In the middle of the second day of the twelve days leading up to the Djang, the greatest festival of all for their people. Gina runs towards Ninija bringing a bowl full of feathers. The hot breeze makes a feather cloud around her sprightly body.
The people collect feathers of every shape, size and colour for their rituals and to make their paint-brushes. Gina’s sudden appearance is a cue for Ninija to get on with the preparations for the great ceremony. With each of Gina’s steps, Lumaluma’s voice fades a little even though he questions on and on. She starts to worry that she has had no further indications of Ginger’s spirit approaching since the morning.
‘I need choose good feather to keep evil spirit, mokuy, away.’
She looks behind her as she says these words in invisible Lumaluma’s direction. He has disappeared again. Ninija quickly smiles and returns to the thrill and magnificence of the moment, her moment with her Lands.
‘Gina, white-fella not compete with black. He not compete with black smiling man of emu.’
She is sitting flat on the Earth selecting the biggest and best emu feathers from a huge pile. When she has chosen she must give them to the emu men to put in Ginger’s headband and hair belt for his Burial. The Law says he must wear his emu regalia and be painted with his clan lines before his spirit finally leaves his body at the climax of the Djang.
Suddenly Ninija stops sorting! She straightens her bent back, and slowly looks over towards the top boughs of the casuarina tree for the first time. At last!
The old men had made the platform for Ginger before Ninija and Gina got back from the city with his body. They placed it high up in the top boughs nearest the Sun. When grandmother and granddaughter left their seats of the small plane and walked back to the women’s camp, they did not see the old men come to take Ginger’s body from the small plastic belly of white-fella flying bird. They did not see them pulling the plastic sack off his body. Nor did they hear the unzipping sounds, which echoed out into the desert. They did not see them move his body like another kind of feather.
Among Ninija’s people, death is the business of the men, and birth of the women. Grandmother and granddaughter walked back that day to deep voices singing, to laughing, and to the welcome of dogs.
Ninija drops her head and goes back to running her finger and thumb first up in the natural direction the feathers are set along their quills, and then down. If they spring back into place from their unnatural position quickly, they are the best, so she puts them aside. But Lumaluma starts to ask his interminable questions again as she sorts. He entreats her to drink with him in his hollow, instead of ‘messing about with dirty feathers.’ Only Ninija can hear his voice, and only Ninija can attend to him. Gina watches on, no longer curious.
‘Whether we in Lands, or in Great Ocean, or travelling on among the campfires in Sky, or grogging in you city Lumaluma, we “Here” and we “Now.” Our body it born. Our body it die. If we born emu, we run with emu. If we born koala, we climb with koala. If we born big lizard, we dig desert with lizard. If we born water lily, we float on the top of Wetlands like lily. But our spirit? It not born. It not die. It just! On and on. You can never destroy it, evil white-fella!’
Ninija slowly puts aside her feathers, although she has not made her final choice yet. She slaps her thighs and stands up sharply. She wedges the backs of her hands hard on her wide pelvis, sending a few nearby children running off in fright and scattering some of the feathers of her pile. Her tall figure bristles with desert energy, her voice a sandstorm blown up in Lumaluma’s face.
‘You stop laughing Lumaluma. You no respect for other people ways. Other people belief. We not laugh at you. We leave you alone!’
She steps forward a little and whispers bitterly, wagging her finger at thin air.
Ninija has spent most of the second day standing at the dog-box, her thin arms holding her up. Sometimes she looks down at her Lands, sometimes she sobs, sometimes she stamps and shouts at Lumaluma. Behind her, higher in the casuarina, above marlu, kangaroo, dead Ginger lies. But she has been unable to look at him again. She searches for a reason not to look at him.
‘It Ninija duty as Landowner, but also as Mother. Ninija looked many people’s corpses up there high in the old tree. Ninija paint clan lines. Then, when time right, the bones are ready to put in bone coffin. Give signal to coffin men. Many many times.’
‘White-fella, he believe dead is dead. There nothing more. There only big sticky-stone high wall at the end of living. But how he live knowing that he running like crazy rat to big slap against wall?’
Lumaluma continually intimidates Ninija, but deep in her heart she knows that perhaps she would be the same if she had nothing but one short physical life.
‘We desert people so lucky – we not know time to count, and visible world only one bitzy part of the huge Sky world!’
She slaps her thigh as she often does when she realizes something deep!
‘No wonder Lumaluma need big bottle to take away pain and fear! No wonder he want everyone to be like him – they comfort each other. No wonder he want destroy “ancient” and “traditional” and replace them with “glamour” and “excitement,” coz he only one chance! No wonder he want to destroy our free life and use us like slave!’
Ninija excitedly understands. She grabs Gina and hugs her, whirling her around roughly.
‘Ninija and Ginger and Gina – we need know and understand this way of living. Now Ginger he really know, and soon Rainbow Serpent will make Dreaming story in the Lands about Lumaluma and his folk. Yes-oh-yes-oh-yes! We need taste this white life like new insect or berry so we can help him and his people shaking with scare!’
Gina blinks wide-eyed, but smiles and hugs her returned grandmother.
Ninija as keeper of the Lands may use all the resources and riches on the Earth’s skin to record desert life. She uses rock and sand and tree-bark and body for her painting canvas. No matter where she chooses to work there are countless other canvasses painted, carved and drawn by her people since the Great Mother first created the Lands. As she walks around her domain, she just-knows where the next site will be. Then she will pour her Spirit into that new site from plentiful vessels.
When she paints she becomes the contours of the rocks themselves, the cases of each grain of sand. Dancing her feet here, larding her rich songs there, and stirring in her own rich spirit. She just-knows that all the materials she needs are available to her at any time.
When her canvas is ready, she will start to make her brushes or stone chisels or sand carvers. She will twine animal feathers and hairs together, shaping special sharp stones, making sand shifters from tree trunks and kangaroo thigh-bones. She will make paint from desert-fire white ash, black charcoal, ochre red Earth, and sienna yellow clay. She will bind them all together with fresh honey and blood from her own limbs.
Ninija already has many flat rocks out at Pelican Salt Pan for her Landowner paintings. Here she will paint of what happened to Ginger-son so that all the people, the Great Mother and the Sky Heroes, will know. She must complete his painting as a sign before his Spirit can completely find its way back from the city to the Burial Grounds.
When white-fella first came to Ninija’s Lands he tried to force her and her people to read the black lines of paper books, and to write his alphabet. The people called them ‘Stinging Ants.’ Some of them learned to read and write and went with Lumaluma inside his big doors and roofs and windows. But Ninija just-knew that reading and writing in white-fella’s style, white-fella ‘best,’ would take her on a long one-way journey to his white-fella Lands. She just-knew that his pen and blue and black bottle-ink, and his blue empty eye was just ‘talk-talk-talk’ on ‘flat’ and ‘straight.’
Ninija and her people just-knew that song and story and colour and shape were the real free desert way. Wordless. Strong. Living. Direct. Touched by all the activities of the Great Mother, not hidden away in books and draws and museums. But they were frightened. Many were injured or killed because they did not obey his commands.
Ninija grabs Gina’s hand and they walk away from the dog-box together. She speaks to her granddaughter inside.
‘Ninija not ready for ceremony because white-fella business! But little Gina she know everything. We not speak or drink Water until the twelfth day out of respect for him, my Ginger, bijada man.’