A parable of redemption through family
|Word count 1438|
It all began in a place that few people visit. A place in the north of Australia, a place of contrasts, of a rare, raw beauty. Red earth, gorges, where sometimes even waterfalls run horizontally. A place of magic. And yet it is also a place of poverty where children run barefoot amongst the camp dogs, broken glass, and ruined homes, in communities where their parents drink and gamble, often neglecting their children.
The boy came into the world on a night when the heavens opened. Lightning crackled and struck the earth with a ferocity rarely seen. His mother’s screams were muffled by claps of thunder so loud it was as if the Gods themselves were welcoming this child into the world. The boy’s name was Koen, a name given to him by his paternal grandfather. An indigenous name meaning thunder. If ever a name reflected the owner, then this was it.
Koen fought as he left his mother’s body, angry to be dragged from a place of darkness and warmth into the light of day. From that moment, it seemed as if he retained that anger deep inside himself, with a world in which he felt he didn’t belong.
Although surrounded by his mob he always felt alone, as if he shouldn’t be in that dusty, hot town in Western Australia, born to parents without work, resources or money.
“Your boy, he’s different. Something wrong.”
Those words Koen’s mother became used to hearing, and sometimes she thought they were true. She would gaze into the big brown eyes of her firstborn and sing to him. Songs of her people, songs which had given her some comfort when she was a child. And yet Koen would scream, curl his fingers into a ball of rage at being held. It was as if he could foresee his future.
By the time he was of school age, his young mother had four more children to care for. Their father, as did most of the men in the community, would spend his time drinking and waiting for the next payment from the government. Schooling, as in most of the outback, was hit and miss and because of the lack of cultural awareness, disengaged teachers and overcrowding, Koen slipped through the cracks and headed on a journey of self destruction.
It was when he reached the age of eight that life for this boy reached a crisis point. He began to hang out with the older boys, smashing windows, stealing cars, and getting into trouble with the police.
“Hey, Koen. Come with us,” a boy about thirteen called to him one day. The boy’s little sister stood, blank eyed, sniffing petrol from a discarded Coke bottle.
“Where you goin’?”
“Down to the car graveyard, man. Them kids down there have got Gunja.”
Soon enough, he was one of those kids that huddled in burnt-out cars. He began to smoke Gunja, sniff glue, roam aimlessly, and skip school. His future looked bleak.
He reached the age of ten and was a ball of anger, headed for juvenile detention in Perth, two thousand kilometres south. Before he sent the child away, the magistrate asked if there was a family member who had influence enough to turn Koen away from trouble.
His paternal grandfather, the one who had named the boy, was one of the last of the Aboriginal people who had shunned coming in from the desert to adopt western ways. He still kept a strong sense of culture and remained on the native title lands. He lived in a small community in the desert around the Karlamilyi National Park, where they practiced all the old ways, living off the land as their people had done for fifty thousand years or more.
It was decided by the courts to give Koen one last chance under the supervision of his grandfather and the other elders of the desert.
The Yawuru people belonged to the Kimberley region and were the title holders for the town site of Broome, where Koen lived. The town’s indigenous people had lost much of the traditional way of being and the availability of booze and western diet slowly eroded their health, cultures, and beliefs.
For thousands of years, the Yawuru lived along the foreshore of Roebuck Bay, across the red dirt plains and along the fringes of the Great Sandy Desert.
Minjarra, Koen’s grandfather, stubbornly remained in the desert, just as he always had been and always would be. Koen called him Gooloo, the indigenous name for Grandfather, but had never treated him with the respect which was usually bestowed on an elder of Minjarra’s status. But the old man was wise and patient and, although of great age, he made the trek into town to fetch his boy and take him back to his ancestral home.
Minjarra, of full blood ancestry, was tall and wiry, his black skin made to appear even darker by the long, snowy white beard. His feet were like leather from a lifetime of walking on bare feet and were stained red from the pindan dirt of the Kimberley. He knew the lack of respect was a normal part of the town’s Aboriginal communities and he mourned the loss of customs. Previously, if one disrespected an elder, they would have been punished, but communities in the towns no longer followed this custom.
The old folk would say, “They’re allowing the young fellas to get away with anything,” and shake their heads in dismay.
The old man and the boy went into the desert and there, over many months, they survived using the ancient ways of living on the land. ‘We’re living on country my boy, as our people have done for thousands of years.” Minjarra told his grandson.
Koen was forced to listen to his grandfather as he told him stories of the creation. Stories which informed people about their history, cultures and beliefs and the environment in which they lived. He described significant and catastrophic changes in the landscape that happened thousands of years ago, about animals that were now extinct, floods, asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and cyclones. Cultural stories which contained lessons, tips for survival and navigation. The same stories which had been passed down from generation to generation. Many of these stories involved water because no matter where one lives in Australia, water is central to survival. Besides drinking, waterways are where food can be harvested for travel.
Koen, despite himself, found he looked forward to the nights as he and his Gooloo sat around the campfire after days of hunting kangaroo and lizards in the scorching desert heat.
As they waited for their food to cook, Minjarra would begin to speak slowly in his distinctive, gravelly voice and tell the stories. He would tell his grandson about how to find water and navigate using the story of the Rainbow Serpent. The story indicated the starting places of many rivers, so important for finding water and navigation when travelling.
”I’ll tell you about Tiddalik,” he began one night. “Tiddalik is a giant frog, he is greedy and drinks all the water from the billabongs, the rivers, and the sea. The land becomes dry, and the animals have to work together to find a solution so everyone will have water to drink again.”
Minjarra paused to take a sip of their precious water.
Koen had been listening intently as they sat under the stars in the cold desert night and waited impatiently for his grandfather to resume the story. It told of the consequences of greed, selfishness and not caring for the water, otherwise the plants and animals in the rivers and billabongs would suffer as well as the people who depended on them.
“So do you see, boy, that to survive, we all need to work together?”
Every story he told Koen had a purpose.
Soon enough, Minjarra turned towards home. “Time to leave here, Koen, time to return to your parents and show them the man you have become.”
Koen was grateful for all his grandfather had taught him. About his culture, respect for the land, but best of all he found he was no longer angry at his parents or of the life he’d lived. He learned so much from this wise old man and had answers to questions he’d never known he had.
Quote Prompt for April 2022:
“It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most.
They teach us how to think.
If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact.
But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.”