Man and beast, p.7

Man & Beast, page 7


Man & Beast

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  This tortured beachscape would seal the deal. Already he could visualise the stark scenes on screen. And then he sensed he was being followed.

  He turned quickly. There was nothing there. Only the dead fallen trees and twisted roots and the sheer sand-cliffs rising up behind them. The morning’s only sound was the soft, wheezing rattle of the restless ghost crabs, like an asthmatic’s breathing. He resumed walking. Again there was the feeling of being followed. Again he turned sharply. Nothing. He felt foolish and childish, like he was playing Grandmother’s Footsteps or What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?, reliving the suspense of those childhood games and feeling his heart beating faster. But this time he noticed prints in the damp sand, eerily close behind his own. Paw prints.

  Tyler Foss stood completely still and eventually a thin, ochre-coloured dog emerged from a tangle of tree roots. Then an identical second dog. The dogs, both males, started silently circling him. He waved his arms and growled at them with all the throaty timbre of 200 000 Camels. The dogs kept circling, as if judging their opportunities. Foss wished he had one of his shotguns with him.

  The Browning 525. He recalled something from an African location foray and took off his T-shirt and stretched it above his head to make himself look bigger and more threatening. Apparently, it worked with leopards, animals unfamiliar with shirts,but the dogs didn’t appear the least threatened. Soon another dog, a bitch, joined them. Foss threw stones and driftwood at them but the dogs took no notice, allowing his stones to bounce off their ribs as they slunk towards him on their bellies.

  Then a flash of inspiration, born of survival, struck him. Fumbling with fear, thick-fingered, he undid one of his yak-skin sneakers and threw it to the dogs. Instantly, two of them fell on the shoe, fighting over it. The third dog kept coming for him. Foss tossed it the remaining sneaker—a mineral-yak, his last piece of footwear this side of the Pacific. He left them then, the dogs so busy tearing and devouring their yak meal that they ignored him.

  Standing breathlessly at the counter of the general store an hour later, purchasing the only available footwear on the island, a discounted pair of pink rubber thongs, Tyler Foss learned that he had encountered dingoes.

  He began the day’s drinking far earlier than usual. Sheltering under a Cinzano umbrella in the hotel gardens, he was shrinking from all contact, human and animal. He was scared to leave the hotel grounds, much less to wander freely around the island. The dangerous-dingo problem; the footwear setback: he had much to consider. How could he recommend setting the film here, or indeed in Australia? Four weeks of scouting and nothing to show for it except the career-ending image of a cringing Halle Berry or a pale, shoeless Tom Cruise being bailed up by dingoes.

  Under the palms, the beer-commercial shoot was under way. Foss was on his third bourbon, keeping his distance from the goings-on, when he spotted her bright hair bobbing and glimmering and was drawn by a sad mixture of desire, alcohol and curiosity to the smorgasbord being arranged by Mia McKenzie. That hair of many colours was hard to resist; she was the centre of attention as she prepared her display for filming. There was no doubting her status. Compared with her artistic endeavours with octopuses, squid and cuttlefish, the ministrations of the other food designers seemed insignificant, merely cheap craft. Even the usually superior ice carvers looked faintly ashamed of their melting dolphins.

  Passing women—tourists and crew members alike—were shaking their heads in admiration as they spied the octopus stylist’s presentation. Men, of course, hung in besotted fashion around her busy limbs and parrot hair.

  Wielding cans of canola oil, glycerine and hairspray, her fingers a blur of motion, dabbing here and there with pastry brushes, spraying and anointing and smearing, rearranging errant tentacles and erecting complex cephalopod structures with hidden toothpicks, she was sculptor, engineer, architect and painter.

  ‘Your feet!’ she yelled suddenly. ‘Love your feet!’

  She’d spotted him. Tyler Foss flinched, waved an embarrassed hand and on his $3.50 ladies’ thongs began to flip-flop back to his sheltering umbrella.

  ‘See you at the wrap party tonight!’ she called out.

  So, of course he turned up at the party. And inevitably the octopus stylist was being swamped with male attention. All evening she was trailed by some infatuated actor, electrician or assistant producer. But she handled every overture as deftly as she’d managed the day’s suckers and tentacles. At 2 a.m. her laughter still trilled from the hot tub. Beside her in the warm bubbles reclined Tyler Foss. Mia McKenzie put down her daiquiri, laid a hand on his arm, and eased closer. Tonight the distant party buzz and the surge and gush of the hot tub drowned out the pulsing of the surf. The gardens were quiet. Even the four dingoes bolting down the seafood display under the palms made no sound.

  ‘You make me laugh,’ she was saying to him. ‘The pink thongs, fracturing your image, turning it on its head. I love that.’ One thing Tyler Foss was good at was reading the signs. So he went with the flow of the evening and kept the outlaw-rocker dude more or less under control.

  Next morning the helicopter came for her ridiculously early. But, as she said to him, there was no time to waste. There was calamari to be arranged in Noosa.

  Cat and Moustache

  John Elder


  A beautiful cat with a strange moustache lived in the place above the river where people came to die. The little cat wasn’t there to say whose time was coming any moment now. I followed her from room to room, thinking this was her purpose. But she didn’t climb onto the beds and stare knowingly into the fading light; she wasn’t one of those chink-eyed slinkers-in soaking up the last of the warmth from bird-empty bones. And there was nothing to suggest that this small, beautiful painted-faced cat witnessed the freshly hatched souls leaving their bodies, as folklore might have it. I had read stories and seen unpersuasive photographs of such death-kin cats, what might be called spirit guides in the language of the caftan, but she wasn’t one of them. She was spookier than all that. Her movements weren’t slinky or fat-boy plodding but like something spilt, bled from the night itself, shadow-tiding. When a couple of people died in the blue-light hours, she seemed intent on herding me (in the manner of spreading water) away from the scene, to keep me engaged in our new friendship, leading me to something new on that very cold night more than twenty years ago. I had gone to the hospice on the river on assignment, to talk to the nurses and the dying residents, to watch a long night go by, to write up the intimate rhythms of gentle carriage and fitful surrender. It was a beautiful place in its own sobering way, an enlivening place to be, many beautiful moments with people long gone. The little cat is now dead too, and yet, in the fanciful elevating way of memory, she returns to my side now, my first companion, the one who introduced me to birdwatching in the dark.


  I have a friend who talks bitterly of putting aspirin into saucers of milk. He talks this way when visiting friends who happen to keep a cat or two. We all laugh off his murderous gripe, yet know him to be sincere. He’s confessed to throwing possums off cliff-tops because possums aren’t native to his homeland. He’s all for the natives. I am yet to decide if there is cruelty in his glee, or is it self-righteousness buttering his heart? Like me, this friend of mine has a deep interest in and, yes, love of birds while knowing the birds themselves aren’t burdened with (what we think of as) love in their attachments. He, too, my friend, admires the cat as a killing machine. He’s not above paying tribute while just as quickly turning the talk to felinicide: o let him count the ways. But where he will throw a rock or a shoe and, on one occasion, a grapefruit at some cat hunkered in the grass, citing the vulnerability of wrens flitting in the shrubs or the spotted turtle doves bobbing brainlessly in the driveway, I’m more inclined to sit and watch and ponder how a cat makes its choices, how and when it gets turned on to tear-apart possibility. Why does it leave those wrens and turtle doves unmolested for half the day before turning on them like a sprung trap? Or, ig
noring the quarry close at hand, why does it suddenly raise its head because of some subtle movement in the trees, desperately alive to what’s perching there? What is it that brings a cat into its full primal killing self?


  There was a wire cage hanging from the ceiling, three or four little birds—canaries, I suppose, I can’t remember. The lighting, too, I’m not sure of. Recessed or a flat-faced globe on a bracket high in the corner. I do recall thinking it couldn’t be comfortable because the beam of light, no matter that it was dimmed, came down directly through the cage, throwing a soft shadow, low on the opposite wall. That’s where I first saw her, sitting among the shapes of bird and wire cage, unmoved by the sprocketing chirpers.

  I walked across to meet her: small black body, white socks and face, and that strange black moustache growing separate to her whiskers along the top of her pretty mouth. Cats either say hullo or they don’t and she didn’t. She looked at my dangling hand for a while and turned tail, walking into a corridor where a plaster saint with the face of a baby watched her in passing, a cold, gentle eye on the little cat’s wandering through the very soft light. Some of the many renderings of Jesus on the long, pale walls looked down upon her, too, from pictures where they walked in light or hung from their crosses.

  I followed along and watched her stop at an open door. Together we looked through the doorway at a man sleeping flat on a stretcher next to his wife, who was in a bed, slightly propped. These people were in their seventies. The woman didn’t want to be alone at night. The man went home in the mornings to shower and eat something, water the garden, then back by noon to feed his wife lunch. That day he’d gone home to mow the lawn. On the way back to his wife he’d become confused in the traffic and missed feeding her lunch but he stayed to feed her dinner in the early evening. Soon after the dinner I’d bumped into him in the cafe lounge area. That’s when he told me the story about mowing the lawn and so on. And here he was now, no talking: his wife asleep and it looked like he was sleeping, too. The cat sat in the doorway looking at them, with the authority of someone in uniform. She walked in and rubbed herself against the stretcher in two long passes. A little later we walked by their room and heard the wife waking and the man saying it was all right. I followed the cat leading me up and down the corridors, through the lounge area and back again, now and then standing at a doorway, so many doors open to the very soft light and so many forms of Jesus on the walls, despairing and at peace.

  A couple of hours went by this way until we reached a door that led outside. She bumped it with her head. There was a heroin crisis at the time and the nurses liked to keep all the doors locked but the cat, bumping her head and waiting, demanded we go out. It was cold enough to make your fingers burn. Cold mist in the trees but clear in the sky, cold moon. I squatted down and she stood next to me, staring into the darkness of the trees, raising her head and opening her chest up, as a lion does to the sun. Then came that ghostly golden light, where the eyes become disks floating in the sockets, lit up as you find in a cheap battery-powered toy from a Chinese store.

  I almost asked what was happening.

  As she fluffed up all over, a cry came from the trees, a cat-like cry, but bird-like too, full of hurt. What I knew to be the owlet nightjar, the smallest of the night birds, with the dopey-kitten eyes, the baby-bulb eyes that don’t reflect light; no matter if we had gone into the trees with a torch, there’d be no spooky red light, just startlement. There’d be no seeing them at all, most likely; they tend to hunt in pairs. Despite the chill I felt a rush of warmth. The owlet nightjar, rarely seen but much wondered at: in photographs the plump body doesn’t appear capable of intricate blind aerobatics, no obvious jet fighter. From recordings I’d heard that squeezed-out mewl and now, in close company with the turned-on cat and its hammering heart, here it was. I’d read that in olden times, in olden countries, the nightjars were said to suck the blood from cattle, when in fact they were hunting the insects that swarmed the stinky beasts. Take a walk on a golf course, welcome swallows will do the same thing around your knees. Welcome swallows can almost be summoned if you know where to walk; the owlet nightjar makes itself known by surprise, almost never to be seen, only heard. I wanted more. Cat and man waited for more, but three cries only and the cold seeping in. We headed back inside.


  It’s a pleasant thing to do, walking up to the local parkland with a pair of binoculars, searching out the parrots and finches and thornbills, the butcherbird high up with its eyes a bulging, hungry obscenity. It’s like hunting Easter eggs. Aside from surveys done for my ornithology studies, I’ve not taken birdwatching seriously, not on dry land anyway. Where I crave to be is on the rear deck of a boat on the Southern Ocean, being tossed about and bitten by the wind, face-to-face with an albatross or a petrel, almost close enough to touch, quiet and unblinking. I’ll be out there at four in the morning, not caring if my ears snap off, dead to every care I’ve left mouldering at home. Let it storm. If I were to be dying, this is where I’d want to be. Failing that, I’d love to hear the owlet nightjar one more time. I keep trying. And where the little cat led me to the bird of the night, the bird, the desire for the bird, has led to a mission that I serve from time to time.


  In a purpose-built heaven for children, one might include a vending machine for hot chocolate that automatically puts three teaspoons of sugar in the bottom of the cup. Such a machine exists; not in heaven, but close enough. It stands in a bright, loud area off the entrance hall of that same hospice I first visited twenty years ago, where the rooms are quiet and dimly lit and so too the corridors, but this L-shaped area is loud with motors blowing in clean air and dragging out the bad. There are fridges for food and an ice machine and under the sink an urn hums with water on the boil. There are some tables and chairs arranged in cafe formation, lit with unforgiveness as one finds in a 7/Eleven store at midnight. Some books and games and magazines are piled neatly on shelves in the corner near the coffee machine. One of the books has 881 pages. It is hard to imagine dedicating one’s last days to all those pages. Although doing so might speak of defiance: ‘I’m not dead yet.’

  Here she comes, saying as much, a woman not a child, but her straw-coloured hair is that of a young girl getting ready for a party, tied in a loose bun that hangs wantonly off the side of her head. Her pyjama pants are of a silky ballooning cut, wildly patterned. She has a child’s arms and what might be taken as a shy craning of the neck, which is in fact a distorting of her bones. The biggest thing about this woman is her voice but I haven’t heard it yet. It’s hard to know how old she is.

  What I see first are the wheels of her walker coming around a corner and stopping at a glass-doored fridge, which she very slowly opens and inside which she thoughtfully places an unopened cup-sized container of orange juice and an uneaten sandwich. She closes the door and looks at the sandwich as if it is a museum display. She moves forward to the ice machine and I see now the yellowing of her skin and the swelling and drooping of her lips. She pulls on a plastic blue glove and scoops ice into a plastic jug set on the seat of the walker. She turns away and heads out of view and I think that’s that until the wheels appear once more. I am sitting at a table near the vending machine. My digital tape recorder is running. It is getting on to midnight, a Saturday night, 1 September, the first day of spring after a long and silver-sky winter. It has been a lovely clear day with the biggest blue sky that Melbourne has seen for some time. The night has gone cold again and I imagine so many people shuffling into their kitchens for a last hot chocolate before they go to bed. Here she comes now, with a blue mug in hand, walking solo to the vending machine. My briefcase is in her path.

  ‘You’re right,’ she says, when I make a fuss.

  ‘I see they’ve got it set up to have three sugars.’

  ‘I know. Isn’t that shocking? I only have the one sugar.’ ‘Right.’

  ‘So it’s a bit fiddly.’

  She sets the cup in the mac
hine and presses a button and stands and waits with her back to me. And then she says: ‘Sometimes it’s out of order. For three or four days.’

  ‘Is that right?’

  ‘If you look in the kitchen, you’ll see all the mugs are gone.’ ‘Can I help you with anything?’

  ‘No, no.’

  She doesn’t put her eyes upon me but says a shrike’s good night and starts to turn away. I have an MP3 player hooked up to a little speaker and I press play. The urgent piping of a grey butcherbird comes forth and she smiles with surprise. She smiles by bringing her drooping lips together.

  I’m smiling with my new nameless friend, explaining that the butcherbird lives in a tree, in my street, just across from my apartment building. As I’m talking, I’m noting with some relief how she is drawing closer and now I’m on my feet, pulling out a chair.

  ‘I have about twenty different bird calls on this thing,’ I say.

  ‘What are you doing with them here?’

  A couple of tubes dangle from the short sleeves of this small woman’s T-shirt. She has unplugged herself from drugs and saline. She now sips from her mug of hot chocolate as I begin to tell the story of the little cat and the joys of birdwatching in the dark. I don’t get very far. Something is hurting her.

  ‘I need to go to bed,’ she says, but she hurts too much to stand. I go in search of a nurse. Others get involved. I think of a broken horse I once saw at a rodeo being surrounded and escorted out by so many grim-faced men.

  An hour goes by, sitting by the vending machine, waiting for someone new to talk to. No luck. I head outside and sit on the porch, where the smokers come, but none do. I try once more for the owlet nightjar, sending its recorded call into the trees. No luck there either. I’m still sitting out there at three in the morning when my nameless friend, the woman with the craning neck, finds me.

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