|The Drover Tells His Story
Author: RooC PM
Set before the movie Austrialia - How the man called The Drover came to be. *Contains some spoilers for the movie, but if you haven't seen it, you're probably not reading this anyway.*Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Drama/Romance - Drover - Chapters: 2 - Words: 11,719 - Reviews: 7 - Favs: 8 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 11-25-09 - Published: 11-22-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5527465
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The Drover Tells His Story
From there, everything seemed to happen quickly. I was inducted and then straightaway steamed off to train for battle in faraway lands.
My new mates and I learnt how to use heavy hand-cranked Gatling guns and the new belt-fed automatic machine guns. Each week more soldiers arrived until there were so many of us that we appeared to be the majority population and khaki, like the constant dust of the city streets, was the colour of the day.
Training seemed almost a lark - young men playing at war, different regiments assigned as attacker and defender each round, with wounded taking the luck of the draw as they would be dragged back to base rather than having to haul back in the heat under their own power. We rode and we ran and we practised with the automatic weapons that seemed sure to turn the tide and win us the war. We drilled up and down until our feet were numb - an exercise designed to knock the rebel out of us and teach us to follow orders without question.
With only a short time spent to learn fighting skills and adapt to the new environment, we headed off to Helles. Now I was in the thick of it and things turned deadly serious.
I had a keen eye and dead-on aim, but I'd never killed anything but my own tucker. What had been touted as an adventure or as a bit of sport became something else entirely if you stopped to think about the fact that you were killing men who were much like yourself. So instead we thought about how we were defending our brothers and securing the future of our homes and families.
I saw terrible things in what came to be called The Great War. Acts of stupidity and injustice that sometimes bordered on the near criminal. Simple mistakes and lapses in judgement that cost hundreds of lives in one go. Wave upon wave of brave men sent to their death due to bad judgement, poor communications or simply to prove a point. From the shores of the newly named ANZAC Cove to the hills above Sulva Bay, boys became men overnight and all too often passed on to early graves before ever truly experiencing manhood.
Along the way, I'd ask after Archie. Last I'd heard his battalion was fighting on the Western Front in Vermelles. This part of France had been overtaken by the Germans the year before and the Allies made repeated efforts to regain possession.
I wondered if the war had changed Archie as it was changing so many young men around me. I looked forward to the day we'd both return home and I would celebrate his wedding to Cathy. In the light of so many terrible losses, I had forgiven him our fight and held out hope that he would feel the same when we met again.
I watched jealously as my mates received letters and packages from home. At last a letter arrived addressed to me in my mother's hand. One page in her tidy, perfectly formed script telling me that Darika had "gone home to live with the other blacks" and that soon after I'd left, Kim had lied about his age and joined up, too.
I missed my wife terribly. There wasn't a moment of the day, marching, digging trenches, eating or fighting that she was far from my mind and heart. And a night didn't pass where I wasn't with her in my dreams. As she could neither read nor write and neither could Magarri, I held onto this tiny bit of news from home like a dog guards a bone. It did my lonely heart good to know that in my absence she was back with her family, safe and surrounded by those she loved.
Mixed with my relief was worry for Kim's well being. I wondered where he was and how he was bearing up under the hardships of service.
Now I had two brothers to worry about, and as I huddled in the trenches of Gallipoli at night, I understood why I had even more reasons to be concerned. Kim's departure was foolish in so many ways - the least of which was that it left the station in our Mother's hands. Sure, she had Magarri and the other stockmen to do the work, but I feared that this would present an opportunity that King Carney would be unlikely to resist.
On August 5th of 1915 I was called into the commander's quarters and informed that my brother Archibald Walter McNeil had fallen in battle. I was assured that he had died a hero, proudly fighting for his country, but that did little to offset my sense of loss.
My brother Archie would not return home. He would not marry Cath Carney. He would not ride out over the hills overlooking our home. He would not smile at me in that patient way he had that told me that despite all of my larking about he trusted me. He would never shake my hand and he would never know that I had forgiven him.
Like most of the "diggers" sent to fight this war, I had dug my share of trenches. But we also dug the graves where my mates and my countrymen were laid to rest three by three, covered lightly in earth as our chaplain read from his Bible. I hoped that someone who had known and liked Archie stood by with bowed head as the right passages were read in a voice that was soft but insistent enough to be heard over the incessant chattering of machine guns and the sharp bark of rifles.
Despite the efforts of every member of the Allied force, we had little to show for our losses. We were hugely outnumbered by the Turks and repeated tries to take Krithia had been thwarted. Strong offensives late that same month failed to unite the two fronts - ANZAC and Sulva. A final bid to take Sari Bair Heights signaled our last real effort to overtake the peninsula and was likewise a terrible failure.
Where I had come eager to serve my country, I was now exhausted, disillusioned and ready to return home.
Nevermind the songs of the day telling us that we were heroes. Most of what we did we did because there was nothing else for it. You simply didn't want to let your mates down.
Late November brought a three-day rainstorm that flooded the trenches, creating more losses. In early December the skies opened up and let loose with a blizzard. Most of us had little experience with snow and few had ever witnessed it on this level. Unprepared for the heavy weather we lost more men to exposure. It was as if God himself had given up on us and was looking to drive us out of this unwelcoming land.
The one highlight of the campaign for me was the friendship I forged with a young British officer – Col. Emmett Dutton. We were close in age and despite his being a city lad, we got on like a house afire. It was Dutton who gave me the news that we would soon be evacuating Gallipoli, but that wasn't the only news he'd come to bring me that night.
It was also Dutton who had the sad honour of telling me that Kim had gone down in battle. The Germans had attacked and my brother's horse had fallen atop him, leaving him wounded and hopelessly pinned as his battalion was overrun.
The news was delivered in a low voice that shook with emotion and was followed by a full flask. A good friend, Emmett turned away as I shed tears for my youngest brother, and I never felt that he looked down on me for my weakness in that moment.
When I'd regained my composure he sat down beside me, back to the dirt wall of the trench and we shared his flask.
I'd been in the service for over a year now and the frustration and ever mounting losses were becoming greater than I could bear. I'd lost my brothers, my idealism, my innocence, and my taste for the 'adventure' of war. And while we might keep the Germans and the Turks from overrunning England, Australia and the rest of the civilised world, I no longer had any hope that our actions would make any real strides towards bringing the World in general - let alone the world at home - into better harmony.
The best I could hope for was to make it home alive to spend the rest of my days working the station and my nights making Darika happy. If I could just do that, well, that would be enough.
"I'm done with it, Emmett," I told my friend.
"Done with it?" he echoed, taking a draught from the flask before passing it back.
"Done like the dog's tucker." I saluted my announcement with his flask before swallowing a healthy portion of my own. "I've had enough of war. More than my share, in fact."
He thought on this a long while. In truth, I didn't really expect him to understand. He was an officer, a career man. He'd grown to manhood in the service and, the good Lord willing, he'd grow old in the service, too. And though he weighed my words as a friend, he answered as an officer.
"You're a good man, Raker. And a good soldier." He waved away the flask, indicating that I should finish the last of the liquor it held. "You'll pull through. Nothing else for it."
I couldn't fault him for his words. In that moment, he gave me what he thought I needed, soldier to soldier, man to man.
It wasn't until years later that Emmett told me just how badly my words had shaken his own faith that night. So perhaps he'd spoken them for himself, too.
A few days later, less than a week before Christmas, we quietly left the shores of ANZAC Bay.
This was accomplished in part thanks to the ingenuity of some of our own Australian lads who cleverly improvised a self firing system involving tin pans of water that triggered rifles to fire as we slipped away. The Turks were fooled into thinking that we were still pinned down in the trenches. Full withdrawal without one Allied casualty – reason enough to celebrate, even without the holiday.
Emmett and I were on the same evacuation boat and though we would meet again later in life that was the last I saw of him during my term of service.
I did not, however, get my wish to return home, and was instead reunited with my mount when the ANZAC regrouped in Egypt. Soon after, the light horsemen were formed into new divisions and sent of to the Sanai and Palestine where our operations were far more successful.
I finally returned home 1916, nearly two full years after leaving.
I was no longer the boy who had gone to war. I was a man now and had the scars to prove it. I had gone on my own version of Walkabout and found my way home to my people. But I was a broken man, for I had lost my brothers along with my idealism, and in the end, our losses seemed greater than any victory the Allies might claim.
I remember stepping off the boat in Darwin. It was one of those amazingly bright days that come just after the wet. The sun sparkled on the water like diamonds and everything around me seemed to have been painted in rich watercolours. It was a beautiful day.
I had wired to my Mother that I was coming home, but had been on the move since and had no expectation of a reply. I wasn't surprised when there was no one to greet me at the dock, understanding how difficult it would be for her to spare someone to meet me and bring me back to the station.
No matter, it would be easy enough for me to make my own way. And I had a few things to attend to in town before I would be ready to head home.
I'd sent a portion of my soldier's pay home to help Mum keep up the station and still managed to save up a nice nest egg for Darika and myself, too.
Done with war and finally home, I'd no intention of wearing my uniform a day longer than needed. Digging ditches and carrying heavy guns had broadened my back to where my old togs were unlikely to fit. So, I made my first stop the mercantile to buy a few changes of clothing and some new boots.
With my khakis handed off, I added my purchases to my duffel, already packed with a pretty dress I'd bought for Darika in Egypt and a few other souvenirs I'd picked up for her during my travels.
My next order of business would be to drop round the pub to dampen my whistler and see who was around that I might hitch a ride out of town with.
Just my luck that the first face to recognise mine would be that of Neil Fletcher.
I ordered a drink, careful not to look in his direction, putting my back to him and hoping that he'd take no notice of me.
Never one to put another's needs before his own, Fletcher had declined to join up and serve Australia.
Instead he'd stayed home picking up where his father had left off taking care of Faraway Downs. Though it had been his family's own station, it now belonged to the Ashleys of London, the patriarch of which had purchased it chock a block from old man Fletcher during lean times.
As Australia was considered a harsh and wild land, the new owners preferred to stay at home in London, which gave Neil the run of the land. To see him strut about town hiring men and making deals, you'd think he still owned it himself.
"Oi, McNeil, back from the war, eh?" He called out despite my efforts to ignore him. "At least one of ya's made it back home."
The man sitting with him barked out a surprised laugh that choked off into a cough when I rounded in their direction. "Don't." I leveled a finger in Fletcher's direction. Despite my joy at being home, I was in no mood for Fletcher's cheek. "Not another bloody word out of you."
Neil simply smiled his oily, snake-like smile. "Guess he hasn't heard the news yet." This announcement was made loudly and generally to every man at the bar.
Sipping my drink through gritted teeth I turned away and fought with myself not to take the bait.
"You've got no home to go to, Sunshine," his smile became a sneer. "King Carney owns Dreamingtime Station now." Fletcher continued, tone rich with dark glee. "Maybe he'll rename it. Make it Carney-time Station, eh?"
I lost, but so did Fletcher, who found himself on his back on the rough plank floor before my fist had finished leaving its impression on his face.
"No fighting in here!" the barman shouted, slamming his towel down in frustration, but I was already striding out, leaving Neil Fletcher struggling to crawl away from his broken chair.
I paused to pick up my duffel, anger beating my face red. I was un-surprised when a moment later Fletcher hurtled into me, knocking us both down into the dusty street below the walk.
There we fought, no love lost between us, each seeking to pound the other to a pulp.
In the end it took two of Fletcher's men to pull me off of him, and Neil, never one to miss an opportunity, helped himself to a few free swings while they held me.
I was lucky enough to keep my teeth, as he wasn't the sort of man to risk his knuckles, but his last savage kick let me know I wouldn't be riding comfortably anytime soon.
All the same, I'd left him a gift of my own - a split lip that later healed into a scar he bore for the rest of his life, hidden behind a thin moustache.
At the water pump behind the Territories Hotel, I washed up and regrouped. If what Fletcher had said was true, then I needed a plan. A plan to get our land back.
If Mum hadn't yet spent the money Carney had given her, perhaps with it and my nest egg combined, I could buy the station back. Even if Carney kept the cattle we'd had, I could muster and break enough horses to get a plant to start the next season and while it might be rough going, at least it would be a start.
Plan firmly in mind, I brushed the dust off my trousers as best I was able, put on a fresh shirt, and took myself off to the main office of the Carney Cattle Company.
Where I'd expected to get the runaround when I asked to see the King himself, I was let in easily enough and Carney was all smiles as he greeted me.
"Raker McNeil, wonderful to see you." He came around from behind his big desk, pulling his cigar from his mouth long enough to clap me on the back like I was his own son. "Back from the War and not a day too soon."
Not a day too soon? Perhaps the sale had not yet gone through! "Mister Carney, I've come here on a matter of urgent business."
"Business can wait," he waved the word away, eyes glittering merrily as he moved to the nearby bar cart. "Allow me to welcome you back in style, son." Ice cubes clinked into cut crystal glasses. Amber fluid flowed over the tiny bergs, making the glasses immediately bead cool condensation in response to the heat. "Listen to me, you're a man now, aren't you?"
"Mister Carney..." I tried again, not wanting to let his jovial manner derail me from my purpose. "About my family's station..."
"Right, right..." He sipped his drink, setting mine down on the desk in easy reach and sat down again, tapping ash into a silver tray. "As the surviving McNeil son, you'll be wanting your share of the sale. Your Mother is a smart woman, bless her, and she drove a hard bargain. You should be quite proud. "
He dipped his pen into the inkwell on his desk, wrote out a cheque, blotted it and laid it atop an envelope he pulled from a drawer. The envelope was addressed to me in my mother's tidy hand.
"She asked me to give you this, when you came around."
I must have been staring at him like he'd grown two heads, because he frowned and sat up. "Now, listen, son. This was a square deal. My lawyers drew up the papers and everything's been properly filed. Your Mother's share..."
"Where is my Mother?" It came out a harsh whisper.
Carney's brow wrinkled in a fatherly fashion. I could almost believe in that moment that he wasn't a bad man and that he felt sorry for me. Not that I wanted his pity. "You missed her by about two weeks, son. Left just before your wire came, I'm afraid. She spent a week with my wife and family, had a good cry over your brother with my girl Cathy. You know how women are... "
He smiled sympathetically and stood, closing the distance between us, intending to bring me my drink. "And please, allow me to say how sorry I am for your loss. I liked Archie, both your brothers, they were good men, it's a terrible thing."
"Where?" Rage and loss choked my throat. That one word was all that I could manage.
He looked surprised at my question then nodded. "England, I believe." He spared a pointed glance at the letter she'd left. "I imagine it's all in the letter." He sipped his drink to give me a moment to let this last bit of news sink in before continuing on. "And I couldn't blame you for going, too. Though, if you're of a mind to stay, I know Cathy would like to see you and there'd be no lack of work for a man with your talents and experience. Why, I'd be happy to hire you myself."
I stared at him. Unable to speak. Unable to move, though every fibre of my body told me to grab my things and go.
And that was when he delivered the last blow, brightening as if he'd just come up with the most wonderful of ideas. The very thought of it glinted in the corners of his eyes as he smiled. "You know… I need someone to work Dreamingtime, son. And you'd be just the man for it - "
And so I bruised my knuckles for the second time that day.
Leslie Carney was a big man, and he would likely have given me better than he got, had his secretary not heard the scuffle and come in shouting her head off about calling for the Constable.
In the end, Carney wiped a trickle of blood from his nose and told her to calm down, that I was just upset after getting some rough news. Leave it to the King to seem unruffled and come off as much too kind to press charges against a young soldier so recently returned, battle-scarred by the Great War.
I was handed my cheque and my Mother's letter and shown the way out by a few of his men and that was that.
Had I been the sort of man who allowed himself the luxury of self-pity, I might have spent the rest of that afternoon and maybe even the next few days drowning my sorrows in a few bottles at the pub.
But despite Carney's generous cheque in my pocket, self-pity was an indulgence that I could ill afford.
Instead I took my money to the local bank and made short work of opening an account. Though I hated to take Carney's money, I needed it if I was to make a new life for Darika and myself.
With just enough left in my pocket to buy a decent horse and rifle and fill my saddlebags with food and water, I packed up and headed out to the Yolngu tribal lands where Magarri and his people lived.
Nearly two days ride and I was still half a day away when I came across Goolajballong hunting in the bush. At first he was just a dark line on the far horizon, easily mistaken for a gum tree in the heat waves rising from the ground. But as I drew closer, I recognised the crooked smile and tribal markings of my young friend.
"Raker! You come!" He was so excited in his greeting that he lapsed immediately into his own dialect and my unpractised ear had to work hard to make sense of what he said.
"Goolaj," I put a hand on his shoulder. "Cousin. Slow down, I can barely understand you."
With great effort he repeated what he had just said, this time in English. "Darika burn up with that no good white fella fever! Need 'em get white fella magic. Hurry!"
Each word he spoke stabbed panic deep into my heart.
Remounting quickly, I pulled him up behind me, barely giving him a chance to settle on before we were off.
Where I'd been heading in the right general direction, I now had Goolaj to guide me to the camp. As we rode, the young man explained that he had not been hunting at all. As his story went, one of the elders, Nowra had seen my coming in a dream and sent the young man to bring me to them. And while such an explanation might seem fanciful to some, it was hard to argue with the fact that finding me and bringing me back was exactly what Goolaj was doing.
Magarri was waiting for us at the edge of the camp, his proud face grave and his dark eyes more frightened than I'd ever seen them. "Darika is very sick, brother," he told me as I dismounted, handing my horse off to Goolaj to tend.
"Where is she?" I asked, dropping all formalities in my worry for my wife.
"Here." He led the way to where a shelter had been made beneath a low tree. Women sat nearby, fanning small fires where healing herbs burned, singing what I knew must be magic songs to fight the illness.
My wife lay under a light blanket, eyes closed under a sheen of sour sweat. Her skin stretched tight over her wasted body and had taken on a gray pallor. Her breathing was laboured, raspy and punctuated by deep coughs that wracked her depleted form.
Had I any doubt that she was suffering from advanced consumption, the heat of her skin and the swelling about her neck confirmed my worst fears. There was dried saliva tinted with blood on her lips – lips that had once so tenderly kissed my own – and now she was too weak to even lift a hand to wipe the offending stains away.
"Darika," I whispered, suddenly feeling young and scared. "I'm here, darling, I'm home."
She stirred in her fever dream and I thought that she had heard me, had recognised the sound of my voice. But though her eyes fluttered and opened, they did not focus on me.
It broke my heart to see her like that, wasting away from fever and disease and I worked to stop the sob that tried to rise in my throat, folding my lips hard and flat to keep it from escaping.
Magarri tried to draw me away. "Let the women tend to her."
"No!" I shouted, startling the women as I shook him off. "Nowra said she needs white fella magic." My mind raced again over what Goolaj had told me, working to understand what it was that I needed to do to save my wife. Nowra was right. If consumption was a white man's disease, then Darika needed white man's medicine to save her.
"Magarri," I turned to him. "I need a fresh horse. And water." When he didn't immediately move I called to Goolaj. "Cousin! Put my saddle on Magarri's horse, and get my bags. Quickly!"
The young man hurried to do as I'd asked, but Magarri planted himself in front of me. "What you gonna to do?" he asked.
"I'm going to do the only thing I can - take her to Darwin," I explained as I pushed past him to help Goolaj ready the fresh horse.
"No white fella doctor gonna help my sister," he shook his head with great sadness. He looked tired. Clearly this idea had already been considered and abandoned.
"They have to," I insisted stubbornly, slipping the bridle over my mount's head. "If they don't she'll die." I fixed him with my most determined gaze and when he opened his mouth next, it wasn't to argue.
"Okay, brother. Then I come with you."
Magarri's tone was steady and I knew that he would not be dissuaded. I would not be alone in this. Darika was my wife but she was also Magarri's sister, and caught up as I was in my own concerns, I had nearly forgotten that fact.
He was more than a friend, he was my family, and together we would try to save Darika's life, even if we had to break every law that stood in our way.
It didn't take us long to gather what supplies we could. The night was dark and cool and the dingoes lent their melancholy voices to the women's songs as I scooped Darika into my arms to carry her to town.
She was burning with fever and each breath seemed to require a greater effort than the last. We knew that time was critical now and risked riding through the night, past dawn and into the next day.
I was half asleep in the saddle, my wife limp in my arms as we crested the hills over Darwin. Magarri, struggling against his own exhaustion grunted and called my name to awaken me as we neared the edge of town and I dug my heels into the side of my weary mount to urge her forward towards the tiny hospital at the far end.
The long low single storied building sat in a small complex just off the beach. With palm trees swaying in the afternoon breeze blowing in off the ocean and nurses in crisp white uniforms and smart caps bustling industriously as they saw to their patients, it seemed a beacon of hope.
One of these nurses, a middle aged matron, hurried to greet us as we approached. "Who have we got here, love?" she asked as I slipped carefully from my saddle, balancing Darika in my arms.
"She's my wife," I quickly explained. "I think its TB."
"Here now," the woman soothed in a kindly tone, motioning for Magarri to remain outside with our horses. "Bring her inside and let's have a look."
I carried Darika inside, relieved as we were joined in the surgery by the doctor. He was an older man, tall, with white hair and wire spectacles that lent him an air of attentive wisdom.
I set my wife down and pulled away the damp blanket that had shielded her during our long journey, stepping back so that they could examine her.
I was expecting the doctor to quickly assess her condition and begin treatment and so I was caught completely off-guard by what happened next.
"Out!" the doctor barked, pointing to the door. "We don't treat blacks."
"Please." My voice was hoarse with exhaustion and grief. "She's dying, please, she needs your help."
"No boongs." The man insisted, making it clear that he had no intention of helping us. "Get out of my surgery and take her with you before she infects my patients." He was angry now, voice rising in volume with each word. "Or so help me God, I will have you both removed."
I turned to the kindly nurse, seeking her help, but the woman would no longer meet my eyes.
And so I did the only thing I could. I scooped up my dying wife, cradling her to me as I carried her home.
Both Magarri and I were beyond exhaustion when he insisted that we make camp to rest. I wanted to push on, we were less than a day's ride from the camp and I wanted to take Darika home, to be with her people - the only people I now had left. But the horses needed water and rest and so did we, and I had no choice but to give in to his demand.
That night my wife passed away in my arms, slipping off quietly to a place where I could not follow.
As heartbroken as I was, at least she had found an end to her suffering.
I'm not ashamed to say that I sat by her body and cried until the pink fingers of dawn painted the stars from the night sky. Magarri left for the Yolngu camp soon after, instructing me to keep the fire burning and to stay with her, that he would bring their people.
For all that I had seen of the world and all of the time I had spent with the Yolngu people, I had little idea of their rituals concerning death. When Magarri returned with their family that evening, I was quickly immersed in their tribal rites.
The first thing that I learnt was that I must never again speak my wife's name. A tall order when all I wanted to do was call her back to me, but it was made clear that this was very important, lest she follow the sound and become lost on her way to the next world.
We moved from the place of her death to make a ceremonial camp a short distance away and the men used branches and blankets to create a shaded area off to one side. The women were forbidden to enter this area, but they had rituals of their own to attend to and their cries and wailing echoed through the dark night while the men began the work of hollowing out a tree trunk for my wife's remains. Messengers were dispatched to alert my wife's clan members far and wide and within days our tiny camp had trebled in size.
A traditional yingapungapu was dug into the ground at it was around this sacred sand sculpture that the ritual songs and dances were performed to the accompaniment of clap-sticks and didgeridoo.
Meanwhile, in the men's area, shielded from public view, I sat and watched, numb with grief as male members of my wife's family decorated the hollowed tree trunk with clan symbols and intricate designs representing the land, sea and rocks of Arnhem land.
Throughout the days and nights that followed the ritual ceremonies continued. By tradition of our marriage, her family was my family and her clans-people welcomed me, sharing my grief but also sharing with me the stories of her life. At times I heard and understood the things they told me, but there were many, many times that their words could not reach through the haze of my loss and I merely sat and watched their lips move, making sounds that I lacked the wherewithal to make sense of.
Many days later, when the burial rituals had been completed and the visiting kin had returned to their homes, I travelled with Magarri and the rest of his family back to the main camp. Here I spent my days and nights beside a campfire fed by Goolaj and Magarri, not caring enough to eat, too devastated to move.
I was not yet twenty-one and had lost every thing and every one truly important to me. With my wife's passing, I felt that I no longer had reason to live and so I lay by the fire and waited to die so that I might join her in the world beyond.
For a long time Magarri simply let me be, but after a few weeks of this, I was beginning to waste away and my brother could no longer sit by and watch it happen.
That night when he came to see me, he did not simply feed the fire and entreat me to eat something or at least drink some water. On this night he settled down onto the ground beside me, hands resting lightly on his knees.
For a long while he sat there without speaking and I became aware of the sounds of the night around us; the crackling of the fire, the hooting of a night bird high in the trees, the lonely cries of a dingo like a sad spirit lost in the bush. And when Magarri began to softly speak, I found myself reaching for this sound, too.
"My sister loved you and she would not want you to die before your time," he began. For a long time he spoke to me in quiet measured tones, sharing with me the things that he had learnt about birth and life and death. He explained to me that death was a part of the natural balance of life and that young boys must let their childish ways die so that they can be reborn as men. The Yolngu had rituals and ceremonies to help boys pass into manhood. "White fella has no ceremony, no way of knowing when he become a man." He fell silent again and the night seemed hushed around us.
"There is one more tradition to share with you." From his pocket Magarri pulled a dark string that looked to be woven of hair, ends braided to form a circle. "Her spirit has moved on to the afterlife, brother, but your wife will always be with you," he explained as he placed it around my neck. "Honour her life by living your story well."
Leaving me to my thoughts but unwilling to leave me alone, Magarri stretched out by the fire and slept, his soft snores keeping me company as the fire burned low.
When the sun rose on the new day, though weak, I rose with it.
In the night, I had had contemplated the life behind me and found the strength to embrace the one ahead. The young man that I had been had died with the passing of my wife and I would no longer answer to his name.
Magarri had taught me well. A man was measured by his actions, from the dreams he dreamt and the story that he lived…
And so, from that day on, I was known simply as The Drover.