Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Part II

The Pigling and the Piccaninny

Though the piccaninny’s arrival had preceded it, the pigling vanished first, and since this is a record of departures it deserves prominence in the title.

Both were island bred.

George the Greek, who seldom leaves the vicinity nowadays, brought the pigling from Goold Island, where there was wont to be such a superfluity that parents abandoned them on the merest sniff of danger. Possibly George had murdered one of its able-bodied relatives, for he had with him a joint of something that bore a distant resemblance to pork and was so tough and tasteless that Debil-debil (the authoritative dog now of “that equal sky”) and his consort got it, after apologies to George. Impossible pork, it looked like a junk out of a newly-felled bloodwood log, but had naught of the wholesome odour of the fresh red wood.

So much for the pigling’s uncle.

George was upbraided because he had inflicted the Isle with a rest-disturbing orphan, helpless and squeakful. Inspired by hope, and permitting his imagination to dwell on the attractiveness of a six weeks’ suckling, fat and tender, with a crisp exterior, browned and glistening, and an interior gushing with gravy and fragrant with herbs, he proceeded to pet the helpless, lean little creature. Imprisoned in an improvised hutch, well padded and bedded with blady grass, the pigling forgot its brief experience of freedom, finding consolation in a diet of coco-nut milk.

Intent upon giving its flesh a nutty flavour, over which his eyes twinkled, George, after three or four unsuccessful attempts, made a huge grater out of a foot square of galvanized iron, and spent an hour or so every day stuffing his pet with porridge of shredded coco-nut and milk. As its fat increased the squeaks of the pigling mellowed into throaty grunts. Was it not living an ideal life? A luxurious nest, a plethora of squashy food, a foster-parent who watched over it with stern vigilance. If it had been in the habit of reflecting, it might have thanked its lucky stars that fate had brought it to a scene where there was no vociferous competition for mother’s milk, no trapesing through blady grass as one of a hustling brood, no sort of care or anxiety regarding the next meal.

About a month before the advent of the pigling, Lucy had made Ned gloomy and thoughtful by becoming the mother of a piccaninny, about a span-and-a-half long, the colour of a tan shoe, with whitish soles to its feet, and hands and fingers so crumpled and soft, and of such tender hue, that they might have been the unfolding frond of a tree-fern. About the same age as the pigling that protested shrilly if George’s other duties belated meal-time, the piccaninny so seldom made a sound that its devoted mother began to imagine that it never would. Within its tiny hutch it kicked feebly, grasped at empty nothings with fern-like fingers, grimaced and writhed in an agonized attempt to cry, and emitted a squeak so puny and faint that it was hardly worth an effort so painful. But in its mother’s ears that beetle-power sound was as charming as the din of a corroboree.

George ignored the piccaninny, but took the pigling to his heart, ever and anon assuring the community that very soon it would be fat and tender. He hung about its hutch, contemplating its proportions in the exulting, gruesome mood of that midshipmite who seasoned the steamy cauldron, and, no doubt, hummed to himself in Greek, “How very very nice you’ll be!”

Both youngsters prospered. The piccaninny began to make her voice heard. Her fingers unfolded. Her complexion became that of a new penny and her mother foresaw all sorts of charms in her face. The pigling squeaked when hungry (which was seldom), grunted when satisfied, snored when asleep (which was often) and spent all the time putting on fat; and its foster-parent saw more of beauty in its rapidly rotunding figure than did Lucy in her wrinkled and crumpled offspring.

As far as interested observers could judge, both parties were happy, each tolerant of the other’s pet, each anxious to demonstrate the peculiar fascinations of pigling and piccaninny, respectively. Interested observers, moreover, came to the inevitable conclusion that, at this stage, for intelligence and appreciation of the appropriate benefits of life the pigling had the advantage. George liked it and in a sense bullied it. It knew George and liked him and bullied him, and, true to his cast of mind, George liked the bullying, responding by scratching the bully’s pink-and-white back until it squirmed and wriggled in ecstasies of delight.

The dogs watched the petting from a distance; for George scowled fearsomely when they approached the hutch, and promised exquisite tortures if they dared to sniff. They also pricked their ears when the piccaninny began to wail above a whisper. It was a foreign sound to them, impossible, for all their restraint, to ignore. The conduct of both, however, was admirably discreet. They were interested. No affectation in that respect could avail. They were curious, but their curiosity was tempered by wisdom. They were obviously jealous, but suppressed that emotion under a pose of austere superiority. How could high-spirited dogs be sincere in their indifference to two strange animals, one vocal with assertiveness, the other a mere whimperer? They glared out of the corner of their eyes while their tails waggled the assurance that both were quite safe so far as they were concerned. If Debil-debil’s state of mind was interpreted aright, all his sentiments were humanized by that great gift of his — humour. He would direct sudden gleams of actual savagery towards the grunter’s hutch, and then, turning towards his master would, like a popular actress grinning with her teeth, demonstrate love and affection and universal peace and goodwill!

Brooking no contrary opinion on the point, George decided the date of the execution of the pigling, foretelling a rare feast, and, of course, Ned and Lucy did their share of anticipatory gloating.

Two days before the fatal date, while the sun was below the sheltering hill, Ned discovered that during the night the half-expected had happened. Unable longer to resist temptation, the dogs had overturned the pigling’s hutch, scratched and torn at the door until it flew open, and the rest was —!

There sat the upturned hutch, minus its petted occupant, while the dogs stood by, sniffing and tail-wagging with what appeared to be a blending of self-accusation and plea for mercy in their faces. Who could blame dogs for the inability to resist so pleasant a sin? When George came on the scene, anger and grief made the hills vocal.

On the assumption that the dogs might have merely chased the pigling into the jungle and that it might be tracked by them, they were encouraged to sniff the hutch, which they did joyfully, and with Ned, experienced tracker, in the lead, all the able-bodied of the Isle joined in the hunt. The dogs, leading across the paddock to the ravine, ran, nose to ground, down its steepness and up through the orange plantation, followed enthusiastically by Ned and the others, just as the character of country permitted. Early in the hunt the dogs put up a scrub-fowl, which noisily fluttered and spluttered through the jungle, and, ending its flight on a lofty branch, jeered and chuckled as it peered down at the intruders.

Then Debil-debil scented a big brown lizard, cosy in a hollow log and loudly appealed for help, which Ned gave with a stick; but Cricket had the best of the luck and made a good catch. Debil-debil scored with a fat rat which, nosed out of its nest of leaves, had scampered up a slender sapling. Leaping high, he jostled the rat to the ground and snapped it up with the alertness of a conjurer.

Being now hot for the chase both dogs ran wild, quartering the shady places industriously, and soon struck off up the steep slope on a good scent. In a few minutes they gave tongue, yapping and yelping with uncontrollable eagerness. Through the undergrowth, Ned in advance, we struggled as fast as lawyer vines, the prickly raspberry (almost as obstructive as barbed wire), saplings and shrubs interwoven with creepers permitted; for did not humanity and love for delicately-fed pigling demand that the fugitive should not be altogether wasted on the dogs?

Hot and puffing, with scratched and bleeding hands and arms, and George anything but poetic in his terms of denunciation, we got up to the dogs — to find them frantically trying to unearth a spiny ant-eater, which was just as frantically but mutely digging itself in among a mat of roots!

George poked up the animal with a stick as Debil-debil took a spell, his bleeding muzzle showing that the “porc” had drawn first blood. Without a pick and shovel, extrication was impossible; besides, we were after a distressed and homeless pigling, not a porc disturbed while at home in ease. George wanted to put in operation tactics he had once applied at Hinchinbrook when his pup had scented out a porc and fought it for three hours, with claws and teeth and voice. Night had come on and then George took the part of the pup. A jamtinful of kerosene was poured on to the creature’s back and touched with a match.

“That pup he work for t’ree hour; he dig out t’ree barrow-load ground. In t’ree seconds that porc he run feefty yard like star, that pup biting fire all the time!”

Forbidden to experiment with fire on the pet porcs of this Isle, George became sulky, and said awful things about Debil-debil, which the good dog accepted as compliments, no doubt concluding that George’s blistering terms were meant for the porc.

Calling off the dogs, the hunt went farther afield, Ned exhorting both; but naught was seen save ordinary vermin. In the afternoon we took a different direction, under the leadership of Ned, whose theory it was that the pigling was still alive, but too frightened to respond to affectionate and soothing calls. The dogs enjoyed themselves, and so, apparently, did the blacks and George. Alas, results were negative, though Ned skilfully pointed out fresh tracks and once said that he heard the lost pigling’s squeal.

A season of regrets, tempered by philosophy, followed.

George’s incessant proclamation of the richness of a roast sucking-pig crammed with herbs had created imaginary bilious attacks. Besides, there was far too much of garlic in his scheme of flavouring for the tastes of those denied more than a strictly poetic sight of the Levant. He was excitedly, deeply affected by the loss not only of a pet, but of a prospective feast that would have smothered the subtle scents of the Isle. Others beheld the silent hutch without the tribute of a sigh.

Lucy continued to smile as the piccaninny passed from the squealing to the squalling phase. Even Ned’s responsibilities seemed less tragic.

Just as George had become reconciled to the loss of the pigling the piccaninny vanished — not alone either. Both father and mother accompanied her. The hut on the beach was silent — and smellful. On a shelf was half a loaf of bread and half a tin of jam. Sticking in the roof was an unfinished boomerang. On the walls were pictures from illustrated papers, and on the floor oddments of raiment and a mattress of bags. There had also vanished from its anchorage a big flattie belonging to a fisherman, a countryman of George’s. Two days later the owner came to recover the boat, and after a week’s search found it on the mainland, high and dry.

Three months passed, then George, having occasion to visit the mainland, discovered something for which he was not looking and has never been able to see — a popular joke. It was rife and blithe in every blacks’ camp between the mouth of the Tully and the Tully Falls up among the ranges, and from the Hull River to Wreck Creek down by Cardwell. And when the blacks take hold of a joke the birds of the air hear of it. Cockatoos scream it; scrub-fowls chuckle over it; honey-eaters make a song about it; the listening lilies overhear the lotus-birds whispering it, and, nodding, smile.

Every black grinned like “Debil-debil,” for there was not one but knew that the perfidious Ned, and Lucy and the giddy piccaninny had eaten the pigling.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50