David Rowbotham

A fig tree, a falling woolshed, a filled-in well:
the acute corners of one man’s figure of hell . . .
When the tree was young and the well deep and the shed
Mullabinda, these three and Campbell’s sheep
were Campbell’s pride – before this northern sweep
of channelling waters marked the Queensland side;
before death speared and drained the day to dark,
and Campbell, riding home, heard no dog bark.

His broad and glaring mare snorted at the ford
and splashed cold fear into his eyes and beard
with hooves restlessly obedient and ominous.
Upstream, on the highest bank, through the blowing rows
of the wind-creak coolabahs, the cypress pine
of Mullabinda, slabbed between the shine
and pillared strength of bloodworm, rose a violence,
a smokeless shock of fortress stormed by silence.

He heeled the mare to the gallop in his heart.
‘Keep clear of the trees, close to the house. At night
bar the door and open to no stranger,’
he had said, then kissed away the rape of danger
in her eyes, and (gently), Take the gun to the well
and when you water the fig.’ A voice replied, ‘I will .. . ‘
Inside the coolabahs the broad mare shied,
and a wind struck through and broke down Campbell’s pride.

‘I found my wife murdered at the well,
the boy with a bucket in his hand and a spear
in his back beside the fig, and the girl on a chair
in the house, clubbed like a little animal.
I beg Your Excellency’s kind permission to kill.
I remain Your Excellency’s humble servant – Campbell.’
The graces were heaped, and the special licence came,
and Mullabinda Campbell rode after game.

The target circles of the black breasts, glistening, hung
thick-nipple-centred over the billabong,
and paddling and playing in pools of water and sun
the piccaninnies turned plump bellies to the gun,
teasing the tiny apex of the steely sight . . .
The legends ricocheted with each report;
till stone thoughts filled the well of his heart, and age
made a crumbling woolshed of his slab-hard rage.

Time grooved him like the bloodworm; but deep in the dried
and channelled country of his being where pride
once flooded to the full, whispered and grew the fig tree,
fruitless, but a wi1d, green and rooted memory,
growing on, long after the vengeful spear,
thumping his shoulders out of the quiet air,
acquitted him of hate, and of tree, shed, well -
Mullabinda Campbell’s estimate of hell.