Arrernte Land, by Karen Lethlean

A child visits her ancestral land

A jumble of buildings squatted some distance away, dark, and low. Not a sight I, at my age of eight, imagined part of Dad’s homeland. Funny how things stick in your mind, still sharp now, from so many decades ago. The time of our walkabout. Through ominous towns trying to overwhelm desert landscapes. So different from the down south-coast dairy farm where I grew up. Possible to glimpse pieces of blue-grey ocean in divots between hills. 

Shining just as strongly as being alone with Dad. I remember the glory of being completely his. Can’t remember why he’d chosen me and left my sister behind. Maybe something to do with complicated drawings I brought home from school. Hands sweaty every minute on endless school bus trips. Every time teachers said, “We’re doing art,” I found excitement couldn’t be stifled. Swirling masses of color, sometimes-dotted creatures, once my images resembled machines. At home Dad made up stories, “This one means shelter, these are waterholes…,” or he named magic beings in my art. 

Driving several hours to reach the airport. Finally, a late-night plane. Before too long we landed in Alice Springs, also known as The Centre, at dawn: I remember Dad carrying me off the plane, raising my head from his shoulder, so I’d see sunrise. My feet then onto warm tarmac so he could take a photo. 

“For you to remember.”

A shock to be on the ground after witnessing a new day born up in the air. 

We drove a wide, new highway away from planes toward a town nestled in a folded hillside, with buildings catching sunrise and pushing light back like a weapon. Never been anywhere quite so hot, dry breeze sucking away any trace of moisture. Structures squat, as if to cringe from desert heat, rather than stuck out like the city towers encountered, still illuminated despite our late-night departure, when we took off in Sydney. 

Now dawn lights radiant all around with tender pink blush on beckoning hills. While in the air those same features were like fat squishy tumors or dried out scabs. Dried out watercourses. Patches of thick creamy yellow. Yet here in morning were pinks, soft glows of red, dullest beige and violet seeping in. A creature welcoming me with a surrounding embrace. 

I try to recall brooding buildings of home, full strong joyful memories: meeting cousins who played and laughed in just the same way as friends at school, yet who sounded truer, more real, and who looked beautiful, despite being brown. 

At school, my classmates said, “You will have to be the fast runner. You can’t be pretty or smart because you are an Aboriginal.” With an emphasis sounding like ab-bow-riginal. As if I need to bend like a bow used for shooting arrows or tied in knots like a hair-bow. 

Alternatively, my race was doubted, by kids and adults: “Can’t be, you’re too light skinned.” 

In Alice and even smaller towns, settlements, long-legged, straight white-teethed girls who might easily strut down modelling catwalks greeted us. These girls possessed unfamiliar calm elegance. 

“What’s your skin name?” smiling kids asked.

“Don’t think I have one.” 

Later, Dad explained my lack of skin name as something to do with “not born out here.” So, I thought this name should link to place. Connect me with country.

Arrernte painter Albert Namatjira and family, Alice Springs, Australia, 1950s. Photo uploaded by Aussie~mobs

I remember trees. Stubby white trunks, “ghost gums” someone called them. Ghosts of who? Reminded me of scary people pushing through crowds at train stations, or standing impatiently, at city bus stops. True, here in Alice frightening locals gathered in shouting groups on street corners. 

Those people used words like sharp objects. Sometimes in a language vaguely familiar, but slurred, spat and cruel. As well as flopping thin limbs around in gestures looking unfriendly. Even back home, I knew to avoid people like those. Often gathered outside RSLs or hotels, in order to torment kids waiting for school buses. But out here teachers, policemen, pilots, tradesmen, house builders, truck drivers, even priests watched with friendly, laughing, dark eyes like a tourist center woman my father called “niece.” So many uncles and women called “aunty” even if they weren’t. Some troublemakers, Dad whispered. Some did tricks, making their thumbs disappear, or coins come out of your ears. Faces, varying brown shades—from tan to blue-black-brown. Yet when I looked in their eyes, I felt these people were family. Some with blond streaks in their hair, some with reddish tinges, teachers would complain, “cost an arm and leg to get natural highlights….” No matter what skin or hair, I stood among these people not apart from them. 

Dad’s skin, same as mine, what friends at school called “night-time color” but here aunties stroked cheeks, looked at fondly, and said, “So pretty! Your father, that Cyrus, so handsome, could have been a film star. Even better than Ernie Dingo.”

I recall walls of someone’s house, a 1970s brick veneer ravaged by time and inland sun, set low in dust as if waiting for further blows. No front garden, just weariness and stored heat. New days with crows greeting each other. One saying, “We are just awake.” Another’s response, “But not yet, go back to sleep.” A range of sounds from a small croak, through to a full on waaark. Creaks like a rusted door opening. A random aunty said, “Crow is bad, it hangs around to eat the dead.” If not playing with cousins, I remember sitting on Dad’s lap as he relaxed on a cool wide veranda gazing out at a shimmering place just called “country.” Earth, scrub, and sky in an arrangement of colors, as an adult I’d call “a palette.” Impossible to find more useful descriptive words. A series of reddish browns and faded grey-greens and a gold slowly bleached away to a distilled fine absence of color. Unlike lush grey-greens back on our south-coast home. This land rolled away flat, compared to our farm’s lumps, “give cows shorter legs on one side,” an uncle joked. 

Out here, Dad warned to keep a sharp watch for Malingee, “He will cause trouble, that one.” To me this creature sounded like a local version of a bogeyman. 

Once, I roamed along a creek bed and felt as if it might be possible to make a connection with old ones. Got down, flat to earth, closed my eyes and waited. Some tiny birds flittered in and out of lumpy spinifex grasses. For a moment I was sure I saw a bright orange bauble which reminded me of lumpy jewellery I’d seen around teachers’ necks or dangling from ear lobes. Many years later I’d discover images of an orange cat which lived in The Centre. 

Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia, 2005. Wikimedia Commons. Photos by Thomas Schoch.

I tried to empty my mind and let thoughts drift back to years before my birth, deep back, into unwritten days before white men. A picture formed easily enough. In different places I’d seen things adapt to create an image, pictures in library books, displays in museums, in films, with my back to red dirt I thought it perhaps possible to bring things together. And listen. 

Wind spoke. Leaves spoke, even ground spoke. Not like muted silences of paddocks, sheds, and yards. This ground possessed beats, like a slow human pulse. Red dirt warm and alive. Way off seas beating onto shores, spirits poking at earth. Or did this earth really possess a heart, a great booming heart way down below, down deep? I thought of generations of dark men, women and children sleeping on earth. Heard voices, sighs, and bare feet padding, not real feet, rather ghostly ones. Even years slipping back possessed their own sound, like wheels passing, fading as they drew further and further away. Explorers crawling like maddened lice across vast wrinkled lands. Crazed by thirst and dreams. After a while I felt a bit weird, brushed off and wandered back toward unwelcoming buildings. These small man-made structures only strengthened my air of isolation. 

Red Tailed black cockatoos hovered in scraggly low trees. Black shadows, with scarlet panels beneath tail flaps, like fire. Sunset after dark, color to fuel feathered take off. I marvel at flight, or are birds really falling? To me these cockatoos work hard, like rowers in the sky, rowing upstream in air. Such a large bird, noisy like rusty chains being drawn. So visible, making no effort to hide itself or blend into surroundings. Dad often told me flights are a signal of coming rain. But what if they just hang in branches and shout at each other? 

“You got Bunyip dust on your dress,” said one of the many aunties, as she picked a seed from my hair. 

Under deep eaves, in shade I listened to a mix of talk resembling jumbled sounds. Sometimes with identifiable English words. Never knew Dad spoke another language! Occasionally these babbling words lullabied, and I’d wake to find colors intensified, as if someone switched on a yellow-rose light. By this time Dad emptied me into an aunty’s arms, and I realized darkness had arrived. Out here no familiar gentle dusk lingered, instead night almost clunked into place. But no matter, heavens alive with Guy Fawkes Night firecracker type sparklers leaving phosphorous trails above. 

“They’re what stars look like away from any other lights,” my dad assured. To me these dark skies looked prickled with thousands of tiny, tiny holes. Black bits appeared darker, and a few perforations almost connected into cloud-masses. Linking to deep gullies back on our farm. Places where the canopy closes over. Full of fern and wild weeds. Pictures I’ve seen on strangler figs, germinating in forks of other trees. Their aerial roots wrapping around life and giving hosts and slowly killing them. Vines and climbers merging and turning into suffocating monsters in darkness. I wonder is this what happened to the old people who once walked this land? Or are such places where I might see Malingee? 

This place seemed beyond old. Hills risen before time began, life before things crawled on land. Worn down and weathered even before man walked here. What ghosts lived here? Wandered in places of deep color red and gold, floating by on tiny wafts of moving air. Or pushed about by wings of crested pigeons. Always made me giggle, as couldn’t get images of top-knot pony tails on girls at school out of my mind. 

I remember a few nights spent sleeping out, not rough but warm and comfortable in swags. A bedding bundle I never guessed snug or even possible. On these nights Dad built a little fire, without having to worry about getting permission from Country Fire Authority. Our local fire brigade would go into a panic to see threads of smoke rising from the farm. But out in The Centre we could sit beside a warm blaze glowing bright, sending golden yellow sparks skyward, but never far enough to reach as high as thousands of stars, pushing through indigo skies. Thought heavens may burst from so many stars. When morning came, fire remnants were a blackened bruise, and some flakes of white ash. Grasses crisp with leavings of night ice. Day’s beginnings so different from warm nights matched to blue-sky days, or winter’s constant chill and clouded gloom.

Out here, Dad gained more powerful arms, a straighter, stronger back, and all sorts of unguessed secret insights. Not least of all, knowing pathways across a maze of dusty tracks. It didn’t take much to get away from town, so very different from those long, industry edged highways encountered as we approached Sydney Airport. Or even passing a few factories, encroaching onto farmland, near my hometown. Here wheel ruts vanished into rough scrub in no time. Bare red dirt swept by winds, roads little more than animal trails. Eyeless stone ruins, remnants of half-hearted fences, or trashed buildings, sometimes glimpsed through stubby trees or stood becalmed on stony plains. Often not a single building, house, shed, or fence line peeking out from between trees. A lack of directional signs in these wide-open spaces frightening. Stone everywhere, looking in competition to low scrub and clumped grasses. 

Looking over at Dad, bent forward, fingers tight around the steering wheel, one elbow out an open window, made me feel safe. While we drove, Dad told long complicated stories I tried to hang onto, but always slipped from my grasp. 

Some places we visited “the mob” of relatives who lived in low-slung houses crouching in dry and dusty gullies. A few houses burnt, graffiti covered, deserted, with scabby looking dogs wandering about aimlessly. Except for fewer dogs, I’d seen worse shacks visiting family in Sydney, or left in paddocks to decay. Despite looking rundown these buildings still got lived in, still held various guests or cousins, not like gradually sideways tumbling down empty shells invisible to farmers back home. 

Another surprise, fridges crouched in corners of isolated shops were locked behind strong wire frames and chained closed with padlocks. Even once, in town, a policeman who stood near the counter frowned like Dad did wrong by getting cold drinks. 

“It’s his job to make sure I’m not buying booze to take into dry settlements or give to underaged kids.” His explaining words, which explained nothing. 

One night, coming home late, as I talked to Dad, my memory includes him listening and laughing at my silliness. Holding his hand as I traced veins, knowing out here he belonged. Thinking how much I’d like to keep this moment. My dad in this far-away, yet close place, forever. Then he looked out of the window into dark night, and cried out suddenly, with a noise resembling what I imagine a buffalo stuck in mud might make. Then he said, “Do you like it here?” 

Driving along dry, unmade roads, with a dust plume vanishing into blackness behind, an illuminated wild creature’s eyes trapped by our headlights. He’d already said not to worry because they were miles from a Mokoi. “Anyway, I am here to protect from this spirit’s evil grasp. Never let Mokoi take my child.”

I already knew, without my father’s telling, Mokoi took many forms. Stories adults clung to rang in my innocent ears, tales of children ripped from their mother’s arms, of long-lost families finally reunited. Of mere babes having to huddle in the dark, cry into cold blankets on rows of rough beds, or walk away for supposed rescuers, to find their parents. 

Then Dad swerved and stopped, leapt out, his hand outstretched, and I knew his hand would always be there as an offering, assurance, and connection no one else could ever remove. Inside my head came a frightening thought-—everyone, their whole family would all be moving out here, soon, and for all time. 

“Come darling,” he said. I slid into night air, backs of my knees sticking as I crossed sweaty, dusty seats. 

He stamped about, bare-footed, lifting dust from ground, enlivening red granules. Never seen Dad dance, nor encountered his doing anything this joyful. 

“See if you can catch the land, keep it inside, and take it up into your heart through your feet, my little girl.”

While I thought, never heard of anything quite so silly. How could you make something go to your heart sucked up from feet soles? Here, I loved him, for those words. 

This moment got locked away as an anchor point. If I’d been able to put it into an envelope and post it to an adult self, anytime in the future when I opened it red dust, dark skies, and burning fires would fall out. A time always causing confusion about where, exactly; to which land and people I belonged. ◆

This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2022 issue of Parabola, BELONGING. You can find the full issue on our online store