Camping with ancestors on the bicycle track

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By HOWARD GOLDENBERG

Running along the track next to the Todd riverbed I detour around a family squatting on the path.

No-one goes anywhere. There’s an amicable silence. They just sit.

It’s early, and the heat hovered overnight. Now the day meets the sun and the morning’s afire.

I sweat, they sit.

There appear to be four generations there, the adults simply sitting, the eight-year old and the ten-year old taking turns to dandle and delight in the baby.

Great-grandmother sits at a small remove. She’s a small figure, compact, legs tucked beneath her. Sitting, she gazes north.

No-one addresses her. No-one speaks. I widen my detour around the group and run on.

Upon my return, the group remains where I found them. I’m ready for a rest. I stop and ask: “Do you mind if I sit down here with you?”

Grandpa says, Okay.

I choose a spot close to the old lady and sit and drip.

The old lady’s voice crackles softly. Old people camp here. Old time.

The penny has dropped. The old one wanted to be with ancestors, to remember them, to “camp here” and look out toward her sacred places. The family must have brought her here. I wonder which places are sacred. Silly question: Better, which places are not sacred?

Is the old lady thinking Wild Dog Dreaming, or Yeperenye (caterpillar) Dreaming? Is she simply taking in the scene, the empty river bed, the trees and the grasses, the birds and the bugs, the clouds and the smells (how gorgeous is the early morning gumtree scent along the Todd!), the wind, the heat, the sun, the busy life in the not-dead dry river?

Before my run, I recited my prayers, including psalm 148. Our curricula are similar: Praise Him sun and moon, and shining stars, highest heavens and the waters above the heavens – fixed for all time, Law which does not change – sea monsters, all the deep seas, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy winds, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds … youths and maidens, old and young …

All of creation is the old one’s business. All bespeaks a creator. All, all sacred in her garden, her Eden.

A little later, driving along the road bordering the Todd, I pull up short. There’s a shape on the road. The shape is black and has mass.

It’s a person, a person lying on the road a metre or two in front of a vehicle coming in the opposite direction. The vehicle has stopped.

The lying person is a woman, plump, not old, lying belly up. A second figure enters the scene, an adult male, tall, thin-limbed. The man runs to the woman, seizes her arms and pulls her backwards, away from the traffic.

Not so fast: The woman resists. She struggles towards her previous position. The man means business. He takes a fresh grip of those wrists, hoists the upper torso and heaves her back to the edge, where he arrests her return.

Normal traffic resumes in Mparntwe (Alice Springs).

At work in the clinic I meet a man who has the glorious tight curls that you see on some elderly Aboriginal people. In his case, the natural silver has a pinkish tinge. The man pushes a walker. He’s tall, well made, but bent now. He looks cast down.

I compliment him on his hair.

Gotta do something to brighten up.

We sit down and I ask how I can help.

Tablets, ran out.

We talk. I ask him about his life.

Got my own place here, own house. Two bedrooms. My son, he come and he camp with me, him and his wife, two little kiddies. They stay with me.

The man looks sorrowful.

Is it good, having family with you?

I love my son, the kiddies. But they noisy, they everywhere, all them, all four. They been with me six years.

They on list for they own house, but I don’t think they go. I do the washing, do most of cleaning, why they want to leave?

I make a diagnosis: sadness. There isn’t a tablet for sadness born of love.

We talk about the man’s lifetime, all spent here in Mparntwe. I hear about his childhood, the mission school, the church. He tells me about his parents, his churchgoing mother.

I wonder: Do you think it might help if you talked with a minister at the church? Go and have a yarn when you feel down?

Maybe. Might be I do that.

You know my mother, she say to me one day, I know where is the Garden of Eden.

I say, Mum, that’s a place in a story.

She say, I know it! I know where!

I say, Mum, where is it?

Mother says, that Garden of Eden, it here!

I think I get Mum’s point.

The old man resumes, smiling now. Mother, she was right. This here, this the Garden of Eden.

PAINTING by ROD MOSS.

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