The Dreamtime, a series of Aboriginal legends, celebrates shapeshifting giants that once roamed Australia. The giants forged paths—songlines—which marked the mountains, the rivers, the stars. Their spirits still linger today.
The heat of the day had eased when they began the roundup, the five drovers forming a ragged line as they waded their horses into the towering cane grass. As he clung to the saddle of his Appaloosa, Tom Hemmings, a Yale dropout, could only take it on faith that the Australian outback was a suitable cure for a young man’s restlessness—that Jim Cooper, the irascible head stockman, and Andy, the oldest of the three Aboriginals, were not hoping to lose him in the scrub. There was only a faint whispering among the stalks alongside him and an occasional stifled shout to suggest that he had not been abandoned within the dense thicket. In front of him, he could hear the crisper movement of the cattle, a thrashing sound punctuated by sharp snorts and an occasional bellow that sounded almost human. His stomach churned as the thrashing grew louder and he held his reins tentatively, giving the Appaloosa his head as he allowed him to plunge deeper and deeper into the brush.
Use the trails if you lose yourself. These had been Jim Cooper’s last words to him as the riders entered the brush. The ones the pigs make. The little bah-stards know their way in and out of there so you won’t be lost for long if you follow a pig trail. The advice now seemed useless: dust stung Tom’s eyes, blurring his sight, and he knew it would be impossible to keep his bearings. His apprehension grew when the grass parted momentarily and he could make out a stringy gray horse without a rider. The animal looked woeful, neglected, and he wondered if someone had abandoned it. Only then did he realize the horse was a brumby—that feral breed that ran wild in the bush—and suddenly his isolation seemed ordained. He felt further betrayed when the brumby, startled by his approach, nickered softly and vanished among the stalks.
Haunts, Andy had said to him the previous evening. This remark was a reference to spectral beasts although it had been inspired by the pedestrian bickering of some flying foxes in the fig trees overhead. Tom had envied the little man at that moment, less for the stronghold his superstitions provided him than the resignation in his voice—a reverence the like of which he had never experienced himself. Talking with Andy, he had even envied the versatility of the Dreamtime Beings—their ability to assume the forms of animals, birds, and reptiles—and he had pressed him hungrily for more information, hoping to learn the whereabouts of burial grounds or other antiquated sites. There was no reason to believe that the roundup would agitate venerable ground—songlines Andy called them—but Andy had simply shaken his head and pressed his mouth to a didgeridoo. The sound it emitted—a low wanton moan—convinced him that he had not been wise to probe.
Several minutes passed before he again caught a glimpse of the brumby. It had broken free of the cane grass and was almost hidden among a cloud of shorthorn cattle. The animal seemed incidental now—so much so that it was not until he heard a grumble, a sound he at first took for thunder, that he recovered the sense of mystery that the grove had provided him. The air was now dark with dust, a film attributable to an utter lack of wind and the movement of countless animals before him, and the mouth of the Appaloosa, as though hexed by the smoky light, had become hard as iron. The tattoo of numerous hooves, as well as his inability to restrain his mount, told him that he was not the mover of the herd, that it had seized the momentum for its own, and he now knew for sure that he had come too far—that his soul, a drifter’s soul, did not have the moorings to delve into the Outback. Frantic cries, which sounded like protests, erupted all around him, but the whoops and jeers of the stockmen grew fainter and soon they were smothered entirely by the reverberation of the ground.
His horse was now moving autonomously, as though hurled by a colossal force, and he could see before him a vast blur of motion. The chase, from what he could see of it, included not only cattle but pigs, emus, a sea of wallabies, all of them part of a collective resolution, an abdication of will that was somehow consoling. The rumble and roll, like the tumbling of rocks, was as irresistible as it was arbitrary but he remembered a warning from Jim Cooper: that a horse in a stampede would burst its heart running rather than relax its pace. When the Appaloosa lunged unexpectedly, he braced himself for a crippling fall, but he instead felt a floating sensation—a premature jolt: the horse had sailed over a mulga bush and was still running at a dead gallop. Clutching the thigh pads of the saddle, he marveled that the leap had been necessary at all; it seemed almost impertinent that the vegetation, in concession to the norm, had failed to uproot itself and take flight before him.
The dust became thinner; he could see before him over a thousand head of cattle, their momentum too compelling to resist, so when he pinned his heels to the flanks of the Appaloosa, digging the spurs into its belly, his only fear was that they would somehow get away from him. But the spurs had lost their power: the herd, as though disdaining him, held its ground, only a few of the older weaker cattle drifting back in his direction. The flanks of his horse were now scalding his calves, perhaps in retaliation to the bite from his heels, yet he continued to feel impatience with the creature and was not surprised when a predatory whoop, which he recognized as his own, intermingled with the rumbling of the ground. It would take just a nudge—a brush with one of the stragglers—to send his horse careening, throwing him into the path of oncoming hooves, yet he kept his spurs buried in the sides of his horse. Though a wiser man might have resisted this moment—this feverish bonding of men with beasts—that was not an option available to him. He had forsaken the covenants of sanity, having thrown in his lot with itinerants and rogues, and the anarchy of the Outback, the cadence of a darker drumming, was a frenzy too replete to elicit from him a response other than gratitude.
The cattle before him were harder to see and he realized dusk was at hand. The sun was like copper, its mintage nearly spent, but the imminence of nightfall was irrelevant to the sublime madness of the moment. Pounding the ground, raising the dust, flattening the scrub as they went, the beasts and riders continued to thunder across the black northern plain.
Banner Image: Flying Foxes – By Justin Welbergen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons