A new work of short fiction from the Miles Franklin award-winning author of Too Much Lip. By Melissa Lucashenko.
A saltwater to watch
“How do you come to still be in South Brisbane?” Young Tom asked Mulanyin, tying his winning boat to the pier below the Petrie house. Tom questioned him in the Yuggera lingo that was becoming more familiar with each passing day, and Mulanyin relaxed. Yuggera freed him from the prison of English that stifled his tongue and bogged his mind as surely as the bullock drays stuck in the clay of Charlotte Street.
“At the pullen pullen my father heard from the Hard Dirt people that my mother was in some kind of trouble,” Mulanyin said. “So he left me in Yerrin’s care while he went home. He said it would do me good to learn my neighbour’s languages, and to meet the Kurilpa and the Amity mobs too, before I marry.” He paused. His father had also told him to learn English from the dagai, and to watch them carefully until he understood the depth of their rapaciousness and criminality. But Mulanyin hesitated to say that to the son of one of North Brisbane’s leading white families, no matter how many Kurilpa assured him that Young Tom was different.
“Any news of your mother?” Young Tom retrieved the dead turtle from the bottom of the boat and tucked it by the neck into the waistband of his trousers. It hung there, limp, dripping red-streaked river water onto Tom’s bare feet. Mulanyin gazed ruefully at the animal. Part of him had hoped that it would find a home in his own stomach.
“A timber-cutter at Graham’s Inn saw my family at Cudgen a month ago,” Mulanyin replied. “And all was well then. My mother is expecting another child…” He trailed off. The word of a dagai stranger sozzled with rum was hardly to be relied on. “I want to go home and see, of course. The Otter sails on Thursday.”
“Better not go back till you can speak fluent Yuggera,” teased Murree, who didn’t want to lose his new brother so soon. “And English, too. Or your fathers will properly growl you.”
“If I wait till then I’ll be going in my own boat.” Mulanyin laughed. Languages were not his forte; fishing was, and anything to do with the saltwater. He understood Yuggera well enough after three months, and had picked up both basic English and a smattering of Gaelic, but he still thought, and planned, in Yugambeh alone.
Young Tom’s ears pricked up. “Your own boat?”
“He wants to put Captain Winshipp out of business!” Murree elbowed his mate’s ribs. “And corner the dugong trade while he’s at it!”
Mulanyin didn’t deny this. He saw no reason why his head and his hand shouldn’t seek the bounty of the burragurra. He had been born to do just that, and the fact that some dagai thought otherwise beggared belief.
Young Tom gave Mulanyin a measured look. The kipper standing in front of him on the pier was eight years his junior but his superior in strength and stamina, if today’s regatta was anything to go by. At over six feet, the lad, like most of the Moreton Bay Goories, towered over him. Mulanyin was quick, too, and bold with it. A man to watch.
“I’m riding out to North Pine in the next month,” Young Tom said. “To select my own station. You might come along, the two of you, if you want paid work. I’ll need good men to help build my house and yards, and mind my stock, too, once that’s done.”
“Stockwork beats loading damn heavy wool bales!” Murree exclaimed. “And slopping water for housewives…”
Mulanyin hesitated. “I promised my father I’d stop in Yerrin’s camp.” A tumult of emotion took hold of him: paid station work would mean a path opening up to the boat that would take him home to Yugambeh lands and set him free. Station work meant no more nigger work: water-joeying for dagai housewives, labouring on the docks in the hot December sun like a croppie. No packs of bleating town goats roaming the streets all night, leaving him lying awake in this foreign country worried for his mother and his sisters. Station work in the Pine River brush would remove him from the confusion of the town, with its ever-swelling population of dagai, more arriving from Sydney on every tide with their odd voices and their bizarre notions of English superiority.
Yes. There was a lot to be said for Young Tom’s idea.
But he’d promised his father he’d stay at Yerrin’s camp. Had promised to remain there under the care and protection of the Yuggera. And then there was the word “select” too, ringing harsh and worrisome in Mulanyin’s ears. North Pine lay far beyond the maiwar, at least a day’s ride beyond even the North Brisbane township. It wasn’t country for dagai to be picking and choosing over. It already had owners, Dalapai for one. Get tricked into trespassing out there and he’d be as likely to end up with Dundalli’s spear through him as with any promised job.
Mulanyin shot a look at Murree. Tom Petrie had grown up with his family. He had supposedly been to the Bora and knew the Goorie Law. Was he intent on breaking it now, and looking for gullible young kippers to assist him in his wrongdoing?
“Come along just for the ride then,” pressed Young Tom. “Dalgnai will take us.”
“Dalgnai!” exclaimed Mulanyin. Dalapai’s eldest son. Murree grinned wider, as if to say I told you so.
“I have Dalapai’s permission, of course,” Young Tom said, very matter of fact. “I’m not just going to squat where the fancy takes me.” Like every other ignorant whitefella, was the unspoken ending.
“Come on, brother,” Murree urged. “We can get duck at Nundah, and plenty of echidna. Dalgnai will know the best places.”
The light in Young Tom’s eyes suggested a grand life waiting in the north for any who followed him, if they were game for the adventure. Mulanyin had heard many dagai boast about the fortunes waiting to be made in what they confusingly called the “new country”. Everywhere white men gathered, he heard them dream aloud of runs, and gold, and sheep. A land of plenty, they boasted to each other, hoicking their britches up and laughing too loud, to show that no spears and waddies would stop them.
And just like every other dagai, Young Tom had land, cattle and wealth in his sights; he was dizzy with the idea of the power that came from all three. But unlike the others, Young Tom’s ambitions were underpinned by the authority of Dalapai, and the strength of the Bora. Mulanyin found himself curious about this white man who spoke Yuggera like a Goorie. In particular, he was itching to find out more about the magic that had allowed Young Tom to catch the turtle that had earlier eluded him. It was remotely possible that the dagai urging him to join his quest for land was some kind of pale wiyan, with much sacred knowledge to teach. His interest aroused, Mulanyin finally agreed that he would ride out with Young Tom and Murree to Whiteside Station at the Pine River, just for a look.
“Good man!” Young Tom clapped him on the back.
“Provided I don’t have to sleep in a dagai house,” Mulanyin added. He would never get used to the blank, smooth walls of the dagai oompies, which made him feel like he had been captured in a wooden box and would die in one, a very long way from home.
Nita scraped the final shreds of meat from the upturned bingkin carcass and put her spoon down on the rough wood of the kitchen table. She smacked her lips, trying to convince herself that she was supremely happy. The coal-roast turtle had been succulent, a far cry from salt beef. Yet like so much else in Brisbane, the meal seemed more like a memory of life, than life itself.
Nita traced the bony plates of the skeleton with her forefinger. She had no business complaining, even silently. Her belly was full, and complaint was disrespectful to the animal that had died to fill it. Plenty of Brisbane Goories were going about their business with nothing much in their guts. The lowest class of white people were actually starving; she’d seen them pick up rubbish in the street when they thought nobody was watching. But the taste of river turtle was so very different to those of her home, it was hard to feel grateful. And to eat alone, minus her brothers and sisters and parents, minus the sounds of the ocean wrapping around the family: minus the crying gulls, the splash of each wave onto the sand… there was no end to the missing, if she allowed herself to recall her losses. Which was why she very rarely did. She stood up to clear the table, and her head.
“Tasty?” Young Tom suddenly appeared in the doorway, flanked by that rascal Murree. “You’re licking your lips, it must have been good.”
“Tasty enough,” Nita told him, pausing. “But next time I’ll make soup. The bones are wasted, otherwise.”
“Oh, puss will enjoy those. And if not puss, then Rex. Sorry, Murree.”
Murree winced at the idea of his yuri becoming food for the Petries’ collie.
“I reckon the hog might enjoy them,” Nita answered absentmindedly, her back to the men. “Those strong jaws of his’n will crack the marrow right out.”
Young Tom raised his eyebrows. “She’s chucking you to the swine, Murree, what’ve you done to deserve that?”
Nita gasped in horror, and turned to apologise to the scowling Murree, who pursed his lips and looked away, leaving Nita unsure if she was forgiven for treating his totem so crassly.
“Who’s that hiding in the back?” Nita asked, to draw attention away from her mistake. Pleased to oblige, Tom stepped aside with a flourish.
“This is Mulanyin, a saltwater like yourself, and didn’t he just show it at the regatta! A Yugambeh to watch! He’ll be a ship’s captain one day, you mark my words.”
“Is that right?” Nita answered, taking in the coal-black youth who stood there, a head taller than the other men and the gorgeousness dripping off him like nobody’s business. Mulanyin was in no hurry to stop Young Tom’s flow of flattering words, she noticed. This realisation, along with residual embarrassment from her comment about the hog, prompted her to take Mulanyin down a peg or two. When she spoke, it was Tom she addressed, not him.
“A pirate ship do ya mean? Or has he struck gold, to be talking of buying a ship when there’s plenty begging in the street for a dry crust?”
Mulanyin bristled. “Do you think I’d be standing here if I’d struck gold?” he snorted. “I’d be at sea, my keel crammed full of youngen as big as this table.” He knocked the wooden table hard with his knuckles. “And this saltwater will be at sea soon enough – with or without a goldmine.”
Nita’s mouth watered at the prospect of fresh dugong. “Well, Mulanyin of the Yugambeh,” she told him breezily, “you can bring me the very first Moreton Bay youngen you catch, when you get your wonderful whaleboat. I’ll be waiting here with great interest. But you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath in the meantime.”
“There’s a challenge for yer,” said Young Tom, laughing.
“No challenge at all,” Mulanyin said. The boat was already rocking beneath him, and the waves were glistening blue in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Mulanyin fixed the image hard in his mind to make it more certain, yet in his vitals he knew that the picture was already real. No matter how long it took, he would be leaving Murree and the maiwar in a wooden boat, and returning to his beloved burragurra in the south. He could feel the Nerang River forever coiled in his gut, the drag of it upon his spirit, pulling him homeward with every rising tide.
“Out of the kitchen, you men!” Mrs Mary Petrie bustled in with an armful of Christmas bush blossoms she had bought off Catchpenny. “Go get me five ripe pineapples off Mr Skyring, Murree, if you want to be useful for once! Nita, can you arrange these in the sitting room? And make up the guest bedroom, and we need three dozen oysters too. Mr Leslie is coming for dinner. Tom, can you go and let John know? Pineapples, Murree, I said!”
The young men fled outside and made their way up Queen Street past a scattering of canvas tents and rough wooden shopfronts, heading for the Skyring pineapple farm. Before they had gone halfway up the hill, though, they discovered a raucous crowd of black and white gathered outside the courthouse. There were furious men yelling, and various cries of alarm from the onlookers. Abandoning the idea of pineapples, the kippers stopped to see what was happening.
Mulanyin glimpsed a stout bearded dagai at the centre of the hubbub. This man, a uniformed officer, was very, very drunk. Flanking him were eight, no, nine black troopers, also in uniform, all looking as grim as death. The officer staggered about the centre of the crowd howling curses at another white man. Dozens of the Goorie onlookers jeered him. Others were silent, seeming to Mulanyin as though they were oddly afraid to even utter a word. Perhaps, he thought uneasily, this rum-soaked diamond had an evil power that not everybody knew about yet? In contrast, the white half of the crowd threw out commentary willy-nilly, their barracking evenly divided between the combatants. The effect was of overwhelming noise and confusion, tinged with hysteria.
“What the hell?” Mulanyin asked, turning to Murree. “Who’s this cranky fellow?”
“Freddy Walker,” muttered Murree, staring at the enraged officer. Beads of fresh sweat burst on his brow. “That one’s Duncan. And them black boys is Native Police. Let’s leave them to it, brother.”
Just then Duncan shouted at Freddy Walker that he was both a drunk and a disgrace to his uniform, and that he’d see him stripped of it if it was the last thing he did in the colony. Mulanyin shook off Murree’s arm and pushed deeper into the crowd, fascinated. The argument was growing shriller by the minute, and neither Duncan nor Walker seemed interested in taking a backward step. It was very peculiar. Despite the fully public setting there appeared to be nobody in authority overseeing the pullen pullen at all. And with 10 armed warriors on the one hand and a lone individual on the other, the duel was a complete mismatch. This Duncan was an angry man, or a reckless one, to fight them all on his own.
“Brother! Come away! Them mob are evil, murderers the lot of ’em!”
Mulanyin turned from the hubbub, as the throwing-insults phase of the pullen pullen grew louder still. Murree glared, his bare chest heaving with emotion. Mulanyin suddenly realised his Kurilpa brother was deathly afraid. Even at the rear of a tournament with a hundred onlookers, he was afraid. Of what?
“We right, brother,” he reassured him. “What they gonna do to us here? In town?”
Murree’s face contorted with terror and grief. Mulanyin was as unknowing as an infant when it came to Freddy Walker’s deeds. Before Murree could speak, a great roar erupted from the crowd. Women screamed as Walker drew his sword from its scabbard and flourished it wildly at Duncan, who fell away, tripping on the wooden gutter of Queen Street and almost collapsing to the dirt. Walker’s troopers surged forward, forming a tight semicircle behind their drunken leader, though whether they did so to protect him or to prevent a fatal assault on Duncan, Mulanyin couldn’t quite fathom. The outrage that had begun to simmer when he first laid eyes on the two men now began to jump and boil in him, as though he had swallowed a live possum. Two men facing each other, one a defenceless civilian, and the other an officer with a drawn sword, and nine black troops to back him up.
If these dagai had any Law at all, it must be a very particular one, to allow such a contest.
In the following moments, Mulanyin somehow found himself standing in the first row of onlookers. Close enough to smell the grog on Walker’s breath. He could see dribbles of soup smeared down the front of the lieutenant’s blue jacket, and grass stains on the knees of his britches. Then, to his shock, Duncan was stood right beside him, the rest of the crowd scattering in panic away from the wildly swinging blade. Without any conscious thought at all, Mulanyin stepped across, putting himself between Walker and the helpless civilian, and spoke loudly in his own tongue. His right arm was raised as though to ward off the madman’s blade by sheer force of will.
“Weakling!” Mulanyin accused Walker fiercely. “For shame! What sort of a warrior are you, to attack an unarmed man with no brothers stood beside him? Have you no honour, no Law?”
Murree’s mouth fell open. He made a choking sound, but no good words emerged. Horror glued him where he stood.
Startled and confused, Walker paused his attack. Duncan, who was panting in terror, drew enough courage to resume his tirade.
“Yer not on the MacIntyre or the Logan now! This is the middle of North Brisbane,” he taunted Walker. “And there’ll be no cover-ups here.”
“The black says you’re a coward, Walker,” shouted Tom Petrie, who had arrived and was shoving his way forward past the gaping crowd. “Asking what sort of man attacks an unarmed opponent? Which is a fair question, I might add, as a fellow Scot. Put the sword down, man.”
Walker let out an ugly, guttural growl at this. He snarled at Mulanyin as if he were about to run him through on the spot, but Mulanyin didn’t flinch. His angry contempt was far stronger than the fear that was only gradually beginning to dawn on him. Murree crouched, picked up a broken half-brick from the dust, and wedged it hard into his palm, edging closer to the front of the crowd. If Walker flashed his sword, Murree would leap and swing too, and smash his skull to smithereens.
Walker took a wobbling step towards Mulanyin, his weapon high. The crowd gasped.
“Och, come on, man,” Young Tom repeated, pushing forward to stand beside Mulanyin. “Put that thing back in the scabbard where it belongs, and come and have a dram.”
The mood in the white half of the crowd hovered for a second. Then, almost palpably, it swung away from Walker. Cries of “shame” and “yeller cur” and “pack him off to sober up” began. The black troopers, already mortified at Walker’s condition, encircled their master and began to shepherd him up to the barracks. As they passed, one brushed up hard against Mulanyin, meeting his eye with a cold blank hatred he had never known before. Five miles away, in Nundah or Cowper’s Plains, these strangers might have blown his head off and called it a good day’s work. Here in town, with scores of British citizens for witnesses, they were forced to endure his humiliation of their boss and, by extension, themselves. While the troopers strode by, memorising his face for another encounter on another day, Mulanyin deliberately controlled his expression and slowed his breathing.
Show no fear.
Give them nothing.
Then a sulky pulled by two sweating bays trotted past, and the dust cloud in their wake made everything invisible. Duncan took his felt hat off and used it to beat the dirt away. When the dust subsided, the murderous phalanx had disappeared.
“I think I might have to stand you a drink,” Duncan told Young Tom, wiping his pale, sweating face with a forearm as he sank onto a tree stump outside Warry’s apothecary.
“I think you might have to stand this lad one, along with some thanks for saving your life,” Tom gestured at Mulanyin. A dozen Kurilpa had gathered to josh him about the confrontation, while Murree berated his brother.
“Mulanyin, this is Mr Duncan,” Tom said by way of introduction, hauling the kipper over to the journalist. “He’s going to come and work for me on the Pine, with Murree,” he added. Mulanyin looked steadily at Young Tom as he heard this outlandish claim. He had agreed to nothing at all about working at the Pine River. Afterwards, though, he felt that his silence at that particular moment had somehow drawn him further than he had intended into Young Tom’s plans. It was a silence that bound their fate together.
Standing in front of the Oyster Saloon, Nita was deaf to Mr Weir asking her a third time for her mistress’s order. Her head was full of the extraordinary scene she had just witnessed on the far side of the street, as well as the idea of Moreton Bay youngen, the wedding food of her saltwater people. She smiled to herself, wondering exactly how long it would take Mulanyin to arrive on her doorstep proffering the first he caught. For there was no doubt in her mind, anymore, that he would get his boat, and his dugong too. A saltwater man to watch, Young Tom had said to her in the kitchen, and Young Tom was right.
She would watch Mulanyin, watch him carefully. He would work for Young Tom at North Pine, and with the wages he earned there he would buy a whaleboat. And then she would marry him, and then he would take her home.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 19, 2020 as "A saltwater to watch".
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