Once a jolly swagman fell for the lovely Matilda.
None was fairer than Matilda. Her father ran two thousand head of sheep. There wasn’t a single stockman or shearer in all of the territory who didn’t want to waltz Matilda to the altar. But haughty Matilda would have none of it.
“I won’t be a sheep station Sheila,” she told them. “My day will come. You’ll see. A lawyer or a doctor will whisk me off to Adelaide to live like the lady I was born to be.”
One October day, when she was hanging out the clothes, a Kookaburra settled on the line.
“A suitor is coming,” it said. “Look down the road.”
Matilda held her hand over her eyes to protect them from the glare from the sun. Sure enough there was a streamer of red dust trailing back toward the blue horizon. Matilda let out a squeal. “It’s him. Come to whisk me off to Adelaide.”
She ran inside, dressed in her Sunday best, and smothered herself in a musky mist of scent. When she saw herself in the mirror she was convinced that the suitor would not be able to help but fall for her.
But when she set eyes on the swagman, all scruffy, with patches on the knees of his britches she was crestfallen.
“Look at you, whiskery and grimy. I can’t tell if your skin is brown or caked in mud.”
“My grandfather on my mother’s side was Aboriginal,” said the swagman. “It’s definitely not all dirt.” He removed his hat, revealing long, wavy hair.
Matilda felt prejudice rise like bile in her belly.
“Get off my land before I call my father to shoot off your ears.”
“I have riches to offer that no man in all the territory could match,” said the swagman.
Matilda placed her hands on her hips and sneered at him.
“What riches could the like of you offer the likes of me?”
“The sky and the sun and the wind,” replied the swagman. “The open road, the bush and the outback. All the riches any husband and wife might ever need.”
“Dust and flies. Dungbeetles and sunstroke. Be off with you before I call the troopers.”
“Do you know what day it is?” asked the swagman. “It’s Halloween,” he said before she could answer. “Come away with me and I will show you the dancing dead.”
“Superstitious twaddle,” said Matilda, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “My grandparents left all that nonsense behind when they left the old country.”
Not one to be easily discouraged the swagman produced a tin whistle from his deep pocket. The eerie tune he played sent involuntary shivers running through Matilda. She swayed to the enchantment and fell instantly into a deep slumber. All at once the swagman seized her soul and hurled it into the Dreamtime. Then he spun and spun on his heels till he vanished.
Matilda found herself in the cool shade of a coolibah tree.
“I’m quite a catch,” boasted the swagman, appearing before her. “See that billy boiling on the fire? It’s in pristine condition. Like all the treasures in my swag.”
To prove it he shot a jumbuck with his pistol and tipped his hat.
“Mutton for m’lady’s tucker?”
Matilda groaned and rolled her eyes.
“How can I eat when I’m fast asleep?”
“Truth, often comes in the guise of a dream,” said the swagman.
Later, when the jumbuck had been butchered and the smell of mutton was wafting deliciously around the billabong, Matilda felt such pangs of hunger she had no choice but to go and sit by the fire. The swagman grinned over his whiskers and ladled some mutton stew onto a tin plate. Matilda ate grudgingly.
“This is how it would be if you were my wife,” said the swagman.
Matilda almost choked on her mutton.
“I’ll never be your wife. You can’t keep me here against my will. My father will call the troopers. They’ll come searching for me.”
“Search as they might they’ll never find their way into the Dreamtime,” said the swagman. He pointed up at the full moon that hung in the sky above. “Soon it’ll be midnight. Soon the dead will dance.”
He fetched a gramophone player from deep inside his swag and set it beneath the coolibah. Humming to himself he cranked the lever and dropped the needle to the groove. The haunting tones of Nellie Melba singing ‘Mattinata’ filled the evening gloaming. On the other side of the billabong shadowy figures began to materialise and sway, spinning and gliding to the music as the needle hissed and crackled.
“Do you see?” asked the swagman. “Do you see the dancing dead?”
Matilda could feel a cold shiver run through her as the eerie dancers cast their ghostly reflections onto the rippling waters of the billabong. She wanted to squeeze her eyes shut and block out the unsettling vision. She wanted to pinch herself awake and free herself from the dream the swagman had trapped her in.
But somehow her eyes could not look away. She saw the dancers in all their hideous grotesquery. Some ghoulish, full of sour bloated putrefaction. Some leathery and marbled blue with translucent flesh wizened to bone. There were white folk and aboriginals amongst them. Together, in juddering synchronicity, they danced reels and quadrilles and ancient ceremonial steps. Matilda saw through the horror of it all to the strange, ethereal beauty which lay beneath. And the timbre of the music got under her skin, Nellie’s voice pulsed through her veins and she wanted to move in time to it. To join the dancers. Oh, how she ached to join their dance!
“We should dance with them,” said the swagman, as if reading her thoughts. “It would be the respectful thing to do.”
Before she could react he grabbed her hand and hauled her to her feet. She tried to struggle but he was too strong. He wrapped her in his big, dirty arms and spun her round with a grace that surprised her so much she gasped for breath. Then, as the congress of cadavers watched, he waltzed her with deft agility along the bank of the billabong. The fat moon above bathed them in its pearly glow. The starry sky was punctuated by the fitful flutter of fruit bats. The dead danced in incongruous unison, matching the erotic momentum of their motion. Even in the enforced compulsion of her comatose condition Matilda felt more alive than she ever had.
As he swooped and dipped her in dizzying circuits she gazed into the swagman’s eyes and saw beneath the grime and whiskers he wasn’t such a beast after all. Her lips went from wrinkled prunes to ripe cherries. It surprised her greatly, but it was she who kissed him first. But when he kissed her back it was so intense she felt she might disintegrate and fall to dust in his embrace. Shocked by the body shuddering sensuality of the experience she pulled back.
“What sorcery is this?” she demanded.
The swagman laughed. “No sorcery. Just your heart crying out to be heard. Just the hunger in your body crying out to be fed.”
“There’s no place in my heart for the likes of you. I am fast asleep, and this is all some terrible dream.”
“Perhaps,” suggested the swagman, “this is your true awakening?”
Matilda blushed and stomped off, kicking the gramophone for good measure.
When she looked back the dancers were fading one by one, till all that was left was the still of the night and the rhythmic chirruping of the crickets
Next day, when the swagman went off on walkabout, Matilda tried to escape.
But the roots of the coolibah tree came snaking along the ground to wrap themselves like serpents around her ankles and drag her back. She sat down and wept. A koala scurried curiously down from the branches and sniffed her. Matilda cradled it in her lap like a baby and fed it eucalyptus leaves. The gentle breeze drifting from the billabong, cooled the midday sun. Matilda felt a strangeness come over her. An unexpected empathy for all of nature, right down to the tiny red ants scurrying in the dirt and dust motes swirling in the mosquito haze above the billabong. She pondered on how conceited she’d been and how ugly that had made her inside.
She could see how, if you allowed yourself to be bamboozled by all of this jiggery-pokery, you might come to believe such things could be considered riches beyond measure. But Matilda was not one to be so easily fooled. Yes, she could stumble and fall, but she could easily catch herself.
“This is not you,” she cautioned, shooing the koala away. “It’s the Dreamtime. The dead don’t dance on Halloween. It’s smoke and mirrors. That filthy swagman comes nowhere close to being a suitable husband.”
Later, when the swagman was baking a possum in the hot clay beneath his fire, Matilda came slinking slyly up to him.
“Allow me to awaken,” she pleaded, pouting and fluttering her eyelids. “Then come to my father’s sheep station. Ask for my hand in the proper manner, and you shall have the answer you deserve.”
“You see things clearly now?” he asked.
“Oh, I do, indeed,” said Matilda, with all the fake sincerity she could muster.
The swagman leapt to his feet and clapped his hands three times.
Matilda awoke on the sofa her father had laid her on when he found her unconscious by the washing line. Up she sat, blinking rapidly to make sure she wasn’t still trapped in the Dreamtime. “Father,” she cried, when she was sure. “Oh, father. Something terrible has befallen me.”
As agreed, the swagman came to the sheep station and got down on one knee before the porch. Out stepped Matilda, dressed in her finery, all haughty and superior once more.
“We had a deal,” the swagman reminded her.
“No hands were shaken to seal the deal,” spat Matilda.
Out stepped her father, just as she had planned.
Up jumped the troopers, one and two and three, just as her father had arranged.
“I’ll have you hung for witchery for what you did,” said Matilda’s father. “Lynch you from a noose and let you swing from that infernal coolibah tree.”
The swagman scowled at Matilda for her underhand trickery.
“Such riches might have been yours,” he said.
Matilda laughed in his face. “This is the answer you deserve.”
“Surrender yourself,” said the first trooper, raising his rifle.
“You’ll never take me alive,” cried the swagman, and went to spin on his heels.
Too late. The troopers fired. One and two and three. Thud, thud, thud went their bullets. The swagman fell dead in the dust, gushing crimson fountains of blood. Matilda laughed to see such fun. But deep inside, she howled with grief. For in her heart she realised her deception had killed the only man she could ever truly love.
Years rolled ponderously by.
Matilda remained a spinster. The stockmen and shearers gave up asking. No doctor or lawyer came to whisk her away to Adelaide. Even if a suitor had come she would have rejected him. There was only one man for her but her treachery had laid him in his grave.
She was cursed by her own vindictive narcissism to live only for Halloween.
The one day of the year she felt truly alive.
That was when she danced joyously to the swagman’s tune. He’d come to her when the dingoes barked at the moon, shrouded in ghostly linen. Dust would rise in streamers at his approach. She’d hear the eerie timbre of his penny whistle and sway seductively into the Dreamtime. There, to the hiss and crackle of the gramophone playing ‘Mattinata’, to be waltzed with the dancing dead till dawn’s early light. All along the banks of the billabong, ‘neath the cool, cool shade of the coolibah tree.