The Black King’s Skull [poem by Kenneth Mackay]

[Editor: This poem by Kenneth Mackay was published in Stirrup Jingles from the Bush and the Turf and Other Rhymes (1887).]

The Black King’s Skull.

One night, when round the walls with dismal shrieks
The winds of winter blew,
And sudden rains had filled the forest creeks
With yellow floods anew.

From looking on the dark and angry sky
I faced the firelight’s blaze;
And, lulled to musing by the storm-king’s cry,
I thought of early days;

Then glanced up to a corner dim of light,
And saw there, peering down,
A black man’s skull — where age had changed the white
To dull and dusky brown.

And, gazing, watched its fleshless lips slow part,
While on the silence fell
A sound of words that struck my very heart
Like some wild mournful knell.

But as the language like the race is dead
In which his tale he told,
I may forthwith interpret what he said
In accents harsh and cold.

“Why dids’t thou move me from the forest graves,
Where, still for fifty years,
I slept among my long-forgotten braves —
Full armed with shield and spears —

In quiet resting till the promised hour
When, rising up again —
With faces white, my dusky race will scour
Once more o’er hill and plain?

Yet, prying white man, list while I unfold
A page of early strife!
And tell thee how I lost — in days now old,
Alike my love and life.

Of yore, when I was king among my race —
A chief by all obeyed,
I met one evening in a far drawn chase
A lithe-limbed laughing maid —

Princess of another tribe who hated
My own since early years;
A tribe who, rather than behold us mated,
Had sunk their fire-tipped spears

Deep in her breast: But still she loved me well
With wild untutored ways;
And, ere the sultry noons of summer fell —
In chilly winter days,

She fled with me across the dank lagoons —
To where my people’s camp
Lay distant through the forest many moons
Of weary devious tramp.

But as we lay at rest one stormy night,
Cat-like her brothers crept —
Led to our mia-mia by the camp-fire light,
And slew us as we slept.

My warriors found us steeped in blood and rain;
And, sadly, in one tomb
Buried both king and bride, so ruthless slain,
Amid the forest gloom.

Finished my story: Be thy fate the same,”
The gruesome relic said,
“Who dared to move with idle hands profane
The helpless sleeping dead!”

Kenneth Mackay, Stirrup Jingles from the Bush and the Turf and Other Rhymes, Sydney: Edwards, Dunlop & Co., 1887, pages 23-25

Editor’s notes:
dids’t = did, second-person singular past tense of “do”; commonly used in conjunction with “thou” (e.g. “Dids’t thou write a letter?”)

ere = before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)

knell = the sound of a bell which has been rung slowly (i.e. in a solemn manner), especially for a funeral, or to announce or mark a death; a sound or sign which announces, indicates, foretells, or warns of the death, end, extinction, or failure, of a person, group, movement, civilisation, etc.; a mournful, ominous, or warning sound

list = (archaic) listen

lithe = flexible, limber, supple; graceful; thin, athletic; someone who is young, graceful, healthy-looking, and thin

mia-mia = an Aboriginal temporary hut-like shelter

o’er = over (pronounced the same as “oar”, “or”, and “ore”)

profane = something which is not sanctified; something which is not dedicated to, or related to, religion or religious purposes; secular; irreligious; a person or action which is characterized by contempt or irreverence for God, religion or religious principles or things; blasphemous actions or language; regarding the violation of religion or of religious or sacred items; someone who has not been initiated into religious rites

slew = past tense of “slay”; killed

yore = in the past, long ago (as used in the phrase “days of yore”)

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