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Experiment 5


page 14


It is morning, when the dew is checked, but the air has not dried. The gully with the bunkhouses and the cookhouse runs north and south, falling into a larger valley at the end. There, where this more spacious valley falls over its shelf into the deep Wanganui, the homestead lies like a groin for the old floods at the side of the hill.

Henry stands at the door of the cookhouse, shivering in his vest, looking right up the hill and along the hill. He knows, though he does not see, the hills of grass piled up behind that, grey grass and then blue trees. He goes out up to his waist in high summer weeds and looks at the sloping gully; he looks at the cleft of the empty stream on the other side, then at the hill above. Quite precisely, like the stroke of a brush, the sun makes a green rim at the top, overlaid with the yellow of summer.

He pushes the door open and goes back to the kitchen, to the fire in the black stove. His concern is to finish his breakfast before the shepherds come in. He pours eggs and bacon and tomatoes together and stirs them hastily in boiling butter, eating from his plate hot butter and all, leaving the plate in the sink.

Alonzo and Dan come. "Turn off the light," says Dan. "Hullo, Henry," says Alonzo. "Hullo," says Henry and walks away feeling watched. "Bugger them," he thinks, "bugger them." They never call him by his first name.

Henry is a cowboy - that is, he milks cows. He is broad and small, with big hands; his skin is milky and tough and never goes brown. His toes turn out when he walks. He has big boots. He comes from Hawera.

He walks down heavily from the gully into the green valley with the sides turning yellow. Each day the sun goes from end to end of this valley, touches it with the first rays of morning and the last in the evening, homestead, woolshed, pens and drying grass.

Henry passes below the woolshed where the noisy ewe is standing to be made into dog tucker; he crosses a dark stream full of eels and walks through the camp of eager dogs, hoofing them aside; one time Dan found him hand-feeding them. He goes to the buildings at the back of the homestead.

Mrs Vickers, the pioneer's wife, the old wakeful menial, watches him walk into the yard, looks down at him from her tiny window over the sink every morning. She gets up before page 15the sun rises, before the house cows go into hiding from Henry, verily Henry believes before the breakfast music comes from Australia. How should he know old women don't sleep well?

She comes to the open door and calls down, "Henry!" and Henry comes. "Henry," she says, "Henry, there were flies in the milk last night." "Yes, Mrs Vickers." "Well, keep them out, Henry, you keep them out. I'll tell Mr McIndoe." "Yes, Mrs Vickers." "And mind you shut the back gate. By the by, Henry," she says to his back, "Henry!" He turns round. "You're not killing them into the milk are you? Eh, Henry?"

She closes the door, shaking with laughter, and Henry thinks 'Is she going crazy? Is the silly old fiddly old bitch going crazy?' He never meets her eyes, he knows his place, he is seventeen. That is all there is to Henry.

The cows are down at the bottom of the paddock, eating swamp-weed to spoil the milk. He drives them up and milks them both. The Jersey tramples her muddy hoof in the milk and Henry mixes the buckets to make the colour right. McIndoe drinks from the Jersey bucket to stay thin, but Henry generally mixes them. McIndoe stays thin.

He separates half the milk and carries it thirty paces across the yard right under Mrs Vickers' eyes, and takes his bag of lunch from the top step. Then, with his eyes still downcast, he walks back to the shed and runs a billy of water. He takes a slasher and a pair of leather gloves and goes off stolidly up the valley, somewhat happier alone in his heavy boots.

Out of the gully ride Alonzo and Dan, knee to knee, talking of parts of the station Henry never sees, walking their horses past him, not lowering their eyes, nor he raising his. "O.K., Dan," says Alonzo, "you ride up to Heywood's fence, and I'll come down the big slip behind the bush-face." Henry broods on the empty words and remembers the wordy games of his childhood. He says to himself, 'O.K. Jake - you go up top Bill. Bring her over bring her over - Jesus Jake, can't you sail straight?'.

Now a child's anger gives way to distraction and sleep, but a man's anger is not distracted; how angry Henry is. He tramps onward. Away behind him the dogs yell with joy. Up from the ground rises the fine yellow haze of summer. The first heat prickles in his vest. The slasher lunges like a beak. He hears the cicadas, the sounds of day. Here is Henry, the angry man with the big walk, the long walk, pitiless Henry with the big legs.

He climbs the pen-rails and moves in on the dog tucker ewe; she backs up and makes a dash along the rails. Fud-dam with his boot in her left side and he cuts her off, fud-dam again. page 16Back and forth fud-dam. Fud-dam sideways and on the backside. "Henry." Fud-dam. "Henry." Got you. Fud- "Henry."

"What do you think you're doing?"

The blood pumps up Henry's cheeks and burns behind hie ears. Then he gets his sight back and sees McIndoe directly in front of him, outside the rails.

McIndoe jerks hie head, not speaking. He has molten, fearful eyes. Anyone not easily embarrassed might outstare him. Henry stands before him like a hairy pony.

"What do you think you're doing, Henry?"

Henry says,"I don't know."

"Don't you like it here, Henry?"

Henry says yes.

"No you don't. I've been watching you, Henry, you don't like it. Why did you come here? You didn't come to milk cows."

"No," says Henry.

"All right, why then?"

"I don't know."

Uneasy McIndoe flies off. "I'll tell you why you bloody little fat fool, you came to be a shepherd. You and Dan both. And when I ask who can ride a horse Dan says yes and you say a bit. And when I say someone has to milk the cows you say you can milk cows and Dan shuts his slack face tight, even a droppy-jawed little --- like him. Then he gets up on the horse he jacks up with Alonzo and the minute he gets round the corner of the house he starts falling off as I knew he would. You never even got up. Alonzo says he's got guts so I take Dan and then you want to be houseboy. Guts! D'you hear, Henry?

"You haven't got guts. If you wanted to be the shepherd you would have been the shepherd. But no...if you knew what you want you'd get what you want, but you don't know what you want so you take what you get, you live like a maori dog."

Henry says nothing.

"You do yourself no good, I don't like people like you round me. I'm going to fire you, Henry. It'll do you good. You'll thank me. Don't you ever take a job by yourself or in the country here. You want to be with all the rest where it doesn't matter much. For your own good."

Henry thinks, what doesn't matter much?

page 17

"You can stay here for another fortnight, then I'll fire you. When you go, go down to the railway. I know the branch foreman. He's got two fine ugly daughters - they'll be just right for you in two years. You get on the railway or in a factory or you'll be clearing county roads by the time you're twenty.

"Go and get yourself a woman - be a family man. What you need is a steady job and a ... a bit of snatch at night. You'll thank me for this. It's for your own good boy."

All the time Henry rube the sole of his boot over and over a little rock in the dust. McIndoe stops talking and looks at him. Nothing happens; Henry waits. The air shimmers up all round and the cicadas click on the rails. McIndoe sees he won't move and says, "You can't stay here, Henry .... Hey... Henry...mind you don't kill any more flies into the milk from now on. Eh, Henry?"

Henry's heart sinks in weary disbelieving dread, then he sees it's a joke; he looks up at McIndoe's mouth and turns on his heel. Walking away he opens his mouth wide and stretches his cheeks and lips to disperse his frozen grin.

He doesn't look back; all the way up the valley he shows his broad back to McIndoe. When he looks back from the long slope at the end, McIndoe has gone away.

Who cares, who cares.

Where does the gorse come from? The first year it was a gmall patch half way up the hill, the next year a group of patches at the edge of two white slips of earth and then an acre of bright gold and dark green that makes McIndoe unfit to talk to in the mornings.

But now it is mostly the smooth fawn colour ready for burning. Henry cuts it close to the ground, lupin-fashion as he learned in Taranaki. Great jerky swathes lie below him where the flowers shrivel in the dead stems. At midday it is all over, Henry standing well up the hill in the rich heat, looking down on the confusion of it.

He goes down to the mouth of the gully, now bathed in sunshine, but still green, and walks up the damp bed of the stream. But today, instead of going across to the cookhouse, he follows the dry streambed over its hot shelf of white papa to a clump of high second growth. He climbs round an old slip and sees something new to him.

There is a discoloured white fall of rock upstream, and backed up behind the slip a smooth-floored dark pool about thirty feet long, worn by the falling of the water, masked all round by manuka and second growth.

page 18

He site on the edge and drops his feet into the cold water. A sudden fast movement in the pool, and a great thick strong eel, a three-footer, flies away through the water back to the rockfall, and disappears. Henry lets his feet slide back into the water and laughs to himself. I'll come back for you tonight, he thinks, I'll hook you out tonight, and he sits watching the pool, eating, and drinking the billy-water. Nothing else moves in the pool.

After lunch he goes to the cookhouse to cut down the weeds. The sun falls nearer to the hill above the cookhouse and Henry works in the sun till the shadow of the hill touches the western wall.

Down the gully he goes to the shining straw paddocks in the valley to milk again. There are sheep everywhere for god knows what reason but thank god no sign of Alonzo and Dan. The iron barred gate to the River Road is opened by Mrs McIndoe and her yellow car runs across the valley to the sheds. Henry goes two hundred yards out of his way and shuts it. The cows are waiting. The Jersey flicks a caked brush over his hair.

Mrs Vickers lets him bring the milk right in to fill the billies on the bench. She is tired now, droops small and thin in her cotton frock and winter underwear inches deep. She stands defiantly in front of the serving hole to the living room. Henry spills milk on the bench.

"Be careful with the milk, Henry, you might have wiped your feet. I won't be sorry when you go if you dirty the floor all the time. Ah--there you are! Milk and mud all over my linoleum! Get out of it! Go on. Go on!"

Now in the evening Henry goes back up the valley ahhelling to himself. All day he is in a fury with the smart---s and still he steps aside for Alonzo and fears the yellow dull eyes of Mrs Vickers. How is it when he sees the shepherds' dogs at the kennels he doesn't take to the bush? He only goes quietly to the bunkhouse as usual and lies down on a heap of mattresses till the shepherds finish eating and go by to their hut.

Dan calls out, "Hey, Henry, you got a sheila there?"

"Na," says Alonzo, "It's a heap of nuddies under the mattress."

"Ha...HAH!" cries Dan, and Henry thinks of the ghastly mouth wide open, without a bottom set of teeth, but it doesn't put him off his food. After his tea of cold mutton he goes across to the shepherds' hut with an empty pineapple tin, and holds it out to Alonzo. Alonzo looks him up and down.

"You killing the dog tucker tonight?" says Henry.

page 19

"What do you want with eels?" saye Alonzo.

"Only one eel," Henry says.

"I s'pose you painted a cross on his back?"

("Ha-hugh!" Dan goes. "Killer!")

"Or maybe you been putting rings round their legs."

"Hagh!" says Dan.

"He's by himself," says Henry.

"Crap!" says Alonzo, and picks up his knife. "Hey," he says at Dan's corner, and whisks his knife through Henry's hair. A clot of hair falls on and off Henry's shoulders.

"Hah! - dag," Dan says. Alonzo goes.

'"s a dag, eh?"

"Aa...yes," says Henry. Dan reads his paper inch by inch and tells the best bits to Henry till Alonzo comes back carrying the pineapple tin, which he hands over, and goes to clean his knife.

There is a little light left. Henry walks back to the cookhouse and turns up a few worms. Then he walks quickly to the dark stream-bed with short line, torch, eeling stick and tin of blood. He hears the black crickets; when he comes to the pool, the boundaries of his senses are extended and the distant rushing of the night has begun, like a steep river running under a bridge somewhere.

He lies down on his back at the open end, watching the insects that fly up from the grotto till the effort strains his eyes. He knows then it is time to begin, turns over to pour a little of the blood into the water. He baits the hook and casts it a little way out. He lies quietly. The noise of the night stops a minute, the silence of dread, and begins again, but Henry twists the line on his finger, thinks of nothing else, then stops thinking altogether. Yet time passes.

His attention fixes slowly on two points of light in the grotto; how can they be stars? Another appears, then one more. Glowworms. Henry forgets the line, and the glowworms pass into his mind for ever. The line slips along his fingers and Henry convulses as he recalls It. Very quietly he picks up the torch and turns it on.

The flat, the foreshortened head of the eel is thirty inches from his nose, the eel has swam in past the bait, and comes in still.

page 20

Without a change in motion, without a quiver the eel reverses himself like a flannel in a bath and goes back from end to end in a state of utter calmness, beyond the range of the torch beam, under the overhang of rock and the four lights. Henry turns off the torch and lies still. After a while he hears the movement of the night.

End piece by Barbara Moffat and Ross O'Rourke