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Edition 36

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Fiction

Oxtales

Selected for Best Australian Stories 2012

Howqua to Jamieson.

My name is Nelson after the Pommy sailor who lost an eye to grapeshot. Or in my case a whip. My left eye is gristle. I can't see Yella the newblood walking beside me. I can't see the Goulburn River. I can't see the fucking mountains. You might say I'm blind to anything sinister, giving rise to my namby-pamby folklore (Orion's words) that helps us pass the time tramping through the backblocks.

Orion walks in the rearmost span closest to Cusack's whip, gaining my stories piecemeal from bullock to bullock, yoke to yoke, Chinese whispers down the line.

Yella is a virgin to the open road, this trip his first beyond the outskirts of Mansfield. A willing beast, the kid is riddled with questions – Why do birds sing? How far is Jamieson? What's a barouche? – as Nigger is with heartworm. I envy the breath Yella finds to verbalise uphill. I long for the novelty he feels on fording creeks. The nonsense code of insects. No doubt Yella is braced for a long haul, most of it without me. This road to Aberfeldy shapes as my last.

Cusack our driver has an ironclad rule when it comes to choosing yokemates. Old must accompany new, he believes, the likes of Yella by the likes of me, world-weary by world-hungry. Cusack hopes the coupling will see the new ox 'break' but I prefer the opposite idea. Yoking I see as the vital step on the road to completion. Twice the beast for the stories I feed him, Yella is shedding his innocence by dint of miles and campsites. As two, we merge into one. The ox, he's learning, owns more than a walk-on role when it comes to the landscape we brave, the snaky road, the watchful bush, the kilns and mines and scratch-out farms we encounter on the road. Only this morning he mistook our species as Johnnies-come-lately to this island's saga until my oxtale told him otherwise.


Presnell's Comet.

Engine of an empire, the ox has blazed this colony's way from the outset. The original migrant herd crept from the lobes of Botany Bay, beyond the leases, the outer parishes, sneaking north of the Tweed, sheltering in the lap of the Darling Downs. There, in pioneer times, a drover named Presnell goaded a medley flock – cattle, sheep and assorted bullocks – across the loam. Early evening, a long summer twilight, when suddenly the sky turned magnesium.

A fireball creased the air! Chased by sparks! All bar the oxen bolted for shelter. Even Presnell bunched his reins, horror-struck by what he saw. Coconut, his mare, reared – and Presnell toppled off. The scene was chaos save for the oxen, content as ever to ignore the heavens, dining on native grasses and turning our rumps to the alleged omen.

Ancient Romans understood the sky, unlike Australians who view the blackness as a threat in itself, a derisive anagram of the English sky they'd known, a mystery more ancient than Old Rome itself. In light of Presnell's Comet, as the fireball would come to be known, only Bos taurus ox was prepared to graze in the face of disaster, our broad rumps an endorsement of the colony's longevity.

Presnell at length passed the tidings onto outlying graziers, allowing the news and kudos to filter slowly south. The image of the steadfast steer afforded heart to a million cowed Australians. Here was a five-star investor in the new land's future! Faced by comets in the sky a nag will baulk, the swine run, all udder milk curdle overnight, but the stable ox is a beast heaven-made for this skittish folly of a continent.


Jamieson to Gaffneys Creek.

The clay is slippery. Stepping is a case of hoof by deliberate hoof, our task to keep the trace chain taut, the going fluid, the cargo poised, the headstall square. Steam floats from Sergeant's hide. Cusack curses the rain and team in turns. For every pinch and quag our load adopts a subtle ton.

We march in a train of six, twelve steers hauling the stage that Australian life is played upon: the open dray. Yella thrives amid our company. He whiffs something epic in the going, while I confess to feeling less ennobled, servant as I am to the umpteenth leg in the colony's odyssey, dragging Progress one inch further inland. This week Progress comprises planks and flour, oats by the hundredweight, fuses and picks, fencing wire, a barouche.

What's a barouche? asks Yella, not for the first time. As an answer I speak on matters pedestrian.


Oxley's Moccasins.

I kid you not, the explorer's name was Oxley. (Little by little Australians are paying their bovine cohorts their overdue tithe.) A surveyor, Oxley was responsible for measuring Illawarra, the unkempt sprawl extending to Port Jackson's south. His bullocks hauled chains, stakes, astrolabes across the brutal seaboard. We blazed Bulli Pass, waded Kembla Rip. In short, the oxen gave Oxley's inroad the necessary legs.

If road is the right word: the path was nonexistent, the sun malicious. Lesions bloomed on the animals' spines. Gashes festered. Hooves fell into disrepair with nary a farrier in cooee.

Too kind a soul to qualify as bullocky, Oxley granted ample spells for the team along the way, but the foot sores worsened. The odour of pus overpowered our sweat. Creeping across the escarpment, a chorus line on tiptoes, the broken hooves steeped the outcrops in blood. Ten days into the trek, holed up at Wollondilly River, the surveyor struck an idea.

It should be said, to make matters clear, that during such an epoch the ox was Australia's chief source of leather. (Cows were few in number and daily wrung for curd, while kangaroos were too chimerical for colonists to contemplate.) Yet so highly were oxen deemed, the lure to exploit our leather was often scorned. Most settlers were content to ply their trade unshod, or tricked up in London hobnails such as Oxley wore himself.

Hence the enigma when Oxley that night opted to hunt opossum and native bear, indeed any marsupial asleep to his designs. Five long nights in Wollondilly, the sixth a bee of makeshift needlework, Oxley hunted and skinned, he smoked and oiled, cured and stitched, all the while his bullocks watching and left to second-guess their driver's intent. When the slippers were done, a full two dozen lace-up shoes, four for each beast, the master bowed before his team and kitted out each ox. Aye, the first fancy-shod steers in history! Explorations resumed on slippered hooves. Thus did John Joseph William Molesworth Oxley, trailblazer and makeshift cobbler, pay one part of this colony's extravagant debt.


Two Bob Night.

Rain has eased. Darkness enters the valley. We gain the eastern bank on Two Bob Creek and Cusack calls a halt. Aberfeldy is nine miles distant going by memory's map.

Egg-and-bacon flowers, boronia, morning glory – the feed is good around these parts. Yokes off, we are hobbled as a group and eat in silence. Come dark we congregate close to Cusack's fire, his fresh mutton spitting in the pan, the flames licking shapes against our pelts.

Rudolf, an ox of few words, disturbs our lull with an outburst. 'Catastrophe waits on tomorrow. I can see it.'

'The seer bloody steer,' brays Sergeant. 'Shut your fucking gob and go to sleep.'

Rudolf persists. 'Believe me brothers, this trip is short-lived. Trip is the pivotal word.'

Nigger shushes the clairvoyant. Mortgage, another tyro, sneers in tandem with his yokemate Orion. Yella is camped beside me. I sense his fear and thus speak softly of Elijah Puplick.

St Treacle.

Convicts are the breeding stock of Australian life, men whose flesh have tasted the lash, the cat-o'-nine-tails and every other number in between. Elijah Puplick was one such wretch, a devil in pyjamas with rape and sedition his calling. But the devil escaped, breaking shackles in a Pitt Town quarry and killing a string of lieutenants en route to freedom. The 46th Regiment combed gully and byre but the wilderness offered outlaws ideal camouflage.

The monster prospered, strangling the Madden clan of Wallerawang station and adopting their airs and chattels until a bullock team passed. The load of gunpowder kegs murmured destiny to Puplick who planted a mattock in the bullocky's brain and so inherited the dray. He set his sights for parliament, not so much as candidate but as self-anointed destroyer. He whipped the team hard towards Port Jackson. Treacle, the senior ox in the span and a conservative by nature, was first to register the nihilism that coursed in Puplick's veins.

Twelve miles from Sydney – in scrub on Parramatta's margins – the oxen were obliged to pass the night in their shafts, feigning sleep as Puplick, weary with raillery, slept like a child on the flatbed. A dying fire shone like an impulse in Treacle's eyes. Softly, using the age-old curses, the bullock roused his brothers into action, urging them to ease the juggernaut above the firebed.

As one the oxen were doomed. So too anything in a hundred-yard radius. Parramatta locals still recall the night Quaker's Hill shook like never before, a modest Armageddon, with modest repercussion, in light of what might have been. The load's true intention vanished with Elijah Puplick and a dozen hidebound martyrs.


Two Bob to Woods Point.

Orion walks before us this morning, his hind legs deliberately ajar. 'Take a good look, Yella old mate. See that ball sack? Looted! Picked clean! That's what fucking humans do, beefing us up to excess then fleecing the best of us.'

The team is rounding Mount Irwin on a corkscrew path known as Jacob's Ladder. The rain is gauzy. All around us the slick bush shines like something newborn.

Orion feels the urge to go on. 'Take no heed of Nelson's namby-pamby folklore. I too was once a bull! Look at us now. Fucking slaves is who we are, eunuch serfs for the mealy-mouthed bullocky. Look at mine, look hard. A ransacked sack is nothing to crow about, son. Ask Nelson how a eunuch bull can be anyone's ancestor. His talk is tripe. His stories are worse than the knife what done this.'

As decoy from the tirade I whisper to Yella another.


The Golden Ox.

Gold is the human panacea, the reason for Australia's being. Why do you think Aberfeldy is? Or half the forlorn fleabites an ox team will pass in a calendar year? What sane farmer would sow and reap in these cruel hills? How else to explain the picks and fuses piled high on our dray?

Years ago Samson was likewise employed. A Lancashire longhorn, the ox was a regular on the goldfield run, Ballarat to Melbourne, a perilous trip as Mad Dog Morgan owned the turf.

Morgan was a cutthroat with no god for compass. He loomed from the she-oaks edging Emu Ford and ordered the men to throw down arms. Stand aside! Billy Sing, a part-Chinese dogsbody with stupendous cunning, distracted the bushranger with a fan of treasury notes while the drivers slipped the gold into several nosebags. Morgan was conned. He took the notes and other trinkets, killing Sing and co. nonetheless, leaving the bullocks to munch on a mix of rapeseed and bullion. By the time a wayfarer encountered the bloodbath the nuggets were a sound part of the animals' constitution.

Until weeks later at Port Gellibrand, the colony's southern gateway. There stood Samson, awaiting his cue to haul a swarm of flywheels from the dock, when the urge to defecate arose. Samson released. He shat a drayload, an undammed bonanza through his colon's own southern gateway, dumping the compost in eyeshot of Giles O'Cullough, an Argus reporter saddled with the duty of annotating new arrivals.

O'Cullough himself was fresh from Eire, as hinted by the credence he paid to Samson's stool, telling his readers and the world by default of a land so munificent that even its livestock dumped treasure.

Rumours rebounded over the ocean. Hip pockets itched across meridians. Gold fever had a relapse as all peoples of the atlas made sail for Australian shores. Just think, the colony harvested new blood owing to a single ox's extraordinary evacuation.


Jacob's Ladder.

Mortgage, the newcomer with too much time to spare for Orion, slips. The bank is steep. Cusack snarls, tugs the brake, but the end is over before the tragedy begins. Chains groan. Braces tug. Orion follows. Downward. Headlong. Yella and I are next in train, Nigger and Lofty, Ollie and Rudolf, Sergeant and Hercules. In one mad moment Jacob's Ladder becomes Jacob's Snake as the team plunges helter-skelter into the abyss, Cusack and the load, lock, stock, box and dice.

Despite the rain there's dust. When it settles the reckoning begins. Sergeant is dead. Ollie is dead. Rudolf the prophet is dead. Blood as thick as axle grease drips from Yella's open jaw. 'I'm going,' he says – but not before I pant the final story.

Snowgum Angels.

Feathertop, a mountain not far from here, is a heron plume of snow, so cold one day a driver named Garner Pegg froze blue and fell like a plank from the dray seat. The sky thickened – flurry turned to blizzard. The world went white as the bullocks, plus Pegg's two useless dogs, lay stranded high on Feathertop.

And then the killing began. Ten steer, two dogs, horns and fangs and claws all scoring flesh and fur, an orgy of red on white. Come the thaw, by the time a search party reached the castaways the aftermath was chilling: bones in the main, but no commonplace bones.

Pegg's remains were gone, taken by the winds, the dingoes, the dogs. The dogs were gone, lost to civilisation, perhaps alive in this very scrub around us. Only the angels remained, the searchers' words, the snowgum angels.

At first they took the flashes in the trees for laggard snow. The next speculation was birds, a murder of albino crows nesting in the lower branches, but closer inspection found the creatures to be skeletons, an airborne boneyard dangling in the wind.

You see, the gums had offered oxen shelter, fodder, a place to breathe their last like here, for you, dear Yella. Down to their withers, melting into scaffold, the team slowly turned to bone, a carcass queue embedded in the snow. Ravens came. Wild dogs. Scavengers wolfing the last of the gristle. Next the spring, and the summit thawing, the empty ribs and fetlocks looping like bangles over boughs once the snowline receded, leaving the eeriness of so much aerial anatomy that hung in wait for the searchers, its music elegiac.

'Just as good bullocks attended the birth of Jesus,' spoke one searcher on the mountaintop, 'so do the beasts remain in the Lord's favour.' The quote is Yella's last morsel.


What's a Barouche?

Yella is oblivious and so too the good souls of Aberfeldy. Cusack is banking on the fact. He borrows the muscle of Orion and I to haul the remnant freight back to the road.

I can only imagine Aberfeldy's mayor as a self-important man, one who demands a token of aristocracy, a viceregal touch to flourish his might in the bush. Bring me a barouche, he probably demanded. A what? asked his people. Whatever Cusack can fudge from the catastrophe is what will ultimately be delivered. Our driver is desperate to claim his haulage fee.

Yella lies among us, his cooling beef a larder to add to the Aberfeldy load, a corpse of excellent meat and leather. Orion and I watch Cusack at work. Building. Tinkering. His improvisation knows no bounds. The purpose of our trip was to deliver a symbol of order to the wilds, but the symbol (and ten oxen) have been obliterated, and a new symbol needs inventing.

Cusack is industrious. Kegs become wheels, planks the chassis, chaff bags the upholstery. Fusing wire is plied into pinions, a pair of shovel hafts the make-do axles. A bolt of canvas mimics the hood. On the third day the only detail missing from Cusack's crackpot vehicle is Australia's coat of arms. The driver doodles in the clay, unsure. He combs the gully's smithereens to find no such emblem as a stencil. His pockets are empty of money or any clue to the government's authority.

A unicorn? The English lion? He chews a stick, dabs its gnawed end in a pool of sheep raddle, painting a couchant emu on the upright panel. He deletes the heresy with banksia and wonders what next to sketch. He looks around him. And thus he sees Yella's inert repose, the noble Bos taurus that he was, his power and wasted generosity lying prone, an image for the ages, the soul of the road itself and all who travel on it. Strong, silent, callow: Australia embodied, the land's true emblem, and who would be Aberfeldy to controvert this truth?

Orion and I drag the barouche into town. Cusack has lost his whip; he lapses to banter, the journey a peaceful cortege for the dead we leave on Mount Irwin. The dray is no longer a dray but a vehicle of Cusack's ingenuity. The driver rides high with haywire for reins, steers for steeds, the man as punch-proud as we, the journey a steady procession into oxlore.

Starved of spectacle, the people of Aberfeldy cram the single dirt track to cheer their barouche, an indigenous chariot, a bullocky's work of art and craftiness coasting into town. Still wet, the emblem on the facing panel is the outline of the noble ox, who is St Yella, who is every Ox.

Aberfeldy.

As sources of power Orion and I linger in town for a season or more, too spent to be hounded back to Mansfield, too canny to travel of our own volition. Besides, Aberfeldy suits our stage in life, a brittle outpost with laziness in bucketloads. We haul pay dirt from the penny-ante mines, we shoulder whims to draw summer water, we drag carts. Cusack himself has retired to the neighbouring hills, kept in tobacco by the language he possesses, the blue rapport that can coax a bullock from mud.

With yoke life waning our retirement soon follows. We pass our days by the schoolhouse grubbing lucerne, silk grass, getting fat on native dogwood, arguing less, finding time for philosophy. Orion is a fair companion. We exchange yarns – the great freight stories. The strongest beast, the vilest driver.

In quieter times I like to focus my good eye on Miss Stanhope's lessons, picking up the basics in lettering and whatnot. Did you know OX, for example, is a furtive hug beside a kiss? And going by the crisscross games the children gouge in the playground, an O seems timeless foe to the X. Proof the ox comprises affections and contradictions.

Around us Aberfeldians have learned to rely on horses, plus a flash green contraption dubbed a locomotor with no visible means of propulsion. But the barouche remains a cherished icon of village life. If only St Yella could see the love the people afford his gay mausoleum, brighter for a coat of paint, rollicking on the roadways. Just now the mayor clopped past the butter factory with topper and quirt, winning a blush from Miss Stanhope at her gate. I know the young martyr would be proud.

As is a man named Owen Molloy. A month down the track he leads us by the nose to a shack reminiscent of the accident, its complex aroma of blood. Orion goes first. With a silver flash the cleaver unlatches the ox's neck. His pelt is shucked like a glove. I stand to one side in naked admiration, ogling the might of Orion's flanks, the chrism of his hooves, his tallow fat, the gristle glue, and last the sacrament that launched this telling, that flexes now and commemorates those before us and those magnificent oxen to come. Of course I speak of the coveted tongue.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review