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Secrets From The Dust
Warren Hamilton

The pang 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 and dresses.

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 men’s 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 man’s bones. "G-day… You know where we can get some water, love, …our radiator’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 arm’s 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 been.

The men spoke to each other in hushed tones, but the one with the candy kept his hunter’s 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 couldn’t 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, "You’re filthy, but it’s too late for you to wash now. The water is turned off at seven. You’ll have to wash the bed sheets in the morning." Her voice fell off, "You will go straight to bed and I’ll have no whimpering out of you to wake the others, or else there’ll 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 the room.

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, "Don’t do it, Matron will getcha." She stuttered, wondering if the voice was part of the dream. When she didn’t 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. We’ll 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 Blythe’s lean patience, "Well, girl?"
"I…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 she’s new and didn’t know."
"I would prefer you to mind your own business and go back to sleep, Lilly."
Matron Blythe turned her furious attention back to Margaret. "Didn’t I tell you there is no toilet after bedtime?"
"Yes Miss…I mean Matron Blythe," Margaret said, when she saw the stony look on the woman’s face.
"Then you’ll 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 don’t 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
wghfree at

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