Man & Beast, page 12
The sky turns from lemon to rose then brick red with clumps of dark cloud looming.
I watch as the ray leaves and the eel sneaks back in sinuous and sullen curves to wrestle the dead fish, the river surface darkening to a gunmetal colour flecked with swatches of light like dirty silver spoons.
In this dim light I hear the first whooping and weirdly rollicking call of the nightjar. He must have roused himself from his hide among the carpet of round-leaf box leaves where he always sleeps, invisible among the tawny doubloons.
The bird glides by on flat wings as mysterious as the best of ghosts, dipping and curving and clipping evening insects from the air.
Soon it is too dark to see if the mullet are still feeding and the only indications that the eel is present are the sudden nudges and bunts of the fish’s body, little surges of activity betraying the first flares of phosphorescence.
I can’t leave the river when that ghost light is present so I tip over the Whitehall Trader, a rowboat as lean as a greyhound and as quiet as a fox. I call her Fluke, for the distinctive whale tail detail on her transom. I slip her onto water the colour of spilt ink. At the bow’s entry a tube of hot green glass unspools like a ribbon on her flank. I find my seat, feeling buoyancy below me, and the thrill of entering another dimension.
My oars drip with phosphorescence, fish surge below me in a flare of light, and stars are fused to the water by their own brilliance. We are all blurred by this pale green blaze and the confusion of elements leaching into each other; a dream of water and midnight.
Mullet trail lime gauze as my oars spring spot fires and the boat leaves ribbons of green glass curving in its wake, a molten, ephemeral celebration of our passage.
The bow scrapes into the sand of the bank and I pretend to fish, knowing I don’t need to drag another creature from its element. I watch as luminous fish creep to the bait then slink away into the deeper trenches of the river. I remove the prawn to avoid having to deal with a fish out of water. The water is so warm it’s hard to know, when you slide your hand beside the boat, whether you are feeling water or glowing air.
A night heron lands beside the boat with a kwow of alarm, scandalised by my presence. He stalks away, indignation betrayed by pearls of light dripping from his skulking toes. This is his bank, his sanctuary; how dare I invade his murderous reverie.
The nightjar is still calling, as he has every night since the month warmed. That call mesmerised me as a young man. It took me years to see the maker of the whooping spook of sound. Eventually I saw him by moonlight and years later I disturbed his roost in a carpet of fallen leaves from the round-leaf box. The pattern of these layered circles of burnt red and jaded green is so reminiscent of my aunt’s carpet that I always inspect it thereafter for the faint outline of a reclining bird and the half-opened defiance of its eye.
Every summer night I hear that call on the riverbank and spend hours waiting for the irregular return of its haunting as the stars wind down the sky, the Plough chasing Pleiades or, rather, the Seven Sisters fleeing across the sky from the spirit man who would treat them ill.
Cormorants have been flying into their roosts in the tree leaning above me. It’s been dark for an hour but they know their way and now jostle and ruffle, settling for the night like a boarding house of boys braying like goats. I find myself smiling in the dark: a grown adult smiling at a riot of unruly friends.
I reverse from the bank, as Fluke is as easy to row backwards as forwards, and I slide across the deeper channel at the bend, 30 foot of black water in which skipjack streak like firework rockets, nervous of the depth and its denizens.
At last I hear the grumble and bark of mulloway below me in the river’s trench, too deep to allow phosphorescence to reveal the threat of their mass. The calls detonate on the hull like slow thunder. The river listens, the birds stilled by the lazy song of giants.
The journey home leaves an emerald boss of hot glass in our wake, a chevron uncoiling from the stern. The blades sweep and plunge, green fire skittering off each lifted blade. Coot and swamphen kek and cackle in the swamp, a pobblebonk frog gocks and clocks in its partly submerged cave, a marshy liquid tock.
The boobook’s call is a slow and thoughtful repetition of its name as it blinks and stares, scaring the willies out of swamp rats and ring-tailed possums. The masked owl might not shriek tonight. She is sparing of her terror, and I have no grandfather to tell me if I should avoid her or luxuriate in her awful presence. But I need no grandfather to tell me that I am in love with the river of night and her dreadful conversations.
Tere’s a story I tell when I want to look exotic and Antipodean, especially in front of strangers, and especially in front of Americans.
I struggle to feel truly Australian, or at least the kind of blueeyed, blonde-haired, rugged-but-cheerful archetype marketed to the world in my youth. This was never on the cards for me; I’m slight, twitchy and genetically determined fittest to survive only if it depends on using gnarled little hands to dig potatoes out of a Celtic bog.
Cairns is the sort of town in which I feel my timidity keenly. The confluence of remoteness, hostile wildlife and climate (if someone has the temerity to build a house, it will quickly be claimed by a tornado) means the people who have settled there over the years tended to be first a blend of escaped colonial convicts and, later, escaped metropolitan convicts and, even later, hippies looking to live off the grid.
Their descendants are a unique hybrid of sunny New-Age optimism and seething murderous resentment.
‘You look like a Capricorn,’ a hulking, skinheaded goon in a sarong growled at me on the street on my first day in town. ‘Don’t fucking like Capricorns.’
I was in Cairns on holiday to visit my girlfriend Charlotte’s family, because somewhere in my reptile brain I had realised that winning over the mother would help me hang onto the girl a little longer. Charlotte was very close with her mother. Her father was out of the picture—he lived in Canada, or Alaska, or Africa, maybe—someplace where men could hunt beasts of a weekend. Cairns had not been wild enough for him, perhaps.
Charlotte was beautiful, and, even worse, she was kind. Possessed of a slightly goofy small-town grace that not even years studying drama in New York, and then scraping by on bit parts in movies, could erode. Hollywood had somehow made her into a nicer person. She was kind to a fault and, back then, I responded to kindness exactly like a whipped dog does to treats. I would have followed her anywhere, even to Cairns, and I hoped that was enough.
I was, by any measure that mattered, not good enough for her. The disparity was most visible when we stood next to each other. She’d spent a childhood cavorting on beaches and eating mangos off the tree. I’d been a short, fat boy who lost weight by doing blow, so now I looked like a Shar-Pei pup. Sex was a logistical nightmare. Every time we made love I lost three Sherpas on the ascent.
Her family was similarly intimidating: huge, square-jawed, salt-of-the-earth types who drove giant utes with enclosed cages large enough for someone to stand up in. It was never explained to me exactly what they were used for.
Charlotte’s people were rugged. They were handy. They were the sort of people who knew how to fix their cars, or gut a fish, or build an extension on their homes. They’d done the latter so often, adding an annex or an attic whenever the fancy took them, that Charlotte’s mother’s home had evolved into a sprawling redbrick mansion. A wooden porch overlooked a lap pool, beyond which lay a half-acre of tropical garden, which gave way to jungle beyond that. Somewhere in the distance the ocean rumbled—menacingly, I thought, but to be fair, I found nearly everything in the town menacing.
Wary of venturing from the compound and running into a hostile local who would shiv me a third eye, while Charlotte looked up old acquaintances and visited beaches I took to staying home to look after her cousins: twins, girls, seven years old, and the only people in town I could conceivably beat
I could also beat them at hide-and-seek, and at racing laps of the pool, and even at football. My drop kick sailed effortlessly past their guard and tumbled across the lawn to land in a gully where the garden ended and the rainforest began.
I was trotting after the ball to retrieve it when one of the girls tugged on my sleeve. ‘You can’t go down there; it isn’t safe. The salties will munch you right up.’
‘Salty’ is, of course, a diminutive for saltwater crocodile, the 7-metre-long monster-lizard native to the tropics. I laughed, shook off the toddler, and jumped into the gully to retrieve the ball, misjudging the depth of the pool of still water and immediately sinking to my waist in mangrove swamp—the sort of ditch that salties live in. After a real adult had been summoned to fish me out, I was banned from playing outside, and for the rest of the trip I mainly hung out with Rocket, which was fine by me.
Rocket was the family cat, Charlotte’s much-loved childhood pet, bought as a kitten and for solace as her parents broke up, in the hopes of purrs drowning out the fighting. I loved Rocket like I love all cats—immediately, irrationally. I’d been fond of cats my whole life, partially because of childhood loneliness alleviated by cuddles from my own cat and partially because of the brain parasite he gave me that now controls my thoughts.
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic protozoan that infects the human brain after transmission from cats. It’s fairly harmless physically, although it can trigger severe mental disturbances in some people. Interestingly, these changes differ by gender—they make men more irrational, suspicious and jealous but tend to make women more warm-hearted, conscientious and kind.
It’s worth noting that Charlotte and I probably both carry the parasite—me practically from birth, Charlotte from her childhood spent cuddling Rocket. It might explain the convergent paths our affections were taking the more time we spent together.
I don’t know how Rocket felt about me, if she felt anything. Cats don’t really give a shit. A cat barely cares if you live or die. They are not our pets, not really. They simply started hanging around to eat the rats that infested our silos about the time we developed agriculture. Cats are reticent when it comes to domesticity—in fact, they have barely been domesticated at all. While over the centuries we’ve bred dogs to work at a million precise tasks, cats have remained largely unchanged. If you go back a few millennia and look at the wall of a pyramid, you’ll find a hieroglyphic cat identical to Rocket just sitting there, not giving a shit. Their one evolutionary concession to cohabitation with humans is that they’ve started meowing, a sound that triggers a protective instinct in the human subconscious. A cat is not my friend. It’s a tiny, furry overlord who has infected me with a mind-controlling parasite so I’ll feed it biscuits.
If Rocket wanted biscuits, I gave them to her. If Rocket wanted anything, I would do it. She was supposed to stay in after dark, but each night I let her out when she pleaded at the door, and on her return I would be rewarded with affectionate headbutts and sometimes the gift of a half-dead creature from the rainforest.
While I was getting along fine with Rocket, the rest of the family was yet to warm to me, the tiny, twitchy southerner with the brain parasite who spent all his days inside. Even Charlotte’s boundless enthusiasm had plateaued as she began to realise that my passive aggression and propensity for cheap shots were perhaps not bandages over a bruised but golden heart, and, worse, that I would never make up for the missing love of an absent father.
So, in the evenings, shy in the company of the rest of the family, I drank too much. One evening, walking outside after too many beers, I stepped on something soft and smooth. In the dark, I leaned down and reached out a hand to identify the object under my fingers. It felt very much like a Glomesh purse my grandma had when I was young. I ran my hand along a good metre, perhaps a quarter of the length of the thing, before I realised I was stroking a python.
Of all the stupid traits humans have, anthropomorphism is among the silliest. It’s the height of foolishness to ascribe our motivations to creatures that are physiologically fundamentally different from us. When the python turned lazily and fixed a glassy eye on me, and flicked its tongue over my leg once or twice, I read it as sinister, but who knows? I doubt a snake will ever understand how it feels to realise you are groping an apex predator, just like I will never understand how the world is rendered on the chemical sensory wonderland of the snake’s tongue. The existential distance is too vast.
‘Snake!’ I yelled, or rather yelped, or meowed, perhaps, in a manner not entirely masculine, but one I hoped would trigger a protective instinct somewhere and summon someone to help me. ‘Snake!’
Charlotte’s mum got to her feet, chuckling. ‘Poor city boy,’ she chided gently. ‘Probably stepped on the hose.’
The party followed me out, jibing and japing, and, one by one, fell silent as the light of a dozen cell phones lit up the snake, and the bulge of a slowly digesting meal in its centre.
‘It’s good that he’d just eaten,’the snake handler told me shortly afterwards, ‘otherwise, when you stepped on him he would have given you a goodnight hug and a half.’
This is a town where you can’t get a pizza after 8 p.m., but in which you can summon a snake handler at midnight and fifteen minutes later his Hyundai Getz will trundle up the driveway.
Under the light of the snake handler’s torch, we examined the creature. Its tongue flicked the air sleepily, as the football-sized bulge inched tailward.
‘Yep,’ said the snake handler, whistling low. ‘Reckon that’s a cat in there.’
There was a moment of silence, in which my heart plummeted, and it was met by a rising wail from Charlotte’s mother: ‘Rocket!’
The snake handler glanced over at her, shifted his bulk, tugged his T-shirt down over his gut, and said, with great sympathy, ‘Sorry about that. I’ll get him back for ya.’
‘Will she be okay?’ Charlotte’s mum asked.
The handler didn’t answer, but picked the snake up and shook it gently, to which it responded by vomiting up Rocket, halfdigested, her fur patched and matted with digestive juices, her bones crushed.
Rocket was not okay. Nor was my relationship with Charlotte. It’s hard to bounce back from accidentally feeding the brightest symbol of your partner’s childhood to a snake.
Was any of this my fault, though? Would I have given in to Rocket and let her outside to her horrible death if her predecessors hadn’t made me their brain-damaged manservant? My free will was mortgaged by the microscopic beast in my brain, and the purring one who brought me dead birds.
We are all slaves to instinct, some primordial rumbling in the genes. The cat needed to hunt, I needed to please the cat, and the snake needed to eat. A celestial game of rock-paper-scissors.
Depending on how you look at it, I am the rube in this play, or the victim, or the parasite, or the snake. I’ve never been able to figure out which, and I was never able to convince Charlotte to take comfort from the symbolism; from the fact that, while the story ended badly for Rocket, at least it ended, a nice clean break with a beginning, middle and end, and that, at least, was something I knew how to give her.
There is a space on the floor next to my desk where a dog used to be. He was a hellfire little terrier called Lucky, and when he died in November the space beside my desk seemed to leak its emptiness through the house and out into the streets and parks of the suburb where we lived. So my partner, Leisa, and I rented the house out and moved to another part of Brisbane. But, of course, the space moved with us.
It is there every morning when Lucky doesn’t clamber up the bed to touch his nose to ours; it’s there when his mortal enemies (cats, edge trimmers, lawnmowers, motorbikes, puffer fish) are allowed to go about their evil ways unmolested; it’s the small fluffy ghosts that pass the corners of the eye; the phantom tactility of something warm and soft upon your palm, or pressed in sleep against your le
Lucky weighed just 8 kilograms, yet the void he left feels bottomless and permanent. He came to us by accident and ended up in a sort of experiment: could a ruffian mutt, ill-treated and then abandoned, develop (without discipline-based training) the sort of love and communication that crosses the species barrier? Could he become, of his own free will, not a segregated ‘pet’ but a full-time, reasonably behaved companion from an alternative gene pool?
Not, we soon discovered, without a lot of time and patience. Lucky was near death from a paralysing tick when his former owners left him at a veterinary clinic north of Brisbane and never returned. His matted fur was so overgrown he could barely see, but when the vet and his assistant had nursed him back to health, Lucky showed his inner lion: hurling himself at larger dogs during feeding to get his share. This was a foundling who’d had to fight for his supper.
Leisa and I heard about his plight in 2000, when he’d already spent three months living with the vet’s assistant and was about to be euthanised for want of a new owner. So we drove to the clinic and brought him home. He was short, with stumpy legs, a tail that curled into a rigid circle, floppy ears and circular brown eyes that—despite his recent torments—met ours and held them unwaveringly.
Lucky turned out to be a canine eccentric. He could climb trees (grasping the trunk with his ‘cabriolet’ legs), piddle into the sea from the edge of our pitching yacht, and communicate via a twelve-snort vocabulary. He had a pathological loathing for cats and the sort of small, farty motors used in garden tools, but the real problem was that whenever we tried to put him on a leash he would turn and trot away.
Not just temporarily. Lucky was leaving forever, and would have done so a number of times if we hadn’t run after him, or got the car and intercepted him blocks away. It was his leash phobia (probably a consequence of being tied up and left in misery) that led to our experiment. Because he was so smart and interested in everything, we opted not to subject him to choke chains and discipline-based training, but to try to win him over somehow. Through trust and friendship, we told ourselves, without much hope.