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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.12
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.12

           Peter Carey
 
V

  HE WAS A GREAT HUGE ANIMAL, the Frenchman, like a seal or horse, strong-smelling, with thighs as big as posts. As he had carried me and fed me I imagined him my protector, while of course he was a baby. He had a brass compass but could neither speak nor know where he was toddling, leaning forward against the wind, eyes streaming--Mama, Mama here I am--but as I had followed my father happily for so many years, I now followed him.

  "O nord, O nord," he cried. "Monjay, monjay." Clearly he knew nothing. The northern part of Dartmoor is a proper pig, covered by blanket bogs, peat gullies, tussocks, and hidden holes, heaven sent for cattle thieves but no place for a bawling boy and a Frenchman without a map. Thus it was revealed that Monsieur Monjay was in no way the equal of my father, who had snared and tickled and poached and fed me, dear Daddy, with whom I had traversed the wilds near Black Tor and Yes Tor, the pair of us the only humans in the whole empty world with sheep and rabbits and grouse--the ground exploding at our feet. My da and I would talk till our throats were sore and the silence of the heather moor would be broken only by the spectral whisht and perhaps a guttural call--the grouse again--come out, come out, come out they cried. At those times no more was said than what you could signal by means of a loving nudge.

  Monsieur tried to bring me back toward the north, striking me with his compass, straining north like a furry-footed draft horse wanting to go home. But northward I would not go. Instead I pointed across the miles of moor, toward Princetown.

  "Monjay," said I.

  I was cold and dirty, dark with grief, but I hopped like a bunny rabbit and made my hand swim like a fish. I was a scoundrel and a liar. I understood I must give him food, but by nightfall I had found nothing but a big bull oak, a single isolated tree with a hollow trunk inside which generations of cattle had sheltered. Here I made a big show of looking at the Frenchman's compass and staring in the direction of the setting sun. Showing myself by various signs to be well satisfied, I went to sleep.

  We slept in our dark and dung, while outside the night sky was filled with the wild clanging of migrating birds, their hearts pumping blood I would have gladly drunk while I roasted their living flesh on a roaring fire.

  In the morning we had what is called a tramp's breakfast, that is a piss and a look around, my daddy's joke.

  I did not know what would be done to me if I did not find us monjay soon. Of course you are a moorsman, sir, or your uncle was before he went to Van Diemen's Land. You know there was good eating all around us at every step, the hush and the breath of food of every description--moles, pheasants, great fat pigeons--and what I needed was not a compass but a handful of corn or a little roll of wire. Certainly my da would never travel without corn to lure the pheasants to his bag. There were also, as I am well aware, very good lamb chops on Dartmoor, great bounding sheep like mountain goats. My da would lay a loop of rope along their paths and connect it to a young sapling whose top was bent down. When the silly sheep stepped on the loop it would release the sapling, and she would be wrenched upward and left hanging by her leg. In the past I hated these traps, the terror and cruelty of them, for the sheep might be there for days before we found them, raging and tearing around and scratching the skin off their legs, but now I must watch the foolish Frenchman throwing rocks, or galloping down into a bog while his prey danced easily away.

  We came upon a little moorland stream. I was so cold, my skin like plucked goose, and I lay flat on my stomach looking into the water, thinking I might vomit if I had another sip, and there I saw the shadow and then the long-jawed brown trout that owned it. As I watched, the fish slid beneath the very rock on which I lay. And now I required no fowling piece or net, just gently gently catchee monkey. I held my arms as far apart as they would go and slid them into the cold water in what you might call a pincer movement. And there he was--quite peaceful--and I rubbed his underbelly with just my forefinger while I made polite inquiry which end was which and when I knew his arse from his head, I moved my hands up to the gills and, smoothly, tightened them like a vise around his head.

  Right behind me I could hear Monsieur talking but I could not speak, for what I was doing was as tricky as holding wet soap in a tub. I rose on one knee and I could hear a dove nearby--coo, coo--and I still had my fish and he was a good one, three pounds at least, and I walked backward over the trippy rocks and gravel until I was the distance of a cricket pitch from the stream and now I saw Monsieur and I understood he was the dove, and that sweet round sound was coming from his dry expectant lips. When I had knocked the fish on his forehead and made him dead, I held him out, like the vicar I once saw with his chalice offering wine to God, and the giant Marquis de Tilbot took it from me, grinning so fiercely his mouth was like a wound, slashed across his unshaved charcoal face, and he held the gleaming fish high in the air and, with his teeth shining in the yellow gloomy light, he bit a huge hunk from its back and I could hear him eating, crunching spine, and see him spitting out the grist, and I waited very patiently for my share and was too young to know the true strange nature of my life.

  VI

  THE FRENCHMAN had whiskers on his granitic face, scabby lichen on his chin, cracks of eyes against the wind. He was a living terror of a man. He had one broken tooth, no wonder when you saw how he made up for the missing hand, sniff this flower, bite that stone. By a broken tinner's hut his attention was taken by a dead cow, skin turned to leather, insides eaten long before. He kicked it viciously apart, dragged away its poor dead bones, smashed and bashed them with a rock.

  I wished my father would come back.

  "Ha-ha," the Frenchman cried, stabbing at the mist. He had made a dagger out of bone.

  My da was always very quiet and even, never any rush, just gently gently. I never had to do a thing but be with him. The Frenchman was in no way like my father. He needed every assistance and I pretended the best I could. On and on, shoes squelching, water dripping down the neck, I held out the compass like a divining rod, leading the way to nowhere. Always the queer rooty perfume of the marinated moor, bogs and boggy life: mire in the valleys, blanket bog on the higher land, marsh plume thistle, devil's bit, scabious heath, spotted orchid, saw-wort, purple moor grass, also the seething and quaking bog with a thin layer of sodden moss above black slime and water. Then finally, by chance, up from a hollow and down into a wider valley where I spied a cottage and, beyond it, tall brown reeds atop a rise. I broke into a run and I heard the great weight of the Frenchman pounding down behind me and I ran faster in my fear, and my legs were like rubber and I fell and rolled and came up running.

  The Frenchman was upon me at the garden gate, taking my shoulder, turning me. I did not understand a word he said.

  I pointed at the tall brown reeds and said "rabbit." I tried "warrener." No good. This was a warrener's cottage. We could eat rabbit. But then I saw something awful had happened here. The house was dead, abandoned. It was like the corpse of a beast set on by wild dogs, its inside pulled out and left scattered among the cauliflowers--bedding, tools, thatch. The only clue to the crime was the peat digging tools which had been broken into many pieces. It was as if the bog itself had risen against its own subjection.

  "Hoppity-hoppity." I tried to be a rabbit. He did not understand but pushed past me into the cottage. The thatch was all fallen and the big roof beam had been cut in half, the cruelest act upon a house in a landscape with so little wood. What had brought this dreadful retribution on a simple warrener's head? Perhaps he had poached or smuggled. Perhaps he had been in the habit of taking peat from another fellow's tie; why else were the bud iron, slitting knife, and turf irons all broken? I was frightened, for the hatefulness of outlaws on Dartmoor was well known.

  I took the broken turf iron and went outside to draw a rabbit in the sod. I called the Frenchman. He would not leave the cottage. I was close to tears, worried the outlaws would descend again. I came to drag him out to see my drawing but he was busy collecting peat and thatch and I saw I would have to wait until a fire was going.

/>   He had lost all faith in me, as well he should. He made me hold a rock while he chipped at it and formed a sort of axe, then ground it. The fire was so hot it burned my legs. The sky was gray and wet above my head.

  When he had his axe ready he was loudly pleased about it. I expected we would starve to death in the midst of all this food.

  When at last he saw my drawing of the rabbit, he clearly did not understand. I huddled by the fire and wondered should I run away and would my daddy find his son's dead body on some lonely path, skin turned to leather, insides eaten long before. My one true comfort was the peat, which did not flame but glowed, exuding an aroma that filled my lungs with balm. I breathed it in as a richer boy might snuffle a stuffed toy, and in all my misery and intoxication, I fell asleep.

  When I woke I smelled food. There was a black and battered cauldron on the fire and from it rose the most delicious smell, but Monsieur kept me at arm's length, grinning, singing to the pot, pursing his lips.

  "'Oppity-'oppity," said he.

  I sat and watched him stir his rabbit stew. Soon I burned my mouth and filled my stomach. Then I slept, curled up like a dead caterpillar beside his smelly feet.

  VII

  NEXT MORNING Monsieur unearthed a warrener's net and began unpicking it, a completely useless occupation which required his long white toes and bristly mouth and single hand. He hunched over his labor like a naughty monkey, holding down a single thread with his bent toe, pulling apart a knot between tooth and pincered fingers.

  By day's end I was freezing cold and near starvation. My protector had destroyed a useful snare and produced instead one hundred feet of undone netting which he wound into a ball. I removed my sodden boots and wondered at my white and wrinkly feet. I wondered where my father was. Not even sleep would save me from my misery.

  It rained and rained again. There was a tall black rock upon the saddle which sometimes gave the eerie impression of a man. I tried to catch it moving. As the night approached the Frenchman produced a second net and swept out onto the moor, the net dragging like his wedding train.

  I must follow him it seemed.

  In different circumstances it would have been a lovely evening on the moor, very soft and kindly, the light mellow and the gin-clear stream whispering around the edges of the bright green turf. The rabbits, having left the safety of their warren, had settled in their gentle multitudes, laying their long shadows on the sweet grasses between their front porch and the stream. How I envied them and feared their death and yearned for it.

  We stretched the net taut between our growling stomachs, thus walling the rabbits' bedroom from their dinner table. Monsieur then lobbed a stone among the feeding families who lifted their heads, stood stock-still, noses twitching. One stone later they had become a stampede, a tangling jumping swarm of them, writhing in our net, and the sheer force of their collective panic near stopped my heart. We made a parcel of their writhing lives, so we thought, but in all the tangled squeaking the rabbits fell or swarmed toward a hole, and if Monsieur had not caught one by the leg we might have starved to death in spite of all our murderous intent. It was a big plump fellow, the condemned, and most unlucky to be swung through the air and have its skull slammed hard against the moor. It is a wonder he did not fly apart.

  We ate the bunny, not enough, never was, that night or next. I was a scabby snotty nosey boy always tasting grass and weeds, looking out for molds, scraps of abandoned food, and thus, next day, I discovered, high in a disused chimney, the warrener's secret hoard of pelts which he had hung like washing on a line. The skins had dried just perfectly, crinkly and crunchy on the skin side, soft and furry on the pelt.

  I indicated to Monsieur that they might make a layer for our roof. In his great aristocratic ignorance he ignored me, and he was soon busy devastating them, cutting two-inch-wide spirals from one rabbit skin and then another. These ruined pelts he threw into a heap beside him.

  We caught another rabbit and cooked it on the glowing peat.

  I woke at dawn, shivering. I found Monsieur out on the wet grass with the strips of pelt, which he was twisting together to make a long furry tapeworm winding around his madness. He raised his eyebrows and showed his teeth as he bit a pelt. I felt my hair prickle on my neck.

  Imagining all that revolting fur inside my own mouth, I ran. I did not know what I had seen or what it meant, only having some notion of a beast devouring that which should not be eaten. Our little crystal stream had turned a brooding tannic red. I leaped across it and dashed up the ridge until I lost my breath, and then I walked toward the distant tor. Then I ran once more, got a stitch, gave up, continued stooped over, my hand dug hard against the hurt. The tor remained at its great distance, but once I reached it, I expected it would be my daddy, his long loping shadow moving on the moor, the light gray signal from his pipe.

  For a long time the tor would not come close, and then--at last--I was upon it, a monolith with gray-lichened skin like cankers. I tore my knees and hands to gain its ancient back. There I squatted, bleeding and hungry, but I could see all around for many miles, right down to the smoky coast at Plymouth, but in all that huge empty space I could not see a single soul, unless a sea hawk has a soul--it rode the empty air, high and lonely and unknowable.

  On this tor, a long way from any stream, I found a smooth round gray river pebble which must have been a kind of slate for I could mark it with a chip of granite. Here, with a calculation that admits no pretty explanation, I set to make a drawing of my frightening benefactor. I was not wise enough to know what I was doing, but I was dumb with fear and cunning and I made his likeness like an emperor on a coin.

  In my absence the madman had constructed a wooden frame whose corners he had bound with skin. This rack he had set up like a loom and threaded with the fur rope. He began to whistle and raise his eyebrows like a fool and I understood he had nearly finished making himself a rug. Then he pinched my cheek, and then he grasped my hand, and forced me to touch the rug and he himself brushed his big whiskery cheek against it, and kissed it as if it was his wife.

  I hated him. I would not give him anything. I watched him take his bone knife and cut his blanket free and when he threw it in my direction, I took it as a taunt and I pushed it angrily away. He then took me with all his mighty one-armed force and held me while I bit and kicked and so it took an awful long time, with us both exhausted from our struggle, to understand that he had made the rug for me.

  Thus in a great snotty outburst I surrendered, and he sat me on his lap and wrapped me tight and, there on the dirt floor, in the midst of all the devastation, stroked my head with his remaining hand. Then I wept, Lord God I wept for hours. I kept my stone, not knowing what the future held.

  Olivier

  DEAR LITTLE MOTHER--my only friend in all the world is taken from me. Blacqueville is dead and here I am, at sea, alone in my grief, in this foul bunk, dictating to this common clown whose fine calligraphy gives no inkling of his malevolence and criminality and whose only punishment for his crimes is that he must now write them down himself, and we can only trust that he is chastised in a world to come, or in America, although the former is likely to arrive before the latter.

  I am informed that you know what occurred at Le Havre. Have you been told that we were visiting the chateau of the Countess S, as you had asked us to remember you to her? There, fleeing death as you had wished, it found us. At the countess's salon, among other persons of wit and rank, was one Monsieur d'Audloy. This gentleman, on hearing of our intention to travel to America, called me a traitor and a coward at which Blacqueville, in the full generosity of his heart, took upon himself the responsibility for both our honors and before anyone was quite aware of what had happened, seconds were appointed. Naturally I imagined the duel would take place in the early morning and was seeking counsel from the Comte du Beugnot without knowing that pistols had been provided and the combatants had already presented themselves in the orchard. Learning this, I rushed to prevent the damage, bu
t I was no farther than the terrace when I heard the single shot. Thence in the horrid gray light, in drizzling rain, I found my dear Blacqueville dead as death itself, and it may be said that my behavior was neither dignified nor manly for all I could think was to lift him in my arms and order him to life.

  Of course there was no question of my fleeing now and I determined that I would cash my ticket and return to Paris and there honor my friend in death as I had failed to do in life. I had the shipping company open their office, but when at last the manager appeared I was informed that I must now present myself to the captain on board and only then might I obtain our refund, and so, with the awful copyist at my side this is where I went.

  I thought the Dutch captain exceedingly civil. He received me in his cabin with great solicitude and sympathy, and had I not accepted his brandy I doubt I would be where I am now--that is, far at sea without hope of return, surrounded by the most appalling bourgeoisie and worse, this servant you have provided, with his wretched cocky walk and his mouth always on the edge of the most horrid smirk. It would be better for me to have stayed in Paris. I would prefer being pulled to pieces by the mob. Doubtless you think me despicable, but never mind, I have clearly been dispatched, against my will, on your instructions. This is a tragedy worthy of the Greeks--that in seeking to save my life you have assured my death--for it is certain no one will survive this awful sea.

  I am sure you could never imagine the conversation--if you could call it that--of the Americans. Certainly there is no talk of the tragedies, Greek or otherwise. The conversationalists include among their number a rich manufacturer of nails, a farmer turned banker, his wife, his two skinny daughters, and a Jew named Eckerd who dubs himself an impresario and is traveling with a certain Mlle Desclee, allegedly an opera singer! This Eckerd frets continually about his awful carrier pigeons, which poor lousy creatures he plans to release when we are off the coast of America. The birds will carry news of the opera singer's arrival to the waiting press, so all is vulgarity and ostentation, and although the banker, despite the comic name of Peek, is a good enough fellow, and I might, I suppose, benefit from his conversation, I cannot think of anything but my dear Blacqueville who died so bravely on my own behalf while I, so far from gloire, am sunk in ignominy on this filthy bunk with no other company but this copyist. He has no sponsor but M. de Tilbot who, if you will permit me to speak bluntly, seems capable of destroying all the good sense and religious principles which have been the guiding lights of your life.

 
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