8 months in, and the Kimberley begins to get its fingers into me. Tendril roots, wrapping around the ankle, growing into the heart, pulling me deeper. Strengthening its hold. Driving through its wilderness, it occurs to me that this seemingly endless road may not be so quick to release me. Wandering feet, stained red.
Its not just the beauty. The awe inspiring spaces, the startling sky shows, thunderous storms that bring the chasms of heaven down upon us. Plump and gnarled boab trees. Bays so clear and sparkling they could have been filled with turquoise tears. Red cliffs, giants in the bush and dropping into the sea, rumbling with stories of the ancient. Pressing themselves into the blood stream, firming their grip around the heart.
Its not just its beauty. Its also its shadow. Compelled. Driven. I cannot hide from this history, it is pouring out of the people around me. Names, faces, people, taken from families, taken from land. Alcohol. Welfare. Missions. Nuns. Mary told me her last memory of her mother: she was running after the truck as it pulled away. Words like "stolen", "lost", and a shadow unnamed in my languare or not said to me, this new white faced, yellow haired visitor, government name tag swinging.
I find myself drawn into these lives. Not just the beautiful moments, of old men who lean back in their chair, laugh, and unfold their story that spans almost a hundred years of bush life, cattle droving, and land rights. Its also the other moments. The old man left lingering in a dark room, skeletal like a concentration camp-survivor, almost comatose in his isolation and loneliness. Today I found a man with days-old shit dried to his leg. This man built half the Kimberley with his dark hands. When he dies, a procession miles long with emerge from all corners of this country. But now, his mind is wandering, his family absent, and with all his might, he begs to be left on country. When some other white face visitor wearing a government name tag came not so many years ago and took people from their homes, how can I bear to do it again? Even now? Even now, even in this? If he asks me to stay. If he isn’t fed. If he isn’t bathed. If he doesn’t leave his dark room, his tin shed, if nobody comes to take him fishing, to hear his story, meet his once sparkling eyes and hear again how he built this community when the mission closed down. If this man died bathed in a bed with hospital corners 300 kilometres from this red earth, would that be a better death?
I squat down in the dirt, under the lazy drifting shadow of a eucalyptus tree. Dogs run by, and children clamber on adults, emerge from the shop with sweets. One plays on a walking frame. Life rolling on.
I have no answers. I’m just barely learning the questions. Questions of life and death. Of place and identity. Questions about coming home. Living at home, dying at home, remaining at home. A visceral response from within: Life should not be this. Death should not be this. My own life is so full of colour. Of red cliffs and turquoise sea. Of loving hands, and sweet licks from puppies. I wait to greet each day, with cool mornings and the delight of movement. I slip sweetly into dusk and darkness, satisfied in my limbs and heart of a day well lived, work well done, laughter swollen to fill my cells. Even my sorrow feels rich. So why, so close to death, is there a hollowness for so many? An emptying out of the soul long before the body has left us.
So many questions, twenty different languages, dozens of communities, and hundreds of kilometres. Men, women, the ancient, the young, the literate, the illiterate. Perhaps just one questions: Can we not do better?
This land does not feel broken. Its red cliffs still stand, and its tear filled oceans still return with every tide. There is corroboree here. There is language. There is land that I am only a visitor in, and land I am not even allowed to visit. Land with story, and law, that occurs on a plane I am not privy too. I can feel it, if I cannot name it.
The Kimberley. Tightening its hold on me. Drawing me in.