“Except for waist-bands, forehead-bands, necklets, and armlets, and a conventional pubic tassel, shell, or, in the case of the women, a small apron, the Central Australian native is naked. The pubic tassel is a diminutive structure, about the size of a five-shilling piece, made of a few short strands of fur-strings flattened out into a fan-shape and attached to the pubic hair. As the string, especially at corrobboree times, is covered with white kaolin or gypsum, it serves as a decoration rather than a covering. Among the Arunta and Luritcha the women usually wear nothing, but further north, a small apron is made and worn.”
— W. Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen, “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” 1899
This description never fails to fill me with a mixture of longing (for the frank and carnal descriptions of the indigenous peoples) and boredom (I cannot abide the implication that it took two men to write that paragraph). But I do not want to remain focused too narrowly on those Central Australian women and the fur-strings that are fanned and attached to their pubic hair. Instead, I would like to turn to Spencer and Gillen, the two men responsible for this bit of informative, if somewhat wooden, prose.
As any student of Australian anthropology knows, Spencer was a principal of the Horn Expedition in 1894. The expedition, the first to make a comprehensive attempt to understand Australia’s interior, left by train from Adelaide, proceeded to the railhead at Oodnadatta, and then left the tracks for camelback. The brave men of the Horn Expedition, Spencer among them, spent time in the Finke River basin, the Macdonnell Ranges, and Alice Springs. “It is beastly cold and beastly hot,” he wrote home to his elder brother, “sometimes simultaneously. In last evening [sic], I witnessed a buzzing bug the size of a dingo land upon the back of a wallaroo and drain the poor thing of its very vitality.” Spencer was prone to exaggeration.
Gillen was not. He was the more cautious of the pair, submissive and romantic. Though he was Spencer’s senior by five years, he was merely an assistant on the 1894 expedition. Following that journey, the two men struck up a friendship that blossomed into a professional relationship, and they soon collaborated on “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” which was published in 1899, and from which the description above is drawn. I have been told by anthropologists that “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” which runs to more than six hundred pages, contains valuable insights into initiation rituals, sun and moon myths, and the Witchcetty Grub Totem. I must believe them, as I have no desire to investigate for myself.
My interest in Gillen and Spencer stems not from their scholarship, but from the fact that they produced in me the greatest pleasure known to man. This requires some explanation. In 1990, I was disowned by my family, which was an Austrian industrial dynasty responsible for designing and then improving the kind of light aluminum railing that can be seen around the edge of suburban pools and other small bodies of water. “This is a terrible thing to be rich for,” I used to say to my father, and though he scowled at me, this was not why I was disowned. Neither was it the result of my scorn for his railing-gotten millions, or my insistence on using some of those millions to train myself as a bespoke boot maker. “I can buy you all the world,” he said, “and yet you waste your time making them,” to which I responded, without any intention of cleverness, “I do not need all the boots in the world, and I prefer to think of it as spending my time rather than wasting it.” The cause, rather, was Pamela, my first wife, who had a face as smooth as a water-worn stone and a mind as dirty as the bed of the river beneath it. The first time we met, we were at a formal dinner that was being hosted by my family and paid for out of my father’s trench-deep pockets. I introduced myself, and she scowled slightly. Later, she would tell me that she had an inborn suspicion of money and that which it had poisoned. But she was kind enough to speak to me, and moreover, to ask me questions. When she learned that I was a reluctant heir, and that I considered boot-making not only my trade but my fundamental identity, her eyes went soft and watery. “That’s not the only thing that went soft and watery,” she said: a mind as dirty as a riverbed. That was enough to spark the flame of love, but what kept it burning was her elaboration. She was an anatomist, a biologist, but also a sensualist, her great-grandfather’s great-granddaughter in many essential ways. “The female of the species, when aroused,” she said, “is liquefied by science.”
I repeated this insight to my father, who asked me where I had heard it, and then, upon learning its source, cautioned me against indulging the weakness brought on by the female of the species. “You are not exactly resistant to the manipulations of others,” he said.
“Except for yours,” I said.
“Just do not marry this woman,” he said, “or else it will be your final act as a member of this family.”
I committed this final act, of course. For anyone who thinks I was acting foolishly, I can only remember Pamela and what she looked like then. It is a form of explanation, which is not to say rationalization. When my father disowned me, he made the only joke I ever knew him to make. “You’d think you would like getting the boot,” he said.
As a wedding gift, I made Pamela the most wonderful pair of black leather cowboy boots. When I presented them to her, my head was still ringing from the dressing-down I had received from my father, and so I did not notice that she began undressing immediately. She took off everything and put on the boots. I let her break them in on our honeymoon night. We scuffed the tips repeatedly.
The next morning, she told me that she had a present for me. I closed my eyes. She leaned her bare breasts into my hand and then laughed. “That’s not it,” she said. “But open your eyes.” I did. Her great-grandfather’s book was on the table, open to the paragraph I have reprinted above. I read it.
“Do you want one?” she said.
“A tassel,” she said. I did not respond. “I mean a tassel on me that you can remove and then tie around your finger while you have your way with me.” I nodded. “Come,” she said. “Let’s walk.”
I followed Pamela out of the house. The boot heels clacked on the pavement. She kept a few paces ahead of me and sped up whenever I did. I could not catch her. As we went, she told me a story. While her great-grandfather was exploring in Central Australia, he filched one of the pubic fans from a woman to whom he had an immediate and powerful attraction. “Science was not impersonal for him,” she said. Later, when he married and became a father, he showed the tassel to his wife, but did not allow her to wear it. “Marriage had meaning for him, but it did not have ultimate meeting,” she said. When Gillen’s children were old enough to look for mates of their own, he presented them with a series of what he called “inspirations and injunctions,” the central message of which was that they should look for a partner with whom they felt a “powerful and uncontrollable mix of respect and attraction.” When they located that prospective partner, Gillen said, they should present him or her with the tassel (which would be passed from eldest child to eldest child) or the equivalent (this, Gillen said, could be anything that a younger child believed had the same symbolic and talismanic value as the tassel). Pamela’s grandfather, an Australian physician, was the first recipient. Her mother, who came to New York City as a fashion model and then, later, a furniture designer, was the second. Pamela herself was the third. When Pamela was thirteen, her mother gave her a box fashioned from desert rosewood; inside was the tassel. “Show it not to your first lover, but to your true love,” she said. When Pamela was twenty years old, she met a man, found herself attracted, traveled with him, even shared an apartment with him briefly, but did not show him the tassel. A few years later, she met another man, felt a significant attraction, felt respect, but did not feel compelled to show the tassel. Some years after that, she fell completely in love. She did not give me the man’s
name, and so I will have to invent one. I will call him Bill. When Pamela met Bill, she knew at once that they would be together forever.
“I felt everything,” she said, “from the cleanest and most crystalline intellectual affinity to the most transporting frightening physical throb.” One night, she disrobed before him and revealed the tassel, which she had attached to her hair in precisely the manner described in her great-grandfather’s book. She passed a blissful month with Bill, but at the conclusion of that time, he told her that he had met someone else. She despaired. She considered ending her life. Instead, she committed a kind of symbolic suicide, casting the pubic tassel into the river. That was eighteen months before she met me. Now that the two of us were together, she wanted to retrieve the tassel and try again. “Just because I have not yet lived up to my great-grandfather’s ideals does not mean that I should stop trying,” she said. Then she said, “Here is the spot.” We were on a bridge that spanned the Gowanus Canal. She went to a nearby tree and broke off a branch, scratching her hand in the process. “A small amount of pain is a small price to pay for what we are about to see,” she said. Then she walked down
to the water’s edge and stepped over a short aluminum railing, pointing at it and laughing as she went (her message, I assume, was that it was manufactured by my father’s company, and I admit that it could have been, though I did not check). She knelt down and sunk the branch into the canal to its hilt. Her hand almost touched the surface. She wiggled it around against the edge of the wall and then withdrew it with a happy cry. On the end hung the tassel. “Come here,” she said. I went down to the edge to meet her. She dried the tassel on the hem of her dress. On the way home, she stayed a few steps of me again; the boots went quickly on the sidewalk. When we were inside the apartment, she lifted her dress entirely, revealing that it was the only garment she was wearing. Again, a mind as dirty as a riverbed. She quickly fastened the tassel to herself. “Come here,” she said. I did. “Hold it in your hand,” she said. I did. The tassel oozed through my fingers. She frowned and quickly untied it from herself. “Look,” she said. I did. The white material, the kaolin covering that had been immersed in canal water, had come into contact with the scratch she had received from the branch, and it was having an immediate and visible effect, shrinking the scratch away to nearly nothing. She quickly saved the rest of the kaolin, which was softened nearly to a lotion, in a bag, which she put inside a jar. The effect of the canal water was not uniform: while it had jellied the kaolin, it had brittled the strings, which snapped in half. Pamela threw away the rest of the tassel. That evening, we repeated our performance of the previous night. When we were finished with our carnal exertions, she got up out of bed—again, wearing only her new black leather boots—and went to get the jar containing the kaolin. She set it on her bedside table and scrutinized it. Now it was no longer a jelly, but something even less solid. She inspected the contents with a magnifying glass. She held it up to the light. She dipped the end of a cotton swab into the jar. When she applied the tip of the swab to a blemish on the back of her hand, the mark vanished immediately. “Somehow, this substance has acquired healing powers,” she said. I did not understand how this was possible, and said so. “You know how it goes,” she said. “Liquefied by science.”
I did not understand, but I was not such a strong man that I was able to insist upon scientific transparency after being fobbed off by a glib remark from a beautiful woman wearing only boots. The marriage did not last long. When we dissolved our union, she wept and raged and told me that she was going to go down to the canal and pour out the contents of the jar. That time, she went out the door not in her black leather boots, but in a far more modest pair of flats. She did not return for the boots. She did not return at all. I reconciled with my father and was presented with a sports car that he told me was worth half a million dollars. I drove it like it was worth far less. I drove it thinking only of Pamela. I drove it with a mixture of longing and boredom. A few months after that, I received a letter from Pamela in which she told me that she thought of me often, but never thought of me directly. “When I went to the canal that day,” she wrote, “and crossed over the railing, I thought of it as you, in a fashion, and I could nearly not bear it. I poured out the jellied kaolin and was surprised to see how fast it broke the surface and made for the bed of the canal. It is there now, sitting at the bottom, healing whatever it touches. It could have been yours.” A few days after that, she sent a second letter, her last, asking me to send her the boots.
Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction, including Superbad, A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both, and the recent novel The Slippage. He lives in Brooklyn.