This story comes from “Life Sentence”, my fourth novel currently nearing completion. It depicts the thoughts of a wayijbala (whitefella), born and raised in Yindjibarndi country south of Roebourne, on a striking difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures about mothers. It occurs in 1899 on the journey being made overland following an escape from Rottnest to the Fortescue Valley and Manggurdu, the name given by the Yindjibarndi to the Fortescue River. Biyuluyurra is the name of a fictitious cattle station near Manggurdu using two Yindjibarndi words which, by English interpretation, can be used to say “yellow sun”.

Duncan knew they were close to Carnarvon. They’d managed to keep near his nine-day schedule for the journey. And while it was still a long way to Biyuluyurra, he knew home was getting closer, made clear in so many ways.

The sunshine since Northampton had caressed and sharpened his and the blackfellas’ senses, and the blackfellas’ excitement seemed to grow with each day they moved north. He could see it in their eyes and their behaviours. During the day, unless on horseback, they’d reverted to traditional body-covering, making it themselves and leaving wayijbala clothes on the wagon.

And he knew their excitement was more about connection to country than sunshine. While he, like them, loved the place of his birth and nurture, his connection was different. They saw country as their mother. They’d come from her and would one day return to her: an umbilical connection that was never severed. His connection to a mother was his birth mother: a deep and loving connection, but not umbilical. Severance from her was part of wayijbala upbringing: a search for independence and identity. Blackfellas, born into and raised through an environment of interdependence, already knew their identity and role. There was no need to search further.

Duncan’s connection to country was different. His wasn’t born in him as it was with the blackfellas. His had been nurtured over time and from the different smells of the country in the ‘wet’ and ‘dry’. He’d found it by cooling himself from exhausting heat in creeks and rivers, when they flowed, or digging river sand for water to survive when they didn’t. It had permeated his being when he freely walked or rode the terrain if or where he chose. He’d felt it when gentle easterly breezes in the ‘dry’ caressed his face or fiery winds scorched and crinkled his skin in the ‘wet’. And he’d always drawn energy from the terrain and the sanctity of the burgundy hills, gorges and stark red cliffs that were custodians of his home, and protectors of Margie and their child where they lay sleeping, holding each other for eternity.

He knew Charles, Georgie and Joey would never understand the depth of those different connections to country. They’d grumbled a lot since the Murchison about the ‘boring’ terrain: flat, stony country, occasional low red hills and small shrubs and bushes, except when gum trees indicated water courses. And the constant sight of dry, prickly spinifex bemused them.

He’d often point to the plethora of grass sprouting after recent rains to demonstrate the fertility of the soil. He’d tried to explain the special nature of the land to get them to see more than flat redness. But when he did, they’d laugh or complain about sweating by day and shivering by night.

“Wait till we get near Buyuluyurra,” he’d always smile. “Then you’ll see things you’ve never imagined.”

He accepted that each of them would have a connection: Charles and Georgie to land and Joey to the ocean, but knew he’d never be able to explain the depth of his or the blackfellas’ connection to their place, any better than Joey could explain his to the ocean.