The Last Sandhill

I feel the warmth of the sun on my face but can see little but brightness and shadow.  It does not matter because I can see very clearly the place of my birth.  I can see very clearly the face of Ikiwiljika as a young girl laughing at me.  My time at this place is almost over but I am glad.  Soon I shall run with Ikiwiljika through the red sand again.

I feel the scrap of paper in my hands, the scrap that I have kept all these years.  They tell me it tells of the death of my brother, Kaljika, who they called Cedric McLean.  I can no longer remember what is on the paper but I have kept it, perhaps because it is my last link with him.

 It is strange that I can see my time as a boy so clearly yet remember so little of the recent summers.  I have lived in this place for many years and moved here when my eyes could still see the secrets of all tracks, yet I can not remember what the houses around me are like.  When I close my eyes I can smell the corkwood in bloom at Beelaka, my mikiri.  I can taste the water of the mikiri and see the smoke of the cooking fires rising in the morning air.  It is strange that I can remember the mikiri of my birth so well yet have trouble remembering Kaljika’s white name, Cedric.

My name is Irinjili but they call me Mick, Mick McLean.  I doze in the sun and wait to join my people.  I am the last of the Wangkangurru from the place we called Wangkangurru but will soon see again Ikiwiljika, Tjilpaka, Kaljika and the rest of my people that I have begun to miss so much. We were the last to leave Wangkangurru and I am anxious to return, to return to the mikiri Beelaka that I know so well.

When I was very young my father, Tjilpaka, told me that we were descended from Kukunga (the Brown Hawk) and that the deep gully leading into one side of Beelaka was there because the Brown Hawk had tricked the tribe into digging a deep pit near the mikiri.  Two of our tribe had been killed for their crimes against women, but they refused to remain dead.  So the Brown Hawk had said that they must be killed once more and placed in a very deep pit so that they would not come to life again.  But the Brown Hawk had wanted the water in the mikiri to himself and when the pit was dug he pushed all the people in and tried to smother them with his wings.  But some escaped and became our ancestors and now the Brown Hawk can only use the mikiri when we are not there.  All that remains of the Brown Hawk’s trick is the gully beside the mikiri.

On the west of Beelaka is the big sandhill we called pirlakaya and on the east the sandhill that ends almost beside the mikiri is called pelakaja.  Pirlakaya was our favourite, the slope was steep and in the winter it protected us from the wind and caught the early morning sun.  As soon as the top of pirlakaya blazed crimson with the first rays of the sun Iwikiljika would wake me and we would leave the fire to go and greet the sun.  Sometimes we would go and catch lizards while they were still too cold to run properly, Iwikiljika was a little older than me and wise in the ways of tracking them.  Other times we would just lay in the sand, look down at the corkwoods still in shadow and imagine them to be terrible spirits rising from the trench of Kukunga, the Brown Hawk.

When the sun had crept down pirlakaya and across the flat to the mikiri, my mother Kaljirra would get up and get the wadla (grinding dish) to grind the seed for our breakfast. Sometimes it would be the seed of the spinifex and sometimes the seeds of the sandhill wattle.  We knew it would be an hour before breakfast was ready and our fathers got up, my mother would look up the sandhill until she saw us, then wave and we were free to do as we wished until breakfast was cooked.  If the wattle was in bloom we would spend the time sucking the honey from the blooms, if it was not then we would go exploring.

Our favourite expedition was to follow pirlakaya to the north until we reached a high spot about a mile away from our mikiri.  Here if our cousins were at Wolporican mikiri we would be able to see the smoke of their fire, and that might mean that we could talk our fathers into visiting them later.  Our cousins who came to Wolporican were Wangkangurru too but their accent was a little odd and made us laugh when we played with them while our parents talked around the fire.  If there was no smoke then we would sit on the top and look at Approdinna Attora.  The two low hills of Approdinna gleamed white in the sunlight and were of stone unlike the sand around us.  We could feel the magic even from where we sat.

Of course Ikiwiljika was not supposed to look at them but I think she did.  She would lower her head and pretend to look at the sand but I knew she was just as interested in them as I was.  In a few more years I would go there with my father and my uncles and learn the secrets of the History Time and become a man.  Afterwards there would be a feast and my cousins from Wolporican would join us for the dancing and singing.  But for now all we could do was look.  When I boasted of being a man Ikiwiljika would laugh.  She would look at me from under her eyelids saying that it would take more than that to make me a man, but I was not sure what she meant then.

A few summers later I went to Approdinna Attora with the elders and learned the History Time.  I was now a man and no longer allowed to roam the sandhills alone with Ikiwiljika.  Not that I was sure that I wanted to anymore. When she was near my hands were clumsy like my grandfather’s and my feet unsure like Kaljika my baby brother; when I stumbled or dropped something, she would laugh and say that my feet were almost as big as my head. My mother and father would look at each other and smile, and I would hurry off alone into the sandhills where I could call to Kukunga to swoop down with his brown wings and take her away.  It seemed to me a fitting fate for Ikiwiljika with her gleaming teeth, silken eyelash and pointed breast.

My mother and father knew it was time to marry even if I did not and despite my weakening protests they made the arrangements with Ikiwiljika’s father, arrangements that had been started many years before.  We were the only two of an age at our mikiri and were not blood relatives so it seemed to the elders to be of little sense in looking to the other mikiris.

So we were married and Ikiwiljika and I took to hunting alone through the sandhills.  There was some rain and little need to hunt but hunt we did each day.  The rain had brought out the flowers which stretched from one dune to the next, a carpet of yellow daisies mixed with purple parakeelyas.  The honey grevillias bloomed at the bottom of the sand hills and the sand seemed very red that year, a red forever etched on my minds eye.  Then there was Ikiwiljika laughing at me or with me as she danced through the daisies just out of arms reach.  At dusk, when we returned to the mikiri, my mother would gravely accept our meagre contribution with just enough praise to settle our guilt and my father would just smile.

The summer that followed my magic winter was the worst my grandfather could remember.  The sun soon burned the flowers to dry husks and neither the wattle or spinifex had much seed.  The stick rats disappeared which my grandfather said was because the Crane was singing his magic.  Long ago a man from the Arabana who once lived to the south of us, fell in love with his two daughters-in-law who were Wangkangurru.  He decided to kill all the Wangkangurru so that he could keep the young women for himself.  To do this he sang magic to the sun and pointed his fire stick at the sun so that it grew hotter and hotter and dried up all the mikiris.  All the mikiris except the mikiri at Wolporican where he burrowed into the water up to his neck and his neck became brown.  Then he sent hot winds and dust from the north and all would have died if they had not turned into water hens and flown away to the south to find water.  The Arabana man stayed in the mikiri so long the he was turned into a crane and, to this day, the crane has a brown neck from the water at Wolporican.

Perhaps my grandfather was right.  The water in our mikiri was much lower and had a bitter taste.  For the first time I knew the pangs of hunger and had to work hard to get the food we needed.  The elders decided that we should move. The best mikiri of the Wangkangurru was Boolaburtinna, five days walk to our north, but our cousins from Wolporican had told us that the Wangkangurru from Boolaburtina had already left and gone to Panjunta (Birdsville) because of the wind that the Crane had made. The Wolporican families were going west to Dalhousie on the other side of our country where they had been told that the white men kept wombats as tall as a man.  These wombats had horns and they kept them in cages to eat.  I did not believe this story either until I saw my first bullock.

The elders decided we would stay ten days and then if the Crane had not stopped we would go to Killalpaninna.  We had been told that at Killalpaninna the white men worshipped their ancestors and had food and water for all who cared to stay and worship with them at their Mission.

So we left Wangkangurru.  My grandmother Muwiljika died when we reached Kallakoopah Creek where we buried her.  She had said to me on that last day that her heart was crying for her country and the red sand hills of Beelaka. The next morning as we were getting ready to leave I knew my grandfather was not going with us.  He sat cross legged before the fire gazing back to the north.  We did not say anything and did not look back as we set out; his kaditcha (soul) has already returned to Beelaka and is waiting for his body to follow said my father.

When we arrived at Killapaninna Ikiwiljika was very tired from our journey.  Ikiwiljika was heavy with our child and the journey had been hard.  There was plenty of food and water and the white mission people welcomed us, but many of the people were sick.  The missionaries said the sickness was influenza, when the white people got it they seemed to get better afterwards.  But the Wangkangurru just died.  First my mother and father and the old people, then some of the younger ones.  Then Ikiwiljika got sick and before my eyes faded away until her spirit and the spirit of my unborn son slipped away back to the sandhills of Beelaka.

It was then that I took my brother Kaljika and went to the north away from that place of sickness.  We walked for many days until we reached Kjarta (Cordillo Downs) where the people, who were not of the Wangkangurru, welcomed us. It was here with these friends that I left Kaljika and went to work with the white men and their cattle and horses. The white men called me Mick McLean and my brother Cedric.

The old man Mick is asleep in the sun, a scrap of paper between his fingers.  I do not know why I have come but when I asked and they told me he was still alive memories of the past spilled out and rolled over me, alternate waves of sadness and gladness.  With some surprise  I look down and read the faded slip of newsprint clutched between the gnarled fingers.

Charleville A Charleville Supreme Court jury last night found Edward John Sleeman, 51, of Windorah, not guilty of a charge of having murdered Cedric McLean, 28, but guilty of manslaughter. Sleeman had pleaded not guilty to the murder of McLean by shooting him with a .22 calibre rifle outside the bar of the Railway Hotel, Charleville, October 3 this year.  Sleeman was released on a good behavior bond.
(Charleville Gazette 1954)

It is not many words to end a man’s life, a life barely started. I remember Cedric who was about my age and came with Mick when he started work here. He was a wild as the brumbies and we had a great time together over those school holidays. But when I next came home they told me he had been sent off up north. I had forgotten about Cedric and Mick had never mentioned him after he left. It was a common tale of a black man in a drunken brawl, the visible result of a people struggling to cope with a white society.

I hope that Mick who slumbers softly before me has fared better in our civilisation.  Perhaps I will come back tomorrow to hear his story and see if he remembers me from the days when he worked Cordillo.  As I cross the yard to the office the paper flutters gently from his fingers to the dust at his feet.

My desk faced the window and, in air conditioned comfort and I wonder why the woman stands so still for so long in front of Mick.  I was fond of old Mick and had let him see out his years in the hut down the back.  Not that I saw him much these days, just on the odd occasion when I got away from Adelaide.  These days it just seemed to be one Board Meeting after another and too little time to come home.  It was funny how I still thought of Birdsville and Cordillo as home even after all these years.  I have an office in Birdsville I keep more for nostalgia than anything else I guess. But I can not simply go out and drive off to Cordillo to check a fence or bore.  It just would not be done, my local manager would insist on going with me, he would ring ahead to make sure that when I arrived I would get the welcome appropriate to the “big Boss from Adelaide”.  I suppose that I could leave it all and come back home, but my kids and their kids are all city born and would not understand.  I smiled a little wryly to myself as the air conditioner gave a gentle clunk and reminded me that I might be a little soft to survive here now anyway.

Mick has got the right idea, just dozing in the sun.  He is old and shrunken now but I remember his face when I first saw it bending over me with concern in his eyes.  My leg still aches as it has done off and on for the last forty years, we never did see that damn horse Cloud again after he threw me; joined the brumbys more than likely. Mick was the best bushman, black or white, that I ever knew and how he found me that day I still do not know. He told me years later that he just “thought” the way I had gone and then cut Cloud’s tracks about a mile from where he found me.

Every Christmas after that, when I came home from School, and later Agricultural College, Mick would be waiting for me.  To keep an eye on me my mother said smiling, but of course he had a brother about my age somewhere up north and perhaps I was just a substitute.  Sometimes we would go out to Comba Waterhole in the sandhill country on the edge of Cordillo. Then we would sit on a sandhill and he would look out to the west and tell me stories of the desert and his tribe. He told me of his home, Beelaka, and of the stories his grandfather told him. The odd thing is that I never came across another Wangkangurru, he was the only one on Cordillo and I never met another.

 He is still asleep.  I wonder if he is dreaming of us, when I was a kid and he was the best horseman on Cordillo. I really must remember to have a yarn to him before I fly back to Adelaide tomorrow.

They are all gone now and I am the last, the last of the Wangkangurru.  I open my eyes and look down and I can see my legs again.  They are black, gleaming with muscle and my toes are digging into the soft red sand of the top of pirlakaya.  I am not Mick McLean, I am Irinjili.  I lift my eyes and there is Ikiwiljika laughing and running through the daisies toward me.  Smoke drifts from the fire at Beelaka.  I am home, my journey has ended and the History Time is here. 

The last sandhill is crossed.