True Colours by Karen Lethlean

When Jenny was eight, her father took her walkabout into the outback. Just the two of them, alone. Jenny remembered the glory of being completely his, and him being completely hers. She did not remember why he chose her, or why he’d left her sister behind. Maybe something to do with the complicated drawings she brought home from school for him. Every time the teachers said, ‘we’re doing art.’ Jenny couldn’t contain her excitement. She never knew how things eventuated on the page. Sometimes swirling masses of colour, sometimes dotted creatures. At home her father told stories about, ‘this one means shelter, these waterholes…’ or he found magic beings and gave them names Jenny forgot.

They took a late night plane. She can’t remember any sleep, but must have because before too long they landed in Alice Springs at dawn: she did remember her father, Cyrus carrying her off the plane, raising her head from his shoulder to show her the sunrise. She remembered his camera, close to his chest. He put her down on the tarmac to take a sunrise photo. Then he turned to her and said, ‘for you to remember.’

As they drove a wide, new highway away from the airport toward town buildings nestled in a folded hillside, rather than stuck out like city-style. Sunrise catching on glass, pushing light back like a weapon.

Jenny had never been somewhere so hot. This difference confused when she’d left inner Sydney in chilled rain, wearing gloves and her thickest coat.

Of this trip, her strongest memories were scattered moments of joy: meeting cousins playing and laughing the same as her friends at school, yet sounding truer, more real, and who looked beautiful, despite being brown.

At school her classmates said, ‘you will have to be the fast runner. You can’t be pretty or smart because you are an aboriginal.’ With an emphasis sounding like ab-bow-riginal. As if Jenny needed to bend like a bow used for shooting arrows, or be tied in knots like a hair-bow.

In Alice, and the even smaller towns, settlements, whatever they were called, she met long legged, straight white teethed girls capable of strutting down modelling catwalks. They possessed an unfamiliar, calm elegance. Played sport just for fun, chased a ball, and ran the dry creek beds without straining to be better than everyone else.

‘What’s your skin name?’ smiling kids asked.

Jenny was so focused on shining white teeth, she almost couldn’t answer, ‘don’t think I have one.’

She wondered if skin names were like confirmation names. Later, her father explained because of Jenny’s white mother and, ‘you weren’t born out here.’ So, she imagined because this name meant a place, her skin name should be Everleigh, after that important street in Redfern.

Jenny remembered the trees most of all. Often frozen as if caught doing something wrong, or about to give up on their struggle to keep growing in the heat, clinging to life in unwelcoming red dust. Some with stubby white trunks called ghost gums. Reminded her of scary people pushing through crowds at train stations, or standing impatiently, at bus stops.

True, here in Alice there were frightening locals who gathered in shouting groups on some street corners. Who didn’t seem to pay attention to rubbish her teachers shouted about, ‘That needs to be picked up!’

Those people used words like sharp objects. Sometimes in a language Jenny thought vaguely familiar, but slurred, spat and cruel. They also flopped their thin limbs around in unfriendly gestures. Shouting at thin air while people tried to get into the Post Office, or unload shopping into their cars. Even in Sydney there were similar people, often gathered near the RSL or hotels to torment school kids waiting for the bus. Jenny knew to avoid them, not catch their gaze, and ignore their words. Out here there were also teachers, policemen, pilots, tradesmen, house builders, truck drivers, even priests; who watched her with friendly, laughing, dark eyes like the tourist centre woman her father called a niece. So many uncles and women were all seemed to be called ‘Aunty’ even if they weren’t. Some were trouble, her father warned in whispers. Some did tricks making their thumbs disappear, or coins come out of your ears. All their faces varying shades of brown – from tan to blue-black-brown. Yet when she looked in their eyes, Jenny felt they were her family. Some with blond streaks in their hair, some with reddish tinges her teachers would complain, ‘cost an arm and leg to get those “natural” highlights…’ No matter what skin or hair, Jenny stood among them not apart.

Her father’s skin a slightly darker shade than hers, what her friends in the city called, ‘night time colour’ but here her aunties stroked her cheeks and looked at her fondly and said, ‘so pretty!’ Then leant closer and whispered, ‘your father, that Cyrus, so handsome, could have been a film star. Even better than Ernie Dingo.’

If not playing with cousins Jenny sat in her father’s lap as he relaxed on a cool wide verandas gazing out at a shimmering place just called country. Earth, scrub and sky in an arrangement of colours, as an adult she’d call – a palette. A series of reddish browns and faded grey-greens and a gold slowly bleached away to the finest absence of colour. Her father warned Jenny to keep a sharp watch for Malingee, ‘cause trouble, that one.’ This creature, to Jenny, sounded like a local version of a boogy-man.

Once she’d roamed along creek beds and felt a connection with the old ones. So she got down, flat to the earth, closed her eyes and waited. Let her thoughts drift back to years before her birth, back more than 200 years to the unwritten days before white men came. An image formed easily enough. In different places she’d seen things contained in this picture; she needed only bring them together. And listen.

The wind spoke. Leaves spoke, even the ground spoke. The ground beating, like a slow human pulse. Red dirt warm, pulsing. The way of sea beating onto the shore, spirits poking the earth. Or, she wondered if the earth did have a heart, the sound might be a booming like this, way down below, down deep. Jenny thought of dark men, women and children sleeping in and on the earth. She heard voices and sighs in the earth and bare feet padding, not real feet, rather ghostly ones. Even the years slipping back made a sound of their own, like wheels passing by, like wheels far away drawing further and further away. After a while Jenny felt a bit weird, brushed herself off and wandered back toward the buildings.

In the shade Jenny listened to a mix of talk resembling a jumble of sounds, dotted with identifiable English words. Never knew her father spoke another language. When she dozed off, then woke, colours were intensified, as if someone switched on a yellow-rose light. By the time her father emptied her into the arms an aunty, Jenny realized darkness had fallen. Out here no familiar gentle dusk lingered, instead night almost clunked into place. But no matter, the heavens were alive with Guy Fawkes Night firecracker sparklers, ‘They’re what the stars look like away from the city,’ her father assured. To Jenny it felt as if the night sky be prickled with thousands of tiny, tiny holes.

She remembered a few nights spent sleeping out, not rough but warm and comfortable in ‘swags’. A bedding bundle she never guessed were so snug. Those nights her father built a little fire, which glowed bright, sending golden yellow sparks skyward, but never far enough to reach as high as the thousands of stars, pushing through the indigo sky. Jenny thought the sky bursting from so many stars. When morning came remnants of their fire were a blackened bruise. Some grasses crisped ice from the night’s chill. Those new day’s beginnings so different from the warm nights matched to warm days back in the city.

Out here her father gained a straighter, stronger back, more powerful arms, and all sorts of secret insights Jenny never imagined. Not least of all, how he knew the way across dusty tracks. It didn’t take much to get away from the town, so very different from those long, industry edged highways back in Sydney. Here tracks vanished into rough scrub in no time. A lack of directional signs made wide-open spaces frightening. But her father always knew the way. While they drove her father told long complicated stories Jenny tried to hang onto, but which slipped from her grasp.

A few of the places where they visited ‘the mob’ of relatives who lived in houses low slung in dry and dusty gullies, some houses burnt, graffiti covered, with scabby looking dogs who wandered about aimlessly. Except for fewer dogs, she’d seen worse in Sydney. But one surprizing thing were fridges crouched in corners of isolated shops behind strong wire frames and chained closed with padlocks. Even once, in the town, a policeman who stood near the counter, frowned at her like her dad did something wrong by getting out a cold drink.

‘It’s his job to make sure I aren’t buying booze to take into dry settlements, or give to under aged kids.’ Explaining words which to Jenny, explained nothing.

One night, they were coming home late, as she talked, tried to tell her father about the beat she’d detected in the ground, he quietly listened then laughed, at what Jenny thought utter silliness. Holding his hand she traced the veins on the back of it, knowing out here he belonged only to her. He provided a link to this place, the people, the past and the future all at once. Jenny thought of how much she’d like to keep this moment, her father in this far-away place, just like this forever. Then he looked out of the window into the dark night, and cried out suddenly, with a noise sounding as if a buffalo stuck in mud. Then he said, ‘Do you like it here?’

They were driving along dry, unmade roads, with a dust plume vanishing into the blackness behind, and illuminated wild creature’s eyes getting caught with the headlights out there. He’d already told her not to worry because they were miles from a Mokoi. ‘Anyway, I am here to protect and stop anything’s evil grasp. I will never let Mokoi take my child.’

Jenny knew, without her father’s telling, the Mokoi took many forms. Even her innocent ears already rang with tales of children ripped from their mother’s arms, of long lost families finally reunited. Of mere babes having to huddle in the dark, or walk terrible distances, to find their parents again.

Then he swerved and stopped, leapt out of the car, hands outstretched to her, and she knew this strength would always be there as an offering, as an assurance, as an unbreakable connection.

‘Come darling,’ he said. She wriggled out into silken darkness, the back of her knees sliding across sweaty, dusty seats.

He stamped about, bare-footed, lifting dust from the ground. Because Jenny had never before witnessed her father dancing, nor his doing anything this joyful, Jenny felt weird.

‘See if you can catch the land, keep it inside, and take it up into your heart through your feet, my baby.’

While Jenny thought she’d never heard of anything quite so silly. How could you make something go to your heart by being sucked up from the souls of your feet? Here, she loved him, for those words.

This moment got locked away as an anchor point. If she’d been able to put it into an envelope to post her adult self, anytime in the future when she opened it red dust, dark skies and burning fires would fall out. Causing confusion about where, exactly, Jenny belonged.


BIO: Karen Lethlean is retired English teacher who just finished 15 years teaching students in their last two years of secondary education. Karma was published in Pendulum Papers, Bum Joke commended in #22 Best of Times competition. A flash fiction piece Cenotaph runner up for the Ink Tears, UK. The Almond Tree received an honourable mention in the 2017 Lorian Hemingway short story competition, and has been published in the fall edition of Pretty Owl Poetry. In her other life Karen is a triathlete and has done the Hawaii Ironman championships twice.