Black, Red and Yellow
by Karen Lethlean
When she was eight, her father had taken her ‘walkabout’ in the outback. He had taken her by herself, and she remembered the glory of being completely his, and him being completely hers. She did not remember why he had chosen her, and why he had left her sister behind.
They had taken a late night plane. Before too long they were landing in Alice Springs at dawn: she did remember him carrying her off the plane and camera, which he carried as close to his chest as he carried her: he put her down on the tarmac to take a photo of the rising sun He turned to her and said – what had he said?
For you to remember.
As they drove a wide, new highway away from the airport toward town buildings appeared to nestle in a folded hillside, rather than stuck out like in the city.
She had never been anywhere so hot, confusing when she’d left inner Sydney in chilled rain. Neither could she recall being awake so early in the morning.
Of that trip, all she remembered were scattered moments of joy: meeting cousins who played and laughed in just the same way as her friends at school, yet who sounded truer, more real, and who looked beautiful, despite being brown.
At school class mates had said, ‘you will be the fast runner, you can’t be pretty or smart because you are an aboriginal.’ With an emphasis that made it sound like ab-bow-riginal. As if Jenny might have to bend like a bow for shooting arrows, or be tied in knots like a hair-bow.
In ‘Alice’, and the even smaller towns, settlements, whatever they were called, long legged, straight white teethed girls could easily have strutted down modelling cat-walks. You could play sport just for fun, chase a ball, and run the dry creek beds without straining to be better than everyone else.
True, there were frightening locals who gathered in shouting groups on some street corners. Who didn’t seem to pay attention to rubbish her teachers would have said, ‘needed to be picked up.’ Those people seemed to use words like sharp objects, or were flopping their thin limb around in unfriendly gestures. But even in Sydney there were people like that she knew to avoid.
Everyone seemed to be called ‘Uncle or Aunty’ even if they weren’t. Some were trouble, some could do tricks like making their thumbs disappear, or coins come out of your ears. And all their faces were varying shades of brown – from tan to blue-black-brown. No matter what skin, Jenny stood among them not apart from them.
If she was not playing with cousins Jenny was sitting in her father’s lap as he relaxed on a cool, wide verandas, and gazed out at a shimmering place that was just called “country”.
Safe within this family she would listen to a mix of language that to her ear resembled a jumble of sounds rather than words. Jenny had no idea her father could speak another language.
Sometimes she would doze off and would wake to find everything cloaked in gentle darkness. But no matter, the heavens were alive with Guy Fawkes Night sparklers, ‘they’re what the stars look like away from the city,’ her father had assured.
Out here her father seemed to have gained a straighter, stronger back, more powerful arms, and insights to all sorts of secrets Jenny would never have guessed. Not least of all was how he seemed to know the way across dusty tracks.
A few of the places where they had visited ‘the mob’ were dry and dusty, some houses burnt, graffiti covered, with scabby looking dogs who wandered about aimlessly. Except for fewer dogs, she’d seen worst in Sydney.
Jenny was surprized to find some fridges in the store behind strong wire frames and chained closed with padlocks. Even once, in the town, a policeman near the counter had scoured at her like her father was doing something wrong by getting out a cold drink.
It’s his job to make sure I aren’t buying booze to take into dry settlements, or give to under aged kids. Had been her father’s explanation which, to Jenny, explained nothing.
One night, they were coming home late, and she was talking to him, she remembered, but he was quiet, listened and laughed at whatever silliness she was saying. He looked out of the window into the dark night, and then cried out suddenly. Finally he said, ‘do you like it here?’
Her father then swerved and stopped, leaped out of the car, his hand outstretched to her, and she knew that hand would always be there as an offering. ‘Come darling,’ he said. She slid into the dark, the back of her knees sliding across the sweaty, dusty seat.
He stamped about, bear-footed. His bird like steps lifted dust from the ground. Jenny had never seen her father dance.
See if you can catch the land, keep it inside, and take it up into your heart through your feet, my baby.
While Jenny thought she’d never heard of anything quite so silly. How could you make something go to your heart sucked up from the souls of your feet? Here, she loved him, for those words.
If she’d been able to put it into an envelope and post it to her adult self, anytime in the future when she opened it red dust, dark skies and burning fires would have fallen out.