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Stuart Macdonald

'The stench of rotting fish is strong in the air and white teeth shine down at Jacob. The Possum swings limply by the black boy’s side and its eyes are now blank and meaningless. Blood as red as that from Jacob’s arm drips from its mouth'

Jacob is slipping through the tall wet grass, like an eel through slick seaweed. He ducks, he bobs, he weaves and he hisses. His bare arms and legs are cut and dripping red. The eel feels no pain. A clang from metal hitting stone makes him wince, but not afraid. The Jacob-eel squirms and squiggles his way through and out.

Without floundering, the eel that was Jacob becomes a nimble Kangaroo. He is swift and sure and still not afraid. His stomach bubbles with excitement. He is sniffing out food in springing leaps. The rise in the dusty ground has made him sweat and his heart is beating fast. The red blood is streaked down his arms and is attracting flies. They would make a good meal for a spider.

Creeping, dancing on five legs, two, four and then eight. It is a deadly dance, like the Aborigines do around the fire. But there is no fire here – only a sticky web on Jacob’s finger and in his red hair and across his red face. “Ooooahhhh!!”, he cries. The spider wants its home back and is on Jacob’s chest demanding its repair.


Overhead, the sun beats down more fiercely than any flogging. The workers’ heads throb and their backs ache. They curse their tools and they curse the fortress of hills that surround them. The water of Port Jackson looks cool and inviting, yet to slip in would be to slip into the jaws of a gnashing, thrashing death. It is the heat, however, that is the real killer. Where is that accursed child with the water?!


Jayallah the stalker. Jayallah the hunter. He is standing still as an old Eucalyptus and then running fleet footed, like a Dingo. Always circling, moving ever closer. His arm is poised, ready to strike and his brow is furrowed. The wind is gentle, carrying no trace of him and the shade is his friend. Ahead in the bright light, the patagarang nibbles forward. Its ears are flat to its neck and its nose tells it nothing.

Now! The spear is launched – true and straight as any ever thrown. Jayallah holds his breath and grips his stick, ready to pounce and complete the kill. No! A sudden movement in the bush and the moment is missed. A jink to the side, a hop and skipping away goes dinner. The spear glances harmlessly from the Kangaroo’s flank, and falls in the quivering undergrowth.

Jayallah steps quickly forward and briefly out into the light. The spear is back in his hand now and he is the dark hunter once more. His attentions are elsewhere and he breathes softly in time with the land, waiting.


The startled Possum is caught in the scalding sun and it craves the solace of the night. It burrows down behind the ridge, in amongst the bushes. Jacob bends and burrows too, into the brittle earth in the shade. The soil at first breaks easily and then becomes more clinging as the Possum and Jacob slice deeper. The bushes jiggle to their combined activity and the silence around is strange.

Jacob is thirsty. He can feel his tongue on the roof of his mouth, as though he has licked his earthy hands. The Possum is buried now, its glinting eyes hidden and Jacob is alone, squatting in the bush. He scrambles forward on his hands and knees out into the light and then across the clearing into the cool of the shade. His head is filled with pictures of water.

The Jacob-Possum is confronted by a black leg. He squints up, trying to focus in the gloom. A spear is thrust into the ground in front of him and he reaches out to touch it. The stench of rotting fish is strong in the air and white teeth shine down at Jacob. The Possum swings limply by the black boy’s side and its eyes are now blank and meaningless. Blood as red as that from Jacob’s arm drips from its mouth.


Still the devil sun of the southern continent shows no mercy. It sucks the moisture from the skin, freeing salt to rub into the sores and wounds on the workers’ backs. Was it so clever after all to cheat the hanging horse at Tyburn and to then suffer the disease of the Hulks for this? There is still no water and the boy has been gone for nigh on an hour. Heaven be praised if he has been bitten by a snake and spared the pain of this hellish place.

One of the guards is walking slowly towards the long grass on the rise. He is wheezing with thirst and the heat dictates that nobody does anything at pace or with any enthusiasm. His gun is slung from his defeated shoulder. He sees the prisoners falling one by one.


Jayallah balances his spear on his stick, whilst he takes careful aim. He smoothly runs his right hand back along the shaft and stretches to grip the spear back behind his head. The Dingo ambles to scavenge under a rock. He finds a scurrying centipede for a quick snack. His keen nose tells him that he is near the salty ocean. He knows nothing of the force that he faces from Jayallah’s shoulder.

The Jacob-Dingo leaps to the side and the spear sails playfully over his head. Jayallah the hunter laughs. The Jacob-Dingo dances, hops and jumps. He is amongst the undergrowth; he is sweating in the sun; he is snuffling for grubs and snapping at determined insects. He plays the game.


The black boy has missed. Stupid nigger. He is retrieving his weapon and the damn boy is allowing him time to do it. He is dancing like the sun has robbed him of his senses and he will surely die next time.

The guard levels his rifle and the hunter becomes the hunted.

The red blood runs in the sun and is quickly lapped up by the thirsty earth.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

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