Author note: For December 2011 WCC. Voting: 8-14 December. See profile link.
Prompt: 'Now the sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence... someone might have escaped from their singing; but from their silence, certainly never.' - Franz Kafka
thongs = flip-flops (not G-strings!)
dag = loser, unkempt or unfashionable person, derived from the term for dried faeces hanging from a sheep's rear
billy = campfire pot
Country (Indigenous context) = everything within the landscape of a particular area, involving a spiritual connection to the land.
dreamtime = when ancestral beings roamed the land, created life and shaped the world.
Mungo Lady and Mungo Man were real, look them up if you're interested.
Grain of Sand
'But Muuuuuuuuuummmmmm!' I had screamed back then. 'You pwomised we would be camped by a lake!' I demanded. My gleeful leap from the car in my swimmers and sarong was mercilessly deflated at what I saw. The disappointment on my face was tangible. Every undulation on my nine-year-old cheekbones was tinged with misery.
'We are. Welcome to Lake Mungo,' she calmly replied, smug grin firmly planted on face.
'You failed to mention that there isn't any water in this lake!' I scowled at my mother, as I stared out into the eerie depths of a ghostly white desert. The tranquil lapping sounds of the glorious Lake Mungo I had envisioned were drowned out by the deafeningly dry silence of the very same Lake Mungo.
'Now take that pout off your face young missy, this place is brimming with Aboriginal culture and geological artefacts. The park rangers do guided walks across the sand dunes, and have videos at the information centre.'
'But Muuuuuuuuuuum!' I screamed again. Shit I must have been irritating to my poor mother at that age. Sorry Mum.
My parents unpacked the camping gear, and my brother and I erected our tent in silence, pouting all the way. Just why they thought it was okay to make a nine-year-old girl share a tent with her teenage brother is still beyond me, but it was the 80s, those were simpler times.
'It'll be okay Katie,' my brother reassured me, winking as he held up the car keys he had swiped from Dad's pocket earlier. I giggled, then covered my mouth.
'Don't think we can't hear you from here!' Dad shouted from outside the tent, 'We know you're up to something!' Then after a few minutes, 'Cheryl, have you seen my keys?'
'Oh Christ Frank, you're always losing them!' Mum scolded him.
Then finally, it clicked. 'Craig! Keys, now!' Dad shouted as he unzipped our tent.
With a sunken lower lip, Craig dropped the keys into Dad's open hand, as Dad reassured him by saying: 'You wouldn't have gotten anywhere with them anyway; there's nothing for miles out here, and no way to get petrol on a weekend.'
'Oh great, so what if I get bitten by a snake?' I demanded.
'Then you'll just have to die in agony, hahaha, ya dag,' Craig replied. What would we do without brothers, hey?
On that note, I left the tent and put on my new pink thongs to check out the area. There was a rusty tap with a broken sign hanging from it, saying:
Caution! Bore water. Unsuitable for drinking. Campers are required to supply their own drinking water. Do not commence a walk without at least one litre of water - two litres on hot days. Severe dehydration and death can ensue from failure to do so.
'Muuum. What's bore water?' I yelled.
'You know, like the gross stuff at grandma Mary's in Adelaide,' Mum explained. 'Don't worry, your father packed plenty of drinking water,' she assured me. My father was renowned for packing to the extreme, for what he called the savage Australian bush: 15 rolls of toilet paper, gallons of water, spare axe, what? In case a serial killer steals the first one and you need to chop wood to make smoke signals? And that toilet paper will sure come in handy in the next cholera epidemic.
Back in the tent, I fought with my brother over which music to play on his boombox: I wanted my birthday Madonna cassette, he wanted pirated Metallica. He was bigger than me, therefore he won. In those days, pirating music meant taping from your mate's records onto blank cassettes. In those days; Metallica didn't sue. I read Smash Hits magazine about New Kids on the Block and Bananarama while blowing bubbles with watermelon chewing gum. I was so cool!
The music suddenly became very loud - somebody must have turned up the record player while recording to the tape. Like the siren calling you into a netball match, the stereo wailed:
Grain of saaaaaaaaaand
Craig quickly pressed stop before my parents got mad.
Walking out on to the sand dunes, even at that age, I understood I was in a special place. It didn't take long before giant white peaks extended in every direction. I felt like Jesus Christ, walking on the surface of the ocean.
I broke all the rules, no water, thongs, didn't tell anyone I was going, didn't even know where I was going.
I lay on the highest dune I could see and closed my eyes. I pictured myself floating on a raft on a picturesque lake, probably in reality this lake would've been in Europe, where nature has been tamed, rather than the savage Australian bush.
A gentle zephyr awakened, and I kept my eyes shut to keep the sand from blowing in. The breeze picked up, and my calm lake turned to a furious ocean at the peak of a turbulent tempest. I saw myself on a ship, practically vertical as it is perched on the crest of a wave.
As the wave crashed over me, In my mind, I heard:
Grain of saaaaaaaaaand
Take my hand
We're off to never never-land
Then I heard a woman crying, wailing, singing in a language I didn't understand, accompanied by the low drone of a didgeridoo. I was overwhelmed with emotion about a loss of some kind, but had no idea why.
As the droning and wailing silenced, the wind died down and I opened my eyes. I was covered with a thin film of pure white sand that my nine-year-old imagination transformed to froth from the wave.
I ran back to the campsite, confused and a little scared. There was a fire alight with dinner sizzling and bubbling away in a precarious jumble of pans and billies. We told ghost stories and sang songs, Craig told dirty jokes that I didn't understand, and Dad clipped him behind the ear.
A panoramic vista of stars unfurled across the night sky, like pinpricks in a black cloth with the light of the universe shining through from behind. With the desert atmosphere, and lack of light interference, we saw a sky we had never seen before. Even cynical teenage Craig was impressed by the shooting star.
'See that red one, that's Mars,' Mum pointed out.
The next day, we took the ranger tour. No longer grumbling about escaping my shiny, loud, modern culture, I was desperate to learn more about what happened on the dune.
'I'd just like to welcome yous all to Mungo National Park, my name is Roy Charles, I'm a Paakantji Elder,' the ranger began, to a circle of nine agog mouths. We were the only ones camped here, so the others must've driven in for the day.
'Hi Roy,' we replied in unison.
'This is Paakantji, Ngyiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi country,' he continued, 'We have shared this land for tens of thousands of years. Back in the 60s, Archaeologists found the remains of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man. They reckon they be 40,000 years old. Back then, they would fish in the lake, and they had giant animals wanderin' round called megafauna. When the archaeologists found 'em, they took Mungo Lady and Mungo Man's remains away to study and show to the world. We are very sad about this because we could feel their spirits here all the time. So now we're fightin' to bring 'em back to Country,' the ranger said.
We walked past animal tracks in the red ochre sand. 'This one 'ere, this one's a wallaby track, and this one, snake,' the ranger explained as he pointed to the small two-pointed footprints and an undulating thin line.
Walking a bit further, we came to an arc of towering white dunes. 'This is known as the Walls of China, created by the Westerly wind. You find all kinds of fossils and other stuff up here, see these are hammerstones, brought in from somewhere else 'cause you can't find 'em here.'
Walking to the point where I wanted to collapse with exhausion, we reached white clay, engorged with fossilised human footprints. 'These footprints are 'bout 20,000 years old, preserved in the claybed. That was when the lake dried up,' the ranger explained. 'Walkin' here, it's like going back in time, bringin' our dreamtime to the present. Walkin' with the ancestors, with the megafauna of the past.'
The ranger looked down and softly said: 'Our dreamtime, our culture. It's been silenced. They sent us to missions, massacred us, took black kids away from their mothers and put them into white families, we were told not to speak Paakantji language or they might take us away.'
We all looked down too with sorrow and guilt. This is what my ancestors did? I wondered. Why didn't they teach us about all this in school?
'But that's not the end of it. If you are really quiet, and your mind is still, sometimes you can hear the ancestors. Mungo lady is finding her way back. She'll be here soon,' the ranger said, before breaking into song:
Mungo lady, don't be silenced, come back to Country, Mungo lady, sing again.
That night, I ducked out of the tent while Craig was asleep. I stared into the embers of the dying fireplace, and heard it again, the drone of the didge', the mournful wails of Mungo Lady.
Leaving the mysterious lake, I felt a new dimension added to my universe.
A few years later, I saw on the news, Mungo Lady's remains being brought back to Country. I smiled.