Created | Updated Jun 20, 2010
The troupe arrived two weeks before the birthday of the chief's son. Two weeks would be time enough and plenty. They made camp in a hollow between two hillocks, near the ground where the corroboree itself was to be held.
The women took the children and made them play away from the dancers and the singers, who practised their walks and their squawks, as they stomped around: stamping their feet and flapping their elbows to illustrate the beasts of the worlds.
This troupe were the best. The Chief of the Bunjee had sent many miles for them to come and corroboree here. Now the Chief told the troupe headman that his son was deserving. His son was keeping the ways. Headman corroboree listened, nodded and moved off past the others, leaving them to practise together.
He stood off, a way apart; he stood off and thought. As he thought his shoulders moved, faintly, then sometimes the feet: here this way, then that way, slowly, tapping, constructing new steps for this celebration. Not just for the son of the Chief, these steps. Also for the group. And himself. For some said that he was getting old, that he had no more secrets to give of how the big snake slithered and the big bird flew; he had told them all, they said, and the young needed more. They needed new steps, and new steps and newer steps and in newer combinations. They curled their lips and said that his mind was too slow, and showing things that were not of the dance. But here, now, he was feeling the spirits, and moving to their whispers. There was something here. This was good. With a little bit of . . . yes . . . perhaps. He shuffled off to bed, to lie awake, to think on the days of the Dreamtime, to remember, to see, and put the new steps to the story.
In the morning he called the group together, announcing with a big grin that these steps he had seen in his mind and translated to his feet were of the best.
All the troupe stood around as he moved and as he stomped, pointed, whirled and showed off these steps that had newly been born. But the troupe shook their heads. These steps were no good for the Chief of the Bunjee. Not for this Chief who had sent for them, sent for them from the far, far, country to corroboree here. These were no good.
The headman took himself away to the highest of the scammell hillocks. There he worked at his thoughts and tried to push for memories, but he knew the results would not satisfy his team. At night, exhausted, he lay down alone with the dying man of the moon, to think. To think, to think, but no thoughts crossed his mind as the cloud crossed over the moon. True, his mind saw the snake, the kangaroo, the great bird and the lesser birds, but only in the way that he had seen them dance before. As he turned from the unco-operative moon, he saw lights. Lights. A few twinkling. Far, but not far. There was movement there, in those lights: some of them danced against the dark. If he was closer. . . perhaps.
He moved softly down the hillock,, silent along the sand, watching the lights, excited, but happy also to be hugging the dark, for this was a white man's town that drew him. He kept to the fences, bending double down. One place was lit brighter than the rest and some lot of people were coming, and a few were going from there. A music was coming from this yellow-lit shack. Louder it grew as he grew closer. But people were still coming, and people were going. He stole around the back.
A lowdown window had a hole in the pane. In the music now was the laughter and roaring of people. Knees on the earth, the headman could take a peek through.
White people sat at the tables. White women too. All drinking beer and laughing loud as they stood, or as they sat in a smoky noisy crowd. Beyond the crowd, standing higher, some people made music and sang singing noises. People danced. People danced together. Men and women. One man whooped, but he danced alone. The music played, the people danced, and outside the headman of the troupe knelt, looking, seeking. The music rose, and as it rose the headman stood tall and stamped around trying to make the steps the white people made, making the steps that he saw were new. New steps, new steps: this way here, then around, and around, around again with a shuffle here and these were new, these were new. Extend the arm. It was like the arm of a great bird, up, and someone grabbed the arm and it was painful.
"Well, what we got here, Arthur?"
"Acht. He's just a bloody old Abo poncin' for grub. Kick his arse and tell him to be off."
"You must be jokin', mate. See what he was doin'? Regular old cabaret artist this one. Let's have him inside. Make him dance for his supper." Each man pulled at arms that hung still and took him around to the front where they threw him through doors that fell in as he fell in. The music all stopped and no person chattered. A black was here. "What's he here for?" somebody said.
"To dance for his supper. Real dinkum dancer he is, this one."
"Yeh. Hey, you lot, get that music goin'. Play some bloody stuff." Guitars were strimmed and strummed and people looked, but the headman stood still. "Ah c'mon, Abo. Dance. You comealonga blackfella, dance. You dance, Mr. Blackfella, and we'll give you some soup. Or maybe a beer. Fancy a beer?" The headman still stood.
The caller of the dance took up a stockwhip, and cracked a lash at the reluctant feet. The headman stood. Another lash of the whip came nearer this time. Without thought the feet of the headman moved. The next crack of the whip brought a slash and blood on the feet of the headman. "Didn't mean that one, mate." The pain was the same. Blood on these feet told the tales of a people. Another lash came near. He jumped. To laughter. More lashes whipped down. It is better to dance. "Dancin' now, that's right, you go danceabout, old fella."
Headman tried to run, but the crowd was too strong. Around them he darted, seeking a space, a way out, the way back. "That's right lad. Do it. Do your kind of dance."
But the crowd grew tired of this fun kind of dancing. They turned away, back to their tables, back to their beer and their jokes and more beer. A man in a white apron sat the dancer down at a table. He brought him some soup in a bowl with no spoon and a schooner of beer.
Outside, by the hole in the pane, kneeling in the headman's depressions, the tracker, sent by tribe, peered in and saw. He saw the headman supping the soup and drinking the white man's beer. Rising and turning, the tracker scurried away, straight back to the group, and told them what his eyes had seen. The troupe listened. The troupe were shamed. The group broke up camp. The Chief of the Bunjee would be better with no troupe than a troupe whose headman walked to the ways of the white.
The headman returned. The Chief of the Bunjee pointed North. On the old corroboree ground he wailed and wailed. Many years he wandered, confused, until a bomb blew him away on Marlinga ground.