“Where’s your spirit, Billy?” Cobar said as his withered legs lowered him to the edge of the cliff face beside his great–grandson. He peered past his dangling feet to watch a stone descend beyond his eyesight into the river far below. But Billy didn’t answer. Cobar’s wisened years afforded him an enduring patience, so he tuned into the caress of cooling shade lavished upon him by a tortured old eucalyptus tree. He admired the twisted, gnarly, old trunk that bulged and clung with determination to a crack in the ancient rock wall. He unconsciously gave his nose–bone a twist while he considered how life had sculpted his own body. A fall down an embankment and a gash in his forearm had drawn a hungry dingo to the smell of his blood. So Cobar ate the dingo and salvaged its foreleg for a trophy. The bone now sat above his lip like a moustache, giving him an air of importance, and a memory that made him smile. All the twisting had made his nose itchy, so he slid out the bone and gave his nose a good scratch. Finally, Billy sighed as if dragging himself into the relief of his elder’s presence.
“Mother come to me last night,” he said.
“That’s why we have Corroboree here, Billy.” Cobar spread his arms wide, displaying the mist swirling up through the carpet of treetops across the river.
“The spirits are strong, the ancestors can talk to us.”
“She want me to follow the river till the brown snake stand up, where he watch over them whitefellas.”
“Ah, it’s you!” Cobar said while sliding his bone back into place. “She show me big Red kangaroo go down river in a canoe.”
“Why she want me to go, grandfather?”
“No future for you boys here. We the only Aborigines left. We gotta find you some girls or no more Dreaming.”
“But grandfather I’m only thirteen! I’m not even man yet. Them whitefellas gonna kill me too.”
“Your mother won’t let that happen, Billy. That’s why she pick you — you smart, you listen her, not like brothers.” He indicated his head towards Billy’s older brothers, Mallee and Pindaari.
A tiny smile curled one edge of Billy’s full lips as he noticed Mallee selecting some stones from the dirt around their campsite — he knew his day was about to get interesting.
“Not time yet anyway,” Cobar said. “Maybe when it is time, you be man. When you see the big Red kangaroo, you will know it is time!”
Billy sat, despondent and quiet, while he considered how intense his mother had been this time. He knew she wanted him to leave soon, but he didn’t feel ready to go on his Walkabout yet. He wanted time to grow into a man at his own pace, like his brothers had, not in some kind of a hurry. He thought about the kangaroo and hoped Cobar was right, but then he worried about the fact that there were big Red kangaroos everywhere. The drought had lured them to the coast from out west in search of water. He decided not to look at them.
“When you got no future, Billy, you got no past — no Dreaming to guide you into the future. Gotta have your Dreaming or you get lost, like us, we nearly lost. Can’t hide here anymore, little fella — time to find our future!”
“Hey, Billy!” Mallee called.
Mallee’s only goal in life was to make galahs of his younger brothers and by the way he’d been giggling with Pindaari, Billy figured it was his turn again.
“Walkabout through the whitefella culture, Billy. You be OK. If it’s safe for us, we find plenty wives for good lookin’ fella like you.”
Billy wondered what he’d do with one wife, let alone plenty. He’d never even seen a girl before. Still, he figured Cobar would teach him all he needed to know anyway, so he let the problem go.
“OK, Grandfather.” Billy rose and waited while Cobar struggled to his feet. “But first I gotta cook me up a couple o’ galahs.”
Cobar smiled in anticipation, put his arm around his favourite grandson’s shoulders for support, and they wandered back to their Corroboree site.
“What?” Billy said as he stepped onto a massive rock platform that jutted out from the cliff face like a balcony at a theatre.
Mallee said nothing and held out his four small stones for Billy and Pindaari to behold. There were two small stones; about the size of a wallaby’s nuts, a slightly larger, rounded stone made of granite that was quite heavy, and then a bigger stone again with sharp edges that wasn’t very heavy at all. He selected the smallest one for himself with a grin, and then offered the remains to Pindaari.
“What’s this for?” he said, as if he didn’t already know.
Billy couldn’t believe how stupid they still thought he was.
“Just pick one!” Mallee said.
“Hmm,” Pindaari pondered while rubbing what he liked to think of as a beard. He picked out the stones one at a time, scrutinising them carefully before taking a moment to consider his findings. Then he selected two at a time to compare their weight and shape. He even gave them a spit and polish to compare their colour before annoying Mallee by putting each freshly spat stone back into the palm of his outstretched hand. Pindaari walked around in circles with one hand on his hip, the other rubbing his chin intelligently. Then he kicked up the dust as if he was struggling with his decision. Occasionally, he stopped to give Mallee and the stones a ponderous look, before going back to his chin rubbing and dust kicking.
“Bloody hell, Pindaari, will ya hurry up?”
Pindaari considered Mallee’s impatience, and then raised one eyebrow in sly recognition of a clever thought. He began knocking the stones together, listening carefully to their sound, before putting them back again to reflect on the result with more intelligent chin rubbing and dust kicking.
Mallee dropped his head, shaking it from side to side. He looked like he was giving up, but then he filled his lungs and huffed out a huge sigh to help him tap into his reserves of patience. He wedged his free hand under his armpit and adjusted his outstretched arm for the long haul, while looking at Pindaari with contemptuous patience.
“I swear you galahs are gonna turn me into an ancestor!” he moaned.
Billy laughed — whatever the consequences of the game were, they’d be worth the memory of Mallee’s face. Pindaari was like a predator prowling around his prey, poking it and prodding it for pleasure. Mallee was about to lose it, Billy could see it in his face — he’d clenched his jaw and squinted his eyes. Pindaari must have seen it too because he quickly snatched up the granite stone with a satisfied grin.
“Finally!” Mallee cursed. Then he impatiently offered the last two to Billy, as if trying to pressure him into making a quick decision.
“I wanna pick first,” Billy said.
Mallee’s whole body slumped and he sighed so heavily that he looked like he was emptying.
“Why?” he demanded.
“Cause I want the little fella.”
Mallee did his head drop thing again and said,
“It don’t matter how big it is. Alright, you have mine and I’ll have the big one then.”
Pindaari looked shocked and shuffled about nervously, which he tried to hide from Billy while waiting for his reply.
“No way! You probably wanted the big one all along!” Billy said.
“No I didn’t! It don’t matter how big it is! Will ya just pick one?”
Billy was tempted to drag it out a bit longer in the hope they’d let something of their plan slip, but judging by Pindaari’s surprised expression when Mallee offered to take the big stone with the sharp edges, he wondered if Pindaari wasn’t the one being set–up. So he decided to take the big stone, just to show them that he wasn’t scared.
Pindaari seemed relieved.
Mallee didn’t say anything. He just grabbed his spears in deflated triumph and headed straight down the mountain trail without even looking back to see if his brothers were following him.
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