by Phil Logan
“I have a small scar on my knee,” Grandma said. More than a dozen pairs of eyes swung round to peer in surprise at the diminutive figure seated in a large padded armchair near the center of the group.
We had been having one of those family discussions where older members get to enhance their legendary status while younger ones are further immersed in the somewhat muddied waters of family history. Initiated by the general admiration of a ten-inch scar on Grandad’s knee, the result of a recent knee replacement, scars had become the topic of the night and a lively exchange had followed. Large scars held sway for a while but were replaced in time by more unusual evidence of past encounters with chainsaws or toothed denizens of forest, stream, and ocean. By general consensus, Uncle Albert’s shark-mutilated arm was a clear leader in the competition, especially as Al the Surfer had retained one of the shark’s teeth on a cord around his neck. This was considered to be irrefutable evidence of his veracity, despite a somewhat dubious past record in these matters.
Surprised for a moment at being the center of attention, Grandma almost chose not to follow through with her advantage, but Grandad was quick to encourage her:
“I know that story, Stella, you should tell it.”
What she had to say I have repeated here to the best of my ability, and have added some additional information where I thought necessary.
Grandma was raised on a sugarcane farm in tropical Queensland, Australia. Stella’s father, Franco, had come out from Italy early in 1924. He had purchased a small farm, married locally, and in time had a large family of thirteen children to support. Stella was the fourth-born, and at the time of her story, was the eldest of those attending the small, local, one-teacher primary school.
Most children walked to school. A lucky few rode bicycles or horses. There were no buses. There was, however, a practice followed by most. More distant students left home earlier and were joined by others on the way. The result was that often two, three or more families arrived at school together. This practice was approved and encouraged by all parents as younger students then had the advantage of supervision by their older peers.
There were four families on the narrow, dusty track that Stella and her siblings followed each day to school. Most farmers fenced off their properties from the public roads so that they could keep a few livestock. These fences consisted of spaced strands of barbed wire, usually three in number, to discourage horses and cattle from attempting to pass over or through them.
The roadsides were often covered with raspberry and guava bushes growing wildly. At times, these bushes were filled with their delicious fruit, sorely tempting the passing scholars to dally and feast.
Dally and feast they did, even those considered to be more mature and supposedly responsible, including Stella, that pillar of integrity. This is how she recounted the events of the day relevant to our story.
“As we expected, the juiciest wild raspberries and the biggest guavas were on the roadside near Webster’s farm. We couldn’t pass by without trying them and once we tried some we had to have more. Every child knows that the sweetest, the ripest, the best fruit is always in the least accessible places. In this case that placed it over the barbed wire fence beyond the roadway proper. I remember my sister Jean getting really excited about some big guavas on the headland of the cane paddock and calling out: ‘Wow! Look at those beauties, Stella!’ Pretty soon we were all through the fence and gorging ourselves.”
“What we didn’t know at the time, was that we were about to have our little moment of pleasure disturbed in the worst possible way. Tom Webster, the farmer, who owned this property, frequently allowed his large Jersey bull to graze in the roadside paddock. The bull was known as Macca. Legend supported the belief that he was so-named after a local Irishman widely believed to be a womanizer. When the bull’s incarceration there coincided with schooldays he hung around the front fence with the deliberate intention of terrorizing any passing children through displays of intemperate behavior verging on uncontrollable rage. This took the form of charging the fence and pulling out just prior to making contact. As an alternative he would paw at the ground until he was shrouded in a pall of thick dust or attack a bank of soil with his horns, tossing clods of dirt and clumps of grass high into the air.”
“On the days prior to this he had not made an appearance, so we believed him to be elsewhere and our position unthreatened. We were, of course, wrong and Macca was about to make a spectacular and potentially dangerous entrance.”
“My classmate, Aldo, saw him first. ‘Macca!’ he screamed. ‘Macca’s coming!’ That was enough to generate significant movement through the fence. I think that I was probably the first to place the fence between me and that hated bull. As soon as I reached safety I started worrying about the others and turned back to see how things were going. At first glance, everyone seemed to have made it through, but then it was Jean’s turn to scream: ‘Where’s Philomena?’”
“Philomena, my youngest sister, was perhaps a little further from the fence than the rest of us, or else she hadn’t understood the urgency of the situation as well as the others. Whatever the reason, she was still some yards from safety when Macca arrived on the scene. The sight of the huge bellowing beast, with its large, manic eyes and cruel horns ripping and tearing at the undergrowth was enough to paralyze her with fear. She froze where she stood just inside the fence.”
“I didn’t stop to think. I scrambled back through the fence and raced across to her, screaming at the bull and screaming at my sister, although I don’t think any sound was coming out. When I reached her she had collapsed on the ground and rolled herself into a little ball. All that could be seen of her face were her huge fear-filled eyes. I stood over her and turned to face the bull. I can remember a feeling of absolute horror, but I don’t remember being afraid. I think that at that time I was beyond terror.”
“By now the bull had reached us and was performing his dirt-pawing and horn-tossing while bellowing, routine just a few paces away from where Philly and I were. I expected him to make some sort of final charge at any time.”
“For a moment or two, he concentrated on demolishing a clump of guinea grass, gouging and tearing at it until the stalks decorated his head and back in a fashion that at any other time would have appeared comical. With this token barrier removed, nothing of substance lay between the beast and us. We were totally vulnerable to whatever his next move would be. I could see his nostrils dilating as he sucked in each fierce breath and his eyes, with their whites showing, gave him a crazed look. Then something quite unexpected happened.
The bull paused. At this moment and just for a second, the eyes normalized and the beast actually looked at me. In my imagination it was establishing just where it would focus its final attack but I was wrong. Quite abruptly, it turned and trotted away and the danger was past.”
“It was while I was helping Philomena back through the fence that I noticed the blood. In my hurry to reach her I had torn my knee open on the barbed wire and it was bleeding freely. We cleaned it up at the creek close to school and the teacher applied a little basic first aid in the form of antiseptic and a bandage. That was the end of the matter. We didn’t tell our parents anything about the incident with the bull, and well … I healed quickly in those days.”
There was utter silence in the room after Grandma had finished her story, then Uncle Albert stood up, removed the shark’s tooth necklace from around his neck and placed it over the graying locks of his mother’s head.
“This belongs here,” he said.