BURKE’S LAST DAYS
© Ellis Campbell
Winner 2011, ‘Henry Lawson Society of NSW Literary Awards’, Gulgong, NSW.
A dismal day, the eighth of April, eighteen sixty-one,
brings nothing but a hazy, stretching wilderness of gloom.
The blurred horizons waver faint, beneath a dusky sun –
like statues strewn in disarray the russet anthills loom.
An arid landscape’s dotted with the stunted, listless trees
and shrivelled vegetation parched by lack of autumn rains.
Beyond this perished image, where the glared mirages tease,
the scattered spinifex defies its moisture craving veins.
A brooding tract of sameness stretched to sand hills looming red,
and gibber littered ridges rise amidst the gidgee trees.
A squawking crow’s resound is drear—its echo slowly spread
across a leaden atmosphere denied of any breeze.
Around me haggard scarecrows loll, with bearded, sagging jaws –
eyes sunken into living skulls and cheek bones that protrude.
Their skinny arms are pitiful, their hands like witch’s claws –
our empty stomachs rumble after days of lacking food.
Our filthy clothes in remnants hang—all tattered, torn and frayed –
brown toes protrude from working boots, long cracked and creased with grime.
Emaciated specimens in tragic masquerade –
what might have been their calling in another place and time?
Accusation’s surely lurking in my sad companion’s eyes –
their trust destroyed by poor decisions I have rashly made?
Has blood of my ancestors— soldiers all I recognise –
refuelled the fierce obsession of an Irish renegade?
My frenzied bid to be the first to cross the continent,
from south to north abandoned all of reason’s common sense.
I thought I was quite well equipped and brooked no argument –
I reached my destination but—oh God—at what expense?
John King and William Wills stare vaguely, into listless space –
they lie upon the dusty ground, not far from Charley Gray.
Their haggard features haunt me, their expressions lacking grace –
all know that death—bar miracles—is never far away.
The death of animals and men weighs heavy on me now,
could this have been averted were my stubbornness less blunt?
Did obstinate obsession conquer sense and disallow
clear vision of the obstacles and dangers we’d confront?
My gallant grey horse Billy, once a prancing steed of pride,
now stands beyond our resting place, dejected and forlorn.
With drooping head and listless eyes and sun-dried, mottled hide –
his rib bones are protruding and his hollow flanks are drawn.
I’ve loved you like a brother, Billy—ever since a foal –
you’ve carried me to hell and back—deserving better fate.
A million strange emotions scarify my worthless soul –
with trembling hands I raise my gun to kill my greatest mate.
No man should eat his brother— evil thought that churns my guts –
but hunger brutalises man and turns his heart to stone.
Like frenzied wolves we gulp his desiccated flesh’s cuts –
oh, Billy, must we join you soon, beyond the great unknown?
Will crows and dingoes shred our flesh, as we have with the horse –
devoured by the wilderness our carcass rot away?
Perhaps forever unexposed—and far beyond recourse –
a sad conclusion to the dream of my triumphant day.
Charles Gray succumbs to death’s demand on April seventeen –
we leave him midst the stunted bush, abandoned to neglect.
A tragic end adventure brought to tarnish such a scene –
I feel a guilty mourner of this man whose life I wrecked.
We stagger back into the camp—its April twenty-one –
to find that Brahe and others left a few short hours hence.
Despair assails our leaden hearts, to think of all we’ve done –
the tragedies encountered at incredible expense.
Our chances of survival now are dismal and remote,
to link up with the others was a life-line we could grasp.
The guilt more heavy on me weighs—around me visions float –
I stare into accusing eyes and hear their laboured gasp.
Forgive me, Lord, my foolishness and wayward, stubborn pride;
my fierce ambition to be first possessed my heart and soul.
I’m haunted by the spirits of departed men who died.
The conscience of O’Hara Burke exacts its awful toll.