THE FINGER AND THE MOON
Through the offices of his guide and interpreter, James ‘Jim’ James, contracted surveyor for The Colony of Victoria, had questioned a local indigene. He had hired him further down the coast and christened ‘Flathead’. He wanted to know the local name for the river valley he found after scaling the formidable heights of the mountain that he had already named ‘Timpani’ after his Italian music teacher. He was informed, along with many gestures, that the name was ‘Wau Wau’. He asked the name of the lake system, with its outlet to the sea into which the river flowed, distantly visible. He was told it was called ‘Wannabee’. This was all well and good and James James wrote it dutifully onto his map, went on his way and out of this story. He was completely ignorant of, and would have been immensely surprised, had he found out that the local natives had just as much right to a sense of humour as the white fellas. He would also remain ignorant of what a strange place it would prove to be.
The joke only became obvious some years later when an enterprising free selector, Nathaniel Goodbody, fought his way through the thick coastal rainforest to the shores of what was going to become known unimaginatively as Big Lake. He came with axe, dog, wife, bullock dray and twenty head of cattle from the more settled regions in the west. Now, by one of those much speculated upon space-time events called coincidence, he also had ‘Flathead’ with him as a guide and interpreter. He also chanced upon the same indigene, as had the redoubtable James James. Referring to his much stained and bedraggled map he asked the local, through the good offices of Flathead, if this place was Wannabee. No, he was informed it was ‘Wau Wau’. Then he asked, not unreasonably, what then was the name of the river valley he could see in the distance that obviously debouched into the lake and then into the sea. He was told that it was named ‘Wannabee’. This explanation was delivered with a barely detectible amusement from both natives, that while mildly baffling the stalwart pioneer, confirmed his deep suspicion of the reliability of government minions in general and surveyors in particular.
The moment the Europeans arrived it was already too late for the native people. Nat Goodbody was the first in a minor influx of settlers pushing east in search of land. Here they clotted as soon as it became clear that anything further eastwards was sea. Initially the local people viewed the early arrivals with friendship until the fever and the fences did their work and the people died or were killed Their land was sequestered and despoiled. There was alarm, then briefly futile hostility, in which spear and boomerang had no hope against the long guns of the Europeans. The male tribal remnant succumbed to alcohol and disease. The women and children, were left in a quiet, resentful, despairing acquiescence. The plantation-meadows returned to bush or were grazed flat by livestock and the villages and fieldworks ploughed under.
Paddy O’Shea had found it expedient to leave the more settled areas closer to the western metropolis. He put himself down where the Melbourne Track met The Sydney Track at the crossing of the river, some twenty-five kilometres by track and ten by crow from Nathaniel’s holding. A disputed paternity of a babe, that everyone agreed ‘had his nose’, and an alarmingly escalating series of debts had bought about this sudden change of locale. Here he brewed beer and ‘The Potcheen’, found an (eventually) congenial ‘Missus’ from the (by now) tribal remnant and raised children in the grand Catholic manner. He called his hostellery The Erin Isle but the community that grew up around it was called ‘Wau Wau’ because that’s what it said on the map.
Nathaniel Goodbody, Paddy O’Shea or for that matter James James would not have credited the locals with a Zen like spiritual outlook even if they had known what Zen was, which of course they did not. Perspicacious readers will have realized by now that the unfortunate Europeans have had a ‘koan’ perpetrated on them.
Nathaniel had also called his property ‘Wau Wau’.
When colonizers leave the familiar behind them for the opportunities of a new country they always bring with them, as part of their baggage, all the prejudices and intolerance of their old mode of life. Not just the establishment virtues of religious bigotry and belief but the murkier and less differentiated belief in the boggarts of wildwood and sidh and these bubbled away and mutated fermenting with the local tribal verities of The Dreamtime. The latter purveyed to the local children by the native women tasked with the irksome role of child raising.
Amidst all the admonitions and hopes of Christianity, leavened by the darker pagan truths, in the end it was The Pope or the Presbytery.
As luck would have it Nathaniel was also Irish and the bad news was that Nathaniel came from within The Pale. His forbears having been transplanted there by the hideous Oliver Cromwell. Nat was an Orange Man.
Paddy’s forebears had been encouraged to come to Australia in the hold of a convict ship for wearing green on St Patrick’s Day. It is one of those ironic historical mysteries that, ‘the luck of the Irish’ is supposed to be good despite that the Irish have had nothing but bad for the past thousand years.
This antagonism is doubly intensified when confronted by adversity because, as everybody knows, there is nothing that brings one community closer together than the mutual dislike or hatred of another.
As I am sure you have already worked out – ‘Wau Wau’ in the local language meant ‘Here’ and ‘Wannabee’ meant ‘There’. In Wau Wau-in-the-Valley (the population of which refereed to the adjacent Wau Wau as Wannabee) the shanty soon shared the valley with a sawmill, and sundry farms. The combined activities of these enterprises soon started the inexorable silting up of the river. This understandably caused consternation in Wau Wau by-the-Lake, (the population of which refereed to the adjacent Wau Wau as Wannabee) as the centre of their activities revolved around the shipping of timber, fish and other foodstuffs to the insatiable gold besotted north and west. Their safe harbour was filling up with sand and mud.
It is hard, single minded, yakka carving out a bit of Old Ireland from the leftovers of Gondwanaland that lurked there in the deep Far East. Neither Paddy, Nat or anyone else had time to give much attention to the situation that had two adjoining communities bearing the same name at opposite ends of the river valley and attributing a different but identical name to each other. The communities grew. More settlers arrived from the west and the north east. Broadly, those with an agrarian bent settled at Wau Wau-in-the-Valley along its rich alluvial flats and those with more maritime preoccupations settled at Wau Wau-by-the-lake. Briefly there was gold from which Paddy profited mightily.
The two communities had now grown to such a size that their petty corporate dignities demanded that (even though the adult population of each was only just in cooee of reaching two score) they should each have a mayor, one not prepared to be out-done by the other. Nat and Paddy where the first incumbents of the respective mayoral chairs in respect of there being first on the ground. The former had been sufficiently ingenuously ruthless, and the latter sternly thrifty and strictly uncritical of the activities of each of his hands. Both had prospered mightily. Nat had diversified (with the help of a nautical brother in law) from cattle into shipping. Paddy’s shanty had grown – now including a rustic emporium and feed store that serviced the entire region.
Both communities seemed to have a bright future at first. Then things began to sour. The silting of the lower reaches of the river and the lake system accelerated as the clear-felling for timber and additional pasture, upstream, increased. This seriously affected the maritime trade, as ships could no longer easily enter the lake and river mouth to pick up cargo. Floods washed away fences and shedding. Dingos, previously only a nuisance became a scourge, they took lambs and calves and even once – an unwatched toddler. The herds failed to increase.
Then mysteriously, the last remnant of the tribe (semi-integrated into the European community) vanished on mass. Paddies ‘Missus’ with them, taking the children of their bodies. Paddies first conscious knowledge of domestic disaster came in the form of a curiously engraved and ochred river pebble he found in the centre of the marriage bed. He found it when he had ceased from his serving and sampling of strong drink, declared closing time and stumbled to bedward. The uncharacteristic quietness of the house caused him immediate, if slightly fuddled, anxiety and prompted the organization of a staggering and fruitless search. This pattern of filial abandonment was repeated throughout both communities where ever white men had taken native ‘wives’. Both wives and their children were gone.
There was one exception to the mysterious disappearances. Young Jim, a small by-blow, was left behind, he was seriously ill. His fever high, his skin sloughed and cascaded sweat. He was delirious. He was found, in a humpy, by the searchers babbling and clutching a colored stone similar to the one found on Paddy’s bed. He was nursed back in a bemused and half grudging way by the white women after his fever broke. It had been a near thing for Jim. Attempts to question him about the tribal disappearance resulted in a blank scared look and tremulous enquiries about his family. He got better. He was sad.
Both Wau Wau and Wannabee or Wannabee and Wau Wau, depending, were both badly affected by this sudden catastrophe (on top of the general community bad-luck) and in the manner of all good Christians everywhere looked for someone to blame. The colonial women had been superficially and hypocritically ‘scandalized’ at the domestic arrangement effected by their men folk before their arrival. They became quickly inured however and were happy, more or less, to look the other way in exchange for the existence of domestic drudges. They were put out of countenance when they had to do their own washing. Shorn of their usual scapegoats for punishment and blame, by their mysterious absence, the local communities turned on the only available alternatives – each other.
Fortunately, the communities were too far away from everywhere else to have attracted a man of the cloth from either religious camp so there was not a really effective prime agent to catalyse the rapidly escalating sectarian resentments. As stated, Paddy and Nat where the declared community leaders. Both being sound men of business, were motivated most deeply by self interest and fortunately almost totally lacked the selfless hatreds and antagonisms of the clergy.
It was not long before the traditional accusations from the old country, began to circulate: didn’t those papists eat the flesh of young children in their midnight masses and didn’t the dreadful Prodydogs scorn the virginity of Holy Mary and didn’t their priests have sinful relations with women?
Now women are quite happy enough to nurture, racial, religious and class hatreds along with the milk from their breasts, but they mostly tend to put a familial break on their overt expressions in violence. However, matters were rapidly escalating towards the sort of behaviour so common in so many of the European religious wars of the relatively recent past.
The tipping point came when a pack of dingos got into a paddock of bullocks. The beasts had been accumulated ready for a drive up towards Eden. They charged the inadequate fences and scattered. This was one more stroke of bad luck. However, when, after much labour most had been recaptured it was discovered that a number of brands had somehow become altered and some parties seemed to have become a great deal more wealthy overnight. The beneficiaries all seemed to come from Wau Wau in the Valley. Strident bewildered denials were ignored. Voices were raised, oaths taken and various normally agriculturally employed implements sharpened beyond their usual utility. One side quite irrationally accusing the other of spiriting away their native women folk in the face of the obvious evidence that both sides were similarly bereft.
It seemed that blood would be spilt in that violent and inevitable way with which we are all so personally or vicariously familiar.
Like in all the best stories the weather was being portentous. A prickly hot, humid overcast suddenly erupted into violent electrical activity just as the warring factions were about to advance on each other mayhem in mind. One of the first bolts to ground itself happened to do too near to Whiskey Creek. A place were two creeks came together and debouched into a long arm of Big Lake that serpentined its way among the rain forested ridges. Almost on the confluence of these two creeks, hence the name, was the shed where Paddy brewed his potcheen.
Now there are some things and some situations where sectarian issues are forgotten for a higher purpose. Cricket and the availability of spirituous liquor featured large in the lives of the two communities and the latter was under threat.
Animosity temporarily abandoned the rival groups bundled cut branches and saplings and hurried to the site of the fire and beat away furiously. There never was much danger, the rain was heavy and though the bush was summer-dry the wild fire was manageable. What it did do was create a great deal of thick smoke. Young Jimmy, to differentiate him from ‘Jimmy’: an older cousin, even though still a little weak from his fever would not be gainsaid. He joined the rest to fight the common enemy. He flailed away with all his available, almost adolescent, strength. The urgency of the fire making him oblivious to all else, he was not mindful of his exact locations, nor the admonition from his, now absent, mother to always to stick with the older men when out bush.
The first episode of the storm scarpered out to sea but not before lightening had set a number of fires. The combined might of the two communities saved the distillery but were outflanked by the growing number of fires. They desperately cut their way through to defend their homes. Many were lost and a great deal of stock both on the hoof and laid by in store. It seemed that all was lost when episode two of the storm arrived in deluge which extinguished the fires and turned the landscape into a blackened morass.
At least inter-communal violence was averted for the time being. It was not a for days that Young Jims disappearance was remarked
Young Jim ended upwind of the fire in unburned country and was totally unaware of the havoc and devastation being perpetrated behind him. He had completely lost track of the other fire fighters. After the torrential rain had extinguished his bit of the fire and almost drowned him, he headed exhausted back, he thought, to find his friends. He had however got himself turned right around. Coming down the wrong side of a ridge and headed off in a contrary direction, in bush also untouched by fire, to thoroughly get lost. Young Jim knew the country around the settlement like the back of his hand but the sky was cast over and the smoke was thick. He made a couple of really wrong guesses at where he thought he was. He came to the sinking feeling that he had no idea. It began to get dark.
Almost adolescent though he was he was still prey to customary childish concerns. He had been filled up to the eyes with spook stories from both the bogs of Ireland by his father’s people and the Dreamtime of his mother’s. He quickly lost his fledgling manly courage and all sense of proportion along with that of direction.
He felt motherloss keenly. Life in this lost piece of Gondwanaland was not conducive to finer feelings or the soft emotions and Young Jim had been told to get over it, clipped around the ear, admonished to ‘Hold his noise!’ or ‘He would be given something to complain about.’
After he had crawled under a log for a good cry, he snivelled quietly, crawled out from under and tried to brush the mud and loam of the ruins of his clothes.
The bush was still very smoky. Great skeins of it lay amongst the trees. He cooeed and cooeed fit to bust. The sound of rain, the dampness and the thick scrub muffled all sounds. He was both wet and cold. He was lost. What to do? After the furious activity of firefighting, coupled with the damp sojourn under the log, what he most wished for now was for some of the fire he had so recently extinguished. He would have been awake to the irony of the situation if he had known that that was what it was. He was just miserable. Away up slope a dingo howled and was answered and then answered again. Young Jim startled and checked himself. Yirbaikbaik had featured in his mother’s cautionary tales about the fate of disobedient boys. Her disagreeable habit of cannibalism and her pack of dingo familiars had figured in many a childish nightmare. Young Jim made saucer eyes and his lip trembled as he uttered the terrifying name. Then abruptly Young Jim pulled himself together, gave himself a stern talking too and looked for some sign to help him home.
Actually things were pretty bad, if something didn’t come up he was not likely to survive. He sheltered under a tree and thought for a while and came to the conclusion that if he headed always downslope he would eventually get to the river and be able to follow it home. He set off, putting thought into action. Suddenly he went all pins and needles and his hair, wet though it was, lifted. There was a strobing haze of purple, blinding light, thunder slammed down. A flash so actinic that it took all colour from the world. A tree split in two and crackled into oily flames.
Shaking and shaken he muzzily picked himself off the ground and it dawned that he was still alive, at least for the moment.
Still numb and very frightened he husbanded the splintered, smouldering, spitting and popping tree with dry punk gouged from the inside of a nearby log and dead twigs broken from hanging branches. He got a good blaze going and began to get warm and to dry out.
It was almost dark. He scouted and dragged all the dead falls he could shift close to the fire. He was first in discomfort being only able to toast one half of himself while the one farthest from the fire froze. He solved the problem by getting another fire going and lying between them.
He was hungry.
He became aware of a humming in his ears that, he realized belatedly, had been there since the lightning. He could not fathom its direction but it went away when he stuffed his fingers in their ears. It wasn’t in his head. Sometimes the sound modulated into almost music. So the night wore on. In the end he slept, curled up like a possum.
Dawn found him awake both to the young sun glittering through the wet foliage and the gravity of his predicament. The sun had risen through cloud wrack in an altogether unexpected direction and Young Jim was at a total loss. He set off. Jim felt that any direction would do but opted to, at least, go down-slope in line of his thinking from the night before. The smoke had dissipated but had been replaced by a drifting sea mist that filled the hollows and snagged like spider silk in the trees. But for the rain-drip and distant birds, everything was very quiet. The odd wren hopped on bobbing branch ends, but kept mum.
He was scared.
He trudged along. Then ahead the way seemed to lighten. Through the mist he saw that the land was opening out. The mist thinned and through it water gleamed. He hurried forward thinking he had found the river. He stopped suddenly, that odd sound in their ears resolved into a short glissando of aching beauty and ceased. He had emerged suddenly out of the mist, as through a curtain, into sunshine. There was a tumble of stones. Down and through them a small sun sparked cascade lipped with maiden-hair ferns fed a small clear pool. He was surprised by the sudden light slanting off the bright pool, but even more by the woman seated on its bank.
She was a tad stocky, dressed in white blouse and blue kirtle with the laced bodice worked in dark intertwined serpentine spirals that would have hinted of dragons if he had been aware of what they were. Belted at her waist by a chain of interlinked blue water iris was a worked leather scrip. Balancing the pouch was a short bladed curved knife with a horn handle. Strange in this country bereft of the native horned. The blade was of a yellow-orange metal.
Her hair was red and held from falling over her face with a twist of something fine. Skin was pale as the white cream, netted with fine veins – the blue of watered milk. The face that turned to the two boys was dusted with freckles, wide mouthed, straight nosed with sad grey eyes. Her cheeks were blazoned with tight blue spirals. She was too immediate, too alien (set in this eucalyptus forest), for the banality of beauty. She regarded the two boys levelly from under pale straight red brows.
The lad turned to run, panicked by the strangeness, but were stopped by snarls. Behind, from out of the trees, stepped a tall black woman; stringy muscled, night braided, tangle-headed, her face patterned with scars. Eyes that were darkest brown shone out from deep sockets. Filed teeth glinted. Draped in a great cloak of possum fur she folded her arms impassively. Close around her paced a pack of tightly milling dingos, snarls rumbling softly.
The lady by the pool stood with the grace of one who has little use for furniture. She was almost a head taller than Young Jim.
Caught from a retreat into the forest by dogs and darkling, by pool margin and matron he stood gaping, struck between stark terror and wonder.
Bending, the lady in blue lifted, from what seemed to be a low stone pedestal, a rough clay coiled bowl decorated with a corded design of cruel beaks and saucer eyes. Owls. She gestured with it towards the boy inviting him to look and bending down again filled it from under the freshet. Carrying it between both hands, she turned, made her way up-slope skirting the formation of rock from which tumbled the spring. The grim black woman uttered a guttural sound and signalled with both arms in a spreading motion. Her dingos softly snarling, crept forward bellies low, driving the boy to follow.
Rounding the rocks, they headed up slope into the trees.
Young Jim’s indigene mother they called Mary (tribal names were declared unpronounceable and pagan). Young Jim’s father (though he didn’t know it) was a slow-talking currency lad, born around Ballarat, who had followed in Nat’s wake bringing more stock. He was by way of being married to a cousin of Nat’s wife (though not a Protestant). The unusual violence of the storm had made him uneasy, as had the multiple lightning strikes. Education may not be too great a barrier to believing strange things but without it there is no barrier at all. George’s education had been minimal and concentrated on immediate utility. Supernatural fears were stirring. Being related to Nat but of Paddy’s religious persuasion he was conflicted. The source of his fears were confused. This was difficult because, as noted: in times of stress it is important to have someone to blame.
The notion that it might be divine vengeance bought upon the community grew in his mind. The devastation of Wau Wau in the Valley and the unscathed condition of other community left him perplexed. Was he not a scion of the reformed religion and those other blasphemous Papists hardly better than pagans? Also, The God or The Devil, having presumably disappeared a whole pack of Heathen: would he also inflict such ruinous punishment on white people however faithful or heretic?
Bellies brushing the grass, the dingoes drove him. Impassive their mistress followed. Leading, bearing the brimming bowl in both hands, the lady in blue paced stately up slope.
As they walked, the land rose up on either side. They were entering a gulley. The way narrowed. The path steepened. For a path it was becoming, showing feint signs of traffic.
The boy was gripped by a curious narcotic buzzing numbness. Terror was real, a curiosity and wonder were real: but somehow dislocated. He had lost all control and any desire to control had also gone. Somewhere in the back-blocks of his consciousness Young Jim wondered if the dingoes would really hurt them if he refused to go further or tried to run. but still he walked deeper into the gloom of the gulley. On the edge of childhood, he was in nightmare. He had no comforting second thoughts to lag him from the fear. Beyond tears, his face set, eyes like two lost pools, he followed the women in the blue kirtle.
As they went deeper into the gulley the eucalypts gave way to cycads, ferns and mosses. Fungi thrust or exfoliated from loam and log. Water burbled somewhere amidst the green. It grew darker under the thick fronds. Rounding a shoulder of the hill the lady stopped before a tumble of huge mossy boulders, glistening, coloured by water-wash. Amongst the general tumble – some ancient rock fall had dropped a boulder atop two crookedy uprights like a capstone. Under the layered fronds of the vegetable canopy no light found its way into this wonky lithic doorway. The lady stopped, dwarfed by the darkness of the opening. Her pale skin, milky blue (where the blood flowed close to the skin), glowed sfumato. Her hair was darkling fire. She stood before the opening between the rocks, limed in the diffuse light she raised the bowl up high before her and began a chant. It sounded to Young Jim like the Gaelic in which his old grandfather had sometimes cursed. Behind him came the clack of clap-sticks, in rhythm with the words. Dimly, as if from a great distance: the guttural throat of a didgeridoo. His sense of unreality increased. The different shades of green and brown, the deep blue shadows seemed to detach into patches of colour and swim about. Involuntarily he whimpered. The chant, at first clear and melodious became harsher, louder and more commanding. The clacking sticks picked up the pace, suddenly all the dogs howled, the lady uttered one clear commanding word and dashed the water from the crock between the mighty stones. There was a deep tone like a huge bronze bell ringing once in a hollow hill, the ground trembled. As if a hand had wiped a dirty window: a scene appeared, first floating like the swimming reflection in a puddle and then steadying and filling all his vision.
What stretched before them was like the view from a high window. It was nothing the boy had seen before. The land was wide, backed by mountains – high and steep; the peaks stone flanked, bare of trees and riven with ice. The hinterland and the foothills were crowded with mighty trees. Dense groves and thickets spaced by open grass and fern. Grazing were animals of fantastic size and shape that he had never seen before, not even in the dog-eared books from which he had learned to sound his letters. From behind one of the clumps of trees, in the middle distance, curled a plume of smoke.
From his left ankle: a sharp pain, then from his right. Involuntarily he jumped forward again the pain. He heard himself cry out. Again the pain again the start forward. The dingos were driving him towards and into the picture. The lady, her blue kirtle swirling, leapt to one side, the bowl clutched to her breast, her hair swinging and as Young Jim stumbled past, he caught the flash of something like triumph in her eyes. He looked over his shoulder momentarily, the old dark one stood impassive, arms folded, watching her dogs. On the brink, where stone became air, he teetered. He was bounced in the back by a hard snarling, canine body. Falling forward, gravity took his legs. Scissoring out of control they swung away, heavy, down the slope. Desperately trying to keep upright and not to fall amongst the jagged rock and thorn he went pell-mell. He windmilled his arms. Staggering, as the slope finally bottomed out and eased, he plunged head first into a clump of tussock grass. Upslope a dark figure, arms folded, watched. At her feet sat the other her bowl in her lap.
While they had had no loss of human life (if you didn’t count Young Jim and no one thought too) much of the stock was dead or badly scattered. The horses had been let free to save themselves and would take some catching. Much of the store of food was gone. Crops were fire-damaged, rain flattened, washed away or all three.
Almost without discussion, it seemed, preparations began to abandon.
The Protestant community, hard by the sea sent their ablest young sailors in a fast ketch to Lakes Entrance requesting some large vessels in which they could be evacuated. A few opted to stay. Nat was one, he sent his wife west and would, he said, bring her back when he had re-established himself again. Their house had been one of the destroyed.
The Catholics, up the valley, mostly Irish, were no strangers to ruin. Some cut their loses, assembled a train of bullock drays and headed south towards Eden and The Bega Valley. Paddy, unsure of what welcome awaited him in civilized parts stayed. The Isle of Erin would service the road. The distillery had been saved.
Young Jim ended sprawled full length. He lay there gasping. Carefully getting onto his feet he was vaguely surprised that all of him still seemed to work. Apart from an all body jarring ache and a grazed elbow that oozed he was undamaged. His clothes: hand-me-downs anyway, were not likely to be handed any further. After fire-scorching, bush-bashing and imitating an avalanche he was in rags. Trying to suck his elbow he looked around. The scree slopes down which he had plummeted looked very chancy as a return route. The odd stones were still sliding and bouncing around him.
Turning his back on the hillside the country was wide. The small wood was closer now and the shift in perspective had hidden the twist of smoke. Closer to hand a small movement snagged at his eyes. There! A movement. The bush stirred with leaf flicker. Out of the shadow-play stepped a girl. Short bodied, long limbed like a frog. Black. A great mop of hair (tied up high by a fur band like an unruly paintbrush) and eyes like peaty wetland ponds. The beginnings of breasts and pod of a belly. She was, but for a possum skin bag tied with a waist thong on her left hip, quite naked.
Young Fred was not used to nakedness. Children covered up early. The protestants in fear of The Other and the Catholics in their characteristic uneasy self-loathing. He tried, in embarrassed confusion, to look and not look. The girl just stood, one hip high, easy and starred.
As she stood, Fred took in details. No white blood unlike him, but different. Her eyes slightly slanted under the deep brows. Her tied-up hair revealed her ears. They were pointed.
It was very quiet. Crows called distantly from the wood and faintly the breeze hissed in the tussock grass. They both waited. The boy with a deepening anxiety, the girl with the bottomless patience of the at home and unafraid. She stirred, balanced her hips and stepped forward, one step, two steps, three. Young Fred stepped back one step and almost fell. She looked, maybe, a little exasperated. She squatted and gathered a pile of dry grasses breaking them from the fringes of the tussocks. Then she did the same with heavier reeds. Reaching up she snapped some dead twigs from the low branch an over-arching acacia. She swung her bag round in front of her, obscuring, to Young Fred’s relief her crotch. Out of the bag came two stones. Sparks flew with each sharp precise downward stroke and finally a tiny spurt of smoke blossomed. Bending lithely, her face sideways-down almost to the ground, while still squatting, shoulder sharp – pale on the blades, she gently blew. The blossoms multiplied and twined. Flames tongued and flickered and the smoke began to change colour.
Looking up suddenly and catching him with the spike of her gaze she gestured with one hand at the pile beginning to blaze and the other at a dead branch hanging from a nearby tree draped in festoons of bark. Released, he jerked. He collected himself. Given something to do, he did it. Pulling down the branch and getting rained on by debris and insects he broke it with his hands and bought the sticks to the fire. He was clumsy with nerves and reaction and she impatiently took the wood and fed the flames. They blazed. A tight twist of white grey smoke rose vertical in the windless air.
Over the fire they looked at each other. Their eyes met and flicked away. Uncomfortable. She stirred and for the first time spoke a few words that he did not understand. They sounded like language, but not his. Or from what of it, his mother had taught him.
‘My name is … Jim’, he said in English pointing at himself, ‘Jim’.
Nothing, he tried again in Gunai. Her eyes sparked. She said his name, reached through the smoke and grabbed his hand. She hauled herself upright using him as an anchor, she seemed to weigh nothing and then tugged hard on his hand till he got to his feet. She let go, stepped back and was off. He could do nothing but follow. They ran through the tussocks trailing smoke. They skirted the clump of Casuarina and Maluka. Rounding a huge gum tree of gigantic girth, she stopped. Jim almost collided.
They looked down on a village, the source of the smoke Jim had seen on his arrival. A circle of round houses surrounded a central fire. Hides dried on frames and foodstuff on racks. People were purposeful, there was the ‘chunk’ of wood cutting, all was bustle. Black people. A pack of dingos from deep shade began to bark. The girl called in a long articulated howl – like a dingo talking. The people looked.
The girl jumping and a hopping like a spider before him, they came down towards the gathering crowd.
Out from the people his mother stepped suddenly smiling and then crying. His sister Ruby clutching her knees.
His new friend turned to him, all flying hair and grinning teeth, laughed
It seemed he was home.