Lily McInnes remembers the day when Donald James Eiger arrived at the zoo – top-hatted, tweed-suited, swinging his cane – and purchased the last of the thylacines for the sum of forty pounds. The beast had been caught in the Florentine Valley three years previously, and had spent its time in captivity pacing and yawning, yawning and pacing, occasionally making a futile leap at the bars and rebounding off them. The zookeepers hated it. It made the other animals nervous, they said – put them off their feed. Visitors steered away from it, preferring the monkeys and the bears, exotic things from foreign lands, not this local pestilence. You wouldn’t pay to see rabid dogs or rats exhibited in a cage, so why give money for a sight like that? Yawning and pacing, pacing and yawning, grinning its sheep-murdering grin. The last of its kind, it would never breed – would never produce lucrative offspring to recompense the zoo for the cost of its sustenance and upkeep. All it did in captivity was what it had done in its habitat – consume a small fortune in meat at the tax-payer’s expense. If Mr Eiger hadn’t made his offer they’d probably have put the thing down, and flung the carcass in the trash with the zoo’s other scrapings.
No-one knew why he wanted it, but no-one knew why Mr Eiger did most of the things he did. A trim, skinny man of advanced years, who dressed like a dandy but never was known to frequent any restaurant, dinner or dance, he was sighted now and then around town, engaged in unknowable business. His money was made in timber, they said – blackwood, blue gum, Huon pine – though some believed he also had dealings with coal, bauxite, gold. He was rumoured to be a mad millionaire, but both his madness and his millions were probably exaggerated. He was certainly rich and strange, and that was enough for Hobart.
Lily, nine years old, watched him arrive in a taxicab and shake begloved hands with the zoo’s director. The two men advanced to the thylacine’s cage and spent twenty minutes smoking cigars, conversing in low, amenable tones, while the beast stalked back and forwards. Then the head keeper – Lily’s father – entered the cage with a bucket of meat which he liberally slopped upon the floor, and while the thylacine’s jaws were engaged bagged its head, collared its neck, muzzled its mouth, strapped its legs and fastened it to a length of chain, the end of which he presented to Mr Eiger with a flourish. Three other men half-dragged, half-carried the struggling thing to the taxicab, where it was pinned against the floor by Simon, Mr Eiger’s butler.
‘They christened it Benjamin, by the way,’ said the zoo’s director, again shaking hands. An envelope had been exchanged. ‘That’s what the papers chose.’
But Mr Eiger shook his head. ‘A thing like that needs no name.’
The taxicab left, and Lily watched. It was a blue summer day. She looked back at the empty cage, at her father sweeping up the meat. He turned his head and met her eye. ‘No tears now,’ he said.
There were different stories told. The house was high upon the hill, overlooking the city and the bay, and not many visitors went to it – but still, the stories travelled. People said it was loose inside the house, that he permitted it to prowl, that it had made a stinking nest in the corner of Simon’s bedroom. That it had eaten several cats. That Mr Eiger had shot the cats. That constables had visited. That delivery men refused to visit. That Genevieve Eiger, his delicate and perennially ailing English wife, had suffered from ‘nervous fits’ of some kind and been taken to the hospital. That she might be away for some time. That the servants had departed with her.
There were other stories too. That he was trying to breed the thing. That bitches in heat – dingos, strays – had been brought to the house in recent months and left in a room with the thylacine, but the only thing that remained the next day was bones and scraps of fur. Some said he had taught the brute some tricks – it would yawn on demand when he said ‘sleep tight’, or fall with its belly in the air when he made a pistol sound. Others believed he had taken its teeth. That he beat it with a bamboo cane, starved it in an airless box, that his ambition was to break its spirit as one breaks a horse’s. A gardener from the house next door swore he heard its yowls at night, rasps of fury, screams of pain – and afterwards, the quieter noise of Mr Eiger weeping.
It was strictly not allowed but Lily climbed the hill one day, a half-hour walk from school, into the rich people’s neighbourhood, and spied through the iron gate. She could see the big house with its pillars and porch, its gardens dark with Tasmanian oak, but she couldn’t see the beast. She wondered if it was dead somehow. If Mr Eiger had punished too far. Perhaps he had stuffed it, or stretched its tiger-striped skin before his fire.
She stared through the gate for a long while hoping for the truth to come, but no sound, no sign, no shadow came from behind the blank square windows. She walked to the zoo to meet her dad, fibbing that school had kept her late. She passed the thylacine’s old cage. An ocelot was there now.
And then there were older tales. Tales from before Lily’s time. Tales from before Mr Eiger’s time, if you counted the years back, but tales that Lily nevertheless believed were connected, somehow. She pictured him as a younger man, uniformed, slouch-hatted, rifle snapped in the crook of his arm, on horseback. On a moonless night. The Black War was long since won but some of the tribes had escaped the Line and continued to live by stealing sheep, haunting lonely stations. Punitive raids on recalcitrant blacks happened in the dead of night, and when they fled their camp fires the raiding squads pursued for days – often using native trackers tamed by money, whisky, church – picking them off with long-range shots from higher ground, from ridges. Like shooting wallabies or cats. This work was rewarded. The ones not shot were rounded up, chained from neck to neck to neck, and marched in dragging, dusty lines to Flinders Island, Oyster Cove, where they were taught to wear clothes and live in proper houses. People crowded their doors to watch as the captured blacks paraded past – naked legs, ragged beards, scowling, glistening like apes – an obstacle to settlement, a taint, a dying breed.
Lily had never seen a black. She wanted to, and feared to. Sometimes when she closed her eyes she saw them like a picture show, heads bagged, long limbs chained, in moving lines across the earth. She was too young to remember that. But when she stood at the thylacine’s cage, which contained no thylacine, somehow she remembered.
Then the territory was clear, the settlement was won. Frontier families slept without fear of a waddy staving in the door, a spear crashing through the wall. It was a new century. The Irish came, the Cockneys came, the Welsh came, the Germans came. Sealers, whalers, timber-men. Pastures for a million sheep. Rare earth metals, bauxite, gold. The forests splintered to the crash of Huon pine and myrtle.
Sheep were found with their throats ripped out. Ribcages that buzzed with flies. Something else was out there now. The farmers checked their guns again. New rewards were offered.
A five pound bounty for a black. One pound for a thylacine. Demand outstripped supply.
Three years went by, and Lily grew. Her dad retired from the zoo – he suffered from arthritic joints – and found work on the trams instead. The work was less demanding, and you didn’t catch fleas from trams. Hobart’s streets were widened, paved. Elegant parks were laid, with eucalyptus rustling. There were streetlights and hotels, more automobiles, fewer horses. Lily’s older sister Ruth married, moved to New South Wales. Her brother Sam enlisted in the Royal Tasmania Regiment and was sent to Europe to fight. Another war was starting.
Genevieve Eiger died and the rich people went to her funeral, though most had never been acquainted. Mr Eiger’s beard turned white. He was seldom seen in town. People called him a ‘recluse’ and Lily didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded coarse and strange. A bit like ‘loon’. A bit like ‘loose’. There were rumours of a fight – that Mr Eiger, mindless drunk, had flung Simon’s clothes and books from a top-floor window in a thunderstorm, or even attacked him with his cane. Reluctantly, so they said, the butler packed his bags.
Sometimes she thought of the thylacine. It was distant now. She had a picture in her mind, but she didn’t know if it was right. A striped backside, a cavernous grin, pointed ears like a dog’s – but other than that its distinctions blurred, its features ran together.
No-one talked about it now. Perhaps it had only been a silly story told at parties.
Two more years. The food got less. Lily watched the troops parade in Macquarie Street, hung with flags – uniformed, slouch-hatted, with rifles snapped in the crooks of their arms. The men looked strong and brave and clean. The air raid sirens yowled at night. The Japanese were in Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, Singapore. Perhaps the Dutch East Indies next. After that, Australia. Lily had never seen a Jap. She wanted to, and feared to. Now when she closed her eyes she saw them, at great distances – she picked them off one by one from horseback in her mind.
In the middle of that war, Mr Eiger left the house. Lily wasn’t there to see – she learned the legends later.
It was dawn, and he rode a white mare. His silk top hat was at a tilt. He carried a rifle on his back, a waddy in his hand.
They said the beast stalked at his side, or strained ahead on a length of chain. That its flanks flashed in the light – orange black, orange black. That its sheep-destroying teeth gleamed in its yawning skull.
Man, horse and beast passed quickly through the suburbs of the rich and were glimpsed from outlying farms making their way towards the bush. They disappeared, people said, in the woods beyond Mount Wellington. A farmer named Eli Church claimed to have seen them passing by, pausing at a billabong. The horse ate grass, the man drank wine and the beast consumed red chunks of meat, tossed from a battered leather bag. The meat did not last long.
The constables knocked at the big house, and received no answer. Having forced the door they searched the rooms and reported that nothing was amiss, not a teaspoon out of place. The fireplace was swept and stacked. The marble floors were freshly mopped. Just empty rooms and an open cage – but even that was clean and scrubbed. No clues, just an absence.
Lily McInnes is an old woman now, and she retells the stories. Her grandchildren have heard her talk of bunyips, yowies, flightless birds, forgotten tribes of wild men, though these are only fairytales. But sometimes she tells about the man who might be glimpsed on moonless nights, backcountry, deep within the bush. They do not like this tale so much, but she tells it anyway. Lily changes as she talks. He slaughters sheep, he catches cats. Mad-eyed, he swings a bamboo cane. With tiger stripes across his skin. Upon his head a crown of jaws, hinged open in an endless yawn. No bounty will bring this one in. He is the last of many breeds. The farmers say they’ll shoot on sight, until his extirpation.