The sun burnt us beneath the eucalypt canopy. It was a familiar, humid day. I remember the millions of grains shifting under my feet as we make our way across the sand dunes. Hours passed like days, time unknowable in this new world. Only skeleton branches and dry shrubs had survived after the Big Fire. From horizon to horizon, the pale sky met the sea, and the sky met the mountains. The dunes, our new pathways, leaving our footprints to be blown away by the northern winds. The rivers stained green lay sleeping for the next big rain as black crows fight over their sips. The River Spirits may still be alive and watching over us, or perhaps Yuulangaa, the Rainbow Serpent, eager to carve our new rivers and streams.
My mother told me stories about the old ways, how the land used to be. Carry them with you she always said. I often think of how we got here, why our rivers and fresh springs are too poisonous to bathe in or drink now. Three shadows stride past another undrinkable spring as memories flood my mind. I still hear the echoes of the children laughing and playing in the freshwater waiting for our uncles and aunties to catch our feed for the night.
‘Can’t catch me!’ they called, splashing among the water.
As we reach the top of the dunes, sometimes it feels like I’ll catch a glimpse of their smiles and hear their laughter echoing like the calls of a morning kookaburra. We walk a little further over the lumpy sand dunes and over some more. The chalky noises that follows my steps as feet meet the dry sand. Chur, chur, chur. These sounds charred like the native grasses that once hugged these sandy hills of Wiradjuri Country. The whitefellas renamed this place Dundee, though Buddy said it was always known as Duunee, place of many grasses. The ash beds are so thick that the land we once knew is now unrecognisable. Dry, black and barren. This is our Country. Those good memories are stored in the back of my mind, resurfacing in my dreams like the water does with the moon. There’s no time for what was, only what is now. Survival. Today and tomorrow.
I turn back to see how far we’d journeyed. It’s been our longest trek yet, but we have even further to go to get to Lake Mindi. It’s just the three of us now. There’s nothing we can do to anticipate what stood in our path, but we are prepared. We have time immemorial behind us, and time immemorial to come. The torrential tears I have cried are all now dried up, just like these river beds. The thirst for water lies in greedy bellies of a different kind of Tiddalick, it’s their fault the land is dead. As we walked over another ashy sandhill, and just as the thought forms in my head, Buddy gave me that look to say, ‘It’s time to stop and set up camp for the night’. We all pause and turn west as we watched the burnt orange sun descend and hide behind the mountains and whisper instructions to the moon man to rise.
‘It’s gunna be a cold night aye,’ said Pip.
My eyes draw Pip and Buddy, inviting them to grab their fire sticks and start work between the sand dunes. They knew the drill, but they always waited for my final say.
‘We’ll rest here tonight,’ I say with a smile. Covered in dirt, ash and sweat.
In this moment, I stood frozen, tranquilised. My eyes follow the fire sticks assembled by ashy hands, waiting for the flames to ignite. They began to dance as the ambers descended far into the sky towards Dhun.giyn, the emu in the sky, or the giant river. I think of the hot flames that exploded and turned our blue sky a yellow ochre and our Country black. There I lay, feeling the dread rush through my body as I close my eyes and ready to fall asleep, where my dreams will be waiting to walk with me once again.
We heard stories of the abundance of freshwater waiting for us at Lake Mindi. Vast and drinkable. Home to aquatic birds, emus and long-neck turtles. Somehow, they survived the Big Fire. Our future is swimming at Lake Mindi and Lake Mindi’s future depends on us to care for her. Just like our Old People did.
‘Amber, Amber!’ Someone yelled in the distance.
I unspring my neck and follow the calls of my name.
‘Amber! Quick, hurry! The Dust Monster’s comin!’ Buddy shouted in distress.
Without haste, we grabbed our backpacks and ran, leaving a trail of belongings and footprints behind as we darted for cover by the nearby hill. Our trail will be swept up soon as if we were never there. Embracing, we held each other against the raging Dust Monster. His moans and swooshes wrap around us in waves, thrashing at his hopeful prey. We dug our heels even further into the sand, clenching onto every grain.
‘It’s gunna take us! It’s gunna bloody take us!’ cried Buddy.
I can feel the bruises swell from Pip and Buddy squeezing the blood out of me. We held tight, blinded by the red dust swirling and roaring all around us. Knee deep within the sand, our limbs shaking uncontrollably just hoping he’d give up. He continued. Piercing thuds and squeals echoing like a curlew. His dust like tentacles curl and wrap around our bodies, preparing to tear us apart up into his wrath.
‘Just hold on!’ I called, as Pip let out a deafening scream.
And suddenly, as quickly as it begun, everything went quiet and still, the dust began to settle, and he was gone. A rush of relief came over us, but there was no time to linger in it. The danger was not over. We un-planted our heels and sprouted, stepping back, springing into action to continue our way to Lake Mindi.
We kept to the right side of the sun and followed the movement of our shadows to navigate our path. We’re lucky to have Buddy guide us with his Pop’s knowledge of the land and sky. Each campfire brings us together, closer, even though our families didn’t really get on that well at the Mission. I remember mum talking about how jealously ignited so much hurt within our community. Reflecting back, I think the root of it was fear.
‘Do’ya think anyone will be der?’ murmured Pip, as her sunkissed curly locks spill across the seared scar over her right eye.
‘I dunno Pip, but I hope so,’ I said.
I notice Buddy’s hand align with the sky, sweeping north to south, mapping our path. I raise my hand attempting to imitate his hand actions, as we both mapped the descending sun.
‘I reckon there will be mob everywhere, blackfellas, whitefellas, all fellas. Well that’s what I reckon aye.’
I think Buddy’s hopefulness sometimes masked his fear. I couldn’t blame him, we were all afraid. Afraid for our people’s future and our Mother. Mother Earth. Barray, we call her. There weren’t many survivors after the Big Fire. We’ve only come across a few people, a few birds and bugs, lizards. Human speedbumps, Buddy calls them. I’ve never seen so many people lying there entwined, burnt and peaceful, nature’s mosaic. Sometimes the fear tried to tell me that we were the only ones left, or that would we too could become speedbumps. Bodies submerged in sand, swallowed by nature’s will, a reminder that she’ll be after us soon too. But we pushed on.
The northern winds would shoot sand particles which strike like tiny needles. Buddy liked the feel of the sand stinging his brown hairy skin. It reminded him of the rush back at Junee he could cook up inside his four grey walls. A glimmer of relief and ecstasy.
Pip nudges my arm and points to the sky as a shadow blinks over our faces. Gliding and soaring with such stoic strength. Gumal circled above with some feathers missing and then a few more appeared in sight.
‘Look! One for you, me and Buddy,’ I said as Pip smiled.
As we continued, Buddy told us a story about how his Pop used to tell him about the old days working on the station. Sheering sheep, picking grapes and watermelon, or taming the horses. We loved stories of his Pop growing up on the Mission. Especially the one where he’d row his boat upstream to the nearby farmer’s property to go pick watermelon. He’d tell all the kids to wait at the bend for a green surprise. They’d all wait downstream for these big green balls floating towards them.
‘Watermelon, watermelon!’ all the kids would scream.
‘Tricky lad aye,’ laughed Buddy.
His pop found ways to survive under the Aboriginal Protection Act back in those days. He was skilful in seeking ways to feed the mob and entertain the kids, he found joy in their smiles.
Buddy began the story of his Pop having the Gift of water divination. That’s what the white fellas call it, but our people know it as Water Caller.
‘Clever man, he was.’ His Pop had this gift of finding water especially in places he’d never been. Buddy continued and so did our feet across the ashy barren land. Only certain people have the gift, it was passed on from father to son and so on. The farmers used to pay him to find water on their properties. He’d say how his pop would walk through the gate and that he would know where to find the water as soon as his feet touched the earth.
‘Water over there. That’s what my pop said. He would say in his mind, though. He would then walk the property for at least four hours searching for water before letting the farmers know.
‘Four hours! Why?’ I exclaimed.
‘Well we gotta get our rent back somehow, right?’ smirked Buddy. His piercing green eyes met mine as he threw his arm around my shoulder reeling me in. He scratched his beard on my shoulder to torment me again and I push him away.
‘Well I guess none of that matters anymore, there’s nothing left.’
As we continued west, we watched the ochre sun sink once more to our right. I think we will never get to Lake Mindi and I think of the dreams I had the night before. I don’t know which one haunted me more. Why don’t I just end it now, just collapse to the ground and crumble into tiny grains of sands or tempt myself to drink that poison water or just let the Dust Monster take me too so I could be with her? Again, I dreamt of the water reeds, a black crow and my daughter being eaten by the Dust Monster. I hate that Old Man.
‘Are you okay, Mum?’ whispered Pip.
‘Yes, darling. Mummy will be with you soon,’ I said.
We had just reached the horizon as the sun began to set once again. But this time over a pool of glittering sand, radiating a white halo towards the sky. I thought this was it. I ended it. I looked down and frowned, rubbing my eyes to find my place again. Lips dry and cracked. Feet burnt and blistered.
‘Oh my gawd’ yelled Buddy.
‘It’s Lake Mindi, we’re ‘ere!’
I shook my head and realised I was not dead in this dry barren place. I woke up at Lake Mindi.
‘Look! Who’s dat over der?’ said Buddy.
A black figure emerged from the glistening light moving in waves like it was the coastline I had grown up on. The figure walked towards us and this stranger began to take shape. He had a hat, fishing line and ripped short jeans. Closer and closer his steps approached us, and like a turtle I begin to retreat into my shell.
‘Ah, I’ve been waitin’ for you fellas,’ The old man said, his voice gentle. He had a beard like Buddy, long and shaggy with piercing green eyes. His teeth sparkled like pearls. ‘Well come on! I’ve got some fish cookin’ in the mud over ‘ere on the fire. No watermelon but, aye Buddy. I bet ya real ‘ungry aye.’
Beside me, I glanced at Pip and Buddy and smiled. Our bellies had never been so full. Pip held my hand tight, as if she never wanted to let me go – just like that moment the Dust Monster wanted to take us.
‘Go mum, go on. I’ll be with you.’
I let go of her blistered hand and began to walk with Buddy and the Old Fella. As we walked closer to this inland lake, I began to count all the emus and water birds. Thirteen, fourteen, twenty-eight. Many water reeds too. The land surrounding the lake was lush and green. The water alive and breathing, twinkling in all directions like the nights sky. I imagine Yuulangaa’s spirit rests here, watching over this place and now us too. Our feet met the sandy dirt which soon turned into mud and wild grass. It felt cool and tranquil. The air clear and fresh. I look east and see four soaring gumals above circling in unison.
I turn to Buddy as the Old Fella looked up at us and said: ‘Welcome home.’
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