The sun rose in the west and coloured the hills. First they were velvet dark, not quite black, then burnt umber, flaming orange-red, limpid platinum. Light gathered. The hills became distinct, hard dry mounds that the sun reached from, taking hold of the day, making it hard and brittle too.
A party of men came back into the landscape, carrying something wrapped in canvas. They stopped at a freshly dug hole. They laid the canvas bundle down, not too gently, and unwrapped it. It was a corpse, bones really, hard white chalky bones, a long-time dead. These the men put into the hole, one or two at a time. Then, using shovels and a mattock, they refilled the hole. It looked hard work. The last blows were struck with the mattock by the smallest – an Aborigine – and the other men stood about, talking. They were white men.
They went out of the landscape and the sun sank into the sea in the east.
Days unravelled. Nights became black or silver, depending on the state of the moon. The moon died and was reborn, any number of times.
The aborigine was back, suddenly there. He’d appeared as if by magic. He filled in a hole, using freshly turned earth. You could almost smell its age. He held his hat against his chest and may have been praying.
The hole had been dug the day before. Another man had done it, white, lean, with a sandy beard. He said something to the coloured gentleman – who was there again at the hole – that made him wryly grin. Then the white man drank a liquid that made him lie down in the hole and sleep the last sleep.
If we could retreat with the man who lay down in the hole we’d find him in a number of different poses. He is American but not harshly loud like the stereotype. He is in general quiet and gently spoken, like the sound of the wind in the trees. He often does not speak at all. He now lives alone. That wasn’t always the case. He likes the plays of Tennessee Williams and Hart Crane’s poetry.
His name is Tom. Catch him on the jetty that obtrudes from his land into a river in Northern Australia that is wild and teeming with crocodiles. He is wearing cut down jeans, unintentionally fashionably ragged just below the knees. He’d cut the bottoms off with rusty scissors because they kept picking up grass seeds. He is also wearing a tee shirt that falsely proclaims: ‘Don’t shoot me – I’m not American.’ He is a long way from home.
He is fishing. An old rod and an Alvey reel with a live sardine Sisyphusing on the end of his line, trying to entice a barramundi into striking. He’ll take a threadfin salmon. Or a grunter. His heart is in the fishing and nothing else matters for the moment.
Behind him, down a little track that is all cool moist earth in the early morning, and partially obscured by trees, is a rammed earth house.
Once you might have found him painting the eaves and windowsills. If you did not know him you might have asked him had he built the place. He’d shake his head. Nah. He bought it; it needed some painting.
He is not self-sufficient in the traditional sense. He has a good deal of money invested here and there from the decades he worked and from lucky stock options and from selling at the height of a real-estate boom in Cairns. If he needs something he buys it. There is a sizable boat (big enough to keep crocs at bay) pulled up against the jetty which he uses to cross the river to his car. He drives 12 kilometres into a smallish town where he can buy most of what he needs. Other stuff he orders on-line and has sent to the Post Office. There is a woman in town he sleeps with every now and then.
Mostly he sits on the river. At the tag-ends of days he winds in his line. He cleans his catch, if luck was with him. If it wasn’t, he doesn’t.
He isn’t self-sufficient but he is sufficient unto himself. His own company does not rile him and he fills the days.
Move him into the sun. He is rowing across the river. There is a great pain in him and he is going to ask about it. He thinks he knows what the pain is and where it came from. His father died before he was fifty.
He has had no luck with women. You need luck, he’d once told someone. What’s the odds of one in a million meeting one in a million. Sure, there was always initial attraction. And plenty of women, don’t get me wrong. Tom is well read, quietly droll. He is a careful if uninventive lover. Considerate at one level.
…Though that fucking beard that he won’t shave off tickles.
There is always a shadowy sense of something not quite right. No hold on time, no… Aagh, she yells at him. She is grasping for what it is and this is all she manages: You just don’t fit somehow. I mean, I love the way you challenge the norm – I just wish you didn’t challenge it so much. With me. Is it too normal to love someone? At least to say it?
Her name is Nellie. She is the woman he leaves behind when he moves to the house on the river. No, that’s not true. She has already left. There was another man. He offered more…what? Constancy? More conventionally temporal, less temperamental. Anyway, she goes, and though down the unwinding years she will think of what might have been she will eventually marry Mr Constant and not have too many regrets. And children; she has children with him.
He quits his job. He buys the rammed earth house across the river. He sets up a satellite dish and pays exorbitant fees for connection. There is no great drain on his finances. He designs a web site and names it Nada. He re-reads Hemingway. He wishes Nellie luck. No, really. He forgets and remembers her in the quiet undulations of that other woman in the town, who is nearly 45. She wants to forget things too.
In the early mornings the sun makes mist on the river and he throws a circle of glinting raindrops from his net as he casts and seeks bait. Sometimes the pain sits in his chest like some crusty old relative threatening to write him out of the will. If it catches him mid cast he tries to convince himself that he is throwing the pain away. And… Sometimes this hippy trick works and he diminishes it. But… Sometimes he is too much the cynical Yankee from New York and he thinks he’ll go inside and have a joint.
Lionel, an Aborigine, often drops in. Particularly when he’s smoking. Tom doesn’t know where he comes from. He’s just suddenly there. It doesn’t bother Tom that Lionel is freeloading. He is amused by Lionel’s phenomenally sensitive nose.
They don’t talk much. Tom sometimes says something cryptic.
Angered one day Tom rose on his haunches and threatened to hurl a machete – I’m fucking Gide and you’re my mother. Lionel smiled the smile he’d loaned to Mona Lisa.
Lionel showed him how to throw a cast net and how to bait his hook with the small live sardines. Use a stringer, Lionel said. Tom found he loved to fish and he remembered the cold lakes high in the Adirondacks and his Dad fly-casting for trout before he finally went away when Tom was just eight.
The moon seems fatter and fuller over the river than anywhere he can ever remember. Curdled milk colour. The pain has taken up near permanent residence. He cannot throw it away with a circlet of raindrops anymore. He does not like what it is doing to him. Now he is permanently stoned.
There are papers all over the desk. He has always been neat and methodical. He ties it all up, very adroitly, and says out loud that no smart-ass lawyer is going to punch holes in this. He has left something for Nellie and her future children. The house is for the 45-year-old woman.
He walks out into the savannah and digs a hole. It takes him a long time. Lionel arrives and helps him dig.
Time for one last cryptic remark. He drinks the liquid and says to Lionel, “Sartre was right. I choose my moment.”
He lies down. He dies. Lionel fills in the hole and goes away.
The sun sets in the east.