When I am old my right ankle will take twenty-eight minutes to grease up in the morning. I will limp and hobble until it does and think of all the times it bent the wrong way under my misplaced weight. I will strain to see the part of the sky just over the horizon while I hold my coffee and a folded newspaper or some other piece of paper to fold when there are no newspapers. I will fill my days with people close and those I do not care for. I will read and mutter.
I will remake all the memories until they are something I want to hold in auburn seasons. I will work them in the dimming light of too many things seen.
I will sit with my old ankle and coffee and read and remake my youth.
Researchers spend years traversing the brain’s folding hillocks of gyri in greys and whites. Those who track the paths of memory would once have said,
“A memory made is a trail tramped across the rambling bush. To make a path of it amongst the tangled undergrowth that trail must be walked again and many times again. When it is walked enough it becomes the landscape itself, present for many decades unless left to total neglect. Leave the walking through that former day too long and the bush claims back its land.”
But they were too certain of permanence. Today’s tracker of memory’s wanderings would say instead,
“ Memories have never been carved or etched or tattooed or burned in place. They are in pencil. A memory is just the latest version. There are no landscapes to scar with worn ruts because every time it is told again the brain has a new story. Your memory is as reliable as the Uncle whose stories you avoid at Christmas lunch.”
This is what the rodents tell us. Rodents have told us that every time there is a memory to make it is built with proteins. And then they told us that every time they rebuild that memory they use the proteins but it’s not quite the same. Every retrieval of the past involves a new imagining of the story from today’s brain. I am not a curator of knowledge in a vault. I rewrite tales from the past in my new words.
I will have to write down the memories now for reading in my paper later.
We asked them to come. Well we arrived on one of the overland trucks, a relic of old wars now made to carry backpackers across borders of Africa, each company with its own bright colours to help shambling drunks find them in crowded campsites. This spot has just our truck.
So we stopped to spend an afternoon haggling to summon warriors from the hills.
[Stop. Add Bob Marley and several Wailers, pitch tent, eat food, ignore fellow travellers who come from our hometown but tried to win us with stories of lazy, bludging Aborigines.]
Returning to the site there’s a fire and distraction from the 40-something year old man who did the haggling and in the darkness a fence is built of scattered whistles, closing. We’re waiting for the Maasai of the warrior life, cattlemen bonded in the lion hunt. For generations such warriors have been temporary castoffs from their homes but inside a culture where they must provide their own shelter, hunt and confront the broad hostility of the African bush.
We are now able to pitch a tent that arrived packaged and with instructions with more speed than we did a few weeks ago while we wait for those on meal duty to cook food bought from shops from lists prepared by a guide.
The warriors emerge between trees and stand proud and awkward dusting the end of spears, red clay smeared through long hair and over their faces.
They all belong in school.
We have been sixteen hours from the big rock at the centre of Australia for one month. We are near the Gunbarrel Highway, named for its curves. The days rise and fall with a walk through red sands. Every few days we are told the secret of the oxides that give this dust the glow of a deeper earth that stains somewhere under the skin.
“Y’know what makes it so red? It’s the oxides.” There are seven more lots of four before we move on in our travels.
My one-day wife and I came to this community to be students in a clinic run by nurses of the frontier. Most of these nurses have two names, adopted to respect those once called the same but who have now passed on. These nurses assure us we are useful with the things we learnt from books that have never been tested beyond a page or in a room that wasn’t air-conditioned. We are now familiar with the “Dance of the Looking Interested but not Worried” and the “International Symbols for Conveying that Nothing is Serious” amongst other medical skills. These can be our calling cards.
In the third week the local master of many trades, a shovel-handed partner of one of the nurses, makes sure I can fire a rifle before returning to a city. It is vital that I understand the force of a gun horse-kicking my shoulder while my eyes blink and the bullet vanishes on an aimless path. This is vital before I can understand the world he says. My shoulder wonders for two days if he thought this was the essential lesson of life before he grew his first beard in the cloistered sweat of Vietnam.
In the fifth week there is a very auspicious invitation to join local females of the community on a hunt for sand goannas. Up early, they drive across repeating landscapes with the sun shifting overhead as they turn, speaking in a language of excitement we will never grasp. We are in Ngaanyatjarra land. Then occasionally,
“That over there, see where that tree stump is?” The back of the hand raised to point out a torched grey shell of old tree on the ridge.
“You walk just beyond there to the next hill you find, we call that ‘Three Horse Hill’ because there was a fence there before that kept in three horses. When you find that hill you always know where you are.” I can only just see the inner charcoal of old branches burnt in an old fire.
(Later, when we ask about this spot at the clinic there is not a person who can remember any artefact of settlers living near that hill. The agreed history of the area says there was last a horse there eighty years earlier.)
The car stops at the spot at the side of the road where the dust piles thicker.
“We’ll go that way.” The sun is two thirds of the way to its full height and there are insects on all sides calling down all the heat it can offer. We walk in single file for ten long minutes, three ladies up the front, two kids both less than six, then the guests. Our steps shift the sands, slipping back with each step forward while the locals seem to move their feet within the same soil, two steps to our three.
Our leader turns around. She’s a local matriarch who works in the clinic and she provided the tickets. On every day she stands higher than me with a ready smile. Imposing though. Today she seems many feet taller.
“Where’s the car?”
In every direction there are clumps of grass, trees that couldn’t bear to stretch further than four feet from the earth, and sand dunes. My pointing hand is more of a shrug than a direction.
There is a lot of laughter. She asks the same of the smallest child. Four years old and pointing out a completely different bearing. One hand raised, strong and quick. She is greeted with a nod and more walking.
We have our orders. If something happens, the four year old is in charge.
The Best Quote
“Being sensible isn't always the best thing. Who says that being sensible is a sign of quality? I don't think so.”
(Being Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, MD and Doctor also in the beautiful game.)
Speaking to Alex Bello in The Observer, June 2010.
Events to Write Down Later
“The Day of Surfing in the Absence of a Board in the Large Waves.”
“The Day of Cutting Keys to Work in the Music Studio Out of Hours.”
“The Many Days of Walking along a Desert Airstrip.”
“A Morning, Blindfolded, Underwater in a Replica Helicopter”.
“The Start of the Years of Loss of a Son”.
“The Afternoon of Stalking a Cobra with a Tuberculosis Patient.”
“The Later Afternoon of the Tuberculosis Patient Lighting Petrol Across the Cobra’s Home.”
“The Eight Days of Driving in India.”
“The Day of Marrying a First Love Met at School.”
“The Night of Meeting a Plane on Flattened Dust.”
“The Holiday of the Horse Kicking.”
“The Tour of the Whitewater Rafting and the Oafish Norwegian Landing on My Shin.”
“Medicine: The Many Years.”
“The Month of the Overseas Troika of Young Children.”
“The Extermination of the Many Spiders.”
“The Day of Wearing a Wetsuit in the Mountains.”
“The Dinner of the Asking for an Autograph.”
“The Movie of the Toddler Climbing Alone into the Pool”
“The Many Times of Saying ‘Yes’.”
We are the gathering that was called here. Nine people ring one spot underneath the open beams of a suburban verandah. There is talking almost without introductions and there is a known choreography we all shared before arriving. Afternoon sun is being washed clean by the babbling of a magpie’s song.
For now we work as a team to restore the mist of breath. We handle the heart, an open-handed punch through ribs repeated. We work in shifts of minutes to find blood, add medicine and make plans to leave. Over beyond the edge of this smaller group there are parents in broken moments of conversation with others in uniform. Those of us gathered closer under this verandah speak only by our efforts on the ground.
Later we will hear stories of times online and words typed by whole classes from school. We will read of the bafflement and confusion and loss of the many who had thought they were all around, ready to lend a hand but never called. They are left, still ready but too late.
Those of us who gathered under the verandah will try to write the story starting with those few minutes and arcing back over an imagined history of someone else’s life. We will try to fit her story into our grid of how the world makes sense.
For now we plan our leaving though words are fewer. We repeat the steps of our choreography. Breathing in and out. The rhythm measured out on the ribs. We repeat the steps again. We call out the minutes. We are ready to leave.
We are working together under the cut end of the rope.
They are looking at red sand. The red sand is everywhere between the clumps of grass and shrunken trees. Where I see grains swept into small dry riverbeds, our leader Jo sees stories.
Here is the story of the sand goanna, leaving the heights of the tree and scrambling across the sand. Just there it stopped and raised a half-cocked head, looking all sides. There it started moving quicker, back legs clawing at yielding earth. Where its tail has swept away the sand, Jo can see the most recent tracks. They lead to a hole.
Once we arrive at the start of the hole there is excitement as if a contest between hunter and reptile is imminent. The coda is already known though. Sand goannas are to be admired for their driven, one track approach to a challenge. When that applies to the challenge of claiming hollowed earth for a home, they stop at the first plan. There is no second entry to the burrow.
For now long spikes are used to dig along the tunnel and the minutes are short. A tail marked with rippling stripes of colour emerges first, flailing. A few seconds more and the lizard is caught, then broken with a wrenching crack. The four year old is given the prize to carry and its tail marks another of those dry riverbeds as we seek out a new set of sand-sweeping tracks.
Within an hour we have three more and a fire is being prepared to burn low, the glow of coals watching us. Before the end of today our guides will have us dig out roots of trees and collect leaves from dour desert shrubs for medicine. Me and my one-day wife have been shown around the edges of a people bigger than my grasp. Now they prepare the meal.
“Which way is the car?”
I point to the four-year old and shrug to more laughter. I have found where I fit in this trip. A guest for curiosity value given the job of providing a bit of cluelessness to marvel at.
We are offered the tail, prime cut of this lizard. The eating amongst the bones seems almost harder work than the hunting. No one mentioned the taste. We have been handed the chicken of the desert.
There is a cow waiting twenty steps away this morning after the night before when there was dancing and jumping and songs and pairs of warrior hands examining the miraculous long blonde hair of my one-day wife. We are waiting for a demonstration of an old culture by the young warriors. The Maasai drink the blood of their cows mixed with milk at specific times. Ceremonies and special occasions. When travellers with money arrive on old trucks.
The master of ceremonies steps forward. It is his job to explain the custom, the gourd, the mixing and the lot of the cow. He says the animal will not be hurt but will lend the strength of its falling blood to the warriors. Two youths come forward to secure the cow, loose curtains of neck skin shaking as it tries to flex free of their hold. All movement is in silence. A loose rope pulling tighter at the base of the neck and still the cow is patient. No lowing. One more shake.
One of the warriors steps forward, bow and arrow ready, now bending at the waist to match the level of the cow. Four voices, three hands tracing out the jugular of this cow then the bow string reaching back. A release and nothing more than a small thud, wood dropped on leather. Not a mark.
Last night around the fire we heard the stories fit for travellers. These boys entered warrior life not that long after the confused sweat of puberty came on. It was sealed at Emuratta, a circumcision ritual taking place after seven days of herding and on the eighth day a cold shower and a walk. On the walk past the family there may be encouragement. Or threats to maim if the new warriors get it wrong. A flinch when the knife falls would be too much.
Eight voices now with lots of words and the cow takes one step back then forward, subdued by hands on its ears. The limbs of the bow flex their tips closer. Another release.
Thud. This is the sound I’ll recall when we are in a theme restaurant eating zebra the next night. Each conference longer than the last. Last week they were hunting big cats together. Did the talking last as long as over this cow? The cow is looking up at the ring of warriors but then away. They had its attention. It has gone.
Eleven shots in total. And now the cow is grazing, next to the gourd that lies empty on the ground.