Last week, on the day after birthday, I was floating on my back in water cold and deep between rock-ribbed walls in an ancient gorge. Once more round the sun, my brother likes to say. Once more round the sun.
I celebrated with a few friends to the tune of Paul Kelly. We played a game with four-inch needles and pot of ink. When it was my turn I told a story about something I’d seen and wanted to keep. A snake. I drew it on the back of an envelope. Then again on my skin. Then with one hand she held my arm and with the other she dipped a needle in the pot of ink and poked at my skin.
Deeper water is calling him on.
"Does it hurt?" she asked.
“Yes,” I said, “in a good way though, not like a stubbed toe."
A stubbed toe is loud and clumsy, annoying and difficult to accept, impossible to understand. Whereas from the very start the pain of a tattoo is forgiven, endured with grace and understood to be necessary. When it was over she smeared my skin with cool salve and asked what I thought. I said I liked it very much and I wanted more.
This week I'm back in Gapuwiyak. On the first day of school I took a group of kids to the lake. R— was there too - my adopted mum. We gathered nuts and seeds and feathers and leaves and put them in a basket. She showed me a tree whose bark makes a poison that catches fish, and another with ironwood suitable for clapsticks. Pointing to a third she said, “This tree is the tree of my tribe. The tree of your tribe. When someone in our tribe passes away we sing a song about this tree falling down. One day, waku, when you hear that song, you will know if all this is meaningful for you.”
The next day it rained for the first time in months. The air outside was cold and perfumed. A butcherbird landed on a branch in my yard with a worm in its beak. The rain brought worms to the surface, I thought, and I suppose the butcherbird too. In the yard next door a pair of lorikeets hung from the branch of a mango tree and took turns with one of the first ripe fruits of the season. Meanwhile an old story was coming to an end. The story of a petrified infant with its eyes tight shut and no one around.
“Where was the last place you saw it?” Tallulah asked, seated again on her moroccan pouf.
“In a softly lit room with some friends,” I said, “then again the next day in a gorge, after that in my mother's arms. And I smelled it one day in the rain.”
“What did it smell like?”
“Complicated, but also clear, sort of floral, with an earthiness and a wetness too. It was beautiful and I remember thinking I should take time to enjoy it, how soon it would end. Somehow that made it smell better.”
Tallulah smiled. She picked up one of the cloth bags on the glass table to her right and loosened the drawstring. Inside was a book, which she held in one hand and whose cover she opened with the other. “Take this,” she said, “its a book of poems by a man I think you’d like. Its called, Deeper Still.”
Tallulah turned to a page and took a deep breath, she paused, and slowly closed it again. Her fingers brushed its cover the way one brushes the hair from a child’s face to better take them in. She put the book back in the cloth bag and handed it to me. “Good luck,” she said.
I stood up and locked eyes with her. Suddenly I had the feeling that I was dreaming. “Who are you?” I asked her eyes.
“What do you mean?” she replied.
I put the cloth bag in my shoulder bag and slung it over my shoulder. After a final exchange of grateful smiles I walked out through the beaded curtain, through the kitchen and onto the street.