This historical fiction story was inspired by the Paul Kelly song Rally Round the Drum about an Aboriginal man who was a travelling tent boxer. I wanted him to be the main character in my own story and have him travelling with the circus but returning home to Kokatha country in South Australia. I’ve always been interested in very early Australian migration and that horrid era of human history that was all about gawking at human ‘curiosities,’
The Human Zoo
At first they appeared like irregular blisters on the horizon. The procession moved so slowly that no one knew when it changed from mirage to something tangible. The red dust and lingering heat swirled around the fluid shapes of the figures, the animals, the carts. The leader seemed so elongated that his top hat reached the sky and his legs looked like spindle-sticks, barely able to carry his weight. As they drew nearer it was clear that he was leading a troupe of three camels that rocked and swayed along the dirt track. Behind him a smaller man rode a grey Asian elephant. Then came three horse drawn wagons with heavy curtains to conceal the identity of the occupants, then came more people, some on horseback, others on foot, and bringing up the rear were three slow moving trucks, all featuring the same yellow logo, ‘Wirths Circus’ and in smaller lettering ‘bare-fist boxing tent’ and ‘Australia’s only human zoo.’
Yesterday it was a patch of red dirt and saltbush, but today the red and yellow bunting announced that the circus had arrived. The exotic spectacle bloomed like a pocket of desert wildflowers. In the centre was the big top and around it were smaller tents and an assortment of animal cages; a Bengali tiger paced ceaselessly up and down, a green parrot squawked and attempted to stretch its wings inside a cage that was too small and a monkey, tethered to a stake, attempted feverishly to pry itself free.
Kid Snowball was nursing an injury to his knuckle, but that didn’t dampen his mood. He was used to this hard end of a tough game, and he enjoyed his title as bare-fist boxing champ. But today he was finally back on Kokatha home country, country of the dreamtime serpent Akurra. It had taken a whole year of touring but he’d finally come home. He smiled at the thought of the sacred healing springs, the bush tucker and most of all, his people. Most nights his fights were fairly easy to win; a drunk white bloke would cough up the dough to fight a wiry little black man who proved too quick. Sometimes he copped hate and matched up against men who wanted to kill him, but mostly the fights were over quickly, usually when he landed a stinging double jab to an unsuspecting brow or chin. Kid Snowball could take a fair bit of pain, but most of his opponents could not. His plan tonight was to vanish after the last fight and return to his tribe. He was done with the boxing tent.
Crowds of people flowed in from the morning onwards, but it wasn’t until the ringmaster lit the flare at nightfall that anyone was allowed inside. People enjoyed the spectacle in the Big Top, the horses, the trained dogs, the proud but obedient elephant; but it was the human zoo tent that was proving most popular, especially for its newest curiosity. There had been many inhabitants in the last few years- a bearded lady, a few dwarves, and a Chinese ‘princess’ who displayed a pair of tiny deformed feet that she had been binding since childhood. Last year Wirths had even captured a Palawa, a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman and had touted her as the last of her tribe. She was fierce, but her people had spent 10,000 years on an island and she had taken ill with a white fella’s fever from which she never recovered. It was Snowball who had been charged with burying her in the dust of a foreign homeland. He cried salty tears for her and refused to eat or fight for a week.
When his final bout was over, Snowball was drawn one last time by the candle glow of the human zoo tent. Identical twin girls were dressed in identical frocks and played patty cake. An old man reclined on a cushion and the flickering light revealed a pair of knobbly horns just below his hairline. He had a few words in broken English and told the audience that he was ‘an offspring of the devil himself’. But it was the giraffe-necked woman that everyone had really come to see, and that Snowball wanted to say goodbye to. She sat upright, unmoving. Around her elongated neck were twelve brass rings and she wore a traditional green tunic. Her black hair was swept into a high bun which accentuated the exotic tilt of her head. Wirths were pretty tight-lipped about where their curiosities came from, but it was rumoured that she was of the Kayan people, captured at gunpoint from a jungle in Burma. The only possession she had with her was some sort of carved doll and Snowball felt sick to think that she may be a mother. Tonight she looked weak and her eyes were glassy. He gently touched her forehead and his hand recoiled from the heat of her skin. She was burning.
If he hadn’t been on home country, Kid Snowball might have let nature take its course, he might have had no choice but to let her die. But here he knew the plants, the healing places and he knew how to find the Kokatha medicine man. He waited for a long time until the crowd was gone and even the restless monkey was asleep. He crept on silent feet to where she lapsed in and out of consciousness.
She felt ghost-light in his arms as he carried her into the desert and comforted her in his language. In the morning the only sign that they had been there was a broken doll’s head. And when the shapes of the circus faded into the haze, the land was busy composing a new history: of the famous homecoming of Kid Snowball and the giraffe-necked woman who joined the Kokatha tribe.
Two years later, three more Kayan women disappeared from Wirth’s Circus and after a lengthy investigation, the circus were forced to close its human zoo.