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Eskies disgorge and oily workbenches are covered in rich foods from city delicatessens: cheeses, olives, wines, steaks marinating in bowls, salamis, breads, grapes, nuts, freshly opened beer cans beading in the hot night air.
"Ian get Dr Henderson, Mike and Mr. OíDonnell some clean glasses will you?"
I trot off to the boxes. Jim OíDonnellís the farmer standing near the huge roller door, his hand resting in a wide-eyed boyís sun-blonde hair. Rogerís our local doc. Mikeís their other mate, from the city. Heís a rich lawyer but now heís sitting in shorts and thongs on a wobbly camp chair cleaning his barrels.
Fluoros hang in chains from the high corrugated roof. Wooden pens, steel gates and lumps of machinery gleam from the shedís distant shadows. Thereís wool and grease everywhere, the smell of sheep shit and sweat. Dadís pulling a cork from yet another bottle and shouting its virtues to Roger whoís rummaging in a box for the Aeroguard - clouds of moths and midges ping the tubes, flutter in steaming pans, if everyone shut up weíd hear only the malignant whine of mosquitos, and the jenny throbbing out under the stars.
Tobyís got wine. Toby puts a serious pucker on his face and holds his glass up to the mothflicker lights. Toby never looks comfortable with a gun and hasnít brought a duck down yet. Heís 14; we go to the same school in the city. Cos of his dadís job heís a bit up himself and gets picked on. Last year some guys hung him upside-down naked from a third floor window. I could hear it but didnít look. "Glad youíve come on a shoot?" I ask as I sit down. "Yeah. Campingís great." He always calls my dad Alan, but I have to call his dad Dr. Henderson.
The horizon is pink and blue and I walk out of the night toward it - the stars and moon are still there behind me at the cocky gate. There are rustles in the wheat stubble, mice or snakes, so I take short steps. The quiet stalk of the hunt invades my body like an instinct, reinforced by the broken shotgun cradled in my forearm. Yet Iím hardly quiet: a thumpthump recedes from my left - invisible roos. "Blue Lake" - a shallow swamp - is a misted tangle of tree shadows 200 metres ahead. Iím on the furthest post: the worst, but its my first solo - a message from Dad, a step closer to the manliness inherent in the long drive from town, wives and sisters left home, the stacked eskies and the sheepshed feast, now that Toby is here and Iím not the youngest of the pack.
The pre-dawn light shows vee ripples in the swamp. The sing-sing whistle of duckwings now could mean a wait of 1 maybe 2 hours before I get another chance. I walk back to an old paperbark in the paddock, which gives me a clear 50 metre shot of anything above the trees. Before Iíve even started to wait thereís a pop-pop of shots from the distance - as usual someoneís opened up their barrels early. A nervy flutter of wings from the swamp. I close my gun, a soft, heavy thud in my wrists.
Every time we go round that corner I freeze. Dadís always in a hurry: youíve got to be to get anywhere on these roads, wheels shuddering and sliding on the corrugations, huge red cloud churning behind the car, and the bend is always a challenge: going in on the wrong side of the road, steering wheel whipping back once or twice, always the dry rip of a skid or two, always relieved when we bounce onto the bridge sleepers and I see the dark still water below the river gums.
Toby is sitting in the lounge room drinking ice-cream in coke, deep shades drawn against the heat of the day. The backdoor slams and in walks his father, rimred eyes, hair on end, back from the hospital. He hasnít seen him for a day or two. "Hi To'," he says from the doorway, tie askew, "Borderís still in." Listens to him go to the fridge, the phone rings, blaring over the wry cracks of commentators and ball on wood. Toby feels his father stiffen, walk backwards to the wallphone. "Hello. Mmm mmm. Uh her." The phone SLAMS down. Plastic cracks. "FUCK!" Toby winces, sinks in his chair. He hates these weekends. The phoneís been ringing once every half hour like a baby, voices moaning between warped telephone poles, screaming across burning barbed wire paddocks, wincing beside fishhook finger estuaries, roaring along shimmering drunken roads.
Half the sky is now watercolour blue embossed with golden fleece clouds. Thereís a constant volley of gunshots coming from the lake and I imagine the flock spiralling above like a swarm of mosquitos, double-barrels pointing out of tree-limbs, empty plastic wads starting to drift ashore. Iím thinking of grandad, trying to imagine what the boat trip was like. Sunburn hallucinations and fears of a leak. Drifting from Java in a liferaft, looking at 2000km of giant ocean instead of a POW cell. Broome a rough reckoning on a handheld compass. My first shoot was his last. Neither of us bagged a bird. He bent to pick up his empties and slipped into the lakeside mud, squirmed there like a newborn calf. His jaw shuddered as he clasped my shoulder and me trying not to collapse too. Pushed into huge swells by a few tied-together shirts and an oar for a rudder. The first fish just jumped into the boat.
The whistle of wings and I see four of five dark arrows coming in low and fast. The gunís on my shoulder and I track the second birdís beak with my right barrel, and wait for the kick. The retort splits the morning hush and breaks the flock into three directions. My bird seems to shrug as it heads for the earth, spins head over heels into the swamp brush. Two birds fly into the swamp, the other two panic and circle, bringing them across me from the left. I figure I have time to reload, crack the gun; the smoking cartridge hits my chest but Iím wrong on the timing, jam in another and let off a rushed shot under the birds as they swerve sharply into the swamp.
Sheís got her head in her hands, elbows spread on the shiny jarrah table. Long grey hair spreads out over her white clenched knuckles. Is she angry or sad? Both? ĎBothí feels dangerous: tears without embarrassment. "How can you?" Sheís asking. "Those beautiful, colourful creatures?" Iíve never met one of mumís friends who doesnít smile sweetly and praise us kids, make us practice being polite, laugh too hard at our cheeky escapes. But this woman was from the bushless, snakeless, birdless city, a Nature Lover, mum says, with Latin names and binoculars and big emotions, strange soft scarves and bright clothes. I imagine her hugging emus, happy snakes curling around her legs. "Do you have to?" She asks. "Or is it just target practice?" I look at mum and sheís leaning back in her chair sipping tea, nodding, sipping, nodding... She only asked me why and when and how many... I run from the room.
For a moment thereís quiet. Acrid blue smoke, reload. Then the waking panic wingsplash of the roosting birds escaping. Two pairs of mountain duck rise above the paperbarks - big geese-like birds flapping hard and slow to gain height. Thereís a honk as one pair recedes east, the other pair take the far worse route straight over my head. I step forward - itís a hard shot, lifting the gun through a vertical arc, but the lagging bird is swallowed by my barrel and this discharge seems to roll and bounce like a thunderclap through the paddocks. The mountie stops in midair, flaps, twists, then falls gliding. It's almost impossible to kill a mountie with one shot, but I fail to concentrate on my second barrel, it's high and wide and DAMN! I watch the bird slowly spiral into the bush 500 metres away.
The 28's fly screeching into the orchard with blue-green flashes and white tailspreads. They take a bite out of an apricot or nectarine then drop it to rot in the sand. Grapes torn and chewed, unsellable. Even when youíre picking they invade the tree, stare at you with a little round eye while lifting a fruit to a clawhammer beak. Scarecrows donít work, even the gas gun scares them only briefly. What works is dead parrots. Its hot late afternoon and Tobyís first time to shoot a live target. We pick out two or three birds chortling on a tuart limb, a still shot but still requiring good aim. Roger helps him lift and hold the gun still on the beak of the bird. "Gently squeeze the trigger when the barrel is still," he says. "Just wait for the right time, the barrel still, covering the bird, and squeeze." Seems like minutes later - BANG! - Toby literally falls backwards into his fatherís arms, the single 8mm barrel waving like a sinking mast. First nothing, then a little late, as if playing for laughs, the parrot drops through the leaves, tail fanning out as it nosedives into a fallen log. YAY! Everyone shouts. Toby is wide-eyed and stunned. He walks around for half an hour with the bird tied with baling twine around his waist.
Then a man with a beard and dark glasses walks onto the property. His little dented Datsun is outside the front gate. When heís talking to Dad their mouths start looping down. Somethingís wrong. Suddenly he marches toward Roger. "Hey! Hey! Hey!" shouts Dad, and grabs his shirt from behind. The man shakes his fist at Roger. "You shouldnít teach kids this bullshit! The kid doesnít know anything. Heís too bloody young to know!" Rogerís just standing there, clearing his throat. "Now piss off mate!" My dad shouts. "Get offa my property!" Pulls him, shoves him toward his car. Thereís a silent moment while the men scuffle, shirttails popping out, white dust rising from their thongs. "You stupid stuck-up idiot!" "Nunna your bloody business!" Thereís a high-pitched sound... Tobyís dropped his shotgun in the dust and is running away, bawling. "Itís a bloody shame!" The man roars and walks back to the road.
I have to look for it - an unspoken rule of the shoot, all morning if need be - I pick my way through the bush toward the big eucalypt the mountie fell near, but I donít feel much hope in finding the damn thing. The scrub is low tangly banksia, woolly bush, stinkwood - full of spider webs and piles of sawtooth dry leaves, perfect for snakes. I stamp with every footstep, roll down my sleeves; keep getting my gun caught in twisty branches. Purple balls and candle flowers light up the dawn gloom - through the trunks and leaves I see its golden glint, a goblet of fire.
He reckons they rowed into Broome, walked straight into the pub and ordered a round of beers. Five pink skeletons in knotted underwear. After their ordeal, the Navy thought he and his mates were lucky - and probably nutty - enough to take the rest of the war off. But after two years back on the farm Grandad signed up for the Pacific. Being a war hero they made him a corporal on the now safe Kokoda Trail. He pushed an anti-aircraft gun over a mountain range in New Guinea, and when they got it to the other side, they called the war off and sailed the gun straight home. Grandad reckons that gunís still there in Townsville, chained to a post in front of the city council, surrounded by flowerbeds. Grandad reckoned it was Mother Nature tried to kill him, spent his time fighting the Indian Ocean not the Japs; the New Guinea highlands, the intestinal parasites.
Iím circling the gum tree for the second time, with bark down my shirt and scratches on my face, when it gives itself away. I would have missed it easily but it hears me and starts to flap through the undergrowth, webbed feet scampering, one black-and-white wing flapping. I level my barrels, can hardly miss: BANG! The scrub just seems to soak up the shot. The scamper flapflap continues, faster, and I push my way through the trees, the soft webbed waterbird scrabbling through the sandy scrub, I raise my gun BANG! I just canít seem to keep up, branches in my face, catching my feet, Iím only shooting at a wing, a glimpse of neck, a tail disappearing in the low bushes. The deadly lead turns into a little cloud of bark and needles and the flapflap continues bang, crash, stamp, splinter and Iím a nightmare behind the bird, waving arms and spraying bullets FUCKIT! FUCKIT! BANG! BANG!
Pink dust hangs in the air where a truck is parked on the elbow. Blankets and Swan Lager cans litter the gravel bend. A man is on the rickety bridge his clothes are torn his face is a red rag. As we clatter over loose sleepers he bangs the car hood howling. You Kids Stay In The Car, Mum shouts. Thereís a big pile of metal under the tree, BANG! A spaceship unplugged from the sky. Truck man kneeling in wild oats next to a pink leg. Radio man reading important things from other countries. Bark hangs in long strips from the tree. Red man is punching policeman. Mumís inside the car talking to screams.
The sun is above the trees and starting to swim in its own juices when I get back to the lake. Dad, Dr Henderson, Toby and Mr OíDonnell are standing in front of the cars, plucking. I can smell the beer tinged with duck blood in the clear morning air. Thereís a pile of birds at their feet, floppy necks on dark speckled breasts, plasticky beaks rimmed with red, already a few naked birds at the bottom of an esky. They grin me helloes, Dadís eyes flick to my waist - "Only one bird Ian, what the hellview been doing?"
"Two," I say and hold up the mountie. They recoil at the bloody pipeline neck.
"Christ!" says Roger. "Youíre s'posed to use lead shot Ian, not your bloody bare hands!"
I laugh and start to relate the story of the hunt, the predawn flurry, the wide shot at the mountie, the wild chase through the thick bloody bush. Dadís staring at my belt hearing me out. There are no whistles or guffaws, the usual camaraderie of the tough shoot-out. I almost feel tears rise before I finish, and stop, ashamed. Dr Henderson takes a swig from his stubby: "Did that once, at Northam lakes. Why I bought a dog." And they start to talk about that. "Here." Dad throws me a bird.
"Get OUT HERE!" Iím sitting in the combivan refusing to pluck another bird. Iíve finished my two and thereís another forty out there but their bony, bloodhole breasts, their foul meat smell is making me sick. Dad stops shouting and goes back to the group, plucking and drinking in a circle round the eskies. Half an hour later when we leave for the shed itís silent, angry silent, and a split second before Dad SLAMS the sliding door, Toby hasnít quite sat down, his hand trails across the doorframe, I cry out NO! but I know itís gonna happen. Dad heaves blind mighty SLAM. Tobyís face, inches from mine, goes white. I donít want to hear this. The ducks wince in their icy caskets. It starts high and then his mouth opens. The air is full of pellets of his pain. Gobs of blood ooze from the door around Tobyís fingers. Their wing bones break when they hit the ground. DAD OPEN IT! and I pull the door open and Toby falls forward.
Now it gets its last, last rush of energy and zigzags wildly through the bush. I drop the gun and leap after it. I tread on its wing, it gets away, I lunge and it's not there, I shoulder into a tree, bound over fallen branches and jump, rugby tackle, and land on the squirming beast: a solid muscle flexing under my chest. I marvel at its strength. Its neck twists like a snake until its small dark eye is firmly on mine. I grab the neck and swing the bird round and round and round. Its still there in my hand, cheeks puffed out, looking, redfaced, gasping. I put the body under my feet and pull up, falling backward as blood sprays on my chest. Just feathers and beak in my fist. The rest of the body still scrabbles in the dust, inching slowly forward, its neck a long, bloody bone, jerking left and right, looking for somewhere to go.
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