Oct/Nov 2008  •   Fiction

The Bone Coffin

by Simon Barker

Musso was the son of the head man, who was himself the son of the previous head man, who was in turn the son of the head man before that, and so on. At least this was what people believed.

His tribal land stretched from the muddy, mangrove-lined coast back up the river to the tall grasslands in the south. The Ant River it was called. It had not been settled by white people, apart from the missionaries, and it had not been visited by many others, apart from the anthropologists, because it was thought to contain nothing white people wanted to steal—apart from the souls of the original inhabitants—and because the swamps and the insects had an abruptly shortening effect on the lives of most outsiders. The Ant River district was a little world of its own: Musso's little kingdom.

His father had been the one who invited the dealers to the Ant River. His father had also been known by the name of Musso. The missionaries, unable to pronounce names in the local language, had christened the inhabitants with European sounds bearing a greater or lesser relation to the originals. His father's name had become Musso. So, in due course, had his.

As well as being headman, his father had been the most skilful carver of the tribe. He had heard from the missionaries, in white society there were people who traded for carvings and paintings and other such artefacts. Of course there were many things the missionaries said that subsequently turned out to be lies, but in this case they were on the level. A dealer came once, traded for a number of items to take away as samples, and then returned with his partners to buy regularly. In time the original dealers were elbowed out by others who brought new items—chisels, mallets, electric generators and Coca-Cola. They also brought paints and flat boards and canvasses along with metal wire for threading necklaces or snaring ducks.

Musso had grown up in a world regulated by the visits of the dealers. From the end of the rainy season, the community would be busy producing artefacts—carving shells, weaving baskets from plaited grass, beading necklaces. All these things appealed to him. When young he sat beside the women as they chattered and threaded the dried lawyer grass in and out to make their beautifully tangled baskets. He watched the painters painting on bark with sticks they made into brushes by chewing the ends. He admired their skill, and he especially admired the goods they were traded in return for their work: the fuel, the cassette players, the aluminium boats, the fishing spears and the king-size packets of Wrigley's Spearmint Gum. His father's carvings fetched a good price.

In due course Musso began making articles himself. After all, he was the son of the headman, and therefore his articles should take their rightful place in this lucrative trade. But to his great astonishment the articles were never wanted by anyone. He couldn't make sense of it. He had watched his father carve and paint. He knew every design of his totem. He knew the tribal stories backwards. He knew where to find the best wood, the best bark, the brightest pigments. The missionaries had taught him how to make use of the white art materials, too. There was no earthly reason why his carvings shouldn't be desirable. He was the son of the headman, and whenever he asked anyone in the tribe if his carvings were the best, they all told him, yes, that they were. Even so, when the traders embarked in their boats after their annual visits, all of his carvings would remain behind.

When his father died and he still had not traded a single artefact to the white visitors, he applied himself to each of the remaining carvers in the tribe. He sat with his uncles and paid close attention to what they did. His uncles carved like his father, only not so skilfully, he thought. But their carvings were in demand all the same. He went away and tried to make his carvings less fine, like his uncles'. But they remained unwanted. So he came back and continued to sit next to them and carved a carving exactly as they did, starting when they started, working on each part of the log as they worked on it, painting it with each colour as they painted it, finishing at the exact time they finished. The carvings looked like brothers. Yet when the dealers came, they took away his uncles' carvings and left his behind, as if Musso's carvings were cursed. He took a half-finished carving from one of his uncles and finished it himself. The dealers um-ed and ah-ed about buying it, then decided no.

He painted on bark. He carved shells. He offered his traditional handmade weapons, his spear and his axe. But none of them stirred any interest in the dealers. In desperation he went to the women. He made women's articles with them, baskets, strings of beads. But they were rejected just as heartily as his other items.

This was not the way it was supposed to be. Of course in one sense, he didn't need to sell to the dealers. Since he was the headman, he could do without their trade. The other tribal members might sell as much as they liked, and because he was the headman they would be obliged to supply him with whatever he needed. But he couldn't help the feeling people were laughing at him behind his back. Everyone sells to the dealers, he imagined people saying. But not Musso. Musso makes things nobody wants.

So he started drinking. He consumed cheap, sweet wine out of boxes to console himself after the dealers' rebuffs. But alcohol made him crazy, and when he was drunk, he wandered the banks of the Ant River hacking the trunks of the mangroves with his machete. He was not the sort of man to have inflicted damage on any person—tribal fighting had died out in his father's time—but his behavior unnerved his wife, and she returned to the camp fire of her parents with their children. Musso slept alone by the river in his untidy hut. He drank and sang the songs of his ancestors. He was the headman, but he was drunk and depressed, and his singing was not a joy to hear.

All the fish in the Ant River,

All the big fish, come and swim by Musso,

The headman who cannot paint or carve...

In due course it came time for him to make his father's coffin. This was a sacred duty even a depressed man, even a drunken man, even a man who couldn't carve or paint, was still obliged to carry out. There were rules. Seasons had to pass. The dead man's flesh had to melt from his bones, and then the bones themselves had to bleach in the tropical sun. But once those things had come to pass, the son of the headman must prepare the coffin for his father's bones. So Musso set out across the swampy grassland with his axe until he came to the place where trees grew straight, and there he found a hollow trunk, which he felled and dragged back to the camp. It took him several days to return with it, several days without wine or food, but on returning to his hut, he wasted no time. He kindled a small fire, and once the burning had died down, he set the log over it like a chimney until it was well cured by the smouldering charcoal. He shaped it roughly with the blade of the axe and then more finely with the small tomahawk. He dug up his pigments and painted the outside with his father's totemic designs. At last he sealed the bones within it and stood the hollow log at the door of his hut in the ancient fashion. Now his father's spirit would be at rest. As the night came on, he sat by the bank of the Ant River with his box of cheap wine and stared at the bone coffin. In his heart he was downcast because his father was dead and because he knew he would never make a carving the dealers would want to buy. He was doomed to failure. But he had done his duty. His father's spirit would rest in peace. He sang.

Fish of the Ant River,

Come to my father's spirit,

Come, you big fish...

Yes, he was still the headman. But he knew all the others in the tribe were looking at him, looking at him as if he had failed.

They had TV at the camp. The dealers had brought a satellite dish. At first it had been lashed to a mangrove. Later it had been nailed to one of the old bone coffins. Through the magic of this dish, they could catch the footy from down in Melbourne and the Melbourne cup. The kids could lie in a heap on the schoolroom floor and watch Rex Hunt's Fishing World instead of learning to fish in the Ant River. Musso didn't watch much TV. TV depressed him. But one night while the others were away singing hymns with the missionaries and Musso was alone with the camp dogs, he passed the time watching a documentary about a white man sculptor. This fellow lived in America, and he made very odd things—statues of basketballs floating in a fish tank, for instance. They were just ordinary basketballs, as far as Musso could see, like the ones lying in the dirt at the back of the school house under the hoop. They were rubbish. But collectors paid money for them, and art galleries exhibited them. This white man also made a very large dog out of pot plants. It was taller than the tallest trees and covered in flowers. Why would he do such a thing? He was very famous, this white sculptor, and what he also did was to make pictures of himself performing shameful acts with his wife. They were so shameful, they couldn't be shown on the television. But still people paid money for them. They paid great sums of money. Musso watched in fascination at this famous white man sculptor and made himself drunk on his sweet wine.

That night Musso couldn't settle down. He staggered along the muddy bank of the Ant River, his thoughts spinning about in a whirlpool of drink. In a trance he imagined he was famous like the white man sculptor on the TV, so all the collectors came to buy from him. They crowded round his campsite and begged him to sell to them. In the dream he could see them packing his carvings into their motorboats and speeding away to the cities. He felt swollen up with pride and satisfaction. The people of his tribe no longer had to give up a part of what they had been paid. Now he had enough to provide for them all, anything they wanted. They came to him. He was respected once again. He was a sculptor. He held the tomahawk in his strong right hand and cut the wood into shape swiftly and skilfully. He painted the ancient designs on its surface more beautifully than anyone else. Even the animals came to watch, so great was his skill. He put down his tools and stood back to admire his work. And such a great work it was, something to show what he was worth. Something to end all the talking behind his back. Something.... All of a sudden he awoke from his daze and was horrified. He could see the great work before him as clear as anything. It was not a dream. The great work was his father's bone coffin.

In terror Musso hurled his empty wine box into the Ant River and fled towards the lawyer grass scrub. He ran till his breath gave out, and then he ran some more, as if he was being pursued by an angry water buffalo. His legs bled from the sharp fronds, but he hardly noticed. He ran like a madman. Still, run as he might, he couldn't escape because what he was running from was an idea, an evil poisonous idea that had entered his head while he was drunk. They will buy the bone coffin, the idea said to him. They will buy your father's bone coffin.

Musso did not want to listen to the idea. He had only just come to the painful acceptance he was never going to sell any of his carving to the dealers. So it was madness to go back now and offer what he did not want to sell, could not want to sell. Musso decided he would have nothing more to do with the dealers. If he kept out of their way, they would never come looking for him. He went home to his hut and slipped inside. For the rest of the night he lay awake on the mat and shivered. He imagined he could hear the bones of his father tapping together.

It did not take the dealers long. When Musso failed to appear for several days, they asked the other tribespeople what was the matter with their headman. "Why isn't he here offering us his bad carvings?" they joked.

"Musso's no good," was the reply. "Don't talk to anyone." Nothing could have wetted the dealer's appetites more. A man who was difficult to buy from might be worth a second look.

"Go away," Musso called from where he lay on his mat. "Leave me alone."

"Are you sick?" the dealers called back as they approached.

"No, I'm not sick. You piss off."

But it was too late. They rounded the corner, and there it was.

"Look at that!" they said to each other. "What a carving."

Musso knew what they were talking about. He could feel it in his father's bones.

"Who made this? Musso, did you make this? Musso? Can you hear me?"


"Did you carve this pole? It's remarkable. We'll give you $200 for it."

"It's not for sale."

"Alright then, $500. We'll give you $500."

"No. Go away."

"Tom, look at the pattern! Have you ever seen anything like that? Musso, I'll give you $1,000," said one of the dealers.

Musso tried to drive them away, but they were like a swarm of ants. They swarmed over him, nipping him in a thousand places. They insisted on buying the bone coffin. Each time they came to his hut to harass him, they admired it more. Musso knew the whole idea was an abomination. It was his father's resting place. His father's spirit had entered into it. How could he sell such a thing?

It was horrible. After spurning everything he created and making him feel an outcaste in his own tribe, a failure, now they were telling him it was his skill and artistry they wanted above everything else. How he'd longed for this. It was the respect he deserved. And yet how could it be accepted? To sell his own father in order to have recognition as an artist. It was unthinkable.

Or was it? In the days following, he thought of the white man artist he had seen on the TV. White men were very sensitive about certain matters. They were very sensitive about relations between husbands and their wives. If their privacy was invaded, they could be very difficult to deal with. The missionaries had been like that. So how unthinkable must it be for a white man artist to sell pictures of himself and his wife too shameful to be seen on the TV. And yet it was done. And the doer was a famous artist. So there you were.

It wasn't long before the offers had risen to $10,000. Musso knew this couldn't continue. For $10,000 he could be not just headman but king. Abruptly, when the dealers made him their next offer, he accepted. He had never seen such money in his life. He had seen only paltry sums before. This money made a great pile. They dug up his father's bone coffin, wrapped it in plastic sheeting, and stowed it on their boat. To make way for the object, they unloaded several dozen items they'd earlier bought from the tribespeople and threw them into the Ant River. It was clear Musso's creation was of supreme importance. Musso accompanied the boat down the Ant River until it was clear of the mangrove swamps and the dealers could make their passage south to the nearest landing, then by truck to the nearest airfield and then on to the city.

He returned to the village a proud man. The dealers had let him take one of their boats. He cruised back up the Ant River. At last he had sold one of his carvings. He was worth something, worth a lot, more than any of the other artists in the tribe, perhaps more than all of them put together. But when he returned to the camp, it was deserted. The villagers had all gone. They had come to his hut, they had ransacked it, they had taken his $10,000, and they had abandoned him. Whether it was greed driving them to do it, or shame, he never knew.