“Jamaluuuuk,” called his mother. His ears pricked up, but he didn’t move from the cool red dirt under the solar cells where he lay. He was studying a small spiky lizard sunning itself just below the lip of one of the cells, watching it poke its chest out and flick its head around, and wondering what it was thinking.
“Come get some grub,” she called again.
That got him moving. Jamaluk crawled out from under the solar cells, being careful not to spread any dust on it. He’d come out here to clean them and his mother would admonish him as being lazy if he undid all his hard work now. Once clear, he scampered over the rise toward their hut. Ducking under the low door, even for him, he entered the dark interior. It took a while for his eyes to adjust from the bright afternoon sun, but as they did he could see they had some visitors today. Around the fire pit in the centre of the hut was his mother, several aunties, and his grandmother. He felt a thrill run through him, grandma had the best dream time stories, and she was smiling at him from across the fire.
“What have you seen today Jay Jay?” asked his grandmother. She was ancient. Older than the casuarina trees by the rivers back where the sun rises. Grey-white hair framing a dark face, black eyes, wide nose, and toothless mouth.
“I was watching this little spiky lizard that was letting me get so close”
“Ahh, that may have been Garmuda, the spirit of the whiteman, so confident his spikes will protect him that he feels he can take on the world!”
He sat and looked at his grandmother expectantly, leaning forward with anticipation.
His mother made a tsk sound. “After you eat something,” she said.
“What are we having?” he said, looking at the leaves in the coals.
“Yam and bogong moth,” said his mother.
“Ahh! Again?” he said “That’s the 4th day in a row!”
“Well the moths are plentiful at this time of year, and we eat what the land provides, and we are thankful, for being hungry is far worse.”
“Amen to that!” said his grandmother “there’s so much you can’t eat once you’ve lost all your teeth,” she said as she carefully unwrapped the small packages “so everything you can eat tastes twice as good,” she continued, stabbed greedy fingers into the leaves and hastily throwing some into her mouth.
“Hot! Hot!” she breathed, waving a hand by her mouth and blowing out carefully. After she finally swallowed she spoke to the aunties, “Another thing about having no teeth little one is that hot stuff tends to burn your gums!” and they either smiled or chuckled.
Jamaluk took his package and set it aside on the ground to cool. He looked back at his grandma.
“Tell me more about the white man spirit grandma.”
His grandmother looked at him for quite some time, a small twinkle in her eye. He gave her a shy smile and she beamed her toothless grin. She glanced at Jamaluk’s mum and then said conspiratorially, “Ok little one. But eat your food.”
Jamaluk settled down and started eating his food. It was well cooked, his mother knew how to make it so there was still just a little crunch and texture. Some of his aunties tended to cook it so it turned into a slimy paste. That felt like eating snot to Jamaluk. But his mother knew how to cook. Grandma swallowed and begun her tale.
“Our people have walked this land forever. Some people will tell you we had been here for 60,000 years before the whiteman came, but fear not little one, that is the same as forever. We groomed the land, took care of it, and in return, it took care of us. Our people lived everywhere from the seaside to the dusty deserts. Then one day men with skin as white as the moon came, and we told them to go away, but they didn’t. They brought with them animals that were not from this land, and our land didn’t know what to do with them. These animals ate our yam crops and trampled the soils that we had spent thousands of years cultivating. We were forced to move from our lands and forbidden to burn. The white men grew and grew and grew in number, and great cities were built, greater in size than the largest of forests, with huts bigger than the tallest of trees. And they took more and more and more of our land for these strange animals”.
“Why didn’t we fight back?” said Jamaluk — which earned him a warning glance from his mother. He felt shame – it was not acceptable to interrupt an elder and he knew it.
But Grandma waved it away and continued, “Oh we tried. But they had weapons we could not even dream of. And it is whiteman’s way to go somewhere and force it into submission. He forced the land to work for him. He forced our people there to work for him. Oh, our people fought, but there was no way for us to win. Things only got worse and worse for us. At one point they tried to wipe our people out! They gave us diseases. They stole our children. They forced their ways upon us. And slowly, little by little, we forgot. We forgot the tens of thousands of years of knowledge that we had built up.
“Thankfully, a few pockets kept the knowledge alive, and some of the whiteman even helped to capture some of this so it wasn’t destroyed completely.
“But the land was not happy with its new masters. They plundered and raped and pumped it full of things to make it produce more and more and more until it became sick and hot with rage. Great salt ulcers grew, and because the bush was no longer tended by our fire sticks, great wild fires completely engulfed huge tracts of land. But it barely scratched whiteman. They believed they were too spiky for the spirits to hurt. By now the spirits of the seas, rivers, sky, mountains and everything in between had had a gut full of the whiteman. There were floods, followed by fires, followed by sea level rises, followed by cyclones. Their crops produced less and less. The very air became so hot and dry, that even the gum trees were dying.
“The whiteman hid in their huts and pretended it wasn’t happening. Like the little lizard running back to a crevice to get out of the rain. But hiding did not make the problem go away. With the land and sea spirits against them, their population exploding, and their runaway consumption running out of things to consume, they began to run out of food.
“But whiteman is ingenious. They believe they are smarter than all the spirits, and they developed ways and means to feed themselves that didn’t require the land or the sea. Great machines grew all their food. And over many generations these machines took over all aspects of their food production.
“But even these machines could not produce enough food to feed the great plague of whiteman, and a war broke out over resources you or I take for granted. The rights to fish in the sea, or to drink from a cool stream. A lot of people died in the battles. The dead were so thick in some areas, that their spirits will cause you to completely lose your hair should you step foot on that soil. Nothing grows there. The cities are levelled as if by a huge fist from the sky. All those who wander that land die shortly after.
“The ongoing war was certainly thinning their numbers, but whiteman was holding on. The problem was that it was a death grip that threatened to take the very spirit of the land with it. Wherever they went they cut down the forests, covered the soil, and built their great huts. In a last-ditch effort, the spirits all got together, and they did something that has never happened before, and will likely never happen again. They scoured the land looking for some of the people that had taken care of it for thousands of years. Someone who was living with the spirits, not trying to master them. They searched high and low until eventually, they found a young boy living with his family who would spend his days enjoying the wonder of the world, the stars and the moon. Living with the land, not on it as whiteman did. And his name was also Jamuluk”
Jamuluk grinned, he loved that he was named after this boy, and it was thrilling to think that a different version of himself may have played such a big part of their history as to become a part of the dreamtime.
“The boy’s heart was in tune with the spirit world in a way that our people had mostly lost. He had been watching lizards” she winked at him and he smiled, delighting in the embellishment “and then the whole of the dreamtime slipped out of the earth and river and sky and stood before him and said ‘Boy, go the tree there and break off a twig the size of your thumb. Take that stick and go to the very centre of the biggest city you can find, and drop the stick on the ground, then return here.’
“The boy of course had no idea what the spirits intended, but he did as he was told and when he told his uncle of the encounter and showed him the thumb stick, his uncle looked awed and said he was heading back to the city that day, and he could join him in his travels.
“But when he arrived at the city, he was told that there was an even bigger city. And so he travelled there. And again it happened, and then again. And after much travel this boy found himself in a city of huge huts, with more people than you can imagine. He did not know them at all, but they swarmed around him. The ground was paved over, and the rivers were filled with waste. They looked at him out of the corners of their eyes and nobody stopped to trade a story. It was not right, and he felt unmoored from the world. He took the thumb stick out, held out his arm, and with great reverence dropped it on the ground.
Jamaluk’s grandma took another couple of bites of dinner, keeping an eye on him and ensuring he did so too. Jamaluk shovelled a few bites down but Grandma knew a thing or two about suspense and took her sweet time mashing up the food in her gummy mouth.
“Ahhh but when he dropped the stick, nothing happened. Having done what the spirits had asked, and quite disgusted with whiteman, he returned back to the bush and his home. He returned to the creek and he said to the spirits, ‘I have done all you asked’. There was no reply but he felt in his heart that he had done as they had asked, and was at peace.
“Soon after this, whiteman’s great inventions and machines stopped working. With the ongoing war, and their machines not producing food, they started to starve to death.
“That’s when things really started getting ugly. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed Jamuluk, but a lizard will quite happily eat a smaller lizard if that’s all there is around,” she said looking at Jamaluk with a very serious face.
“Those that survived left their cities in great droves to find food, but they had forgotten where their food came from. The spirit of the land had no love for whiteman and blinded them from seeing what the land provided. Where we walk through a valley and see an open pantry, they walk through the same valley and see nothing. Our ancestors would see them starving to death surrounded by edible food. Or dying of thirst under a Malee tree, with those juicy water-filled roots just under the surface.
“It took a few hundred years, but eventually whiteman disappeared completely. Our people dusted off our stories and dances, and began once again to take care of this land. There was no doubting that it had changed tremendously, but we are patient and a time span of five hundred years is nothing when set against the forever of our people. The spirits settled down and life flourished again.
“Our traditions and ways were revamped, renewed, and relearned where they need to be. The cities, if you should care to visit them one day, are empty. There is nothing there for our people except the spirits.
“In celebration of their victory, and as a reminder to us all, the spirit of the land created the spiky lizard Garmuda, who proudly stands in full view showing his spikes and daring the world to get in his way. He is always out and on display to remind us of whiteman and the folly of thinking you can take and take and take from the great spirits of the land and sea.”
Jamaluk sat for a long while, his brow furrowed as he quietly slurped up the last of his meal. The hut was quiet for a while, but a couple of the aunties started making small talk. Jamaluk’s grandma was watching him over the fire like she could see the cogs in his head turning.
“You have something you want to ask Jamuluk?” she said.
He looked up, still chewing, and took his time trying to find the words.
“Billsie’s skin is white…” he paused, again not sure how to continue, before deciding to just take the plunge “Is Billsie a whiteman?”
His grandma broke into a broad toothless smile.
“Ahhhhh Billsie, yes, he’s also got red hair, which I’m sure hasn’t escaped your notice.”
“Yeh. He doesn’t look much like us. But you said whiteman is gone. But he’s white. He can’t even be out in the sun too long before he burns, is that the spirits punishing whiteman?”
“Tell me Jamaluk, your friend Billsie, would you say he believes in the spirit of the land, shows it respect?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said, looking a little confused
“Well does he come with you on your walkabouts with the uncles? Is he learning how to hunt or forage for food?”
“And has he a part of our gatherings and dances?”
“So there you have it. Billsie and his mob are just like you or me on the inside. It’s just the colour of their skin and hair that is different. There is no whiteman spirit to Billsie and his mob.”
“But…” said Jamuluk, struggling to reconcile the story and his realisation that his friend’s skin colour meant something much deeper than the skin-deep curios that it had always been. He’d never really considered it — he had certainly noticed, but it had never made any difference. Billsie just seemed like a regular kid like Jamaluk.
His grandmother looked at him over the fire, her dark eyes twinkling in its light, “You remember in the story, young Jamaluk, what happened when whiteman arrived in our paradise?”
“He stole our people away.”
“Or killed them. Yes. But all he saw was the colour of our skin. Not individual people or tribes. We were just one to be conquered and changed. Can you see Billsie doing that?”
“No, never,” he said with conviction.
“The spirit of whiteman is not in the colour of someone’s skin. There are whole tribes of people back east that have pale skin, and coloured hair, or yellow skin, and slanty eyes. They’re not whiteman either. Whiteman was driven to conquer and enslave. To make the world bend to their wants and needs. They thought they could do better than the very spirits themselves. And to some extent, they succeeded. The stories tell of people living to over 100 years old. So they had managed to cheat death. But they paid a large price — they were terribly unhappy. Even with all they had, they still wanted more, and anything and everything that stood in their way was deemed to be evil or savage, or somehow beneath them — despite the fact that they didn’t understand it.
“But everybody living today has learned to be a part of the cycles and rhythms of life on this planet. So whilst whiteman’s descendants still live, and we still use a lot of the technology they developed, the spirit within those people has fundamentally changed.”
Jamaluk thought for a long while. It made sense to him and he was greatly relieved that Billsy was just the Billsy he thought he knew.
“Will they come back?”
“Maybe. Who can tell? They come from the inside, not the outside.”
Having finished eating, Billsy reached for his tablet. The ruggedised unit was one of the last in the village still connected to the stars. He turned it over, marvelling at the technological prowess of these lost people. “I’d like to see the cities one day,” said Jamaluk, putting the tablet back on the charger.
“Ah yes, they’re a wonder to see,” she said looking wistful
“But Jamaluk” she said, looking deep into his eyes.
“Don’t let the dreams of whiteman stop you from seeing the world around you.”
“OK. I promise” he said, edging his way towards the door. He was keen to see where the lizard – Garmuda – had gotten to. Maybe see what it did when it got poked with a stick.
Nobody seemed to be stopping him, so he ducked under the low doorway and ran back out to the familiar red dirt underneath the solar cells to find the lizard spirit of whiteman and all his spikes.