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Bron Trathen / Jed Waverly

"Jay" by Ladislav Hanka

The Desert People


Bron Trathen



A cool breeze on my face woke me. The netting, at the entrance to our orange three-man tent, fluttered as the breeze picked up. The crisp air carried with it the clean smell of eucalypt. I could see the leaves of a young sapling above me through the clear plastic. The first rays of sun lit the delicate twigs of new growth and turned them to a brilliant red against the clear ice blue sky.

Simon, my partner, and I had been in the Tanami desert north of Alice Springs for a week, and it would be an understatement to say it was a culture shock. We were white city dwellers with bourgeois notions of personal hygiene and order. Here in the middle of the desert in this Aboriginal settlement, it was a shock to find the whites were the ones who lived in such filth.

But we were guests, and Jock, the guy who had invited us here, was in charge of the gallery and museum. It had been built for the people as part of the bi-centenary celebrations. We’d met Jock at an exhibition of Aboriginal art in Adelaide. Luckily we had our own tent. His old, pre-fabricated cottage stank, and the fridge had not been cleaned for years. Empty bottles of beer were scattered throughout the place. Signs everywhere along the dusty, corrugated road into the property stated it was a dry community. Everyone knew the Aboriginals had a problem with booze.


On arrival, my initial reaction was to leave immediately, but I found myself drawn to the place. What had happened two days before was extraordinary. I lay there in the warmth of my sleeping bag with the fresh breeze on my face and thought back over the event.

Our job was to set up some administrative processes for receiving artworks from the Aboriginal artists, some of whom travelled hours from outstations to sell their paintings. They were paid a set amount depending on the size of the painting. They got their paints and canvas free, and we documented the stories related to each painting. In telling the stories, we tried to include some of the language from the three different language groups living in the area.

Our presence attracted a lot of attention. The camp kids with their bunged-up eyes and snotty noses would stand outside the large picture window that looked onto the road, pushing their faces against the glass to watch what we were doing. They couldn’t get into the office, as it was full of artists milling around keen to tell their story and get money for their paintings. The place was filled with a pungent smell of beer and stale sweat. I had started to get used to the stink from bodies and clothes that had not seen soap for weeks.

Getting their stories of the “Dreaming” was a slow process as most of them had very little English. It was not uncommon for one painting to be completed by a number of artists from the same skin group with the same “Dreaming.” They would stand around, many too shy to speak. I noticed they would communicate with hand movements. Then the elected spokesperson would try to tell their “Dreaming” in English.



What stood out for me during those days of trying to communicate with these desert people was the humour. It was wonderful to watch their sparkling dark eyes and flashing white teeth as they laughed at each other’s jokes. They seemed such gentle people.






It was 11 o’clock, and we’d been working steadily for about two hours. I was standing by the picture window chatting to a full-blooded Koritsia woman, called Maureen. She worked as the teacher’s aide over in the newly erected school. From where I stood, I could see eight women sitting under a large shade tree painting coolamons commissioned by the National Gallery in Canberra. Traditionally, these coolamons were used to carry fruit and sift seeds and were carved from the tough roots of the local mulga bush. Further up the dirt road stood a number of rather battered old, petrol bowsers. We were a good five hours from Alice, and the community needed their cars to get around.


An old jalopy without a bonnet came tearing along the road leaving a cloud of dust. It pulled up beside the pump. The driver got out and began filling up his car. A noisy motorbike appeared out of the dust. The rider steered the bike onto the side of the road near the petrol pump and jumped off, leaving the bike lying on its side, wheels still spinning. Shouting and waving his arms around, he advanced on the guy at the pump.

Everyone in the office stopped talking and came over to the window. The kids who had been peering in at us shouted something and started running up the hill towards the commotion. A fight broke out between the two young men. They were rolling around kicking up a lot of dust and some of the camp dogs had started barking.

We were all fixed on the fight when we heard howls of anguish coming from the women across the road. They got up, took off their shirts, and, barefooted and with their breasts swinging, started up the hill chanting loudly. They pulled off branches from a nearby tree and surrounded the car. The teacher’s aide turned away from me when I looked at her for some explanation. The women had started lashing out at the car with their branches, wailing loudly. The camp dogs rushed around howling.

Everyone stood there peering at the spectacle through the thick dust haze. None of the male elders were there. Not one. The women continued bashing the car, managing to smash some of the windows. Then two of the women got hold of the young man who had been on the motorbike. They tried to pull him away and started hitting the driver of the car with their branches.

Suddenly they stopped. The dogs stopped howling and lay down on the side of the road. The bare-breasted women threw down their weapons, walked back to where they had been, put on their shirts, sat down and started working.

Shocked, I asked Maureen what it was about, but she just shook her head, said she was ashamed I had seen the violence, turned and left. With eyes lowered, everyone in the office went back to what they had been doing. In somewhat of a daze, Simon and I went back to our work. We had lunch alone in silence.

At about 4 p.m. the next day, three of the elders came in dressed in clean jeans and new shirts. They looked serious when they asked Simon to let them into the men’s sacred section of the museum. About 15 minutes later they appeared with shields and spears and, without acknowledging us, walked out of the building and up the hill. Simon and I looked at each other. ‘What was that about?’ I asked. He shook his head. I had so many questions.






That evening we sat around an open fire under the cool indigo sky thick with stars. It was a gathering of the whites in the community. Present was the white adviser, John, and his wife, Anna, who had spent many years working in Aboriginal communities. They appeared relaxed and at home in the desert. Finally, in response to my many questions, John made an effort to explain the incident:

It was the black man’s law at work. Apparently, the driver of the car had had a sexual relationship with the motorbike owner’s sister. They were the wrong skin combination. Under their law, they could only have sexual relations with someone from a chosen clan outside their own skin group.

As white man’s law had taken over from black man’s law, the community elders could not carry out the traditional punishment. So, to save face, the elders set up a mock battle. Representatives from both clans gathered at a prearranged place some distance from the settlement. In these mock fights they use their traditional weapons. Spears are thrown but without intending to harm anyone. The elders have found this the best way to settle disputes, as they are keen to prevent their people going to prison.

None of the Aboriginal elders offered us any explanation, and I never found out why the women seemed to take charge. I am left with many questions, and sad at the realization that I will never fully understand the cultural differences and complexities of our indigenous people.



Bron Trathen has been writing short stories, plays and poetry since moving to Northern NSW, Australia, from Sydney. This new-found creative expression has given her a lot of satisfaction.


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Jed Waverly



You know the situation. You have told your grandchildren about the house where you grew up. They have never seen it, and you haven’t seen it in thirty years. Life has led you on a journey which, for many reasons, doesn’t bring you back to your hometown.   Who’s to say why that happened?  Some people just grow away from those places and those roots. I suppose you could beat yourself up about it, but that won’t change anything. Life went someplace else and you followed along.


There’s always been a promise, maybe not so much to them as to yourself. When the time is right and there’s an opportunity, we’ll go back and you can show them where you were born and brought up, and where your story began.  But life got busy and other things took over the higher priorities in your life, and the old hometown just got pushed further and further away. You never thought it would happen, but the fact is that you don’t even think about the old place anymore.  It comes up when you have to fill out an application or something like that and it asks for information about where you were born. In a matter of minutes, though, your thoughts have gone on to something else.


So, on a vacation you discover you and your grandkids can take a side trip and run by the old hometown and the old house. You can’t wait to show them where you lived as a kid. It’s amazing how the roads have changed over the years. You can’t believe that you actually make a wrong turn and miss the road that takes you back to those familiar country roads where you learned to drive. You thought you’d never forget those landmarks.


But the familiar barn is gone now, and the milking farm that used to be there is now a grown-over field with a row of inexpensive cracker-box houses built on it. The rural fire department where you went to your first beer party is long gone, replaced by a shop that sells guns. Even the familiar route sign has been refitted with a sign that says “The Corporal Daniel J. Sweeney Memorial Highway.”  Dan Sweeney was a football player who was a couple of years older than you. He was killed in Vietnam. You remember receiving a request for funds for a memorial to him which your cousin mailed to you a long time ago. You can’t remember responding to it. Your cousin died of cancer in 1998.


It’s probably not nice to say, but Dan Sweeney was not all that great a guy. You can remember him hitting on your sister and then dumping her and bragging to his friends about it. She was devastated and never dated again until she went to college the following year. Your father heard the story from one of his friends and had a little “come to Jesus” meeting with Dan one night at the gas station. Dan never looked you in the eye again.  Maybe the Army was good for Dan. He’s a hero now; that’s okay.



As you drive through town the sensation builds that things aren’t the same as they once were. That quaint, pristine Main Street where you shopped for Christmas gifts and met your first girlfriend for a soda in the town drug store looks a little seedy. A number of stores are boarded up; ugly siding has been slapped over the decorative brick front of the First National Bank; there are numerous nail salons and second-hand clothing stores where there once were shops selling quality shoes, men’s clothing, and where your parents bought their first television set. It was a Motorola. Your father and a neighbor put their lives at risk attaching the antenna to the chimney on the roof.


Even the old high school is gone, providing a parking lot for cars of people who don’t come downtown shopping anymore. They all go to the shopping centers in the next town.  There are lots of memories of that school that are products of your delete button and friendships long rusted by neglect on your part.


Every now and then an email or a Facebook entry comes your way from a former high school friend or about a reunion that you will miss. You ran into one of your old friends at an airport in San Francisco a few years ago and shared a drink with her before your flight was called. Melissa said she is a manufacturer’s rep and travels a lot. There wasn’t all that much to talk about. Once the nostalgia stuff was covered you discovered that you and Melissa had little in common. When you shook hands and said goodbye it was pretty clear to you…and probably to her also…that there wouldn’t be any follow up. You can’t even remember where she lives or what she said her married name was. Her card was lost along with any promises to keep in touch.


The town’s Main Street hotel was torn down years ago and was replaced with a big box drug store. Your senior prom was held in that hotel’s “ballroom,” which was actually the big dining room where the Kiwanis Club met every week. It seemed pretty elegant at the time, but that was before you stayed at the Fairmont in San Francisco or went to the Drake in Chicago for that writer’s seminar.


The number of For Sale and For Lease signs on the buildings is incredible. Lots of them are from the DeSantis Realty Company. Angelo DeSantis was in your class. His father had a real estate office in his house, from which he sold houses when he wasn’t working at the post office. Makes you wonder if this is Angelo’s business now. If so, it doesn’t look very prosperous. Angelo played the trombone in the high school band.


The drive by the factory where your father worked is almost as surprising. The big sign at the entrance says it is no longer the Burgoyne Paper Box Company, but is now a small plastic shield manufacturer owned by some company name Kitagawa Manufacturing.  Most of the factory is empty and there are a couple of other small companies with what appears to be space more dedicated to warehousing than manufacturing. Before he retired and your parents moved to Arizona your father had been the personnel director responsible for over seven hundred employees of “The Box,” as the local residents called it.



The grandkids have stopped asking questions from the back seat, and your stories seem to drift off instead of ending. Your heart sinks and your enthusiasm for this project wanes.


But the hardest moments are to come when driving by the old family home. It is now a multi-family house, and it hasn’t been painted in years. The apple tree in the side yard is just a stump, having been cut down a decade ago. You and your friend Ron used to climb that tree, believing that the best apples were the ones at the top.  Ron fell out of it when you were just nine, breaking his ankle. For just a moment you wonder where Ron is these days. You had connected one summer in college when you both worked at the same restaurant. But even then you were growing apart. It’s been years since you saw each other.


The window of your bedroom is patched with cardboard.  That bedroom was small and didn’t have a closet, but it was a great room. The bunk beds in it meant that Ron could sleep over frequently, and the conversations you held late at night were rich and memorable. It was just a couple of years ago that you wrote a short story about something Ron had told you about his uncle, a recluse who whittled Civil War soldiers and sold them to a toy company in Massachusetts. That story was told in those bunk beds when the sleepover in the back yard got rained out. Now there’s cardboard covering the window.


You are experiencing solastalgia, a word meaning the distress or melancholy caused by a significant change to one’s local environment. You found that word online one day and wrote a blog posting about it. It describes change which has taken place bringing about sadness. What was once nostalgia and homesickness has morphed into distress and melancholy. What was isn’t anymore. The stories you told about sleeping out in the back yard with your best buddy and selling lemonade from the front sidewalk seem to your grandkids to be inconsistent with what they are viewing. Your wife is remarkably silent…having nothing she can add to the moment to make things better.


You’d love to jump out of the car to see if your initials are still embedded in the front sidewalk from when your dad spent a hot and muggy July Saturday pouring cement to replace the broken sidewalk. Is it possible that the wooden cigar box you buried in the back yard holding the body of your cat that was hit by a car could still be there? How could you have learned to ride a bike on this street with all the pot holes in it?  How can that twenty-something dare to sit there on the steps to your old house and smoke pot in the middle of the day?


The stories will never again be the same, and they may never even exist again.  Solastalgia is a progressive, incurable disease. As you steer the car out of town back toward the superhighway on route to restarting your vacation trip, you find yourself making a silent promise that you will probably never come back here again. It was a mistake to believe that it would be the same. It would have been better to have lived in the unadulterated memory of those stories from your childhood…a long time ago.



Jed Waverly lives in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the author of The Penultimate Word, a daily blog found at . 

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