I wrote this story a little over 3 years ago. It is the launching point for a larger novel I have been working on but have yet to finish. I think it’s time to share.
The land was still. The cold air settled around Sam’s car parked near the entrance to the site. The proposed site, where the men in suits from the city had decided they would put a new mine. It would be a huge hole in the ground, on land that had already seen more than its fair share of human-induced trauma. For the last two hundred years the land had been logged and cleared, and the nearby town where Sam and her family lived had been built. Most of those original houses were gone now, torn down and the wood burned. It was a waste, Sam thought. The wood must have been beautiful yet they destroyed it rather than taking proper care of it. The land too; roads and railway lines had been cut through hills instead of going around them, linking one town to the next all the way to the sea and the main city. What some people called progress, others called waste.
There was a small group who had been instrumental in gaining freedom for this piece of land. Sam’s family had done it, gaining legal rights to the property in a court case over a decade ago. It was one of the things she was most proud of. She loved the country and she loved her family. Since then they’d left the land alone; the trees had grown back, some that had been young saplings now nearing forty foot high. There was a stream that ran through the area and it was healthier than it had been in years. Beyond the creek there was a valley that had never been touched by progress. The property then went up into the hills and mountains that ran all the way from north to south of the country.
Sam stood at the gate. A dirt road ran from the entrance, leading all the way down and over the creek at a shallow ford, over the crest of a hill and into the valley beyond. It was a tradition for Sam and the family to park their cars at the gate and walk to the stream, where they’d stay for the whole weekend. It was an attempt to keep the old ways alive, live alongside the stream, dance, sing, tell the old stories and remember what things used to be like. No one other than the elders had ventured further into the valley. It was a sacred place used for the most ancient of ceremonies.
Now it all stood on the edge of a knife. The suits had come; lawyers had delivered a letter to Sam’s house. She’d listened in horror in the kitchen as it was read out loud, a ball of disgust and terror welling up her throat. One of her own family had sold them all out, had sold out the entire tribe, their ancestors and their future. There’d been a negotiation, the letter said, and the mining company would be allowed access to the plot of land, the people of the tribe would receive royalties from the mining company. Sam didn’t know who had done the negotiating with the company. And even though they would all receive royalties from the mine, that didn’t matter to her. She felt violated. This was a betrayal by someone she called family.
The day had finally come; the mining company were on their way. Sam had been at the gate since yesterday, sleeping in her car so the diggers and bulldozers wouldn’t get in before her family did. She had a big family; a few had shown up around six-thirty, unloaded their cars – eskies, blankets, chairs, signs – and come to stand with Sam. The gate was wide and old, with rust covering its surface. Sam’s mother was with the group that arrived.
“Thanks, girl,” Her mother, Cyndel, spoke. “You did well.”
“There hasn’t been any sign of them so far,” Sam responded. “Did anyone manage to sort me some breakfast?”
Her younger brother, John, handed her a brown paper bag. “It’s a bacon and egg roll. Mum and me made them this morning.” He was smiling. Only ten years old, he didn’t completely understand the situation, but he’d heard plenty of loud and heated conversations over the last few weeks. Adults showing up at his house just after bedtime to talk about the mine and what they could do to stop it. He was eager to help and it showed, his face hardly containing his excitement.
Sam, however, had turned sixteen a few months before and knew exactly what was going on and knew what they had to do today. She went to her car to get some water, washing down the bread roll. The tasty filling had gone cold on its journey out of town. She checked in the boot of her hatchback too and looked at the piles of shiny metal chains sitting in there. If it came to that, she would be ready.
As the group set up, their signs leaning on the locked entrance gate, more vehicles came up the hill towards them. These weren’t the old station wagons and sedans the rest of their family would be in; these were big, new four-wheel drive utes. A strip of high-vis florescent paint on the side, below the name of the company – GHK – in big bold letters. Three of them, and behind came the first of the machines, an excavator and a bulldozer. Both looked brand new. When Sam was younger she’d played with her cousin’s toy versions of these exact vehicles in the sand pit out the back of her house. She’d had fun then, but now Sam found the tan yellow paint menacing.
“Ok you mob, get ready!” her mother called out. “Here they come.”
They formed a line in front of the gate. It was a small group, only about thirty of them. Sam knew it was still early. More would come soon; they all knew they had to be there. Everyone was angry about what was happening, just like her.
The first four-wheel drive pulled up and waited, the motor still running. As the rest slowed to a stop the motors cut out almost simultaneously and the men from the first vehicle stepped out. Sam saw them from the ground up, taking her measure of them; their polished shoes hit the ground and stirred the dust, dark grey pants and jackets in a distinct contrast to their white shirts. Who would wear white out here? What Sam found most ridiculous was that they all put on white hard hats before walking towards the gate. These suits wouldn’t do any work that needed a hard hat, even if they could get through to the site today.
The men stopped about ten metres from the fence line. One of them carried a slick black folder in his hands. He carried himself with an arrogance that Sam had seen before, like he was used to getting his way. He glanced over at the group of protestors and shook his head.
“I’m Mr Wood. Which one of you is charge here?” he barked the words out, used to being listened to.
Cyndel stepped forward, not saying a word, her back straight and her head high. Sam was proud of her Mum in that moment, so strong against this brash arrogance.
“You know you can’t be here, lady. You all received the letters.” He spoke more softly than before, but the hint of steel edged his tone. “I have the signed papers and the court order”.
Sam felt a shudder go through the group; maybe they couldn’t do anything. Fear started to gnaw at her as the moments passed. Cyndel was just standing there, breathing patiently, gauging her adversary in front of her. Finally, she spoke; loud and clear.
“Every minute we stand here is another minute you can’t destroy what’s behind this fence.”
Sam beamed. She walked forward and stood beside her mother, taking Cyndel’s hand and forgetting the doubt that had plagued her only moments before.
“It won’t work, you know that. I’ve been through this all before, down south and out west from here,” Mr Wood argued. “It doesn’t matter how many of you come here. Eventually there won’t be anyone to stop us from digging this mine. You’re all to be getting the royalties from this anyway-”
Cyndel cut in on him before he could finish, her voiced dripped with venom. “We didn’t sign. You might have turned one of us so it looks fine in the courts and above board, but you don’t have real permission.” She twisted the ball of her foot into the ground as she spoke, growing more passionate with every word.
“Look lady, it’s going to be a good thing for everyone. There will be jobs and if you’re smart with the money that you get from the royalties, you’ll be able to buy somewhere else, somewhere nicer than this. It’s just some water and a valley.”
Sam jumped in, bolstered by her mother. “And that’s what it should stay -a beautiful bit of water and a valley that no one has ever fucked with.”
“We’ve paid the signing fee that was negotiated with your representative, so we’re allowed to access the property with rights to mine the land,” Wood continued calmly. None of this mattered to him; they were just a small deterrence, for now.
“What fee?” Sam spat. “We haven’t seen any of it and in any case we don’t want it. We’ll stay here for as long as we can. We’ll make sure you don’t set a single foot on this place, prick!”
Wood stared straight at Sam, his eyes boring into her as she stared back, defiant. He shook his head, turned and went back to the rest of his group; Cyndel and Sam stood their ground. Both groups would have to wait this out for now.
Sam and Cyndel walked back to the gate. On the other side was the rise and fall of the land toward the stream and the pristine valley beyond. Sam’s spirit soared when she saw a figure with scraggly hair, beard and skinny shoulders appear over the rise. Recognising him immediately, she jumped the gate and ran to greet him.
“Uncle, you stayed the night here too!” she cried. “I thought you were in town.”
“Hmm, I camped, and I heard your little exchange there, missy.” He always grumbled when he spoke, his voice deep and gravelly. He spoke slowly, each sentence measured and thought through.
“You didn’t come help? Mum would have let you speak for everyone.”
“They don’t need me to do that, and honestly your mother is better at this than I ever will be.”
Sam called him Uncle, but no one had ever explained how exactly they were related; it didn’t matter, he was family. When she was with him, she always felt calm and was able to see the big picture. Now she mulled over the exchange with Wood.
“I think I should go back to gate. Are you coming?”
“Not just yet girl. I’ll be over when I’m needed. You better head back, but stop worrying, more of the mob will be on the road out here soon. And be careful, let your mother handle this; she’s more than capable.”
Heading back to the group, Sam looked around and watched Uncle slink back over the rise. The way he moved, he almost prowled, animal-like. Sam loved when he showed up at the house, usually staying with the adults long enough to pilfer a few of her mother’s beers and some food before heading to the lounge room or the backyard where the kids were the dominant force. Everyone knew him and tolerated him, he didn’t bathe much and he seemed to belong to no one. All the kids loved him, and he told the best stories. He could have us rolling in stitches on the ground or too scared to go to bed, terrified by the ghosts and spirits that can steal your breath. He’d spent more and more time out at the property recently though. Sam hadn’t seen him in town for a month.
The group huddled around Cyndel as Sam returned to the gate, joining in at the back to catch their conversation.
“Well, I still don’t know who it was that’s been talking to that mining company, but someone has gotten something out of all of this,” one of her Uncles said.
“It’ll be fine, we’ll figure it out,” Cyndel assured them. “It’s not important right now. We have to focus on is not letting those machines through this gate.”
Cyndel looked up at Sam, her eyes betrayed her, showing her daughter the hurt that someone who was family had sold them out in this way.
“Ok, everyone, you know what comes next. Mr Wood and his bunch will have called the cops. He has the paperwork to say what he is doing is legal, what we’re doing isn’t.” She breathed in and straightened “They’ll be bringing plenty of them. It’s going to be tense, and I don’t want anyone swinging out and getting arrested. Sam has something in the back of the hatchback that means we won’t have to. We’ll chain ourselves to the fence and be a human barrier.” She nodded to Sam. “There’s more in my car as well, and the locks, take some of the boys and bring them back over here.”
Sam and her cousins went to the cars to retrieve the chains, locks and keys. More people had arrived, and things looked better now. They organised the chains, handing them out to people. More machines had arrived alongside the earlier dozers and excavators, now there were trucks parked in a line going along the road; their own metal barricade.
When the police arrived, Sam and her mother were chained together and they stood directly in front of the gate. The chains were mainly for show because they didn’t lock the women against the gate.
The policeman who came over to the fence didn’t ask who was in charge; they’d been around long enough to know. He looked like every other young policeman. He would only have been ten years older than Sam, and had probably played with her older cousins when they were growing up, then again maybe not in this town. He came up and stood close, two head heights taller than Sam.
“Cyndel, come on, you know you can’t be doing this now,” he said. “It’s much too late. They’ve got the court orders.”
“This is our land, there isn’t a piece of paper in the World that can change that.” She was strong and steady in her voice.
“It’ll still be your land, you know how this works. It happens all across the country. It’s business and you’ll be getting paid.” He was young and brash, confident that he was right.
Sam could feel the anger rising up within her. She wanted to scream at this idiot, but Cyndel squeezed her hand and she stayed silent.
“Doesn’t matter, we’re still going to stop them from doing this. Our land is too important to let them destroy,” Cyndel said.
Another officer, older, came over. “Charlie, let me talk to her,” he said quietly.
“Now, Cyndel, you know how it is. I know you’re doing what you think you need to, but if we do what we need to, some of you are going to end up arrested and the trucks will still get in there anyway. I don’t really want to take any of you in today.”
Charlie spoke up again. “Boss, you’re not going to reason with ’em. Look at this young one – she’s frothing for a fight. They’ll be in the paddy wagon by lunchtime and then the dozers can get going on this waste of space.”
“Constable, get back to the cars and let me handle this,” the older copper commanded.
“Don’t!” Cyndel yelled.
Sam had reacted before she could think, anger clouding her judgement. She bent down and picked up a rock, throwing it at the young cop’s face. It hit his cheek hard. He blinked as a red welt surfaced. Then moving forward quickly he grabbed Sam’s arm, twisting it behind her back, forcing her into Cyndel and against the gate. The rusty metal and wire of the gate tore into her ribs with the pressure. Cyndel lunged towards Charlie, in return the slack of the chain pulled tight and brought more people towards the fray. There was a scuffle, Cyndel and Charlie both tangled too and together the three of them fell to the ground.
More police rushed in to intervene; they picked up Charlie, who was still a little stunned from the rock blow, while Sam helped Cyndel.
“That’s it, bring the cutters,” the sergeant commanded. “Cyndel, we’re going to have to take you in, you and your daughter.”
“No! We’ll be staying right here.” The retort was hot; Cyndel had lost her cool at the thought of Sam being taken away.
The bolt cutters arrived and they clipped the chains on one side of Cyndel.
“Go now, Sam!” her whisper coming out harshly. “Go find Uncle.”
One of the other protesters shoved a policeman trying to cut his section of chain; another scuffle broke out as more of the tribe drew closer to protect their own.
Sam was terrified. She knew she shouldn’t have thrown that rock, it had put the whole protest in jeopardy, but her Mum would still know what to do. She hoped they would be able to fix this. She wiggled loose of the chain and sprung over the gate. No one would be able to find her once she made it past the rise. Sam knew the land here better than anyone, save the old man. She didn’t look back, trusting that the mob would cover for her. The police barely saw her go with the distraction of the scuffle and arrests.
What had she done? Why had she let her anger overtake her like that?
As she crested the rise she saw the old man, she also, with horror, heard the sound of a huge motor.
“Hurry up then with me, girl,” he shouted.
They ran down the slope, towards the thick brush by the creek. The old man was remarkably fit, barely losing his breath on the long run.
“Uncle, they’ve taken away Mum and the others,” Sam said as she slowed her pace. “I think I heard the bulldozers starting as well.”
“I guessed they would have, missy. I saw what happened.”
“I didn’t think,” a lump was growing in Sam’s throat.
“I know, but that wasn’t the way to go about it.”
Sam calmed, but she still felt like she could cry at any minute.
“They’ve probably cut through the gate by now,” Uncle said. “Not much we can do, just follow me.”
They crossed the creek and went up the other side of the slope, picking their way through the thick brush. At the top, they had a clear view of the creek and all the way back down to the road. Sam could see the bulldozers and excavators were through the gate, working their way by the dirt track to where they would start digging.
“See where they’re going, girl?” Uncle said. “We can’t let them get into that valley, that’s special land. There are trees in there older than your mother.”
“Uncle, I don’t know what else we can do!” Like always, she felt calm when she was with him, but there was a rush of anger coming. “Where were you back there?” she shouted at him.
“I was here, waiting,” he growled back. “There’s no need for that now, just hurry up with me.” Sam fell in behind him.
They walked for a while, Sam lost in thought about her anger earlier. She hadn’t even thought about hurting that guy, it had all just happened like she was a passenger as her body exploded into movement. She wasn’t normally one to get violent; she would yell and scream and get angry but she’d never tried to hurt someone before. The scene played out over and over again in her mind, so she was barely taking notice of where they were, just that the old man was ahead of her. She shook the thoughts from her mind and looked around.
“Where are we? I thought I knew this whole place, but I’ve never been here before?”
They had moved over the next hill and down into the old valley. The bush was thick, the trees were huge and were a species she hadn’t seen before. But she knew they were old, really old.
“It’s not far now. I need your help with something,” he said. “Take it all in, this place might be destroyed if we don’t get this right.”
They walked past more of the huge trees, the light filtered down and the air smelled of moss. Sam felt refreshed after the earlier stress. She realised that Uncle had been humming while they walked; it was a soft hum, barely loud enough to hear. Maybe that was why she hadn’t noticed it before. It sounded similar to the wind through the trees or soft rain on a roof at night. She focused on the hum and noticed if she put her head to the side, she could hear other, similar hums too. Looking around she didn’t see anyone though; maybe it was just a trick, the sound bouncing off the angles of the trees.
Finally, they came to a clearing. The trees and brush stopped in a not-quite-perfect circle with small rocks around the outside edge.
“We’re here,” Uncle said softly, his hum dropping off and the echo slowly fading.
“What is this place?” Sam was amazed, she thought she knew this land, but she’d never been here, even when she’d spent a week camped on the property, roaming from dusk til dawn.
“I can’t stop the mine by myself, missy, so this is where you’re going to help me. If we do this though, I don’t know if you’ll be able to go back into town for a while.”
“Uncle, do what? How are we going to stop them?” Sam was confused, what could they do from here? What could she do?
Uncle walked away from her, passing the edge of the circle and disappearing behind one of the trees.
“Uncle?!” Sam was suddenly terrified. What was she doing here? She should be near her Mum where they would start digging, chaining herself to a bulldozer in a last attempt to stop them before they destroyed everything.
Uncle appeared back around the other side, carrying a brown sack. It looked old and tattered, much like him. He laid the sack on the ground, and took out a wooden bowl carved from a gnarled piece of tree. He set it on the ground and beside it put some ground clay, ochres in different hues – white, red and yellow – a bottle of water and what looked like some old animal bones carved into various shapes. The red ochre went into the bowl with some of the water and one of the bones. He stirred it into a thick paste, then put one hand under his armpit, gathering some sweat before flicking it into the bowl.
“You do the same,” he said to Sam. She was confused, but knew at this moment she had to trust him. She had no choice.
He mixed it all together. “Hold still, you’ll need some of this on you.”
She stood up straight; she had done this ceremony before, never with red ochre, but with white or yellow. The yellow when she went through her woman’s time a year ago with her mother by her side. This was different, red was for men, or for special times.
Uncle painted some symbols on her face and bare arms, then removed his shirt and painted the same symbols on himself, covering his torso. Sam hadn’t seen these symbols before.
Uncle put the bowl down. “Are you ready?’ he asked.
“I’m not sure. What is it we’re doing?” her voice quivered a little.
“Don’t worry, girl, you’ll know what to do when it’s time. For now just follow what I do.”
He bent down and put the ochres and bowl back in the bag, the bones he spread in a circle around them both. “Follow my noise, you’ll need to sing with me,” he said to Sam, his voice calm and strong. Uncle began to hum again, this time a little louder. She joined in with her own hum softly, trying to find the right notes, the right timing. But it was like he didn’t need to breathe when he made the sounds. Like his breathing and the hum were one, the noises moving in a sequence that was completely natural for him. After minutes of trying, Sam caught on to the trick of it. Keeping some air in her cheeks and mouth to continue while she took her next breath.
“Good,” Uncle’s voice came out while he continued to make the sound, “now to the next part.” His hum turned into singing, his mouth opening and the music flowing out, Sam knew the words instinctively and followed along a higher counterpoint to his low gravelly base. The words and sounds echoed around the clearing, bouncing back at them and becoming part of the song.
She had heard of elemental magic before, she’d heard the myths, the stories. Told to her by this man before her; the man who seemed so frail sometimes but now seemed so strong. That’s all they really were though, stories. Men who could talk to the stones to gain wisdom of ages or women who could ask the branches of a tree to lower their sweet fruit closer to hungry hands, she remembered he called them animists. Stories of how the people had lived thousands of years ago, completely at one with the Earth around them. She thought she knew what that meant, but this, this was so different. This was something bigger than she could comprehend.
The old man’s arms stretched up to the sky, his feet planted wide on the ground. Shirt off, his torso was sinewy and strong, browned from too long in the sun, the red ochre painted on him seemed to shimmer in the dappled light of the clearing. His voice sounded clear across the landscape, cutting above the constant buzzing noises of the bush. It was a language Sam was slowly understanding more and more of as the song went on, at the same time guttural and lyrical. Sam could feel it resonating deep in her lower torso, as though energy was filtering out of her, travelling along the ground and into him and vice versa. She could feel a strange connection to the ground, the trees around her and the old man. She began to see lines of power connecting everything, green, brown and red lines of pure energy.
There was a rush of air and a sound of earthquake proportions. The ground from where they had come roiled, spearing upwards. The old man and Sam continued their frantic chanting, while the ring of bones and stones in the clearing were now the only parts of the landscape that weren’t shuddering and shaking. The topsoil started moving, sliding and giving way as the ground Sam and the old man stood on rose up from below. The sounds out of their mouths were now coming faster and faster. Sam didn’t think she could have stopped if she wanted to, fully into the throws of the ritual. As the ground beneath them continued its slow rise, Sam could see a shape emerging from the moving land. A great Beast began to take form, huge shoulders sloping into its rocky upper back dotted with gum trees and small shrubs. The still flat circle where they stood was the top of the creature’s head – two sentinels, protectors of the bush guiding the animal.
The old man’s song slowed, the intensity dropping back to a constant hum. The land had felt his call, awakened to join its spirit with his own. They were now standing a full twenty metres above where they had started. Sam started to see where they were in relation to the rest of the landscape. They weren’t too far from where the mining machines would soon start their digging.
The gift from the land, the awakened beast began to move forward, its huge limbs shaking the Earth with each step, the trees below it seemed to move out of its way or it glided through them, all at once fully solid and corporeal.
Soon they came within sight of the machines, now over fifteen of them, as well as the four wheel drives and Mr Wood. He stood, still with his clipboard in hand, under the shade of one of the diggers, with thirty other men from the mining company, some in suits and hard hats like him, more in full florescent work clothing. He was gesturing in the opposite direction to where the great beast was coming from, not noticing until it was too late.
The sun, high overhead, beat down on Sam’s shoulders and the wind blew in her hair.
The beast closed the distance to the machines in mere steps, and Wood, hearing the pounding noise, turned, his eyes popping out in sheer bewilderment and fear.
With an echoing thud, the Beast ran straight into the first of the diggers, Sam and the old man barely felt a shudder as the Earth, trees, stones and mud enclosed around the metal and uprooted it from the ground. There was a sharp grinding noise as the steel of the digger crushed in on itself. The men on the ground ran towards their vehicles, suddenly shocked into some kind of action. They had no words for what was happening. How could they comprehend something as ancient and primal as this? Sam’s mind was still struggling with the concept.
The sheer bulk of the creature made short work of the rest of the mining equipment, twisting them into glorious new shapes. Small explosions from the petrol tanks rocked the balance of the creature, but throughout it all the original circular clearing rocked little. The Earth beneath Sam’s feet felt firm amid the destruction being wrought below. The sound of the four wheel drives roaring to life and taking off barely registered in Sam’s consciousness.
The mining machines were all destroyed. The very things that had come to wreak havoc on the land were destroyed by the land itself that was coaxed into life by her and the man she called Uncle.
The old man nodded at Sam as the creature seemed to flow back into the ground, the landscape and trees taking root in what would be their new home. The clearing looked the same as it had been at its previous location. Sam’s head started pounding and she was overcome with pain. She swooned, falling, only just caught by the old man.
When she woke, still in pain, she was laying on the soft moss of the clearing. The old man had a fire going and he looked over as she tried to rise.
“It’s done for now, missy. You’ll be ok. You just need to rest,” Uncle said.
“How did we do that?” her voice was weak and trembled as her mouth formed the words.
“I’m old enough, I know a trick or two,” Uncle stated. “It had to be done. They can’t destroy the valley, no matter what’s under the ground there.”
Sam’s head was fuzzy, but she understood the enormity of what they had just achieved.
“The Earth woke up for us, and helped us save it.”
“Yes, I thought you had the power, but wasn’t be sure until today. I’ve been telling you about all these traditions for a reason, girl. It’s not because I like the sound of my own voice.”
“Uncle, I thought it was all just stories.”
“Yes, but stories have power and the old stories have plenty still left,” he explained, but Sam didn’t really understand, not yet. “You have a long way to go, but don’t try to get there too quick. We’ll have to stay out here for some time, so you won’t be able to go see your Mum in town for a while. And don’t worry yourself about her being locked up; they’ll have already let them out.”
“Uncle, I’ve been thinking, won’t the mining company just come back with bigger machines?” Sam asked, still worried about it all.
“It’s possible, I suppose, but after today I doubt that very much.” He was still calm, always calm, and Sam felt it wash over her.
“There’s still something that worries me though,” Sam said softly, starting to drift back to sleep. “One of the family betrayed us, sold us out in the first place. They took money from the mining company and started this whole thing.”
The old man chuckled. “You don’t need to worry too much about that, missy. I was the one who negotiated with Wood.”