The Landscape Artist
Hunting kangaroos wasn’t hard, they were everywhere. Neither was fighting. Fights were everywhere, too. Wajhata had been in a dozen or more, and lost nearly every one. On the edge of the desert there was nothing else to do.
Sure, there was television, if you like fingernails scratching on a blackboard! Hunting was okay. Football was good, but you couldn’t play it forever.
“Waj! Hey, Cuz!” called Yarran, one of his bigger cousins. “C’m’on! We found a tyre!”
Wajhata didn’t say anything. Everybody knew what everybody else was thinking on the plains, so why lie?
“WAJ!” insisted Yarran’s friend, Monaro.
“We’re gunna trap Den and roll him in it!” Yarran laughed.
Wajhata took them and their friends in, five or six sets of menace and smiling teeth in the dust. How many times had it been him bullied into a tyre?
“Nah,” he sighed.
“Give up on him, Yar!” Monaro barked. “He’s weird. We got fun ta do!”
Wajhata sat behind his mostly Indigenous township, in the hanging branch of a snappy gumtree. From there he could look over the slow, rolling fall down to the desert’s edge, and across the plains.
“Octopuses…” he whispered to himself. “One day, giant octopuses were found, living in the sand…”
Suddenly, way off in the distance, a cloud of dust appeared. Something grew from it. A tentacle, hundreds of feet tall. Then another to its side.
Soon, there were eight giant, wiggling, rolling, graceful octopus limbs, swatting away the odd white cocky, feeling their way through the dust-and-sun sky.
“More…” whispered Wajhata.
And another set appeared, and another. Each one a different size, colour, as if there were octopuses of all types, all shapes and sizes.
“Sharks…” said Wajhata.
A group of three fins cut down from his tree, onto the plains, along the rocky ground.
“And there was a boy… In an apple create aeroplane, with ironbark for a tail and old car panels for wings, something simple, that couldn’t break down…”
Sure enough, when Wajhata squinted, there the apple create was, with him in it, so small, flying through this glorious chaos. This beauty, weaving through 200 foot octopus arms.
‘What’re ya doin’?” a voice said.
Wajhata spun his head around. There was Billee. His second cousin.
“Nothin’,” he said. “Dreamin’. Why aren’t you playing with the other girls?”
“Cause I’m bored,” Billee moaned.
Wajhata looked at the plains.
“Yeah,” he said. “Ain’t we all?”
The shearing season had been and gone. The cows had calved. Wajhata’s father was bored, too. Wajhata watched him, two uncles and nephew put their camping gear into the ranch ute.
“Boss is gunna be mad! Isn’t this needed for the cattle, or mail run?” one of the cousins asked.
“Nah, they use the helicopter for that,” Wajhata’s father said. “Oi, you coming, mate?”
Wajhata stood upright.
“Well who ya reckon!?”
“There’s no room,” protested Dad’s other uncle.
“Trust me, he’s worth it. A real landscape artist, aren’t ya, Waj?”
“A what?” the uncle grunted, glaring hard.
It was handy having a work ute, especially when it was a two-day drive to the next town. And even handier having a dad who used a helicopter to muster cattle. Wajhata’s father knew which waterholes were full, and where they were.
It took a full day to get there, a bit to set up, but the campfire was golden. If Wajhata concentrated hard, he could imagine there was nobody talking, nobody drinking, That there was just warmth and stars.
“Waj…” a voice growled, somewhere in the background.
Wajhata was busy, imagining a race through Saturn’s rings.
“WAJ! MATE!” the voice barked.
“Show your uncles what ya got.”
Wajhata looked at them. There was something about a fire. It made people listen, which was rare.
“C’m’on mate. Paint for us.”
Wajhata looked at the sky. The Milky Way was cutting a brilliant line across the void.
“There was a time, up on that knoll…” he pointed to the largest rise. “I went there in an electric storm. Y’know, clouds lit by so much lightning nothing was dark. The whole landscape beneath me pulsed, dozens of flashes here, there. Every so often a bolt would come down, split into three, and run the underside of the sky, over ranges and valleys, right across the never-never, before disappearing back into the clouds without touching the ground. Sometimes, they’d just drop, fat and white, in a second, exploding a dead tree down on the flat, blinding my eyes.”
“And you went to the highest point?” Wajhata’s first uncle grumbled. “Kid must be mad!”
“Let him talk,” the second uncle insisted, looking at the stars.
“What did you do, Waj?” asked Dad.
“Just sat and watched, like the storm was a coat. As if it were my home.”
“You were right, your boy can paint,” the second uncle laughed.
“Then what? There’s always more,” Dad insisted.
Wajhata looked at his dad, frustrated, annoyed.
“C’m’on, fella,” the second uncle smiled.
“It all reminded me that this was once an ocean, ‘ey? Full of greys and greens and crashing waves. That there was a time storms like that would have happened all the time. When each of these ridges was an island, and great lizards flew on leather wings. When the air wasn’t breathable, and the Dreamtime began.”
“More, mate,” Dad said, lying back to also watch the stars.
“Over there, that spur, the elders say it’s a giant goanna,” Wajhata pointed to the west. “The one that fought the hunter gods, for the emu egg that became the sun, then laid down.”
“Dreamtime…” whispered one of the uncles.
“That night, of the electric storm, I almost reckon I saw it, the goanna, in between lightning flashes, shrug its shoulders. As if its muscles moved rock and wood, then settled again.”
“Deadly talent,” the second uncle said, then turned to his own son. “Tune in the footy scores, would ya, mate?”
And talk returned to fishing, yabby hunting and sport.
Class was in, but not many went. Wajhata was sitting on the branch of the snappy gumtree, watching the plains, when he first saw the new girl. She had a dull dress on, dark brown skin and long black hair, and seemed to be looking at nothing, waiting for something.
New? No one was new! Not here – except newborns!
Finally, she said: “Is anyone there?”
For some reason, Wajhata didn’t reply.
The girl waited some more, then moved her arm, then the other, in backwards waves.
The backwards waves flowed into her body, that weaved and turned, her bare feet moved, kicking up dust. She danced, letting out little “hums” and “humphs” now and then, as if mumbling her own tune.
Wahjata was fascinated! He had no idea what was going on!
Then, he heard snickering. A lot of it. Little “fsst”s and “psst”s of a group trying to hold their laughter in.
“What a freak,” whispered Monaro.
“Hey, girl, nobody dances to nothing!” Jarran called.
And about six or seven of the boys and girls laughed.
Wajhata wondered what it was like in other townships? The good were good here, but the bad were nasty, especially if you didn’t like what they liked.
The kids kicked dust and rocks around the girl until Wajhata came in and wrestled one of them. Then, little Billee came running to help Wajhata, which made the others laugh. But before anything could be resolved the girl stopped dancing, turned and ran, crying, bumping into everything as she went.
“Look!” Jarran pointed. “She’s blind!”
Wajhata watched the girl a lot after that. Often from a long way away, but so what? She didn’t do anything the other kids did, just kept to herself, and, when she was sure she was alone, danced. Flowing dance, traditional corroboree dances of her mob, rap, disco, rock. Wajhata loved it when she did that. Her hair would go all over the place!
“Who is she?” he asked his father one night.
“Lylah!” Dad replied. “She’s from somewhere Up North. Things were bad for her there, her mob were hard done by. But she has a cousin here, I reckon. You got a crush on her, boy?”
The next time Lylah danced, the other kids found and teased her again. Again, she cried. Nobody saw her dance after that.
But Wajhata was always on the edge of things, so never made noise. About one week later, he saw Lylah wander, as best as a blind girl could, behind the township, where everything was broken-toothed back fences, stray dogs and the fall into desert plains… wait, and wait and wait, and, upon hearing no-one… dance.
Yet, each time Wajhata saw her, she would kick at the ground more, and dance less. Soon, she just stared her blind girl stare into space.
Finally, one day, Wajhata found himself outside the township, sitting near Lylah. He was scared, nervous.
“You’re not alone,” he said,.
He was too shy to look at her, so he stared at his feet.
Lylah gave a little gasp.
“I’m Wajhata,” he mumbled. “Why did you stop dancing?”
Lylah waited for the longest time. It was strange to her. There was no teasing, no jokes, no sympathy, no mum’s or aunties or uncles giving earnest advice. She hated earnest advice! This was just a question. Just a boy. She thought hard.
“I don’t trust you,” she finally said, and made to go.
“I like it when you dance,” Wajhata blurted.
The girl waited more before she spoke, just like Wajhata would do.
“I stopped dancing because there’s nothing but dust here,” she finally replied. “Dancing is beautiful. Why would I dance forever in dust?”
“What dust?” he said.
“The dust!” Lylah protested. “Mean kids and dust, dust, dust!”
“If you dance again, I’ll tell you what I see…” Wajhata said.
“What do you mean?” Lylah asked.
And Wajhata painted her a landscape…
Lylah stepped nervously onto the polished wooden floorboards that Wajhata told her went to the horizon. She could almost feel the heat from stage lights he said were hanging from billabong trees. She listened to the birds as if they were indeed, like Wajhata suggested, singing songs just for her. A million songs, he insisted! Wonderful songs, fast songs and slow songs, happy and sad songs. Songs that desert shrubs danced to in the breeze, that clouds slid through rolling bellies, that bullants rushed about like mad, doing little flamingo dances.
To hear Wajhata tell it, the birds, oh, oh they flew, oh they sang!
She listened like he did. They sang and sang until she couldn’t hear if there were teasing kids or not, until they didn’t matter, until the bird song shook all the dust from her hair and clothes.
The tune was still hers, but the instruments were the birds.
Their voice, it filled her ribcage! It curled around her hands, so Wajhata said. It made spirally patterns that spread out into the never-never, it circled her feet… And she danced.
Oh, Lylah danced! And felt such joy!
Lylah figured nothing ever really moved in that township, other than football games and flies up a wall. So when something else did move, the other kids would come running, bullies and all. And she’d been dancing, out in the open, like a top!
“I… I’ve got to go…” she stammered, making to leave.
Bad enough she’d be caught dancing to nothing again, but while hanging out with a boy…!?
“That was nothin’,” Wajhata said. “If you meet me here, tonight, I’ll paint you the best landscape yet.”
Then he got all shy and looked at his feet again.
“I’m blind, Wajhata. It’s always night for me,” Lylah insisted, as other kids arrived.
“Trust me,” Wajhata replied, so soft he didn’t know if she heard.
“What’s going on… Hey, hey, hey!” Monaro boomed. “ARE YOU TWO KISSING OR SOMETHING!?”
The other kids laughed, but Lylah brushed through them, frantically touching the fence-line for direction, and was gone.
“I don’t like you,” Wajhata said to Monaro. That was a lot for a skinny kid in a small township to say.
“Big deal,” Monaro scoffed.
“Let’s put him in the tyre!” Yarran laughed.
Night-time had a totally different feeling on Lylah’s skin. It was cool, almost damp. She felt her way along the fence-line, stepping so soft not a dog stirred, feeling impossibly nervous and more than a bit like a fool.
But excited, too.
Imagine if Wajhata was there! What landscape could he paint that was better than the one he already had? She imagined Dreamtime legends in tap shoes, pictured what she thought spinning ballrooms would look like, held up by the stars. Wondered if he’d describe a giant Boobook owl rising from the earth so she might dance between its wings as it flew across the Outback dark…
Imagine… she thought, again. Imagine, what if, imagine…
But there was no sound. Wajhata didn’t seem to be there. Or anywhere, which almost made her cry. ‘How can you be so disappointed? You barely know him!’ she told herself off.
Then she heard a rustle, weight shift.
It may always have been dark for her, but now she was scared. Of falling, of snakes, of the fact she was alone.
A hanging branch of a snappy gumtree shook with the gained weight of something arriving;
“Um, g’day,” said Wajhata.
Lylah smiled the biggest smile!
“If ya start dancing, I might try and paint something for ya,” Wajhata asked.
Now, it was Lylah’s turn to be nervous. She still wasn’t used to someone watching. She stood there, swaying her arms a bit, this way, that way, unsure.
“You can move your feet,” Wajhata said. “The dust doesn’t raise at night.”
“Oh…” Lylah gasped… and, slowly moved her feet.
“Imagine…” Wajhata said, “a full moon rising over the plains. A forever moon, as if it had always been there, yellow, turning white, strong and round. As if time didn’t matter under it. As if everything was still, like a picture. Imagine the plains, with their dead gums and shrubs, each one with its own hundred foot moon shadow, black shadows, so dark you could fall into them. And, between the shadows, red dust replaced by sliver earth. Everything silent, everything shadows and grey. But if you looked even closer, there would be silver kangaroos moving through that picture, ‘ey. Emus here and there. Shifting little bits of landscape, animals that don’t make a sound. Entire, distant ranges lit bright by the night…”
“Ohh…” Lylah said.
She wasn’t expecting this! No fantasy, no tall tales, Wajhata was describing the blind girl’s surrounds.
“And imagine,” he continued, “in the middle of that silence that covered the never-never, there was the shuffle of a girl’s bare feet as she danced. That her moving arms and hair pushed the still air, made it flow around her, gave it life. Her skin the same silver colour as the world!
“Imagine she was moving to a tune only she could hear. That it was everything within her head! Imagine her being beautifully lost out there, amongst something so vast, so hushed. Everything black and silver. EVERYTHING!
“Her and her moment, in love with the moon…”
Lylah began to really dance. The song in her head was wonderful. Wajhata continued.
“Now, imagine if something else painted silver by the moon, casting shadows of its own, reached through the silence and held her hand and danced, too. Two small shapes. Free. Hearing each other’s breath… dancing to different imagined tunes…”
And, Wajhata held out his hand, until it touched Lylah’s, and they smiled, and danced, as if time had stopped! As if dust never raised. Boredom never existed.
And here-and-now and tomorrow couldn’t come too soon.