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© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter Thirteen - Birth

Four craft reached the shores of the southern land.
They arrived, more or less together, aimlessly drifting over the shallow, sandy bottom on a gentle, incoming tide. Those conscious enough to realise what was happening were too weak to cry out; their throats parched so that swallowing was an agony. They could only watch as the vision of tall, green trees, fringing brilliant, white beach danced before their blurred sight.

Eventually, one after another, the half-submerged rafts grounded, and the occupants crawled and staggered through the ankle-deep surf; dragging and encouraging each other toward the deserted beach.
The sun, at its midday zenith, beat down upon those wretched folk stumbling stupidly beneath the broad belt of greenery crowding the shore. In the heat of noon, with the ocean hushed at their backs and no whisper of wind, the interior lay hidden: silent and oppressive. Once again, an enemy waiting could have struck them down without resistance.
But there was no enemy.
There was in truth no living human being upon that long stretch of shore. Nor was there in any part of the mighty continent that reached east and west and south; far beyond the imagination of Yat or his people.

Those who survived the migration, and there were some few who did not for more than hours of landing, slowly recovered wit and strength enough to discover fresh water and food in the form of roots and tubers, and later, dates and coco-nuts.

But initially the remnants of the clan were too wasted to do more than watch helplessly as the tide came and went. Relentlessly tugging at the remains of the rafts until these were carried out to sea, broken up, and eventually hurled back upon unknown shores as so many rotting, barnacle encrusted logs.
Most of the clan's meagre belongings vanished into the ocean along with them, including the banteng horns of the shaman, leaving the people naked and vulnerable.
Yet the land was not so inhospitable that they needed to continue the cannibalism forced upon them during their life and death struggle with the pitiless ocean.
Later, Yat 's people buried those who had succumbed, in shallow graves at the tide line in the sands overhung by giant palms, and began to rely on this new country for their daily needs.

They followed the course of a brackish stream inland until the water grew fresher, purged of tidal salt, and there set about the routine of camp life. The clan now numbered less than forty individuals; six children under the age of ten, including Ban, Yat's half-sister, sixteen adult males, nine females and seven Elders, counting Tahi and two other women of mature but still child bearing age.
This ratio of three to four, female to male, at first was of little consequence in the battle to regain a footing against the elements where food held foremost place. But later it was to become of vital importance in a country where the chances of intermingling with other peoples appeared unlikely. There were only a few alternatives: the clash of male against male over a single woman, the sharing of women, or the division of the clan by a disgruntled few carrying away with them any they could. Those already paired such as Cros and Tahi, Yat and Cun, Tharta One-eye and Mishfa of the painted peoples, were content enough; but Yat saw, as he observed the single men, that a time would come where the issue must be decided. Meanwhile, there were other problems to be addressed of urgent nature; the first was the preservation of the clan as it initially stood.

Food, water, shelter and security were the vital items to be fulfilled.
Those however, once achieved, invited comfort and the inevitable urge to continue and enlarge the species after danger had passed. In the search for these ingredients of survival, Yat, when strength enough had drained into his limbs, convinced the fittest of the men to set out on the hunt. Kari, now paired with Notu, an original woman of the clan before it was united with the people of Cros, was left in charge. Cros himself led the hunters, with Tharta as his second. Yat, accompanying them, was to take no part in the actual hunt; leaving that to those specialised for the task. His role was more that of overseer and medicine man, and observer.
In modern terms he might have been considered something of a naturalist and an explorer: certainly curiosity had motivated him since childhood, but the need to roam, to walk about, had grown; accelerated by extraordinary circumstances brought on through enforced migration.
Perhaps a kind of wanderlust had arisen deep within his subconscious and perhaps too he guessed the wisdom of separating the single men away from the camp; concentrating their minds and bodies to the best use for the common good. It was certainly reasonable to pursue such a course, for the men and the hunt were the hope of a nomadic people, especially in a country where wildlife was unfamiliar, as were its habits or routes of travel.

Before this time, during the period of island hopping, it had been comparatively easy to explore, in the roughest fashion, the borders and extremes of a territory. But now Yat sensed that he and his companions were on the verge of a land far greater than any since they had abandoned their own.

With the most rudimentary weapons to hand, Yat's party set out from their camp; improvising and fashioning further implements as they travelled.
They also spent a deal of time casting about for stones and flints with which to produce not only cutting tools and spear points but fire as well. The method of striking sparks from metals and the use of wood friction were both known to Yat's folk, and yet there were whole peoples in the world of that period who had only recently arrived at the technology necessary to create fire at will. Others, were still far removed from such an advance. Indeed, as with Yat's isolated clan, lightning strikes, occurring with some frequency, were the stimulus that had provoked his ancestors toward the collection and eventual cultivation of fire. And by chance, the final results of chipping flints and stone and the smoking glow of friction-rubbed wood had led to the discovery that was to revolutionize the human world.

There were, however, limitations to the process of fire making; lack of fuel in snow and ice-encrusted lands, lack of the tools requisite for combustion, and, in the newly emerging areas of sub-tropical belts, tinder too saturated by continual downpours to ignite. Thus, with certain peoples, the knowledge of fire creation had, from time to time, been lost and rediscovered, and during those periods fire-nurturing, fire-sticks carried over distances from camp to camp, were the only way of perpetuating the flames.
In the case of Yat's folk, all such carried fire had been lost in their sea crossing and they were reduced to making it anew, or awaiting natural cause in the form of lightning. This then was the problem facing Yat and the hunters, frustrated in their initial searching, as they travelled further through the deep thickets overgrown by huge trees and great trailing chains of vines.
During the following days the men, ever watchful for the sight of game, progressed due south following the sun and camping at night under the light of the full moon. They slept fitfully, huddled together against the chill air, whilst taking turns at vigil, alert for intrusion by animal or man.

In the dawn of each new day, they stirred and set out again, their bellies rumbling with hunger.
As they travelled, Yat grubbed the soil, the undergrowth and trees for anything edible that he recognised.
He and the men found little at first: termites, beetles and other insects, and later, eggs of scrub fowl and lizards. Eventually they managed to snare a few birds and hunt down some sugar gliders and possums.
These, they were forced to consume raw, until the men stumbled upon a great tract of burnt out land stretching before them over a considerable distance.
Here, Yat guessed, might have been the place of smoke he had seen from far across the dividing ocean, though now the raging fire was long since extinguished and only the charred earth and stark boles of trees were left as witness. Cautiously, expectantly, the hunters skirted this wasteland, prepared for unknown danger, in whatever form it might take.
Had the fire been man-made?
Were they being watched?

In the end, they found no sign of human intervention and, to their disappointment, no living spark that might again be kindled.
And yet, the wood in places was tinder dry; the sap roasted out of it.
Eagerly, the men collected likely pieces, along with stringy lengths of creeper, and with a mixture of joy and wonderment, spun the objects into a thin trail of wispy smoke that eventually surrendered a tiny glow.
Toiling together, they saw the miracle of fire burst into new life from whence there had been only ash and dead coal. And each of these primitive men was filled with a sudden sense of power regained as they looked toward Yat where he knelt before the flames, his dark eyes glinting with light.

Later, the hunters chanced upon the carcass of some beast caught and consumed in the conflagration, but it was too disfigured and rotten to eat or recognise, though the bones were large and of a kind strange to their sight.
So they went their way, bearing with them once again the living fire, and a restoration of hope.

During the steamy days that followed the hunters encountered a dark swamp, and finding no way around it, took to the knee deep water; sweat dripping from their jowls and running off their arms and backs.
Here, they chanced upon a colony of flying foxes and feasted on the rank smelling creatures in the dankness; their tiny fire flickering on a mound above the stagnant wastes.

On the morning of the sixth day, having passed the swamp, the men emerged onto a broad plain dotted by clumps of low bush and isolated trees. Here and there, immense grey trunks lay where they had fallen; their lives lived out long before the eyes of men beheld them. At first, Yat, Cros and the others were entranced by the silent vista; the way the breeze slowly rippled through the yellow grass that seemed to them like the ocean, the giant lumps of dead trees pointing limbs into the sky. The solitary wonder and quiet of such open space and the distant outline of mountains against the horizon. Here was an area greater than any they could remember and that in itself struck a chord of awe and reverence. But when a pair of creatures emerged from the overhang of foliage away to their right, the men became suddenly confused and excited. These were birds, larger even than those they had previously seen in the lands beyond the seas. The creatures, relatives of the emu and moa families, stood twice the height of the hunters, striding on legs as thick as tree trunks, the hefty, feathered bodies perched aloft, long snake-like necks weaving, their bony beaks clamping and tearing as they browsed. Yat and his followers could hear the clatter of their beaks and the dull thump and shuffle of the mighty feet as they passed within a stone throw of the watchers. Here, perhaps, was food for the clan. Yet here too was a formidable and dangerous foe.

When the hunting party returned to the clan at sundown on the twelth day out, there was a mixture of jubilation and concern from those who welcomed them. The men were tired and weakened from their journey and its labours, and several had sustained injuries of lesser and greater extent.
Gan, a youth of thirteen summers, cradled a broken wrist and was in shock after falling into an overgrown riverbed. Tharta had cracked several ribs, kicked in his attempts to spear one of the giant birds, and Cros had received some deep lacerations about the thighs and buttocks in the battle to fell the creature and deliver the fatal blow. But, for folk of that time, there was always a price to pay in the pursuit and reward of food. And food indeed the hunters brought home; struggling under the weight of crudely hacked slabs, butchered at the scene of carnage and carted, skewered or draped over saplings. It was a haul that included the remains of two birds and part of the carcase of another animal: a beast larger than a modern rhinoceros, and in fact the biggest marsupial ever known.
This was a diprotodon; a bulky, tailed and clawed grazer that was not too difficult to kill, although before the coming of Man it had survived and evolved unmolested by even the Thylacoleo. A formidable creature of leopard size and the largest carnivorous mammal left to challenge Yat and his people in this new and mysterious country.

At the time however the clan were unaware of such animals, and feasted unheeding for days and nights afterward whilst all that could be done for the injured was done and life took on a semblance of normality.
Raw flesh in quantity was difficult to keep, even on the journey from hunt to home.
Unless part cooked, moist leaves were the only protection against flies and other egg-laying insects, but in steamy climates meat ran green quickly and by the time of consumption was usually in this condition.
In any event, human beings of the distant past had made the transition from vegetarians to meat-eaters and so had developed the essential gut reactions to break down rancid flesh.
Anything that had become too offensive was cut away, though maggot-infested meat remained rich in protein and was eaten when nothing else availed.

The luxury of fire once again enabled the clan to sample cooked food, and the warmth and contentment this engendered. But with this contentment there arose contention where Yat most feared it: the pairing of men and women.
Minor bickering erupted between some of the young who vied with each other in an attempt to claim the attentions of any available females. And here Yat was caught in a dilemma; hopeful that no other tribes dwelt in the area to come against his people in war, yet desirous that these folk existed if only to provide the womenfolk required to stabilize the clan. In the end he could do little more than to send the hunters out as often as was possible whilst he wrestled with the problem and kept the people on the move from camp to camp. He was also diverted by the country.
There were, as he saw even in the beginning of their occupation, many things new to them.
Certainly the land contained trees, stones and mountains, but they and the creatures they harboured differed in subtle and sometimes striking ways.
To Yat, it was as if they were walking into a land beyond their dreams where each bird, each animal held some new meaning. Thus they began the process of name giving to waterways, camp sites, rocky outcrops, hills and caves; for as Yat and his folk had long been conditioned, any territory travelled by them unchallenged was theirs to do with as they wished. So too were named the queer birds and animals never before encountered by this inquisitive band of nomads, adjusting their daily needs and requirements to the existing harmonies of nature where both beauty and danger abounded; the one often disguised as the other.
Then, and into the future, certain places would acquire special significance tied to happenings, or simply to the land itself.
The place of good hunting.
The place of the water.
The rock shelter.
The gorge of shadow.

All these and many, many more would pass into knowledge and memory and legend, as would pass the memory of the time before the great crossing of the water, and what had once been in the long ago.
Here lay the vast storehouse of conscious and unconscious information; of fact and folklore where reality drifted into dream and was superimposed by the veil of the myth makers. This then was the beginning.

Yat of course was innocent of such foundations for his people or himself, and even had the truth dawned upon him would have cared little. He was concerned only with the present, of life from one day to the next, and a singular event of importance; Cun was again with child, and this troubled him until her time came.

The birth was similar to his own; Cun squatting, supported by Tahi. Mishfa and Notu assisted. The baby was as any born into the clan. Fingers and toes the same as its mother. It lived and was healthy, and strong at the breast. It was a girl.

That night, for the first time in their new home, Yat danced before the fires and his people in jubilation; and soon they joined with him in a celebration that lasted almost to morning.
Life, and the creation of new life, especially amidst a harsh and often perilous existence, required such moments of high spirit.
For them, this was what the basis of faith was founded upon; that in a world of continual struggle their number should increase, that they might live in their children and draw comfort from the image of themselves reborn.

And there was a greater significance.
The birth of the shaman's daughter represented not only the beginning of the line of Yat, but also that of his clan. This was the first child on the soil of that enormous, enigmatic country which was to become theirs for millennia afterward. Behind these folk, in the past of a lost land, they were as the dead; and the resting-places of their kin and all their evolution and history was sundered to them forever. Only the soft tread of wild creatures and the feet of strange peoples would pass over the remains and the graves of the ancestors to these, once northern, dwellers.

But there, in the far south, a colony of humans had begun to establish, to be born of the land, to survive and to build a culture that would eventually flourish.


Chapter 14 to follow


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