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THE CASTANEDA CABARET

A thin voice piped up.

‘It’s really sad that the women and children have gone.’

The end of his sentence hung in the air; a weasel whine draped in a question, dangling with it his age and education. Graham’s pale chest was bare, still streaked with ochre from the dance last night, a soft featureless slab of skin that dropped gently into his black shorts. He was on his own weasel voyage, in a parallel universe to the rest of us.

Weasel was reconciling.

‘I really loved being with them, I spent hours and hours playing with the kids, I thought it was great that they were here…’

The Whine was making up for two hundred years of history. He’d taken it upon himself to exorcise the wrongs of the white men, a task apparently achieved by playing with snot-nosed Pitjantjatjara kids. Latest in a long line of amateur anthropologists, he had researched his cultural history for all of thirty seconds, content to mouth fervid P.C. platitudes in a desperate search for acceptance.

There was a manly chorus of approval. For most of them these were the first aboriginals, tribal or otherwise, they had ever met. They wanted noble savages and these women and children were the closest they were gonna get.

‘So pure,’ he whined, ‘so simple, magnificent people of the land, such a privilege…’

He sat back in his seat and sighed a self satisfied sigh. Ranald called him ‘Hoover’.

*

‘Woo. O.K. Grab that permission, like I need a stick to talk…’

Every group has one, the loud, fat, dumb guy. This particular loud fat guy had been around for years, on the counter-cultural fringes of this or that anything that would get him laid. He’d been a fixture in the firmament since he lost his way in the desert of life; Prashant the showman, Court Jester and Fool. He was too young to be one of the original acid casualties which makes him even more stupid than he appears – nevertheless, our plump pilgrim had taken much too much of something; he was like a goose with diarrhea.

‘Progress bulletin, eh,? I’ll give you a bullet. Where’s my gun? Happiness is a warm gu-uh-uh-uhh-nnn. I’m happy so I’ll fire a shot. Here’s a bullet in the heart. Oh, don’t shoot me! Woarh-h-h-h, where’s the love, eh? Where’s the love?’

Lost in space. Late fifties, American, a bun of long grey hair tilted slightly on his head, large grey beard, dressed for the ashram. He began to make noises, a guttural chant he accompanied by slapping his hands on his knees. Somewhere in the midst of this was meaning, if only to Prashant, but it was certainly lost on me.

Motor-mouth giggled and shifted his bulk noisily from one buttock to another. At least he didn’t fart. He laughed his stupid brainless laugh and started flailing around in the air with his arms.

‘You know when the cherry blossom falls into the snow? Well, it’s been like that, man – I mean, all of you guys. Just good to be here now; shining with you – suckin’ in that big sadhu sound. Whoa.’

‘Somebody take the stick off him,’ groaned Ranald, ‘we’ll be here all bloody day.’

*

Ricky’s forehead had grown taking the hair with it, stretching up and over his head, caught in the act of murdering the few fuzzy remnants on top of his skull. His remaining hair grew thickly, framing his face in a greying oval of dirty dark brown, pulled back, tied and now hanging limply around his neck. The scraggy moustache led to a long unkempt goatee that struggled to an ominous finish somewhere near his nipple. His clear skin was stretched tightly over a face of vaguely Asian extraction; he looked young but wasn’t – only the fine network of lines around those eyes betrayed his age. Ricky grabbed for the stick like a frustrated drummer. He couldn’t wait to speak.

‘I’m feeling really trapped at the moment. I just can’t seem to get anywhere. I realize that I have to honor my innermost powerful self…’ He paused, flapping his arms vaguely, ‘I know I have to transcend my past and  live only in the here and now…’

Ricky was reciting the mantras, the seven steps to salvation, with all the understanding of a three-year-old learning the alphabet. He knew all the words, every self-help slogan and understood none of them. A tight bundle of self-destruction, blissfully aware of it and hell bent on cure, he attacked the symptoms with such a fury that he’d long since misplaced the disease. Ricky was a men’s group junkie.

‘I know I have the power to achieve my magnificence and I’m trying really hard…’

‘Perhaps you’re trying too hard,’ said Darisha looking steady over his glasses.

‘I’m so grateful to you guys, for talking honestly to me about what you’ve perceived. I know I’m fucked. I know that. I’m trying to fix it and I – I – I know I will…’

He could go no further. He held the stick out in front of him, sobbing deeply.

‘Bravo, young man,’ Darisha said and clapped his hands politely, ‘best performance of the day so far!’

‘Ricky, if I hear this sniveling hippy crap again I’m gonna throw up!’

This was Ranald exercising his shamanic compassion. I was beginning to appreciate the muscular quality of this particular approach. No touchy feely care-share bullshit here.

Ricky looked up, startled.

‘This is not therapy. This is shamanism,’ Ranald boomed theatrically. ‘What part of these words do you not understand?

Ricky closed his mouth and blinked twice in rapid succession, then, in the masochist way, settled back in his chair to savor his wounds.

‘Do not misunderstand the nature of the shamanic enterprise, my little darling,’ Ranald continued. ‘Healing may well occur on the thematic paths – indeed, it must if you are survive the rigors of the process, but it’s a big mistake to think of the path as a healing one, gentlemen, it’s not that at all.’

He spelt his words out very carefully.

‘The shamanic process is one of learning to leave the world of ordinary perception and to enter, act and live in a non-ordinal reality that in this country is called The Dreaming. ‘All we are doing out here is showing you the possibility of entering this world and assisting you to find your own way round.’

He looked around. ‘Do you hear me? Do my words make sense?’

Heads nodded. Darisha looked on chuckling enigmatically.

‘Next!’ Ranald shouted.

*

Scotty hesitated before he spoke. His eyes blinked as he took in the concentrated attention of forty-five men. He rubbed one hand through his short blond hair and cleared his throat.

‘Uh-h-h… I’ve been having a pretty intense time out here.’

He was-a beautiful man with the toiled blond attics and face of an Anzac, still with the light of childhood in his eyes. They glinted in the sunlight as he fought his lack of education trying to find the words that would explain how he was feeling. He was learning, though, approaching every minute of it with energy and excitement, a wide eyed willingness that everybody enjoyed. They lived with him as he floundered.

‘I reckon it’s time I started speakin’ up,’ he mumbled, then scanned the room through narrowed eyes as if expecting a clip round the ear for daring to talk.

‘I’m still feeling like an idiot after gettin’ lost the other day but I’ve been having a lot of good conversations with you guys since and I’m starting to see something…’

I’d been following Scotty’s progress since our bonding in the bush. Whatever was happening, it was working for him.

‘I’m creeping around looking a bit nervous, aren’t I?’ Heads nodded. ‘I’m like some scared child…’

Darisha knew it was time to cut to the chase.

‘Well I’m gonna stop that hanging back thing and talk more…’

‘You have to deal with your mother’s death, Scotty,’ Darisha said slowly, looking him dead in the eye, ‘she abandoned you.’

Scotty’s jaw dropped.

Ah-h-h-h…’ he mumbled, completely blind-sided, ‘I’ll have to get back to you on that one.’

He held the stick up hopefully for someone to come to his rescue.

‘Not so fast, big fella,’ said Ranald, ‘you can do that laid back Byron Bay thing – it’s cool, I’m cool, we’re all cool and just let all this stay hidden. You can let the cycle keep repeating itself – or you can start to attend to your psychic backlog. That’s what’s stopping you thinking fast, mate – that’s what’s holding you down, that’s what explodes out of your spirit when you get angry.

You’ve got rocks tied to your feet. Huge great boulders. Gotta cut those ropes, mate. It’s the first step on the road.’

*

Bill sat solidly, blue shirt, fawn slacks, pale army hat sitting incongruously on a head that slumped heavily forward over his gut. He accepted the stick, sighed and looked around.

‘I’m not sure I’m really in the right place here.’

Well educated, retired city banker, accountant, lawyer, who knows? One of those pale, soft, smart, red wine guys. He’d sooner have a Roller than a place in heaven.

‘I keep waiting for something interesting or mysterious to happen – and it seems to be for some of the rest of you – but, try as I might, I don’t seem to be able to get it to happen for me. I feel I must be doing something wrong. I’m still not even sure what a ngangkerie is.’

Loud laughter from Ranald, Darisha and Greg.

‘Excellent start there, Bill. Neither are we.’

Bill didn’t seem to see the joke – but Bill didn’t see the land either. All he saw were shrubs and dirt, all he felt was the heat. He was a man with no soul, no inner senses left after a career in business, a bloated, burnt out case just coming to the grim realization that there’d been a fire. There was something of the black hole about him. Dog knew not to get too close lest he fall in.

*

Tears cascaded down Roger’s cheeks.

‘I looked at myself there and saw what a stitched up bastard I’d become, so tight arsed and powerless, so bloody frozen.’

He let out a cry from deep in his belly.

‘All those years, just wasted. Just wa-a-asted!’

He’s in his late forties, wavy dark hair still parted as his mother had parted it, first day at school. He rants and raves and blubbers a bit more, then sits, rather shocked by what’s just happened, leaning against the wall. He was quite a handsome man, an intelligent, articulate, decent man – and utterly unaware; thick as a plank where women are concerned. He sports a thick manly beard with the last gasps of his youth emerging from its salt ‘n pepper depths, he’s left his wife and quelle surprise is shacked up with a woman twenty years his junior.

This is a cliché. It’s like reading a psych primer. The tears were real but I couldn’t help thinking they were better cried in front of the wife he’d left than a group of total strangers in the desert. I guess he could sob out here and go back ‘a changed man’, forgive himself through his act of public contrition and move on – ignoring the debris and broken lives he’s left behind. That old man’s beard wasn’t long for this world. He’ll buy a motorbike next.

*

They’re all stars in the Castaneda Cabaret; self-obsession is the ticket to the show. Each perfected their solo, waited patiently for their moment on stage; grabbed that talking stick and went for broke, secretly loving their fifteen minutes of outback fame. Here they were free, surrounded by the embrace of the group; they could vent, they could howl, dance naked with a carrot up their bum, fight, fart and frolic – all to explore the glorious universe of me, me, me….

Drop and splatter.  Splatter and drop.

On it went – a parade of madness, the greatest show on earth. It was like being a assembly-line shrink. Every ten minutes a new obsession; psychiatry sprawled naked on the slab. Forty men carry a lot of baggage. Apparently they had to drag it out here, a million miles from anywhere, before they could discard it – but not before a bit of juicy self-indulgence on the way.

‘I’ve been in tears every day,’ I heard some distant voice intone, ‘this earth, this place right here, its all so powerful. I can see the people. I can feel them. Before, when I was sitting down, I felt the presence of a bigfella man – an Aboriginal man, standing there with his spear, watching us. Over there.’

Pfft. Dog didn’t believe a word. I didn’t believe the ring of his voice, the look on his face, I didn’t even believe that he believed. This was amateur acting at the low end of the food chain.

Eyes turned to the small furry creature sitting beside him.

‘I just miss my kids a real lot,’ the beard announced, ‘and that’s really all that’s happening. I like being out here, it’s really different for me to come out here properly after all the trips I’ve done with tours an’ that in the past. I really like all this tribal stuff but basically, if I’m to be honest with you, I just really miss my kids and I wish I was with them right now. That’s all.’

The only normal man in the desert fled back into his facial hair, blinked heartily and eventually disappeared from view. I never saw the Sooky Wombat talk again.

*

A Tasmanian piped up.

‘I’ve been worried about the carrot and my arse – but I think I’ve solved the problem.’

He fumbled in his pocket and produced a tiny baby carrot, about half an inch long.

‘I’ve decided to go the whole hog!’

To nobody’s particular interest he stood up, rapidly peeled off all his clothes and turned to present a rather plump, self-satisfied bum to the campers. He took the carrot and rather inelegantly stuffed it up his arse, all the time looking extremely pleased with himself.

Some see the forest, some see the trees, some just see a business opportunity. There was muted applause and he sat down rather lamely.

Ranald took one final shot, a note of resignation in his voice.

‘You know Craig; you’ve approached this exercise just like you’ve approached the rest of your time in the camp. It’s not a contract without finite clauses, it’s not a deal you can pull off to the letter of the law then avoid the intention. It’s a challenge.

Tassie Craig colored slightly and nodded as if he understood. I doubted he did. Tasmanians are very thick.

‘You’ve just defeated the exercise, denied the group and defined yourself. Good work champ.’

They never did insert the shaman’s carrot.

Veggie-love did not prevail.

The concept of the carrot screwed them senseless, just the same.

*

‘It’s all about power, isn’t it?’

Andrew hove into view from the shadows. Afternoon had disappeared unnoticed in the drama.

‘That’s what I think, anyway. It’s about taking control, taking hold of your life.’

He spoke softly, tight black curls framing a rather surprised Greek face.

‘It’s about my power, isn’t it? Yes, well, I know what to do…’

His suppressed anger was at odds with his gentle nature, for Andrew was the kindest person in the camp. That was his problem.

‘My father gives me shit!’ he said suddenly, ‘he tells me what to do all the bloody time – and I’m thirty-seven years old!’

*

Drop and splatter.  Splatter and drop.

Finally, despite all his attempts at escape, the stick was passed to the Dog.

‘Well, ladies, if I said what I’m thinking at the moment I’d became such a pariah that life wouldn’t be worth living – so in the interests of harmony I think I’ll say nothing at all.’

Dog thought he’d got away with it.

‘Say it.’

‘Say it.’

‘Say it.’

He waited.

‘You sure know how to work a crowd,’ Darisha chuckled.

Dog turned to see all three of them beaming in his direction. Ranald was laughing, a wild look in his eye.

‘You’ll have to do it now!’ he shouted.

‘I don’t have to do anything,’ Dog replied – but we both knew he would.

*

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