Jury of Animals
“Lots of people talk to animals . . . not very many listen though.”
— Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh
Cow, Eagle, Dog, Lion, Cat, Pig, Otter, Possum, Crab, Kangaroo, Plover, and Dragon. Theirs are the voices we shall never hear. At the heart of each of these twelve stories is an animal—a silent witness to our cruelty or our kindness; to our indifference or our malice. Each animal resonates with one of the characters, adding another dimension to their experiences; sharing in their fate. Also, in each story are echoes of the Ancient Mariner, cursed for killing the Albatross, spared for admiring the sea snakes.
Cow – Sweetpea is a victim of Ivan the tree poisoner, just like Norma, his wife of 54 years. Until the tables are turned.
Eagle – The Wedge tail is shot by a hurt boy with a bow and arrow, marooned in a Skycar swaying high above the Blue Mountains. Among the passengers are a war widow, a Cronulla Muslim and her son, a gay Maori elder, Korean twins and a Koori.
Dog – The old Border Collie arrives with a stranger and eats the Nembutal meant for the sad trade unionist with lung cancer who finds the courage to go on living.
Lion – In Botswana the great beast is shot with a crossbow in a canned hunt for a corporate trophy. Back in Sydney the prey becomes a ghostly predator hunting the editor who took his life so wickedly.
Cat – She is dumped in an Otto bin by Yuppies, but the lucky felines are those who come under the fierce protection of Madge, the gnarly old Lady of the Cross.
Pig – The sow is trapped in a cage just like the alcoholic child scoffing lollies and listening to Whiter Shade of Pale. The butcher is sharpening his boning knife.
Otter – who is really a water rat—an outsider like Mohamed adrift in Adelaide among the white middle-class.
Possum – Poor white boy’s payday in the bloody business of fur farming.
Crab – The crustacean and the Boat People are both in very hot water. Hear the ancestors sighing.
Kangaroo – Road kill on the highway to hell becomes a haunting lesson in mothering.
Plover – Their adored chick run over for the hell of it by teenage boys.
Dragon – Cloud illusions or harbinger of hope in the southern night skies?
Gussie was on the private bus from town. The fatboy driver made an unscheduled stop, pulling sharply onto the shoulder of the narrow country road, he slammed on the brakes and she lurched forward in her seat. He scoffed down two meat pies lubricated by a carton of iced coffee and brushed the flakes of pastry off his t-shirt onto the floor. She opened her window and watched as a blowfly lumbered from the corner of the windscreen and buzzed the crumbs. She waited while he smoked, tossed the butt out the driver’s window, burped and turned over the engine. He switched on the radio. It sounded like John Laws was sitting right behind her head as the gravely voice dribbled from the speakers at the back of the bus:
‘Nobody wants a war; of course nobody wants a war. John Howard doesn’t want a war, George Bush doesn’t want a war but hey, who would we rather control those oil wells, George or Saddam?’
Gussie was the only passenger on the bus. Concession fare. Mid morning. Their eyes met in the rear view mirror and he looked away in disgust as he pulled back onto the road, daring her to complain about the timetable irregularities.
They passed a bloated roo. It smelt for a moment, then it was gone. A quick obituary: I stink, therefore I am.
Despite being in a Zen phase of life where seven-letter words like Namaste had superseded four-letter words like dick and head, Gussie was far from perfect and loathed right-wing talk-back hosts. Hosts to maggots and parasites, she thought. They fomented hate and bigotry and called this cruel gruel public opinion. Another tactic was to pick on a caller—usually a woman who was a bit potty or daffy—and ridicule her.
‘Please turn it down,’ she almost shouted.
Fatboy had made it plain he didn’t like bludgers like Gussie—no visible means of financial or sexual support. That is, no job and no husband.
He looked at her again in the mirror, shrugged and cut the volume.
Out the window she glimpsed a wedding party on the beach. Barefoot bride, blue water backdrop. Hawaiian shirts. The bus slowed and Fatboy waved in solidarity at the chauffeur suffering in a penguin suit, waiting by the black limo. Chunks of flyblown seaweed carpeted the outdoor church.
About 60,000 years ago something happened to differentiate our brains from Neanderthals. We made art. We decorated our caves. We buried our dead with rituals. When did we decide on marriage, Gussie wondered?
He cranked up the radio again.
She stared out the window, smelling the astringent Ti-Tree smothered in white blossom.
It’s not survival of the fittest anymore. Fatboy wouldn’t last two minutes in the Iron Age.
Nowadays shortsighted people live, people with diabetes live, even people like Gussie. Her ex-husband’s sister was a John Laws fan too. She wouldn’t miss Karen ambushing their conversation with her mean-spirited asides, her attacks on the jobless, single mothers, Lebanese gangs.
At last the bus pulled over at her stop.
Struggling with her groceries, Gussie walked slowly down the aisle as he drummed his fingers impatiently on the wheel.
At the white gate she looked lovingly at her tiny duck egg blue cottage.
She left the supplies on the bench and made a mug of peppermint tea and headed outside to the old wooden seat next to a flowering gardenia. She almost swooned with the perfume. The thrilling trilling blur of blue, green, purple, red and orange rainbow lorikeets were like a hundred whirly gigs high in the gum tree where they feasted noisily on the nectar; the juveniles’ voices hoarse from the endless joys of summer.
‘Hello! I say, hello, are you there?’ The slightly high nasal voice was coming from behind a tangle of jasmine humming with native bees.
‘Ivan Diefendorf,’ he said, in a second-generation Australian accent.
Behind him a plump old woman was pegging out the washing on the Hill’s hoist, the sole thing in their bare yard with spray-on lawn.
‘We’re mad, keen fishermen,’ he said, nodding not towards his wife but to a big bloke in greasy overalls bent over the motor on the back of a tinnie.
She said her name was Augusta Pinkerton – she didn’t say that her friends called her Gussie or Pink.
‘I take it there’s no Mr Pinkerton then?’
She ignored his speculation and waited.
Ivan produced a machete, slashed back a swathe of jasmine and bolted over the fence into Gussie’s yard, brushing the bees away from his face with some annoyance.
‘Fit as a mallee bull,’ he announced smugly as she took in his wiry build, deeply tanned bowed legs and shorts so short his hairy balls peeped out from under the dirty crinkled hem. She looked away quickly and back again at his red face and small glittery eyes.
‘Look,’ he said, squinting into the sun, ‘can I have a word with you?’
‘Straight up, the wife and me flat out don’t like trees. And we’re surrounded by them.’ With a sweep of his arm he took in the three neighbouring properties dotted with tall eucalypts, lilly-pilly, casuarina, bottlebrush, coastal banksia, fan palms and the ubiquitous Norfolk Island pine.
‘Must have killed a Chinaman in me last life, as they say!’
‘Trees are a fire hazard for one thing, so if you wanna hand to cut ’em back hard like, we’ll help you, won’t we Artie?’ The man in the overalls nodded and grinned as he mimed sawing with the screwdriver. He was big framed with a vacant face.
‘Look love—you’re not a greenie are ya—these things drop their leaves by the bucket load on my shed roof and corrode the gutters. Best to remove them altogether and here’s a tip for free, clean up that scrubby undergrowth while you’re at it else you’ll get those damn bandicoots making holes in your lawn.’
‘Thank you Ivan, good to meet you.’ Gussie was buying time. ‘Thanks for your offer of help. I’ll get back to you. But look, I do love trees, that’s why I bought this cottage.’
‘There’s a lot of fools in this town,’ Ivan snapped. ‘I was a dairy farmer for years, a man of the land, and I can tell you there’s as little as a metre of top soil round here so that big bugger there is perched on solid rock and it’ll only take a good puff of August wind to smash in my roof, or yours. You can’t say you weren’t warned. That useless council of ours will find itself in court one day sued to the hilt, mark my words.’
Gussie was alarmed. The twenty-metre angophora swayed gently from side to side as if to deny Ivan’s accusation that it was unstable.
‘I’ve got some spare weed killer you can splash about the place. Unless you want ticks, that is. Those bandicoots are lousy with paralysis ticks.’
Artie had pulled the cord repeatedly until the motor caught and started puffing out oily blue smoke that overwhelmed even the scent of the gardenia.
‘Righto, we’re outta here, fish are biting. Thanks for the chat. Neighbours should rub along nicely don’t you think? Norma and me, you won’t hear a peep out of us, we’re away a lot—play a lot of bowls.’
At the clothesline, Norma wished Ivan would leave the new neighbour alone – she looked harmless enough with her fluffy hair, scrubbed face and big brown eyes. Too thin. For some reason Norma remembered that winter on the farm when her favourite jersey, Sweetpea, had calved on a Tuesday and wouldn’t stand up for three days no matter how hard she tried to budge her. Sweetpea had looked up at her with those big, trusting, brown eyes, struggled to her feet, wobbled like a weightlifter and slumped back down to the ground, sighing audibly. Norma thought she was in mourning for her newborn calf, snatched away for veal. Ivan brooked no argument. It was a magnesium deficiency plain and simple. Pet food people would be out on Friday.
Norma stabbed the peg into the band of his undies.
She was sick to her stomach when he wanted it again – all due to his creepy friend Artie and his Viagra. She wasn’t the only postmenopausal woman in her early 70s who wished the little blue pill had never been invented. He was carrying on like a scrub bull.
‘Cup of tea Norma love,’ he commanded.
She forced a smile.
That bludger Artie would want one too, and cake. She thought retirement would change things. She wished she was on her own.
Inside her cottage Gussie was shaken. Ivan had ruined her reverie with his trespass, his thin lips issuing a death threat to her trees.
Neighbour troubles. She had to think carefully. She remembered Boris, her Russian Blue, mauled by an aggrieved neighbour’s pit bull. The memory of Boris in agony dying slowly of a punctured bowel still brought tears to her eyes.
She shuffled her Tarot cards and turned over the Knight of Cups, a messenger, a proposition.
Mars, the God of War, was closer to the earth than it had been in the last 70,000 years. The Neanderthals would have gazed at the red planet last time it was this close. Back then extremes of climate had pushed us to the edge of extinction. There were just 2,000 humans scratching out a living in isolated little groups in Africa, nearly wiped out by drought. Look at us now, a swarm over the earth.
Fighting always made her tired. Even when she said nothing.
In her kitchen Norma was staring out the window fixedly just as she was that frosty morning years ago when the truck had arrived to take away Sweetpea. She had intended to keep busy, pretend it wasn’t happening, but the dogs were barking and she looked out the window at the exact moment the pet food truck had reversed into the paddock. Cows can smell death. They can sense their fate. Norma watched in horror as Sweetpea rolled back her eyes, mooing loudly in short bursts and trying desperately to struggle to her feet before the man shot her dead.
The jug whistled and she made up her mind in a flash. She’d ask that new neighbour to help. She daren’t tell Ivan about the sick black and white cat she’d found in a broken down laundry in an overgrown yard two houses down. He killed bandicoots with his golf club and slung their bodies into the garbage bin, he’d dispatch the cat in the same manner, she was sure.
‘I could murder a cuppa,’ Ivan said, grabbing her from behind.
‘I told that little bitch to clean up her yard, or else!’
She twisted out of his grasp. Artie grinned like the village idiot he was.
In August, when the ski crowd are still drinking Cosmopolitans at Perisher, the bush sends up a spike. Then another. The buds begin to fatten and small black and yellow honeyeaters swing off the stalks. Every day Gussie checked on the plant with the hard serrated leaves and woody stem. Ordinary. This greatest of beauties undresses slowly, white at first then unfurling into scarlet. The October long weekend arrived. The waratah was fully open, but a rough hand found the rare bloom, broke its neck, stripped it from the stalk, probably stuck it in a wine bottle on a table in a weekender.
She set aside the Tarot and struck out for a walk in the bush, picking some musky boronia for Stu, the smiley old gent she’d met at the general store. She’d given him a lift home and he’d repaid her with armfuls of lemons. His garden was full of natives and his lawn was full of holes.
Stu asked Gussie if she’d seen any waratahs in the bush.
He told her how in the 1960s the peninsula was smeared red with blooms and how every year on Waratah Day, Sydneysiders would arrive in their droves, reverse their cars into the bush and dig out the flowering plants by the boot load. ‘They all died of course,’ he said. ‘Now there are none.’
Gussie and Stu shrugged off being the only nation to eat the animals on the coat of arms—the emu and the kangaroo—but to decimate the floral emblem of New South Wales without a backwards glance seemed more akin to vandalism than patriotism.
Stu was 90 years old.
Every day for eight years he’d dressed carefully, driven to the nursing home in town to sit with his wife who’d had a severe stroke. When she finished her lunch he kissed her goodbye. The second he left her it was like he was never there.
‘Oh and there were Christmas bells too, everywhere you looked. Red with yellow tips.’ Stu remembered everything.
As Gussie was leaving the old man patted her shoulder and whispered, ‘I’ll tell you what, you might find some waratahs by the old power station.’
Gussie put down the newspaper, forced to agree with the columnist who had told an inconvenient truth about her former hometown when he asserted Sydney was not a lovely place in winter. Richard Ackland wrote about the city losing its soul, “The CBD is a biting wind tunnel, [the] granite footpaths are stained with the grease from spilled milkshakes, the sun is thin, the faces chapped and there’s a pervading pong of rotten cooking oil and urine.
“Sydney’s what you get when the developers run the place. Badly designed, cheaply finished buildings,” he wrote.
Yes, they picked all the waratahs in Sydney too, stuffed them into the boots of Big Yellow Taxis . . . “Paved paradise, put up a parking lot . . .”
She shuffled the deck and pulled a card. The Nine of Swords – suffering, loss, misery.
It was wet underfoot but exhilarating to be outside. Gussie felt her strength rising like sap, her fitness improving with the daily walks along the beach. Today the sea was whipped up and tipped with white foam, a lone pelican on a rock unperturbed by the spume. At the ti-tree stream the colour of coca-cola she watched a blue heron stand stock still in the reeds while a white-breasted sea eagle wheeled overhead.
Why had she stayed with Scotty for so long? She remembered how the gaps in their conversations had gotten bigger and bigger the more he smoked pot. He was never present in the end, a red-eyed outsider witnessing their marriage wither and die like it was happening to somebody else. City boy that he was, Scotty would run on fantasy after a joint imagining them living on a lifestyle block in the bush, and not in their small, shabby flat in the inner west of the city. For years she hadn’t wanted sex with Scotty, although she still touched herself, stealing the desire that should have been theirs to share. She wasn’t dead inside, yet. She had come to dread sleeping in the same bed as Scotty who stank of nicotine and marijuana, his morning breath like rank flower water, his unshaven face like sandpaper. He’d open his eyes, roll over and reach for the filthy bong beside the bed and she would hear the water gurgling from the kitchen where she sipped her peppermint tea in quiet despair.
Scotty dismissed marijuana as a harmless drug but after twenty years of daily smoking he was a shell. It clouded his judgment, triggered depression and sapped his motivation until Gussie felt she had a baby instead of a husband. Scotty had a favourite armchair, his spaceship, she called it, and he would smoke a joint and take off for somewhere else, leaving her behind to cook dinner and wash the dishes, and so they served out their long sentence together.
She forced herself to stop thinking about Scotty. He was someone else’s problem now, and good luck to her!
Gussie screamed at Ivan to stop. He had pushed a ladder up against the trunk of her melaleuca and was slicing away at the pink fleshy limbs that gave the paperbark its common name. The tree that had that morning been covered in dense clusters of pale yellow flowers looked skeletal, bare and misshapen. She had invited Stu for dinner on Sunday and was planning to serve seared salmon steaks, seasoned with ground lemon myrtle baked in paperbark parcels.
Ivan cut the chainsaw and climbed down.
‘Keep your shirt on, love. The tree’ll thicken up after a good prune.’
She kept her voice low. She knew that most people regretted what they did not do in life, not what they did.
‘I’ve checked and it’s against the council by-laws to cut a tree over three metres high without permission. You are also trespassing. I’m going to call the Ranger and report you for this.’
‘We had an agreement young lady.’ He smiled slyly. ‘Remember how you said I could trim this tree to stop my gutters getting clogged up with leaves.’
Artie appeared on cue.
‘He heard you say it too,’ Ivan pointed to his mate who looked like a nodding dog in the rear window of a car.
‘Get off my land!’
Ivan hopped over the fence, picked up the sawn branches and tossed them into her yard, crushing the gardenia.
Breathless with rage, Gussie sank to her knees and cried. Would she never stop being bullied?
Who am I? What is my purpose? What do I need today? These are the three questions asked by Raj Yogis the second they open their eyes.
It was 3:00am, and the callistemon was scratching against her window. Beau was awake too, purring softly but it was too dark to make out his vivid white bib or paws.
I am Gussie, she thought, a seeker. What is my purpose? Gussie thought about the cancer that hadn’t killed her. She had been spared, but what for? Well she’d saved Beau’s life and in the great scheme of things perhaps that would count for something if God was a cat lover.
What do I need today?
Beau was nuzzling her cheek when all of sudden he growled softly and leapt off the bed. He scratched at the screen door but Gussie would not let him outside at night. Cats were crepuscular – they hunted at dusk and dawn, so she kept him inside till at least six. She patted his little black head and he mewled delightedly.
Ivan put down the brace‘n’bit. He’d drilled four fifteen-centimetre holes diagonally down into the trunk and poured in the herbicide. Once the poison invades the tree, it stops the root system taking in water, staunching the flow of nutrients and minerals. He was working quickly to seal the holes with epoxy when a light went on in the bitch’s house.
The screen door creaked and she stood on the porch, the light forming a halo round her head. Ivan stayed dead still and laid low in the scrub behind the tree trunk.
Too much cloud cover to see Mars, Gussie went inside.
Norma was wide-awake too. And she had a splitting headache. She knew what her husband was up to. She was so tired.
She’d seen it all before, the roots and leaves withering and the trunk looking crazed as it slowly rotted from the inside out. She’d watched him take out three thirty-metre eucalypts next door where the Maltese had a weekender. It was a slow, horrible death – two years before the tree removal firm came and took them away.
She felt like one of his victims too. Slowly poisoned over fifty years of marriage.
She reached for her tablets.
Norma felt strangely light-headed, and as she struggled to sit up she remembered Sweetpea and she knew she too was going to die.