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You have heard that it was said. Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)


This happened up near the Macintyre river two days walk southwest of Boggabilla. It is good country there with water and pasture in all but the worst years. There isn’t any good describing the scenery because either you know what it looks like there or you don’t. If you don’t there is no way to write it so you can see it as it really is so it will all be made-up in your head any way so you may as well make it up as you like. Writing scenery is a dull game. As dull as an axe that has been used to cut down a tree with ant-hill made under the bark like they have away up north on the other side of the Empire. The trouble is you don’t know where to stop. You can write that there was a creek about so wide flowing from this direction to that direction, and one tree of such a kind on the bank about so many paces from the man who speaks first, and another tree of a different kind so many paces away from him in another direction, and then another, and you can go on describing the scenery forever and never get to any point. Whatever. But if you have been there you will know what it looks like.

When Jorj woke up he found somequeep had eaten his horse. Jorj had been travelling alone and since he hadn’t seen any travellers for the two days walk from Boggabilla that night he had just put down his swag a little distance from the track and unsaddled his horse. He didn’t tie it up because it was the sort of horse that would stick close unless something came on it unawares in the night, and then Jorj thought it would be good if it could take off making a ruckus and get away and wake him up as well. This had always Jorj’s habit in all the time he had been a pilgrim.


For some reason the horse hadn’t made enough of a ruckus to wake up Jorj. The queep must have snuck up on it with mad hunter skills and eaten it. Not all of it of course. She had knocked it on the head to kill it and had cut off one of its legs and had only eaten about a seventh part of that leg. So it was mostly uneaten but not very good as a horse.


“Hey!” called Jorj not thinking that the queep might have a weapon or allies. He was just upset about his horse.


“You want some?” asked the queep. She made as if she didn’t know Jorj was upset or maybe she didn’t know Jorj was upset. You know how queeps are from the empty places where there aren’t many peeps. They don’t notice the things about peeps that peeps notice as natural as breathing.


“That was my horse” said Jorj. He was looking at the scar he remembered from where his horse had gone silly at a flapping hammock drying on a line and thrown itself backward onto a broken branch. The scar was just above where the queep had cut off its leg.


“I got it first,” said the queep. “You were asleep. I heard you breathing.” That was not quite how she said it but you will have to imagine how she talked since it would be too hard to write exactly the way she said things. You can put in how their pointy teeth mess with the proper way words sound in peeptalk and the words they use that they think are peeptalk but aren’t really, like ‘tlebbish’ and ‘krp-krp’ and ‘jun’.


“You can have some” said the queep. “Too much for me to eat.” She made a gesture to show that she was a friend to peeps and not any kind of ranger or ganger or madbugger.


“That was my horse for five years” said Jorj. “I brought him from Taroom. He was carrying my stuff.”


“I don’t know Taroom” said the queep. “You got durry?”


“His name was Nevermind” said Jorj. The anger and confusion he felt when he first saw the queep with his horse was fading into a dull sadness, wide and grey like the sky when a great storm comes in from the sea like they have away up north on the other side of the Empire. A thousand little fragments of memory of the long months on the road he had spent with Nevermind roiled up and disappeared again like beans in a pot that has just come to the boil. His eyes felt like he could cry if he wanted to but he didn’t want to.


“You shouldn’t go around peep country eating peep horses” said Jorj. “You could get in a lot of trouble.” You can imagine as well as Jorj the kind of trouble a queep could get into in peep country eating peep horses when it is a hundred to one against the queep.


“You got durry?” asked the queep again. She tore another gobbet of bloody flesh from Nevermind’s hind leg with her pointy teeth.


“No, I don’t have any smokes” said Jorj. The queep didn’t act disappointed. She didn’t say anything either like peeps would usually say to tell Jorj that she wasn’t disappointed, just went on eating Jorj’s horse.


One thing Jorj had learned very young was to patiently take insults. He offered up Nevermind to the Blessed Virgin in silent prayer and sat down next to the queep under his sadness broad and grey like the sky. The queep shuffled aside a little to make room for him.


“You can have some” the queep said again after a moment. “Too much for me to eat.”


“You are very kind” said Jorj but did not take out his knife to cut a raw piece of his still-warm horse.


“What are your Taroom mob like?” asked the queep. She didn’t change her expression when she asked questions since that is the queep way of queeps from way out bush who don’t have much to do with peeps.


“They are a lot like peeps around here,” said Jorj. He didn’t know what to say about the peeps in Taroom that would make any sense to the queep. “We have cattle and horses, and obey the laws. We are not very different from any other peeps.”


“Are your Taroom mob carnie peeps?” asked the queep.


“Only cattle and roos and chooks,” said Jorj. “We don’t eat horses.” And after half a breath he thought he should add one more thing, and said “Or queeps.”


“My mob don’t either eat peeps” said the queep. “Too much trouble. Do your mob’s souls go into horses?”


“What?” asked Jorj who had never talked for anything like so long with a queep from way out bush before.


“When your mob die, their souls go into horses, so your mob don’t eat horses” explained the queep. She started working the hock joint of Nevermind’s severed leg backwards to break it.


“No” said Jorj. “We don’t believe that.”


“The souls of our mob go into rivergum trees” said the queep. “If we climb a tree with a soul in we can hear the soul. If she wants to say something. Usually she does.”


Jorj thought that God had probably arranged things so that his talk with the queep would take this theological turn, so as he could practice converting the heathen, but he had no idea what to say. How could he tell the queep that she couldn’t hear the souls of her ancestors in the tops of the rivergum trees, when she had just told him she could? It would be like saying she was a liar.


“The soul of my aunt told my cousin she should go off down River to join the Longwater queeps but she didn’t want to. Then there was trouble. And the soul of my grandmother told my other cousin where she could find the place the queep from over Yellow Thunder country told her about. And the soul of an old great-great-aunt queep from up river two, three days walk once told all the queeps round there when the carnie mutants were coming, days and days before anyone else had word from the fastest runners.” Nevermind’s hock joint broke with a loud snap.


“Our souls don’t go into anything’ said Jorj. “We believe that God judges our souls when we die, and they are taken somewhere very far away. Either to a good place or a bad place.”


The queep’s ears picked up and she looked Jorj straight in the face for the first time with those strange staring eyes queeps have. “Our mob don’t know any good places very far away. All places very far away we know are bad. Either water you can’t drink or land with no water to drink or land with carnie peeps that crack your bones. But your Taroom – it is very far away and a good place?”


“Yes, it’s a good place” said Jorj. “But Heaven and Hell are very very far away” said Jorj. “You can’t get there however long you walk. Only your soul can, after you’re dead.”


“We wouldn’t like to be so far away from our mob” said the queep. “Even if it is a good place. Better for you peeps to go into horses, stay close to your mob. You could move away from your God fella.”


“It’s not like that” said Jorj. “You can’t get away from God however long you walk, either.”


“Maybe so” said the queep. “Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough ever.”


“It’s not like that” said Jorj again and wished he hadn’t because he thought he sounded ridiculous. “God is in all places. He sees everything.”


“Like the sky?” said the queep.


“Yes, but even more than that” said Jorj. “God made the sky.”


The queep had finished stripping the meat from Nevermind’s bone and tossed it off into a clump of grass. “Your Taroom mob have tallpoppy reckonings” said the queep. “Just saying. Whatever.”


“It’s not just the Taroom peeps” said Jorj. “Lots of peeps all over, and queeps too. For thousands of years, since before the Sky Caught Fire.”


“No queeps before the Sky Caught Fire” pointed out the queep.


“Well, not queeps then, but lots of peeps. All over the world. They all said the same as we believe in Taroom.”


“Before the Sky Caught Fire peeps had lots of tallpoppy reckonings” said the queep. “Just saying. Whatever.”


Jorj felt entirely incapable of evangelising the queep. He felt not only sad at the loss of his horse but entirely futile, like one leaf floating in a scum of leaves in the sluggish grey-green sea under the mangroves that they have away up north on the other side of the Empire. The ancients had known things that peeps nowaday could only guess at. They had gone from one end of the world in the time it took to bake a loaf of bread and they had but to say the word when they didn’t know a thing, and they would know it, in less time than it takes a drop of water to hit the ground when you flick it from your hands when you wash them. You know how if it is true for peeps only guessing it is even truer for queeps, since there hadn’t been any queeps who survived that time to tell the young queeps what it had been like. They could only look at the ruins, and the dead zones, and the things that came out of them, and think that whoever had been there before the Sky Caught Fire must have had lots of tallpoppy reckonings.


Jorj decided to press the queep on matters of ethics rather than theology. “You shouldn’t kill horses like this. Or cattle. In this country every animal like that will belong to some peep, and they will be angry with you. They might catch you and beat you, or kill you.”


“You haven’t beat me or stab me” said the queep. “And it’s a beaut stabber you’ve got.”


Jorj hadn’t thought that the queep had noticed his knife. He wasn’t wearing it to be seen. It was ancient made, taken out of a holden by his grandfather in the rough country out by Turnagain Mountain and a present for his going-away pilgrimming. He was angry with the queep, he told himself. He had been fond of Nevermind. And he would have to leave behind things he had wanted to take with him to Wee Waa. But there was just a strange hole inside him where the anger should have been. He should just accept it as a blessing, he told himself.


“Most peeps would beat you or kill you” said Jorj. “Whenever there are more of them than one and you make them angry. And there are a lot of peeps in this country.”


The queep just looked at Jorj with unsettly eyes.


“You can’t reckon on them all being like me” went on Jorj. “I – I’m different. We’re not supposed to hurt peeps or queeps even when they hurt us, because God loves us. Most of us don’t do what we’re supposed to do – and I’m not saying I always do – but I’ve always tried. I am trying to be good. I know it’s wrong for me to beat or stab you.”


“Can I lend your stabber then for cutting up the horse?” asked the queep. “It’s better than mine.”


“I guess so” said Jorj. He extracted it and handed the hilt to the queep.


“Too bad you got no durry” said the queep, handling the knife with an admiration that was almost reverence. She began butchering Nevermind with more enthusiasm than skill. You know how queeps usually hunt in packs and tear what they kill apart with their claws to divvy it up.


“I never knew what tallpoppy ideas peeps had.” said the queep. “Your God fella is a madbugger. Just saying. Whatever. I reckon if every peep reckoned like you before long there wouldn’t be any peeps. Carnies, rangers, gangers, madbuggers, they would cut you all up and take your stuff so if you weren’t stabbed dead you’d starve.”


“But they are all peeps too” said Jorj. “If every peep believed the same, they would believe the same way too, and give up ranging and eating peeps.”


“Not gonna happen” said the queep. “Just saying. Whatever.”


Jorj was warming to his task of evangelising the queep. “We believe – I believe – it is what we should do. Because, you see, God loves each of us even more than we do ourselves and want us to do what is right so we can be happy forever.”


The queep went on butchering Nevermind in silence.


“What is right to do isn’t always the practical thing to do” said Jorj.


The queep for the first time made a gesture that was almost a human gesture, a sort of long slow sweeping shake of the head in which her whole torso moved too. She scrambled over the horse corpse to cut a bit that was an awkward angle to get at. From now on there won’t be any description of the horse butchering, first, because those inside parts are tricky to describe, and second, because there is always something about going from a corpse that looks like an animal or peep that might just be sleeping to a whole pile of cut up meat and bones and offal that if you can’t make up what it looks like for yourself it is better not to have someone else describe it to you.


“Not to worry about queeps” said the queep, returning to the practical matter of Jorj’s warning. “If I reckoned you would’ve killed me, I would’ve killed you first. I heard you breathing.”


“That would be wrong, to kill a peep who hadn’t done you any hurt” said Jorj.


“Only if they wouldn’t if they could” said the queep. “I reckon I would know if they would or not. Not to worry about queeps. More worry about you, with your Taroom tallpoppy reckonings.”


“You don’t have to worry about me” said Jorj.


“I’m not gonna” said the queep. “You should worry about you though, and not me. Just saying. Whatever.”


Jorj felt a terrible ache of longing to make the queep see, a wish that was like an ant-bite in the soft skin between his toes. He wished that he could open his head and open the queep’s head and just pour all the thoughts and feelings from his head into the queep’s head. It was so clear to him, what it meant to be good, why it was needful to be good, what the universe meant, but there was no way that he could explain it to the queep. He thought of five or six other ways he could try to explain and gave up on them all without saying them. What he ended up saying was just, “I’d better go get my stuff.”


The queep didn’t say anything back to this.


Jorj went back and sorted through his things, leaving behind what would be too heavy to carry without Nevermind. He had set out to travel light and not burden himself with the Things of This World but he still found this hard. You know how if you start out travelling with two saddlebags, you bring enough stuff to fill two saddlebags; and if you start out travelling with four saddlebags, you bring enough stuff to fill four saddlebags, whether you set out to travel light or not. It was some time before Jorj finished packing his stuff in a way he could carry and found his way back to the queep.


“I couldn’t carry it all” said Jorj. “You can take anything I left there if you want.”


The queep had by then almost finished cutting away the nicer meat from Nevermind.


“This is a beaut stabber you’ve got,” said the queep, turning it so it threw the morning light at Jorj’s eye. Jorj felt a sudden surge of anger, seeing his horse’s blood all over the knife his grandfather had found in a holden at Turnagain Mountain, a knife of ancient metal made in some china far across the ocean before the Sky Caught Fire. The the anger changed between one heartbeat and the next into something that was almost the same, a sort of reckless selflessness that was all brightly-coloured and spiny, like the thorny bushes with fire-coloured flowers that are more like leaves than flowers, like they have away up north on the other side of the Empire.


“Take it” said Jorj. “You can have it.”


The queep was silent for a moment and a peep would have been silent since they suspected some kind of trick but you can never tell what a queep is thinking.


“You can have the knife” said Jorj.


“Not fair if you lend me your beaut stabber and I don’t lend you nothing” said the queep. “What you want?”


“Nothing” said Jorj. “I just want you to have the knife.”


“You Taroom peeps are – just saying – madbuggers” said the queep. She cleaned off the knife and hid it and packed away a few of the pieces of meat she had cut into her own port.


“Too much for me to eat. You take what you like” she said, indicating the other cuts of meat lying on a bit of Nevermind’s hide.


“You are very kind” said Jorj again.


“Not” said the queep. “I give you something. Maybe get rid of some of your tallpoppy reckonings.”


“What?” said Jorj.


In the next breath the queep was scampering off through the bush like the animal its ancestors had been before the Sky Caught Fire, and Jorj was clutching his hand. The queep had bitten him, harder than a nip, not bad enough to stuff his hand up, just a clean in-and-out of teeth like knifepoints that left a line of little welling globes of blood in the soft part of his hand.


“Ow” said Jorj.


That happened up near the Macintyre river two days walk southwest of Boggabilla. Whatever.