Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: America

Grandfather

Please note: Adult content, violence, and characters using racist vernacular.
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1

I don’t know why we called her Lazy Susan, no idea if her name was even Susan. She weren’t lazy, worked as hard as any other hand, never complained, rode drag with her face mostly covered and her eyes slitted, said nothing about it, said little anyways. Bout the most I ever heard her say was one evening when we’d scrubbed our plates with dirt and were drinking coffee, and got to talking about who was the craziest bastard we ever knowed. She’d been listening, furrowing the ground in front of her with one boot heel like she was getting riled, losing patience, like she thought we thought how in hell could she know anyone crazy. She almost interrupted the tail end of someone else’s story, like she was a kid scared not to get a turn, started off to tell her story and we shut up to listen. Here’s what she said.

I was working on a station right on the edge of terra nullius when we got a message from our neighbour station to say one of their bonded blackfellas had gone walkabout and would we help ride out and look for him. There was a bounty to be paid. Yeah we have blackfellas in Australia, not like the blokes over here, ours are tall, very straight-backed, naked-arsed, ugly bastards, you get the impression the whole bloody land was made around them if you know what I mean, like they sprung out of trees and rocks. I can’t put it any different way. So a bunch of us got leave, we even had a couple of our own blackfellas, they were churched Bilingara and really good blokes, I liked them. The walkabout we were looking for was Anmatyerre, and they hated his people for some reason and didn’t even speak the same blackfella language as him. There were about six 5of us, and one of us went by the name of Grandfather, because of his white hair and beard, cracked on he was French and had fought in Napoleon’s Guard at Waterloo, but that was a lie cause he’d have had to have been there in his baby dress if anything, and we reckoned he was about a quarter boong himself and no bloody Frenchman. Anyway, for his years he made himself our leftenant and gave us orders. The two Bilingara acted as trackers and we set off with no real idea where to go, just spiralling out from the neighbour’s station. The Bilingara boys reckoned we should’ve just gone straight towards where we knew we’d find Anmatyerre and cut him off, but Grandfather said no.

As it turned out they were just about right, and they picked up what they thought might be a trail on our third day out. A blackfella’s difficult to track, but if anyone can do it then another blackfella can. He had a start on us but he was on foot and we were on horseback. At first from what the trackers could see he was making straight for his people, but then they lost the trail completely and we had to cast about for it. When we picked it up again one of the Bilingara said he’d been a clever sod and waited for a rocky place to cut off at a right angle to the east. So it was obvious he knew he was being chased.

A handful of mornings later we were riding along and Grandfather stood up in his stirrups. There’s the bugger, he yelled. He was squinting straight into the morning sun and swore he’d seen the fugitive standing on one leg, naked, blackfella fashion, on some high ground. We shaded our eyes and looked, but none of us saw anything, but that was enough for Grandfather and he ordered to set out in that direction. One of the Bilingara said that if the bloke had let Grandfather see him that was because he’d wanted to be seen and he wanted us to go in that direction, but that didn’t stop Grandfather. Not one bit.

Well, we saw nothing more that whole day, and eventually we got to this place like I’d never clapped eyes on before. No idea where we were and I couldn’t find that place again if you had me at gunpoint. It was like a red, rocky slope led gently down to a lake, only it wasn’t a lake, or it might have been a lake once but now it was a flat, smooth layer of white salt as far as you could see. And we got there just as the sun was about to go down. Well, we hobbled our horses, got dry wood from wherever we could, and made our camp there right on the edge of the old lake. We made a kind of half-circle, and the firelight reflected on the white salt, boy, I can tell you it was weird. I had the taste of salt on my lips, and it was like I could hear waves lapping on the shore. None of us spoke. The two Bilingaras drew things in the dust and wiped them out as soon as they were finished – that’s the closest anyone came to conversation. We hadn’t found the walkabout bloke and we didn’t think we would. He must have been teasing us and was miles away in another direction by then, taking our chances of bounty with him.

I woke up just before sunrise. The horizon was such a line of angry red that half-asleep I thought I must be staring at the embers of the camp fire. Then I wondered who had put a tree right there in camp. As I came to and my head cleared I first thought it must be some kind of statue dropped from heaven as a joke, then one of us who had got up to go for a piss, then as it moved it suddenly came to me what it was. It was a tall, straight, silent blackfella with a hunting spear notched in a woomera. It was the bloody walkabout bloke standing right there in our camp, about to skewer someone.

3I yelled out, Hey! Blokes startled, began to move, to leap up, and the walkabout let go with his woomera. You can talk about your Apache arrows and your bloody bayonets but there is nothing like the force a woomera can lend a spear close to. There was chaos in the camp, shapes against the red dawn as blokes jumped up and bashed into each other, curses and shouts of what-the-fuck, and one of the Bilingara screaming with the spear right through his thigh. I saw the silhouette of Grandfather, his revolver in his hand, blasting off shots into the darkness. By the time we had stopped panicking and milling about with Grandfather cursing and yelling orders at us, the Bilingara was down again, blood pouring out of his leg. Maybe the walkabout had been aiming for his body, but in the confusion he’d done him just as much damage as if he’d killed him outright. We couldn’t stop the bleeding, and eventually the Bilingara boy just lay there and died quietly, with his mate singing softly to him in their own lingo.

The sun was coming up. Grandfather was up on his toes looking this way and that.

There’s the bastard, there he bloody well is! he shouted suddenly, pointing over towards the flat, white salt. And indeed there was the bloke we were after, crawling away on all-fours, trailing his woomera after him. One or two of Grandfather’s wild shots must have got him and lamed him entirely. Well, the old bloke himself dashed after him before any of the rest of us could move, covering the fifty yards or so like a bloody wallaby. He caught up to the fugitive and, quick as you like, whipped a leather thong round his neck, hoicked his strides down, and shafted him, rode him like a pony as he choked to death. We’d followed him a little way, and we were totally thumpstruck. Our jaws dropped. We didn’t know what the hell to do. When he’d stopped twitching, Grandfather pulled his strides up again, grabbed him by one leg, and started to haul him back to our camp.

Well, we debated what to do with our dead Bilingara. The ground was too hard and dry to bury him deep, but we didn’t want to leave him out for the dingoes, so we scooped away as much dirt as we could with our knives and anything else we could use, laid him in it, and piled stones on top in a kind of cairn. That took us into the afternoon. And where was Grandfather all this time? Well, he had spread out the dead Anmatyerre like Saint Peter on the cross, his arms and legs out like a big letter X, his eyes staring up into the sky, and there was Grandfather sitting and watching the flies settle on him.

We didn’t want to stay around. We were pissed off that our bounty was lying there and we couldn’t redeem him for hard cash, and that one of our blokes was dead. Grandfather said we were staying put to watch what happened.

Watch what? we asked, as a few more flies seemed to come from nowhere, but Grandfather said nothing more, just sat there looking at that dead blackfella. Well we calmed our horses, they’d got pretty scared during all the shenanigans and were sweating, rolling their eyes, threatening to buck and trip themselves in their hobbles. We didn’t want to be walking back or sharing one horse to three blokes or something. We packed up our gear. We made sure the cairn over our dead hand was secure, put a couple more stones on it for good luck, stood round with our hats off and mumbled a few words, and all the time Grandfather just sat there looking at the corpse he’d stretched out. We told him it was time to go.

We’re not going anywhere, he said.

Look, let’s make a scrape in the salt as best we can and bury this bastard in it, that way he may not bring dingoes here to dig up our mate, I said. I moved forward but found Grandfather’s revolver being waved under my nose. I stood my ground while he weighed up whether to shoot me and maybe a couple of the others as well, and how he’d explain that back at the station.

Look we’ve got to go, I said.

There’s nothing bloody stopping you!

And there wasn’t. we got on our horses and rode off, leaving him there. Let him stay there forever and watch the dead bloke rot and rot himself, we thought. At least I did. The others were pretty pissed off too. But he caught up with us a week later, on the back leg of our ride home to the station. He told us he had moved a couple of hundred yards off and watched through his old field glasses while the dingoes came and ate the dead fugitive, and once that was all over there was no need for him to stay. He talked about it calmly, like it was an everyday happening. Then just as calmly he told us that we’d all say we hadn’t found the Anmatyerre, and that out Bilingara bloke had fallen of his horse and broke his neck. We said nothing, just looked at each other, no way was he our leftenant any more to be giving orders about who’d say what.

When we got back to the station the neighbour was there along with our boss. Grandfather stepped forward right away before anyone else could speak and gave his version of what had happened.

Bollocks, said the boss and gave Grandfather the sack there and then. So off he went and we never saw him again. Now that might not seem like much to you, maybe you know blokes who have done crazier-looking things than buggering a dying blackfella and watching dingoes eat him, but I’d bet on Grandfather as the craziest inside.

That was Lazy Susan’s story and it was the most any of us had ever heard her say. After she finished we all went quiet for a while. No one else volunteered any crazy bastard stories.

What brought you to America? someone asked eventually.

A bloody great boat, said Lazy Susan. And that put the lid on any more talk completely.

See, the thing is, it occurs to me that Lazy Susan was more than a little crazy herself. A few nights after this one of the other hands tried to jump her and she clawed one of his eyes out, just like that. Mad with pain and rage he went after her again, swearing he’d kill her. She let him come on, let him get close, then curled one arm behind him and buried her knife in the back of his neck. Then she just stood there with her hands on her hips and watched him waltzing round and round trying to reach it and pull it out. Then she stood and watched as he crawled round doing the same. Then she stood and watched as he lay face down still with one arm crooked backwards awkwardly and his fingers scrabbling for the knife. She stood there until he stopped twitching, then she put one foot on his back, reached down and pulled out her knife, wiped it on the leg of his pants, and sheathed it. The trail boss was mad at losing a hand, but he wasn’t going to risk another one by telling Lazy Susan to get out. She was one of the best hands he had.

As it turned out he ended up losing four hands altogether. Two of the boys had been whispering about the Lost Dutchman Mine and they lit out one night. We heard them ride away, but by the time anyone was up it was too late to go after them, and anyways we couldn’t leave the herd. Then one morning Lazy Susan was gone too. God knows where and without getting paid off. Most like she shipped back to Australia, had enough of America, but I can’t shake the notion that she’s maybe on some bluff, up there on one leg, naked and straight-backed as one of her wild blackfellas, and it was her telling the story of old Grandfather that put it in her mind. Or in mine.

6

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©Marie Marshall

The Ballad of the Loyalist

The old North Bridge, Concord MA.

The old North Bridge, Concord MA.

I’ve a couple of reasons for posting the poem below. Firstly I’m continuing to let today’s readers get to know my older writing. Secondly I’ve recently been discussing alternative views of history, in particular the imperative to strip away the gilding that patriotism has put on certain things. In 2008 I was invited to contribute a poem about the American Revolutionary War of the 1770s. I decided to use an old form – the ballad – and write from the point of view of what we used to call a Native American, before that term came to be used of the aboriginal people of that continent, that is to say a white farmer; this particular individual was amongst the large section of the population – getting on for half, I believe – whose political inclination was towards loyalty to the Crown. The poem became an exercise in imagination and a calling-into-question of war, as well as in the repetitive structure of the ballad and its metrical integrity. I hope you enjoy it and, if you’re American, I hope you don’t mind being asked to see things from another point of view. [Note on formatting: I find I’m unable to indent alternate lines, as originally typeset; this alters the visual impact of the poem a little, and for this I apologise.]

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                   The Ballad of the Loyalist

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

I was raised upon this soil – a New England farm my toil –
and brought up a faithful subject of the Crown.
Though the rebels cussed and swore at the scarlet coat I wore,
I fought for King George, to put sedition down!
Though it gives some people pause, there’s a true and loyal cause,
there’s a greater good, a better song to sing;
In the tavern by the forge, a good health to German George
I would drink, and wish a long life to our King.

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

Though the contrabandiers’ plaint seemed legitimate – it ain’t –
for the tea they dumped at Boston, it was cheap!
Contrabandiers hated tax, but our English laws were lax;
As the rebels sowed, as surely they would reap!
And the contrabaniers’ ploy – throwing snowballs at a boy –
there were stones inside them to provoke a fight…
Then a “massacre” they cried, and though many people died
now their propaganda hides the truth from sight.

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

With a Hessian on my left, and my gun at shoulder-heft,
I marched bravely from my Massachusetts farm;
With a Mohawk at my side, I set off to stem the tide
of sedition, and protect the Law from harm.
Though the foe that I did face was like me, of native race,
it was he who marched to perpetrate a lie;
Though our culture was the same – why, I even knew his name –
we were mortal, and each one of us could die.

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

Maybe things ain’t as they’re taught, maybe war is good for naught –
there were heroes, there were villains on each side;
If a monument you’d raise, or you’d sing a song of praise,
then kneel on the ground where we all fought and died,
Search among the mould and spall, till you find a musket ball,
and make that your icon, set it up on high –
Such a thing can stop your breath, save your life, or bring you death…
think upon it when you ask a man to die!

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

So I fell, and now the bones of poor farmer William Jones
lie beneath his native clay in silent rest,
On a Massachusetts farm, far from trumpet’s shrill alarm,
I would seem to sleep the slumber of the blessed.
But my lonely ghost now walks with a thousand others, stalks
o’er the old North Bridge. The beauty of the scene
Belies all the pain and blood, all the marching and the mud –
we march into dark, as though we’d never been…

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones –
Through the snowy winter night, in the deathly pale moonlight,
with my spectre-comrades, dressed in blue or red.
All you people of the town, safe beneath your eiderdown,
think not on us… no… for we are all long dead!

 

A day on the streets of Freedonia

Betsy Ross

I love America. This is a pretty startling statement for an infrequent visitor (to say the least), and an anti-capitalist at that, to make. The USA is an amazing, diverse, vibrant, colourful country. It gave us the 1957 Chevy Belair, the Fender Stratocaster, Jazz, the Harley Davidson 883, the USAF A2 leather jacket, and so much more – all products of the capitalism that I dislike so much. But I didn’t drag you here today to discuss my contradictory values, or my politics.

I have been reading some interesting pieces recently, following the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the commemorative vigil, the dignified public silence, which followed it. The thrust of these pieces has been to highlight or to question the public perception of and news coverage of violent death. Why – these pieces seem to have said – does a handful of deaths in a ‘terrorist’ incident bring out crowds of respectful mourners, yet the larger number of regular deaths by privately-owned guns warrant no equivalent coverage in the media and no equivalent demonstration of dignified public mourning. Here’s one such recent piece in The New Yorker, entitled ‘What if the Tsarnaevs had been “The Boston Shooters”?’

Now, this isn’t a political blog. I wrote elsewhere about gun ownership and the difference in the perceptions of freedom in countries that have grown up with and without private ownership of guns in their respective cultures. However, it is true that the ‘consumable information’ (a term I prefer to use for ‘news’) offered in the USA does prioritize in this way, and that the public’s perception is swayed by the mention of ‘terrorism’. To introduce the issue of death by guns, to give those deaths equality in the daily ration of ‘consumable information’ and in the public’s perception of what one should mourn would, however, touch a raw nerve in some people to whom the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is a matter of supreme importance in their personal philosophy. Thus people who raise the question of mourning gun deaths must tread on eggshells, no matter how often they might say that the issue is not about gun ownership, much less about gun control. Thus the question is, in effect, not put.

Let’s look at it another way. Let’s take guns out of the picture. You live in a country – let’s call it ‘Freedonia’, not the USA – where everyone is free to own an automobile. Nobody disputes that right, but equally you are free to not own one – you can travel by bus, by bicycle, by horse-and-buggy, and some people do just that. There has just been a dreadful incident at a public event; some people have been killed, others maimed, all shocked, by a bomb blast. A couple of days later people all come out into the public gaze and stand silently to mourn those who died, and to think about and pray for those who are injured or bereaved. Maybe you join the vigil too. But whether you do or not, the thought occurs to you that people die in greater numbers in accidents on the streets and roads, that the news broadcasts and newspapers hardly mention them, that no one comes out and publicly mourns them, and you want to do something about it. Most likely you wouldn’t dream of saying that people ought not to own cars, or that the Government ought to restrict that ownership by drastic legislation; but still you believe that you have found an anomaly, an imbalance, in the perception that you yourself had hitherto, and that the majority of other people still have. You want to make a difference. You want to change that perception.

So you find some like-minded individuals, and you decide to meet in a public place, for five minutes each week, and hold a silent vigil to mourn those affected by road accidents. You give as much public notice as you can about these vigils – you get permission to use the public place, you let the police know (and presumably they tell you what you can and can’t do, vis-à-vis causing an obstruction etc.), you inform local and national media, you blog it, put it on Facebook, tweet it – and you go and do it. Over an over you will, of course, have to keep assuring people that this isn’t about banning cars, restricting their ownership, or anything like that; you yourself might be the proud owner of a vintage Ford Cobra. You might have to endure some noisy protests from the local car club, who don’t understand or don’t believe you. You might feel pressure from the Automotive and Oil industries’ lobbyists. But you keep on doing it, keep up the silent mourning, keep on telling the media what you are doing, keep on telling everyone “It’s not about car ownership…”

Eventually more and more people may join you, the vigils may spread to other cities around Freedonia, and you might change public perception on the matter. You might change the way news agendas are prioritized. You might not. One thing is sure, however, and that is unless you try you’ll never know.

My respect to the people affected by the Boston bombing. My respect also to the people who wish to address the imbalance in public perception.

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