Contrappasso was delighted to publish this extract from John Hughes’ new book The Garden of Sorrows in our third issue. The book is a collaboration with artist Marco Luccio. More information is available at UWA Publishing. Eighty etchings Luccio created for the project are currently exhibiting at Rex-Livingston Art Dealer, 59 Flinders Street, Surry Hills in Sydney. Until December 21.
FROM THE GARDEN OF SORROWS by JOHN HUGHES
In researching the life of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam for one of the stories in my second book, Someone Else, I came across the name of one of his wife’s friends, Anna Ivanovna Kuznechikaya. It’s an unusual name and I wondered for a time if it was in fact real. ‘Kuznechik’ is the Russian word for grasshopper, and means, literally, ‘little smith’; grasshoppers, the language quaintly suggests, are just such tiny smiths, working away with hammer and anvil as their profession demands. It would be interesting, I thought, to take each man apart into his animals and then come to a thorough agreement with them. Because what an astonishing hierarchy there is among animals, and the truth is we see them according to how we stole their qualities.
To live in a place without its language exposes the animals of which each man is composed. Later, still researching the same book, I was sitting in a bar in St Petersburg in a frightful cacophony of barks and grunts and growls, and it was as if, like a man deaf to my own tongue, I could see what to those for whom the tongue was eloquent was invisible, the secret animal life of this still red and steaming-from-the-forge civilised world. Without language it’s as if a film is removed from the eyes—the film applied on banishment from Paradise—and the whole of the social world appears suddenly in its true guise, clad like the Emperor in his new clothes.
That’s what I saw. And it made me think that rather than break a man up into his animals (which is the natural origin of all fables), it might be interesting to write a new kind of fable in which the original impulse was reversed, in which each animal was broken up into its human qualities, the human it might become. To write reverse fables (a reversal entirely suited to the antipodean context of their composition) that cast us back to the flux at the beginning of things, inchoate nature, the world in a state of formation—Australia, the garden and the inferno.
New World stories.
Etching by Marco Luccio
The Birth of Tragedy
Orpheus the lyrebird could not resist a laugh. Even at his own expense. It was still remembered among all the creatures of sky and land how when he trapped his head in the tightly woven branches of the platform he was building, rather than escape in silence, he called to all who would hear to come and see what a fool he was. For Orpheus loved to please. Even the osprey in his windswept eyrie could not resist the lonely mimic’s song.
It had taken him nearly a decade to perfect his performance. If you listened closely you could hear the yellow robin, the green catbird, paradise riflebird, the satin bowerbird (who so loves the colour blue), all strictly controlled, the sound of a beak tapping on a branch—reproduced with the voice, not the beak—flapping wings imitated as song, then back to the yellow robin and off he went again. It made everything seem somehow strange, as if he could colonise things too with his mimicry. For Orpheus had never thought before of the enormous danger contained within imitation, the way it can get into the very structure of things and break all bonds of matter, so that all we have taken to be solid and fixed rearranges itself invisibly before our eyes.
There was no other creature in the world that came close to having such a long period in which its song could be learned. On warm summer evenings he could be heard refining his imitations, practising them over and over until he was happy with his version. It would confound even the creatures whom he copied, why he so persevered. Unless he was somehow conscious of the difference between good notes and bad, and through trial and error approached his perfect rendition of a parrot or whipbird or kookaburra, more perfect even than their source.
But although it took Orpheus years to master each new routine, it took him only an instant to realise his audience would laugh or gasp with awe-filled delight at anything he did. The material was irrelevant. As long as he threw back his head and let loose the crazy cries the night left trapped within him, gurgling and chuckling and cackling and barking their way out from his dark bulbous belly, as long as he laughed or cried, so too would the world of the dirt and trees. It made him feel deep, deep as the ocean, blue as the skies, the reflection he saw when he looked in their eyes, like his whole body was warm and washed in the palest moonlight. All through the day the currawongs and butcher-birds and blue wrens, the bronzewings and cuckoos and red-capped dotterels, the wallabies and possums and diamond pythons would pass before him and cry with delight if he so much as grinned or thanked them for the worms or ripe fruit or sweet kernels they left at his feet.
But Orpheus wasn’t satisfied. There was no thrill, he thought, in performing without challenge. If only they could feel the sensation of his learning their language, what their words did in him. Because although he knew the connection between these new words and things, and though he might still experience the smallest flush of pleasure in recognising that water might be one sound in kookaburrish and something completely other in turtlese, he didn’t want to match, he wanted to combine, to forget all about the connection between words and things and simply put the new words together and release them in songs whose melody didn’t feel like he was having to chisel it out of stone; he wanted a performance that would take him beyond words to the thing itself.
And so, brimming with joy at his decision, his kingfisher laugh (favourite among all his voices), lapped the leaves, calling the world to life. He had never given a morning performance before. Birds, shaking sleep from their feathers, wombats just gone to bed and sulky in their waking, grasshoppers who in their scratching legs felt cheated of the dawn, all forest creatures gathered round.
“What is it, Orpheus?” asked the magpie, always first on the scene.
“Patience,” the lyrebird said, happy to see the melodious bird so well positioned. His act depended on the jealous bird’s response. “I’ve developed a new role.”
No matter how often Orpheus watched the magpie land it was as if the black bird emerged from underwater, because he never managed to catch its flight between the trees, only this appearance, as if from another world, as if the air, though he thought it transparent, was somehow opaque, or the magpie was made of air, invisible until this passing through; or could it have been that the air just became bird at that very moment the lyrebird was there to see?
Orpheus played the silence, spinning it out like a web, then dived headlong from his perch. Swooping to the ground, to the gasps of the audience above and below, because in that moment he had become like the magpie invisible, he lunged with his beak at a hapless blue-tongue lizard, fast asleep, now writhing helplessly as it seemed the very air itself, the brute blood of the air, carried treeward, up between the circle of timorous birds, high, high into the sky, then falling, down, down, snatching frantically for a hold on that same air, down through the circle now cheering with relief to break its back where only a moment before it had slept.
Orpheus hovered above, borne aloft by the great gusts of applause. Only when it seemed the sound would never cease, did he glide back down to the platform of his perch. He’d done it, he thought. He’d shown them that he was more than just a voice. Wherever he looked he saw only admiration and basked in its glow, smiling sheepishly at the magpie whose thunder he had thieved, alone of all the birds, glowering in icy silence.
“What are you clapping for?” the black bird screeched. “I do that every day. He’s just copying me.” And like the lyrebird, whom it seemed it was now mimicking, the magpie swooped to earth, soaring upwards with a tiny whipsnake dangling from its beak and dropping it through the silent crowd, so silent every creature there could hear it snap its spine against the ground. “What’s wrong with you?” the magpie pleaded. “I get it, you don’t think that was dangerous enough. Well watch this.” He swooped again. Over and over. First a death adder, then a dugite, then a tiger snake after that, each transported in a flail of mad terror to the sky, then broken with an ugly thud against the stony ground below. “I’ll show you!” the magpie howled at the scattering crowd. He turned to the lyrebird, shattering the bitter silence, and cursed: “You’ll pay for this, you thief. You think they love you. That’s not love. They’ve forgotten you already. They’re only waiting for you to fall.”
Orpheus had not expected the magpie to react so bitterly. He had set himself a challenge and won; he had mastered the role so perfectly he had become the black bird. The magpie would get over it, he thought. And he would perfect his mimicry, staying with it until he became its absolute master. There was no end to the roles life offered.
And it was true. He remembered then with bitter nostalgia that morning so long ago when no more than a chick he woke and all at once and without preamble all the sounds of the world became clear and of his own tongue, the other animals talking to him. And in this miracle all smaller miracles, like perfume in a flower, these sounds he had heard in snatches one by one now as clear as the song of his mother. It was like the whole world was awash with a light that seemed to him to grow so loud it was more than he could bear and at that moment the sound split, as light does, into colours, he could explain it in no other way, and the air was full of voices, and all of them talking at once, the dust motes turning in the draft, the ants beneath the leaf-litter, the frost on the rock-shadow, the tree across the creek and the corpulent crow sitting in the tree, and the wombats in the field and the grass they were eating, the wallaby beside the puddle and the fly it flicked at lazily with its tail, all talking, singing he found himself thinking, but not in a cacophony of discordant notes, a stew of sound, because slowly he realised, and it was so slow it seemed to him the same as watching a tortoise emerge out of the distance and gradually take shape, he realised he was not only listening to but understanding each sound as if it were a word; he realised, that is, that the world was not only talking to him, it was talking in a language that was his, and though no two creatures or things sounded the same, somehow by the time they reached his ear he recognised each sound as if it were a word, a word he could absorb and then from his own mouth return. It was a miracle, surely, this sudden and mysterious ability to speak every language as if they were but one; but the price, which he convinced himself was really no price at all, was that in this splendid multiplicity of tongues he discovered he no longer knew his own.
Etching by Marco Luccio
But that was years ago, before he had learnt the ways of the black bird. Because from that new and marvellous day, every morning at sunrise, the lyrebird would now sing the treetops out of sleep and dive for snakes. As the weeks passed he could feel his mastery grow until he was dangling even the deadly taipan from his beak, laughing at the chirps and howls of delighted terror which escaped the crowd around him. It wasn’t enough just to drop the snakes anymore. He had to play with them as well, to catch them as they fell and taunt their poisoned fangs with such terrible speed they snapped in vain the air he had just been. Only then, he thought, only with such tricks, did the animals truly love him. He felt as if he would live forever.
He had all but forgotten the black bird when one morning it flew up to greet him from the darkness of the dawn.
“Remember me?” the magpie asked softly. “I hope you don’t bear me any grudge.”
“Of course I don’t,” the lyrebird chortled, happy his one known critic had now returned as a friend. “To what do I owe the honour?”
“The animals of the earth find it hard, always looking up,” the black bird said. “They were wondering if just once you’d perform at their level. It would be a great gift.”
“Why not?” Orpheus beamed, barely concealing his pride. “If they want me to be among them, if they want to be close to me, what right do I have to deny them?”
“Wonderful,” the magpie smiled, surprised that the ruse had worked so easily. “I’ll build the stage myself.”
The magpie disappeared into the misty morning below while Orpheus sang with so much joy he pulled the sun out early from its nest in the earth. Birds gathered in the surrounding branches, chirruping excitedly, each with a different story of what was about to happen. Orpheus looked on contentedly, preening himself in silence.
Beneath them the magpie warbled as he built a great nest of twigs on a platform of solid gum resin. By the time the sun had climbed as high as it dared, a crowd of animals had gathered around the nest, clamouring for Orpheus. Above them, in the lowest branches of the trees, the birds trilled and screeched and twittered. From the possum to the giant kangaroo they waited, mouths agape, to behold the legend.
The lyrebird dropped down to the stage and bent forward in an exaggerated bow. But when he tried to lift his legs, they wouldn’t budge. The gum resin, solid with night, had slowly melted with the sun until like glue it trapped whatever it touched. Orpheus laughed weakly, pretending his discomposure was part of the act, while he struggled, more fearful with every tug, to extract his claws and feet from the gluggy stage.
His laugh, however, fooled no one. And his terror made him cry. “Help me, someone.”
“Help yourself,” the magpie sneered as he emerged from the crowd and hovered about the frightened lyrebird. “Let’s see you act your way out of this one.”
Orpheus heard them first, the flicking tongues, as they slithered out from beneath the ground around him. It was as if the earth itself had come alive. Taipans and copperheads and tigers and adders twisted and writhed about themselves, their fangs barbed as they slid up onto the edges of the giant nest that was the lyrebird’s stage.
Orpheus, beside himself with terror, cried out to the birds made deaf to his pleas by the spectacle they were about to witness. He remembered the magpie’s curse and understood that no one would save him; that all had come to see him die. In an apparent frenzy, as the serpents circled the stage, he stabbed himself with his beak, gouging great holes in his feathers and drawing just enough blood to make the sacrifice look real. Howling with pain, he collapsed upon himself and stilled his breath. He had feigned his death so convincingly even the snakes froze in their slither, hypnotised like the silent crowd.
The lyrebird had fooled them all with his performance. But he hadn’t fooled himself. His audience had experienced death, yet on the threshold of its warm embrace he had cheated it once again in the very act of its conjuring. He realised then that he longed for death, that he would never be truly happy until, for once in his life, he knew for certain that the role he had performed corresponded exactly in his experience to the creature he had stolen it from.
He laughed, his eyes and beak still closed. A ghostly laugh that made the sunlight quiver and the snakes lash out in horror at this dead thing come back to life. For it was not in the nature of things for the dead to return to life. They let their poison snake into the bird while the crowd around them scattered in a chaos of panic. Birds flew into the clouds, the magpie begged forgiveness, and the sun slid quickly down the edge of the sky. But amidst this chaos the ecstatic bird welcomed death, delirious with joy because it was no more than he already knew when he had played it to save his life. It made him feel exactly as he had felt in its feigning, that perfect imitation, and the man who now grew from inside of him, who took shape from the snaking veins of poison within, he had already seen, had been there all along, with a mask for a body and a mirror for a face.
For Orpheus had become the first actor who, unable to leave the stage, and with nothing left within, lived the life of everyman, for an audience he would never see.
The Origin of Death
Torment was in love. But his love, far from making him happy, brought him only despair. For Torment was born with a curse: he was born to love every thing but his own kind. He remembered his father who died in mad pursuit of the moon and his mother, the terrible sadness, as she wasted away in unrequited love of a rock. One by one, all of his kind had passed from the earth, loving but unloved, consumed by the cruel indifference of flowers and mountains and oceans and dreams. His mother had told him as a child the stories of every twig and grain of sand to warn him of the madness that lurked like a shadow deep within. And for a time it worked. Torment prowled in hatred of the world, ripping the bark from trees with vengeful claws and snarling at every living thing. But no life can be lived in hatred alone. Torment, last of the thylacines, barked in horror, as gradually he succumbed to the beauty of the world outside and the claws of the fatal shadow growing within.
It started harmlessly enough. He would smile at fallen leaves, the bark of the eucalypts that was like a perpetual frothing, and he would pat the backs of mossy stones. Even without response it gave him pleasure: the liquid heat that seemed to imprint itself on the air like an out-of-focus paw-print, whorled and shimmering; the stillness; the drone of cicadas so constant and apparently endless it became its own kind of silence; or the haze of moths flying out of the shadows of the nearby trees, gleaming in the light of the moon. ‘How could you not love such beauty?’ he thought. And he resolved, by the strength of his love, to wear away the stubborn indifference of the world. The thought of the challenge filled him with joy. But the claws of the shadow continued to grow sharp around his heart.
One morning, flicking dandelions with his tail, he beheld a flash of gold on the forest-stained horizon. The sun itself had come to earth in answer to his prayers. His heart stopped, his ears twitched, and his eyes began to water. Torment trod timidly through the cycad grove, hoping that in the sight of the sun he would know what to do. He had never been so frightened in all his life.
When at last he reached the clearing he couldn’t believe his eyes. Before him stood a fledgling eagle, preening her golden wings in the quiet dawn light. “The sun has transformed itself into a bird,” the thylacine thought and blushed. Nothing had prepared him for what he felt in the presence of the young eagle. From the moment he saw the bird hopping innocently before him, he was consumed by love and knew then, as his father and mother before him must have done, that he would never escape its jaws until his desire was requited. Nothing else was.
The words escaped him before he had time to think what they were, like a shadow fleeing its figure behind. “You’ve come at last, O wondrous God,” he howled, rushing madly at the bird.
The golden eagle, stupefied with self-absorption, was too slow to respond to the creature charging towards her, and cried out in terror as she felt the thylacine’s unpracticed claws at her breast.
“Help me, please, somebody help me!” she screeched, staggering beneath the creature’s clumsy grasp. “What are you doing to me? I’m not a god, I’m a bird.”
“What?” Torment relaxed his grip. “I saw you fall to earth this morning, like a ray of light, newborn of the sun. I love you…”
“A tiger can’t love the sun,” the eagle cried, her fear diminishing. “And even if you could, I’m not the sun.”
As if to prove the point, the eagle’s mother swooped down from the clouds. The sight of her daughter pinned beneath the rough beast’s claws was almost impossible to bear. “She’s not for you,” she screeched, alighting by Torment’s side. “Kill me instead.”
Etching by Marco Luccio
“I don’t want to kill the sun. I love her. Why won’t anyone believe me?”
“He thinks I’m the sun,” the golden fledgling spoke, calmer now, though still pulling against the thylacine’s weight. “Tell him the truth, that I’m only the moon, and you’re the sun. He won’t believe me.”
“Is it the truth?” Torment shot a glance toward the mother.
“Of course it’s the truth,” the eagle nodded, her confidence growing as she realised the creature was mad. “I am indeed the sun, and she is my daughter, a fallen moon. I’ve come to take her back with me to the heavens.”
“No, you can’t do that!” Torment growled. He tightened his grip on the terrified bird. “It’s not the sun, after all. It’s the moon I love. I love the moon. Let her stay here with me. What harm can it do? There are so many moons and planets and stars in the heavens. I don’t know what I’ll do if you try to take her back.”
With these words the thylacine, holding the fledgling’s helpless breast upon his breast, reared to face her trembling mother. He might have done anything, he didn’t know himself, so wildly did the flames rage inside the furnace of his brain. His eyes burnt the future away, all time, except this moment.
The giant eagle too could not control her thoughts, they whirled like leaves in a storm. ‘Of course she can stay.’ The words, she thought, how could they possibly be her own, and yet she had spoken them. She could not stop the storm. ‘She loves you. I’ve tried to reason with her, to make her see sense…you can’t blame a mother for that, surely?…but all these years, up there, watching you, she couldn’t stand it any longer…’ The words seemed to have a life of their own, made cunning by fear. ‘She loves you, but she’s frightened. You can marry her, I give you my blessing now, but only if you’ll pull out your teeth and cut off your claws.’
Torment, mad with joy, released the golden fledgling, who dropped to the ground. He had forgotten her. He had forgotten everything. He chased his tail round and round, crazy with love. ‘At last,’ he cried to the shadow sinking to his heart its poisoned barbs. ‘At last someone loves us in return. We haven’t lived in vain.’
And delirious, he began chewing off his claws, numb to the pain and blind to the blood that seeped from the pads of his feet. Then, clawless, he gripped a rock between his two front paws and smashed it against his teeth, spitting the chips and shards from his bloody mouth. It was a terrifying sight. The mother gathered her daughter quickly beneath her wing and fled, her relief tinged with shame at what the mad creature had done for her. She felt suddenly overwhelmed by pity, but the pain of watching was unbearable. She could not let her daughter see. The golden eagles disappeared into the clouds.
But Torment did not realise they had gone. They were as a mirage that shimmered around the glory of his sacrifice. With blood streaming from his mouth and paws, he arched his body. His slender muzzle statue-still and long tail extended, he paraded back and forth before the vanished birds, displaying for them his only pride, the deep black stripes that traversed his back’s tawny fur. When, at last, he finally opened his eyes, it was to the admiration of nothing. No matter how much he wanted to see her, no matter how hard he tried to conjure-up the fledgling from his heart, her image shrank like water on sand. The thylacine had been deceived.
He began to howl, soft at first and sharp with loss, but growing more plaintive with every breath, swelling with bitter sorrow. He began to feel the pain in his paws and to taste the blood congealing on his lips. The trees whose bark he had once ripped now ripped in return, their branches clawing at him as he passed, and the wildflowers he once had wildly wrenched from the earth now pricked his tender pads like thorns. Torment could neither eat nor sleep, nor wander in his grief. The world he had wanted so much to love had become a torturer. All nature turned to blade.
And he could feel the pain inside as well, the claws of the shadow, growing since birth, clutched at his heart and squeezed until the tears began to flow and flowed for days, gradually wearing the flesh away like a river a stone, turning the earth to mud which trapped his bones as they fell and dried hard around them, a perfect fossil buried deeper with each year until all had forgotten the last Tasmanian tiger, even the stories that keep what’s gone alive. No one could say who it was then that countless years later burst forth from the earth in the shape of a man whose body was empty like a footprint in sand. A ghost that still today comes to the surface to be seen. And the stone through which it comes gives form to it in its passing. For when the ghost appears it is almost invisible because in itself of the dark, yet where it has pushed at the surface a hand might trace and make visible a head, a finger, a broken nimbus, before it withdraws back into the rock. Perhaps in this withdrawal there is a purpose, for who of men can shake off the earth? If we gaze long enough into these fragments of stone, stare into them as we might stare into the heavens or the winter fog or the entrails of a beast, something might emerge to welcome us, something that is neither afterlife nor miraculous resurrection, though of them both, and so simple it may never have a name, though in this language some have called it artist, some poet or bard.
The Origin of War
Knuckles was a red kangaroo who when he reared up on his strong hind legs stood as high as a wattle tree. Out in the vast sandy plains, fluid against the desert’s yellow grass, he rolled in long, unbroken bounds, swift as a honeyeater. Unlike the other kangaroos, timid and shy and happy in the herd, Knuckles lived alone, afraid of no one, king of all the plains. Even the terrible dingo feared his great ripping claws and would slink into the shadow of a rock whenever he heard the thunder of the giant kangaroo.
Knuckles had fought every creature on the plains. Not one had ever managed to tear even the tiniest piece of his soft fur. There were kangaroos everywhere who admired and even envied his might and majesty yet secretly prayed for his death. They would spend their nights dreaming of defeating Knuckles in battle.
One day Knuckles came upon a herd of grey kangaroos basking in the sun. The enormous western sky was layered like pigments in a cliff face, variegated, flickering, quicksilvered, pinks, purples, crimsons and a kind of blue-green-gold at the horizon. The sun itself seemed to fill the sky, only black, and not a thing but desert between the grey herd and it. He’d never seen any of the kangaroos before and his heart leapt as it always did at the prospect of a new battle. Stretching to his full height and using his tail like a rudder, he jumped as high as the setting sun it seemed, scattering the herd. Amidst the settling dust, one lone grey stood his ground. This kangaroo was almost as big as Knuckles, and young. He sneered at the Great Red and welcomed him to fight.
‘I’ve heard a lot about you,’ he said, as he stretched onto his hind legs and spread them wide to balance on his tail. ‘I wondered how long it would take for you to arrive.’
Knuckles crossed his arms against his chest. When the Grey did not respond he bellowed his battle refrain: ‘I am Knuckles, king of the kangaroos. No creature on this earth can match my strength. When I was born it was foretold that no animal would ever take my life. I am invincible. Turn now, or prepare to die.’
The Grey listened. In response, rather than turn in flight, he gripped Knuckles’ arms with his own. Anchored by his giant tail, he unhinged his bayonet-claws and dragged them ripping down the Great Red’s chest.
The speed of the Grey’s attack took Knuckles by surprise. He smiled to himself. At last he had a real fight. He seemed to notice everything: filaments of spiders’ silk as tall as cedars drifting slowly past on the wind; the rhythms of cicada song; undulations of rock strata; the aqueous shapes of dunes. He found himself enjoying the feeling as the blood flowed and slowly congealed around the surface of the wound. He licked his arms in disdain, puffed out his chest and lashed at the neck of his foe, drawing blood and a cry that sneaked out before it could be choked.
Knuckles could not resist his refrain. ‘Perhaps you were not of animal born,’ he taunted. ‘For that is the only way you will defeat me. I am Knuckles, king of the kangaroos, and I am invincible!’
The two giant kangaroos now locked themselves in battle. Like a cyclone, they whirled around the desert. Biting, kicking, scratching, gouging, it was the greatest battle ever seen on earth. All the animals gathered to watch first one and then the other gain the upper hand, hypnotised by the see-saw of shifting fortune.
Etching by Marco Luccio
The Grey, however, had an advantage. He knew the country. Knuckles was the intruder. Slowly the younger kangaroo manoeuvred the Great Red to the edge of a cliff which, clouded by the dust of their encounter, Knuckles did not see. Gathering all the strength he had left the Grey lashed out at Knuckles who jumped back to duck the blow and lost his balance, toppling helplessly into the water below. When the dust finally settled the animals were amazed to see not Knuckles but the Grey. So often had they heard him say that no living creature could ever take his life, so often had they seen him emerge victorious from battle, they had all come to believe he could never be beaten. They stood and lowered their heads in silence before the mystery.
‘I am your new king,’ the Grey called to them. ‘Below me in the ocean lies the body of one whose time had come. He has gone the way of all kings.’
With these words he hopped slowly away, looking for shade and a sanctuary in which to hide and recover from his wounds. As he passed the crowd of animals stepped back in awe and whispered: ‘The king is dead. Long live the king.’
But the king was not dead. The fall had knocked him out but by the following morning he had recovered well enough to look for a way of escape. The cliff was steep and slippery, swept by spray, and Knuckles was unable to jump high enough from such slick rocks. After a day of fruitless effort, exhausted by his labour, he called out as loudly as he could: ‘Help me! I am Knuckles, king of the kangaroos. No animal will ever take my life. I am invincible. Help me escape and I will give you whatever you wish.’
Day and night passed without answer. And in the sky stars like the kangaroo had never seen, as if the darkness were the finest lace, more hole than join, through which the tiniest crumbs of light poured and hung like mist all around, dry water. Then, on the third day, resigned to a watery grave and cursing bitterly the prophecy of his immortality, Knuckles saw a small kangaroo poke his head over the edge of the cliff.
‘How’s the water Knuckles?’ the kangaroo called, looking nervously over his shoulder to the land beyond. Once, long ago, the Great Red had taken his mate and he hadn’t had the courage to fight. The small kangaroo saw now, in the terror from which he fled, the terror devouring the desert behind, a chance at last for revenge, even if it meant his own death.
‘It’s beautiful,’ replied the great warrior, cunningly. ‘Why not jump down like me and cool off from the sun?’
‘All right,’ the smaller kangaroo replied. Glancing fearfully over his shoulder at the raging beast devouring all before it, he jumped into the water. ‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘I don’t know why we kangaroos are so scared of the sea. Look what we’re missing.’
After allowing his companion time to enjoy himself, Knuckles presented him with the problem. ‘There’s no way out of here,’ he said, ‘unless, that is, you let me climb up on your shoulders. When I reach the top I can pull you up as well.’
‘I wish I’d thought of it myself,’ the small kangaroo smiled again. He couldn’t believe the old fool had suggested what he himself had planned. ‘Not only are you the strongest creature on this earth, you’re also the most intelligent.’
With that he stood upright and leaned against the steep cliff wall. Wincing as Knuckles’ claws dug deep into his shoulders, he took the weight of the Great Red who, hunkered low, launched himself high above the cliff, landing safely on its edge.
‘Fool!’ Knuckles called to the small kangaroo. ‘You should be more careful before you jump into unknown waters. Do you think I’d save the creature who rescued me? He’d have it over me for the rest of my life. Now, I have a fight to finish.. I hope you can find someone else as stupid as yourself.’
‘I’ve found an even greater fool,’ laughed the small kangaroo. ‘Never again will you humiliate your own kind.’
But Knuckles didn’t hear a word. As he turned to jump away from the cliff, the flames of the great fire from which the small kangaroo had fled swept across the plain and stretched out their fiery claws, tearing the terrified giant in their burning embrace.
‘Aieee!’ howled Knuckles as his brown fur blazed and his blood began to boil. ‘Cursed be the day that fire was not of animal born.’
And with that cry he surrendered his life to the bloodless flames. But strangely, as his fur drained of colour and turned to ash, it was as if his skin was drying out, leached dry by a desert spirit sniffed and tuned to the smallest drop of moisture, and he was crumbling to powder beside it, dissolving, as if he’d taken the qualities of sand into himself, returning to the dust from which he was made. In the miracle of the fire’s smouldering remains could be seen what looked for all the world like a fossil, its imprint so detailed and lifelike it was as if the kangaroo had just been stripped of flesh, his great skeleton with its enormous knobbled joints and skull like a helmet; a marvel that bone could disappear and still look like bone in the trace it left behind. And from this fossil a man emerged in a uniform of sunset-bronze with fiery epaulettes and medals glowing on his chest, a helmet for a head. A rifle stood by his side from whose barrel, resting level with his chin and glinting in the moon’s sharp crescent, grew a silver bayonet, mirror image of the savage claws of Knuckles, the giant kangaroo.
He had become the first ruler ever to walk the earth, a warrior in search of a tribe.
* * *
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JOHN HUGHES’ first book, The Idea of Home, won the 2005 NSW Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction, the 2006 National Biography Award, and was the National Year of Reading ‘Our Story’ winner for NSW in 2012. His second book, Someone Else: Fictional Essays, won the Adelaide 2008 Festival Award for Innovation and the 2008 Queensland Premier’s Award for Short Stories. It was also listed for the inaugural 2009 Warwick International Prize for Writing. His third book, The Remnants, was published in 2012 by UWA Press, who will also publish The Garden of Sorrows in October, 2013. He is currently Librarian at Sydney Grammar School.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
As a professional full-time artist MARCO LUCCIO has held 35 solo exhibitions including a major show in New York City. He has exhibited in over 150 group, curated and award shows internationally and received several commissions. Luccio’s work is represented in numerous private, public and corporate collections, including the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society and the National Gallery of Australia. His work has been shortlisted for many prestigious awards including the 2009 and 2010 Dobell Prize for Drawing and the 2013 Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing. In addition, Luccio has presented many guest lectures at institutions throughout Australia and overseas, including the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Students League of New York. The full series of Marco’s etchings for John Hughes’s book The Garden of Sorrows will be exhibited in Melbourne in November 2013. Visit Marco at www.marcoluccio.com
© 2013 John Hughes & Marco Luccio. All rights reserved.