‘Hope this thing is sound,’ the old Maori man said to no one in particular, tentatively putting his boot on the Skycar’s glass bottom that gave a stomach-churning if fuzzy view of the Jurassic forest floor 720 metres below. With blue swirls cut deep into his brown skin, his face was creased like the ancient rock attraction called The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
He wore a freshly ironed white shirt; a purple silk cravat dressed up his suit coat and a heavy piece of greenstone hung from his neck.
‘Abdullah! I told you two times already to put that thing away!’ The young, harried Muslim mother adjusted her headscarf, hating the attention her wailing child was attracting with his slingshot. ‘I told you to leave it at home,’ she hissed at the boy.
The Maori man mopped his brow with a snowy white handkerchief and found himself a seat, nodding to the woman with the fractious child.
Before the words were even out of his mouth the young mother knew what her son was going to say: ‘Naughty man’s drawn texta on himself.’
She smiled weakly.
The old Maori threw back his head and laughed loudly, drawing himself to the attention of Korean twins giggling over their mobile phones at the front of the Skycar.
‘No, well little fellah, these lines are called a moko – means I’m old – and stupid too eh?’
Shyly, the kid showed the old man his slingshot.
‘By Corrie, what a beauty! We used to make these too boy. Go hunting for Kereru—wood pigeon—sometimes bunny rabbit eh?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘not rabbit’ when the little fellow’s face crumpled. ‘I’m just joshin’ you boy.’
A teenager picked up his skateboard with his foot, looking bored and hostile. He took a pull from his can of Red Bull. He’d be heading across the gorge to ride the sweeping paths on the other side. The sweat on his back and arms attested to his workout on the steep curves around the mountain’s scenic carpark.
‘Way to go,’ said the Maori, eyeing the skateboard.
‘You talkin’ to me?’
‘Yeah, I was talking to you.’
The teenager moved away and stuffed the ubiquitous white buds into his ears. You could hear his ipod buzzing like a tinny mosquito.
The little boy started off to explore the car. When his mother called him back the old Maori said quietly, ‘Let him be child, he can’t get into any trouble here.’
‘Oh, and I thought you were Muslim!’
‘Yes I’m Muslim, his father Kyle’s not but,—ADHD— it means he’s hard to handle.’
The old Maori sat back, nodded and exhaled.
‘All kids are hard to handle some of the time, especially on your own.’
An old lady wearing a Panthers beanie chimed in, ‘He’s right you know. They say it takes a village to raise a child.’
‘Gidday everybody, I’m Burt, your operator today.’ A chunky, curly-headed Koori in his early fifties stepped into the Skycar.
‘I’m Tane,’ said the Maori, standing and shaking Burt’s hand the way black brothers do.
‘Violet’s my name, what’s yours dear?’
‘His village doesn’t wanna know me, let alone Abdullah,’ she whispered. ‘The Shire’s whitebread not felafel. It’s lettuce, not tabbouleh.’ She blinked away the hot tears of relief that come from telling a stranger a secret.
The Skycar undocked with a lurch and began to glide over the gorge towards Echo Point and the commanding triple rock formation, The Three Sisters. Everyone gasped as Burt flicked a switch and the opaque glass floor turned crystal clear – they were travellers in a magical glass-bottomed boat sailing in the blue skies above an ancient forest and a shimmering silver ribbon of cascading water.
‘Welcome aboard,’ Burt said into his microphone.
‘The Aboriginal Dream Time legend has it that three sisters (those big rocks over there young fella) whose names were Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo were long time ago living in the Jamison Valley below. They were from the Katoomba Tribe.
‘These beautiful young women fell in love with three brothers from the Nepean Tribe and you know Mr Shakespeare might have pinched this story because, just like Romeo and Juliet, their families didn’t want them to marry.
‘The brothers, being bros, decided to capture their brides anyways and this caused a mighty big blue—even worse than the Cronulla riots,’ he said, winking at Rashida.
‘As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger their tribe’s very powerful witchdoctor turned them into stone for safekeeping.
‘He had of course intended to return them back into humans when the battle was over but he was killed and the three sisters remained locked in the stones because only the witchdoctor could undo the spell.
‘Now all that happened long, long time ago, about 250 million years.’
‘What’s your name again?’ Tane said.
‘Rashida, Rita if you prefer.’
‘I’ll stick with Rashida. It’s pretty.’
‘We get too hung up on our differences if you ask me.’
‘What about the things we have in common—our love for our kids, good kai, oh and football and singing and cold beers,’ he chuckled, patting his guitar case.
Rashida was alarmed when she heard the sharp cry from her child as the teenager had taken his slingshot and fired it through the wide open spaces set in the car for taking photographs.
Within moments of the lethal steel ball bearing leaving the rubber pad the majestic Wedge-tailed Eagle faltered mid flight and began to fall towards the roof of the Skycar.
The Korean twins turned on their phone cameras and recoiled in horror, whispering together.
Burt hit the emergency stop brake and the car came to a halt swaying gently in the air like a metal claw. No one said a word as the mighty eagle could be heard thudding onto the roof; its claws scrambling for its life before there was silence.
One of the Korean girls shrieked as blood trickled down the glass.
Burt snatched the slingshot from the teenage boy.
‘I didn’t mean to hit it,’ he whimpered and sunk down onto his knees, his head in his hands.
It was 4:30pm, the second to last pass for the day and Burt was dog-tired. He’d put in long hours over the weekend with the Katoomba Firies and was set to coach a junior rugby league team after work. Now this. The sunset was painting The Three Sisters a burnished gold – a sight he never tired of seeing. He snuck a drink from his hip flask and ran his hand through his mop of curly hair.
‘Righto,’ he said. ‘We’ll be returning to the kiosk side to deal with this incident, but I gotta tell youse the radio’s dead and the emergency lighting hasn’t come on. Has anyone got a mobile phone signal?’
No one did.
‘The bird must have shorted out the car’s electrics. Don’t worry. They can see we’re in a spot of bother. We’ll just hold tight and enjoy the awesome sunset.’
Fire licked The Three Sisters and in the last drop of daylight the mountains changed from blue to black as they sighed and sank lower into the blanket of mist. Storm clouds were gathering and the wind began to build.
‘Cops’ll have to be called,’ Burt said.
‘Yeah, well it’s his slingshot not mine and they’re illegal in this state.’ The teenager turned the piercing in his eyebrow.
‘My Dad gave it to me.’
Tane scooped up Abdullah and looked into his small frightened face, noticing the dark shadows under the child’s eyes.
‘Don’t worry about it little one, you didn’t do anything wrong.’
‘You tell Tane what you had this slingshot for?’
‘Kids tease me about my Mum and call me towel-head and throwed stones at me on my bike. And they took Percy.’
‘His pet rabbit’, the mother said flatly.
‘OK. I see’.
Buffeted by strengthening winds the Skycar lurched from side to side causing the Korean twins to begin crying.
As the last finger of light faded away, darkness descended quickly as it does in the mountains in June.
‘Boo!’ said the teenager, causing the twins to shriek and young Abdullah to cry.
Tane was on his feet towering over the teenager.
‘You got shit for brains boy!’
‘Didn’t you get told when you was a pissant that if you was ever in a hole to stop digging!’
His big hands pushed the teenager down onto his backpack.
‘Burt, you a local Koori?’
‘Well nah mate I’m not a Durga, I’m actually a Gommoroi man from Newcastle. I played a bit of footy but I got soft, had a heart attack and this job came up. Just read the screed eight times an hour, eight hours a day.’
‘Still Burt, tell this young clown what he’s done, killing that eagle.’
‘Truth is I know more about footy than I do about Wedgies. I seen him once though, out in the desert, there was about five or six of ‘em buggers, maybe more, working together to bring down a big roo. I know they smart. I know they King of the Skies. Very powerful, probably very important but I don’t know my peoples’ stories. He shrugged. I heard once whitefellas put a bounty on ‘em for killin’ sheep – poisoned ‘em, shot ‘em by the thousands . . .’
‘Well, me and him both still here.’
Burt lights a cigarette.
‘Oh for godsake,’ said one of the Korean twins, startling everyone with her American English. ‘When are we going to get help?’
Burt sat down heavily and told the girls to make themselves comfortable. It could take a while to get rescued. They were safe inside the car.
The wind whistled through the open rails where the boy had shot the bird.
Burt came up with some emergency supplies. A solar-powered lantern, biscuits, soft drinks and Minties. Plus a nip or two of something extra for himself.
‘Everyone put on your warmest gear – there’s a bit of rain about, you can smell him.’
‘Look! I see something in the mist, someone’s coming.’ The teenage boy was on his feet.
Burt made his way to the rear of the car and peered hard outside. He rubbed his eyes but the vision persisted.
The bright pink marine-ply Skycar from yesteryear appeared steaming towards them, a ghost ship open to the weather with peeling paint, rotten planking and with no visible means of support. Inside were two white-faced ladies of the night seated at a small card table tilted precariously over the 720-metre drop. They were cackling as they rolled dice.
Violet stood and spoke:
“Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold,
Her skin was white as leprosy
The Nightmare Life in Death was she
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.”
‘Ghosts!’ cried one of the Koreans.
Tane spoke softly to himself in his own tongue.
‘Bad boy’, said one of the Koreans. ‘They want bad boy who kilt burt.’
‘I’m Burt’, Burt said, and they laughed a little.
“ . . . The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!
Quoth she and whistles thrice.”
Just as quickly as they appeared, the apparitions disappeared into the roiling mist, trailing their wicked laughter behind them.
A gust of wind jolted the car sharply and the Koreans screamed together as the eagle’s body fell from the roof and slid inside.
Violet moved quickly to comfort the terrified teenager.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Tom, I’m Violet.’
She patted his hand.
‘You remind me of another Tom I once knew.’
‘Did you teach at Narrabeen High?’
‘How do you know I’m a teacher Tom?’
‘The poetry, it’s stuff we learnt at school.’
‘Ah, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was written over two hundred years ago by another young man called Sam.’
‘He’d have liked you Tom.’
‘Sam could help you out of this mess you know?’
‘I once made a big mistake and I didn’t know how to undo it. My Tom, Tom Jenkins, was about your age when it happened.’
‘Yes, nineteen god bless him.’
‘My Tom went to Vietnam in 1974. I was against it, I hated the war, we all did.’
Violet is stunned as Tom sings Redgum’s anthem in a clear beautiful voice.
“Mum and Dad and Denny saw the passing-out parade at Puckapunyal
It was a long march from cadets.
The sixth battalion was the next to tour, and it was me who drew the card.
We did Canungra, Shoalwater before we left . . .
Tane picks up his guitar:
. . . And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And night-time’s just a jungle dark and a barking M16?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.”
Heavy drops of rain spattered the car window turning the eagle’s blood from red to pink. Lighting flashed across the faces of the Three Sisters, now cold blue judges under the Southern Cross.
‘I was a peacenik and way too cool to be seen with someone who’d been in south-east Asia napalming babies for ‘The Man’. That’s how we saw it – black and white, us and them. We were all victims, all of us. When Tom came back he even smelt different. I didn’t want to know him. In my eyes he was, at worst, a killer and at best a loser and a pawn in the hands of the US military-industrial complex.’
‘We shamed those poor boys from ’Nam.’
‘I was into Women’s Lib – even tried out being a lesbian . . .’
‘I’m not a homo,’ Tom said defensively.
‘Tom, my mistake was judging—judging myself and everybody I loved so harshly it was like I swallowed the whole war and it tore up my insides.’
‘We, all of us here, every human being makes mistakes.’
‘It’s not what happens to you Tom, it’s the person you become as a result of what happens to you . . .’
‘You’ve got a beautiful voice.’
Tane gets to his feet.
‘I am a homo.’
‘Did you hear me boy? I said, I’m a homo and proud of it too!’
He thumped his breast with his large hand.
‘I loved the one man, my soul mate Frank. He died in my arms three years ago—and I still can’t get to sleep.’
She’s right that Violet, Burt said. ‘It’s bad business to kill the bird but you can put it right somehow, don’t make it worse for you and everybody else.’
Tom started to dry heave then the tears came rushing like the waterfall underneath the Skycar.
‘Two years ago I was driving me best made Rick—we were in a band together— and I took a corner too fast and the ute spun out and hit a tree on a country road, at night. One minute he was sitting next to me and he was saying, “Nah man hear that. The Red Hot Chillies are still way more cool than the Cat Empire”, and the next second he was dead in his seat, his head stoved in by the windscreen, the can of beer still in his hand.’
‘I walked away without a scratch.’
‘Your scars are on the inside boy, where no one can see them, that’s all’, says Tane.
There was silence as the bright moon climbed into the sky then the scratchy sound of Violet’s voice: ‘My Tom took his own life after he came back.’
‘Crikey.’ Burt said.
Tom took off his jacket. He caressed the soft feathers on the bird’s legs, and then he stretched the mighty wings out to their full two metres. Against Tom’s body the eagle appeared crucified; its head slumped to one side, its huge white claws like hands clasped in prayer.
‘It’s beautiful,’ he said brokenly.
Burt plucked a feather from the bird’s wing and gave it to Tom.
‘Never forget. This is your story to tell.’
Tom carefully wrapped the body of the eagle in his jacket as Violet spoke softly:
“A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.”
‘I can feel them all around. The Spirits are here.’
‘Look at us all, little angry ants trapped by our little angry prejudices.’
‘Them Three Sisters couldn’t even marry their hot-blooded young men! Instead they live on and on in barren, stony silence.’
‘For at least 250 fucken million years we been telling each other what to do, who to love, who not to love. For fucken what? Just to take each other prisoner!’
‘That man sweared Mummy.’
‘No, no shush Abdullah. In Maori, fucken means a long, long, time.’
‘Fucken. Good. We learn Maori too,’ said one of the Koreans, smiling at last.