Women Dancing Dreaming

A Tale of the Left Hand Doraddi clans of Jolar, from the Tales of the Reaching Moon Pamaltela Special, March 1994.

Kirinuu and Surinda, by Dan Barker.

The people of this fastness – Aranjara by name – are the most wretched ever to have taken the Man Rune. They possess no adornment, no cities or dwellings, no herd animals, no kings or priests, and only the most rudimentary tools and weapons. Their Gods are distant – they do not worship, though they seem to recognise some degenerate confusion of Pamalt and Lodril. Even the simplest magic eludes them. They are wantonly promiscuous, recognising neither father nor mother nor brother nor sister. Even the link between sexual congress and pregnancy is beyond them, for they believe that spirits leap into the womb from plants and animals.

The neighbouring tribes (a reliable source of trade and intelligence) despise them. They will not even take them as hostages, for the Aranjara sicken and die when taken from their pitiful range. In short, we should turn our backs on this place, and cast its dust from our shoulders. I say let the Kresh take them. The Aranjara, though possessing human form, are less than the rudest of the Beast Men or most despised of Enlo. I call them Abomination.

Journal of Sumting Orother,
Trader of the Arbennan Confederation, Eye of Hawi Kange.
Third Moon of the Dry, Year of Jewelled Perceptions.

My Country is my Spirit

I feel it with my body, with my blood.

Feeling for all these plants… all this Country.

When Keraun comes, the Monsoon Wind,

When she comes you can feel it.

Same for Country… you feel it.

Songlines… always you feel it.

You can look, but feeling… that makes you.

Feeling makes you, out here in open space.

He is coming through your body.

Look while Pamalt is near and

feel with your body…

Kirinuu ThreeLives, Tiddas Gundalin (Digging Stick Sister) of the Aranjara, Keeper of the Vol Ini Dreaming.

Reflecting on all that passed, I half-believe I’ve received some vision of the Godtime, or a prophecy of Pamalt’s Realm from when the Great Dance is complete. Such was the joy and laughter that filled my days among them. They lacked nothing, having food and comfort, shelter and companionship and peace. Each was gifted with love and innocence and trust. They did not need leaders or kings. Each woman and man was philosopher and priest and healer. They spent their days in ritual and teaching and in their sacred task – the magical regeneration of the land. They were Children of the God, and they walked in his Dreaming.
Then came the Arbennan Confederation. It was the Abomination of Wakboth.

Surinda the Traitor, former War Leader of the Twisted Lance, before her execution at Arnji Fadar.

It is 1623. Across the eternal plains of Jolar in Northern Pamaltela, the giant wagons of the Kresh continue their inexorable push westward. In Labuhan, the Arbennan Confederation attempts to unite the scattered and insular Doraddi People against the threat from the east. It is a difficult task, for the Doraddi, Children of the Left Hand and Children of the Right, have been at peace for many generations. Many have forgotten the nature of war.

Emissaries are despatched across the Plain of Ten Thousand Tribes, following the Questlines, the paths of trade and kinship and ritual exchange. Some are welcomed, and the tribes listen to their story. Many are rebuffed or scorned, for the Doraddi cannot understand the Kresh, or the threat that they present. A few do not return at all, or are returned upon their shields.

In such circumstances, the Assegai of the Arbennan consider stronger action …

Surinda’s Tale

It was all in that first conversation. Her answers – the prisoner I mean. Everything I had been commissioned to discover. Had I but eyes to see, ears to hear, liver to understand. My knowing blinded me – that and my exhaustion. Exhaustion and shame.

The previous day – our fifth since taking the spear – had been an evil one. We had fled with our prisoners in unseemly haste, two days of nervous retreat as we sought the safety of Awabakal lands. I am a warrior, SpearHand of Vangono, and I say we were afraid. Two days running without rest or prayer, like kin-slayers fleeing righteous ancestors. Shame burned in our brows, and the Sky felt it. Cronisper judged us.

Judged us harshly. The South Wind blew. Dust devils harried us with wet heat and unclean sounds. Biting flies plagued us despite the covenants we had pledged. Misshapen spirits trailed us across the open plain. A charnjibber’s roar mocked us from the uplands, sensing we were not whole enough to stalk or hunt. Our prisoners would not speak. We were shamed, fearful.

We were unclean.

I finally spoke to her on the morning of the sixth day, when we had at last reached the safety of kinlands. It was nearly dawn, the time of prayer and planning. There was only the women’s night-fire then, for our men were all dead. We had not even stopped to sing their earth.

The night I had spent sleepless, moving from watchpoint to watchpoint, calming my lance sisters. We had expected another outburst of silent terror, death in the footprints of some soulless spirit. Yet all was calm. The power of the Aranjara had faded. In kinlands, it seemed, we were safe. I remember her squatting in the firelight, silent, straight and unmoving as a spear-shaft tree.

By the standards of her people and mine she had considerable beauty; an inner peace and assurance that was still apparent in every movement. My prisoner was perhaps thirty monsoons, dark and lean, her complexion polished bronze in the light of Mahome’s Gift. Her face was thin, with a sharp nose and over-large eyes. Her breasts and stomach were bountiful, limbs long and sturdy. A tattered bouquet of vol ini twined through the matted locks of her hair. Such beauty fed our common earth.

A lance sister had given her a flaxen cloak. It lay crumpled by her feet, despite the long chill of the dark. Fur string armlets, thick with grease and red ochre, adorned her arms and forehead. Otherwise, she squatted naked but for a bone and feather necklet and animal skin gurima. Her skin shone in a swirling mass of tattoos and ritual body scars. I have known many tribes, but I could not read the life story told in those marks. By the flickering lowfire, it seemed that they sometimes moved of their own accord.

The prisoner had smeared her face and limbs with ashes, obviously a mark of mourning for her dead companions. Yet she showed no emotion, indeed no outward sign of my presence. She gazed back toward her country with soft green eyes, as still and silent as yesterday’s dead.

Green Eyes. Despite my shame and exhaustion, the time had come for us to speak. Previously, (so I told myself) I had devoted my energies to the discipline and care of my surviving warriors. The strangeness of Aranjara Country had affected us all. It contained a terror that could not, would not, be named. Yet with the coming Dawn we felt safer, lance sisters and Jmijie scouts alike, seemingly secure in the embrace of kinlands.

Watching False Light bleed the eastern horizon, I shuddered, the events of the last days crowding in upon me. When we took the spear, we were thirty strong. Now we were only twelve. The men in our party had all died in a single night. Died in their sleep.

I dreaded making report to the Assegai, for we’d lost most of our prisoners as well. That was dishonour upon my public face and on my clan, for information and hostages were the reason for our silent raid into the untrodden wilderness of the Aranjara.

Our silent raid. We’d captured eight women at an isolated waterhole – taken them by surprise during one of their arcane rituals. None had weapons, few resisted. It was an easy capture: indeed, their surprise at seeing unfamiliar faces was greater than any fear of our intentions. They seemed childlike, helpless. So we were deceived.

The prisoners allowed themselves to be led forward, dumb, silent, unresponsive. Cattle before the herdsman.

Then came the strangeness. The land turned against us. That very night our men died, all of them. Silently. Shamefully. We saw no attacking spirits, no warriors, felt no magic. Yet they died.

The next day, as we led the prisoners under the Grandfather Stool, traditional boundary of Aranjara lands, they joined hands together, raising a chant in their shrill, piping tongue. Calling the Earth. My lance sisters responded quickly, but before we could break the circle the prisoners had collapsed, lifeless. Their spirits had fled to Dehore’s Realm, a place only the Thrice Wounded might pursue. Dead. All save one, the tall vol ini woman with the green eyes…

Green Eyes. My brow burned with the shame of that memory. I had failed in my mission. Most terrible of all, I had failed my duty to the prisoners, for I was of course responsible for their safety. Was I of chaos, or a city dweller, that I had forgotten the value of a human life? How could I continue to carry a warrior’s spear when I had no respect for the power of giving and taking?

Green eyes. Puzzlement, then a sense of sudden recognition. The woman had green eyes! I looked again, taking in her height and grace, the set of bones beneath the face, the wiry curl of her hair, the tone of her skin. This woman…

Surely not. In assessing her, I also sensed her power, and the hidden currents of a terrible anger. My shame returned. Yet perhaps Aleshmara guided me, for I squatted beside the fire, took up a cake of flat vol ini bread, divided it, and cautiously offered my prisoner half.

Her eyes met mine, for the first time acknowledging my presence. I saw disquiet there as well as anger, and, for the first time, something akin to fear. She took the flatbread and slowly raised a portion to her lips. Still she said nothing.

I slowly chewed the coarse, dark bread. The totems of the Doraddi are many, but the vol ini is blessed by all who dwell upon the Plain of Ten Thousand Tribes. Sharing the flatbread is traditionally a way for strangers to find common skin. Gently now, and slowly, I addressed her in Arbennan, a tongue of the Right Hand, the tongue of my people. Though not, I had first thought, of hers.

“I did not mean for your sisters to die. We wanted to talk, and to make your people listen. We must join together to prevent an evil thing. If you tell me your name, I will join you in singing your sisters on their journey.”

No response. She chewed silently, holding my gaze, assessing me. Her own eyes were now brimming with tears – clearly she understood my words. Whatever the otherness of her people and her land, this woman felt pain and loss as deeply as I. In that, at least, we were alike.

Trembling out of shame as well as cold, I placed my weapons well behind, discarded my flaxen cloak. Let her read my tattoos, see the patterns of henna on my hands and feet.

I tried again. “I am Surinda, daughter of Alundira, whose name and wisdom are known through every lineage of the A!Mura, the White Buffalo Nation. We A!Mura are a Right Hand folk, dwellers of the Kalali to the north of Banini Lake. We are known for our mighty herds, for beadwork and leather and flax and richness in speech. Our sons are beautiful, our daughters bountiful. We know the true name of every animal of the Kalali. We are a strong folk, and gentle.”

Those last words burned in my mouth. How much should I reveal? With so much lost already, trust was essential here. I paused momentarily, offering a silent prayer to Aleshmara before continuing…

“My mother has a magic bull, and a great herd of cattle – milk and meat and blood enough for all our clan. One day those herds will be mine. My skin is engivi, the provider tree, and my skin takes husbands from the instamiru and the vol ini. All my clan walk the Right Footpath, and our days are blessed. By conception my totem is yellow ochre, most beautiful of the Earth’s gifts. I cannot tell you my power totem, but I am a friend of the truth. I am a warrior, SpearHand of Vangono, and like him I can breathe three types of fire. On this day I wear the leader’s mark for the Twisted Lance. I would be a friend to you.”

It was done. I had revealed much, most of my names. If she had bent magic, my flame was lost to her, my spirit also. But would she reply to the one who had killed her sisters?

Dawn touched the eastern sky at that moment, swallow-swift, foreboder of great heat. A pale spirit mist embraced the rocks of the lower valley, wrapping it in forgetfulness. A flock of passiontails winged eastward, noisy and mocking. I noted their path – water would lie in that direction. The day stretched before me like a pilgrimage.

And it promised an unknown trail.

Following my gaze, the woman rose and turned from me, facing First Gift. She bend forward, scooping up twin handfuls of thick red dust. I tensed, fearing the worst. With a fluid gesture, she flung the dust skyward, a thick dark cloud scouring the air around us. As it settled, she bent forward, wordlessly keening her grief and frustration to the rising sun.

She turned then to face me. I had not moved, though the red dust stung my face. She spoke – softly, in Arbennan, slow and clumsy at first, but with growing confidence as her tongue remembered the sounds. I was correct! The prisoner was Right Hand, at least by birth. She had green eyes.

“I am a woman who speaks with a voice and I must be heard. In time or out of it, I am Kirinuu ThreeLives, digging stick sister of the Aranjara, keeper of the vol ini dreaming. My totem is dangura, the hunting dog; I am he. My skin is vol ini. If you speak the truth, and are truly human, then you are kartachi, daughter to the skin of my husband, and you must listen to me.”

So. She was claiming superiority because I took husbands from her skin. She would speak, it seemed, only on her own terms.

“I listen to your words. I am no mili min, to take the form of the True People. How can you doubt this? We have shared bread together, you and I…”

“I see now that you are human, though my sisters were not so sure. How can True People treat each other so? My people have lived here since the Godtime, yet you come among us with evil in your hearts and spears in your hands. We have not killed your kin, or broken vows of marriage promise. This is not your country! We have nothing you can take away!”

Part of me recoiled from the strangeness of her words. Was she lying, or mad – or was there truly something here I could not comprehend?

Pinari…”, I replied. Aunt. “Pinari, I do not understand. We have come to warn you of an evil thing. You are all in danger. We wish only to make your people listen. I do not understand. Why did your sisters die?”

She gazed back across the open plain. “You took us away from country. Our spirits are our country. My sisters have returned to country, to one day take the flesh again. I tell you, kartachi, the dead are close. The dead speak, and they too roam our country. They come and go as freely as they wish. They listen to us now.”

Impossible. We had spirits of our own to guard the campsite. Nothing was making sense. Every answer begged more questions.

Pinari, you did not die. Is this because you were not born to these people?

She recoiled visibly: I had touched a sensitive wound. Starting angrily, she bent forward, once again clawing at the earth. A second cloud of dust spiralled upwards, thick and red and angry. Poison plants would grow there come Monsoon.

“Do not misjudge me, kartachi. I was far-born, it is true. My flame wandered. I was reborn in a strange body, and had to journey far before I recognised my true country. Do not be deceived though, my flame is Aranjara. I have lived here before. I have the memory. I reclaimed my churinga stone and my song of power. Many flames wander, it is their way. Perhaps you too are lost, kartachi, and have not yet found your true home.”

The dust settled around us, clinging. I shrugged, confused. She spoke so casually of great mysteries. Her words tore.

“My country is pulling me back. I too will die – very soon. I swallowed pebbles, for I am the messenger, but soon I too will die.” The flint edge in her voice had vanished, replaced now by a quiet sorrow.

“Messenger? But we came to warn you!”

Her look was impenetrable. “Warn us? Of what?”

“A mighty army threatens. They march westward. The Kresh. We must all unite together to defend our lands!”

I noticed then that her left shoulder and breast were adorned with an elaborate patterning of swirling tattoos. Initiation marks. They gleamed in the low fire’s dance. She had many such marks…

“Ah, the deep-shadow folk who dwell in moving trees. Another came to us with such warnings. He had a name, but now he is dead – I must not mention it. We said to him what we say to you. These Kresh do not know our country. They have no kin here, there is nothing here they can take. Besides, the Kresh do not intend us harm. If they did, we would have dreamed it.”

“That other who is now dead, he was of my tribe. He carried the feather cloak. Why did you kill him?”

“That stranger was a fool. He lost his own way. I remember he came carrying many things – skins of bright colours, cups of metal. He asked for our chief, and was angry when we said we had none. He gave what he was carrying to our warrior men – gifts he called them. They gave them to their wives, who gave them to their children. The children played with them and then forgot them – as I said, they were heavy, and the skins itched. This made the stranger angry too.”

“Some thought he came from Bolongo, a trickster. His tongue was not good, but he was Doraddi, and had initiation scars, so we treated him as human. That was a mistake. He gave orders like a grandmother with an ache in her bones. When meat was served he did not thank the totem, nor did he listen to the conversation between the spirit and the fire. He ate too much of the kill and parts he was not entitled to. He sat at other skins’ campfires without invitation and often on the wrong side. He interrupted old women and told young men what to do. Worst of all, he kicked a hunting dog!”

She scowled at the memory. “All the time, he told us, ‘we must fight! We told him, live unto the Law, we said. We told him, we do not fight. We told him, we cannot leave our country. We told him, we cannot join your army, we have no kin in your land, we cannot visit. He got angry, and threatened us with very strange things. He was too long in the desert without water. Then the Dreaming took him.”

“You… killed him?”

“No. He followed after a ceremony group. They said, go back, you do not know the country, this is not your business. He followed them and died. Stupid.”

“Died? Like my male warriors?” I saw again my dead companions. Friends, lovers, totem-kin. All dead.

“Their own fault. Country is full of sacred places. Places of power. Some of it is men’s business, some of it women’s. Children must never go to such places, the power is too strong. You do not know our country.You are children. You camped near a sacred spot. Totem magic. Women’s Business. So the men died.”

Such power. Such mystery. “No pinari, we are not children. But our ways are very different. We do not understand you.”

She nodded. “GuideFather Pamalt taught us so. The Right Hand and the Left Hand. Different. Yet we are all his people. That is part of my message. He is very near.”

She gestured to the thin strands of mist that hugged the ground around the camp, already fleeing as the sun took the sky. “See that smoke? Campfire smoke that. The gods are near. Their camp is just beyond that rise. They wish me to tell you something.”

She stood then, her eyes locked with mine. She spoke, a voice of power, a voice of command. “Judgement is upon you, kartachi. You have done evil. I will miss my sisters. Why must you treat us this way?”

I could not deny the shame. My cheeks burned. Her accusation rang true. And yet, I was a warrior. I must deal in truth.

“A warrior must be true to a warrior’s ways. I am judged by your words. I did not mean you harm… we did wrong. There are many false stories about your people. We feared you. We are so different, your people and mine…”

“Yes, kartachi, we are different. You Right Hand see things in order. We see things in place. You see the waking, we see the dream. You see the moon in it’s phases, we see the whole. Pamalt in his wisdom has granted us this difference.”

Yes. I leaned my head backwards, exposing my throat to her judgement. In the silence that followed I sensed her anger slowly melting into tears. Approaching, she gently eased my head forward, placing trembling hands upon my shoulders.

Yes. We held each other and kissed, mouth to mouth, as only true kin may. Sharing breath. Sharing life.

“Surinda, my sister.”

“Kirinuu, my sister.”

Even as I held her, part of my mind rebelled. Beware! Was I no longer in command? She was my prisoner! Stop this – it could be some spell! Beware her power!

Yet I saw truth in her eyes, and sorrow, and even forgiveness. My suspicion faded to a dull disquiet. If it was a spell, then who was casting it. Kirinuu? GuideFather Pamalt? My totem?

She sat me down by the fire, and wrapped my cloak about me. I was shivering. Grateful for her kindness, I offered her a flask of amergu, buffalo blood mixed with milk, the basic diet of my people. She took it and swallowed, gagging. Yet she managed a smile as she passed it back to me. “We are very different, your people and mine.”

The sun had risen directly behind Kirinuu now, wrapping her hair in a halo of dancing light. Her fingers moved, tracing the forms of a blessing. Her voice rose and fell, powerful, ritualistic.

“Listen carefully, Surinda of the Twisted Lance. Turn and look back to my country – Aranjara country. Much sorrow has passed that you may understand. The fire listens. Lodril listens. Hear me and understand.”

“I’m telling you that country is our mother and father. See that mountain. That mountain is country. That tree too. My spirit, my flame, my body, all in country – Aranjara country.”

“Look at my country, Surinda. Country is the feeling of string, of blood through your body. In my blood, in my arm, that’s where you’ll find country. We are our country. We organise country, we manage country. Our stories make country, our dreams. And country makes us. We are our country’s dreaming.”

“GuideFather taught us this. Listen carefully, and his truth will come in your feeling, his Dreaming will come through your body. Become part of his country. He will go right down into foot and head, fingernail and blood, through your liver, through your heart.”

“Faranar slept there, in Aranjara country, and when the monsoon wind came, she told Keraun to fill the tracks of her wanderings – to make the sacred waterholes. She named every one, and taught us the names, the songs of power. And Pamalt too. GuideFather wanders our country.”

Off at the watchpoint, one of the lance sisters shouted a query. Her voice seemed distant, part of another reality.

“Can you smell that wind, kartachi? Keraun is coming soon. Not today, but soon. She loves our country. We do the ceremony and Keraun brings us the monsoon rain. The Dry will end. Everything lives again. I tell you, I love that wind. And Keraun, she loves us. When the monsoon comes, you listen to the leaves; and you hear yourself. The tree bends, you bend with it.”

“You have to learn this, my sister. The Kresh, if they come, they must learn this. In a dark time the eye begins to see.”

She began singing then, a soft, tuneless humming. She was drawing in the sand with her finger, long sinuous curves and circles. She had said all she needed to say. For my part, I gazed unblinking into the sun, half listening, troubled, confused.

Without her country she would die. I believed that. And already stained with innocent blood, I would report failure. Others would come, and others would die. I had to decide. At my back, the country of the Aranjara called, beckoning. So much mystery.

I listened then, and it seemed I heard a silent chorus of vol ini shoots shout joyful greeting to the rising sun. I listened, waiting for Pamalt’s word. I smelt the sweet bouquet of the earth, the promise of monsoon rain. He was speaking through my body. Pamalt was near, and I could feel him with my body…”

Author’s Note:

Parts of this story were inspired by the book Story About Feeling by Bill Neidjie with Keith Taylor (Magabala Books 1989). This book records a series of stories told by Bill, an elder of the Buniti clan of the Aboriginal Gagadju people. Gagadju country is located in the Alligator River region of Australia’s Northern Territory, site of the world-famous Kakadu National Park. The area has been continuously occupied by hunter-gatherer peoples for sixty thousand years.

Sumting Orother’s journal entry reflects my memory of similar comments by the Dutch sea captain Dirk Hartog, one of the first Europeans to view Australia’s non-material Aboriginal civilisation.

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