after the two continents had split from Pangea some 60,000 years before Man
found his way to the shores of Australia. From Africa and Asia in boats of
crafted wood, across the narrow strait where the sea was at it’s lowest they
braved a new world. To the northern side of Wallacia, on a steady course of
island hopping, the Aborigines found a home.
Dog and Man rose, the surf landing gently on the sandy shore. From the trees, rocks and the darkest of holes the Custodians watched. Some viewed the procession, gaping in wonder at the Aborigines black skin and white flashing teeth. Amusement pulled at large almond eyes as yapping dogs splashed about in the choppy surf. They too smiled at the excited voices of these happy people.
But beyond that there were other dark creatures that that loathed the light, they watched on in repugnance, jealous of the man and the way in which he moved in their world. Tall and thin with skin coloured of old ash these creatures watched only the children with interest. Perhaps these laughing, bright souls could give them what they craved.
The fire burned brightly, crackling as the wood inside its heart exploded. The smell of cooking meat had children begging for a taste. They squirmed in the soft sand as they shifted impatient behinds in the soft ground they gathered on. The women clucked tongues and with hand gestures some of it in the form of light hearted slaps, moved the youngsters to the far side of the talking men. These young souls would eat first for the life of the band depended on the well being of its youngsters.
Several families lived in this horde sharing the task of hunting and foraging. Most of the day, every day was spent on this task and today it was the women/s turn to celebrate a kill. The serpent roasted slowly on the hot coals. Wrapped in a jacket of thick bark, it was a fine feast for an evening meal.
Chibero sat at her own fire. Away from the rest for it was not proper to sit in the same social circle as her children’s parents. Her son-in-law talked with the men in low voice as they discussed the soak found a short way off to the east. Today had not been a total loss. Strange looking animals with short front legs and overly long tails came often to drink the cool fresh water. There was an under-current of excitement in the conversation and Chibero smiled quietly to herself. Men never changed, no matter what their age.
Her daughter hovered on the outer edges of the firelight. She would as custom demanded act as a third person tonight, serving her mother the choicest of morsels - for it was her hand that had made the kill. From the corner of her eye Ettica saw movement and turned for a closer look. There, just behind a tree was a glint of white.
Everyone knew the ghosts of their ancestors walked side by side with the living. Ettica covered her eyes with her hands. It wouldn’t do to anger them. But surely, a peek couldn’t hurt? She unlaced calloused fingers, who could it be? Her mother’s mother or a long dead uncle, did they carry a message?
A hiss and Ettica dropped her hands. What stood before her was not a ghost, but a child. A female child and standing with this strange girl was her son.
“Windella come away. Come to your mother.” Her voice came out in a strangled screech.
Chibero looked up and gasped. The men broke their conversation and joined the stare. Windella’s father stood, spear in hand as he walked calmly over to his wife.
“Who is this child? Windella explain this?” He was someone that expected obedience, an elder of the band and as such any wrong doing would reflect heavily upon him and his family. He was not about to let anything smear his good reputation.
Windella smiled and grabbed at the other child’s hand, and as they moved closer Ettica could see differences. The other child’s eyes were larger and almond shaped, her skin in the firelight almost gleamed with a shine. The Aboriginal woman couldn’t help it once again she covered her eyes.
“Ettica! Stop behaving as though this child is something else, other than a child.” Her mother’s voice broke the sudden hush. Holding out her old hands, the grandmother waved the youngster forward. “Come my darlings sit at my fire. I am all alone and could do with some younger company.”
Windella flashed her a loving smile and pulled his new friend along.
How they loved the dark for inside its gloom there was no beauty to compete with their hatefulness. The caves underground were many. They were cool and endless. It was a safe haven for the dark loving Devils.
Having to share the island with their more salient brethren was a punishing stretch. Where they were fair and full of light, living under the stars they once called home. The Devils were mirror opposite. They held no such sentiment. The loss they felt held undercurrents of loneliness, heavier than any chain of binding.
Roaming Australia’s scorching deserts and sandy coastlines, its luscious rainforests and open plains had led them here. To a place, full of heat and hard beauty. To a place of many caves, that suited their dark nature. Out numbered by their fairer cousins these Devils had but one wish. To grow to so many that the feeling of isolation would fade to an accepting numbness.
These Devils unfolded their backs. With fluid grace, spines popping as they left their caves they took in the night air. Large eyes on very thin, grey faces blinked quickly. Under a full moon, the cool light stung the thin film protecting slightly bulging membranes. A flat, wide nose took up a large part of the face, dominating a lipless mouth. In all, it was no wonder they hid away. What ugly creatures.
Still, somewhere deep inside each black heart was an element of beauty that refused to be stifled. The Devils carried a talent, unlike any other and it showed in the shaping of stones. Not ordinary stones, but boulders as big as houses. Rounded and stacked on top of each other, smooth shapes streaked in red and gold. Some were flattened and placed in piles, but each was carefully considered in their arrangement. It was a reminder of home and fashioned with the utmost of care, it was a beautiful, poignant scene.
Tall and thin, as tall as the balancing rocks, the Devils strode off into the darkness. Not far away, and quite unaware of the approach camped a band of Aborigines, several families who shared the daily hunt. Food was foremost on everyone’s mind. Firelight showed the way, it began as a small flicker in the distance, but as the Devil’s long legs covered the many miles, the smoke and cherry flames gave them pause.
To walk in and steal what they needed would be a bold move, too bold perhaps. Humans though small in comparison might follow. Could one of them be injured in the taking? With very careful steps the Devils, as thin as they wished to be slipped up against the standing trees. Hidden by bark, wood and a camouflage of leaves, their large eyes blinked in rapid movement as they stared hungrily at the Aborigines below.
Voices and laughter ran rings up to the treetops. It swirled above the heads of the Devils and, in that moment, they fell in love with the many small dark children. They knew without a doubt, laughter was the key to making them whole.
The strange child visited every night as the camp sat together around the firelight and little by little, this strange creature changed. It was as though in the space of a week, she grew from a young girl to that of a young woman. The Aboriginal women whispered, fretful at first. The men strangely quiet, found their fingers straying to weapons of wood and rock. What should they do?
It was the children however who stayed the nervous hands. They clung to her with shining eyes and wide smiles and she drew them in with soft words, and gentle kisses.
One evening in a voice lyrical and as sweet as cool running water, this wondrous being produced a bag. It was the likes of such, they had never seen before. It was made from riverbed reeds and intricately woven. It was a treasure beyond imagining. The custodian held in her hands a basket. Gasps erupted from the women.
Chibero reached out and the ethereal being with a wide, generous smile passed it to the old Aboriginal woman.
“What is it?”
“It is a basket. You can carry food and shellfish back here to the camp. Enough for an evening meal if you choose to use it Chibero.” Now, the voice sounded like a soft breeze tickling the treetops on its way through.
“It is wonderful. It is so very beautiful.” The Aboriginal woman ran her hands over what she deemed a miracle.
“It is yours.”
“Mine? Truly mine, but I have nothing to give back. I cannot accept such a gift.” Chibero risked a glance at her son-in-law.
To accept such a treasure without the permission of the elders would invoke punishment. Something an old woman like herself might not live through. But the woven basket was a wondrous curiosity. Accepting it meant an easier life at least for her old feet, but to do so under the disapproval of her daughter’s husband would bring them all bad luck. She risked another glance.
Mahdi nodded, he could also see the value in such a gift, but the wariness never left his eyes.
“There is something you can give me in exchange, Mahdi.”
It was bold and Ettica covered her eyes. Several spear shafts created a ripple among the waiting throng as they thumped up and down in the soft red sand.
One man openly shouted, “Don't listen Mahdi. She will have us all under her spell if you do. We are better off sending her away than to accept such a gift.”
When Mahdi held up a hand, no one questioned the why of it. He was curious. “What is it you want?”
The young woman smiled and nodded, as much to herself as to the wind it seemed. “I wish you all to meet others like me.”
Mahdi thumped his spear shaft along with the other men. She was presumptuous, not one of them. But the young woman serenely looked on. Hers was a power that could not be intimidated, or swept aside like some biting gnat. It ran deep in the earth. It was a marriage of love and Australia flourished in heat and spirit because of it. She turned and looked towards the trees.
At first, they didn’t see a thing. The evening shadows danced to a northerly wind under a crescent moon. Cicadas sang in celebration to the passing of yet, another hot day. All eyes fell to the mallee scrub as the young man walked the red sands.
He moved as if it were daytime, unhindered by the dark. It was a perfect night, blanketed by an overhead sea of glittering stars.
“This is Trai.” With the ease of familiarity, the young woman laid a hand on his arm. Without invitation, the young man perched on the log next to his companion. Both were silent, serene as they waited.
Chibero didn’t look to Mahdi this time, or the other men in the band. The old woman took the basket and cradling it to her chest, she sat down. They watched on with eyes full of suspicion, stroking the shafts of their long spears. She was over-stepping so many laws. Strict laws that kept family group safe, but this was important. She didn’t know why. Perhaps, it was the wish to keep the basket for its genius. Who would have thought reeds could be woven so.
Windella appeared, sneaking up behind Trai as everyone stared at her grandmother. Was she mad? The bright-eyed Aboriginal boy took his hand, patting it gently with his small one. “Have you bought me a present?”
Trai smiled at the youngster, so trusting. He had argued against giving the Aboriginal people the gift of Dreaming. This land was precious, unique in many ways from the rest of the world. He had been wrong. These dark, curious people loved the island. “I do have a present, little one but it is not for you. My gift is for Mahdi.”
The men erupted into a gale of discussion. Dozens of voices spoke out at once, some furious in their argument to drive the Custodians away,while others cautioned the rest to silence. The flames danced and the wind high above sounded like the waves inside a seashell. More children gathered about the two beings, and it seemed in the space of a few minutes they had changed in appearance again. They were no longer young, but of an age equal to Mahdi. Their almond shape eyes larger and their skin, a once gleaming bronze was now a ghostly white.
Ettica squealed, covered her eyes like she always did and all the other women, thinking that perhaps the dead had come to claim them, did exactly the same. Mahdi retrieved a rock from the ground and the other men shuffled their feet, making ready for war, twelve men against two ghosts.
Both Custodians smile, perfect smiles that won many a heart. From some hidden place, Trai produced a beautifully carved piece of wood. It was decorated with strange markings. “This is my gift and if you are willing I will return on the morrow to show you its worth.”
Narrowed eyes took in the piece, it was unusual yes but what value did it have other than it being prettily marked.
“You will come to us, here in the daylight, not cloaked as a ghost but as yourself.” He was tempted to hold the funny shaped gift. “What is it called?’
“In your tongue, it would be called a boomerang.”
In the year 1930 a new planet was found, they named it Pluto. Arnold’s hero, Donald Bradman scored 452 runs in a not out single innings and to the horror of everyone around, Australia fell foul to the Great Depression.
At first life-carried on as it had always done. My father kissed my mother goodbye on his way to work. I headed down the street, wishing I were someplace else, instead of on the way to school. Joel Parkinson was a bully and of late, I was more popular than ‘kick the can.’ In my eyes, nothing much seemed different. Not at first anyway.
For the first year, we lived as a family of three. Until one day, upon returning home from school sandals tight from a day’s play and the hot sun sweating rings under my armpits. I was given the news that I was to become a big brother.
I admit at first it was a little shocking, I would no longer be the only one, I would have to share. At the very worst, I would have to be responsible. During that winter when the squawking voice of a baby filled our house, y worst fears had come to a head. I had a little brother now everything I owned would most likely, never truly be mine again.
In the second year, I noticed the worry on my parent’s faces and tears I was not supposed to see. There were whispers at night behind closed door. I laid tucked in bed with Jimmy smiling at me through the cot bars, but nothing could disguise the urgency of my parent’s voices. I didn’t understand how could I? I was only ten.
In 1933, the Great Depression had wrung the world out and for that matter, Australia dry. Men left their families in droves, seeking work where there was none, abandoning wives and children to a life of squalor, and in some cases a messy death. Hunger and disease, o work and hardship were the order of the day. It was a time when being an Australian meant being on the line. It was in that year my father found himself, along with hundreds like him out of work.
I was sitting at the table, the furniture of late was dwindling and I often wondered if my bed would be the next piece to go. It frightened me but I never said anything. I didn’t want to jinx my luck. Dinner was a piece of bread, sprinkled with gold. At least, that was what my mum called it, a teaspoon of sure with a bow of milk. I was lucky. I had clean clothes and a pair of well-kept shoes. I had a dad that came home sober each night and we, despite everything around us were still a family.
My father burst through the door. The screen banged with such a noise that Jimmy dropped his bread onto the floor.
“Frank!” Exasperation blistered the air.
“Sorry, sorry love.” He picked up the piece of bread. “It’s okay, it can only help build up the boy’s constitution. A drop of dust never hurt anyone.” He handed the baby back his sugary fare, then patter him on the head as though saying hello to Jimmy was an afterthought.
Hands on her hips, my mother was a force to be reckoned with and I ducked my head hiding a smile behind my sticky hand. My father was check and sass, and Edith bone tired from the long fay gave him a look.
Oh boy! There’s going to be hell to pay, I felt like ducking under the table.
“Now Edith. Before you lose your temper, hear me out.”
My mother snorted.
“I was given work today. Not just for tomorrow or the day after, but ongoing employment that will give us a house and a steady wage each week. It means food on the table Edith. You and the boys will finally be all right.” His smile was such that my mouth dropped open.
She didn’t know what to day. On wobbly legs, my mother made her way to the table. She pulled out a rickety chair and sate down. “Truly? You have work and we will be all right?” A tear slid down her check, her hands bunched up tight with a fistful of apron. “Where? I haven’t heard of any work going and you know the street is a buzz with out-of-work news.”
I was forgotten as my father pulled out another old chair. “We will have to move.”
“Move? To a new house?” Her eyes were wet, but wide with the question.
My father dropped his head at this bit. Clearly, it wasn’t all good news.
“What is it, Frank?” There was a catch in her voice and Jimmy, bored with his bread and milk, pushed his plate towards the centre of the table.
“We will have a new house, but it will be very different to this one Edith. You see we will be moving to the Northern Territory. I’ve been offered a job in the new mine.”
I looked at my mother. Her face had paled at the prospect of such a challenge.
I piped up, no longer wishing to play the invisible man. “What does it mean? Where is the Norther Territory and why can’ we stay here? I like it here.”
Edith reached out and grabbed my hand. “It will be all right dear. If you father says that we have to move, then we will make living in the Northern Territory an adventure. You like adventures, don’t you Arnold?”
My father nodded. “It’s not going to be easy. We won’t have a house like this and it is going to be hot with more flies than you’ve ever seen, but we can make it work.”
My mother laughed. “The look on your face Arnold.”
The tension fell away and Jimmy, with his sticky face farted. I couldn’t help it and laughed as well, waving a hand in his direction. My dad joined in with a deep chuckle and even mum smiled. We were a family and, no matter what the future held we would face it together.
My mother began to clear the table. “When do you have to start Frank? There’s the house to pack and I’ve got to tell my sister we’re leaving, then there’s Arnold’s teacher.” She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes.
“We’ll have a couple of weeks. I’ve organized a second hand Pontiac for you and the children to ride in, and the mine’s been good enough to give us the use of a Bedford truck. I’ll travel with our belongings.”
It sounded so final. I felt like crying. In the blink of an eye my world had been turned upside down. “Don’t worry sport,” he whispered. “They don’t have a school where we’re going.”
“Really?” I was being herded to bed.
“Really. You will have a grand time Arnold.”
I prayed with all my heart that it would be so.
Every time I threw that look. I heard my father’s voice. We’re one of the lucky ones kiddo, and don’t you ever forget it.
In his dungarees and wide brimmed hat, he looked every inch a farmer, but the truth was Frank had landed on his fee. Working for the Rising Sun, a gold mine near Tennant Creek meant we had a bough shed all to ourselves. It was cool in this new house of ours, thick wooden beams served as its frame and bushes, and tree branches made up the rest.
We even had the use of a modern convenience, even if it was a little primitive, but the benefit of a bush fridge, a Coolgardie safe helped make up for the loss of other familiar things. Like friends and cricket games, even the tyrant school bully would have been welcomed in the outback loneliness. I only had the company of galahs and those nasty, sticky black flies that looked for any wet spot to land on to call friends. It wasn’t that I was unhappy, far from it, but I did miss the familiar things.
I marveled at this cooling box for it was made from a hessian bag and on its sides, my father had inserted two boards to make it a solid and wondrous thing. The breeze, as it was explained to me flowed through the fridge setting jellies and keeping foodstuff cool. My sweet tooth thanked it just the dame, for now the ants couldn’t get to my honey or syrup.
My dad worked long days and sometimes he didn’t come home at all, such was the life of a miner. My mother smiled more often now, she even sang and I like to hear her voice. I yearned for the day when I would be allowed to drive the water truck. I’l me considered a man then, I was sure of it, and when I mentioned it to my mum she would laugh softly and ruffle my hair.
“Don't wish to grow up in too much of a hurry Arnie. It will come soon enough.”
The Great Depression for me was just another story to match Dreamtime.
I liked the window open when I slept. Falling asleep to crickets had become a habit back in Sydney, but out here in the desert: well it was very different.
“I have a surprise for you Arnold.” My mother’s voice overrode the sense of dreaming I felt was near. “Tomorrow your father is coming home. He will be bringing trackers with him this time and I do believe that one of them has a son. He’s your age, so I will expect you to show him about and fill his days until your dad leaves again.”
All of a sudden I wasn’t tired, dreams could wait this was indeed good news. “Really! Where will they stay?” The stars winked in and out, as I looked out the window, the sound of a lonely dingo filled my ears. It was a mournful howl.
“There are some shanties down the back. I am sure they’ll be comfortable. They are not like us Arnie. They have their ways and for the most part very secret. You must promise me that you will not do your exploring while your dad is home.” Her voice had dropped to that no-nonsense tone she used when becoming serious. “Promise me son? They have their ways and they are not our.”
I had not a clue as to what she was on about, but I nodded anyway. It seemed to have hit the right note for she smiled and kissed my forehead. “Sleep now, little one. It will be morning soon enough. I have to admit it will be a pleasure to have your dad home again.”
We didn’t have a cock to crow the mornings away, we have ravens. Black feathered birds with nasty beaks and voices that shouted Caw, caw. At first light these birds began, it was better than having any watch and I loved them. In face, over the many months I had cultivated a loose friendship with a baby rave, sneaking scraps from my plate each night to leave on my windowsill. He came a visiting most days and grew fat on what I fed him. I called him Midnight.
The sound of a Bedford truck dragged me from my morning dreaming, dad was home. Other cars followed the dust trail and soon the yard was full of deep voices and whistles, We had two dogs, an old blue heeler that I had named Bluey as a pup, but he couldn’t move as quick as the younger one. The other was a mongrel pup: silly as all dogs are in the early years of their lives and he followed me everywhere when I let him. Moses was his name.
As the dust settled and the barking dogs were called to order, I was able to finally see the trackers. There were four Aboriginal men in total and one young boy.
I was still staring. Goggling actually and I didn’t notice the approach of my father until I felt his hand on my head. “Hey kiddo. So, you’ve seen Kyes, He’s here with his father for a weeks. He will stay with you during the days, wile the men help track a herd of camels. It’s a shame that they have to be destroyed, but we can’t have those feral animals ripping down our fences anymore.” He looked thoughtful and I smiled. It was good to have him home.
The Aboriginal men separated making ready to leave. They had deep voices and each carried a sack. Provisions given to them by the Mining Captain: flour and dried meat, tabacco and tea. They paid little attention to the group of white men my father was speaking to, we were all but forgotten as they left for their shanty.
Kyes, the young Aboriginal boy with whom I was to share my days with gave me a backward glance as they led him away. His bright brown eyes toom me in and with a smile, he was gone.
There was that occasional awkwardness when two people first meet. It was that way with Kyes and me, shy smiles and nervous glances at each other. We developed over the days a kind of secret way of talking with hand gestures and mime. It was a friendship in the making. Sometimes we used sticks to draw what we had to say and the promise I made my mother was all but forgotten. Kyes was a quick learner and before long, we exchanged words with one another, stringing sentences together. I attempted a word or two in his tongue and he in broken English. It was the best of times.
We became inseparable, the white miner’s son and the black tracker’s boy. To fill our days we found ways to disappear from under the watchful eyes of our adult minders. Most often than not, I would slip off my shoes and walk barefoot with Kyes, as we make our way to Lake Mary Ann. It was a long hike, north through the gap, hills left and right. To the south was Gilbert Swamp and we vowed, locking pinkies that an adventure would take us that way. A giant Perentie lurked within the wooded lands. If we could catch such a serpent, well, we’d be heroes.
Kyes whispered that it was a secret track and, treading carefully that meant talking in whispers. We were walking in the Custodian’s footsteps. I laughed and said I didn’t believe in ghosts or aliens. Be shook his head, “You best not say that here. They have powerful magic. Everything in this land comes from them.”
“Did they make that rock over there?” I knew it was a cheeky snapback but I couldn’t help it.
“You are being foolish.” Kyes sounded angry. “We have stories, we have secrets given to us by the creators of this land. How could a white boy like you ever understand the importance of looking after the world we live in.”
We had stopped walking and found that despite our friendship this was unchartered territory. Spirits and beliefs had never before entered into our adventures and now that it had, I wasn’t sure I liked it.
“Who are these creators and why is it I don’t know anything about them.” My hand rested on my hips.
Kyes head tipped to his left should. It was as though he was listening to something I couldn’t hear. I tapped my foot, impatient to be on my way. Swimming was far more important than old stories.
“Long ago when my people came to be, we wandered this land like a child lost without its mother, We were not quarrelsome, but ignorant in the ways of life. But then the Custodians found us. They are still here, watching and listening to make sure that the land is kept safe, You cannot speak like this to me Arnold.”
I didn’t want to argue, especially about something I knew nothing about. My mother had hinted as much. They were a secret people with strange beliefs.
I threw my hands up in the air. “Alright already, I’ll whisper but I tell you now I don’t believe in the boogieman and I certainly don’t believe in your Custodians’ Now, can we go swimming?”
Kyes had a cheeky grin and I couldn’t help but grin back. “You are alright for a while fella. Even if you don’t believe.”
It was a long, hot and dusty walk. We kept our eyes peeled for those sneaky snakes and biting inch ants. Tall termite mounds dotted the landscape, mighty castles of clay and termite shit all packed tight to insulate their colonies. We chucked rocks at some of them, laughing as young boys do when they are caught up in that abandonment of mischief making.
She came upon us as we turned a corner. Sweat stained and dusty from our long walk, Lake Mary Ann was a slice of blue heaven. We swam and splashed, dunked each other under the cool water and lay on our backs as we watched the floating clouds above pass by. We were compatible in our silence, so much so that the small band of Aborigines never noticed us. Kyes raised a slim finger to his kips, begging for quiet and, like an eel my dark friend wriggled his way to the bank. I suitably followed trying desperately not to giggle.
We were covered in mud and reeds, I looked like him and when he split his mud mask with a grill of white teeth, it was the end of me. I rolled onto my back and tried not to laugh. Kyes was so serious. Again, he raised his finger to his lips and I losed my eyes not looking helped.
The chatter came closer, women and children talking, laughing and the sun on my skin made it a perfect day. Kyes lay very still, his eyes closed as he listened to their passing conversation. Weaved baskets and digging sticks accompanied the bustle of a busy day for this roaming band. His bright eyes opened, blinked and a grin split his mud mask cracking it into a motley pattern.
He mouthed the words Karlu, karlu and I screwed up my face in response. The words meant nothing. A hush settled over the passing group, the only sound was the laughter of children and the splashing of water: the afternoon waned in the waiting for them all to leave. I felt the mud drying on my skin, I was living inside a mud shell.
Kyes turned his head and nodded towards the water. I didn’t whoop. But I was close to it as I het the cool water, feeling the mud slide back into the lake like melted chocolate,.
“Karlu Karlu? Wat does it mean Kyes?”
“It mean Devils Marbles to the while fella. It is a forbidden place.”
Now, he had my interest, “Where are they? This Karlu Karlu. Do ghosts live there? Or is there some monster that scares everyone away? We should go there and catch the beauty. What a story that would make, don’t you think?”
“You white boys have such soft brains. The Devils Marbles are a long way from here. We couldn't walk it in a single day and if anyone of my people found out that I had been there without my father I’d cop a beating. Karlu Karlu is a place of spirits Arnold.”
Wrinkled like prunes we began the long walk home, each silent with our own thoughts for company. Galahs and ravens shouted out in the late afternoon sun, a flock of zebra finches zipped past in a blue of grey and white. We didn’t slow for neither of us wanted to explain the lateness of our outing.
We didn’t go down to Gilbert Swamp, the trackers came and that was that our adventure came to an abrupt end. Kyes spent his time with his father, so I was left to amuse myself in the company of flies and dogs. I was hitting a cricket ball up against a fat tree stump this was where father found me. It didn’t take a lot to see the boredom of the day as I smashed the ball with as much fury as my pent up frustration would allow.
“Arnold, do you think you could help me today?”
I threw the bad down, “Dad! When did you get back? Are you staying long?”
He laughed and ruffled my hair in that jokester way he often did, “How would you like to lean the ropes kiddo? I haven’t been around much these day, but work is work and when there is not enough to go around, we have to make the best of what we have when it is offered.”
I beamed, happy to have him all to myself for the day. On the back of the Bedford truck, a dozen forty four gallon drums were strapped tot eh flat tray. Usually this was Mac’s chore, but father was home and today I was going to help him get the water. It was better than kick the can and far more interesting than throwing a ball to the silly dog.
I sat impatiently in the passenger seat, we had a way to go and I was eager to be off. Moses pushed up against me. He wanted to sniff the wind, and I felt trampled by his bony feet and sharp nails. “Oh Moses! Ger off me!” I didn’t fancy slobber and drool in my lap.
The other door opened and Frank peered in at me. “Tell you what kiddo. How would you like to take the wheel for a little bit when we’re further up the track?”
He saw the excitement flush my cheeks and hurried on. “You’ve got to promise me, Arnie, that you won’t breathe a word of this, do you hear me, not a word to your mother. She would skin us both if she thought for a minute, that I left you drive the Bedford.”
He waited, demanding and answer. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I was all twisted inside with the joy of it. Looking out the window, with Moses will pushing up against me, I smiled and told myself over again that after this drive I would be a man. A plume of red dust lifted into the air with our passing and a black wedge tail eagle opened his wings wide at our intrusion upon his roadside lunch.
The day dragged as I hauled water. Bucket after bucket from the well, we filled the drums and then sealed them all with bungs. Now I was getting tipsy, drunk on anticipation. I wriggled about and my father laughed. He roared with it and the truck stopped as if his laughing was all it took. ”Ok sport. Now you need to watch me very carefully and as I drive I’ll tell you what you need to do.” He turned the key and, for a while down the track. I watched and learnt how to drive the Bedford.
Much to my delight, I was allowed to drive nearly every day after that. It was a responsibility, both overwhelming and pleasing. Be the end of the second week, the truck was no longer jerking and stalling with every gear change. On the third week, I was allowed to drive the truck to the well. Dad as my passenger with Moses pushing and drooling into his lap. How I loved my life.
The wild dog sat in front of the cave. It sniffed the air and stared at the four sets of large blinking eyes within the darkened entrance. Luminous eyes adjusted their stare into the moonlight. They cared not a whit for the dingo, they were however, curious. Everything about this land was strange.
Scratching, the dingo dislodged a grass seed. It sniffed the air again and deciding that there was nothing to gain in watching the cave stood and without a backward glance, trotted away.
The four sets of eyes moved a little, shifting to darker shadows lest the bright sun caused them pain. The Devils waited, as they did every daylight hour for the evening to come. They hoped that the night would bring a band, a group of Aborigines with laughing children close. Thin arms with spidery fingers itched and scratched like the dingo’s hind leg had done. Sharp nails scraped fresh marks into stone walls.
As the shadows lengthened, a flock of budgerigars flew close to the cave entrance. A trilling cloud of pretties on the way home to feather a nest oblivious to the thin, grey beings full of envy at such a colourful display. Several long arms streaked out, greedy limbs intent of destroying what they were not. Hands snatched a prize of squawking feathers. Blue and green bodies disappeared into the dark hole, a tasty snack in wait of something better to come. Large eyes kept staring, always searching.
The land of Aborigines arrived just before sundown. They settled near a soak, under the shelter of some Red Mallees, small trees with creamy flowers, narrow leaves and dark grey bark. It was a large horde, four families in total, who had worked together during the day and as luck had it, they would cook a kangaroo under a sky of stars. Laughter sounded out, rushing towards the caves that lay hidden under the Devils Marbles, children’s laughter, it was as bright as moonbeams.
Oudin dug a pit, big enough for the kangaroo to lie in. The women fanned out on every side gathering armfuls of dry wood and it wasn’t long before the flames of the cooking pit reached up high into the coming night air.
The smell of cooking meat sent a ripple of excitement down the dark hole. The Devils shifted and waited. Soon the sun would be gone and then they would walk the land in the hope of enticing a little one to follow them home.
“Suna, take your sister and gather some firewood. Don’t stray too far. Do you hear me?
Suna grabbed his sister’s hand. She was three years younger and had a habit of wandering off. “Can’t she stay here with Aunty?”
Oudin look up. His conversation with the other men fell silent and Suna felt the heat rise to his face. He had embarrassed his father with those words. Trying to shun the responsibility, he had been given to another of the hand and particularly an Aunty was reprehensible.
“Right away father.”
Oudin gave the boy a short nod. He would speak to his son later, not in front of the others, but he needed to know his place.
“Come on Balnah. Keep up.” Suna did his best to sound sense of family, so when Balnah left his side, he of course followed. He had always been a good tracker. Oudin was the best and had taught him the skills of following a human in the dark. Small footprints wandered out past the safety of the camp and he cursed quietly at what Oudin would say if anything was to happen to his sister.
He left the light of the campfire behind, the sound of the wind overhead rustled the leaves of the white gums and Suno began to worry. “Balnah.”
Only the cry of a barking owl came back to his call and with it a fear, overwhelming apprehension on what to do next. Should he go back” Without his sister, it would mean a beating, not to mention the shame that would follow. No, he had no choice but to move ahead. Swallowing hard, Suno walked through the trees and stopped dead.
A short white man held Balnah’s hand. She was busy chewing on something. He had never seen anything quite like it before, but the sound of her crisp bites dragged him forward. The man had large eyes, they looked sad and Suno couldn’t help himself, he smiled releasing a thread of magic on the wind.
“I found her wandering in the dark young man. It was a good thing I was out for my walk or else she might have never been found. “His voice was coaxing. It soothed the worry and for some reason the words wrapped themselves in knots inside his head, settling heavily upon his heart.
Another man stepped up. They looked like brothers, identical in appearance and in a voice equally the same, “I have one for you too little man. It’s called an apple. Your sister seems to enjoy them.”
Suno didn’t realize he had been walking forward. It wasn’t until he had taken a bit of the hard fleshed fruit did he wonder who they were. With a mouthful of apple the young Aboriginal boy took hold of the other man’s hand and together the four of them walked back to the Devils Marbles.
They scoured the dark all night long. Branches aglow with firelight, distressed calls from mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles sounded out as they shouted and shouted, calling out to the stars until they were hoarse with anguish. All grieved for the loss of two small children. The tall, thin, grey beings looked on from their hidden caves. Some cried, others wailed but not a one stopped to look in.
Down in the belly of the cavern, so deep that not a sound could be heard, sat Suno and Balnah. Opposite them were two thin, grey beings, disguised in their costume of human beings and as they talked in voices of magic and guile, these darker beings coaxed what they thought they needed from the happy children - laughter.
Kyes wandered across the yard, several weeks after leaving me to myself and we stood looking at each other as we had once done on another day past. His white smile set me to laughing and we rushed at each other, shaking hands and patting each other on the back. It was as if we had never been apart.
“I heard something whitey. A secret,: and he grinned at me.
I looked this way and that. Already a secret and one that he wanted to share with me. It was too good to be true. “Is it an adventure? Are you going to Gilbert’s Swamp?”
It’s better than an adventure Arnold. It’s a ceremony.”
I must have looked crest fallen and he hurried on. “You don’t understand. Only men are allowed to go. I was listening to my father talk to the other men one night and this is a very secret ceremony. A magic gathering.”
Now he had my attention. “Really? Magic! Will there be tricks or something?”
I got a slap for that. Kyes almost balled up his fist for a further whack. “You white fella’s know nothing. I have told you before about the Custodians, their magic is very strong. The men of my father’s band will gather with the other elders, and if they sing the song’s of my father’s father, we might see one of them.”
I rocked up onto my toes and Moses gave a bark in the hope that I would throw a ball. “How can that be? We’re not men, we’re just boys. They will never let us go.”
“Who said anything about asking anyone else about going.” Kyes cheeky grin was back and we laughed together.
The elders of the Kaytetye people gathered in the meeting place just before dawn. A fire was set in the centre of a large circular clearing. Men of all ages sat about, some grinding ochre onto plates of rock, mixing it with ash and clay, blending it all together with camel fat to form a paste.
The men reacquainted themselves. Some discussed law and tribal etiquette, and others talked about hunts and soaks, wives and any other matter that needed council. The day passed as they readied. Didgeridoos, boomerangs and music sticks were laid out on the ground in preparation for the evening’s ceremony. Food was cooked and eaten, and as the late afternoon sun sat bloated in the sky, each man began to help each other with paint and symbols.
One by one, they painted each other and each man’s body art was his own. Never changing and proudly worn for they would dance the song lines of the path left by the Custodians, across the land of their father’s father. Two music sticks cracked the air and as if by magic the sun left the day, dropping below the horizon.
Kyes held a finger to his kips and this time I didn’t feel like giggling. There was something very frightening about this whole sneaking business. We had walked the men’s footsteps to this place, with me following Kyes as he acted as tracker. Sneaking out after supper, we both swore to my mother that we just wanted some time alone and she, indulgent to our long absence agreed. I grabbed his arm in mine and together, whispering as boys do, we trundled off towards the makeshift cubby we had built that afternoon.
I wanted to but I didn’t have the nerve to call it off. It was way too late for such a thing, so I crouched beside my partner in crime and waited. Obscured from the men, we looked on. Hidden by brush and rock we waited.
A didgeridoo sounded, its low notes vibrated in the air, two boomerangs clacked together forming a rhythmic tune. Music sticks joined in and the pounding of fee began the ceremony. Six men danced inside the circle, miming a perfect performance. The hunter searching and two kangaroos drinking at a soak, an emu joins the jumping animals and two birds settling on the back for a drink.
I was wonder-stuck, never before in my short life had I thought to see such beauty. The rest of the men, sitting cross-legged, lifted their voices to the wafting music and began to change deep notes like the didgeridoo and the dancing quickened. Kyes grinned and looked at me.
For an hour the ceremony continued, the pitch rose and fell as the men called out into the night. The stars overhead seemed to brighten and the wind, where there had been none, whipped up clouds of dust.
A touch of apprehension filled me and I whispered. “What’s happening?”
Kyes shook his head and again the slim finger halted anymore talk.
From out of the air three Custodians appeared, shining as brightly as the stars above. Ethereal with hair that looked like spun god. They had changed over the many thousand years, and tonight the men saw them for who they really were. They were the caretakers of the land, guiding the Aboriginal people in all things and as such, they were honored and Australia was lovingly cared for.
The Custodians settled among the men and in sweet crystal, voices wrapped alien words around the human chant. The men didn’t stop dancing and the singing carried magic into the performance, gifting the elders with a land bond that ran deep in each man.
The boys watched, wide-eyed and mouths open. Later on when they were alone, both would swear that one of the Custodians had turned to look at them. It was a night to remember and it was during that dare Kyes, and Arnold fell in love. Not with each other but with the memory.
They were too nervous to speak of what they had seen. Alone, the boy’s eyes shone with the secret of seeing the ceremony and especially the Custodians. Each knew that if a parent learn of their escapade, their world of togetherness would be torn apart.
They were chucking rocks: just passing the time and always wanting an adventure I couldn’t help myself. “They were so beautiful. Were they real Kyes?”
The Aboriginal boy nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“Where do they live?”
Kyes was silent for a bit. “I am not sure. My father is always saying that we are not allowed to go to that place called Devils Marbles, so I wonder if that is where they live. They are beautiful aren’t they?”
It was my turn to nod. “Shall we go and look?” I whispered, checking over my shoulder at the sound of a yapping dog. The old soul had a raven in his sight and was exercising his worth as our indispensible sentry.
“How? It is a long way to walk. We couldn’t walk there and get back by the time we are missed. I don’t want a beating, especially if I don’t get to see a Custodian.” Kyes waved a sticky sly away and went back to chucking rocks.
“We could take the Bedford.” I felt the flush of excitement in this new dare.
“The truck? Who is the hell is going to drive the truck Arnie? Moses perhaps or your father if we ask real nice? Foolish white boy.” Kyes looked at me with concern.
“I can drive the truck blackie. I’ve been driving it with my dad for weeks now. Been hauling water for the farm and I can drive the Bedford on my own. We could take that.”
The rock Kyes threw bounced off the stump of a dead three and it sailed to the ground, a puff of red dust exploded. “Now there’s a thought,” He looked at me: newly found respect shone from his eyes. “Okay.”
His cheeky grin was back and he held out his hand. I laughed and together we sealed the deal, Friends till the end. It was decided, after the urgency had settled between us, to leave just after dark. Son the trackers would go, taking Kyes with them and without the excuse of having to kill camels, we might never see each other again.
It was well past dark. We laughed nervously, encouraging each other with the need to fulfill our boyish desires. The bark of an owl set us to motion. Like thieves, we stuck to the heavier shadows and crept away from the farm and our makeshift tent to the Bedford truck.
The keys were in the ignition. I put the truck into neutral and rolled it down the short incline. It picked up speed, just enough to clear it from earshot. The engine fired and the lights lit up the track ahead. We were off, on the biggest adventure yet.
The rumbling of the engine at night startled the tall, grey men. Those closest to the cave entrance shifted and scratched on the walls, tearing long, agitated grooves with their sharp nails. Who dares to disturb a Devil’s sleep? Several pairs of eyes looked out onto the landscape, but there was no flame to alert them of a passing band. It was most unusual.
A lone Devil unwound himself from the coiled position he was lying in. Large blinking eyes took in the gloom and his spine cracked into position as he worked his way from the cave. The rest settled and waited. What would he bring back? Excitement caused a mass shiver and a voice, as old as rock grumbled. “You will wait.”
The cave settled - the loathing fell back into place as the single tall, thin, grey being walked out into the night. It took long strides and stopped still against a tall white gum tree. It changed to look like the trees - skin white with smatterings of pale green blotches. Large eyes peered through the foliage and watched the headlights of a Bedford truck as it ambled along the track.
We came to a stop and I turned the key. There was quiet, all except for the cicadas that clacked away in the dark. Each of us closed our door quietly conscious of the echo the metal sound made. The Devil watched with interest. Children had arrived, along, unguarded.
I tried, but this time I couldn’t help myself, I let go a short giggle. It was nerves and Kyes grinned back. The Devil nodded its head, a second being left the cave.
“Where would they be?” I whispered.
Kyes shrugged. He pointed forward and together we walked shoulder to shoulder: step by step. A short distance in, past the tree where the Devil was standing, a shimmering figure stepped out. I screamed and turned to run, but my friend was made of stronger stuff.
“Arnie.” It’s one of them.” Kyes voice rose in pitch.
The beautiful being stepped forward and then another from our left joined its brethren. Their long hair brushed slim hops and in voices, crystal sweet spoken with old magic the beings smiled. “You have come far tonight to find us my boys. You must be tired and perhaps a little thirsty.”
We shook our heads in answer, grinning widely as the magic settled into our bones and hearts. Kyes yawned and I stifled mine with a heavy hand I felt as though I was walking a dream. Perhaps, it was and Kyes lay beside me sleeping in our makeshift tent.
The disguised Custodians gathered us up, gently taking an elbow and guiding us both towards the cave. Hungry eyes stared at the advancing procession, but we never saw the danger. Our world was one of beauty and lethargy. Slim fingers dropped a handful of honey drops into our hands. We each propped one into our mouths and sucking greedily as we were led on. The world before us was bright and wondrous, the best magic trick of all.
Everyone thought that the boys had slept in. Frank carried on with his chores as did Edith and, as the morning waned, the breakfast call went out.
“Frank have you seen the boys?” Edith had her hands on her hips and this of course meant trouble for anyone not quick enough.
“Have you checked their tent?” he was on his way to fetching the Bedford for there was a fence that needed mending, and Kyes father had promised to help him.
“Of course, I checked the tent. I thought they might have been with you. The porridge is setting and my temper also Frank. I’ve told these boys not to dawdle with me. When I have more chores to do each day than I have hairs on my head. Chasing after two naughty lads is not one of them.”
It didn’t take long to realize that they were gone, The missing Bedford truck sent Edith into a fit of tears, boarding on hysteria and the men coming back from a perimeter search shook their heads and crossed themselves. Frank set about making plans.
He argued that they should follow the tyre tracks. Gibagee nodded and rapidly exchanged hand gestures with the other trackers in his group. The trackers would go south through Gilbert Swamp and onto the Devils Marbles with Frank. The foreman and a few farm hands would head north to Lake Mary Ann.
Frank kissed his wife goodbye, assuring her in between the sobs that they would be found. She clutched at her apron, reminding him of the night their Sydney kitchen a year ago.
Hours felt like days. Frank followed numbly after Gibagee and it wasn’t until late afternoon, when the shadows were at their longest and the light a golden frame, that one of Gibagee’s men came running across the ground towards them. The news he carried was urgent.
“What’s going on? Have you found them?” Frank insistence disrupted the men’s conversation.
Gibagee nodded, “He says he has found the truck. Not the boys.”
“Well! Where are the boys? For god’s sake, Gibagee, it’s nearly dark. They can’t be alone out here in the dark.”
Gibagee placed a dark hand on Frank’s shoulder. “We run.”
Across the rocky ground they ran, spears readied the Aborigines fanned out around the rocks. Loathing and magic kept the Devils safe, hidden front all men.
It was nearly dark when they came upon the Bedford. The engine was cold and the cabin empty. Each man called their son’s name until their voices, hoarse from use, fell silent. No child answered. They were gone.
In the bowels of the caves, deep beneath the Devils Marbles live many children laughing with their new friends, beguiled and lost to the magic of the thin men. Arnold and Kyes run and play, caught in that same spell. Lost, but never forgotten. Hidden from the light of day and the Devils always greedy, always chasing what they hoped to find, still hide away in the dark. Waiting for more children and the laughter they bring, that may in the secret stories of Dreamtime will one day set them free.