Lasseter's Last Dream
Central Australia - Pitjantjatjara Land
Harry Lasseter lies against the rock wall and watches the desert sun set over his empire. He's the richest man in the world. But he's stuffed, and he knows it. Long black shadows stretch across the landscape. He watches them carefully. Sees them creep across the desert floor towards his little cranny in the rock face.
That lone mulga tree, way out there on the plain, sprouts sharp-edged shadows like grasping fingers. They stretch out towards him. Reach out to grab him.
He tries to move a little to the side. But he is crippled by exhaustion. Too weak. He's well and truly stuffed. All the riches in the world beneath him and he's too weak to avoid a shadow. It creeps faster now, quickening, and then, like a striking snake, darts out and touches his leg. Despite the desert heat he shivers.
He looks back to the sun. It is starting to disappear now. Half under the horizon. It's that time, when everything changes, when everything is clearer. He rolls his head a little to one side and looks up at the rock face. Waits for that instant. Waits for it to turn to gold. The entire ridge. A mountain of gold!
He has seen it a thousand times. Tens of thousands of times. But it never fails to draw his breath. To spellbind him. To renew his dream and reinvigorate him. Then there it is. A sudden sharp brightness that flares right across the rock face. All along the side of his reef. A mountain of gold. It is just for an instant, but in that instant, he is gold too.
It's bloody beautiful! He'd cry if he had any tears left. Then it is gone. The sun is down. The reef slowly fades back to cold flat rock. It is that time between day and night now. No sun. No stars. No shadows. Everything is much clearer. He looks at his arms and legs. They are thin sticks. All the flesh melted off them. Seeped into the sand.
He looks up at the night sky, to that point where he knows the first star will appear, right over the mulga tree out there. And then there it is. Bright. Stark against the blackness. It seems to dance. Then the other stars appear, slowly at first, then quickening. Tens, then hundreds, then thousands of them.
He follows the stars like he'd follow a map, or a familiar story. Knows just where the next stars will appear. Tens of thousands of them.
He should draw that in his book, he thinks. A star map to guide others.
He'd heard that the blacks believed that the spirits of the dead went up to the stars. The Milky Way was a river of spirits. He wonders where his star would be. In some patch of empty blackness, probably. Far from any other stars.
He looks back to the desert. Something is moving out there. He looks towards the mulga tree. He can see its dark outline still there. But there is something further to the south. Now he can see two large bright eyes out there. And he hears a low rumbling growl. Moving towards him. The eyes flash across him. Blinding him. The growl grows louder. Closer now. Then almost deafening. It stops in front of him, with a loud hiss. The doors spring open and a small crowd jumps out.
‘You've missed it, you silly sods,’ Harry Lasseter yells. But they don't hear him. A few lift their cameras and fire off flash shots at the rock wall. Another walks a few easy paces away and pisses into the desert sand. Then they leap back onto the bus and drive away. Going flat out. CD blaring. Within a few minutes they're gone. No movement. No sound. And he wonders if they had even been there. Perhaps it was one of his dreams?
‘Bloody tourists!’ says Lasseter. He hates them. And the geologists. And the ecologists. And particularly the anthropologists! Looking for traces of those who had lived here, but never looking for traces of him. And he remembers the difficulty he had with the six-wheeled truck. Constantly digging it out of soft sand. Repairing punctured tyres up to ten times a day. And the heat of the engine igniting the desert grasses under it as he drove.
The landscape finally defeated it. They had to turn back towards Alice Springs. His backers weren’t happy.
He had been surprised to have been given $20,000 for the expedition – his first demonstration of how gold fever could make men lose their common sense. He still had their money and had no intention of returning it. So he pressed on alone. With his camels. That would have been, what, 1930? So long ago now. They were going to send support by airplane. And he remembers that distant single plane ride he once had. Cruising low over the desert, following the contours of the land. Viewing the landscape from the air. How different it looked. So easy to conquer. So easy. From up there he could see his long slow journey like an abstract picture. Could see his faint footsteps in the sand as he struggled from waterhole to waterhole, heading onwards alone towards the reef.
But it was so different to be trudging down there, slow heavy step by slow heavy step, across the soft desert sands. Half blind from sandy blight, starving and weakened by lack of food. $20,000 in his pockets and nothing he could buy with it. And always having to beware of the blacks. They were always out there. They helped him for a time. Took him into their tribe. Fed him. But grudgingly. And when they smelt the scent of death about him, they left him to die.
Una pika purlka, they said. Something about being very sick.
He had tried to learn their words. Tried to teach them his own. And he wrote desperate messages on the pages of his small black notebook, ripped them out and pressed them into their hands with some cash and said, ‘Alice Springs. Alice Springs. Alice Springs.’ Over and over until it meant nothing. Alicesprings. Alispringsalisbrings. The words, he knows, slipped through their fingers as if they were sand. And somewhere, scattered across the desert, is his own story, told in scraps of paper and bank notes. If only somebody found them and put them together, what a tale they’d tell.
He closes his eyes and tries to remember that feeling of first finding the gold once more. The exhilaration of it. Standing in the middle of a wilderness, untrodden by white men. Nuggets all around him. As thick as plums in a pudding. Pure like the golden tablets of the archangel. He was standing on one of the largest reefs of gold in the world. His reef. His empire! The gold fever made his whole body shake.
That was when he still had his gun. Before his camels ran away. Before the blacks encircled him. Held a council and decided to feed him rather than let him die. Listened to his words of wealth and prosperity. He told them about his dream of great gold mines. Of herds of stock fed and watered by artesian bores. How he would develop the land here and bring civilisation to the deserts. How it would make him the richest man in the world.
But the blacks didn't understand the value of the land. They took out his claim pegs. Indicated that he should move on to somewhere else. As if they somehow had a claim to these rocks that superseded his.
Well, he thinks, they sat on it for tens of thousands of years, clearly not knowing its worth. He cannot understand their language well, but understands their dreams are not his own dreams.
He wakes with the sunrise. The sand blindness is bad today. Una pika purlka, the blacks said looking at his eyes. The sun is blinding. But he can make out someone coming towards him. Walking slowly across the desert. He tenses. The warriors came down to him with two spears each. He feared they were coming to spear him to death. But they saw how close to death he already was and left him. Left him to the elements of the land. They didn't understand that he was the richest man in the world.
It is one of the tribal women coming towards him. He can see her now. She kneels on the ground in front of him and begins digging in the sand. Looking for yams maybe. But then he sees she is burying something. The pages from his notebook. His money. She is hiding it. No one will ever know his story.
He reaches out a hand to her. But suddenly she is gone. Blended into the desert.
He startles awake again. It is midday. That moment the shadows are hiding. The sky above is so blue you could fall up into it and drown if you didn't hang onto the ground. He closes his eyes again. Shuts out the bright glare of the desert and sun. It's much clearer in the dark.
He had clung on for days waiting for the rescue team. The expedition party. The airplane. They never came. He sat in the small overhang – not even a cave – up against the reef, waiting vainly for them. As his life ebbed slowly out of him. Pika purlka.
The rescue party would come in their own time. Looking for his bones perhaps. But they didn't realise that he had to be there when they arrived. They needed him to show them the gold. To show them it wasn't just rock.
He could feel the gold deep down there beneath him. A large vein of it that ran through the earth. A whole river of gold. As vast as the Milky Way.
And how many times had he sworn he would trade it all for the simplest thing -a bite of bread, a swig of water, or even release?
It's late in the afternoon again now. The sun is setting. The shadows creep towards him again. The dark fingers reach out to grab him once more. The black shadow crosses his thin leg. The shiver runs through him, shaking him like a fever.
Then it passes. It is that miraculous instant. The sharp brightness flares across the rock face. All along the side of the reef. It is gold. And he is gold too. He is the reef!
Then it fades. He feels the cold grayness of stone return to his limbs. He waits for the stars as the sky turns black. And he can see the people of the tribe dancing up there. Renewing the land. Reinvigorating themselves. Thousands of them. Ten of thousands of them.
He once thought they didn't understand. Didn't know the value of the land. But that was before they all went up to the stars. They knew all right. That's why they left him there. Anchored to the gold. Dragging him into the rock face forever. Unable to rise up to the heavens.
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