The Aboriginal people of Australia believe that to speak the name of an ancestor will disturb their spirit and call them back from the Dreaming. My own ancestors came to this country from England and Scotland. God fearing Christians. I will always respect my parents and what they stood for, but the one true love of my life was a woman of the Ngarrindjeri people. It is their custom that the name she was given in life remains with her in the Land of the Dead, so I cannot speak it to you with my own words. To those of us who loved her, she is now and forever, Kunmanara.
I met Kunmanara under the most unlikely circumstances. It was early December and I arrived home to an empty house, as usual. My life was a very solitary existence back then. Strangely, I discovered that my back door was unlocked. I have tendencies toward obsessive behaviour and usually check each lock ten times, so it was unlikely that I would have left it open by mistake. I was more cautious than ever in my entrance routine, watching and listening for any movement.
I checked each room methodically, turning on the light and checking behind the door. It was all clear until I turned on the lounge room light. Beside the television was a small, half-decorated Christmas tree and huddled in the corner behind it was an Aboriginal woman, not much younger than myself. Her clothes were dirty and her hair a mess, but she smiled the most beautiful, warm smile I’d ever seen.
“Hi,” she said, sheepishly. “I’m Kunmanara.”
“Hello,” I answered, reluctant to introduce myself until I knew why she’d broken into my house. “Why are you doing here?”
“I found this old Christmas tree and decorations near a rubbish bin down the street. I thought I could find a place to put it up and make someone else happy.”
“So, why did you pick my house?”
“I see you sometimes, coming and going. You seem lonely.”
“See me? Where do you live?”
“Around the corner . . . in the bushland”
“Bushland? How long have you been there?”
“Don’t know. A few weeks, maybe.”
I was not usually inclined to spontaneous generosity, but Kunmanara seemed genuine in her attempt to do something nice for me, and she was right that I was lonely. “You could stay here until you sort something else out . . . if you want. There’s no one else with you, is there?”
“No. It’s just me,” she grinned. “I’m pretty hungry, if you’ve got enough food.”
I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but we did make each other’s lives better from the first moment we met. Kunmanara slept in the lounge room that night so she could be near the Christmas tree, but the next morning she returned to the bushland. My new obsessive daily routine was to leave the back door unlocked so she could visit her little tree whenever she wanted to. Over the coming weeks we became friends and even spent Christmas together at my house. We started the day by going for a walk to where she lived in the bushland nearby, and that was the first time she showed me the golden kangaroo. It was a stuffed felt toy that her mother, Rose, had given her the Christmas before. When we got home, she hung it on the front of the tree, and it has been there every Christmas since.
In the new year after our first Christmas together, Kunmanara started sleeping in my bed and we became lovers. It almost sounds too civilised painting it that way because we really just felt natural being together. Lovers are beautiful French people who lie naked by a river bank and touch each other with perfect symmetry and cohesion. We were two ordinary looking people who enjoyed spending time together and looking into each other’s eyes while we were laughing. We found a lot of things to laugh about.
By March, Kunmanara had fallen pregnant. It felt strange to me knowing that I would soon be part of a family again because I was an only child and both of my parents died before I was twenty. My notion of family was tainted with sadness, but hers was filled with love, tradition and magic. We spent many hours talking about our families over the coming months and it became increasingly obvious that our cultures were worlds apart. Kunmanara never explained why she was estranged from her family or the Ngarrindjeri people of her traditional home, but I knew from the way she spoke that her heart was still with them.
On the 24th of December that year, Kunmanara bore me a daughter, Myaree. She had brown eyes and dark hair, distinctly contrasting with my blue-eyed whiteness. The moment when Myaree first graced this life was to be both the beginning and the end of whatever physical connection she had with her mother. Kunmanara died soon after giving birth. The doctor said complications with her uterus had caused internal haemorrhaging, which was no one’s fault. Not everything is someone’s fault, but you can’t help feeling angry about it.
Kunmanara was fortunate enough to feel the warmth of Myaree’s new life against her cheek before she passed. For a few shallow breaths, her heart was full of hope, and to this day, I can’t understand how it changed so quickly. There was nothing in either of our cultures that could explain such a pointless waste of love. Myaree could never have known the joy she gave to her mother for fleeting moment, but I will never forget.
It was Christmas Eve. Christmas always brings back those memories like a solitary truck driving at me along an otherwise empty highway. The lights are almost blinding until it passes in a gust of wind that almost pushes me off the road, and then it’s gone. The road is empty again. Walking back into our house that first Christmas without Kunmanara was the hardest moment of my life. The Christmas tree stood quietly with the golden kangaroo in its place. Myaree was still at the hospital and I had never felt more alone. Loneliness is worst in the wake of love.
Myaree has now reached the inquisitive age of thirteen and carries many secrets for one so young. All she knows of her Aboriginal culture is what she has learned from her Grandma Rose. Rose chooses to have no association with me, and I am comfortable with that. I don’t belong in their world any more than a tulip belongs amongst the salt bushes around their community at Lake Alexandrina. The Ngarrindjeri tell many stories of giant snakes and ancient beings from the Dreamtime when the Earth was created. Myaree is always excited for a return to those stories at her ancestral home. At the beginning of every school holiday period, she catches a bus to their community beside the Lake and returns to me before the school term recommences.
Myaree and I rarely speak of her time at the community. I understand and respect that what she learns there is important to her, particularly in light of the tragic circumstances of her birth. But I often see conflict in her eyes when the two opposing cultures of her parents meet at a crossroads. As I previously explained, I do not ask about the secrets of her people, so all I can recount with honesty are my observations of her actions. Myaree’s thoughts will always be her own.
The most memorable of such crossroads appeared this last Christmas gone. Myaree returned from the community for three days to spend the festive season with me as she does every year. I am by no means a religious man, but without my daughter I would spend Christmas feeling alone and unwanted. I often wonder if the loss of my family created the loneliness that drew Kunmanara to me when we first met. We shared only that one Christmas together, and yet it is the one day of each year when I remember her with my deepest affections. There is something familiar about how Myaree admires our Christmas tree with the same air of wonder that Kunmanara did. Mother and daughter are so alike in that way.
Our poor excuse for a Christmas tree only reaches up to my hip. It makes me laugh to think about the joy Kunmanara felt when she found it and how much she wanted to share that joy. I never asked to what extent Christmas was recognised at the community, but strangely, she knew more about carols and the nativity scene than I ever did. All I knew of religion were the biblical stories my Grandfather told me, like Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down from the mountain or Jesus walking over water. It didn’t matter to me what Kunmanara thought about God or Jesus because Christmas wasn’t about that in my parents’ house. Christmas was a celebration of food, songs and me playing with my new presents. I knew Myaree would have to make up her own mind about what Christmas meant to her.
From the time she could walk, Myaree was infatuated with one particular decoration on our little tree. The golden, felt kangaroo. From two years of age she would stretch up on tippy toes and try to pull it down. At thirteen years, she still couldn’t stop herself from playing with it while she was supposed to be decorating the tree. Every year she would ask me where it came from, and every year I would decline to answer. Like my daughter, I too had secrets. I was always going to tell her the truth about the golden kangaroo eventually, but only when she was ready.
I awoke last Christmas soon after sunrise and, feeling restless, decided to wait in the family room until Myaree woke up and joined me. To my surprise, I found her standing in front of the tree, running her fingers down the golden kangaroo. She was deep in thought. My daughter is prone to long periods of contemplation, almost obsessively, when challenged by issues of life’s deeper meanings.
“Did Santa wake you?” I asked, jokingly.
“Very funny, Dad. I’m just thinking. That’s all.”
“What could be weighing so heavily on your mind that you haven’t looked at your presents yet?”
“Why don’t you ever have a girlfriend?”
“I . . . I don’t know. Why do you ask?” She caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting that.
“Just wondering.” She thought a little bit more. “When you die, will you go to the Dreaming?”
“I’m not Ngarrindjeri, Mya. You know that.”
“Why does that matter?”
“I don’t know. Where is all this coming from?”
“When I die, will I go to the Dreaming or Heaven?”
And there it was; the cruellest dilemma. Myaree was born into two entirely different cultures and left wondering whether she would share eternity with me and my ancestors in heaven, or Kunmanara and her ancestors in the Dreaming. The only way I could guide her to a reasonable answer was by taking her to the place where her mother once stayed in the nearby bushland. It was there that Kunmanara and I discovered our own truth that united us forever. I knew by Myaree’s questions that she was ready to know the truth about the golden kangaroo.
“Before we open the presents, Mya, I would like to show you something.”
She stood expectantly with her arms crossed. “Okay.”
“Not here, doofus. Throw on some clothes so we can go for a walk.”
I took the golden kangaroo off the tree and bounced it in my hand. How quickly time passes. Being a single father was so much easier when Myaree was happy playing with dolls and drawing butterflies. I slipped the kangaroo into my pocket and we stepped out our front door into the morning swelter. A blue tongue lizard slowly retreated beneath our privet hedge. It was too hot to rush. The sun was new and energised, spreading its hot breath across the brick walls and concrete paths. A magpie warbled in the gumtrees across the road, but our street was otherwise silent and empty. Most of the houses were filled with young children waking to the most exciting day of the year and opening their presents to We wish you a Merry Christmas. A few remaining houses carried the hopes of lonely souls sitting in their kitchens, waiting for someone to call. Hope can be such a desperate animal.
Our home is on the outskirts of Adelaide, only a short walk from the hillside bushlands. The magpies and other birdlife were in full voice as we followed a track through the stunted gums and yellow wattles to a small clearing where two large boulders jutted up from the cracked, red clay. Ants climbed from the cracks in search of food, marching in lines through a mess of dry, dead grass and black twigs that had fallen from the surrounding trees. A kookaburra laughed in the distance and the sound carried so far across the bushland that civilisation seemed a thousand miles away.
I turned Myaree to face the sun which poked up above the trees, slightly downhill from where we were standing. The sky was clear and blue. The bushland trees around our city are always so thin, dry and burnt looking that you’d think they are already dead. You can see for a mile around you, but the animals are so well camouflaged in grey brown fur that you can only spot them if they move.
“Hold this,” I said, handing Myaree the golden kangaroo from my pocket.
“Why did you bring that?”
“Just hold it. You’ll understand when I show you.” I took a deep breath and told myself I was doing the right thing. No one can help you with the most difficult choices. That’s what makes them so difficult. “Do you know where the Land of the Dead is, Mya?” I asked.
“In the sky.”
“And do you know where heaven is?”
“I don’t know. In the sky, I guess.”
“That’s what I guess, too. Well, the first Christmas I spent with Kunmanara, she brought me here.”
“That’s great, Dad, but why do I have to face this way? It’s really hot out here.”
“I want you to see the place where I believe my spirit will go in the afterlife. My place is different to Heaven and the Land of the Dead. It doesn’t have a name, but I like to think that every kind of animal has their own place when they die, just like this. It’s connected to the sky, but it’s also here in the bushland.”
“Well, show me then.”
“First, you have to hold the golden kangaroo up to the sun and look at it. I’m going to tell you what to say and then you look straight back down through the trees. But you must never say it again after today, and you can never tell anyone we did this. Do you understand?”
“Why? What do I have to say?”
“Promise me you won’t tell anyone. Especially Grandma Rose.”
“I promise, okay. Will the sun hurt my eyes?”
“Not much. Are you ready?”
“Yes. But this is stupid.”
Myaree raised the kangaroo to the sun and looked up.
“Now. Say . . .” I couldn’t believe what I was about to do. “Talia.”
She turned and stared daggers at me. I would have been disappointed if she didn’t because she had been banned from saying that word for her whole life. But I needed her to say it.
“Look up.” I insisted. “She would have wanted you to do this. I promise that I will never ask you to disrespect Grandma’s laws again if you just trust me this once.”
I searched Myaree’s eyes for some sign of compromise. Her young soul was still so filled with trust and unshakable loyalty, yet I was asking her to break the most sacred law in our family. Her mother’s name was now Kunmanara and I had no right to change that. I had no right to call her spirit back from the Dreaming. Guilt stabbed at my chest, knowing how confused and conflicted my request was making her feel, but I had to persist because it was too late to turn back. “She would have brought you here herself if she could have, Mya. I owe her this much.”
Myaree looked again at the golden kangaroo and then back at me. She was angry, but something inside her trusted me enough to know that I would never have hurt her like that without good reason. She held the kangaroo back up to the sun and raised her eyes but quickly turned away, unable to find her voice.
“Take a deep breath –”
She cut me off with a stubborn glare. Tears welled in her eyes as she steeled herself to try again. Myaree raised the kangaroo once again and stared into the sun. Her voice shook as she whispered her mother’s name for the first time in thirteen years of life.
She quickly lowered her eyes and looked through the trees into a world of shadows.
“Can you see anything?’ I asked, excitedly.
“My eyes are still seeing the sun,” she snapped. “What am I supposed to see?”
“Here. Give it to me.” I took the kangaroo and held it to the sun then followed my own instructions. “Talia,” I said, almost too casually. The name thing wasn’t my belief after all. I only went along with it for Myaree’s sake.
“Wait!” she said, grabbing my arm. “Look. There’s a huge golden kangaroo way down there through the trees. I can see it.”
I looked. My eyes were still adjusting from the sun, but the light did appear to be moving. “Yes. I can see it now, too. I told you, didn’t I.”
More animals appeared around us. Some were golden like the kangaroo, but there were other creatures of every colour. Translucent, glowing forms moved around us as though they had been there all along. Emus, wombats and bush mice on the ground. Koalas and possums in the trees. Flora that I had never seen before had sprouted in generous clumps all through the bushland, covered in fruits and leaves for all the animals to feast on.
“Why are the animal spirits here, Dad. Didn’t they make it to the Land of the Dead?”
“I don’t know how it works, Mya. Kunmanara discovered this place by accident. Grandma Rose gave her the kangaroo and it was always in her pocket. She was playing around with it one day, holding it up to the sun, and when she looked down again all the animals had appeared.”
As Myaree and I gazed in awe at the menagerie of life around us, the golden kangaroo moved nearer, stopping to graze on tufts of grass along the way. It was brighter than the other animals and more aware of us watching it.
“I think it’s coming to say hello,” said Myaree. “I wonder if it will let us pat it.”
“Maybe. There’s no harm in trying.” I was relieved to see her looking so happy. If my plan hadn’t worked, I’m sure she would have told Rose about it and I knew that wouldn’t have worked out well for me.
“It’s coming right up close.” Myaree’s breaths were getting shorter with every hop as the kangaroo neared. They were almost face to face with each other when she finally found the courage to pat it. “Hello, kangaroo,” she whispered.
The golden kangaroo’s eyes were fixed on Myaree as though nothing else existed around her. Its face possessed an almost human quality. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me because the more I looked, the more human it appeared. It raised its right paw and I was mesmerised by the magical transformation as Kunmanara suddenly appeared before us, running her hand down through her daughter’s hair. She leaned in and pressed her cheek to Myaree’s. It was that moment again, like when she was born.
I couldn’t control myself. The emotion of seeing them together like that tore at my heart and I started crying. I never cry. It had always been in my dreams that the three of us would find a place of our own for the afterlife and no one could tell us where it should be. The golden kangaroo was right there with us every year on our Christmas tree, waiting to show Myaree what I had always known. Our place was in the bushland.
Kunmanara lifted her head and held Myaree’s eyes for one last moment. She had come to let us know that she was happy and would always be waiting for us. She turned, and took the shape of a golden kangaroo once again. Myaree and I watched as she slowly hopped back to the edge of the trees. From there, her hops grew steadily into large powerful leaps and she bounded away through the bushland until we could no longer see her.
I searched the surrounding area for all the other animals, but they had disappeared with the golden kangaroo. I looked down at the toy in my hand, knowing how much of a risk I’d taken by asking Myaree to break her ancestor’s laws, but at least now she could move forward into life knowing that her two cultures would not divide her. That was all I’d hoped to achieve, but we had been given so much more. Myaree was able to feel the purity of Kunmanara’s love as I had witnessed it on the day of her birth. That was the most valuable Christmas gift of all.
We returned home in silence to the comfort of four walls and an air-conditioner. I chose to wait until Myaree was ready to speak. She hung the golden kangaroo back in its rightful place on the tree and ran her fingers down it for a while, thinking.
“Do you think Grandma Rose knows about the golden kangaroo?”
“I haven’t thought about it. What do you think?”
“I think she gave it to Kunmanara because she knew how hard it was going to be for her when she left the community. You know. With people all being so different.”
I chose not to discuss it any further. Grandparents have a way of sharing their beliefs in such a way that they are magical to young children. Who was I, Myaree’s father, to challenge Grandma Rose? One day, my turn would come to share my own beliefs with Myaree’s children as was my right. I would tell them the story of the golden kangaroo because I had seen it, even if no one else believed me. And I owed it to Kunmanara to never stop believing that she was waiting for me in the bushland . . . somewhere.