Friday, March 16, 2012
The plane landed with a jarring impact, bumping wildly on the tarmac. Eva was jerked sharply forward in her seat, the belt digging into her abdomen as she threw out her arms, bracing her hands against the back of the seat in front of her. It wasn’t enough that she’d been traveling for days, sleeping fitfully in stiff, plastic airport chairs while waiting for the next long flight as she crossed the world, but now with her destination in sight, the plane felt like it was going to sail right off the runway and crash into the Australian Bush.
Sighing with relief when the small twin-engine plane came to an abrupt stop, she unfastened the belt, grabbed her pack, and waited impatiently for the door to open. When it did, the furnace blast of heat that slammed into the confined space made her body instantly break out in sweat, while her mouth went dry with thirst. Stepping out onto the blistering asphalt, Eva could barely make out the entrance to the airport through the thick, undulating heat waves. How could it possibly be this hot so early in the day?Quickly pulling her sunglasses out of a shirt pocket, she covered her eyes from the intense glare and made her way to what she hoped was going to be an air-conditioned airport.
Wrong, again. The metal blades, whirling inside the old-fashioned wire cage of the fan sitting on the car rental counter, did nothing more than blow the hot pockets of hellfire into her already sweltering face.
A smile from the young, pretty Aboriginal woman behind the counter was cheerful, and sympathetic, as she looked at Eva. “You are not used to such heat?” she asked.
Wiping a hand across her forehead, Eva returned the smile. “Is anyone?”
The woman—Arika it said on her nametag—laughed, a soft chime of notes. “Let me hurry to assist you, so you may find coolness away from here.” She waited, then gave Eva an inquiring look.
“Oh, sorry,” Eva muttered, digging in the inside pocket of her hiking shorts for her passport and car reservation. Handing them over, she took a moment to breathe through the buzzing in her senses, trying to clear the surreal haze in her mind from days of travel, hours without sleep; the disjointed reality of being continents away from where she’d been just a short time ago.
When Arika cleared her throat, she realized a question had been asked. “I’m so sorry, it’s been a very long…ah, few days,” she finished lamely.
“I was just asking if you were staying here in Kalkirindji, or driving to a different destination.”
Wearily Eva said, “With any luck, I hope to be in a nice, cold shower later today at Kununurra.I’ve booked a hotel room there, but my goal is the Outback. I guess you could say I’m on a personal quest.”
Eyes wide, Arika said, “But you are not traveling alone?”
Frowning, Eva said, “Is there a problem? I’m a very skilled hiker, and though I'm going to have to get used to this heat, I know better than to go anywhere without plenty of water, and I have the latest maps, if you’re thinking I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Arika stared at Eva for a long, speculative moment, apparently making up her mind about something. Briskly nodding her head, she grabbed a small piece of paper and quickly wrote down a name and address, handing it to Eva with a flourish.
Eva stared at the note, then raised her head, questions ready to tumble from her lips, but Arika spoke first. “You are here to walk the songlines. I see it in your eyes. But you need a guide. A woman guide. The songs are different for us, not like the songs for men. And you must never walk the songs alone when you are following the Dreaming. This woman lives on the outskirts of Kununurra; she knows more about songlines than any other.”
Eva was startled. She was on a journey, a search for purpose, trying to understand her past, the sad horrible dead past she couldn’t move away from. She had been deep into a bitter Chicago winter, living in a frozen world that reflected her spirit, her heavy heart, the despair eating at her, body and soul, when a television program had set her on this path. The Australian Outback. A vast, beautiful, ethereal, magical place, far removed from memories, death and anguish. She had leaped to her feet, heart pounding, suddenly knowing exactly what she had to do.
When Arika spoke again, Eva shook her head, bringing herself back from that shocking moment—was it truly just five days ago?—when she'd changed the course of her life. “Sorry...again. My mind's a bit foggy at the moment,” Eva apologized. Tucking the note into a pocket, she asked, “If I decide to call her, should I say you sent me?”
Arika shook her head. “She probably already knows you're coming.” Smiling, she said brightly, “You will like my auntie.” Her smile deepened. “Eventually.”
Many weeks later, Eva and Darri--the woman guiding Eva along the Dreaming tracks--were sitting on the ground, across from each other, the campfire between them illuminating the lines and grooves that covered the wizened old woman’s face. Her eyes were button-black, shot through with flickering red from the flames as she glowered at Eva.
Darri’s intense stares and blunt questions had bothered, irritated and outraged Eva many times over the course of their trek, but now she had grown accustomed to her ways. Eva had also recently come to realize that she had a more profound relationship with this brusque, no-nonsense old woman than she'd had with anyone else in her life. Darri had become her sister, her mother, her grandmother. It would be hard to leave when the time came.
“Tell me what you have learned, little lizard,” Darri said abruptly.
“Can you be more specific? I’ve learned so many things.”
Snorting, Darri snapped, “Tell me what you have learned, little lizard.” She narrowed her eyes, “And I will see when you try to burrow into the sand.”
Eva started to laugh, but noticed the scowl and bit her tongue. This was a serious question and she owed Darri a thoughtful, serious answer.
“I know how to live off the land, how to find food and water when it appears there is none.I can read the stars to find my way.” She lifted her eyes, taking in the glorious sight of the myriad lights twinkling overhead, unobstructed by man’s artifice. “I have walked on the woman’s path with you; I know the song and the land are one, and the Dreaming is the spirit of the people.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I will never forget this, Darri,” she whispered.
There was silence for a time, Darri’s piercing gaze never wavering from Eva's face, until finally she shook her head and barked, “But what have you learned?”
“Well, I…” she hesitated, unsure.“I just told you.”
A loud tsk of sound between her teeth. “Have you found your purpose? Is your path clear to you? Has your heart found its rhythm? Do you see where you’re going when this Walking is over? Is your mind unclouded?”
Eva stared at the old woman, her sense of renewal, of healing, dissipating faster than smoke up a chimney. She fought the swamping awareness of defeat washing over her in painful, oh so familiar waves, but her tears welled up from deep inside and she was helpless to stop them.
Gently, Darri said, “You must come out of the burrow, frightened little lizard.”
Crying now, her misery and despair returning with a vengeance, she begged, “Tell me what I’m supposed to do. How do I find my way? Help me, please.”
Shaking her head, sorrow in her eyes, Darri said, “I cannot. You must find the way for yourself.” As Eva continued to sob, she came around the fire and put her arms around the weeping woman, rocking her slowly as the night deepened, and the fire burned to embers.
Quiet, the night sounds muted by the enormity of the landscape, Darri whispered into Eva’s ear, “I will tell you this: I see much snow and cold. Your destiny waits for you, in a strange, hostile land where the mountains pierce the sky.”
Eva sniffed, wiped her sleeve across her damp eyes, and murmured, “I’m supposed to climb Mount Everest?”
Darri chuckled.“No, the Ancestors wouldn’t be so foolish. But there is a place, a different Dreaming, where many seek answers. If you open your eyes, see with your heart, you might find yours.” She gave Eva a soft, gentle kiss in the center of her forehead; it felt like a blessing. “Our time is done, little lizard. Tomorrow our paths will cross no more.”