By David Milroy
A Murandoo bathed in the final embers of the day, unaware that its blood red anthill platform had unmasked its speckled camouflage. Bailey slammed on the brakes and leapt from his Toyota, chasing the lizard across the dry riverbed and up onto the bank. Before it could scurry into a hole he grabbed its tail and whacked it against a snappy gum.
On the ride home he celebrated his kill with a Slim Dusty cassette while on the backseat the Murandoo’s cold-blooded heart was being kick started by the vibrations of the corrugation road. With a spark in its tiger-eye it leapt into the front seat and flung itself at the windscreen. With lightning reflexes Bailey gripped it to his chest, unwilling to let his dinner escape through the passenger-side window.
He flew into his brother’s camp emerging from a cloud of red dust desperately trying to wrench the Murandoo’s claws from his faded Dockers jumper. With flaying arms he ripped it free and threw it to the ground. Alfred pulled himself out from under the bull buggy and caught the last rock-thumping hit to the Murandoo’s head.
He don’t wanna die!
With the last twitch of its tail the life drained from their dinner.
Under the hat
That night Bailey took his time preparing it for the coals. Alfred sat by the fire with his hat pulled low over his brow, lost in thought. He was worrying for his wife Marjorie. She’d been flown to Perth for medical tests. With every sip of his tea, he was counting the days till she returned. His mood was momentarily broken when Bailey snapped a twig into a harpoon and with deadly precision stuck it up the Murandoo’s arse. With a couple of twists he pulled out the guts and flicked them to the dogs. One by one he twisted the Murandoo’s legs until…
There’s nothing worse than a Murandoo standing up in the fire!
She’s a good woman, Marjorie.
I’ve never been lucky in love like you Alfred.
You found the right one, first time!
Alfred stroked his beard and retreated further under his hat. This was not the brother that Bailey knew. Normally he couldn’t compete with Alfred’s ability to spin a good yarn, and if he did he could always go one better. Bailey had one ace left up his sleeve so he scraped open the fire, raked the coals over the Murandoo and played his hand.
I seen old Karla today.
Alfred raised the brim of his hat.
How do you know it was her?
One fire, one eagle and they was heading this way!
Alfred removed his hat.
Maybe she wanna tell us something.
Bailey, looking forward to spending a night eating and yarning with his brother, hurriedly pulled their dinner from the coals and placed it on a table of leaves. Unfortunately, Alfred had lost his appetite for Murandoo and conversation. With a flick of his wrist he threw the last dregs of tea from his panikin and headed for his swag.
Earlier that week Alfred and Bailey had dug a new soak. They let it fill up overnight and rose early the next day to fill the tank. Alfred worked the generator while Marjorie stood high on the platform balancing the irrigation pipe on her shoulder. Bailey stood below taking the full weight of the pipe so she could wrestle it into position. She aimed the pipe and with a wave of her hand signaled for Alfred to start the pump. With a puff of black smoke it rattled into life filling the old tank with muddy water. Once the water was flowing Marjorie reached to tie the pipe to the ladder but slipped and dropped the wire. She was unsteady on her feet. The ladder swayed as her foot slid from the rung.
Her voice could hardly be heard over the rattle of the pump. With a last desperate grab at the ladder she hit the side of the tank and fell like a ragdoll to the ground. For a moment she sat up then collapsed back into the mud of the overflow. Alfred cut the pump and within minutes they were driving flat out along the dusty track into town. At the nursing post they sat anxiously watching the clock tick by as the nurse examined Marjorie. Her diagnosis was swift.
I think it’s your kidneys but you’ll need more tests in Perth to make sure.
The nurse filled in the forms and worked the phones.
The Flying Doctor’s on its way!
Alfred held Marjorie’s hand and struggled to give her a reassuring smile knowing she’d never been to Perth or flown in a plane before. At the airstrip, the nurse loaded her onboard, carefully handing the drip to the Flying Doctor nurse. The shadow of the plane cut through Alfred as it left the runway. In an instance the Flying Doctor had separated the inseparable, and stolen his first and only love from his side. On the solemn trip back to camp Bailey’s dusty cassettes lay scattered on the floor and no song of Slim’s was going to bring comfort to Alfred.
Walardu and Karla
Bailey had decided to stay with his brother until Marjorie returned. He knew she liked bush tucker so every day he rose with the shadows, loaded the Jillyman and headed bush. After doing the full length of Quartz road without an animal in sight he headed for Bullocky Spring. Ten miles out he spotted Karla cutting through the spinifex. He’d never seen Karla before but knew all the legends surrounding her. Karla was the fire that had burned for more than twenty years, sometimes disappearing for months then rising out of nowhere. Karla could travel underground and was more lightning than fire, but what set Karla apart from other fires was her partner.
Spook was the local expert on the Karla legend and also the local barfly. He had, like many old leathery drifters, settled in the most isolated town in the Norwest, happy to live the rest of his life in beer, in cigarettes and in-cognito. Spook had the ability to combine legends with theories and it was this ability that had got him into trouble with the Queensland police, something to do with peppering an old mine with a shotgun blast of gold. Spook would always start with a crocodile yarn to attract the unsuspecting tourist. Then he’d order a pint, re-adjust his barstool and launch into his legendary Karla Lege-theory.
When they stopped culling crocs in the Kimberley, the bulls headed south in search of new nesting grounds. One morning Walardu the eagle sat by the river tearing through the fur of a quoll with its razor beak. She threw back her head and swallowed the flesh, unconcerned about the still waters of the De Grey.
Snap! A croc flung from the water!
Spook liked that part of the legend because he could usually get the tourists to jump by clapping his hands together then he’d con them into shouting him another beer for his parched throat so he could finish the yarn. After sculling his pint he’d abandon the barstool and play out the story for what it was worth.
The croc was over ten metres long and luckily for Walardu took more feathers than bone. The wounded Walardu flew high into the sky but the adrenalin faded and she slowly spiraled to the ground below. Suddenly, she felt a warm updraft lifting her body. Beneath her Karla the spinifex fire burned and the one winged Walardu could fly again.
Walardu and Karla!
The eagle, the fire!
Then with a tear in Spook’s bloodshot eye he’d head for the barstool and call out.
One more pint for the storyteller!
From his swag Alfred watched the stars dance with the satellites, searching for enough comfort to fall asleep. He reached across to where Marjorie usually lay and touched the air, imagining the softness of her skin and the shadow of her back. He pulled her pillow close to his body and dreamt of better times.
The first time they met was under a night sky. There was a party in town travelling on the wind. The music was fading in and out, just enough to attract a young moth like Alfred. With a swig of his king brown beer he followed the music to One-Mile camp, only to be told the party had moved on. He put his ear to the night sky and headed to Five Mile, again missing them by minutes. Reluctantly, with an empty tank and a bladder full of beer he headed back to town. On the way home he pulled over for a piss, as the mist rose from the ground he caught the faint music of the boom box falling from the heavens and calling him to Blackhorse Pool.
His Holden squeaked along the river track in search of the party. Alfred scanned the banks for signs of life and was about to call it a night when in the distance he spotted the light of a solitary cigarette. He casually dismounted his HQ Holden wagon and with thumbs tucked into his buckle approached the girls with a gunslinger swagger.
What you mob up to?
Before he had time to draw his breath they’d shot him out of his cowboy boots and snapped his buckle clean off.
Under the volley of abuse he retreated to his HQ wagon, happy to give up on his moth driven quest for loving. He sat in his car sipping the last of his beer and planning his face saving burnout. Then from out of the darkness there came the voice of a goddess.
Ya got any cigarettes?
He turned slowly to face his destiny.
Nup! Don’t smoke.
Her eyes sparkled like amethyst on the darkest sea.
Her words shot like shooting stars into his ears.
Ya wanna go for a cruise?
His heart pounded like the waves of a winter storm.
Yer, why not!
Alfred and Marjorie rode off into the sunrise with their desires overflowing like stuffing from the crack in his backseat.
Alfred settled into courting Marjorie in true Jackaroo style determined to impress her with his prowess as a broncobuster. The rodeo had hit town and the ten thousand-dollar prize money would get him a deposit on the block he’d been eyeing off with the same twinkle he had for Marjorie. His dream was to set up his own mustering business using bull buggies instead of horses, which were rapidly becoming obsolete as the stations became more mechanized. Riding on his prowess as a broncobuster was not only the prize money, but also the quest for Marjorie’s heart.
All eyes were on the swing gate, where on the other side of the fence, Alfred sat squeezing the bronco between his legs and gripping the rigging with his leather glove. His allocated bronco had recently received legendary status by throwing Knuckles Dan, one of the most prominent outback riders on the rodeo circuit, in three seconds. The horse was called Snowflake because of its white hide, but after what it had done to Knuckles it was renamed Ball Buster.
The announcements echoed across the crowd, re-living the highlights of Snowflake’s new found fame and taunting the young buck Alfred who was supposedly going to melt the ball busting Snowflake into the dust of the rodeo ground. The swing gate opened and Snowflake leapt sideways from the chute causing Marjorie’s heart to pump faster than a windmill in a cyclone. Alfred had to stay on for eight seconds to win the money. The eight seconds seemed like minutes as Snowflake flung forward then backwards trying to throw Alfred over her snowy mane. He held on tight throwing his arm high in the air to counter balance the heaving mass of horseflesh beneath him. Snowflake kicked back and shook from side to side trying to throw him but the determined Alfred gripped tight to the rigging with his sweaty glove, unwilling to be another notch on Snowflakes saddle. In one last desperate attempt to dislodge Alfred, Snowflake bolted to the perimeter of the rodeo ground and slammed against the railing. The crowd gasped then wondered if the crack they’d heard was Snowflakes ribs, Alfred’s leg or the railing. The eight-second siren had long gone and Alfred, unaware that he’d won the money, was prised from the busted bronco. Lying on a stretcher beneath his hat, Alfred was comforted by the thought that a broken leg was much less painful than a broken heart.
The Whirlpool of Darkness
Bailey was scared of snakes so every night he raked the ground before he went to sleep. In the morning he’d check to see what had crawled through the camp. He raked together a small pile of stones and looked towards his brother’s swag. He felt helpless knowing his brother was cut deep and the only cure would be the return of Marjorie.
The night drifted into an indigo darkness that stole Alfred’s thoughts and wrought them into a whirlpool of dreams. His dreams travelled far, visiting old friends he’d never met before and strangers who spoke warmly of Alfred’s love for Marjorie. His stomach rippled as their words filled him with hope. Soon his dream grew weary and their words faded into the sound of a crackling fire. He looked to a shadow that flickered in the firelight at his feet, he lifted his head and there standing before him was Marjorie. She was younger and smiling as she showed him her sickness had gone. As a shy wind blew across the camp Marjorie faded into the night and the whirlpool of dreams took Alfred back into his sleep beneath the satellite sky.
Bailey poured fuel down the drop toilet. He knew if they left the burn-off too late the wind would pick up and they’d be stalked all day by the smell of shit and petrol fumes. Unfortunately he’d used a little too much fuel and the blast blew the seat of the toilet high into the sky. Alfred shot out of his swag, taking a moment to register where the explosion had come from.
It’s okay! I’ll find ya another seat!
Alfred rubbed the sleep from his eyes then searched for Marjorie’s footprints in the raked over ground. There were no signs of a visit. He sat solemn by the morning fire searching for the courage to tell his brother of his night travels. Bailey broke the silence.
I smelt smoke last night but there was no fire.
Alfred adjusted the brim of his hat then, with head down, told Bailey of being visited by the young healthy Marjorie. He then retreated under his hat trying to hide the tears that fell onto the dusty red dirt. Bailey searched his jacket for his car keys.
Let’s drive up to Razor Ridge and see if we can get some reception.
Bailey waited at the foot of the rise as Alfred climbed his way up on to the ridge. At the top he held his arm out moving the phone from side to side trying to pick up a signal. At first there was only one bar, then two, and then the beep of a message. Alfred took a deep breath and pressed the callback.
Yes, yes it’s me Alfred, Marjorie’s husband.
Alfred paced the ridge with the phone glued to his ear. He slowly dropped the phone and drifted to the ground, wounded by the call.
The land was warming to the morning sun and a light breeze gathered over the ridge. To the east, Alfred could see his corrugated tin camp shining like a speck of gold in the vast red landscape. He looked to the distant horizon where a spinifex fire burned and gently raised his hand to wave goodbye to his love.
This short story was taken from Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images, which we originally published in 2013 in response to the Margaret River fires in 2011.
David Milroy was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1957. David’s family links are with the Injibarndi and Palku people of the Pilbara. Former Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre, David has been involved in theatre in Western Australia for a number of years as a musician, director and writer. His writing/directing credits include: King Hit, Runumuk, One Day in ’67 and No Shame. He provided musical direction for Sistergirl and Dead Heart (Black Swan Theatre Company) and Perth Theatre Company’s production of Wild Cat Falling. He co-wrote and directed Sally Morgan’s hit play Cruel Wild Woman and Barking Gecko’s production of Own Worst Enemy for the Festival of Perth.