Folio

The Cave of Swimmers

Jiriberi Bucanayandi

The sound of color in his head was raucous. He twirled left and right like a dancing ballerina. He stood on his toes; he saw nothing but hair; his heart pranced in his chest. He tugged on his wife’s arm, tucking it safely under his arm like a magazine. If they were to separate, the search would be twice as challenging. Movement restricted to shuffling, they waddled through an aperture similar to a considerably crowded elevator. He watched the friendly uncertainty scattered across his wife’s face, her lion-like hair as she angled off her canvas cap when they finally made it out. It was his fault; he was supposed to watch their… He said nothing to his wife. Where do children go when they go astray?

***

It was hot, oppressively hot. I grew up with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country. He read one of the display stone cast in concrete outside the museum. Across the walkway, his wife sat forward on a rock, elbows on her knees, her hands around her red purse. She observed their only daughter joyfully as she rode on giant moths cast in concrete.

“Becky, sweetie, get off those things,” he shouted, “They will take flight and steal you!”

“Oh, hush, she is fine.”

He chuckled. A short and moderately wide strip of passage separated the National Museum of Australia on the north side and the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander on the south. The sun just passed out of sight, and the slice of sky above provided shade. They set out south.

The savory smells of great bacon and a whiff of garlic hovered around the lunch area. It agitated Maxwell. He was not hungry. He looked away: the sight of food can empty a filled stomach. He sat facing away from the table. In the near distance, a little girl in a red dress bunny-hopped on the familiar giant moths that he would scrub tomorrow morning.

“Hey, isn’t that the new prime minister with his family?” Maxwell asked his new co-worker.

“Yes, what of him?” Dinga scorned. “They are all the same; we have never had an aboriginal prime minister. I am here because of those bastards, and I am forced to see your ugly face every day.”

“Shut up, charcoal, I just asked a simple question. You are just mad that you don’t have a girlfriend.” Maxwell lifted his legs over the bench to face Dinga; his eyes remained locked on the red dress.

“He is a bit short, but his wife is smoking hot, mate. You should learn how to pick up chicks from him. They produced a beautiful child,” Maxwell continued. He noticed a long trail of patrons staring at the prime minister as they entered the museum as if he had bad odor.

At the reception desk, the prime minister read a welcoming sign, Ngunna Yaraba-Yengue…you are welcome to leave your footprint on our land.

“Hello, your Excellency, how many in your party?”

“Three,” he answered with a friendly grin.

“How old is the little one?”

“Six, and I am not little,” replied his daughter. The prime minister provided his wife’s information along with his on the registration sheet. He waved for a private tour. A long line of patrons formed behind him, and he strode to the side to read the museum’s pamphlet. A couple interrupted to congratulate him and took a picture with him. The cover page contained a warning, “ Visitors should be aware that this gallery includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” A warning adopted by his predecessor’s cabinet for any retaliators.

Unsettled Stories Within was the first gallery suggested on the pamphlet. His wife held their daughter’s hand. His attendance at the museum drew more patrons than usual. They walked patiently with the long line. In the room, few accents revealed the spatial arrangements. The room was enclosed in a semi-circle. He stopped to press play on a video that trailed as part of the circle. He set in motion a little girl that was staring down at the screen. His daughter came around his legs. He picked her up. Several people clogged around him for viewing. A white background redirected to the black girl’s head, diminishing away her color. She moved her lips with her eyes locked with his.

As a child – wondering

What did I do wrong?

Who the hell am I?

A feeling so strong

The taunts of a childhood

All a whirl

‘Half-caste, half-caste

A little black girl.’

Italiano? Greek?

Maori or what?

The audio of the video dwindled as the black background returned her color. The video ended.

“Daddy was she talking about me?” His daughter brought him back to reality.

“No, sweetie, it’s her story. A reflection of what she feels. Your story is different,” He crouched to accommodate her height.

“Father, did she do anything wrong.” Her undemanding palm landed on his stubbled cheeks.

“No, it’s what we did to them. Long ago, the government took children from their parents to culture them.”

“Why, Father?”

“I don’t know.”

He set her down slowly like a wine glass; he did not raise his head. He turned to signal his wife to follow him. With a withering look, she reached for his hand. On the way out, a dark-colored face mounted at the exit of the circle stared into his conscience. The description in red droplets detained his vision.

Too black to be white.

Too white to be black.

Caught in the middle

Belonging nowhere.

The reflection from the walls produced circuitous, diffuse components of light. The ambient lighting projected any viewer’s silhouette onto the walls fiercer than the stationary exhibition objects. Maxwell returned to his post. He stood waiting for lost individuals. Out of habit, he slid his palm on a warning below a piece of art, trailing the words Visitors should be aware that this exhibition includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. He stood in the center of multiple art collections. In the distance, an animal skin contained engravings of traditional art. Beside him, a portrayal entitled The Taking of the Children lured his attention. In the small world beside him, high forest trees witnessed three topless women who have their backs to a white man with a wooden weapon. His peers yanked their children from them in the opposite direction. Maxwell was drawn back to stories about his people. Is this how my father was raised? He wondered.

“That kid is you,” Dinga joked as he passed by, heading towards his post at the end of the hall. “Cover your mom’s boobs; she feeds you with that.” Maxwell flipped him off.

The prime minister pulled out his draft for rehearsal. While his wife was feeding Becky, he read voicelessly, We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations… this blemished chapter in our nation's history. He reminded himself to look up after every two sentences. He skipped a couple of sentences. We apologize especially for the removal of Aboriginal and… Torres Strait Islander... children from their families, their communities, and their country. He sat there thinking, burying his fingers inside his daughter’s long blond hair, and wondered what it would be like to be abducted.

Cool melodies of color with turquoise accents bounced off Maxwell. The light cheered up as the little girl walked toward him.

“Why are you black?” she tilted her head to see his.

He squatted to accommodate her height. “What do you mean?” He looked over her head for her parents. His vision was blocked.

“What is wrong with your skin?” she repeated. “Why is it like that?” She pulled on his hair as if it was stained.

“My skin was made this way.” He wondered if something was, in fact, wrong with his skin.

She demanded, “Why?”

He landed a soft touch on her shoulder. “Because God creates things without knowing their consequence.” A silence set in. “Come on, let’s go find your parents.”

“Why are those women naked?” She pointed to the small world beside him to guide his mind.

“Are they being punished by those men for being bad?”

“No, that is how your people took away our children.”

“I didn’t take any children.” She held his hand for further assurance.