Goanna Rituals

We were all around the same age and in a small country town it was natural to group together.  There was me and Peter, Nick, Brother Bow and Fat Neck who’d moved to Sydney to live but came back often when his parents visited relatives. 
We didn’t really approve of Fat Neck.  He’d become sophisticated and worldly and spoke too fast and with not enough swear words so he didn’t sound quite like one of us any more.  Besides, everything he had always looked new and that was off putting.  The rest of us were comfortably scruffy and Sunday best was reserved for days that didn’t come around too often. 

Pete’s father owned trucks and a garage so he always had access to more money than the other boys did.  That might have set him apart but he was quiet and gentle and thoughtful and always with us.  He was a kind-hearted friend who sent me gifts when I was in hospital.  His watch, money or a box of stones and a shanghai.  Things to make me remember home.  And I loved to watch Peter run.  On long and elegant feet he loped over the ground, striding out as if he was running always down hill.  His hands, held in front of his chest, weaved a pattern in the air as if conducting his feet in their own dance.

Mikey was a funny kid.  He had to be first or best or loudest.  He always had to know one thing better than anyone else.  He was often not first or better or didn’t know anything but because he was a friend, we let him be. 

Of course we accepted Mikey as being different.  He had no father.  That didn’t make him worse or inferior, you understand, just different.  Everyone had a father whether you wanted one or not.  Fathers were like band-aids on knees.  There was always one there.  Or dogs.  They were usually hanging around somewhere. I thought as a small child how strange it was that his mother didn’t know and tell him who his father was.  Surely it was something you’d notice. 

 I’d seen dogs and horses reproducing so I reckon she must have seen who it was.  Unless, of course, it was like when a mossie bites you and you are so interested in something else you don’t notice until you look down and see it swollen with blood.  Perhaps she was interested in something else and didn’t look down. 

I later understood the subtle difference between not knowing and not telling. 

Brother Bow, youngest of the group, and Nick possessed much admired physical skills and we all derived great pleasure watching them climb trees and shoot and throw straight.  No one could shin up a smooth barked gum tree and rob a magpie’s nest as smoothly and effortlessly as Nick.  And then, before the enraged bird swooped on him, slide down without pause, all the while holding the precious egg carefully in his mouth. 

I had told them that birds can’t count and as long as you left one egg in the nest the hen wouldn’t be upset.  We were respectful and considerate of the bird’s feelings.  Even when we killed them.  That’s why Brother Bow, whose real, never used name was Barry, was held in such high regard.  He was so accurate with a stone or bullet he could deliver a fatal blow to a target with a precision that meant death or destruction was instantaneous.  That was very important to us.  It was totally necessary to kill kindly.

 Cruelty or suffering caused to animals was something we couldn’t stand.  So to see a bird or rabbit shot and fall to the ground motionless with its eyes still open was very satisfying.  We would gather round and say things like.  “It wouldn’t have known what hit it!  Dead before it hit the ground.” 

My role and position in the group changed over time.  In the early days I ran and led from the front.  But when I no longer ran I became the facilitator or director of actions.  And I knew things.  I knew about guns.  I knew about rifling on a barrel and how it affected accuracy.  I knew about velocity and range.  Of calibres and telescopic sights and centre fire and rim fire and small bore.  In fact, it was quite likely I was a small bore.  But they thought I was all right. 

When we were too young for guns we used shanghais. Catapults.  And every time, which wasn’t all that often, a small bird victim plummeted down, it would be retrieved and held in one hand while the shooter spat in his other and tried to force life giving moisture into its beak.  This mostly didn’t work.  Dead was dead and inside I felt the crunching weight of silent horror when I realised this pathetic bunch of feathers was lifeless.  

The carcass was thrown violently away into the bushes as if we were trying to distance ourselves from the shameful deed.  Sometimes the bird was only stunned and it did recover.  Those moments of being able to savour the thrill of the kill while watching the resuscitated bird teetering on a nearby branch were best of all. I couldn’t shoot a shanghai very well.  I couldn’t shoot anything straight.  In time I acquired an anaemically under powered air rifle and it was my job to sit in my wheelchair and deliver the coup de grace to mortally wounded birds.  

I found this noble duty acceptable. Now I was so inaccurate and the gun was so under powered that anything further than five metres away was unhurtable so the final act of kindness I administered took place with my assistant executioner standing beside the gun and holding the bird by the wing tips crucifixion style over the tip of the barrel like a matador holding a cape.  After I’d pulled the trigger he’d say, “Good shot, Rob!” I always thought that comment unnecessary. 

I also had the responsibility of protecting Nick as he climbed up after maggie’s eggs.  This was either a remarkable act of faith or recognition of my extreme incapacity to hit anything I aimed at.  Occasionally the pellet thunked into the tree trunk not too far from his legs and he’d call down to me, “Nearly got the bastard, Rob!” As time passed we leaped forward past puberty into the teen-age years where rifles and shotguns replaced shanghais.  Where things all of a sudden became more serious.  Where we were no longer a group playing innocent boy games in the bush.  

Discovering and learning about our world and ourselves by looking into each other. Now the trips were different.  They were more organised. We were mobile for one thing.  Peter had his driver’s licence and borrowed a Holden ute from his father.  We would pack in.  Three in the front and Nick and me in the back.  Nick sat on the floor and I perched up in my wheelchair, wedged so it couldn’t move.  There I sat in my glory, bowling along the highway,  feeling like a Maharaja on safari.  Master of all I surveyed.  An uncommon sense of freedom filled me and I was exhilarated as I swept along cradling my gun.  It was either exhilaration that filled me or air rushing into my face at one hundred and twenty kilometres an hour that swelled me up like a puffer fish.  Whatever it was, it felt wonderful. That is until the day a wedge came loose and I did a neat back flip onto the closed tailgate.  

Peter took it so personally I think he was almost as hurt as I was.  But our parents’ panic over what had almost happened soon died away and we resumed our trips.  Except now we had to use an old F.J. Holden sedan.  I thought it was nowhere near as exciting and I felt restricted sitting inside the car.  But in the noise of the gun was a freedom and a power I could enjoy like the others. Everyone had his own gun or borrowed one.  

We had .22 farm rifles, pump action shotguns and a military .303 and a pistol Fat Neck was able to borrow from some unspecified source in Sydney.  This was a heavy calibre weapon that looked as if it had jumped straight off the Saturday night movie screen.  There was an aura about it both exciting and dangerous. I had my pride and joy, my Gevarm semi automatic .22. My beautiful French model with the ever ready magazine.  Of course I was no better shot but it meant I could miss more often, more quickly and make a lot more noise. 

We had rules.  Self imposed rules.  There was no drinking alcohol until the day was ended.  And, although it was a rule unwritten, every second word had to be grossly, descriptively pornographic.  Where possible, words were hyphenated with swear words and the language was very stylish and colourful.  Blue and acrid like the smell of cordite and gunpowder drifting in the air. 

There was no shooting at protected animals or birds.  As long as we decided what species came into that category.  For example we would never shoot at parrots but felt quite justified letting loose at a black crow circling over head or sitting high up in a dead tree.  I mean crows were unspeakable.  They ate the eyes from baby lambs.  Now, we’d never actually seen evidence of this but we had visions of tiny, defenceless animals blundering sightlessly about a paddock, bumping blindly into fence posts.  Crows were evil and we were righteous defenders of the weak. Same with goannas.  They raided birds’ nests and ate the eggs and the fledglings.  And they were reptiles, cold blooded and ugly and if one bit you the sore wouldn’t heal for months.  That’s because they were putrid and rotten inside.  We were really doing the bush a favour by getting rid of one. 

On the days when no victim lay down its life on the altar of our youthful, violent exuberance, we spent the day shooting at targets.  Bottles mostly.  They shattered everywhere when hit and the spray of glass fragments gave an instant reward for skill.  Or we used paper targets with numbered circles but Brother Bow always scored highest and the rest of us soon lost interest. Fat Neck, being the worldly, fast city kid he was, one day produced a packet of condoms and we filled these strange novelties with air and lemonade and suspended them from branches.  The boys thought it quite hilarious.  As they fired at them they made odd, high pitched giggling sounds until the last one was ruptured.  I found them slightly unsettling, even vaguely threatening but I took my turn trying to explode one.  

I sat in the front seat and rested the heavy .45 pistol on the window ledge.  It felt like a small cannon.  I noticed out the corner of my eye my friends drift unobtrusively around to the far side of the vehicle.  They thought it safer, apparently, to have a thickness of sheet metal and the engine block of an F.J.  between them and me with a gun in my hand. Eventually, with an almighty explosion that nearly knocked me over in the seat, I managed to fire it.  It hit nothing as usual but at least I’d managed to discharge it.  That was accomplishment enough. 

Mikey could easily get bored if there was not enough action.  Once, in frustration, he picked up a .303 rifle and calmly and methodically proceeded to cut down a tree.  It was only a small tree but, nevertheless, we were very impressed and amused by such a display of serious determination.  But Mikey did things like that.  He just loved the noise. And the noise was what it was all about, really.  We were declaring to the world we were on the threshold of manhood.  Deep down, we might have had doubts and worries about unknown and nameless trials before us but right now we were saying, “Look out life, here we come!”  

 We were like barnyard bantams scratching in the grit.  Throwing down the gauntlet as the passing years hurled us toward the adversary of manhood.  A time when we’d be forced to respond to the challenge of adulthood face to face, unarmed and largely helpless.  But for the time being we were fully equipped with bullets and bravado and noisily wearing a veneer of brashness and self confidence. And enjoying ourselves like hell! On special days our rites of passage were celebrated and performed with the discovery of a goanna making its way along the side of the gravel, forestry road.  The car skidded and scraped to a stop and, guns in hand, they flew out the door.  

Mikey’s voice sounded loudest above our shouts and swearing.  “I saw him!  I’m first!  My shot!”  “Sure, Mikey,” we’d say and ignore him.  The goanna rushed and wriggled its way to the top of a nearby tree. One day, when we still used the utility, I had first shot.  I watched in amazement as a little piece of flesh erupted from the back of the monitor as it spread itself hard against the bark of the gum.  I didn’t say anything about it later because it was such a rare occurrence I thought I might have been mistaken or only imagined it. 

Generally, our carnival of death procedure didn’t vary. We grouped below the tree and, with the intensity and rabid enthusiasm of soldiers with an enemy caught in ambush, opened fire with our arsenal of weapons and unleashed a fusillade of shots in the direction of our sacrificial icon.  Small branches were chopped off and disintegrated and leaves sprayed out and fell like a shower of confetti around us. Hundreds of times we fired and the goanna, even in death, continued to cling to the tree.  Finally, with the weight of the bullets dragging it down like an anchor, it fell. Arcing down amidst its wreath of still falling leaves. It lay there in the dust on the side of the road and we looked down and observed with some solemnity the countless pockmarks and the punctures and the multiple wounds that turned it from an animal into a replica of something once living.  We could almost see daylight through the holes.  It resembled a macrame lizard and we spoke around it with no violence in our voices.  We bestowed upon it in death a degree of dignity and worth we didn’t afford it in life.  For to deny its value was to deny our own action.  Was to deny the significance of the moment.  

In the orchestrated blood letting ritual was affirmation of our omnipotence.  Was proof, and demonstration of our dominion over a world we knew was ours to do with what we will. Afterwards, back at the car, we counted our ammunition and took stock.  We started the day with about a thousand rounds and it was only over with the firing of the last bullet.  The goanna’s body was stretched out some metres from us.  Suddenly, without warning, Mikey reached out for a shotgun, a rifle and the pistol and charged towards the lifeless object firing repeatedly into it.  It danced across the road, propelled and rolled over by the force of the projectiles slamming into it.  

Wild eyed and red faced he rejoined us and said, without too much conviction in his voice, “I thought I saw it move!” The car loaded up with guns on the floor covered by a blanket and the goanna corpse curled up in a bag in the boot; we set off to the nearest town to get a drink.  Around the car they stood with glasses of beer in hand, talking deep voiced and slow.  There was no swearing now.  I disliked being lifted about so I sat in the car and sipped a brandy lime and soda.  Not that I liked it so much but it had no alcohol taste and I didn’t like beer.  It didn’t matter.  

At sixteen I wore a cravat and carried a pipe and said things like, “Indubitably, old chap!”  So they never thought anything I did very remarkable. Now it was time to proceed home and if we couldn’t quite imagine we could hear the sound in the air of Zulu drum beats, we could feel in our hearts the pride of a trophy won and a triumph secured.  We were not exactly a line of long-limbed young warriors, spears in hand, wending our way back to the kraal, but in our black F.J. with our ears still ringing from the noise of gunfire and the smell of eucalypt in our heads and a bloodied lizard carcass in the boot, we were stronger than we were before.  

In the passage of the day we had moved one step further from childhood.  We were imbued with a certain power.  The power of the goanna ritual. The ritual still has one part to be observed. The car pulled up in our town near the corner store. Our female counterparts, girls of our lives, of our youth, were gathered.  Some sat on a bench outside drinking milk shakes.  Others leaned against a verandah post, standing there in the afternoon light, the line and grace of a classical sculpture reflected in their pose. In soft, summer dresses with their faces and bodies alive and glowing with the optimism and certainty of happiness to come, they greeted us.  They were like lorikeets, bouncing and swaying at the top of a flowering gum tree.  At once breathtakingly entrancing, exotic and totally disarming.  

We had lumps in our throats and couldn’t help but clear them by speaking in a voice half an octave lower than usual.  The fellows getting out of the car made a great play of smoothing down the fronts of their jeans and adjusting their belt buckles. The sack was taken out of the boot and, with a curious mixture of casual flair and mischievous delight, the dead goanna was tipped out at the girls’ feet.  They squealed with revulsion and mock fear and retreated.  The boys followed in a line. With their backs ranged across my field of vision they stood, talking, making low rumbling noises that sounded to me like a rolling of thunder from the other side of a mountain.  

Heralding the arrival of a distant storm, a gathering of cataclysmic forces that, unleashed, might wreak havoc and forever rearrange a familiar landscape.  From where I sat they looked tall, strong and broad across the shoulders and, if they were a mountain range, the faces of the girls showing between them flashed like lightning from portentous clouds.  Bright, harsh, and illuminated with expectation. I caught Bridget’s eyes and we looked at each other. Bridget.  Infant companion of mine.  Girl child of my heart who had been with me, part of me, all the years of my childhood.  Together we had run and played and laughed in each other’s sight.  We found in each other’s company feelings, expressions of glee and an experience of completeness.  Except for the times when I drew back and she went on alone.  For Bridget was upset if I beat her in any of our childish games and I couldn’t bear to see her crying.  So I would always lose for her. And now, as I looked and saw the sparkling intensity of her feverish gaze, I recognised instinctively the inevitability of what was to come.  I deliberately looked away and broke contact.  This time, also, I watched as she went on ahead. And I realised, with a sense of absolute finality, I had lost again for Bridget. In the years that followed we of the group found out about our worlds not by looking into each other but by looking into ourselves.  

We gradually drifted away and lost contact. The different worlds not adjacent. From time to time I learned of their histories, some of their life’s events and experiences. I learned that gentle, thoughtful, kind-hearted Peter, family and business man was driving his truck along a forestry road when it crashed and rolled and crushed his leg so badly it had to be amputated.  I thought it so absurdly cruel.  No longer would he run and glide over the grass as if on a magic carpet ride. 

And Bridget?  Well, I rarely think of Bridget. Sometimes, more like a dream than a memory, I have a recollection of walking hand in hand down a laneway.  I am holding her hand tightly and our heads are touching.  Curls of pale golden, almost white, hair brush lightly on my face and tickle.  I smell her warm milk and arrowroot biscuit girl smell and watch shadows dance on her skin as the sunlight filters through the leaves of the overhanging branches. I am surprised how fervently I hope that Bridget, living alone in another State, has never had to lose for anyone. 

I saw Mikey on a television show not long ago.  I didn’t recognise him at first.  Not in his shooter’s sunglasses and holding a high powered rifle fitted with elaborate telescopic sights.  He was talking about his job eradicating feral animals for a Rural Protection Service.  Then they showed some footage of him at work.  As it hovered overhead, he leaned precariously from a helicopter doorway and blasted feral pigs off the face of Australia.  Poor bloody pigs!  They don’t stand a chance! 

He swooped down the side of a hill like an avenging eagle and I could almost swear I heard his voice calling excitedly above the beating of the chopper blades.  “I got him!  It’s mine!  I got him!”  And the pilot saying,  “Sure you did, Mikey.  Sure you did.” 

But, oh, how my heart swelled.  I felt a shiver down my back because in a world where things are not always fair or reasonable, where things are often complicated and motives and reasons obscure, Mikey had found his niche.  He was doing it for all of us.  His helicopter ride was a ride to glory and his gun was shooting fireworks of celebration and rejoicing. 

And me? Well, sometimes, when the air is calm and warm and my mind feels easy and uncluttered, a tall woman will walk past me wearing stylish trousers and, despite my perfume I wear heavily as a form of self defence, her pheromones, wafting in my direction, will evoke within me a strange, compelling desire to go and find a dead goanna and throw it down at her feet.  

© Copyright Robert Farley                                         .      

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