Stella Zelinsky sat at the kitchen table, absently stirring her cooling coffee, into which she had just poured a few ounces of orange juice. Even more absently, she gazed at the middlespace (her husband for twenty-seven long years, Herb) who sat between Stella and the cuckoo clock that hung on the kitchen wall. Herb appeared to be talking to her, perhaps making those annoying threats he was lately so fond of. She smiled sweetly, waiting for the little white bird to pop out and announce the half hour. “Cuckoo,” it chirped brightly. Now she could turn her partial attention to Herb, who was animatedly chastising her for—what dereliction du jour? Housework? Hygiene? Shopping? Sex? He had gotten to be such a broken record lately. Stella sipped her coffee and nodded. He might as well have been a goldfish in a glass bowl.
What was it to him if she never changed her graying pink chenille robe, the one with all the pockets full of miniature spiral-bound notebooks and little pencils. And her once-white Dearfoam slippers, if somewhat tattered, were still quite serviceable. Their neighbors, the Andersons, had complained to Herb about her appearance a few days ago, when Stella was out walking their fawn pugs, Fred and Ginger. Buttinskies! If everyone was so upset about how she dressed, then Herb could walk the dogs himself. And feed the cats, too, while he was at it.
She was a writer and could not afford to be distracted by domestic convention.
After Herb returned to his paper with a gruff flourish, she got up from the table and, cup in hand, ambled down the hall to her study, little larger than a closet. Once inside, she locked the door with a satisfying snap and surveyed her sanctuary, littered with binders, scraps of paper, envelopes, sticky notes, folders, and pens of every description. Large stacks of magazines and books balanced perilously, eager avalanches. She carefully made her way through the mess to her desk, where she sat and turned on the computer. Waiting for it to warm up, she reflected on her most recent literary endeavors.
There lay drafts of her abandoned screenplay on the broken space heater. It was a massive and convoluted saga about turf farming in California’s Central Valley. She had been so caught up in it all: the romance, the water rights, the family feuds, the fertilizer specs—it was truly epic. Then, one wretched day she realized—call it a premonition—that Keanu Reeves would likely be cast as the lead, Alessandro Llanos. Stella shuddered, as if pummeled by hundreds of shelled hardboiled eggs. Nice simile, she thought, and scribbled it down on the back of a nearby phone bill. Try as she might, she just couldn’t proceed with the project.
And then there were the seventeen rejection letters from Fancy Paws: All About Cats and the People Who Love Them. She had spent the better part of a year on a feline-themed sonnet sequence: “Shall I Compare Thee to a Persian Cat,” “When in Disgrace with Robins and Roof Rats,” and the like. Rejected, all, despite multiple submissions under a variety of writerly pseudonyms. Stella’s eyes welled.
But all this would change. Dabbing her eyes with her sash, Stella opened the Word file and clicked lovingly on “Screenplay: Rio Dingo.” This sprawling epic centered on a prepossessingly masculine young Australian, Jake Bryson. Hugh Jackman? Russell Crowe? Stella pondered. Hugh Jackman. She wasn’t taking any chances with casting on this one. Its dashing, virile young hero finds out that his real father is not Ben Bryson (Geoffrey Rush), the amiable but dull sheep rancher, but rather an unimaginably wealthy Texan, Bart Stockwell (to be cast), who dies under incredibly mysterious circumstances.
A prequel? Stella smiled broadly.
Jake grows up on a sheep station in nineteenth-century New South Wales. He is truly a son of the outback, if not of Ben. Although his mother, Grace (Meryl Streep), also known as “the Queensland Healer,” and a great beauty in her day, does her best to educate her son, their relative isolation presents obvious limits, both social and academic. Still he has a keen native intelligence—and a heart as wide as the vast outback.
Ben’s role is more a cameo, as he doesn’t much forward the plot—or his bloodline. So, how do I get rid of him? Heart attack while putting out a bush fire? Accidental drowning while bathing in the station’s billabong? Sheep shearing accident? Stella would work this detail out later.
Jake has two loyal friends, his constant companions, a pair of domesticated dingoes, Sheila and Digger (pronounced “Deeggeh”). Their fate and Jake’s are intertwined as tight as lianas around a gum tree. Two years before the story actually begins, Jake is mustering jumbuck on a distant part of the family sheep station when a lightning bolt pierces the electric air and starts a ferocious flash burn that hurtles toward Jake and the increasingly agitated herd of sheep. Jake drives them to safety at the ford of Wananga Creek. As the crying sheep leap about wetly, Jake catches something out of the corner of his eye: a dingo. No threat, obviously, as the dog also flees the waves of fire. Jake notices that she carries a small pup clenched by its nape. The dingo and her baby ford a few yards upstream. She stops, looks back anxiously, then rushes on. Jake wheels his bay mare, Brumby, and squints through the billowing smoke in alarm. Will the creek form a natural barrier between them and certain death? Suddenly, the black curtain of a tropical squall sweeps down from the north, extinguishing the ravenous flames.
After ensuring the herd’s safety, Jake urges Brumby back across the creek and onto the charred landscape, on the lookout for any injured strays. Jake would have to shoot them, of course, “The only koind thing to do.” (Jake hated suffering—and couldn’t abide the smell of burnt wool.) He hasn’t gone far when Brumby snorts and plants her forelegs. “What is it, gehl?” He hears a soft, high-pitched whimpering and looks about. There, near the base of a charred coolibah stump, Jake spies a hole, the entrance to a den—and then, the singed face of a distraught baby dingo. “Poor little, booggah, poor little Sheila,” Jake coos, cradling the smoky little pup. She will survive, but only if he can get her to Grace quickly. The flock will fend for itself until he returns. Jake tucks the pup in his shirt and spurs Brumby homeward.
The following year, Jake and Sheila, now a russet-coated beauty, are on another drive where they stop along the Dawson River for a refreshing drink. Suddenly, Sheila’s hackles rise, like the crest of an alarmed cockatoo, and she growls, a low, sustained, visceral communication that can mean only one thing—crocodile! Jake follows her stare upriver and sees a dingo pup, about the size of a loaf of bread, frantically scrabbling up the crumbling bank, and a freshie, seventeen feet of reptilian death, closing fast. Jake races toward the pup, but too late—the immense jaws snap down on the now screaming pup’s tail. Jake has no choice. He snatches his Bowie knife from its scabbard and slices the pup’s tail right at the croc’s snout. “Take that, ya bloody bastuhd croc!” he shouts, flinging the pup away from the river as he dodges the beast’s voracious lunges. Sheila, barking and dodging about, provides sufficient distraction for Jake to escape the menace. Once assured of their safety, Jake tears off his shirt and rips a piece from it, binding the bleeding stub of the now inert pup’s tail. As he works, he murmurs, “Poor little booggah, poor little Deeggeh.” He then quickly fashions a sling for the pup out of the remains of his shirt, orders Sheila to follow with the flock, and races home, where Grace would stitch the tail up proper.
When Jake arrives, he sees his mother standing at the door. She seems absorbed in thought, but when Jake shows her the injured pup, she immediately fetches the late Ben’s favorite gin and her sewing kit.
“Joik, son—yeh mustn’t take sech chances, now that theh’s just the two of us,” she admonishes, rubbing the little dog’s gums with spirits before commencing her surgical ministrations. After she finishes, she places the sleeping pup on a blanket, and looks up, studying her son’s face.
“Sit down, son. I have something to shaeh with yeh. A letteh. About yeh fatheh. Well, not exactly a letteh. And . . . not exactly yeh fatheh.”
Jake listens with growing wonder as his mother reads the missive, which includes a will, sent by Alderson and Brentgate, Attorneys at Law, San Antonio. Evidently, a tremendously wealthy Texan and his own mother Grace had engaged in (how to put it delicately?) a passionate tryst some decades past, during a visit to New South Wales, where he was looking to expand his empire. Cattle? Opals? Gold? Offspring? Bart Stockwell, having died under extremely mysterious circumstances, has left Jake a vast track of land (over six thousand acres) in the West Texas Hill Country. Ben, not his father, but a stranger? A Texan? And his dear, widowed mother? The ramifications of the letter make Jake’s head pound.
Stella suddenly became aware of a hammering sound. What now? Herb, her own personal anti-muse, banging away on the study door. She realized it was time for lunch, and reluctantly saved the morning’s work. As she shuffled down the hall, she could smell that he had microwaved himself some macaroni and cheese. Stella looked dismissively at his meal as she prepared her usual, Vegemite slathered on a corn tortilla. Herb was grousing on about something, but Stella’s thoughts drifted elsewhere—West Texas, to be exact.
“Cuckoo!” went the little bird. Stella chewed her lunch in silence. She smiled at Herb’s macaroni, then got up, rinsed her plate, and used the toilet. Generally at this time of day, Stella would practice playing her didgeridoo, which Herb not so jokingly had called her “didgeridon’t.” She delighted in the monotonal droning, punctuated by an occasional honking blat, as if someone were flaying a dying demon: “Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing—Blat!—Matilda.” It was perfect—in spirit, if not in execution. Herb grumbled on about “the racket,” complaining it interfered with his digestion. The cats felt the same and hid, but Fred and Ginger were mesmerized and would yip and sing along enthusiastically. The last straw came when those ever-intrusive Andersons threatened to call the police about the neighborhood dogs’ sympathetic howling—and, no doubt, the other-worldly sounds emanating from Stella’s home. No sooner had Herb cracked the phone down, than he marched into the living room and wrestled it from her grasp, promising to “burn the damn thing!”
So much for that, Stella shrugged, locking the study door. She still had Rio Dingo.
It was time to move the story along. How to get rid of Grace, Stella mused. A cassowary attack? Drowned in the billabong? Sepsis from a needle prick? And who would play Bart Stockwell? Certainly, those decisions could wait.
So, Jake is now rich beyond imagination—in acreage at any rate. But Jake is a dreamer, always has been. His vision, one that won’t bear much fruit in Australia given its meager population density, involves sheep—and lots of them. He will make boots, designed after those worn by the American Indians he’d read about in the penny dreadfuls that passed for textbooks in the outback. Initially, he’d thought of calling them “Fascinators,” a term he’d become fascinated with himself due to the charms of an itinerant milliner, who’d taught him about more than just vocabulary.
“Prequel?” Stella typed.
But now, his dream is in reach. He’s got it! Boots for All America–BAAS for short. Within a month, he sells the station and drives a small herd of his prized Merinos to Darwin, where they soon set sail for Galveston.
And so Jake comes to America with forty-five sheep, one horse, two dingoes—and a dream as broad as the Texas sky.
Time passes. The sheep herd grows, interbred with the more hardy Chaurros of the region. Jake falls in love with Rosa (Catherine Zeta Jones), a chaste, but smoldering chanteuse-cum-flamenco dancer, during her performance in a local saloon. She could sing zarzuelas that drove men wild. “Me llaman la primorosa,” she would trill. And men would thrill. She danced bulerias, carceleras, guajiras. Rosa would arch. And men would ache.
When Jake finally confesses his fascination, Rosa passionately reciprocates. Her breasts strain, like plump young wallabees, against the gauzy chambray blouse that so fetchingly slips from one of her burnished shoulders. Jake observes that Rosa has more curves than the Wallamba River, and her cheeks burn bright as a galah’s wings.
“Oy ain’t neveh kissed a gehl loyk you, Rosa,” Jake breathes as he draws her close, her hips insinuating themselves against his. “You’ve got me up a buhnin’ gum tree, all royght.
But Jake has rivals—men who pose as real a threat to his relationship with Rosa as they do to his entrepreneurial enterprise. Stella relished the potential fight scenes, the intrigue, the abductions, the recoveries.
The first menace is Delmore Sullivan (Kevin Spacey), an incredibly wealthy and manipulative railroad tycoon: “You know, Rosa, a girl like you and I—we could go far in this world. Set it on fire, if you get my drift.” Sullivan offers to make a costly detour around Jake’s vast land holdings—and provide discounted transportation for sheep destined to become footwear—on one condition: that Rosa move to his neoclassical palace in Kansas City and bear him many sons.
Next, the shadowy Englishman, Lord Aleric Ainsworth (Alan Rickman), who is bent on stealing more than a kiss from Rosa, as well the patent for BAAS: “Rosa, if you only knew how I burn with passion for you,” he whispers, his decadent lips curled, voice graveling with desire. Ainsworth promises to forsake his machinations—and return to England—on one condition: that Rosa accompany him to his magnificent estate in Devon and bear him many sons.
As if that isn’t enough to make a fellow mad as a cut snake, there is Grady Knox (Tommy Lee Jones), the local cattle baron, who has his eyes set on Jake’s land—and his girl. (It’s rumored that Grady might also have some relation to Bart Stockwell.) “Damn it, Rosa! What you do to a man should not be legal,” he exclaims, meaningfully lighting his Gran Corona. Knox swears to give up his plans to expand his ranch, keep his cattle to himself, and forfeit any paternity claims—on one condition: that Rosa move to his rococo mansion in San Antonio and bear him many sons.
Finally, there is Black Crow (Antonio Banderas), a fierce Comanche warrior with an eye for the ladies. Stella had fretted over the obvious redundancy of his name, but decided that simply calling him Crow might confuse his tribal affiliation. “Black Crow burn, hunger for Rosa.” Black Crow will cease his moonlight raids on the entire county, spare the residents’ scalps, and even allow Jake’s burgeoning flock to graze on ancestral Comanche land—on one condition: that Rosa become his principle wife and bear him many, many sons.
At some lull in all this, Rosa moves in with Jake, who makes her a charming pair of BAAS, prototypes that he lovingly dyes galah pink. She sings Rossini as she sweeps and cooks and draws well water. She misses the stage, and she sorely misses the sharp tap and click of her flamenco heels. “At leest I steel haf my castanets,” she reminds herself, while twirling clumsily for the enchanted Jake. But Rosa is supremely content dancing and shlompfing about in her sheepskin boots, a testament of Jake’s affection. The same cannot be said for the dingoes. Try as Rosa might, she fails to gain the affection of Sheila and Digger, who eye her with almost predatory resentment.
So things are fairly complicated. Stella would iron out all the plot intricacies and polish the dialogue (except, perhaps, Black Crow’s) in the coming months. She would show those snobs at Fancy Paws. She imagined the film, at the very least a mini-series. The novelization. The awards. She’d make The Thorn Birds look like a Burma Shave jingle. It was wonderful. Stella’s eyes twinkled.
The film’s climactic denouement came to her in a shuddering instant.
Rosa is out clomping around contentedly, picking Texas bluebonnets for the table and humming her favorite arias. Jake rides along a ridge in the distance, herding the grazing sheep as Sheila and Digger watch for strays. Suddenly—a flash, then a cracking boom of thunder. Brumby shies, and rears in alarm. The sheep stampede in a deafening, wooly wave, heading straight for the terrified girl. Try as she might, Rosa can only shuffle and skip about helplessly in her BAAS. There is no way for her to escape. Jake, panicked, puts his fingers to his lips and whistles for the dingoes, who survey the seething, bleating tsunami, then look back at Jake.
Stella wrinkled her nose and sniffed. What now? To be distracted at this moment. But the smell of burning meat was overwhelming. It has to be those pesky Andersons. Barbecuing! And on a weekday. Stella hit the save button and rose in irritation from her desk. “Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!” she heard, and then the keening of sirens. She tightened the sash of her robe as she scuffed down the hall, arriving at the living room’s picture window the very moment the emergency vehicles stormed the curb.
What? Stella blinked and rubbed her tired eyes.
It was Herb, engulfed in flame, a human torch lurching and flailing about on the front lawn. Stella sighed. The emergency crews seemed to have things under control, but it certainly didn’t look as if Herb was going to pull through. Stella sighed even more volubly and shook her head.
Some tragic mishap involving the misappropriated didgeridoo?
Stella weighed the dramatic alternatives, then gasped, the epiphany shocking her entire frame. That’s it! Jake’s father—Bart Stockwell!
Flushed, giddy with narrative possibilities, Stella spun on her toes, raced down the hall, and locked the door. She swept through collapsing towers of research and slid across magazines and manuscript printouts as she made her way to the computer, where she leaned over the keyboard, rapt.
Brad Pitt? Ryan Gosling? Viggo Mortensen? George Clooney? Colin Firth?
Stella took a deep breath and held it as Word opened, then with trembling, fierce urgency tapped, “Screenplay: The Road to Rio Dingo.”