Alf Taylor is one of the Nyoongar community’s leading writers, the author of three books of poetry and prose. His mother Queenie, a Ngadu woman, was taken from her family while a child, and this extract is his imaginative reconstruction of that event from a longer version of his mother’s life. Alf himself was stolen and brought up in New Norcia Mission.
‘Wildflower Girl’ was published in Westerly 54.2, November 2009.
(an extract from My Mother’s Story)
Grandma Polly could see the concern on her daughter’s face and could see that her daughter was playing dice with the devil. But how could she stop her? Ada told her mother that she was taking her two children to the wildflower show and that she wouldn’t be long away, and as usual Queenie would be the first to give her a bunch of precious flowers. Ada’s only thought was the excitement of Queenie for the wildflowers. Grandma Polly nodded as she was told, in a not sure act of bravado, that Ada would keep a lookout for the troopers or the policemen, or ‘boogie men’ as they were referred to by the tribe. Ada hugged her mother, and her mother sensed that this girl is flirting with an evil that is not too far from our boundaries.
‘You’d better hurry’, she said, trying to make light of it. That evil always seemed not too far away when the Ngadu people seemed to be happy. Ada looked at Queenie, who was desperately in a rush to move. Not forgetting her love for her Grandma, she called out ‘Love you Grandma Polly.’
Polly waved as she watched her daughter and her two grandchildren heading for the wildflowers. She gave a sad smile as she saw Queenie ducking and weaving amongst the bush, with her mother and brother trying to hurry along behind. Looking back for her Mother, Queenie had to giggle, because Mum was a fair way back, trying to coax Jack who, to be quite honest, was not excited about the galaxy of flowers that awaited. He would rather have gone out and looked for bush tucker, Queenie thought.
But Grandma Polly was transfixed on the movements of Ada and her two children.
She mumbled, almost in silence, ‘If anything happened to the children we’d have to blame Mother Nature for luring Queenie in.’ Innocent of the genocidal wave that was slowly drowning her people, Queenie ran through the bush in exhilarating happiness, letting her fingers flick the leaves of the young saplings as she whizzed by. Running into the cleared area she gasped. Standing silently, still, mesmerised and in her wildflower land, she thought of Grandma Polly telling her of the beauty that appears every year about springtime. Polly would often tell all the children that they must be good Ngadu children, and, once a year, if the children behaved really well, Mother Nature would send the rain down in the winter and, come the spring, the wildflowers would appear for the good Ngadu kids. And looking at what lay before her eyes, she thought,’We must have all been good kids.’
She looked longingly over her wondrous wildflowers and knew that she had to pick enough for all the families, but not pick too much. If we pick too much or trample these pretty flowers Grandma Polly and also Mum will rouse. Mother Nature will not let the rain fall on our Ngadu land, and there will be no display of her kindness to the Ngadu people. Looking over her beautiful wildflowers, she thought of the stories she had heard last night around a campfire, snuggled around her little sisters and listening to the elders talk, sing and play the didjeridoo. Sometimes she heard the stories being told but sometimes the elders would talk with great concern in their voices, especially when they spoke of the children in the Ngadu tongue. Words like ‘hide’…‘children’…‘British Government’…‘no more you will see them.’
This would often confuse young Queenie, when sleep was about to engulf her. She would always think, before drifting off into her wildflower land, ‘As long as I’ve got my mother, my brother and all my family and the flowers that await me I am happy’.
Ada with Jack came out of the bush and laughed at her daughter spinning around, arms outstretched either side of her, in front of the wildflowers. Mother and daughter looked over the magical carpet of flowers and little Queenie imagined that they were all laughing and smiling at her as they danced to the tune of a slight breeze. They had Queenie in a world so far away from the theft of little Aboriginal children from their Mums and Dads to make these little black kids like little white kids in this country they called ‘Australia’. All Queenie wanted was to be around her family and around the bush.
‘Hey, my big girl, looks like they knew you was comin’.’
Queenie ran to her mother, who let Jack slide down from her hip and stand on the ground. Ada put her arms around her daughter’s shoulders and looked at the beautiful flowers.
Ada thought that all the seasons had been good to the Ngadu people and she knew of the hot summer they just had, the cold chilly winds that come in from Esperance, followed by the cold winter rains, which made us forever have the fires burning, and the beautiful spring weather through which the bush gave us these wildflowers.
Then gently pushing Queenie on her back Ada said, ‘All those purty flowers are waitin’ for you girl.’ Queenie walked softly at first and was afraid to trample on those ‘purty flowers’ as her mother called them.
As long as Queenie could remember, her mother and the rest of the mothers, and even Grandma Polly, would take all the children out to the wildflowers and turn a day into a festival. Dampers would be made out in the bush. Kangaroo meat would be taken out and cooked on the hot coals. And whatever bush tucker they found in the bush they all shared, lizards, goannas, bardies and whatever bush fruit was around; in Spring they were never short of the bush fruit that grew around the Fraser Ranges. And on this particular day, thought Queenie, it’s only me, my brother and my mother. ‘This’, she thought, ‘is the first time that we are alone. I wonder what kept the other families away? Never mind’, she considered, ‘I will pick the flowers for all the families. I wish the other kids were here with me.’
Ada walked back to the bush and found a hollow log to sit on and was quite at ease with herself. From here she could watch Queenie picking all her flowers and could see Jack looking for bobtails. She knew that in this warm weather there’d be a lot of young bobtails out, and the family loved roasted bobtails.
With the excitement of Queenie, who seemed quite happy just picking her flowers, she had to laugh at her son Jack who was trying to kill a bobtail.
‘I’d better go and help him,’ she thought. ‘Either that bobtail is gunna bite him on the toe or he’s gunna hit himself on the toe with that stick he’s trying to flatten the bobtail with.’
Ada quickly got up from the log and walked to Jack who in his frustration couldn’t understand why he couldn’t kill his favourite meal. Ada had to laugh at him because she had just seen one tasty meal get away before her very eyes. Picking Jack up and hugging him, she said ‘Nevermind bub, we get it later. I’m sure there’s lot more bush tucker here.’
Looking around, she saw a quandong tree laden with its fruit, its skin quite red. It might be ready to eat. She carried Jack to the tree and could see that his eyes had lit up on seeing the quandong tree and the bobtail was the furthest thing from his mind. She was glad that the young children were taught at a young age that the bush will look after you as long as you look after the bush and not light fires when not the right season and bury the bones of the animals back in the ground. It is good for the soil.
Putting Jack down, she reached up and grabbed a quandong and peeled its soft red skin from the nut and had a taste. ‘Hmmm, not quite ripe but good enough to eat.’
She took a taste of a few more before getting a handful and giving them to Jack. She knew he would make short work of the quandongs, and the round nuts he would keep to play marbles with with the other kids. These kids have got their own shop right out here in the bush and it doesn’t cost them any money. She laughed, looking at Jack who had a big smile on his face while chomping on his quandongs.
She stepped out from the bush to look for Queenie amongst her wildflowers but there was no sign of her. She froze in disbelief. ‘She was there a minute ago’, she thought and began to shout frantically ‘Queenie, Queenie, mummy want you, bullay look out for boogie man on horses.’ She saw her daughter run away from the bushes holding onto her flowers with a big smile on her face. ‘Queenie, come back to us. Run quick’, trying to control her voice, looking for her son who was poking a stick into an ants’ nest a few yards away. She called to him urgently ‘Jack, run to Mummy.’
At that precise moment, Ada heard the hoofbeats upon her red soil. She froze instinctively, looking for Jack who was running towards her, his face full of fear. Then, she turned to look at Queenie who also realised something was going to happen. Fear overtook her whole body as she ran as fast as she could to her mother.
Ada was close to the hollow log she was sitting on and called to Jack in a controlled voice, ‘Jack, run to Mummy and get in this hollow log coz policeman comin’’, holding her arms out for him to run to.
Grabbing him and hiding him in the hollow log, she turned to see Queenie running towards them and she screamed as the troopers on horseback were suddenly upon her and Queenie. But what caught her eye was how the hooves had churned out so much red dust. There were three policemen on horseback, but with so much red dust around, Ada thought there were twenty horses or more because all she could see were the horses’ chests and the white policeman’s face on his horse. The rest of the legs were covered in red dust and Ada could see Queenie running towards her with her hands outstretched in front of her, flowers in each one.
For a split second, Ada thought that Queenie was going to be galloped on and screamed frantically as the horses veered away from Queenie and she was lost in the churned up dust. ‘Where are you Queenie?’ she screamed amidst the swirling redness. Ada froze to the point of near collapse as she saw Queenie step out of the thick swirling dust to give her a bunch of wildflowers. Mother and daughter let out an agonizing scream. It all happened within a split second of fierce movement. But to Ada it would come to seem a slow motion replay in her mind. Ada had just barely touched the flowers when her daughter was snatched from the ground and the troopers held her tightly. She screamed and screamed for her mother.
As the troopers rode off with the screaming child, the dust lingered high in the late morning. All Ada could see were the beautiful petals falling aimlessly to the ground. Amidst the red dust.
She didn’t know long she had lain there but she could still hear Queenie’s screams and the dreaded hooves beating into the red dry soil.
Then realising she hadn’t heard from Jack, she got up quickly and rushed to the hollow log, only to find it empty. Ada was on the verge of collapse again when she heard a voice in the bushes calling ‘Mummy, mummy.’ Regaining composure, she ran into the bushes whispering fiercely, ‘Stay in the bush. Mummy gunna get you.’ She was relieved when she grabbed Jack who was cowering in the bushes and sobbing hysterically. Trying to quell her own sobs, she nestled him to her bosom and did her best to settle him down. He clung to his mother and, weeping, asked, ‘Will we ever see Queenie again?’ She sobbed, ‘Wherever they take you I’m gunna find you my little wildflower girl!’