Things I like about Sydney (and environs) No. 21: CORPSES.
(Warning: this blog entry is not recommended for those of a nervous disposition...)
It all began last winter (which obviously translates as summer for most of you) when Daniel and I were staying at his mother's country retreat, McGrath Flat, in the Coorong, South Australia.
Bulked up in layers of jumpers, neither of us having brought a coat ("It's Australia", we thought, "it's always hot.") we ventured outside, over the road, and down towards the Coorong - a long, shallow lagoon more than one hundred kilometres long that is separated from the Southern Ocean by a narrow sand dune peninsula. The sun was beginning to go down, creating a beautiful but mysterious haze on the horizon. Our eyes were peeled for emus, which we'd watched loping past the windows that morning and which, despite their size, are very good at camouflaging themselves amongst the scrub and the olive trees. There was no-one around, no-one for miles it seemed, and as thousands of moths and midges rose up from the grass we trekked through, grass that reached over poor Sniff's head, there was an eerie stillness, filled only by the howling wind and the distant sound of waves.
One more corner to turn and we would reach the edge of the water. One more corner to turn towards the crescendo of buzzing. One more corner to turn - TO THE FIRST CORPSE!!
It lay in shocking graphic detail, in a terrible rictus of death, festooned with flies, beribboned with maggots, large and terrifying, as big as a human - this corpse of a seal; teeth bared in an eternal grimace, like Cerberus at the gates of Hell, body flattened by deliquesence, eyes eaten by ravening seagulls, fins nibbled away by crabs.
It was such a sad and lonely end for such a magnificent creature, in such a sad and lonely spot. The sand, dotted with Sniff's paw-prints as he scuttled past oblivious, cradled the corpse and the angle of the sun blackened its eyes and playfully lit up the silver in its fur. Daniel and I looked down upon it mournfully in silence...and then we returned to the house and played Scrabble again.
The next morning there was the most magnificent rainbow over the site of the seal's demise, promising another bright and cold day, and I thought of all the seals gambolling in the waters, alive and thriving, feeding themselves and their young, with no thought to their probable, perhaps even inevitable, shockingly pointless mass demise....
Murder No. 2
Back in Sydney, and the corpses begin to pile up. It seems as if there is a serial killer on the loose. And close to home at that.
In our very driveway, we found the corpse of the Golden-Crowned Snake which has already been the subject of a blog entry. He or she seemed much more peaceful in death than our seal - I expect its death was swift and surprising, caused by the silent but deadly swoop of a Powerful Owl.
The nights have drawn in, it gets dark suddenly at about 5.30 pm. and, although we have a light on the top of our gatepost about a hundred yards from the house, most of the driveway beyond remains in complete obscurity. The drive twists and turns, climbing steadily and very unevenly upwards and it requires keen night vision to negotiate - something the Golden-Crowned Snake and Sniff (to a lesser degree) have and I very clearly don't...
As Sniff and I neared the house last night, through the gloom, with me heading blindly towards the patch of light emanating from the gate-post, Sniff suddenly pulled at the lead and careened forwards, dragging me with him, urgently in pursuit of something. He stopped near the gate-post and when I caught up with him I crouched down to see what it was that had excited his curiosity so much. With a gleeful thrill I spotted, rapidly disappearing into the dark towards the verge, a rather large snake. I was so excited that I didn't stop to think that bending down to peer at a venomous snake in the dark is probably not a good idea. What did I care for danger? I was getting my first glimpse of a live Australian snake in all its wriggling glory.
Similar in size and colouring to the one pictured here, even though I didn't catch a glimpse of it's (venomous) head, I think it was undoubtedly a Golden-Crowned Snake. I told our neighbour of this rare snake sighting and apparently the news is so exciting it will be going into the local council's newsletter...Daniel and I, needless to say, now imagine that every night the driveway is writhing with invisible snakes, which does lend a certain extra frisson to coming home from work in the dark.
Murders No. 3 and 4
The other week I wrote about the chocolate Easter Bilby, the last remains of which have now well and truly been devoured. Which is more than you can say for the remains of the creature which I stumbled across on Berry Island last week: Corpse No. 3.
Whatever it is, corpse No. 3 looked so angelic lying on its byre of dead leaves and twigs, with its forepaws curled up to its chin, its lustrous fur asking to be stroked, its ears still perky. For a short while I hoped that it might in fact still be alive, to still be breathing, but the tell-tale streaks of bright crimson blood told the true story...It did feel as if the murderer had barely left the crime scene. I could almost sense a pair of homicidal eyes watching me intently from the undergrowth, sizing up the chances of a fresh kill.
Sniff however once more showed no interest whatsoever and dragged me off down the track. Honestly, I sometimes wonder whether he is actually a dog at all.
We descend from the island down towards the beach where I am to search for shells for the bathroom whilst Sniff does his un-dog-like things. There are lots of shards from rock oyster shells which have a opalescent sheen on their underside and which I collect, along with a few limpets and barnacles. And then I stumble across it. Corpse No. 4. Frankly, I should have been a detective.
Except this was a bloody large fish, just lying there ripe for the eating, freshly dead. The murderer, once more, had only just left the scene of the crime. If I hadn't already had the experience of reading every sign there is to read on Berry Island I would have brought it home and cooked it. As it is, there is a warning to fisherfolk spelled out on a rather obscure noticeboard that the fish caught in these particular waters off Berry Island have too high a chemical content for safe eating, at least, it adds inconclusively, "in large numbers". Which just makes you worry once more. What is a large number? A large number of small fish or large fish? But then I remember. There won't be a large number any way...http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/04/fishing-techniques-decline
Hercule Cooper Investigates
Obviously I am on the hunt for the serial killer. And when I find him or her I will march them straight down to the Police and Justice Museum near Circular Quay.
This beautiful old police station was built in 1885 out of both stone and wood, mixed together in a lovely and delicate fashion. Unfortunately it now houses a rather mediocre and dull museum which promises a gruesome journey into Sydney's criminal past but distinctly fails to deliver any such thing. The museum absolutely needs to up its corpse count and I think I might be the man to help with the four cases outlined above...The fantastic building contains a fully preserved nineteenth-century court room with an enormous splendid Victorian skylight where, once our serial killer is caught, he can be tried, cuffed with some rusty old handcuffs and dressed in one of those fetching outfits covered in arrows. And once convicted, there is a convenient cell or two to put him in, with a lovely stuffed police dog called Trixie to stand eternal guard...
So Hercule Cooper is off to investigate. But I am already wondering whether that dead fish might simply turn out to be a red herring...