Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 48 
Photo: Ray Drew
Australia has often been typified as the land of the tall story (see Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, or the film Crocodile Dundee). A good many of those stories seem to stand on large kangaroo feet. Although, as already stated, there would appear to be only the one instance recorded of a human killed by a kangaroo, the myth of the killer kangaroo is strong, based on the one hand by tale after tale (I heard a fresh one just a week ago) of dogs grasped in kangaroo fore-paws and dismembered by one kick of a massive, clawed foot, and on the other the practice, among kangaroo males, of preparing for, sorting out and maintaining their place in the mob’s order-of-dominance through what to all intents and purposes look like ritualised boxing matches.
The boxing kangaroo is an Australian icon and frequent international celebrity. I’ll return to this in a later post. Meanwhile (repressing my pacifist proclivities, and withholding remarks concerning animal cruelty) it occurs to me that fans of action movies might appreciate a tale of a kangaroo who, although trapped and enslaved, like Spartacus, nevertheless defeats, in the ring, all humans thrust at him (unlikely as it is that he’ll be rewarded for his victories by release or an easy retirement).
A passage, then – a powerful and disturbing passage – from John Scott’s N, a remarkable novel set in a mid-twentieth century fascist Australia:
Through all of this the amplified voice was continuing. ... ‘from Wangaratta’, it boomed. And the once white-swathed man was standing in the ring. Private Billy Stevens! The cheering, the applause, raining down upon him. Bare-fisted, stripped to the waist. This man with his standard issue khaki shorts and his pair of Plimsolls. Now it was his flesh which shone white beneath the spotlights—white, but for the tan marks on his white arms; as though they had been dipped to the elbows in walnut stain. He was of slight build; if he had displayed the merest sign of being a boxer one would have classified him a fly-weight.
Now another attendant was banging at the back of the wooden crate with a pole poked through the mesh. A brief answering tattoo came from within. The announcing voice burst through again. Of one untimed round, it said, whilst from inside the packing case, there issued forth a furious battery of blows.
‘Macropus Rufus!’ came the loudspeaker’s cry.
As though on command the door burst open and something broke free into the pool of crystal light. Dazzled there. Frozen a moment. Its red amidst the blue-whiteness of the spot-lit air. The crowd too, was silenced by the size of it. The height. The vastness of its russet flank.
The momentary hush fell to machine noise. The grind of metal against metal as the portcullis was slowly drawn up, leaving them—the man, the kangaroo—held together in the now single cage. From somewhere came a bell. Its strike cutting the air. The roar returned. (…)
The young soldier raised his fists as a boxer might, guarding his face. But it was obvious he had done this simply to conceal his shame, for he had begun to weep. His chin quivered involuntarily. The shake of fear, was it? Or the terror of the knowledge that he was inescapably alone. But who could know what the poor bastard was thinking, it came to me. Unless you were there yourself, with the animal, held in the cage and the glare and the crowd’s hungry eyes.
From the room came cheering, much of it derisive, and I was snapped out of thought to find the soldier clambering, comically enough I suppose, up the wire of the cage—his cheek badly torn from a blow I had not even seen. The flesh had peeled aside and through the blood I fancied I could see some of the man’s teeth. I felt a swift, sickening guilt, as if my own inattention had been responsible for the wound.
“Poor show!” the cries were going up, affronted, indignant, emerging everywhere, perfectly articulated. The officer class. “Poor show!” And with them, the booing, the wordless jeers. (…)
Private Billy Stevens still clung high on the cage. One of the attendants had appeared at the edge of the ring carrying a long shepherd’s crook with which he sought to capture the soldier’s neck. This proving unsuccessful, he simply swung the pole at the whitened fingers which curled about the wire. Three blows and he had brought the soldier to ground. He landed heavily on his back, his head thudding at the canvas a split-second later. He lay there a moment, stunned, until the pain in his broken fingers and the torn cheek sat him up. Brought him, staggering, to his feet. Unguarded. Easily dealt with.
The kangaroo shot out a blow, the claw catching him near the wrist, cutting muscle, hooking sinew from his forearm. The soldier began to whimper, staring down at the hand which seemed no longer his, hanging limply from the wrist. Flapping loose there at arm’s end, like a child’s mitten. Suddenly, it appeared, he felt it all—the pain and the helplessness and the inevitability and the humiliation. He, so far from help, from sympathy, from release. His face screwed up like a crying baby’s. Laughter broke out amongst the official party with their privileged view; a laughter taken up by those closest to the ring. Until it spread all-but to the entire room.
The soldier turned his head in disbelief, this way, that, to the cold derisive darkness. The kangaroo struck, grasping the man in its arms: a gesture which might have seemed ardent but for the speed—this trap with its embrace of red-furred steel. Holding him thus, it leant its weight back on the massive tail and lashed out with its hind legs. The leading claws hooked into the soldier’s lower belly and sliced it open in one quick motion.
From the ballroom came a roar. A stamping.
The ruined flesh parted and from the gaping oval of it bulged forth a ravel of wet tubing. With it, another deep roar from the crowd—and it was as if the noise itself had also tumbled, booming, from the belly.
Private Billy Stevens of Wangaratta stood a moment in what appeared to be astonishment. His trembling left hand made an ineffective grab for the eels of his innards spilling out before him. The faecal stench of them rushing to his nose. He retched. But all this spasming achieved was to push the stomach-sack through the long eyelet of parted flesh. The soldier fell to his knees, dropping to the canvas like some heavy material. A red velvet. A curtain falling, cued to a final line: Go, bid the soldiers shoot.
From the crowd the laughter was supplanted by a greater roar.
The kangaroo, trapped amongst this sudden pandemonium, panicked; blindly rushing the walls of the cage, flinging itself all about the ring, high against the wire, only to be pitched backwards to the canvas. So it went in this rampage of fear, repelled at every turn by the mesh, trampling out the blood and the offal of the dead man.
Eventually it paused a moment near the packing case, and the portcullis was let fall, securing the creature in its half ring.
The voice returned. An interval... it announced. Of forty minutes. Drinks were being served.
– John A. Scott, N (Blackheath NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2014), 416-18
John A. Scott is the author of sixteen books of poetry and prose. His work has been widely translated. He has received Victorian Premier’s prizes for both poetry and fiction. The film version of his What I Have Written, for which he wrote the screenplay, received an AWGIE award for best screenplay adaptation and won the International Mystery Film Festival in Bologna. His novels Before I Wake and The Architect were both shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Victorian Premier’s prize. His Selected Poems (1968-90) appeared in 1995. Warra Warra, a ‘ghost story’ parable of the white invasion of Australia, was published in 2003. He lives with designer Elizabeth Francis in the village of Trentham, Victoria.