Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

The Soul Within the Stone

“These ghosts of the living and of the dead assuredly illustrate in a striking manner the mysterious workings of the human mind, and the unsuspected influence of soul on soul.”— PRODMORE.

Not more than a hundred yards from its mud-besmeared mouth the convenient mangroves disappear and the little creek assumes becoming airs. Huge tea-trees, with cushiony bark, straddle it, and ferns grow strongly in all its nooks and bends. When the big trees blossom in watery yellow, yellow-eared honey-eaters, blue-bibbed sun-birds, and screeching parrots in accordant colours, assemble joyously, for the aroma, as of burnt honey, spreads far and wide, bidding all, butterflies and jewel-backed beetles which buzz and hum, to the feast, until the aerial anthem is harmonic to the rustle of the sea.

The sturdy feet of the trees stand in black peat, through which the water from the wholesome hills oozes and dribbles, and the russet stain from discarded leaves is on their white bases. Russet, too, is the surface of the ever moist soil. Some element in the water derived from pacted roots of palm and fern tinctures whatsoever in it lies, so that the bottoms of the shallow, erratic pools are thick with russet slime. All above is bright and pure, and the water which flows over the slime-smudged roots limpid and refreshing. If you cut into the bark of the tea-tree you will find water in beads and trickles, water which sparkles with purity and has a slightly saline taste. The bare roots alone suffer defilement.

Many a tall tea-tree stands sentinel on the margin of the creek, and there are groves of slim palms with narrow truncated leaves — palms which creep and sprawl over vegetation of independent character, and palm& which coquette with the sun with huge fans. Orchid& display sprays of yellowish-green flowers, which contribute a decided savour to the medley of scents, and palm-like Cycads meander from the low bank out Into the forest.

But there is one tree which, if not superior to the rest in broadness of base, height, fairness of bark, and fullness of bloom, has especial endowment. It stands at the spot where generation after generation of the original owners of the soil has crossed the creek, wearing a waving path upon which ferns ever encroach and which every flood amends. In a recess in its massive roots reposes “Kidjo-bang,” the restless stone — a boulder, man’s-head size, stained with a rim of sober brown.

This is its accustomed scat. It roves the locality, returning, swallow-like, to the close-fitting hollow of the root. The embraces of the root are sometimes so strong that the dingy stone may not be moved. But the floods of the wet season maintain an unceasing cataract to its dislodgment, and then, according to the legends of the blacks, it begins to “walk about.” It may rest a month just out of reach of the disturbing water among the ferns. It has been known to appear mysteriously on the sandy beach two hundred yards away, to which spot it is said to travel by way of the grass lands, avoiding the slur of the muddy creek.

Whether it seeks change of scene beyond the ripple of dead leaves and spoil of the flood, or whether it ventures out on to the open beach, where the breezes from the Pacific play upon it, the round white stone returns, independent of the agency of man, to the sanctuary which time, ever-flowing water, and the hospitable roots of the tree, have combined to afford. It is there this day. Should it be taken to one or other of the blue islands in the broad bay, sooner or later it will be discovered nestling cosily in the grotto in which the dyed slime smears it as with pale blood.

To the ordinary investigator of the whimsicalities of “Kidj-o-bang” the blacks betray no secret, though they would verify, with what to them is proof positive, that it does on occasion appear in unexpected places and unaccountably reoccupies its cell. Discreetly pursue the subject and peradventure you may be told precisely why the stone may not always rest in the one spot in the whole world which it fits as a kernel its shell. It has been, they assert, associated with an evil deed of which it is now the emblem. Among the many the mysteries of “Kidj-o-bang” dwell with the past, though it is still associated with the ceremonies of the bestowal of totemic names on the children of a certain father.

More than one legend concerning it is extant, and the young fellows of the present day frankly scoff at them all, while the old men believe each other’s versions and repeat them with bated breath. They cannot discredit stories which were accepted as established facts when they were young, which no one then ever dreamed of doubting, and which provide a comfortably satisfactory account for otherwise perplexing incidents.

Musing on the spot, the legend of the roving stone usurped my thoughts. The trivial and uncertain notions of the black boy who was the first to tell it, and by theatrical gestures to illustrate its verities, became more and more indistinct. The soothsayers of the long past had been forbidden by Nature to doubt that which was the lore of the camp. Was it that Nature re-asserted her influence — that the essences of the scene, subtle and pervasive, had recurred, creating a receptive spirit, so deep a religion of assent that shadow and substance intermingled to my bewilderment? I was permitted to be a sensitive percipient in the midst of the ashes of shiftless folk who had passed away, catching but a casual and deceptive glimpse of the coming of the desolating white man.

Piln-goi, the black boy, had wandered up the creek. A thrilling silence prevailed. Stooping down, I laved my hands in the softly flowing water, idly intent on lifting the stone. The tawny slime defeated irresolute efforts, and my slipping hands bestowed a baptismal splash.

Instantly I became conscious of a strange presence, and, glancing over my shoulder, saw an unfamiliar black boy lurking behind a glistening-fronded Cycad.

The whole scene had undergone wishful transformation. The white-barked trees, purified of smears from the sooty fingers of fire, stood out in splendid contrast to a richer, thicker, a flowery undergrowth. Tall fern trees spread green cobwebs to entrap sunbeams. The Cycad under which the boy crouched was slim-shaped, and its foliage resembled that of one of the most beautiful of ferns, with languorous, dolorous fronds, while it was crowned with a huge fruit of golden-brown. All the scene had been wondrously transfigured. Time’s treacheries had been defeated. A garden-like age had been restored. The sword-leaved orchid dangled yard-long sprays of brilliant yellow flowers, which saturated the air with delicate perfume. Fearless birds fluttered among and hovered over the pendant blooms, whistling and calling. Water-rats sported in the lily-bespangled stream, and a platypus basked, on the bank.

From the strained and expectant attitude of the boy, it was apparent that he was hunting. He stepped cautiously out of cover, and, using a wommera of dark wood with oval clutches of white shell, threw a spear into the long grass. A kangaroo, mad with fear and pain, staggered forward, knowing not whence fate had struck it, and, lurching helplessly, sank among the ferns on the margin of the water. Ignoring my presence the boy, having completed the hunter’s office with a blow from a nulla-nulla, called in a thin, shrill voice:

“Yano-lee!” (We go this way).

In a few seconds a young girl of his own race stepped through the leafy screen. She cast casual glances at the dead kangaroo, and without saying a word to her companion came to the pool, stooped down beside me, and drank eagerly and noisily, using a scoop improvised from a leaf. Her back glistened with perspiration, and her coarse, fuzzy, uncleanly hair ceased in tufts on her neck. It was a slim and shapely little figure. The plumes of the orchid, golden and syrupy, swayed over her heedless head and seemed to caress it. Her eyes, round, large, and brimful of the bewildering eagerness of youth, relieved the unobtrusive expansiveness of her nose and almost atoned for her savage lips. Though almost touching me, the most shy, wild creature of the bush seemed unconscious of my presence. She was in fact and deed:

“We have the receipt of fern-seed; we walk invisible.” I was the phantom — invisible, intangible. The pair beside, the unembarrassed realities.

Do phantoms reflect? That privilege was mine. Let memory treasure every detail of the scene, every vestige of its incidents.

“Kidj-o-bang” had vanished. There was its cell. A full and stainless stream, in a gurgling cataract, sparkled over the big root, while high among the blossoms birds clambered incessantly for nectar.

The primitive pair were at home, but not at case, In this Garden of Eden. They spoke in mumbling tones, of which I could catch but stray phrases, though I listened eagerly. Presently the girl took up two dry sticks, and, using one as a drill between the palms of her hands, essayed to make a fire.

The boy imperatively intervened. “Poo-nee imba!” (No fire).

The girl started up, and instantly both slid into the jungle as silently and as tracklessly as snakes.

The dead kangaroo, the expectant phantom (gifted for the time being with a faculty more subtle than any moral sense), remained alone among the birds and the orchids, while shy pencil-tailed water-rats began to sniff and peer among the sedges. So enthralling was the scene that time passed insensibly. The sun was overhead when the pair reappeared noiselessly. Smears of shell and grit betrayed an intervening meal of oysters. Swarms of green ants, in a scramble for food, almost obscured the blood-stains on the fur of the kangaroo, and, brushing them away, the boy made and enlarged with his fingers an opening in the body, and having torn out the heart, liver, and kidneys, made a fire, scarce a hand’s-breadth wide and smokeless, on which the meat was singed prior to being munched with grim deliberation. They ate largely, some of the flesh from the hind quarters being also eaten, scrap by scrap.

Were they fugitives? Tall and strong, the boy was as alert and suspicious as a dingo. Every sense was strained. He seemed intent upon subduing the very noises in his head as he slowly crushed his food and gulped.

A forlorn cry, half appeal, half gurgle, filtered through the leafage as from the beach, and on the instant the jungle had soundlessly absorbed the affrighted pair. The handful of fire and the mutilated kangaroo remained as the only evidences of the handiwork of man.

What of the intruder? The cry was almost too weird to be human. Again it thrilled through the leafage, a trifle stronger, and seemed to convey a threat commingled with a prayer for succour.

The scene held me. I was powerless, but not indifferent; capable of sight, incapable of action or utterance. Something in the tone of the voice told of a member of my own race in sore distress. Yet I could not respond to his appeal or move to his aid.

Half an hour of intense silence passed, and then a lusty shout startled the air. Surely, I thought, the wayfarer who makes such outcry in this unpeopled wilderness is an uncouth fellow who has lost his way and thinks to dialogue with echoes for relief of loneliness. Presently the cracking of branchlets and a rumble of discontented phrases told of someone blundering along through the mangroves. Accustomed to the gentle sounds and the delicious silence of the jungle, the clumsy noises irritated while preparing me for the sight of the intruder — a big, aggressive, weather-scored man, his only clothing a pair of short pants of canvas, stained with wear and stiff and whitened with frost like sea-salt. The ocean had but an hour ago cast him like its scum on the beach.

He burst on the scene to plunge his broken lips into the water at my feet. Like the natives, he drank long and noisily, and when his thirst was allayed called to an imaginary mate —“Pietro, Pietro!” cursed freely when no answer came, and whimpered like a babe.

Huge of body, strong of limb, bully and brute stamped on his coarse features, yet did his dread of loneliness piteously overcome him. His bald pate, hung about with scant reddish ringlets, had been roasted by the tropic sun until it glowed, and eyes and nose strove for supremacy of inflammation. An unkempt moustache did not hide teeth of disreputable tint; chin and jowl were covered with a fortnight’s growth of streaky hair.

Turning from the water, he saw the dismembered kangaroo, and, seizing one of the legs, tore the flesh from the bones and with ravenous greed began an uncleanly feast. The impure drank of the pure water and gulped the strong flesh until his gorged stomach swelled cask-shape, and then he slept as noisily as he had eaten and drank.

A leathern belt, cracked and whitened, furrowed his distended girth, and as he lay stretched with the sun scrutinising his face, flies and mosquitoes and carnivorous green ants feasted on his blood at will. Each leaden-tinted, lean fly revelled until it assumed similitude to a colouring grape, some “reeled to and fro and staggered like drunken men”; bloated mosquitoes and green ants, commingling, made a living mosaic on the skin of the unconscious man. What could the assaults and stings of myriads of insects avail against fatigue so formidable?

But a decree had gone forth that the sleeper should wake, and who is man that he should flout imperious commands? The merciless sun insisted. The strong man fidgeted under the persistent blaze. Perspiration poured from his skin; he snarled; his eyelids twitched and quivered; the veins of neck and forehead throbbed ominously. The sun does not tolerate disobedience. A thin trickle of blood issued from the grimy nose, and with a snort the man awoke, his flame-red eye% swilled with enforced tears. Dazedly he plunged his head into the water and drank greedily, and, sitting up, spat sullenly and with signs of disgust and contempt. What comfort could cold water afford so repleted a stomach?

Having disdainfully spurned the remnants of the kangaroo, he sat head between knees, grumbling against fate. To him the fruitful and pleasant land was disconsolate. A castaway, he had drifted on to its welcome shores, and all that it could offer was loneliness, cold water, the raw flesh of a strange animal, and denial of the solace of sleep. Out of the depths of his misery and dejection he called imperatively on his God, and taking from the lining of his belt a thumb-sized purse, of netted silver, displayed a glorious pearl, which he held aloft, and with an admixture of supplication and imprecation proffered it to the Most High as grudging ransom from a God-abandoned country.

Who is there that delights not in the susceptible purity of pearls? The gem which symbolises virginal placidity was like to be contaminated by the coarse handling of the fretful, bargaining castaway.

Did I lean forward acquisitively to accept it from the noisome fingers, reluctant that so serene a prize should be retained in so coarse a setting?

The man started, for the votive offering had vanished, and blasphemous lamentations and curses against the Supreme Being, whom he abused for defrauding him of fortune by trickery, shocked the quietude. Then a spasm of religious fervour jerked him to his knees as he patronised the Almighty for having accepted a pledge for safe-conduct from death-like solitude. After transports of impious piety, as uncouth and boisterous as his struggles through the labyrinth of mangroves to the purifying water, he sat bareheaded in the sun.

Steamy heat distilled strong aromatic odours from the myriad leaves; languid flowers gave copiously and of the best of their fragrance; ferns and lotus did obeisance to high noon. The birds had ceased to whistle, and the droning of bees gave to the upper air slumbering rhythm of its own.

Again the intruder slept. Again the sun commanded and he woke raging. Standing, he cursed both loud and long, eyes protuberant, face purpling under the strain of vindictive oaths.

What an unflattering contrast to the unclad natives who had dominated yet blended with the scene-the girl the prototype of a swaying palm, the boy that of a tough young bloodwood beside the creek, among the topmost branches of which a crimson-flowered mistletoe made a splash of colour in harmony with the single red feather from the wing of a black cockatoo which the soft-tongued youth had entangled in his hair.

This gross, profane, sun-smitten, sea-rejected herald of civilisation, disowned by his fellows, disinherited of the world, defiled the spot, and his voice created an inaugural discord.

With arms uplifted, he muttered ineffectual curses against his fellows, upbraided his saints, and defied his deity. But while his lips frothed with the passion of a stuttering tongue, the provoked but just genius of the spot passed sentence, and swiftly and silently the messengers of Death came. Four slender spear& penetrated his shaggy chest, as with a &cream which ended lit a gulp he splashed back into the water. His struggles and splutterings soon ceased. Silence resumed its fascination.

Blood welled from the mouth and nose and spear wounds, which the eager water carried off in wavy, independent streams, while the dead face whitened.

Many minutes elapsed before a dozen white-eyed natives cautiously oozed through the Jungle, stimulating each other’s nervousness by reassuring gestures. Certain that the trespasser on their dominion was incapable of mischief, they began to chatter, showing fidgety interest in the body, which they touched and poked fearsomely with spears.

Dead eyes stared unblinkingly at the sun through a curtain of water, which had already cleaned them of heat and passion, and wisps of red hair drifted over the forehead.

The untimely yelp of a dingo some few yards in the jungle inspired a similar response from one of the men, and without shyness or reserve the boy and girl joined the throng, and all began to talk excitedly. Some of the men assumed threatening attitudes towards the girl, who stood submissively, while the boy talked in a rage of excitement. He had chosen his mate, and would not, even on pain of summary death, abandon her.

So trivial an incident as the love affairs of boy and girl could not compare with the phenomenon in the water. The crisis was momentary. Amazement was pictured in every face, and not a man but subjected the bleeding body to gross contempt and what passed among them for ridicule. They mimicked the high stomach as they stood, as the dead man had stood, with arms aloft in rebellion against his lot, and fell back, as he had fallen, screaming, to kick and wallow on the ground. Here was plot and matter for ludicrous corroboree, the first rehearsal of which took place on the scene.

Soon curiosity took possession of the unstable actors. The belt was removed, and on the purse being fumbled with, several small pearls fell out. They were disregarded; but the strong man of the party looped the belt about his own inadequate waist, the girl hid the purse (which had been passed from hand to hand) in her hair, while the men tore the bone buttons from the pants and fitted them into their ears as they strutted foppishly.

The dead eyes stared defiantly up into the sky, the face whitened, and the stains of blood seemed to settle on it.

A harsh sound came as an electric shock, and I heard as from afar off Piln-goi shout:

“You bin sleep long time, boss! Big low water. We fella look out pearl-shell!”

The scene had resumed everyday aspects. The sun concentrated its rays on my head through a rift in the jungle, and the stone, stained dull red, lay in its cell, while rootlets fringed with tawny slime wavered over it.

Had soul communed with soul on that illusive borderland we range in dreams, the emblem of a deed of blood eloquent to reveal its secret? And now that the tale is told, will it cease from bewildering the simple old men of the soil who with one hand grapple the magical past and with the other the realities of the present?

Piln-goi’s impatience drew me from the spot and out on to the reef laid bare by the ebb. The beguiling pearl still eludes him, but memory holds a rarer treasure than all the fecund sea contains.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32