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Banners in the Mist:
~ trekking into the past ~

Short-short Stories

by Joyce Holt

This issue: Australian tales from 1853, 1432, and earlier

October 1, 2017     - - -     Volume 4 Number 4

in the lands of the Djungan clan
( photo attribution here * )

Dangerous Errand

Crossing clan boundaries

Yajarril heard the boys long before he came to the clearing. He crept along as silent and watchful as a lizard, peering through the rainforest's dense greenery.
      Trees loomed like monsters on all sides. As Yajarril edged through the jungle, he startled at every hidden sound.
      So different this was from the airy aisles of his home territory further inland where eucalyptus trees cast dappled shadows over grasses waving in light, dry breezes. None of this stifling, shadowy dampness.
      Dangerous business to venture into the lands of a different clan. Dangerous and baffling.
      With no grass growing in this dim, vine-strangled forest, there was no foraging for kangaroos.
      With no kangaroos to hunt, what did the folk of the Ngadjonji clan eat? How did they survive?
      Now the oddly accented words came clearer.
      "Faster, faster!"
      "He's an arm-length higher now. Hurry or you'll lose!"
      Peering into a glade, Yajarril saw a group of heedless boys younger than he. Gazing overhead, they gathered around two towering trees. High up the naked trunks, two boys raced toward the canopy, each one scooting upwards with help of a cord passed around the tree. They leaned back, walked their feet along the bark, then flipped the cord higher for the next few steps.
      Yajarril gaped. Surely one boy or both would slip and plunge to the ground. But no, they kept scrambling higher and higher like koalas fleeing a fire.
      One reached a bunch of knobby fruits. He lashed one end of the cord around his thigh, took a hatchet from clenched teeth, and hacked at the prize. The boys below caught the dropped fruits, laughing and counting.
      Did these youngsters know the proper manners for greeting a messenger? Or would they attack an intruder? It would do Yajarril no good to run. Give him a stretch of open flatland and he'd outdistance them all. But not here where vines and roots grabbed at feet.
      As the tree-climbers skidded down their trunks, Yajarril clambered up the standing, slab-like roots of another forest giant. From that vantage point he could use the message stick as a club, if he must. He raised the carved stick overhead. "Greetings from Ngarrabullgan!" he called.
      The Ngadjonji boys leaped back, startled, then bristled with battle-hunger, raising hatchets in threat as they surged forward in a mob.
      "I come in sacred truce," Yajarril proclaimed. "Djungan clan calls warrama!"
      "Warrama?" the tallest boy echoed. "A festival of the tribes?" He studied Yajarril a long moment, then lowered his hatchet. He nodded. "Come down off the magurra's knees. Bring your good news to our village."
      "We'll feast tonight!" a younger boy cried.
      Yajarril halted halfway down.
      At his look of alarm, the tall one laughed, tucking his hatchet into his belt. "We're not the man-eating folk of the northern islands. Do not fear. We honor the truce."
      "We'll feast on the first ripening guwaa fruit," said another, holding up one knobby sphere.
      Yajarril traded appraising glances with the boys, then smiled. "Gladly I will come. Never before have I tasted fruit that grows in the clouds."

warrama: a 3-day celebration when all hostilities are cast aside

* " Ngarrabullgan Vegtn 0001" by Original uploader Bruceanthro at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia;
transferred to Commons by User:Mattinbgn using CommonsHelper
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Maps, Masts, and Monsoons

Top End, AD1432

      Fu Shai and Lu Yundi argued all the way back to the coast. "Why did you have to insult our guide?" Shai asked when they found their path cut off by a steep ravine.
      "Don't need a guide," Yundi said, backtracking. "Have a lodestone. North is all that matters."
      "It's taking too long this way. The native would have taken us--"
      "We'll get there eventually," Yundi interrupted.
      "Eventually will do us no good if we arrive too late."
      "I've kept track of the days. We have plenty of time."
      "Kept track, have you? As accurate with the days as with that map you drew?"
      "It was accurate until that over-sized grub ate a pathway through the paper. Hardly my fault."
      "Admiral Zheng He will not be pleased. What good is a rich copper deposit if the Emperor's miners cannot find it?"
      "It wasn't all that rich. The Emperor won't want to waste time on a middling mine so far from Mother China, wait and see."
      "So what good our trek across the blazing hot savanna, tracking that ore? We could have stayed in comfort on the coast."
      "The crocodile-infested coast? Not for me! No inland pests but cute little wallabies. I've slept easy this whole journey."
      Shai snorted.
      "Look, a seabird!" Yundi whooped. "We can't be far now. By my reckoning we still have eight days until sailing."

Mount Sonder, watercolor by Albert Namatjira (1902-1959)
Namatjira was perhaps the best known Aboriginal painter,
and one of Australia’s great artists.

      The scouts picked up their pace, winding ever north between eucalyptus stands and vine-thickets. The land took a lazy time slumping down to sea level. The shore at last came into sight, an unfamiliar stretch of beach.
      Shai pointed west. "Let's try that direction."
      "No, I think we should go east."
      They bickered until Shai spotted a dugout heading their way. He ran out into the surf, waving, calling to the wiry nut-brown man at the paddle. Pidgin trading language brought an answer. "Go west to big ship village."
      The sun sailed low and bright ahead as they slogged along, but behind them in the east rose banks of clouds as dark as mud.
      "I hope the astronomers have finished their star-charts," Yundi said as they hurried. "It will not be a clear night."
      "Star-charting, the least of our worries," Shai said, glancing over his shoulder. "Monsoon coming."
      "Nonsense. Too early in the season."
      "If you counted right."
      When the harbor came into view, Shai stumbled to a halt. Sixty-two massive ocean-going junks in Admiral Zheng's fleet -- and not one at anchor. Not a single ship in sight.
      "No, no, no!" Shai howled. He burst into a run, hurtled along the beach and up the shore to the colony huts.
      Abandoned, all abandoned -- except for the shrine to Tianfei. One old monk sat there beside the statue of the Celestial Spouse, the guardian of mariners. The hermit cackled. "Company! Lucky me. Won't have to sit vigil all alone. It's two years until they return, you know."
      In the east, like a great violet and indigo dragon, the monsoon crawled up the sky, spitting lightning, spreading wide its wings of unending rain.

15th century 9-masted ocean-going Chinese ship
dwarfing the Portuguese caravel alongside

      In 1405 the Yongle Emperor sent Admiral Zheng He on a series of voyages to the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean) to visit countries near and far, flexing the muscles of the Chinese Empire, trying to eradicate a plague of pirates. Accounts say that Zheng, with his huge fleet of massive, nine-masted, ocean-going junks, established colonies on the southern land of Chui Hiao (Australia) for mining gold, silver, copper and tin. Astronomers accompanied the Admiral and studied the southern skies.
      Detailed records remain of Zheng's first five voyages, but the accounts and maps made during the sixth and seventh voyages were destroyed by the Ming dynasty. Old tales, though, say that in 1432 his fleet sailed all around the coast of Australia. Reasonably accurate maps of Australia, laid out in porcelain, date from 1477.
      At one site on Australia's north coast, the "Top End," sand dunes swallowed a statue of the Taoist goddess Tianfei -- to emerge centuries later, a tantalizing enigma from the past.

      In his homeland, Admiral Zheng He erected a tablet that told of his travels:

"We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…"

two representations of the Tao goddess Tianfei, also known as Mazu and Lin Mo

"Diggers of high degree"

Fickle Lady Luck

Bendigo Gold Fields, AD1853

      "Duncan!" Thomas yelled. "I've reached quartz. Get down here!"
      Duncan scrambled down the rickety ladder. He leaped down the last few feet into the hole, crouched, scooped up a handful of dirt. "You're right, partner, you're right!" The two young men wielded pickax and shovel like convicts tunneling out of prison. Dirt and clods flew, and more glinting quartz came to light.
      Thomas ran up the ladder, swung a beam with block and tackle over the sinking, and sent down the first of many buckets.
      By nightfall, the partners knew they'd made their fortunes. They whooped and danced around the sluice set in the stream near their dig. The quartz bed had yielded a hatful of gold dust and even a few nuggets.
      "What ya think?" Thomas asked. "Set off for Bendigo in the morning?"
      Duncan stroked his bushy blond beard. "Work another day first, for twice the takings?"
      "If you want to feast off boiled rat again. Nothing else left but that spoiled potato."
      "You're right. Off to the broker's tomorrow. The digging will go faster with full bellies."
      Thomas raised his tin cup of stream water. "To Sporing Gully, the crown of all the Bendigo goldfield!"
      Duncan clinked cups. "To Lady Luck, who finally struck!"
      In the morning the two changed into their threadbare, going-to-town spare shirts. Thomas trimmed his raven-black hair and shaved, but Duncan waved aside the razor.
      Thomas hoisted his empty backpack. "Well, it's clear which of us the ladies will flock to." He smirked at his partner's rough looks, and rubbed his own clean-shaven chin.
      "With coins in my pockets, the ladies'll think I'm handsome enough." Duncan's teeth flashed through his sandy beard as they set off on the twenty-mile trek to Bendigo.
      They joked and jostled half the morning, as rowdy as if they'd just left a saloon. Their grins faded when they came face to face with a trio of armed men lurking in the shade of a eucalyptus grove.
      "Only one reason," the leader said, "a couple of jackasses like you would troop so merrily off to Bendigo. Hand it all over."
      Thomas' face turned whiter than a kangaroo's belly. "Fickle Lady Luck."
      "Shoulda kept our mouths shut," Duncan muttered.
      The bandits guffawed. "Still woulda seen the bounce in your step, boys. Now strip."
      Thomas and Duncan shed their clothing. They grimaced through humiliating body searches.
      The robbers went through their belongings, feeling the hems of their canvas pants and even the toe-cavities of their boots. They found the hidden stash.
      At last the thieves headed into the brush, taking the heavy little pokes of gold dust and nuggets.

      Thomas dressed, then picked up his pack. "Well, we still have our sinking at Sporing Gully," he said gloomily.
      "Let's go on to Bendigo," Duncan said. "Get a room like we planned. Comb my beard carefully over a pan. They didn't get all the gold. You see--" He bounced his eyebrows. "--this morning I dusted half my poke into my crumb-catcher."
      Thomas stared, noticing for the first time how sunlight glinted from his partner's bushy golden beard. He grinned. "You sly devil!"