Letters Home #11 "Shame"

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In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

On the day of my first hunt I loaded into the back of a tall and boxy work horse called a troopie. Almost always white, troopies have two and a half seats in the front and a pair of bench seats in the back. The bench seats run down the sides of the cab, so for passengers in the back of a troopie the natural place to look is not the road ahead but the person across the way.

Across from me sat four men I’d never met, shoulder to shoulder, their eyes scanning. Their bodies rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road. Our eyes would meet and we'd smile and after a few such instances the man across from me spoke three words into the silent cab and everyone turned. “Where you from?” he asked.

It was an obvious question. But I hesitated long enough to notice the wind brush the hairs on the back of my neck. I reached my hand to touch them and felt shame for not knowing what to say. I smiled apologetically - I needed more time.

Suddenly the troopie braked hard and the bodies inside lurched sideways. Someone called out, “Witi!”. We turned and saw a large wallaby hop across the road behind us. In a flash one man handed another the rifle and he got out and took a few quiet steps to a nearby tree. By then the wallaby was forty metres away. The gun fired, louder than I expected, the wallaby jumped and a red mist stood where it had been. I raced towards the body with another man. When we got there he made sure it was dead and looked for his knife. I had one in my pocket so I handed it to him and he slit the animal’s throat and told me to hold it up and let the blood. I gripped its tail, warm and muscular. I pulled back its head and the last of its life spilled on the floor. Then I laid it down and the man removed its stomach and intestines and handed me back my knife. We were thrilled.

At a river we rested and washed the blood from our bodies. The wallaby was hung and butchered, each man was given his portion and more to take home. We cooked on an open fire and ate in two small circles, carving the meat on flat stones and dabbing it in salt. As it was my first hunt I was offered pieces of kidney and sections of bone containing sweet marrow. Also the end of the tail. 

“Where you from?” someone asked. I wanted to say that I’m not from anywhere. But I didn’t. We finished eating and washed again then said words of thanks to the land. We needed to find another animal to feed the families waiting at home. So we set off for a place known to buffalo, one of which can feed five families for a week.

The buffalo was pale grey with hints of blue and pink. Its horns grew straight out of its head, turning at their ends towards the sky. It took four bullets to bring it down. We approached the body with sharp knives and an axe and surrounded it like lions. We took turns and worked quickly to skin the hide. I used my hands to separate the muscles and make cuts along the seams of its rear leg. Beads of my sweat dripped into the flesh and mixed with warm dark blood from a severed artery. At one point I looked to the animal’s head. I wanted to see its eyes. But they were glazed and lifeless, indistinguishable from flesh. Eventually I managed to free the limb and hoisted it between my shoulder blades and carried it to the troopie.

When the work was done we sat in the cab, silent with exhaustion. The dusk light was golden and it lighted the four bodies across from me. I could see their bones and muscles. I could feel the warmth of their blood beneath my skin. I lowered my eyes to my legs then lifted my head and looked in the eyes of the man opposite. “Where you from?” I asked his eyes.
“Me?” they blinked.
“Yes.”
He hesitated. The light was fading now and his body was a shadow but his eyes were bright and some of that light seemed to come from inside. I spoke again, this time with my eyes, “Did you travel a long way?”
He didn’t answer. I fell silent and flexed my hands, they were coated in dry blood. I squeezed my tired thighs. “I was born in South Africa,” I said. “Though I grew up in Perth and more recently I lived in Sydney.”
His eyes listened. His body rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road.
“Truth is I don’t feel as though I’m from any of the places I’ve been,” I continued. “My great grandparents left Eastern Europe early in the twentieth century. I'm part of a language group called the Hebrews, destined forever to dwell in the lands of others.”
“Soon we’re going to stop and pray,” he said, this time with his mouth.
“Okay,” I said. But I needed more time. My eyes widened and moistened. My chest rose and tightened at the back of my throat. Through baited breath I said, “I know my ancestral stories and dreams. I read them and try to understand what they mean.”
His eyes were bright and some of that light was from the moon. When we got out to pray, I prayed for forgiveness.

With love,
Daniel

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Letters Home #10 "Forgiveness"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #10 “Forgiveness"

Give me confusion and forgive me my pride,
All I wanted was improvement.
(Daniel 15:09)

Right now I’m at my desk. Its a large dining table positioned slightly off centre in a room fifteen paces by five. The table is made of wood, has a hazelnut stain, a simple box apron and four turned legs. Its not so old to demand special treatment, nor so young to be without a story. It has two chairs, one faces a window, the other - at its head - faces into the room. I sit mostly in the former, though sometimes I work in the latter - which is where I am now.

At night before bed I like to work with the front door open. That way the room fills with cool dark air and the scent of campfires. One night the porch light turned on and behind the screen door stood a tabby cat. She was ash grey with charcoal stripes and yellow eyes. I’d been writing for hours and mostly about longing so I saw in those eyes a welcome intrusion. I opened the door and she came in, circled me a few times then brushed her coat against my legs and the legs of my table. I sat on the floor and watched her with caution. She came up, rolled on her back and purred at my touch. I felt flush with warmth and I smiled. 

I told a friend about the cat. She cooed a little and said she often thought about taking in a stray cat, or a dog. There are so many around. The dogs are battered and cats make good housemates. I reminisced about my old cat called Blue, the way he used to sleep on my chest. A few weeks later my friend found a kitten and kept it. I went round to visit and the little grey huntress was chasing lizards. I laughed and cheered her on. But my friend wasn’t amused. She complained that the lizards were native and since the cat moved in she hadn’t seen so many around. I found myself siding with the cat. “Leave her be,” I said, “she lives here too."

A week later I was out bush with some Yolngu Rangers. They’re employed for the purpose of conservation and land management. In many ways they stand on rare common ground between Yolngu knowledge and Western science. We visited a dry river bed. The ground beneath our feet was broken into big chunks of caked mud. The work of feral pigs and buffalo. Years ago, the Rangers said, the river bed was flat, green and abundant with water chestnuts. Now its a salty barren badlands. 

Years ago people collected the chestnuts and found water by the sound of small birds, whose twills and chirps inspired melodies for songs, and whose movements were made into dances. Children learned the dances and recognised the birds. They passed on the knowledge and seldom went thirsty. Years later the birds flew away. Too many cats. The people kept dancing and singing. Children kept learning but they couldn’t see the birds. The old people told them how they used to find water. But the children drank from taps and were thirsty.

On World Indigenous People Day they celebrated their culture with songs and dances, stories and dreams that everyone agreed should be preserved and protected. Don’t forget who you are, the children were told, don’t forget where you come from. Be proud of your roots and your culture. Learn the stories and dreams, help pass them on. Take care of this land. And across the nation people will honour you whenever they meet. They will pay their respects to you and your elders, past present and future.

A child raised his hand. “Are their stories about cats?” he asked.
“Cats?” his teacher echoed.
“Yes, cats!” said the child. “I know to be proud of my culture and to take care of this land. So what should I do about cats?”

His teacher conferred with the Rangers. It was their job to conserve and manage the land. But the Rangers weren’t sure. They’d tried killing the cats, but people kept them as pets, so inevitably the problem outlived that solution. They’d encouraged people to keep them indoors and have them desexed. But some left them be, to hunt and prosper. After all, they lived there too. There was word of a new innovation from overseas but it would be years before the innovation itself would reach the Rangers.

The teacher returned disappointed. “I’m sorry,” he said to the child, “the Rangers aren’t sure. Yolngu knowledge has nothing to tell about cats, and Western science tells stories about future technology."

The child raised his hand, which was unusual. Both for the fact that the teacher stood right in front of him and for the unlikelihood that there might still be a question to ask. “What about Western knowledge?” said the child.
Knowledge?” replied his teacher.
“Yes!” said the child. “Does your culture have stories about cats?”

The teacher was stunned. Who am I? He thought. Where do I come from? Does my culture have stories about cats? He recalled with some difficulty a time when his culture was also made of stories and dreams. They were stories about heroes and heroins and the spirits that dwelt in unseeable spaces. But something had happened - he tried to remember - people searched for spirits but couldn’t find them. So they consulted the Rationalists, who’s job it was to reveal and manage the truth. The Rationalists had technology that could see into unseeable spaces. But they couldn’t see any spirits and soon the people stopped telling their stories. After all, they knew who they were and where they came from, but now they were somewhere new.

“I’m sorry,” said the teacher. “I don’t know any stories about cats.”
The child scrunched his face so that his lips were crumpled and his eyes scanned the air just out of reach to his left. After a few seconds deep in thought he raised his hand.
“Yes?” said the teacher.
“How about snakes?”
“Snakes?”
“Yes. Do you have any stories about snakes?”
The teacher hesitated, “I guess so… but they’re only myths.”
“Whats a myth?” said the child.
“Kind of a story. An old story - but more like a dream. It isn’t —“ the teacher stopped. There was a word on the tip of his tongue but he wasn’t quite sure what it meant. He looked at the child and took a deep breath. “Okay," he began, “I’ll tell you the story. Once there was a beautiful garden, full of plants and animals and fresh flowing water. A man and a woman lived there and took care of the land. It was a time before knowledge and the man and woman didn’t know who they were. They weren’t afraid and never went hungry. Nothing did. One of the trees in the garden was called the tree of knowledge. But the man and the woman weren’t supposed to eat from that tree."
The child was rapt. “Was there a snake in the garden?”
The teacher smiled at the child’s curiosity and felt encouraged to continue the telling. “Yes. There was a snake. It was subtle and smart, it lived in the tree of knowledge and it spoke to the woman. It told her to eat from the tree and find out who she was.”
The child raised his hand and the teacher laughed. “I think I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “You’re going to ask why she wasn’t supposed to know who she was.”
“Yes!” said the child, “Why not?”
“Well, the garden was only for people who didn’t know. If she ate the fruit, she’d have to leave.”
“So what did she do?”
“She ate the fruit.”
“And she had to leave?”
“Yes, and the man too. They left together.”
“Where did they go?”
“Well, they didn’t go anywhere. More like, they woke up.”
“You mean it was all a dream?”

The child was confused and so was the teacher. He felt some embarrassment at having told the story. Such things were no longer told to children and perhaps for good reason. Then he felt the child’s hand enter his own. It brushed the skin of his palm and was dry and soft like a petal. The child’s interest was innocent and genuine. He couldn’t know the tension these stories conjured in the hearts and minds of teachers. “You know what?” he asked.
The teacher hoped for once the child had an answer, “What?” he replied.
“I know who you are!”
Surprised, the teacher turned to the child. He wanted so desperately to know that he laughed a little and casually said, “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah! You’re the same as me. Your job is to care for the land.”
The teacher felt flush with warmth. “I guess you’re right.”
The child scrunched his face in thought. “Now if only we had a story about cats.”

The next morning I woke up and went to the shop to buy some pears. A man I know barrelled in after me and asked if I’d like to go hunting with some men. I said I would, it was my first hunt. Soon I sat by a river with kangaroo on a fire and blood on my hands. Later I stood at the home of a mythical python snake. Later still I helped skin the first buffalo I’d ever seen. On our way home we washed in the river as the sun was setting and the men suggested we say a prayer of thanksgiving, for a day so flush with life.

I can’t say who I prayed to, but I know what I prayed for. I prayed for forgiveness.

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