by Judith Steele

A priest in white robes lives in a lofty cool temple. Outside is a desert, red sand dunes, sky solid blue. The priest stands at the arched exit of the temple, strains his eyes, sees sand and sky, black shadows. Are they shadows of people? He hears screams, or is it laughter? Not for the first time, he wishes for the courage to go out. But he thinks: Is it a laugh or a scream? He retreats into the safety of the temple.

Bird song from trees in the castle garden. A woman in soft gowns and floating veils, day after day protected and sheltered by riches not hers, her only wealth her potential to produce a male heir. Her absent lord married her for just that purpose, but she has failed him. Every day she smiles at everyone, sitting with her useless beauty in the walled garden.

Twenty uniformed men crouching in wet grass in the mist on the top of a hill, watching four stone buildings at the bottom of the valley. Inside the stone buildings are twenty men wearing a different uniform. Sentries stand at the doorways to watch the hilltop. Not long after dawn, some men of one uniform or the other will possess the territory of these stone buildings. Not long after dawn, some men of both uniforms will be dead. The soldiers of both uniforms wait for dawn, hoping their obedience will outlast their fear.

Cherry works in an office, the only female in a hush-hush job, between two wars. She wears a sober dark suit, red red lips, takes pride in her work, her life fulfilled. Something happens, a slip-up by someone too important to take the blame. Someone has to take the blame. Cherry is not supporting a wife or children. Cherry can retire to the country they say, with her dear old parents. She understands, she is not one of the boys. She packs up her desk, walks sedately and obediently from the office. In the corridor she screams. And screams. And screams. Inside the office, the men wait for her to stop.

Every day the child tries to find the way to please the mother. Every night when the father comes home the mother whispers to him, and the father shouts at the child. When the mother is sick and the father is absent, the uncle comes and takes the child into her bedroom and shuts the door and the child thinks she is being punished for making her mother sick and her father absent, and thinks when she has finished being punished, it will all end.

She is silent and waits for dawn. She smiles meaninglessly in paralysed obedience. She forgets. With whatever cunning the brain has to hide events. If not feelings. She becomes a
loudmouthed rebel, a catastrophic risk-taker, dangerous to everyone and herself. The intelligence she has produces nothing.

One day she remembers. With whatever treachery the brain has to store what it has hidden; and to produce it at an unknown signal from parallel events, words, feelings, appearances. She is paralysed by fear. She retreats to silence. She wants to break it, to walk in the open, to have the courage to speak, or simply to scream. Will she?


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Judith Steele is Australian. Her poetry has appeared in Northern Territory and South Australian publications including Northern Perspective, Northerly, Dymocks Northern Territory Literary Awards, Friendly Street Poets. Poetry or prose has appeared on websites including The Animist, Four and Twenty, Islet Online (as Dita West), In other Words:Merida .

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painting by Skot Horn


Island Lies: Empty Land

by Dita West

Once upon a time there was a Great South Land, hypothesised but unknown, searched for but unfound. Sea explorers were wrecked on its coasts, or mistook it for something else. The great south land’s inhabitants were part of the land and sea itself, so they were able to keep the land and themselves hidden for a long time, but eventually, like all once hidden islands, it was found. Apparently the inhabitants were still invisible, as the new arrivals, a motley crew, declared it an Empty Land, Terra Nullius. Land explorers died of thirst in its emptiness.

Descended from the motley crew who had colonised the Empty Land, red-haired Pauline at a South Australian Primary School in the 1950s was taught the same history in Grades Four, Five and Six. Each year she had to circle and cross maps of Australia with different coloured dots and dashes, to indicate the coastal and inland discoveries of the white explorers. Little though she knew about the land before 1788, she thought you couldn’t discover anything that other people (in this case the Australian Aborigines) already knew. Saying this in Grade Five got her rapped on the knuckles with the yard-stick.

She had not actually ever seen any Aboriginal people, apart from photos in school books of near-naked people in the desert, accompanied by photos of stone weapons and woven baskets. But in Grade Seven, at a church social, there was a group of young Aboriginal boys, all dressed in grey suits. They were not with families, as most of the other children at the social were. Their only family seemed to be one another. Or a boy much older than most of them, a boy with golden skin and shining curly hair. She heard him called “Stevie”. Stevie was the one the boys went to for cuddles, for talking, for laughter, as if he was everybody’s older brother.

They were from the Boys Home, her mother told her. “Why are they there?” she asked. “Their mothers don’t want them” said Pauline’s mother.

Some years later, when Pauline read a different kind of history, she knew that the mothers had wanted them. She read about the violence and cunning cruelty, the ignorance and arrogance of the people she was in some way descended from, or beholden to. Then she felt she did not belong here, in Australia, the land she was

born in. She married a man who did have the right to be here, according to his Aboriginal ancestry. His inherited anger was more than equal to punishing her inherited guilt.

It was then that she found solace in the land. In the bush where they lived, bushland nurtured her. She walked under silver-green gums in the daytime, heard the whisper of their trembling leaves, sat in sun-warmed sand and chewed sour pig cactus, found Sturt Peas flaming in the dust, small miracles to sustain her.

She became aware that there were places of violence in the land as well as in her life. They were in the snarl of a rock-face, the feeling of panic it gave her until she moved behind it, in something that raised the hairs at the back of her neck if she turned her back on a deep waterhole. When they had to shift to a place near Maralinga, in the Nullarbor Desert, she felt fear in the silent white sky of the day, in the dingo’s howl of spacious night. Or perhaps it was her own her fear that had leaked into the land.

Gentle or harsh, the land breathed, and she was part of it. She could not become someone who was not born here. But she belonged in a limited way, so few her skills of survival, of country. She learned how much she did not have, how one bark painting could contain a world of physical and mental skill, spiritual lore and knowledge, all of them foreign to her She could neither sing nor be sung, had no clan land, no rites and ceremonies, to be passed on to her descendants.

Her husband’s past was the narrow streets of Sydney’s suburban ghetto, Redfern, the only clan land he knew, she thought. And she thought the rest of it was as unknown to him as to her. But later she realised that it was just not told to her, that his ancestry was in stories told in his family. And she did not belong in that family.

By the time she knew that, she had dotted her footprints across the desert from the long unbroken double lines of the railway, until she came to the sea. She would return, after all, to the past of the motley crew that was in her blood — green hills, red legends and lies, peasant silence and survival, salt water beating on rock and wrecked ships, church bells ringing over quiet villages; all the histories of Ireland, Cornwall, England.

She didn’t belong to them either. She stopped searching for belonging. She became a planetary tourist. When a doctor in one of the places she didn’t belong to told her that her escalating illness was Emphysema, she booked her ticket for Australia which was no longer Empty Land. But somewhere inland, somewhere lonely, somewhere by a railway line, somewhere she had lived with a man whose anger was as great as her guilt, she hoped to find a place that would accept her dust as part of its own.


 Dita West is the name under which Judith Steele writes Island Lies, a collection of poetry, fiction and faction. Empty Land is from that collection. Her story Once, also from Island Lies, was published by Islet Online (Autumn (April) 2011) .


photo by Kristi Harms