It is Sundown of the second day since Ninija and Gina got back from the city with Ginger’s body. On the second day after death, after Sunset, the Law says that they must eat marlu, kangaroo. They will cut it carefully in a particular way, then lay the bones out ready for Ginger’s burial ceremony. Ginger’s Emu cousins Bandung and Jal went out to catch kangaroo with boomerangs. They are the only ones left who remember how to use them. The men cook kangaroo in her fur laid in a deep trench filled with red fire like glow-worms, packing her orifices with plugs of spinifex grass. This will keep her moist. She must cook from Sunup to Sundown. Then will the bones be ready. Marlu, kangaroo, hangs there in the old casuarina tree ready to be ready. But this ritual animal is not alone up in the boughs.
Lumaluma and Ninija are sheltering from the heat at the dog-box, Ninija standing outside, her back facing the casuarina. This is unusual in traditional life. She continues to answer Lumaluma’s endless questions fired from inside the fly screen door.
He asks, ‘Why are they all staring up into that old tree? On and on. Haven’t they got anything better to do?’
She tries to teach him patiently about tribal ways. But he tuts and draws hard on his cigarette, its red end brightening in the windowless space.
‘How can you possibly believe in that rubbish? Look at all those filthy black birds hopping around up there! They’re no “heroes” are they? And higher?’
Ninija jams her fingers in her ears.
‘Don’t you say his name again! Don’t you dare!’
He changes the subject skillfully.
‘But why are those black birds waiting around?’
‘They jabaroos, sacred bird always protect Sky Heroes Lumaluma.’
‘I’d like to take my big rifle and shoot them down.’
He curls his lip, knowing how to irritate her.
‘You not! Lumaluma, you visitor here. You not bring more trouble here!’
‘This tree with us always. It stands in the Wet rain and storm when lightning men come. It crack when no water in Lands. But always it there. It last forever.’
Lumaluma slaps his thigh and smirks, ‘No no! Not forever, you ignorant bitch! Everything dies. You. Me. Your precious Ginger. And your precious tree.’
Ninija stamps, and pulls at the porch.
‘You not say his name like that! You leave him. You leave my Lands.’
He begs, ‘Come on. Calm down. I’m asking you to tell me about this tree.’
So, she decides to take a risk and tell him the story.
‘When you white fella came to build settlement, you boss men try to cut tree down. It big black roots stop building they say. They bring magic saw growl like dingo, spark like Fire spirit. They tell me I only woman, so push me away when I try stop them. I go to sit close to tree and I stay. I say, cut me in half before I let you cut casuarina. They angry-angry. They start cut tree. Ninija close eyes and protect tree. They dingo machines not work. They check and try many times, but they not work. So they leave Ninija and tree in peace.’
Lumaluma is silent. She goes on nervous like tree frog.
‘Ninija heal wounds of tree with wax from bees. Casuarina people pile comfrey leaves around. It better soon. Lumaluma, without tree Ninija and the people we sick, maybe we die!’
Inside the dog-box it is silent, but then in white-fella tone he speaks.
‘But Ninija, your boomerang thugs kill that poor kangaroo just so you can get its bones for your crazy burial ceremony!’
‘Why you not respect our way? Why you even ask question?’
She turns away, still keeping her back to the tree. Again he placates her.
His pale hand extends towards her out of the fly-screen door, coaxing her into his ‘Easy-Happy-Sexy’ Lands.
Ninija longs to tell him just how much her people are in love with death but she daren’t. How they are in love with always moving on to what comes next in the great plan, in love with travelling on in the eternal Sky. Each of them has a unique part to play, a particular mission to execute. They never worry about what might happen next, or has happened before. She knows civilized people see death as suffering and something to be afraid of. But to the desert peoples the moment of ‘death’ is the glorious culmination of their physical lives when their spirits are released.
They adore ‘death’ eternally, as if it is a physical presence like the spirit of Fire or Water. Instead of looking for the where-when-who-why-what-which of death, they just-know or hear its gentle approach. They are rarely shocked at its arrival. Then, when the Djang arrives and the whole tribe celebrates their release into the spirit world, total joy fills their spirit.
‘Black skin not wait like white-fella, tap foot, drum fingers, wish and long for somewhere else, sometime else, to be someone else. He happy where-when-who. We not always know what come next and what been before. But we not ask. We just-know.’
Ninija murmurs to Lumaluma, but he is not listening to her. She is white-fella worried. She cannot look at Ginger’s dead body, which lies high near the top of the tree. Why is she so afraid of this carcass prepared for the ceremonies by the emu men? So afraid of this black fruit which slipped out of her body to run with the emus – her boy, her dead Ginger.
Once she has looked at him, she knows that Ginger’s spirit will start to move on to the Land of the Dead. But no, she cannot look up at his bloated belly, and do her duty in painting the ochre lines of his emu clan. Perhaps she cannot look at Lumaluma’s dirty work.
She has looked at many of her dead kinsfolk, watched them through long ceremonial nights, seen their flesh return to Earth like dead leaves or burned grass. Why is she now unable to look at part of her own flesh returning to Earth? She is shocked. She starts to count the possible reasons, to analyze and classify, just like white-fell.
Wearing his fly net and black board-brimmed hat, he steps out of the fly screen door. He comes closer to her, pointing a long white finger at her black chest. He takes another greedy sip from his bottle dangling from his other hand.
‘Decay disgusts me! Bury him now, can’t you. Put him in the Earth. Come on, I’ll help you get him down from the tree.’
LumaLuma pulls her arm, and Ninija pushes her pale heels into the red Land, refusing to shift. She closes her eyes, trying to hold tight to her place in ‘Now’ and ‘Here.’ Then he produces a shiny steel spade from under the black cloak. Then a white handkerchief to cover his nose and mouth against the stench of Ginger’s body. Ninija more adamantly turns her back on Ginger.
‘No LumaLuma. I strong woman. I not break our Law again, and again.’
LumaLuma chides her, waving his bottle in the air, and pointing up to the body.
’See the maggots gathering behind his eyes?’
He puts aside his spade, pulling down the bottom lids of his own eyes revealing their red rims.
Roughly, Lumaluma gives his big bottle to Ninija to hold while he inspects the ground for a good place to dig. She steps further away.
‘Leave him! Leave me!’
At the moment Ninija flatly refuses him, she looks down at his half-emptied bottle. She is just about to take a drink when something moves inside the bottle. She peers closely, wondering if it is Ginger’s Spirit still trapped inside. She says nothing, creeping away and walking behind the dog box. There, checking that no one is looking, she quickly turns the bottle upside down and bangs on its bottom. The remaining grog pours out, but Ginger is not there. Then she looks over to Pelican Salt Pan and can suddenly feel Ginger-son’s spirit coming. She sighs with relief, squeezes her eyes tightly together to encourage him closer, and Lumaluma and his bottle disappear. She hums-hums deep through her nose.