Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Cowskin Drum

Every Sunday morning that Step was in town, he uncurled his drawstring tie, fastened his bull’s head belt, and drove to Church in his white Ford Transit van. He said he had to top up his mercy tank. Ma stayed home cooking lunch. She lathered me with suncream and draped a hat on my head. She wore oil instead of suncream whenever she used to lie on her rubber deckchair in the front garden until her skin bubbled with blisters and melanomas.

I hid my hat in the tree where I kept my stick and my knife, along with the pair of second-hand leather sandals that Ma made me wear to school. My feet were as tough as the hoofs of the racing horses that used to swim with me down the river. I walked past the cotton plantation and waved to the black men working. Steamboats shipped carcasses from the abattoir. Chimneys poured rancid smoke into the clear blue sky. Wallabies scuttled from the banks as I leapt into the long dry grass where the cattle grazed. A path led to a barbwire fence that surrounded the shorter grass of the mushroom fields. It took fifteen minutes to adjust to their wavelength. Some rain had dropped the night before. Not much. Enough to raise several small mushrooms that were starting to shrivel like unloved penises in the heat and the shit. I picked them anyway, ate them, and waited for some effect, but it was a minor dose, and I’d been eating them regularly, so not much happened.

When I heard something in the long dry grass, I immediately thought of snakes, but this wasn’t the sound of a snake. It was moaning and gurgling, so I went to have a look.

A cow lay there emaciated, sucking in its last breaths. Its eyes stared at me, pleading, and its tongue was hanging out and lapping dry at the flies and the dust.

I had to help it, had to stop that noise.

I stuck my stick in its belly. Real hard. Never forget that sound. Rip. Never forget that sight. Rip. It went right in and left a hole. First clean and white. Then shot full of red. And the blood came pouring out.

The breathing stopped when I threw away my stick. I got to my knees. The silence was unbearable. It was too quiet. I had to do something to stop that silence.

The dead cow’s eyes watched me because they knew what I was going to do before I did. I looked away, looked around, and looked up at the sky for some smoke to pass over the sun and save me from what was happening inside of me, for the voice of God in Stereophonic sound.

An eagle circled overhead.

There was no smoke, no booming voice-over narration, the sky was bright blue, and the sun was a merciless ball that I had to obey.

I knelt by the beast and touched the black and white coat, stroked it gently to get to know it better. Then I carefully sliced a piece of skin from the rump, next to the hole, inching it away with a tender hand.

The removal of the skin was not easy. It was tough and it ripped, but I managed to get a large square piece of the stuff as the jealous flies investigated my work. They followed me, thought the eagle would too, expected it to swoop down and try to steal my prize. Blood ran down my arms and into my face, as I gripped the skin and held it high. I splashed water in my eyes to remove the blood, but then they stung from salt.

The edge of the river was strewn with fishing lines, muddy cans, broken glass, and baby box-jellyfish left in the foam by the tide. A crocodile smelled my harvest and decided that he wanted his share. I scrambled out of the water, sinking into the mud, falling on the garbage, and caught my hoof on a crab pot. After untangling the pot, I clambered through the mangroves and headed for home.

The skin hung out to dry on the washing line. It flopped there. I was extra careful placing the wooden pegs on the skin, but the blood dripped into the peg bucket and onto the cement path under the washing line.

Ma came out screaming about the peg bucket, my hat, and my shoes. I was soaking wet and there was blood on my hands and in my face.

Step jerked into the driveway in his white Ford Transit van. He wrestled up the garden hose and sprayed me down. He sprayed the clothesline and it swung around.

Then he ordered me into his workshop. I’d never been allowed in there before. It was dark and damp, crowded with tools, boxes of nails, piles of wood, broken benches, the lawn mower he brought out every month to drag around the garden until ready for a heart attack, and everything smelled of dead cane toads and turpentine.

He let me use his extra sharp carving knife, and I set about my job eagerly. I cleaned the skin and removed the chucks of flesh that my knife left behind. He found some wood from his collection and sawed off four even pieces. And over the next few days, he stained the box and decorated it with a white stripe of electrical tape. Then he stretched the skin over the top of the box and nailed strips of metal to each side to hold the skin tightly. He even whittled drumsticks from Ma’s broom handle.

I sat in the garden. Sat in my bedroom. Sat in front of the TV. Sat in school until they told me to go home. Always playing that drum. Ma got sick of the noise, but I think she was jealous, said I had to go down the river to play. I loved that drum, loved Step for making that drum, sat down there every day, in the same spot, leaning against the same tree, the edge of the drum resting between my legs, to get the right pitch and protect the base from the rocks and the dirt, banging away every day on the cowskin drum.

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