By Tara June Winch
I was born on Ngurambang – can you hear it? – Ngu–ram–bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words. Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language – because that is the way to all time, to time travel! You can go all the way back.
My daddy was Buddy Gondiwindi and he died a young man by the hands of a bygone disease. My mother was Augustine and she died an old woman by the grip of, well, it was an Old World disease too.
Yet nothing ever really dies, instead it all goes beneath your feet, beside you, part of you. Look there – grass on the side of the road, tree bending in the wind, fish in the river, fish on your plate, fish feeding you. Nothing is ever gone. Soon, when I change, I won’t be dead. I always memorised John 11:26 Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die, yet life rushed through and past me as it will for each person.
Before I believed everything they taught me I thought when all were dead that all were gone, and so as a young fella I tried to find my place in this short life. I only wanted to decide for myself how I’d live it, but that was a big ask in a country that had a plan for me, already mapped in my veins since before I was born.
The one thing I thought I could control was my own head. It seemed the most sensible thing to do was to learn to read well. So in a country where we weren’t really allowed to be, I decided to be. To get water from the stones, you see?
After I met my beautiful wife, although beauty was the least of her, strong and fearless was the most of her – well she taught me lots of things. Big thing, best thing she taught me was to learn to write the words too, taught me I wasn’t just a second-rate man raised on white flour and Christianity. It was my wife, Elsie, who bought me the first dictionary. I think she knew she was planting a seed, germinating something inside me when she did that. What a companion the dictionary is – there are stories in that book that’ll knock your boots off. To this day it remains my prized possession and I wouldn’t trade it for all the tea in China.
The dictionary from Elsie is why I’m writing it down – it was my introduction to the idea of recording, written just like the Reverend once wrote the births and baptisms at the Mission, like the station manager wrote rations at the Station and just like the ma’ams and masters wrote our good behaviour at the Boys’ Home – a list of words any fool can look up and be told the meaning. A dictionary, even if this language isn’t mine alone, even it’s something we grow into and then living long enough, shrink away from. I am writing because the spirits are urging me to remember, and because the town needs to know that I remember, they need to know now more than ever before.
To begin – but there are too many beginnings for us Gondiwindi – that’s what we were bestowed and cursed with by the same shifty magic – an eternal Once upon a time. The story goes that the church brought time to us, and the church, if you let it, will take it away. I’m writing about the other time, though, deep time. This is a big, big story. The big stuff goes forever, time ropes and loops and is never straight, that’s the real story of time.
The problem now facing my own Once upon a time is that Doctor Shah from the High Street Surgery has recently given me a filthy bill of health – cancer of the pancreas – which is me done and dusted.
So, because they say it is urgent, because I’ve got the church time against me – I’m taking pen to paper to pass on everything that was ever remembered.
All the words I found on the wind.
By the river is where Albert Gondiwindi had wandered up to Prosperous as a little boy, wonder face, bare skinned, from the canvas shelter of Tent Town to the tin of the Mission, along with his mother, and his little sister inside her. Albert would remember how they walked, or marched; there were police officers on horses to show them the way past the red river, stained by tea tree and other things. Many years later, on the day of his death, Albert wondered once again how it must have been for the old people out by Murrumby when it flowed – a time when the air was as clean as the time before the words clean and dirty had ever been imagined. The river would’ve been clear twenty feet down and the earth hummed its own reverent tune, day in and day out until one day. How quickly things change, he thought. In his final hours, Albert sat looking the same way all the remaining Gondiwindi would soon gather and look. Ahead of him on the fold-out table was the almost-finished dictionary, beyond the table all the world. He suddenly felt a great wind blow from the Murrumby and instinctively slapped his hand atop the pile, protecting the words. In the distance he could have sworn he saw a gang of brolgas flying, further afield a swarm of locusts, the sky change colour; all while the papers flapped against his will. He closed his eyes, wondered if he was about to go elsewhere and then, as if encouraged by the wind, urged by the ancestors, took his hand away, and arced looking to the heavens to see the pages swirl and blow and eventually disappear in the air.
She hung up the phone. Poppy Albert was dead. So far away from the place where boys learnt to kill rabbits and girls learnt to live with the grief. Far away where people were born guilty but couldn’t admit it. Where whole years vanished from her. Days spent working thankless jobs or burrowed under a blanket, shunning whole seasons. The decade had aged her like a coin, all the shine gone. In that place on the other side of the world she woke before the phone rang. Made coffee and a tumbler of aspirin. It wasn’t only in the mornings that she, August, was trapped between two states – sleep and coming to, yet especially that morning, on the cusp of being younger and older. She was about to exit the infinite stretch of her twenties and had nothing to show.
At the answering of the phone and the breaking of the news, she felt something dark and three-dimensional fall out of her body, something as solid as a self. She’d become less suddenly. She knew she’d felt that exact same way before, though she didn’t feel tears coming the way they burn the face and blur the eyes. Her face instead was cold to the touch, her heart rate lowered, her eyes dry and her arms, chicken-skinned and thin as kindling, began to start a fire. She took the newspaper from the mail tray, took the crate of wood and knelt in the corner of the common kitchen. She spread the newspaper out, smoothing the pages with the side of her fist and held the hatchet and the cypress in each hand. Printed in the newspaper was a small photograph of a rhino. Above the picture it read in big ink block letters: GONE FOREVER – BLACK RHINO EXTINCT. An animal zip! Gone!
She could taste what she imagined was rhino skin, a dry warm thickness, muscle and dirt. She hadn’t told anyone about everything she couldn’t bring herself to remember and not about the things she could taste and smell instead, things that one shouldn’t be able to taste and smell.
Once, with a stack of textbooks on her lap, and knowledge of August’s hunger – a friend of hers studying social work at night school, and having not known what it was to experience a terrible inheritance, asked her simply about her school life. August had gone along with the line of enquiry, told her how she only knew she was poor at lunchtime. Told her when she lived with her grandparents it was always good food, always leftovers from the night before. She’d been the only student to use the microwaves in the teachers’ lounge. Before that? Before that she tried not to tell her that the lunches her mother packed were humiliating, instead she said they were just kooky. Kooky? August wound an invisible turbine at her ear. Her friend had nodded, had understood and closed her eyes in accordance with her training – a serene indication to go on. August had closed her eyes too and briefly let herself remember.
One day a jam sandwich, cut crusts, next day something the kids would make fun of – a tin of Christmas ginger bread in July, Easter buns in October. Sometimes a bread roll smeared with something incomplete, like ketchup. And a few times I remember opening the lunchbox and there just being imitation play-food, a little plastic lamb chop, plastic-cast apple with no stem. It was my mother’s sense of humour.
August hadn’t seen the humour when she was a girl, but she had laughed about it then. They both laughed until something broke in August, and she did cry, the last time – but she pretended they were laughter tears. Afterwards they went to the pub. August didn’t tell her any more, not how she was baptised by the sun, and not that as far, far away as she went from her country, from her home, she still couldn’t remove the scent and taste of dirt and diesel and flesh and muddied water from that grey hemisphere of her mind. How the worst thing that could ever happen had already happened. Time’s up.
The rhino in the news reminded August that she’d never been to the zoo, never seen a rhino in real life – it might as well have been a dinosaur. The paper listed other recent extinctions. And just like that she thought, zip! Gone! Poppy: Albert Gondiwindi was extinct. No more Albert Gondiwindi roamed the earth, and no more black rhino either. With an armful of sticks she fed the iron stove, close enough to redden her face in the eager first flames. Poppy Albert used to say that the land needed to burn more, a wild and contained fire, a contradiction of nature. He was talking about a different land though, not the one August had known for over a decade – in the grasslands forever wet, foreign forests of elm, ash, sycamore, hazel, and in the white willows that dipped into quiet canals. Where smaller birds in secondary colours flocked together and fires never licked. Where the sky fit into the reflection of a stone well, full with rainwater. Where low morning clouds played sleight of hand, and day never quite arrived before night.
She knew that she had once known the beloved land where the sun slapped the barren earth with an open palm and knew too that she would return for the funeral. Go back full with shame for having left, catch the disappointment in their turned mouths, go back and try to find all the things that she couldn’t find so many thousands of kilometres away.
August found a replacement for her dishwashing shifts, packed the one bag she owned and before boarding switched off her phone forever. During the flight she watched the GPS on the headrest screen, the numbers rising and steadying, the plane skittering over the cartoon sea. At the other end, having reached a certain altitude, crossed the time lines, descended into new coordinates, she’d hoped it would be enough to erase the voyage. Erase the facts of the matter, erase the burial rites to be recited, erase all the erasures of them, and that fractured family they once were. Just as they’d been for a century: godless and government-housed and spread all over the place, and then August wondered if there was enough remembering to erase. During the flight she dreamt of Poppy Albert. He was featureless in the dream but she knew it was him. They’d arrived in the middle of the conversation, she didn’t know how they’d arrived there – in the field – he was telling her that there was a lot to remembering the past, to having stories, to knowing your history, your childhood, but there is something to forgetting it too. At the beginning of the dream, but as if at the end of a long conversation, he’d taken her hand and said that There exists a sort of torture of memory if you let it come, if you invite the past to huddle beside you, comforting like a leech. He was telling her more – that a footprint in history has a thousand repercussions, that there are a thousand battles being fought every day because people couldn’t forget something that happened before they were born. There are few worse things than memory, yet few things better; he’d said. Be careful.
yarran tree, spearwood tree, or hickory acacia – yarrany The dictionary is not just words – there are little stories in those pages too. After years with the second great book I figured out the best way to read it. First time, I went in like reading the Bible, front to back. Aa words first – there you find Aaron, and him in the Book of Exodus, brother of Moses, founder of Jewish priesthood. Aardvark – that animal with a tube nose that eats the ants of Africa. There are abbreviations too, like AA, Alcoholics Anonymous – where people go to heal from the bottle. That punched me in the guts. My mummy, she said, ‘The Aborigine is a pity, my son.’ She said everyone was always insulted by her no matter what she did, so she let herself do the most insulting thing she could think of – take the poison they brought with them and go to town.
You could keep reading the dictionary that way – front to back, straight as a dart – or you can get to aardvark and then skip to Africa, then skip to continent, then skip to nations, then skip to colonialism, then skip over to empire, then skip back to apartheid in the A section – that happened in South Africa.
Another story. When I was on the letter W in the Oxford English Dictionary, wiray would be in that section, it means ‘no’. Wiray wasn’t there though, but I thought I’d make it there. Wheat was there, but when I skipped ahead not our word for wheat – not yura. So I thought I’d make my own list of words. We don’t have a Z word in our alphabet, I reckon, so I thought I’d start backwards, a nod to the backwards whitefella world I grew up in, start at Y – yarrany. So that is the once upon a time for you. Say it – yarrany, it is our word for spearwood tree: and from it I once made a spear in order to kill a man.
This is an extract from The Yield by Tara June Winch, winner of the prestigious Miles Franklin Award for 2020.