Amy T Matthews
Thinking About Camels
I assume there was an actual camel once. The one that became proverbial because its death was just so damn poetic. I assume it was an Arabic camel (the proverb being Arabic), standing in the blinding heat, being all sullen the way camels are, their black eyes spiteful as they chew whatever they chew. I have no idea what camels eat. They spit, I know that. When they get mad, they spit. This camel probably spat, as its idiot master kept loading it up.
There it was, in the shimmering, headachy heat, probably besieged by stinging flies, glaring sullenly as load after load was piled onto his back. It might have made a noise; that discordant unpleasant noise camels make, and yes it probably spat. But it was just a camel. It didn’t have a say in what was loaded on its back. Its knees probably locked, to withstand the weight, then trembled. It might have sunk a little into the sand. And the idiot kept loading it up and, at the very last, threw a straw on top. The straw was clearly added by the storytellers. What possible use is a straw and why would you pack one?
In some versions of the story it’s a feather. One version has a monkey instead of a camel, and a melon instead of a straw. It’s kind of beside the point. The straw is poetic. If there was an actual, historical camel (and I bet there was at some point), there was probably a bundle that got thrown on at the last, and not an actual straw. The idiot master was probably a merchant; the bundles and packages were probably goods; he probably stood to make a lot of money off that camel’s back. Anyway, he threw the last straw (bundle) on and, snap, there went the camel’s back.
It didn’t die. It wouldn’t have. A broken spine isn’t lethal. It would have gone down, clumsily, without grace. The camel would have been in agony, distressed, screaming. And the merchant would have killed it, to put it out of its misery. And then he would have bitched and moaned about having to buy another damned camel.
How fast can I work?
They say there aren’t any camels left in the wild. They were domesticated thousands and thousands of years ago, because they can travel long distances without much nourishment, through terrains where no road can be laid. Self-sufficient animals, they have large soft feet that spread to let them walk on shifting sands. Useful, camels were put to use. They’re the workhorses of the desert; preferred, because you don’t have to feed them much. They’re patient and they endure. So you don’t have to worry about them startling and bucking and galloping off. They’re plodders. But at least they’re more exotic than cows.
I try to imagine telling the truth on my performance review. Is it research to spend an hour thinking about camels?
13. RESEARCH AND/OR CREATIVE ACTIVITY
13.1 Activities since last review (refer to Note #13.1 in Guide to Form A)
13.2 Proposed activities for current year (refer to Note #13.2 in Guide to Form A)
13.3 Future plans (refer to Note #13.3 in Guide to Form A)
Cocaine? Then I wouldn’t need to sleep and could write at night?
Quit my job? We’d be homeless and hungry, but at least I would have time. These days time is the new gold. Invaluable. Perhaps glittering on the ground in some distant land, where I could go and buy a plot and gather it up.
Become someone else – one of those people who seem to be able to turn off their person-hood and be a worker bee.
Get interested in bees. They’re more highly thought of than camels.
In the northern hemisphere the death of the honeybee has reached biblical proportions. In far north Oregon in the United States a woman named Joy clocked off one night and emerged into the Wal-Mart car park to find the corpses of 50,000 bees. I don’t know how she counted them all. Did they hire someone to count the bees? Whoever it was has a burgeoning career, as bees are dropping from the sky at unprecedented rates. The age of the bee is drawing to a close.
Colony Collapse Disorder is when all the worker bees disappear simultaneously. Bees have disappeared before from time to time; their sudden absences turns up in the history books under the names disappearing disease, spring dwindle, May disease, autumn collapse, and fall dwindle disease. But this time it’s different. Never before have bees disappeared, dwindled, collapsed in their millions, across an entire hemisphere. Never before have they been asked to make honey from fungicides. And as they die, the fields fall fallow. This is what happens when the workers fall from the sky.
There are 1500 species of native bees in Australia and not one has fallen dead to the ground in a Wal-Mart car park. Not least because we don’t have Wal-Mart. But even the Target car parks are dead-bee free. We use insecticides and fungicides. But we never did get much honey from native bees. In fact they’re not really much like bees at all – they’re more like a kind of wasp. That’s our disappearing disease; our wasps disappeared into the genus of bee, victims of the usual European history of trying to fit new things into existing boxes. Like the camel – most of the time the creature we think of as a camel is actually a dromedary.
No one writes poetry about dromedaries. Even though they run feral through the mid-north, galloping free: wild. Wild camels haven’t existed for thousands of years; and yet there they are, striding through the red dust of the great Australian emptiness. Imported to serve, they broke free. What’s more poetic than that?
I will write about camels.
Dr Amy T Matthews is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Flinders University and a member of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. She has published short stories in collections including Best Australian Stories, and been long-listed for the Australian/Vogel literary award. Her novel End of the Night Girl won the 2010 Adelaide Festival Unpublished Manuscript Award, was published by Wakefield Press in 2011, and was subsequently shortlisted for the 2012 Dobbie Literary Award and the 2012 Colin Roderick Award. Her book length exegesis Navigating the Kingdom of Night is published by Adelaide University Press. Amy also writes historical romantic-adventure novels under the name Tess LeSue, is a past winner of the Anna Campbell Award and has been shortlisted for the Romance Writers of Australia’s EmeraldPRO, Emerald and STALI Awards. Tess’s novel Bound for Eden is in stores now.
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Vol 21 No 2 October 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence