in Pitjantjatjara, palya means okay, everything’s alright



Doggy Jimmy sleeps under a tree near the store while Moses paces quiet tracks seeking forgotten hiding places for petrol. Not far away, Bronwyn snuggles up to her two children under a grey blanket and dreams of days at the waterhole, her brown toes swishing in and out of the cool water.  A restless night slides across the tin roofs as one of Jimmy’s dogs stirs in the dust and moves closer.

This is Amata. After midnight.  I’m woken by the need to pee. Uncoiling from the borrowed sleeping bag, I hunch through the opening of my ngura wiru.  Outside I straighten and stretch my arms above my head as if my fingers might touch the swoosh of tiny stars streaming across the sky. I breathe in the clearness of the desert— in, out — in, out. Or does the land breathe me? I can’t tell anymore as I crouch behind a small bush. Finished, I head back into the wiltja the women made for me after Yilpi’s funeral. I can’t believe she’s gone. I clamber back into the sleeping bag and lie on the hard ground.

Longa time . . .  Yilpi  talks about her sister screaming when she saw her first plane. Mamu she had cried. Yilpi stuck her skinny fingers into her sister’s ears to block out the noise of the engines.  Unappreciative of this help, her sister swiped Yilpi across the head. They ended up fighting until their mother pulled them apart but by then the plane had landed and its engines were quiet. A man in a grey suit climbed out and walked across the dirt air strip to the Community Office. The children danced around the plane and threw stones at the wings until the man in the suit came out and shooed them away.

I tell Yilpi about the giant, bushy oak in our backyard behind the shed and the rabbit cage. It was the one place no one could find me. When my mother called — dinner time — I lay across the thick, branches up high and pressed my body into its wood until I became the tree. I waited until she gave up before climbing down.

‘Where were you?’ she asked when I sat at the kitchen table.

‘Just out back,’ I’d say knowing she’d insist I wash my hands. Every time.

We talk for a long time and when I finally drift off,  whispers of Yilpi thread in and out of the rocks and across the plains as if she is looking for something. It is an uneasy sleep that finally captures me as I leave Yilpi to her search.


The unwanted smell of burning wakes me with a cough


The unwanted smell of burning wakes me with a cough and I jump out of the sleeping bag, almost dragging it with me. Soft, grey smoke hangs over the wiltja. Sparks rise from where Yilpi’s belongings were burned and shoot into the air before falling onto hungry bushes where they ignite in an instant, over and over again. As each spark hits its target, the dryness is ecstatic and the spinifex rises up. The loud, mean laugh of the fire bites into everything it touches.

‘Fire! Fire! Yilpi we need help! Where is she? Grabbing a branch from the side of my ngura wiru, I thrash the ground like I‘d seen the Anangu women do, pelting the land around the flames.

‘Help!’ I scream again.

The fog of smoke hangs over the sorry camp. Even though I’m wearing only underwear and a white singlet top, my body burns from the heat, my upper arms already exhausted.

Yilpi, can’t you find a wind to blow the fire the other way? Can’t you do something?  Get some help Yilpi, tell Paniny, tell the men . Tell them to get here! The smoke obscures the bright stars. My voice cracks across the fire.

‘Yilpi! For god’s sake do something!’

Dust rises from the ground, mixing with the rising smoke as sweat seeps from my skin. My arms seize with pain and I force small, shallow breaths as my throat constricts.

There is a scuffling behind me. Doggy Jimmy uses his old blanket against the flames, smothering the sparks as best he can with an ease and slowness that calms me. He acts as if this is something he does every night, and his presence gives me renewed energy to keep going. The flames are wicked now.


The flames are wicked now.


They are enjoying the trouble they’re causing and the snapping noise as they ignite another virgin bush is like a whoop at a party. Yilpi, where the hell are you?  People emerge from the shadows. It’s hard to see them through the smoke and flickering heat. They beat the ground with whatever they can lay their hands on. And they are quiet. It is only the fire that roars. And me, in my head, yelling at my absent, spirit friend.

The thumping has a rhythm to it. Together, we drum a tune, seducing the flames rather than trying to beat them. I barely notice the hand on my shoulder but manage a smile through the tears and sweat as Bronwyn removes the branch from my hand and takes my position. I step back and stare at the scene in front of me. More than fifty Anangu, their faces and forearms shining in the reflection of the fire light, circle the protesting flames. Paniny, Nurinna, their families, young and old doing what they can.  I grab a blanket, rejoin the group and beat the ground as more sticky smoke clings to my body.


… sticky smoke clings to my body.


Someone is standing next to me. It’s Moses. He lifts the blanket from his head and folds it as if he is putting it away but when he’s ready he uses the triangular shape to flatten the black ground. I stand next to him and do the same. Hey Yilpi, look at this?  Everyone, black and white, even Moses and his sniffer gang are helping. No one speaks. The only sound is our thrashing movements and the cry of a dying fire. Our circle becomes smaller as the fire begins to lose its power. We push our win and like the end of a long song, the beating and thrashing of the ground comes to an end. The fire smoulders and the last flames turn in on themselves. They have nowhere else to go, there is nothing left to burn in the blackened circle of desert. I drop the charred blanket to the ground and my arms swing against the sides of my body, weary yet unwilling to be still.

People move away in silence. It’s over. The plain of worn out embers smoulders in silence and we can finally ignore the fire.  A hint of sun softens the tips of the Musgraves and a whisper of light filters through the shroud of smoke. I hug Moses, and then Bronwyn. We smell the same. The twenty years since I taught them in kindergarten has flashed by — like the fire. My skin is black from the ashes and Paniny laughs when she sees me.

‘Wara Blackfella,’ she mouths close to my ear.

Wara was the name Yilpi gave me the first time we met in the schoolyard. It was weeks before I found out it meant Tall One.

I link arms with Paniny and we walk down the dusty road where a lone brick house sits alongside sheds and traditional wiltjas like my ngura wiru. My good home. Smoke threads into the morning sky as billies are put on the boil knowing the warmth of the fire and tea making will rouse the rest of the family. Paniny sings a song I don’t know. I nudge her.

‘For minyma,’ she says. I nod. This song can be my song too, I am a woman now. I hold up three fingers.

‘Three children,’ I say, ‘minyma.’

‘Kumanara,’ she whispers. Yilpi’s name is lost in the fire with everything else she owned. Tradition forbids mentioning her name. She has become another Kumanara. I want to shout her name, Yilpi! Yilpi!, into the morning light.

Paniny slips a small piece of minkulpa into the sweaty palm of my hand. The rest she perches behind her ear where it sits like a misplaced  rabbit poo.

‘Strong stuff for whitefellas,’ she warns as she heads back to her camp.

I sit outside my wiltja, metres from the black circle. That’s how close it got. I roll the knob of Paniny’s bush tobacco into a tight ball and place it between my lips and push it into the corner of my mouth like I’d seen Yilpi do. Suck it slow. Strong stuff, Paniny had said and at dinner parties I’d heard whitefellas profess its hallucinogenic properties.

Yilpi doesn’t approve but I don’t care. I’m suspicious of her. She had something to do with the fire, I know it. Ignoring her, I concentrate on balancing the minkulpa between my lips. Ribbons of smoke rise from the burnt ground in front of me, like slow motion dancers, spinning, falling, the rage gone.  My hands rest on my thighs covered with so much dust and ash, I can barely remember the colour of my skin. The breath of Yilpi’s movements sweep through the air as she dances around the wiltja.



The breath of Yilpi’s movements sweep through the air as she dances around the wiltja.



‘I’m not talking to you Yilpi.’  Defiant. I cross my arms.

The minkulpa burns my lips, its bitterness pricking my tongue but I resist spitting it out. My body is heavy yet my head floats as if it were in a small cloud. Yilpi are you doing this?  She comes in close. Her spirit breath surrounds me. Everything spins. I lay on the ground and press my cheek into the dust. The spinning stops . My heart beats fast against the earth. Like we’re in a race, my heart and I.  The depth of the ground wraps around my cheek and the warming wind can’t decide whether to play with my hair or travel across the mulga plains and find something more interesting to do. I giggle at the shape of the wind and its curving sway in and around the dust.

‘Tell me,’ I shout to the wind, ‘is your name Kumanara too?’

The wind blows dust into my nostrils and forces me to sit up as I cough into my hands.

In the distance there is a beating sound, the same rhythm as earlier when we were thrashing the fire; back — backback — back — backback.

My body vibrates and a shape emerges from the ground. Rising dust, like a backwards waterfall, spills towards me, whooshing loudly. A row of feet stir up the dust. Back — backback.  The detail of each toe is amplified and the lines around the edge of the feet tell stories of travels through broad gorges time and time again. The feet are so close they are almost stomping on me yet I have no fear as I sway to their primal beat. Dust hides the bodies and faces, all I see, are the black feet. Are these ghosts? Some sort of spirit ancestors? Yilpi where are you? What is this?  She has disappeared. I reach for the digging stick resting by the side of the wiltja and run my finger along the spine of the carved root, right where a snake was burned into the wood with a wire fashioned from a coat hanger made hot by a campfire. My finger burns and the feet stop stomping. The sudden quiet is lost in a whirl of dust that whips around me.

‘Kupi, kupi,’ the schoolchildren used to shout when they saw the baby whirlwinds spilling along the dirt roads. They raced each other to jump into the little wind and the force of the kupi kupi lifted them up and then dropped them back down onto the ground with a thud. I remember Moses laughing, falling into the wind again and again, without fear.

‘Wara, look,’ he’d shout as his body rose up, just a few centimetres from the ground, and then was dropped as the playful wind moved on.

This kupi kupi is big and I press the side of my body into the dirt to make myself as flat as possible. I cling to the digging stick and cough through the dust. Where are you Yilpi? If she is here, her voice is lost in the swirl of dust. I shut my eyes and my head spins with the kupi kupi. The stick wraps around my arm, holding me to the earth like a magnet as the dust storm covers me. Howling, raging wind swirls over me like a big ocean wave.


Howling, raging wind swirls over me like a big ocean wave.



In the next instant it is silent – no wind, no footsteps and I struggle to open my eyes caked in dust. I sit up and look around, everything is intact. Only a small cloud of dust remains, harmlessly curling around the saltbush like a timid breeze. What happened? Yilpi is back but I can’t hear her. Where are you?

The dust cloud moves closer and then stops, as if suspended by cables from the sky. Is my name being called? Is that you Yilpi? I stand up and walk towards the dust formation. Something else — soft words — in the distance,  further away — a child’s voice.


My body stiffens. My muscles coil like a snake waiting to strike. My heart waits for its next beat.


Through the swirls of dust I make out the shape of my youngest boy. Naked, his pale arms outstretched towards me.


I don’t move. Yilpi calls.

My son is here, how did he get here?  

She doesn’t answer me. Pitja is all she says, Come.

  Yilpi . . . I turn towards the place I think she might be . . . Yilpi?

When I look back towards the kupi kupi, my son is gone. The dust disperses and all that is left is the black remains of the fire. Straining my eyes to the horizon, I scan the land in front of me. Yilpi, did you see that? Did you see my son? There is no Yilpi. Not now.

I imagine an aerial photo of myself. A white woman, covered in a thick layer of ash and dust from weeks in the desert, her skin a strange muddy colour, hair sticking out from her head in clumps like the Anangu children, her eyes wild from the long, desert night. The woman is searching for her son. Yet he isn’t the one who is lost.



The woman is searching for her son. Yet he isn’t the one who is lost.


The ground beneath my feet snaps me back. I know what I have to do. I throw the leftover food into the cardboard box and pile the sleeping bag and tarp to the side of the wiltja. Yilpi is back. She wants to play and show me the waterhole she swam in with her sister.

Secret place, pitja.

‘No,’ I say out loud.

She sulks off while I load everything into the back seat of the car.

When I finish,  I reach out to one of the few remaining branches leaning on the side of my wiltja and the dry leaves crumble into shards. The pieces fall to the ground, back into the earth. Everything ends back in the earth, Yilpi told me.

I run to the car and dive into the glove box. I’m sorry I took these but you knew I had them didn’t you? I stride towards the sorry camp, gripping the film canister filled with Yilpi’s ashes. There is no evidence of life from the cold, grey cinders of Yilpi’s fire — no reminder of who she was and nothing to indicate her fire had anything to do with last night. The pile of ash is like ice.

I pour the container of stolen ashes back onto the fireplace. Fragments of Yilpi. Somehow I thought I could keep part of her with me to make me stronger and more sure of my own steps — like her. But it doesn’t work like that.

‘You’re not surprised by any of this, are you?’

Across the horizon, the huge mass of blue sky outweighs the deep ochre of the desert floor. Everything out here is big and bright. The sky, the horizon, the mountains. And Yilpi. This is her skin, and every now and then I glimpse what it could be like. To be full of the land — to be the land. I turn to leave and as my bare feet hit the ground, Yilpi is the cushion.

Palya, Wara. Palya, she murmurs.

Her presence softens my entry into the world beyond the desert where my family waits for my return.

Palya, Yilpi. Palya.



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