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How Blue Heron Brings in the Tide

Blue Heron by James Audubon

James Audubon

It was the time to gather the eggs of the geese that were nesting in the swamp. When Muradja, the headman, lit a fire and made smoke signals on the plain, hundreds of men, women, and children came streaming in from the hunting grounds. Everyone enjoyed the goose-egg gathering, for they knew they would soon have full bellies and a supply of eggs to trade with more distant tribes.

Coolamons and bags would be overflowing when the gathering was over, and every morning and evening the cooking fires on the edge of the swamp would send tall columns of smoke into the still air. The smell of cooking would make their nostrils quiver, and after the feasting was over there would be games and singing and dancing while the elders sat in their solemn councils and looked tolerantly at the pranks of the young people.

And so, as had happened more times than the memory of the oldest man could recall, the geese provided food and prosperity for the tribes, and Muradja was satisfied with the egg gathering.

The eggs were examined carefully each night while the elders debated whether the chicks were forming. That would be a sign that the egg-laying season was nearing its end, the time when children and young people would be told that they must eat no more. After that the eggs would be reserved for the elders.

‘This is the day,’ Muradja announced at last. ‘You have fed well, as I can see from your sleek bellies. Soon we will be returning to our own hunting grounds. You may take your surplus supplies with you for trading, but no longer may you eat the goose eggs. You will find a few of them left in the nests. Bring them to the council and go in peace.’

That night Windjedda, the son of Muradja, argued with his father. He was a bold youth, spoiled by too much attention from the women. He was not a man, for his initiation into the ranks of the men still lay in the future.

‘Why?’ he asked his father. ‘Why should we not eat while the eggs remain?’

‘If we ate them all there would be no geese next year, and that would mean no eggs,’ Muradja replied gently.

‘But you eat them—you and the old men.’

‘It is a privilege that the years have brought to us, my son. Some day you may be head man of the egg-gathering, and it will be your privilege too.’

‘I don’t see why I shouldn’t have them now. It won’t matter if no one else knows. My belly is not full yet.’

‘You are a foolish boy,’ his father reproved him. ‘When you are ready for your testing you will learn that appetite is the first thing you must control. If you can’t do that you will never learn to control pain and fear, and until that time comes you will not be a man.’

‘I do not fear pain,’ Windjedda boasted.

‘We’ll put it to the test now,’ his father said quietly, ‘unless you stop talking and let me go to sleep. I said you were a foolish boy, and every word you speak confirms my thought. If you ate any more eggs after the council had forbidden it, they would turn to poison in your belly and you would die.’

Windjedda knew that he had gone far enough. He lay down by the fire, but in the flickering firelight he grinned at the thought that his father expected him to believe such nonsense. He knew that it was all an old man’s tale, made up so that they could eat as much as they liked. Making plans to outwit them, he fell asleep with the smile still on his face.

The next morning, when the men had left to hunt wallabies, or to fish, he stepped out of the swamp reeds where he had been hiding. Looking round to see that he was not observed, he stole over to the fire where an old woman was cooking eggs for the council.

‘Give me one of the eggs,’ Windjedda demanded. The old woman looked at him in astonishment. ‘You heard what your father said yesterday, Windjedda. There are no more eggs for you, or me, or anyone except the elders.’

‘Give me that one,’ he repeated, pointing at the largest egg. ‘I am hungry. No one will know.’

The old woman brandished her stick at him. ‘You are an evil boy. I will not let you break our tribal customs.’

Windjedda snatched up a fresh egg and broke it over his head. With the contents of the egg running down his face, he hurried to the beach where Muradja was spearing fish and cried, ‘Look what the old woman has done to me! Do you allow this to happen to your son?’

The headman was angry at the insult offered to his son. If he had paused to consider the matter he would have realised that Windjedda was not to be trusted. In that case he would have called a council meeting, and the truth would have been discovered. Anger distorts a man’s judgment, and so it was with Muradja.

Muttering spells, he ran up the beach, jabbing the air with his spear, followed closely by the delighted Windjedda. At his feet the tide gurgled and raced over the sand. It did not stop at the high tide mark. It sped over the dry land, lapped at the sand hills, turning them into islands, and raced through the scrub towards the big encampment. The fires steamed momentarily until they were quenched by the flood waters.

The women and children ran to a big banyan tree and climbed up it, but the water rose until the tree was covered, and they were washed away and drowned. The fishermen and hunters met the same fate. Only Muradja and Windjedda escaped. They were transformed into Blue Herons, the birds which run before the advancing tide on the shores of the Timor Sea to this very day.

A.W. Reed, Aboriginal Fables & Legendary Tales (Aboriginal Library)


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