How the Stone Lost its Soul

© John South
...she replied that it was an old burial ground - 'since the Dreamtime' was how she put it...

The memories of my travels, the sights, the people, the mysteries, are always with me, like the gifts from friends that live on the mantelpiece. Although they are old memories, I think of them often, with fondness, with gratitude for the richness of my experience. Yet every so often I have a nightmare, the same nightmare, repeated even now, a long time after this story happened. It watches me, I suppose, though I don't know why I use that word. Perhaps, somehow, it comes from what happened in Strasbourg.

My cousin Nelson Ponsonby owned a house there, and I hadn't seen him for a while. We weren't close. He had suffered a rather difficult time at school - if his rather stuffy name wasn't enough, he was quite small, with two preposterously large front teeth, and had a tendency to make extravagant boasts about what he was destined to do in life, such as prime minister, lion tamer, conqueror of Mount Everest, and so forth. This led to frequent ragging from his classmates, a state of disrespect which seemed to follow him for the rest of his life. But he did in fact make something of himself, and by the time he was approaching middle age, whenever he was introduced to people he would tell them he was an explorer. It came across as rather an ambitious self description - in fact he was a palaeontologist. In 1921 he had obtained a research position with the University of Strasbourg, and had spent most of his later years in the more desolate parts of Australia, immersing himself in the gullies and deserts where the rare signs of primaeval life were to be found. His obsession with the fossils of his area of research had led to his wife leaving him, (a fact he seemed only vaguely aware of), and over the years he had turned his comfortable home into a large warehouse of rocks of all shapes and sizes. I had written to him of my travels across Europe, and he had extended an invitation to me to visit him at home on my way through. He had also invited one of his old school chums, Boyd Andrews, who was travelling through France. Nelson had just returned from one of his expeditions to South Australia, and promised he had stories that would fascinate us.

Boyd Andrews was a large man with short arms and legs, who introduced himself as a 'painter to the gentry', a slightly abstruse title which brought to my mind the self promotion that Nelson had been known for. After a simple dinner of cold meats and cheeses, we sat by the fire, drinking light wine and smoking cigars. Then, in our mind's eye, our friend took us to places far from the snows and green mountains of the continent, and the cottages and schools where we had grown up. He described a hard land, deserts that go on forever, streaked with the hard, dry, dusty colours of the artist's palette, birds calling to nothing except the dead bones of the trees and the stones, long towering gorges pitted with holes like yawning faces, an empty world, still and dead for millions of years. He told us of the black fellows, who survive on nothing that can be seen, who sing gnarled stories of the Dreamtime, of animals, birds, the rivers and the rain, stories that had been handed down to them, since the beginning of the world. He told us that they have open hearts, he believed that if their race had lived where the white man had, there would never have been any wars.

"I can't agree with you there, old chap," said Andrews. "A man is a man. There'll always be bickering over who owns what."

"What is there to own, in such a place?" replied Nelson. "The only thing they own is the land. But they don't own it in the way that we understand. No, they are part of the land."

"Hmm... what does that mean?" I asked.

"Well, the term 'country' to them means something entirely different to what we understand. The land, the trees and rivers, their relatives and ancestors, the spirits they sense - they think and live as if it's all the one thing... If you'd been there, you might understand... when you see this land, stand there with it all about you, its awesome size and majesty, you feel like you are a part of something spiritual, some ancient living thing, or... I don't know, I can't think of the best way to say it - maybe the likes of us have no words that would do."

He paused for a moment, toying with his thoughts.

"I don't know. If I tell you about my last expedition, perhaps it may give you an idea. Two weeks ago, my colleague Johnny Bachelor and I were talking to a surveyor in a pub in Adelaide - he'd been finding rocks that he thought would interest us. We drove three hundred miles to a gorge that contained a huge rock, about the size of a bus - we looked it over, and realised that it was covered in excellent fossils of underwater creatures that are almost certainly hundreds of millions of years old. It was tremendously exciting, a rare opportunity, and we quickly set to with our brushes and trowels-"

"Yes, you were telling us about the black fellows."

"Oh, yes, sorry, Andrews, so anyway, about half an hour after we began working on the rock, Johnny said to me, 'Nelson... you know, it's the damnedest thing, but... I feel like we're being watched...' And once he'd said it, I realised I was feeling the same thing."

"Oh, really? Take a bit of the old medicinal sherry with you, perhaps?"

"No no, Andrews, we weren't imagining things, I assure you. We continued to work on the rock until dusk, then left. Didn't see a soul. The next morning, as we were collecting supplies at the store, we began chatting to an old native woman, and we told her we'd been at the gorge. Johnny mentioned that we'd felt as if we were being watched, and she replied that it was an old burial ground - 'since the Dreamtime' was how she put it, if I remember rightly. She told us we were being watched, no doubt about it. She didn't seem surprised in the least."

"Well, Ponsonby, old fellow," Andrews said, "perhaps she was playing games with you."

"Hmpf. I wish you'd been there. Anyway, we'd taken photographs of some of the fossils, and when we told her this, her manner changed very rapidly. She became quite angry, she shouted that we were trying to steal the souls of those who were resting there, and warned that 'bad things' were going to happen to us."

"Yes," I said, "I've heard that many native cultures believe something similar. Didn't put you off too much, I hope."

"Oh, she was quite unpleasant. We were a long way from the city, it became rather uncomfortable. Johnny and I jumped into our truck and scarpered."

"Well, you seem to have survived intact!" I said. "What sort of dire consequences did she predict?"

"I don't know, we were too busy running away to listen," groaned Ponsonby. "But there are many kinds of evil spirits in their mythology - bunyips and magic shamans and the like. You know, since then, I've often had that same feeling, that I'm being watched."

"Do you feel it now?" gasped Andrews, turning to the windows in mock fear.

"I tell you, it's not my imagination."

"They pointed the bone at you, perhaps!" smirked Andrews, giving me a wink.

"Pointed the bone?"

"A particularly unpleasant practice," said Nelson. "If a black fellow has broken tribal law, an elder will curse him by pointing a sharpened bone at him. Within a week or so, he dies. I saw it happen once. But that's all just psychosomatic, they only die because they're convinced they're going to... No, I don't believe they've pointed the bone at me, or anything like that. I can't explain what I feel, but it's not that."

"Well, I wouldn't get too worried about it," I said. "Could we see the photographs?"

Nelson showed us several images of rocks, few of which showed anything of interest to a layman. One showed an impression of something like a round leaf.

"We don't know what to call this one." said Nelson. "But it's about six hundred million years old, we believe. Much older than the dinosaurs."

"What is it, an animal of some kind... a plant, maybe?" I suggested.

"We don't know. Maybe a type of life that doesn't exist anymore. But you wouldn't think it would upset anybody to take photographs of it."

"No," said Andrews, "I can't imagine anybody getting excited about this."

"Oh quiet, Andrews!"

"But I take it you're not actually being followed," I said.

"Goodness, I hope not. Black fellows tracking me to France? What a frightening thought!"

As Nelson had invited us to stay the night, we stayed up until late, hearing more stories of that ancient land, of strange animals that were half duck and half otter, of long dead plains that would turn into meadows within hours of the rain, of insects screaming so loudly they would send the stockmen mad. Eventually, after having had perhaps a little too much to drink, we went to bed.

As I settled myself down to go to sleep, I could hear a dog barking furiously, somewhere not far away. Then others began to bark... soon there was a pack of them, working themselves into a dreadful frenzy about something...

I must have fallen asleep despite the dogs barking, but I was rudely brought to wakefulness some time later in the night by a loud, erratic pounding at the front door. The knocking did not pause, but continued relentlessly. I waited for Nelson to answer the door, but the assault went on. After a few minutes, I got out of bed and threw on a few clothes. As I left my bedroom, I saw Andrews in the corridor, also hastily clad, turning on the lights.

"What the devil is that row?" he demanded. "Where's Ponsonby?"

"I've no idea. I suppose we should answer the door, it sounds rather urgent."

Then I realised it was not the front door. The pounding was going back and forth on the roof, as if something enormous was stomping about up there - Andrews looked upwards, as the same realisation came to him.

"Christ!" he hissed.

We listened to the relentless assault on the roof for a minute or so...

"I don't like the look of this, Butler - don't open the door, for the love of God...."

"Does Nelson keep any weapons in the house?"

"I don't know. There must be knives in the kitchen."

"Don't you think we should get to the basement?" I said.

"If that thing breaks in, we may be trapped," he said. "Where's the telephone?"

We found the telephone in the hallway - it seemed to be working, but there was no operator. Andrews had managed to find a broom, and I found a cricket bat - I had seen a large bread knife, but feared it might be turned against me in a scrap. The whole time, the pounding on the roof continued, rattling the window panes and tilting the pictures on the walls, but we saw no sign of Nelson.

Andrews and I remained in the hallway, trying to prepare ourselves for goodness knows what. It seemed to do nothing more than pound on the roof - whether it was using feet or fists or hammers or something else, we couldn't tell, but it made no other sound. The night drew on, but the thing kept up its assault. After a while Andrews said,

"This is ridiculous. Whatever it is, it hasn't the brass to take us on. Give me the cricket bat, Butler, and when I give the sign, open the door."

"I'm not sure that's a good idea, Andrews. Why don't we wait until it's light?"

Andrews didn't answer, but went to the door. I followed him, and after his signal I opened the door, and he rushed out. The hammering on the roof paused for a moment - I slammed the door closed and backed away. Then I heard him start to scream, and the hammering began again. What had happened to him? Should I make a break for it as well? Should I go to the basement? I tried the telephone again, but it was still useless. And the pounding blows - I began to understand the hell of the trenches in the war, as they waited helplessly for the violence that could tear them to pieces at any time...

Then, the idea came to me - was this somehow linked to Nelson's activities in Australia, some kind of supernatural retribution? Heaven knows I had seen more than my fair share of bizarre events in my travels, more than enough to remain open-minded to the existence of things we can't comprehend. Then, what could I do? The photographs! Where were they? Still in the sitting room, surely. What if I was wrong, would I look like a fool? Would Nelson forgive me if he lost such rare evidence of ancient life? Hang it, he could go back there, talk to the black fellows, come to some arrangement. Something was on the roof, and I was in fear of my life. I went to the sitting room, the photographs were there, and the fire still contained embers. I threw the photographs in, and carefully nursed the fire... slowly the photographs burned. Then, just as they were turned to ashes - the hammering stopped.

I waited until morning, then I tip-toed through the house to find Nelson. There was no sign of him, although his bed had been slept in. The windows were open, but a full glass of water sat beside his bed, as if defying the supposition that any violence had occurred. I went outside, and looked all around the house for an hour or so... The walls were bare, and there was no ladder to be found, or indeed any other sign that anything had been there at all. The cricket bat Andrews had taken was lying some distance from the door, but there was no sign of him either.

I found my way to the police station, but the officers couldn't speak English, so I had to wait there until the evening for an interpreter to be found. Then after filling out a number of forms, I was told that I was no longer needed, and in due course they would do their best to find my friends. I was too scared to remain at Nelson's house, so I collected my belongings, and by the next evening I was in another country.

A few days later the body of Boyd Andrews was discovered in a ditch, about a mile from my cousin's house. He had suffered violent injury, although an investigation was unable to find any explanation whatsoever as to his fate. I made numerous attempts to contact Nelson, but he was never heard from again. And I later learnt that Nelson's colleague, Johnny Bachelor, was found dead in a doss-house in Sydney... There was no clue as to how he died, other than a look of utter terror on his face.

And in the nightmare, the same nightmare, repeated even now - I'm wandering in a desert. There is a monster - it is behind me, so I don't know what it looks like... and I hear gnarled songs that are as old as the world.

* * * * * *


This story is adapted from my father's actual experience in Brachina Gorge in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges, South Australia. While he and a friend were oil painting near a boulder known as the Fossil Rock, they both became aware of a sensation of being watched. On returning to the town of Hawker for supplies, they related this to an Adnyamathanha woman they met in the store, who told them they were near an ancient aboriginal burial ground, and they certainly were being watched.

Apart from the above, this story is fiction. It is not meant as a faithful depiction of the rich reality of Indigenous Australian culture and the Dreaming, and nothing but the utmost respect is meant to the Adnyamathanha people, the native people of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges.

Written in December, 2016, based on true events which occurred in 1974

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