The day the Devil came to Dangawullah

Issue 

A short story by Craig Cormick

Any of the townspeople of Dangawullah could tell you exactly when the Devil arrived. It was that hot afternoon of October 29, 1929. It was the last day that it rained that year until Christmas Day, and it was the day the bottom dropped out of the world stock market.

But we didn't know much about that for some time. The first we knew of any disaster was when the Devil drove into town in his shiny black American car to take up the position of manager of the State Rural Bank. He wasted little time in getting to know his new clients, and that very afternoon he drove out personally to visit three widows and two soldier settlers and foreclosed on their mortgages.

You could hear his car coming across the paddocks, echoing like a death knock to scare the cows off giving milk and to put the hens into such a state that they refused to lay eggs for a fortnight.

People learned quickly around Dangawullah and when they heard his shiny black American car coming they pulled down their blinds and locked the doors. But it was no good — he'd just slip his little envelope under the door, and even if you burnt it, he'd know it and he'd be back with another one the next day.

Henry Donovan, f'rinstance, held out for 30 days — burning a new letter each day — but the fire he kindled for that one on the last day caused his chimney to catch alight, and it quickly burnt the whole house down.

He was the Devil all right!

It was a bad year all told, with the chickens and cows scared, no rain for the crops, and a plague of head lice infesting all the children. And then word came around that the mine would have to partially close. We didn't know what to say.

Most of the men around town — those who weren't on the land — worked at the mine. The land — on it or under it — provided our livelihood. Its dirt was in our fingers and its dust filled our throats and lungs. How could the mine close? It didn't make sense. It was a productive mine. We were good workers.

That was when most of the townspeople first heard all about the Depression and about world stock prices. Nobody, we were told, wanted to buy the metals.

Mr Dunstan, the mine manager, called all the workers together to explain it to them. He told them about global commodity prices, and supply and demand, and profit and loss balances, but all the workers understood was that half of them would lose their jobs. It was as if we were being punished for something we didn't know we had done.

The assembled workers ran their eyes around each other, almost furtively. Who would it be? Would it be him? Would it be me?

That night the men of Dangawullah lay awake in their beds, listening to the comforting sounds of their wives breathing and their children tossing as their head lice attacked them. They lay awake planning and scheming. What would they do to stay working at the mine? What wouldn't they do? Breathing was difficult on those hot summer nights — like there was a tight noose around our necks, causing an itch that no amount of beer would wash away.

We lay in bed, dreaming evilly about our comrades, our fellow townspeople, and inventing wild lies and gossip that would keep us on the mine's books ahead of our neighbours. We lay awake half the night thinking thoughts that had never invaded our quiet homes before.

We needn't have bothered. The next morning when we arrived at the mine, the Devil's shiny black American car was parked out the front. He had made a deal with Mr Dunstan, and was going to provide him with a loan to mechanise the mine. He would be able to produce more cheaply, he would maintain the shareholders' high returns, and he could lay off virtually all the workers. The noose pulled just that little bit tighter.

We were all stood down before Christmas — which was the first day it rained since the Devil had come to Dangawullah.

At first the farmers came out onto their verandahs and danced. They'd get a good harvest after all — they'd pay off their bank debt to the Devil and even have enough left over to replant for the next year.

By lunchtime they had stopped dancing and were struggling to save their Christmas dinner as water gushed through holes in the roofs and ran across the floors. And by the last light of the late afternoon, they looked out across the fields and saw the drenched remains of their crops, half submerged, like the raised arms of a million tiny drowning bodies waving for help.

It rained solid until New Year's Day — right through the school holidays — and when the river burst its banks it carried away the railway line and the sports stadium, but left the nearby bank and the schoolhouse intact. The children couldn't believe it.

He was the Devil all right!

No-one felt much like holding a New Year's celebration that year — even though it was a new decade.

The first day of the next year started hot. Dry and hot! The sun rose so large and moved so slowly that it had dried out all the rain-flooded land by lunchtime. About mid-afternoon it stopped in the sky and just shone down on everything. Even the dark brown crickets stopped their songs and sought shelter in the shade.

The only sound that could be heard was the echoing death knock of the Devil's car as he drove across the dusty paddocks delivering his foreclosure notices.

It took some weeks for the people of Dangawullah to gather the initiative to form a committee. The wives began whispering aggressively in their husbands' ears at bedtime and then rolled the comforts of their soft bellies and breasts away from them, leaving only their bony backs to hug. And the children cried each day when the same lumpy porridge was served, meal after meal.

And then, finally, that dry and dusty Friday, when the Devil drove his shiny black American car up to the wide doors of the Royal Hotel and pushed a white foreclosure envelope under the door, they knew something had to be done.

He was the Devil all right — and they had to form a committee!

Meeting in the schoolhouse, the men of the area deliberated well into the night, trying to find a solution to their plight. About the only thing they agreed upon was that it probably wasn't on to hang a bank manager — probably — especially when he was also the officiating magistrate. Finally, just about midnight, they decided upon the only sensible idea put forward all evening — they would ask the priest to look after it.

The committee delegation called around to see Father O'Donnelly the next morning — dressed in their Sunday best, tugging continually at their tight collars and ties — and outlined their problem. The priest listened to their demands good-heartedly, his eyes widening in mock alarm when he heard the men of Dangawullah describe the new bank manager as the Devil. Before they left him, he assured them that he would personally go and talk to the man.

Father O'Donnelly spent a little over three hours in the Devil's office, with most of the townspeople looking furtively towards the dark bank doors from a distance. When he finally emerged, it wasn't with his crucifix held aloft, casting a cleansing bottle of Holy Water before him, but with his hands firmly clasping the hands of the Devil, and a slight stagger in his walk and a slur in his speech.

The Devil even drove him back to the rectory in his shiny black American car, delivering him right to the door.

When the delegation called on the Lutheran minister the next day, he was furious. He called the bank manager worse than a Devil — a spreader and propagator of evil — and he announced he would stride right down to the bank and confront him that instant. The nerve of him — offering a donation to build a new Catholic Church! A brick church!

The minister's face grew as red and hot as a bushfire through the dry brush as he stormed out, leaving the committee delegation unsure of whether to follow him or await his return.

They waited for two hours, then stole quietly down to take up their positions looking furtively towards the dark bank doors from a distance once more.

The Devil drove the Lutheran minister home in his shiny black American car, delivering him right to the doorstep. The new Lutheran Church was also to be built of brick — but the steeple was to be visibly taller than the Catholic one.

The committee men returned home dejectedly to the cries of their children and the bony backs of their wives.

He was a Devil all right!

It took the best part of a week before the committee found they had no option but to pursue the only other viable suggestion — of a sort. And because Old Man Koivisto, the town's aged eccentric, had put it forward, it was decided that he should be the one to go the blackfellahs' camp outside town, to talk to them. The fact of it was, he was the only townsperson who had even really been to the blackfellahs' camp before.

He was a Baltic immigrant who had been a prospector in his time and had spent untold years wandering around the desert fringes looking for gold. It was only natural that he had fallen in with the blacks of the area, and that had kept him both alive and sane — of a sort.

He'd learned some of the blacks' ways and knew a lot of their stories. He reckoned they had stories about every rock, every animal and every place. He said these stories came from the land — and if you knew 'em, you could get to know the land. It sounded a bit funny — but there must've been something in it, for it was he who had actually uncovered the mineral vein at Dangawullah, over 40 years ago. But he never got around to staking a claim on it, and he spent the last years of his life as a miner there and was now unemployed, like most of the townspeople.

Old Man Koivisto set off early the next morning and stood waiting at the edge of the blackfellahs' camp by sunrise. They left him standing there in the hot sun until about noon, when one old man arose from the shade of a tree and walked slowly over to address him. The man greeted him in his native tongue, and Old Man Koivisto returned the greeting to him likewise.

The old black smiled a wide toothy smile, pleased that the other had remembered the customs after so many years.

Old Man Koivisto returned to the town as the sun set, walking slowly down the street towards the school house. The men of the committee were waiting for him. They sat expectantly, allowing Old Man Koivisto to take his seat and spit into the corner, before asking him, all in one whispered tense voice, "What did they say?"

Old Man Koivisto cleared his throat and said hoarsely, "I talked to the old man — head of the tribe — he's a real wise man". He paused and shuffled his feet a little. "He says there's only one way to get rid of a Devil. He says we have to all join in together and name him."

There was silence and then commotion as the townspeople fell into debate over the meaning of this.

"A real wise old man", said Old Man Koivisto. "I knew him when I was younger." But nobody heard him.

The committee stayed in the schoolhouse until late that night once more, trying to decide what it was exactly that the blackfellahs had meant. By midnight, when the last farmhouse dog had lain down in the pastures to sleep and the possums and owls were stirring for the night ahead of them, they'd figured it out. It was about finding a voice. It was about finding the power in a voice when it came from the people — and it also came from the land — not separate like, but a new single voice. A single telling — like this story.

The men of Dangawullah went home that night confident. They woke their wives and demanded they roll over towards them.

Elections were held within the month, and the Devil was elected unanimously to the state parliament, over 500 miles away. He drove away on a hot and dusty Saturday morning in his shiny black American car, taking his foreclosure notices with him. The townspeople listened as the death knock faded in their ears, never to be heard again in Dangawullah.

They took the locks and wooden shutters off the Royal Hotel that same afternoon and held a belated New Year's party that night, the likes of which hadn't been seen since Federation. That first beer went down straight and smooth, washing away every dry and dusty constricting knot. It was a good night for celebrating — the decade could only get better.

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