Finding Compass

 

There are other lands that lie on earth and on sea.
Their stories have been chronicled by others, such
as Professor Su Urguin. The chronicles are sometimes
long and detailed – adventures within adventures,
some of which are referred to as fantasy or legend.
This is an untold chronicle, short and true.

The young prince knew that they were lost after they left the land of the dragons where death and confusion reigned. He and the wizard were hopeful of their return home where songs were sung and names named.

A wind that could not be assuaged by any wizardry crept up and took them beyond the west and the reaches of the lands they knew.

“We must let ourselves be taken,” the wizard advised him. “There is something we must witness.”

The prince did not question; he knew better. He knew the silence of deep thought and the silence of mustering up strength. He had learned to use the silences for his own thought. He looked at the compass, its needle casting about wildly, and wondered about its meaning.

He now knew that there were many compasses that did not advise only on north, south, east and west. He had learnt of his own compass: that instrument that guided him in directions he must take if he was to understand his people and make decisions for their commonwealth. He had tried to understand the wizard’s compass so that he could understand him. He still wanted to know why he had allowed a mad man, afraid of water, to sail with them and place them in danger and then allow him to die. In doing so, they themselves had barely escaped death. He thought at the time that his life had been held in little esteem. When questioned, the wizard had responded in riddles.

The wind took them beyond what was known from their maps. The sea they crossed was broad and unending, sometimes as still as a pond. To look down was to stretch one’s eyes into the unfathomable. Occasionally a flock of birds, a black, speckled cloud, flew high above, arrow shaped, moving as one with single purpose. In contrast, he and the wizard had no articulated purpose but rather were the purpose of some other thing, as unfathomable as the depths below.

The only constant was the pod of whales. How the prince looked forward to their sightings. He would sit and watch them float on the rolling water, before they dived and resurfaced, releasing water like silver fountains reaching toward the sky. He rejoiced in the whale song and lifted his cracked voice to join with them. Sometimes he and the wizard tied a rope around his waist and he dived into the water to swim amongst them. They called to him and he wanted to release himself and follow them but the wizard had tied the rope firmly and watched him closely. Both knew that the whales were part of their story and that they must stay together if the story was to unfold.

Days merged into nights and into more days and nights. It no longer mattered whether it was one or the other. They must hang onto life and eek out their provisions and lick their parched lips and preserve their fluids. And so they travelled an unnameable distance for unnameable days.

And now, after the wearisome days and nights, they saw strange boats in the distance. The boats followed the whales and sometimes the sea was red and it was not the reflection of sunsets. Then the boats disappeared and the sea was blue once more.

Twice this happened. They did not understand and on the third occasion they followed the boat by stealth; the wizard for the first time using his power so they were unseen.

They saw the huge lifeless carcasses of the whales dragged across the sea behind the boats. The waves gently washed them. Occasionally they heard the words and songs of a strange language carried in the wind.

“What is this?” The prince asked. “Why do they kill the whales? Who are these people?”

“I know not but I do know they are not of our world or our time.”

“I do not understand.”

“We have sailed too far west. We are not of our time.”

“What time then?”

“Not ours,” was all that was said.

And the prince wondered no longer that their compass was useless but worried whether they could turn back and sail eastward where the sun rose over the lands he loved and longed to see.

After three days of trailing the boats and their gruesome cargo, they caught sight of land. As they neared it they saw the outline of the coast and the small islands that lay not far off it. They saw a long wide beach that blended with the flat land behind it that in turn met the rise of stony outcrops further inland. Invisible, they cruised beside the boats into the harbour and saw large rough buildings where men, strangely attired, walked about. The pungent smell of death clung to the sea air.

They found a river estuary to moor their boat. They ate fresh fish beside a crackling fire and drank sweet water from the stream where strange animals came to drink, who, when sensing an unknown presence, bounded away on huge haunches setting up a trail of dust behind them. Overhead birds with golden crowns called harshly to one another.

The next day, refreshed from fresh food and sleep they set out. They stayed away from the foul smelling settlement and walked along the blond beach. Occasionally they saw men, black and tall, carrying spears, fishing. The men did not see them and now they realised that in this place and time they were invisible. They followed a small family group and watched as they picked berries. The two visitors tasted the berries which were sweet and thirst quenching.

In the late afternoon they retraced their steps. Still they were unsure why they had been led here.

On the beach lay a whale. They puzzled how it had arrived. Had it broken its moorings or had it been injured and disorientated and washed onto the shore? Families of the black people were gathering around the whale, bringing with them wood from the foreshore to build a pyre. There was much singing and rejoicing and the travellers could see that they were preparing for a great feast. Some sliced the flesh of the whale from the carcass with sharp flint; others painted their faces and big barrelled chests. They called to each other in their language which was like the sounds of birds singing.

The sun was hovering just above the horizon sending out long rays of golden light across the sea that began to change colour. Now the fires had taken and the smell of cooking meat filled the air. The people sat in a circle clapping sticks, singing. The men danced; their long, fine limbs bending to the music, their feet stamping the ground. As the two strangers observed they saw that as they danced the men transformed themselves into whales playing in the ocean, calling to one another, celebrating their life. And they knew this was thanksgiving.

Suddenly the wizard, who had been watching intently and with amusement, stiffened. He looked about him anxiously. He muttered and then began a chant of his own. He looked as if he was using all his effort to push his words out towards the celebrating families.

In the distance other sounds were heard: other voices, the neigh of horses and explosions.

The dancing stopped. The people on the beach seemed frozen. A man, fully clothed, his face pale and mottled, rode up to the feasting families. He pointed to the whale and the prince saw that he was angry. The man tried to stamp out the fires and disturb the cooking. The men closed in on him and shouted, pointing to the sea and miming the whale struggling against death before rolling in the waves that swept it ashore. The man pointed to the town to the west and the boats with their harpoons and gesticulated that the whale belonged to them. The black people were unconvinced.

Suddenly the man wheeled around on his horse, knocking over and trampling a child who barely had time to cry before he died. The rider pounded up the beach. The mother ran to the broken body, keening in a high strangulated voice.

The wizard chanted, holding his staff in front of him. Behind the measured words the prince could hear his desperation as if he was trying to convince his words that they had some meaning here.

The black people too were on edge and the men armed themselves with their spears. The women gathered their children and some started to move away from the beach toward the stony rises.

The air behind them filled with sounds and calls and the explosions grew louder. Some white men on horses and others on foot ran towards the groups of families, closing off escape. They carried large sticks from which fire shot and some had knives which were not made of stone. They drove into the group of black people.

Time was suspended as the prince and the wizard looked on in shock. And then there was silence except for the crackling fire. The bodies of the naked black people lay on the pale beach and the water rolled in, taking some of the bodies out to sea. The army of attackers looked around them. At first they too seemed shocked by what they had done but this was only briefly, before they began slapping each other’s backs while kicking the lifeless bodies and cheering.

The wizard was silent, his body slumped. The prince sobbed at the horror of what he had seen. At last the wizard spoke: “I have no words for this and no name for what we have seen. My power is nothing here.”

“Why did they do this?”

“They lay hold of all life, including that of the dead whale. They want to own all.”

“But the whale is not theirs, dead or alive.”

“That is what the black people said.”

“And now?”

“And now they believe that they have convinced the people that they are right.”

“But the people are dead.”

“Yes, they cannot eat the whale meat. And so they have been convinced.”

The prince did not understand and was too numb to try.

The bodies were left where they fell as a warning to others. The air was putrefied. None from the town came to see or offer help. Instead there was celebrating in the town as if life was nought. The prince remembered the dying dragon on the beach of the dragon’s land. He recalled the wheeling flight of the dragons and how they had lost sense of right and wrong and turned on each other. They had no name for what they were doing because they had lost the power of naming.

The prince and the wizard prepared to leave. They filled the boat with fresh water and berries. As they slid into the sea and sailed past the town, the wizard stood straight, his staff before him.

“They believe that there were no witnesses to this action they refuse to name. But we have witnessed it and in time our witness will bear testimony to this heinous act. These people are lost and do not know how to find themselves. Their descendants will have to face what has been done here.”

“Is that why were here?”

“I think so but I wish it were not so and that I could have wielded my powers.”

“You did your best, I know this.”

“But it was not good enough.”

The prince had no words of comfort. The boat skimmed lightly across the waters and the land disappeared. He looked at the compass and saw that it gave direction. He knew that they would reach familiar lands soon, where he could understand and where, when the mantle fell on him, he could rule wisely and well.

Links
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_of_Indigenous_Australians
Clark, Ian D. (1998). “Convincing Ground”. Scars in the Landscape: A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria, 1883 – 1859. Museum Victoria.
Martin Boulton, Anger over plans to build on massacre site, The Age, 28 January 2005. Accessed 20 May 2017