A short story, copyright Rose Brimson 2016
“Take it and run. Grab it. Run. Get away. That tree is Naji; spirit. It’ll kill ya.” Billy’s voice whispered words Immu didn’t want to hear. The tree whispered other words; beautiful, triple-trunked, iridescent white – a ghost gum in full glow under a full moon in mid-Yurluurrp. The cold season. Immu didn’t feel the cold. He should’ve. His clothes were thin, many holes in places there shouldn’t be. No shoes. He splayed his hands on the middle trunk, the thickest trunk, leaned in and whispered his own words.
The air smelled of dry dust, of kangaroo dung, not fresh, and rich, rich, rich bush honey. His mouth watered. No. There was something he had to do. What?
Listen. The whispers descended into sighs; meaningless. He had to get it back, learn what it meant.
“I’ve come, baban. I’ve come for you.” The tree didn’t respond. It knew Billy stood behind Immu, and Billy wasn’t meant to be there.
“Go home, Billy,” Immu said aloud. “He doesn’t want you – you’re not the right blood for this country.” It was cruel, but Immu had to get him away, had to find out why this tree wanted him, wanted to teach him the ways of Naji. He had to know. The native bees sashayed and zubbed in a lazy arc; followed the smell of their hard work. He brushed them away.
“Just grab the honey, Im. We gotta go. Gubba come.”
The Gubba weren’t coming. It was just said to scare him into leaving. Immu pushed Billy, shoved him hard, chucked the sugar-bag honey at him. The little black bees followed the lump as it flew through the air.
“Go – take it. Get outta here. You’re not welcome. Not baban. Not nanga mai. That’s me. This is for me.” The words were not his – they came from somewhere else, something else. He did not know what the words meant – yet.
Dust from Billy’s running feet sifted onto Immu’s skin, settled on the bark of the Naji tree. Iridescent white, triple trunked; his baban. The tree sang its high notes, welcomed him. This was the one. The tree for his journey. The boy named Immu would learn from this Naji and become a man. He would rejoice in the knowledge of his song-lines, or he would fail. Die. Under this ghost gum. His tree.
Immu sat. The dry creek-bed sand crackled and squealed as it adjusted to his shape. It was time.
Legs folded under, hands at rest on thighs black and brown, bare feet that waggled in the red dust. Immu didn’t know what to do. He felt the stir, the need to do something. Eucalyptus drifted down, tickled his eyes and nose. The smell of dry dust filtered through the dark rays of the moonlight.
“What?” he yelled. “What do you want me to do? I don’t know what to do! I’m here for you – help me!” Tears rolled down his face, caught the light in prisms of colour that reflected back to his eyes from the three trunks. Purple clearly defined, then the blue. A rainbow. The colours moved along the veins of the tree; swirled and curled and danced into existence.
Nothing happened. Immu sobbed. He wanted it. Needed to be part of it, as he had been part of nothing before, as he had needed nothing before. Not like this.
Lost. That’s what they said about him. The Lost Boy. No family, no country, no songlines. Billy, too, but Billy was gone now. Immu had sent him away. Maybe it would be better if they did this together. He would go. Get Billy. Come back later.
A hunger that dragged at his memory of all things grabbed him, cramped his body and mind. It would be death if he disobeyed.
Whispers on the wind laughed at him, scolded him. It wasn’t smart to be alone with Naji, with no knowledge of the songline or the ritual or the power of the place.
He was in trouble. He would die here.
The ghosts rose from the tree, pointed at him, laughed, danced and pealed their voices in song. They sang his death. How did he know? He felt it. His heart slowed to nothing. His lungs didn’t take in air, his body slid to the ground in a thump of lump. He would die. Immu let go.
It would be an end to the life of his lostness. At least out here there were spirits, other spirits, people of the land spirits. Maybe some of them would belong to him, or him to them. Maybe not. Did he have to be in his own country to find his own family of spirits? How would he know which was his country? He couldn’t know. He had no one to ask, no family to tell him where he came from. When he was taken from his birth mother at two and placed in the home, he lost it all. All memory. All belonging. And no one came to take him back. They left him. Abandoned him to his fate. A baby in a den of dingoes that smelled blood on the crippled pup.
Alone. Lost. And soon to die.
The body was stuck in the dirt. Things crawled on his skin, sucked on his blood, grew roots through his bones. He could not move. His tears gave them life, grew them stronger. They lived through him, through his body, through his heart, through his words.
Sticks and leaves rattled, whispered, littered the air with little sounds, tiny words that ticked and tacked. Immu spoke the words with a mouth that didn’t move, tasted them in a soul that didn’t have a body, sent them beyond the void, beyond the frame of reference. The words spun out into strings, became one word, one song, one history. His history. His story.
Abandonment. Loss. Aloneness. Mourning. Life in desperation. Fear. No connection. No purpose. The trees were in death throes. The bushes were dead. Insects didn’t come here anymore. Birds long gone. Grasses struggled, barely alive, waited for a guardian. Were there guardians who would come, who would know?
No. None left. The ones who were and did not know would not come. Could not come. The guardians were lost. No one to show them the way home, back to country. Country died, guardians died. Immu died.
No one came back to save any of the Naji. All Naji gone – all but one. The last one. The tree and Immu, the last link to the spirit of place.
His heart stopped beating, became stone. The red stone, the red granite. No feeling, no wind to shape the story into him. No words to bring life to his limbs, his body, his mind. Rocks of the earth, of sand and soil and stones. He was grey, brown, striations of gold and hues of ochre. Stone and earth with no life. Immu was there to deny the movement of time, to be sentinel, a foundation of strength and memories. Immu, as rock, placed there to claim the age, the history of place. Forever. Forever. Now.
Tears became streams, streams became rivers, rivers fed into the ocean, joined with the immense Naji of salt water. Immu cried more. His hurt came from the pain of all the abandoned Naji, left to die without guardians. But what could he do? He was one person, a boy with no blood, no kin, no country. His body rocked and shuddered, racked with sobs and agony.
“Im, wake up, kid.”
It was Billy’s voice. Billy had come for him. He wasn’t alone. Immu jumped up. It was dark. Night. The tree, triple-trunked, iridescent white, glowed at him with a smile of lament.
“No,” Immu said. “I’m not going. This is my place, my country. And if it ain’t now, it’s gonna be. I’m gonna be guardian for this place, this piece of country. I’m gonna be here for all the Naji to find. To come home.” Immu sat, folded his legs, rested black hands on his thighs, brown and red, striped with ochres of yellow and white. Marked. Owned by country. Owned by the tree. This tree. This place. His place.
Billy walked between Immu and the tree. Sat with his legs folded under, hands on his thighs. Words sprang into the air between them. Big words, words of place, words of peoples, words of birds and animals and shrubs and grasses and insects and snakes and lizards and . . . all life, all creatures, all things belonging to this place brought their words.
Bodies sprang up. Feet flung out, lifted and fell, tromped and thumped. Sticks clacked and cracked, hands held them up, threw them down, tapped them together. Birds sang, crickets screaked, snakes smoothed the sand. They came. They all came.
Billy’s sounds, Immu’s words, the magic of the tree Naji, the joining of spirit to soul, of soul to earth, of earth to everything. Home. It was home.
Tears fell, became creeks, creeks became rivers, rivers fed into the ocean. Fish swam from the ocean to the river to the creeks – hid in holes made by red-gums, swished their tails, laid their eggs. Life came to the water. Life that fed the Guardians.
Immu and Billy danced in circles, in shapes and colours and sound. Their movements shaped animals, insects, birds – showed them how to be home. Established belonging, connection to place.
Billy’s hand held another. A girl hand. A woman. Now three of them danced around the iridescent white, triple-trunked ghost gum. Three for three. Guardians of the tree, the three.
Immu reached out and held one hand of the woman, pulled her to a stop. Billy and the woman stood still, heavy and solid, chests heaved and breathed.
“A name. They want a name. Not a name from the other world. A name that belongs here. We have to choose a name.”
The woman laughed, twirled.
“I am djanaba – I laugh and bring joy to my place, to my country.” Djanaba danced away, swung her arms and words and music around the tree. Leaves trickled down, garbed her in muted hues of viridian and cobalt.
Billy closed his eyes, breathed a deep intake of red dust. He smiled as he opened them again.
“I am Barra. I bring food to the people of my place, of my country.” He grinned at Immu. “And what is your name, kid?”
Immu couldn’t think. No. He didn’t need to think. He needed to feel. What should he feel? Solid, unyielding, permanent. A foundation.
“I am Giba, the stone of place. The holder of now. I am sentinel and guardian. I am home.”