Wynton Burke (Hunter John Winton Burke) is an Australian short-stories writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Born in 1945, he started his life by working for his father as a farm labourer.
“As an only child without books to stimulate my imagination, I created a make believe world and engaged in solitary childish adventures”, he says. “My education was rudimentary and desultory. At thirteen I left school and worked with my father on the land. At the age of fifteen I left home and travelled to Sydney where I rented a flat in Sydney’s King’s Cross and worked in a succession of dissatisfying dead-end jobs. The thought of writing appealed to me but my childhood conditioning had crushed my self-confidence […] I moved to Auckland, when I was twenty-four, having just married”.
After divorce, being retired, Burke started writing. He published few pieces for local and international publications such as New Zealand Home Journal and Reader’s Digest. Some of his authentic and biographic writings talk about a dramatic childhood, a cruel lack of chance in a malevolent world and, sometimes, they picture raw images of real-life issues such as prostitution, divorce or poverty.
“The Savage Earth” is a short story by Wynton Burke, exclusively published on Cultartes Magazine. Read it below:
“Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in.” ― Shannon L. Alder
Young Joseph remembered being terrified of his mother, she was a violent and bitter woman, her venomous hostility was brutal and implacable and she often flew into wild rages, severely beating him with whatever was at hand, whether he deserved it or not. It seemed to him that his very existence provoked in her, feelings of disgust and anger and he grew up believing that he was a mistake, an unpleasant accident, something unwanted. Her propensity to hate her life had robbed her of the ability to show affection and Joseph increasingly felt like an appendage dragged by his rootless father and fearsome mother from one isolated sheep and cattle station to another. Always deeper into the tablelands of New South Wales and sometimes to the edges of the great sun-scorched outback.
Moves prompted by his father’s persistent belief that he was fated for something better. But Joseph’s destiny appeared evident; it was one of loneliness and isolation, a destiny cruelly inflicted by the circumstances of an unhappy birth. He existed; a solitary earthy entity in nature’s vacuum; trapped by a savage earth that seemed to swallow him whole.
It is amazing just what children recall from their earliest years, those traumatic moments when a child, threatened with physical violence and humiliation senses a danger to their personal safety. Joseph retained a vivid memory of one such occasion; he was not yet three years old. His parents were once again on the move to another sheep station, another new job for his father. The old Buick car, which had been converted into a small flat back utility, was heavily burdened with furniture, household bric-a-brac and personal belongings. Several suitcases or ‘ports’ as his father called them were strapped onto each running board. Several tethered dogs balanced awkwardly amid the physical possessions piled on the back of the vehicle. It had broken down on the road to Walcha near Dangar’s Lagoon and Joseph’s father had hitched a ride back to the township of Uralla to get help.
Joseph’s mother, irritated by the hold up sat stiffly in the front seat staring with a stony expression at the vehicles speeding past. She put Joseph on the seat beside her, commanding him not to touch anything. Accidentally he brushed the top of the gear stick that extended upwards from the floor and unceremoniously received a sharp painful slap on his forearm; quickly he pulled his arm away and started to cry. The granite expression on his mother’s face twisted into fury and she spat her venom at him. “Do you want me to leave you here… Do you!” She screamed. “Because I will, if you don’t behave yourself, I’ll just throw you in the water and you can drown for all I care.” He had no reason to disbelieve her as he had all too often, experienced her savage brand of discipline.
Although a fearsome and dangerous woman, she was also a foolish superstitious woman, easily frightened by omens especially thunder and lightning, which she interrupted as God’s anger and a sign of impending punishment. Joseph remembered her crouching like a terrified child in a darkened corner of her bedroom and as a small boy he clearly recalled her clutching him tightly against her body, in the same way a woman holds a cushion against her belly for consolation in times of vulnerability. He even recollected the time when a sudden burst of thunder ruptured the blackened sky above the small cottage and she cowered in fear whimpering childishly. When a mirror tumbled from the wall and shattered on the wooden floor during the deafening clap of thunder she was gripped with a devouring panic that plunged her into hysteria. She screamed and tried to squeeze herself further into the corner, her face frozen with terror.
But it wasn’t just thunder and lightning that plunged her into an irrational terror, the peacock feather also caused her great fear and she had once beaten Joseph mercilessly with his father’s strop for daring to bring one into the house. While upon arrival at some isolated sheep station, Joseph’s mother urged his father to quickly hang an inverted horseshoe above the front door of the allocated cottage, “For good luck” she would optimistically insist.
Joseph, when he was older knew that she had killed his younger brother Tommy, although he knew that she would never have admitted it if he challenged her. The incident happened when Tommy was about three years old. The naturally adventurous lad had found his way down to the dam behind the farm cottage while Joseph was supposed to be minding his brother. But the inquisitive boy, lured by the brightness outside, wandered out through the kitchen door and into the sunlight. He sat down to play in the dry white soil just outside the back door. At the time Joseph was being severely reprimanded by his mother, for not peeling the potatoes exactly the way she wanted them done, “You’re cutting all the goodness off, you stupid boy”.
Suddenly realizing that Tommy was not in the room, she slapped him savagely across the ear and went looking for the Tommy, ordering Joseph to stay in the cottage. “I’ll teach that little bastard not to wander off on his own”; she hissed menacingly as she stormed out of the kitchen and through the backyard, past the fowls pecking relentlessly at the hard dry earth, they scattered with their wings flapping madly.
Moments later Joseph heard the shouts for help… not screams… but a command shouted in a hurried, impatient voice. Joseph was the first to reach his mother; deliberately disobeying her orders to stay indoors, while two farm hands quickly followed. She was standing waist high in the water holding Tommy in her arms. “The boy was face down in the water when I got here…there was nothing I could do. I’ve told him time and time again to stay inside, but you know what the little buggers are like, never listen.” Not a single tear stained his mother’s cheek she just looked impatient and annoyed, as if the whole business was an unnecessary inconvenience.
The next day Sergeant Clarke arrived from the township of Kilaroo to question Joseph’s mother about the “unfortunate” accident. Joseph was confused because his mother said that Tommy must have fallen into the dam and hit his head on something, “That would explain the bruise on his temple”, she reasoned stiffly. That was the first time Joseph heard about Tommy hitting his head. He knew not to contradict her, to keep his mouth shut, to point out any contradictions would guarantee a severe thrashing when the Sergeant left, but Joseph was uneasy, he sensed a discrepancy. Joseph’s father always a peripheral character in the childhood of his kids, was mustering that day and could not stay to offer Sergeant Clarke any additional information. Livestock had to be rotated to different paddocks for fresh grazing.
Joseph was devastated by the loss of his brother, he no longer had an ally, someone with whom he shared a common cause, the constant struggle against his mother’s viciousness, and he felt desperately alone. Although his father showed some bereavement, his mother’s cold nonchalance seemed unnaturally cruel. Her granite expression remained rigid.
Sometimes Joseph would be awakened at night and he could hear her screaming as if tormented by some dreaded apparition. He would listen through the thin timbered wall as his father tried to calm his wife, assuring her that everything was all right, “It was just a dream”, he said soothingly. While Joseph lay awake in his room, cocooned in its blackness, he listened until silence finally subdued the night and he drifted into sleep speculating on the possibility of his mother passing. Her death would be his joy.
From an early age Joseph suspected that his mother loathed him, hated his very existence, she had often told him that he disgusted her and as he grew older he was unable to shake off the belief that she had somehow cursed him. Perhaps even before his escape from the womb, a place he had, he believed, unwillingly inhabited for nine months as a discarded soul, abandoned there by a vindictive god.
He was no more that six years old when he heard her say, in one of her uncontrollable rages, “I curse the day you were born boy, I really do…the very sight of you disgusts me”. The curse may not have involved elaborate rites, arcane incantations and the sacrificial slaughter of some animal. Such ritualistic embellishments he believed were beyond his mother’s knowledge unless of course she was a dark witch and that would not have surprised him. But generally, he regarded her as a stupid woman, wrathful, like the Old Testament God she evoked frequently and with terrifying viciousness, “You’ll burn in hell boy, you mark what I say.” She uttered her hateful words like a snake injecting its venom. An unforgiving ogress moulded by her hatred of life.
The severity of his mother’s demeanor and her emotional frigidity shunned expressions of love, but Joseph ached to be loved. The curse he believed himself to be possessed of was to exist unloved, incomplete and he hated his mother for her unforgiving coldness. As he grew older, his childhood haunted him like a ghost lurking threateningly in his memory, and it wounded his attempts at forming a loving relationship.
For Joseph, to question the past was to provoke a savage rebuke from his mother. “The past belongs in the past, and that’s where it will stay. Do I make myself clear, young man?” a worn-out cliché that supposedly neutralized all the horrors of the past. The death of Tommy, which Joseph suspected was his mother’s doing, made him determined to eventually sever all connection with his parents.
She was certainly capable of murder, out in the bush, away from prying eyes, no one saw the brutality of her actions and no one heard the screams of abused children. She often beat Joseph unmercifully with whatever she could lay her hands on, once with a length of two by two used for garden stakes, until she lacerated the skin on his legs and he fled limping and bleeding into the bush. He hated his childhood and the woman who had given him birth.
Joseph remembered being enrolled at a small provisional country school established for the dozen or so children of the district. He always experienced shyness and anxiety when forced into the company of other children. One vivid memory remained of that school experience and it occurred during a lunch break when he was sitting alone on a wooden bench at the side of the school building. He remembered the day being a real scorcher, that shimmering heat with a thin blue haze covering the distant hills. The surrounding bush reverberated with the drone of cicadas and the fluted caroling of Magpie’s. Self-consciously he watched the other children playing in the sun baked school ground, laughing, shouting and teasing each other. All engaged in frenzied games but Joseph had no desire to join them and wished only for the refuge of the surrounding bush.
As he sat there in the shade of the building, a small girl approached him. He didn’t know her name but he’d seen her in the classroom. She wore a pretty white dress with a yellow sash tied around her waist, white socks and polished black shoes. A profusion of golden hair, curled into ringlets framed her cheerful face and her blue eyes softened with welcoming kindness. She possessed an inexpressible sweetness and seemed surrounded by radiance. When she sat down on the bench beside Joseph he experienced a feeling of intense warmth and acceptance, like being recognized for the first time in his life as something more than an annoyance. He felt his being expanding and occupying a legitimate place in the physical environment.
“Would you like to share my lunch with me?” Her voice was soft and full of gentle clarity. Awkwardly… clumsily he took a sandwich and bit into the soft white bread like a farm dog hungrily gulping food thrown to it. The apple his mother had given him for lunch had been discarded in a rubbish bin, a single bite revealing its rotten core.
That day, after school, he took his shoes off and ran as fast as he could all the way home along the rough dirt road, cooked by the summer heat, his heart throbbing, his thoughts thrown into disarray. Rushing into the hot kitchen where his mother was busy, he announced excitedly,
“I’m in love! Mum” So full was his heart with the joy of this revelation that he felt himself fragmenting, dissolving into a thousand pieces? The notion of love had emerged from the dark depths of his being with its sovereignty intact. It was an emotion he instinctively recognized, a sublime sentiment. He was ecstatic, possessed of a wild delirium that instantly provoked his mother’s fury and caused her to retaliate with such savagery that her facial features assumed an infernal grotesqueness.
“Oh, for God’s sake Joseph, don’t be so ridiculous. You have no idea what love is. You’re just a stupid kid. Now change your clothing and get on with your chores.”
So ferocious and unexpected was her outburst that Joseph, fearing a beating fled the room and sought the company of his pet dog Rusty, chained in his kennel under the eucalyptus trees at the back of the house. Rusty seemed to sympathize with him and jostled around him, licking his face and furiously wagging his tails. He cuddled Rusty and quietly wept. He let Rusty off his chain and the dog scrambled around his legs, jumping up against him, excited to be free.
That crushing moment was to condemn young Joseph to a life of unrequited love. His mother’s cruel curse spun itself into his life and he would spend the rest of his years aching to be loved. The advice she gave him just before he left home in his mid teens was simple and concise:
“Don’t trust women boy, we’re a bad lot.”
Why would she say that? Her warning would always puzzle him and he wondered what sins she concealed behind her granite countenance, perhaps murder. She was most certainly a deceitful and cruel woman; she had even threatened to castrate him once when she caught him masturbating, he fled into the bush, down by the creek and returned to the cottage when he knew his father would be home.
Joseph entered the greater world, naïve, socially inept and desperately lonely, estranged from his parents he occupied the concrete jungle, inhabited an address in Sydney’s Kings Cross, worked in dead-end jobs and dreamed of falling in love. Some street prostitutes living in his building befriended him and treated him kindly. Rose became a good friend and as an outsider herself she was intolerant of the expectations of decent society. She delighted in mocking the wowsers that made use of her, spineless hypocrites she called them. Of her many clients, she loathed most of all the uppity businessmen and mordant professionals who were only too willing to shove their cocks into her and then return to their girlfriends and wives, pretending to smell of decency. “As long as they pay me and don’t bash me about, I don’t give a fig for the bastards” Rose was tough.
A waitress in a strip club once stood up for Joseph when aggrieved patrons tried to bully him from his table next to the catwalk. She reminded him of the little girl he fell in love with on that hot summer’s day at school. His emotional clumsiness and painful shyness continually frustrated his romantic overtures and eventually when he did marry, his new bride announced three days after the wedding. “You know that I don’t love you, don’t you”. He felt a door slam shut inside him and he accepted his cursed fate and abandoned all hope of love, family and children and eventually he divorced the woman he had so hastily married. With each passing year his loneliness intensified and in his later years, as an old man, he briefly sought the consolation of religion.
At mass one Sunday the Priest in his homily spoke of the human need for completeness, the finding of a partner, someone to love, someone whom you loved so much that you would die for them. Sitting in that cavernous cathedral, before the image of the crucified Christ and surrounded by people of good intentions and smiling faces, Joseph knew that he existed alone, incomplete and cursed and he abandoned religion.
He never visited his mother in the asylum at Iron Cove. She had been confined there years earlier, for some personality disorder and three years after her committal his father had died alone in Maroubra hospital, in the township of Kilaroo. Maroubra was the aboriginal word for a “place of thunder,” the same country hospital that had delivered both Tommy and Joseph Liddell, who according to his mother entered the world screaming blue murder.
Main photo: (c) Ashton Ray Hansen.
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