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© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter Fourteen - Life

A hard, remorseless fact of life.
Disease, starvation, thirst, accident and old age, as well as warfare, passion and revenge, all could, and often did, bring about the ending of life.
And even in its ever-present manifestations, death, like birth, was a continual source of wonder and awe.

When it came again to the clan, however hardened they were toward the unexpected, they were thrown into a state of shock and bereavement that only time could erode.
Ban, the daughter of Cros and Clan Mother Tahi, playing with several other children at the edge of the campsite, thus became death's latest victim.
There, beneath an overhang of lush greenery on the banks of a swift flowing stream, within sight of her mother and some of the womenfolk, the child was suddenly engulfed with the coils of a huge snake. The creature had unwound itself from the branches above and dropped soundlessly into the midst of the unsuspecting youngsters.
In a matter of moments, shattered by the shrill, fading cries of the child, the snake had done its worst; heaping coil upon coil and crushing with ferocious speed and agility.
Cros, who happened to be on the spot, was the first to leap to his daughter's aid.
With all the unleashed strength of despair he attacked the constricting monster bent upon its prey.
Yat and Tharta One-eye followed, stabbing and hacking in a frenzy of outrage and raw, violated emotion.

In the end, they destroyed the snake, levering apart the spring-like coils, which suddenly gave way, but all too late.
Retching and sobbing out of fear and loathing and the exertions of their efforts, the men dragged Ban's body free, whilst a plaintive wail from the womenfolk began.
For a fleeting moment, staring down at the misshapen form of the child, Yat's sight blurred; blotted out by an overwhelming memory of Cun's first-born, and he was forced to stagger off a distance until the mist had passed from his eyes.

On regaining his senses he returned to where his half-sister lay, covered now beneath the skins of many possums. There he found Tahi amongst the gathered, moaning and rocking back and forth beside her daughter's body.
Yat stood for a long while, silently watching as the lament from the clan women rose and fell, and fires were lit to ward off the advancing shadows of nightfall.

Ban was buried the following morning.
The people, wretched from their sleepless vigil, assembled at the shallow grave as Cros and Tahi Clan-Mother carried their only girl-child to her resting-place.
When this was done the people, as was their custom, each left a small offering; shells, gourds filled with river water, bone combs and needles, roots, fruit, animal teeth and braids of human hair.
Yat, last of all, placed a cup-shaped bone socket filled with glowing coals at his half-sister's feet, to warm her through the fullness of time.

Then the earth was pushed over by the women, and so a low mound was eventually formed.
Yat stared at his mother where she knelt beside the unmarked grave, and suddenly saw, as if never having seen before, that she was grown old.
She was in truth no more than forty, but her child bearing days were finished, and the blow of the loss of this child seemed, overnight, to have aged her beyond those years.
Cros too, though a little younger than Tahi had reached the point where the scarred hunter-warrior must give way to the Elder within him.
Soon, Yat knew, Cros would turn over his leadership to Kari, and hunt no more.
From the turning of that day the progression toward the end of all days for Tahi and Cros drew swiftly on.

The seasons melted one to another as the clan wandered from hunting ground to hunting ground. Food was relatively easy, in such a rigorous and at times harsh environment, to obtain.
The learning process was slow but steady.
Any plant, any fruit or tuber unknown, was sampled sparingly before general use.
Fish, turtles, fresh-water mussels and crabs, all manner of birds and insects, lizards, goannas, perenties and the odd looking creatures that swam and lived in the banks of rivers were added to the clan's larder.
Even the fearsome, river-haunting, plated reptiles occasionally fell to the clubs and spears of the warriors.
But there was much to be treated with caution or avoided altogether; deadly poisonous snakes and spiders abounded, as did the great constricting amethystines and the last of the pouched thylacoleo. These carnivorous beasts roamed the open plains and about the foothills of mountain ranges.
On the grasslands, flocks of enormous, flightless birds wandered. And with them, equally formidable; the ancestors of the kangaroo; protemnodon and procoptodon, marsupials standing one and a half times the size of men, that moved upon their hind legs, using their long tails for balance and leverage whilst the shortened fore-arms were free to grapple with any enemy.
These creatures propelled themselves forward at speed, in a leaping manner; confounding Yat's people until eventually ways were contrived to bring down even this daunting quarry.

The actual keeping of wild birds and animals for breeding and slaughter tended to be ignored with the profusion of game available, and so fell by the wayside. Again, even as they adapted to the prevailing conditions of a strange land, the people drifted back into their role of hunter-gatherers.
Over time, they learned by observation the pattern of things; the growing cycles of vegetation, fruits, tubers and roots, the ways of ants, termites, bees and grubs, the paths of unknown animals, their tracks, the nesting places of birds and their habits. And the creatures to avoid or treat with caution and respect; deadly snakes, various biting lizards and other water-dwelling reptiles, spiders and all kinds of stinging insects new to them.
All were encountered, observed, tested, accepted, rejected, and stored in the communal memory, to pass on, mother to daughter, father to son, and eventually into clan craft and lore.
Everything the people wore, ate or sheltered within was harvested, as of old, from the land; and though the harvest was changed, the mould of the clan remained much as before. They were still moving through a stone-age climate, with virtually no agriculture nor animal domestication. The invention of the wheel was never to come.
No beast suitable to ride or to pull a wheeled vehicle was available over all the endless plains of the vast island continent they roamed.
There were however the glimmerings of some gradual changes; technological improvements based upon improvisation and a hard won knowledge gleaned from ongoing experience. Stone and flint remained of much import, but new wood, fish bone and that of the new animals were adapted to suit the needs of the people, as were a multitude of fibres, vines and barks which provided the basics for anything from crude rope to snares and nets.
Later, tools and weapons of greater efficiency were to be laboriously developed out of these newly acquired materials.

This learning process, coupled with the continuous movement in search of food, water and the exploration of their habitat, occupied Yat's folk during the first years of their arrival to the exclusion of most other considerations.
It was, in fact, a time given over to establishment. Yet as they travelled from season to season, working their way through tracts of treed areas, over low hills and across broad valleys the time came that Yat had long attempted to avoid; the division of his people, now grown strong again and larger in number.

Tahi and Cros were dead.
Kari himself was in his latter years.
Notu, Kari 's woman had become Clan Mother.
Tharta One-eye had been elevated to Kari's second, and was now the father of four children to Mishfa of the painted peoples.
Jinti, Yat and Cun's daughter was five years old and her brother Tahni-yat, two.

Some of the mature men had paired with the available women, but others, over the years had grown impatient, despite all Yat's attempts to mollify them.
No new folk had been encountered, and the young hunters now believed that they walked a land totally devoid of any peoples but themselves.

Once again the rebellion, led by Gan, took place as an open confrontation.
It was swift and violent; the single males, in a body arose against the clan early one dawn, seizing girls and women, striking down any who came against them and making off into the wilderness with their hostages.
During this brief but bloody attack and withdrawal, Kari was seriously injured and later died of his wounds notwithstanding all Yat's efforts to save him.
Tharta too was wounded in the struggle, but recovered to assume the mantle of Warrior Leader, and later to pursue the breakaway group.
This in itself was an irony, considering his own earlier attempt at exactly the same kind of uprising. Though in later years, tempered by tribal and family life, Tharta had matured and become a useful and diligent worker, the grudges and shame of his childhood and youth long set behind him. His labours at tracking the runaways however proved fruitless, and he returned with his followers empty-handed after many days in the wilds.

Meanwhile, Yat, faced with the social reorganisation of his people, depleted not only by the youngest and strongest of the men but also by the abduction of many females of child bearing age, rallied to the clan's psychological needs. It was an indisputable truth, he told them at the meeting fires, that now there walked two tribes in their land. It was useless to pursue the breakaways further. Better to let the anger between them burn out and become as ashes, and if their paths crossed again, to pass them by without retaliation.

This did not sit well with some; especially those who had lost wives and daughters. And in secret they nursed grudges against those they now considered enemies.
But there were others; parents of the estranged males, who saw wisdom in Yat 's words. And did not want further bloodshed. So here again, over a period of time, a second division began the slow process of fermentation as sides were taken on the issue.
Yat however realised the situation before it erupted into hostility, and calling the clan together once more, spoke openly of his fears.
For the good of all, he said, the people must choose for themselves whether to stay with the clan or depart, peacefully, to make their way and their own laws.
It was better to do so before the seething bitterness caused further violence between them.
At this, a vote was taken, with the result that the dissenters broke camp on the instant; simply picking up their few, scant belongings and setting off.
Now there was much sorrow, for even though anger, resentment and revenge were the motivations for the split, many family ties and bonds of friendship were sundered.
It was an unhappy moment, expressed in the main by the womenfolk and children of both sides, as those departing vanished against the skyline.
But it was a moment destined to be enacted over and again for the descendants of Yat's people and the waves of other migratory humans to reach this southern land mass.

That night, Yat stood despondently before the remnant of his tribe.
The clan was broken.
All his energies and efforts to keep them together had failed.
After the terrible trials of the past, the arduous journey across earth and ocean, he had believed that a powerful people would emerge; forged by every hazard, every death along the way.
Instead, the clan was once more reduced to a small, isolated group, comprised mostly of Elders and families still loyal to the shaman.
But the belly of the tribe, he knew, had been ripped apart; the young and the strong had chosen other leaders, another life.
For the first time in his own life Yat felt the weight of defeat, and of too many seasons.
Now that his mother and Cros were gone, a vague apprehension of mortality tugged at his being.
Weary, he settled down to sleep beside his woman and their children.

In the dawn, he awoke to the feel of his son, Tahni-yat, playing with his fingers, and as Yat lay enjoying the boy's attention, he gazed up at a cloudless, blue sky.
Cun's hair ruffled his chin, and the melody of birds warbled from far away.
The world that belonged to Yat whilst he lived in it, began anew, and he became aware that sleep and the echoes of the dreams of sleep must be put aside.
Lying there, Yat saw that the need to revive the flagging spirits of those around him still remained as his duty. Now there were three, counting on his fingers, separate tribes; and no more could they each be known by the name of clan, carried with them from a life and time of the past. A new name must be sought, and a new identity, to mark his followers and set them apart.
In this notion, Yat hoped, was the seed of pride and of a new beginning.

As the vestiges of Yat's people moved on through treed hills and down to the margins of vast swamps he thought long about a name, but rejected each possibility one after another.
What he really wanted was a sign; inspiration, though he was most likely unaware of this.
The sign, however, came in an unexpected and curious way; and it bore an impression that lasted over many generations.

Hoping to locate another colony of flying foxes, Yat, Tharta and those left of the able-bodied hunters skirted the edges of the swamp where water-thirsty roots snaked into the stagnant wastes, and there found firmer ground able to support their passage. On the lookout for game as well as the reptiles that haunted such places, the party ventured a little way in.
After groping beneath the tangle of underbrush that was the twilit world of the wet lands, they emerged into an open area where the water had receded, draining away to silent marsh beyond.
There, blinking in the sunshine, they were confronted by a sight that caused them to halt and stare wide-eyed.
The men had seen bones before.
There was nothing new in that.
Skeletal remains were encountered everywhere, in all the lands they had travelled.
But these were different; so much so that the hunters at first confused them with the grey-bleached trunks of fallen trees, yet swiftly they realised this was not true. As their eyes adjusted to the bright light they made out stark bony structures that appeared to them to be of some gigantic creature.
The remains were strewn over a wide area of firmer ground, vanishing into the green slime beyond, and though some of them were partially covered by a carpet of moss and weeds it seemed plain to Yat and the others that this had once been an animal of immense size.
Something that might have towered over even the tall trees surrounding the hunters.
Muttering softly as they picked their way forward, the men came upon great broken sections of bone protruding from the sun-baked mud, that looked to them remarkably like the jaws of this terrible beast.
In the minds of Yat and his followers it took but small resemblance to conjure forth the image of an enormous, unknown beast, eyes the width of a man 's hand-span, head the size of an entire human being. A conclusion easily reached by peoples of such credulous nature, especially when they discovered a bone with the girth of a large tree trunk. For a time they stood clustered together in amazement, the faint drone and hum of insects the only sound to disturb their concentration upon these remarkable relics of another era that, to them, might have been yesterday, or lifetimes ago. But, as the span of attention to any object or singular event was limited by inactivity, Yat, Tharta and their followers were soon drawn back to regard the present situation. The tale they had to tell and the bones they might bear home as witness were of import around the campfires, though as always food remained a constant need, and one that must be gratified before all else.
With this in mind, Tharta sent several of the hunters away to scout the margins of the swamp beyond for any sign of suitable game, whilst he and the others busied themselves at an attempt to dislodge the jaws from their resting-place. The menfolk, after the initial shock of the find and their fleeting visions of living creatures still prowling nearby, grew bolder; digging into the soft mud and heaving at the bones, punctuating the silence with grunts that might have been embarrassed comments on the foolishness of this notion. The bony structures, brittle with exposure, soon cracked and splintered, and in the end they were left with little to carry away for their efforts of discovery.

Yat, however, was on the verge of a greater discovery. Wandering amongst the tangle of debris and partially exposed bones that seemed to litter a greater part of the open space of oozing mud and slime covered water, he slipped and almost lost his balance, his toes sliding off a rounded object directly beneath the green surface.
He withdrew his foot, righting himself in the sucking mire, primitive fear prickling his flesh.
He was staring down at the skull of a human being. After some moments he regained his self-control long enough to free the thing from the ooze, watching, almost mesmerised as the mud slowly glugged out of it.
This had once been a fellow of his own kind; someone who had been dead for a time beyond Yat's ability to guess. The skull did not belong to any of his own peoples, that he was sure, since there were no signs of recent disturbance.
But then, he wondered, who was this man?
Yat thought of the skull as belonging to a man, without having any actual reason to do so, other than some vague assertion formulating in the slow progression of questions for which the answers remained at his discretion to provide. If one man, then surely there were, or had been, others: people, similar to himself, in the land, his land, where now three tribes walked.
Who they were, how they lived, and why this particular individual had come to be in the place where the terrible beast had also died were questions that awaited the shaman's ability to rede.
For the present, Yat was simply struck by a mixture of emotions; awe, as he now sensed the event of death to have taken place in the remote past.
Consternation, at his immediate inability to understand what had taken place and how.
And finally, expectancy; a strange thrill of something that churned his belly and rippled outward from his hand, his six fingers, where they lifted the bone that had cradled life.
Yat raised his head, apprehension in his eyes, much as it had been when a child at the discovery of the great cave and the paintings within.
All he saw were his followers, turning and lifting fragments: the crack and splinter of them.
Otherwise, the swamp lay still and silent.
There was only the smell of it, of stagnant water and slime; for the smell of death had long receded into the time that dreams were made of.

On the night of their return, after Yat and his people had feasted upon the fruits of their combined labours, he produced the skull with much ritual; his six-fingered hands unveiling it with elaborate gestures. His still sinuous body moving in the firelight, smeared with grease and feathers, his feet thudding amongst the greying ash. The tale of this treasure now firmly fixed in his shaman's mind, the questions answered by conclusions logical to his needs, Yat wove his story and the clan listened. Here, he told the onlookers, was the head of a mighty hunter who had met in battle a terrible creature of long ago. This monster was the last of its kind and had come to destroy the hunter, who was also the last of his people; the rest having been killed off in a war against the great beasts. In the swamp, the hunter faced his enemy and struck him down, but he too died of wounds inflicted in the struggle; and so the flesh rotted from both their bodies, leaving only bones: and the bones of these fearsome deeds, after many suns, many seasons, had come to Yat. And here, he said, was the sign for which he had long awaited. The name by which his clan should be known; the name that now belonged to them, as did the skull of the hunter. They owned this name; it was given freely to them, as the land was theirs to keep for all time, given to them by the hunter.
And the name was Ganti; Bone people.
To mark the occasion, and stamp it with his own presence, Yat held the skull out over the fire so that the glow of the flames coloured it with an echo of the life that had once pulsed in and around the mighty hunter.

From that night on, the shaman's tribe took the name Ganti, and kept it over many generations. Naively, they accepted Yat's telling of past events as the truth, as indeed did he; for the tale, when it sprang from his mind's imaginings seemed to form a solid, logical explanation of what he had observed. Put simply, it satisfied curiosity, firmly grounding the event as a beginning of secret tribal foreknowledge unto themselves that for itself alone gave the possessors power anew. This and other like instances were the formation and the fabric of mythology amongst many and varied peoples the world over, and initially gave credence to much of the mystery surrounding them.
Stones and trees and birds, and all the wealth of the earth that they encountered, had tales to be told; awaiting only the vivid insight of the yarn-spinners. And the passage of their stories down the centuries, carried in the memories and minds of the would-be wise, the witchdoctors, elders and shamans.
In this case though, it served a greater, immediate purpose; the naming of Yat's group was to elevate them in their own estimation, for suddenly they were not only the possessors of hitherto undiscovered information, but also the inheritors of the mystical strengths of this long dead warrior. His skull was their proof and the basis of their faith, and would find pride of place amongst the slow gathered relics of millennium.
And even after it had crumbled to dust and was lost, the power of the words and tales would carry it on.
The remainder of the clan of Yat now owned a name, and as others over and again were to do, set about the naming of all things within their sphere. And the explanations for those names whenever and wherever they thought it needful, that a pattern consistent to the life they led be so laid out.
Here was a simple, but tremendous step forward toward cultures that would, one day in the dim future, contribute to the beginnings of recorded systems. Setting down on wood, stone and paper the notions, ideas, histories, myths, lore and legends of countless peoples flowing across the earth's surface in every direction.

Yat felt only the elation of his efforts for he believed to an extent in his own creation; concocted though it was. Yet also he appreciated the timing.
It was a triumph.
His depleted reputation and his depleted people were at once reinvigorated.
And during the period that followed, he saw that the Ganti, his Bone-folk, again carried themselves with enlivened bearing and looked upon him as of old.

He never knew that the giant bones in the swamp belonged, in fact, to a varied collection of creatures dating back thousands to millions of years.
A scant few, the earliest and most imposing bones, were those of a plesiosaur; a gigantic, flesh-eating, marine monster that swam in the sea which covered the continent ages before Man's evolution.
By a freakish quirk of nature, these large and friable bones, continually submerged in water, locked in ice and covered in water again, had survived. Whilst additions came about as other later, great, terrestrial animals succumbed in the ongoing build-up of the swamp bowl; there to remain until exposed by receding waters.
What Yat and his men had stumbled upon was nothing less than an accumulated graveyard of remains, tumbled and washed together, and preserved for the eyes of humans.

Neither could Yat be aware that the skull, so prized by the Ganti, was that of another human being, preceding them by as short a period as a few hundred years.
The Mighty Hunter of the Ganti's crystallising myth was merely a member of a failed group of their own forerunners.


Chapter 15 to follow


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