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Chapter 4.

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before

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In Australia, where no one has to worry about Big Papa, out in the desert, hundreds of kilometers past the point where the roads, and shops and power lines fade out completely, live the Cookatja- an ancient tribe whose world the cheesecake famine of 1999 utterly transformed.

For them 1999 will always be remembered as the year when the frog that makes the rain finally came back.

Among the Cookatja there are three schools of thought as to why the frog that makes the rain returned. The most popular one is that it was the cumulation of a chain of events that the cheesecake shortage started. Others say that the Frog would have come back regardless of what was happening with the cheesecake, and that it came back when it did was merely a coincidence.

The third theory is held by very few, and goes further theologically than the other two. It contends that the frog that makes the rain has powers even beyond the desert, and it used them to somehow stop the cheesecakes coming.

Probably they will never decide which of the first two are right, and they will never know that the third one is wrong. The Cookatja, like his mother and the rest of the world, will never find out what really happened to Carlos Sanchez.

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The Cookatja had been the last of the desert people. As late as the fifties they had wandered the emptiness of central Australia out of touch and untroubled by the outside world.

It was their land, their ability to see subtlety and humor in rocks and sand and scrub was shared by no one else. Dead trees and boulders, lizards and stars; there was a story behind everything in the desert, and it never rained without a reason.

The world, they believed, had begun by accident, and that was the longest story of all.

They said it took several days to tell in its shortened version, and though it will not suffice to say that at the gritty heart of it was the creation of the universe from the extravagant cosmic fallout of a epic fight between a rainbow colored snake and a giant frog, here and now that is the closest we're likely to get to an explanation.

For those who are troubled by the question of who would win a fight between a giant frog and a rainbow serpent in the ethereal myth-scape of prehistoric Australia, the answer is neither. The giant frog ends up banished to cave deep underneath the earth, the snake never really goes away.

The Cookatja's stories were part of what made them secure in their knowledge of the sky and the earth. They understood why the rain came when it did, and could put a name to the thing that lurked inside people and made them how they were. They didn't lack for anything.

The end had not come suddenly but been portended by omens. For at least a generation before there had been signs that something was rotten in the world, objects in the sky, animals the likes of which no one had seen before. Everyone had known that something was going to happen

Then it did.

Dazed and confused by the encroaching modern world, unable to deal with the giddy new vices of alcohol and sugar, it didn't take long for Cookatja society to die and be forgotten. To say they had lived out there for ten times longer than recorded history is probably an understatement, but in less time than it takes for a single person to be born and live and pass away, they watched their world crumble and scatter. The names of the wandering tribes, their intricate webs of clans and alliances, their intimate and exact knowledge of the country- all that was left of these things, and other things people like me can't even imagine, were incomplete vestiges.

Cut loose from everything they had known, they were drawn from the desert to the fringes of the towns that rose from indistinctly from the scrub by the side of the sole highway that crossed the moist noiseless wilderness of Australia's deep, deep north. They set up camp on the fringes. No one ever had much good to say about these towns or the Aboriginal settlements that formed on the edge of them- it was all hot tin and chaos, and every sort of junk half buried by the red sand.

In any discussion on the worst place in Australia they were the towns that always came up. Highway clinging strips of low rent, home made, apartheid. Even their names were grim, there was Mount Despair, Bleak Plains and Hell's Creek. When the English had finally made it this far north their enthusiasm had been significantly dampened by starvation and crocodile attacks.

The only white fellas who lived up there permanently were shopkeepers. The tended to be the most dangerous sort of lost souls, armed with fierce race hatred and loaded shotguns. The rest were itinerant workers who drifted in to do their time on the huge cattle stations and mines that the vastness of the land, and the ease with which the Cookatja could be pushed off it, made possible.

They were a tough lot, the itinerants, outwardly anyway. They slept in creaking wooden barracks, they were all men, and on weekends there was nothing to do but drink. They called the wet season the suicide season, and for the rest of the year, when it was dry, it could get to 45 degrees in the shade. During the day there were flies everywhere, at night there were mosquitoes.

It was from these from people, while honest in the main, that came a broad spectrum of venomous scum who, in the disorientation and defeated spirits of the fringe dwelling Cookatja, saw the potential for easy profit and unrestricted vice.

Alcohol was peddled, babies appeared that were whiter than any desert babies had been before. The desert boys discovered that sniffing petrol relieved the boredom, and outsiders always thought it was odd that, as they watched these kids stagger about under the thrall of the stuff, their brain cells dying and world populated by terrifying hallucinations, that most often what saw was a huge rainbow colored snake.

After 40,000 years of being out of it, the awfulness and cruelty of the world was inflicted on the Cookatja as though they somehow deserved to be punished.

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