Table of Contents:
The Prologue – Fiddleheads
All the Way to China
Kakadu – The Oz Diaries
1. Armand – Le Depanneur
In the summer of 1967 the highest form of adventure for an eight year old was a trip to the corner store. Known in Quebec as “Le Dépanneur”, the corner store in my hometown of Buckingham ours was called simply, “Armand’s”.
Outside in the yard at home I hung around within earshot. A deer grazing in a field lifted her head no less swiftly than I did to my Mom holler from inside,
“Kids! Can someone go to Armand’s for me?!”
The long summer day suddenly had a purpose! I’d beat my brothers to the quarter being dropped from above, and picking up the gang on the way, we’d peddle hard for the two short blocks.
Armand, the storeowner, had a thick head of black hair Brylcreemed-back over a wide, friendly face. I used to sneak looks at him, loving the anticipation of watching his lips stutter out his words. Kind, dark eyes squinted against an ever-burning cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. His head sat atop a large, apron-bellied shape that for me, stopped at the counter. His lower half was a mystery, but I registered vaguely that it was perched on a stool.
He was somehow indistinguishable from the cluttered wall behind him, and the glass-fronted display case in front. Armand was the store, and the store was Armand, in the way water flows between the banks of a river. Without him the building that held him would have lost its form. If place can be defined as a space occupied by someone, then Armand Mercier personified place.
We’d drop our bikes outside and step across the dusty threshold, taking a minute for our eyes to adjust to the dim interior. Inside, the store was simply bigger than the outside, filled with an apothecary of thick, musty smells, and of tastes that touched every part of your mouth. It was all grouped against a subtle, visual feast of colours on a spectrum of shadowed depths at the back, to light streaming in through the clutter stuck to the one large window. To me, the tightly packed aisles and rows of candy were a world of Andre Nortonian complexity.
“ ‘e-ey dere, m-mons petites! ‘ow are y-you?”
“We’re fine Armand!” We’d chime.
“Armand, Mom wants six smokes, she says to put ‘em on her bill.”
He’d open his pack, carefully slip out the six white tubes, bag them and hand the tiny brown package to me. Having earned my quarter, I’d turn to join the others. We’d load up with Lick-M-Ade, Pop Eye candy cigarettes, a candy necklace and maybe a Jawbreaker. As we handed over the money, we’d wait with thrilling insecurity until the most dependable man in my life would ask,
“Yu-yu-you kids wanna slice of cheese?”
He never failed to offer us some new treat-of-the-day and we never failed to say yes. I’d watch his chubby hands, the knuckles lined with tiny little black tufts of hair that bobbed when he talked. They’d grasp the large block of cheese, lay it down gently, like handling a baby, placing a thick slice of white heaven in my own raised, waiting palms.
I suspect he also never forced my mother to pay her tab if she couldn’t at the end of the month. He was father, brother, and uncle to me, and he remains the uncontested champion of the candy counter.
In the summer of 2012, I returned to Buckingham after many years avoiding it. One of my goals was to find out how Armand had fared. I wanted to thank him for helping to hold my childhood together. I tracked him down at his favorite pub. As I crossed the pub floor, his eyes went wide. He stood up and came toward me with arms outstretched, his eyes dampening with tears,
“Wh-wh-why, it’s wh-whun of de-de L-li’l wh-One’s!”
Safe in an enormous bear hug, I breathed in the old, familiar smell of him.
“Armand, how good it is to see you again.”
My first surprise was the realization that he had legs, and I noticed the cigarette was gone too. The stool was still there, he was perched on one in front of a Keno station as I entered. He had long ago retired from his post at the store. His body had grown frail and he was much smaller than I remembered, but the eyes were the same, as was his smile. Still keeping my world together, both a man, and a place, and still, le dépanneur.
2. Prologue – Fiddleheads
I thought I’d left my hometown behind, but a quarter century later there I was, back again, with the remnants of that long-ago girl fluttering behind me. There were things to settle, and two short weeks to do it in. The plan: to pry open the past, like the sun piercing the darkness of the forest floor to open the fiddleheads.
My hometown was originally called Buckingham, and at some point it was renamed Gatineau in a confounding alliance called amalgamation. On a map it lies northeast of Ottawa, and just inside the province of Quebec. As far as its citizens are concerned, Buckingham it was, and so shall it always be…
I can hear my Dad and his joke about the name, one he told in a Liverpool accent warped by years working with his French speaking colleagues, telling it as if for the first time, every. single. time—
“Buckingham. Kicking-Pig. Get it? Kicking. Bloody. Pig!”
As historic angst goes, the Buckingham-Gatineau composite had it all: Catholics and Anglicans, unions and mill owners, and the whole French-English thing; enough fuel to keep feuds burning until the rapids on the river freeze over. But its citizens’ stoic tolerance could be due in part to an event in 1906 when mill owners and workers faced off at a river access point known as The Landing. The day ended in three senseless and shocking deaths, some whisper murders, and almost tore the town apart. Perhaps, respecting their passions, modern day Buckinghammers are unwilling to push things again to the point of tragedy.
My own Kicking Pig file opened in 1959, about the same time Barbie was born, when my despondent parents headed home with me swaddled tight in my mother’s reluctant grip, and oblivious to what I was getting into. The cramped center of my universe was to be a solid, two-story box of a house, fueled by a pot-bellied oil burner in a dirt trench for a basement, a perfect maple tree out front, and a backyard for mom’s garden, our dog, and dad’s shed. Inside, we stitched our stories together in the piercing way only family can.
Those years had pulled taut, puckering my life into ridges. I hoped this trip would soften those scars with the salve of perspective.
“What is it?” I asked, extending a muddy fingertip to touch the little green coil.
“It’s a fiddlehead sweetie, a baby fern.” She said.
The ghost of my other mom, my mother’s best friend and my other name, had come upon me in the bracken waste at the dead-end of my old street. This had once been a groomed forest wilderness I’d spent most of my spare time in as a child. Jean’s had been a gentle spirit, and her soft figure a protective foil against the large unformed shape that was my mother. They’d met at school and become best friends. That Jean never raised her voice, thought only good of people, and smelled of Jergen’s lotion. She had my love, and my mother’s back.
Piercing the past would start with returning to my elementary school. A friend had come with me for support, and we now stood near where my desk had been in grade two, and where I’d been inducted into the club of little girls, assaulted.
“Fifty-three-going-on-eight.” I muttered.
My gaze followed the chalkboards around to the row of windows, and I felt a familiar interior shift. Now it was my inner child’s eyes searching for something. She settled on the cinder blocks on the back wall, which I realized, startled, that was all I could see when “it” happened. A long time passed in the moment. The room went from small to large, the walls breathed outwards and settled. I could for just a fleeting instance, smell and feel him. Something pushed, something forlorn moaned, and softly let go of my body, leaving like a sigh through one of the open windows.
“You okay?” My friend said.
“I’m okay.” I said.
“Where to next?”
Staring after the thing that had left through the window, I knew where-to-next would be: that goddamned house. A tiny eight room box over a hole scooped out of the dirt under it just big enough for the furnace. Since I’d left, it had been wrapped in siding just prior to getting a stop-work order from the heritage folks in town.
I didn’t want the house to talk, I wanted it to go back to just being a house, like the schoolroom had done. I wanted my whole life back. I wanted the whole of me. I felt it start, the expanding ease of it, opening up—my heart unfurling like the fiddleheads in the forest at the end of my hometown street.
3. All the Way to China
(This story won 2nd place in Island Writer Magazine, 2014.)
Finlayson Point, Victoria BC Surf by P Jean Oliver
Some passing thought drags me awake. Squinting, I search for glowing red numbers on the clock in the predawn pitch, and groan.
“Oh, gawd. Really? Nah-oh.”
And now all my thoughts are awake too. Pushing away the one that says I can go back to sleep if I just try, I shove at the blankets with my feet, and swing my legs over the side. I know better than to listen to that liar. I listen another moment, hunched over in the comfort of my slumped shoulders. Flicking on the bedside lamp, bending over I grope for my socks, pull them on, and shove off the bed.
This day is kicking in nicely.
Crossing the floor, I pad down the short hall, the laminate lit by the glow of a nightlight. I slide my laptop out from under the debris on the coffee table, and feel my way the four steps to the kitchen, flicking on the stove light, and the knob on the kettle. It’s too early, which means a long day. Could I not have been dragged under once more to the little death?
A memory follows my eyes to the nozzle on the kettle, as I rest one hand on the plump side to feel for warmth. An urge to pee interrupts, leaving the thought hanging. I turn, and arc left through the front hall, then an immediate right into the bathroom. A moment of thankful voiding followed by a flush, and a step on the scales. Gained another pound. God. I’m eating my way through this bloody semester. Leaning down, I flip the whole stupid metal box upside down.
Turning to rinse my hands, I see my image in the apartment’s cheap, blotched, blackened mirror. It needs replacing. The mirror that is, not my face, but yah, maybe the face, my expression could freeze a gargoyle. Leaning on the edge of the sink, I practice a smile. Knackered, and the sun not even up yet.
The hanging memory resurfaces. Sounds of rolling surf and images of bubbling water overlap the sounds of boiling from the groaning kettle. Enormous waves of the Atlantic rush towards me, piling up on each other like eager puppies. I can feel the pull on my feet as salt water is sucked back between my toes. I’m young, maybe six years old? I would have to have been small because Dad is hauling me up by the armpits, swinging me so I can swish my feet back and forth in the frothy surf.
Back then I was all stick legs, long back, and bewildered eyes in plump cheeks. Dad was different then too, strong and vital, not the shriveled, shrinking stone-man he is now. He was always busy, his hands building something, happiest scampering around the rocky shores of a favourite lake in Quebec, spending his days off fishing and hunting—an Errol Flynn kind of hero. Mine, as it happens.
Every summer for two weeks, he dragged us all in the station wagon to Bar Harbour, Maine, so we could play and fish in the ocean. Dad and the ocean are like Spam and its key…
I wince when I accidently bang the bathroom door. Holding my breath, I pause in the hall. I don’t want to risk getting hauled into the tortured hell my roommate calls morning. Too many morning’s lately, I have my tea listening to his cursing against the grotesque profanity of music he can only seem to hear at forty thousand decibels. I should have the, “it’s not you, it’s me” talk, but I keep putting it off, continue to drift. Confrontation and assertiveness are not things I’m any good at. He’s the fourth in a string of roomies that have tested every relational skill I have. But what can you do? Good supported housing options for seniors in British Columbia are rare. It’s either roommates or your car.
Back in the kitchen, I fix milk and honey, and head back to my room with my load. Setting the computer down on the bed, I reach for the drapes. There is only a hint of the palest navy blue in the upper half of the night sky. Climbing into bed, I fire up the computer, and go with the compulsion to open my Facebook page. There will be others awake and ready to chat: insomniacs nearby, Australians in front of their evening telly, and UK “friends” who never seem to sleep. I write several posts a day on my page, like a journal entry, it keeps the writer’s block greased. Today I have yesterday still on my mind,
Yesterday I failed my first exam of my last psychology class.
The thought drags up only mild embarrassment. I’ll suck it up and make time for my senior’s brain to consume the rout memorization of terms. I’ll get it done. I’m close to the end, with one degree in the bag, and one just about. I went back to college five years ago and have fifty-eight days to go. I can do anything for sixty days. I had no idea it was going to be quite as hard as it’s been. A bit like dragging myself upstream in a fast moving creek. The way we used to as kids, grabbing rocks beneath the surface and pulling hard. Dragging my marks along behind me, tied in a sack to one ankle, occasionally getting stuck, but no thought of ever cutting the rope.
But, where, and when is the problem. Studying at home is impossible, and outside of the school libraries, our city libraries have become…complicated to use. With no daytime drop in options for our many homeless, the libraries pull them in, like cold campers seeking a warm fire. They bring with them the cloying smell of clothes and bodies drying out as they warm up. Combined with the noisy chatter that goes for quiet in a library these days, and the danger of theft, you might as well try to study in a mall food court.
A shaft of weak, grey light moves across my dresser. Leaning back against the pillows, I look right to see the rising sun warm up the sky in mauve. It brings into relief the dark silhouette of the tree in the gully, with the condos beyond. A soft trill from an owl invites me to come out on to the balcony. Normally I’d take her up on it, but I’m too comfortable so I ignore her diminishing calls.
What about today? Leaning over the edge of the bed, I drag my day-timer from the floor. I have Dad today at ten. Right. It’ll be a quick visit again; I’ve got a paper due tomorrow. When I started back at school I hadn’t factored in caring for Dad taking up more and more of my time.
“We do that, don’t we?” I write on the screen. “Not leave room for the family crisis, even though they come around like Seasons.”
Lately when I call him there’s no hello. He gives a startled, “You?!” As if it’s the first time we’ve spoken in weeks, before launching into an exclamatory pent up stream of consciousness that’s like word association on Speed. In self-preservation I only listen to every other phrase.
“You! Good.” I can hear him shift in his armchair.
My name is you. I can count on one hand the number of times my parents have used my name in my lifetime.
“Christ/there’s a catastrophe here!/goddamn cataracts gonna cost a thousand/van needs work/not made of money…”
“Dad, that’s free, I’ve told you…”
“Great, go for it, remind the old fart he’s losing it! So who’s going to drive me there? You?”
“What about school?”
“I can manage, I don’t mind.”
“You have all this time? Not makin’ any money yet?/goddamn bowels/double dose of Milk of Magnesia…”
He draws breath, and I draw a line.
“Dad, I gotta go.”
I told my son once if I ever start describing the length, weight and colour of the log he has my permission to shoot me.
“Gladly.” He said.
“We’ll talk when I see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, okay! Jeezus.”
He’s interrupted by one of his chronic fits of coughing. The loud horks aimed straight into the receiver. With practiced ease I ignore my rising gorge at the sounds, as I hold the phone from my ear until he’s dislodged the lump, and I hear him spit.
“When that breaks lose/blow my friggin’ head off—”
“Oh-kay then, I’ll see you at ten. Bye.”
I hit end. The dead space physically jars me. His voice has grown rusty, his words squeezed out in a high pitch screech like a screen door that needs oiling. Trying to think when I’m around him, and the tone of his voice, is like trying to swim with my ankles tangled in weeds.
He has a cruelty of speech I’ve long recognized is a protective shield used to hide behind. Why do I look after him so diligently, and with so little encouragement? There are plenty of volunteers out there who’d take him on. But for whatever reason, I can’t fob him off. His emotional need is so real, so poignant, and I owe him. It’s my duty as a daughter. Plus he needs me, and it’s nice to be needed? However, understanding him as I do, I can still only take a few hours at a time. I’m always relieved to tuck him back in to his armchair for another two days.
I bend to the screen, palms resting on the keyboard, fingers raised. I’ve had to shelve my writing to get this semester done. But it was worth it. I’ve been satiated with knowledge, confidence and purpose from my college experience. There were only two surprises for me, really, this time around. One was that so much time is still wasted in memorization of information more practically looked up, and two, discovering that the bullies from high school go to college too.
Momentarily swamped by thoughts of Dad and reminded of all the homework I have, I sip my tea and watch the sun cast a band of gold over the condo balconies beyond. People compare being overwhelmed to drowning. But drowning is actually kind of nice. I set the tea down and wobble the computer back onto my knees. I add to the post on my status,
I must have been small that day in the surf, because I can remember him holding me up by the armpits, swinging me gently, my legs swishing in the foam.
I can hear Dad’s voice, different this time, soothing, deep, lively, and curious. Still interested in we, his children, as small depositories for his twisted wisdom. Cruel, even then, but at times charming, and the swearing was less. In grade one I was sent to the corner to teach me that fuck was not an acceptable word for an eight year old to use in school. I learned a lot of things from my Dad. How to socialize was not one of them.
“You have to watch this water, it’s dangerous! Jeezus bloody Christ, this undercurrent could pull you under, drag you all the way to China!”
My computer on my blanketed knees, my eyes move upwards to the glowing sky outside the window, following rising blues, coppers and yellows of a newly minted morning, up and up, to the underside of Dad’s chin.
“You have to be careful. Listen to me! There was a Dad just got killed over there in Thunder Hole, I saw his daughter. She was all cut up, said she’d tried to help him but someone had stolen the life preserver. Can you bloody believe it? Someone wants a souvenir so a man drowns!”
Terrified suddenly of the rushing water, I try to twist out of his hands. Out of nowhere a large wave bowls over us, he staggers and I feel his hands slip from under my arms. I drop beneath the surface, and land softly on my back on the shifting sandy bottom. Rocked back and forth in the foam, I can see Dad’s swirled face not far above me. My head is rolling back and forth in the current, my arms flopping like flippers by my sides. I turn my head to watch Dad’s arms, as they slice past me, fascinated by the bubbles clustered to them. I’m not holding my breath, but I’m not breathing either. Lying as still as the roiling waves and slipping sands will let me, I feel safe in the certainty of him finding me. Suddenly, his hands bump my body and clamp down.
I’m pulled upwards, and out into the air, a gargled cry bursting from my lips. There’s an odd sensation of pressure on my front and back, and I realize Dad has pulled me tight to his wet, heaving chest.
“I could see you.” I tell him, catching my breath on a sob. I want to say I knew he’d find me, but even at six I knew he’d think me stupid for showing my feelings.
“Christ. I thought you were gone.”
“All the way to China?” I blurted out.
Startled, he looks at me and laughs. I laugh too, still shaking and blubbering. Holding me tight, he carries me up the beach and sets me down gently. I shyly put my arms around his slippery neck, and hug him back. I write a few lines and hit send.
He saved me. It was the only time my father ever held me, and the first of only two times I’ve ever seen him cry.
The bathroom door snaps shut in the hallway, and Niagara Falls gets emptied into the toilet bowl. Boys pee like horses, lusty and prodigiously. Roomie’s up. Sighing, I close the screen, back in the now of an advancing morning.
Outside the window the leading edge of shadow cast by my apartment building is halfway down the tree in the gully beyond, chased by a golden slice of sun. I drag my attention, heavy and soporific, from the compelling world of Facebook. Maybe I should drive Dad out to Island View beach with a thermos of tea and some Tim Bits today. He’s always better near water.
I wonder at the currents in our lives. I use different kinds of supports these days to either fight, or drift with the currents life drags me into. Most people and their undertows can be avoided; some situations demand I give in and go under, holding my breath, reduced to trusting someone will search until they find me, and pull me out. Other times the shifts and movement are consistent, there’s a pattern like tides that is best learned. And sometimes I can depend on myself to make it back, even from as far away as China.
4. Kakadu – From the Oz Diaries: The Gathering Storm
We gathered at three beneath Rock Ubirr,
Water and cameras at hand—
Not a clear day, but hot, full of promises bought
With a ticket to Gaagudju land.
The flies were up too, dodging Aussie salutes,
They crawled into our eyes, and up our shnozz.
Oh, how they buzzed! Buzzed, buzzed and buzzed,
Until madness seemed imminent in Oz. (pJO “Ubirr, Gaagudju”)
I squatted on the low curb of the parking lot to wait for our guide. It was hot. Stinking hot. A regular furnace-blaster of a day ahead, I thought, and dragged heated air into suffocating lungs. I’d arrived for this morning’s hike on the heals of a week of sleep deprived nights spent dozing, soaked in sweat, with no hint of a breeze in relief. I’d given up waving my hand against an interminable cloud of flies, a useless movement anyway, and charmingly dubbed the “Aussie Salute”. The damn buzzers sipped freely from what moisture they could find in the pit of a tear duct, or in the inner reaches of my nose and ears. I didn’t care. Sitting there, under the wide brim of my Tilley, I was strangely comfortable. I guess the inferno, the flies, and the fatigue were nothing against the force of my love for the Northern Territory of Australia.
The tour that day was of the sacred Aboriginal rock art site of Ubirr, known also as Obiri Rock. We were in the world famous Kakadu Park, which is actually the misspelling of Gaagudju, a vast area of about 7,600 square miles. I’d waited my whole life for this day and wasn’t going to let a few flies ruin it. We’d driven in from Jabiru to the parking lot below Ubirr across 36 kms of dry, red dirt. Gaagudju was originally settled some 40,000 years ago, give or take, and named by a now extinct Aboriginal language, although remnants of that beleaguered People can still be found in the area. The hike climbed pretty steadily upwards to the summit, and I was glad to see we were all outfitted with hats, snake-proof boots, and lots of bottled water. In a climate that was so hot we didn’t sweat or pee, staying hydrated was key to a good day.
A woman who was clearly our guide was climbing out of her park vehicle, and we walked over to meet her. Her name was Susan, who was maybe five feet in her boots, and every ounce of her charged with theatre. She gave us the usual low-down on the rules: respect the fragile environment by staying on the path, and no sticking our hands into dark crevices. Stopping only long enough to scratch down a few lines of poetry that bubbled up, then hurried to catch up with my companions. It was a relief to leave the crackling dry parking lot behind.
Our spunky guide Susan, 5 feet in her boots,
Rangerette under wide-brimming hat,
Gathered her gaggle of guests all agog,
Leading cheerily on at the chat.
Under gathering clouds, air wheezing in lungs,
We sip sun-heated water and pause
On red-dusted trails, by rainbow-streaked walls,
Like Dorothy’s looking for Oz. (PJO “Ubirr, Gaagudju”)
From Susan’s resplendent brain, we learned how eons ago, the Aboriginal’s Creationist being, the Rainbow Serpent, Garranga’rreli, in her human form as the maiden Birriwilk, had walked past the same rocks we did that afternoon. She’d collected sweet roots and placed them in a basket, made from the same reeds Susan was showing us. She’d crushed powder into pigment, and painted on the walls of the rock caves, using the same red ochre Susan took from her pockets. And she’d sheltered from the same heat inside the many stone caverns, perhaps drinking from a gourd, just the way we sipped sun-heated water from our bottles.
At the top of the escarpment was an immense, ballroom-sized slab that created a natural cavern to shelter beneath. In spite of the grandeur of the site, with an expansive view that overlooked the valley, it felt like someone’s living room. Some muse was in the close air, as more of a little poem about Birriwilk came to mind. I sat scribbling in my notebook, seated on a rock bench polished by a millennium of resting bottoms. God, it was hot, I thought for the umpteenth time. Feeling a cool breath on the nape of my neck, I turned, expecting to see someone being cute behind me. But no one was there. Perhaps Birriwilk, nearby in her time, had been curious and tried to read over my shoulder.
We climbed to the top of the escarpment with an eye on an immense bank of storm clouds on the far side of the plateau. I stopped to snap a few photographs of it, and Susan came across the cliff to stand beside me. Together we watched the black, back-building towering plumes which suddenly veered east and came right at us. At Nourlangie Rock the day before, we’d heard about the mercurial lightening God, Namarrgon, who is joined by electricity from his head to his feet, and who makes lightening by swinging a large stone axe, his Garramalg, between the ground and the clouds. Looking at what was blowing up at us, he was also about to give himself a migraine.
“Namarrgon.” She said, reading my mind. Then, “That is the leading edge of the Wet. We need to get down.”
On the word, down, the fury hit. Something demonic hurled curses along the cliffs in a huge whirlwind that swept up the trail below us, carrying with it a mile high column of red sand. The clouds were thick and black; behind them the sky turned a jaundiced yellow. And the wind! It screamed with the pent up rage of someone who’s had to hold his tongue for far too long.
Unnoticed above, enraged by our trespass,
From the stars, Namarrgon man blows,
Shrieking his fury in hot whirlwinds,
Hurling wrath as we scurried below.
Fingers to ears, some cower, some thrill,
Where countless had sheltered before,
‘Til the old man sated, withdrew his protest
And we made our way back to earth’s floor. (PJO “Ubirr, Gaagudju”)
We moved as fast as we could down the trail back to the massive shelter of the Ubirr overhang. Pink lightening shot at us in jagged spears that streaked and cracked like rifle shots, the bolts landing to the left and right of my electrified hair. Thunder boomed as if from inside the very rock beneath our feet. Pressed up against the farthest, innermost wall the rest of my group huddled in a silent, motionless tableau. The curve of the rock above our heads is thought to be the strong, protective arms of Birriwilk in her serpent form. Standing safely inside the cavern, everything looking the same way it did tens of thousands of years ago, the legends were real in a way I’d not appreciated before.
As always, I stood apart, as close to the edge as possible, thrilling to the release of tension in the air. Wet by spray, my skin was cool to the touch, I took off my hat and gave my hair a good soaking. Rain fell straight down in sheets; a solid curtain closed us off inside, only a fine, cool mist reaching those at the back of the cave. The valley beyond was grayed out, the wall of water plunging us all into intimacy. I reached one hand out to the waterfall. A shadow passed by on the other side—perhaps Namarrgon paced there, and jealous of my human form, hoped I would step outside so he could sweep me off the cliff.
Pink lightening blazons across skies of yellow,
Thunder pounding like heart-driven fear,
Breathless with joy, I stand at the edge,
Safe in the embrace of Ubirr. (PJO “Ubirr, Gaagudju”)
The storm blasted for close to four hours until finally sated, dissolved as quickly as it had formed. In the near dark, we made an exhausted retreat back to our cars. The next day, my husband and I, and a friend, returned under a clear sky to take pictures. Up top once again, I was met with a gentle, exploratory breeze, which lifted my hair and cooled my cheeks. Susan had said there was always a breeze on top of Ubirr. Seated on the edge of a pinnacle of rock shelf of indigo blues and deep purples, I closed my eyes and imagined it was Birriwilk who blew cool breath on my warm neck.
It was time to go. Reluctantly I stood up, my eyes opening slowly, my gaze lazily trailed along glimpses of the looping path climbing towards me. At the last bend, I imagined I saw, just disappearing around a corner, a tiny brown, bare foot; the swish of a skirt, and a large, green basket held against one hip. Was it possible, in her world she was out today too? Collecting sweet herbs, easy to pull from the well-soaked, red earth. It felt good to know she was nearby. Good to know, like her, at least in that moment, we were free, as free as the breezes always found on top of Ubirr.
A figure walks beyond the rim of the rock,
Through a veil of black plunging water.
Safely apart, with your love in my heart,
I am home Mother. I am your daughter.
Standing aloft, I see Birriwilk,
Collecting sweet roots for her basket,
We rest at Manngarre on a rainforest walk,
Together, through time, in The Wet. (PJO “Ubirr, Gaagudju”)