The air was so crisp as Kara stepped out of the car that her first breath became a gasp and the inside of her nose burned. She leaned into the passenger seat of her beat-up red Corolla and reefed her puffer jacket out from under the mountain of clutter. The heat of the interior caressed her face like a warm hand and she almost succumbed to the temptation to get back inside.
Her jacket rustled and swished as she slid into its pillowy folds. The sound silenced a frog that had been noisily protesting the invasion of its puddle by her bald front tires. Kara closed her eyes and attempted to shut off her thoughts. She was still in work mode, having left the office — thank fucking fuck — only thirty-eight minutes earlier. Allowing her shoulders to relax, and her breathing to lengthen, she engaged in her own custom meditation. Her senses amplified. The sunlight, filtering through her eyelids, was a healing beam of energy projected at her by her tribal ancestors. The magic was broken by the ticking and clanking of the Corolla’s cooling engine.
Time to get moving.
Kara started walking. At the beginning of the trail, a sign read: Mount Barrow Reserve. Two hours return. The high sun cast short shadows, reminding her that it was early afternoon. Today was her half-day Friday. Part way through last year, and after thirteen hard-slog years at the organization, she’d requested a four-day week but had been denied.
‘If you can do your job in four days, why the hell have we been paying you for five?’ her manager, Jason, had said. Kara tried to explain that she would have to drop some duties, but he waved her away. Cockhead. Kara had wanted to tell him where he could stick his job, but remembered the mounting bills on her kitchen bench and stayed silent.
Jason was a tick-a-box Aboriginal and could never prove his identity. But he had management credentials and waltzed straight into one of the top jobs. Suddenly an expert on everything black. The compromise had been a half-day off, once a fortnight. Unpaid, of course. Still, it was better than nothing, and Kara vowed to herself to make it worthwhile. Somehow.
The beginning of the track was easy and she walked briskly. The world gradually dropped away on her left as the track rounded the first incline, and she unzipped her jacket slightly and pulled her jumper away from her chest, fanning it. Stopping to catch her breath, she took in the view. Below her, the angular mountain scree tumbled down into a dark gully — and she took an involuntary step back from the edge.
The landscape was sparse, but far from boring. Mosses of brown, green and white clung to rocky overhangs and jagged branches, reminding her of her grandfather’s wispy beard. Snow gums erupted from the shattered shale, their twisting boughs flexing skyward, like fingers on an upturned hand. From the lookout, Kara could see the track snaking along the side of the ridge.
About a hundred meters ahead, unnatural colors flashed through the trees. People. Kara paused for a moment and then slipped into the nearest thatch of scrub on the edge of the track, clipping her knee on a concealed boulder as she did so. She let out a muted scream: the kind a child wakes up with, following a nightmare. She crouched down, lost her balance and sat back into a half-frozen puddle.
She made herself as small as possible, but then became preoccupied with the pain in her knee and the numbing wetness spreading across her backside. She closed her eyes and tried to calm herself with more meditation — but the discomfort prevailed, and she gave up. Kara sat there, willing silence, but with every ragged breath, every cold shudder, fern tips and sheaths of dry bark scraped against the parachute material of her jacket.
As the crunches and scrapes of the walkers grew louder, Kara held her breath. She timed it badly, though, and just before they got to her she exhaled sharply, almost coughing in the process. The strangers passed, oblivious to her presence. A middle-aged couple, slim and fit. The man had an odd-shaped but well-clipped beard. The woman wore a designer hiking outfit in retro pastel colors. Kara could tell that they weren’t from around here. They held themselves — as did all white mainlanders — with that peculiar, assured air. It made them seem taller and more upright than the locals. Kara hadn’t seen their car — which must have been in the bottom car park — but she formed a mental picture of a bright-orange Subaru wagon, with ski racks and hexagon-patterned alloys.
Heaving herself up, she stumbled back onto the track. The couple’s scent still lingered there, fresh and modern. She squeezed the damp seat of her jeans and felt water trail down the back of her left leg to her sock. Swinging a wild, angry kick at a pile of wombat droppings, she aggravated her knee even further. It was time to admit it: she was having a bad day. This walk was meant to turn it around but it was failing dismally.
Kara was the receptionist at the Aboriginal housing co-op in Launceston. She was the face, the voice, the first point of contact. She was used to copping shit, but that didn’t make it any more palatable.
When the woman had barged in that morning with her son, and stood boldly in front of the counter with her hand on her hip, Kara knew what was up. She’d seen a thousand Johnny-come-latelys and had observed there were two main types: the ones who played the sympathy card, and the ones who tried to intimidate you into accepting them. This woman and her son were the latter kind.
‘We want our Aboriginal papers, please. We just found out his father could be Indigenous.’ The woman added ‘please’ through gritted teeth, and Kara wondered why she even bothered.
‘Has your son ever used our services?’ asked Kara, following protocol. She knew perfectly well that the boy had never stepped foot inside their doors.
‘No, of course not. We only just found out.’ The woman pushed her son toward the counter. ‘Here, tell her,’ she said to him.
With a pudgy hand, the boy pushed a tuft of fringe off his pocked forehead. ‘Yeah, my aunty says we’re Aboriginal,’ he muttered. ‘And that we can get stuff … you know, for free.’
Kara looked to the woman, waiting for her to scold the boy. As unscrupulous as the Johnny-come-latelys were, they were rarely so open about their intention to scam benefits. The woman just stared back at Kara, eyebrows raised in question.
Here we go again.
Her manager was lurking, and Kara knew — and resented — that he expected professionalism from her in the face of such crap.
‘Our policy is—’ began Kara, half smiling to herself in resignation.
‘I don’t care what your policy is,’ interrupted the woman. She shifted her weight to the other hip and waved a finger at Kara’s face. ‘I want papers for my son, saying he’s Indigenous. And don’t you fucking smirk at me.’
Kara raised her hand, her instincts to fight kicking in.
I’ll rip that finger off.
She felt a colleague’s hand on her shoulder. ‘No, my girl.’
Kara eased her legs back into motion, and pushed on. The trail clung to the ridge for about half a kilometer before it came to a junction. An arrow indicated that the main trail went left, but Kara looked to her right, where the trail was narrower and less worn. The bush there was different: dense manuka scrub dominated the undergrowth and loomed over the track, forming a low tunnel. She took it as more of a wallaby run than a human trail. She flipped her hood over her head and shouldered her way down the overgrown path. The smell of the vegetation, as it closed in around her, carried her back to her childhood, to a time when her great-grandmother washed her in an old kerosene tin that lived on her rear step. A capful of ti-tree oil in the scalding water, and she was scrubbed with a stiff brush and harsh lye soap until tears came.
‘If we can wash this black off, might be hope for you yet,’ her great-grandmother would say, on every occasion.
Kara came to an old forestry road at the end of the bush tunnel and continued back onto the main trail. Nature had reclaimed the road. It was lined with cat ferns, giving it a stately appearance and feel. This track, she thought, could lead to her very own secluded rainforest mansion. There’d be large bay windows. A steaming jacuzzi. All the stuff rich people had. And nestled in the corner of a sunlit reading room would be a neat desk — not one piled with clutter and bills. Somewhere to sit and do useful things — maybe write a book, or letters to the papers, sticking it to the racist white politicians — as she liked to do but rarely had time. The days would be pleasantly, almost wearyingly, long. And the nights would arrive like an unexpected yet much-
Such was her fantasy life — one far from her own. What she’d first thought would come with the nine-to-fiver was late in the mail, or lost, as she was now beginning to accept. Fair enough, she was earning an average wage, but she was worn down from still being in a continual state of debt, and by the envy she felt toward others who were doing it far easier than her.
Working poor, yeah right. White privilege more like it.
She winced at the thought — it felt like an excuse. Deep down, she knew she just wasn’t good with her finances.
The road came to an open glade, and Kara sat down on a hairy tree stump. Her behind and legs were numb from cold. She longed for the warmth of the sun on her skin. Beneath her feet, sphagnum moss carpeted the ground.
Finally, rainforest country.
Man ferns adorned the edges of the glade, their foliage poised like giant jumping spiders. Kara surrendered to her favorite vice and lit her first cigarette since the car. She recalled when smoking was popular: the fabric of the office social sphere. Since her big boss had decided to quit, it had become increasingly frowned upon in her workplace. Now she was part of the office minority: pariahs, exiled to the alley next door for a few dirty minutes of every working day.
I’m free out here, she thought, watching the smoke form a thick, white cloud as it passed her lips and hit the chill mountain air. Free, like the old people were. Town life was inundating her in a flood of responsibility, repetition and despair that, more and more lately, she could feel lapping at her chin.
Kara jerked back to reality. She observed the shadows in the glade — how they had lengthened and now leaned toward her. The days were still short, although it was officially spring. The characteristics of this season resonated with Kara and she smiled inwardly at its arrival.
Time to get moving, again.
Just past the glade, the road fringed another decline. She’d walked across the top of the ridge and was on the other side now, and the view from here was completely different. Forestry had been active on this side, and reaching to the mountains in the distance was a patchwork of tree plantations, at various stages of growth. Here and there, random sections of vegetation had been cleared back to bald earth, making the landscape look like a huge, incomplete jigsaw puzzle.
The first time Kara stood at this spot, she’d melted into tears, and the noise of her emotions drifted across the valley. She was fragile, at the time, overwhelmed by life, relationships, money. The vision of the land — her ancestors’ country, so far removed from the cultural landscape it once was — took her over the edge. She cried uncontrollably, unashamedly: the way you can when you’re alone. It was in those reflective moments, with the clarity that followed this meltdown, that she resolved to put her plan into action.
Kara left the track again. She zigzagged her way downhill, using tufts of grass and dry logs to keep her balance. Toward the base of the hill, she crouched in the ferns and scanned the area below for activity. Where the slope met the flats, a caterpillar-like trail of thick manuka, interspersed with eucalypt crowns, hugged the contour. This was the creek: almost the only natural vegetation left in the valley. Forestry weren’t allowed to touch the creek. It was protected, off limits. Kara loved that. She smiled to herself. It felt, to her, like a small win.
Continuing downhill, she hit the creek and followed it, listening to the tinkle and plunk of the water. She crossed the creek where a log had got jammed, with her arms out like a high-wire performer. She checked the log for footprints. Only hers, still there from the previous week. Entering the first coupe, she marveled — as she always did — at how the small pines looked like a field of Christmas trees. The soil was clumped and compacted underfoot. Kara could still make out the dozer tracks from when the land was cleared. As she walked between the rows, she studied the ground for the signs of her people.
Growing up, she had spent a lot of time on country: camps, day trips, events. Her uncle — now dead — worked as an Aboriginal heritage officer, before all the jobs were farmed out to white archaeologists. As a teenager, she would often spend days helping him and he would pay her, generously. It was a time she recalled fondly, a period of contentment when opportunities were boundless and time seemed insignificant, before the draining veil of responsibility had settled.
Back then her job was to look for stone tools. Her uncle said her eyes were much closer to the ground than his. When she found them, he would take photographs and mark them on a map. He had a unique way of bringing each tool to life. He would explain to Kara how they were formed, used, why they were left the way they were. He told the story of the people who made the tools, and how they moved through country. He showed her where they camped, explained how they hunted. Kara would close her eyes while he spoke and picture the old people going about their lives. When she opened them, she felt like she could still see them. In her mind, they were still there.
She continued now through the pines, pausing a few times to inspect stones. Eventually she came to a dip in the valley where the trees thickened. They reached her chest, some to her head, and she had to force her way through. She stopped once or twice, straining her ears for sounds. She pushed her way into a small clearing and found herself against a wall of chicken wire. It was painted black, and was barely visible. Kara ducked to the ground. Being here didn’t put her in danger, but the forestry workers, if they found her, wouldn’t take too kindly to her actions. She knew from her own research that what she was doing was against the law.
Yeah, the white law.
Hunkered down at the base of the fence, Kara waited: silent, listening. Then she stood and peered into the cage. The plants were in various stages of growth. Some a foot tall, others just fresh new seedlings. All were in black pots and spaced as efficiently as possible within the cage. The bright-green luminescence of young eucalypt leaves distinguished them from the surrounding monotony of introduced pines. She tried to recall how many she had raised and planted, but had lost count. All grown from seeds she had collected, from the few remaining natives — their will to survive unshaken by the destruction of their environment, their roots so well established as to sustain the mechanical and chemical onslaught of the forestry operations. These were the best stock for her to propagate.
Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive. She took in the surrounding devastation and thought again about her own life.
Born into this.
Kara walked back into the rows to where she had finished her previous work here, and tore a few pines from the ground. With each of these trips, she could feel they were getting more established and harder to remove. She replaced them with some of the larger eucalypts from her cage, caressing their young, succulent roots with her bare hands as she removed them gently from their pots. She patted the soil in around them and stared at them for a while with proud affection. It was like looking into a mirror.
Eventually the pines here would be too large to replace, and she would have to move her nursery to another location and start over. Her actions were never going to make a real difference, or solve her money problems. She knew that. But she was out of the office and away from her desk. She was walking, still, with her uncle, fulfilling some cultural obligations in her own small, secret way. Rich people might have all the trimmings, but they couldn’t buy this type of satisfaction.
Kara gathered the two large buckets that were leaning against the cage. They, too, were painted black. Taking one in each hand, she climbed out over the cage and made her way to the creek for water, the lowering sun finally warming her back.
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