I dreamed—one night a long time ago--that I was back with my mother. In my dream, I was very young, and my mother was humming while she cut up a sticky geebung for me to eat. I reached out for the fruit, and my mother stopped humming and touched my hand.
Ever since that night I have tried to return to that place, where the room was full of the smells of ripening fruit and the koombahla tree flowering outside. I almost made my way back there once, but in the other dream, when I looked into my mother’s soft brown face, her eyes looked beyond me, wide with fear.
I think maybe that was not a dream, but a memory.
Somewhere secret in my spirit, I keep the memory of the last time I saw my mother. The men came to our house with their bad skin and their strangled talking, and one of them took my wrist. Babaneek! I cried. Mother! When she ran toward them, she tripped and fell, both hands reaching out to stop the floor. The man pulled my wrist, and I bit him, so he jerked me away, away from my mother who was on her knees, crying. Her lip was bleeding. A wagoora cackled—caw! caw!--and as the men yanked me outside, I saw it flapping overhead.
I was taken to a big, cold house, all corners and sharp surfaces. We were a solemn tribe of skinny dark children there. At night, instead of the sounds of the rushing waters of the tongala and the laughing of the naughty, sharp-beaked wakooka, we fell asleep to whimpers and sighs. Most nights I slept with Kiora, a girl so little that she still sucked her thumb. Her knees poked into my side all night, and sometimes she murmured babaneek, babaneek in her sleep.
The people there were strange—strange hair, strange foods, strange words. When I had learned enough of the strange words to be obedient, they sent me here to this place, to work for a white family.
Why do white people have so many clothes? Why so many dishes? My hands are raw from washing, washing, washing…if I stop to look out the window, to gaze at the omeo towering purple against the sky, Mrs. Kelly pulls my hair and calls me a bad name. This house is full of imitations of beauty. Flowers are painted on the dishes that I wash from morning to night, but they are cold flowers with no fragrance. Pictures of trees and birds hang on the walls, lifeless and silent.
I try every night to find my mother in my dreams.
There is another girl here, older than me, who comes from the other side of the world. She is white, like Mrs. Kelly, and she speaks the language I now speak with my tongue but not my heart. Colleen cooks for them, and they are kind to her. Sometimes they give her sweets. Colleen closes her eyes before she eats, and touches her forehead and her shoulders. Then she starts to eat, but she always shares her sweets with me.
Sometimes Colleen tells me about Jesus, who was a white man from her country over the mountains. She tells me that Jesus loves everyone, even this motherless allira. He was a good white man, not like Mr. Kelly, who slaps me when his shirts are not perfectly pressed. I have never seen a good white man—I would like to meet this Jesus, but I think he might be dead. Colleen tells me that he died, but he also lives. She must be wrong.
I would like to believe in this good white man. He too, lived far away from his home, and he must have been a very rich man, for Colleen says that there are many fine houses in his country. I asked her if children are taken from their mothers to work there, and she laughed and told me no one works in those houses. It’s very confusing—how do the meals get cooked, then? Who washes the clothes?
But in Colleen’s stories, Jesus left his fine house to live with poor people, and to teach them to be good.
I like to listen to Colleen. I know that Jesus was a white man, but when Colleen tells me about him, I close my eyes and see him in my spirit, where his skin is brown like mine.
Note: In February of 2008, Australia’s Parliament offered a formal apology to its indigenous peoples for the country’s previous practice (1869-1969) of removing aboriginal children from their families—the Stolen Generations.
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