Didgeridoo Dreaming - Gunham and the Doohligal
The drone of Grandfather's didgeridoo echoed amongst the rocks and seemed to stir the flames of the fire with its magic.
Gunham felt its vibrating, pulsating heartbeat of the earth melt into his bones as he watched the old man play. His Grandfather's eyes were closed, his cheeks filling and pushing with the rise and fall of the ancient sound. Above the campfire the stars seemed to come closer, the better to listen to the sound of the land filling the night.
The repetitive droning relaxed Gunham, despite his earlier anxiety at being here, in this sacred place... this taboo place.
For his whole life Gunham had been warned to stay away. Only the old men ever ventured here, anyone else who dared to enter would never be seen again.
When his grandfather had led him here earlier that day, Gunham had at first refused to follow through the maze of great boulders that lined the creek bed.
But grandfather had been persistent and finally Gunham had given in.
Before entering the gorge proper grandfather had stopped, turning to face each direction and asking out loud for permission to enter.
When Gunham whispered a question asking who it was grandfather was asking he had simply replied, 'The Old People,' and without waiting for an answer from any people, let alone old ones, he had proceeded to enter this forbidden place. Gunham had no choice but to follow him into the rocks.
As they walked he had noticed several boulders had ancient carvings on them. Then when they entered a deep overhang he saw drawings, very faint with great age. He thought he recognised some. There was the Rainbow Serpent... but a kangaroo looked wrong, it’s nose was too short and it looked too stocky... and the hunter stalking it too small. There were wombat-looking things, but once again too large in relation to the hunters. Then he noticed something familiar... a figure, standing on two legs, arms outstretched with long hair flowing off its wide shoulders and on the face no features but two enormous round eyes. It looked a lot like a drawing his father had made in the sand one day, years ago.
He remembered his father looking up at him very seriously, and saying very firmly, ‘Doohligal. You see one, you run to camp. Do not look back.’
A chill at the memory went through Gunham’s bones. He looked at his grandfather who was watching him peruse the drawings, "What is this place Grandfather?"
"Very old place this. The Old People live here." Gunham felt the ghosts of the past tickle his skin.
"Why are we here?"
Grandfather pointed at where generations of fires had been built, then at where the last flood had left a pile of wood down in the creek bottom, "Build me a fire." He had then sat down, placing his didgerydoo beside him on the soft sand and leaving it up to Gunham to get the fire going all alone.
Not knowing Grandfather would want a fire, Gunham had not brought along a coal so he had to find and work two sticks. Positioning the thinner one onto a crack he had devised in the larger he began to rotate the former as fast as he could between his hands. It took some time but eventually he had coaxed an ember, then with much careful blowing he finally coaxed some flames into life.
It had been dark now for some time, Grandfather had been playing for ages, non-stop, his circular breathing keeping the notes constantly alive, without pause. Small beads of sweat had formed on his forehead under the braided rope made from his ancestors' hair that held his own white hair back from his face.
Gunham felt the Dreaming begin to take him as the lifting and falling notes picked him up and floated him towards sleep.
But then in a rush he came wide awake, feeling a sudden chill rise up his spine. The night had changed somehow. He could feel someone, or something watching them from the darkness just outside the firelight. Had the didgeridoo brought the ancient spirits forth? Were the Old People ghosts?
Gunham nervously turned his head, trying to see past the dancing firelight on the boulders into the shadows of the forest rising behind and above.
Suddenly the droning stopped and he spun his head back towards his grandfather. The old man was watching him with a strange twinkle in his eyes, his voice was loud in the sudden quiet, "They're here."
"Who is here, grandfather?"
"The Old People."
The chill deepened and Gunham desperately wished he was back in the camp. Why did he allow the old man to bring him out here?
"Who are the Old People?"
"They were here before us. They have been here forever. And will be here after we are gone."
An image flashed into Gunham's imagination... an image of some ancient crones, wrinkled and grey, older than the hills, with long, clawing fingers reaching to scratch his naked back.
Grandfather laughed, as if he had also seen what was in Gunham's mind. He smiled and shook his head, "They are not old like that boy. They are old because they have always been here."
Suddenly Gunham became aware of a presence behind him!
He quickly turned but there was nothing there.
"Look better boy, but don't be scared."
Grandfather then raised his voice, speaking over and past Gunham, "Old Ones, this is my grandson. He is nearing manhood Old Ones... do you think he is ready to become a man?"
The hair on Gunham's neck was standing straight up, but he still could not see anything in the dancing shadows!
But then, two coals glowed. They were eyes, reflecting the firelight. But high, far higher than anyone could be, motionless in the darkness.
Dim at first, they grew brighter until Gunham thought he could see the outline of cheekbones, and a hint of a broad forehead, much wider than his own. Whatever it was, it was huge! And its eyes seemed to burn into his heart.
He wanted to flee, to run screaming down the creek towards camp, where his mother and sisters were. But he stayed still, his body aching from the effort of sitting half-turned, but he could not claw his eyes away from those coals.
Then they blinked... slowly and methodically, and the creature stepped forward, towards the fire!
Light glistened on black skin, wrinkled like old kangaroo hide left too long in the burning sun.
A nose became visible, broad and flat, like those of his people, but unlike his people, its entire body was hairy!
Long strings of hair floated from its arms and legs, and hung from receding brows around a huge head and incredibly broad shoulders.
It looked like a man, but it was huge! It would have even towered over his mother's brother, who was up until now the tallest man Gunham had ever seen.
Those burning coals died down as it approached the fire but the enormous dark eyes still seemed to pin Gunham to the spot, like a spear through a possum. His brain desperately screamed to flee, to run as fast as he could all the way back to camp, but he was unable to move even a finger.
Then he saw there were others! More pairs of coals, smouldering in the shadows beyond the firelight!
The first being came around the fire and squatted within touching distance of grandfather, dwarfing the old man like he was a child.
Not once did its eyes leave Gunham's. His twisted spine suddenly relieved of its awkward position, he noticed grandfather was quietly laughing, his fat belly bouncing as he watched Gunham's face. He realised his own mouth was hanging wide enough to catch a fish. Gunham snapped it closed. He could move again and felt the other Old Ones moving closer in the darkness. His mind continued to scream in terror, but grandfather’s laughter made him angry, even with the fear rattling his bones and his bowels. Somehow he found in that anger the strength to resist the urge to flee from these monsters in the dark.
Then it spoke!
Its voice was so deep at first Gunham thought it was actually inside his head, but then he felt it rumble in his bones... almost exactly like Grandfather’s didgerydoo.
Although deep, the words flowed together in such a way Gunham could not quite pick up what was being said.
His Grandfather answered, "Yes, Old One... I too see the anger, but he controls it well."
More grumbling, so low to be on the very edge of hearing, but vibrating his bones again.
"Ha, yes you are right. But our world is changing. There are rumours in the Dreaming... men of pale skin, riding strange beasts, bringing death with spears that never leave their hands."
Gunham felt the pressure in his head ease as Grandfather and what he called the Old One seemed to forget his presence as they talked.
The rumble of its voice was strangely relaxing and Gunham switched his attention to the others. They were just on the edge of darkness, but the fire was dying and so they had come closer. Gunham’s night vision was adapting and it looked like there were four more in the shadows... a smaller one, wider though in the waist, obviously female by the pendulous breasts. On its back clung a tiny one, a baby, its mother's long hair on her shoulders gripped in its tiny fists.
On either side were two more, smaller than the female, though still much taller than Gunham. They were both slender, one wide in the shoulders... brother and sister?
Was it a family? Like his own?
Suddenly his attention was turned back to Grandfather whose voice had dropped in sadness, "So it is true. What I see in the Dreaming has come to pass," he looked up and across the glowing coals deep into Gunham’s eyes.
Something in them brought back the chill from earlier in a sudden rush. The shadows seemed to draw in closer and Gunham noticed the Old Ones looking away, as if watching something over the horizon approaching through the stars.
Grandfather’s eyes bored into him, much like the Old One’s had done only moments earlier. He spoke so quietly Gunham barely heard the words, "I hope you have the strength boy."
A distant peal of thunder reached Gunham’s ears and he looked up at the night sky. Maybe a storm was blowing in from over the horizon? He looked back to Grandfather, who had gotten to his feet to better listen.
The giant Old One had also silently risen, its head seeming to stretch so high to be in amongst the stars themselves.
Another crash of distant thunder reached them and Grandfather looked back down at Gunham with a deep, worried frown, "Get up boy!"
Suddenly scared, Gunham jumped to his feet. He noticed all the Old Ones except the giant male had melted away into the darkness like they had never been there. The big male tilted his head to look down at Gunham. His face was darkness within darkness, the cacophony of stars framing his enormous hairy head. Then his eyes glowed like coals blown to life and he gestured with one arm to follow his Grandfather, who was already making his way down the big boulders of the gorge bottom towards camp.
Gunham turned to follow but an enormous hand fell like a blanket over one shoulder. Moving against it would have been like trying to move a mountain. Gunham felt himself being gently turned back to face the giant. The thing towered over him like the big old fig trees in the river bed near his home camp. The other long arm reached out, the hand fisted but facing downwards. Gunham instinctively reached out his hand to catch what it dropped. He didn’t know what he expected, but what fell gently to his hand was a total surprise.
He recognised it right away, the distinct browns showing clear in the dying firelight... a Mopoke feather.
Sacred to his tribe the night bird’s lonesome call was said to indicate the impending death of a family member.
A shudder went down Gunham’s spine, coinciding with yet another crash of the distant thunder. He looked up but the Old One had gone, like it had never been there to start with. He looked about but saw no sign of it, apart from the Mopoke feather in his hand.
Remembering Grandfather, Gunham turned and fled down the rocks like a wallaby on his young legs, soon catching up to the old man who was hurrying as fast as his old legs could manage towards camp.
For a while Gunham followed in silence. No more thunderclaps sounded. Finally he could help himself no longer, "Grandfather, who, or what, are the Old Ones?"
The old man muttered something under his breath but did not answer.
"Those things back there... are they people?"
The old man kept walking and did not turn to answer, "Of course, they are people. They are the Old Ones, boy."
"But where did they come from? Why are they hairy? And so big? Are they the Doohligal?"
"Yes, some call them that. They have always been here. They are the ancestors, from the Dreaming."
"Are they dangerous? Are there many of them?"
The old man stopped and turned to look at Gunham. In the distance over Grandfather's shoulder he could see three thin trails of smoke rising against the stars from where the camp was.
Why more than one fire burning? And why so late, his family should all be in their Gunyas, asleep?
Grandfather's voice broke his thoughts and Gunham looked into his wise eyes, "The Old Ones can be very dangerous, but not to you, or me... unless you disrespect them, or disrespect the Dreaming. There used to be lots of them, like there used to be lots of the People until the Great Sickness came.”
He turned, to once more keep walking towards camp, but this time his voice did not stop, "They met with us often once, sometimes even trading with us. Many seasons ago, well before you were born the tribes were many, all over the land. Our clan had a fistful of fires in one camp!"
Gunham thought of the three columns of smoke, occasionally visible through the trees.
"But then the sickness came. Many died. My own grandfather, my mother, my aunties and uncles, many cousins... so many died." The old man slowed down, remembering lost family members, "It seemed to affect the Old Ones too, for they stopped trading with us and withdrew into the sacred places. Now we hardly ever see them. They mostly avoid us now for fear of the sickness coming back."
They were near the camp now and Gumham imagined he could hear voices, but strange voices, none he recognised as members of his small family. He strained but could not make out the words. Grandfather had dropped low, like he was hunting, so Gunham copied him, the Old Man’s caution triggering his own hair to stand on end all over his scalp.
"Stay here," Grandfather whispered and turned to creep closer to the camp.
For a moment Gunham hesitated but his curiosity was too strong, he ignored the old man's orders and followed quietly behind, just far enough to not be noticed.
He needn't have worried for the old man was intent on discovering the source of those thunderclaps and the strange voices in his family’s camp. Silently, he approached, Gunham a dark shadow behind.
The smoke from the too-many camp fires was thick in the cold night air and Gunham could hear the crackling of wood and smell burning hair. What on earth was happening?
Echoing the movements of his Grandfather, he crept silently closer until he could see through the trees into the camp.
What he saw horrified and confused him greatly.
His home camp was destroyed, the Gunyas his family slept in were all burning and even worse, his father, mother and sister were lying scattered on the ground, twisted into strange, uncomfortable positions.
Gunham smelt the blood then, just before he saw it... great black pools of it under each family member. He gasped in shock and the voices stopped.
He saw them then, three strange monsters, taller than even an Old One, with four legs and two arms! They were staring right at him, where he had involuntarily stepped forward out of the shadows at the sight of his family lying prone. One shouted something and raised a weird black stick to its shoulder.
Suddenly Gunham felt something large hit him in the chest, throwing him sideways and backwards into the darkness. A crash, louder than he had ever heard shattered the night and he looked up to see Grandfather crouched over him, a strange look on his face.
Dark blood spread on the old man’s chest and he lifted a hand to the wound that had appeared. It came away black with blood. He looked at it for a moment, stunned and curious as to where the blood had come from.
He looked back down at Gunham and spoke two words, "Run boy!"
There was another crash of thunder and this time Gunham saw and felt the blood spray as something hit the old man in the back. His eyes rolled back into his head and he began to fall forwards, making Gunham scramble backwards, out of his way.
Beyond his fallen grandfather he saw one of the monsters approach and he realised it was a man, sitting atop a strange beast, controlling it with ropes around its narrow, evil looking head.
The man laughed, an evil, wicked laugh and lifted the stick it carried to its shoulder again.
Gunham sprung to his feet and ran, faster than he had ever run in his life.
He felt something tug at his shoulder and there was another CRASH of that awful thunder.
Something heavy shook the ground as a large shape tried to cut off his escape. He saw it was another one of the strange men on another beast. It skidded to a halt in the sand on the creek bed and the beast reared back on its hind legs, the front ones striking out at him. He ducked and turned, trying to avoid the flying hooves, but now he was surrounded by the monsters, the men shouting in excitement, the beasts they rode snorting and stomping, rattling the ground with their weight.
One turned sideways and seeing an opening Gunham dove between its legs and out the other side. He raced for the thicker trees on the far side of the creek bed. There was a whistle past his ear and another thunderclap. Ahead to his right sand kicked up where something hit it.
Desperately he raced for the safety of the trees and dove between them, hoping the beasts could not follow but he was not about to stop to find out. Ducking and weaving through the scrub he ran for the only place he could think of, the gorge where the Old Ones lived.
The shaking ground told him he would never make it. The strange beasts were too fast and the sun was now rising, losing any advantage the darkness may have given. The thundering of the hooves grew louder and he heard that awful laughter again, broken with whooping and cheering noises as the men urged themselves on into the hunt.
They would be upon him in moments. It was hopeless.
But just as he was about to give himself up to his fate in despair a loud roaring filled his ears.
What monster was this? Something new his tormentors were bringing?
Behind there was a shout of fear and he risked a glance back as he ran.
The beasts had stopped, skidding to a halt so abruptly one of the men went straight over its head and hit the ground with a loud crunch of breaking bones. His screams of pain went unnoticed however for the other two men were trying to get control of their horses while staring above Gunham’s head at something ahead.
Looking forward again, Gunham saw it too.
It was the giant Doohligal!
It was standing on a boulder, both huge, hairy arms stretched high, roaring with a power that Gunham could feel shaking his ribs as he ran. Reaching the boulder he stopped to catch his breath and risked another look back.
The fallen man was trying to get back onto the beast he rode, one arm flopping uselessly by his side. The other two had already departed, leaning forward over their mounts as they rode, frantically trying to get away.
The fallen man finally got up on his beast and fled after his companions, screaming and shouting as he disappeared over the next ridge.
Above him on the boulder the Old One stopped roaring and a sudden quiet replaced the commotion. Exhausted and in too much shock to move, Gunham slumped to the ground in a confused daze. To the east the sun peaked over the ridges and Gunham could clearly see the smoke from the burning Gunyas beginning to thin and disperse into the brightening sky.
He became aware of a burning pain in his shoulder. His hand came away sticky with blood but he was too exhausted to do anything about it.
Finally he forced himself to his feet and began retracing his steps, back towards camp and home. On the way he stopped to drink deeply at one of the pools of water in the creek and scrape some moss from the side of a rock to plug the wound in his back.
When he finally reached the camp he wished he had not bothered to return.
Grandpa lay where he had fallen, his life-blood soaking into the sand. Turning him over with some effort, Gunham saw his lifeless eyes coated with grains of sand and knew he was dead. Not far off lay the old man’s didgerydoo where he had dropped it.
Tears stinging his own eyes, Gunham staggered towards the camp, or what was left of it.
The Gunyas and the few possessions in them had all burnt to the ground, the smell of burning hair and death combining with the smoke to clog the hairs in his nose.
He sneezed and looked down at the bodies of his family, all lying still, their eyes empty of life. Black pools of blood already drying on the sand.
Heartbroken, Gunham dropped to his knees, not caring of his family’s blood caking them.
He did not know how long he slumped there, his heart and his life as empty as the lifeless eyes of his mother, who seemed to be looking almost right at him.
A thudding footstep disturbed his agony and he looked up, expecting to see one of the pale monsters had come back to finish the job.
But instead it was the Old One who had scared them off. His massive height towered over him and in the daylight Gunham saw his long hair had tints of red mixed in with greys and blacks. Enormous muscles filled the long arms and chest like the big boulders of the gorge.
Even though the huge black eyes were set way back, deep under a heavy brow, Gunham could see there was a great sadness in them... and pity. He saw the giant held Grandfather’s didgerydoo in one great paw and with a huge effort, stood up himself. The Old One offered the didgerydoo to Gunham, who stared at it for a long moment before accepting it. Satisfied, the Old One then turned and headed back up the creek towards the gorge.
For a moment Gunham stood still, considering.
Here was death. There was life... what sort, Gunham did not know... but the Old One had saved his life.
Hoping the pale monsters would not suddenly come back, he took the time to gather his father’s spears and his mother’s favourite digging stick. Tenderly, he unwound the hair rope from his Grandfather’s forehead and wrapped it around his own.
Then with one last, sad look around at the bodies of his family he followed the Old One into the boulders of the gorge.
(To be continued...)
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