Fiction

A new short story from award-winning Indigenous author Ellen van Neerven. By Ellen van Neerven.

Sis better

1.

Sis left her belt on the road, curled up like a king brown. She had just a singlet and grey jeans and one bag on her, no shoes. 

She’d woken up to her name outside the bedroom window. Saw that it was a bird making the sound. The cockatoo called over and over again until there wasn’t any doubt what was being said.

2.

The bus got her halfway to her grandfather’s country. She said to herself, Sis better make good on this. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Made more sense than ever. 

The sun was hot on the pavement and many of the passengers went straight to the convenience store across the road. She took her bag out of the back and stood in front next to the timetable. A couple and their young son were a few metres away. She heard them talking. Folding the child’s jacket into a small square, the man was travel-nervous, the woman was not. Looking down the row of shops and cafes, the woman was hungry, the man was not. Sis’s ears were alert: the cockatoo had got her listening.

3.

She got in the couple’s car next to the child strapped into a booster seat.

Is Paul Kelly okay? the man asked.

I’d prefer if you had his older stuff.

So you’ve come here to climb the mountain? the woman asked.

Not to climb. To see. 

You’re not climbing?

The elders forbid it.

There was another pause in the conversation.

Then the man gestured to the turn ahead. If you don’t mind waiting, we’re going to have lunch at the coast first.

She knew she didn’t look like someone who could wait. She forced a smile, a thanks, to the mirror. She looked at the child. This child would be a white man.

The road bent through paperbarks, steered through banana plantations.

You gubs, she thought, I’m going to die on country. You will help me die.

The girl in the bakery was her cousin. Her uncle was working on the fire they passed on the freeway. She didn’t look in their eyes.

4. 

Sis had been asked to go in with the child because the parents didn’t swim. She didn’t want to be with them for any longer but held her patience thinking she needed the transport. 

No surprises: no blacks on this beach or any non-whites. Massacre site. Many of the beaches here held that sort of history. Groups had been speared by the whites here, and a few beaches along, flour had been poisoned, killing another hundred local people. Wanted to tell the child when away from the parents. His mother took off his T-shirt and put the rash vest on him. Sis went in with her knickers and crop.

The water was colder than she remembered. The waves just right. The boy didn’t want to go in until she told him he was a shark.

5. 

Then of course the boy didn’t want to get out when the mother called. He was having such a good time mixing up his encounter with waves, sometimes ducking under, sometimes flipping on his back, sometimes dunking himself on purpose, the saltwater and drool oozing out of his mouth. Sis was passive, watched until the mother, her yoga pants rolled up, walked in, her face scrunched up, and put her hand on the boy’s shoulder. Told the boy his father was on his way to the pub and ordering chips.

On the way the woman was telling Sis and the boy that this park was named after her grandfather, the street after her uncle. Her grandfather’s brother had built the pub, the maroon wooden building on the corner. A busy crew of people clustered above on the old balcony. Sis got herself a soda lime.

Eh, Sis! It was Donna, working behind the counter. You not drinking anymore?

Sis grabbed Donna’s hand. Still working there, started when she was 18, maybe she was 35-ish now. She was a skinny thing, James Baldwin book there next to the taps. 

You okay there, Sis? 

I’m okay. I’m happy to see you. 

Coming tomorrow? I’m dancing.

You dancing with the troupe now?

Ceremony tomorrow at the cultural centre there.

The manager had come over, a tall older man. Bitch, I’m not paying you to talk to your rellos.

Donna glanced up at the people behind Sis. Men of the same type, waiting for beer.

Sis glared at the manager and didn’t get out of the way. 

He’d run out of patience. Fuck, it’s not Abo-o’clock.

Sis, enjoy your drink and being in town, Donna said calmly. Hope to catch up later. She winked at her. 

Sis reluctantly walked away. The couple and their child had already finished their chips and were standing outside. They hadn’t seen her and Donna together. She wanted them to go in there, to hear from Donna how many young people had topped themselves in this community just this year. Give them some sort of idea. 

Daddy saw there’s a storm coming, the child said as soon as she reached them.

A big one, he said. I’ll get the car. 

We should head home, the mother said. 

Home was a fantasy. Long driveway down a dip. Cows in the paddock beside. Farmhouse with aircon and too many bathrooms. Nut trees and a cover of rain starting.

6. 

Lightning rose like a flower. She would have never described it like this until tonight. This electrical storm had more strikes than she had ever seen: it just went on and on. It was enough to miss the light when it was not there, and she thought about how her mother, terrified of storms, had tried to give her this terror too but she had rejected it. 

Her mind was quivering. They had put the four-year-old in with her, on the other bed, the child sleeping soundly. She couldn’t not know the child was in there with her for a second so she had gone out in the hall to watch the storm – this is where she would sleep if she could sleep at all. She had promised her mind death on country when she got there, it was only just the valley below, down the hill.

Late that afternoon, when they came in off the coast road, they crossed the northern river and saw the mountain in the image and that’s when she felt close. 

She was moved to excitement. Twitching, wanting to wake the boy and show him how angry she was. Wanting to go into the couple’s bedroom and tell them that this house wasn’t meant to be here, that it was wrong that they were here. 

She felt calm thinking of the taste of the grass on her lips as she found her final resting place back on country, on the foot of the mountain. How does the child sleep? Did he not hear the frogs? Wanting to die at the mountain to show she had been given life and she had given it back for Creation to give it to another. 

She had not made nothing. Sis had made music – two records, more than 20 songs. Made two rooms out of one at her brother’s place so her mum could live there and get away from their stepdad. Her mother missed country most. Missed it more than she did, until now. Her mother wanted to be back to the river, to their freshwater, to her family.

Her hands in little balls, her feet in falls – they kept sinking the rest of her with them. She saw a stranger walk towards her in a dream and then she shook awake again and the storm was still alive. She was still alive, though she could be broken by tears or breath or by her gut.

7. 

She was nothing until morning, until the woman came to the breakfast bar and said the storm had killed two people on the summit of the mountain. 

Two fellas, interstate tourists, had climbed, ignored lore. A tree had come down on them and they had been found in the morning.

Very sad, the woman said as a question. 

I don’t have words, Sis replied. 

We slept right through it. The woman said. Could you sleep well?

I didn’t sleep, I dreamt.

The coffee was perfect and her anger had faded so she was zapped and in need of family. She said yes to going into town with the couple instead of heading first thing to the mountain.

8. 

This town had been named after the palm that flooded the area. The markets were not on. Instead, talk about storm damage. Another coffee in the cafe on the
corner and a piece of buttered quinoa bread left on the boy’s plate.

She said her goodbyes as her mother might, with humour, with a bit of lingo rolled up in there. She moved on quickly. 

There was a bus stop at the servo. Sis sat there – the bus didn’t come for an hour. A woman came past and asked how to get to the community by the mountain.

The woman was the mother of one of the young men who had died. She had driven in from the Granite Belt. Her son was gay, she said, living in one of the least tolerant towns in the country. He and his partner lived in fear but could not move because their work was there. They had gone on a road trip for the weekend. The mother of the son could not believe it had stormed overnight. The sun was out and the sky was as the sea. Sis told the mother her ancestors would be in mourning.

9. 

Is it hard? Do your legs shake when you don’t want them to? Sis asked Donna as they sat on the sand they’d brought up from the beach. 

You learn the story for the dance and then it’s not so hard. Donna let the red skirt on her waist come around her and mix with the sand. 

The centre’s doors opened, and the room started filling up. Donna was given her woven band. Other women, young and old, wore these bands around their wrists and ankles.  

She said to Donna, When I was younger, I thought white people couldn’t see black cockatoos, from Mum.

True?

Yeah, I thought they were invisible to them. And you know, last night, I think I was invisible. Last night I wanna die and I scream and cry and the whitefellas didn’t hear me.

And today? Donna looked up from tying the band around her ankle. 

Sis helped make space. There were didge and possum skin drums coming. The drums bumped together as they were carried through the space and made the start of a sound.

Today I’m here.

Lifeline 13 11 14; MensLine 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 24, 2016 as "Sis better". Subscribe here.

Ellen van Neerven
is a Yugambeh writer​. Her books include Heat and Light and Comfort Food.