The end of our journey impended. Great fields stretched on both sides of us; a noble wind blew across the occasional immense tree groves and over old missions turning salmon pink in the late sun.
The clouds were close and huge and rose. ‘Mexico City by dusk!’ We’d made it, a total of nineteen hundred miles from the afternoon yards of Denver to these vast and Biblical areas of the world, and now we were about to reach the end of the road.
‘Shall we change our insect T-shirts?’
‘Naw, let’s wear them into town, hell’s bells.’ And we drove into Mexico City.
A brief mountain pass took us suddenly to a height from which we saw all of Mexico City stretched out in its volcanic crater below and spewing city smokes and early dusklights. Down to it we zoomed, down Insurgentes Boulevard, straight toward the heart of town at Reforma. Kids played soccer in enormous sad fields and threw up dust. Taxi-drivers overtook us and wanted to know if we wanted girls. No, we didn’t want girls now. Long, ragged adobe slums stretched out on the plain; we saw lonely figures in the dimming alleys. Soon night would come. Then the city roared in and suddenly we were passing crowded cafes and theaters and many lights. Newsboys yelled at us. Mechanics slouched by, barefoot, with wrenches and rags. Mad barefoot Indian drivers cut across us and surrounded us and tooted and made frantic traffic. The noise was incredible. No mufflers are used on Mexican cars. Horns are batted with glee continual. ‘Whee!’ yelled Dean, ‘Look out!’ He staggered the car through the traffic and played with everybody. He drove like an Indian. He got on a circular glorietta drive on Reforma Boulevard and rolled around it with its eight spokes shooting cars at us from all directions, left, right, izquierda, dead ahead, and yelled and jumped with joy. ‘This is traffic I’ve always dreamed of! Everybody goes!’ An ambulance came balling through. American ambulances dart and weave through traffic with siren blowing; the great world-wide Fellahin Indian ambulances merely come through at eighty miles an hour in the city streets, and everybody just has to get out of the way and they don’t pause for anybody or any circumstances and fly straight through. We saw it reeling out of sight on skittering wheels in the breaking-up moil of dense downtown traffic. The drivers were Indians. People, even old ladies, ran for buses that never stopped. Young Mexico City businessmen made bets and ran by squads for buses and athletically jumped them. The bus-drivers were barefoot, sneering and insane, and sat low and squat in T-shirts at the low, enormous wheels. Ikons burned over them. The lights in the buses were brown and greenish, and dark faces were lined on wooden benches.
In downtown Mexico City thousands of hipsters in floppy straw hats and long-lapeled jackets over bare chests padded along the main drag, some of them selling crucifixes and weed in the alleys, some of them kneeling in beat chapels next to Mexican burlesque shows in sheds. Some alleys were rubble, with open sewers, and little doors led to closet-size bars stuck in adobe walls. You had to jump over a ditch to get your drink, and in the bottom of the ditch was the ancient lake of the Aztec. You came out of the bar with your back to the wall and edged back to the street. They served coffee mixed with rum and nutmeg. Mambo blared from everywhere. Hundreds of whores lined themselves along the dark and narrow streets and their sorrowful eyes gleamed at us in the night. We wandered in a frenzy and a dream. We ate beautiful steaks for forty-eight cents in a strange tiled Mexican cafeteria with generations of marimba musicians standing at one immense marimba – also wandering singing guitarists, and old men on comers blowing trumpets. You went by the sour stink of pulque saloons; they gave you a water glass of cactus juice in there, two cents. Nothing stopped; the streets were alive all night. Beggars slept wrapped in advertising posters torn off fences. Whole families of them sat on the sidewalk, playing little flutes and chuckling in the night. Their bare feet stuck out, their dim candles burned, all Mexico was one vast Bohemian camp. On comers old women cut up the boiled heads of cows and wrapped morsels in tortillas and served them with hot sauce on newspaper napkins. This was the great and final wild uninhibited Fellahin-childlike city that we knew we would find at the end of the road. Dean walked through with his arms hanging zombie-like at his sides, his mouth open, his eyes gleaming, and conducted a ragged and holy tour that lasted till dawn in a field with a boy in a straw hat who laughed and chatted with us and wanted to play catch, for nothing ever ended.
Category Archives: Fiction
The end of our journey impended. Great fields stretched on both sides of us; a noble wind blew across the occasional immense tree groves and over old missions turning salmon pink in the late sun.
It was obvious the commotion would bring more Turks – they were, after all, in their territory. Enemy soldiers were, in fact, crawling across open ground to a position on the other side of the Australians. Two dropped down behind the men and the fast-shooting Dick, whirling around, pulled his trigger faster than they could pull theirs. The other Turks slid back out of sight. The Australians realised they were surrounded.
‘We’ll have to clear ourselves a passage,’ said Dick. ‘I’ll have a squiz on the other side of the barrier – see how our bombardiers are doin’.’
‘Now take it easy, Dick!’ said Martin, trying to restrain his impetuous friend. ‘We’ll hold out better back to back!’
Dick grinned at him and clambered over the sandbags. Confronted by the cautiously advancing Turks, he ran full tilt into them, sticking his bayonet into two. Before they could react, he was back around the corner, panting, his back against the trench wall.
‘Okay?’ asked Martin over his shoulder while he watched the other side of the trench.
‘Sweet as a bun.’
From Dick’s position, the Turks around the corner could only approach in ones and twos. Men dropped each time they attempted to scramble over the barrier. Martin, meanwhile, was throwing bombs, keeping the other wave of attackers at bay. And then, above it all, they heard the cries of Australian voices – ‘Hang on Aussie; we’re nearly there!’
‘Keep it going, Marty!’ called Dick. ‘Only seconds to the final bell!’
Martin smiled, his face still turned to the other side of the trench. Then a shot rang out, loud and clear. And it echoed and bounced and ricocheted through his mind. He’d heard more than a half a million rifle shots at Gallipoli, despite his weeks away. But this single crack reverberated right through him. Before he turned, he knew what he would see. He tried to whip his head around, but it seemed to move in slow motion. His eyes rested on the Turk kneeling in the trench parapet, his rifle still trained on its target. Dick lay face down, already bleeding from the mouth. Martin was still moving in slow motion. He saw the Turk lift his rifle, point it at him – and heard the click.
Again it boomed through his brain. The sound of the rifle misfiring jerked Martin into action, now high-speed action, and he whipped his rifle up to hip level and shot, catching his mate’s killer in the head.
He didn’t hear the battle outside. He didn’t hear anything. For the first time the world was silent. He walked over to his friend, his dear mate, and slumped into a sitting position beside him. Now the blood was spreading, high up on his back.
‘Oh Dick . . . Dick’, he said, quietly. He raised his hands to his face. ‘Dick . . . Dick.’
Puttees, boots, men, Aussies, dropped into the trench. The Sergeant in charge surveyed the carnage. He saw only the dead Turks.
‘Crikey! We heard your little shindig. But it doesn’t look like you need us.’
Martin nodded toward Dick’s lifeless body. ‘It was mostly his work.’
The Sergeant was still looking around at the enemy. ‘He must’ve been a bloody goer.’
Martin tried to force out words. ‘He was protecting my back, I was supposed to protect his.’ Now the tears rolled unchecked down his face. They were going to go to Queensland.
‘A mate of yours, was he?’
No more words. Martin simply nodded. The Sergeant, a builder by trade, reached down and with as much gentleness as his roughened hands would allow, touched Martin’s cheek.
‘Come on, pal. Go back to your own mob. You’ve done your share.’
He helped Martin to his feet. The young Barrington stumbled off along the trench. ‘By the way,’ called the Sergeant, ‘the boys have taken Lone Pine.’
Martin didn’t hear him; didn’t want to hear him.
They buried Dick at night on a hill overlooking Anzac Cove. The makeshift cemetery was dotted with crude crosses and tablets in memory of the men whose bodies had been recovered. Many were still inaccessible, left where they had fallen. Some were to remain for years.
The platoon stood in silence as Armstrong pushed a rough cross, made out of a biscuit tin, into the mound of earth that covered the body of the young stockman whose first steps into the war were along the wattle-edged roads of western Victoria. The cross wobbled slightly in the warm wind that blew in from the Aegean. Its inscription said simply: ‘Pte Dick Baker. 8th Btn. A good mate. 6 Aug., 1915’.
Finally, a young woman approached who was not dressed in black. She had a vessel on her shoulder, and her head was covered by a veil, but her face was uncovered. The boy approached her to ask about the alchemist.
At that moment, it seemed to him that time stood still, and the Soul of the World surged within him. When he looked into her dark eyes, and saw that her lips were poised between a laugh and silence, he learned the most important part of the language that all the world spoke— the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart. It was love. Something older than humanity, more ancient than the desert. Something that exerted the same force whenever two pairs of eyes met, as had theirs here at the well. She smiled, and that was certainly an omen — the omen he had been awaiting, without even knowing he was, for all his life. The omen he had sought to find with his sheep and in his books, in the crystals and in the silence of the desert.
It was the pure Language of the World. It required no explanation, just as the universe needs none as it travels through endless time. What the boy felt at that moment was that he was in the presence of the only woman in his life, and that, with no need for words, she recognized the same thing. He was more certain of it than of anything in the world. He had been told by his parents and grandparents that he must fall in love and really know a person before becoming committed. But maybe people who felt that way had never learned the universal language. Because, when you know that language, it’s easy to understand that someone in the world awaits you, whether it’s in the middle of the desert or in some great city. And when two such people encounter each other, and their eyes meet, the past and the future become unimportant. There is only that moment, and the incredible certainty that everything under the sun has been written by one hand only. It is the hand that evokes love, and creates a twin soul for every person in the world. Without such love, one’s dreams would have no meaning.
But Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight away to Mr. McGregor’s garden, and squeezed under the gate! First he ate some lettuces and some French beans; and then he ate some radishes;
And then, feeling rather sick, he went to look for some parsley.
But round the end of a cucumber frame, whom should he meet but Mr. McGregor!
Mr. McGregor was on his hands and knees planting out young cabbages, but he jumped up and ran after Peter, waving a rake and calling out, “Stop thief.”
Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate. He lost one of his shoes among the cabbages, and the other shoe amongst the potatoes.
After losing them, he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not unfortunately run into a gooseberry net, and got caught by the large buttons on his jacket. It was a blue jacket with brass buttons, quite new.
Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.
Mr. McGregor came up with a sieve, which he intended to pop upon the top of Peter; but Peter wriggled out just in time, leaving his jacket behind him.
And rushed into the toolshed, and jumped into a can. It would have been a beautiful thing to hide in, if it had not had so much water in it.
Mr. McGregor was quite sure that Peter was somewhere in the toolshed, perhaps hidden underneath a flower- pot. He began to turn them over carefully, looking under each.
Presently Peter sneezed— “Kertyschoo!”
Mr. McGregor was after him in no time, and tried to put his foot upon Peter, who jumped out of a window, upsetting three plants. The window was too small for Mr. McGregor, and he was tired of running after Peter.
He went back to his work.
Peter sat down to rest; he was out of breath and trembling with fright, and he had not the least idea which way to go.
A few mornings later Peter and Edmund were looking at the suit of armour and wondering if they could take it to bits when the two girls rushed into the room and said, “Look out! Here comes the Macready and a whole gang with her.”
“Sharp’s the word,” said Peter, and all four made off through the door at the far end of the room. But when they had got out into the Green Room and beyond it, into the Library, they suddenly heard voices ahead of them, and realized that Mrs Macready must be bringing her party of sightseers up the back stairs – instead of up the front stairs as they had expected. And after that – whether it was that they lost their heads, or that Mrs Macready was trying to catch them, or that some magic in the house had come to life and was chasing them into Narnia they seemed to find themselves being followed everywhere, until at last Susan said, “Oh bother those trippers! Here – let’s get into the Wardrobe Room till they’ve passed. No one will follow us in there.” But the moment they were inside they heard the voices in the passage – and then someone fumbling at the door – and then they saw the handle turning.
“Quick!” said Peter, “there’s nowhere else,” and flung open the wardrobe. All four of them bundled inside it and sat there, panting, in the dark. Peter held the door closed but did not shut it; for, of course, he remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.
“I wish the Macready would hurry up and take all these people away,” said Susan presently, “I’m getting horribly cramped.”
“And what a filthy smell of camphor!” said Edmund.
“I expect the pockets of these coats are full of it,” said Susan, “to keep away the moths.”
“There’s something sticking into my back,” said Peter.
“And isn’t it cold?” said Susan.
“Now that you mention it, it is cold,” said Peter, “and hang it all, it’s wet too. What’s the matter with this place? I’m sitting on something wet. It’s getting wetter every minute.” He struggled to his feet.
“Let’s get out,” said Edmund, “they’ve gone.”
“O-o-oh!” said Susan suddenly, and everyone asked her what was the matter.
“I’m sitting against a tree,” said Susan, “and look! It’s getting light – over there.”
“By Jove, you’re right,” said Peter, “and look there – and there. It’s trees all round. And this wet stuff is snow. Why, I do believe we’ve got into Lucy’s wood after all.”
And now there was no mistaking it and all four children stood blinking in the daylight of a winter day. Behind them were coats hanging on pegs, in front of them were snow-covered trees.
Peter turned at once to Lucy.
“I apologize for not believing you,” he said, “I’m sorry. Will you shake hands?”
“Of course,” said Lucy, and did.
“And now,” said Susan, “what do we do next?”
“Do?” said Peter, “why, go and explore the wood, of course.”
“Ugh!” said Susan, stamping her feet, “it’s pretty cold. What about putting on some of these coats?”
“They’re not ours,” said Peter doubtfully.
“I am sure nobody would mind,” said Susan; “it isn’t as if we wanted to take them out of the house; we shan’t take them even out of the wardrobe.”
“I never thought of that, Su,” said Peter. “Of course, now you put it that way, I see. No one could say you had bagged a coat as long as you leave it in the wardrobe where you found it. And I suppose this whole country is in the wardrobe.”
They immediately carried out Susan’s very sensible plan. The coats were rather too big for them so that they came down to their heels and looked more like royal robes than coats when they had put them on. But they all felt a good deal warmer and each thought the others looked better in their new get-up and more suitable to the landscape.
“We can pretend we are Arctic explorers,” said Lucy.
“This is going to be exciting enough without pretending,” said Peter, as he began leading the way forward into the forest. There were heavy darkish clouds overhead and it looked as if there might be more snow before night.
“I say,” began Edmund presently, “oughtn’t we to be bearing a bit more to the left, that is, if we are aiming for the lamp-post?” He had forgotten for the moment that he must pretend never to have been in the wood before. The moment the words were out of his mouth he realized that he had given himself away. Everyone stopped; everyone stared at him. Peter whistled.
“So you really were here,” he said, “that time Lu said she’d met you in here – and you made out she was telling lies.”
There was a dead silence. “Well, of all the poisonous little beasts -” said Peter, and shrugged his shoulders and said no more. There seemed, indeed, no more to say, and presently the four resumed their journey; but Edmund was saying to himself, “I’ll pay you all out for this, you pack of stuck-up, self-satisfied prigs.”
Meanwhile the worthy swineherd had picked up the curved bow and was taking it along, when protests rang out from all the Suitors in the hall. One of the insolent youths, expressing the general feeling, yelled: ‘Where are you taking that bow, you wretched swineherd, you vagabond? If Apollo and the other immortal gods favour us, the very dogs you’ve bred will tear you to pieces, out there among your pigs away from everybody.’
Eumaeus, cowed by the angry cries in the hall, then and there put down the bow. But now Telemachus’ voice came loud and menacing from the other side. ‘Come on, bring the bow, old fellow! You’ll soon find that you can’t obey us all. Take care I don’t chase you up the fields with a shower of stones. I may be young, but I am more powerful than you. If only I had the same advantage in muscle over all the Suitors in the place, I’d soon send them packing back where they belong and out of this house of mine where they hatch their ugly plots.’
The Suitors greeted this speech with roars of hilarious laughter, which took the edge off their resentment against Telemachus. The swineherd picked up the bow, carried it down the hall to wise Odysseus and put it in his hands. He then called the nurse Eurycleia from her quarters and said: ‘Eurycleia, you’re sensible. Telemachus’ orders are for you to lock those close-fitting doors to the women’s rooms. And if anyone hears groans or any other noise from the men’s part of the house, they are not to stir from their quarters, but must stay quietly where they are and get on with their work.’
Without a word Eurycleia went and locked the doors leading out of the great hall. At the same time Philoetius slipped quietly out and barred the door leading into the courtyard, which he made fast with a ship’s hawser of reeds that was lying under the colonnade. This done, he went in and sat down on the stool he had left, with his eyes fixed on Odysseus.
Odysseus now had the bow in his hands and was twisting it about and bending it at both ends, in case worms had eaten into the horn in the long absence of its owner. The Suitors glanced at one another and one said: ‘Ha! Quite the expert, with a critic’s eye for bows! No doubt he collects them at home or wants to make one, judging by the way he twists it about. The old vagabond is up to no good.’ Another arrogant youth said: ‘I hope he has as much luck at that as he has chance of ever stringing the bow!’
While they were talking Odysseus, master of stratagems, had picked up the great bow and checked it all over. As a minstrel skilled at the lyre and in song easily stretches a string round a new leather strap, fixing the twisted sheep-gut at both ends, so he strung the great bow without effort or haste. Then with his right hand he tested the string, and it sang as he plucked it with a sound like a swallow’s note. The Suitors were utterly mortified; the colour faded from their cheeks; and to mark the moment there came a thunderclap from Zeus, and Odysseus’ long-suffering heart leapt up for joy at this sign of favour from the Son of Cronos of the devious ways.
One arrow lay loose on the table beside him; the rest, which the Achaean lords were soon to experience, were still inside their hollow quiver. He picked up this shaft, set it against the bridge of the bow, drew back the grooved end and the string together, all without rising from his stool, and, with a straight aim, shot. Not a single axe did he miss. From the first handle-ring, right through them all and out at the last the arrow sped with its burden of bronze. Odysseus turned to his son. ‘Telemachus,’ he said, ‘the stranger sitting in your hall has not disgraced you. I did not miss the target, or make hard work of stringing the bow. My powers are unimpaired, and the Suitors did me an injustice when they disparaged me. But the time has come now to get their supper ready, while it is light, and after that to pass on to the further pleasures of music and dancing, which add to the delights of a banquet.’
As he finished, he gave a nod. Whereupon noble Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, slung on his sharp-edged sword and gripping his spear took his stand by the chair at his father’s side, armed with resplendent bronze.
Throwing off his rags, the resourceful Odysseus leaped on to the great threshold with his bow and his full quiver, and poured out the swift arrows at his feet.
‘The match that was to seal your fate is over,’ he called out to the Suitors. ‘Now for another target which no man has yet hit – if I can hit it and Apollo grants my prayer.’ And with that he levelled a deadly shaft straight at Antinous.
Antinous had just reached for his fine cup to take a draught of wine, and the golden, two-handled beaker was balanced in his hands. No thought of bloodshed entered his head. For who could guess, there in that festive company, that one man, however powerful he might be, would bring evil death and black doom on him against such odds? Odysseus took aim and shot him in the neck. The point passed clean through his tender throat. The cup dropped from his hand as he was hit and he lurched over to one side. His life-blood gushed from his nostrils in a turbid jet. His foot lashed out and kicked the table from him; his food was scattered on the ground, and bread and meat lay there in the dirt.
When the Suitors saw the man collapse, there was uproar in the hall. They sprang from their chairs and rushed in confusion about the room, searching the solid walls on every side. But not a shield or sturdy spear was there to lay hands on. They rounded in fury on Odysseus: ‘Stranger, men make a dangerous target; you have played your last match. Now you shall surely die. You have killed the greatest nobleman in Ithaca: for that the vultures shall eat you.’
Each of them laboured under the delusion that he had killed the man by accident. It had not dawned upon the fools that the fate of all of them was sealed.
The master-strategist Odysseus gave them a black look. ‘You dogs!’ he cried. ‘You never thought to see me back from Troy. So you fleeced my household; you raped my maids; you courted my wife behind my back though I was alive – with no more fear of the gods in heaven than of the human vengeance that might come. One and all, your fate is sealed.’
Fear drained the colour from their cheeks and each man cast round to find some sanctuary from sudden death.
Curtin sat down and, taking out his pipe, began to fill it. He did his best to seem unconcerned.
Dobbs remained standing and looked steadily at Curtin. Then he laughed derisively.
‘You’re right, my boy. Now I do know. I know now what you’re up to. And I’ve known it for some time.’
‘What have you known for some time?’ Curtin asked without looking up.
‘That you’ve had it in mind yourself to put a bullet through me tonight or tomorrow night, and bury me like a dead dog, and then make off with Howard’s lot and mine too, and laugh at us for a couple of fatheads.’
Curtin lowered his pipe, which he was just lighting, and looked up. His eyes were wide and vacant. This accusation robbed him of all power to give them any expression. He had never for a moment thought of acting the part that was foisted on to him. He did not call himself a pattern of integrity. He could help himself with the best, if it came to that, and he was not the victim of his conscience. Why should an insignificant creature like him have more exalted views and a more sensitive conscience than those who are pointed to as the great ones of the earth and extolled in newspapers, magazines and story books as the highest examples of energy, will-power and achievement? But, nevertheless, what Dobbs now attributed to him was more than he could stomach. Perhaps if he had thought of it himself he might not have thought so hardly of it. But thrown at him in this rancorous and disgusting way, he thought it the dirtiest action he had ever heard of. And if Dobbs thought him capable of it, it showed what Dobbs himself could sink to. How could he have thought it of anyone, unless it had been in his own mind? And in that case, Curtin was a dead man; for Dobbs would not think twice about destroying him in order to get the whole lot for himself. It was the consciousness of the peril he was in that deprived his eyes of all expression. He saw that from this peril there was no escape. He was helpless – about as helpless as a man can ever be. For what defence had he against Dobbs? They had four or five days’ journey before them. And even if they met anybody it would be no help. Dobbs had only to hint at the reward and he would have anyone they met on his side. And if they met no one, so much the better for Dobbs. Curtin could keep awake for one night and save his skin. But the next night he would only sleep the sounder. There would be no occasion for Dobbs to waste a bullet. He could tie him up and knock him on the head and bury him. He could even spare the knock on the head.
There was only one way out. Curtin had to do with Dobbs what Dobbs meant to do with him. Slay or be slain. There is no other law.
I won’t have his bronze, thought Curtin, but I must put him out of the way. The old man shall have his share and I shall have mine, and that swine’s I’ll bury with him. I won’t be the richer for him, but my life is worth as much as his.
His left hand with his pipe in it was on his left knee, and his right hand on the other. Now his right began to travel slowly to his hip pocket. But in the same moment Dobbs whipped out his revolver.
‘You stir, my boy. And I shoot,’ he shouted.
Curtin kept his hands still.
‘Up with ‘em!’
Curtin stretched his arms above his head.
‘I wasn’t far out,’ Dobbs jeered. ‘Your fine talk was only a smoke-screen. But you don’t get past me like that. Stand up!’ he said, coming nearer.
Curtin did not utter a word. His face had gone white. Dobbs went up to him and reached round to his hip pocket to disarm him. Curtin whipped round. Dobbs shot. But owing to Curtin’s sudden movement the bullet missed him; and before Dobbs could fire again Curtin laid him out with a powerful punch to the chin, and flinging himself on top took away his revolver. Then he jumped up and retreated a few steps.
‘The boot’s on the other foot, Dobbs,’ he said.