Old Tony Down Under
Emus pecking up the wheat still. Holes in the fences. Rabbits slipping through the broken perimeter of every farm. Crops can’t last with holes like these. The big birds are a righteous lot. Come barreling on the horizon in a hot mob while the steam blurs the rising yellow sun in the distance. Aren’t enough people out here to stop the show. Aren’t enough heart in the hearts of men.
Old Tony’s got no surprise left for the birds. He’s seen them split mobs before. Seen a split fence, and a man chased until his legs were broke. He was here before, he fought the first infestation. “Nothing stopping them,” Old Tony says unprovoked, to a storekeeper. “Fifty kilos an hour, them. Erratic running patterns, too. Peck your eye out if they get close. Even a war weapon, a big gun, can’t run ‘em down like you’d think.” Old Tony says he’s seen an Emu take three bullets and still charge on. “Them knows what a gunshot means. And them knows how to flee it. They send scouts,” he says, “out before the rest. And they split so’s not to be corralled.”
Old Tony piles a stack of meatpies atop the grocer’s counter. “You Turks make ‘em best,” says Tony to the grocer, though he’s long since abandoned their bread. “Like an anchor in your belly,” he once shouted to the man behind the counter, which led directly to a square punch to Old Tony’s face. “Them pies is nice though,” he later conceded, after the bare knuckle fight with that same grocer, and a gift of a cold beer, purchased at a rival store as an offering of peace. “And they last a good while in the ice box, a lot longer than them pillaged crops.”
He buys twelve tomato-steaks. He’ll portion them out. He won’t eat the birds, and he’s killed his fare share. He’s sure that their meat will curse his body as their bodies have cursed this land. They called him out west when the guns were unsuccessful. Now, they’re pushing greater numbers, are more aggressive than before the war.
“Perth.” He says it like a low belch, a wretched syllable whispered and puffed out past his dry lips. He likes to say Perth so it sounds like “death,” like death’s synonym.
“Not Perth, mate,” says a man outside the general store. “Another 350 kilos west. You’ll know it when you see water.”
“It’s all Perth out here to me.”
“Go on then.”
Old Tony was old young. On the gold coast he worked crops. Steered horses. Birthed calfs. He milked and churned. Had a fondness for animals. But the old buzzard that looked after him favored a lashing and harsh words over any kindnesses. Tony bruised easy. Kept his mouth shut. Tucked a dollar away here and there. At nine, almost five foot already, he took off North with the looks of a teenager and the skills of a farm hand, to Darwin.
Here he watched the lorikeets drink themselves silly or dead, plop right down on the ground in his path. He made his home there. Once, he lifted one of them same drunk birds to try and revive the thing, rubbing his thumb slowly over its chest. He was startled when a figure’s shadow moved over his body.
“Birds dead boy,” slurred the man standing above him, a man as drunk as the drunk birds in the trees all around him. Tony held the bird and squinted up at the stranger - he wore knee high boots with khaki pants tucked in, a many-pocketed vest, and round spectacles. He snatched the lifeless rainbow lorikeet from the boy’s hands, and motioned for him to follow.
They twisted down a winding path of knotted roots and dense vegetation, the strange man occasionally thrusting a long blade at a large sagging leaf. They came upon a crude shack surrounded by stuffed wildlife, an army of glass eyed creatures guarding the yard.
The taxidermist prepared his table and began to work, while young Tony, his unwitting apprentice, stood by his side. Now, a touch more sober than when he stumbled upon the boy, the man drained and then pumped the bird full of fluids. “You look old, for a fella young as yourself,” said the taxidermist leaning over, his glasses clinging to the tip of his nose. “What’s your name lad?”
“Tony,” the boy said.
“Old Tony,” yawned the grey haired eccentric. He held the bird’s wing out away from its body as if in a curtsy. “Here. For your… troubles.” The man handed him a small wad of money. “The site of blood bother you boy? Or any of what you’ve just seen?”
“No sir,” said Tony, staring at the cash in hand.
“That’s my land you’ve made your camp on. You can stay on a bit longer, but you come to me in the days, to keep up with my mess.”
He’d study under the drunk the next six years, every day, cleaning the blood buckets, holding a wing in position, bending a paw, opening a jaw. He polished the instruments. He went to bed out in the jungle and reappeared each morning at the big house. Then the Doctor got the first call about them big birds.
The taxidermist wasn’t going to go. He motioned to the boy to come see him, late in the work day. They walked into the courtyard and gathered round a specimen. The stuffed emu stood six foot tall, surrounded in a circle of smaller birds. Even dead as the thing was he could see the anger in its face.
“These lot are hard to kill, boy,” said the Doctor. “Them’s are more fierce than most any land creature you’ll find. And thems’ birds. Smart to boot, too. Don’t look ‘em in the eye. Or if you gotta look ‘em in the eye, look ‘em serious.”
The boy didn’t ask many questions. Old Tony was fifteen when he left. He spent the next three days on twice as many trains to Perth.
Here’s fifteen year old Tony, staring at the first infestation, hired to kill by bounty. His presence is met with great skepticism.
“You called the Doctor,” says Tony, “Doctor sent me.” The man stands in his wide doorway and places his square hands on his hips.
“What do you know of these birds, boy?” Asks the man. “They’re very dangerous.”
“Do you want to see the bodies?” asks Tony. “Want ‘em brung here?”
“No. How would -”
“Alright then,” the boy interrupts. “I’ll just bring the heads than. Five a piece. Per bird. Like what you told the Doctor.”
Tony kills the emus with mercy. He doesn’t affiliate himself with the mess of guns. He hunts the birds with a knife. Sleeps in the brush, camps in a small pitch, lighting herbs around him to ward off mosquitoes and snakes. In the day he stays close to the ground until a mob comes grazing towards him. Then, he kills them individually, slicing a neck here, wrestling a body close to the earth before poking it with his blade. He knows how to drain the blood, knows how to preserve their shape, to kill them with some sense of respect, whatever is left for the flightless things, already born without dignity in their ridiculous bodies.
The boss man opens his door to the same boy he sent away three days prior. Tony carries a heavy bag over his shoulder. He slings it on the floor.
“Them’s thirty,” says the boy.
“Thirty birds?” asks the man.
“You count ‘em.”
“That won’t be necessary,” says the man pulling out his billfold. He hands Tony an offering.
“How many more do you want?” asks the young man.
“As many as there are,” replies the landowner.
This exchange is repeated again and again over the next several weeks. Couple of years back the government had sent a general and a pair of Lewis guns to the area in hope to mow the birds down. But the emus could take the bullets and still charge. The birds would split up in separate mobs when the gunfire started, and the humans couldn’t keep up. That was 1932. A month of shooting 10,000 rounds of ammo killed less than a thousand birds. Then they started accepted bounties.
The weeks go by quickly. The boy comes up to the door every few days, throws his satchel down. He produces 60, 70, 80 heads. The man at the house offers him food, lodging, a wash. The boy just looks up each time, and says, “more tomorrow.”
On the first day of the sixth week Old Tony drops his last pile, ending with the thud of his 330th head.
“That’s it, boy,” says the man, handing over yet another wad of money, darkness in his eyes.
“More birds out there,” says the boy, who’s been sleeping who knows where these past five weeks. He stinks, he seems unaffected by the killing.
“Come in boy. Have a shower at least.”
“No need,” says Tony. “I’ll just head on back.”
The taxidermist reluctantly accepts some of the money. He separates the stack in two and hands Old Tony back half.
“You alright by it?” asks the Doctor.
“Was fine,” says the boy. “Ain’t get much sleep though.”
“You go to sleep then, here, in the house.” The Doctor points to a room on the far end of the terrarium. “Room in the back is cleared out. Yours if you want it.” The boy nods appreciatively and eases his way to his new quarters where he sleeps for three days.
The boy is forlorn upon returning, dead-eyed, bored. The taxidermist gives him more rest, asks less of his chores, watches him sink into his body, thinning. He lets a beer slide now and again into the boy’s paws and sees him take a liking to it. Tony grows stone-eyed quickly in the evenings, belching his way to sleep, waking with the looks of a pale wrestling spirit. The taxidermist insists he boot up the bad stuff and get on with it. Tony quietly obliges.
In the early evening under the pelting beats of another heavy rain, and the rolling squeaks of the surrounding birds the Taxidermist bent over his microscope has he straightened some feathers.
“Did it bother you.”
“The blood? You’re always asking me -”
“I don’t want to scar you, boy.”
“They’re dead. What else can they be after dead?”
“I like to think that what I do keeps ‘em alive, in some respect.” The boy stares out at nothing in the woods.
“That’s nice. All them birds I killed out west, only thing that didn’t sit right was I ain’t bury ‘em.”
“Too many to bury.”
“Them’s were too many. But it aren’t right to have left ‘em.”
Tony takes the Doctor’s boots off when he passes out drunk, saves his glasses from being bent, broken, or lost, catalogues the work. All the while he puts on the pounds too, stays up late into the night drinking alone, studying the Doctor’s collection.
The years pass. Tony gets used to the cycles of his mentor, most alive with a new discovery, a specimen to study from after stuffing, to paint. He illustrates and paints every bird, documenting their color pigments, beak shape, claw configuration, working well into the nights.
“You’re good with the work,” says the taxidermist one morning, over an already cold cup of coffee. “It suits you.” The boy nods. “And if left to myself, none of these would be as well collected and preserved without you.” The boy nods again quietly repositioning a bird of his own. “And you have no family.”
“None to speak of,” said the boy coolly.
“Very well,” says the man, like it’s a game they play.
Late 1942, a telegram arrives from the west: “Infestation is back. Need an expert. Never really went away. Send the boy.”
Tony brings the mail to the taxidermist in the terrarium. It is mid-afternoon. He swells with the unease of so many trains again, though it’s been years. What he thinks about mostly is the quantity of the kills. On his way to the terrarium, slipping out of the side room off the kitchen, along the well-worn path between the building and the glass extension off the back of the house he sees the tall emu standing in the yard and approaches it, stares deeply into the marble of an eye. It is only getting this close to the bird as to blur its shapes that Tony’s eyes focus past it. There in his glass room is the figure of his mentor slumped over his desk and a dark pool of blood under his head, his usually orderly papers scattered across the room like he was looking for something in a hurry..
Tony lifts the head of the man off his desk to check for life, though he knows a dead thing when he sees it. The doctor appears to have choked on his own blood, Tony links the man’s coughing fits to the rest. TB or some such thing the boy surmises. He leaves the man, there at his desk surrounded by the stone eyes of the frozen creatures. He finds a shovel, throws the man’s body over his shoulder and buries the taxidermist in the dirt.
He doesn’t respond to the telegram. He sorts through the vast collection the taxidermist left in his wake and reorganizes by species and type. Hidden beneath the thick blood atop his desk Old Tony then comes across an unfamiliar document. Under a gold seal and some fancy type are the words “Deed of Land” and beneath that Tony’s own name. The land is his. He cleans the place spotless, then purchases all the train tickets necessary to get out west.
The locals are going mad over the new infestation. Thirty thousand birds is what they say. One to one, they say. Human to bird. They plow through the fences, peck up the posts. It is war all over again. A war already lost when the boy was a boy.
Old Tony walks out into the field, his knife in hand, his stomach full of the dense bread of a tomato-steak pie. He approaches the flock cautiously, ready to make his kill. He eyes the stoic one, standing steady, meeting his gaze. Tony doesn’t break his slow pace as he nears him. Standing a foot from the large eye of this ridiculous animal Old Tony closes his eyes, he navigates his hand, hovering over the back of the bird. Tony’s hand slowly, steadily rises to grab the back of its neck. When his fingers reach feathers he lightly grazes the great bird’s neck. He lands his palm softly against the neck, curls his fingers gently against the bird. Old Tony leans his head towards the bird, rests his forehead against the bird’s ridiculous face and weeps.
In a large field in Western Australia that is not quite Perth, but might as well be in his eyes, Old Tony pierces the dirt with the knife given to him by a doctor on the other side of the country and quietly walks away.