Fiction

Beating the bounds

‘LIKE THE BROLGA Dancers at the Mullet Run,’ Murree grinned, squatting easily against the base of a gum tree not far below the Botanical Garden. He released a stream of dark tobacco juice onto the grass. A short distance away, Mulanyin was enduring his third riding lesson.

‘Proper elegant,’ agreed Nita. The corners of her mouth twitched as she spoke.

‘As though brother is an eel,’ Murree went on. He loosened his torso, made his arm a sinuous creature. ‘Curving through the reeds.’

Young Tom sputtered with laughter at this.

‘Hands down!’ he called out. ‘Hands and heels low, brother!’

Mulanyin’s bare feet pointed at the dry brown grass of the paddock. His splayed elbows rose almost level with his ears as the trotting horse gathered pace beneath him. In a panic, feeling himself about to fall, he flung his arms around its neck and closed his eyes. With each pace, his upper half thumped against the saddle, threatening to break a rib or damage a more delicate part of his anatomy. Stubborn, he clung on, clamping the horse’s flanks with his heels in a desperate effort to stay aboard.

The long-suffering chestnut finally lost patience. It folded its ears against its skull and put its head between its forelegs, forming an intention to gallop back to the stable the instant it was rid of its flailing burden. Mulanyin very briefly did resemble a brolga then, leaving the saddle and becoming airborne, his long arms flung wide, before crashing to the ground with a curse for all yarraman ever foaled and for the brainless dagai that had brought them to Edenglassie to torment him. The cluster of onlookers at the edge of Frog Hollow roared with laughter. Several men threw Ah Yow’s betting tokens down as they disparaged the darkie for falling off yet again.

Murree ran to seize the reins before the gelding could make good its escape. The animal stood, blowing hard through reddened nostrils as it watched workmen at the bottom of Alice Street constructing a low stone wall.

‘You’re getting better, though,’ Young Tom told Mulunyin as he got back to his feet. ‘You nearly made it the whole way around.’

Mulanyin grunted. Yerrin had granted him permission to join the expedition to the Pine. Now his job was to quickly learn to ride. It was that, or the humiliation of steering Captain Wickham’s pet donkey all the way, his toes dragging in the dust on either side of the small grey beast while Young Tom and Murree and Dalgnai too, probably, galloped over the horizon to claim Tom’s new station. Leaving him and his donkey to be speared by the landowners, or shot by the dagai still blazing away at anything north of Edenglassie that looked like a black.

‘You’ve gone and cut yourself,’ Nita pointed to a bloodied wound on Mulanyin’s ankle. It was surrounded by a raised egg, where the stirrup iron had whipped out as he fell. He poked at it doubtfully, and the raw flesh oozed a little more red.

‘It’s nothing.’

His tone was gruff but secretly his heart lifted like a bird. Nita was watching him. She even cared that he was hurt.

‘It wants binding with cunjevoi,’ she told him. ‘Or at least with oodgeroo.’

Nita stepped over to the scrubby edge of the paddock and began searching for these medicines. Mulanyin’s heart flapped in his chest like a just-landed fish. The idea of Nita’s hands on him stole his breath away entirely. Or did she mean for Mrs Petrie to do the doctoring back at the house? A question tantalising in its possibilities but completely unaskable. Mulanyin stood proud in an agony of wondering and said nothing at all lest he destroy his chances.

‘Ready?’ asked Young Tom, bringing the chestnut close. Mulanyin put a toe in the stirrup and vaulted aloft, bravely gathering the reins in. The gelding chucked its head up and down in irritation, but this time its rider sat still and kept his heels and hands down. Eventually the horse stood quiet. Mulanyin rode around the paddock at a walk, then halted and grinned at Murree. The horse pricked its ears at some footballers who had arrived wanting use of the paddock. Then it lowered its head and began to nibble calmly on the withered grass.

‘No more bet!’ cried Ah Yow, waving away the punters. ‘No more! Mulanyin good rider now.’

‘Best jump down before those great Sassanach lumps send their football our way,’ advised Young Tom. ‘We’ll get that leg dressed, too.’

Mulanyin slid to the ground. Raised from birth to disregard all physical pain as mere inconvenience, he was barely aware of the deep cut on his ankle. He did carefully affect a limp the whole quarter-mile back to the Petrie house, though, in the feverish hope that Nita would be the one to attend him. Her slender fingers, running a warm cloth along his bloodied shin, her white bodice, leaning over him as she poulticed the cut with oodgeroo leaves…he had never wanted anything as badly in his life as he wanted this. His chest hurt to even imagine it.

When they reached Tom’s home in Queen Street, they discovered his mother standing on the veranda talking with a squatter. Behind them, a starved-looking croppie sat gobbling skillagee, fanning his mouth after each spoonful before hurriedly ladling down the next. The croppie grimaced when he saw the Goories. He shifted his cane chair sideways a little, hiding behind Mr Leslie.

Mulanyin was ecstatic to see Tom’s mother busy with visitors. He shot a hopeful look at Tom, who winked.

‘Mammie,’ Tom called, ‘are there bandages? Mulanyin’s cut his leg to pieces…’

‘Get Polly to bind it,’ replied Mrs Petrie, ‘Or Nita can. Mr Leslie has big news for us, Tom – Dundalli’s been sentenced. They say he is to hang in the new year!’

Young Tom halted, gazing up at his mother. It was several moments before he spoke.

‘So Dundalli’s race is run,’ he muttered, barely audible to those on the veranda.

‘And may all his kind receive such justice!’ Leslie cried in triumph. ‘That savage will slaughter no more brave pioneers.’

‘Dundalli may well prefer death to rotting in a stone cell,’ Tom answered, in a clearer voice this time. ‘And as for murder, there are those who say he fights a war. I sometimes fancy him a sable Robert the Bruce, not a criminal.’

Mr Leslie laughed in disbelief and slapped Tim Shea on the shoulder, recruiting him.

‘Did you ever hear such rot, Shea?! Was he Robert the Bruce when the poor Pegg boys were murdered, or when Stapylton was speared? When poor Mrs Frazer was so brutally…well.’ Here Mr Leslie glanced aside at Mary Petrie and cleared his throat.

‘We all know you are lost to the Brisbane blacks, Tom, but Dundalli’s a different kettle of fish. His deeds show him to be a truly vicious beast…little wonder the tame tribes fear him like the devil.’

‘And how many blacks had we murdered first, Mr Leslie?’ Tom replied heatedly. ‘Do we account for those deaths, too, or draw a convenient veil of silence? Twenty myalls, I’d reckon, for every white man lost in Moreton Bay – and those who believe the myalls don’t count past five are plain fools. Let Dundalli hang, if the court decrees it. But let’s don’t call a black man a murderer for doing what you or I would in his position. It is his people’s country he’s defending – country they’ve called their own for hundreds of years.’

Hidden behind Leslie, Tim Shea shifted in his chair, no longer confident he was entirely safe on the veranda. He squinted at both kippers on the lawn below him. By force of habit he looked around for his wooden rifle, but it was leaning against his day bed at the other end of the long veranda. A tremble set itself up in his right arm.

Was defending, Tom,’ Mr Leslie said in a sharp tone, no longer laughing. ‘Dundalli’ll swing in the new year and all of us will be the safer for it. Aye, Murree? The murderer’s no friend to your people, now is he? You’ll be keen to see him dance, I warrant!’

Murree grimaced and looked away. Leslie was an enemy and an idiot. Many Kurilpa believed that there was enough time, that the dagai could still be driven out by a combined show of force. Other Goories were resigned, now, to sharing their land with the invader. It was a numbers game, and one of time. Just as Dalapai had warned long ago, the dagai had never returned to their own countries. Quite the contrary. Free settlers arrived at the King’s Wharf in their hundreds every week. The once-dominant faces of Goorie people were evenly matched, now, by the number of hard-eyed whiteskins in North and South Brisbane. His younger brother might never know a time when Goories held their own estates sovereign. The child was in danger of growing up as part of a minority in his own Country: a terrifying thought. Was it really too late to drive the British out? Yerrin thought so, and he had good reason to think it, too. Others of the Federation felt differently, and many Kurilpa men would prefer to shed copious blood than surrender. It was only two Mullet Runs since the Butchulla very nearly took back their Country in the north, after all.

Murree turned to face the grinning Leslie and gave a short laugh, as though in agreement.

‘Yoweh! Let all such murderers hang, by jiminy!’

‘You see, Tom?’ crowed Leslie. Tom and Murree exchanged a glance, not of amusement – the matter was too serious for that – but of recognition.

‘Hanging’s barbarism, plain and simple, and those who like it for their sport are no better than the worst myall who ever lived,’ interrupted Mary Petrie, intervening to save further argument. ‘Now, Tom, take Mulanyin around back to be doctored, and get that poor manky horse strapped and fed while you’re at it.’

‘Is John home yet?’ Tom asked, leading the chestnut around the corner of the house.

‘He’s out investigating the ridge opposite Breakfast Point. The whitestone there can be quarried, he says, and good use made of it,’ Mary said, catching clear sight of Mulanyin’s bloodied ankle and calling down the hallway.

‘Nita – get some carbolic onto this boy’s ankle before it festers, quick now, lass!’

Mulanyin followed the chestnut rump of the gelding around to the back of the house. The horrendous news of Dundalli’s death sentence soon left his head, for Nita was there waiting for him. She stood outside the kitchen door with fresh oodgeroo branches, a basin of hot water and a smile that made him unsteady on his feet.

 

‘IT ALMOST LOOKS like you might go a day without tumbling into the dust,’ Murree observed of Mulanyin. ‘But I won’t bet my wages on it.’

‘That’s right, you won’t. Because you haven’t got any wages,’ Mulanyin shot back, his lean body swaying loose in the saddle now that he had mastered the knack of riding.

‘I have wages coming,’ said Murree indignantly, ‘once the work is done. Which is much the same thing.’

‘Hah! Can a man eat a fish he hasn’t caught?’ Mulanyin scoffed. ‘He can talk about eating the uncaught fish, talk about it at great length, in fact. He can describe its huge size, and marvel about his tremendous skill in landing it. He can admire its beauty, and he can promise it to his wife and children for dinner, and he can sing songs about how wonderful the uncaught fish tastes, all night long. The one simple thing he can’t do, my brother, is eat it. You sound like a man with an empty net to me…’

‘Your problem is you lack imagination, brother, even though you never lack words. See, the trouble with your short-sighted approach…’ Murree continued, as the men cheerfully argued their way along the track to the German Station. Their horses were following in the hoofprints left by Young Tom and Dalngnai, both a short distance ahead.

The four men had risen at dawn to swim their fresh, snorting horses through the waters of Breakfast Creek and then head north towards the old German Station beside Noondah lagoon. After riding an hour through Dalapai’s Country, they arrived at the rain-scoured banks of Kedron Brook. Immersed in the current, they saw the dirty white foam on their horses’ necks wash downstream before the mounts hauled themselves with great muscular thrusts of their rumps up through the mangrove mud on the northern bank. Back on level ground, their filthy, sodden horses stopped to shiver off the water and mud, flinging both in all directions.

Mulanyin had almost come to grief in the mangrove thickets at both creek crossings but had managed to somehow cling aboard. Luckily, his horse hadn’t shied when a brahminy kite had flustered up beneath its feet. Nor had the gelding faltered at the sight of two large kubbil the adventurers had happened upon as they were passing the town boundary post in Spring Street. The shining kubbil had lain twisted together, writhing in the throes of sex, forming first a neatly plaited rope and then a tangled knot, the two snakes quite oblivious through it all to the expeditioners riding past them in search of Young Tom’s new run.

 

THE HORSEMEN RODE past the rough-hewn oompie of Mr Bridges, a settler busy fencing his land with the aid of a ten-year-old boy. Sunburned and scrawny, the child looked to Mulanyin like he ought to be playing with a bird’s nest, not a log splitter.

‘Hot work you have there, friend!’ waved Young Tom. The morning was already warm.

‘Indeed, Petrie, but the road won’t fence itself,’ Mr Bridges answered shortly, wiping sweat from beneath his hat. ‘And I plan a hotel hereabouts.’

The four adventurers looked around in amusement. They had left the villages of Dalapai and his neighbours well behind and still had a long ride in front of them. They could hear neither bungwall pounding nor tree felling. No cattle lowed and no sheep bleated. Mr Bridges’ oompie was the only evidence save for hoofprints that dagai had ever reached where they stood on the Sandgate Road. The forest edged close to the narrow track. Giant eucalypts soared skyward beside figs with upper boughs the thickness of a man’s chest. Orchids and climbing vines fell from the canopies of both, obscuring the view. A cacophony of catbirds, lyrebirds and whipbirds were all having their say about Mr Bridges’ business plans. There could be several hundred of Dalngai’s people living in this Country, thought Mulanyin, or none at all. In either case it seemed a long way out of Brisbane for a hotel, unless the wallabies and quolls had lately developed a taste for beer.

‘And good luck to you, I say,’ replied Young Tom cheerfully. ‘We’re off to the old German Station and then beyond, to select a run on the Pine.’

‘The blacks on the Pine are pretty bad,’ warned Bridges, leaning on his half-built fence, as though the three Goorie men in front of him had been rendered invisible by Tom’s presence. ‘Whiteside’s losing stock hand over foot. Them savage buggers spear his bullocks as they please and then run to the swamps where they can’t be followed.’

‘Oh, Dalgnai here will be my ambassador,’ Tom said, well used to such doomsaying. ‘And I look forward to a drink at your hotel in due course. You’ll call it Bridges Inn, I guess?’

Mr Bridges looked sceptically at Dalgnai, a slim serious youth of twenty-five. He shook his head.

‘Nay. The Kedron Inn. I like the sound of the “Kedron Inn”. And I’ll be pleased to sell you all the drink you want, Mister Petrie. You’ll surely be wanting the company of John Barleycorn if’n you survive out on the Pine with only one old musket. Speaking for meself, I wouldn’t be caught dead in them parts without a few good white men beside me, and pistols to boot – its pistols and rifles you want, to take the curl out of the myall’s tail…’

‘He is frightened of the spears of the landowners,’ Mulanyin exclaimed scornfully in Yuggera. ‘And yet cannot see that he is a criminal. Why do they think this childish way? Does he not understand the simple concepts of trespass and theft?’

Hearing Mulanyin’s angry tone, Bridges brought the head of his fencing axe to his shoulder and grasped its handle a little tighter.

‘Well I speak their language, Mr Bridges, and Dalapai’s people know me,’ Tom told the landholder, with a warning glance at Mulanyin. ‘We’ll press on, in any case. No time like the present.’

Tom urged his horse forward, and his three companions followed.

‘I’m tired of hearing English,’ Mulanyin declared on the far side of Bridge’s place. For the remainder of the afternoon he refused to answer any questions put to him in the dagai tongue, even when he was teased by Tom about Nita and heavy hints were dropped in English of Murree’s insider knowledge of her true feelings.

 

‘EXPLAIN TO ME,’ Mulanyin demanded of Tom as their horses grazed that afternoon at the German Station, ‘what goes on in the brain of a whiteskin? When he arrives in another man’s country to steal his land and water and timber – and then with a straight face calls those he steals from thieves? Is this how it is in Scotland – is this why your people have fled that terrible place?’

‘It’s hard to explain,’ Tom prevaricated.

‘It is harder to see and to live with,’ commented Dalgnai, who until then had been very quiet.

‘The English have left their country behind them,’ Tom answered, struggling for the right response. ‘And in their ignorance they don’t understand that the land here has its own Law. They think that only their own British law exists. Or that is the only one that matters, if they do know better.’

The kippers laughed in astonishment. Dalgnai uttered a curse against the English and their law, even though he was forbidden, as an adult man, to swear. Tom forced a rueful smile and went on.

‘You saw the North Brisbane boundary stone yesterday, near where the two kubbil were joined in sex? Well, the maibin and weymerigan of my father’s village in Scotland once made a pilgrimage – a journey I mean – around every boundary stone of their parish, every Rogantide–’

‘What is paridj?’ interrupted Mulanyin. ‘And Rogantide?’

‘Parish means where the Church boundaries are – how far their bora stretches, if you like. And Rogantide is the time of worship. Anyway my point is that they do the walk, or once did. Riding the marshes, my father calls it. The English do the same journey and call it beating the bounds. Prayers are read and girls carry flowers to remember the dead of the village. They used to do it yearly, so that each English kipper and maibin knew the boundary of their Country, and so they never forgot where they belonged.’

‘Something like how we learn our Country!’ Mulanyin answered, more confused than ever.

‘Yes. Though the thick heads of English boys are knocked pretty hard against the boundary stones, I believe, to make their pilgrimage more memorable. And to get it through to their rather dim English brains.’

‘So dagai respected their own boundaries once?’ puzzled Murree, glancing at Dalgnai, who looked as sceptical as he felt. Young Tom nodded.

‘They respect some boundaries still,’ he answered. ‘Those that are well defended.’

What did ‘well defended’ look like, Mulanyin wondered, if not like a thousand Goories assembled at the Woolloongabba pullen-pullen? If not like Dundalli, leading the myriad warriors who had joined battle, from the Dugulumba all the way to K’gari? And was it even worth the name respect, if it needed battle to enforce it?

‘But, cousin, if a clan has to constantly defend their land from invasion,’ puzzled Dalngai, stopping his horse and frowning, ‘then they are effectively always at war.’ He swung in the saddle to face Tom square on.

‘Is war normal for the clans of England?’

‘In a way, I suppose,’ Tom said slowly. ‘But it’s different there. That Country holds no Dreamings to keep men home. So they feel they can live anywhere they conquer.’

The kippers exchanged horrified looks as this idea took hold. They had assumed that the entirety of white men ravaging their lands were some kind of criminal class – outcasts and rogues expelled by England’s Elders for their atrocious behaviour. But if what Tom said was correct, and the white men recognised no Dreamings at all, then England was pure savagery. Life there would be an endless nightmarish struggle for dominance over other men.

How can men live without Dreamings?

 

This is an extract from Edenglassie, a novel-in-progress that will be published by UQP in 2023.

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