Gift of Life


Ginjineir wiped at the tears on her chocolate brown face and gazed mournfully at the lifeless dingo pup in her lap. The arid Australian wind, breathing across the desert wasteland known as the Dead Heart of the great outback, ruffled its soft twilight gray fur.

She brushed a lock of hair away from her eyes, and lifted her face into the windy sun, hoping it would dry her tears and warm her aching heart. But new tears replaced the old and made little paths down her dusty cheeks, dripping off her chin and onto the pup’s swollen side.

A deadly funnel-web spider had bitten the small dog that very morning, and before Goodoonoo, Ginjineir’s father, could even prick the wound with his woomera (hunting spear) to remove the poison, the little dingo was dead.

An old woman in the small nomadic Arunta tribe of Aborigines, of which Ginjineir’s family were members, had given her the dog as a gift for helping her carry her dilly bag (mesh tote bag) in the previous day’s walkabout. To the old tribeswoman, bent and hobbled by years, Ginjineir’s offer to assist her was a kindness deserving of reward.

Goodoonoo squatted beside his daughter and scooped up a handful of earth. He let it sift slowly through his fingers. Then he spoke quietly, with understanding and reverence. “All things must die, my daughter.”

“But he was so little, Father,” sobbed Ginjineir.

“It was his time,” answered Goodoonoo.

“But why?” pleaded the young girl. “Life is too … precious.”

Goodoonoo smiled reassuringly. “Dingo spirits, like all others, live forever. Just bodies die.” He cocked his head toward the heavens. “Spirits go back into pura wilpanina (great hole in the sky).”

Ginjineir’s mother, Dieri, handed her a digging stick, used by the women of the clan to search for honey ants, grubs, and lizards. “Make a grave for dingo,” she said softly. “We must leave this place and find food before nightfall.”

Ginjineir looked off across the barren, windswept plain covered with sun and scattered tussocks of grass and mulga scrub, where only a few bottle trees dotted the dusty horizon. She was used to traveling.

Food was scarce in the desert. No sooner had her father built a wurley (temporary shelter thatched with porcupine grass or paperbark) than it was time for another walkabout that would continue until food was obtained and a waterhole discovered.

Ginjineir knew she must not waste time. She would have to go and carry her sadness with her. The other families were already gathering together their few possessions and making ready for the journey across the red sands. She brushed the wet from her eyes and started digging through the spinifex grass.

Some of the old men led the procession, with Nalul, the Arunta tribal leader, a few lengths ahead of the others. The rest of the old men followed behind to watch over the women and children straggling in the rearguard. The hunters marched along the flanks, trying to flush out and spear wallabies, lizards, emus, and bandicoots from the dry shrubs.

And though Ginjineir’s heart was heavy, she, too, had responsibilities. She walked with the women whose chore it was to carry the dilly bags. One woman carried a lighted piece of charcoal. If it happened to go out before they made their next encampment, one of the men would make a new fire with a piece of hard wood twirled in a piece of softer wood.

At length, Nalul paused. He had sighted a joey (baby kangaroo) a short way off, sniffing at a crack in the rocks. Some of the men laboriously widened the crack and a new waterhole was opened up. Among the workers was Ginjineir’s ten-year-old brother, Milingimbi. He had been trained at an early age, as were most Aborigine boys, to take an active part in tribal duties and affairs. And his skill with both spear and boomerang, not to mention a sharp eye for tracking, proved him of great worth in the hunt.

The older men started to arrange the new encampment, constructing a scattered group of windbreaks made from branches and bushes laid in a low semicircle against the prevailing wind. Inside the windbreaks there would be fires built, around which the families would gather.

At the same time, Goodoonoo, Milingimbi, and the other hunters prepared to look for food. They had failed to flush out any game in the brush along the way, so they had to seek it elsewhere. Ginjineir watched them as they smeared themselves with mud to keep their prey from picking up any scent. Her dark eyes followed them as they slipped into the bush, their bare feet gliding over dry leaves and pebbles in unbroken silence.

Ginjineir was still thinking about the dingo when two other children invited her to join them in a game of cats cradle, but Dieri had already asked her to assist with the threshing of grass grains. Keeping Ginjineir busy, her mother thought, will help keep her mind off the pup.

Ginjineir worked the grain under her feet. When the husks were off, she separated the seeds from the dirt by rocking them in a coolamon (deep boat-shaped dish hollowed from a single piece of wood). The grain would later be roasted by shaking it some more with live coals. Then the embers would be shaken out, the grain ground with flat stones, the flour mixed with water, and the final product put into the fire as patties for baking.

The sun had just slipped behind a huge hedge of steppe overgrowth when the hunters returned with a catch of two rock wallabies and spiny anteater. A ground oven had already been dug and lined with stones. Within it a small fire had burned down to embers. The meat would soon be placed inside, covered with a sheet of bark, and heaped over with earth.

After dinner the women collected kindling and lit the sleeping fires while the men danced—skip, shuffle, stomp—to the sound of clapping boomerangs and the drone of Goodoonoo’s long, haunting didgeridoo flute.

Goodoonoo squatted next to Ginjineir who sat folded up like a little dead spider, her gaze fixed numbly on the shadows that crept across the land. He placed a kangaroo-skin bag in her lap. It moved! Curious, Ginjineir opened it. Inside was a baby wombat. “It is for you, my daughter,” said Goodoonoo, smiling broadly. “I found it motherless. It needs someone to care for it. Someone like you.”

Ginjineir picked it up. It’s tiny round eyes shone up at her like little wet pebbles. It curled itself up in her hands.

“Life is precious,” Goodoonoo said softly.

Ginjineir could feel the little animal’s heartbeat. It felt just like the dingo’s had. Warm. Alive. She rubbed her cheek against the wombat’s baby-soft fur. “Yes,” she whispered. She had something to care for again—something of her own.

She nestled herself into her father’s arms and stared contentedly across the darkening plain. “Yes,” she said again, “life is precious.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown