Autumn 2011 #8
Like the Crucifixion, Paddy’s story is a sad and ugly tale, and one with unexpected beauty.
One year ago I celebrated Easter in the crisp of dawn on a remote community in the western reaches of Central Australia. As we gathered in a bough shed to remember the power of resurrection; tiny, hopeful drops of rain fell through the pale gold of sunrise, and the wonderful voices of Aboriginal women sang Ngaanyatjarra songs of faith and grace.
During Easter week I had spent several evenings with a good friend; a gifted raconteur, a man of humour and wisdom, and a leader in the aboriginal community and church. As on other occasions, I listened in rapt attention to tales curious and profound; my friend’s wife always by his side to prompt him gently back to the middle ground when the tales grew too curious or too profound! Each night’s rich discussion would conclude with reading and prayer. On one evening he shared the tale of Paddy Holland, an aboriginal man I had known in the early ‘80s when I was living and working on this same outback community. I was in my late teens and Paddy was one of our regular customers in the Community Store. He was a character, to say the least; a wily, larrikin sort of bloke. I always felt there might have been some serious steel beneath the glint in his gradually ageing eyes; that his joking ways may have had a sterner edge in years gone by. The story held that Paddy had been arrested long ago for an unknown offence; major, trifling or imagined. Paddy was shackled in neck irons, and forced by a mounted Police Constable and his Black Tracker to walk several hundred miles to holding cells and magistrates in the mining towns down south.
This was a long, long time ago; and between my friend’s recounting and a little reading I have pieced together a glimpse of the horrors of a forced march through the Great Victoria Desert. Constables were paid a very basic salary, supplemented by a living allowance from which prisoners were fed. For the constable there was an obvious advantage in chaining together as many captives as he could, maybe a dozen or more, as there was a handsome profit to be made from the allowance that was paid per head. And once he bagged his dozen he stood to capitalise further still by taking his time on the return journey. If he took a detour, wandered around the sand country for a month or two while his investment matured, nobody would any be the wiser … if those in authority actually cared in the first place.
My friend is wonderfully animated, but this tragedy was nearly beyond his scope. He mimicked the constable on horseback; parodied the strange-tongued black tracker; and pulled exaggerated and hopeless grimaces to introduce each of the aboriginal prisoners. Tears began to course freely down his dark and lined face and his eyes grew impossibly wide in horror. He seemed to be walking once again in irons with his people.
It was not, you see, in the constable’s best interest to let his captives catch bush tucker. These lean and wiry folk lived well on goanna, witchetty grub, and the odd kangaroo when times were good. But the cheapest and safest solution for the constable was sugary black tea and damper, week in and week out. Stomachs finely tuned to the feast and famine of nomadic life soon protested the white man’s muck; and chronic diarrhoea became a permanent link in the chain gang. Tribal Aboriginal people were unembarrassed by nakedness, but like people the world over were discreet with life’s functions. My friend portrayed this scene in a manner I will never forget, and can never repeat. Men and women chained together night and day, forced into degradation that breached and annihilated the last scrap of dignity. The notion beggars description, and I find it horrendously confronting to think that all this happened to a man whom I had known.
Pain is the most subjective of experiences. A minor ailment can sometimes be as difficult to manage as a major one, but my own sense is that illness, disability, material loss, and physical pain – trying though they are – come nowhere near the soul-crushing agony of suffering at the hand of a fellow human being. Although I have felt little of it in my own life, of this I am sure: be it hatred, injustice or simple indifference, man’s inhumanity to man is the chief among torments.
The beauty of this story comes years later, and is embodied in its teller. My friend was speaking of his own uncle, and his sense of injustice and outrage were absolutely real. Yet he bears no animosity whatever against the white-man perpetrators of this crime. He forgives them, because he knows that he too is a forgiven man. He told me this truth with tears in his eyes and a hand raised to heaven. This is grace.
I have been reading John’s Gospel over Easter. In four days I have scarcely covered one chapter, running aground on verse 38 with Christ’s first words, “What do you want?” Why would the One “who was with God, and who was God, and through whom all things were made” ask that? I cannot begin to record the dreadful answers that simple question has dredged from the depths of my soul this weekend. But there is one thing I do long for, the chief among gifts, and this is grace.
Dedicated to David; a man of wisdom, humour, faith and grace; who left this world today.
(Footnote: My own western mind has wondered about the dates and details of this story; and if you are reading this and share the privilege of having lived in the Western Desert you may wonder also. I resisted the temptation to consult with people who could perhaps have shed historical light on the story; and I have simply told just as I heard).