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The Euahlayi Tribe Part 13

Last night more than one of the blacks had dreamt of an emu, which meant misfortune to one of that totem, which was Beemunny's.

As Yellen spoke in a hushed sad voice, suddenly, though no breath of wind was stirring, sprang up on the edge of the camp a boolee, rearing its head as if it were a living thing. Round it whirled, snatching the dead leaves of the Coolabahs, swirling them with the dust it gathered into a spiral column, which sped, as if indeed a spirit animated it, straight to the camp of the dying woman. Round and round it eddied, a dust-devil dancing a dance of death.

The watchers drew nearer to Beemunny, who was past heeding even the spirits of evil.

The women in other camps clutched their children to them, but spoke no word. All was silent but the swirling leaves as the column gathered them. Finding the deathbed guarded, the boolee turned sharply from the camp and sped away down the road, dissolving on the poligonum flat in the distance.

Yellen gave a sigh of relief.

But now her fears were verified; Beemunny was dead.

Poor old Beemunny! How the vanities of youth cling to one; how we are 'all sisters under the skin.'

She was ever so old, she was blind, her face was scarred with wrinkles, yet one of her beauties remained, and she absolutely joyed in its possession: it was her hair. Her hair was thick and fuzzy, when combed would stand nearly straight out, which is quite unusual with the native women's hair in that part. Beemunny one day asked one of the younger women if I had ever heard what a lot of lovers she had had in her youth, what fights there had been over her, and all because of her beautiful hair.

Poor old Beemunny! Something in my own woman nature went out to her in sympathy. She was old, she was ugly, her husband was dead, as were all men to her.

Poor old Beemunny! Having once learnt her vanity, I never passed her without saying 'Gubbah Tekkul!' 'Beautiful hair!' at which she would beam and toss her head.

At sunrise came again the wailing; the singing of the Goohnai, or dirge, wherein are enumerated all the multiplex totems of the deceased, crooned in a wailing way, and each fresh person who comes to the camp sings this dirge again. In olden times all would have been painted in full war paint, weapons in hand, to see the corpse.

I was given permission to go to the funeral, old Bootha was to take me.

I heard that Beemunny had died early in the night. Her daughter and nearest of kin had sat all night beside her body, with each a hand on it to guard her from the spirits. She was now in her bark coffin, round which were her own blankets to be buried with her. The coffin was made of bark cut off right round a tree, split on one side from end to end; the body was placed in this, then the bark lapped over it, the ends were blocked up with other pieces, the whole secured by ropes. All day until the burial some one of kin stayed beside the coffin, little fires of Budtha kept smoking all the while. In the afternoon old Bootha came for me, and we set out.

First in the procession marched two old men of the tribe, behind them some young men, then those in charge of the coffin and the two nearest women relations, immediately behind them the old women, then the young women. No women with babies were allowed to go, nor any children. I came last with old Bootha.

The procession moved along an old winding track on the top of a moorilla, or pebbly ridge, pine-trees overarching in places carving the sky into a dome--a natural temple through which we walked to the burial-ground.

Every now and then we heard a bird note, which made the women glance at each other and say, first, 'Guadgee,' then 'Bootha,' as it came again, and a third time 'Hippitha.' To my uneducated ear the note seemed the same each time. I asked Bootha what it was. She told me it was the note of a little bird, something like a wren, called Durrooee, in whose shape the spirits of dead women revisited the earth. It seems that Numbardee, the first woman, was, like Milton's Eve, a caterer; she acquired art in beating the roots of plants into flat cakes much esteemed; she was never to be met without some, carrying them always in a bag across her shoulders.

And Byamee was so pleased with her for always having food for the hungry that, when at length she died, he allowed her to revisit her old gahreemai, or camp, her spirit returning in the form of the little honey-eater bird, Durrooee; and all women after her had a like privilege if they had done their duty in life. These birds are sacred; no one must harm them, nor even imitate their cry. It would be hard to hurt them, for the spirit in them is so strong. If any one even takes up a stick or stone to throw at them, hardly is it raised from the ground when the would-be assailant is forcibly knocked over, though he sees nothing but the little bird he was about to attack. Then he knows the bird must be a spirit bird, and perhaps seeing him look at her, the bird calls a woman's name, then he knows whose spirit it is.

A black boy on the station was badly hurt by a fall from a tree. It had seemed strange that such a good climber should fall. The blacks said it was because there was a Durrooee's nest in that tree, the spirit had knocked him down, and for a time so paralysed the man with him that he could not move to his assistance. Needless to say, they have avoided that tree since.

In the distance we heard the sound of the grave being dug. None of the same totem as the dead person must dig the grave. The coffin was put down beside the grave, the daughter and other nearest women relations stayed with it, the other women went away into the bush in one direction, some of the men in another.

Old Hippi heaped up some Budtha twigs he had gathered, I noticed as we came along; these he set fire to, and made a dense smoke which hung low over the open grave and spread over the old graves.

Hippi smoked himself in this smoke. The women came back with arms full of small branches of the sacred Dheal tree, these they laid beside the grave, then sat down and broke them into small twigs; the old women had twigs put through the bored hole in their noses.

The men came back with some pine saplings; two of these they laid at the bottom of the grave, which was about five feet deep. On these pines they spread strips of bark, then a thick bed of Dheal twigs; then a woman handed a bag containing the belongings of the dead woman--boogurr they were called--to the oldest male relative, who was standing in the grave; he placed it as a pillow at one end. Then Hippi and the daughter's husband took each an end of the coffin and lowered it into the grave; the daughter cried loudly as they did so. Over the coffin they laid a rug, and on the rug they placed Beemunny's yam stick. Hippi signalled to the daughter, who then came with the other women close to the edge of the grave. She sat at one end, looked over into the grave, and called out: 'My mother! Oh, my mother! Come back to me, my mother!

My mother that I have been with always, why did you leave me?' Then she wailed the death-wait, which the other women caught up. As the wail died away, Hippi said:

'She has gone from us; never as she was will she return.

Never more as she once did will she chop honey.

Never more with her gunnai dig yams.

She has gone from us; never as she was to return.'

As he finished all the women wailed again, and loudest of all the daughter. Then the old man in the grave said:

'Mussels there are in the creek and plenty, But she who lies here will dig no more.

We shall fish as of old for cod-fish, But she who lies here will beg no more oil, Oil for her hair, she will want no more.'

Then again the women wailed.

Old Hippi said, as the other man, in a sort of recitative

'Never again will she use a fire.

Where she goes fires are not.

For she goes to the women, the dead women, And women can make no fires.

Fruit is there in plenty and grass seed, But no birds nor beasts in the heaven of woman.'

Again the women wailed, wail after wail. Then they handed the remaining twigs of Dheal to the men, who laid them on the top of the coffin, then bark again over the twigs, and pine saplings on them, on top some old rugs.

While this was being done the old, old gins danced slowly a corroboree step round the edge of the grave, crooning a Goohnai-wurrai or dirge.

Then the men began to throw in the earth, the oldest male relative of the deceased standing in the grave to guard the body until the earth covered the coffin. As thud after thud went the earth in, the daughter shrieked and swayed over as if to fall into the grave, but her friend drew her back. She called 'Mother! mother!' took a sharp stone which was beside her and hit it against her head until the blood gushed out.

They took the stone from her. There she sat rocking her body to and fro, wailing all the time, the other women wailing too, until the grave was quite covered in.

When it was filled in Hippi made another big smoke, thoroughly smoked himself, calling to all the men to do the same.

An old woman made a big smoke behind where the women were sitting; she called them one by one and made them stand in the thick of it for a while.

Hippi said something to her. I caught the word 'Innerah'--they called me Innerah, which meant literally a woman with a camp of her own. The old woman gave the smoke fire a stir, and out at once came a thick column of smoke circling round my guest and myself.

They covered the grave with logs and boughs and then swept round it.

All was over, we turned homewards. As we did so a flock of screeching gilahs flew over, their bright rose colouring lighting up the sombre scene where the only colour was that of the dark pines silhouetted against a sky from which the blue had now faded. Going home Bootha told me that the smoking process was to keep the spirits away, and to disinfect us from any disease the dead might have; and she said had we not been smoked the spirits might have followed us back to the house.

They would at once change their camp; the old one would be gummarl--a tabooed place; but before they left it they would burn smoke fires there to scare away the spirits.

I asked her why they swept round the grave. She said, in case the dead person had been poisoned or killed by magic; and, indeed, so little do they allow the possibility of death from natural causes, they even said old Beemunny had been given poison in her honey by an old-time rejected lover. Well, by sweeping round the grave they would see what track was on the swept place next morning, and according to that they would know to what totem the murderer belonged. If the track should be an iguana's, then one of the Beewee, or iguana totem, was guilty; if an emu, then one of the Dinewan, or emu totem, and so on.

Old Hippi joined me a little further on. He explained that the service was not as it would have been some years ago. That I knew, because when I first went to the station I had seen them going to funerals all decorated as if for corroborees. Round their waists, wrists, knees and ankles had been twigs of Dheal, the sacred tree, and the rest of their bodies had been painted.

Hippi said a great deal more would have been spoken and sung at the grave if the dead person had been a man. His spirit would have in a short sort of prayer been commended to Byamee, who would have been intreated to let the dead enter Bullimah (heaven), as he had kept the Boorah laws--that is, of course, if he had been initiated: the spirits of the uninitiated wander until they are reincarnated, and never enter Bullimah. One curious coincidence occurred in connection with this burial.

Seeing the droughty desolation of the country, as we walked to the grave, I asked old Bootha when she thought it would rain again. Coming very close to me she half whispered:

'In three days I think it; old woman dead tell me when she dying that "'sposin" she can send 'em rain, she send 'im three days when her Yowee bulleerul--spirit breath--go long Oobi Oobi.'

Beemunny died on Wednesday night. On Saturday when we went to bed the skies were as cloudless as they had been for weeks. In the middle of the night we were awakened by the patter of rain-drops on the iron roof. All night it rained, and all the next day.

It is said that a dead person always sends rain within a week of his death to wash out his tracks on earth.

One little black girl told me she always felt sad when she saw thunderclouds, because she thought some dead person had sent them.

As a rule, there is a good deal more shedding of blood over a grave than I saw. This blood offering is said to please the dead, being a proof to them of the affection of the living. It is funeral etiquette to prepare yourself with a weapon with which to shed this blood, but likewise etiquette for a friend to intervene and stop your self-mutilation.

Chapter end

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