Bossman & The Mimi
The Boss stamped up to the camp fire. His face was an over-ripe tomato on top of a tall, broad shouldered, sun-dried body. He was a man short on temperament and long on expletives. The crew, who were sitting around finishing breakfast and getting ready for the day, visibly stiffened as he approached.
“Have any of youse seen Dixie this mornin’?” Dixie was his Queensland Red Heeler, a mongrel of a dog who hated all the black fellas. The Boss threw daggered glances around the group. The stockmen all starred wide-eyed into their mugs and muttered negatives while Clarry, the cook and camp leader, went one further.
“Nah, buss, we nat seen ‘im since las’ night. I ‘ear ‘im barkin’ an’ howlin’ late tho’, buss.”
The big man harrumphed and stomped off towards his tent. The men heard him whistling and calling out his dog’s name. One young bloke, Melvin, asked the question they all wanted answered. “Whad d’ya think happen’ to ‘is dog, Clarry?”
The cook scratched his white beard and looked deep in thought. Then, like a shining beacon in the dark, a bright smile appeared before he answered. “Dunno, but 'im not here. Mebe 'im got taken by crocs or medup wit' a boar. One ting I know; ‘im dint go in da pot’.” The old cooked cackled and the rest of the stockmen joined in.
“Or mebe it was da Mimi come take ‘im off. Dat dog nuttin’ but trouble to us and da Mimi know it.” This response came from Albert, a wizened old stockmen who spent his time looking after the horses.
Most of the mob groaned and geddawaywitya‘d. They were all used to Albert bringing up the old stories when something out of the ordinary happened. Melvin, who came from the east coast, was not familiar with the stories. "Who dis Mimi, Albert?"
Before the old man could answer, the boss yelled out from his tent. “This isn’t a fuckin’ holiday camp, you lot. C’mon, pull ya bloody fingers out, will ya. Jeezus, I swear youse’d sit around all fuckin’ day if I let ya.” He turned and headed towards the horses, yelling for Albert. “Get me friggin’ saddle up, ‘Bert, come on, I aint got all day.” The crew jumped up and made for the horse corral before the Boss got any more annoyed.
Albert flipped his head to the young fella. “Ask me tonight an’ I tell ya all about Mimi, boy.” He then rushed off to the horse truck.
Clarry shook a finger at the young bloke. “Hey young Melvin, don’ get Albert started on ‘is stories. ‘Im never shut up if you start ‘im.” Melvin looked somewhat chastened and slowly followed the rest of the men to the corral. But the question stayed on his mind all day.
Chasing down cattle in the scrub is hard work in any man’s dictionary but for Melvin, it was also a chance to learn from some real bushies, fellas who’d worked on the land for decades and who could read it as easy as he could read a newspaper. Not only could they track and hunt, but they also knew the old ways, the blackfella ways of the bush. These were what Melvin was really chasing. He was doing a postgraduate of Indigenous Studies at Southern Cross University and decided to come to the north to further his studies.
He knew the fellas wouldn’t take kindly to an educated Aboriginal asking them fancy questions, so he hedged a bet they’d take him under their collective wing if they thought he was some green lad from the east. Thankfully, he was both green enough and smart enough to win his own bet. He’d been riding horses for years, but working from horseback was a wholly different and he had a lot to learn. But his plan was working; a lot of the older fellas were opening up and enjoyed talking about their youth and their parent’s ways.
The stories he was hearing he’d never find in a book or online. But the process of extracting the raw data from the old fellas was protracted and, at times, frustrating. As much as he loved being in the bush and being away from so-called ‘modern’ life, he did miss a decent shower and his laptop. While he tried to write down everything before he went to sleep, he found it hard to keep his eyes open before he could finish. Even though, he’d gained some valuable insights.
Coming back into the camp just on dusk, a lot of the other fellas had already gathered around the camp fire. A few looked fresh from a dip in a nearby billabong but most still looked dusty from riding all day. Melvin was dirty and beat, so he wandered down to the creek, intending to have a cooling dip. Old Albert was sitting on a rock, pants rolled up to his knees and his feet in the water. The old man looked to be in ecstasy, eyes closed and big smile on his face. Melvin stood off to one side until the old fella opened his eyes and saw him. Albert nodded at the boy. Only then did Melvin sit down and take off his boots.
“Ay, young Melvin, you ged any today?” Albert was referring to the cattle they were supposed to be gathering up.
“I got one down near dat small cutting near da drop off. Bring ‘im back up but the boss say he nat one of ‘em. So we chase ‘im off down towards da national park.” Melvin had found it quite easy to slip into the local patois, though occasionally he used words the others didn’t understand. He’d explain it away by smiling and saying ‘whitefella education’ and they’d laugh at him.
Albert nodded. “I bet da buss not happy wit dat one, ay?”
“Nah, ‘e called me all sorts of names. Call me stupid for not checkin’ ‘is brand. I still don’t know ‘em all but I’m learnin’. At leas’ he dint give me a hidin’. I hear he got stuck into poor Jirra this mornin’. He tinks Jirra did somethin’ to Dixie. Poor fella limpin’ all round the place.”
Albert shook his head. “Dat man, he got some bad temper in ‘im. Tween ‘im an’ dat dog, blackfella always gonna be under it. Leas’ dat dog not ‘round no more.” Silence punctuated the statement as both men took in the darkening sky.
Melvin saw his chance. “Yeah, Albert, you was talkin’ ‘bout dat dis mornin’. Said somethin’ ‘bout Mimi, dint ya? Who is she?”
Albert looked hard at the young man before bursting out laughing and clapping him on the shoulder. Melvin waited patiently for the him to stop. “Ah, young Melvin, I forget you don’ know the old stories. Mimi not a her, Mimi a them.” Albert then pulled out a pouch of tobacco and deftly rolled a smoke. He lit it and blew a plume up to the stars.
The waiting was always a part of the game. If a young fella got too impatient, it was just as likely the oldies would chase him away without finishing their stories. So Melvin waited. Dusk spread a blanket out across the sky and the stars slowly brightened.
Finally, Albert continued. “Mimi old folk, boy. Dey bin ‘ere since long before da blackfella. Dey look after us, protec’ us and watch over da land for us.” Albert paused to take another deep drag of the cigarette. He leaned over conspiratorially and looked around before continuing.
“Mind, sometime dey get up to mischief and sometime dey punish a blackfella for doin’ wrong. So you don’ wanna do wrong, young Melvin, udderwise dey come for ya an’ EAT you.” As he said this, Albert clapped his hands together loudly for effect. Melvin jumped and just about wet himself, which set the old man laughing again.
Embarrassed, he put his head between his knees and tried to slow his heart. Albert’s laughter rang out across the creek, clear and loud in the night air. But the noise cut so suddenly, Melvin startled and looked up at the old man.
He had his head cocked to one side, like he was straining to hear something. Melvin went to ask but the old man put a finger to his lips to beg silence. Then the young man also heard something. It sounded like someone trying to mimic Albert’s laugh. It stopped for a second then started again, but much closer, sounding from the scrub on the other side of the billabong.
Both men strained to look into the dark. The mimicry sounded again. They looked at each other, scrambled to their feet and walked quickly back to the relative safety of the camp fire and the rest of their number. Most of the fellas were sitting with plates in hand waiting for dinner to be served. Clarry had a big pot on a stand off to one side and was stirring it up. He looked up as they both puffed into the firelight. “Hey, you fellas afraid you gonna miss out? Ha, don’ worry, plenny ‘ere for all youse.”
Albert squatted down on a log near the fire while Melvin sat on a rickety camp chair next to him. Clarry waited for either of them to respond but when neither said anything, he clanged the side of the pot with the ladle and announcing dinner ready.
Neither Melvin or Albert moved, instead looking over their shoulders towards the creek. The Boss appeared just a little behind them, staggering towards the camp, bottle in one hand and rifle in the other. Clarry noticed this too and went rushing towards him.
“Now buss, what you wanna bring that out for, ay? Hey, Melvin, gimme a han’, will ya. The buss not well.” Usually, this was how Clarry handled the Boss when he hit the bottle, which was fairly often. Unlike those other times, though, the Boss chased Clarry away, swinging a booted foot at him.
“Get away from me, ya little prick.” He strode toward the group, brandishing the rifle at them. Melvin and Albert stood up and moved off to one side. Clarry trailed along behind the angry man, pleading quietly with him. The Boss wasn’t listening.
“Right, which one of you black bastards killed me dog? Come on now, fuckin’ good for nothing mongrels, tell me.” He cocked the rifle and fired it into the air. The shot rang out in the still night, causing both the men and the horses in the nearby corral to startle. Albert grabbed Melvin by the arm and pulled him away towards the animals. The Boss yelled incoherently and let off another shot. Melvin could hear the horses snorting and stamping in fear.
As they got closer to the corral, the boss let off yet another shot. The horses, now seriously panicked, pushed hard against the makeshift gate, collapsing it. The animals burst out and charged down the track.
Melvin jumped out of the way behind a small tree, yelling for Albert to join him. But the old man stood his ground, trying to wave the horses down. Instead of stopping, one of the animals ran right into him. The old man went down hard, clearly breaking his arm. As Melvin watched helplessly, Albert yelped and tried to drag himself out of the way. But a second, then a third, then a fourth horse all hit him, then many more hooves fell on him where he lay.
As Melvin stood there, arms wrapped the tree, sobbing and unable to move, he thought he saw strange shadows skittering back and forth behind the horses, almost urging them on. Melvin heard a high-pitched whistling noise, grating and tuneless that got louder and louder. When the shadows got to the now-lifeless body of Albert, it was like a whirly wind of smoke was forcing its way into the corpse, through his mouth, nose, ears and even eyes. Then there was silence.
The rest of the men found him there a little later. He’d stopped crying but still had trouble letting go of the tree. Clarry eventually talked him away and a couple of the others led the stricken young man back to camp while the cook and a few others covered Albert’s body in a piece of old canvas.
Melvin was sitting by the billabong, head up to the stars and feet dipped in the cool water. He felt a tap on his shoulder and looked up behind him. Albert looked down and shrugged. Melvin nodded his head and smiled widely. The old man sat down next to him. He wrapped an arm comradely around Melvin’s shoulder and the young man turned to face him.
“I want you to remember, Melvin, no matter what happens, you’ll be alright. But don’t get in their way, boy or they’ll take you too. Now promise me.” The old man hugged him hard. “Promise me,” he said again.
Melvin could sense something urgent in Albert’s voice and agreed. “I promise Albert, but who are you talking about?”
The old man released Melvin from the hug but grabbed his shoulders. He held the young man at arms length. “Look into my eyes and you’ll see.”
Melvin looked into the deep brown eyes. As he did, something moved across them, a dark shadow. His own eyes went wide with recognition then with fear and he scuttled backwards away from the old man.
Albert stood, smiled broadly and, as these shadows flew out of his eyes, said “Don‘t be scared. There is nothing to be scared about.” The shadows flew straight at Melvin. He put his hands up to ward them off but couldn’t. They soon overwhelmed him, covering him like a heavy blanket.
Next thing he knew, he’s struggling against his sleeping bag and fighting off his coat. He sat up and shook his head. Then he let out a big sigh. It had been a dream. It was probably some post-traumatic stress thing. It was still dark but the smell of dawn was in the air.
Melvin pulled on his boots, stood and headed for the main fire. A few of the men were sleeping there, leaning up against logs and lying on camp beds. Clarry, unsurprisingly, was awake. “Ah young Melvin, how you feelin’, ay?”
“Was it dream, Clarry? I can’t remember it all. Was it a dream too?”
Clarry handed the young man a mug. “Here, young fella, you drink this tea, ay.” Melvin grabbed the hot mug and held it to his lips. It smelt sweet and strong and good. He took a sip then another. The warmth spread through and he could feel himself come properly awake.
“I just dreamt I saw Albert.” A tear ran down his face as he said this.
“Thas a good sign, young fella, a good sign. He in the dreamtime now. Did he talk.” Clarry looked positively animated.
“He made me promise not to get in their way.”
“Who dey, Melvin?”
“Dunno, Clarry, he didn’t say.” The cook scratched his head and got busy, leaving Melvin to his grief.
A little while later, with the sun up and camp stirring, the Boss came marching into the camp and called Clarry aside. He led him back up to where Albert’s body still lay. Melvin followed along, just off the trail. As he neared the corral, he could hear the Boss clearly.
“I want you to get a few of the fellas and wrap him up good. Use the same canvas. Put him on the quad bike and take him up to the helipad. I’ll call someone to pick him up when I go back.” He turned to walk away then looked at the broken corral fence. “I hope none of the horses were hurt runnin’ the stupid old bastard down. At least I won‘t have ta worry about puttin‘ him down meself.”
Clarry looked stunned but quickly responded. “I get it done, buss. Me and a few’ll do it when you get goin. The udda fellas don’t wanna see ol Albert, not like dis. What about Melvin, buss, what ‘bout ‘im?”
“Melvin and me are gonna have a talk. He’s gonna be alright. Or else.” The Boss stomped back to the camp.
Melvin felt sick in the stomach, seeing poor Albert. And the way the Boss spoke about the old man made him really angry as well. He felt something else too, a dark energy moving through his chest and coursing down his arms to his hands. He made fists of them and tried to control the feeling, to contain the rage. He assumed he was still in shock.
He hid out in the scrub and watched as the Boss led most of the men out on foot to find the missing horses. While they had a couple of trail bikes, they couldn’t be used because these were too loud and would scare the animals off. It was going to be a long couple of days catching the spooked beasts before getting back to hunting cattle.
Melvin hung around the camp and waited to go with Clarry up to the helipad. Albert’s corpse had been wrapped up in canvas and tied with rope. Trussed up like this, his body was put on the back of one of the quad bikes and then solemnly paraded up to the clearing.
When the chopper came in, the young man stood by Albert’s body while Clarry and a few of the fellas unloaded supplies. The chopper pilot asked if the Boss had made any arrangements for the body. When Clarry said he didn’t know, the pilot refused to take it. He jumped back in the chopper and took off before any of them could argue.
Melvin sat by the body, chasing the flies away. It was a hot day, but he felt a chill he couldn’t shake. He stripped down to his underwear and squatted by Albert’s corpse. He shivered in his sweat and the flies gathered thickly all over him, unsettling and settling again like a buzzing blanket.
Clarry brought some lunch up to him and left a bottle of water by his feet. He tried to eat but gagged. His mouth was so dry. He undid the lid of the water bottle and poured a little on the canvas where Albert’s mouth would be. The hot canvas greedily drew the moisture in. Melvin then drank in big gulps, emptying half the bottle. He immediately threw it all back up except it was dirty and brackish. He felt more parched than ever.
He tried small sips and the first few took. But as soon as more than a mouthful passed to his stomach, he threw up a disproportionately larger amount of dirty water. While he felt sick, he also felt like he was standing off to one side while someone else operated his body. He felt like an observer. He felt completely dispossessed.
He hunched down and shivered in the heat.
Clarry went up to see Melvin just on dusk. The Boss and crew had returned to camp, having managed to recover some of the horses. They were all tired, on edge and hungry. Clarry had made up a couple of big dampers and spread out some BBQ’d meats and bits and pieces. There was also a big basket of fresh fruit. He left the crew helping themselves and went to see how the lad was getting on.
The figure he approached wasn’t the same he’d left earlier. Melvin was lying on his side in the dirt next to the corpse, covered in a hairy blanket and shivering. Clarry rushed over to the lad but stopped short. Melvin’s eyes were open wide and as he watched, a shadowy liquid slid over each eyeball. Closer, the old cook could see the ‘blanket’ was really a thick mass of flies.
Clarry tried to speak but couldn’t get anything out. He heard Melvin’s voice clearly say something, even though his lips didn’t move. “He told me not to get in their way, Clarry, he told me not to…” The lad suddenly sat up and looked past Clarry. The cook stepped back as Melvin struggled to his feet.
He spoke again, but the voice was ancient, deep and buzzed in the cook's ears like feedback. “He come to us. His time is owed to us. We will have him now“. Melvin’s lips moved this time.
The Boss announced himself. “Fuck! What the bloody hell is going on here, Clarry? I thought I told ya ta get the pilot to take the bloody body back with him. And what the hell is going on with this kid? Has he gone all fuckin’ native on me, now?”
“Ah, ‘e jus’ missin’ Albert is all, buss. I take ‘im back to the camp. He be a’right.” Clarry reached out to lead Melvin away but the boy darted off before he could. He skipped around behind the boss and then back in front of him again. Still wide-eyed, Melvin started stamping and dancing around the Boss. Despite his jumping around, the flies hardly moved.
The Boss, quick not to miss a chance, threw a whooshing roundhouse punch at the boy, who deftly ducked it and continued dancing. Melvin also started chanting, a grating and guttural sound, like a lot of angry voices. The flies started buzzing along with the chant. This is when the Boss realised the young lad was covered in them.
“What the bloody hell is going on with you, ya stupid boong. Clarry, if you don’t get this bastard away from me, I swear there’ll be two dead bodies here this time tomorrow.” Clarry tried to make another grab for Melvin, but he danced out of his reach.
Then the lad suddenly stopped dancing and pointed a long accusatory finger at the Boss. “We here to claim you. This land says you no longer welcome. This land says you owe us. We here to take you. Now your time to pay.”
The Boss went to slap the hand away, but Melvin moved it just in time. Then he spread his arms wide, closed his eyes and tilted his head to the sky. The Boss took advantage of this and stepped towards the boy. As he did, he threw a meaty right punch and caught Melvin a hard blow in the chest. The flies absorbed the impact, spreading out and onto the Boss’ hand, then quickly up his arm. He stepped back and shook his hand hard. The flies didn‘t move. Only when he jerked the arm around violently, almost wrenching the limb from his shoulder did the flies move and settle back on Melvin. Clarry made a shocked sound and skittered backwards, eyes so wide as if unable to take in the whole scene.
“Right, you fuckin’ stupid little bastard, I’ve warned ya.” The Boss charged, shoulder down and arm cocked, ready to crush Melvin into the ground. But as he hit the lad, the flies dispersed and the Boss fell hard, slamming into the dirt. The flies quickly formed a wave and washed over the prostate man, swarming into every orifice they could. The Boss gagged and flailed at the insistent insects. He tried to scream but could only manage a garbled yelp.
Clarry came rushing back to his aid but again, Melvin’s voice sounded in his head. “You just go back to camp, Clarry and let them take care of this bastard. He deserves everything he’s gonna get. Now go on, off you go.” Clarry didn’t wait to be told twice.
Clarry raised the alarm the following morning when the Boss didn’t show for breakfast. Melvin, on the other hand, was not only there, but seemed fundamentally changed. None of the others noticed, but there was something in his eyes, an indefinable knowing of things beyond his years. It spooked the old cook greatly but was also strangely comforting.
They searched for two days, after calling in local authorities, but couldn’t find a single sign of the Boss. Albert’s body, however, was taken back to his family’s place outside of Darwin and given a traditional funeral. Melvin was a guest of honour. The lad sang and danced with the family, who were surprised at how much this outsider knew of their traditions. But they never questioned it.