This wasn’t the half of it. All he told me to begin with was that he’d nearly died after eating Burrawang nuts. Cowboy was weird with living alone for thirteen years in the bush near Quart Pot, way out past Araluen.
This area was high, hard and remote, full of dope growers and people escaping or hiding and I understood that. The mountains I live in are like that too; New Agers mushroom the area with half built teepees that they give birth in, sometimes unassisted. The babies never thrive, with names like Geronimo Cloudberry or Cadence Rain how could they sit happily snacking on alfalfa sprouts and lentil burgers or fit in a class with kids named Edward, Oliver or Sarah? I saw these poor little buggers dragged about from festival to market to teepee dressed like tie-dyed gnomes, their parents dreadlocked in so many ways, barely making a fleshy wrinkle in their Happy Pants and hemp shirts.
There is often weirdness at high altitudes and strangeness in the peaks and cracks in the crust and mantle of this earth and all around us is curly and full of enigma.
Across the table Cowboy complained about the neighbours.
— Bastards tried to kill me off one way or another because I wouldn’t grow dope. I’d find me gates open so the cattle would wander. They killed Sharon. She was a big beautiful Friesian, udders the size of watermelons in string bags. A bit like you, he says.
— They ploughed up all me veggies pulled the fruit trees out and burnt them all once when I came down to the Bay for a weekend. Get stuffed, they even drilled holes in me fuckin’ water tank!
His shiny dark hair had a front roll and he looked as if he was some James Dean cowboy with eyes that were clear and very bright, his shaven cheeks fine and pink but he was too thin. His legs looked like the wishbone of a turkey in his dated stretch jeans which clung tightly to the parentheses of his hips, topped by a big silver Willie Nelson buckle. He wore a black leather jacket that smelt of cardigans and cigarettes but I suppose when you come back to civilization after a number of years you get a bit stuck where you left off. Around his neck was an ornate crucifix on a leather thong and Jesus had a silver sort of halo around his body with a resigned look about Him as though it was a sort of ‘here we go again’ kind of a thing. I never did take much to religious jewelry, although I admit to treasuring a white pseudo-mother-of-pearl prayer book bought from the stall of religious paraphernalia outside Blessed Oliver Plunkett’s after eleven o’clock mass.
Cowboy wore this huge cross as a kind of badge of distinction. He said,
— I earned this. I did battle and I earned this. Get stuffed, I really earned this, mate.
— Was it something to do with the Burrawang nuts? I asked.
— Yeah, kind of.
The plant he described grew on the forest floor along the south coast of New South Wales. It was a short palm belonging to the cycad family that has hardly changed since the Jurassic period and has a bulbous base that was once harvested for a couple of starch factories near Bateman’s Bay. The seeds or nuts are contained inside a corm that grows on top of the large bulb and many indigenous people including the islanders of Guam processed them for flour. These people had an extremely high incidence of neurodegenerative diseases due to high levels of neurotoxins in the seeds but the incidence was reduced once the diets were westernized and people ate wheat and corn flour. The factories back then nearly wiped the plants out but eventually, in the way of things, poly-cotton shirts and nylon replaced the need for starched collars and linen fabrics so the factories closed down in the thirties and forties. The Burrawangs recovered and flourished all over the New South Wales coast in amongst the white trunked spotted gums, the Eucalyptus Maculata, stately in the deep verdancy of the forests.
He rolled a thin cigarette.
— I seen the Koories prepare them. I seen ‘em soak ‘em in water for a couple a weeks, chuck out the water when it was milky and that, or roast them too. I was starving and I had me dogs to feed as well. So I picked about a coupla dozen of these things and prepared them. I ate no more’n seven or eight of these cashew things and went outside to check on the gates. I was comin’ back to give the rest to me dogs when the pain struck. Have you ever had food poisoning? It’s nothin’ compared to the pain of this. I fell to the ground writhing like a snake. It was fuckin’ unbelievable. The vomiting started then the other end went and I had no control at all. It was like I was possessed by somethin’, an alien in me guts. God Almighty!
Cowboy put his head down for a moment as if he were again in the shadow of the valley of death. His intensity was gripping and I understood at once his fever and the overcrowded brightness of his eyes.
— After a few hours I got myself into bed and pulled the doona up over me head and shivered and shook and vomited for a coupla days. I had visions. I saw the end of the world, mate, the end of the fuckin’ world. I know I was hallucinating but I learned things over those few days that I know to this day are true. The world is flat. Did’ja know that?
This was a bit of a surprise; it was like a trusted friend saying she was sick of being a woman and wanted to become a duck that sang in the opera. I thought of my geography lessons. Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Prince Henry the Navigator and the Portuguese were the envy of Europe, opening up Africa taking gold and ivory and slaves from Sierra Leone the Pepper and Gold Coasts. Vasco Da Gama reached India in 1498. The Americans reached the moon in 1969 looked back and saw that the earth was blue, beautiful and round.
— It’s flat. Like a pancake with an edge and everything. How do people actually know the world is a sphere? One day while I was lying there after I got poisoned I thought to myself, get stuffed — all these photos and that are tricks! They want you to believe we’re all connected because the world is round! It’s the One World Government, it’s the Illuminati and the Rockefellers! Races are meant to be separate, we were never meant to mix it’s the Tower of Babel come down again! Not that I think I’m better because I’m white or anything. I’ve lived with Koories for years. Used to live with a crowd of ‘em at Bindi.
Now, I’d never encountered someone who actually believed in the Flat Earth Theory before. I felt bemused and slightly honoured. I above all others was privy to a special kind of foolishness that belonged to the Inquisitors, Eurovision choreographers, certain African or American Presidents and the like. I thought maybe it was the long-term side effects of the Burrawang nuts.
I smiled and nodded not wanting to scare him away but couldn’t resist saying,
— But Cowboy, even the Greeks came up with a pretty accurate measurement of the diameter of the earth in the third century. How about sidereal rotation? Anyway if the earth was flat then the sun would always shine at the same time all over the earth, it would always be day! What about the pictures from satellites out in space and the curvature of the earth? How about the fact that one can sail or fly from one point over the surface of the earth in a continuous line and back to the point of departure?
— Lies. All part of the plan to make us believe in a round earth.
He was a convert. There was no tinkering with this man’s beliefs. His eyes were too starry, his voice too firm, his chin too pointy, his earth too flat.
— What happened with the Burrawang nuts? I asked.
— Well I lost track of time. I thought if I didn’t die from poisoning I’d die from starvation. I got up though and improved over time — but weak… get stuffed… I was like a piece of wet cotton wool. After a few days I got outside for a breather and it was real quagmire, it had been raining while I was crook. I wandered over near the shed and saw that the slasher had slid down into a puddle of mud and was still sliding. I tried to heave on it, to shove a tyre under the low side with me foot. Me strength just wasn’t there, then like in slow motion, I subsided and the bloody thing just came down over the top of me and pinned me legs to the ground. I thought to myself, get stuffed, I’m really fucked now. The Burrawang nuts didn’t kill me but the slasher might. I blacked out at one stage.
I was sure it was the end of Cowboy. Then I thought, well, if God saved me from the Burrawangs, why would He let me go with the slasher? Then, stuff me, I felt this power come into me and I just heaved this fuckin’ slasher off the top of me and got me legs free. I stood for about three seconds then peeled over backwards. I didn’t know how long I lay there but I was half bloody dead with cold and lack of food when I came to. I dragged myself into the house and somehow got onto me bed. At one stage I heard a car. Then someone was feeding me soup, it was the best food I’d ever eaten. It was a friend from the Bay and she’d got worried about me an’ drove up here to find me in that shitty way. She saved me life mate and I must’ve slept for days. When I woke everything seemed bright an’ new, so totally clear. That’s when I knew I’d had enough time on me own.
He paused and sipped on his now cold coffee then held the crucifix in a tight grip.
— My mates from Canberra gave me this Dominican cross to protect me against any other Satanic attacks. I’ve worn it ever since.
I asked him if he thought it helped.
— I think so. Though I’ve got to go to court next month for assaulting a police officer. But, get stuffed, you know they gave me a hidin’? I was drivin’ along some back road and I ran out of petrol. I thought oh well I’ll camp here the night and get something happening in the morning. Apparently, there was people in a house nearby on the property that got a bit spooked by my fire and rang the coppers. They turned up and told me I was trespassing. I said, sorry but this is the situation with the car and all that. Then get stuffed, they’re arresting me! I couldn’t fucking believe it. Believe me I was at the end of me chain then and pullin’ hard. Next thing I’m being assessed at the Goulbourn rathouse for psychosis. I’m prayin’ me heart out askin’ Jesus to come and help me. The psych asks me if I’m hearin’ voices. Yeh I sez. There’s two fuckin’ cops screamin’ at me and kickin’ me guts in and you tellin’ me I’m mad because I pray out loud. I’m hearin’ voices orright. Finally they released me and said there was nothing wrong with me that a good holiday wouldn’t fix. Protection? Get stuffed…of course!
He pulled over to the kerb in his orange VW and I got out, but saying goodbye to him was like waving a child out onto the Hume Highway on his dinky trike. He lifted up his Dominican cross to me, kissed it, grinned, put the car in gear and puttered off.
I looked after the receding car knowing that Cowboy was a Flat Worlder in a very round and curly world and I left him on the corner near the fruit shop where he worked in Bateman’s Bay. He’d come down from Quart Pot to the big bad city to look for a wife, said he wanted someone big warm and comfortable but I thought he needed a carnivorous cook with a sextant.