It all started yesterday, with the burning.
Smoke rose in great plumes overhead as the men took to the fields with torches. They tied handkerchiefs over noses and lips; sweat rained down from their foreheads. Afterwards, they washed ash from their eyelashes and inside their ears. Sweetness and smoke filled their nostrils.
This, the great state of Queensland, where plenty of land means plenty of space to grow the sweet crop. Wind whistles through bright emerald stems; cicadas and crickets hum out of sync. But the machetes sing in unison. Nature is flattened here, subjugated by sweat and blood, soil honeyed with corpses. The land fights back with clouds of beetles, moths, mozzies, and a heat that cuts the throat. If he can endure it, a man can start again with a few good years in the fields. A man can cut his way into a life of his own dreaming. Someday, Big John thinks, but not yet.
He rings the bell at sunrise, hard as his stiff joints allow. Their shed, red brick and rusted iron overhead, has only one window – a hole, with netting nailed into each corner. Out of hammocks drop five bronzed bodies: taut muscle, callused hands. Jamie, Mikey, Davo, Little John and their foreigner, Jakob. They yawn, stretch, and fill their water bladders before slinging them round their shoulders. George – the old man who helps out – slops six giant spoons of porridge into six enamel plates. Big John says grace, got to maintain dignity, before they shovel oats in, unseeing. The cane awaits them.
Yesterday’s blisters have popped and shrivelled into flat spongy skin; the men piss on their own hands to keep them rough enough to wield the blade. They’re real blokes.
‘Cutting the new field today,’ Big John says, ‘Get ready, boys.’
They jump on their bikes – rickety, tire treads plugged with stones – their hat strings tied tight under their chins. Cool rushes of wind soothe already sweating armpits and groins, the only moment of comfort in a long day ahead. The swell in the air should break soon, they hope. But nobody dares complain.
From afar, the woody stems look like soft green grass from the mother country. Wrong shade, but slender and inviting all the same. The men are above temptation, though. They know she’s a false friend. She doesn’t give up her sugar easy. They steady themselves.
Today, charred strands sit ready for the cut, embers cooled overnight. A man can earn twice as much from the cut of unburnt cane, but they won’t risk the vermin.
‘Easier this way,’ Big John says, ‘Only the kanakas, that lot, did different.’
Not Big John’s lads. Free men make choices.
The men collect their weapons from the truck, each his own favourite. A broad flat blade with a hooked flick to one side. Theirs are bare hands, flimsy against a crop that doesn’t die in fire. Still, gloves are for sissies. They begin: Stoop. Chop. Straighten. Top.
There’s as much water as a man can drink but they know better than to stop too long; every piss will cost you. Stoop. Chop. Straighten. Top. It goes on until the worst hours, when the sun pulses vengeful over them. The air itself needs cutting then, and when their smallest, Jamie, looks ready to pass clean out, Big John finally puts his blackened fingers in his mouth and whistles. The heat has dried their sweaty shirts stiff. On their bikes, the metal scalds their skin. They retreat back to the shed.
Off come shirts and trousers into the trough out front; can’t bring any of it inside. George starts the wash. Twice a day they work them, scrubbing charcoal clean from the linen. The men fall naked into their hammocks again, napping till the day eases.
The bell comes too quick – time already to collect their pickings. Swinging great stalks onto the truck, taking turns until the first bleeding of sunset. Stoop. Chop. Straighten. Top. Toss her on the truck, tie her down steady.
When they’re done, it’s a clean bald patch on the crown of the earth.
On Friday, Big John takes the boys for a cold one or six. They crash glasses, gulp it down. Pleased with his lads, he finally notices: One is missing.
‘Where’s that Jamie, then?’ Big John asks. They look at their feet.
Jakob answers, ‘Gone, John. Back to Sydney.’ Jamie slipped away while the men slept.
‘Bloody oath, these Sydney bludgers,’ Big John looks across the room; them foreign blokes are sitting together, talking too loud in another tongue. ‘Need least five of youse come Monday. Anyone know a man keen for some hard yakka?’
Nobody answers. They drink on, light dipping, moths taking their shift from the day’s flies. Only when Big John’s had a few more does Jakob say into his ear, ‘I know a man, Big John, he works good. Pietro. Just off the Jumna in Townsville.’
Big John looks at the noisy wogs and sighs. Here we go again. Didn’t want a Fritz like Jakob at first, but said yes anyway. The lads keep drinking and laughing, oblivious.
He already knows. He’s got to get his priorities straight. He must keep the gang earning.
On Monday, it’s arranged. Outside their shed waits a small, sturdy fellow, dark hair carefully combed behind his ears. Hands together, clasping his hat. He’s dressed in tight-laced leather shoes; been a while since Big John saw the like. He does his best to ignore the shoes, coming out with a big swinging handshake: ‘How’s it goin’, mate?’ Pietro looks like a child when he smiles. ‘Did ya bring ya work clothes with ya?’
Pietro looks confused, tugs at his own shirt and says, ‘My clothes.’ He follows Big John inside.
‘Bit hot for it, mate.’ Big John mimes fanning himself but gets no reply.
The lads are at breakfast; Jakob and Pietro shake hands, exchanging a kiss on the cheek. Spoons halt halfway to mouths. Silence descends over the chatty lads. Big John gives the room a hard look: don’t say a bloody thing. Soon as Jakob shows Pietro to his bed, they all start hooting. Bloody pooftas!
Big John watches sidelong as Pietro throws down his jacket, rolls up his shirt sleeves, pulls his tie loose, buries it in a pocket. Jakob lends him shoes for the job; Pietro tucks his own neatly away. He looks a wuss, Big John thinks, but Pietro gets his hat on and follows them out, smile never fading.
At the field, Big John says, ‘Pick your weapon, son.’ The machetes are wedged upright in the dry soil. Pietro doesn’t ask for gloves.
Stoop. Chop. Straighten. Top.
It’s an unnatural movement, sure enough, and Pietro only cuts down about five tonnes that day, while Jakob cuts down twelve. Big John still slaps Pietro on the back, ‘Not bad for day one, mate.’ Pietro tucks his bleeding hands into his pockets. ‘That’s the way,’ Big John says, and makes sure the lad gets fed.
After a week, over yet another dinner of potatoes and gravy, Pietro says: ‘I cook.’
George shrugs, but Big John freezes. Pietro reassures him: ‘Good food.’
Big John feigns ease, can’t let the others see him panic.
‘Alright then, mate,’ he says, but if he’s still hungry tomorrow, the man’s a goner.
He steps outside their shed for a ciggie while the men go down to nap, and sees the little man hurry out to huddle with others of his sort from nearby sheds, their tin roofs sparking in the sun from afar. They’re animated, exchanging rich red tomatoes and odd shapes in linen pouches. The chatting goes on too long. Planning to jump ship? Looking for another shed? He can’t afford it; he waves Pietro over.
And the little guy comes, hauling his sack, the hessian frayed at its edges. He’s oblivious to concern, still grinning like a fool; he disappears into their makeshift kitchen. Old George is out cold, snoring from the swing-seat on the porch.
The kitchen is a clanging symphony, but it won’t disturb the cutters, tired from another day on the field. Only when Big John rings the bell in their ears, do the bodies shift. They sniff to find the air filled with the scent of bread baked hot and meat stewed in a mix of spices they cannot place. It’s strange, but it smells edible, Big John thinks, as the lads settle into their places.
Pietro works the ladle quick, pot to plate. Their stomachs groan in answer. Big John starts, ‘Our Father…’ But the smell just gets better and better. He holds up his hands and says, ‘Let’s eat, boys.’ The men go fast, devouring meat, vegetables, sauce.
They see Pietro sopping up the red from his plate with a crust and he says, ‘La scarpetta. Little shoe.’ They have no idea what he means, but they copy him, and soon the bread is all gone. They clank spoons, lick plates clean.
They sit back and smile.
At the end of the working week, Big John gets the paper. The headline reads, ‘Olive-skinned invasion’. He tosses it aside.
In the afternoon, the rains come at long last. Heavy sky erupts with thick drops, turning every hard surface into song. The men stop their game of cricket, whooping, shirts soaked against their skin in seconds. There’s not much warning that far north.
Pietro and Jakob are not with them.
At dinner, Mikey asks, ‘Them wogs already gone, Big John?’ He frowns at the gravy slop being ladled into his plate.
‘Looks like it,’ he says. They are wogs, after all. With-Out-Guarantee.
But the men do appear, and they’ve got another. An even smaller man, curly black hair glistening in the downpour.
‘This Marco,’ Pietro says, and Big John huffs. ‘He work, good worker.’
Big John eyes him up. ‘No space for more of yas.’
It’s a lie. Since they outlawed blackbirding – the islanders sent back to their own lands, freed men – there’d always been a lack. A need for more hands. He could take this fella, or he could always end up taking one of the blackfellas sitting by the side of the road, their faces drawn and distant. He weighs it up. More hands means more cane, means more cash.
The new man says, ‘I cook for you.’
They hook another hammock into the back room. That night, they eat macaroni for the first time.
After dinner, Big John lays down the law early: ‘None of that kissing business, got it?’ The new men start to talk in their musical tongue, and he gives them a glare. They stop, push forward a plate of dark salty meat cut into neat circles. Big John takes a bite.
The men work until their backs groan; build up blisters, let them break, reeking piss and sweat and flies all day, bodies stained in charcoal. When the field is done, they watch the truck go with the glow of satisfaction. One more bit of earth beaten.
Another field waits down the way.
His men, Mikey and Davo, leave for easier, cleaner work down south. Instead he has Roberto, Marco, Francesco, Pietro, Jakob and Little John. Each man picks his blade. They cut into the sunset. They clink glasses, filled with ruby wine instead of tea. They cut, they load, they clear.
The wogs start their own shops, selling those meats wrapped in white skins. Big John knows he likes the finocchiona best, the sharp fennel an unexpected pleasure. And for the bread, crusty brown and salty on the tongue, Big John is especially pleased.
War comes. Willing men can still fight for the King; Big John would rather see his face on a neat pile of notes in his coffer. His voice was only just breaking when men fought on those Turkish shores – grew into manhood on stories of that baptism of fire. A nation of real blokes was born. At memorials for Gallipoli, Big John will tip his hat. Show respect with silence. But to those stories, he now pays no heed.
His paper reads: ‘Enemy aliens to be interned.’ He tosses it aside.
‘Whadya make of this Hitler, Jakob?’
Jakob only shrugs.
True Aussies don’t crave great men. After all: what’s in it for them? All that marching and saluting; Big John doesn’t get it. Got enough to do, right here.
He doesn’t hear the truck rattle up the red road. Too busy eating stewed rabbit and spaghetti. Big John’s slurping when they kick the door in.
The coppers must drag Jakob out; he’s strong from the cane. Twisting his arms into the shackles, he’s ready to tear a throat with his teeth.
Big John tries to argue, kicks up the dust outside. But it’s too late, they tell him. Jakob will sit on his hands until the war is over. ‘We’ll be back for youse next,’ one copper points at the shadowed faces within. Big John only growls. It is his colony still, he thinks.
‘Pay that moron no mind, gents,’ he says, uncertain.
But he is not the governor-general. The coppers wait until the napping hour, Big John bleary-eyed and slow. The gang of seven becomes two.
Little John must find another shed; Big John must pack up his swag at last. Not much to it. He says goodbye to old George, who clung to the cane longer than all the rest, but now must stay with family back up in Cairns. All those years they survived that land, but you can’t work land without men. Even the blacks are being dragged to the front lines, Big John reads. They can’t vote, but they can fight, it seems. Meanwhile, his gang are off to rot. Who’s left to argue with?
At the train station, he looks back through the heat’s refraction, the swell in the air fit to rupture. The cane waves goodbye in the afternoon breeze, wind picking up from the east. He knows tonight the rains will come again. It would have been a great day for the cut tomorrow; after the shower, the land softens, just for a moment. He watches the women trading smoked meats from their carts, the few remaining blackfellas standing silent and watchful by the fence. A truck full of men passes by. He holds up a hand; their gloomy eyes meet his. They could be his men, the ones with thickened palms, who he taught to cut clean.
In Brisbane, the newspaperman is keen for a word with a real white cutter from Innisfail. Here’s his chance, he thinks. Set the record straight.
The newspaperman says, ‘Cane industry’s losing men, momentum, losing steam in this war. Whadya reckon?’
‘Which war’s that?’ Big John asks. The newspaperman looks at him funny.
‘The big one, mate. We’re fighting them at home and abroad, yeah?’
‘Are we?’ Big John says, looks down at where the calluses trace ridged peaks into his skin. Where missed strokes sliced white rivers between knuckles. ‘Not out there. Out there, we’re mates,’ he tells him. ‘Don’t matter where you’re from.’
The newspaperman frowns, ‘We know where we’re from, mate.’
Big John shakes his head.
He buys his own farm at last, cold hard cash. The dream. An expanse of wiry gums and thorny wattle. He builds a neat pine porch round the cottage and strings up a hammock in bleached linen. He rips silver shrubs clear from his patch, chases snakes past the fence. Sows veggies in the spring under earnest cobalt skies, has his nap at the same time each afternoon. Everything that Big John plants can be cut with scissors.
Each night, he does his best to stir the tiny aromatic leaves into the sauce. Says grace before his dinner. What is bonded in blood and bread can’t be undone. He chooses the fattiest finocchiona, the crisp scent of fennel on his fingers. He pours more wine into his cup.