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Norman Wesley Firth

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The Lion Trees, Part I: Unraveling
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The debut novel by Owen Thomas, The Lion Trees, chronicles the humorous and dramatic unraveling of an American family. The two-volume novel has been enthusiastically rece..  
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The night I met Daisy Bates
By Norman Wesley Firth
Monday, January 14, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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In the hot desert night of Australia a strange visitor appears to Christian, a man on a spiritual journey with the ability to speak to animals.

Night comes and hot dry desert cools: the sky is a black ink poured across the canvas canopy where the unseen hand of mighty spirit creator has scattered diamonds that sparkle and shine brighter away from the city lights. And the same stars that shone on the Babylon of old and the Bethlehem of divine birth are the stars of the zodiac, spelling out a man’s future promising wealth and love and pain and everything and nothing stands still. Horoscopes for the lovelorn and the restless and the lonely that change with the moving of the planets and the predilection of the astrologer are mumbo jumbo for the black man of the desert – because only he knows the secret things that don’t belong to the white man. Dark spaces separate the sisters and the hunters telling the story of the Aborigines. His sleeping bag is gritty with sand and the firelight dances on his face, and his shadow giant rests on the wall of the old telegraph station half buried in the land. This is the place of the Mirning people. Above him the Milky Way spirals its way through time and space, a billion stars surrounded by gas and dust, black holes and clusters weaving and moving as one giant ribbon. Somewhere in the recess of his mind he remembers Yinculyer, the rising of Venus is the name of this place but now the white man calls it Eucla. He turns his face to the east and marvels at the brightest goddess in the heavens and the Mirning tribe called this place ‘bright’ and his mind confirms Venus the brightest star gave the spirit children the name for this place.
The fire licks the rabbit meat and he reaches and turns the branch spit to prevent the underside burning. Three dingoes circle man and fire, lured by the smell of cooking food, too lazy to seek for themselves; the fire keeps them at a distance and he knows he must keep it burning. He hears the voice of Milpaka speaking from a time he has lost.
“They lazy buggars – they scavengers – wait for others to do work for them and then they steal. I’ve seen the baby sleeping and when the mother awakes it is gone – so it will always be for those who do not understand the cunning of this animal who has no place in the dreaming.
In this place of white shifting drifting sand, all that remains of the telegraph station is a third of the north wall and a chimney stack almost hidden. Behind him, the wall protects him from the sand blast of the fierce wind that blows up from the Bite and Delisser’s sand hills grow higher with each passing year. When he thinks the rabbit is cooked he reaches out, stripping the flesh from the bone, burning his fingers and lips; the grease slides down his chin and the dingoes move closer as the fire flames begin to die down. His eyelids are weighted leaden and his belly is full and he drifts like the sand and sometimes sleep is the friend and sometimes the enemy. The dingoes move in stalking drooling circles, closer and closer, eyes bright reflection of hunger and dying flame.
“It worked out well for us,” said the largest creature and his eyes opened to see the big male lying beside him; rabbit carcass between paws and white flesh hanging from his jowls.
“Rabbit plague – millions of them – back in about 1890. That’s why they left.”
“You’re not too bright – are you? This! And the dingo lifted his right leg and drew a half circle in the air, sweeping from right to left and then back. “What do you see?” he said, exasperation in the growling voice.
“You’ve got it – sand! There used to be green grasses and dune vegetation to stop the sand from swallowing up everything around it, then the rabbits came. You should have seen them. Just passing through, they said, but not before they’d chewed up everything in sight. Poor old Tom, he was the telegraph operator – he had two healthy red geraniums, one each side of the door. They were the first to go. Did you know you can use geranium leaves in salad?” The dingo now lay on his side with his face only inches away from the man.
“God, your breath stinks,” he coughed and pinched his nose with his thumb and forefinger to emphasise the point.
“To continue,” said the dingo, ignoring the interruption, “when the bunnies had finished, within weeks, the sand now uncontrolled, drifted at an alarming rate and was halfway up the station wall. Some mornings it was banked up so high against the door that poor old Tom had to climb out of the window. You’d see his spade fly out first with him close behind and he’s start digging a pathway to the door.”
“So what did they do?”
“They left. We tried to help with the rabbit problem but there are only so many rabbits a dingo can eat. Shooting them wasn’t much good – not enough men – not enough bullets. Anyway the town was disappearing under tons of sand – they had no choice – they abandoned it and moved about two miles east of here.”
“Expensive exercise.”
“Daisy Bates.”
“Daisy who?” now Christian was completely perplexed.
“Bates,” said the dingo, “Don’t you know anything?”
“I’m not from around here.”
“That’s obvious. She was the next plague – turned up around 1912; pitched her tent and stayed for about a year or so.”
“So what about her?”
“So she was made Honorary Protector of Aborigines at Eucla.”
“Protecting them from what?”
“From the white man – from extinction – from things that go bump in the night.”
“What was she?”
“A meddler – but that’s only my opinion, well that’s not quite true there were others who had their suspicions.”
“What did she do?”
“Well after she arrived and pitched her tent she lived with them – said she was their friend, but if you ask me I think she was just out for herself. Got a reputation, wrote some articles, did some lectures, made some money and left.”
“Did she help them?”
“Well she couldn’t hunt – couldn’t find water and wouldn’t eat witchety grubs or eat most of the bush tucker. She handed out flour and salt and sugar. Forty thousand years or more they’ve lived on this land; hunting and surviving harsh inhospitable conditions. They tamed the land and made it theirs – what could she give that they didn’t already have?”
“Why did she leave, where did she go?”
“She left for Adelaide in 1914 – bright lights always beckon – anyway she eventually ended up at Ooldea.”
“I was there a week ago.”
“That’s when the trouble started. The sycophants called her ‘The Great White Queen of the Never Never’ but it was what she wrote that caused the most trouble.
“Like what?”
“Things like, Cannibalism in the East-West and Black Baby saved from being eaten.”
“Was it true ?”
“Of course not. I lived with them – if anyone should know it’s me. She was a bigamist, a liar and a fraud.”
Christian thought about this for a moment and was about to ask for more but the huge yawn and closed dingo eyes told him to wait until morning. He drifted in and out of sleep; he heard the whistling wind around the solitary wall and felt the sting of sand on his cheeks. When the ash in the fire had gone cold he fell into a deeper sleep.
“You wanted to speak to me?”
She stood before him in a grey skirt and jacket. Around her neck she wore a man’s necktie and perched precariously on her head, a black velvet hat. Her white gloved hand gripped the handle of a black umbrella, held away from her body, its tip buried in the sand. Her thin tight lips showed someone lacking in humour and her posture was defiant.
“Who are you?”
“The name is Bates. If you are Aborigine you may call me Kabbarli.”
“What does that mean?”
“Grandmother. I am a grandmother to my natives. Will you please have the courtesy of standing when you are speaking to me, young man?”
Christian pulled himself up reluctantly and presented her with a mock salute.
“My goodness, you are a brash rude young man – I don’t know why I should be speaking to you.”
“You don’t have to.” He started to crouch down, ready to resume his sleep.
“Wait! I will speak to you – there are some things you don’t understand.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I find that very few understand what I have done for these people.”
“What people?”
“The natives.”
“Don’t you think the way you say that makes them sound primitive? Wouldn’t it be better to refer to them as Aborigines?”
“Young man I will refer to them in whatsoever manner I wish. I have made great sacrifices to preserve their culture and protect them from harm.”
“But dingo tells me that you accused them of cannibalism – of eating their babies – what proof do you have?”
“I am not obliged to justify myself to you. I will, however, say that I spent many years with these people and I know what I know.”
“Don’t you mean you did it for prestige – so that people would recognize you?”
“I did what I had to do to help.”
“Dingo said you were a bigamist.”
“You have no right to bring my personal life into my work – there are circumstances that occur in every person’s life, over which they have no control.”
“Was that a yes?”
“I will not answer you and I do not wish to continue my conversation with you. Goodnight sir!”

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