Initial reports suggested that the skull belonged to a new, unclassified species. The squatter who made the discovery was quoted as saying that “all the natives to whom it was shown called it a bunyip,” the name of a large, carnivorous, water-dwelling creature thought only to exist in Aboriginal mythology.
The skull was put on display at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Two days later however, the exhibition was inexplicably closed.
The skull was never seen again.
Jack woke with a dry throat. It was hot, the walls of the corrugated iron shed already soaked with the day’s sun. His head throbbed. With half open eyes he snatched up the bottle beside him and raised it to his lips. It was empty. The sweet scent of rum still lingered, though offered nothing more than a quiver in his gut. He flung it across the shed, the glass popping to pieces as it struck against the wall. He cursed. He’d have to clean that up before Mr. Young was out of bed. But first, he needed water.
He glanced up at the farmhouse as he walked towards the dam. Mr. Young had been good to the Aboriginals in the area, even extending the offer of paid labour on his land. At the end of each month he would often reward the best worker for their efforts. This time, Jack had taken the prize – a bottle of rum brought back from Mr. Young’s most recent trip to Sydney.
Arriving at the waters edge, Jack dropped to his knees to drink. It was cool and soothing on his throat. He splashed his face, ran wet palms through his hair. It helped. Across the dam, he caught the faint rustle of footsteps in the grass. Whoever was coming was attempting to do so quietly. He took another drink, then lifted his gaze to meet them.
Burnum stood across the water, spear in hand.
“What do you want?”
“I need you to come with me.”
It had been years since Jack had heard the Wiradjuri language. Even coming from Burnum, with his flat tone and stony disposition, it reminded him of home.
“Get out here, you’ll get me into trouble.” He knew how much he hated being spoken to in English.
“It’s Jack. I’m not Jari anymore. You know that.” He bent down to take another drink.
He looked up. “What?”
“You must come. Now.”
Neither of them spoke as they travelled east. Red dirt and singed scrub gave way to greener hills, sparse trees into woodlands. It wasn’t until late afternoon that they finally reached the grave, a tall eucalyptus with an intricately carved trunk. Most of the nearby trees were marked this way, a great deal belonging to those who fell at Bathurst.
“Damn it, Burnum, this is why I left. I told you, I don’t want to see this stuff.”
“Why come then?”
Jack huffed, kneeling down before the tree. “This carving is almost a year old.”
“Good to see you haven’t lost your eye.”
“Why now? You must have known for months that this would get me off the farm.”
“That’s not what this is about.”
“Pay your respects.”
“Just tell – ”
“The man practically raised you, Jari. Pay your respects. Then we’ll talk.”
Later that night, Jack joined Burnum by the fire. It crackled quietly, casting a warm glow across the trunks of the carved trees around them.
“He was a good man.”
Burnum nodded. “He was.”
“How did it happen?”
“Sickness from the white man.”
Jack lowered his gaze.
“Do you remember your father, Jari?”
“My father? No, not really. Most of the time it was just mother and I. After she died, I was always with – ”
“Warrigal told me something, before the end. About your father.”
“Called him Walumarra.”
It was an old word, rarely spoken.
“Do you know what it means, Jari?”
Burnum stroked his chin. “Hmm.”
“He defended his mob. Fought at Bathurst. I already knew that.”
“No. This was different. According to Warrigal, your father was protecting…something else.”
Burnum leaned in closer to the flames.
“Burnum, what did he say?”
“The bunyip, Jari. He said it was the bunyip.”
Jack scoffed. The bunyip was a folk tale, something the elders would tell children to keep them from swimming at the waterhole alone.
“You knew the man as well as I, Jari. He would not speak of such things lightly.”
“Trust me, for a time I had trouble believing it myself.”
“Word came from Sydney. They say the white man found a bunyip skull.”
“What will they do with it?”
“Near the park at the city’s centre, there is a sandstone building that they call the museum. They show it off there, for any who wish to see.”
“So? Why are you telling me this?”
“Your father was Walumarra. I thought that you should know.”
Jack laughed. “What exactly is it that you expect me to do?”
Burnum stoked the fire.
“You can’t be serious.”
The flames burnt brighter.
“If you want it so bad, Burnum, why don’t you go get it?”
“You know I carry too much on my shoulders already. I cannot.”
“Surely there’s others you can send then?”
“None that can hunt like you. None that wear the white man’s clothes.”
“Clothes can be found.”
“None whose father was Walumarra.”
Jack groaned. “Let them have it. It’s just a skull.”
“Just a skull.”
A breeze kicked through the fire, cinders skittering into the smoke.
“I love you like a little brother, Jari. But you’re a damn coward.”
“Too long you’ve hidden away on that farm, wallowing in your ignorance.”
Burnum gestured to the trees around them. “You think this stops when you look the other way?”
“I told you – ”
“I know, you don’t want to see it. You don’t want to hear about it. That’s fine. It’s not my place to stop you casting off your people.”
“But this is different, Jari. This is something old, something sacred. Warrigal himself kept it secret until his dying breath.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“And if I don’t?”
Burnum sighed. “Then the Walumarra is lost.”
The flames waned, lapping softly at the wood.
They sat in silence until dawn. The last of the embers twinkled in the ash.
Jack rose to his feet. “I’m going.”
He patted Burnum’s shoulder as he passed him. “Sydney.”