I look at their faces, so foreign to mine, yet so familiar and dear.
"Tell us a story, Grandmother!"
"Yes, tell us!"
"Yes, mother, please."
"Oh, mother, tell us of the Gallah Bird, please?"
"Oh, please, mother-of-my-mate, tell us, tell us!"
I accept their pleas; very well, children of my loins and children of my children. My twin son and daughter, their mates, and their children, twins as well. Two granddaughters and two grandsons, as like as grains of sand in the dry season. I reflect that it was good fortune to have them come so close together, born in the same phase of the moon, nearly to the same minute within this household. And their eyes and proud beaks proclaim their lineage, as proudly as that proclaimed by the visage of my son and daughter. How strange that eyes the colour of the sky, and so foreign to my own brown, have been passed on to the next generation. These children will be much in demand as mates, and the line will continue. The thought fills me with joy, although I keep it from my face. A grandmother is a solemn being, not given to frivolity. The joy inside is not often displayed.
"Very well, since the eight of you would like to hear the old story again, I shall indulge you with the telling. Long, long past, back when time was new . . . ."
"You forgot to say whether it was in the Dreamtime, Grandmother!" one grandchild speaks up.
"Hush, are you story teller? Or story listener? If you wish to tell the story, then do so, otherwise do not interrupt."
He lowers his eyes, the bright blue gaze turns away from me in shame. I pat him on the back and smile when he looks up. His shy smile rewards my apology, and I begin again.
"Long, long past, back when time was new," I say, glancing at my bubbling grandson and winking at him, "but not as far back as the Dreamtime, there came a Gallah Bird among The Tribe of the Red Winged Blackbird. As you have seen in the world, the Gallah Bird is a clown, a bird who knows not the meaning of silence. The Red Winged Blackbirds are solemn and hard working, and never did the two species of bird meet in friendship or mating flights. Until that day, long, long past, back when time was new."
Their attention is rapt upon my face and I settle back beside the fire, enjoying the telling myself. So many memories, so many dry seasons have passed since then, but it is as clear to me as if it happened only a sunset before now. I settle myself in for a long story, many words, a sweet Dream Weaving.
"The Gallah Bird came unto the Tribe of The Red Winged Blackbird, and he was made welcome "
"You brought me a puffed up Gallah Bird for a mate? How could you? He looks sickly, hes so pale!" I wailed to my father.
"But look at his nose, its so beautiful, so like the Gallah Bird, so unlike the flat and broad noses of our people! And his eyes are the blue of a sky during dry season. The Tribe needs new blood, too many children have not survived their first year, we are too isolated from our neighbours and we are dying. An outsider like this can make the difference. And do not forget that the original Gallah Bird was the creator of the land on which we live, his very beak pulled the earth from the ocean, and the music of his song brought the sun to life, child!"
"Father, I bow to your wishes, but can you not change your mind? Hes so . . . white!" I cried, hoping against hope that my father would relent.
He turned away from me in anger. "Do not displease me, the timing is right and he was alone and lost. It is the way of it, I have said it and it is so."
My desires stood for naught. It was so. My father, the chief of our tribe, had said it, and I bowed my acceptance of his edict. I looked over at the man, his features so foreign that they almost made me shiver. The pale skin, the blue eyes and straight dark hair, the clothes he wore, it was all so . . . different. And he understood not a thing of what had been said between my father and me. It was up to me, then; I was the only one in the tribe who knew white-speech. Id spent much of my childhood beside the window of the whites school in the little town nearby. My father had always said I was the inquisitive one, and had renamed me in my tenth summer, half my lifetime ago; I was henceforth known as "she who seeks knowledge". It was a heavy name to bear. Perhaps this was a test.
I approached the Gallah Bird cautiously. He did not seem frightened, but alert and watchful, his bright blue eyes following me as I came closer. His alertness was a good sign, I tried to tell myself.
"Hello," I said, squatting at his side, looking at him only briefly before glancing away from his foreign-ness. Father was right about one thing, his nose was beautiful. Perhaps my father was right about more than that?
"ullo, I didnt know anyone ere spoke English," he replied, sounding surprised. He didnt sound exactly like the whites I had spoken with or listened to outside the school, and I wondered at the difference.
"Are you hungry? Or thirsty?" I asked him. More words than I normally said between a sunrise and a sunset, but the whites talked much more than ever did The People, our simple name for the Tribe of The Red Winged Blackbird.
"Nah, Im okay, ta. Whats goin on? Why was I brought ere? Ya know, I only got ere ta Australia yesterday, an I got mates whore gonna be lookin fer me, theyll be worried bout me. I jus went out fer a stroll on th beach, I couldnt sleep, but I kinda got lost. Id ave probly found me way back if that feller adnt come along an motioned fer me ta follow im. I thought e was takin me back inta th city by a short cut, not out ere inta th bush."
I struggled to understand his words. It took me some time to determine what hed said.
"You were brought here to be my mate. Your mates need not worry," I replied.
". . . . the Gallah Bird was happy to join the Tribe for even a short time, his joy at his acceptance would have lit the sun during a dark time, it would have chased away the storms during a wet season . . . ."
"Errr, yer mate?" he asked, looking startled. "Im afraid I cant be yer mate, love, I gotta job ta do, came ere ta pick back up where I left off, I need ta get back ta me band before Jimmy takes over me job an me mates ferget about me. See, I ad me tonsils out over in England an missed th first part of th tour, but Im all better now an I gotta join back up with me mates right away, ya know? I really appreciate th offer, yer a lovely lass, but I just cant accept, sorry. Can ya ave somebody take me back t th city? I don know how long we walked, but I ave no idear where I am."
It took a long time to determine what hed said, and some of it was still unknowable. Band? England? Tonsils? Tour? Mates. I think I had instantly understood the word the first time he used it, he meant brothers; it was there in his inflection and in how the word was used. And England was somewhat familiar, it was the place the whites came from, across the water. He had traveled far to save The People, and perhaps my father had been right after all. But he simply used so many words, he had already spoken more than most members of the Tribe spoke in a month or more. And nearly all in one breath. He was a definite Gallah Bird, this one, all chatter and interesting plumage. But my father had said it and it would be so. I shook my head.
"You have to remain here for the night. The mating will take place after sunset, after the rituals have been observed. You will be returned tomorrow, and you will be with your brothers in safety. The chief has proclaimed it, and you may not leave until it is done."
So many words! I spent the rest of the light hours explaining the same thing over and over and over again, until my throat was dry and my voice cracked like the floodplains after the water has gone. The rituals began as the sun descended to the horizon.
". . . and so the Gallah Bird came unto the Tribe. He had been lost and alone, and he was grateful for the sustenance offered unto him. His spirit soared with the music at the wedding feast . . . ."
"Im not gonna eat any bloody lizard! An that looks like chopped up bugs! ow th bloody ell dya eat that?"
"Wichety grubs are very sweet, you should try some. These have been toasted lightly over the fire to remove the legs; I like them best this way. When eaten raw, the legs always get stuck in my teeth. Wont you have some?"
He shook his head and kept his mouth shut for a change. I popped a piece in my mouth and chewed enthusiastically; they were sweet and fresh, very good for this time of year. What interesting coloration; he looked somehow green by the light of the fire. I had some of the goanna, too, wishing hed partake of the treat. We didnt have that very often, and rarely so plump and juicy. That must be the lizard he spoke of.
"Will you have some kangaroo rat? Or some fruit bat? Its very good, roasted with bunya nuts and green tree ants. Youll like it."
For some reason, the Gallah Bird looked even greener; his plumage continued to amaze me, perhaps he was more parrot than Gallah Bird! He remained silent for quite a while, and only drank a little of the paper bark tree juice. He wouldnt even try the yams, perhaps he was fasting for some purpose. But it didnt appear that this was a very successful wedding feast thus far, and I looked at my father in consternation, but he simply smiled and began the music.
The Gallah Bird appeared startled by the sounds of the didgeridoo, and the music held his attention. I was grateful that he seemed interested, the mating music of The People is the sweetest of all the peoples, and if he had disliked it, then I would have worried that the mating would not be successful.
"What th bleedin ell is that?"
"The sweetest music of all. Isnt it beautiful?"
His eyes shone by the firelight, and the look on his face was reverential, I think. He subsided and listened, and I noticed that he was tapping on his leg. Was he perhaps moved to join the musicians? What a good omen that would be! When he got to his feet and walked over to watch, and then sat, and finally tentatively reached for an unused drum and began to beat on it, I smiled at my father, he had been right all along, and I had been a fool to doubt him. The original Gallah Bird walked among us, in the form of this pale plumed bird with the wondrous beak, so unlike ours. He would be a fitting mate, and The People would flourish. The Tribe would continue.
". . . the mating flight was joyous rapture, they flew high, high above the clouds, the Red Winged Blackbird female and the Gallah Bird male flew so far and so fast that their wings nearly melted together in speed and joy. Their wings only parted from each other upon their deathless fall to earth, spreading wide to break the fall . . . ."
"I told ya, I cant be doin this, I gotta get back ta me mates! I don have time fer some native virginity ritual or whatever th ell this is! ave ya done this type o thing before?"
"No, of course I havent, this only happens once in a persons lifetime, and yes, you must make the time for it. The chief has said it and it must be done. It is only this once, you will be returned to your brothers after sunrise."
"Lemme get this straight, love. All I gotta do is ave sex with ya once an were done, right? Im outta ere in th mornin then? What if I dont, Im outta ere regardless? Or does th chief . . . errr . . . do away with me or somethin?"
I deciphered his questions, and replied, "No, the mating must be accomplished, and the timing is right. If we do not mate tonight, then you must remain with us until the next full moon. Or the moon thereafter."
"Izzat so? Whats yer name anyway?"
"You couldnt pronounce it. The white-speak translation is she who seeks knowledge."
"Right, then, lass, why dont ya come over ere, sit beside me, right? Guess wed better get busy if I wanna get ome. Didnt much plan on bein a teacher, but if yer seekin some knowledge o this type o thing, guess Ill jus ave ta do me best, eh?"
". . . . the night was long, the mating flight was taken again and again until neither bird could rise to the heights once more. The Gallah Bird shed tears when he had to leave The Tribe at the following sunrise, but his place was elsewhere and he could not stay; his brothers awaited him. The Tribe of The Red Winged Blackbird bowed to him and offered him food and drink for his journey, and then he was gone . . . ."
"Well, lass, ta fer a lovely evening, its been th strangest one Ive ever spent, but I gotta say I enjoyed it, love. bout ow long will it be til I get back t me mates, dya know?"
"The sun will be high in the sky by the time you are returned to the beach at which you were found. Would you like some leftover goanna and wichety grubs for your journey?"
"Errr, no, ta, Im not really ungry right now. So long, love."
He pressed his lips to my cheek and I bowed to him, blessed him in our language, and then he was gone.
". . . . and the result of the mating flight was twins, a male and female bird, both with eyes as blue as a summer sky, and beaks so unlike those of The Tribe. And each of them, when fully grown, produced twins as well, with blue eyes and beautiful beaks. And so the legend of the Gallah Bird lives on, intertwined with that of the Tribe of the Red Winged Blackbird. And that is the Dream Weaving, the tale of the Gallah Bird."
I look around. My grandchildren are all asleep, and my son and daughter and their mates are settling down for the night as well. I stay awake through the first part of the night, watching the stars and thinking of the Gallah Bird and the day long ago when he spent a night with The People. No, a truth only half spoken is still a lie. I spend the night thinking not of the Gallah Bird, but of the man I knew so briefly, so long ago. I pause to look at my children and grandchildren with love, at the Tribe which will flourish. I bless the man and the Gallah Bird in our language, then I lie down to sleep under the canopy of the star filled sky.
Cheryl Mortensen has been a Beatle fanatic since the 1960s, but somehow went on to other things in the late 1960s, only rediscovering her passion for "all things Beatle" in the late 1990s (and on into the new century). She is a computer programmer and an avid photographer. (Concert photos of bands and performers is her favorite area -- ask her about her Ringo pictures!!) Cheryl lives with her husband of 18 years (Mike), her German Shepherd (Sorsha), and a bunch of fish in the tank and the pond that they've never bothered to name.
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