Of Animals and Me
David Wansbrough is a well-known poet, lecturer, and artist, as well as the author of 16 books. He has for many years been a frequent visitor to Moscow.
We continue a series of stories based on his New Zealand childhood and his life in the beautiful Blue Mountains west of Sydney in Australia.
WHAT’S UP DOC?
There was a happy period when in my thirty's I was given the use of a cottage in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. It was right on the lip of the escarpment overlooking the deep Leura Valley. Very early every morning, before the little children woke, I felt the dawn rise over the Tasman Sea behind the eucalyptus trees and the blue mists of their oils exuded that gave the mountains their name. I checked the fish in the ponds, the guinea fowls, the ducks that run and can't fly, the mallards with blue and white flashes in their green wings, the teals with a sublime blue hue, the pecking ducks, the big aggressive geese, and the cheeky Moscowy ducks. The pigeons and the quails and doves had to be checked, then the fluffy white Chinese silky hens, the bantam roosters with exhibitionistic trailing tail feathers. Then I looked at the neat little Normandy hens, each rich brown feather tidily and exactly placed and defined with a fine black line. They all needed checking. Why? Because the existence of death is always in life. A thunder storm and a flash of lightning will frighten quails to death. They all die in an instant. Snakes rob nests and swallow eggs and hatchlings. When dogs raid sleeping ducks, the birds freeze. We say 'like sitting ducks' for good reason. Nature is, as the poet says, red in tooth and claw. I had to get evidence of death buried before the children awoke. The little girls just loved to get out of bed and walk around the nests and cages, opening the doors to free them all for the day to forage. The girls scattered grain for the fussy hens to peck. Then we would look with awe at guinea pigs covered with wriggling pink naked babies drinking greedily, see little beaks tap cracks in brown speckled eggs and watch chicks stumble out with wet quills looking for any mother bird. The male pigeons would swoop on flying insects in the morning before spending their day protecting nests while the females fed. The girls saw ducks with lines of little yellow ducklings following, and saw the roosters rise to rooftops to loudly declare their presence, before returning to the ground to the waiting wives who flirted and succumbed when the cock bird half flew with rapid flapping and mounted to grip their necks from above with a bigger beak. A spasm of wings beating, and the rooster would sink to the ground, look around, and strut to the next favourite hen. There was an edge of violence to it, but it was all part of the hum of life. The bees from my hive buzzing around, lulled by a puff of smoke, allowed the liquid sunfilled honey combs to be taken for breakfast. So the children had an experience of vivid life. But always they sensed some drama beyond their and my comprehension. They saw how different types of pigeons avoided hawks in flight. Some tumbled as if dying in the air, they plummeted, and, at the last seconds, extended their wings and glided to freedom. Others just outflew them by climbing higher in the air. But, over all, the kids experienced life. My nemesis was a 3 legged scarred old ginger fox. I'd seen him dislocate his hips to squeeze between the door hinges of the hen house. So, when a friend about to travel overseas, phoned to say he was giving the girls a rabbit, I only thought: one more creature to protect from the fox! When the rabbit came it was the biggest I’d ever seen. It had never been outside and was house trained to poo marbles in a tray of sawdust. But, after only one night inside scratching and exploring, it was clearly not appropriate to share the space with him. Anyway, I was told, it was not my decision as I lived like a monk in a garden shed to avoid the challenging chaos of everyday life. So the consensus was that i would have to build a luxurious cage for this indulged bunny. His previous owner had called him Hugh Heffner after the owner of Playboy magazine. I was warned that I’d have to borrow female bunnies when Hugh got randy to avoid violence. All that day I worked and designed a big secure hutch with a lockable door to the cabin, and wire netting over the walls and floor of the run. Hugh seemed to like it. Lissy hugged him goodnight and we watched through the open roof as he turned and turned in the cloths of his bed to nest. I worked on a sculpture to eleven and went to bed. At about two in the morning there was a violent noise and the hens were flying in panic around their cages. It was summer and I was sleeping naked. I ran out of my shed with my hunting spear. The fox had separated the wire mesh from the frame and was dragging the fat rabbit with effort. Hugh cried out like a human baby. The fox had Hugh by the throat with his white body hanging on the ground between its legs. But because of Hugh's weight, and the fox's missing left front leg, I caught up, and viciously thrust my spear downwards between its shoulder blades. Months of anger at finding beautiful dead ducks half buried, rotting a little before he’d return, months of righteous anger rose behind the force of my thrust. But the frightened rabbit leapt away over the sheer cliff edge. I left the dead fox pinned to the ground by my spear. I washed my gashes from having rushed through the rose bushes, and got dressed and sat thinking until the sun rose. In my mind I’d created a poetic story to tell the little girls to prepare them. Something about a gazelle and a hungry lion cub. Their innocence had to be protected from the horror of death. The girls woke and I said I’d like to tell a story before we let the birds out. I sat the children around me and reverently began the story: 'Once upon a time, a ...' But Lissy interrupted. 'Dad, has the fox eaten up Hugh Heffner?' Where did such realism come from with only 3 years on earth! But, gentle reader, the story has not ended. Just then there was a scratching noise at the door. Conrad opened it to see Hugh standing upright on the veranda. Hugh's tongue and lower lip tap-tapped behind his big front teeth as if to say,' I'll tell you all about my adventures, – after breakfast!'
The old song goes:
The fox went out on a chase one night.
It prayed to the moon to give it light,
It’d many a mile to go that night before he reached the town -o.
He ran till he came to a great big pen
Where the ducks and the geese were kept there in.
A couple of you are going to grease my chin
Before I reach the town –o.’
I like and do not like foxes. The English gentry hunted foxes directing packs of hounds from horse back until quite recently when the socialist government cornered the Tory quarry and tore the age old tradition to shreds. The Unspeakable in pursuit of the Uneatable. But foxes are a nuisance. I rarely hate. But I hated one fox. Others had evidently hated it too because its face was scarred and it had lost its front left leg in a dingo trap. It didn’t fear me. One morning I heard screeching and left my axe in the sculpture and ran to the house and stopped on the path. Linda was already there on the veranda. In a eucalypt tree a couple of dozen hens were all fluffed up and clucking. “What a to-do! Here we are. Puck puck puck”. Minding our own business when this fox appears. Can’t a girl sit peacefully on a nest without being disturbed?’ The 3 legged fox couldn’t jump up high enough to get them. Linda took a lump of coal from the fire bucket and threw it at the fox. It turned to look at her. Then she threw another. She missed both times. The fox recognised a woman’s throw and knew it was in no danger. It looked into her eyes, lowered its head, and trotted towards her. Right towards her. Like a monster in a Fellini movie. A scarred veteran with a leg missing .Linda backed away. I wished I had my axe. It didn’t go up the veranda steps, it turned towards me. And came straight at me. Then, a meter from me, it moved a little to the side and passed by. A fetid smell from the fox rolling in old buried kills was left. As I turned, he too looked back with his head lower than his shoulders. He was almost liquid. A curved back between shoulders and hips, and a curved tail. Such cunning, such menace in its look. One of us would die. And that moment we both knew it. That afternoon my friends laughed and said, ‘Yes, you and Ernest Hemmingway.’ At times I saw him in the bush. At times he supplemented his diet of guinea pigs, hens, ducks and geese, unwillingly supplied by me. I saw him climb a low-lying branch and nab a sleeping sulfur crested cockatoo. The big old parrot put up a good fight, but once it was on the ground the fox twisted its weight onto it and took its throat, and with awkward movements dragged it off. I saw the fox early one morning and followed it at a discrete distance downwind. I could smell its putrid coat. As I watched, it put its good paw on the back of a blue tongued lizard and ripped its scaley head off. Then a vixen, sleek and young sniffed towards it with a pup. I didn’t want to imagine it in a domestic setting. Ultimately I was selfishly interested in protecting my own birds and animals. But it was acquiring an expensive taste for my koi carp, so I was out to get it. I slept in my garden shed with the door locked and an African hunting spear beside my bed. At times I could smell it pass and suspected it marked the shed corners with piss.
A friend was going to America and gave my children a massive indolent angora white rabbit. I had to build a hutch and a wire netting covered run. It was fox proof. Not. In the early hours the hens squawked. I unlocked the door, took my hunting spear and ran naked feeling vulnerable through the roses. In the full moon light I could see the white rabbit being dragged. It was too heavy for the fox. On three legs it was slow. I stood above it and thrust down. The spear went between its shoulder blades and I felt it scrape along bone. It was pinned to the ground. The freed rabbit jumped blindly into the night and I went back to my shed and dressed and waited with dread for the sun rise. I took the children round the cages, avoiding the bushes where the fox lay. The children went to breakfast. I have a phobia about touching newly dead creatures so only partially pulled the spear. Just enough to get it out of the ground. I dragged the corpse on the end of the spear to some waste ground where I’d left my spade, closed my eyes and put my foot on the fox’s back, and pulled the spear out, and dug a grave down for a meter. I turned to pick up the fox. IT HAD GONE!
Our final encounter would be ahead of us... Yet another nightmare to confront.