Part SevenThe Law
Doug had invited Billy along but warned him that under normal circumstances only initiated men would be allowed to be present. He had told Billy to remain silent and keep out of the way. He explained that he thought it important that Billy see what was going on. They slowly climbed the track leading up to the waterhole in the foothills behind the community.
‘We’ve had a long discussion about how we should deal with this,’ he said. ‘This is not the sort of behaviour we accept around here. Usually we would banish Rob from the camp, but we we’re afraid that it would push him down the wrong path. Banishment is the ultimate punishment. In the past being exiled from your family was the equivalent of a death sentence.’
Billy listened but his mind was wandering. They were heading up to where he had seen Pidgin, and the images that had played out in his head still haunted him. He had returned to the community expecting to have a relaxing time but nothing could have been farther from the truth. The environment was far harsher than he had expected. Billy tried to focus on what Doug was saying. They were nearly at the entrance to the rockhole and were both panting from the heat and the exertion of the climb.
‘He will still have to spend some time away from the camp and we will take him out into the desert for a while until he recovers. He will not be alone. It is important that he realises how crucial upholding the law is.’
Billy wondered what Rob would have to recover from, but as they reached the clearing next to the rockhole it soon became apparent that it was going to involve a good deal of pain.
In the cool shadows near the water’s edge four men stood, all brandishing spears. The spears were about two metres long with wickedly jagged barbs at their pointed ends. Billy hadn’t seen the men before. They seemed oblivious to his presence and focussed their attention on Doug. Doug motioned Billy to stay where he was before walking over to the small group of men. In low murmurs they acknowledged each other and discussed their next move. Abruptly they stopped talking and turned towards a sheer cliff face at the far end of the enclosure. Billy followed their gaze.
There Rob stood, alone. He was slightly bent over and cowering on the rocks, up against the cliff wall. He didn’t move and his breathing was barely perceptible. He looked for all the world like a disobedient child who had been told to stand in the corner. Fear clouded his expression. It was clear that he was willing to accept his punishment but he was also aware of what it involved. It wasn’t going to kill him but it was certainly going to hurt. He became aware that all attention had shifted to him and drew himself up to his full height. He flattened his back to the wall behind him and splayed out his hands to either side. Billy watched Rob’s knuckles turn white as he gripped the rocks behind him. He dug his fingernails into the wall. He raised his head, gritted his teeth and bravely faced his accusers. The look of fear on his face melted away and an uneasy calm came over him. He didn’t seem to notice Billy, or anyone else for that matter. His stare was fixed onto some point far in the distance.
For a moment nobody moved. It formed a strange tableau. Rob exposed and plastered to the wall, the men in a line with spears raised, and Billy standing solitary to one side. Then, as if on cue, one by one the men threw their spears. They kept their aim low. It was clear that they only wanted to strike his legs and didn’t want to maim him permanently, although from his stance there was a good chance he could sacrifice his manhood. Rob grimaced in anticipation as each spear flew towards him. The spears flew past his legs, clattered off the cliff face, and fell harmlessly at his feet. Not one of them found their target.
Finally Doug stepped forward. He crouched low, stretched his arm back as far as it would it extend and threw his spear with all the force he could muster. For such a bulky man he moved with incredible agility. Billy had only ever seen him quietly seated or moving with slow deliberation. He was surprised to see him suddenly so active. The spear found its target. It buried itself deep into Rob’s thigh, halfway between his knee and his crotch. He let out a high pitched scream and slumped to the ground, sliding along the cliff face as he went down. The spear remained lodged in his leg. The shaft slapped the rocks at his feet as Rob collapsed.
There was a short period of silence. Nobody moved and Rob appeared to have passed out. The men nodded to each other before walking over to where Rob lay and standing over his prostrate body. Doug knelt beside him and closely examined his leg. He beckoned to the other men to help and together they picked up Rob and laid him out on his side and away from the cliff face. One of the men supported the spear. It had passed a good way through Rob’s leg and the sight turned Billy’s stomach. Doug indicated for the others to hold Rob down and then gripped the spear by its barbed end with both hands. He twisted it violently and wrenched it out. Rob’s body twitched and the men tightened their grip on him. Doug had to thread almost the entire length of the shaft through the leg. It was clear the barbs would not pass through in reverse. He grunted as he worked. Close to the end he gave it one last yank and pulled it free. He nearly toppled over backwards in the process. One of the other men caught him before he fell.
Reverently they rolled Rob’s body onto his back and stood aside.
Doug gingerly massaged own his lower back and quipped, ‘Think I might’ve overdone it a bit.’
One of the other men shook his head. ‘Gettin’ old, mate?’
He then made a joke about hooking a small fish and that they should throw it back. There was a pregnant pause before they all burst spontaneously into laughter. The mood lightened significantly. Chuckling, Doug turned and walked across to Billy.
‘Ok, show’s over. Let’s go. I could use a cuppa tea.’
Together they walked across the rocks. Billy looked back over his shoulder and saw that the men were preparing to treat Rob’s wounds. They had a wooden dish and appeared to be mixing some sort of paste in it. Billy wanted to stay and watch but Doug continued to lead him away and beckoned him to follow.
Billy walked behind Doug to the exit of the natural amphitheatre. He noted that his entire back was coated in flies. As they entered the narrow passageway the wind began to whistle around his ears. He could have sworn it carried the sound of someone calling his name but he didn’t dare look around. He focussed solely on the flies crawling across Doug’s t-shirt.
Black and White
Aboriginal. Aborigine. Billy thought about the words. He wasn’t sure which one was correct. It didn’t matter. Neither of them was correct. Either way it was a word; it was about a thing. It described something but it wasn’t human. It made it seem as if the people were just an object, not something that lived and breathed. It was belittling, another instrument to downplay their significance. It was an old word, antiquated and from another time. Every nation and culture in the world had their own dedicated name. An Englishman was an Englishman, a German was a German. Why was it that these people weren’t given the same respect? Why not just call them what they were? They were all from different tribes, the Pitjantjatjara, Arrernte, Yankunytjatjara and so forth. So they should be named as such. But what was he? He needed to find that out, but how? He knew very little about his mother, only that her tribe had been dispersed, the language and culture lost. All of it systematically destroyed and wiped from the face of the planet. It was extinct. But animals that were considered extinct have sometimes re-emerged. There were still sightings of the Tasmanian tiger. So there was some hope. He knew in himself that he was something, only it didn’t have a name. At the very least, maybe the people of the community would accept him and then he would know what to call himself.
It seemed that balance was necessary. The old and the new needed to be combined, the traditions adapted. That was the way forward. Without balance change could not occur. It wasn’t only about mutual respect. It went far beyond that. It was respect for yourself. Only then could you give it to someone else. The land is the mother and we are her babies. He missed his mother. He regretted not knowing her. It had been beyond his control, though. He would find another mother. She could substitute for the thing he most needed. He had been seeking love through marriage but it hadn’t worked. It would never work if he didn’t learn how to give it first. First he needed to train himself. How was he going to do that? He could go to Doris; he could ask Doug. In the end, though, they could only help so much. It was up to him to make the real changes.
He didn’t agree with the brutal punishment, but he didn’t agree with the crime either. They were both vicious in their own ways. There were courts for that sort of thing. Which court was he in?
All the thoughts running through his head made him dizzy. After leaving the confines of the rockhole, Billy had told Doug that he would catch up with him later. He said he needed time to think. Doug had joked that he’d better not take too long or his tea would get cold. Billy had laughed along with him but wasn’t at all in a joking mood. He had wandered out of the crevice leading to the rockhole and moved along a ridge. He felt drained and found a spot to sit on a small hillock overlooking the town. He could see a line of mountains about fifty kilometres away. In his raised position he again had the impression that he was sitting on the edge of a river. A very wide river, with the ranges in the distance forming the opposite bank. It struck him how old the land was. How it must have changed over time. He stared at the ranges and the sun seemed to sit on top of them. It wouldn’t be long before it set completely behind them. Involuntarily he shook, and a shiver ran down his spine. The air had cooled dramatically without the sun to keep it warm.
He looked down at his feet and spotted a digital wristwatch lying in the sand. Its display was blinking and apart from some weathering it appeared to be in perfect working order. The display read: 17:30 27-8-93. The time and date seemed insignificant now. The watch was just a piece of plastic and not really worth a thing. Nor was time for that matter. He stood up and threw it as far as he could. It clattered on the rocks below. One day in the future someone else would find it. As worthless as it was. In all probability it would still be working; or maybe the sun would have damage it beyond recognition. At any rate, it was of no consequence. Time was of no consequence. He felt released from its constraints. Even the land was timeless. Although it was ancient, it was new to him. The shackles had dropped. He was free.
Billy sensed that he had found his home. During the short time he had spent in the little community he had experienced things which both shocked and challenged him. For the first time in his life he didn’t feel alone. He felt part of a family, with people who understood and supported him. He had found a purpose. He now had a history and a past, even though not all the history was personally his own.
Doug’s words rang loud in his ears: ‘The culture must not die.’
The culture, the lore, the history, and all the stories could not just be recorded and filed away. It had to live on in the people. It had to be exercised for it to remain healthy and grow in strength. It had to live in him and others if it was ever to survive. There was so much he didn’t know, so much he still had to learn. His real education had just begun. Once he had mastered it to some degree he should take this knowledge and pass it on. There were no real mysteries or secrets; they were there for everyone. The only criterion was respect. Respect for what he had learned; that it was a gift, and in turn he could give this wonderful gift to others. It would take him some time to fully understand the nature of what he had received, but for now he knew that it was incredibly valuable. Not something physical; not material and to be selfishly harboured, like the possessions he had owned in the world he had recently left behind.
The land, the people and the law—all were tied together. One could not exist without the others. They were firmly linked, inseparable yet fragile. It was also up to him to protect, enforce and uphold them. He felt honoured that he had been allowed to become part of it. Not only that: it had also truly become part of him. He had something.
He thought back to the night at the roadhouse and his first meeting with Pidgin. His time had come; a door had opened for him that he never knew existed. It had set him on his present path, and for that he felt eternally thankful.
He sat and stared at the setting sun. It was glowing red on the horizon. The sky slowly changing from pink to purple. Doug had said it was the most hazardous time of the day. There were dangers out there and they could be approaching right now. Only now he had no fear. He had the strength and would bravely face whatever was to come.
Exhaustion suddenly swept over him. He gave in to it and let his body go limp. All apprehension melted away. He had some answers; not all of them, but it was a good start. He was relieved.
Pidgin stood silently behind Billy. His shadow stretched out in an infinite, long line behind him. It flowed out like an endless, great inland river. He lifted one hand from his club and lowered it towards Billy’s shoulder. He squeezed it in a fatherly gesture. Pidgin’s shadow swept forward. It enveloped Billy, who had one last glimpse of the setting sun before darkness engulfed the land. Then everything went black.
Billy’s subconscious was permeated by the sound of hissing air brakes and the engine of a large bus settling into idle. He opened his eyes. He was lying flat on his back with a large rock pushing uncomfortably into his lower spine. Above him the stars flickered intensely. Groaning, he rolled onto one side and arched his neck towards the noise of the bus. He came face to face with the dried out skull of a ram. One horn stuck out from its head, its point barely millimetres from his right eye. He shrank back in horror, retreating frantically on his stomach across the gravel. He stopped. Without the skull dominating his field of vision he saw the rest of his surroundings. Beyond the skull he had an ant’s-eye view of the undercarriage of a large Greyhound bus, standing a few metres away. Between its wheels he could make out the front of the roadhouse. The all-too-familiar buzz of insects around floodlighting, competing with the rumble of a six-cylinder diesel engine, brought it all back to him. It slowly dawned on him that the past few days hadn’t really happened. His head thumped, the remnants of his hangover making itself apparent. He stood up and dusted himself off. There was no movement and the bus seemed deserted. The wide, illuminated board above its windscreen read in big, white letters: ‘Alice Springs’.
Billy stood for a few moments and mulled over what he thought he’d experienced in the preceding days. He had probably been lying by the roadside for only a few hours. He assumed that after the road train had flung him to the ground he had passed out. So the whole trip was merely a dream. He struggled to process this. It had seemed so real. Even if it hadn’t been real it must have some significance.
The dream had left a lasting effect. Maybe the people he had met truly existed. Maybe Pidgin was not a figment of his imagination. He had seen him before the road train divided them. He felt compelled to find out more. He no longer wanted to turn around and go home. He felt the urge to continue his journey, no matter what was in store for him.
He checked to see if he was being watched. There was no one outside. He could make out a few figures moving in the roadhouse, otherwise he was alone. It was now or never. He strode with confidence towards the bus and took one more look around before climbing the stairs. He slipped into a seat at the back of the bus and made himself as small as possible, slouching low in the seat and hard up against the window. He took a deep breath and hoped he wouldn’t be discovered.
After a few minutes the other passengers and the driver dribbled back onto the bus. There weren’t many people. The majority sat at the front of the bus. No one seemed to notice him. He was relieved and hoped he could remain unnoticed for the remainder of the journey. The pressurised front door sucked shut and the driver engaged first gear. The air conditioning roared to life and Billy felt its cooling breeze blasting from above. He shivered. He reached up to the console above his head and adjusted the airflow.
The bus pulled away from the roadhouse and up onto the highway. Billy looked out the window. He could see a slight glow on the horizon. The rising sun was penetrating the blackness. From the corner of his eye he noticed a small Aboriginal man standing on the edge of the tarmac. He had a long white beard and held a metre-long stick. His coat, which was made entirely of feathers, was whipped up by the bus’s turbulence as it swept past him.
Billy peered out the window, trying to hold the man in his sights. The highway made a long, sweeping curve, allowing him to keep his eyes on the man. Pidgin remained motionless on the verge of the road. The sun was rising swiftly and within moments he was fully illuminated. A lone, silhouetted figure, standing silently in the middle of a vast expanse of plain. Billy watched him until he was a mere speck in the distance. He then turned in his seat and settled down. A wry smile flashed across his face. He felt content and ready to face anything.