Authors: Rohan Wilson
First published in 2011 by Allen & Unwin
Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London
Copyright © 2014 Rohan Wilson
All rights reserved.
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used ficticiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The roving party / Rohan Wilson.
1. Aboriginal Tasmanians—Ethnic identity—Fiction.
2. AboriginalTasmanians—Treatment—Fiction. I. Title.
lived a long, mostly lonely, life until a lucky turn of events led him to take up a teaching position in Japan where he met his wife. They have a son who loves books, as all children should. They live in Launceston but don’t know why. Rohan holds degrees and diplomas from the universities of Tasmania, Southern Queensland and Melbourne. This is his first book. He can be found on Twitter:
HEY WHISTLED FOR
the foredawn and called his old clan name behind it, a name he had no good use for. He sat upright on the bed and looked about. The fire in the hearth was dead and the hut utterly without light. He doubled the blanket over his woman, covering the small mound of her belly. He pulled on his hat, his boots, all the while listening to those distant souls whistling and calling as if he was some game dog meant for the hunt. Then he swung the bark doorflap outwards and stood in its hollow watching the huge columned gums slowly gain distinction as the sun flared. In the thin hews of light the air was damp and misted and he was staring a good few moments before he noticed them. First the wormy dogs half hidden in the fog bands. Then ranged out in the steaming scrub reefs something arrived as if from an ether dream. Black Bill clenched his teeth. It was a hunting party of Plindermairhemener men.
They watched him across the mists, gripping clusters of spears like long slender needles. Kangaroo mantles hung
loosely off their frames to hide the costume pieces beneath, trousers old and torn and black with the blood of game they had taken and looted cotton shirts gone to rags. One of their number was got up in an infantryman’s crosswebbing and another was fitted out in a fine worsted coat as if dressed for dinner. Their breath bled in the cold. Not a cast of relics come out of the grasslands where their forebears had walked but men remade in ways peculiar to this new world. As he watched those figures from the doorway the Vandemonian felt for the knife he kept rigged between his shoulderblades.
Foremost among that singular horde was Manalargena who carried across his shoulder a waddy shaped from blackwood and stained with the filth of war. He twisted the tool as he led his party from the scrub flanked by a dog pack, the bark shattering beneath his feet. Manalargena was vain, had always been, and his wife had ochred his hair into long ringlets as precise as woven rope. Indeed all the men wore their hair in this fashion sculpted by the womenfolk but only the headman walked across that ground like a fellow enamoured of the sound of his own tread. mina bungercarner. nina bungercarner. mina tunapri nina. nina tunapri mina. He gazed into Bill’s face as he spoke.
narapa. Black Bill lowered his knife.
The clansmen arranged themselves on the bare earth beside Bill’s humpy and they gestured with open palms for him to sit also. They were freshly painted for war and when Manalargena
offered him a muttonfish shell filled with grease and ochre the Vandemonian accepted it, removed his hat and dabbed the paint over his head. Bill wore his hair cut tightly short like the white men of the district but the clansmen watched him with solemn regard and if their opinion of it was scornful they gave no sign. The headman again addressed Bill and this time he did so partly in English by way of showing him his place. For the Vandemonian was as good as white.
Tummer-ti, he said. You come we need you. tunapri mina kani?
Black Bill studied his deeply creased face.
You come fight, the headman said.
Fight with us.
Where? carnermema lettenener?
Bill looked around at those grimly visaged men of war; each and every one met his eyes and he saw among their faces the bold expectations held for him.
You strong man you fight, the headman said. Come with us.
Black Bill was silent. He scratched at the old ritual scars on his chest. He called to his woman to leave her bed and when no reply came he called again, his words oddly deadened by the mist between the trees. Soon she showed in the doorway bundled in a blanket and Bill asked for the meat to be brought out.
tawattya, she said to the clansmen, but they looked away from her and shook their heads. Her hair, long for a black woman, seemed to upset them.
Her name what?
Bill faced the headman. Katherine.
Katarin, the headman said to her. You good woman. You bring food, Katarin. Bring tea. Good woman. We talk.
She stared at him. Then she vanished into the hut.
Manalargena smiled and waited until she returned with a cold joint of kangaroo. The clansmen ate freely and passed the billycan of tea around every mouth. Over the smack of lips the headman praised Bill for the fine wife he had taken, her obedience, her silence, and on a whim he stood and strutted in mockery of his own proud wife and raised their laughter with his portrayal of her arrogant bearing. The beard on his chin was matted, and the lank twists as red as a rooster’s wattle jiggled while he walked about. Dark hands flapped at his sides and his nose turned high. The men of his party laughed but Bill watched and kept his tongue still.
Once more the headman sat among the men of his clan and reached for the billycan. He drank, wiped his mouth and looked towards Bill. In the doorway Katherine held her rounded belly. The headman waved a crooked finger at her.
She carry what?
I dont know, said Bill.
The headman studied her a moment and rubbed his plagued
left arm. It was a mass of scars where he’d tried to bleed the demon out in his youth.
Boy, he said. Strong boy. I know this.
The cold sun in the trees as it loomed over the hills picked out Manalargena’s features, the folds of his face, the crosshatching rent in the flesh of his evil arm. Here was a man who might part the very weft of the world by his own words. A man sung up and down the island. The whites wanted him for hanging and several locals had stood their own private funds against the receipt of his head for campaigns conducted upon them by his clan. But Black Bill looked away from him.
The headman said, A boy. My demon tell me.
There was another elder among the party, an old man of skin and sinew, who summoned their eyes to himself by beating his waddy on his palm. He was called Taralta and his face was scarred and churlish. He alone in that clan knew the law and its application and he talked quietly into the hush his tapping had created. He spoke long against the whites and decried their contempt for peace with ancient turns of phrase Bill could not comprehend, metaphors that had lost sense for all but a few wizened lawkeepers. He called the whites the cawing of the crow for morning. An inundation driving his kind into the heights of the mountains, the peaks of the trees. He adduced a great litany of evils befouling his clan and on each point he drew attention to the culpability of the whites and the flagrant disregard they displayed for any notion of justice. He
said that if you forgave the devil for eating your food, he would soon eat your children. Black Bill listened to the case put forth and when Taralta was finished he raised his eyes to the lawman’s face.
I am obliged to Batman, he said, and no other.
Taralta frowned upon mention of that name. One or two of the seated clansmen, those who had something of the English language, saw through Bill’s meaning and they rendered it for the lawman. They stared at the Vandemonian and waited for Manalargena to speak. But the headman was rubbing his bedevilled arm as new spasms appeared upon his shoulder, rippling and flexing beneath the skin. He closed his eyes and seemed intent on hearing whatever counsel it might whisper in whatever sordid tongue it used.
bungana Batman, the headman said with his eyes yet closed and his mouth turning ugly. Why you follow him?
The Vandemonian stood up. I got no more to say on the matter.
When he moved, the men of the hunting company also moved, pushing themselves up by their spears as the game dogs wheeled about, their eyes aflame in the dawn light. Manalargena climbed to his feet and slung his waddy across his shoulder.
Come fight, he said.
I say this. Knife is sharpen on stone. You come now. We find your stone.
Grey light curled above the gums. If there was more of a world beyond that small clearing and the few souls standing there, Bill knew nothing of it in those moments when the headman held him fixed in a glare. But he would not be moved.
My father, said Manalargena, he tell me many thing. He like to speak. And I like to listen. Now you hear me, Tummer-ti. You listen. As he spoke the headman moved his hand as if he was conjuring.
There was two brother you see. They live near a river them brother. They catch plenty crayfish in river. It was big river very big. They got long legs them brother they walk out that river and catch them crayfish. Under the rock. Then one brother he make the fire. Another brother he sing the song. Then they eat them crayfish you see. They sing and they eat. Always this way. They pass many happy day.
I remember it, said Bill. I heard it before.
You hear me, Tummer-ti. You listen.
Bill looked around at the others. A dour mob. I aint concerned with yer stories, he said.
But the headman went on. Hunter come to the river. He is hungry hunter you see. He want crayfish. He see them brother eating crayfish, singing song. He want crayfish too. He bring up spear. Here the headman made as if to raise something. He bring up that spear and he call out: I hungry, you give me
that crayfish. He hold that spear and he call out. But them brother they scared you see. They scared and they run. They run and they change. They change to wallaby and they jump. Now they jump and jump and the hunter he follow them.
So hunter he change too. He run and he change to that wallaby and he jump. Now three wallaby jump near river. They eat grass. They forget the crayfish. They eat grass and they drink water and they forget crayfish. Three wallaby near the river. Very big river.
Black Bill looked at him. They was snakes was how I heard it told.
powrana. Bill made a slithering motion with his hand.
No no no. Wallaby. You listen, Tummer-ti. You Panninher man not Plindermairhemener. You listen my story. Three wallaby near the river you see. Not two and one but three. Them brother lost, you understand. They see plenty wallaby. But no see brother. Three wallaby near river eat the grass and drink the water but they forget. Who is brother. Who is hunter. They forget this thing. Now three wallaby. No one sing. Them all lost. All same you see.
Bill looked the headman long in the eyes. That makes no sense, he said.
You no hear. Hear nothing. Manalargena tapped at his
temple. A wind was freshly risen in the gums and it dispersed the scrags of mist and shifted the headman’s shirt.
I dont want no part of it, said Bill. You do what you think is right. Do what you have to. But I cant help.
The headman snorted. He glanced around at his warriors. They leaned on their long spears, puffs of vapour blowing from their nostrils as they stood in the cold, indifferent to the Vandemonian’s refusal. But the headman rubbed his arm slowly as he looked Black Bill over one last time, then without a word he turned and led his clan off into the scrub, the slap of their feet sounding on the earth as they went. Bill waited as those figures melded once more into the bush and waited even after they’d gone, staring into the void, left with only his thoughts.
Inside the humpy he filled a tin bowl from the river bucket and unwrapped the soap cake from its leather. He lathered his hair and rinsed away the clay and possum grease smeared over it, the water running bloodcoloured off his forehead. He washed and rinsed once more. The collar of his shirt hung sodden and redstained about his neck as he ladled the water across his scalp and Katherine, huddled in her blankets, loaded the fire with wood and watched him.
When he was done, when he’d emptied the water outside, he went to the corner of the humpy and retrieved the old brown bessie kept beside their bed. It was a decent piece for which he’d bartered his pair of seasoned game dogs. He checked the
mechanism, loaded it and propped the gun beside the door. Then he lowered himself into the chair and sat staring at the weapon. The roving party would be striking out after the Plindermairhemener in a week. Batman had agreed to cut him in on the bounty. Him and the Dharugs. Without their bushcraft the party had no hope of success.
Katherine eyed the gun.
You see them again you’ll be needin it, he said.
But Bill knew the gun was only for show. If Manalargena means harm then harm shall follow.