You have to look a long way back now and into a place where you have not been before. Can you do that? If you can’t then you will not understand this story. You must start in the hot air high above my vast land. Look closely now.
Can you see a gum tree by the dry creek bed, her pale green leaves of eucalyptus rising above the dusty greys and browns of the scrub and dead grass? The red earth is baking in the sun and the world is shimmering in the late summer afternoon. Listen and you can hear Butcher Birds with their strange lonesome call like a beautiful warning.
Now look beneath that gum tree and you can see a young lady sitting in the shade by the tree’s ghost-white trunk. She is twenty-two years old and beautiful with long dark hair and olive skin. She is holding a three-month-old baby with golden hair that will one day turn brown. She is talking to him softly but you can’t hear what she is saying. Those words have long gone now like some whispered secret.
That young woman is my mother and she is holding me. We are lost in the bush two hundred miles from home. Nearby, on a dirt track, you can see an old Chevy with its bonnet up. It has a busted fuel pump. My father is wandering with a water bottle down a track looking for the homestead that he wrongly thinks is in that direction.
They have been married for just over a year and the young mechanic has decided to go into business for himself. When the boss of Wundong Station says he needs his vehicles and machinery fixed my father leaps at the chance. A week’s work on that sheep station will bring in more than a month’s salary at his old job. He and my mother head east through bush that they do not yet know is cruelly indifferent to them.
When the fuel pump goes they are already on the wrong track and heading nowhere. For a while my mother cradles me and a tin of fuel that my father has hooked up with a rubber tube direct to the motor. But the road is too rough; the baby is too difficult to balance. They stop by the creek and sit under the trees that faintly rustle in the warm breeze.
My father walks off to look for help. He takes a water bottle but a few hours later it is empty and he is coughing up blood. He does not know that the station boss and two Aboriginal stockmen have already found his family and are driving them back to the homestead. When they finally find the young mechanic he is almost faint with dehydration.
Old man Kempsey, thinking he is being kind, fills my father up with beer and my father spews it over the station veranda. Then they lie him in a cold bath for hours until he can stand again.
This all happened a long time ago and old man Kempsey and the two Aboriginal stockmen are dead now. Only that tree remembers that young woman and her baby; how the mother talked her lost words and the child gazed with trust into her eyes and then into the trembling, dappling leaves. He smelled the great clean earth of that country and kicked his naked legs into the country’s warm breath.
And that is how this country became his country and the Butcher Birds came to sing his song and how the whole hot land entered into his blood and became his mother.