Sequoia Nagamatsu

My father said: "We walk where they once walked." These were the first words he spoke when he took me out on Port Phillip Bay in his fishing boat when I was a boy, although the words sounded nothing like that, tumbling out of his mouth, smooth, like rocks on the bottom of a roaring river. What I heard was: waranta takara milaythina nara takara. His voice transformed, resting on a single note as if the idea of distinct words was foreign, presenting instead, sounds as old as the Valley of the Yarra, which we floated above and the land our ancestors once walked, between Tasmania and the mainland, out in the distance beneath the shipping lanes.
We listened to song recordings of Fanny Cochrane Smith, one of the last speakers of our language, whose voice was my father's only model in helping him decipher notes of long dead anthropologists. He closed his eyes and slipped into a new kind of awareness, unspoiled by hundreds of years of forgetting, restored to the primeval grace where everyday sights and sounds embody explanations of the universe, a religion. He saw packs of extinct Tasmanian wolves stalking wombats and devils beneath the canopy of Eucalyptus forests, the slow, careful movements of both predator and prey, dried leaves and insect shells before the sudden bursts of movement, only visible in patches of moonlight that descend to the forest floor. He saw his ancestors watching behind bushes, their dark eyes gazing at the hunt, their calloused hands clutching at spears, imitating their world.
He understood that the words Fanny sung were never intended as scholarly fact, even observational hearsay. It was merely the essence of a people. My mother, like many others, never understood this power which had consumed my father, leading her to another man and confining my relationship with him to weekends and alternating holidays. I never understood him either, until years later.
When my father opened the tackle box and realized that he had forgotten the can of nightcrawlers and, in his desperate hope that I would not notice, he covertly sliced small pieces of bologna from the sandwiches we brought for lunch and gently twisted them between his fingers in a vain effort to make them look like worms. He insisted on baiting and casting both of our poles. I never let on that I knew what he did. This was what I remembered most about that day, but because of this, I still remember everything that surrounded it.
He desired a simpler, perhaps magical world despite an academic life ruled by science and logic. He told me the story of the rainbow snake that came from beneath the ground, creating mountains and valleys as it pushed its way upward to the surface. I asked him when this happened even though I already knew.
"Dreamtime," he said, and told me how the rainbow snake traveled across the land, leaving tracks that would be filled by water coughed up by a frog, creating rivers and lakes.
Then I asked when Dreamtime was. He motioned with his hands to show the time periods, then bringing them together, he responded: "It is before, it is now, it is what is yet to come. Everything all at once."
My father died from lung cancer, fifteen years after that trip. We weren't aware of his illness until his doctor told us, after a routine physical, he was already end stage and only had a few months to live. My father never liked to bother any one with his problems. I was in the middle of field work in the Northern Territories when he got the diagnosis, documenting the Amurdag language that would become extinct shortly after I returned home to see my father in the hospital. I sat beside him that last day, holding his hands, looking on his sunken face.
In Dreamtime, I imagined that I was with him on his fishing boat all those years ago, together with him at the hospital the day I was born, the moment he decided to start smoking and the following week at his memorial service all while I sat beside him, listening to his labored gasps for air, the stark beeping of the machines around him.
Years later, I sat with my wife at home, watching the news, the reporter addressing disagreements about an official Government apology to my people. "It wasn't my generation," my wife said softly, turning slightly to see if I had heard her. She looked into my eyes, running her slender fingers down my face. I placed my hands over hers, warm against my cheeks. I told her then, as I told anybody, it was not about apologies. Tunapri -- remember, understand.