Billy heard his family’s song follow him down the river in his canoe. It was comforting — as if they were still with him as he drifted along on the current. Soon though, as time went by and he gathered some distance, his isolation started to close in on him. He’d never felt so alone in all his life. He wasn’t just off on an adventure for a day or two into another area of the Wollemi. He was heading into new territory. Whitefella territory. People who killed his people. Shot them on sight to be rid of them.
He felt a change filtering over him. Everything seemed different. Colours looked particularly vibrant. The twitter of a bird had him identifying its age, species and gender. Even working out where it was without looking.
He felt alive.
As if he was born again.
Do or die, he decided with excitement surging through his soul.
The world was his.
He could do anything.
“WOOO HOOO,” he hollered for all the world to hear “I AM COMING!”
He stood and twirled his bullroarer above his head and hollered again. Birds took to the air while water dragons dived from overhanging tree branches into the depths of the river in fear of the sound reverberating off the cliff face.
He sat down and paddled ahead, desperate to discover the world. For the first time in his life, he didn’t have to hide. To be on constant alert for other people — for whitefellas. It was time to do the opposite. To get amongst them. To learn about them. To see if it was safe for his family to come out of hiding after all these years. To find a new future. He was buzzing with excitement.
Then, as the heat of the day slowed him down, he relaxed to take in the sights and admire this unknown river. He stopped paddling altogether, letting the current take him wherever it wanted. Savouring every moment of freedom.
He wasn’t used to wearing anything more than his loincloth so he removed his hat and vest and packed them carefully into his new bag. Then he drifted into a state of contemplation — considering his journey, where he would go and what he would do. His dreams had shown him a high peak at the end of the river just north of his destination, where he was to wait for word from his mother before going any farther.
The sun was well up by the time the Colo River delivered him safely onto the Hawkesbury River. It crawled along at a snail’s pace by comparison, giving him plenty of time to marvel at the wonders of the modern world: massive humpies laying in seclusion along the riverbank with strange looking canoes tied to jetties.
Startled fishermen in tinnies got a fright as Billy drifted quietly by. He was like a vision from another era, standing on the front of his canoe in just a loincloth with a four–pronged fishing spear in hand, ready for a curious fish to come close, or to defend himself against a killer if need be.
“G’day, mate,” they all smiled.
“G’day, mate,” Billy replied, relaxing his grip on the spear.
He passed a houseboat and saw a woman for the first time ever. She emerged from the shadows within wearing a sky blue costume. Her enormous white thighs glaring in the sun like the moon’s cratered surface. She carried a shiny white toddler while pointing and waving excitedly to Billy. The baby wasn’t happy at all as hulking great flaps of fat kept hitting him in the back of the head every time she waved her arm. Billy waved back and hoped she’d stop. It only made it worse.
He wondered what it would have been like to have his mum point things out to him. She seemed so gentle — always smiling so kindly whenever she appeared in his dreams. Then he realised that his mum had a pudgy face just like this lady’s. Suddenly he understood why his dad wanted him to find a fat one to keep him warm in winter — his mum was a big woman too! He must still miss her, he realised, after all these years. He wondered what it would be like to have a wife of his own.
The sun was going down by the time he found a secluded spot on the riverbank to stop for the night. He’d speared a couple of bream and a mullet which he cooked over the coals. He was really happy — no one had tried to kill him.
Day two was much the same until he got closer to the coast. The river was busy with boatloads of people racing in every direction. He seemed to be attracting a lot of attention and he wasn’t sure what to do about it. A tourist boat full of Japanese with big hats and flashing cameras crossed to his side of the river for a closer look. He’d never seen so many people before, though he did like the sound of their excited chatter.
A big bream poked its head out from beneath his canoe so he speared it and lifted it high into the air. A huge cheer erupted from the tourists, which surprised him and made his canoe wobble. He smiled shyly and returned their waves. Their big boat nearly capsized as they leaned over the edge to take his photo. He felt overwhelmed. He didn’t want to stand out so he put on his hat and vest, hoping to look like everyone else. It didn’t help. If anything, they were even more frantic now with their flashing and waving.
“Harro, harro,” they called.
“Hello,” Billy waved back.
“Ahh, Birry!” he heard them telling each other. “Harro, Birry,” they called and waved again. He enjoyed their enthusiasm but was glad when they left to take a picture of a pelican.
He wasn’t long into his third day when the river carried him beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. He stopped to feel the enormous concrete pylons, wondering if they were the trunks of huge trees. He didn’t expect it to feel like a rock. Then he paddled away to get another look at all the cars zooming over it as if they were playing chase.
A salty breeze told him he was close to the coast so he started looking around for the peak that his mother had shown him in his dreams. He didn’t recognise any of them until he rounded a bend and gazed upon the vastness of the open ocean. No mistake about it now, his two hundred metre peak lay to the right, at the northern end of the Ku–ring–gai Chase National Park. He paddled along Pittwater, in and around the moorings of boats until he found a secluded little inlet. He dragged his canoe through the ankle deep mud of the mangroves to stash it above the high tide mark, hoping it would still be there for his return trip.
He followed animal trails in the general direction of the peak until he came upon a river. He’d pulled in his canoe too early. Then he saw the white roof of a car whizzing by above the shrubs. A road led to a bridge. He was tempted to walk onto the road and cross the bridge but he was anxious about the fast cars, so he sat inside the scrub–line to watch for a while. Then a kid crossing the bridge on a push bike gave him the courage to give it a go. He waited to be sure there were no oncoming cars and, for the first time in his life, he stepped onto a bitumen road.
All was well until halfway across the bridge when a convoy of cars loaded with surfies approached from behind. He kept walking, hoping to go unnoticed but he looked completely naked in his loincloth. They hung out the windows, wolf–whistling and beeping their horns.
“Nice arse, mate!” they called.
He didn’t notice much more than all the pretty girls in bikinis. Things were looking up.
The road led to a waterside suburb with just a few shops and a quaint little church. It had a glossy, new, olive–green paint job and bright white borders. He leaned against his spears while admiring it from the bottom of its steps on the footpath when suddenly the doors burst open, spilling the congregation onto the path all around him. They were chatting excitedly amongst themselves until they noticed Billy. They gasped in horror and went deathly quiet. One old lady wearing a huge feathered hat collapsed on the spot.
The man struggling to catch her shouted,
“PUT SOME CLOTHES ON YA BLOODY, IDIOT!”
Then the crowd surged towards him, waving their arms and shouting abuse so he turned tail and bolted down a dirt road.
A huge pile of waste loomed into view with masses of seagulls hovering through the heat haze radiating above it. A stench of decay hit him so heavily that it made even him baulk in disgust. The bloated roo that Mallee had made explode in his face was bad enough, but this was something else entirely. Too many people, he thought to himself while swatting away a swarm of flies that slammed like stones into the back of his hand.
A gleaming old, grey, EH ute trundled his way so he stepped off the side of the road to see what sort of reception he’d get this time. Instead of pretty girls in bikinis, he was horrified to see a rough–as–guts, greasy, grey haired, old man give him a shady look. Chained up and howling in the back were a couple of extremely distressed, miniature, white dogs: a Roman–nosed Bull terrier female, and a handsome Fox terrier male. They were calling back in the direction they’d just come. He didn’t blame them, the place was disgusting.
He walked over to the tip face to see what the seagulls were squabbling over when a huge dump truck reversed up to drop its load. It hissed loudly to a stop right beside him.
The driver, a man in his early thirties with a muscular armful of tattoos resting on the windowsill, did a double take when he saw Billy. He wore a ginger goatee, a faded blue singlet and black wrap–around sunglasses that sat skewiff on his broken nose. He left the big turbo–diesel running while he climbed down from the cab.
Billy didn’t know what to expect of this whitefella, but the more he saw of his rough exterior, the more he questioned the wisdom of his curiosity.
He re–acquainted himself with the feel of the spears in his hand …
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