“There were once two sisters
who were not afraid of the dark
because the dark was full of the other’s voice
across the room,
because even when the night was thick
they walked home together from the river
seeing who could last the longest
without turning on her flashlight,
because sometimes in the pitch of night
they’d lie on their backs
in the middle of the path
and look up until the stars came back
and when they did,
they’d reach their arms up to touch them
~ Jandy Nelson, The Sky Is Everywhere
The next installment of my Kimberley Story…
Have you ever totally underestimated the importance of something?
I know I have.
Sitting in a circle in the dust of the Kimberley with a bunch of old Aboriginal women was one of those times.
It’s laughable now, my ignorance. Some of those women were probably around the age I am today, but back then, with the arrogance of youth, to me they were all old. My Mum’s age at least for the youngest. Although Auntie and Grandmother were the age of my own grandparents. Or older.
The day after Little Auntie died is such an important day for me. Why didn’t I see it then?
While it was still early in the morning we walked out from the house, those women and I, and into the scrub. Behind us I could hear the wails of the rest of the women left grieving. I was sick with not belonging. Sick with a physical discomfort and a spiritual unrest. Why had I come? Why was I doing this?
But it was as if something in my soul compelled me. I can’t explain it any better than that.
On we walked until we’d left the township behind. We walked, and then we walked some more. Every so often one of the women would stop, and so we would all stop. She would regard a bird, a tree, some marks on the sandy ground. She might pull some leaves from a shrub.
Suddenly, for no apparent reason, and in what seemed to me to be no particular spot, they sat down.
Auntie and another lady built a small fire. Other women broke branches from scrawny trees.
Every so often one of them would throw a pile of green leaves onto the flickering flames in our midst, sending up fragrant clouds of smoke. From where I sat, most of it blew my way. My eyes watered. I sneezed. I didn’t know what to do, and no-one said anything to me so I simply sat there. One of them brushed me all over with a clump of green leaves which were then thrown into the fire too. From time to time the women sang, or made strange guttural noises. I was a little frightened by those noises. They were totally foreign to me, and made the hair on the back of my arms stand up.
Eventually the smoke died down, and no more leaves were added. My streaming eyes dried.
There had been singing, but now we were just sitting. We’d been sitting for hours, or so it seemed. Nothing but scrub around us. Scrub and open sky. My bottom was numb, my legs were all pins and needles. I’d lost count already of the number of times I’d asked myself what I was doing here.
This was so far removed from the life I knew. My world, on the other side of Australia, was ordered and logical – shaped by education and social graces. My world was about intellect and achievement. Life was organised and controlled, discussed and planned. And yet here I was, sitting in the dirt, with no idea what was going on.
What had I hoped to learn in coming here? The women around me had enjoyed little schooling and most had failing health. Some of them spoke only broken English. Their clothes were mismatched, worn and stained, no bras, no shoes, messy hair – everything my own Grandmothers would have admonished me about. My mind jumped from thought to thought, and increasingly those thoughts were negative. I was hot. I was thirsty and hungry. I was twenty-five years old and I had thought I knew everything. Now I just felt like an idiot.
Uncomfortable, tear-stained and confused I finally addressed the oldest one, Grandmother, looking straight at her. “What are we doing? Why am I here?” I asked. I couldn’t help it, I was plaintive, whinging even.
I knew she could speak English. The old woman ignored me, so I asked slower. Louder. Even now I am embarrassed thinking back…
I’d always been told I was smart; after all I went to a good school, I was University educated, a career girl. I had a genius IQ. But what I didn’t know then was manners.
Oh sure, I had Western manners, White Girl manners. But when you ask an Elder a question, the answer comes slowly. Best to come sit beside them, looking out in the direction they are looking out. Best not to look into their face. Best to ask politely.
And if the answer is important, if it’s really important, a really BIG question with a BIG answer then they’ll make you wait. They’ll give you that answer in dribs and drabs as you’re ready for it.
And if you’re not ready for it, they won’t tell you at all.
But I was white. I didn’t know those things. So in my ignorance I was rude, offensive and increasingly belligerent.
“Why won’t you tell me?” I shouted. “Why?”
None of the other women spoke. None of them even moved. I sat, a big white wriggley girl amongst women still as stone while the vast sun beat down upon us, making me redder and redder. I hated all of them, this stupid country, this stupid ceremony. Why didn’t they hurry up? Why had I even agreed to come?
Over and over in my mind I started saying, “I’m done with this. I just want to go home.” I might have even yelled it out. I’m not sure now.
Still, something made me stay, and after a while I settled down. Something overwhelmed me. Fatigue maybe, or heat exhaustion. On some level I stopped struggling and surrendered.
We sat there until the shadows grew long. My bladder, which was bursting, stopped bothering me. My body was taken over by stillness. I could have sat there forever.
Finally Grandmother nodded and one of them spoke. “I’m gonna give you a story,” Auntie said. “It plenty big. It gonna be your story now, sister-sister. You want dis? Dis okay by you?”
I nodded with relief. “Okay,” I said stupidly. And I never even asked what I was agreeing to.
She moved over beside me and placed one hand cupping my ear and one hand over my heart. I felt a surge of energy and heat. She began to talk in a voice soft as smoke, her language, not my own. I became hot and heavy and the tendrils of sound crept up inside me.
To be continued…