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Ghosts

 

Washed out creeks
finger the wooded hill,
smooth back dead years.
The old man has poured
enthusiasm down these gullies
slashed back encroaching bush
uncovered the stubborn relics
that pose where history fades.

Clues lounge on shelves
in his roadside hut:
curled soles of old boots
tiny high heeled remnants
gathered like flowers,
worn out pick-axes and shovels,
clay pipes like broken bones
and rows of whisky bottles.

Through twisted undergrowth,
over floors of old huts,
rubbish tips not yet explored
bristling with artefacts,
he led us to the dam
that they had built
and the lake gouged
shovel by shovel from the hill.

For this he had laboured alone
through years of retirement
slashing back entwining time.
He lifted a wooden board
and a silver tongue of water
spurted and rushed
down runnels, round rocks
under the roots of trees,
and chasing its gurgle and glint
down the tumbled hill
we saw how they switched its path,
(as children always do
where water runs),
through webs of junctions
winding routes
to each gully’s head.

I see them in the 1860s
smoking their white pipes,
tall battered black hats
nodding in muddled shadow
under the tangled trees,
tin cups raised, whisky bottle wedged
safely by a root or rock,
the smell of spices and wood smoke,

the splash of water
sluicing out the soil,
their cradles rocking
patiently to and fro,
stones rolling down the slats
the silt running away in the flow
and when all else was gone
the glitter of gold.

Chinese ghosts, coaxing bright dust
with the inscrutable thoroughness
of thousands of years of time,
lining the gullies with washed out rocks
carefully as building a house,
quietly doing their work
until the gold ran dry,
cling to the plundered land
as the hungry bush creeps back.

 

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