The biggest tree on St Dominic’s Mission for Aborigines grew next to the girls’ dormitory. It was the only tree that had survived from the twenty-one seeds contained in a seed pod brought by the first missionary on the long and arduous trek to the claypans expanding across the northern gulf country. The pod was a parting gift from his niece; it served a useful purpose on the journey as a rattling prod to strike a stubborn mule on the rump in the heat of the day, or to slap monotonously across the hand at night by the campfire, whenever the boredom or loneliness became unbearable. It was also a useful game to guess how many seeds were in the pod and keep a record, without resorting to opening it. Abstinence in praise of the Lord, until the time of celebration was right—when the destination for the work of God was reached.
So God’s celebratory poinciana tree came into being, surviving the claypans, the droughts and the wets to grow large and graceful in the presence of three generations of black girls laughing in their innocence as if nothing mattered at all. Its roots clung tighter to the earth when the girls cried out for their mothers or wept into its branches when they were lonely or hurt, enduring the frustration and cruelty of their times. The tree grew in spite of all this. Healthy and unexploited, unaffected when illness fell on all sides, witnessing the frequent occurrence of premature deaths, none of which affected the growth of God’s tree.
Now a black crow sat in its branches, its beady eyes on the wait. Yes, someone else was going to die here. The branches swayed and creaked at night under the Milky Way, while all night long crickets screamed and frogs croaked back. Scarlet petals loosened their hold to fall on the carpet they were forming on the dirt below.
The crow would still be there in the morning. Several weeks the bird stayed. People looked the other way as they passed by. Everyone knew the crow was still there. It would stay until someone died. The precaution was always taken of looking the other way rather than taking the risk of checking if the crow was there. Unwanted bird. But no-one was game enough to chase it away. The Aboriginal inmates thought the tree should not have been allowed to grow there on their ancestral country. It was wrong. Their spiritual ancestors grew more and more disturbed by the thirsty, greedy foreign tree intruding into the bowels of their world. The uprising fluid carried away precious nutrients; in the middle of the night they woke up gasping for air, thought they were dying, raced up through the trunk into the limbs and branches, through the tiny veins of the minute leaves and into the flowers themselves. There, they invited cousin Crow to sit along the branches and draw the cards of death.
Every year when the flowers came the crow came too. Throughout the night the black shadow flew around the community to search for food. The girls in the dormitory prayed long and hard for salvation and tried to ignore the crow like everyone else—except the missionaries, who refused to be spooked by the devil’s work. The girls lay there at night on the brink of two beliefs, one offering the wicked eternal salvation, the other no more than the chance to be saved after the price of death was paid.
`Someone awake?’ The girls’ whispering starts.
`Watch that window now.’ Silence. ‘Over there.’
They watched throughout the night until exhaustion finally took over, the whites of some two dozen pairs of eyes moving from side to side, from window to open window, on guard.
The corrugated-iron windows, held out with long sticks, always stayed open before the wet. If they were closed the heat of the humid tropical night would make it pitch-black and airless, impossible to sleep with them closed. Impossible to sleep anyway with that crow outside. But sleep they must to face each day of missionary zeal. But the door was left closed at night in case snakes came inside.
`Watch out it don’t creep up on you.’
`Might creep up on you and get you.’
`Choose now. Which girl going to die here tonight?’
Singsong: ‘Which giiiirrrl going to die heeere? Might be you.’ `Might be going to choose Y0000UUUUU.’
`Stop it. Stop it.’ Younger girls start crying.
`Well, stay awake then.’
`Yep, you lot. Don’t just leave it to some of us here to look after you.’
It was already hot by seven in the morning and everyone was up and about. Errol Jipp, the missionary in charge of St Dominic’s, with full powers for the protection of its eight hundred or so Aboriginal inmates under state laws, stood caught in the light of the sun streaming through the girls’ dormitory window. He stood directly in front of Ivy Woopundi’ Andrews, aged about seven. She had just acquired the name Andrews. Andrews, Dominic, Patrick, Chapel, Mission—all good Christian surnames given by the missionaries for civilized living. Woopunde and the like would be endured with slight tolerance as long as they did not expect to use such names when they left to live in the civilized world, whenever they acquired the necessary skills.
`Your mother died this morning, Ivy,’ Jipp announced, looking around the dormitory. ‘We are all very sorry.’ He used his high-pitched, sermonizing voice, staring down at the bowed head with its brown curls and sun-bleached ends.
Ivy did not move but gave a sidelong glance to see if the other girls were looking. She saw they were pretending not to notice. Her glance shot across to the open window. The bird could not be seen. `It’s probably gone now,’ she told herself, She thought of her mother—that was about all she had done since being put into the dormitory a few days earlier. How her mother screamed, and she herself had felt abandoned, alone for the first time in her life. She could hear her mother crying, following and being dragged away, still crying. She did not know what had happened to her but she had not come back again to the fence that barricaded the dormitory after she was dragged away.
‘All well, dear, we will give her a proper service in the chapel later on today.’ As Jipp spoke he formed the funeral arrangements in his mind. Things needed to be planned down to the last detail: that was his habit, his way of doing things. It will be necessary to find someone to dig the hole. Could he count on one of the men to bring over a plywood coffin, if there was one already made up, or should he get someone to knock one up quickly? No good keeping bodies around too long in this heat. Another thing, these people were far too superstitious. They might all try to take off in the middle of the night, as they did last time. Better secure the gates and make sure the children are locked in tonight. But maybe not. Old Ben, who died recently, was an important man. Law man, they called him. (Heaven forbid! These people never learn.) But the woman was not from around here. A loner. A real hopeless loser.
`When you hear the bell ring after class, come over to the mission house, child. Mrs Jipp will take you to the chapel.’ Best to make the day as normal as possible, Jipp thought as he gave the child a slight pat on the shoulder then turned and walked out. Ivy stood where she was, proud of the fact thatjipp had been so kind to her, hoping the other girls had noticed. She watched the middle-aged white man, the father figure, shaking out his handkerchief to wipe his hand, walking away into the distance,
`He’s kind, that Mr Jipp,’ she said. Life isn’t too bad here, she thought to herself, while the other girls said nothing but moved away from their eavesdropping positions to finish their chores quickly then race out of the door and down the road over the tracks fat Jipp had made to tell their families what had happened.
Everyone was talking about the crazy woman from another country that had killed herself during the night. The movers and shakers of the mission had a lot to say about her.
`If you knew so much, what was her name then?’ No-one knew for sure. No-one would have minded if she had settled down at St Dominic’s, even though she did not belong here—so long as she went about her business and didn’t interfere with others. What could be the harm in that? Nothing.
But someone said she had ‘that look’ in her eye. ‘Down at the store that day, remember? When you went down there for bread on ration day. You said you saw it, You told me that. Told all of us. Don’t muck around looking like you know nothing now. You told us yourself—that one not right.’
Another sister adds to the story: ‘Crazy. Crazy. Crazy one.’ `Then you threw your hands up in the air. Then when we asked you said, look for yourself.’
`Well, I say anyway she looked all right. Nothing wrong. But then I must have made a mistake. Seein’ she goes and kills herself.’
Another voice: just like that. You must have known that was gain’ to happen. If you could see something wrong with her. You should have done something to stop it. Poor woman might still be with us now. Instead of waiting to die. Wallin’ for spirits to come and get her. You should have made someone stay with her at night when she was by herself. And that poor little girl. She didn’t even have that little girl for company any more. No good that. Woman being alone at night. She had nobody. Nobody at all. And you women didn’t even lift a finger to help her. Poor little thing left up there now. No mummy or daddy for that one any more. All because of jealous women.’
`Look, man. Don’t you go around saying anything. Husband or no husband. Mind your lip, what I say.’
‘Yep, I know poor little thing all right. Kids here say she not too upset when Jipp told her this morning. ‘Neither thing. You think 1 can be going around looking after every Tom, Dick or Harry here? How’m I to know she wants to set about killing herself like that? How’d I know anyone want to do that to themselves? I only thought she was like that. Yep, crazy that’s what. Lot of people around here like that. Can you blame anyone, hey? I’m asking you that. Well, don’t go around with your big tongue hanging out blaming me. I’m crazy myself—got kids of mine there too in the dormitory. That don’t make me happy either. But what can I do? What can anyone do to stop old Jipp and his mob? They run everything here. They in charge. Not me, that’s for sure. Do that make me go around wanting to kill myself or telling other people to kill themselves too? Hey? So shutup your big mouth then. You got too much to say about things you know nothing about.’
At that moment Old Donny St Dominic walked into the main camp where the argument was boiling hot about the death of the dead woman. A lot more people were drawn to the action by midmorning. The main camp was where some of the most influential families lived. The families who truly belonged to this particular piece of country, the traditional elders where the real law of the mission was preserved in strength, in spite of white domination and attempts to destroy it, or to understand what really happens under their white missionary eyes.
The argument progressed into a lot of wrongs floating around the place which for some time had been left unsaid. There were facts to be aired, mostly to do with the inmates’ attitudes towards each other. Somehow or other it all became interlinked with the woman’s death.
Old Donny St Dominic, about the oldest surviving inmate of those last ‘wild ones’ rounded up and herded like a pack of dingoes into the holding pen, now long pacified, sat unnoticed because of the developing commotion and looked on without speaking.
`You all know nothing!’ one old waragu or madwoman yells in excitement, racing about excitedly and trying to hit people with her long hunting stick. She laughs hysterically at the top of her voice over the mass argument.
People weave and duck and dogs bark but the debate goes on.
`You the one now who sees things that not even there. Since when you cared about anything around here anyway? No wonder that woman gone now. Praise the good Jesus for taking her what I say.’
`Praise nothing. You church people think nothing. Woman goes and kills herself and no-good Jesus got nothing to do with it. Bloody crawl up fat Jipp’s bum—lot of good it will do you.’
`Youse know nothing!’ the old madwoman yells solidly into faces, and is told by at least a dozen people to well and truly shut up.
`At least we went to see her and talk to her—tried to settle her down.’
`Sure you did. What did you tell her? “God is going to look after you,” did you? God’s people take her child away and leave her there crying out like an animal for days afterwards. Only us here had to listen to her all day and half the night. Did whiteman’s God hear that?’
`God heard. He heard her. And you can’t say nothing. I see you down there after Jipp’s God when it suits you.’
At that moment Old Donny lifts his ancient frame clad in mission rags onto the tip of his walking stick that one of his nephews recently made to support his bulk. Slowly he draws himself into the centre of his balance, then moves one stiff leg after another into the centre of trouble. People watch him approach and stop saying whatever they were saying or about to say about the matter. Silence has fallen all around by the time he reaches the shade of the surrounding young mango trees.
`A woman killed herself here last night,’ he says quietly, then pauses for a few moments. ‘Down near old Maudies—under the mango tree there.’
He stands leaning on his stick and waits before proceeding any further. `Maudie told me early this morning . . . said she been crying again for the child. The one Ivy . . . put in the dormitory with the others. Last night . . . she come and took Maudie’s lighting kerosene . . . went and set herself alight.’
Someone at that moment put a stool behind the old man and sat him down on it. No-one up to this moment had known how the woman had achieved her aim of killing herself. That question had become enmeshed and lost in other issues—the reasons why and who was to take a share of the blame. The method was simply a secondary matter until Old Donny mentioned it now everyone was dumbfounded, realizing how bad the woman must have felt to go and douse herself with Maudie’s kerosene then set herself alight.
The old man looked down and waited, thinking someone might want to say something. But the people gathered there either looked at him or down at the ground where the bull ants marched on regardless in their processions from one nest to another, and said nothing.
I went back with Tipp to see Maudie this morning. She’s pretty upset, you know. You women here, better look after that old woman.’
Maudie was old all right; she looked as old as the land itself. The kids thought she was an evil spirit and would only go near her place to taunt her when their parents weren’t around to rouse them. She lived alone, away from the main compound in an old corrugated-iron but and gum-tree-bower shelter, built by her last husband years ago before he died of smallpox along with several dozen others who fell at that time. Old Mlaudie never really recovered from his death and preferred to stay in the place alone, too old, or too previously loved and contented to want to share the rest of her life with another man.
The woman who had killed herself had chosen to move into the small abandoned shed beside Maudie’s a week after she arrived at the mission. She was not eligible for a mission hut—corrugated-iron one-room huts that looked like slight enlargements of outdoor dunnies. They were lined up in rows, with a single tap at the end of every second row. One tap for every two hundred people. They housed what mission authorities referred to as ‘nuclear families’. That is, husband and wife with children, no matter how many. If the children had been forcibly removed to the segregated dormitories the couples made room for grandparents, or other extra relatives these people insisted should live with them.
At first Ivy’s mother had been placed in the compound of large corrugated-iron sheds which housed several families tightly packed together, as well as women alone, with or without children. This was where Ivy had been taken from her. The child was termed a `half-caste’ by the mission bosses and therefore could not be left with the others. Their reasoning: ‘It would be a bad influence on these children. We should be able to save them from their kind. if we succeed we will be able to place them in the outside world to make something of themselves. And they will of course then choose to marry white. Thank goodness. For their children will be whiter and more redeemable in the likeness of God the Father Almighty.’
But Ivy was all the woman had left. The child she gave birth to when she was little more than a child herself. The child of a child and the man who said he loved her during the long, hot nights on the sheep station where she had grown up. She had not seen the likes of a mission before. That was a place where bad Aborigines were sent—as she was frequently warned by the station owners who separated her from her family, to be an older playmate-cum-general help for their own children. So she was always certain she made sure to be good. Even to the man who seduced her by night she was good. She believed in love and he loved her just like her bosses did. With kindness.
At the end of the shearing season she was left to give birth alone, as despised as any other ‘general gin’ who disgraced herself by confusing lust for kindness and kindness for love,
Years later, when the child Ivy was half-grown, the woman had to be got rid of. In the eyes of her bosses she was not a bad cook for the shearers. ‘Now she’s had enough practice … since the time we had to put her out of the house to have her bastard child with her own kind.’ But the woman was often abusive to everyone. It was said that none of her own people wanted anything to do with her. She was too different, having grown up away from the native compound in the whitefellas’ household. And having slept with white men … ‘That makes black women like that really uppity,’ they said,
`Now she wants to take her kid with her all the time. Even out in the shearers’ camp. Won’t leave her even with her own family—after all, she is one of them, isn’t she? And the men don’t like her either. You know what she went and did? She went and chucked hot fat over one of the fellas when he was just trying to be nice to that child. Caused a right old emergency.’ A shrug of the shoulders.
‘Yes, might have been the father of the child … who knows. Anyway, she’s got to go—this sort of thing only gives the others bad habits . if you don’t deal with it properly.’
A magistrate handled the assault matter and handed the finalization of the woman’s affairs over to the Regional Protector of Aborigines, and she was promptly removed. Under ample protection mother and child were delivered into their new world—an Aboriginal world similar to that occupied by thousands of Aboriginal people at the time. In this case, the destination was St Dominic’s Mission in the far north.
When Ivy was taken away, her mother had nothing left. The bad Aborigine became morose. A lost number amongst the lost and condemned, ‘bad’ by the outside world’s standards for blacks. Sentenced to rot for the rest of her days. Even her child taken from her so that the badness of black skin wouldn’t rub off.
Her heart stopped dead when they spoke to her just before taking the child, after they had shown her a spot to camp in the squalid stench of the communal shed. It was described as being ‘for the good of the child’. Perhaps they were right—but how could she let ivy go? Her whole body had gone numb. Vanished was any sense of the arrogance of the old days now for Number 976-805 on the state’s tally books. Her arms and legs felt as though they had been strapped down with weights.
‘No, don’t,’ was all she could think of to say, but the words never passed her lips. Over and over after they left, she thought if only she had said the words out loud, if she had only tried harder, then maybe they would not have taken Ivy away. She had screamed and run after them and tried to drag Ivy away until she was overcome and locked up for a day in the black hole, a place for troublesome blacks. Her release came with a warning of no further interference.
`It is best for you not to be a nuisance. People like you don’t make the laws.’ She was told that next time she would spend a long time inside the lock-up if she still wanted to cause trouble. ‘And then we will be forced to have you removed to another reserve especially for the likes of people like you. Remember that.’
Alone she saw the blackness of the night and the men who came, small and faceless creatures. They slid down the ropes from the stormy skies, lowering their dirty wet bodies until they reached the ground outside the but when she slept. There in silence they went after her, pulling at her skin, trying to rip her apart. Taunting her as she tried to escape, to get out of the door of the hut. All the while pulling and jabbing her skin wherever they could with their sharp nails. Satisfied with their ‘bad woman’s weakened state’ they returned to the skies, beckoning her to come with them. Again and again they came back through the nights to enjoy another attack. Again and again they made her theirs nightly. But her final nightmare was to come.
Alone she can see the black bird fly in the night. See it hover, flap its wings faster to stay in one spot, swoop almost to touch the ground, then shoot up again to its hovering position. The process is repeated several times while the woman slinks into the darkness of the tree shadows. Frightened, on guard, she watches. Now the black bird has time for torment. It attacks in the darkness in the perfect moment—the moment of loss. Its attack is unrelenting. Face, back of head, shielding arms—the pecking persists as she crawls on her stomach• into the shack which offers entrapment but no escape.
Hearing the screams, old Maudie grabs her stick and hits the ground, over and over to frighten what she thinks must be a snake, while she finds her way through the darkness. She hears the flapping of the bird’s wings and waves her stick frantically this way and that, striking air, twigs, branches, but the bird escapes. The frightened old woman finds only the terrified, incoherent victim bleeding and shaking, huddled on the ground.
Maudie told Jipp and Old Donny the woman knew she was being punished and would die soon. If anyone could believe Maudie. She knew a lot of stories like that. She said she told the woman not to go on like that, she was young, she should be thinking of finding a husband for herself and having more children. Only old people like Maudie herself thought about dying. But the woman kept saying: sick . . . I sick … sick.’ That’s all she could say. She thought someone wanted her dead. She was a bad woman. Bad mother. Might be someone from her own country wanted her dead and came here secretly in the night to do bad business on her.
That’s why Maudie said she did it. Poured the kerosene over herself before anyone could stop her. Before the clouds broke she threw herself in the fire. All the screaming when it finally came, and, by the time old Maudie could get to the human fireball, it was over. Maudie said she tried to limp over to the mission house to get help for the woman, with only her lamp to see by in the moonless night. Then the rain came. But no-one would answer the door there. Seems that as usual, whiteman’s law did not want to know what happens in the middle of the night. Such are the spirits that haunt the night in Aboriginal places.
`Maudie came and got me to go with her in the night then, nobody else to do it,’ Donny said, picking up the story. ‘Old Maudie and me sat all night long with her . . . all night . . . you savvy … in the rain. But it did no good .
He looked up and waited for the silence to be broken. But all eyes looked at his and said nothing. Then he said: ‘That’s all.’ Meaning end of story. The people left and went home.
Ivy ran to the mission house when the bell rang. Excited by the attention. And sure she would be told of a terrible mistake. It wasn’t her mother dead after all. It was someone else. She was even sure her mother would be there to tell her they were going to leave this place for ever and go back home.
Jipp’s wife, Beverly, sat in the shade of her front garden amongst the prettiness of the hard-won purples and pinks of petunias and button dahlias. An oasis inside a white picket fence that separated her from the bulldust outside. This was their eighteenth year at St Dominic’s and it was home, even though she wished long and often they could get away for an extended holiday. But she could not conceive of their ever leaving the place. What would the people do if they left? These were their people: to serve God by saving these black souls from themselves, from paganism, was the highest calling for men like Errol. ‘Yes, of course such souls can be saved,’ she heard herself saying, as she often did to her churchwomen’s meetings down south, on the rare occasions when they were down that way.
Proof was there already. One only had to look at the full congregation on Sunday and the devout faces of the little children. Strict rules set the guiding principles for these people to live by. Once you established that then you had no trouble at all. She recalled trying, to explain life here to the churchwomen’s meetings. It was breathtaking—how those women imagined life up here, Beverly thought. She smiled at the thought of how they followed Errol around, astounded by his stories of pacifying the natives, the troublemakers. Hanging onto his every word. Are they really as black as you see them in books!’—and to her, in mock admiration: ‘How do you manage, dear, with only black people for company? It must be so hard on you up there, so far away.’
And so it was. So it was. But to work and live in the grace of God is not meant to be easy. In time, just rewards will come to those who manage. It was worth the effort. Praise be to God Almighty for those who see His guiding light.
God’s light sometimes becomes dimmed, however, Beverly Jipp thought as she watched in pity the child approaching under the stormy afternoon sky. The devil’s work still persisted here even after so much diligence on poor Errol’s part. Still, the dead woman had been new to St Dominic’s. That was the trouble. If only they could refuse to take in the strays the authorities kept wanting to send here. if only they could concentrate simply on the ones they already had, then their efforts might bear the proper fruits.
`Here child, eat this mango’—she hands the fruit to ivy, who looks around in vain for her mother; but she is happy for the treat. Beverly is certain the gates of salvation will not open for the dead woman, but perhaps their prayers will be answered, and he will give absolution to the poor thing. She hands Ivy a white cotton dress to wear. it was a favourite of her own daughter, now grown up. Dot, now living down south, surely would not mind giving the poor child her old dress.
Ivy is forced to drop her sack dress in front of the white woman in broad daylight for anyone to see, and struggle with the white dress. She doesn’t want to dirty it, although it will be impossible to keep it clean in the living conditions she is fast becoming used to.
`There! You look lovely,’ Beverly announces, scarcely believing her eyes, as she looks at the brown curly-haired child with her large, strange-looking brown-green eyes. Yes, she thinks. Quite beautiful,
Tut this around your neck and wear it all the time, child.’ The bead necklace is a gift which Errol would disapprove of ‘Don’t spoil the children, Bev, they are our only chance’—she can hear the familiar words of disapproval. The necklace is now in place over the white dress. ivy, looking like God’s own angel, dressed more for a party than a funeral, is ready to bid her mother a last farewell. There is no sign of her mother at the mission house: is it true, then, that she has died?
The electrical storm, typical of the tropics this time of year, suddenly broke, lashing out with all its violence at the lowering of the coffin into the freshly dug hole. Ivy stood with the Jipps, next to the elders, who were secretly partaking in their own rituals but looking as though they were converts to Christendom. The others who came to save the face of the so-called community spirit on apocalyptic occasions such as this were a few of the church-going groupers who hedged their bets both ways,
Ivy could not move her eyes from the wooden box, knowing now that her mother was inside it. The rain poured down on the box and Ivy could see the hole it was making—and soon she could see her mother’s face smiling at her, a careful, peaceful smile that made her cry for the first time that day. At this moment lightning forked across the sky, and thunder shook the ground beneath their feet. Near by a prickly bush was struck, so the funeral rites were hastily brought to an end by jipp, with the coffin left to lie in the deep hole fast filling with water. After the storm ended some black souls would be sent around later on to shovel in the claggy clay.
Ivy was led away, back to the ‘redemption’ dormitory, shamed that the sodden white dress now revealed every inch of her body, feeling the dirtiness of her brownness beside the middle-aged cleanliness of the white missionaries; feeling, above all, her loneliness.
This is an extract from Alexis Wright’s first novel, ‘Plains of Promise’, published by University of Queensland Press in 1997.