The Old Man from Malkala

Written by: Mike Walsh

I
 
The old man died one October, 
in the humid build up time before the wet.
We went along to say goodbye, 
me, JD, Zoe, Fitah 
and the Mine Manager of the day.
 
We kept our work rig on 
to be respectful. 
He worked with us for a long time.
 
Sometimes you couldn't find him. 
He was out doing the things 
that saltwater bushmen do.
 
We used to try to frighten him 
with rubber snakes.
He would play the part, terrified.
 
You might run into him in the town 
on the mainland sometimes at R & R. 
Always lots of girls around him. 
Perhaps a beer, a little ceremony  
with a respected elder from Homeland.
 
II
 
When we arrived 
we were shown a place to sit. 
Someone brought us water. 
Blues music played out across the settlement.

Zoe went to the women and the crying.
 
We sat in the stringy bark shade 
and talked about the time when 
the big greenback turtle sank the old man's dinghy, 
the times how he would recount, 
how his eyes would grow rounder in the telling.

His accidental gentle humour.

III
  
Invited, we all went over to his house, 
with a big colourful mat outside his front door, 
with men, women and kids all around on the ground.
 
Then his front door opened. 
He came out in his coffin, 
carried by six young men. 
The bush went silent and nothing moved, 
only them.
 
They went to place him on the mat, 
but just before he touched the air was split. 
A wrenching grief song went up around us.
 
The young men took him back inside his house 
and this continued several times, 
each of us realising;
We did not want to let him go. 
This part was done and we went to sit again 
to watch his coffin lifted into the back of a truck.
 
IV
 
Pausing every short while, 
two young women went ahead. 
They lit little fires of dry gum leaves beside the track 
and the truck waited at each tiny pyre 
until the smoke had faded.

The cort├Ęge moved along with purpose; 
We understood the measured pace. 
Then he was clear of his old home.
A solemn slow march proceeded 
by foot and vehicle through the bush 
to the Sacred Place.
 
In the smoky twilight 
they gently lowered him 
and they sang him 
into the sand hills above his beloved beach.