A pounding in my chest threatens the blessed quiet of the library. A pile of books – with their unfolded story – threatens the quiet of my life. My face is the whisper of someone, I was told long ago. Ah, so it is. It could well be the shouts and wails, gossips or exclamations of everyone else.
I close a last book. Enough now; I get the picture. It’s in motion, vivid and loud. Your clumsy editing is undone Ma, and the pieces drop together so neatly I wonder why they haven’t fallen there before. Centre screen is a woman in a floral dress with dark, hard eyes. Eyes that looked so steadily into mine I had to look away.
Playing opposite her is you Ma. Oh Ma, can I tear the pieces apart again? Pack them away with the books? I swallow my heart beats but they shout no.
Going down the library steps, I feel a flutter in my abdomen and touch my hand to it in time to feel the swipe of a tiny limb. A snippy, don’t-forget-me swipe. Hello there. I sit and take a letter from my bag. It’s worn to tissue now and many pages long. I know what I’m looking for.
The handwriting is curved and gentle, the words direct: “You could burn this up and no-one would have to know, but I could never take this secret with me, it belongs to you. It’s yours to keep, throw away or tell.”
Not just mine anymore, Ma. And I feel tears coming because more than anything I want to share with you those flutters and my baby and my fears. And to give this impossible secret back, no questions asked.
There are people all over the library steps; chatting, laughing, reading. A school girl stares at my tears. I wonder what she would do if I told her – shouted out my secret from the steps. Would she still look at me with kind worry? Would the reader put his book down in disbelief? Would they awkwardly move away from the loopy woman with the big belly and the whisper face? I wish I could be one of them, anyone else but me.
So I am the school girl. I have lived in the city my whole, fast life. I had plastic toys to play with, gates and fences to keep me safe. I learnt not to talk to strangers and if I need to know something I look it up on my tiny computer phone. I don’t think about where my food came from or what happens to the way of the land when concrete is poured on it. I think aboriginal people are interesting but stupid, that Governments and systems will keep my world constant and infinite fuel will keep it warm. I am happy because I am pretty enough to have friends and my parents can afford trendy shoes. The idea of someone taking me away from them – parents and shoes – would never occur to me in a million glittering years.
“I was taken away in a car. My mother chased us, screaming. As we left her behind I saw her fall in the road. That was the last I saw of her.”
I fold the letter back into my bag and swallow my tears. Maybe I need to eat. Maybe I need to sleep. Somehow I need to think.
“A room please.” There must be lost in my eyes because the woman at reception takes me to a room and helps me work the key. She carries my bag (so small for so much baggage) and shows me how the shower works. I wash the city away with vanilla scented body wash, but the secret doesn’t wash; nor does the pain of losing you Ma, to that creeping, ugly disease called age.
“I was always astounded that people would believe a woman of my age could have a baby, a pure white one at that. I guess it was inconvenient not to believe. Too many questions and our people don’t like questions.”
I slept. I don’t remember dreaming but when I finally wake – fourteen hours later – there is an aching nostalgia, and the slippery memory of something old and loved. A warm, soft dog? Your fairy-tale. It is not a dreamtime story is it (though the Arntwere is our dreaming) but one you made up just for me, told many times. A girl-child was once saved from death by dogs and raised as one of them. One day, she stumbled across humans. She became the centre of great fascination, telling the people how the dogs of the world communicate, what they were thinking, their needs, their instincts. Because of her, dogs were thereafter allowed indoors, understood, listened to and loved.
“I was educated. I was told that God controlled everything and loved everyone. I hated him for the pain. My brain swelled with knowledge as my heart swelled with anger. It was my heart that had me steal you, and my brain that brought us back to the dreaming: the right way of things.”
It is morning and I am hungry. I find a café nearby. It is filled with people in suits and colourful food, piles of it. My hunger abates just at the sight. I become transfixed by a woman making sandwiches. She doesn’t even need to look at where she puts her hands; which bit of compartmentalised colour she slaps onto lines of bread. She laughs loudly along with someone I can’t see. I reach again for the letter, like a child reaching for a love-worn blanket.
“I am one of the lucky ones. I was old enough to take memories with me. Like my mother and aunties laughing with joy over the sweet nectar of a corkwood blossom, then holding it out to me. Ngkwarle for the little ones. These are your memories now.”
And it’s true. You made sure that everything was eaten with regard for its origins, Ma, whether found, made, hunted or earned. Everything that we brought to our table was treated gently and with thanks. My favourite was simple – damper, just undercooked, with grevillea nectar. You would bake it for me especially and say it came with your heart.
“More ham!” screeches the sandwich woman, as she throws an empty plastic punnet into a sink before slapping some white substance onto bread. I wonder what she would think about farming by fire and using what you need. I wonder where her heart is.
Back out on the street there are more people in suits. They have big, hurrying strides, telephone hands and no regard for each other. They have a wonder for me though it seems; I get curious looks, one young woman laughs at me.
I am wearing my city clothes, worn twice before when you brought me to the city for schooling. A pale blue dress and soft brown shoes. I was maybe fifteen years old. We came to the library, we looked at transport and architecture and theatre. Your home-school was thorough, though you hated the city. Left you on edge, too many people, you said. Too many knowing people. In the reflection of a shop window I am thirty years old – maybe more – in a child’s dress with a child’s long tangled hair and I know why people are staring.
I find a hairdo place and let a pretty-faced man tut-tut at the condition of my hair and cut it to his wishes. I decline his colour recommendations. I like my hair’s darkness, my only resemblance to you Ma; that and the colour of my eyes. If I ignore the pallor of my skin I could almost convince myself I am all yours. As I pay for my glossy, shoulder length hairdo, I watch the lengths of hair being swept from the floor by a bored looking girl with no idea of the havoc she could raise with such a lot of DNA.
I find my way to the mall and try to assume some of the capable self-interest of the strangers around me. It takes me briskly into the first clothing shop I see and has me leave wearing a smart pair of trousers, a pretty floral shirt and a pair of what the assistant called ballet flats. It ends when I realise a flowered shirt is an inappropriate choice and the ballet flats don’t make me want to dance. The enormity of the situation overwhelms me again. I turn back to the letter.
“I was taken for ‘my own good’. Our race needed protection from an undoing brought on our weaknesses. I decided that white Australia would do well for a stolen generation whose weaknesses are far more destructive. It was a rash idea, and it left a mother more than face down in her own heartbreak. For that I am sorry, but I will never be sorry for making you mine.”
Oh Ma, I’m not sorry either. Never sorry. Look at these people (I watch a pair of teenage boys as they converse in shouts about the colour of each other’s t-shirts), look at them Ma, they know nothing, they are sleeping. I know everything, because of you. I thank you, and for you I will try to wake them up.
I get up, ask directions from the nearest person and march my way along the grimy, tired streets. My ballet flats give an encouraging, businesslike clip on the footpath. At the entrance to the police station I dare not pause, but breeze in, smoothing my new hair. Listen you lot, I have something to say, shouts the expression in my whisper face.
But the woman at the desk is not in blue and this throws me – I want officialdom. I falter. A man comes in behind me and goes ahead to the desk. He has a dog on a leash who looks at me with large watery eyes. For a long moment we stare at each other and the world around me goes silent. People are moving, computer screens are flashing, but I can hear only the huff of the dog and that treacherous beating of my heart. Then something else – the light, rapid-fire beat of my baby’s heart.
“Can I help you? Can I help you?” The woman at the desk is impatient. The man and his dog are gone. I back away, shaking my head.
On my homebound train, I watch the back-sides of slabby grey business buildings and breathe the stale-warm insides of a huge mechanical beast. I stand and press my face to the narrow opening in the window and let myself think again.
I don’t know much about this city world. What I do know is that nothing that matters matters here. These ruined lands are unsung and hopeless and I can’t breathe in them. I will take my baby home Ma, this is no place for her. Here I can’t teach her anything of the things that drive your cause. I can’t tell stories without the right pictures.
And the secret? Well, the woman in the floral dress is safe now; she is moved on, and I don’t know her. And I don’t think I need to tell it to be powerful. The power is in other spoken words, the telling of ancient stories. They will continue this small-huge revolution you began that night all those years ago.
I take the softened letter from my bag and tenderly tear it into tiny pieces, which I drop into the last quarter of a left behind milk shake. The words are not cloudy-pulp in my memory, should I – or the flowered woman – ever need them. Then I push my lips to the outside and give the secret to the thin, wanting city air. I whisper it, just once, slowly for good measure.
“My name is Azaria.” And there it is, there it goes.
It swirls through the train-rush as I feel a soothing caress just below my heart.