When i was young i was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in a small aboriginal community in the very remote outback of northern australia. The story below still 19 years later has a profound effect on my outlook on life and the sort of person i hope to be. The main characters consist of two men that were already great. In every way a man should be. It also consists of two others that became great this very day.
It was an agonising blow, the blunt edge of a boomerang, or woomera to the bardi people, would hurt no doubt, but he would have preferred that to one of the pointy ends sticking momentarily into his shoulder and paralysing his arm with pain, making him lose control of his reflexes and let go of his only hope – the shield that had protected him from the last thrown wooden weapon. Too late now he thought as his eyes welled up, not with the pain but with the sudden realisation that his wife would no longer be his. By law, by culture and all because of her stupid actions. His brain resembled a school of diamond back mullet with a mighty, menacing tiger shark swimming through the middle. Pieces flashing in all directions trying to find their way among the confusion and brutality of the situation. Why did she cheat? She cant of loved him if she did? So why is he fighting for her? Why is he risking his life for the woman this he loves? Well thats it he loves her! Its right to fight for what you love, dont ever take a backwards step and turn a blind eye to what you believe. But does he believe they can be happy again after this? Does he believe that she loves him? Oh great gundaard, revered tiger shark that has guided this people, that has provided strength and direction through great trials, why desert a faithful son now?
The first boomerang had been a waste, thrown more out of anger and anticipation of organised revenge rather than survival.Wussy had thought, had dreamt about that first boomerang’s consequence since he first spoke to his father of Renae’s betrayal and it had failed to even make it’s target flinch, passing well to his left. “Father” he held back tears, disguised it as anger so as not to seem weak. “Renae cheated on me” “Are you sure my eldest?” “Yes dad, with Brusha” “Phil’s son Brusha?I will go see him”. It’s a different way of doing things to the rest of the world. It was simple, each person has the right to choose who they will marry, that is until they lose that right and everyone knew the easiest way to do that was through being unfaithful. The immense shame an affair brought on one’s family meant they could not, would not, stand up for you and if you don’t have you’re families support in this part of the world you don’t have anything and in this instance, you will be told by tribal law and tradition who you will marry.
The second attempt was mildly better and had at least made the villain in Wussy’s life story take a cautious step off his mark. The terms of these engagements were simple and all came down to respect. Two men, face to face about ten steps between them with three boomerangs and a shield each. You can move, you can run as far as you like, but the more you do the more cowardly you would be and more importantly the less conviction you had in your beliefs, The belief’s that you were there to defend. So the fact that he had made his opponent take a step was a big deal in his head, it was pegging one back against a man who had gotten one up on him with the first smile he received from his beloved wife. How many more steps would equal the count against the man who seduced her and ended the dreams of happily ever after?
The grim reality now though was that he was face to face with an older,more experienced opponent, he came with a reputation this man, and he had all three boomerangs yet to be thrown while Wussy’s anger had clouded his judgement and left him with just the one.
A warning shot, the crowd, consisting of each man’s family and a few close friends all saw it for what it was, even if half of them didn’t want to believe it. They sat with a feast in front of them and even though they had been slowly picking at it since long before the young men had taken up positions on the beach in front of them, not a lot of it had been consumed. There was still warm damper next to plates of dugong steaks, shells of oysters had been a little more popular but with a crowd that knew they were in for blood and therefore weren’t particularly hungry, the cherished turtle meat even, a delicacy to these people who had hunted the turtle for thousands of years, cooked on an open flame and served in the upturned shell of the large mammal, had hardly been touched. In these organised wudlagung, fight’s for a belief, right or respect, it was expected that both families attend with enough food for all, though it wasn’t often these peaceful people would feel like eating when faced with the reality that one of their own would be injured, perhaps fatally. And it looked possible that this could be fatal for Wussy. No one denied he had to take it this far, the agony of what he had experienced with Renae’s confession would have driven any man to such length’s. But with the first woomera launched by his enemy, people were now looking for a way out. Though there was none. It was hard, it was fast and it was released unflinchingly by a stronger opponent that knew exactly what he was doing. It sent shiver’s upWussy’s spine, it shook his feet so deep into the sand on Jologo beach that he was sure he had woken his sleeping ancestor’s, maybe they could help. It flew quickly by his left cheek, missing by centimetres it seemed to curve in towards him as he swayed to keep from its path. he swayed, he did not step, he knew why he was there.
The last gasp, like the one taken by young Bardi men before the expected agony of circumcision upon their tribal initiation.It was his last shot and it definitely did better than the first two, but glancing off of Brusha’s shield was definitely not going to give him the justice he deserved, nor would it win him back the right to Renae and he knew now his only hope would be for Brusha to miss with his last two woomera’s at which point they would both pick up their boomerangs and start again. It was desperation, not an emotion anyone in this part of the world is familiar with. Growing up living in a paradise far removed from what you or I might consider the real world, these people have not a care in the world and the most desperate moments in their live’s would normally come when swimming between the islands in the strong tidal currents. But wussy now was desperate if not resigned to the fact that this was a battle lost and now it was only the full consequences of his loss, all of which he understood and had thought through over and over again that he was waiting to realise.
From where I was sitting, especially as a six year old, Brusha right now looked superhuman. Strangely larger than life for a short skinny aboriginal man. But he did look ripped with the body of an athlete, a hunter. His hands were steady, his face was so relaxed as he raised his arm and he threw his second woomera. It’s the first time that I remember time standing still, when that boomerang struck. You know those brief moments where something happens and everyone see’s it happening and seems to have plenty of time to take in what exactly is going on but no one has time to react? Well, at least 50 people were on the beach that day and I don’t doubt for a second time stood still for everyone else just like it did for me when that sharp, smooth, flying piece of wood found its target and stuck momentarily in wussy’s chest, just inside the shoulder of his shield holding left arm. I pulled myself in closer to my dad as though i’d been hurt myself. I look back now and its definitely a father – oldest son moment that brought us closer. My dad, a great man, had been invited to this ceremonious battle out of the immense respect held for him in the community and he was asked to bring his oldest son. So there we were, father and son whimpering, time standing still and one man standing not thirty metres from us that surely must have been questioning a few things in life.
It had not been long since these two incredibly brave men had walked out from the law grounds behind us in their traditional dress. Composed of a piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and hanging loosely down to the knees, held firm by a belt made from cotton, string and hair and decorated with pearl shells and feathers. I was amazed how things could remain so calm, so respectful, so courteous even, between two families watching their loved ones do battle. It makes an absolute mockery of any confrontation I have ever seen to this day between two or more western men which more often than not can only be described as disgusting and ugly. So there they were, in front of us, one man with a boomerang yet to throw, bragging rights and indeed a wife to gain. The other man, I dont know the words to describe where he was at. Imagine, if you can, standing eye to eye with a man that has taken your wife, lowered your defences by lodging a boomerang in your chest less than 10 metres away and is about to take your life with a sharp piece of wood. Imagine feeling disrespected if he was to show mercy on you! Wussy, would have. In a thought process that I completely understand yet can not fully commit to, if Brusha was to show mercy now it would indicate he thought Wussy was not man enough to take responsibility for his decision to be in this position. I for one can not pretend i wouldnt of run. But i can also not claim the fortune of spending my whole life in a place where respect and tradition were still more valuable than your own life.
Again I was too young to understand, but from my point of view what I saw next was this. One man decided that losing the love of his life was too much to bare. He decided that he could not go on in the shame of having lost her and he would not step off of his line. Maybe he thought it was all he had left. His spot on that beach, where he stood to say he believed something to be true, and even if he lost his tribal right to that belief, he would not his lose anything more by moving off of his mark.
Wussy stood still. Two feet together, arms limp at his side. He raised his chin and did not blink.
I could hear the boomerang move through the air. I heard the thud as it hit, splitting Wussy from his chin, up over his nose, between his eyes and up over his head. I heard him hit the ground, ending the most brutal conflict i have ever seen.
Brusha walked off with his mum, he hadn’t been hurt and there was no need for anyone else to tend to him. His sisters, aunties and cousins all joined the women of Wussy’s family in the lengthy process of getting him off the beach and his wounds treated. Only the men of the families, plus my father and i, were left sitting on the beach and no one said a word, no one dared, except the fathers. In their native tongue Brusha’s father, Phil, told Wussy’s father Dennis that he hoped Wussy was ok. And he was sincere. These men had been life long friends. In a community of around 200 people everyone knows everyone and these two had probably considered each other the best of friends for most of their lives. They would not be torn apart by this. They hugged and Dennis acknowledged Wussy had lost. Sincerity like this i have not seen since. These two men, whose sons had just fought each other almost to the death, had respect for each other oozing out of them. They would not let this tear them apart.
As the mood relaxed a little all the men started eating, maybe to try to forget for moment what they had just witnessed. It may be tradition up here but arguments almost never go this far and most of these men will probably never see such a fight gain, nor had they before. So they started eating. After a while they started talking. I have no idea about what, i was still trying to work it all out. I think Dennis saw my confusion and he put his hand on my shoulder. He said nothing, but he gave me one of those looks you just cant explain. I was instantly at ease and somehow proud. I dont know what i was proud of but i felt incredibly proud.
Amazingly after perhaps half an hour Wussy joined Brusha in walking out from the law ground behind us. I guess their fathers were not the only ones that went back a long way and i felt that now, they perhaps felt they shouldnt of let it go this far. I actually dnot think i was right in feeling that way but for someone reason that’s how i felt at the time,maybe it was wishful thinking. Anyway here they were side by side, kneeling in front of their fathers, for the final act of tradition before they could both move on with their lives. Wussy didn’t even look hurt. I don’t doubt he was, but he didn’t appear to be in any pain.
So as Brusha and Wussy knelt down, heads bowed looking at the sand in front of them,both fathers stood up, shook hands and spoke without ever interrupting their gaze into each others eyes. Phil was accepting on behalf of his family and on behalf of Brusha, what Dennis was conceding on behalf of his family and on behalf of Wussy. “WAIT!” Brusha didn’t just interrupt two talking men, he interrupted a tradition thousands of years old. ” Father i am sorry and with all great respect to our law, i could never love her like that…” Brusha’s eye’s didn’t leave the sand, Wussy looked up, but to nowhere in particular “…i would have moved. I would have walked away!” Brusha continued quietly, ashamed. “You know what you are saying son? Are you sure “Yes father, im so sorry”. I could hear Wussy exhale. No one really yet held grasp of what was going on. Phil turned back to Dennis and without saying a word embraced him. Dennis hugged him back and as they separated gave him a nod as though granting him permission to leave. In an amazing turn of events, somehow wussy had won and everyone there knew it. The look of shame had moved to Brusha’s face as his father led him away.
Dennis lifted his son and they hugged. A father happy his son was not only alive but through his courage and faith had won over an opponent he could not physically beat. Could you be prouder as a parent? To know that your son was such a man that even his enemies would concede to him for nothing more than the fact that he was such a quality human. And of course a son, in his fathers embrace, overcome with the realisation that he had single-handedly won his world back. In the end not with his skill as a fighter, but with his mettle as a man. And what more could be more important than who you truly believe yourself to be. It would be impossible now for wussy to believe himself to be anything but a great man.
I walked away and my thoughts are blurry to say the least, but if you could put a word to it. wow!
To this day Wussy and Renae live a very happy existence together. They have two children that by now would be in their early teens. They also still share the same small community with Brusha who is now happily married himself. The two men have never since come close to having an argument between them and now that they are fathers themselves they are included in sorting out the problems their small community faces. I love that small community so much and to have these two men playing a very large part in deciding its fate is a blessing.