Over the following days no one thought to capture the animals to retrieve the rotting pack saddles. The townsfolk had a deeply felt aversion to touching the belongings of dark-skinned foreigners -- or their animals. So, the camels just wandered around at their own will, covered with sores from the rotting packs of foodstuff: flour, sugar, grain growing sprouts that had died, still strapped over and hanging off their backs until something had to be done. The poor beasts were officially rounded up. The screaming, uncooperative animals didn't comprehend English, or barbarism either. After being hounded for several hours by their pursuers on foot and horseback, and stoned and whipped, the camels were eventually moved out over the claypans and shot. In the archival records written with a thick nib by a heavy-handed municipal clerk it is recorded, Camels removed. The first entry of work completed by the Town's Municipal Council.
In the old camel-drivers' camps the seeds of mimosa embedded in camel dung sprouted their hard little shoots in the Wet season. Thousands of seeds spread along every track and gully, flooding with sheetwater from the rain to regenerate in shallow mud pools. The shoots sent down their fat roots to take a steely grip on the claypans, holding the land together in a mirage that looked like it might last forever without water. In this mirage the cattle properties prospered on traditional lands taken but never ceded. Today, herds of Brahman-cross cattle leave their tracks crisscrossing the landscape in the dry season, as they search for stubbly patches of bluegrass and grind the top layers of soil to powdered bulldust.
The Pricklebush mob says that Normal Phantom could grab hold of the river in his mind and live with it as his father's fathers did before him. His ancestors were the river people, who were living with the river from before time began. Normal was like ebbing water; he came and went on the flowing waters of the river right out to the sea. He stayed away on the water as long as he pleased. He knew fish, and was on friendly terms with gropers, the giant codfish of the Gulf sea that swam in schools of fifty or more, on the move right up the river following his boat in for company. The old people say the groper lives for hundreds of years and maybe Normal would too. When he talked about the stars, they said he knew as much about the sky as he did about water. The prickly bush mob said he had always chased the constellations: We watched him as a little boy running off into the night trying to catch stars. They were certain he knew the secret of getting there. They thought he must go right up to the stars in the company of groper fish when it stormed at sea, when the sea and the sky became one, because, otherwise, how could he have come back?
"How you do that?" was the question everyone asked.
"The water doesn't worry me," Normal Phantom answered simply, although he knew that when his mind went for a walk, his body followed.
Everyone in Desperance was used to the sight of Normal's jeep driving north to meet the river's edge. It was the only vehicle he had ever owned. Always, the small tinnie boat, full of dints, a stray bullet hole or two, strapped onto the roof. A vessel purchased with cross-country road transport in mind, much more than water safety.
They say he knew these deep muddy waters better than the big salties: crocs that got tangled up in the nets in the middle of the night. Glassy-eyed monsters that came over the side of his tiny craft looking for action with the big river man. Jaws charging for a winner-takes-all kind of fight in the swamping boat, snapping in full flight, water splashing up into a storm with the swishing, thrash, thrash, thrashing of an angry tail against the side of the boat. People like to remember Normal saying in melancholy fashion (faking a thoroughly modern Americanised impersonation of a presidential Captain Hook): those snapping jaws meant diddly squat to him. Meanwhile, he moved like a hopping hare, fumbling for what seemed like ages to find the gun. Normal ended hundreds of lives of prehistoric living fossils this way, with his gun pointing all over the place in a turmoil of water and thick leather crankiness, until he made a direct hit between the eyes of the reptile caught in an instant of moonlight.
Copyright 2006 by Alexis Wright
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