By Nardi SimpsonIndigenous WritingHachette Australia

Song of the Crocodile

Darnmoor, The Gateway to Happiness. The sign taunts a fool into feeling some sense of achievement, some kind of end – that you have reached a destination in the very least. Yet as the sign states, Darnmoor is merely a gateway, a waypoint on the road to where you really want to be. Darnmoor is the home of the Billymil family, three generations who have lived in this 'gateway town'. Race relations between Indigenous and settler families are fraught, though the rigid status quo is upheld through threats and soft power rather than the overt violence of yesteryear.

As progress marches forwards, Darnmoor and its surrounds undergo rapid social and environmental changes, but as some things change, some stay exactly the same. The Billymil family are watched (and sometimes visited) by ancestral spirits and spirits of the recently deceased, who look out for their descendants and attempt to help them on the right path.

When the town's secrets start to be uncovered the town will be rocked by a violent act that forever shatters a century of silence.

Full of music, Yuwaalaraay language and exquisite description, Song of the Crocodile is a lament to choice and change, and the unyielding land that sustains us all, if only we could listen to it.

Portrait of Nardi Simpson

Nardi Simpson

Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay writer, musician, composer and educator from North West NSW freshwater plains. A founding member of Indigenous folk duo Stiff Gins, Nardi has been performing nationally and internationally for 20 years. Her debut novel, Song of the Crocodile, was a 2018 winner of a black&write! writing fellowship.

Judges’ report

Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile is a powerful and haunting multigenerational story of the Billymil family. Simpson shows the brutal histories of colonisation and their effect on the lives of Indigenous people through careful storying of the characters. Their story is one which mirrors many other Indigenous family lives, and here Simpson captures with tremendous tenderness the resilience, strength and love of Indigenous families and community.

Extract

The sign at the entrance of town is neither informative nor welcoming. To see it emerge, crystallise from the heat of the horizon, is to have travelled a measureless distance over infinite time.

The journey always begins prettily. The glory of a new dawn shines light around bends of peaceful ranges, pink and orange dazzling as it rises, warming your back, sending you on your way. Curves of rock sway then twist and you dance on hips and belly, shoulders and neck of the sleeping mountain-woman beneath. As you continue, a ridge line crests then opens. You tiptoe along it, tyres tickling her spine until a steep descent to cleared, encouraged green opens into paddock and field, the land at her base rocky and rich, both signs of fortune and luck.

Knife-sharp ranges and distant hills beckon. You continue towards them until eventually they dissolve into hints of ripple and crease. Finally, you hit the flat. And scrub. And flat and scrub it continues to be – bland and harsh and unforgiving. Wide. Bare earth, spare space, forgotten land. Black dirt meets red earth and turns metal hard. Hot springs and dried lakes hide motionless, waiting for reason to wake and flow. But this you cannot see; the scrub hides her secrets well.

You travel on and on, and on further still, numbed by endless coolabahs and tufts of grass and itchy blue blanket sky. Only when boredom, exhaustion and blindness take hold does life rise from the plains: a sign. Darnmoor, The Gateway to Happiness. The sign taunts a fool into feeling some sense of achievement, that you have reached a destination at the very least. Yet, as the sign states, Darnmoor is merely the measure, a mark – a point on the road where you begin to move closer to the place you really want to be. Darnmoor itself is nothing.

The town is a hash of ordered streets and neat houses, each home toeing a line of drab grey concrete, lawns folding out towards flower-beds and vines. Rhododendron, agapanthus, lily of the valley and bougainvillea grow in perverse abundance. Tomatoes and roses wilt in the shade of the stubborn citrus trees that grow against the wooden or weatherboard or cement-sheeted homes, only ever cream or dirty butter or stone blue in colour. Huddling close, these squares line the way to the singularly important Grace Street, the sole route to, from and through the gateway.

The petrol station heralds the commercial beginnings of the town. Next to it stands Filtch’s Fishing and Farming supplies and then the National, a picture theatre-cum-meeting space. A happy coincidence sees the Great Inland Bank next to Darnmoor’s oldest building, the Colonial Public House and Bar. And it is here that the town offers up its most prominent crossroads – the first of its many internal divides. On the eastern side of the intersection are a ladieswear, butcher shop and the quaintly rendered white facade of the Darnmoor Country Women’s Collective. Next to this is Lehmann’s General Store, an establishment from which you can purchase almost anything you should need on the dirt-dry plains. All in all, it is a satisfactory strip, this side of the street; inoffensive, modest and calm.

Across the road is Hartford’s Grocery. Beside, the paper shop, barber and chemist pour into Antonio’s milk bar, cool, dark and low-ceilinged, its counter running the entire length of its side. Antonio’s smells perpetually of sugar and malt, an aroma that in searing heat curdles and becomes rancid.

Most of Darnmoor’s residents orientate themselves by their proximity to the town centre, and specifically to a notable structure therein. Plunged into the middle of the intersection of Hope and Grace is a statue, a grey pillar encased in a roundabout that marks the town’s pure centre. Etched upon polished granite are perfectly spaced rows of alphabetised names, the letters of which beam outwards and into the street. Above this a column holds aloft a single, marble figure. A soldier, whitewashed, stands at attention, rifle resting at his side as he peers directly down the length of Grace Street, past Darnmoor and towards the far-off northern horizon. This monument bears the names of Darnmoor’s fallen sons. It bestows upon the town a bleeding and dead centre, around which all else revolves.

Cerulean envelops the soldier. It hangs over the streets and streams down upon the town. Its luminescence is blinding. As vast and taut as the ground below, the firmament above is deep. It pushes back into eternity while silently projecting the light of a single, solitary day. If the expanse possessed a seam and the stitching was punctured and torn, it would only reveal an identical coat of piercing blue.

A wild bush track snakes away from the town’s eastern edge and winds its way into the scrub. Here seemed a perfect place to establish a dumping ground – an already flattened and cleared patch of dirt with an established track to and from. Strangely scratched gums were bulldozed for further access and the garbage mounds quickly grew, the stone framed circles of the old bora grounds consumed by rubbish, junk and the towns scraps.

The pathway to the tip was given the name of Old Black Road.

A natural progression past the end of the road will lead you into the bush, eventually hitting the banks of the great Mangamanga. Hemmed by thousand-year-old river red gums, the Mangamanga River is known by some as the wide-bodied, liquid boss of the plains. A sweet watered sister flow, Malugali, ran to Darnmoor’s north, the two watercourses joining in a quiet patch of dirt, to the north-east of town. A mile upstream of Managamanga a settlement scrabbles a living, appearing at the end of a remnant cluster of purple potato flowers. The Campgrounds lean lopsided along the river’s edge, at the end of Old Black Road and within walking distance of the tip, the odour emanating from the ceremony grounds revealing the true gateway and the darker edge of town.

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