors buzz about Saul’s head like electrons. The sky blue and cloudless, the distant escarpment a hazy purple. The land exudes a raw, rust-like smell, as though its sand hide has been flayed by the winds, setting free its inner odour.
Since his drunken visit three nights ago, he has seen little of Bob. A few appearances to water the trees and to feed Jake and the chooks. Every so often a face at the window. Once he came walking towards Saul, but stopped halfway and, with a look of desperate frustration, turned back. Or was it desperate despair? Saul couldn’t tell. He is too debilitated to assess what’s going on inside his own head, let alone Bob’s.
He has not eaten since Bob’s visit. Not since that bowl of soup. He has felt too ill to eat and wonders again if his illness is itself a symptom of something bigger. Something signified by this waiting. The breathing limbo beyond a spent life not yet ended. All his body seems to accept now is water and oxycodone, and he has had to increase his intake of that.
In the past days there have been strange visions. Strange because he had dispensed with the mindset that enslaves the world to chronology. Strange in that Saul took what he saw as fact, without question, as though parallel worlds exist just as real as this. Like the night a wandering tribe shared his camp. Sun-ravaged faces around a campfire that never was. Speaking a language he did not know. He could not tell if they were his people and felt a stranger in their midst, and when they were gone he was filled with the loneliness of an outcast and he longed for them to return and say they had come for him. But they didn’t come. Instead, his long-dead parents came and sat next to him against the tree. They talked about many things, all mundane, never getting to the heart of anything. When he asked them why they had failed to pass down knowledge of the ancestors, his father became angry and said they had no knowledge to pass down and that the pursuit of such knowledge was futile. He said that if knowledge of the ancestors was what Saul was after he might as well be sitting under a tree in Europe. And when his father got up to go, his mother lingered as if reluctant to leave. But his father had begun walking away and she blew a timid kiss at Saul before hurrying after him.
And then a vision so real and so protracted it broke his heart.
He saw a vehicle appear in the distance, dust barrelling behind. Over at the house Jake started yapping and running about in circles on the veranda. Bob came out and stared down the road, shielding his eyes from the glare with his hand. He glanced at Saul and went back inside. Jake was jumping up and down as though on springs – clearly he knew who was coming.
An interminable wait before the vehicle arrived. A station wagon brown with dust, tyres crunching on the driveway as it pulled up in front of the house. Jake leapt off the veranda, yapping madly. A woman got out wearily, crouched down to greet Jake, her baby-talk endearments barely reaching Saul. She wore jeans and a red-and-white checked flannel shirt. Dark hair tied back in a ponytail.
Saul knew immediately she was Bob’s wife.
Bob came out and descended the stairs; she straightened up and they hugged. Mumbled words. He pointed at Saul and the burnt-out ute and talked some more. She stared at Saul, then grabbed her suitcase and hurried inside.
‘He doesn’t want your help!’ Bob called after her.
She emerged a short time later, a china jug in one hand, a bowl in the other, and walked quickly towards Saul. He watched her come, inexplicably happy, overjoyed, to see her. She stopped a few feet away. Her eyes anxious, haunted.
‘Saul, look at you man!’
Saul had no means of knowing what she was seeing. She looked beautiful to him, though. Fit and strong and showing the first swelling of pregnancy. Bob appeared behind her, shuffling awkwardly. Jake trotted over and sat on the filthy blanket next to Saul, his tongue lolling out the side of a smile, as if a happy family had been reunited at last.
‘He wouldn’t listen,’ Bob said. ‘It’s not like I wanted this.’
She glanced back at him. ‘Bob, please, it’s okay.’
‘I let him stay, like he asked.’
‘I’d have done the same.’
‘He wouldn’t listen. Stubborn as a bloody mule.’
‘Bob, it’s okay. Leave us alone, will you? Please.’
Bob clicked his fingers at Jake, but Jake stayed. He shuffled dejectedly back to the house. His wife knelt down next to Saul and put the bowl of cereal and milk between his feet. She lifted the jug to his lips.
‘Come on, Saul. Drink.’
Saul’s lips parted and the sweet homemade lemonade trickled down his throat. After he had drunk, she put the jug down next to the cereal. Jake nosed towards the cereal and she shoved him away, drawing a snarl. Then she ran her hand across Saul’s face. Her touch was the most tender thing he had ever felt. She shook her head.
‘Oh, Saul, look at you…’
He opened his mouth to speak. He wanted to tell her what this moment meant. That in just seeing her, his naked conscience had sprouted wings and taken to the air. But he couldn’t speak.
She leaned forward and rested her forehead against his. Her breathing face filled the world.
He wept bitterly when, like a mist, she was gone.
ANOTHER COLD DAWN and he wakes in agony. He chews some pills before gulping them down and sits up against the tree, waiting for the pain to subside. Jake watches from his nest in the blanket, whimpering at him. Saul reaches over and strokes his head.
‘Thank you for your concern, little fella.’
Over at the house, Bob emerges onto the veranda and puts a bowl of food down for Jake and whistles for him. Jake does not move. Bob goes back inside and emerges again to load the LandCruiser with some crates of empty bottles. Then, with the air of a man on a mission, he drives off, the crates sliding around in the back. Saul assumes he is going to town and that Jake and he will be in for another pie-eyed homecoming. But, no, the vehicle swerves off the track into the scrub and stops at what appears to be a rubbish pile. Saul watches Bob lift the crates off the back and empty them on the pile. Then he drives a big circle through the bush, stopping by Saul on his way back to the house. As he pulls up, Saul sees he has shaved his face. He calls out in a feeble voice, ‘Hey, Bob, expecting company?’
Bob grunts as he climbs from the vehicle and comes over. Jake gets up from the blanket and awaits his master’s approach. Bob kneels, knees clicking, and scratches his ears. ‘Thought you were supposed to be guarding the house, you lousy turncoat.’
Jake smiles up at him, stump wagging.
‘Off to town, Bob?’
Bob stares at Saul. ‘How you doing, Bush Tucker Man?’
‘You don’t look good.’
‘Well, looks can deceive. Don’t worry about me, Bob.’
Bob sucks at his front teeth. ‘Trouble is, I do worry about you. Enough is enough, mate. One more day of this and sure as God you’re gonna cark on me.’
Saul begins to object but Bob shuts him up with a wave of his hand. ‘I don’t want this on my conscience. Saul, mate, this can’t go on. I can’t watch you do this any longer. I thought by now the bloody desert would have you beat, but you’re a stubborn bastard, that’s for sure.’ He gives a gruff chuckle. ‘Listen to me. I can’t sit and watch you rot under this tree. It’s my duty to protect you from yourself. Look, let me clean you up, feed you and get you right. Then I’ll take you to town and put you on a bus back to wherever you want to go. Come on, mate. I don’t want to call the police, but I’ll have to if you don’t listen. I got no choice. Please, let me do that for you and I promise there’ll be no cops. Please, mate, listen to me.’
The pills have hardly worked and Saul feels himself sinking. He shakes his head. ‘No.’
‘Listen to me, man! Don’t be a bloody fool! At least let me get a doctor to look at you.’
Bob seems so far away Saul has to strain his eyes to see him. ‘I hear you, Bob. You want do something for me? Shoot me. Rather than get a doctor or put me on a bus, just shoot me, please!’
Bob gives an exasperated cry. ‘Now you’re being a bloody idiot.’
‘What’s the problem, Bob? You said you hate seeing an animal suffer. If Jake was suffering, you’d put him out of his misery, wouldn’t you?’
‘You’re not a dog, Saul. You should know better than to ask me such a stupid bloody thing. Look, why don’t you come over to the house. Let me clean you up and get you right. If you gotta wait for whatever it is you’re waiting for you might as well do it in the house. Come on, no strings attached, I promise.’
‘I don’t need your charity, Bob.’
‘It’s not charity, for Christ sake. I’m trying to bloody help you! I want to help you.’
‘I know what’s in your heart.’
Bob’s expression hardens. ‘You haven’t a fucking clue what’s in my heart. You got a nerve saying that.’ He gives Jake a pat and straightens up. ‘You and this dog have a lot in common. You like to bite the hand that’s helping you.’
Bob starts to walk away, but then stops and stands for a while. Then he turns and says, ‘Tell you what. I’m not going to waste my time trying to reason with you, mate. I got things to do in town. While I’m there I’ll get some stuff for you – some clothes, some decent food. Be back this arvo. By that time I hope you will have come to your senses. I’ll make up a bed for you in the house. You can stay as long as you like. The invitation’s there, Saul. Given sober, like you asked. You think about what I’ve said. Ball’s in your court.’
Without waiting for Saul to answer, Bob turns, resolute, goes to the LandCruiser and drives off. Saul leans back against the tree, miserably watching him disappear down the road – the vista beyond, a hot dancing chimera. And he knows Bob is the last person he will see in this world and wishes he had accepted Bob’s offer. He wishes he had been kinder and reached out, but he knows it is too late for exchanges of charity.
LATE IN THE afternoon he wakes to a distant drone. He is too weak to rise from his filthy blanket. Instead, he props his head up against the tree. There is a thin ribbon of dust below the escarpment coming closer, as though the road were a burning fuse. In a daze, half in this world and half in the next, Saul listens to the drone and watches the dust come nearer. Jake sits next to him, ears twitching, keeping vigil. All day, he has been there beside him.
Now Saul sees the LandCruiser. Behind it a great billowing plume of dust. Then all he can see starts disappearing at the edges. The great desert’s rim contracts, fraying before an immense blackness. Jake emits a long trilling howl, and in the beauty of that sound Saul feels himself going and a single sob of laughter bursts from his mouth. And as his head sinks back on the blanket he feels himself letting go of what lies ahead and what lies behind. Knowing that in letting go, the misery will end.