95, 661 words
A STORY OF MARY JAMES - AND THE DARUG HAWKESBURY RIVER ABORIGINAL PEOPLE
1816 Mary given away
This child is called Mary and is not afraid in these killing times. Her father, Berringingy sings his country as they walk through the valley near South Creek. He sings about the great serpent swimming to make the rivers, he sings at each stopping place. Calling out to spirits that they are friends and are passing through and that he requests permission to move across the lands. His singing marks the sites where they tread softly on a rock face with the head of a quoll cat. He sings when they camp in a rock shelter and press their palms into ochre mud. They all push their hands in a red line at a cave where little hand prints and large men’s hand prints record their passage.
They hide by the track when white people clatter by in carriages and carts. Mary’s mouth is dry and her lips stick to her teeth. She must keep walking. She learnt this from her aunts, do not stop, and keep on and on. No matter how hard the earth or cold the wind. Through a storm of locusts that catch in her hair. She scratches at the creatures who torture her scalp. Walking through cold sleeting rain that trickles inside her possum cloak. She must put foot after little foot, across the unfurling land. Blue and purple mountains stand behind the mob. By nightfall, she sees the Black’s camp. Firelight flickers in trees. The sound of singing and gumleaf playing echo in the bush and her heart trembles to see her family. It is a kind of tickling, a warm spread of love and delight.
Mary hugs her arms around her body, she hurries after her father. He can protect her from harm but not push away her deep fear of waiballa, whitefella. Those rattling carts are full of them, hungry for land. Pots banging against wheels of iron. Hungry to cut down trees and then burn them up for nothing. They had shot their guns and fire had rained into the sky with red sparks of light and fire crackers, bursting around, and firing up the bush. Mary looks back at the pathway and sees deep wheel marks. Are they huge terrible snake tracks? Red muddy water collects in the ditch and it is like blood. She dips her fingers in to taste.
Late one night, Berringingy has bartered for flour and sheep meat. He brings Mary a coat of wool. So he loves her! He asks for is the boy child. She watches her father turn away and wants to cry out to him to play with her, carry her on his back and laugh. His large warm hands lifting her higher and higher. He carries the baby boy everywhere and delights in him. The chubby cheeks, the tiny hands. There is little time for Mary and she sulks and pets a little possum orphan that she feeds from her fingers. She watches the boy child take her place. The love growing between man and boy. Tight angry eyeing of this child. She will show them, she will make father proud. When she can gather more berry fruit and oysters in her dilly bag than anyone her age.
Her father, meets some men in the town who make an offer to him. They want to teach the Koori children to read and write in the Parramatta Native Institution. Mary listens to her father giving her a long speech. She won’t understand what is about to happen and that she must not be afraid, because she would not be going on this journey with her if it wasn’t for good reason. She wishes that he would choose the boy and not her. She wriggles in the English coat and listens very hard.
He says that waiballa have taken much of the land and they must try to see that they can still have some of the country. He says that anger will only bring down grief for them. He runs his fingers over his smooth woomera and slaps it against his thigh. He says that she will be a very important part of helping their people, if she can only learn their language and their ways. She thinks that perhaps she is no longer needed here and the boy is closer to her father. She must be brave and remember that her father loves her always and one day he will come back to collect her. Now panic is rising and she cries and holds his hand tight. He removes her hand and continues. She should trust him in this matter. At this moment she is alarmed because it is becoming clear that this night is a kind of goodbye. Her aunt mothers look over to where she is lying near a fire and they are crying.
Duria burumurring, it is eagle hawk time. Magpies and currawongs call across the morning sky; the sun’s heat streams down. All around her, her clan the Burruberongal of the Darug are family who gather belongings, dilly bags and coolamons as they prepare for the long walk to Parramatta town. The old women stamp out a fire, and one gathers the baby boy in her arms and ties him onto her cloak. They hide left over seed damper in dilly bags hung around their foreheads.
Mary is eager to see the white people and eat beef. They walk all day. Mary holds her father’s head, her legs balance on his shoulders and her hands grip around his forehead as she presses against his black curls. They stop to eat and Mary’s father holds out a rag and Mary sucks up the sugar bag wild honey. As she sucks the honey she looks up at her father, his brown eyes laughing.
It is a long hot walk, she wants to ask where they are going, but she is too high up on her father’s shoulders and he can’t hear her. She is hoping for some food, she is very thirsty too, but no one offers any water so instead she chews wattle gum. The wool coat is gone, dropped along the track, she mourns for it.
They arrive in Parramatta, burramatta, land of eels. Carriages and bullock wagons have left snake marks in the churned mud. The horses are everywhere and their terrifying size is unbearable. Their hooves seem sharp and trample the earth. The sound of the horses whinnying is like the voice of monsters. It is all confused, with a wooden platform erected by the high church tower. Soldiers stand in formation with rifles at ease by their sides. Men gather in black coats and women in long shining dresses with white parasols. The town is gaily dressed with roses blooming behind picket fences. There are musicians playing on a stage, and a drummer boy raps on his drum. The noise is bursting in Mary’s head.
She sees a tiny white dog with a ruffle collar, he licks his master’s fingers. The dog is watching Mary and she longs to touch it as it stands on its back legs and she smiles and it pokes out a pink tongue. She pulls her father’s arm and motions to the dog, she wants to hold this magical thing.
‘Mirri, biana, mirri.’
It is the annual feast day for distributing of blankets to Hawkesbury Aborigines. Koori families sit in groups on the lawn, passing roast meats between them and swigging bool of rum mixed with water from pottery jugs. They are all tumbled together with different clans next to each other, all dressed in rags and blankets but some resplendent in deep grey possum skin cloaks. Others gather in front of the veranda, from where Mrs Macquarie hands out blankets.
Mary’s father, Berringingy pushes through the melee, he holds Mary’s hand and searches for the man in a black coat. Mary’s head turns back and forth, the noise, the music, the men in red with sabres, all tumbled together. Mary sees a strange thing, a tall wooden box with striped material, it is surrounded by small children, shouting and laughing. Then a miraculous appearance of tiny people in bright coloured clothes, they are trapped in the box hitting each other. One has a hooked nose and a red pointed hat, he has jangling bells. Mary pulls urgently on her father’s arm. Oh, can he look at this wonder. Mary watches the soldiers and ladies staring at her and cannot think why her nakedness is shameful. If only she had kept the woollen coat. The men in black come closer to her, inspecting her. The long white fingers are like devil hands. She is very shy and she hides behind her father.
Now, her father hands Mary over to the government men. He offers her as a gift to the Native Institution, which was begun by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to express his feelings of benevolence towards native people. This word ‘gift’ can’t be correct, is she to be passed into another man’s hands?
Mary feels confused and wants to scream but her father is so serious that she can’t move or speak. He is standing in sunlight with his new son clinging to his shoulders. The longed for boy. She wishes that the bullocky had left him in the bush for ants to eat.
Mary’s father places his hands together on the top of his woomerah and leans forward listening. He seems intent on making an agreement. On abandoning her. Mary knows he would not let anyone harm her, he loves her. There were tribal laws to protect children, she was not chattel. Chattel. A captain in red wool is looking at her, and talking slowly as if her father was stupid. The English words sound like a rattle of sticks. She is silently begging for the baby boy to be offered and not her.
She had seen that look of confusion on her father’s face before, when he was given a bag of flour for the first time. Near the mother creek Waianamatta. He made a joke, had they given him white dust or ochre paint? He mimed spitting it out then he slowly touched the white powder and tasted it. No good, he said and threw it away and the bag burst and it was like a cloud. They had all laughed. The tribe had kept their eyes on him to see what to do. These ghost men had fire sticks that killed. She wondered how to behave. Her father was their star and moon. Then the soldiers laughed at him and Mary had felt the sudden humiliation, when people, any people, point and laugh and you don’t know why but only that you are the reason for the laughter, it burnt you. She had been dismayed to see the chief ridiculed and the soldier pick up the flour bag and lick it and smirk with his ugly grey lips.
Some damper bread had been produced from a saddle bag, and the terrible animal of horse had whinnied and scared them all. Except her father who stood so tall, he turned his back and with a flick of his hand, the whole mob walked away. Proud. They didn’t need white dust from dead people. Only later she would have to beg for one scoop of this waiballa flour.
Mary loves her father’s broad back, the muscles and dark skin, she runs her hands down it and leans against him. He would never leave her, he could not die like her mother. He would always protect her and their family. He had a deadly aim with a hunting spear. He could bring down a kangaroo in a breath. He would not sicken and fade to be buried in a midden of oyster shells.
Now, here she is, naked and shy, pulling a cotton shift over her head. Mary knew that these ghost men liked nothing more than this moment of taking something, even though it brought shame to them both, because it did not seem like fair exchange. Their ghost blue eyes glow with bright light.
Governor Lachlan Macquarie is standing next to her father and the white man is dressed in a red coat with gold buttons and braid, he has a hat of green feathers and his hand rests on a sword hung with coiled white rope. The men beside him wear fine clothes, red coats, gold braid and lace collars. Swords hang from their belts, Indian ceremonial daggers are attached to silver scabbards that glint in the sun. The governor is making a speech:
‘We are aware of many native tribes inhabiting the area around our new found settlement. The Bidigal are from the head waters of Botany Bay and are no doubt responsible for many incursions. You will note that it was certainly this tribe who are thought to be responsible for the murder of Governor Philip’s game keeper. Many attacks on settlers recently are supposed to be at the hands of the same tribe. In Toongabbie and Prospect new farmers have suffered terribly. Other woods tribes are the Bidigal at Castle Hill, the Burruberongal on the Hawkesbury, the Cannemegal near Parramatta and the Cabrogal at Liverpool. Many of our sultry brethren are still inhabiting Cowpastures near Camden town, Mulgoa near Penrith etc. They often gather together to catch eels and what have you. We must endeavour to bring a civilising influence on these natives who possibly number up to five thousand in this area alone. Today, I bring good tidings, we shall with the enthusiastic aid of my good wife, start a school for the natives here in Parramatta.’
The crowd is cheering and patting each other on the back. The Governor is smiling at Mary and he puts out his hand to his wife Elizabeth, who is beautiful and covered in white something that smells like flowers. Suddenly this lady leans down to Mary and shows her a gold frame with a dead child locked inside, he is covered in leaf and stares back at Mary and it gives her a terrible fright. How can this woman trap a child in a gold stone?
Mary is one girl amongst other Koori children in white shifts who are frightened but stay still, as ordered. If they stand like trees and have no movement they will not be eaten. The white ghosts laugh a lot and have big pink noses. She watches the boots because they are right in front of her face, black long boots with shiny discs. She hopes that they will not step on her small feet and she also hopes that this noise will end soon. The bellowing of red coated men.
The sun is hot and the day is so long, Mary crouches and watches two ants moving a crumb of bread down a track, she puts a twig in their way and they climb over it.
More laughing and slapping of backs. Mary feels kindness from these ghosts. She can smell meat cooking on a fire, it is turned on a stick, and it is a whole beast. She is hoping for some good piece of beef, she can smell it roasting and her mouth waters. The drips of juice are sizzling. Her mouth is drooling. She has eaten little meat for weeks. The smell is attracting stray dogs and a white one has run off with some meat. A soldier curses the animal. She wants to chase the dog and grab the meat. The taste of the pink juicy flesh will be delicious. Perhaps she can ask the lady for some. But she is far too shy. Surely, she will be taken over to her father soon and he will carry her back into the bush. She watches her father feeding his new son some chewed delicious meat. Her meat.
This moment can have some beauty, Mary looks at the edge of the town ship and the great grey gum trees, full of spirits watching them all. This bush is where the quiet and peace lives. A white cockatoo has dropped from the sky and is sitting next to her, she talks to him and he talks back. Her friend.
The children are told to curtsy or bow to the men and ladies, they giggle at this performance. Mary will not bend down to them, she stands tall and stares at the other children. One man tells them all that he is Reverend Masters and he is fat and sweaty, he has dark clothes and a white collar that seems to be choking him. Mary shakes as he comes close to her. He smells of perfume and pipe smoke. He has a gold ring with a black cross on his smallest finger. She can feel this man’s mean side, his cruelty, but no one seems to know this about him, even though it is yelling out of his eyes.
Pushing through the crowd are two tall people dressed in black, to Mary they are like crows and might peck her. They are pushing small black children in front of them. The children are dressed in white pinafores and trousers. The couple bow to Reverend Masters and introduce themselves. Mary cannot keep her eyes off one girl who has big dark eyes and is wearing red shoes with bronze clasps. The girl stands on her toes and spins to Mary’s astonishment and Mary has a feeling of hotness and wanting to have those shoes.
‘Dear Reverend, we have brought our charges from the Parramatta Native Institution to show you how we are successful in taming the natives. We trust you will allow us to have this child. I make her the promise that I will be like a father to her.’ Says Mr Shelley.
‘Mrs Shelley, Mr Shelley, I am pleased to see you take on these native charges on behalf of the Colonial Missionary Society.’ Reverend Masters is a big important person and he is making a speech. ‘Teach these children of God to see into their souls. It is God’s will and the Governor’s that we provide for the young natives in the hope that they will learn English and become interpreters for their more savage cousins. We can hope that they may marry and breed a better type of native. They will become the fortunate ones. The full bloods will die out. It is natural. These innocents will be more respectful of our ways and desires. There will be no corruption of souls on my watch. We can save them from damnation.’
‘It is our sole reason for coming so far from our missionary activities in Tahiti.’ Says Mr Shelley and Mrs Shelley nods. ‘My wife and I desire to do some wonderful work and through Governor Macquarie’s beneficence, our little school will be a beacon of hope for these poor innocent children.’
Reverend Masters puts his glasses on his face and peers closely at Mary.
‘They seem to have features that are close to the African. I feel little hesitancy to classify these Aborigines with the progeny of Canaan who was cursed by Noah. They are cursed to be servants of servants. I fear that without our care, they shall soon stretch out their hands to God.’ Says Masters.
‘Surely not. Jesus will love them as shall we and we will bring them improvement and civilisation.’ Says Mrs Shelley.
‘Governor, if you wish to enumerate any difficulties, we shall attend to them with no hesitance. The negroes in other new worlds are said to be ready for emancipation, who knows what may eventuate with our humble endeavours.’ Mr Shelley stops talking, because no one seems to be looking at him. Reverend Masters picks his teeth.
Mary is getting very bored and keeps pulling on her father’s hand. Masters is rubbing Mary’s head and tickling her ears in an awful way, she squirms and stares. He seems greasy and somehow hideous. She watches Reverend Masters, his shadow in the sun is huge, like a Hairy Man. The white people smile and beckon to her. Her father pushes her after them. The English are stiff and dressed in black shiny clothes and the governor is smiling with glee. A shoving in her back.
‘We need compliant servants, like the new world Negroes, train em up eh? Note to care that the females remain ignorant of all but sewing, cleaning and prayers, to better serve their husbands. This child seems healthy.’ Says Masters as he grabs Mary’s ear.
’We will call her Mary James, after my old housekeeper. Perhaps this native child will prove worthy of a good English name.’ Reverend Masters laughs and creeps his hand across Mary’s skull, then wipes his palm with a silk scarf. She shivers and rubs the smell of him off her head. He seems to be like the dreaded Hairy man, a spirit who stinks like dead things.
The governor bows before Mary’s father.
‘Greetings Chief Berringingy, this is an unheralded visit but a most welcome one. I remember that Governor Philip met your esteemed leaders, Nurragingy and Yarramundi or is it Yellowmunday? On the Richmond Creek. They exchanged gifts. Two stone hatchets in return for two metal ones. Very good to see you all here, with us… in peace. No transgressions, we trust. Now, here in Parramatta, we offer you breakfast and dinner and would like you to present your children to us?’ Governor Macquarie is holding out a brass gorget for the chief to wear.
‘I hereby in 1816, name you “Chief of the South Creek Tribe”, I promise you and Nurragingy and Colebee a grant of thirty acres on South Creek as an additional reward for fidelity to our government.’ Her father bows his head and the shiny metal crescent is hanging from his neck. Like a small noose. The chief does not smile but nods. He does not look at Mary but swings the baby boy onto his shoulders and walks away. From her. Mary panics, she would like to run fast into the bush.
Mrs Macquarie is leaning forward with a bunch of flowers and kindness pours out of her face as she nods and speaks:
‘Forgive my assertions my dear Sirs. Please allow me the indulgence of speaking. You can see the other children assembled and they have made equal progress in their studies with English children of the same age, they can read their testament or bible. They are not less of good students because of their dusky appearance. They were captured or should I say, rescued from the Appin punitive expedition. Terrible, but necessary. We have two boys, and two girls who are joined by a naughty young girl called Mercy. Some are allowed to attend the Sunday school with the white children.’ Mrs Macquarie bows to Mary and she can see a hat of purple feathers bobbing in front of her, Mary wants to grab one of those feathers. Some of the families call out to their children.
‘That my pickaninny, he make good settler!’ One father chuckles and points at his child who now seems to not recognise him. Now, the feasting in the marketplace has begun. The governor says:
‘The feast and grog will lend it’s exhilarating aid and promote the general festivity and good humour. Goodness shines through the sable visages of this delightful congress. We are also pleased to accept Dicky, the son of Bennelong, our dear friend.’ The Governor speaks and the small boy is shaking with fear, because he is so little and afraid in this new place.
These white people are strange and smell like something rotten, Mary learns later that it is cheese. Mrs Shelley is kind and she hands her a striped lolly on a stick. It is her first. The flavour is red and hot. She crunches and sucks, it is a red and white peppermint stick. Never has anything tasted so good. Bits of dribble are on her chin and Mrs Macquarie tenderly wipes it up and smooths the child’s hair. Mr Shelley is laughing and his loud voice assaults her ears, he throws back his head and she can see in his throat, it has a large ball that wobbles. The world is standing still, the outline of people against the hot sky. Mary can’t see her father.
Mary longs to run back to where her father stood, to her aunts. She fiddles with the sweet stick, now she can’t eat it. If she keeps eating it will be like accepting this new truth. Like a rejection of her father. She feels helpless and looks behind her as the group begins to move. The disappearing feast. She trails behind the other children. Longing to run. For her father to lift her up and shelter her but he is walking away, bouncing the boy on his shoulders. The boy is screeching with laughter
Mrs Shelley, takes Mary’s hand and walks her away with the other children. They stand by the grand sandstone church, St John’s spire is the tallest building in the town. She shivers and is numb with terror. She hears an eerie wailing in the distance, like someone has died. Mulbari. She wonders if it is for her. She picks her nose and examines the contents but a white hand smacks and she is shivering with not knowing what will happen to her. She tries out a smile of insecurity hoping it will make her seem appealing and they won’t kill her or eat her or put her on a big white bird to disappear over the edge of the sea.
Mrs Shelley, seems to be talking to her, the mouth is moving but she sounds like a cicada. A hand is taking Mary’s and pulling her away from her father, she can see him hugging the baby boy.
‘Biana, biana!’ But no one is paying attention, the bargain has been made. Eyes are gleaming with greed, and her family is shambling away into dust, she is left clinging to the white clawed hand. The fear is shrinking and her people are yelling, laughing, drinking, and having a grand old time on bool. She watches her father take a coat from the Governor, it is red and he tries it on with a big smile. He does not look back at her, his eyes are on the coat. He strokes the braid and flicks the buttons, he pulls off a button for his son to play with. He has forgotten her. The new son is now riding high on his shoulders. An empty place is opening in her heart. Her last view of them is a shadow on the road. There are ashes in her mouth and no one cares.
Mary is a trapped bird, as much as she struggles, she cannot get away. She is trying to uncurl the pink fingers and it strikes her that she could bite Mrs Shelley and run away. She can almost taste the blood, it will be salty. She sniffs the hand and the smell of sweetness is over powering. But best of all, this woman is wearing a blue dress of soft stuff, it is frilled and lovely, Mary licks it and think that it is the most wondrous thing she has ever seen. She murmurs.
She is only trying this word out, she has heard it used, she knows that her aunt mothers would not like it, her true waiana, but they have given her away, like she is nothing.
The soldiers are amused by the aunts drinking, they are also half drunk but they prod the young women with their rifle butts as though they are vermin and cannot be touched. Mary hates them, she knows what they do with their rifles. She has seen the killings and hangings even of two small boys burnt in a fire and stabbed. It is curious because she has heard about the crying when a small adopted native child was drowned and all the town of Windsor dressed in white and followed the coffin to the church yard. What is it? This one moment loving and then hating?
Mrs Shelley is talking and Mary sees that she has kind eyes and heart.
‘She will settle, they all struggle at first, it must be so strange, but under my tutelage she will learn to be like the English, why under the dirt she might be quite pretty in a wild native way.’
Mrs Shelley has a high white collar that seems to choke her, her hands wring together and flap like frightened birds. She is grinning at Mary with a scary intensity, her yellow teeth are sharp like a devil devil. Mr Shelley smiles at her leans towards her with a piercing look.
‘Are you hungry Mary?’
‘Mingangun? Jumna gorai.’
The school children now number twelve and they will have a lot to eat. As if that mattered to Mary. All she wants to do is to stay and starve with her family.
Mrs Shelley squeezes her hand tenderly and stops walking. They are behind a bush and from a bag she produces a grey hand spun pinafore and she puts it over Mary’s head. It is too big, but she smooths it down and it hangs nearly to the ground. It smells of potatoes. She drags the arms out of the arm holes, the child shivers and no one pities her. Her head is hanging low and big tears roll out of her eyes and snot runs from her nose. She blows her nose with her fingers and Mrs Shelley slaps her hand down and wipes her nose with a handkerchief. It smells of nectar.
As Mary leaves the square, she needs to pee, so she crosses her legs and wiggles. Mrs Shelley takes her to a tree and squats down. They jillawa, wee. The two of them are in the bushes peeing, Mary sees that Mrs Shelley is like her, a girl. Her blue soft dress is hitched up and she seems to have a swollen stomach and red scaly knees. Mary wants this dress. The blue stuff, it shines and glimmers like rain. No, like feathers from a blue wren. The white woman has many faces and is full of spirit. Mary sees that she will not kill her. She sees that she might love her.
Chapter Two Life at the Native School
1816 Life at the Native School
The school mistress calls a group of polished Koori children around her and they all stand in a line. They are confident and whisper about Mary laughing and pointing at her matted hair full of casuarina pods. Tonight she will sleep in her first bed. She will learn to read and write and to eat with cutlery. She will become like the English. She stares at the white house but only wants the sky. Next door, the church has a tall steeple and a sign with writing. She is instructed that it says: “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”.
In the morning, there is a roll call: ‘Maria, Kitty, Fanny, Friday, Billy, Mercy and Mary. All bow to the new comers.’ Says Mrs Shelley.
Mercy, the head girl with red shoes she smiles and waves at Mary. A lurch of the heart, this tall girl signs that everything will be good.
Mercy explains that at night the wooden door is closed and a heavy beam is the latch. Mary asks with her eyes why the latch will be closed.
‘Tuabilli weri waibala. Keep out bad mens.’ Says Mercy.
This first morning, Mary lies in bed with prickling tears and scratches a hole in the wall between pit sawn slabs. Waibala chop wood and haul black pots onto a fire. She sees Mrs Shelley walking in her yard, her apron full of wheat for the chickens. Mary knows about fowls, she has eaten fowls tasting like swan.
Mary catches a little fluffy chicken from the yard and hides it in her dress. Strokes its soft feathers, golden and shimmering. She puts it in a small wooden box and watches it trying to escape and it is as if she sees herself. Peep, peep. Dunga, dunga, mudjevu. She is weeping with pity. The chick runs back and forth like her, every corner and crevice is searched for escape. Now it is scurrying to and fro, wanting to get out. Like her. Mary might die of desperation. She is craving running away so much it hurts.
Later in the darkest night, Mary is howling and almost dead of sorrow. Suffocating under the blanket. The wattle and daub ceiling is sinking, smothering her. In the cracks are specks of stars and she reaches to touch them. Stroking the imprisoned chick. She whispers: ‘Father, Biana, biana’.
On her first day as a school girl her legs dangle from a wobbly chair with rough hard edges. Mr Shelley walks ups and down and studies the green slate that she has been given. It has lots of spit.
‘This slate is an abomination.’ Says Mr Shelley as he wipes it down. He takes Mary’s hand and forces it to hold the chalk. She looks at the white and pink nails. She pulls away her hand and presses it between her thin legs. He picks up a ruler and bangs it on her other hand. She feels a rising panic but the head girl, Mercy nods to her to be still. Mr Shelley scratches his nose with the end of a ruler. Mercy pokes her tongue out and rolls her eyes behind his back.
‘Dear child, I try to train you to have some respect!’
Mary sees a snake eating him from the head down and the creeping throat that sucks this waiballa up. The ruler is a tiny weapon like a woomerah but this man uses it to beat children and not hunt kangaroo. She squeezes her eyes shut and makes her body tight. Perhaps he cannot see her.
Mrs Shelley strokes Mary’s hair and Mr Shelley moves to his wife’s side and takes hold of her arm.
‘Don’t touch their hair, vermin live in it.’ He brushes her hand against his shirt.
Mrs Shelley removes her hand and rubs it on her apron.
Later, in the middle of a dark night, Mercy and Mary hide in a hall closet to eat stolen jam pudding and if Cook finds them, they will be hit with a wooden spoon. Mary sucks the sweet sauce and Mercy licks a bowl, yellow with custard. They take turns to taste the spoon. A noise stops them and they freeze with spoons in their mouths. Is it a goong ghost? No, Mr Shelley is leaning against the door whispering some love words to Mrs Shelley. The girls are shocked and can’t move. They clutch each other in the closet. No movement. The Shelleys are against the door, breathing very hard. He is panting and talking softly.
‘My dearest pookie, forgive me. My sweet love.’ The girls wonder if they should burst out of the closet to save the mistress from nguttatha, loving, but think better of it. They have heard these noises all about the yard with the maid and farrier. Mercy is sniggering with her hand against her mouth. It is shocking and lovely and naughty all at once.
The children go to bed where they can dream about their granny and parents because spirits beside their beds watch them sleep. Mary peeps out of her blanket and there they are.
She has stolen some raisins, and she sucks them slowly and shares them with a little baby boy. He sleeps in her bed. He is like the brother who now sleeps beside her father. Mary dreams of them every night.
As the moon pushes away grey clouds, the threatening trees call spirits. Mary sees a stony path by the wattle pise house and a wind blowing her heart to pieces. She hears her own puffing breath and can sense another breath on the pallet bed. A dark strong smell of tobacco and maleness. She peers into night. A candle is burning through a chink of wood. Vague shapes move on the hessian ceiling. She hears the breath again and thumps her chest to stop it. She feels a faint touch of human pressing against her back and she is scared and cannot move.
Weeks pass. She watches the shadows grow long and knows it is afternoon. She thinks about running away. The view out her window changes from green grass to dry yellow grass along the road. The new sandstone road is being built by convicts and Mary watches the click, clicking of hammers.
Mary questions Mercy: Why are all the white people in town dressed in huge dresses and have big brick houses while her people are like slaves in the bible and held in sheds out the back and treated like dirty things? Why are there pictures of dead people in frames? Dead old men with white beards, dead ladies with lace collars and dead children trapped in glass? Why are their drawings of Tahiti with flowers and tall coconut trees? Mercy just shakes her head and when Mr Shelley leaves the room, she puts on his top hat and mimics his walk. The children scream with laughter.
Late in the night, Mary listens to Mercy’s story about the wife of Bennelong.
‘That Barrangaroo, she bin invited to big fine dinner by old time Governor Phillip. He send her a new dress, and petticoat, real pretty for her to wear with all the guests eatin dinner. But that Barrangaroo she didn’t want that dress. So she knock on the Governor’s door at dinnertime and she naked. She sits down with fine ladies and their furs and jewels, she just black skin, she really beautiful already. That governor can’t stop lookin.’
On the wall of the dormitory bedroom, hangs a wooden framed picture of Jesus, he holds a crowd of white smiling children. Mary traces the Jesus head with her finger. Then she finds that she can scrape at the stone wall in this room and after a long bit of crunching with a trusty stick, she has carved a kangaroo around the Jesus picture and it is a contract of some kind.
The afternoon stretches to shadows and Mary has cabbage and bean soup. It looks like possum droppings. She remembers catching possums with her brother, climbing up the tree with feet planted on each side as he used a rope to catch the trunk and ease himself up. That was before he died of influenza. Her father grieved for years. Remembering a hatchet in her brother’s belt to cut a possum out. He would fling the dead animal down to her mother and she would gut it. Her father said she had to take off the skin quickly or it would not ever come off. She twirled the fur on her leg to make twine for fishing. The children stuffed chaff bags with fur to make a comfy pillow. Mary mouths the words: brush tail possum is a wai ali, a glider possum is a bangu and a ringtail possum is a chubbi. She repeats so as not to forget her mother tongue. She can see into her own head at night, it is full of fire. She whispers a prayer for her father to come.
Mercy is tall with budding breasts and wavy pigtails. She has been at the school for two years. Her face has big grand features. Wide nostrils and huge black eyes with lush velvet lashes. Her mouth is pink under brown full lips that never stop moving. She is always running her fingers through her bonny curls and they are strangely golden as though her parents were of some gold clan. But she is from mountain people, Gundungurra. Mercy has total power over the other children, even boys who are older, look to her as leader. Laughing loudly is what she likes best, her head thrown back as she gives cheek or plays tricks that are not meant to hurt but sometimes do. A rubber band is her talisman. She flicks the girls’ ears with paper pellets when they are writing in the school room.
Now, Mercy takes Mary by the hair and forces her to wash with soap. The liquid runs down her face and stings her eyes, and still she will not let go.
‘Wallawa, stop, bimung gurai, stupid, soap stink.’ Says Mary.
‘You learn English quick and foller me in everything, or you get flogged by Cook and me. You live here and get five pound bread in a week, two pound meat. A pound rice, half pound sugar. You eatem all up yerself.’
‘Naiya, nalla yan. I run.’
‘You not nalla yan, if you run way, you gunna get lost in new world. Alla time mens shootem Koori, dey all gunna die, Mrs Shelley tell us dat. Captain Wallis killem chiefs near Appin. Killem all family. You forget about all Koori business, you waiballa now. You going to be like mummy for new student baby.’
Mary hangs her head and sobs, because Mercy has power over the children. At night Mary crawls into bed with the little ones. To feel their warm breath and take away her loneliness. The girls huddle together in the day and pick nits from each other’s hair and it feels good to lie down in a lap and have a caressing hand in their hair. They lean on each other like puppies, and do everything together and are in some ways, a tribe. Sometimes, they all follow Mercy through the day and she scolds them for not doing any work like cleaning the room with brush brooms. Mary feels alive when she is all tangled with children, why would she want to be alone with a broom?
One day, a fierce inspector comes to the school and he examines them for spelling and bible study. He then tells Mrs Shelley that they must poo on some paper so he can check it for worms. They are under the tank, squatting and pooing and leaning down between their legs to see if there are crawly yellow threads. Mary has five. She tells Mrs Shelley and she makes her drink some castor oil and Mary vomits.
It is very quiet as the inspector is checking the room, where they have folded the government blankets very neatly. He checks the wooden shutters for dust and says “tut tut”. Mrs Shelley is moving behind him and she looks worried because this man can close the school. His head is shaking and he is writing something in a ledger, while Mr Shelley nods and pats the children’s backs.
Mrs Shelley puts a sign in copperplate on the wall. She reads it aloud:
‘Rule one: thou shalt be clean; two: thou shalt be chaste; three: thou shalt not pick nits from each other’s hair; four: thou shalt honour your teachers; five: thou shalt not run away; six: thou shalt not pick your nose and eat it; seven: thou shalt not sleep in huddle with dogs; eight: thou shalt not speak in yabber and endeavour to use English at all times; nine: thou shalt eat at the table and not on the floor; ten: thou shalt be grateful for the government’s benevolence.’
The inspector nods and smirks at the rules, he is full of praise for the school and none for the children. When he rides away, they whoop and dance. Mercy writes on the rule list when no one is looking. She writes: Rule eleven: thou shalt not fart.
‘Please may I request some tentative indulgence? They are trying to learn, but so much needs to be learnt. We must give them time to play, you make their life so hard.’ Says Mrs Shelley.
‘Please do not speak back to me in front of these innocents. I have my mission: I seek out the wandering tribes and preach earnestly to them. I will save their souls from the void of eternity. However, I am under constant attack from scheming superiors and the devil does not let me recover. I have the impetuosity of a Christian warrior. I wish to be able to record “veni, vidi, vici”. But darkness rests upon these native peoples and gross darkness envelops their hearts.’ Says Mr Shelley.
‘Not the innocent children, surely.’ Mrs Shelley pats his arm and the children look up at her for guidance but they long to be let out to play. The sun is shining outside and the gum trees beckoning, kookaburras laugh, the bush is calling to the children.
‘Oh, that the son of righteousness would arise and dissipate your every dark feeling.’
‘No, I love and respect all your doings.’ Says Mrs Shelley.
‘I feel you resent me bringing you here to the end of the earth.’
‘My dear, I won’t dissuade you from your great work and conversions in this Garden of Eden or performing acts of charity for unenlightened heathens and settlers, alongside me. Why this morning I baked a raisin cake to give the poor destitute creatures camped out on the hill.’ Mrs Shelley is beaming at Mary and stroking her hair which is very strange and unpleasant. The mention of raisin cake has made the other children sit up and their eyes glow.
‘Very admirable…raisins. Of course the girls will run away like they all do in the end…I don’t know why we bother.’
Mercy is suspicious of waiballa in black suits, she tells Mary that her uncles have been beaten by such fellas when they come to town. They cross the river punt and some waiballa hide in the bushes and belt them with sticks. Those Gundungurra uncles want rations but they run away, hungry. Mercy laughs when she sees the children cry about those stories and she offers a bag of barley sugar canes.
Mercy tells a story of how she was brought up wild, and free and had drunk a lot of goat milk. Her mother had a farmer friend, who allowed her to camp on the land he had taken from them at Picton. It was a grant of land from the Governor, but how could he grant land that was already theirs. That is the question. The goat lived in a hut next to the farmer and he would milk it in the mornings. She would walk over to the slab house and stand outside until he noticed her. He poured milk in a tin and gave it to her to be drunk right there at his door, with cream on her lips. He would rub the children’s backs and pinch their chins. That was kindness. Maybe it was because Mercy was a gold colour and not black like her mother. She knew she had a white father somewhere.
Some of the girls will do anything for a lick of barley sugar. They crawl on the floor or kiss Mercy’s feet. But not Mary.
She dreams of flying out through the chimney to her people. Her longing for her family drowns her in tears. The tiny children cry for their mothers and it must be correct for the bigger girls to comfort them.
It is now summer and the noise of cicadas is a thick rackety noise with hot air smelling of burning gum leaves. Men clear the bush of the beloved trees. Crack, crack, crack as trees spirits fall and are hacked and split with wedges, tearing apart the spirit pathways to the sky. The endless cracking of death to the Darug.
Pale dingoes, mirri, walk around burnt ground like the world has been destroyed and they are lost in an empty landscape. Mary is also lost in this new scalped place. Every day she makes a circle in dust and places a stone in it to be her father, she asks him to come to her. He does not come.
The picture of the spirit of The Lord is above her bed, his long white beard shimmering amongst angels. She gazes at the shadows crossing the sky and blotting out the rainbow serpent in clusters of tiny stars, kimberwalli killi. She could hear murrungal, thunder, that tells her the Gullaga Giant Hairy Man is coming for smelly girls. Shuffling through leaves. Mary rubs her armpits and sniffs, no smell, just eucalypt soap. She shudders in her bed. The sound of bones crunching. A fire at night, keeps away these spirits. She reaches out for the candle but it is almost gone.
Mary pulls Mercy into her bed whispering. Her grandfather and grandmother would sit with her in firelight, they told the old stories that are sung and danced. The little hairy people live in trees and caves. Small and fast and greedy. Granny would take her hand to trace the size of the little feet of those hairy men. Always the story is about hairy men but there must be women, but not in her telling. They would hide in the bushes and wait for the people to cook meat, rushing out to grab that meat straight from the fire. Or if children strayed in the night, then Granny’s stories were about those little men stealing the girls away because they would taste sweet if cooked. Mary clenches Mercy’s shoulders with delight. It as if the old people are here with her.
Mercy whispers stories from her Gundungurra people: ‘That old Garangatch, he giant serpent, like burra, windin under bulga, hill and make river with that burrowing. I can see real deep caves and white shinin tentacles, hangin inside. He make all. Bunggawurra. bullga. He make mountain and he rush underground. He make sky burst with rain. He bin chased by big tribe, call them quoll cat mob: Merrigan, and Yuranyi, black duck and diver duck, they want him serpent real bad. They track him, pituma lookin, for him and alla time dig dig and lookin help from alla tribe. They want catch him real bad. That spirit, Merrigan, real brave one, he dive deep with mooting spear and spear thrower woomerah in cave water and he spear him, you know cut him, little bit, then bring meat flesh, they eat it up. Real tasty. That make him mad, that Garangatch. Everyone chasin that great spirit but not catch him. No way, he too fast. He like lightning. All those fella go in sky and rivers and deep water hole and that serpent he still live in one cold dark waterhole in mountain. You see his eye glintin in moonlight. Them fellas go to sky, kimperwali. True eh? Now nangi, sleep.’ This story leaves the other children with huge eyes and Mercy cuddles up to Mary and sighs.
‘My biana tell me lotta story.’ Says Mary. ‘Forget him, he not come, not never.’