Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane - Read Online
Purple Threads
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Summary

Winner of the 2010 David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writing, Purple Threads is a humorous collection of rural yarns by a gifted storyteller. Jeanine Leane grew up on a sheep farm near Gundagai, and the stories are based on her childhood experiences in a house full of fiercely independent women. In between Aunty Boo's surveillance of the local farmers' sheep dip alliance and Aunty Bubby's fireside tales of the Punic Wars, the women offer sage advice to their nieces on growing up as Indigenous girls in a white country town. The cast of strong Aboriginal women in a rural setting gives a fascinating insight into both Aboriginal and rural life. Farming is not an easy pursuit for anyone, but the Aunties take all the challenges in their stride, facing torrential rain, violent neighbours and injured dogs with an equal mix of humour and courage.
Published: University of Queensland Press an imprint of Independent Publishers Group on
ISBN: 9780702246654
List price: $12.99
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Purple Threads - Jeanine Leane

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Jeanine Leane is a Wiradjuri woman from south-west New South Wales. A PhD in literature and Aboriginal representation followed a long teaching career, and she is currently Indigenous Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra. Purple Threads is Jeanine’s first book.

RECENT DAVID UNAIPON AWARD WINNERS PUBLISHED BY UQP

Skin Painting by Elizabeth Hodgson

Me, Antman & Fleabag by Gayle Kennedy

Anonymous Premonition by Yvette Holt

Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch

Whispers of this Wik Woman by Fiona Doyle

Home by Larissa Behrendt

Every Secret Thing by Marie Munkara

The Boundary by Nicole Watson

For the women who raised and encouraged my sister and me,

and for Peter, Jerome, Eugene and Hugo – the purple threads in my life.

Contents

Women and dogs in a working man’s paradise

God’s flock

Waiting for Petal

Lilies of the field

Coming home

Marching with Hannibal

Purple threads

Lying dogs

Land grab

The National Sheep Dip Alliance Party

Epilogue – Country turns

Acknowledgments

About the David Unaipon Award

Imprint page

Women and dogs in a working man’s paradise

‘Bloody gammon ya know, girl!’ Aunty Boo would always say. ‘Bloody farmer, stupid the whole damn lot of ’em.’

She said this every day as I walked the winter hills with her looking for dead or injured sheep. She’d have to be well out of earshot of Nan before she started swearing and calling people stupid. Even though Aunty Boo was a big girl, well into her fifties when I was little, Nan would still jar any of us for swearing and calling people stupid. Nan said no one was stupid. Just different, that’s all.

She was raised a Christian, our Nan, and always said it was best to keep up the act in public. She married a Protestant settler who took her out of domestic service. Aunty Boo reckoned he was a slavedriver who had a big mob of kids to do all the work for him. Nan said she couldn’t have expected any better coming from her station in life and, being a Christian, she said marriage was for better or worse.

Aunty Boo wasn’t anyone’s Christian, especially when she was up on that hill. She said all marriage was for the worse. She stayed single for ninety-six years, just to prove it.

‘Men are like snakes on legs, girl,’ she said as she clipped the wool from the dead wether’s belly with old hand shears. ‘Ya can’t trust ’em! They all cold-blooded. An’ ya can’t bloody train ’em either.’

Nan always said the world is all about men and women and their babies. That’s how things go on. But Aunty Boo had different ideas.

‘All this world needs, girl, is women an’ dogs an’ kids. A good dog, girl, worth all the men in the world rolled into one,’ was her motto.

Course we were always out on the hill when she said all this. We always had a good dog or two with us. The Aunties and Nan had a habit of taking in homeless and injured animals. They usually managed to make them better and then they kept them.

‘Bloody wasteful, them farmers.’

Aunty Boo would heave as she clipped the last bit of wool from the dead wether. I’d always groan then because I knew what was coming next.

‘Now, girl, get that shovel off the wheelbarra. Give this poor thing a decent burial.’

If the rains fail the dirt is bloody hard and unforgiving around Gundagai, even in winter. The town had been built three times. The first two times the settlers ignored the advice of the Wiradjuri people and built on the river flats. It was washed away twice. Now Gundagai huddled on the side of the Muniong Range and boasted of having three songs written about it, the longest wooden bridge in the world – the Prince Alfred that spanned the river between north and south Gundagai – and a famous monument to the working man’s paradise, the Dog on the Tuckerbox.

Sometimes the floods were so mighty that they peaked at the top of the Prince Alfred. When the waters subsided, the carcasses of drowned stock hung high from the bridge poles and gum trees on the flat below. Missing persons reports were high. A car swept off the road near Gundagai could be carried some fifty odd miles all the way downstream to Wagga Wagga. But the big floods didn’t happen much any more. Nan said the country was drying up.

‘Bloody bastards,’ Aunty Boo would puff through gappy teeth as she dug. ‘Look what they done to this ground, girl! Should be black an’ beautiful jus’ like ya could eat it! An’ look, girl. Jus’ look at it . . . tired an’ brown, what’s left of it.’

Sometimes it could take us ages to bury a sheep. On a summer’s day, the tired ground was like concrete. Digging a grave deep enough to stop the dead sheep being molested by crows or eaten by foxes was slow going. In winter, we would often be sinking in mud up to our ankles and the wet dirt weighed a ton. But there was no point complaining.

‘Poor fella deserves a decent burial afta all he’s done fer the bloody farmers,’ was always Aunty’s standard response.

I liked it better when we found the injured ones or the baby lambs with no mothers because then we just put them in the wheelbarrow and took them home to Nan and Aunty Bubby.

Nan and Aunty Bubby didn’t swear as much as Aunty Boo. Aunty Bubby read English romantic novels and she would have gotten married if it weren’t for the accident. When I wasn’t with Aunty Boo, Aunty Bubby used to teach me how to read, cook, sew and be a good housekeeper. She thought it would be nice for me to marry a good man, preferably rich, have a big house and raise a family like the lucky heroines in the books she read.

‘Ya know, girl,’ Aunty Bubby once said, ‘quickest way to a man’s heart is with good food an’ a clean house.’

Later on, when we were up on the hill, Aunty Boo said, ‘Quicker way to a man’s heart is straight through his chest with a bloody big spear!’

We’d walk all the way to the top of the big hill, pulling the wool off dead sheep to make jumpers and blankets, and picking up the survivors for our pets and friends. Aunty Boo would pull the tufts of wool off the barbed-wire fences that separated our tiny block from the other farms. Nan and Aunty Bubby spun the wool by the fire on winter nights, dyed it all sorts of pretty colours and knitted jumpers, cardigans, scarves, hats and baby clothes to be sold at various farmers’ markets around the Riverina.

One day, one of the farmers came by our place and asked the Aunties and Nan if they wanted some of their sheep slaughtered to eat. Aunty Bubby was polite.

‘No thanks!’

Aunty Boo wasn’t.

‘What the hell d’ya think we are, killin’ an’ eatin’ our friends?’ she asked. ‘Hey? Bloody cannibals or something?’

The man shook his head and drove away on his tractor. Nan jarred Aunty Boo for swearing.

‘That bloody man made me do it,’ she huffed.

Nan shook a gnarled finger. ‘Ya jus’ learn ta hold ya tongue in public.’

Aunty Boo never back-chatted Nan.

When we got to the top of the hill that looked out over the Dog on the Tuckerbox, I’d always get the spiel.

‘Look at that poor little fella down there, Sunny-girl,’ she’d say as we overlooked the monument. ‘Stuck behind that bloody fence day in day out mindin’ his master’s tucker. Always gotta be lookin’ afta man’s belly. Ya know, girl, a dog could be man’s best friend but they ain’t worthy. Stead they like the company o’ women an’ kids.’

‘The dog’s not real, Aunty, and he probably don’t care,’ I once made the mistake of saying.

That made her real wild.

‘Hey girl, I’ve ’ad a bloody gutful o’ men tellin’ me what I should think an’ what I should be grateful for. Ya dunno what that poor little fella been thinkin’ for all these years. Prob’ly ’ad a gutful too.’ She sighed. ‘Ya know why they built that dog fence, donchya?’

‘Yeah, Aunty.’ How couldn’t I? Heard it nearly every day.

‘Why then, come an’ tell me?’

‘To stop all them workin’ men crashing into their own monument.’

‘Yeah, ta stop all them charged-up workin’ men killin’ ’emselves while he’s mindin’ their tucker. Dog’s a monument ta patience an’ loyalty. Fence is a monument to ’is stupid bloody master who can’t stay on the straight an’ narrow. Dog’s the real hero here, girl. Donchya forget it!’

And I never did.

We could walk home then and talk about other things, like the flowers that grew beneath the overhangs of granite untouched by the farmers. Our wheelbarrow was always full of lucky lambs and our bags packed with dead wool, all gleaned by women in a working man’s paradise.

God’s flock

When I was only about five, and my sister Star was only three, before we had to go to school, which was worse, we had to go to Sunday school. We hated it. Reverend Stone was so hard-faced. He had no sense of humour. He confused my sister and me endlessly with all his talk about heaven and hell and angels and devils and talking snakes and apples and altars and saints and miracles and eternal life in the hereafter, which scared us because it meant death first. It didn’t make sense that you had to die to keep living and go somewhere else. Why not just stay here and keep living?

The Reverend confused us most about sheep. He was always raving on about flocks and shepherds and separating sheep from goats and God’s flock and sacrificial lambs. But despite this obsession, really he seemed to know nothing about sheep. It wasn’t just us who were confused. Most of the other ten or so kids who gathered in the tiny St Matthew’s church on the edge of town were the sons and daughters of local sheep farmers or farm workers or kids from the old mission, which was now meant to be part of town. He didn’t make much sense to them either. Once when he was rattling on about sheep and lambs and showing us pictures of Jesus, the good shepherd with crook and cloak and sandals and a tiny mob of sheep and not a dog in sight, Roddy Willis interrupted with what was a very good question.

‘Excuse me, Reverend.’ He puffed out his six-year-old chest. ‘Where does God’s son keep all his rams?’

The Reverend’s brows knitted in confusion.

‘What, son?’

‘I mean . . .’ Roddy boomed, wide-eyed, ‘all them pictures you been showing us are all ewes an’ lambs walkin’ round in the desert. There ain’t one single ram to be seen but he must have one at least coz there’s plenty of lambs. So where are they an’ how come they never get in the Bible?’

Some of the older children began wriggling and giggling on the hard church pews. Star and I bowed our heads and stared at the floor to hide our smirks. Reverend Stone clicked his tongue loudly and shook his head in vehement disapproval.

‘Now listen, children!’ he boomed. The tittering stopped. ‘There’ll be no laughing at the word and images of the Lord. It is impertinent. Highly disrespectful. It would be a great disappointment to me to have to inform your good parents that their children were naughty, especially in the house of God.’

Some of the children blushed and cringed. I continued to stare at the floor to avoid the Reverend’s accusing eye.

‘This picture, Roddy,’ he continued, now satisfied that we were appropriately terrified, ‘is not really about sheep.’ He paused and surveyed twelve blank faces. ‘The sheep that Jesus is taking care of here are Christians, just like you and your families. We are all God’s sheep and, like sheep, we all stray from the flock and lose our way. But Jesus, if we pray to him, will find all the lost sheep and return them to the fold, even the black sheep that no one else wants or loves.’

At least this bit made sense to us. Apart from Jesus, we didn’t know any other sheep farmer who loved black sheep. Most hated them, in fact. That’s why every year my