The old man in the passenger seat of my vehicle watches the country with deep attention, gesturing from time to time, calling the names of the places as they pass, turning his head to hawk gobs of mucous into a plastic bottle he carries with him for the purpose. He is frail and fierce, crippled from a car accident a year earlier that has reduced him physically but in no way diminished his authority and charisma. I have been elected to be his chauffeur over the next few days, which is both a responsibility and a privilege. One of his legs is almost useless. When I lift the intransigent foot into a position where he can manoeuvre himself onto his walking frame, he laughs.
No good pucken thing, he says, disowning it, along with the incontinence that fills the cabin with an ammoniac reek. You better put something, he says, indicating the spreading damp patch on the car seat, and I dig a space blanket from among my camping gear and fold it on the seat, at which he nods approval.
Pucken no good me, now.
You’re still boss for this country, old man, I say, and he grins.
Too pucken right.
His language provokes shocked giggles and indrawn hisses from the back-seat passengers, Dulcie and Nell, who have become subdued as they leave the boundaries of their country and travel deeper into the old man’s country. This has its advantages, since in normal circumstances they spend most of their time arguing with each other or telling me what to do.
We are at the tail end of a convoy of thirteen vehicles, behind the busload of pensioners who decided at the last minute they wanted to come. The female driver is game, but inexperienced at managing a four-wheel-drive bus, and in consequence is taking the rough track very slowly. I’ve chosen to stay behind the bus to ensure she gets through, since a breakdown with her cargo of mad, blind and lame old people doesn’t bear thinking about. As the darkness drops around us the old man hunches in his seat, eyes fixed on the wheel tracks lit by the headlights, who knows what thoughts in his head. If he is in pain he gives no indication of it. Dulcie and Nell are silent as mice, and I know that they are afraid of the dark and the unfamiliar country.
I’m bemused at finding myself caught up in this expedition, since it’s the kind of event I do my best to avoid, being unsuited to the role of white slave1 and the company of large numbers of people. From a modest plan to take a few indigenous traditional owners back to their country and the site of a massacre, it has ballooned into a major expedition, and I have reverted to my default position of finding a single job for which I can be responsible, somewhere on the periphery of the action. Driving the old man is a good choice. He is the storyteller, custodian of the words passed on from his father and brother. They will be recorded formally at chosen locations, but it is in the asides he makes as we travel that a different dimension of the story reveals itself, of the accommodations he and his people made after the event, of his career as a young stockman under the tuition of the man whose name is synonymous with the killings.
On the south side of the river is the new homestead. I know the lives of the white people who wake each morning to the reality of living here, who must educate their children, manage and sell the cattle, meet the demands of their bosses, find a way to be in this place that may or may not have a larger meaning for them. And because I know this world the old man approves of me, knowing that I can properly appreciate the identity by which he still defines himself.
I was head stockman, he says. Those whitefellas had to go behind, I was boss, in front.
Through the trees the campsite is visible first as flickering firelight and the igloo shapes of mosquito domes, which have become the favoured shelter of desert people on these subsidised, kartiya-facilitated safaris. If it were not for the fleet of troop carriers parked at assorted angles on the outskirts of the camp, you might imagine you had stumbled across some ideal human community, tucked into the trees under an orchestra of stars, starting over in the grand adventure of creating its own society.
I find the old man’s family and deliver him, with his walking frame and folding chair, swag and medication, to the nieces who will care for him when he is not travelling with me.
He needs clean trousers, I say, and somebody should take him to make kura.
I don’t like his chances, but it’s not something I can do anything about. They will manage among themselves, one way or another.
Meanwhile Dulcie and Nell have identified the mob with whom they will camp, and I’m directed to the patch that has been claimed for them in the social fabric of the camp. I drag mattresses, bags and blankets from the back of the ute, my ironic remarks about desert people travelling light being received with the disdain they deserve. My dog, Slippers, beams a mad yellow stare from her cage as it emerges from the blankets under which it has been buried, and I reassure her she will be released soon, and fed.
I look for Jess, my collaborator in planning the first, modest version of the trip, and find her at the Clancy camp. It was the Clancys who initiated the idea of a trip back to their traditional country. Sitting on the edge of a grubby blanket, she is gnawing on a rib bone and contemplating the extensive kartiya contingent without enthusiasm. Like me, she is overwhelmed by the dimensions it has taken on.
It’s been a long, tough day, and when Jess hands me a charred and undercooked rib bone I tear into it where I stand, ripping the burnt fat and bloody meat from the bone, smearing grease from ears to elbows. Slippers squeaks plaintively from the back of the ute.
In the morning it’s apparent that this has been a campsite for a very long time. Stone tools lie about everywhere on the grassy flood plain, which is sheltered by big river gums and stands of wattle. This part of the river is permanent, a long green stretch of water populated with spangled perch and catfish. Yesterday we saw kangaroos, emus and turkeys grazing on the river flats. The women have spoken about the pools where the pinanyi grow, the waterlily tubers that are harvested and eaten. The place is a garden, self-sustaining, magical, worth fighting for, worth killing for. The remnants of an old crossing, washed out during one of the big floods, are visible at the edge of the creek, and the sound of the station generator travels across the water.
The station manager, when I rang to tell him the traditional owners wanted to visit their country, asked me to stress to them the risk of fire in the grasslands.
The manager is worried about the grass getting burnt, so no hunting fires, I tell them at the morning gathering. Marcia, that means you.
Marcia is renowned for disappearing over the ridge in a puff of smoke, to return hours later with dead reptiles slung around her neck, scorched earth smouldering in her wake.
What about you, Napuru, Dulcie challenges me. You better look out for your cigarette.
You’re right, we all better look out for our cigarettes.
There are a variety of agendas attached to the trip, each support organisation having its own brief to fulfil. Language maintenance, health, cultural exchange between generations, recording of stories, map-making. For the traditional owners it’s a chance to revisit country, reaffirm their relationship to it, spend a few days being provided with plenty of tucker and driven to the sites of their own choosing, and a distribution of cultural payments at the end. Among them is a contingent with their own fierce agenda, to get back their country, and this travels like a refrain beneath the other business of the trip. The revisiting of the massacre site, the restating of conception and dreaming sites, the retelling of lives spent, work done, children born, is all part of the plan of reclamation.
Among the kartiya there is no-one with the knowledge or the authority to further this plan. The heyday of purchasing viable pastoral land and returning it to traditional owners is over, along with the funding of outstations. The local indigenous people lack the skills needed to maintain a viable cattle enterprise in today’s market-driven economy, and even if they had those skills the income generated by the sale of cattle would not begin to support the number of people with affiliations to the country.
The consensus on this first morning is to visit the site of the massacre before travelling further afield. The old man is cheerful and sprightly. The blooming vigour of his homeland has seeped into him overnight, in spite of his neglected hygiene and physical infirmity. He stinks worse than ever in the reeking trousers, and I feel my own flesh contract at the thought of him sleeping in urine-drenched clothing and blankets through the chilly night. I help him into the car, stow the walking frame and folding chair while he puts the makeshift sputum bottle carefully between his feet where it can’t tip and spill. Today he insists on being first, and we lead the procession of vehicles back along the track to the killing grounds.
The place itself is beautiful, a high point above an elbow of water on a bend of the river. In the dry season the river is a chain of long, deep, permanent waterholes. In the wet season the braided channels spread to a milky flood kilometres wide, creating the grasslands and coolibah flood plains of what were once traditional hunting grounds, and became frontier cattle country.
The bare remains of an old homestead mark the spot. The winter light scatters the leafy shadows of the drooping gums, the grass is crisp and brittle around the sun-warmed sandstone of the old fireplace. I carry the old man’s folding chair as he hobbles in a determined two-step with his walking frame, thrusting it against the shallow slope of the hill.
There is some negotiation about where he should sit in order to see his face clearly on film. It’s a fine-boned, handsome face, animated by an uncompromising intelligence and topped by a thick thatch of white hair, on which is perched a new tan-coloured Akubra. Photogenic, confident, primed with the authority of the story he has to tell, he settles into his chair and grips the microphone, looking around to make sure his audience is present and captive.
Although he speaks mostly in language it is apparent that he feels no obligation to spare kartiya sensibilities. The story is raw and straight, translated whenever necessary by his middle-aged niece, who stands behind him.
I won’t say the swearing, she says above the staccato of puckens and cunts that punctuate the old man’s delivery. His English has been acquired the hard way.
At the heart of frontier conflict are two constants. The white men stole the Aboriginal men’s women. The Aboriginal men stole the white men’s cattle. That the country itself had been stolen is a different kind of story, for how do you steal something that is carried in the body and psyche of a people? How do you steal the webs and tracks of the Dreaming that tie place to people to culture to story? You can’t roll up a piece of country like a carpet and make off with it in the dead of night. You can move your stock over it, you can fence it in, you can steal the livelihood of a people, but you can’t steal the memories and the family histories and the conception sites that connect people to their country. These things persist, wherever the people persist.
The story the old man told on the sunny hillside was of people being rounded up and held in a stone enclosure called the goatyard. They must have been tied up, or guarded, since when we walked down to inspect what remained of the stone walls it was apparent they were designed to hold stock, and people could have climbed out easily enough. It was from here that the old man’s father escaped, climbing over the wall and diving into the river. In the old man’s account his father walked under the water to avoid detection, and his escape was not noticed until he was seen on the other side of the river. The kartiya went after him on horseback, but he sang the horses and they became too weak to follow him.
The prisoners had to dig a well, the old man said. When it was finished the kartiya shot all the people and threw them down the well. They poured kerosene on them and burned them, men and mothers and babies.
Warra warra, the old man shouts, burned them to nothing, till there was only bones down the well they had to dig for themselves. They was digging their own grave. They didn’t know that.
He tells the story, with embellishments, several times over, until he is satisfied that it has been heard. The ground is scattered with the remnants of settlement, and among it the women collect evidence, bullet casings and twisted wire loops that resemble manacles, although they are too big to hold the narrow wrists or ankles of Aboriginal people.
My brother saw it happen, the old man said. He was youngfeller, little kid. He was hiding in a dead bullock, those kartiya didn’t look inside. He watched all those people getting shot, he saw the kartiya put them in the well, put the kerosene. He saw them throw the matches down the well. Warra warra, all the people crying, singing out. My father came back later and found him.
Later the women describe cartloads of people being brought in, donkey carts loaded with the condemned. Like ants, they said, there were so many people. I don’t believe that part of the story, although the image it conjures of the dusty road churned with wheel tracks and the silent prisoners shackled to the carts is cinematic in its scope.
I believe the old man’s story, but I don’t feel it. Even later, when we go to the well, which had been turned into a memorial in a ceremony carried out under the auspices of the local Catholic church some years before, it’s the present gathering that touches my imagination. It’s too rough for the old man to walk, and he’s worn out from the morning, so I drive over the stony ground as close as I can get and leave him to watch from the car.
We stand around the grave, fifty Aboriginal people and a dozen or so whites, all holding hands, and Jess begins to read the declaration of apology drafted for that earlier ceremony and left in a tin can at the foot of the cross. She breaks down after a few sentences and hands it over to Wade, who completes the reading without faltering. This is the moment I find unbearably moving. I can’t make real the terror, the murder, the burning, but this gathering holds something true, a potential too fragile to labour, a moment to store against the future.
The next day we visit the present homestead, introduce ourselves to the young couple who manage it, and their two small children. A fat Shetland watches morosely from the homestead yard, and ambles off in disgust when the Aboriginal kids descend on it. What follows is several hours of testimony to childhoods and working lives spent here. Descriptions of working in the house, the laundry, the garden, of stockwork and horse-breaking, of marriage and children, of holidays and coming home, and finally the diaspora, the equal wages bill that dispossessed all but the young, fit, competent stockmen. It is mind-numbing and riveting at the same time, the same story over and over, with individual variations, each person coming up to the chair, taking the microphone, delivering his or her statement of belonging.
Later, on the road to look for one of the old station tanks, the lead vehicle slows and stops. Jess, who is driving, gets out and walks away to a clump of wattle, where she sits with her back turned to the line of vehicles that come to a halt one by one on the red dirt road. I leave my vehicle and walk over to the trees, where Jess is rolling a cigarette with an expression that suggests she is about to cry.
I’m just having a kartiya moment, she says.
She lights the cigarette and inhales, exhales, with the concentration of a deep breathing exercise.
May and Frank keep arguing about which way we’re supposed to go, yelling at me, go this way, no, go that way. I can’t stand it. I hate being in the lead.
I roll a cigarette and join her in the shade. Frank has got out of Jess’s troopy and is examining the road ahead for signs of a turn-off. No-one comes near us. Jess finishes her cigarette, composes herself and goes back to the troop carrier.
You better now, Napaltjarri? I hear May ask, her voice full of concern and sympathy, as I head towards my ute.
Did you put out that cigarette, Napuru? Dulcie says, and she and Nell snicker in the back seat.
The track, when we eventually find it and drive along it for several kilometres, proves to be too wet to negotiate, so there is a laborious turning and back-tracking.
Anyone who sees our tracks will think it’s tourists, not traditional owners, I say, and the old man snorts with amusement. We drive out along a fenceline to a place where the old man says there used to be a set of yards. A few timber posts lying in the grass are all that remains of it. The fence, which has been built since the old man’s time, cuts off access to the river a few hundred metres away. The old man indicates that he has something to say, and I unpack his walking frame and folding chair and follow his instructions as to where to set the chair down. In the lengthening shadows of the afternoon he grips the microphone.
Old yard bin right here, he says. As he speaks the plains brighten behind him in the lowering sun, and the shadows of the standing group stretch out towards us.
Old yard bin right here.
People trying to get away that way, along the plain.
Kartiya bin round them up with horses.
Three, four, five kartiya.
That many kartiya bin round them up in one mob in one place.
No get out.
They puttem longa yard.
They been cleanem all the people.
Five men, proper murderer,
They been shootem all here now.
Whole lot finished, that lot kartiya’s finished now.
They not alive too.
They couldn’t get out.
That’s enough, that’s finished.
The following day we visit the country where Grace was born, and which she is eager to show her daughters, who have never been here. She describes the Murrungkurr, who must be acknowledged and appeased when you are hunting.
Little people, dwarfs, she says. You have to call out, I’m hungry, I’m hungry, so they won’t hide the goannas and bush tucker from you. Sometimes they hide it anyway.
Nearby is a large earth tank, known in the vernacular as a turkey nest, and several hundred recently weaned calves are stringing in from the plains to drink. They are big, strong Brahman calves, glossy and sprightly, and prove irresistible to someone’s overgrown camp dog pup. For a while there’s a lot of dust and shouting, during which I drop my cigarette butt and can’t find it in the dry yellow grass. For the next few hours, as we drive back to the camp, Dulcie and Nell keep looking over their shoulders and claiming to see smoke. They think it’s hilarious that I might be guilty of causing the fire I’ve been at such pains to warn people against. There’s neither smoke nor fire, but there’s also no joke that can’t be pushed past its limits, and my carelessness has made their afternoon.
I’ve scaled up a topographic map and reproduced it in paint on canvas. When I unroll it everyone gathers around, calling for the old ones with the knowledge to sit beside me and oversee this transfer of the spoken story. Blind May settles her heavy body on the canvas, stretching out her crippled leg, its truncated foot like a bandaged hoof, and swings her wooden cane about to establish her territory. She prods me with it, then pokes at the canvas.
What this place?
I move the tip of the cane until it rests on the spot where we are camped.
This place is right here, right where you’re sitting now.
This tickles the onlookers, but the old woman sights what little vision she has along the line of the walking stick, nods, moves it to another spot. What this place? and I tell her what I know. Someone launches into a litany of the bloodlines associated with the river. This sets off a chain reaction that ripples through the assembly, with me at the centre of it trying to make sense of the information coming from all sides. Jess grabs the notebook and writes down whatever she can extract from the rabble of noise. It’s chaotic, impossible to decipher. May whacks her stick at whoever is in reach, mostly me, crouched and vulnerable, inscribing notes in chalk on the canvas.
‘I can’t do this,’ I say. ‘We have to come back another time. Not now.’
I leave them shouting and arguing around the canvas and walk away to the river.
Back in the community I drop the old man off at his camp, and he thanks me formally for being his driver. While I’m collecting his walking frame from the back of the ute he folds onto the ground like a collapsing camp chair. There’s a low stretcher with a chewed-looking foam mattress, towards which he gestures when I return with the frame. Frail as he is, he’s too heavy for me to lift, so he shuffles on his backside to the edge of the mattress and I kneel behind him and grip him around the chest, lifting and heaving, the pair of us giggling at the undignified spectacle we present as I topple backwards, fending off the pack of scaly dogs that have rushed out to greet him. I pick myself up and retrieve his smart tan hat from where it has fallen, and put it gently on his head, where he adjusts it to its proper, jaunty angle.
Over the next weeks Jess and I work at transcribing the stories and editing the video material, and Gracie and Rosina set to work on the painted map. The map of the river is a blue snake on a red ground. It winds down the long strip of canvas, carrying with it the voices and stories of the people born along it, who have lived and died there or been driven away to live somewhere else and remember it. It soon becomes clear that we don’t have all the information we need, and that it will be necessary to go back, just a few us, to visit some of the places we couldn’t get to last time because there were too many people and too many vehicles.
These are the trips I love—a couple of vehicles, nothing unnecessary in the way of equipment, self-sufficient people who don’t expect you to look after them. Jess and her partner John bring the old man out just for the day, as the big trip tired him out. We arrive at the river by lunchtime, and he takes us to his conception site, the place where his father ‘found’ him in the form of a stone, which he put for safe-keeping at the base of a big river gum. We look for the stone, and the old man is distressed when we can’t find it.
Should be right here. Somebody bin takem.
Maybe it got washed away in one of the big floods, John suggests, and the old man acknowledges that it may be so, although he’s not convinced. But he is happy to sit there in the dappled shade of the river crossing, the bright grass flanking the long pools in which a cormorant dives and surfaces like a small submarine, its periscope head angling above the water, watching us from a beady, sceptical eye. Gracie’s grandchildren play with Slippers, who they call Shlippet, entertained by her obsession with tiny slivers of wood that she brings for them to throw.
Back at the main camp, kangaroo tails have been wrapped in foil and covered with coals. By the time we return they are cooked, dripping grease and giving off the pungent smell that can permeate the cabin of a vehicle for months, and is difficult to explain to the mechanic who services my vehicle back in the city. Kangaroo tail, I say, when asked about the strange, greasy odour; I tell people not to eat it in the car, but they don’t take any notice.
The community supermarkets stock the tails in frozen bulk, although they have been banned on occasion after a spate of assaults using the frozen tails as clubs. The old man doesn’t want kangaroo tail. He doesn’t eat that bush tucker rubbish, he says, he wants a tinned meat sandwich with mustard pickle.
Another vehicle arrives, a freshly shot kangaroo bleeding on the roof rack. They are relatives of blind May, and like her they harbour hopes of making a claim on the return of country. I spell out, very clearly, that the map is not part of any land claim, that I have no authority or skill in that arena, that the maps we make are a kind of document to gather up as much knowledge as possible, in an accessible form, before it is lost.
Jess and John and the old man leave in the late afternoon, in order to avoid too much driving in the dark. Wade and I take the troop carrier to get firewood, and I let Slippers out for a run on the way back. She dashes at the vehicle, a habit I have never been able to break her of, and goes under the wheel. Wade, who is driving very slowly, thinks she is just playing, but I have heard the small yip and know that this time she has misjudged the vehicle, which is differently proportioned from my ute. Sick, I tell Wade to stop. The dog is curled like a shell, whorled into herself, alive, her eyes never leaving me as I go down on my knees and gather her up, fold myself over her. Oh Slips, you silly girl, you silly girl. I have no breath, only the tears streaming out of me, the hard ache at the back of the throat that makes it impossible to speak.
Frank ambles down the track in his flash shirt and bandanna and bare feet. I knew him as a young stockman, fearless rider of buckjumpers, a dandy larrikin, when he worked for my family. He takes Slippers from me and runs strong black fingers up and down her neck. I am ready to invest knowledge and healing power in him, for there is nothing else to be done. The nearest vet is six hundred kilometres away, and something in me knows already she is done for.
All through the night, keeping vigil over my dying dog, I feel the old people walking. Stretched out on the floor of the troop carrier with my hand on Slippers’ chest, feeling the beat of her heart, listening to the rasp of her breathing, I am visited by the images of people running on the grassy plain, ridden down by the men on horseback, who shoot them one by one.
I see people huddled and afraid in the goatyard on a bright day like the day we visited, the sound of the wind coming up off the river and flickering through the trees with the smell of water, stirring the man in the corner to lift his head and observe that the kartiya with the gun has turned away to light a cigarette, protecting the lit match from that same wind with a cupped hand, inhaling while a shadow slips over the wall in a flicker of movement that might have been a lizard scampering, or the shadow of a hawk dropping low to see what kind of creatures are clustered in the stone enclosure.
The man goes down the slope, a shadow among shadows, to the bend in the river, and slips into the green milky water that will hide him from the white men. His feet grip the stony bottom of the river as he moves among the perch and the rainbow fish that flick away in flashes of broken light from this creature passing through their domain. When he reaches the far side of the river he stands up in full view of the kartiya so they will know he has tricked them, and disappears, and reappears, so they are no longer sure if he is real. Trickster, shape-shifter, he taunts them from the riverbank, until two white men mount their horses and gallop south to the place where the river is shallow enough to cross.
The sound of singing unfurls like smoke across the water. It scatters the skeins of spray that loop from the horses’ hooves, rises around them like a swarm of bees, and the horses rear and baulk as the singing beats them back. The white men feel the dark rhythm coiling out from the trees and swimming towards them like snakes cresting the ripples.
I lie awake beside my dying dog.
The trees breathe the voice of the singer.
The trickster moves by the river, there and not there, protected by the Snake. The child watches from the stinking carcass as his family are shot and burned.
The survivors flee to the protection of a neighbouring station.
The long silence falls.
Slippers doesn’t die in the night, nor on the long drive back to the community. Several times her heart falters, stops, starts again. She is paralysed, does not seem to be in pain. Her eyes never leave my face. Gracie’s granddaughter Dani cries for the poor kunyarr, and for me. Shortly after we arrive, when I have carried her to Wade’s verandah and laid her on her own bed, when everyone has left us, her heart stops for the last time.
Note: This essay is an extract from the forthcoming book Position Doubtful.