Port Fairy, Victoria 1859
I am grown now; and the sperm whales and the southern rights that brought the ships here seeking their precious oil and the bones which make corsets for ladies in far-away places no longer visit. But still the people come, and the farming settlement thrives. Port Fairy, named for a sea captain who landed in this spot, part of the Port Phillip District in the great southern land.
“He were a whaler from Van Diemen’s Land,” my Gran would add. “Looking for convicts who’d pinched a sealing boat and run.”
“Did they catch them and put them in chains?” my brother Jim would ask wide-eyed, clasping his knees to his chest.
“Never did hear what become of them,” Gran would answer. That was no part of the old tale.
I barely recall the voyage to Melbourne. Families crowded cheek by jowl on the lower decks, babies born on board, I have heard these tales so many times I see them in my head but whether memory or stories I can no longer tell. I only recall the heaving and creaking of the ship, the stink of salt mixed with vomit from seasick passengers, Mam’s screams when the great waves came, Gran’s stringy arms wrapped tight around Jim and me, bony fingers digging into our shoulders. I had hoped for sea monsters but only dolphins swam alongside our ship as we reached calmer waters.
“Farming in the western district” I had heard my parents tell the neighbours before we left Ireland. Where was the western district I wondered? Was it further than Dublin?
But though the voyage has almost vanished from my memory, the time before it has not. Standing on the seashore with Jim and Gran. The waves rolling in from the Irish sea, each bigger than the last.
“Watch for the seventh wave if you would keep your pinafore dry,” Gran warned. Jim and I crept through the ripples at the edge of the sea. “One, two, three,” we chanted, edging further from the shore. Jim rolled up his trousers and I held my petticoats high above my ankles. “Not so high, Miss Finola,” Gran called from the shore. I drop the hem just in time for a bigger wave to soak me to the knees. Jim hoots with glee, “Seven, it was seven!”
They are building a brick courthouse so that the lawless may receive full due process. It will be the first courthouse in Victoria’s western district. And now Port Fairy has been renamed Belfast, for it is from that Irish city, so far away, that the important man came who drained the swamps and built the harbour.
I have watched as they dredge the river between the port and the tiny Griffith Island so that greater ships may come. My husband shakes his head and says they will not succeed. Wandering along the river I see boys with horsehair fishing lines in their hands. Now and again, there is a shout of triumph, a flash of silver scales, a thrashing tail, and another fish flops into a pail, gasping its life away.
I remember the first time Jim fished on the bank of the Moyne River. He had lopped a thin branch from a tree for a rod, but it was the bait on the bent pin hook which drew my attention.
“Ugh,” I said, watching the wriggling, fat, white grub. “Never seen a worm like that before.” He laughed, dangling the hook before my face. “Better hope I catch some fish then, or we’ll be eating some of these for tea.” It is five years since his fishing boat was lost in a so’westerly, and his face is fading in my memory, but I can still hear his laugh.
November, and the great birds we call muttonbirds for their flavour are with us again, circling in the air over Griffith Island where they nest. I smack my lips at the thought of roast muttonbird. Their oil can be used in lamps, but Mam could never abide the stink.
Across the river broods a line of scrub. Bushland has been cleared away on the town side of the river but over there the bush remains, betwixt river and sea. I imagine I see faces, strange black faces, peering between the branches. Like the bush and the whales they are gone, driven away, corralled like some strange species of animal in reservations. Or killed by white men who had not sailed halfway round the world to have their dreams of land, their farming, spoiled by these strange people who did not understand our way of life.
“They think to come and go as they please,” Da groused. “Five or six of their women and girls, picking berries where the sheep graze.”
“Bold as brass,” Mam shook her head as she slapped the dough with floury hands. She squinted at the spongy mass and shook out a little more of the precious flour. Her mind was on her cooking, but she knew better than to ignore my father.
Our cottage, newly built of whitewashed stone, stood beside the river. I do not remember those first days, for it seemed I had been waking always to the raucous cries of the cockatoos, exploding in a white cloud towards the sky.
The wind sighs in the trees. In this alien new land, they shed strips of bark instead of leaves. Branches sway and curtsey. Dry leaves, their fingers dangling in clusters, rustle like ladies’ silk skirts. A single bird pipes and is answered by a second, a musical call-and-response. Strange creatures with unfamiliar notes. At home in Ireland, I knew them all, the red-breasted robin, the sober-hued blackbird with its liquid trill. There are birds here we have named magpies but though they resemble their northern cousins, their song is melodic, a gentler wakening.
It was very hot that day as I stood on the beach at the east side of the town. Surf rolled in and I longed to lie in its embrace. I looked about me. There was no one in sight. I felt a foolish grin spread across my face. Stripping off pinafore, frock, shift and drawers, I dashed into the water shrieking with exhilaration at the shock of chill water.
“One, two, three,” I counted but I had got no further than four before a whirling tunnel of foam knocked me from my feet. Gasping for air I surfaced, reaching with my toes for solid sand. But I could no longer feel the bottom and the water was tugging at me, dragging me away from the beach. My little pile of clothes was receding into the distance, a speck of brown and white on the sand.
“Help,” I screamed, flailing my arms. I was going to drown. A wave dashed across my head, engulfing me. Screaming again, water rushed into my nose and mouth as the rip tide spat me out, hurling me at a rock protruding from the seabed before blackness descended.
Half conscious, I was only dimly aware of strong hands, of the bobbing sensation like a small boat. When I woke it was twilight. Sandy grit clogged my nose and ears. My head hurt worse than a hiding from Da. Leaning over me was a black face. I gaped at the naked child, a girl of about my own age squatting beside me. I was lying beside a fire of wood and fragrant burning leaves at the top of the beach. A warm, heavy blanket of skins covered me and one of the native’s bark canoes was beached close by.
The girl grinned, a flash of white teeth in the gloom. Taking my hand, she turned it over and fitted her palm to mine. I giggled, but it ended in a belch of sandy grit and worsened the pain in my head. Dropping my hand, she called out. A woman appeared, carrying a wooden bowl. Settling herself cross-legged on the ground beside me, she began smearing a thick paste smelling of the leaves on the trees over the wound on my head.
I attempted sitting up, but my head swam and I felt sick. “I must go home,” I said. “My family will be worried.” The urgency in my voice must have made my meaning clear for the child disappeared into the dusk, returning with my clothes. They helped me dress, fingering the cloth-covered buttons and holding up the drawers, laughing.
The girl fetched a tall man with long arms, longer legs and an anxious expression. Bending, he scooped me into his arms. Then he tramped towards the township, the confident step of a man who was accustomed to walking long distances. I clung to his neck, the bouncing, rocking stride of his bare feet quite different from being carried pick-a- back by Da or Uncle Jonas.
As he reached the row of cottages by the river, I heard a shout, “Finola, there she is!” A group of men and boys, shadows dancing in the glow of their lanterns, was coming towards us. There was a bellow of fury from Da. “What have you done to her you black devil?” My guide hesitated, then advanced to meet them.
“Wait Matt. He may mean no harm,” my uncle cautioned. Da broke into a run. The next moment he had snatched me from the arms of my rescuer. I had a moment’s impression of the tall man standing with empty arms swinging by his sides. There were threatening murmurs from the other men, until Uncle Jonas said, “Let him be. We have her safe. Let us think no harm until we knows different.”
“Let us think no harm.” Those words confused me for had he and the other natives not saved me from a watery grave and brought me home?
Mam met me with tears and a cuff on the ear. Clucking over the gash on my head, she bundled me into my bed. “Pfth, what’s that?” She sniffed the dried paste covering the wound, wrinkling her nose. “We’ll take a look at it in the morning. That and other things.”
Standing in the doorway, fists clenched, Da muttered something. “In the morning,” Mam repeated. “She’s had a fall and hit her head. There may be no more to it than that. Calm down, Matt.”
I woke to the cries of the cockatoos and to my head thumping. Mam was sitting on a stool beside me, knitting in her ever-busy hands. Sitting up in my truckle bed I felt my head.
“A bump like a duck’s egg, Finola. That’s what comes of running off when you should be minding the hens or tending the tattie patch.” Her smile removed the sting from her words if not from my head. “Now you’ll be telling me just how that native came to be carrying you.”
The relating of my tale did not take long. She listened the while, clutching the forgotten knitting needles like a knife and fork with white-knuckled hands.
“And the man,” she hesitated, “Did he touch you now?”
I stared at her. “He was carrying me, Mam. How could he not?”
She looked down at her hands and began knitting again, jerking and knotting the wool.
“Now that’s not what I’m meaning, Finola.” I waited for her to explain but she knitted on in silence. During the next few days, I saw sidelong glances between Mam and the other women whenever I appeared, but nothing more was said to me.
My head mended in time; and I had almost forgotten my mishap until one washday. After feeding the hens and helping Mam heave the dirty linens into the copper, I knew she would not miss me for an hour or more. She would think I was visiting Gran. Dinner on washday was cold meat and yesterday’s soda bread so I would not be needed in the kitchen.
Munching a slice of bread spread with dripping, I skipped beside the river until I was beyond the township. The sun was high in the sky by the time I reached my favourite place, a hollowed-out cave inside the trunk of a huge tree. The opening was like a doorway, higher than my head. It was my secret, or so I thought. Perched inside on a heap of dry leaves and bark, I licked greasy fingers and shook my pocket inside out in the search for crumbs. With every morsel gone, I sat hugging my knees, watching the flickering pattern cast by sunbeams and moving branches.
One minute I was alone and then the native girl was standing in the opening, her body blocking a part of the light. Feeling shy at seeing her again, I shifted sideways, patting the crackling heap of leaves in welcome.
“Come in.” But she had darted away in apparent alarm. Reappearing moments later, she grabbed my hand, pulling me to my feet.
“Ow, let go,” I groused. Seven or eight native women were coming towards us singing and dancing. They were making for my tree. The girl shoved me in the opposite direction. My afternoon spoiled by their intrusion I sulked my way home.
The next morning, I awoke to irate voices.
“Gone, I tell you, gone! Three couple of ewes and the ram with the black face. Bastard natives have got them.”
“Might they not have wandered, Matt?” Mam’s voice, swiftly followed by the sound of a slap.
“Do you not think I have searched for them high and low, woman?”
I pulled the blanket over my head, stuffing my fingers in my ears. When, finally, I pulled them out there was silence. I crept into the kitchen. Mam, a red mark across her cheekbone, was taking a hot smoothing iron to the pile of clean linen. I could see that she had been crying. Slinking out of the backdoor I went searching for Jim. He was in his own favourite hiding place when there was trouble, under the cover of the new bridge, whittling at sticks with his knife.
“Finnie, why are you here?” Frowning, he continued his task with sharp, angry strokes of the knife. I asked him if he knew anything about the sheep.
“The natives will have pinched them. If Da and the men catch them, they’ll have their guts for garters.”
“The sheep?” I asked stupidly.
Jim threw a look of scorn at me. “The natives of course. Why are girls such ninnies? I could track them if I took the pony.”
“What do you know of tracking, Jim Ryan?” I heard Mam in my jeering tones. Flushing with anger, Jim threw down the stick and stormed off.
Da was missing at dinner time. He arrived home as it grew dark and sat at the kitchen table in moody silence while Mam served him cold boiled bacon.
“We found nothing,” he said finally. “Some of the men saw a hunting party today. Carrying spears but nary a trace of any sheep. Too clever it seems. But I’ll not be outsmarted by a pack of thieving heathens. They’ll pay dearly for this.”
“What do you think he meant?” I whispered to Jim when we were lying in our beds staring at the stars through the gap in the shutters. But my brother’s wild guesses did not come close.
It was a few days later and I was minding the remaining sheep, keeping a wary eye for the wild dogs called dingoes which had been spotted close to the township. A group of women and girls carrying woven bags emerged from the scrub. They wove their way between the bushes and the dense long grasses, bending and gathering.
And here came Jim, riding towards me on the pony. I can see him now, the flies buzzing around its shaggy mane, the sack dangling from Jim’s hand. My big brother, 11 years old, his face serious, self-important, sitting bolt upright in the saddle.
“Finnie, can you give me a drink? My bottle’s empty and it’s a fair way to the creek.”
I hand him my water bottle and he swigs from it, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
“What’s in the sack?” I ask.
“Mam made some damper,” he says.
“Is it warm?” My belly rumbles at the thought of the stockman’s campfire bread. It seems a long time since breakfast.
“Yes, no. Not for you, Finola. Not this time.” His gaze slides away from me. Are his eyes those of a different person, or is it the passage of time which has changed their expression?
Puzzled, I watch the pony trot towards the native women. I recognise my friend working beside her mother, their fingers deft, industrious. Jim reins in near them and drops two rounds of damper on the ground. Riding away, he digs his heels into the pony’s sides until it breaks into a lumbering canter.
And sometimes in my dreams I run towards the women shouting “Don’t eat it! Leave it alone!” But only in my dreams. And if I had, would they have listened? For they did not speak the white man’s murderous language.
(Remembering the massacres of the Eastern Maar people in the Port Fairy area of southwest Victoria from 1837-44)