An Important Relative
By Elsebeth Nielsen, Ballina
Winter had come to the desert at last, dispelling that burning summer heat and bringing morning frosts and a sea of purple flowers. I was filled with a longing for my Nordic homeland and an irresistible urge to embark on early morning walks.
It was after one such outing I discovered that a mangy camp dog had decided to have her litter of pups on the porch, right outside my front door.
I could throw rocks, yell and threaten and generally make it so uncomfortable for the bitch that she eventually might move, but other dogs would just claim the space, so I decided to let her stay.
Nice dogs! Njiltiniri declared, when she saw the new litter.
I dont know about that, but I thought I might as well keep them.
Nooo-no, you cant keep them! My friend pursed her lips in severe disapproval, then continued. Those dogs belonga someone else!
I really dont think so, I laughed. Nobody owns those dogs. Look at the mother, how thin and starving she is.
Yessss. Njiltiniri kept her voice to a whisper. Careful, she might hear!
Who might hear? What are you talking about?
That cousin, she might hear!
What cousin? Does one of your cousins own the dogs?
Wia, no. Dogs belonga that old woman, Tjakila Mother, that blind one!
But Tjakila lives a long way away, I protested. How can the dogs belong to Tjakilas mother? Why are they not with her?
Cup of tea and I tell you!
The obligatory kettle of tea was produced and Njiltiniri started her explanation, still keeping her voice low: That mother dog belonga that old woman. She go where she want, that mother dog, but that old woman always know where that dog is! Make sure she all right!
Well, she doesnt seem to be doing a good job of it, I muttered. The dog is skin and bone and disgustingly mangy. But Njiltiniri took no notice and continued patient, as always, with my many points of ignorance: That dog is that womans cousin. Her dead a long time now!
Aha, so that was the reason for the secrecy. These people believed that the spirit of their dead could return and inhabit the body of a dog, and Tjakilas mother thought that her dead cousins soul now rested inside that scrawny thing outside my front door, and furthermore Njiltiniri believed that the dog could hear her talking about the dead. A big taboo.
But that old woman might give you the puppies, if them not related. We could go and see, Njiltiniri suggested helpfully.
To humour my friend, and for the chance of another adventure, I decided to go along with this strange idea.
We set out to see the old lady in the late afternoon, walking slowly because of the deep cracks in the soles of Njiltiniris feet, a constant source of pain to her. Eventually, just on dusk, we came to a campsite consisting of a collection of motley sheds and lean-tos. Here, Njiltiniri proclaimed that we had reached our goal.
The camp was deserted, apart from an old woman sitting on the ground, carefully tending a small fire. On hearing us approach, she turned and I saw the thick, milky membrane covering her eyes. She was totally blind.
As we sat down, Njiltiniri addressed her in that soft, lilting voice she always used when she wanted something.
The blind woman, in turn, started running her ancient hands along my face and body, leaving streaks of soot and the smell of grease and fire.
Njuntu Balya, are you well? she asked.
Uab, balya! Yes, I am well.
Apparently satisfied with this introduction, Njiltiniri took charge again.
I have told this old woman, she began importantly, that you own many clothesies and that you want those dogs. She say you cant have that cousin, but you can have the puppies. They are not related.
Please tell her thank you very much, I insisted heartily, then remembered that there really wasnt any way that term could be translated, as giving was obligatory and therefore eliminated the need to thank anybody.
Never mind. Njiltiniri dismissed the problem brusquely.
That old woman also say she want a good blanket, a new dress and two jumper instead of those puppies. And that you are her mother-in-law.
Her mother-in-law! I cant be. I am much younger than she is!
Never mind. Again Njiltiniri was dismissive. Thats the way it is.
That night, I fed the mother dog and prepared a bundle of the requested items, adding a beanie for good measure. But a week later the whole family of dogs died of distemper and my front porch remained eerily vacant for the rest of the winter.
Danish born, Elsebeth Nielsen has had an eclectic and unusual life. After training in ceramics, she migrated to Australia in the 1960s and worked as a fashion model, before travelling Asia and then eventually settling with her family on the north coast of NSW. She became passionately involved with the emerging environment movement, as well as working with Aboriginal women artists. Elsebeth has established her own business as a designer and has always dabbled in writing. This story is part of a collection she wrote after spending a year in Central Australia, living and working with the Pitjanjarra people, facilitating art groups for women.