Blak Brow: ‘Longbum’ by Eugenia Flynn

Photo by Rae Allen. Reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

To celebrate the release of Issue 40: Blak Brow, we are sharing some of our favourite pieces from the issue. Today: Eugenia Flynn's short story, ‘Longbum’.

The grey mud creeps up my calves as I pick my way through the mangroves. Barefoot, the thick wetness moves between my toes, suctioning, slowing my movements down, and my thighs sting a little from the walk in the mangroves, something my body isn’t used to. I pause for breath, look over to my sister and see she is concentrating on the ground, walking on a drier bit of the mangrove floor, harder and more solid. She bends down and with a soft cry, picks up a crab and chucks him into the white plastic tub she is holding.

I look back down at the ground and see the conical shell of a longbum glistening against the grey mud. My mouth waters a little as I think of the feast we’ll have later. I pick it up and add it to the collection I’ve already gathered. I’m done, I’m going back to the car. Okay, I’ll be there in a sec.

Back at the holiday house we jump out of our borrowed troopie and hose off the mud from our feet before we head inside. When I emerge from the shower, all fresh and clean, sister already has the pot boiling and the wok is heating on the stove, chilli and garlic at the ready. I put the longbums in water. We can leave them over night and take them out with us tomorrow. I get some rice on to cook and lie down on the couch, stomach growling.

Later, we sit outside on the deck with family, a very slight breeze wafting around the stilts propping up the house. We pick at the insides of the crab, sucking at the fresh chilli sauce that coats the shell, mopping it up with clumps of white rice. The sun is setting and I feel a little tug on my heart. Darwin is lovely at this time of year, but I can only associate it with sadness now. You know, we really should have had a pukumani ceremony for him. I turn to sister and speak to her quietly, remind her that we never sorted out Dad’s sorry business beyond the Catholic funeral we had for him. She murmurs a non-committal sound and joins the conversation with cus seated next to her, shifting, turning her body away from me.

I don’t bring up the topic again.

The next morning, I wake up to sister’s terseness. Get up. I want to get there early. I crack jokes and act the clown to get her mind off things. She chuckles at first, then laughs. Next it’s her whole body getting in on the laughter. We jump in the car, light as the morning breeze, cool as the air, before the full heat of the day catches up with us.

We drive with the windows down and the music blaring on our way to Thorak. On the road to Palmerston, we joke it’s the road to Palmerslum and I stare out the passenger side window, feeling the wind whipping the hair around my face and the sun beginning to heat up my chest. The signs of the city move past us, disappearing quickly where the bush picks up; the shrubs we pass get more dense and the trees grow taller the further we go. Here, the bush is greener and greener, and as we drive along I start to feel an extra beat to my heart.

I lean over and turn the music down, then eventually off. We fall silent and I turn to face out the window, breathing in the clean-smelling air and watching the green and black whir past. The wet has swept through here. Last time we came out this way, it was the dry season and the green and black was less evident, the brown more vivid.

We slow right down and in to the gates of Thorak, following the small road that makes its way around the vivid green lawn. I am instantly calmed as I notice how hushed it is, taking a moment to let the quiet of the place wash over me. Sister parks the troopie next to a small opening and we jump down, weave a steady tread between two rows of graves. She reads the lot numbers as we go. Here it is. Dad’s grave is unmarked and I feel a jolt as I realise how stark it is, no same dressing of headstone and flowers as its neighbours. I take a deep breath. Hi Daddy. Another breath. Let’s go find the others first.

We walk slowly through the rows and all of a sudden the silence of the place becomes all I can hear. Here she is. I am relieved once we stop to chat amongst the more elaborate headstones of Thorak, their incense holders and gold-painted Chinese characters listening to our quiet conversation. Aunty’s grave has fresh flowers and the markings of incense ashes, blown away in the breeze. Uncle and the boys must have just been here. We pause for only a few moments. There are more graves to visit.

We do a loop of the cemetery until we find an Uncle’s grave amongst the generations of old Darwin families, now in their final resting places. Then, another Uncle’s here, an Aunty’s over there. We stop where we recognise a name or a photograph, before slowly making our way back. Sister stops at a grave with a photograph at its head. The smiling family look just the same way we do in all our old photos, a blend of East and South-East Asian and Aboriginal features — all wearing a casual look of shorts, t-shirts and thongs.

After a few more rows I reach out a hand and stop sister with a little pull on her elbow. I’m gettin' hungry. We head back to the car and I see that sister is now smiling to herself as she brings out the carefully packed camp stove. I pick up on her changed mood and tease her about how happy she is, now that makan time is close. She laughs and tells me it’s been so long since she had any food like this. Yeah, it’s been way too long.

Back at Dad’s graveside, I put down the longbums and sister sets out the stools she brought for us to sit on. Careful of the other graves. She moves the stools in closer and I head back to the car to get the pot of rice and paper plates. I love cold rice, it’s so much better than hot. Settling down as the longbums cook, sister pulls out a container of fishy, spicy balacan chilli. My mouth itches when I think of how it will sting my mouth and make the longbums hum.

Sitting down, we are side by side facing the green grass in front of us. I see the outline of the grave, a rectangle depression where the soil has sunk in since the burial, but not yet fully grown over with grass. I sneak a look at sister and see that she is looking at the edges too. I think the grass will grow over completely in a few more months. She turns and looks around at the other graves that are smoothed over entirely. Yeah.

Cloud has gathered overhead, cooling the temperature somewhat, but raising the humidity, a last hurrah for the wet season just passed. I shade my eyes with my hand and look up at the sky, see the clouds darkening a little and some birds flitting from tree to tree. I lower my head and lean forward with my elbows on my knees, relax and close my eyes, say a little prayer in to the quietness. Listening closely to the sounds of the bush, I hear the cry of a distant bird and the closeness of my own breath in and out, in and out.

My eyes flutter open with a start; I can’t hear sister amongst the steady murmur. But when I look, she is there, next to me on her stool, staring at the patch of green in front of us. Suddenly, she pushes up on her legs to stand up. Come on. I think the food is ready.

The meal is just as I anticipated. Hot flesh of the longbums made perfect by the sharpness of the balacan, and the cold neutrality of the rice balancing out the intensity. We eat in silence, the clank of the longbum shells and the smacking of our lips the only sounds to accompany the quiet reserve of Thorak. My stomach tightens as I get close to the end of my meal and realise that tomorrow we head back to Adelaide. Back to our busy lives down south, the place where I can pretend none of this sorry business exists. Where I can pretend it never existed.

In my mind I am creating a checklist of all the things I have to do when I get back, the slow splendour of Darwin already beginning to fade away in my mind’s eye. Remind me to get my car serviced when we get back to — sister interrupts me — I think I’ll get in touch with the Tiwis and get the pukumani pole done. I turn and look at her, but she just stares straight ahead at the rectangle in front of us, chewing slowly. I chuck my last emptied shell in to the bucket and scoop the final bit of rice and balacan in to my mouth. Okay. I look at the green grass in front of us and slowly nod my head.

This short story originally appeared in Blak Brow, Issue 40 of The Lifted Brow. Get your copy here.

Eugenia Flynn is a writer, arts worker and community organiser. She writes from her perspective as an Aboriginal (Tiwi and Larrakiah), Chinese Malaysian and Muslim woman.