The Autumn Dog

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Race relations-Australia

Submitted: July 04, 2007

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 04, 2007



The man and the dog lived in a flat built in the 1970s. Chocolate brick, squat and square. Featureless except for a window looking onto the park. It let in some light and framed the giant elms loosening their autumn quarry on the hair-cut lawns below. Lying on a sofa, the man looked at the dog near the window. His coat blended into the tumbling autumn leaves outside, his whiskers twitched electrically, he had a gluey sponge snout and thick musky fur. Predictably, in the evanescent light, the dog ceased snoring, stretched limitlessly and tottered toward the front door. An operetta of flea killing and heavy snuffling ensued until the man was on his feet with the leash jangling in his hand. Gingerly, the man opened the door and the two went out into the frigid May air.

In the park, the cattle dog loved to round things up. On occasion, the man would have to rescue an unsuspecting passer-by who had been mistaken for a cow. Most of the time the dog’s charm could get the man out of trouble, but not always. Not everyone was as taken by the dog as the man. As he watched the dog rolling in the grass, the man noticed the skies had darkened, so he called the dog over and made for shelter. When he sat down under cover, he realised, as he had a lot recently, that he was out of breath. Suddenly, he found himself drifting into a peaceful sleep. Dreaming, he saw a picture of his past, a glossy postcard of an atoll in Belize. Sunny faces against blue back-drops, glistening shark offal on jettys, palm trees silhouetting bleached bungalow walls. Only the sound of a booming thunder-clap brought him back to the park. When he awoke, he was dismayed by what he saw. The dog was attempting to corall a family of small children through the gate on the far side. But the mother was having none of it and successfully ushered the dog through instead. Not fully woken from his reverie, the man began to stagger after the dog.

He was too late, the dog had disappeared from the street. Suddenly he began to panic. What if he never saw his dog again? He rushed headlong down the street, struggling to keep his feet. A group of workmen who were planting an underground cable, began to laugh. To his surprise, however, one of the workmen spoke to him.

“Ya dog … went in there”.

He pointed at a house. The house looked ill, much like he felt. Just as he looked down the driveway at the side of the house, he saw the incandescent bushy tail of the cattle dog poking through a disturbed paling. As the man made for the back fence, the tail disappeared. Through the gap in the palings, the man could see that the house was bigger than it appeared at the front. The yard was filled with half a century's hand-me-downs. Ubiquitous springs bubbled and fizzed out of rotten mattresses, shards of crockery, scattered jaundiced newspapers and the carcass of a fishing boat lay about. The yard was a dump. But beyond that, through the window of a collapsed back porch the man saw something he'd never seen before. Someone else, a Koori woman, was feeding his dog. There had never been a reason for anybody else to feed the dog. In exchange for food and shelter, the man got undivided loyalty. He recalled the scene at the lost dogs home. The endless corridors of wire and concrete and the overwhelming stench of waste. Dog death row, where he spotted the cattle dog pup. The look in the eye, pathetic but magnetic, the extraordinary coat of autumn colours. The eyes that narrowed when he slowly unfastened the latch. The very first time he looked at the face not patterned by wire. The inexplicable joy of holding him. The radial warmth that he was now without. Transfixed, he watched as the dog now joined the Koori who sat in a worn armchair. The Koori did not look healthy. In fact, she was rather gaunt. Her cheeks were sunken and her face was barely visible behind a mass of straggly hair. She appeared quite young however and continued to talk and pat the dog. They even appeared to enjoy a joke. Then the woman did something peculiar. She began to scrabble amongst some paraphernalia on the table in front of her. She picked up a paint can and a plastic bag and began to spray the contents inside. She covered her nostrils with the bag and began to inhale at first slowly and then rather violently. When at last she pulled her face away from the bag, she sank back into the armchair, her shoulders visibly slackened. Then her eyes closed and she stopped moving. The man was not quite sure what to do, so he began to shout and rock the fence. Fortunately, the Koori heard the noise and sat up. In fact, she got to her feet and like a puppet on a string, engaged in a series of jerky dance movements. Initially, the dog joined in the revelry, but when the Koori fell over in hysterics, the dog sensed danger and made a run for it. He muscled through the torn fly-wire of the back door and came to the man through the gap in the fence. The man swore harshly at the dog for running away, but in a sudden wave of relief, clipped the leash to his collar and led him home.

When he got back to the flat, he mulled over the incident at the Kooris. He looked at his own life, represented in photographs pinned to the wall. A travel writer, who no longer travelled. Fading pictures that told exotic stories. Shots of Fidel and Uncle Ho in a Vietnamese restaurant in Cuba, a child assassin in Sierra Leone, people clambering over a crumbling Berlin Wall, the favellas in Rio. There was pain in the faces, but their pain seemed so long ago, so faraway. Here was a pain immediate, unnoticed and in the next street. Like a struck match, words like 'Tent Embassy', Eddie Mabo, Bringing them home, 'compact' and parts of Keating's ‘Redfern speech’ “we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us” lit up in his head. Uneasily he stroked the dog and thought about his 'first contact' that morning. How much he thought he knew about the Kooris and the fact that he’d never actually met one. How though, they seemed remote, they were in fact very close. How the morning's event had finally pricked his boil of guilt. A guilt that he hadn't been able to accept what had happened to the first people of terra australis. Not long after the man first saw the Koori, he received the very worst news. He had terminal cancer and had only months to live. The medical advice amounted to an inoperable coronary tumour that was eating him inside out. The man knew a lot about cancer and its devastating effects. He'd lost friends to it. He knew about voracious tumours, their impartiality, the statistics, and the strangely elusive cure. And now it was his turn. Maybe he shouldn't have been shocked. He'd had a good innings, he'd travelled, he'd lived life to the full. But what of the future? What do you do in the last three months of your life? Suddenly the man began to weigh-up the solitary life that he had always treasured. He began to think about the things he wanted to do and hadn't done, the people he wanted to meet, the questions he wanted answered. To all the questions spilling out like grain from a sack, he knew he had only one of the answers. His last months would not be spent hooked to a drip in a hospital bed.

And so, a few days later, a surprised Koori opened the front door to the man and the dog. She was not stoned, and recognised the dog instantly. For a few anxious moments, she checked the man out for signs of officialdom, but then bent down to give the dog a warm embrace. Then she looked up into the nervous eyes of the ill man.

“Ya wanna come in?”

He tried to mask his middleclassness, but nothing he'd seen anywhere overseas could have prepared him for what was going on in the house. It stank of unwashed clothes. There were no fixtures or upholstery, save for the odd mattress and graffiti art on the walls. Floor-boards and window panes were missing or broken and in some rooms open fires had been lit in holes dug in the floor. Around the fires, sat shadowy figures, sniffing something toxic out of bags like horses at a spoiled trough. But through all this, at the other end of the pot-holed hall, the Koori was smiling brilliantly, beckoning him to come out into the yard. The man and the dog obliged, negotiating a path down the hall, past an empty kitchen and a battle-scarred living room with the threadbare armchair.

“Can’t keep youse away from the place” “Ya not lookin to score, are ya?” But as soon as the words were out of her mouth she began to guffaw uproariously. “Ya bloody look like you need some’un but, ya look as sick as a dog.”

The man looked at the Koori. Up close, in the sharp winter sunlight, he could make out her features more clearly. She was just a kid, fifteen, maybe sixteen. Very pretty, but with the demeanour of a war-veteran.

“I am as sick … In fact, shortly I’m going to die”, the man replied.

The toothy grin of the Koori disappeared. “Ya jokin'?”

“I need your help. I want to see … your country.”

“Ya really are off ya head.” “My country gave birth to that mob.”

She pointed back in the direction of the house.There was an interminable silence, broken finally by a playful woof of the dog.

“Look. I haven't got a lot of time,” the man said almost impatiently.

“Ya really wanna meet my crowd … The Aorta. People of the big river.”

Despite the sarcasm, the man thought he detected a fleck of pride.

“But I can't take ya there.”

“Why not?” “The people … are sick people, always drunk. They're up to no good. I can't stay there, its worse than 'ere. Women, girls like me, aren't safe.”

“How long have you been here?”

“The squat. A coupla months. Plenty a places to hide in the city.”

The flashing smile returned.

Right then, a young man's slurred voice sounded behind him.

“Nel, we're outta here, we'll see youse later.”

“Yeah, right Maurice.”

“See ya grandad.”

The man turned to face a crowd of stoned young faces, sluggishly deriding the picture of him in a hunting jacket with a cattle dog in the trashed yard. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. As the tumour took its first major bite, he collapsed like an ironing-board. The man regained consciousness with Nel looking down on him.

“Ya know you should be in hospital. Forget the Aorta.”

The man stayed silent for a while and then said, “I want you to have the dog, when it's over.”

A week later, with his tent and prescriptions packed, the inner-city suburbs were disappearing from view out the back of Maurice's car. His sick heart pounded with nostalgia and anticipation. Nel and him had swapped lives. He was the one who would die on the mission. She was the one who would take on the responsibilities of the flat and the dog. He'd left her everything he owned … she'd have to get straight. It might have been a neat swap, but each knew they still faced a great hurdle, acceptance. When the man got to the mission, most of the community, including some of the elders, rejected him outright. He was unprepared for the alcohol and vitriol, for people who were as sick as he was. The settlement itself was like the squat transplanted in the river country. The community had abandoned the shelters for tarpaulins staked in the ground. Underneath these vast flapping canvas hangars, the Koori tragedy played out. Men and women, frittered away their welfare cheques in filthy rags, drunken insults and a wholly pointless existence. Fights, even murder and whispers of child abuse were routinely investigated by cops from out of town.A friendly elder, Jimmy Carradine, told the man the hate and the self-hate came from losing the land, from having the old ways trampled all over. The hate was bred, generation to generation, it would take many more years than either of them had, to breed it out. Shrugging his shoulders, he said some of the Aorta might never get it together, like Nel's father who was back in the clink.

Jimmy eased the man's pain in the final weeks. When the man got too weak, Jimmy got him provisions from the store. He said he'd had respect for white fellows since Fred Hollows' mob had come to the mission and fixed his eyes. He helped the man set up his tent and stove in a glorious position, in a stand of towering ghost gums down by the black-tea river billabong. He accepted the man’s request to be buried there. And in the last few days of his life, Jimmy told him about the Aorta, about the identities, the culture, the way of life that the young ones like Nel had to revive. He told him about the land. How the spirit and energy of the Aorta was invested in the river and the trees and how he and the Aorta were in the court's right now, fighting to the death to get it back. It was on one of those nights, with Jimmy and the dog by the river, that he took a swig of liquid morphine, lay back in his swag, looked up at the stars and passed away.

© Copyright 2019 Sam Bunny. All rights reserved.

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