Read The Swan Book Online

Authors: Alexis Wright

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The Swan Book (8 page)

I think that girl caused all of this Army business coming here
. Holy smoke why had the swamp people forgotten? The Army had come a long time ago. But this swamp was plaguing for revenge and
pumped itself with so many compelling ideas of fear they were now far beyond the capacity to clean the floor off with a mop.

You should have left her where she was

The cuckoos and cockatoos heard every single thing and, it might be, their nervous flinching and tapping of beaks on wood were imitating insecurities in the hearts of the children.

The light that came from the sky at night was relentless. It was the Army swinging around the searchlights. Where was the joy in this? Ungovernable thoughts unfurled into the atmosphere from the heads of people hiding beneath folded wings that might have belonged to the black swans that had died in the swamp. Yes, those grand old birds flying high into the greatness of life without paying a dollar for the flight could just be angels.

The swamp's murky water was littered with floating feathers, and it looked as though black angels had flown around in dreams of feeling something good about one another.
Well! Not around here when you were nobody, you don't feel like an angel,
Bella Donna said as though she read thoughts, but she was just passing traffic – generalising about what was going on in the girl's brain. She had no idea of how the girl saw those wasted grey-black feathers.

Ah! All these feathers were just sweet decoration. Feathers floating on fading dreams, obscuring the address that was difficult enough to remember for transporting the girl back to the tree, where in her mind the route she chased while sinking away into slithers of thoughts slipped silently in and out of the old threads woven through the forest of mangled tree roots. When she runs in these dreams, her footsteps crush the delicate crisscrossing patterns of the worn stories, that reached deep into sacred text, the first text, in saying,
We are who we are
. Fancy words, scrolling back and forth in the girl's mind, float like the feathers that stop her escaping back to the tree.

Rubbish stackings, tied with yellow clay-stained stockings – too many of these human nests encasing the swamp. The sand bank that had grown to mountainous heights still separated the brackish water from the sea, while a fast-growing population of Aboriginal people from far away places was settling, living the detention lifestyle right around the swamp.

The truck people kept on arriving. They were more like arriving cattle being segregated and locked up in ‘growth centres', now called National Aboriginal Relocation Policy by some minddead politicians clap-trapping that they were dealing with rats. Suppose hard come, and easy go, for the traditional land of the swamp was snatched again. The real owners hidden in the throng could not count the number of times their land had been ripped from under their feet.

In this oasis of abandonment, home for thousands forcibly removed from other ‘more visible' parts of Australia by the Government, the swamp became a well-known compound for legally interning
needed to be secluded far away behind a high, razor-edged fence from the decent people of mainstream civilization.

It was just a contemporary painting – a pastoral scene,
the old lady surmised in the early days, while her eyes swung along the ever-increasingly crowded shoreline.

It's really insanity here,
she told the Harbour Master about the people living all about the place.
It's not like it used to be, honest,
he replied, the magic lost from his voice. He was forgetting to sing his Mick Jagger songs. The girl sunk deeper into her thoughts:
So! What did I care? What about my story? Me! Different dollar please!

Now while Bella Donna was carrying on like this, the population would peer out each day from package crates, donated cubbies from foreign aid, and rubbish that sprung up in the overcrowded slum now running around the entire shoreline.
What unimaginably
difficult poverty-stricken circumstances,
Bella Donna cried, wiping up her tears with a bit of newspaper. She consoled herself with poetry, reciting lines like John Shaw Neilson's
I waded out to a swan's nest at night and heard them sing…

The Harbour Master stayed on top of his mountain, too frightened to leave. He was just sitting like everyone else, and listening to all kinds of fruitless, high volume
protest from the minority landowners trying to reach inside the closed ears of the Army men protecting the swamp.
What do we want? We want you white bastards outta here.
Waste of breath. Their mantra was five or six words more or less which meant the same thing:
Nobody asked us for permission, moron
. Every day, hours were put aside for protesting. It was like listening to a continuous earthquake of hate from a stadium built out of the swamp itself.

Can you tell me why those Aboriginal people had to be relocated here for – from across the country, Aunty?
The girl sometimes imagines herself speaking politely, in a pretty voice, while mouthing off her soundless words.

God knows it was only a swamp, of what a storm gives, or easily takes away.

A low-pressure weather system was unpredictable and nobody knew whether it would bring more dry storms or blue skies sulking through another year. Still, a flood of mythical proportions would be required to drive the sand back into the sea. The ceremonies sang on and on for majestic ancestral spirits to turn up out of the blue, to stir up the atmospheric pressure with their breath, to turn the skies black with themselves, to create such a deluge to unplug the swamp, to take the sand mountain back to the sea. But more was said than done. The ancestral sand spirits flew like a desert storm and backed themselves even further up against the mountain. Silt gathering in the swamp lapped against the dwellings of the increasing population and crept further inwards as the
swamp decreased in size. This was the new story written in scrolls of intricate lacework formed by the salt crystals that the drought left behind.

The swamp's natural sounds of protest were often mixed with lamenting ceremonies. Haunting chants rose and fell on the water like a beating drum, and sounds of clap sticks oriented thoughts, while the droning didgeridoos blended all sounds into the surreal experience of a background listening, which had become normal listening. Listen! That's what music sounds like! The woman once explained to the girl that the music of epic stories normally sounded like this.

This is the world itself, disassembling its thoughts.

It was just the new ceremony of swamp dreaming, the girl thought, for what she called, Nowhere Special. She thought it suited the wind-swept surroundings of the dead swamp, where children played with sovereign minds, just by standing out in the wind to fill their cups with dust given to them by their ancestors.

Dust covered the roads and nobody knew where they were anymore, and the old woman claimed that even the bitumen highways were disappearing. Soon, no one would have any idea about how to reach this part of the world.

If you leave here, you know what is going to happen don't you? People are going to stop and stare at you the very instant they see the colour of your skin, and they will say: She is one of those wild Aboriginals from up North, a terrorist; they will say you are one of those faces kept in the Federal Government's
Book of Suspects

Bella Donna said that even though she had never seen this book for herself, she had heard that it had the Australian Government's embossed crest on the cover, and was kept at the Post Office where anyone could study it. What was a post office? The girl had listened.

This was the place where they kept faces plucked from the World Wide Web by Army intelligence looking at computers all day long, searching for brown- and black-coloured criminals, un-assimilables, illegal immigrants, terrorists – all the undesirables; those kind of people.

Never ever leave the swamp, she said, adding that her own skin did not matter, but the girl was the colour of a terrorist, and terrorism was against the law.

Bella Donna's home was camouflaged in the middle of the flotilla of junk littering what she called the vision splendid. The hull jutted out of the swamp like a war monument saluting in grey-coloured steel. This joyless, rusting hull with a long war record of stalking oceans looked like a traitor imprisoned away from the sea, but it was not alone in this polluting junkyard choked up with so-called ‘lost' Army property. Its neighbours were the remains of all the
– cargo boats, trawlers, tugboats, fighter boats and rickety old fishing boats. These phantom vessels were either falling apart at the seams from decades of bobbing themselves into oblivion, or had become dilapidating wrecks.

While the hull was slowly sinking its huge belly in the yellow mud, the old foreign woman chopped carrots in the galley. She sang her premonitions as she chopped.
The hull was burying itself at its own funeral.
It was a kind of simple theory, as far as theories went. All kinds of conspiracies poured out of her old lips to the sound of the knife clipping the wood, chopping vegetables for another stew
. Was this going to be the unrecorded record of the world's longest suicide attempt?
The longest pause! You could feel the slide, slipping and dipping further into the mud, by a few millimetres a day.

The bounty the old white aunty business brought from overseas was about reading the signs of the unsaid and speaking about what
was not obvious. Well! Why not listen? The resident Queen of the manufacturing and boat-building industry did reigning well. She knew what you needed to feel in your bones about nautical living, boat steel and planks of wood. Even her bones could feel how the hull was reorienting itself towards the fanfare of East Coast cities. She asked any passing spirit bystander she noticed hanging around her kitchen,
How else was the hull going to capture the glory from which it had been robbed?

Sounds were destroying the memory of the girl who only wanted to be living in her tree again. She felt as though she was locked inside a suitcase that the old woman dragged along and pussy-footed about on noisy gravel. It was the
walk of life
, old Aunty claimed. How it felt to be living inside the steel of a battling war hero robbed of the hullabaloos, feeding off the fanfare of pomp and ceremony, had it not been dishonoured. Sabotaged by traitorous telltale words,
Welcome Boat People
, which protesters had once sprawled in white paint across its side.

These words, decrypted many times by the old woman, had almost faded away from years of sitting in the swamp, just like the memory of most of those protesters of good causes, once they scrubbed up and rejoined their conservative Australian upbringings. The old woman said that she had often heard the hull moaning, crying out as though it had lost heart in the idea of achieving perfection through one last salute. Let there be Death! The girl walked around with the hull's colossal lament impaled in her heart.
What could I do?
She demanded. There was nothing she could do about glory.

So! Bad luck and so forth, Aunty said, because anyone could dream like fish on the other side of the sand mountain, where shifting winds were funnelling the outgoing tide back to the sea.

The swamp people were really frightened of the flotilla. Some would not even look at the decaying boats. Some claimed that they could not see any dumped boats out there on their pristine swamp.
Ya only see what you want to see and that's that.
They did not go around looking for things outside of the
of traditional knowledge. They said old scrap boats were dumped in the Congo, in real swamps, among the boa constrictors. Well! You learn a lot of things like that from looking at too many of those old movies.

Nor did it take much from a separatist-thinking swamp person to believe that Bella Donna was a real ghost even before she was dead, or that girl
for turning up years after she was supposed to be dead. Rah! Rah! Everything was vapour. There were plenty of people around who said that they would rather be dead than sniffing old fat hissing from a frypan where ghosts were frying up their fish. Exactly right!
Whitefella ghosts, seasonal plagues of grey rat ghosts, other vermin ghosts like swarming cockroaches, march flies and infestations of hornet nests.

So floating junk, if seen in the light of having too many foreigners circulating in one's own spiritual world, could always be ignored for what it was – other people's useless business. Of course it was infuriating for all of the witnesses of the swamp world to see so much waste not being put to some proper use. After all, anyone could see that foreign ghosts were not particularly harmful if you got past the innocuous cunning way that they could steal a whole country, kill your people, and still not pay all those centuries' worth of rent. It was just that all those men, women and children in the detention camp living cheek to jowl in broken-down shacks, crates and cardboard boxes had no affinity with dead strangers. Cramp was better. So much preferable to being haunted when you did not feel like being frightened by other people's ghosts.

Only the old woman had decided to be radical by taking up a grandiose lifestyle on one of the flotilla's rust buckets, and in
the end, when she had claimed responsibility for the girl, she had taken her out there on the water to live. She said that the hull was part of the Australian way of life. She was helping to make Australia a great country
. I am not a separatist from Australia
, she claimed.

The detention camp was now a settled population of traditional owners from kingdoms near and far, and swamped with a big philosophy about the meaning of home. Why do they do it?
They could also seek asylum and permanent Australian residency by living on navy junk,
the old woman claimed, referring to her hull as a solid piece of Australia that was immune to traditional land ownership laws. She liked being part of mass Australia and owning her own home. It gave her a sense of authority when it suited her.
You think that they would want to grab the chance to become fully Australian. A chance to live like everyone else.

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