A short story by Craig Cormick
Harry Lasseter lies against the rock wall and watches the desert sun set over his empire. He's the richest man in the world. But he's stuffed and he knows it. Long black shadows stretch across the landscape. He watches them carefully. Sees them creep across the desert floor towards his little cranny in the rock face.
That lone mulga tree, way out there on the plain, sprouts sharp-edged shadows like grasping fingers. They stretch out towards him. Reach out to grab him.
He tries to move a little to the side. But he is crippled by exhaustion. Too weak. He's well and truly stuffed. All the riches in the world beneath him, and he's too weak to avoid a shadow. It creeps faster now, quickening, and then, like a striking snake, darts out and touches his leg. Despite the desert heat he shivers.
He looks back to the sun. It is starting to disappear now. Half under the horizon. It's that time. When everything changes. When everything is clearer. He rolls his head a little to one side and looks up at the rock face. Waits for that instant. Waits for it to turn to gold. The entire ridge. A mountain of gold!
He has seen it a thousand times. Tens of thousand times. But it never fails to draw his breath. To spellbind him. To renew his dream and reinvigorate him. Then there it is. A sudden sharp brightness that flares right across the rock face. All along the side of his reef. A mountain of gold. It is just for an instant, but in that instant he is gold too.
It's bloody beautiful. He'd cry if he had any tears left. Then it is gone. The sun is down. The reef slowly fades back to cold flat rock. It is that time between day and night now. No sun. No stars. No shadows. Everything is much clearer. He looks at his arms and legs. They are thin sticks. All the flesh melted off them. Seeped into the sand.
Poor bugger me, he says to himself. He looks up at the night sky, to that point where he knows the first star will appear. Right over the mulga tree out there. And then there it is. Bright. Stark against the blackness. It seems to dance. Then the other stars appear. Slowly at first. Then quickening. Tens. Then hundreds. Then thousands of them.
He follows the stars like he'd follow a map. Or a familiar story. Knows just where the next stars will appear. Tens of thousands of them.
He'd heard that the blacks believed that the spirits of the dead went up to the stars. The Milky Way was a river of spirits. He wonders where his star would be. In some patch of empty blackness. Far from any other stars.
He looks back to the desert. Something is moving out there. Is it the kaditcha man again? He looks towards the mulga tree. He can see its dark outline still there. But there is something further to the south. Now he can see two large bright eyes out there. And he hears a low rumbling growl. Moving towards him. The eyes flash across him. Blinding him. The growl grows louder. Closer now. Then almost deafening. It stops in front of him, with a loud hiss. The doors spring open and a small crowd jumps out.
You've missed it, you silly bastards, Harry Lasseter yells. But they don't hear him. A few lift their cameras and fire off flash shots at the rock wall. Another walks a few easy paces away and pisses into the desert sand. Then they leap back onto the bus and drive away. Going flat out. Tape player blaring. Within a few minutes they're gone. No movement. No sound.
Fucking tourists! says Lasseter. He hates them. And he remembers the difficulty they had with their own six-wheeled Thornley truck. Constantly digging it out of soft sand. Repairing punctured tyres up to 10 times a day. And the heat of the engine igniting the desert grasses under it as they drove.
The landscape finally defeated it. They had to turn back towards Alice Springs. But he pressed on alone. With his camels. They were going to send support in the airplane. The Golden Quest. And he remembers that distant single plane ride he once had. Cruising low over the desert. Following the contours of the land. Viewing the landscape from the air. How different it looked. So easy to conquer. So easy. From up there he could see his long slow journey like a map. Like a picture. Could see his faint footsteps in the sand as he struggled from waterhole to waterhole, heading onwards alone towards the reef.
But it was so different to be trudging down there, slow heavy step by slow heavy step, across the soft desert sands. Half blind from sand blight, starving and weakened by lack of food. And always having to beware of the blacks. They were always out there. They helped him for a time. Took him into their tribe. Fed him. But grudgingly. And when they smelt the scent of death about him, they left him to die.
Una pika purlka. They said. Kuna kuna.
He tried to talk with them. Tried to learn their words. Tried to teach them his. He wrote desperate messages and pressed them into their hands and said, Alice Springs. Alice Springs. Alice Springs. Over and over until it meant nothing. Alicesprings. Alispringsalisbrings. The words and the paper slipped through their fingers as if they were sand.
Lasseter believes it was the kaditcha man who had it in for him the whole time. He looks out towards the mulga tree again. And in the blackness he can see it moving. Dancing. It has become the kaditcha man again. He has resumed his human form. He is dancing. Lasseter can hear the soft pad pad of his feet on the sand. As soft as the whisper of paranoia. He can make out the white markings on his skin. Sees the movement. He knows he is dancing him. Singing him.
Fuck him! says Lasseter. If I had another bullet left, he wouldn't be so game.
He looks around for his gun. It's gone. He forgot for a moment. He lost it years ago. He closes his eyes and tries to remember the first feeling of finding the gold once more. The exhilaration of it. Standing in the middle of a wilderness, untrodden by white men. Nuggets all around him. As thick as plums in a pudding. Pure like the golden tablets of the archangel. He was standing on one of the largest reefs of gold in the world. His reef. His empire! The gold fever made his whole body shake.
That was when he still had his gun. Before his camels ran away. Before the blacks encircled him. Held a council and decided to feed him. Listened to his words of wealth and prosperity. He told them about his dream of great gold mines. Of herds of stock fed and watered by artesian bores. How he would develop the land. How it made him the richest man in the world. And they asked him why the richest man in the world was also a beggar.
Poor beggar me.
But the blacks didn't trust him. The land here was sacred to them. They didn't want him to dig it up. They even took out his claim pegs. They didn't understand the value of the land.
Fuck 'em, he says, they're all dead now.
He wakes with the sunrise. The sand blight is bad today. Una pika purlka, the blacks said looking at his eyes. The sun is blinding. But he can make out someone coming towards him. Walking slowly across the desert. He tenses. The warriors came down to him with two spears each. Ready to spear him to death. But they saw how close to death he was and left him. Left him to the elements and the songs of the kaditcha man. They didn't understand that he was the richest man in the world.
It is one of the tribal women coming towards him. He can see her now. She kneels on the ground in front of him and begins digging in the sand. Looking for yams maybe. He looks at her smooth dark skin. At her breasts. God he could do with a feed, he thinks. Maybe a steak. A real big one, like they used to cook at Alice Springs. Red juices running down his chin. Suddenly she is gone. Blended into the desert.
It's midday. The shadows are hiding. The sky above is so blue you could fall up into it and drown if you didn't hang onto the ground. He closes his eyes again. Shuts out the bright glare of the desert and sun. It's much clearer in the dark. And he can see the blacks out there dancing again. All their bodies marked white. Like the stars.
He clung on for days waiting for the rescue team. The expedition party. The airplane. They never came. He sat in the small alcove, up against the reef, waiting vainly for them. As his life ebbed slowly out of him. Kuna kuna. Pika purlka. They'd come in their own time. Looking for his bones. But they didn't realise that he had to be there when they arrived. They needed him to show them the gold. To show them it wasn't just rock.
He could feel the gold deep down there beneath him. A large vein of it that ran through the earth all the way from Kalgoorlie. A whole river of gold. As vast as the Milky Way. And how many times had he sworn he would trade it all for the simplest thing — a bite of bread, a swig of water or even release.
And Lasseter wishes he could pray. He used to once. But he has gone his own way for so long that he feels he can't even summon the words any more.
It's late in the afternoon again now. The sun is setting. The shadows creep towards him again. The kaditcha's mulga fingers reach out to grab him once more. The black shadow crosses his thin leg. The shiver runs through him, shaking him like a fever.
Then it passes. It is that time again. That miraculous instant. The sharp brightness flares across the rock face. All along the side of the reef. It is gold. And he is gold too. He is the reef.
Then it fades. He feels the cold greyness of stone return to his limbs. He waits for the stars as the sky turns black. And he can see the people of the tribe dancing out there. Renewing the land. Reinvigorating themselves. Thousands of them. Ten of thousands of them.
He once thought they didn't understand. Didn't know the value of the land. But that was before they all went up to the stars. They knew all right. That's why they left him there. Anchored to the gold. Dragging him into the rock face. Unable to ever rise up to the heavens.
[From Unwritten Histories by Craig Cormick, published by Aboriginal Studies Press — available from good bookshops for $19.95.]