Araluen_NBP fiction
Type
Short Story Prize

Nakata Brophy Prize, first place: Muyum: a transgression

When I crossed there was only little light darkly.

This place where I have been told to find you is light and floor-stained tea tree, as my sister who dreams has described, she who sees still water when she hears my name. It is she who should be here to lay down in you and listen, but I was the one who was unravelled by silence.

I came to bear the name of this house in the wind season, a different time than the dry in which I came to behold it. I followed the name I am not named with more specificity than any other kind of presence and in the alignment of star and of river and of stone and although I was not brought up with belief in cartography, I found myself singing maps to find you. Raised also not to endorse the social performance of pronoun but rather the designation of moietic and ceremonial relation you became personified by what I believed you to pouch and to be pouched by and it is in this synecdoche and delirious state of nostos I am afraid that I forgot the function of gate or of bell or of knock. And convincing myself that to press forward barefootleftfoot is sufficient sacred and in neglect of smoke or sandalwood I made myself guest to this house. The homestead Muyum at the edge of this hill Slaughter which presides over the valley Caanan, baptised by the waters of Kings and christened by parochial charm and local gazettes.

When within I searched for mirror as the half remembered in me gathered honey from river wells. Watched as much as I was watching I made point to unlook corners and crannies and with my dictionary accent tried to talk of home. In return and report I hear chatter from below and above, rustle in undewed grass and a name swooped through trees. I tell myself I am no fool, that I know not to drink that blood, not to eat this skin. Tell him, I say, tell him I have come back like falling star. Tell him I have only ever tried to be what is wanted.

I move past rooms in which memory is pressing against the doors, galleries of this one this mob this one that mob this one full that one full they all full. But in speaking your name to the parlour room portraits, in the distance I hear a door ache open on rusty hinge. I drag my eyes from my eyes and add one more looks-like and double-take to my own heaving room.

Do I creak or does the hallway? When small I thought the rough groan of tangled bluegums in wind were lyrebirds peering out from fairy doors. You see, my father wanted to give us everything: daemons and dreaming, sprites and spirits. I grew up in worlds that crisscrossed and bled and were flown between. I have heard songs that say we come from the moon and songs that say we are the earth itself.

I think for him it is allthis allatonce but somehow this house has always been more away than the moon.

In trusting doorways more than doors I stand here only. I have come back, I tell the empty, like falling star. I am heard but not reached for. Beyond I hear murmur and wind so distant and long. If I step forward I will step on jirrajirra. He dances between my feet. Jirrajirra one, it is my father. Jirrajirra two, it is rain. Jirrajirra three and I must leave. So maybe not here, I translate, maybe not now. Jirrajirra one now, and he willywags around me as I turn from doorway.

Up and over we find a library. Jirrajirra loves libraries, he flies with heavy spectacles and ink stains through the archives. I ask the library boy for the names. I want shelves of them, I want indexes and appendixes that I can swallow. It is lucky I ask for this, he tells me, with his voice like a radio. I say I only want to teach my tongue this place. He gives me bible and, here, look what me and mine have made for you. We put all these sounds together and turned them into light.

But I have been told this sorry story before. Jirrajirra tears out the prayers with his claws and we leave. At the end of the hall I press my face to the window glass and watch shadows move in the outside. Sun is reaching across the valley. Look how clever I am to make all this gold, the light says to the grass, to the treetops. The cockatoos are sheen shining and sailing over the mountain. Jirrajirra tells me of the time his brother followed the eagle all the way up to the sky and I am such deep sorrow.

But never mind, never mind. We pass bedless bedrooms on our way to the museum. Oh, the smell. The hot heavy haze of old brown. Here the dead have been assembled into cabinets, stacked so high the walls are heaving into us. The curator slinks heavy through the room, eyes green nose wet and all the black in the world in his fur. With deep accent growl and empty mouth he bids us enter. Jirrajirra flutters up up above, he is plucking at the fishing lines hanging from the canopy. The room is full of chatter as all the birds fall free and collide above us, coughing sawdust and blinking with glass eyes.

I uncrucify moth and monarch and all other flying things. I untip mason memorials to the sea, my nose burns from the formaldehyde but all the stained scales and skeletons are crawling back together, flapping and flopping on faded carpet. I unbind the turtles too: they are howling with hollow, so sickly mounted in shapes of going home. Who could have bled you from your bones, turtle? I shatter embryo tank I strip skull shelf and they crash and constellate the up and down and all the arounds. I am the centre of wonder-room of sea and sky, I am whirlpool, I am harbinger of such mighty change.

Do you mind, panther, what we are undoing?

The curator speaks in absence of teeth; this is not my place. All these are the ancient ones and the taken ones. Those hunted wrongways, their homes cut down their oceans drowning. He watches above, waiting for the swallows he can swallow whole to become too close.

I climb the cabinets and call jirrajirra to take shelter in my hair. Where now, where now, my glorious friend my protector. It is time to find the rivers and the trees. It is time to go back for the maps. We check each room; some are mounted against windows, some are folded into keyholes. There are a hundred spellings and shapes for home and everything in between. I like best the ones with mountains like scars under my fingers. Pretty browns and beiges, did they know all the ochres when they painted this from their dreams and instrument rooms?

More in the library, we think, so we hurry past the missionary who chases us with gloves and glasses. Laughing laughing, we can be scholars too, look how neat I write my references, how clean I keep my check-out card. The next librarian scorns the careful tools, he gives us astrolabe and anemometer, drops smoking ash on parchment, presses eager on the page at every sign of beauty. Shows me how they invented time and length to find us. He does not see jirrajirra no matter how he flickers about, blue-eyed boy of the pages he speaks with hush and wonder at all the places that have been found.

I ask him for rivers and he tells me of boats. I ask him of trees and he tells me of rust. With the artificial horizon he measures the altitude and the accessibility of the sun and moon. Behind field glasses he says he likes my lashes. We speak different languages he and I, even in the middle tongues our words for ‘find’ and ‘take’ jar and unsound. But I stay here and listen, all the while jirrajirra is fussing and flying almost like he is everywhere. It is the longest time of this voice and these maps before I realise, jirrajirra one, jirrajirra two, jirrajirra three and now I have to go.

I know, the cartographer knows, the stars know, but I say no.

To where and for why, I say.

The house says, listen.

I say, speak.

The library shudders. Windows rattle, books fall to the floor. The maps curl closed over my fingers, and their keeper has disappeared. I feel tugging at my hair, it is jirrajirra, he is pulling and poking. Dust and ochre fills the air. Outside, outside, and I am anger now, it is louder and sadder than sorrow. I shout at jirrajirra, I stomp my feet up and down these halls, watch the walls shake and shudder. The panther hovers at the edge of the museum, the fish have scattered like breaking glass and there are no birds now.

How have I deserved this? How have I come back to silence and empty and shame? How have I come so far and made time so much for name and sound, for map and shape, and all I am is wandering new old halls? Downstairs now, doorway again, darkness still. But this time I am the wind, I stride through my own. Jirrajirra gone but I don’t care, I am my own, I am all me and mine and if I am to be lonely then at least I will be strong. I came to find you and so that you might find me. I have come back like

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I feel you first. Before you scintillate I am coiled and sheathed. Fire out. Dark blue dark in and over this circle. You watching me but all my myths are misting and I cannot meet your eyes with my eyes that are your eyes but I am reminded so sharp and so sudden of my spine crawling beneath my pinprickle skin. I wait for you or the dark to swallow me whole. I find voice in shudders: what thunder I have caused to be heard by you. You must know how I have loved you and have traced your shape into my skies even in unknowing, even in other place. No-one has told me where to go and no-one but you is here to meet me. Do not show me back my fear. Give me smoke and words I am ready. Give me place and purpose I am so very here and –

Eyes open.

Not here now.

Nothing here now but shame.

I walk longways around darkness. No creak for door, no light for window. The stars are muddled and moving. I ache for blue eyes. I ache for jirrajirra. I ache for the base of the mountain where I have slept for so long in dream of you. Where you came to make us in the wrestling ground of the gods. Where we shall curl together when the big waves come back for their rivers. Did you take the panther with you from those hills?

Longtime to next place. I breathe into the embers and the room is filled with glow. The table heaves with finger limes and bunya nuts, riverred grubs, lilipili wine and wattle damper and whiteflesh fish and powdered milk, bullybeefwithrice, devonandtomatosauce. Kangaroo blood. Waterlilies and black snake, black cockatoo. Crow and eaglehawk. All there. All steaming and scenting, go on eat it eat it all why don’t you have a feed fill yourself burst yourself silence the starving you might as well get what you can get and that’s all you gonna get from us you greedy stupid girl you take this name in vain you gone away so now you gotta go away.

Keep on keep on with empty mouth. Trace teeth with tongue. I dream they fall out, leave my gums empty and raw. Maybe I moved or maybe the museum did, but somewhen in this longtime longway I find the panther and tell him my dream. Tell him I have mouth full of ghosts. He says be grateful, but I say I am sad. He asks who taught me what is sadness? And I think all this is journey and metaphor but his eyes are green hurt and distance. I promise the panther that if I ever learn to walk between these worlds I am cast from I will find the ones that took his teeth.

Where is jirrajirra, panther?

But the museum is gone now.

So wherenow, my friend my protector? I say this to silence and to alone. The library is heap and broken image. Shadows stride stony rubbish. Open for breeze and star and bats, who are pouring over the pomology pile. No missionary, no mapmaker. Only the kind of quiet that you drink. All my far gazed horizons watch me in this half room. Hello river in the air, hello emu nesting. How kind you are to visit, how precise.

I hardly notice the man who is picking up the books. Brushing off the dust, ordering them into chaos. With the poetry he builds branch for the nightjars. With the poststructuralists he carves out possum hollows. I watch in this drunken silence and look for jirrajirra on boughs of blank verse.

The man asks me to describe my lost thing. He has a book for that, he says, with green soft eyes. But there are bilbies curled in slumber all up the binding, so we begin to search our own. He whistles and we argue if it is night, and how far is water. I ask how he got here and how I might leave. He doesn’t remember and doesn’t know. He says I don’t want to leave this place. That all the dead things have come back now, and maybe their skeletons are a little strange but that it is lovely to have them curl up in pockets and tickle bushman beard.

Is this your home? But he tells me that is something I should ask the birds.

And the quiet is lovely dark deep for a while. We walk with less wall and ceiling than memory made. I feel grass under my toes and speak the story of the moon lady and the dew. We talk of hill and saltwater, of how to descend mountains. We exchange rivers and poems. It feels like time is taller now, is bigger in every direction. And he sings and whistles new blues but I am always looking. Look for jirrajirra, look for name, look for eyes, look for scales, look for circle, look for flame, for way home. Across the big sky we watch shooting stars. Each blazes through purple dark and is swallowed by the earth. We watch all this come back, sharing our sad songs and sorrows.

You are still coiled round me in muscle memory. I lose sense and sight of room and hall but know we are constellating you. And maybe I might be satisfied with fringes and fray. My tongue slips metaphor and recalibration. We take out my words like unsheathed fluttering things, we give them back to the grass to the bark to the birds.

When it is time to go it is not jirrajirra that says it. We stop when we find the water. Light and shore-stained tea tree. As my sister who dreams has described. In periphery like too bright light I see warrugal and kia and eurobin and gwirra and guriyal. Jirrajirra watching them all. Soft wind and waterlilies are dancing.

This is why they named the house Muyum, says the green eyed man of southriver and preacher rock and birds. And it is time for his leaving because it is time for your coming back. He cannot go further in this place, stands smiling and forested at its edges. Sugarglider peeking from sleeves, wattle blossom in hair. I will meet him again before the waters drown looking glass rock. I will make room for him in the shadows of the mountain. Goodbye goodluck my friend. He to wander and me to home.

Here, now. I ask entry.

I sing thanks and promise.

Only then cross barefootleftfoot through smoke and sacred. You are with me still in coils you have always been with me in coils.

This all come back now. Like,

 

 

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Evelyn Araluen is a poet, activist, educator and PhD candidate working with Indigenous literatures at the University of Sydney. Her work has been published in Cordite, Southerly, Rabbit and Best Australian Poems. Born and raised on Dharug country, she is a descendent of the Bundjalung nation.

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