The conversations at cur.., p.19
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.19

           David Malouf
 
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  ‘It’s all right,’ he shouted, to ward Garrety off for a moment. ‘I’ve got it.’

  ‘I thought you’d bloody fallen into that hole,’ Garrety said stepping out among the trunks, and it was as if a burst of violent air had come blowing and blustering. ‘What are you doing?’

  ‘I lost something,’ he said, ‘that’s all,’ and with a false grin he held up the lucky coin he carried, ‘my silver penny.’

  Adair stepped out into the early light. Fresh scents, sharp with the sap of unfamiliar vegetation, made the chill air especially invigorating where it struck his face and burned in his nostrils. He took a deep breath, expanding his lungs. His soul stretched – that is how he thought of it. Considering how little sleep he had had, and his confused dreams, he felt light-footed, clear-headed, abounding in health, aware with a new keenness as he looked about and stepped into it of the beauty of the scene.

  Under the effect of moonlight, or perhaps it had only been because of his tiredness, it had struck him last night as bleak and denuded, wind-swept high plains country. Now it had a kind of grandeur. All its bunched foliage fluttered and blazed out with a sap whose stickiness he could feel without even having to reach out and touch it. Birds were chittering and peeping. Wrens. Little flocks of them dipped low over the ground, then wheeled, rose in bunches. They were intent on the serious business, he knew, of feeding, but it had the look of play. Under the paper-barks close to the creek, the horses, fresh and lively, were involved in a carnival of their own, singly or in pairs in fluid motion back and forth as they scented the new day and felt the renewal of energy it brought them. The light on their flanks dimmed and flared, their dark manes lifted. In the changing space between them as they joined, then broke, came the flash of water.

  Behind Adair, Daniel Carney came out. He stood rubbing his eyes a moment in the unaccustomed light. The shirt he wore hung in tatters. As the cold air struck him he bunched his shoulders, hugged his arms to his body to hold in its warmth.

  ‘Kersey,’ Adair called across to the fire. ‘Fetch us some tea.’

  They stood together in the honeyed sunlight, the man still hugging himself, shivering.

  ‘You’ll be all right,’ Adair told him, ‘when you get something warm into you. Here,’ he said, when Kersey arrived with the two pannikins.

  Daniel Carney cupped the pannikin with his cracked hands to get a little of the heat, then raised it and sipped. As the hot liquid flowed into him, his shoulders, which he had been holding stiffly against the cold, relaxed, and they stood side by side drinking the scalding tea, like two men about to set out on a mission, and so eager to begin they had no time to sit. Kersey, long-jawed and slack as ever, hung about with his jacket open waiting for their cups.

  For God’s sake, Adair thought, do you begrudge the man another two minutes to get a bit of warmth into him?

  The others, the two young ones, were hunched at the fire. They looked so unhappy you might have thought they were the ones who were about to be strung up.

  Daniel Carney had raised his head and was looking to where water glinted between the trees.

  ‘Could I ask you a favour, sir? It’s the last.’

  Adair shifted his head.

  ‘Could I, like, splash a bit of water over me face an’ that? Wash. I’d feel –’

  Adair felt Kersey’s eyes upon him. A touch of colour came to his cheek.

  ‘If you’d like,’ he said at last. ‘If you make it quick. Here,’ he told Kersey briskly, and passed him the pannikins, first his own, then Carney’s. He and the prisoner began to walk down to where the horses were tethered in the line of trees, leaving Kersey staring.

  ‘What’s ’e doin’?’ Langhurst asked softly when Kersey, the pannikins hooked from the fingers of one hand, came back to the fire.

  ‘Gawd knows,’ he told them. ‘He’s gonna let him wash. He wants t’ wash! Gonna let ’im skip, if you ask me.’

  ‘Y’ reckon?’

  ‘’E’s a mad bugger. I wouldn’ put it past ’im.’

  They watched a moment, then Langhurst got to his feet and lightly, as if tracking two fugitives and eager to remain unseen, made his way from trunk to trunk till he came to the line of she-oaks and scrub-pine where the horses were.

  He had no idea what he would do if, as Kersey suggested, Adair let the fellow go. There was a part of him that hoped he would. In the tender state that had come upon him in the clearing, and in which he still moved, he was willing to raise the sentence of death on any man. Every man.

  Daniel Carney had paused. The horses moved this way and that all round him. Where was Adair? Then things cleared. Carney was standing with his hand on the neck of the chestnut bay. She gentled at his touch.

  ‘There,’ he said softly. Adair was beside him.

  He offered the mare his open hand and she nuzzled at his palm and tongued for salt.

  The horse was nervous, its flanks shivered. It lifted its feet in the sandy earth. The other horses, bunched a little way off, began moving again. The bay was still. Carney began to whisper to her, laying his face close to hers.

  ‘You’re all right, darlin’. Dannell’s here. You know me. There’s a pretty.’ He whispered a name as if it was secret between them.

  ‘Is that what he called her?’ Adair asked. ‘Kismet?’

  Daniel Carney smiled. ‘That was the name ’e give ’er. Cut ’er out of a mob an’ trained ’er himself. It was like watchin’ two dancers. I thought sometimes – you know, that he might of been one himself in another life. He had that look to ’im. He was six feet six in his socks –’

  ‘I know,’ Adair said.

  ‘Jesus,’ Kersey whispered from where he was watching. ‘He’s gonna let ’im get away. What’d I tell you? I told you, didn’t I? He’s gonna let ’im grab the horse!’

  ‘So where does that leave us?’ Garrety asked.

  ‘Buggered if I know. We’d hafta chase ’im.’

  ‘Again?’ Garrety said. He too set off for the line of trees where Langhurst stood supporting himself against the trunk of a she-oak, its shadowy green in shawl-like motion about him.

  ‘Shh,’ he hissed as the others came up behind him, first Garrety, then, a minute later, Kersey as well.

  They watched in a tight clump as the two figures, Adair in his jacket, cap and boots, the barefoot prisoner, came to the edge of the bank and Adair stopped, and the prisoner went on, slowly sinking from sight.

  ‘This is crazy,’ Garrety said.

  He and Langhurst went forward briskly and came up behind Adair, who was unperturbedly standing. He barely turned his head to acknowledge them.

  The man had crossed the first of the creek’s three channels and waded out into the second, which was running fast round his legs, darkening the bottoms of his trousers and leaping in little waves over stones.

  It was grey-blue mountain water, clean and cold-looking.

  The man reached down, scooped up a double handful and splashed it over his head, shivering at the icy coldness of it, though there was sunlight on his shoulders and hair. Slowly, with what appeared a loving care for the heaviness of his own flesh, he began to wash from his body the grime, the caked mud, the dried blood of his wounds, which the water as he laved bore away, a brief stain of its surface, to wherever the lie of the land was taking it: into some larger stream that would spread wide at first, then slowing, die out as so many of the streams did in this country, into marshes, or hundreds of miles on, via one stream then another, find its way to the sea.

  Meanwhile he stood, his feet firmly placed on pebbles, and sluiced the glittering water over his neck and shoulders; for no reason now but the small pleasure it gave him, the touch of something alive and unconstrained. And against the sunlit channels that cut the sandy bed beyond, with its occasional stunted shrubs and bushes, and the grey-green foliage of the farther bank, his largeness bulked and imposed itself, the knotted shoulders, the breast to which the tatters of his thin shirt clung like a second skin, its shocking wh
iteness, with the marks, blue-black and livid, there and on his loins of Langhurst’s boots.

  Birds dipped and swerved over the water. Leaves flew out, an odd one here and there catching the sun, flashing out as if it were made of some other, finer material than the rest.

  Slowly the man turned and stood with lowered head, observing with a child’s interest the paleness of his feet through the swirling water. Almost done with himself now. With the business of washing off the long accumulation of dirt and sweat and blood, with the heaviness of the flesh. In the modest pleasure of standing clean in the sunlight. In touch with that live element that on all sides was at play about him. Leaping over the bones of his feet where for a moment they made this unlikely interruption to its course. Eddying round them, then immediately fusing the broken light of its strands and tumbling playfully on.

  The others watched. Caught off-guard by this unexpected interlude, they felt imposed upon, reduced to mere onlookers, to standing by and waiting on his time while, with O’Dare’s permission it seemed, this fellow took all the time he needed, all the time in the world it might be, to just stand there idly running water over himself.

  Langhurst looked sideways to see what the others might be thinking. He did not begrudge the fellow this spinning out of a few more minutes in the sun – any man might do that, if he could get away with it. But he was shocked by the nakedness of the man’s injuries, the terrible rainbow colours that bloomed on his flesh. As if he were the one out there who stood stripped and exposed.

  The man bent down to douse his head, and when he jerked it up again, all shining, the hair plastered to his skull like an otter’s, his skull had the fierce look of an animal’s, round and closed on its fierceness, but his body, as he bent and dragged up handfuls of water and let it spill in strands over his shoulders and breast, was dazzling. The solemnity of these simple activities caught in Langhurst’s throat, and again he looked aside to see how Garrety was taking it.

  Garrety too, who stood supporting his weight with one hand against the trunk of a she-oak, seemed impressed. He looked up with lowered head as if there were something here he could not directly fix his gaze on.

  And at last it was enough. The man simply stood, staring down at his clean feet through the running water. The last of the world’s muck was off.

  Langhurst saw what it was then. Acutely aware suddenly of his own body, unwashed and stinking inside the prickly vest, the trousers stiff with dirt, of the dirt-balls between his toes, the dirt under his nails and ingrained in the cracks in his hands, the sully and stink of his armpits and groin, he thought: When all this is over I will go down and do what he is doing. I’ll strip right off and wash. He felt already the clean touch of water laving over him, cold but clean, taking the dirt off, and had an intense desire to begin all over again with the freshness and sanctity of things. Let him take his time. It won’t hurt us to wait a little. It’s early yet. But another part of himself was impatient. To stand naked down there with his head wet and the clean cold water pouring over him. In just a little while now, he told himself. Half an hour at most. Not spelling it out. Not saying: When this feller is in the hole back there that me and Garrety just dug for him. When we have piled the last shovelful on to him. Into his mouth, over his eyes. Seeing now what this long ritual of washing and standing clean in the sunlight might be for, and that it was not, from the man’s point of view, even considering what was to come, entirely useless.

  And Adair?

  He too stood watching. Relaxed. Quietened. Subdued to the rhythm of the man’s reaching down, time after time, to the water and letting handfuls of it gush then trickle over his neck.

  It should finish here, he thought. This is the natural end.

  In the man’s intense absorption in his task, and his own in watching, was a quietness he had been reaching for, he felt, for the whole of his life, for so long that he could not have said when the yearning for it, amid so much fret and action, had first come to him. Years back, in another country. When he had had no notion – how could he? – of who it was who would be standing here, in what as yet unimagined landscape, watching an action so simple that it was hardly an action at all –

  The man looked up then. Their eyes met. The moment was broken. The man moved, lifted his foot from the water, set it down in the clinging grains of sand. Returned, Adair thought, to this other condition we are bound to. Both of us. All of us. The insufficient law.

  Epilogue

  * * *

  * * *

  IN THE AFTERLIGHT of a late summer evening two men sit over the remains of a meal while a dark young woman, whom the observant guest suspects of standing in a closer relationship to the other than might be suggested by the eyes, in both cases lowered – one to the crumb-strewn cloth, the other to her work of whisking crusty fragments into a tray with a silver-backed and crested brush – moves with just the faintest whiff of sweat and vanilla sugar from his left side to his right. He considers the engravings above the sideboard: Morland – a fine set, which is what he would expect of his host; horses, hounds at the stretch, a view of rounded hills dark-stitched with hedges.

  The conscious avoidance on his friend’s part of that formal politeness between master and servant that would otherwise, he knows, be his natural demeanour, must violate another, more private code. He returns to the Morlands. The sense, almost forgotten out here, of the world’s being so heaped and freighted as to overbalance with its own abundance, then the golden collapse into smoky autumn. Only when the woman, who is coarse-featured but in her own way trim and dignified, has restored the damask to glazed perfection, set a decanter and port-glasses before them and unobtrusively shut the door, does the middle-aged man let his breath out and speak.

  The guest is Adair, who is to sail next day on the Hyperion, one of the ships that ride at anchor in the Cove; his host, an ex-army surgeon and veteran of the Peninsular, James Saunders. Adair has come to take charge of a bundle of letters that Saunders, a recent acquaintance, wants delivered to his family and to one or two friends at home. The slight tension between the two men has to do with the fact that one is leaving and the other not. There is always here some little play upon a difference so decisive, though it is disguised in Saunders’ case, as is common between professionals and men of the world, with heavy banter. Adair knows his friend to be a man of intelligence and where his work at the hospital is concerned of quiet seriousness. He is also genuinely good-natured. He wishes sometimes that they could drop their joking manner and speak freely, but understands that without the cover of a playful cynicism Saunders might be too choked with shyness to say anything at all.

  The harbour is not visible from where they sit. But hanging secure in Adair’s head, like a ship in a bottle, is a miniature of the Hyperion, its furled sails drenched with moonlight, a riding-light in the fore-rigging, all preparations made for tomorrow’s sailing. The captain, a bearded Scot called McAlister, is sitting up late in his stateroom below decks, completing the last of his reports. Barefooted sailors on the foredeck are telling yarns; their rough laughter spills out and one of them hawks and spits over the rails into the steep dark. Where the ship rides gently at anchor, waters of a glossy smoothness swallow and then disgorge the moon, and with it a quadrant of the southern heavens where, Canopus presiding, the constellations roll through a sky he will exchange before long for the more familiar northern one, like a side of his soul that has been in recession here; not lost nor denied but out of sight for a time – and who can say that he might not have had to come all this way, and entered into some opposite dimension of himself, to know at last what it was?

  Saunders is speaking:

  ‘As we know, this is a place that is always in the grip of rumour, the wilder and more unlikely they are the more our locals are inclined to believe ’em. They need this place to be outlandish, to deliver up marvels. To approximate, I would say, to the literary taste of the age – that is, to the mysterious, the nightmarish, the Gothic. Nothing else perhaps w
ill justify the tedium for some, the terror for others, of being dumped here. It’s natural enough. What else is there to divert them? News from over there is dead and stinking by the time it turns up among us. After five or six months at sea all the life has gone out of it, the immediacy. Whatever there might have been in it to hang a doubt on has already – out of our ken, of course – been resolved. A man can hardly be expected to hold his breath for a whole six months. People are hungry for diversion. For news, for gossip. It needn’t be true. All it has to do is satisfy their notion of what might be true, their need for some bit of unexpected event that has the shape of a decent story – preferably, like all good stories, an old one in a new form. So you see, my friend, you do not quite get away. You leave here this shadow of yourself – not your real self, that would not serve – but this other more romantic, more outrageous self that fits the story and grows as it is passed on. Whether you like it or not, you have become –’

  ‘Not me,’ Adair protests.

  ‘Oh yes, with all the qualifications I have just made. Most definitely. You don’t get off as easily as that. You have done a great thing, my dear fellow, you have made yourself immortal. So long as any of us are here, I mean, to keep the story up.’

  ‘This – hero, as you appear to think of him, does not even have my name.’

  ‘No, but that’s the master-stroke, or so it seems to me. He bears the real version of your name. O’Dare! Could anything be more appropriate? More indicative – I am interested in this aspect of the thing – of how the popular mind makes what it wants of the facts, dives deep down under them to discover that spark of inner truth that will bring the thing alive as fable. Didn’t you know that O’Dare was one of your names? The name of this other you that the story has knocked up? For all your stern dedication to duty, my dear fellow, which none of us doubts, you are really, deep down, of the devil’s party – that is, an Irishman, after all. To your health, Mr O’Dare, folk hero!’

 
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