Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE RING OF DEATH, by C. G. A. COLLES



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THE RING OF DEATH, by            
First Line: Where the bourke comes down to the level plains and junctions with the wills
Last Line: When the ancient coorabulkas fought their last great fight of all.
Subject(s): Aborigines, Australian; Animals; Curses; Death; Drought; Magic; Snakes; Water; Dead, The; Serpents; Vipers


WHERE the Bourke comes down to the level plains and junctions with the Wills,
By the overflow at the King's Creek branch which the wide, warm torrent fills
Ere the floods go creeping down to the tracts where the huge Georgina flows,
You still may see the rough-heaped ring where the old tribe fought its foes.

Hard by the Boulia track it lies, on a rising dune of sand,
The ring of mounds, in a desert place, in a lonely level land;
Here did the Coorabulka fight their last grim fight of all,
In the rain and dark, with unseen foes, as the waters sapped their wall.

The drought had dried up the waterholes, and the very dogs were thin,
And out of its ancient fastnesses the tribe was gathered in;
The game was gone, and the fish were gone, and the mickeries were dry;
Even the carnies had disappeared, and the food had all gone by.

Kâru-Kâru, the old grey man, had gone at the dusk alone,
Even thrice, to the waterhole, and taken the sacred stone—
The magic stone that commands the rain, wonderful, secret, white,
That only the chosen one may use, and that in the gloom of night.

For this is the priceless n'appa stone that came to the tribe of old,
That never a gin may see and live, and never a child behold;
He had plunged it into the shallow pond to work the magic of rain;
He had ground its fine dust into his palm and blown it about in vain.

The old men, sitting about the fire, spoke now of some thing of fear—
A black man's ghost had whistled by night, and the whistle was low and near;
They felt that a curse was on the land, and few were the words they said;
But they knew that some ill-doer afar had pointed the bone of dread!

So northward over the stricken land was the walkabout begun,
Bearing east by the river-beds long parched by a fervent sun;
Still and hot was the wide expanse, with never a tree or blade;
Eternal flatness that touched the skies, and offered no pleasant shade.

All day long the burning earth, lean with the drought, and bare;
Night and hunger and glowing stars; dawn and a new day's glare!
Gins with their burdens toiling on, men with their spears and shields,
And the mocking mirage across the downs with phantom Elysian fields.

From out of the hot north-western haze came trailers of misty shrouds,
High overhead in a breathless sky rolled the deep banks of clouds;
Then rain, continuous rain, came down from the flood-gates of the sky;
Unwonted waters were on the earth and the long-dry creeks ran high.

By ancient lore of an ancient land began the desperate race
For the sole high dune at the Overflow and the old-time camping place;
For the Coorabulka knew of old how the creeping waters spread,
In a great, relentless moving sea, from the winding river-bed.

As the waters rose, and the night came on, to the camping-place they came;
The setting sun through a mist of rain went down like a languid flame;
And still the yellow waters rose through the thin lapunyah-trees,
Up and over the coolibahs came surging the tepid seas.

The men who had warred with drought so long prepared the flood to fight;
They heaped a rampart out of the sand by aid of the waning light;
Yet ever the hungry seas encroached, and ever the sand-mounds grew
On the tiny island amid the tide that out of the darkness drew.

Then a gin screamed out in a sudden fear, and rolled on the ground and died;
And the rain swept down and the torrents seethed and aloud the children cried.
A man at the earthworks reeled and fell with a snake clenched in his fist,
And another lurched on the wall and groaned as the small fangs seared his wrist.

Green were the snakes, with beady eyes, and they came on the warm flood's
breast,
Searching them out a harbour safe, and seeking a place of rest;
White snakes, adders and lean black snakes and they of the carpet-skin;
Mulga snakes with the scarlet scales, and sand-snakes brown and thin.

Driven out of their ancient haunts where long they had grown and bred
In gidyea scrub and the river grass by the droughty river-bed;
Borne away by the rising floods that over the whole world ran,
They came, the snakes, to the harbourage to fight for a place with man.

The gins had built up a fitful flare to drive back the shrouding night;
They piled the last of the goondi-sticks to help the feeble light;
And still as the walls were heaped apace the merciless waters rose,
And over the rampart glided in the legions of venomed foes.

Red and dull in the turmoil's midst flickered and failed the fire,
As children flung to the earth and shrieked, and shrieking died in the mire.
And splashing, desperate at their work, with fear in their sobbing breath,
Men went beating at unseen foes that writhed as they dealt out death.

And still as the ghastly night wore on the countless reptiles came,
Squirming among the heaps of dead that ringed round the dying flame;
The camp grew still in its last long sleep, save for a hardy few,
And at length when the grey wet dawn came up its light was beheld by two.

Two, that had taken flight of fear, and swum to a ragged tree
That reared its head from the seething waste and stemmed the rolling sea.
Huddled up on the quaking limbs, with fear in their eyes, they lay;
And ever as snakes came down the flood they struck and beat them away.

Slowly the mighty floods went down, and the roaring spates decreased;
Slowly the waste of waters sank, and the torrents ebbed and ceased;
A man and a boy, lean, weak and worn, came down to the earth to stand—
The last of the Coorabulkas, they, to walk in a lonely land.

They stood and stared at the Ring of Death, where all of their tribe lay still,
Circled round with the mounds of sand on the crest of the little hill;
They turned and went from the smitten place where all of their world was
stark—
The tribe that had warred with unseen foes in hunger and rain and dark.

Where the Bourke comes down to the level plains with floods from the distant
hills,
By the overflow of the King's Creek branch, and joins with the roaring Wills,
You may see the mounds by the Boulia track that served for the rampart wall
When the ancient Coorabulkas fought their last great fight of all.





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