No Story Is My Story
From the Series: Decameron Relived
I come from the lands of the devil, of dragons and princesses, and of 1001 Nights and the Brothers Grimm. My Tete and my Oma nursed me on stories. They taught me that stories, like wasps, have stings. And, that stories, like wasps, are much more than their sting. I grew up surrounded by trolls and djinns. But for half my life now I have lived here, in a country that glows red so beautiful it could break your heart. The stories here are different, and what they hold besides stings is different, as well. Take Lintirrpilintirrpi’s story for example.
His is the story for Sugarleaf Country. It is a long story, and when sung by the old ladies in a special way, then it is extra strong love magic. Even stripped to its bare bones, it is a ripper: Lintirrpilintirrpi was a young man, traveling with his agemates. One morning, as they sat around the fire, he went to relieve himself and came across a peehole so deep and so wide that he became instantly infatuated with the women who had made it. He left his travel companions behind and went in search of his love. At some point, he sat on a stone, and while spinning hairstring, he sang to her, pulling her toward him. She didn’t come, but lots of Nangalas, women in the right marriage category for him, came. He did not want them, though, so they all turned to stone. He kept singing, and spinning, and eventually she came. They made love. But, as she was his classificatory mother-in-law, they really shouldn’t have, and his penis got stuck and they both turned to stone.
When you visit Sugarleaf Country you can see the oval waterhole with a big rock stuck in it, and a bit further away, the many stones that used to be the Nangalas. This morning, when I was walking the dogs, I saw a stone that reminded me of the Nangalas. Walking through a neon pink, dark blue, orange, and green tinged sunrise, I thought about the Nangalas, and how they don’t even have their own names, how there is nothing we know of their lives, what they liked and didn’t like, if one of them was a good singer, and another one a good dancer, if a third one was funny or cranky or good at healing. All we know is that they were pulled to Sugarleaf Country by song and hairstring, they got rejected, and they then became stones. Which is more than can be said of Napurrurla.
Napurrurla was Bullfrog’s wife. Bullfrog’s story is the story of Australia’s last recorded massacre. It was 1928, and white people were stealing land, water, and women. To make things worse, there was a big drought. The sun was unrelenting, the country was parched, berries and yams withered, and the animals dwindled. Warlpiri people moved east in search of water, and many joined a big mob of people camping at a water hole called Yurrkuru. Also, there was Fred Brooks, laid off from pastoral work and trying his luck with dingo trapping. Fred “borrowed” Bullfrog’s wife. Bullfrog was not happy. He killed Fred. When news of this reached the frontier town of Alice Springs, all hell broke loose. Constable Murray with a posse of young white men rode first to Yurrkuru, then all across country, shooting men, women, and children. So many got killed. Some escaped, running away and hiding when they heard the thundering of the horses’ hoofs bringing the killers. When we drive east toward Yurrkuru, people show me the places where their family members hid. The loose sand where people buried themselves, frantically, because there was nowhere else to hide. The caves they hid in when they were close to the ranges. They show me the cave where Bullfrog hid. After the government set up ration stations after the war, Bullfrog moved to Yuendumu and lived there until he died of old age. When I ask what happened to Napurrurla, people shrug their shoulders. Her role in the story is to be stolen by a white man; what happened to Napurrurla after that nobody knows.
My sister in the red country is called Napurrurla as well. As we sit around the fire one evening, talking about dogs, she tells us the story of the man and his wife and their dogs. They are living together happily in their camp, but then one night a devilman comes sneaking up on them. The dogs hear him and bark, their barking scares the devilman away but it also wakes the man and his wife. Because the devilman has been scared away they don’t know why the dogs were barking. The same thing happens the next night, and the night after that. The man gets upset. “Why,” he asks, “are these dogs barking all the time?” He gets so angry that he cuts the dogs’ ears off. So the next night, when the devilman comes, the dogs can’t hear him. And the devilman kills the man and his wife. Napururrla says “my mother told me that story when I was a little girl.” Gazing into the ambers of the fire, Napurrurla, her grandchildren and I, and Napurrurla’s mother’s dogs think about Napurrurla’s mother and we are sad. Napurrurla’s mother’s name is not spoken any more.
No Name passed away two summers ago. She was born not that far from Sugarleaf Country and not that long after Constable Murray rampaged through the country on his killing spree. She had eight children and more than twenty grandchildren and almost as many great- and great-great-grandchildren as there are stars in the milky way. Her life was filled with stories. Stories she told, stories she sang, and stories she lived: stories of loss, of love, of trauma, and of joy. No Name was the strongest woman I ever knew.
A woman once saw No Name after her death. We were camping in a dry riverbed under the ghost gums, and as we were sitting around the morning fire, wrapped in blankets, sipping strong hot tea and eating damper, a woman came and joined us. We shared our breakfast with her, and sipping tea, she told us that she was camping not far away, and when the dawn birds woke her, she got up for a walk. At the time of the country waking up, when the sunrise splashed its crazy colors over the sky, she saw smoke rising from a fire in a bend of the river further north. She walked toward the smoke, which kept shifting, and she could never quite get close enough to join the people around the fire. But she did get close enough to see and hear them.
“No Name was there,” she told us, “making damper.” We nodded and remembered all those mornings waking up to the delicious smell of No Name’s damper baking over the hot coals. It was so fluffy and delicious, and we would never taste it again. We remembered that time that was no more. That time when No Name was there, looking over us when we slept, listening to the sounds of the night, the dogs and the wind, to make sure no devilmen were near. Back then, we slept so deep and well, and sometimes, when we drifted out of sleep in between dreams, we would glimpse No Name carefully and quietly adding another log to the warmth fire and we would sigh contentedly, roll over and sink back into sleep feeling warm, safe, and loved.
The woman told us she saw three other women sitting around the fire with No Name: “One of No Name’s mothers was there, Nangala.” She added, “You know, one of the Nangalas who turned into stone at Sugarleaf Country; it was her.” Nangala sat right next to No Name. The woman described how beautiful Nangala was, and how her face shone with laughter. Opposite them sat one of No Name’s daughters, a Napurrurla: “That one Napurrurla, you know, the one who was Bullfrog’s wife.” The woman said that Napurrurla looked happy and free, and that she had a deep beautiful voice. Napurrurula sat next to No Name’s grandmother/granddaughter, Napangardi. “You know,” the woman said, “that Napangardi, who was the wife of the man who cut off his dogs’ ears.” Napangardi was looking after the fire, adding right sized twigs and little logs deftly just where they were needed, so that the damper wouldn’t burn, the billycan with the tea would boil, and no smoke would billow to where the women were sitting. She was strong, sure of her movements, and had clever hands.
The woman told us: “They were singing their stories. They were singing the red of the country and the colors of the sunrise. They were singing the dawn birds, the dogs, the trees, and the river. They were singing fire: breakfast fires, evening fires, burning country fires. They were singing the rain, and storms, and lightening. And they were singing you. They were singing you sitting here at this fire, they were singing you walking the dogs, and they were singing you reading this story.”
I have always wondered about the lives of those dramatis personae who only appear in passing in a Dreaming story, myth, fairy tale, or, for that matter, an ethnography. Creative ethnography allowed me to play with that idea. Doing so made me confront—in a very different way—a challenge I also deal with in my more traditional work: the thorny issue of voice and the danger of appropriation. What and how much can I say about other people’s stories? Here, I tackled this by pondering the question of where, after half a lifetime in “the field,” other people’s stories end and my own begin, or rather, how at certain points, in certain ways, and at certain times, they can melt into each other.