His home is in the dense jungle along the banks of the Liverpool River. Should anyone venture into that jungle Garkain, who can fly as well as walk, will wrap himself around the intruder, and smother him with the loose folds of skin which are attached to his arms and legs.
—Charles P. Mountford, The First Sunrise, 1971
The morning after the last fragile, infant banana tree gave up the ghost and curled in yellow upon itself, Jan Eccles walked the boundaries of his claim and found the ashy remains of a pit fire, and the charred scraps of his bull buffalo within. The cooking pit was downwind from the shanty, and carefully backed against spreading to the grasses that were almost entirely dry in the heat of the Arnhem Land winter. Soon the blackfellows would burn it away, laying the ground bare and ruining good timber.
At least it looked like good timber, but everything was deceiving in this hellhole he’d made his home. Winter was dry and hot while summer was wet and gave lie to the promise of rich farms ringing Victoria Settlement like a ring of pearls; crops were planted with the summer rains in mind and winter killed them with its omnipresent, near-windless heat. Trees that grew straight and strong-looking, forged by God for first-rates’ masts and roof beams, splintered at the kiss of the ax. Fish, hooked at risk from a river infested with a bull crocodile and his harem, looked fat and full of flesh, but proved oily, rank, and so full of little bones as to be all but inedible. But they ate them, by damn, they ate all they could, and boiled the fish for its rancid broth.
The boy-child was growing gaunt here, fragile looking, his eyes shadowed with hunger and ill-health, and the woman was as bony and sour as the fish. There was talk of leaving Victoria Settlement, he knew — they had lost more men to malaria this past year and what stores were not used up were rotten and full of maggots. The last supply ship to make landfall at Port Essenington reported that the one before her, with fresh shipments of sheep, pigs, Timor ponies and seed had wrecked shy of Groote Eyelet.
Jan squatted and reached for a broken gum branch nearby, remembering too late to check that it wasn’t a snake, slow-bodied and deadly. He was lucky for once: it wasn’t, and he poked at the white, clean-burned detritus desultorily. Here a scrap of bone, of hide, and a smell of burnt flesh that made his mouth water despite the cold clotted taste it left on his tongue. Perhaps there was something left the boy could have. But everything was solid, turned to stone.
A shard of grass pierced the worn side of his boot and he swore automatically, a short unemotional word, like his occasional rutting on Kate had become in this exhausting place. An urge of the loins, nothing companionable or pleasant about it anymore, rolling over upon her warmth in the dark of night when he wasn’t stiffened sore by the digging, the constant chopping at the black soil that looked so fertile. Any seed spilled there should sprout eagerly, but it was all part of the fool trick the land played over and over.
He peered into the low scrub. There was pack of them out beyond the far stand of gums, those black ashy vermin: two or three men, one grizzled and lumpy with age, more women, a swarm of brats. Kate had seen them while he was pouring water on the bananas, trying to coax some green out of them. They passed her while she wrung out the laundry in graywater, not a hundred feet away, and scared the poor slut near out her wits. Like a dozen of ghosts, she told him later, black as sin save for one infant slung over its dam’s back, pale against her skin. She didn’t dare scream in case they turned on her in their savagery, good for nothing but burning good land and stealing cattle.
The forest by the river opened like a great hole into the heart of the world. Jan still held the stick against his thigh. He’d walk at the edge of the trees and spy them out under the shelter of the gums. The grass was still piercing his boot and on impulse he shook away his tattered footwear. The air felt cool on his skin.
The leaves of the gums were dry in the winter heat but green still, and the space beneath them black and blacker. He ventured into their embrace, his head full of the musky smell of decay underfoot. He walked carefully, silently, watching for prickles or snakes, and had a sudden impulse to strip himself bare and harden in the hot bush air like a turtle stripped of its shell.
Something stirred in the lower branches of the trees, by the darkness where the water trickled. A big animal that stirred from its rest and elongated itself from branch to branch. He squinted at it and it was still: the trees were still, no breeze, birds silent and only the long tinkle of water low in the riverbed like the distant sound of a child smashing glass. For a second his heart slowed, his sense of all that surrounded him sinking through his body until it puddled at his feet; he knew only warm space and rotted leaves and one brittle sound. For a second he was at peace.
Then with a shrill scream the creature in the trees launched at him, extremities spread wide and wings could it be an enormous bat or bird that seemed to reach for him, and in the last instant before his body could react and turn and run he smelled leather, musty and sour, and it embraced him.
By now nothing I see on the shores of this God-forgot island should surprise me, but when a white man (a misnomer, perhaps, for he was burned red all about the face and bald head, and limbs that protruded from his tattered clothing, and profoundly leathery, and our sailors were fair maids in comparison) came staggering from the trees at the mouth of the river where it came to meet the sea I did jump, my heart between my teeth, and grabbed for my weapon. Klaus was making fast the boat behind me, and I heard him leave off and stand at my shoulder.
He was in no condition to be dangerous, pitiful thin and legs so weak they shook beneath him, and his rags could hide no weapon. I lowered mine (but kept it close in my left hand) as he came to us, and had I not taken one arm and Klaus the other he would have fallen and, for all I know, shattered all his bones. He clutched at me, his eyes all blue and watery and started to babble.
I have some English and English he was, unless he was mad or lying. I pieced together some of his talk: he was a hand upon a Dutch ship, he said, and left behind.
Beside me, Klaus shook his head.
“The last ship here was the Vajer, ’05 or ’06,” he said in his low rumble. “He’s not been running wild that long.”
The man sobbed and glanced behind him at the woods.
“Garkain,” he said, pointing with a shaky hand, and shrank against us.
At the rim of the trees some dark figures stood — the natives of this place, long and wooly-haired. I tensed, for they could be dangerous, and several carried their long, barb-tipped spears. They held them upright at their sides, however, not poised for battle — peaceful but waiting.
“Garkain?” I looked at Klaus, and he frowned.
“That not what they’re called,” he said, and shrugged.
We half-lifted him into the boat and rowed back, under the piercing, distant glare of the natives. We had to drag him up the side and drop him on deck; the Master gave us the dour eye and told us to take him to Peterson or drop him over the side, whichever we preferred (and sounding as if he’d favor the latter).
Peterson was our ship’s doctor, or closest we had to it, a burly Englishman gone to fat who affected a grimy wig even in this climate. He was drowsing in his clove-smelling chamber but stirred himself when Klaus and I shouldered the castaway in. Klaus left us with a lift of his eyebrow; I stayed, for I was curious.
“Exposure and dehydration,” Peterson rumbled. “And scurvy,” he added, lifting the madman’s lip and exposing the shrunken gums below.
“Says he’s been ashore five years, left by his mates,” I said, and the doctor shook his head.
The castaway suddenly spilled forth a stream of English, too fast for me to pick out more than a few words, plus that queer term Garkain. The doctor nodded distractedly and felt the sides of his throat, skinny and wattled like a chicken’s.
“What does he say?” I asked.
“Delirious,” he replied. “Says he’s been walking the river-bottom. Says he’s a marked man.”
There was a raised ridge just aside the castaway’s collarbone, the right side as I remember, with a dark slit to one end as if something has been inserted beneath. Peterson touched the skin beneath it lightly, and the man twitched away, shaking.
“There’s something beneath,” said the doctor. “I must take it out, though it’s not infected, by some miracle. Go above, Miklos, before the Master docks your pay. I’ll keep him with me this night, since the lot of you are damnably healthy this side of the equator.”
That night when a prau of Maccassan traders came alongside with casks of their sweet, sharp liquor for the trading, and we let them aboard and killed one of the sheep, we asked about that word, Garkain, and the blackfellows like silent witnesses, and their boatmaster, a burly, jolly Islandman with a fine mouthful of gold-jacketed teeth, laughed and flashed them in the firelight.
“Such is an efreet, a spook of theirs,” he said, in passable French. As I said, little I see or hear surprised me in this land. “One of their spirits, or little gods perhaps, who lives upriver and in the trees. He — it — is like a bat, or flying rat, all skin between wrist and ankle, and it flies between the trees, and for the most part keeps to itself. But if it’s interfered with, they say, it flies upon a man — or woman — or child, and smothers in within its own flesh, wrapping them up tight like a swaddled babe.”
“He says it has marked him,” I said, my hand rising involuntarily to my shoulder, although he couldn’t understand the gesture.
He laughed. “If he’s an English, as you say, he’s mad. And this land is full of little gods. Who knows what he met upriver?”
I nodded, and wondered if he slept finally beneath our feet, in the doctor’s chamber with its smell of liniment and cloves.
Ephemera from the evidence file (Northern Territory Police Association/Alice Springs) pertaining to the investigation of the death of Dr. Henry Loundon: a single page from the administrative museum catalog of the Alice Springs Museum of Indigenous Cultures. The page is legible although a palm-sized area on the lower right is torn, wrinkled, and smudged with paint or blood.
Written addendum on top of page/pencil: Item currently not on exhibit, due to disputed ownership and provenance.
Cab 23 Dr 12 Track 3452: Medicine/sacred bag or pouch (?), 41 cm 18 cm found in the Ewaning Reserve, possibly at a burial site. The stitching utilizes a cured sinew or strip of animal skin and is unusually fine. Previously unknown symbol painted on the exterior, resembling the “evil eye” ward common to Arabic/Semitic sources (interior black dot, ringed alternately with sky blue, white and blue). The symbol is centered, surrounded by the traditional patterns more familiar to students of Aboriginal art, with its many dots and stylized waves.
Cab 23 Dr 12 Track 3453: Item found inside Track 3452, 23 cm flake of green glass worked into a spear point. The material, which has many bubbles and occlusions, resembles that found in middens peculiar to Arnham Land, where trade was longstanding between the Yolngu and Macassan trepangers.
Typed addendum: The animal skin used in the construction of Item Cab 23 Dr 12 Track 3452 has not been identified. It is not kangaroo, opossum, or any hide known to be utilized by the Yolgnu or any other Indigenous peoples. It is leathery and no fur or hair remains attached. The sinew used in its stitching is of a different origin; in all likelihood opossum.
Written addendum/black ink: Human? There is tattooing visible on the anterior.
Written addendum/blue ink: Nonsense.
Written addendum/pencil: You’re a bloody ass, Loundon.
A half sheet of paper is clipped behind with the following notes:
*Pouch/point in storage? Curator (Addison) uncooperative.
*Cut on right palm consistent with short blade. Irregular edge. Flaking?
*Strangulation. Haemorrhages in eyes consistent. M.E. — hyoid bone not fractured.
*Exterior museum steps — impossible no witness.
*Addison, late 20s, unmarried, no boyfriend (ref. staff), not lez. Handwriting consistent with penciled “bloody ass” note. Lover’s quarrel? Blackmail?
*Addison extended leave.
The inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure, and the case of Henry Loundon remains open.
It came in the dark of that night, the ship anchored in the shallow seas off Groote Eyelet with a mean little sliver of a moon overhead. A shriek like a despairing soul from the bowels of the ship, shrill and everywhere at once, so one could not, at first, delve where. I had just gone to my hammock after my shift at night watch, and though I tried to make my body spring to the deck below it wouldn’t move at first, frozen in the tangle of strings. I blinked but couldn’t see and there was roaring in my ears and my limbs froze. My heart felt near to bursting; it was like the fear that takes a man on land in a dead hour, sometimes, safe in his bed but unable to move for all his strength, staring in terror at an empty doorway. Something seemed to scuttle past like a rat scuttles behind the timbers, but bigger than a rat, and something brushed my face like the edge of a wing. I heard the man swinging to the left of me moan.
I flailed at the ropes and swung out, landing in a crouch beside my hammock. My knife was tied up in my kit and I wrested it free before I would go anywhere.
Above my head, where Peterson slept with the marked man beside him. That was the source of that unearthly cry. I ran in the darkness, the other men stirring about me, the anatomy of the ship familiar to my feet and fingertips. I was the first to open the door of the doctor’s chamber.
An oil lamp flickered sickly on a hook in the wall. By its yellow light Peterson sat in his leather-slung chair, his legs straight and stiff in front of him, a dark stain spreading across the crotch of his trousers. The fronts of his coat fell carelessly aside his protruding belly. His mouth was open, and his eyes bulged, wide open, glassy and blind from his chalk-white face. His wig had fallen half-way across his forehead.
There was not a sign of the marked man, nor was there sign of any wound on the doctor, though we stripped him and washed his body on deck in the morning. One thing I always remembered: beneath the reek of cloves in his chamber, the heavy smell of leaves, gum leaves rotting, tangy and oily.
Jan would have to move quickly. At dusk the blacks were bound to be at their campfire, in whatever shelter their kind scraped out of the bush, curled about each other like dogs. Kate had left the thick wood bowl he took his own supper from, when they had it, near the cook-fire, the lazy trull. He gathered it up and cocked an ear to listen. Only a low murmur from inside the shanty, an alto croon: she was singing the boy to sleep. Jan swayed back a forth a moment, like a tree in the scarce breeze, rubbing his tongue against his gums: he had lost more teeth this day, and not even noticed.
A bolt of iron, black with rust and grease, lay on the ground and he seized it, scooping the coals from the fire into the wooden bowl. The flames shrunk, turning feeble and orange, licking desperately over the remaining coals. There wasn’t enough left to keep the cook-fire alive, and they’d be put to the whole bloody business of starting it again the next morning, with grass and flint and new wood. How Kate would mewl.
The low throb of her voice followed Jan as he crept into the bush, the bowl warm under his arm like a fevered child. He was silent; his feet made no rustle in the sharp grass, ready for the burning, his bare skin felt every lick of wind. He smelled the black’s fire before him. His legs did not ache with the crouching now.
There, feel which way the breeze blew. The grass was eager to light, and they were sleepy with evening. The women made sounds like Kate behind him, talking to their children.
He seeded the grass with coal, each ember orange with life inside the black jacket of ash.
Jan Eccles, or the thing that had been Jan Eccles, stood at the crude-hewn frame of the dwelling, watching the still figures of his woman and his child. The smell of smoke and charred grass wisped from downriver, and the smell of cooked flesh beneath that.
The air tasted good to him now. His mouth was enormous, a row of sharp teeth below, bare gum above. Long strips of leathery wing bound him, ankle to wrist, rough and sour to smell.