(Sydney suburbs 1996)
Tress had never known what became of big John Caesar.
D'Arcy had told him later, after it was all over, that Caesar's body had not been found despite several days of searching after the fighting.
That was enough. Tress had settled contentedly into life at the camp with Ilona and they had moved into peaceful old age together, knowing Caesar had never been taken prisoner again.
Ilona on the other hand had come to know the full story of what happened to her uncle. That missing piece of her astonishing life had fallen into place the moment she saw the amulet again. But that was many years later, after Tress' death.
The old man stirred in his chair, but his eyes stayed closed, his chin nestled in the folds of his blanket. He remembered Ilona quite clearly. She had lived to a very great age.
His eyelids twitched at the memory, then flickered open. He peered about, tilting his head to listen above the low monotones from the television set. The house was quiet, the children gone out, up to their tricks again no doubt, looking for mischief to relieve their boredom. They were spoiled, today's kids, expecting everything to come easily, with no thoughts of giving fate a kick in the pants to make things better for themselves.
Tress and Ilona had known how to deal with fate, with all its jolts and surprises. To them it had been a savage foe, but then at times a surprising and vital friend.
The old man blinked his rheumy eyes, then fixed them on a dark corner beyond the television screen. His father was there in the room, beckoning, speaking to him in a voice like newly-turned clay. 'Only fate could have picked me, a child, to be the one to find the bones. Then I found the amulet there, buried beside the creek on the island.'
Coincidence, or fate? Was there a difference? Either way Tress would have approved the circumstances that had led his small great-great grandson to his remarkable discovery.
There was a brief struggle under the blanket and the old man's hand appeared, then crept like a large brown spider across his chest. His shaky fingers trembled at his shirt pocket, poked inside and emerged again, towing a length of twisted cowhide. An object the size of a man's wristwatch fell onto his lap. He gathered it up and peered at it in the variable light from a bargain store advert.
At first sight the pendant looked dull, lumpish, like a piece of lead. Then a brightening flare from the TV screen showed a carved image, not quite human, not quite animal, with crossed legs almost hidden under a protuberant stomach. A face stared back at him, broad-nostrilled, with wide hypnotised eyes. The man rubbed at it with his shirt sleeve and peered again, then grunted as the light gleamed suddenly on a spot of bright gold.
His hands fell back into his lap; his eyelids drooped again and his chin sank back into the blanket. In time the amulet on his stomach rose and fell with his even breaths.
Fate had brought him to this, along the only road left to him in the end, to the frumpy little town-house in the mainland city of Sydney. Even Tress must have known when his battles with fate were done, when he was old and tired and the will and the need had gone.
Tress and Ilona—soon he must tell their story, before it was too late; before it became too dim and muddled and pieces were forgotten. Ilona would not have wanted her story forgotten, for with it would go her unfailing love, and Tress' fated friendship with big John Caesar.
'You must have this now.' His father was drawing him closer, unfastening the amulet from his leathery old neck. 'I was the one who found it. I dug it out of the soil under the trees where it had lain for over a century. Come and sit down and I'll tell you its story.'
His father, old and dying, had found it easy to admit to being frightened that day. The sight of the gaping skull in its bed of twisted pandanus and banyan roots had made his childish throat constrict in terror. Yet bravely he had stood his ground while his friend for the day had bolted off at speed to spread the news of their find.
Left alone in the forest's whispering silence he had squatted for a closer look, then cautiously prized the skull from the roots and rolled it out of its packed earth bed. Then he had seen something else there; a lump, spoiling the perfect smooth hollow left by the skull. With care he had worked the object free, wiped it clean, then slipped it covetously into his pocket and pressed soil into the hole it had left.
'I didn't tell anyone about it,' his father said, 'not even the friend I was with at the time. I was afraid of what might happen to me for taking it. But then, many years later, I showed it to Ilona. There was something about her, you see, that made me trust her with my secret. I shall never forget the way she looked when she saw it.'
Supported by pillows his father had wheezed a breathy laugh, which caught in his throat and made him stop to cough phlegm into a bowl. 'She just stared at it, in a stunned, disbelieving sort of way.' he continued in a strained whisper, 'then she clutched her throat. I thought she was choking. She was old even then, in her eighties, and I was sure I'd killed her. But then she asked how I had come by it, and when I told her, her face came alight, as if lit from behind by a golden flame. She looked about sixteen again. I swear I saw a glow around her whole body.'
It was difficult for the old man to imagine the withered old crone he remembered as Ilona looking sixteen. Still, he could picture the scene—her hand like a tiny bird's claw reaching to take the amulet; lifting her still thick hair for her great-great-grandson to fasten it round her neck by the cowhide thong he had made for it. She had made him sit with her then, and told him its story.
Now his father had gone again, and Ilona was there instead, a smile deepening a tracery of creases on her cheek into the remnants of a dimple. Her smile was surprisingly sweet, but prone to vanish as quickly as it had come, leaving her eyes distant and sad.
'I'll tell them, I'll tell them soon,' he promised her. 'Past prejudices won't seem disgraceful to this generation. I won't let your story be forgotten. The children will know about Soldier's Creek.'
Soldiers Creek—. He was a small boy again, at home with his parents in the kitchen of their Lord Howe Island cottage.
'Soldier's Creek is ghostly, don't you think, Mummy? How come that man came to die there? Was he a good man or a bad man do you think?'
His mother was attending to the baby and seemed not to be listening, but his father, seated in a patch of sunlight by the open door, stopped pulling at his pipe and looked up with surprising attention.
'He was a good man,' his father said. 'Misunderstood; misjudged, certainly, but as good a man as he was let to be.'
'How do you know, Papa?' He squinted through the light at his father. 'I thought no one knew who he was. Did you know him Papa?'
'Of course he didn't, dear,' his mother said mildly, smiling at the baby, and disappointingly his father agreed. 'The man would have died there before even my grandfather was born, before anyone came to live on this island.'
'So how do you know he was good then?' he asked.
'I don't know for certain of course, but I like to think about him sometimes, like you do.'
'He was a soldier anyway, I know that because of those buttons found with his bones.'
'No, he wasn't. He wasn't a soldier,' his father said. 'He couldn't have been a soldier. He was a convict.'
'A prisoner?' His own chest constricted at the pleasure of a mystery. But his father was ready to stop talking and sat in silence, tugging at his pipe and gazing through the door at the band of sea, visible between the palm fronds and peach trees below the garden. 'But everyone says the man was a soldier,' he urged. 'Why do you think he was a convict, Papa?'