Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2015  v14n1
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Learned in the Old Ways

To begin hunting kangaroo, you must first make sure your mulga club is smoothed round and secured with a tie of leather to the spear. My son says that he does not like this. I tell him that it’s then a ride out the half day from Port Phillip to find a hardy Briton—mine’s name is Percival—at the outfitter’s with the signage awry and he will have experience and some comrades he trusts. Americans; nimble. My son does not like this either. He travels with me, self-burdened with his satchels, loudly anxious if without a week’s supply of jerky or his fire steel. He is unsteady on my horse, and he clutches to me with young zeal, bless him. Bless him from death. I aim to grow the boy to any activity that will have him. After Percival has copied a bill of sale out for his men and himself I hire them the material, the netting improved along with greased hemp knots, the shin wraps made from wallaby, the thickly reeded breast matting. My son does not like this most of all, as we walk with the men to the torn apart stables sun-blasted through to the colors of the wood and I stand him on the cross-angled stool there to size the men at the shoulders. He pulls at the strappings as angrily as he can; the Americans laugh and roll cigarettes. I whet the spears and cap them by the weathered stall beams. My son will accustom to the work. I pay for their rooms and their meals for the night and play faro with Percival until the tallow candle begins to struggle and my son falls asleep on the floor. Percival has his honor; we quit together and shake hands halfway through the game and then finish the brandy. He leaves, nodding and nodding. I cover my son with a quilt of patched skins.

We are packed and riding before dawn. Percival leads, trailing the mule, and the Americans skit their horses around so that the reddened earth between the grasses kicks up into a dust. My son lets the dust gather against his outstretched palm and then drags it into lines across his cheek. He is an affected child—lightly—and his mother stays in Connecticut babying him from afar, she writes me. She writes it exactly, “Even away I baby him,” and her letters have arrived in their bundles at their leisurely pace. She’s asked that I continue her work where I can; I pass my son a handkerchief which he blots against his face and then slips between his shirt buttons. I ask him what the use of that is, and he says there is no use save for maybe the sweat about him, see? Already? This early, too? I tell him that yes, I do see, that the heat is something to be wary of, and to wear his hat properly. I tell him that things will get hotter as we work north and the day continues, he should remember, and he says that he does. We approach a newer bridge out of town and we trot up some birds from the cooler dust near the river. They settle again behind. I’ve noticed one of the Americans at the small sketchbook that he keeps in an inner pocket of his shirt and ask him to show us and he agrees. The bird he’s drawn is awful. My son suggests that the best place to draw is perhaps not upon a horse, and then the American stuffs the book away.

He says, “What’s a squire know about beauty in the first place?” and continues ahead.

As the man stays in a foul mood for the next hours of riding my son is pleased. He remains quiet and eases his grip on me and he marvels with half breath at the distant air that takes to an exhausted simmer as soon as it’s touched by the lengthening morning.

Sometime after noon we stop beneath a patch of native trees and string up the canvas for a rest. We string another for the horses and the mule and we prop our spears against the rope. Without shadow along the dirt of the rough path or the expanse of dead grass beyond, it blends all into white. I lower my son’s hat over his eyes while he picks at some jerky.

“Eat,” Percival says. “Eat what you must. If you’re to come with us on these trips, you will need your strength.” He adopts a pedagogy when my son is around.

An American says, “Amen.”

And the other says, “Though, if we are careful, there’s something of venison in the things.”

My son asks if he might see the sketchbook again, and the American says no, so my son begins to draw in the soil with a blanched nub of stick that he’s found. I ask him if he might not be resting instead and he says that he doesn’t need it. He draws a roo family around a crude box of a table and the American watches. Several times I can see it in his throat that he means to criticize the work but thinks better of it—my son somewhat young—and after the man makes brief eye contact with me, he looks away into the distance, as if thoughtful.

I tell my son, “Rest,” and that he will know what for later, and after a moment he does. I’d like to teach to him as well. Before my son pulls his hat down across his face he scuffs out the drawing with his heel and then the American seems to release a great tension from out of his shoulders.

We wake grateful, with the rest of the desert, and a swell of insect noise greets us from the distance. After relieving himself, Percival approaches me to consult on our bearings, though it’s hardly needed as often as we’ve made the trip and occurs more from his habit. We know where we’re going. Once the canvas is down, searing, he circles again to the front of our company. Gleaming black crickets, attracted to our shade, spring continuously from his path.

The late sun bothers at us as we wheel broadly to the west, and my son takes to complaining against my back. He says that he can’t see anything and his eyes hurt. He says that it’s the kind of hot that he can’t turn away from, no matter how he tries. He says that he’s gone blind. I tell him to pull his hat down, that’s what the string’s for, and that when we begin to near the herds he’s to quiet himself. They don’t usually spook for so little but why put ourselves at the disadvantage? He answers that he’s gone too blind to know the difference. He’s known one blind man, a whaler, now dead, that he did not get along with so I am not sure what image he’s conjured of himself. Perhaps of the men from town who squint drunkenly in their oilskins asking for ship work, which he thinks is adventuresome. He is still a boy. He shuts up when I tell him again.

“We’re a day out,” an American says, “and when we stop maybe we water the horses and send the kid home.”

The other American agrees. He says he’s surprised he’s been breeched, to hear how he whines. They laugh together in a strange way and I allow them, imagining a measure of embarrassment to be good for anyone’s development. I am not, myself, quite, and I do not turn to check on my son.

When Percival halts and turns at the bank of a half-mudded creek and says that we’ll camp in the next half kilometer, my son lets out his breath in relief. I can feel it against me. Without my asking he will make to help, with the wood and the ropes and the rations.

We boil dried cabbage with a large measure of the salt beef and the night descends quickly over the flat of the land. The Americans sing soft American songs to each other while we make camp and the wild yelps of faraway dogs reach us with the wind as my son watches for them away from the fire. He tents his own small canvas up. He asks what sorts of things there are beyond the radius of our vision, and before I can tell him that there’s nothing of concern, one of the Americans suggests there’s maybe the natural evil coming near to visit us from out of the dark.

“Demonry,” he says. “Didn’t you know?”

“That’s not true,” my son says.

But the American pulls a simple steel-made cross from beneath his shirt and shows the chain along his neck. “Why do you think I wear this, then?” he asks. “It is not for religion.”

And my son says, “Routine. I guess.”

“A routine,” the man says. “A routine, yes, of a successful operation in the heathenous wilds. Tell the boy, Percy.”

Percival looks up from his shallow tinware and wipes at his moustache. He says, “They are indeed heathenous.”

“A kangaroo,” the American continues, “has just about the features of the devil. In silhouette, and otherwise. The ears, considerable. Mistaken for horns, easily, by the early settlers. The hitch to the legs. The gait. The tail. The nose, even, no, consider the visage yourself when we first come upon them this expedition.”

My son says that this is ridiculous.

The American says that he’s read on the subject, and recently. He says, “And after, I couldn’t help but agree.”

As a comfort I put a hand to my son’s shoulder and ask who wrote the article, and the American says it was some master of letters back home, in an academic review. Respectable, he tells me, and I continue at my cabbage with a hope that the conversation is over, and then it is. The Americans turn to discussing a cathouse in Melbourne. Percival says that he frequents the proprietress herself and we hum in appreciation before he gathers the dishware from us as a kindness.

“Scullery at the creek,” he says, as he prepares a lantern and is off.

My son, unworried after all by the talk, is asleep nearly as soon as he ties down the flaps of his tent. I dig a rut in the damper undersoil for my pipe ash and lounge against my pack while the Americans share a flask and then retire. I am surprised awake from an accidental doze by the approach of Percival’s lantern gleam through the darkness and the clatter of tin.

“Old friend,” he says, though he’s never called me that before. He lays the bundle of tin down at my feet. We’ve hunted leather here over two dozen times, and made money.

“Old friend,” I say, and then offer him a smoke. He sits and tells me about his eight children in a brick walled flat near a theater in Oldham. They work the mills, he says. He suspects two or three aren’t his, and does not mind.

“They keep her company,” he says. “I’ve got the more exotic end of the bargain, I imagine.”

And I tell him that certainly he does.

“She,” he says, “cultivates white heather for a specialty wholesale man. A well-to-do man, and his wife.

He smokes with heavy and sudden breath as if expecting the light to falter before he’s drawn his fill.

He then turns it back to me, leaning in the vapor. I do not know what reciprocation he is expecting, which detail, and I never think to possess any intimacies that could not just as well be guessed at. I tell him about the fishing off the Maine. I have been through there on the half-outfitted schooners twice, and he has never fished. Though he can swim, which I never learned, and I tell him so and he says that this danger is often the case with even the most weathered of businessmen. We continue our smoke and grow quiet. As the pipe deadens he retires to his tent, and then I retire to mine to struggle asleep in the colorless light of the hour.


We wake before dawn to a small breakfast of translucent Irish cheese and sea biscuits. My son boils coffee for the Americans and then piles himself a stand of rocks to reach from to refasten our breast mats and, now their squire again, they tease him. He curses at the Americans as well as he can and they laugh and they drink. Percy hands him a small whalebone knife wrapped in canvas as my son attends to him and tells him that squires are not armed and to try to not cut their tongues out with it. My son says that he will try. Later, while riding, I ask him if he knows what the proper use of the knife is going to be and he says that he can guess he’ll be using it to help us with something.

“It’s going to make you a living,” I say.

And we stand in allowance of the horse as it urinates and the odor turns us faint.

It is in the real heat of the day that we come upon the herd of kangaroo. We have not made a camp against the sun as the scores of them beyond the low red ridge are themselves camping in the thin pockets of shade beneath the scattered trees. So they are vulnerable. Clouds of their thrown dust peter low into the wind as they have already dug into the cool undersoil and now nestle just apart. I signal for the men to dismount.

Percy hitches the mule’s lead to a thin, blond stump and weighs it down twice beneath a rock. The Americans unburden the horses. I kneel with my son and ask him to make his knife ready.

“Though you’re not going to need it, yet,” I say.

He says, “You’re probably right.”

I say, “Do you know what to do otherwise, though?”

And he says that he does. He picks up a handful of red dust and then drops it.

I tell him that he’s sweating enough for it to stick properly, or he should be, and that, if he’s not, the further he digs the wetter the earth he will find. I tell my son not to wait for them to see him, because by then no amount of camouflaging will work.

He says, “Yes sir.”

I tell him to become as red as any hillside here.

And when he says, “Yes sir,” again, I tell him to become the hillside itself. To clot out his smell. And not to let his blade tarnish. He picks his knife out from the dirt.

I remount my horse with the others and we pull the leather caps from the spears of our clubs. I tell my son to protect himself, and the things, and the mule, then we go.

Our own dust is an orange and low plume that follows us as we widen in our approach over the hot land. A kestrel stills in the distance above the herd. They’ve seen us, now ponderously maneuvering from shade to shade against our own slow gait. There is no chance to gather the lot of them and so we must pierce through their ranks from either direction, hoping for the bull who has not yet shown himself from among the others. He is not alarmed, I would say. A bull stands seven feet; we’ve got one stuffed in the northeast corner of the study in the house. My wife says she adores it but covers it with a sheet when I’m away, which she says is for the dust. The only other taxidermy there is the porcupine, mounted to a slab of wood and faced in away from the window. It is more crudely done, though perhaps more appreciated. Generally I am not one for trophies.

We’ve stirred them now, as we’ve separated. With an American I’ve circled to the north side of the long plain and Percy has circled to the south with the other. The kangaroos rise in observant turns and squint into the noon brightness and turn their heads to watch our progress, swiveling. I settle my hat down close over my own eyes and I cinch it. The herd is strong; forty perhaps. Healthy and diverse and the young tightly grouped. My signal to Percy is a simple raised hand that I will give as we reach the exact poles of their gathering, as a whistle would put them to quicker action. They are not to be misjudged. I have seen a man beaten once with human fervor by a middle-sized wallaby. The man himself was larger than I and has since retired to graze sheep in this country and, when he returns to the Port Phillip public houses after coming in for supply, he is made to tell the story to every hunter who has never heard it and again to every one of us that has. It is not his glory, but he is not a man to pay for drinks.

I raise my hand to the distant Percy and after a moment he raises his own in return. I rush my horse and the American forward and we trail our mulga clubs to anticipate the recoil of blows, careful of the spear’s edge. The herd is alert. As we approach bidirectionally, they seem to swirl themselves in the heat, skittering past each other and then back again, turned inwards as an agile mob and then, as one, they stream for the distant rockland to the north beyond the grass. We weave our horses through the scrub and I can hear Percy’s distant American yawping as if there was any more rilement to drive into the tawny panicked creatures. And, just as I spot the bull leaping at the crest of the escape, the ball of my mulga club catches hard on a doe’s snout-flank and snaps her neck around with an echoing crack. I do not catch another with the first pass but Percy and the Americans land their several blows around me with a quick report like a company of riflemen. Clear of the quickened herd we turn ahead with them, following, their eyes mad with the dust of their exertion, and we pull in again to their edges, battering now into their ranks and bloodying them against each other, gaining nearer the bull until the encroachment suddenly scatters them backward and away, the organization lost, and we are at once at the outskirts of a tangle of creatures struggling to right themselves beneath the high mounted dive of our spears.

They bellow like oxen as they die, kicking feebly in the dust, and then their voices rise into something manlike and agonized, burdened. My spear is slickened now and moves among them easily. As our great kill-pile builds and then silences we trot the horses away, back and along the circumference to where the wind has receded, calming and shushing the horses, their breath as fast and as wild as ours. They’ve been caked under, red with spray. Over a surprising distance the herd has again gathered to make for the rockland in a diminished single file and, my lips quick together with exertion, I signal ahead and then to Percy. He squints to follow my hand and then nods. I signal to the Americans, cooing at their mares, to dismount and begin to pull apart the pile into wide shuddering rows that steam with empty sweat beneath the heat as Percy and I ride ahead together. He points to the bull still at the head of their ranks who is leading them arc-wise towards the northeast, which we can read in the angles of their sidelong progress, so we aim to overtake them and, as we ride pushed, within the half hour we do.

By the time we have poised our mulga clubs their small rank has broken and Percy manages to isolate the bull along with a smaller male that he dashes twice, with a frontward and a backward swing, until it is collapsed. It groans loudly and wetly. The bull kangaroo then turns himself about in the beginnings of the loose hardscrabble within the span of three leaps before dodging between his fallen comrade and Percy’s level swing. He leaps again a final time clear over my horse’s shoulder to land his taloned feet into my chest. The reeds of my breast mat tatter apart as I fall and the horse falls and the bull falls and before he can right himself to kick another blow, Percy is there to sever him at the back base of his neck and bead his blood down his oily hairs. Down into the rock and the dust. My ribs are snapped through and splintered up with clips of talon and reed. My own blood pools and dries there, keeping close, lightening strangely, gathering, curious.


If there is still life to me as Percy rides my body back to the skinning grid, it is spare. My son has emerged from his hiding, leading the mule and covered in the thickly sweated-through red dust that falls with his steps. As he approaches, Percy asks him what his name is.

“Kelvin,” my son says.

“Kelvin,” Percy says. “Unhitch this bull roo from behind me and check if the dragging has damaged him. He is yours. We will bury your father on this hill beyond us, overlooking here, the spot of his work.”

They case my grave over with stones and erect a cross from the straightest thin twigs they can find and a lash pulled from the mouth of a canvas sack. The Americans, reeking with viscera, say a few words.

After the mumble of a ceremony the Americans return to their work and Percy kneels with some difficulty, to ask where Kelvin’s knife is.

“In my pocket,” he says, fumbling through his pouch-work before Percy quiets him.

Percy says, “You’ll be doing with it what your father did. It is simple.”

And Kelvin nods his head, more of the caked dirt crumbling from him so that Percy, after a moment of consideration, reaches up to peel it all away.

“Walk,” Percy says, “aware and knife forward. There’s less to the work than you think.”

As they continue together down the hill, the only noise is of the slow wind and the exertion of the Americans with their own knives between the sinews of what remains of the two dozen kangaroos killed, the sounds of their rhythmic and skillful tearing. The mule, already still with its growing burden, observes from its perch among the carcasses.

“There is not much for good meat on the things,” Percy says. “At least not this way.”

Kelvin cannot quite make out the skinning technique from this small distance.

“Though, the tail,” Percy says, “can sometimes be good in a stew.”

The bull corpse is folded strangely back on its haunches, staring at Kelvin with its chin to the ground in the dust and its forepaws splayed up. Kelvin makes a face of pity for the creature before Percy tells him to right the thing sideways. It takes a great effort and the flies have already begun to gather in the stinking heat of the body so that they swarm his face and batter into his neck and into his tightened lips before returning to the smear of black crisped now into the bull fur.

With the whalebone knife steady in Kelvin’s hand Percy guides him, carefully, to run the point along in a widening incision in the midway of the bull’s loose belly until small measures of fat flitter yellow to the surface. Percy tells him that that’s the feel he’s looking for. The shallowness of the cut and its precision. And that he must return to the great bulk of their work with the Americans because there are many skins yet to gather and only so much left of the sun and there’s the money to think of, of course, and a tannery near to the port with very particular ways.

“I understand,” Kelvin says.

And Percy says, “I knew that you would,” before shaking the boy’s much smaller hand.

In the shadow of his receding, Kelvin begins to skin the kangaroo that killed his father. He kneels and slips the whalebone knife again between the cut edges of skin. Between the skin edges it handles warm and turns with a steady greasing of escaping oils and Kelvin gasps continually for shallow breath. He gasps and gasps and works in ragged progress through the taut material. His cuts are inaccurate. What blood has not drained is pooled and it spills now. It spills and touches quickly to the sun-faded cloth of his pants and Kelvin shuffles kneeward through it while he cuts and suddenly digs up against the chest bone and pierces through the pelt. He examines the pierce and curses as the distant men are doing and he soaks, defeated, in the stickening puddle while cutting now more properly where the bone rises at the tissue, where the pale sinews crackle-free.

The bull soon in halves, Kelvin levers the top to turn over and apart and the grey wet mass of entrails slicks out through the opening, turning loudly in the dust. Kelvin circles the carcass, gasping over his shoulder as the flies now swarm, too frenzied to land, and he gasps a last time before ducking away and into the cavity to search for the ends he knows to search for—the esophagus, which he severs, and the intestine, which he pulls at with his glistening hands and then doubles around his wrist for purchase before severing as well. And severing at that end voids a quick and foul blackness which nearly overtakes him so entirely with putrid vapor that he begins to stab the whalebone knife forward blindly into the liquid, hoping to puncture it away, hoping to puncture the underpelt and drain anything away, drain the bull clear of the pouring stench, and, stabbing so blindly, he does. The black liquid seeps back from his reach to a slightest degree and he knows he’s done it and can wrench himself free to lay heaving in the sun. The foulness slowly bakes from him. His canteen is several feet away.

Once recovered he finds the bull still looming before him, gaped wide. There is this work to be done that Kelvin has never been much for and he pulls a scabbed leg over and runs his blade in a seam along the hip. Running the seam he presses too deeply at the bone before realizing and pulling away at a mistaken angle that gores savagely into the leg. It no longer looks like a leg. Half dangling, it is shapeless flesh gummily separating from itself in the slow wind. Impatient now with this formless meat Kelvin curls his fingers, long-wrinkled with the soak of this nameless animal, down into the skin. Down and then upward as he peels, looking to clear the bone at the knee, and his tugging bulbs the exposed muscle in on itself and then there is a webbing of tissue that he can hack away. The pelt separates. The shapeless flesh dangles finally free to the ground with a patch of pelt of its own and Kelvin sets it far aside as if this was his success.

He turns to the back of the creature’s neck where the pierce mark that killed it is crisped nearly shut, and he scores down from there the entire length, hitting the spine, cutting imprecise tributaries before tearing with his hands at this rough seam. He’s grown impatient, as he sometimes can. The Americans hallo to him, finished, but Kelvin does not look up. He does not look up and he continues to peel, like removing a stubborn jacket. In the neck of the creature there are thick veins and white muscle bunched loosely together and down further along there are the crests of the ribs and it is here, in the unidentifiable mass he has made, that he finds proper space for himself. There is space where he dives his arms in between the thin parting of the pelt and where he lets himself fall to the shoulder within it. Here it is unbearably warm. The flank skin pops loose beneath him and Kelvin presses his face and his neck and his body against the opened flesh. His whalebone knife is there in the dirt and, in the distance, perhaps, an approach of boots. There is a voice, but he does not listen. He does not try. Because there with his ear pressed so close he can hear something else, deep within the fibers, some gristling tone, some formless life within this formless assemblage he has found in the desert that could at once stir and heal him over like a dissipating sore. He’d like that. He’d like now a body that could take him, stand, bound away. My son has had enough.  end  

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