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Shadows under Hermannsburg

December 10, 2008

A short piece about Alice Springs. It’s a strange thing; but two years in Alice left me with deeper imprints than more than a decade in Canberra. It can be a hard place to love, Alice, but I loved it.

In her flight from ruined love, she drove across the desert to where the road ran out. Though wrenched with hurt, she still noticed the lines of red river gums, guarding the flow of long dead waters. She drove too fast through a landscape torn from time, the oldest in the world. Once she almost crashed, before she was ready, swerving away from a giant lizard sunning itself in the middle of the highway.

She came to the place where the road ran out, and turned into Hermannsburg. The place ached with menace. Rubbish, forbidden streets and abandoned cars were everywhere, but the air was somehow silent. No birds, no breeze, no lowing herds; no bells, no children’s voices. The barricaded police station was blind with dirt and dust. Not a soul was to be seen, except when she called at the single store. There, the driver of an empty tourist bus, hastening out with his cigarettes, watched her cautious entrance with incredulity. Out on the concrete steps the eldest were gathered; poor, blind, afflicted, crouched in unknown ceremony. The place smelled like an opened grave. She was observed without expression. She left without speaking.

Then she remembered the trees she’d seen on her way to where the road ran out. Destroyed by fire or other blight, they mimicked the broken forms behind her, misshapen, distorted by time, memory, ancient loss. She’d wondered at them then; now she thought she understood.

That night she went out into the desert; laid down and slept under the limitless lid of the sky, with the brilliant stars, in the the arc of space. She dreamed of the trees. She saw each tree release its imprisoned spirit from a blackened embrace. Clean straight limbs emerged from the twisted branches. They were healed, and danced.

A little distance from where she slept, four figures unfurled like flags, stood upright, and rushed towards her.

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