International Writers Magazine:Novel
From The Dust
pang gooks all laughed as their several tiny fingers raced over
the bushes, plucking at the wild riberries, which were fat with
juice. The girl that they sometimes called Snake-woman-child, darted
in and out of the scrub with an athletic ease, eager to reach the
biggest fruit ahead of the others, with whom she would share them
afterwards, anyway. They were eating more than they saved for the
elders, who were dancing and singing up some spirit back at camp,
and the luscious red juice ran down mouths, across cheeks and added
to the days old stains that had already accumulated on their T-shirts
A cloud of red
dust billowed and raced towards the berry pickers, even though the sun
was sitting high in the belly of its expansive sky and there was no
hint of a breeze. They first noticed that the flock of chattering budgerigar,
which had waited patiently on the wing for their chance at the scrub,
had flown off, and when they stopped listening to their own rowdy voices,
they heard the roar of the truck towards them, and turned to see it
at the head of the dust cloud. The little ones ran off as the truck
careered closer, remembering the warning of their parents. But the Snake-woman-child
stood still, in a game of dare, as she knew the elders had mostly warned
them about cunnichmen who could do more than arrest drunks and
thieves for breaking white mans laws and what they
had called smart dressed types, driving big black cars.
The truck stopped in front of her, and two fellas, farmer types, jumped
out of either door. The mens skins were only lightly touched by
the sun, and when one of them lifted his acruba, his head was bald and
his ears white, like the colour of a dead mans bones. "G-day
You know where we can get some water, love,
as dry as this here track." He kicked at the ground, and the dust
landed on his shiny new boots. He appeared to ignore her when she didnt
answer, then he lifted the bonnet of the truck and stuck his head inside.
The younger man, who had a few days growth on his chin, waggled a water
bottle over his gaping mouth to indicate it was empty, but still she
said nothing, and didnt attempt to close the twelve feet between
them. Her narrow nose and translucent blue eyes looking out from behind
her rusted gum tree skin mesmerised him. He pulled himself away from
her spell, went back inside the car and brought out some candy, which
he held at arms length, whilst gingerly closing the gap between
them. All of the remaining berry pickers took a few steps back, but
Snake-woman-child stepped forward, holding out a handful of berries
for the exchange. She could feel the eyes of fear from her kin heavily
on her back, but knew her actions would be sung and danced up when the
others tasted these new treats. They would sing that the Snake-woman-child
truly had the spirit of her totem serpent, and she would hide any hint
of individual pleasure and sing them up too, so that no one person could
take the glory for all that had gone on that day, and no one person
would be without recognition also, because that was the way it had always
The men spoke to each other in hushed tones, but the one with the candy
kept his hunters eyes on her just the same. She remembered a few
of the words she could hear, like slowly and pretty blue-eyed one, because
it was less than two years since her mother had liberated her from the
settlement school to go walkabout with their mob. This way she would
be able to parent her in their mobs ways, and she could be closer to
where her husband might find work as a shearer or cattleman, as he was
always on the move.
"Grab the little mulatto bitch!" the bald headed man shouted
when the one bearing gifts was within a foot of the exchange. It was
then that she noticed the coarse sack hanging from his back, and he
pulled it out and threw it in an arc, like a whip. It was over her head
by the time she had turned and taken two lithe strides in the other
direction. The other children scattered like frightened rabbits. The
girl kicked, clawed and screamed more violently than a hare caught in
a trap, but the two fellas were too strong. They tied a rope around
the sack, and one of them carried the writhing bundle on his shoulder
to the back of the truck. He threw her into its empty belly real hard,
and she hit her head and passed out.
When the girl came to, it was dark, like the deep caves at Walara, and
she sniffed the oily air in the truck through two holes in the sack.
The vehicle lurched over uneven ground, and its inners rumbled more
ferociously than angry thunder. The fear woke in her, and she pushed
her arms against her bindings, but it made breathing the already stale,
hot air burn her lungs. So she lay still and sang to herself, and each
time the fear in her rose, she sang louder, so as to block out the screams
that were leaping from her heart.*
They arrived at Radley Domestic Training Home for girls in the dead
of night. Radley and other segregated training institutions like it
had been set up by the Chief Protector of the government Protection
Board in each of the states. They were the legal guardians of all Aboriginal
children, and homes like these were usually the first stop for those
children taken from their families due to neglect, destitution
or because they were uncontrollable, or so the state authorities
said. Before the state began to take the children, the growing Australia
had been in need of a cheap source of labour, and when the European
settlers had first spread out across the outback, they had met fierce
resistance from the natives with whom they fought over rights to land,
food and water sources. Once the settlers had won those battles, they
had then kidnapped Aboriginal women and children to provide what labour
and recreation they required. Later, the policy was carried out in a
more formal manner when the government and missionaries took the mixed-raced
children to train in European values and work habits, before
they were employed by the settlers in exchange for rations.
The men took the sack off the girl in the back of the truck, so it couldnt
be seen how they had trussed her up. Then they presented her to a rotund
woman standing in front of the stone building in her dressing gown,
with both fists pressed into her doughy hips. She carried a two-foot
long leather sheathed truncheon in one hand, and slapped her foot against
the gravel with open impatience.
"This is the girl," the bald man said, scratching his head.
"Well, does she have a name?" the woman demanded. The men
looked at each other and then back at the girl, but she seemed to stare
straight through them as if they were ghosts.
"Margaret," the bolder man said, stroking his coarse chin,
"her name is Margaret."
"Then thank you and goodnight," the woman said as she spun
on her heels and flung the heavy, wrought iron clad, oak door open.
"Get in," she commanded, and the girl, who was now Margaret,
followed her extended arm into a long, pine-floored hallway.
"You will address me as Matron Blythe," she said, as she marched
a pace ahead. Margaret felt as if she were floating, and her mind had
lost all of its ability to navigate on its own, so she followed Matron
Blythe. They climbed a stairway to the first floor, and Matron Blythe
stopped outside a varnished French door. She looked Margaret up and
down and tightened her nose as if slamming a door, "Youre
filthy, but its too late for you to wash now. The water is turned
off at seven. Youll have to wash the bed sheets in the morning."
Her voice fell off, "You will go straight to bed and Ill
have no whimpering out of you to wake the others, or else therell
be no breakfast for you in the morning."
With that she eased open the doors and led Margaret into a large dormitory.
Thirty or so iron beds with thin mattresses ran in straight regimented
lines down either side of the dormitory, and more than half of them
were occupied with girls fast asleep, or keeping as still as they could,
so as not to provoke the wrath of Matron Blythe. They stopped at an
empty bed and Matron Blythe pointed Margaret towards it. She climbed
in with the same sweaty dress she had been trussed up in all day and
pulled the thin blanket over herself. Only then did Matron Blythe leave
Margaret lay awake for the longest while struggling to unravel her thoughts,
wondering how it was that they had become tangled now. She knew she
had to escape before these people tried to get her to forget her mobs
ways her mother had always advised her to if she was caught
but each time she tried to think of it her mind spun a web, and she
would be left hanging someplace unable to move. Was it a dream? She
closed her eyes tight and then sprung them open, to end the lurid nightmare,
but she was still in the dark dormitory. A steady breeze floated in
through one of the grilled windows, left slightly ajar, and it seemed
to revive her, so she turned her head in the direction from which it
was coming and breathed more deeply. The cool air blew away some of
the webs and she started to knit together ideas again. She looked around
her for some means of escape. She had made no plans, but pushed the
blanket off her and swung her legs onto the floor. Before she could
stand an elfin voice sang out, "Dont do it, Matron will getcha."
She stuttered, wondering if the voice was part of the dream. When she
didnt hear it again she got up and started across the well waxed
floor. "Matron will getcha I tell you, she sleeps real light."
"Shut up Lilly, let her get caught if she wants. Well get
her breakfast in the morning," another voice said.
"Who wants that stinky stuff," another added, and there was
a cacophony of giggles around the room, as most had stayed awake to
see who the new girl was.
The doors of the dormitory crashed open and Margaret froze, snared in
the blinding light of a torch. "What is all that talking, and why
are you out of bed, Margaret?" Matron Blythe demanded. The words
for a response were coming back to her, but too slowly for Matron Blythes
lean patience, "Well, girl?"
I wanted to go toilet, Matron," she lied, looking
down at the floor where she was making shaky patterns with her foot.
"I told her she had to ask you first, Matron Blythe," said
the thumbnail voice belonging to Lilly, "because there is no toilet
after bedtime, but shes new and didnt know."
"I would prefer you to mind your own business and go back to sleep,
Matron Blythe turned her furious attention back to Margaret. "Didnt
I tell you there is no toilet after bedtime?"
I mean Matron Blythe," Margaret said, when
she saw the stony look on the womans face.
"Then youll go back to bed like everyone else and hold it
until morning." Matron Blythe pointed the torch towards the bed.
"And let me tell you we dont tolerate pee-the-beds here at
Radley. They are good homes you girls will end up in, and I will not
have them thinking badly of the training you receive here at Radley."
Margaret climbed back into the bed, pulled the blanket over her, and
Matron Blythe spun on her heels and left.
© Warren Hamilton October 2007
An extract from
a novel in progress. If you like what you read, let the writer know.
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