The Vanished (Reposted)
All he could see were trees. Tall trees with wide trunks. Raw patches where the bark had peeled away from the smooth greys and corals made him think of scabbed knees. There were ferns, too. Thick clumps of them, their fronds a brighter green in the shifting dapples of sunlight and shadow.
Beyond the ferns were large boulders that must have tumbled down the mountainside hundreds of thousands of years ago. Maybe even millions. They hunched together like crouching giants, their backs splotched with iridescent outbreaks of moss and lichen. His bare feet slid out from underneath him as he scrambled and skittered over the rocks, sometimes leap-frogging from one to another, until he sank ankle-deep in the stagnant shallows of a billabong.
Here the trees were weeping-needled Casuarinas and River-Gums, their bare branches stark and skeletal. He suddenly felt frightened: Without really knowing why.
A sourness in his stomach told him something wasn’t quite right. There was no air. Only the acrid, virulent, stench of rotting vegetation. And mosquitos. He waved them away from his face and slapped at them ineffectually. He didn’t want to stay there any longer.
This was a Spirit place: Haunted by an evil more ancient than the landscape itself.
He needed somewhere higher. Higher would be cooler. Cleaner. He looked for an easier way to climb back up to the broken-backed ridge with its sentinal Ironbarks.
What he found wasn’t a house. At least - Not how he thought a house should look.
The tin roof was rusted. There were gaps between the warped timber planks, silvered with age. Grass had grown up through the verandah boards. The posts and railings looked like they’d been cut and shaped with an axe.
Inside the shack wasn’t much better. One room. A mattress on the floor. A pot-bellied stove pregnant with old, cold, ashes. The exposed roof beams were just branches; twisted and knotted and worm-holed. The door sagged on its hinges. There were window frames, two of them, but they had no glass.
He needed time. Time faded more than just photographs. Time blurred life’s edges. Time dulled and blunted.
He was hungry. He had no food.
He was cold. He had no other clothes.
He needed sleep.
Later that day the rain started, and it didn’t stop.
The roof leaked.
The dampness only made the mattress smell worse.
He wondered if anyone had missed him yet.
The darkness deepened to pitch black. He stood at one of the windows. A blind eye that opened onto sightless night. He thought he heard something moving outside. Some kind of animal. He wished for a moon. A torch. A candle. Even a match. But he’d left the last place in too much of a hurry to save anything more than his own skin.
Whatever it was was closer now. He was sure if he reached out through the empty window he could touch it.
He told himself there were no such things as ghosts. No monsters; not the fairy-tale kind, anyway. Stories were for old men. He’d heard them tell of The Long Ago. The Dreaming Time. Everything had its own Spirit. The animals. The trees and plants. The sky. The red earth under his feet. The water. Places had Spirits, too - Not all of them friendly.
But back at The Mission talk was just what old men did. And drink.
He clutched the gold confirmation cross on its chain around his neck and prayed silently for whatever was out there to go away.
In the morning the shack was empty again.
Everything was just as he remembered it.
The shack still lurched against the mountainside; mourning its own passing.
It had been built by an Irish immigrant family just before the turn of the century. The colour of their skin hadn’t saved them. This country had its own magic: More powerful and more malevolent than the white man’s. One by one all seven of the Fitzpatrick children had been taken from them.
The oldest boy was crushed to death under a falling tree. Another son drowned in the billabong, they said, although they never recovered his body. Two of the Fitzpatrick girls went to pick wild-flowers and were never seen again. Their sister was found at the bottom of the well. And the youngest, just a toddler, died after being dragged from its bed and mauled by a wild dog.
The last surviving Fitzpatrick boy lived long enough to be blown to smithereens by a Turkish shell on the blood-soaked beaches of Gallipoli: Serving King and Country in The Great War.
Mrs Fitzpatrick was thrown from a horse and broke her neck.
In his grief and despair, Fitzpatrick himself had blown his brains out with both barrels of a shotgun.
Only a fool would build a house here. And there was no fool like a white fool.
They’d stolen the land, believing they could bend it to their will. They fenced it in. Fenced it off. Fenced the dingo and the rabbit out. And the old man’s people, too.
The best place for blacks, they’d said, was out of sight - And out of mind.
They built The Missions; where they thought they could hide their shameful secrets. Government Agencies had started taking light-skinned children away from their parents, to be raised by ‘christian’ families. Generation after generation. The old man’s grandson was one of them. They had filled the boy’s head with talk of their vengeful God.
“If we can’t wipe them out, or breed them out,” one noted politician was quoted as saying, “then we’ll beat the black out of them.”
The old man’s grandson was neither spoiled nor spared the rod. He’d run away. Into the mountains. Where he found the shack.....
The trees that had grown tall and straight like he once had in his youth were now as stooped and gnarled as the old man himself. But this was a hard country.
It nurtured a cold, hard, heart.
In the years since the shack had been abandoned several lost hikers had thought to find shelter for a night under the rust-bitten tin roof. Search parties would comb through the scrub for a week or two before giving up. The old man warned everyone he met, but nobody listened. More than a few had laughed in his face.
Just another old drunk, they said.
He laid his tired bones on the stained, soiled, mattress and closed his eyes.
Night came quickly to the mountains, like dimming the wick of an oil-lamp. And with it came the old man’s grandson.
He stood in the doorway. A revenant.
The old man’s eyes were the only things that moved; from the leaf strewn floor to the cobwebbed rafters..... to the cast iron stove with its peeling green paint..... to the desiccated corpse of a long dead rat..... to the boy.
The hand-me-down clothes they had given him at The Mission were gone. In their place he wore painted bands of two fingers’ width in white and yellow-ochre. Twists of braided grass fletched with white cockatoo feathers were knotted around his wrists and ankles. His hair was plastered to his scalp with red clay, and there were darker charcoal smears on his cheeks and forehead.
The old man’s bones creaked louder than the antiquated mattress springs as he struggled to sit up.
“Wandjina made this place.” He said. “In The Dreaming Time.”
The boy leaned his back against the doorframe and slid slowly to the floor, crossing his feet and folding his arms over his knees to rest his chin on.
There was time to listen. Time was all he had now.
“Before the white fella. Before the Jesus Men. Wandjina was Big Magic. The Great Spirit. He came down from the sky and stood on this mountain here, looking all around.”
“There was no river then. There were no trees. No birds. And no animals. Just rocks. But Wandjina could hear Weowie, The Water Serpent, trapped inside the mountain.”
“Wandjina called him.
Said, ‘Come out of there.’
Said, ‘The land is dry.’
‘The trees will not grow if they have no water.’
‘The birds and animals won’t come here if there is nothing for them to drink.’
Then Wandjina used his spear to break the mountain open and let Weowie out.”
Others had come to listen. The old man could see the faces of two of the Fitzpatrick girls, as pale as twin moons, framed by one of the night filled windows. Both were holding ragamuffin posies of wilted wildflowers.
“When Weowie saw Wandjina, The Great Spirit, he was scared and ran away. And where The Water Serpent crawled, he made the river. But then Weowie’s tail was caught between two of the boulders that had rolled down the mountainside, and when he tried to pull it free, the last bit broke off. Those big rocks are still there.”
“It was Weowie’s tail that made the billabong,” the boy said; finishing his grandfather’s story. “But why is it a bad place?”
The old man shrugged. “That’s another story,” was all he would say. “For another time.”
“You can tell me on the way,” said the boy. “I’m supposed to take you back with me.”
The old man didn’t ask where.
“One day this white fella boss man came to Nungurru and said, ‘All this land belong me, now.’”
“Nungurru laughed and shook his head at the gubba’s foolishness. ‘Do you own the sky, too?’ He asked.”
The boss man swore and shot Nungurru dead.”
“Nungurru’s people tried to run. But there were more white fellas hiding behind the trees. They killed them all, and threw their bodies into the billabong.”
“Nungurru and his people were no more.”
“The boss man grazed sheep in the valley. The sheep drank the water from the billabong and died. The boss man rode away.”
The boy looked at his grandfather. “Just like that?”
The old man nodded.
“He killed the people and took their land to feed his stupid sheep, and when the sheep died, he just packed it all in and rode away?”
The old man shrugged. “Gubbas.”
He twisted his lips as if the word itself had left a bad taste in his mouth: A taste he’d been trying to wash away for more years than he cared to remember.
“When was this?” Asked the boy.
“Long time ago, now,” his grandfather said, “before Fitzpatrick. Before the white fella called all this country his country.”
“He was my grandfather, wasn’t he? Fitzpatrick. My other grandfather, I mean.”
“He was your mother’s father,” the old man acknowledged reluctantly.
“So, I’m cursed, too,” said the boy. “But that’s not why they came for me.”
“Who came for you?” Asked the old man; already knowing the answer.
“They. Them. Us. The elders. The warriors. You’ll meet them soon.”
The boy had led his grandfather away from the derelict shack to where the tumbled together boulders crouched; cloaked in the moon-shadow. As they drew nearer, the earth under their feet trembled, and both heard a rumbling sound.
The boulders shifted. They changed shape. They stood straight and tall. They kept their cragged appearance, their weathered stone faces, but they were men. Old and young. although even the youngest were ancient. Two held spears and carried shields. A third cradled a didgeridoo. The fourth clapping sticks or bimli.
The boy adressed each in turn as ‘Uncle’.
“This is Muruwarri.” He said. “From Wiradjuri country. He is my father’s father.”
“Welcome Muruwarri.” The four said in unison. “Welcome Birrani.”
They formed a circle around the boy. The men began to chant. Birrani danced.
In the outside world, beyond the shack, beyond the mountains, time passed. Only the moon remained constant.
And still Birrani, danced.