Tommy Norli was born on Murchison Station to a black mother and a white father. His father waited until two days after the birth to come and visit mother and child. By way of making up for his delay—or maybe for the pregnancy itself—he brought Tommy a rattle he had made from a dry gourd and a lamb’s knuckle.
Tommy liked the rattle, and carried it around with him for a long time, until one day he lost it playing in the river. Every few months or so after that, he’d jump in the water and feel around in the soft mud trying to find it again. This was more effort than he took to find his father, who vanished just as completely only a few weeks after Tommy entered the world.
Tommy grew up on the station, working as soon as he was old enough, doing any job he could for a little sum in addition to his two meals a day. He realised early on that he wasn’t being paid what he deserved. He often lay awake at night looking at the stars, turning this knowledge over and over in his mind with a cold satisfaction, wondering what he would do about it.
He mostly kept away from booze and didn’t bother women. Some of the white men thought he was wise in his silence. He didn’t encourage the notion, but he didn’t repudiate it either. All the while, he kept an inner tally of what he was owed and what he had been given.
One afternoon a salesman named Jack came to visit the station, a white man overburdened with flimsy-looking tools and cheap jewellery. He told them he had been travelling for a long time. Sun and sweat had faded his shirt to colourlessness, and his eyes were perpetually narrowed into a mercenary squint. Nobody showed much interest in what he had to sell. But night was falling, and the grazier’s house was still hours away, so the stockmen invited him to camp and have a drink with them.
That night, a hot wind coursed over the plains. Tommy sat a little distance from the fire, watching the stockmen laugh and drink, while the pale smoke climbed and dispersed into the sky. Tommy imagined war bands assembling in the darkness, beyond the ring of flushed white faces.
Jack was a quiet drinker, which led Tommy to feel a slight kinship with him. One by one, the other men staggered off to their swags; finally it was just Tommy, still sober, and Jack, surrounded by empty bottles but not even swaying where he sat.
For several minutes they were silent. The fire had dwindled to glowing coals.
Jack spoke first. ‘How long you been working out here?’
‘All my life,’ replied Tommy.
‘I need some help getting around out this way. Pay you well.’
‘Long as you like.’
The idea appealed to Tommy, the freedom of it. If Jack ever tried to short-change him on his wages, Tommy could just walk away, leave him out there in the bush.
That night Tommy rolled up all his money in a piece of kangaroo hide and buried it beneath a post on the road leading to the station. He scratched an X into the post with his knife and memorised the rocks and trees around it. He had saved his wages carefully, and even with the boss’s constant pilfering, it was a substantial sum for a black man to call his own.
They set off together at dawn the next day. Jack was in a good mood, and told Tommy about a pair of white men who had died following the same track nearly 40 years earlier. They had come from down south, looking for the sea; but as Jack told it, they ran out of flour and sugar, and the blacks hounded them the whole way, with spears and shouts and nocturnal curses.
And Jack told him how friends of the white men had buried food for them, marking the spot with a carving on a tree, but it hadn’t been enough, they starved to death all the same. Tommy thought of his own mark, scratched on the fence post, and swore with all the strength of his body that he would return to it.
He and Jack travelled together for six months. They rarely spoke, sometimes passing whole days in silence, Jack trudging ahead of him on the path, panting a little but driven forwards by an overpowering need to sell a few trinkets at the next station. Tommy’s wages were no more than what he’d got back at Murchison, but the work suited him better, as did the company. During the long silences, he could sometimes convince himself that he was alone with the wild country, that he had vanished without a trace.
In the heart of summer they entered the mangrove swamps. Tommy was stunned by the smell of death rising from the mud and by the abundance of life that accompanied it. It seemed he could not move a limb without disturbing some living thing. The air teemed with insects, the water with tiny fish. Birds perched on the riverbank, sunning the muck on their wings, watching the men indifferently as they passed. The swamps unnerved Tommy, and he longed to return to the calm, dry land he knew best, with its slow and measured rhythms.
At sunset they made their camp in a clearing by the river. Tommy built a fire as the shadows of the mangroves grew long and the moon rose to peer between the clouds. He listened to the swallowing sounds the water made on the muddy bank, and thought of his childhood rattle, the only token his father had left him, now lost to the clammy grip of the riverbed.
They ate their dinner quickly and climbed into their swags. Tommy was comforted by the warmth of the fire on his cheek. In his head he began the Lord’s Prayer as his mother had taught it to him, but was asleep before ‘your kingdom come’.
He was woken by the high, clear sound of a woman singing. Paralysed in his swag, he strained to listen. Soon the voice was joined by another, and then by another, until a whole chorus rose out of the dark mangroves, expressing a song of utter sadness and abandonment, a loss so great that it seemed to Tommy it could only belong to the dead.
Jack stirred and muttered, ‘What the hell is that?’ The song stopped before Jack had finished speaking. He glared at Tommy, and Tommy saw the dark, atavistic suspicion in the white man’s eyes, eyes that seemed to stare at him down the barrel of a rifle. He forced himself not to reach for his knife.
Beyond the trees a branch snapped underfoot. The passage of a powerful body shook the mangroves. With a resounding crash, a huge black warrior launched himself into the clearing, raising a stone axe over his head.
Tommy saw the warrior’s body illuminated in the firelight—the pink scars teeming across his chest, the power and resilience of his frame. The warrior stood over Jack, lifting up the axe, tensed to deliver the deathblow. Jack screamed and twisted aside; the axe plunged downwards and stuck in the sand. The warrior pulled it free and turned to strike again. Jack tried to scramble away on his hands and knees, still trapped by his swag.
Before the warrior could bring the axe down again, Tommy leapt from his place and drove his knife into the warrior’s back. He felt its tip scratch bone; the knife shuddered in his hand. The warrior grunted heavily and froze. Tommy stabbed again and again until the full weight of the warrior pressed backwards onto him. Then he stepped away and let the body fall.
When Tommy saw the warrior’s face, how his lips were slightly parted to reveal sharp white teeth, he was overcome by nausea. He staggered to the riverbank and vomited into the water. As he gasped and choked for air, he heard the unearthly song rise again in a distant coda before fading away forever.
Tommy wiped his mouth and turned. Jack was on his feet, flushed with exertion, his shirt hanging open to reveal the wiry grey hairs on his chest, his trousers slipping down around his groin.
‘Come on,’ said Jack. ‘We’ve gotta get rid of him.’
At first Tommy did not register Jack’s words. He grabbed his knife and wiped it off on the sand, and started pushing the pots into his pack.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ asked Jack. ‘We gotta hide him.’
‘Why, boss? No-one out here,’ replied Tommy.
‘Because I’m not going to court over a dead coon.’
Tommy was astonished that Jack could think of courts, with the ghostly mangroves reaching overhead and the dead warrior leaking dark blood onto the sand. But he saw that Jack’s mind was already far away, in the dock of a Townsville courtroom, frantically justifying the killing to a sour-faced judge in a stiff wig: I had to, Your Honour, this big black just came out of nowhere, it was us or him, self-defence, Your Honour.
‘Pick up his feet,’ said Jack, and Tommy obeyed. He grabbed the warrior’s feet as Jack grabbed his hands, and together they hoisted the body into the air. ‘We’ll take him down to the water,’ said Jack. ‘We can tie him down there at the roots.’
They set off with hesitant steps. Tommy tripped on a buried branch and fell on his arse in the sand. The warrior’s head struck him in the stomach, winding him.
‘Be careful with him, would ya?’ rasped Jack.
Tommy staggered to his feet and lifted the warrior up again. They carried him out into the river. The water was warm against Tommy’s bare legs. Stones and broken shells scratched the soles of his feet.
‘All right, over here,’ said Jack. With a tilt of his head, he indicated an enormous dead mangrove. The tree stretched its pale branches upwards as if it was trying to tear itself free of the river.
They submerged the body and tied it to the roots of the mangrove with their belts. Eventually the belts would rot through and the body would drift free on the river’s stately current. By then, however, Tommy and Jack would be far away. A dead black would wash up in another jurisdiction, to be briefly puzzled over. Or the body would be lost forever to the river.
They walked back to the camp without speaking or even looking at each other. Tommy climbed into his swag in a state of nervous exhaustion, and sleep overcame him quickly.
He dreamed he was floating on his back down the river at night. He was borne along in a flotsam of black bodies, arms and legs and chests and hands, but no heads, no faces. They jostled against him in the current, gently at first, then with greater urgency, and finally with what seemed like malevolent intent. He struggled against them but their weight pushed him down, down, into the depths of the river. He opened his mouth to gasp for air, and the warm water rushed eagerly into his stomach and lungs, like a gout of blood.
Tommy was woken by a shriek. The end of Jack’s swag lay smouldering in the campfire. He was frantically trying to pull it free. ‘Someone pushed me!’ he shouted. ‘Someone pushed me into the fire!’
Tommy turned to scan the tree-line, and saw a pair of disembodied black hands with scarred palms swoop at him like bats out of the darkness. They shoved him in his chest and he tumbled towards the fire. He steadied inches from the flames and leapt to his feet, knife in hand. He heard Jack yelling, but he sounded far away and incoherent, and Tommy paid him no attention. He waited, poised for another assault from the darkness, until the sun rose at last.
It was a brilliant morning, clear and radiant as glass. As soon as they were back on the road, Tommy muttered that he was done with it. Jack nodded once—a jerky, convulsive gesture—and set off, while Tommy turned back the way they had come. It was only after Jack was long gone that Tommy realised he had not asked for his final pay. So he robbed me after all, he thought. But this time he was happy to see what he was owed slip through his fingers.
He set off for Murchison Station, a journey of two weeks. He travelled at night and slept in the day. He had never feared the dark, even as a child, but now he could not bear to leave himself vulnerable after the sun went down.
As he put more and more distance between himself and the mangroves, his fear lessened. Finally he forced himself to attempt to sleep the night through, after fortifying himself in a high, shallow cave with only one entrance. He woke when the light of dawn flooded the cave. Tears sprung in his eyes when he sat up and saw the land before him like a familiar face. He realised he was only a few days from home.
He took an afternoon by the river to bathe and trim his hair and beard. He immersed himself in the clear waters and felt the wildness wash off him. When he surfaced he saw an enormous goanna watching him stolidly from the bank. For nearly a minute they held each other’s gaze. The goanna’s throat worked steadily like a bellows; its tongue tasted the air. Then, as if a final determination had been reached, the goanna turned and slipped back into the scrub, dead leaves stirring faintly in its wake.
Three days later Tommy arrived back on Murchison Station. The other hands registered his return without interest. He dug up his savings from beneath the post and slipped back into his old job, working harder than he ever had. After a few months, he took all of his money in hand and married a girl from the station, half-white like Tommy, the daughter of one of the bosses. Tommy built them a little house which they kept very clean, and soon enough he had a daughter of his own, a little paler than he. Tommy sometimes wondered if Jack would ever come back through the station, but he never did.
One day he met another drover on the same road he had travelled with Jack nearly ten years earlier. Tommy nodded at the drover and kept on walking, but to his surprise the drover hailed him.
‘Tommy. How you going?’
‘Good, boss,’ replied Tommy.
‘Got some bad news. Remember your mate Jack?’
Tommy’s stomach clenched at the name. ‘Yeah, boss?’
‘He’s dead. Sorry, mate.’
‘He fell down a cliff. Somebody spotted him lying at the bottom, must’ve been a few days after. They couldn’t even get down to give him a burial. They had to leave him there.’
Tommy was dimly aware of the conversation ending, of the drover taking his leave and moving on down the road, and of somehow finding his own way home, not answering his wife when she asked insistently what was wrong with him. He was unable to shake the terrible image of Jack pierced by sharp rocks in the blazing sun, his clothes fading and disintegrating, his flesh browning and melting away to reveal the ochre of his bones. And he knew—just as he knew his own name, Norli—that a pair of scarred black hands had pushed him off that cliff in the dead of night.
In the years that followed, Tommy often found himself at sunset leaning on the fence post outside his house. He waited and watched darkness spread over the plains. In his head a silent entreaty repeated itself: Come on, old one, you wouldn’t do that to me, I had to do it, had to kill you and put you down there in the river. His hands tightened on the fence post and tiny splinters pierced his palms. He remained like that until he was pulled inside by the demands of his children. On those nights, he’d speak no harsh word to them, even if they dirtied the place or kicked each other under the table. Obscurely, he knew it was they who kept the ghosts at peace. •