Five stars and a Kulin sky

 
 

FIVE STARS AND A KULIN SKY | BY TONY BIRCH

IMAGES: LEONIE BRIALEY

 
 
Editorial by Sophie Allan
Anyone who has ever asked me about how Chart began knows what Tony Birch means to this project. And for those of you who haven’t, I’ll tell you what he means, which is a whole bloody lot.
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west of the west

The car breaks down where the bitumen hits the red dirt. Nina assures me it’s a sign we shouldn’t travel any further on wheels, says the land out here don’t like machines. It has to be a lie, I think, because not far up ahead I can see the tail-light of a monster truck resting in a ditch on the side of the road. There’s your proof, Nina laughs at me. The truck didn’t get much further than us before it broke down, too. The night sky is ink-black above our heads and every star in the sky seems to be on the move. They circle each other, tease with a wink and skip onward. I’m tired after the heat of the day and the hundreds of miles of driving. I lie down in the red dirt and look upward. When I was a kid I was always afraid of the dark. It held only fear and pain. But out here there is no fear. My back softens into the dirt and I rest my eyes. I can hear Nina talking, more to herself than me. I listen closely. She seems to be reciting something. And Bunjil went into the sky and protected the children, she is saying, over and over again. I open my eyes, turn my head and look across at her. Nina has her eyes closed. Where’d you learn that? I ask. She opens her eyes, lifts one arm and points a finger at a star in the western corner of the sky. Didn’t learn it. You have to look, Dad, and it’s there.

 

under the bridge

The traffic beats a drum across the bridge. Billy is down below, sitting by the fire, while Scratch tries his hand at night fishing at the edge of the creek, using a soggy crust of bread on the end of a string line. Billy’s whistling to himself, a song he used to sing before the grog ate a hole in his brain and he forgot all about words and melody. He gets to his feet and struggles across to the bank. He sniffs the air and smells oil and looks up at the bridge as a lone cyclist battles the head wind on her way home to her family. I used to ride a pushie, Billy tells Scratch. When was that? Scratch asks, tugging lightly on the line, thinking he may have a bite. Dunno. Can’t remember. They hear someone calling them from the bridge and turn to see who it is. The cyclist is resting against a rail, waving down at them. Are you two okay? Can I bring you something from home? It’s a cold night. Scratch reels his empty line in, winds it around his wrist and walks along the bank to where the woman is standing above him. A halo of stars rests above her head of blonde curls. He’s convinced she is an angel. Billy joins him. He wipes his dry lips and calls to her, I had a wife one time. And a child. A girl. Can’t remember her name. But she was this high, he gestures with his hand. Can you find her for me? Can you do that? The woman turns away from him, more out of fear than shame.

 

a girl and a boy holding hands – 1971

She lay on her back with her left arm at her side and her right arm resting across his chest. It was as close as their bodies had been. She was not afraid or shy. But maybe he was. She could feel his body shaking gently. He wanted to kiss her on the lips but couldn’t summon the courage. She leaned across his body and placed his hand in hers. It felt warm. You know what my father told me one time? he said. She concentrated on his hand, wondering what was coming next, but didn’t say a word. I was on a long-haul drive with him, in the truck, and we broke down out west somewhere. There was nobody around. No other trucks or cars. And no lights from any houses. I was afraid and said to him, full of nerves, at least we have the stars, Dad. The boy pointed up at the sky, at a particular star, bright around the edges with a crimson heart, before looking into her brown eyes. You know what he told me? The girl squeezed his hand and still did not speak. He told me that the stars in the sky are old, and that their light takes so long to get here, to Earth, that they’re probably all dead by now. It was the scariest thing I’d ever heard. I hated him for saying it. The girl sat up, kept hold of the boy’s hand and concentrated on the star he’d been pointing at. It’s not true, what your father said. He sat up also and rested his shoulder against hers. How do you know that? he asked. The girl brushed a lock of chestnut hair from her face, turned and kissed him on the cheek. I know because a star that burns so brightly can never die.

 

the old woman and the cat

She wakes to a knocking at the window and is sure it has to be one of the bare branches of the pear tree. She gets out of bed, straightens her stiff body and shuffles across the room. The old woman opens the curtains and discovers a cat – a scrawny ginger cat tapping on the glass with its paw. She doesn’t like cats. She never has. The woman convinced herself many years ago that she was allergic to them, without ever testing the validity of her claim. She looks beyond the cat to the night sky, knowing there won’t be much to see. The western sky has always been gloomy. She knocks sharply at the glass with the knuckles of a fist. She frightens the cat and it jumps from the windowsill. Standing at the side of the bed she pulls the blanket back and looks across at the empty space alongside the hollow impression left by her own body. She leans forward and runs her palm across the smooth cotton of the bed sheet. An hour later she is woken a second time by the banging at the window. Cursing the stray cat, she gets out of bed and parts the curtains again. She cannot see the cat at the window and rests her face against the glass. The heavy clouds shift before her eyes, as if on cue. A single star appears and calls to her. And then she sees him, her husband, in the grave for seven years now, walking to meet her.


scraps of coloured paper

I’m gonna tell you this story. Write it down. I mean, you can have it, the story, even though it belongs to me. This was our place once, all of it. The land. The water. Even the sky. And then you all come here, just showed up and said, Fuck you, blackfella, this is ours. Now, some of you might want to say, Not us, not all of us, at least. Well, that’s not good enough for me. Living off the fat of the black man’s land, that’s what my pop used to say: the fat of the black man’s land. You took every fucken thing, until there was nothing left to take. And then you scraped away the ground until there was none of that left either. You’ve got to be greedy fucks to do that. And stupid, I reckon. Fucken stupid. But that’s not the story. Not the real story. This is the story. Like I said, write it down. When my pop died I had no one to take care of me and they carted me off to the Homes. With the Christians. I went raging. Throwing furniture around and smashing windows. So they locked me in a singe cell, no light, no windows. Calm your black arse, the screw laughed at me, bolting the door. There was no sky in that cell. No stars. But they forgot to search me and in the pocket of my jeans I had some coloured bits of paper left over from art class. In the night, my pop, he came to me and told me to chew the bits of paper in my mouth and then stick them to the wall. I did that, one by one. And when I was finished my old pop laughed and told me, Look, you made a constellation. Now you gotta work with it. Well, I did, all you white fuckers. Went with the stars and got myself out of there. Right through them walls and locks and all.


a Kulin sky

I read a story once
What The Sky Sees
it was beautiful
and frightening

I learned a lot
from the words
and knitted lines
but most of all
one thought held me –

each beginning
is as slippery
as an eel and
there is no end
to the story

the sky never lies.


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