Read That Deadman Dance Online

Authors: Kim Scott

That Deadman Dance

BOOK: That Deadman Dance
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Part I: 1833–1835

Returning on a rope




Ships and home

Things to do

A single heart beats

Part II: 1826–1830

Bobby never learned

A most intelligent curiosity

Convict William Skelly

River expedition

Soldier Arthur Killam

Where and who?

Men at sea

The wrong port

Tongue and paper

Death and spirit

Spears and guns

A name and memory

Part III: 1836–1838

One day not yet now

The governor family’s tree

A Yankee challenge

Jeffrey and James

Jak Tar

The heart of home

A smile for

Over the horizon

Wriggled his toes again

Firelight in an eye

Sunlight and a bloody groan

People’s attention scatters like sheep do too


Another whale season


Within and under the sea

Sometimes a whale’s path

Part IV: 1841–1844

Bobby came home on high

What’s not in a whale song

Christine and his lay


Just for him

Bones and children

Sheep, sugar and knives

The ocean floor

Had we but

The setting sun a stone

In the gaol dance now

About a native gang

With friends like these we break apart

Author’s Note

A Note on the Author

By the Same Author

To Reenie,
For all these years.



Writing such a word, Bobby Wabalanginy couldn’t help but smile. Nobody ever done writ that before, he thought. Nobody ever writ
that way!

Roze a wail …

Bobby Wabalanginy wrote with damp chalk, brittle as weak bone. Bobby wrote on a thin piece of slate. Moving between languages, Bobby wrote on stone.

With a name like Bobby Wabalanginy he knew the difficulty of spelling.

Boby Wablngn
roze a wail.

But there was no whale. Bobby was imagining, remembering …

Rite wail.

Bobby already knew what it was to be up close beside a right whale. He was not much more than a baby when he first saw whales rolling between him and the islands: a very close island, a big family of whales breathing easily, spouts sparkling in the sunlight, great black bodies glossy in the blue and sunlit sea. Bobby wanted to enter the water and swim out to them, but swaddled against his mother’s body, his spirit could only call. Unlike that Bible man, Jonah, Bobby wasn’t frightened because he carried a story deep inside himself, a story Menak gave him wrapped around the memory of a fiery, pulsing whale heart …

On a sunny day, walking a long arm of rock beside a calm ocean, you see the water suddenly bulging as a great bubble comes to the surface and oh! water streams from barnacled flesh and there is the vast back of a whale. You are enclosed in moist whale breath.

Barnacles stud the smooth dark skin, and crabs scurry across it. That black back must be slippery, treacherous like rock … But you see the hole in its back, the breath going in and out, and you think of all the blowholes along this coast; how a clever man can slip into them, fly inland one moment, back to ocean the next.

Always curious, always brave, you take one step and the whale is underfoot. Two steps more and you are sliding, sliding deep into a dark and breathing cave that resonates with whale song. Beside you beats a blood-filled heart so warm it could be fire.

Plunge your hands into that whale heart, lean into it and squeeze and let your voice join the whale’s roar. Sing that song your father taught you as the whale dives, down, deep.

How dark it is beneath the sea, and looking through the whale’s eyes you see bubbles slide past you like …

But there was none of that. Bobby was only imagining, only writing. Held in the sky on a rocky headland, Bobby drew chalk circles on slate, drew bubbles.


Roze a wail.

He erased the marks with the heel of his hand. It wasn’t true, it was just an old story, and he couldn’t even remember the proper song. There was no whale. And this was no sunny day. Instead, the wind plucked at Bobby’s small shelter of brushwood and canvas, and rain spat on the walls. In the headland’s lee immediately below him the sea was smooth, but a little further from land—a few boat lengths, no more—it was scuffed and agitated, and scribbles of foam spilled in a pattern he was still learning. Rain made sharp silver thorns, and then there was no sea, no sky and the world had compressed itself into a diagonally grained grey space before him.

Bobby heard the heavy tread, and Kongk Chaine thrust himself into the little hut. Hardly space for the two of them beneath this roof, these three flimsy walls. Bobby smelled tobacco and rum; if Kongk breathes in deep, stands up straight, this shelter’ll explode. Chaine steamed with rain and body heat and ruddy health; water cascaded over the brim of his hat and gushed from his bristling beard.

You need a fire here, Bobby.

He looked out across the angry ocean as it reappeared, and at the rain racing away.

Nothing, huh?

They sat, each in the smell of the other, and despite the warmth of the body beside him, Bobby felt the cold seeping into his bones. His fingers were chalk, but with loose and wrinkled skin. He drew on the wet slate with his finger.

Fine we kild a wail.

Chaine barked. Laughed. Bobby felt the man’s arm around his back, the tough and calloused paw squeezing him.

I hope to kill myself a whale, my boy. More than one, come to that. More than one. But right now I wish for sunlight and a clear sky.

Bobby grinned and nodded. Dr Cross might be gone, but Geordie Chaine lived on, another new old man.


Bobby wanted to be the first to sight whales, but he knew the Yankees or even Froggies would likely see them first, since they had sail and all. A tilting tip of mast and sail could point out a whale spout he’d not yet seen.

Bobby kept a sharp lookout. He wrote on slate and showed it to Kongk Chaine to read. No matter if weather-watching, whale-watching or writing, Bobby Wabalanginy was always ready to shout and come running soon as he saw what they all sought.

, he wrote now. Again wishing, imagining.

Fine no wailz lumpy see.

He erased the word
, and straightaway a crowd of water drops rushed across the crest behind him: tiny footsteps slapped leathery leaves, ran heavily across the granite and were drumming loud on the canvas all around them. Bobby shouted with surprise and joy, but even Chaine right beside him could not make out a word, could not hear his voice, only the pounding of tiny feet and hands, and water gurgling, chuckling. The two of them looked at each other, mouthing unheard words as a thin sheet of water ran across the granite beneath their feet.

They were out of the rain, out of the worst of the wind in a pocket of shelter, but still the spit and fingers of wind touched them. Bobby’s kangaroo-skin cloak and the oil and unguents rubbed into his skin kept him warm. Life tingled in his very fingertips.

A trail of silvery spikes ran across the sheltered water below their headland and disappeared into the wind-chopped sea beyond the island so close to shore. All along the southern coast the bellies of clouds were being dragged over just such rocky headlands and islands.

Chaine shivered, farted. Grumbling, he made his way carefully down the slope to the beach.

Bobby wrote straight from his mother and father’s tongue to that of Chaine.

Kongk gon wailz cum.

There! Bobby saw a sail, a mast change its tilt, and then, sunlit among the grey and white tufts and tears of ocean, a spout of spray. Oh. Lotta spouts, a clump of silvery bushes blossoming in a great trunk of angled sunlight out there on the wind-patterned sea. For a moment he thought of sails, of a great fleet of ships rolling in from the horizon. But no, this was whales. Bobby, arms and legs windmilling down the sandy track, yelling out, yelling out, voice pricking men into action. No time just then, but he wrote it later.

Thar she bloze!

Bobby wrote and made it happen again and again in seasons to come, starting just here, now.


Returning on a rope

Once upon a time there was a captain on a wide sea, a rough and windswept sea, and his good barque was pitched and tossed something cruel. Wan, green-skinned passengers dabbed their mouths, swallowed, and kept their eyes fixed on a long and rocky strip of land seen dimly through salt and rain and marked by plumes of foam rising into the air each time the sea smashed against it. The captain—his ship bashed and groaning, the strained rigging humming—sailed parallel to this hint of haven and the mostly bilious passengers resigned themselves to whatever fate offered.

Drenched with spray, Bobby Wabalanginy stood at the bow with a rope tied tightly around his waist. He bent his knees, swayed from the hips in an attempt to maintain his poise as the ship leapt and plunged. A lunging wave swept him across the deck with nothing to cling to and only the rope to save him. Laughing in fear and excitement, he got to his feet and, hand by hand along the rope, thrust his way against the elements back to where he’d begun. Through the soles of his feet and within his very ribs he felt the vessel groaning. He sensed the sails, possessed by an unearthly wind and stretched tight enough to burst. Gulls shrieked and called to him, and clots of foam or cloud were caught in the rigging and then flung free. Cold and shivering, too scared to free himself from the rope in case he was swept overboard, Bobby slid to and fro across the deck like he was about to become a dead man, with no flame of consciousness or desire and a very barren self.

And then the ship heeled over the other way, came around between headland and island and into the lee of a towering dome of granite. Its dark mass was a comfort, and yet the sunlight was still on them. Bobby stretched out on deck like a starfish, already warmed.

Every passenger felt the change, the transformation from the southern side of land to this, how the same long strip of land battered by sea the other side gave shelter here. Between towering headland and island they entered a great bay and found sandy shores within reach.

Yes, there was a captain, and even as his passengers adjusted themselves to the wind no longer roaring in their ears and buffeting them, and even as the salt dried on their faces, the captain and his sailors were remembering other, leafier shores—warmer climes and bare-breasted, dancing women. Small waves slapped teasingly against the hull.

There was a captain with a telescope to his eye, and frustrated sailors sighing, and passengers stretching on the deck and breathing deeply in the relief of the settling sea and oh how the wind had dropped soon as they came around this corner of land. The sun shone upon them and upon rock immediately to their left that rose straight up from the deep blue ocean.

A little further the other way the swell broke on the outer side of the island, and foam periodically leapt and hung in the sky. Behind the comfort of one another’s voices, they heard the loud and regular boom and boom and boom of ocean upon rock, and the shrill caw and call of birds, rising and falling with the spray as if they were the musical score of this shifting, irregular and atonal song of welcome.

So they talked all the more, of what had seemed trees of stone, forever bent by the wind forever sweeping across the headland, or—moving further into shelter—how rock rose majestically from the sea, or boulders balanced high above, some perversely shaped, some rounded and ready to roll, and huge slabs sloped to the very water’s edge. The passengers looked around nervously, wanting to recognise the scent of land, of soil and earth. Smelled only salt and eucalyptus oil.

The dark figure of a boy in the rigging.

They anchored in a great and protected bay, close to one of its high arms of land. Had entered its embrace.

King George Town people call this place now.

BOOK: That Deadman Dance
11.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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