Pythagoras and the turtle

THEY DON'T HAVE siestas in the Galiwin'ku community on Elcho Island, in Arnhem Land on the Arafura Sea, but no one feels like doing much after lunch. I sit on the back veranda in the tropical heat as the afternoon downpour begins, the sounds of dogs howling and children shouting behind me. The bush is dense and I can't see them.

My daughter Emma says that if I ever fear a dog attack, I must bend down and pretend to be finding a stone in the dirt to throw at them. They'd disperse immediately because they've learned that Yolngu hunters are great shots and assume that we Balendas – whites – are too.

Emma is a doctor and anthropologist working with a group of Yolngu women on a health research project. She tells me that I am to meet her four other mothers and the rest of her new family. She has been integrated into the Gal'winku community on one of her other visits. I am merely her Balenda mother now.

Three Greek building workers are incrementally building a house on the site next door. The older one looks through a theodolite as the two younger ones stand together 10 metres away. One kicks at the red mud and the other places the yellow measuring stick in the ground. They stand like bored schoolgirls at assembly. The rain beats down again and the boss hangs his hat on the theodolite. This is the signal. They retreat to the cabin of the truck.

A couple of nurses arrived from the mainland a few weeks back to work at the medical clinic in a nearby settlement. Before they had unpacked they were threatened by a psychiatric patient wielding a rake and so returned to the airport. They sent a message to the community council that they wouldn't come back until the violence had been stopped. The community told them not to bother; they didn't particularly want a medical clinic.

Emma says that Balendas have a long way to go in persuading Aboriginal people that the medical system has something worthwhile to offer. "What we say is ‘take these pills and change the way you live'," she says, speaking of the treatment of chronic illnesses.

It is as mysterious to them as their witchdoctoring is to us. Are the doctors healers or sorcerers? Western doctors use body fluids for testing but their galka (sorcerer) uses body fluids to kill his victims.

Emma lives by the airstrip and from the table on the veranda I can see a couple of light planes land and then take off. The theodolite man is out of the truck again and calls out measurements – cosine this and cosine that – and I remember Pythagoras and triangulation. They could be Pythagoras and his sons measuring up this building site here near the Arafura Sea. It's 4.30, knock-off time. Where do they go now? It's a dry community, no pub. Will they go back to their digs and think about cooking a meal?

Twenty people came over last night to watch a video called The Operation Story, about what to expect if people have to go to hospital in Darwin. Most were remarkably well-behaved children. They had already sat through another program about the satellite tracking of sea turtles – a prized food here but killed in great numbers as a result of Indonesian fishermen discarding their nets. The turtles become entangled in the nets and drown.

At the health research centre Emma introduces me to Lawurrpa Maypilama, the woman with whom she has been working. She is in her late 40s, a grandmother with an extraordinarily strong presence and a dignified beauty. Her white husband is at Gove and she hardly sees him. Their daughter, Werringwerring, who also works with the women's group, is a stunning woman of 21. After we sit for half an hour or so watching a video they'd made of a holiday program for young kids where they were taught the crow and berry dances, Lawurrpa  turns to me and says: "I call you husband. And you call me grandchild."

"Oh, all right," I say.

"And you can call her sister, and that means she can marry your brother," she says, pointing to her co-worker Yunggirrnga Bakulatjpi.

"But," I say, "I don't have a brother."

"Doesn't matter," Yunggirrnga tells me firmly.

I am then introduced to an older woman who I'm told is my mother. My Balenda mother died nearly 30 years ago and I am strangely overcome with emotion on meeting these new relations.

When we make a cup of tea together, I tell Lawurrpa that my daughter is very happy working with her in this place. Lawurrpa says: "She is a very nice lady." I say that I miss her, living so far away from me. Lawurrpa notices the tears forming in my eyes.

An hour later, in the afternoon, as I say goodbye, off to walk home in the sweltering heat, Lawurrpa picks up the beat: "You miss her but we will look after her for you. And as long as you are with us, we will look after you, too." She strokes my cheek with the back of her cool hand.


SOME DAYS LATER I am lying under the casuarina trees on an outstation on Elcho Island, deep in Yolngu country, reading JM Coetzee's Youth in a Secker & Warburg uncorrected proof. The world of writers and interviews could not be further away. Emma's new family has taken us further out bush, settled us on the beach and set off for food. After a few hours we scan the horizon for the hunting women but all I can see is the line of shore, the tide out and the mudflats shimmering in the haze of the afternoon.

The women are just visible now, two black sticks moving against the blue sky. We pour them water, which is now quite warm, as they approach with a bucket of shellfish and four large crabs. They make a big fire and after some minutes toss the shellfish in a billy with a small amount of water in the bottom, put the lid on and steam them open. The crabs are dismembered and put onto the smoking coals. In a few minutes they are ready and we have the most delicious fresh seafood I have ever tasted.

Emma is having one of her Yolngu conversations-cum-tutorials. It seems to be about who she is related to or where these women have travelled. I say I dreamed that Emma had two children, a boy and a girl. The Yolngu are very impressed. The oldest woman lets out a yelp. This is very propitious, it seems. They say that dreams are very strong and very true.

I sit under the trees for hours, moving the tarp as the sun moves. We drink water – an old woman, Emma and me. Emma is a student in the old woman's relentless but kind tutorial. All day she says things that Emma repeats and the old woman never tires of making sure that each syllable is said correctly. There also seems to be a consultation about blood pressure and diabetes.

Emma's teachers are worried about my fair skin and sad that I am sunburned. They look at Emma and say with approval that she is going brown. They like their black skin and say it is good for the sun. As Emma has taken my sandals, they make me wear one of their pairs of thongs to walk across the prickly grass to the car. Their feet are callused and used to the heat and the prickles. My soft feet, which I tend with products designed to remove the dry skin, are useless in this harsh place. They are all very solicitous of me, of my comfort, concerned that I might be too hot. They teach Emma all the time – everything is a lesson.

Now we are summoned to another part of the beach where the others have spent the morning fishing, and we sit under the trees with them. I'm still reading Coetzee, this time more of his views on Henry James, when a boat pulls up across the sand and there is much excitement and shouting from the shore. The men in the boat have been hunting turtles and have three live ones.

The women shout back along the beach that they not only provided the boat but also the fuel, and that the men, their sons and nephews, have distributed turtles all along the coast but have brought them only scraps.

The men are shamed into wrestling two male turtles out of the boat, attaching ropes around each of the flippers and dragging them onto the beach. The four-wheel-drive truck is dispatched to the shore, the ropes attached to the back bar, and then it is driven back up the beach dragging the turtles behind. One is larger than the other but both are heavy animals. They arrive at their destination and are untied and placed on their backs, their flippers flailing in the air.

Large stones are collected and placed among wood and a new fire is set. I am encouraged onto the beach. Yunggirrnga and I dig a hole in the sand near the men who are now sharpening their tools – a large machete and knives. Branches are stripped from nearby trees and several are placed upright in the hole, propped up with stones. The hole is filled with sand: instant shade for the hunters.

The largest turtle is turned right way up and attempts to escape. The blunt end of an axe is brought down on his head and a spurt of blood runs down his face. Another three or four blows and his skull is opening. More blood pours over his face. Blood and tissue spurt at each blow. I have a spot of turtle blood on my foot. The hunter rams a stick into the hole in the turtle's head and moves it around, mashing brain, cutting nerves, causing the flippers to move wildly.

The animal is turned on his back again and an incision is made over the top of his under-shell. His throat is cut and the incision is extended right around, removing the head completely. The flippers still swim in the air, lifelike.

The trachea and lungs are removed, as is the alimentary tract and the liver. Both the tract and liver are given to the women, Emma included. They take them down to the shore to wash. The undigested contents are removed and saltwater used to wash the tissues. The turtle is now placed on the fire to singe and seal its flesh. It is then up-ended and the hot stones are moved from the middle of the fire with a spade and inserted into the belly of the animal. The washed innards are returned to the turtle and the space in the rest of the turtle abdomen is stuffed with grasses bunched up to seal it like a lid.

Someone else is killing the next turtle and the cycle begins again. After a few minutes, the first turtle is removed from the fire, laid on its back and the expert butchery begins. The incisions are made and the remarkable musculature of the animal is revealed. What power lies in his body to carry that huge shell, now swimming, now dragging about on beaches?

The women are calling me to the boat where the third turtle is about to be delivered to shore. We are taking this one alive to town with us at the end of the afternoon. Emma and I wrestle with her as she makes to escape. There is much fun and laughter seeing us get wet while the hunters refasten her flippers and we drag her to shore. Now the real work begins, six of us pulling on the ropes as we haul her up the sand. We have to rest twice, but after the effort she is delivered to the back of our truck, objecting strongly and flapping against her iron prison.

Back on the beach, the meat from the first turtle has been butchered and those who are going with us back to town are loaded up with precisely arranged portions for distribution. A map in the sand is drawn for me, showing the locations of the houses where we must deliver the first and second portions. Fat and meat and bones are presented to us to take back and share with Emma's colleague and his wife. Don't mix them up, the hunter tells me. The live turtle is for the family of the old ladies and will be dealt with later.

We are bloody now and smell of turtle. We are given part of the intestines to chew and it is delicious – does it taste of fish or chicken? A cup is lowered into the belly of the animal to get the juices – "turtle soup," says another hunter. It tastes like duck stock. We are loaded up now with meat, a turtle and our camping equipment and head for home, exhilarated.

On the way home I doze and dream that I have injured a woman inadvertently, and she is showing me how the skin has been stripped from her shin, revealing the dark pink musculature beneath. I feel sorry for her but it is not my fault.

When the blood came from the turtle after the first blow, it looked human, and when the skull was crushed I thought that this is how murders happen. One minute you are just waiting on a beach for a truck to go home and next you are drawn into a murder on the beach. But it is thrilling to be with a band of good hunters, guaranteed a feed. The creatures become food.

When I get back to the house, bloody, dirty, sweating, I am full of hunting energy, planning how I will cook my first meal of turtle. It's hard to recognise the unfamiliar meat. We have a flipper joint, I think, and the attached clavicle-like bone. I strip the flesh away, a reddish fishy meat. There is something faintly disgusting, reptilian, about the bit of skin attached to the end of the flipper.

I am happier when the meat is cubed, the imposed geometry transforming it into something that could well have come from my suburban butcher. I put the flipper and the bone in a pot to boil into stock and begin to imagine turtle pie.

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