Rain Stones 25th Anniversary Edition, страница 1
To the baby and the wombat,
without whom this book would not have
been written, nor published, and to the
Angus and Robertson / HarperCollins
team of the past twenty-five years,
with love and gratitude
Afternoon with Grandma
Dusty and the Dragon
About the Author
Also by Jackie French
This story was written when racial discrimination against Indigenous people and cultures was far greater than it is now, and most Australians far more ignorant of Indigenous traditions, nor were there programs to educate white people in those traditions, or even Indigenous people who had been forcibly removed from their families and culture. Please excuse the racism in this story — it is a product of its time. But it reminds us that our society has moved at least a little way towards Indigenous recognition in the last twenty-five years.
The creek smelt of hot rocks and old water. Helen sat in the shadows and watched the snake. It was small, as long as her hand. It was eating a frog, but the frog was too large. It pushed and pulled at it, trying to force it into its mouth.
Suddenly the snake spat out the frog. It unhinged its jaws so its mouth was wider. This time it sucked both back legs in together. Its body pushed against a rock to get a better grip. The frog went down slowly. The jaws snapped shut again.
The girl sat still. She could see the bulge of the frog inside the snake now. The snake lifted its head. It rubbed itself against the rock to force the frog further down. Its tongue flickered. Then it was off, sliding through the rocks towards the next pool in the creek, hunting for more food.
It was cool by the creek. Beyond the shade of the casuarinas the sun beat hard on bare dirt. The pools were green and full of algae, but there was a breeze.
Helen wondered whether to follow the snake. It might catch something else. But it was too hot. She sat where she was instead and watched.
The light thickened. It was getting darker. The blackberry thicket rustled behind her. It was a wombat — thin, with sores along its sides where it had scratched. Its eyes were crusted with mange. It blinked at Helen, but she was too familiar to scare it. It picked its way slowly through the boulders to the creek and drank. Soon other animals would come to the creek to drink — more wombats, roos, wallabies, goannas and possums, and sharp-nosed little antechinus that burrowed for beetles in the leaves by the creek.
Once there had been more animals drinking every night. That was in the early years of the drought, when the springs on the ridges dried up, and the little streams in the gullies. Dozens of animals came to drink then, their territories forgotten in the stress of thirst.
That had been five years ago. She just remembered it. The world had been dry for nearly half her life. Then the animals had started dying — too little food and too little space. Every morning there were bodies by the creek. That didn’t happen now. Only the strongest were left. There was no competition from their stock either. Dad had sent the sheep away three years ago. Keeping the orchard alive was a full-time job.
It was getting darker. Time to go home. Mum would be back from town. She was working for the stock and station agents, doing the accounts to see them through the drought. Though that job might stop soon, she had said, if things got worse. No one was buying much at the stock and station agents’ now.
The girl got up slowly. She’d put the stew for dinner on the stove like Mum had told her, before she came down to the creek. Mum had prepared it before she went to work.
The air hit her like a hot blast as she came out of the casuarinas. It was as though the dead grass breathed heat. It would be cooler on the other side of the creek. That was still bush. Here there were only a few trees left around the house, and in the orchard past the shed.
Mum’s car was pulled up outside the house. There were voices from the kitchen. That meant Dad was in too. She washed her hands carefully in the bowl of water by the laundry door and went inside.
‘Helen! I was just about to call you. Would you set the table please, love? How was school?’
‘All right. Sergeant Ryan came to talk to us about road safety. And Jenny Styles’ mother has had the baby. They’re going to call it Toby.’
Her mother was serving out the stew. She looked tired. She nodded. ‘Johnny Styles came into the agency. I’d better pick up a card tomorrow.’
The stew was lamb. It wasn’t theirs. Dad had kept a few sheep just for eating when he sold the rest but they’d been sold last year. It wasn’t worth the cost of buying food for them.
Helen didn’t like stew. She picked at it. Her father ate quickly. Her mother looked at him in concern. ‘You going out again after dinner?’ she asked.
He nodded. ‘Have to. The big waterhole will have filled up again by now. If I can get the pump going I can give the lower trees a watering.’
‘Do you need a hand?’
He paused, looking at Helen.
‘I’ll be okay here by myself,’ she offered. ‘Or I could come and help too.’
‘We won’t be finished till you’re in bed,’ he said. ‘Thanks, love. It’ll go quicker with two.’ He looked at the clock. ‘Nearly time for the weather. Turn it on, will you, Helen?’
The radio barked behind them. It was too hilly to get television, but Dad had said that one day they’d get a satellite dish. One day when it rained.
There was a high over the Bight and another over Central Australia. Helen knew all about weather maps now. Highs meant fine weather, lows might mean rain. You hoped for a low and watched it, waiting to see if it came near you. But they didn’t.
‘And another fine, bright weekend,’ said the announcer.
Dad snorted. Fine weather out here meant rain, not clear skies.
Helen’s mother served the ice-cream and canned fruit. Her father leant back in his chair. ‘Time to get back to work. If we had the money I’d get a timer for the pump. And a new pump.’ Then he grinned. ‘If I had the money, I’d hire a few blackfellers to make it rain.’ He stood up. ‘I’ll be working in the shed on the pump till you’re ready to give me a hand with the pipes.’ He tousled Helen’s hair. ‘Sleep well, love. See you in the morning.’
Helen and her mother cleared the table together. They washed up in half a sink of water. The rainwater tanks had dried up last year. The creek water was too dirty to drink or wash with. They’d bought water since then. It came in a tanker from town. But water was expensive. You had to use it carefully. Mum took the washing to town. Even the bath water was used again nowadays — her first, then Mum, then Dad (the dirtiest gets it last, said Dad, making a joke of it) — then siphoned off to water the dahlias in the garden.
‘How do Indigenous people make it rain?’
‘I’m not sure, love. They used to dance to make it happen. Special rain dances. I think they had rain stones too.’
‘What are rain stones?’
‘Oh, Mrs Halibut from the museum told me about them one day. I can’t remember much. They were special stones. When the tribe needed rain, they’d uncover the stones to the air and it’d rain.’
‘Why don’t we get some rain stones then?’
Her mother laughed. ‘They’re special stones, love. You need to know which ones to find. I think you’d have to be an Indigenous person to kno
‘Why don’t we ask an Indigenous person then?’
‘There haven’t been any round here for years and years. Now, have you done your homework?’
‘Don’t forget your teeth then. You can read till nine o’clock. Sure you’ll be all right by yourself?’
‘Okay then. I’ll look in on you when we come in. Don’t forget — put the light out at nine. I can see it from the orchard and I’ll be checking.’
Helen did put the light out at nine o’clock, but she couldn’t sleep. She lay in the darkness watching the clear stars outside and listening to the rumble of the pump in the distance. Sometimes she heard the echo of her parents’ voices. She could hear an owl too, a mopoke, singing down by the creek. A possum screamed in the distance, caught by a fox or an owl or simply quarrelling with the other possums.
She thought about rain stones. It seemed such a simple way to make it rain. Just find an Indigenous person and persuade him to use his stones and it would rain.
She fell asleep thinking about strong heavy rain breathing life again into the soil.
On Saturday morning Helen went to town with her mother. Everyone went to town on Saturday. The Lion’s Club sold raffle tickets beside the newsagent’s for a load of firewood or a dressed sheep. The preschool held a cake stall down by the supermarket.
They parked by the butcher’s.
‘Look at that,’ said her mother. ‘Lamb chops are $4.99 a kilo. You could buy a whole sheep last sales for five.’
They walked up the street together. ‘Mum? Can I go down to the museum while you’re in the supermarket?’
‘Of course, love. Is it a school project?’
‘I want to find out about the rain stones,’ said Helen.
Her mother smiled. ‘I’ll meet you down there,’ she said. ‘Don’t pester Mrs Halibut, though, if there are lots of people in there.’
‘I won’t,’ said Helen.
There was no one in the museum when she got there. Mrs Halibut would be in her flat next door making a cup of tea. Helen wandered round the exhibits till she heard the door open. Mrs Halibut came in, balancing her tea cup on a plate with two chocolate slices from the preschool stall. She smiled.
‘Why, it’s Helen Doherty. I was hoping it would be a paying customer.’ Adults had to pay $2 to see the museum, children under twelve were free.
‘Mrs Halibut? Mum said you knew about Indigenous people.’
‘Well, I can tell you a bit, dear. Some of the early settlers wrote about them. Come over here then.’ She put the plate down on the counter and headed off down the museum, still carrying her tea cup.
Helen followed her. Past the old Chinese wedding dress, made from silk the bride herself had threaded off the silkworm cocoons, past the old christening font made from a tree trunk, and the treadle sewing machine.
Mrs Halibut stopped in front of a small grass house, woven from reeds and bark and poa tussock. ‘Now this is like the shelters they made. Len Bullock copied this one from a description in an early diary.’
Helen looked at it. ‘I thought they lived in bark humpies.’
Mrs Halibut took a sip of tea. ‘I suppose some did. Round here, though, they made those. These are some of their stone axes. See how sharp they got the edges?’
Helen felt the cool smooth rock. It did feel sharp, even after a hundred years.
‘And this is a woven basket. See all the different colours of the grass and the reeds used to make a pattern in it? The Indigenous women would put lily roots and grass seeds and orchid tubers in these, and native fruit like wombat berries and eugenias. They knew all about the bush — when things flowered and fruited, how much they could take without harming the bush so there’d still be enough in poor times.’
‘Like in the drought?’
‘Like in a drought. They kept their population small enough so the land would still feed them in a drought.’
‘I eat grass seeds sometimes,’ said Helen. ‘Just for fun.’
Mrs Halibut smiled. ‘If you had grown up with Indigenous tradition, you’d have known all about grass seeds,’ she said. ‘You’d have known when to harvest them and how to grind cakes from them and bake them. So much the Indigenous people knew has been lost in so much of Australia.’
‘Like rain stones?’ asked Helen.
Mrs Halibut looked surprised. ‘You know about rain stones?’
Helen nodded. ‘There aren’t any in the museum, are there, Mrs Halibut?’
‘No. We’ve got some grinding stones though, if you’d like to see those.’
Helen nodded politely. They moved to the grinding stones. ‘Look at the dark stain on them,’ said Mrs Halibut. ‘Some of the grass seeds and reed seeds are oily and they stained the stones as the women ground the grain.’
‘Are there any Indigenous people left?’ asked Helen.
‘Of course, dear. Thousands.’
‘I mean round here.’
‘No,’ said Mrs Halibut. ‘I think the last member of the Indigenous nation around here died in about 1890. I’ve got an old newspaper account of it somewhere. Her name was Big Maggie.’
‘What happened to her?’
‘She was always getting drunk, and they put her in gaol. Finally they said she had to leave the district or they’d put her in gaol for good.’
‘What happened then?’
Mrs Halibut looked out the window. ‘They say she ran out of the court screaming. They couldn’t catch her. She was a big woman. But she ran all the way down the valley where her people had had their last camp. They said you could hear screaming for miles around. They found her dead a few days later. It would have been the worst punishment in the world,’ said Mrs Halibut, ‘to make her leave the land she loved.’
The door opened behind them. It was Helen’s mother.
‘Gladys, how are you? I hope Helen hasn’t been bothering you?’
Mrs Halibut shook her head. ‘It’s good to talk to someone who’s interested. Come again sometime, Helen.’
‘I will,’ said Helen.
‘Was Mrs Halibut able to answer your questions?’ her mother asked as they drove out of town.
‘Sort of,’ said Helen. ‘It was interesting though.’
The car slowed down as they passed through a mob of sheep. Old Mr MacIntosh waved to them from his horse. He’d had the sheep on the move for the last year, grazing the sides of the road. ‘The long paddock’ they called it.
The car speeded up again, climbing the hills towards the bush. The way home always seemed shorter in the car than in the school bus. The bus stopped every few minutes to let kids out — it seemed you’d never get there.
The car clattered over the ramp and into the drive. Helen leant out of the window and breathed deeply. She loved their farm. The farms along the way were nice enough. She loved the bare golden hills with the sun on them, the sheep-like rocks. She loved to see who was ploughing or fencing or moving their sheep. But home was different. Here you had your back to the bush. You could smell the trees. You could hear small birds as well as sheep and crows and the distant mutter of a tractor.
Sometimes it seemed that no one else loved the bush. Not as it was, as she did. Dad loved the farm, the growth from the soil. She wondered if he’d change the whole bush, if he could, till it was all paddocks and orchards, safe and tame and human. The kids at school loved the river for swimming, and played bushrangers or space invaders in the gullies.
Mrs Green at school said she loved the bush. She told them stories of the animals — the soft, shy platypus, the kookaburra who laughed at everything, the stupid, bumbling wombat. The animals she talked about didn’t behave like any that Helen had ever watched. She wondered sometimes if Mrs Green had ever been in the bush at all.
Mum loved the bush. She had shown Helen her first goanna eggs, laid in an ants’ nest for the heat to hatch them. She had shown her the heads of baby p
But Mum was tired lately. There was her job and the farm and the house. Mum had no time at all these days. Not to watch or listen or share things. The sight of the dying bush only seemed to make her more unhappy.
Maybe that was why no one else had thought of rain stones. They thought of weather maps and irrigation systems. You had to be close to the bush to think of stones.
School was jammed between the police station and the court house. There was no grass to be watered at school. Sometime, years before, the playing areas had been asphalted over. Giant oaks shaded the lunch seats, and the thin temporary classrooms put up in the ’fifties baked in the sun. The only water needed at school was for the toilets, except in winter, when the pipes froze and everyone had to hold on till they thawed.
At lunchtime Helen went back to the classroom to find Miss Wallace. She was sorting through the books on her desk. Helen knocked and went in.
‘Helen, is everything all right?’
She nodded. ‘I just wanted to ask you a question.’
‘Of course. Is it the maths this morning?’
Helen shook her head. ‘No, it’s something different.’
Miss Wallace looked at her closely. ‘Something at home then? Is there any trouble, Helen?’
‘It’s nothing like that,’ she said quickly. ‘It’s just . . . where would you find an Indigenous person, Miss Wallace?’
Miss Wallace was silent. ‘Why do you want to know?’ she asked finally.
‘I just wondered, that’s all. Where do they live now?’
Miss Wallace paused. ‘Well, a lot live in Sydney, and in the outback. All over the place, I suppose. I don’t really know, Helen. I’ve never thought about it.’
‘There aren’t any round here?’
Miss Wallace shook her head. ‘Not that I know of. They say the last local Indigenous person died round here at the turn of the century.’