It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was unusual to communicate without words. I used words with Mum and Dad, but when I was with Nan and Granddad, we thought with one another.
They were deep country folk. They lived way out in the bush, raising cattle and carving away a humble living. A land near forgotten, their farm appeared on no map, and it was hours from the nearest town. Such is the way in outback Australia. It wasn’t until I was much older that I considered that they were this far away from civilisation on purpose.
Few words passed between them when I came to stay. I would watch Granddad repair the wire fences, and Nan while she cooked and maintained the house and garden. They could be kilometres apart but still hear one another, though they were still laconic, even in their minds.
My Granddad was a tall man, with large rough hands, and he always wore a checked shirt and a wide brimmed hat. His skin was dark from years in the harsh sun, and deep wrinkles like the cracks in the red earth he strode upon. Yet despite his age, he possessed the strength of two men, easily lifting great wooden posts and hammering them into the hard soil.
Nan could speak to the animals and they would come and tell her things. The Kookaburras would sing to her in the morning, and the Kangaroos would jump and dance and show off their barrel chests and thick tails. Even flies which would normally swarm and hold your sweaty form in shadow, were repelled as if by some invisible force field. I asked once what the animals talk to her about. She held me close and responded in thought “The coming of day, the passing in to night, and little secrets, my darling.”
I was five when I received my first invitation. It was like a gentle hum that wisped down from the clouds and carried on the wind. It was melodic, peaceful and it sent ticklish prickles down the back of my neck. I looked out at Nan and Granddad, one in the paddock and the other in the garden, and saw them look to the sky where the clouds had rippled into waves, and slowly begin to clear. I could sense an agreement between the two of them, and then they went back to work.
After dinner that night, I didn’t sit next to the fire which was my ritual. Instead, Nan put my jacket on, Granddad fastened his wide brimmed hat, and I walked between the two, a hand for each of them, through the paddock towards the setting sun.
We walked for a long time. The last of the rich golden light danced on the sunburnt earth intensifying the deep orange rust shattered sparely with green. Even as the sun dipped into slumber, we continued to walk.
The sky was splattered with stars when I heard the low deep throbbing hum of the didgeridoos and clapping sticks. “Almost there, my darling” Nan thought. I trudged my way up a dirt mound and peered over and below to see dozens of dark men and women covered in paint. Their faces, their hair, their entire bodies painted in rich yellows, earth reds and starlight white. Guided only by the luminous moon, they danced in circles, dust clouds hovering like mist where they kicked up dirt.
An old woman approached us with a wooden bowl in hand. No words were exchanged. She stood in front of Granddad, dipped her hand in the bowl, and caressed his forehead with white paint. Then his cheeks, and his nose. He took off his wide brimmed hat, and the old woman ran her hands through his hair. She stepped over to Nan and performed the same ritual, painting with precision and purpose.
The old woman then looked to me, her face placid and wise. She knelt down in front of me, and lifted my chin, observing my face critically. She spoke for the first time in a language I didn’t understand. To my surprise, Nan responded in the same language. Though I didn’t understand what was said, I sensed the feeling. Confirmation. The old lady looked deep into my eyes, seeing past me, through me, to what was behind my eyes. She found what she was looking for. The corner of her mouth lifted in a smirk. She dipped her hand in the bowl and anointed my hair and face with white paint. It felt cool and sticky on my skin.
The three of us entered into the circle that enclosed the group. Their dancing mesmerised me. They swayed and stamped and clapped their hands. They shifted on their heels and toes, dragging themselves across the dirt and sand, arms outstretched above, below or to the side. As I watched them contort their bodies to the rhythm of the music, I briefly caught a flash of the essence of the animals they imitated break free and pierce reality. The graceful emu, the unstoppable kangaroo, the fearsome snake. But something else caught my eye. A glimpse of something I’d never seen before. As tall as two men, its skin almost see through…
One of the dancing men stopped and pointed to the sky. In the second it took me to look up and back, the thing was gone. I held on to Nan and Granddad a bit tighter. The music ceased and one by one, they found a spot on the ground, laid on their backs and looked to the sky. Nan and Grandad moved in with the group and laid me down between them. I looked at the ocean in the sky taking in the infinity of glistening stars.
One star in particular caught my attention. It shimmered in such a way that it appeared to be moving. And then it dropped, as if caught by gravity’s grip. A moment later, another star plummeted toward Earth. And then another. Dozens more cascaded from the depths of space lighting the way for the hundreds of stars that followed, unplucking themselves from the sky, evicted like fruit from the celestial tree that holds the universe together.
My heart pounded but I couldn’t move. I was trapped in my body. I tried to move my arms, my legs, even blink my eyes. I tried to scream, to cry out, but all attempts failed. I could do nothing but stare as the stars came tumbling down to earth.
As they came closer, I noticed they were different colours. Some glowing bright and sharp, and others soft pastel, in blues and turquoise, pinks, yellows, oranges and mauves. These couldn’t be stars, they were something else entirely.
And then they stopped above us. Some so close that if I could only stand, I could jump up and touch them. I could feel the warmth it exuded, and the sound they made was a familiar deep bone vibrating throb. These orbs sounded like didgeridoo’s. They droned in waves, each at different frequencies, blasting through me in to the depths of the earth.
Then slowly, they lifted higher and began to twirl and chase each other around in ellipses, hypnotising me with their shapes and colours. They swirled and swayed expanding larger and larger pulling at me to follow. I could feel myself leaving my body, lifting higher into the air, weightless and free. I could hear speaking, in a rich language that rang deep and true like the sound of the didgeridoo. I felt like I was held within the palm of a hand. The inner cogs and switches that guided my existence were being adjusted and re-worked. The language I was hearing began to make sense.
‘….should be able to understand’ said a voice.
I strained desperately to hear, but my mind was fogging quickly.
‘That will do for now. Too much at a time and he might…’ was all I heard before I drifted to sleep.
When I next came to, I was looking down on the ground, over the shoulder of my grandfather, who held me close in his powerful hands. The stars were returned home and the painted people were gone. Nan followed closely behind, watching the ground as she walked. She looked different than before. She walked with deftness, as if she had the energy of her youth returned to her. The rhythm of Granddad’s walking rocked me gently back into rest. As my eyes became heavy and I succumbed softly into sleep, Nan sang tenderly in the odd language I heard in the sky.
We’re in the air that you breathe
The stars in the night
The whispers in wind
Elusive to sight
But you’re the invited
One of a few
There’s work to be done
And we’ve chosen you