STRANGE SENSEI © Julie Boyd
‘Have you ever tasted mutton bird?’ Jodie asked.
‘No, I haven’t,’ I replied.
‘Ah you’re in for a treat. Aunty Rose has a special recipe,’ Rae chimed in as she packed food into a basket. ‘By the way, I need to come and smoke your house. There is an old man spirit who needs to go over, and a little girl. I saw them again in the library just before. We’d better get going. We just have to go past the airport and collect Auntie Rose. She’s coming down with us.’
‘No problem, if you’re ready, let’s go.’ I’d become used to Rae’s conversational leaps.
We were heading down to a special ceremony. A piece of land was being handed back to the Aboriginal people and my friends had invited me as a special guest. This was an honour as I was the only non-aboriginal person to be there. I’d organised an exchange with women from the Tiwi Islands only months before where they had all been amazed at the similarities between their necklace and basket making. We’d had an exhibition of their art called Nuini, not long before that had been terrifically successful and formed the basis of a new unit at the University as well as a new gallery for indigenous art.
‘Don’t forget we have to stop off at George’s and collect the mutton birds for the barbeque,’ Jodie reminded me as the three of us climbed into the car.
We arrived at the small rural airport and waited patiently at the edge of the tarmac – the plane was late of course.
I stood back a little. I often stand a little apart when I’m with my aboriginal friends. It just feels right somehow and in this case they were greeting a respected elder.
As the passengers deplaned we noticed a couple who stood out. An older Japanese lady in what looked like an unusual traditional dress – a type of kimono but different to what I’d seen before. This looked as if it was made of rough hessian, not the expected silk. The teenage girl with her was a culture bridge in jeans and a tee shirt.
As they came closer, the older lady looked up and broke into a shuffling run. Her eyes lit up and she made a bee-line directly for Rae talking excitedly in a dialect no one recognised. She grasped Rae’s hands and chattered animatedly, bowing deeply and constantly. Rae looked totally bemused and more than a little nervous. The young girl caught up and explained in perfect English ‘My grandmother had a premonition many years ago that she had to come and be here today to meet you. She has spent all of her savings to bring the two of us as she can only speak her own language and she needed me to tell you that she has to do a ceremony to make an apology to the Australian people for the war.’
Rae was speechless. Her bemusement turned to shock.
I asked ‘Why did she feel she had to come, and where is she from?’
‘She needed to come and meet some people here. They are having a celebration this weekend and she has a gift for them.’
‘And why did she come to Rae?’
‘She is the person she had to meet. My Grandmother knew she would be met at the airport by a special person. This is the first time she has ever been on a plane.’
‘And she came all of this way? She must be exhausted.’
‘No. She feels that her life purpose will be complete once she provides this gift of this apology.’
Fortunately I had a car large enough to carry all of us. It was a strange pilgrimage that two hour trip. Collecting the mutton birds caused the old lady to again go into paroxysms of excitement.
‘The mutton birds come to her island each year. They told her to come to Tasmania,’ her granddaughter explained.
We passed though Hobart with barely a nod. My passengers were all anxious to reach the site and didn’t want to stop at all. Another hour south the old lady became animated again and Rae instructed ‘Turn off here.’
I wondered with some trepidation whether my car would make it unscathed along what was clearly a four wheel drive track. As we bumped through some serious potholes, the Japanese lady pointed to trees and animals and chattered quietly to her granddaughter, nodding and smiling contentedly.
‘She says this is the place;’ the young girl said. ‘She will need somewhere to make her gift.’
Once we arrived the old lady headed straight to a spot beside a billabong. We asked if she needed any assistance. She thanked us with the deepest bow and a smile and asked to be left alone. Rae set off to prepare a space for her ceremony. and Jodie and I unpacked the food.
The two women worked, each oblivious to the other, sheltered from each other’s gaze by a small stand of bushes. I stood back and watched, trying not to stare but gob-smacked at the rituals they undertook. The preparations they made were almost identical – same fire-pit, same implements, same plants, same mutton birds, same purpose.
Astonishing. I’ve not experienced anything like this before or since. Neither had they.
The old woman was Ainu, from an island in Japan called Hokkaido. One devoted entirely to the ancient indigenous population which we, in our ignorance, didn’t even know existed. My son now lives there, he moved from Tasmania because he said that Hokkaido reminded him so much of Tassie. From conversations we determined that the mutton birds made annual pilgrimages from the spot where these celebrations were to occur, to her island. She knew she had to come to this place, at this time, and bring an apology to the Australian people for the wrongs done to their relatives during the war, and also for the wrongs inflicted generally on the Aboriginal people. She had saved her entire life for this one trip.
The ceremonies started and again it was like watching stereo vision. The old lady and Rae, on opposite sides of the lagoon and totally oblivious to each other, moved in the same dances, sang the same tunes and sat in the same way to meditate. Not a word was spoken by anyone who was watching. Even the children were mesmerised by what they were seeing.
An hour passed and the ceremony finished. Both Rae and the old lady seemed spent as they each sank to the ground. The mutton birds were cooked so we all moved respectfully away to let the women recover, and to make final preparations to start the feast. After about fifteen minutes I asked ‘Jodie, would you like to go and see if the old lady and Rae need any help, and bring them back up here to eat.’
Five minutes later she came racing back with Rae in tow.
‘Where’s she gone? We can’t find them anywhere.’ Everyone downed tools and we all searched. We were concerned that maybe the old lady had wandered off into the bush and might have fallen, but there was nothing. Even the trackers were bemused.
To this day we have no idea where they went, how they got back to the airport, who took them, and we have no evidence she existed. Auntie Rose’s unconcerned explanation was ‘She turned back into a mutton bird and flew home.’