Authors: Steven McCarthy
Tags: #Social Science/Anthropology Cultural
The summer heat rolled in off the western plains engulfing the solitary figure standing under a tree not much bigger than himself. His T-shirt was soaked in sweat, his arm was cradled in the only strong branch on the tree and his eyes were concentrated on the river in the distance. He looked at the sun and then at the baking earth and thought that he should've picked a cooler part of the day.
There were some special things he needed to get out of hiding to take with him on the trip. As always, he would dance up the spirits until they gave him their response. He was going to the river to prepare himself for a journey to Sydney. In a few days he would see his Mumiya, his Santa Claus, the Old Man.
The heat waves rolling off the plains made the treeline in the distance look like kindling. He wiped the sweat from his brow, took a drink, put his cap back on and left the shade for a hot mile-long walk to the Paroo River.
Tim hoped that his humpy was how he had left it. He thought how beautiful this land was as he neared the river. The river was lined with scribbly gum which shaded most parts of it and on entering the river a new life seemed to
spring up. The trees were quite thick and you could hear the birds and animals moving about. Some of the smaller animals and birds hung around Tim, either curious or aware that the bigger predators were steering clear of him, but they also kept their distance, with good reason.
His progression after his first initiation made him hungry for answers about his Mroody heritage. Tim had been taken from his parents and put into an institution when he was five years old. He was now beginning to learn the intricate nature of Aboriginal life which had been denied him throughout his childhood.
Tim saw the familiar outline of trees through the heat, the heat which still remained at 2.30 in the afternoon. He enjoyed the unusually hot weather and guessed it would have been still close to 40 degrees even though the temperature was falling. He was hoping the river had fish in it, because he didn't like the thought of catching a roo in this heat.
He went straight to the river to soak his head and have a drink. The river is quite wide in times of good seasonal rain and teems with life. Then you could catch a fish with your hands. But there hadn't been any proper rain for a while and now the river only had its permanent water source. He'd soon find out if it had fish in it.
He walked towards his humpy noticing the different sounds of the birds, particularly the galahs and pigeons. If he got desperate, one of those would be easy to catch. His humpy was basically intact. The only sign of white occupation was five kilometres awayâan abandoned shearing shed with yards and an old burnt-out dance hall. A half a kilometre from that was a windmill. He'd go and have a look at it tomorrow. First he would go to the other waterhole
and check it out. On the way back he would collect some wood.
The waterhole was quite healthy and there were pelicans feeding in amongst the lilies. There definitely were fish in it and his eyes widened and he smiled as the fin of a yellow-belly broke the surface of the water. He preferred fish to galah and would come back later at feeding time.
Very few people came by here and the wildlife was largely undisturbed except for the effects of the drought. The kangaroos were much smaller and skinnier than he ever remembered. Now that Aboriginal people had been removed from the land, the customs and traditions that helped keep the land alive had disappeared. It felt to Tim like the land was in mourning for its people and was now beginning to show its relentless nature.
He had an armful of wood to deposit back at his humpy. He prepared the fire but did not light it, preferring to use it only to cook. He then made up his swag under the humpy and lay down to get some rest.
It was getting on dark when Tim woke so he decided to head to the waterhole. When he arrived, he found a very solid stick about two feet long. Its main purpose was to hit something on the head. This time it was fish. He selected one of the lower pockets of water, knowing that larger fish get trapped. He undressed and strode into the waterhole. After a few minutes, shrimps began nibbling on his legs and other regions of his body. He didn't mind as the shrimps attracted the fish. Very soon there was a nice size yellow-belly feeding on shrimp around Tim's legs. He spotted a very big cod out of the corner of his eye at the same time as the yellow-belly surfaced. He knocked the yellow-belly on the head and picked up its tail to check its size. Two kilograms, he guessed. As he was walking up the bank of
the river, he motioned to the big cod. “I'll be back for you tomorrow.”
Lighting a fire back at camp, his mouth started watering at the thought of the yellow-belly. He fed the fire with lots of wood and went to get his pan and cooking utensils from their various hiding spots.
The yellow-belly tasted sweet and he savoured it as he ate. He cleaned up then got down to business, emptying the contents of his dilly bag which contained his ochres and belts. Some of the belts were especially made for certain ceremonies. There weren't too many ceremonies in northwest New South Wales, but he'd travelled to many other parts of Australia to attend ceremonies.
He applied the ochre to his face and body and tied his belt made out of woven grass and feathers and began to dance. He danced well into the night and lay down a couple of hours before sunrise. He slept soundly and didn't wake up until the sun had well and truly risen.
He went and washed in the river and came back to camp to stir the embers and make a cup of tea. He'd only have bush fruit and berries until lunch time. While he was collecting them, he would walk towards the abandoned sheds down the river.
It wasn't how he expected it. The yards were in complete ruin, the shed was but a skeleton, and although it was still standing the windmill had rusted away. The hall off to the side was burnt out. The termites had wreaked havoc upon it and he wasn't game enough to step inside.
He remembered this place quite well. They had lived here in the old shearing sheds when they were kids and he was the one who had burnt the dance floor while playing with matches. The scene triggered other memories of how happy he had been here before the bitter wedge of government
policy drove his family apart, and his mind trailed off into the distance. He regained his composure and removed the bitter thoughts from his mind. Maybe he would make it rain for the land, trees, birds and animals, because they too were now mourning the loss of its people.
He went back the same way he came in order to pick fruit he had pinpointed on the way. He pulled up at an old tree not far from camp. From it he extracted a bone. “Time to do what you were given to me for,” he said out loud. When he got back to camp, he ate the fruit and went for a swim. Refreshed and back at camp he checked his ochres and laid his belts out. He wanted to add some new designs to his belts. That afternoon he would go searching for some.
Everything he needed was in casual walking distance and he took his time. There weren't as many trees as there were near the windmill, but they were much older and produced fruit. The witchetty grubs were enormous and he studied them for a long time. He remembered there had been large numbers of moths when he was living here. At sunset the moths used to swarm across the plains going from treeline to treeline. The old people considered the moths to be a delicacy. Now they were another casualty of the drought.
He chose to make a symbol out of the circle designs on the back of the wings of the mothâto remind him of their plight. He picked up the witchetty grub and put it in his mouth, biting off its head, then swallowing it.
Fishing that night would be a bit harder than walking around the bush. He wanted the big cod to take home to Alby and would go fishing a little earlier that night, hoping that it wouldn't matter and he'd catch the fish all the same. He stood in the water for about twenty minutes after he had caught a small yellow-belly.
Very soon it would get dark and he wouldn't be able to
see. He was just about to give up when the big cod swam into the path of his stick. “Ten seconds later and you wouldn't have been on the menu tonight,” Tim remarked. He dragged it to the bank of the river. Nine kilos. It looked bigger but it was young and wouldn't be soaked with the muddy waters of the Paroo. The older the fish get out there the more they taste like the Paroo river.
He collected plenty of wood before preparing the fish for cooking. He kept the yellow-belly aside for cooking in the pan and the cod was hanging by the gills off a piece of wire in the Paroo waiting to be cooked later that night. He gathered up rocks from around the place and put them in the hole that had been dug in the sand, then prepared and lit the fire over the rocks. Tim sat and reminisced while the yellow-belly was cooking on the other fire. He ate the yellow-belly and stoked and stacked the fire and repeated his ritual of last night.
After Tim had completed his dances he made a large cooking vessel for the cod. The outer shell was made of bark, with gum leaves in the middle and mud which completely covered the fish. When the time came to eat the fish the mud would peel away the scales of the fish. After an hour he moved the coals aside and placed the fish basket on the rocks. He covered it with another large piece of bark and then covered it with sand, levelled it off and lit another fire on top.
The warm morning sun woke him. He pinched some embers from the fire where the cod was cooking and lit the one under his billy can. He went to wash in the river and sat down in it. A pelican came and landed on the water nearby and swam very close as if pretending Tim wasn't there. Tim touched and then patted it. The pelican looked uninterested and moved on. He looked skyward and
thanked the spirits for their forthcoming help. He then made ready to go back to town.
Tim could see Alby's kids playing in the yard as he approached. He hopped the fence and the kids ran up laughing and smiling and clinging to his legs.
“I've got something for you kids,” he said, as he took some gum and bush fruit out of his dilly bag and Jane rushed to get her mum.
“Hello Tim,” said Sherry brightly from the kitchen door.
Tim smiled. “Hi Sherry.”
“Come in, it's too hot out there. I see you brought some tucker back for the kids. And what's this?” Sherry checked out the bark hamper.
“It's a cod for you and the kids.”
“Great. I'll put the kettle on and we'll have some lunch.”
“I won't stay, but I'd love a cup of tea. Where's Alby?” Judging by her reaction Tim knew it had been the wrong question to ask.
“In town on the grog,” came the terse reply. “He just comes home to eat and sleep, doesn't play with the kids anymore. I think he's given up.”
The kids had gone back out into the yard with their sweets and toys, but the youngest one, Thomas, affectionately called “dilbury” by Tim, came and perched on Tim's lap.
“You been a good boy for Mum? Because if you haven't...” Tim pretended to strangle him.
“Yeah, I've been good.”
“I found him under the cupboard a couple of days ago.” Sherry laughed as she recalled the sight.
“What were you doing under the cupboard?” Tim said to his youngest nephew.
Sherry answered for him. “He was trying to get the chocolates off the cupboard, and the cupboard fell on him. He was just layin' there, too frightened to yell out. Gave me a bloody fright. I thought he was knocked out.”
Tim let a chuckle escape. “You dilbury. Hey, real silly fella.”
“Naah, I'm not,” said the youngster defiantly.
“I'm only joking, Thomas,” And Tim tickled the young fella until he hopped off his lap.
Thomas shuffled out to play with the other kids. Sherry was depressed and even spoke about leaving Alby. Tim said he'd take Alby fishing and hunting and try to get him off the grog.
“I reckon I can do it,” Tim said looking Sherry in the eye. “He used to be such a strong person who worked hard. This is not the Alby I know.”
Sherry relaxed and nodded “Okay. I'll give you a chance. I'd prefer it if the kids grew up with their father.”
“I'll be leaving for Sydney early tomorrow morning,” Tim said, after a silence.
“Well, look after yourself and have a good trip,” she replied.
The kids ran in, demanding Tim come outside and play with them. An hour or so later, he headed back to his little tin shack on the edge of town, waving at the kids and Sherry as he disappeared out of sight. In the morning he went and said goodbye to his Aunty May and then caught a lift on the mail run to Bourke.