Sally Judson (Fr 2015) has been awarded first place in the Principal’s Prize for Prose for her thought provoking piece entitled “Drought of the Land.” The artist statement and full prose is featured below.
“Like a lot of young people from rural NSW, I grew up on a farm in the early 2000s Millennium Drought, which was a pretty tough time. This story is about an indigenous farmer undergoing the hardships of drought time. I attempted to use this physical struggle with the environment as a backdrop to explore the racial marginalization still faced by many indigenous people in Australia today, and to consider what kind of attitudes have emerged in recent times. However pervading the story is the emergence of hope, which although is small, still exists.”
Drought of the Land by Sally Judson
He remembered standing upon the bare hill, staring at the plains lying stretched out below. The wind swirled through the grass, gently sighed over his face and whispered in his ear. The sky bid the sun farewell, the last of its golden rays fading as the fiery red horizon met the sea-purple sky that deepened into the dark depths of night, the diamond stars winking down from above. A lake lay out ahead, golden light reflecting from its shining mirror; beside it tall white figures danced; the brolgas, birds of his ancestral spirits that passed through every year. The birds crooned and gently, after a particular cry, all took flight in unison. Jim smiled as they flew after the sun, in search of wetter lands. Dry times were coming as they always did, but this time, perhaps for longer.
* * *
The midsummer noon’s sun reached its zenith in the sky as Jim drove his rattling brown Ute along the unsealed road, a cloud of red dirt billowing in its wake. He looked with pity at the cattle in the paddock alongside the road, standing despondently about their empty water troughs, the tall sun beating down upon them. They stamped and tossed their heads to rid themselves of the incessant flies, but to no avail. The land was now nothing but a vast expanse of dirt, it was barren of vegetation and the rivers had turned to rust. For the fifth year in a row Birrahgnooloo, Mother Nature, had forgotten the land and in this dryness the brolgas had been absent from their usual passage through.
As Jim chugged along, he sighted two men standing aside a Ute that was slanted to one-side. He recognised them as agronomists – educated field scientists – from the local town, and they clearly had a flat tire and were waiting for some help. Jim lurched to a stop, then climbed out and in a cheerful tone said, ‘G’day fellas, can I give you a hand?’ The two men stared at Jim then glanced at each other, before staring at Jim again.
One of the men who was rather burly folded his arms, deeply exhaled and said, ‘Look here, mate, we don’t want any trouble here today.’
Jim, taken aback inquired, ‘I’m not quite sure what you mean?’
The man ripped the dry stem of a plant from the earth, and chewing on it said,
‘You bloody well know what I meant. Now go on! Get outta here you black fella.’
A hot silence ensued, the sun beat hard down overhead as the men glared at Jim.
‘…Oh, ok… Well, h-have a nice day then,’ Jim replied as he fumbled with the door of his ute, climbing back in, to which the burly man grunted. He continued on the road, leaving the two men to wait for help.
As he drove off, Jim stared at his brown hands. He was the only aboriginal farmer in the community. He ‘borrowed’ his land from some white man who was living far away in Queensland, who telephoned once a year to ensure the lease bill was payed. The two farms either side of Jim’s were large multi-generational farms that had been passed down from father to son since the Europeans arrived to this land. Jim never knew his father. It was his grandfather who raised him from a small child, and his mother too, when she was sober enough to do so. As a child his grandfather used to tell him the great stories of the land’s dreaming; of when their people and the land lived as one. Jim would lean forward, eyes gleaming wide in wonder, and beg his grandfather to tell him more of the dreaming. His favourite was the story of Tiddalick, a greedy frog who drank all the water of the land, leaving it dry as a bone. The other animals who turned wild and angry with thirst tickled him, making him laugh so hard that he belched out all of the water from his huge belly, where it flooded the plains and nourished the land once again. And then Tiddalick was not ever so greedy again, so they say.
* * *
That winter Birrahgnooloo, just like former five winters, again broke her promise of delivering rain. Darkness was consuming the sky as the sun set; Jim glanced at the horizon hopefully; perhaps this year the brolgas may have returned. But all there was to see was the fading light. Jim trudged to the chicken coop to lock the gate for their protection, for foxes prowled at night to scrounge what food they could. Sometimes the foxes just killed for sport leaving crimson stained white feathers scattered across the earth. Their triumphant slaughter cries like that of a mad little child could be heard echoing in the dark of the night. Jim, counted all ten chooks being in the coup, and noticed that one chicken had hatched; the only one born in the last five years. Bending over, he crawled to it, carefully clasping the small creature off the earth. Clutching the young chick, the yellow fluff soft against his cracked dry hands, he touched its little head as it cheeped three times. Despite the ongoing trails Birrahgnoolloo brought, she always brought new life, a new chance, the emergence of possibility. Jim smiled as the little bird cheeped twice, gave the chick one last pat on the head then placed it back on the earth, where it ran off back to the group of bony chooks sprawled on the ground.
* * *
As he drove along the road every once in a while his thoughts drifted to Rosa, how she might be doing these days. He had once loved this white girl who came from town, and he was going to ask her to marry him. But his happiness was soon evaporated, as the life of a dry land black farmer was not enough for her, and he had not heard from her since she vanished to some big city with some pretty boy who drove a shiny sports car. The townspeople of Minajuri who had been dried and hardened in the drought spun gossip that burned his heart and spread like wildfire, ‘Bloody black fellas, always beating their wives. No wonder she left.’ Sometimes, Jim used to go into the pub on a Friday night like all the other townspeople of Minajuri, and although he wasn’t much of a drinker, it was the place of communing. But he would only meet glares from down their foxish noses, and backs turned from his coloured face. So these days, he preferred to remain alone on his farm, away from the dark eyes of foxes.
* * *
Today, he again stood on the bare hill, gazing out over the barren land. It was spring, a time that would usually be the time of harvest. Seven years it had been now, and for those seven years, not a shoot of a crop had emerged from the red soil. The blood-red sun was sinking, and sadly he could still see the suffering earth below him clearly. Cracks ran up and down the land, like pottery left to fire in the kiln too long. Surely there must have once been a lake, somewhere in front of him on this endless expanse of barren earth. The cold stars were a lifetime away from this dry shadow land, the sky weighed down upon him. The heat of the air was slowly melting his insides, his blood was evaporating, his heart liquid, sticking to the insides of his ribs. Every limb in Jim’s body was a molten lead weight, sinking into the ground. The wind howled past his lone figure, tearing at his hair. Jim looked down, closing his eyes, yearning to go back, to the times when the summer thunderstorms rumbled and the cool rain pounded on the roof, Birrahgnooloo demonstrating her terribly beautiful power, the green shrubs blooming their glorious flowers for her, the brolgas dancing to the rhythm of her song, to when Jim could feel the land throbbing under his feet, to when he was at one with the land.
Then a cry sounded from behind him. Jim spun around, and stared in disbelief; on the Eastern horizon, he could just make out the slender white figure of a brolga, against a backdrop of tall, thick, billowing clouds lined with strands of silver. The sound of rumbling thunder emanated from these clouds, like the deep belly chuckles of old frog Tiddalick. Had Birrahgnooloo returned to flood the land with her tears of mercy? Could this really be the rain to break the drought?
Note: any derogative racial references are not intended to mean any offense; they are used as a reflection of the attitudes held in areas of Australia to convey the reality for some individuals