Mulga Bill Writing Award second place short story 2018

DRESSES OF LIGHT

By Jacqueline Trott

She gently flicked at her hair, pulling it from her face. Trails and curls of desert birds rose to the skies in the breeze. She surveyed the early morning hours silently, the red plains in front of her, flat lines all the way to the horizon. In the corner of her eye she could see the bent back of her sister, inspecting the flowers in the blue pre-dawn. She loved the quietness. Last night, when all the tourists had gone, she undressed to her inky black camisole and hugged her body against the chill of night. Even in summer, the night time sands were icy to the touch.

 

Dawn brought a new clamour and swarms of tiny humans climbing over each other to click-capture their memories. This was the time of day when she would parade her first dress. It reflected the early rays and was the subject of compliments by all who saw her. Her face remained in shadow, but the radiant pink of her morning dress opened mouths and imprinted hearts. She smiled to herself. People were so strange.

 

For the rest of the day, she wore a golden red dress, with tumbles of pleats and folds that fell at the feet of eucalypts. Fresh arrivals of visitors would walk around her in the heat of day, sweating in admiration. She never felt the desert heat. She had lived here a long time, longer than anyone could remember.

 

In the afternoon, her dress pulsed vermillion. A neon sign radiating against a backdrop of muted red-browns and sagging sage greens. She was beautiful. She knew it. She reclined on her elbows towards the end of the day to allow the admirers to fully appreciate her form. Her favourite dress would be next.

 

She had an unusual way of changing costumes without anyone noticing.  As she slipped out of one dress and into another, untrained eyes blinked at the illusion. She knew it wasn’t a myth. There was no magic in the way she could smell rain a week before it arrived (oh, how she loved the wet season and wearing her lightning dress) and knowing every black buzzard and wedge- tailed eagle that soared above her head. No, there was no magic- the colours were just one of the many unspoken languages of the desert.

 

The Anangū people told her the story of how she was born, in this very place. It was the legend of the great earthquake, and it was sung to her in Pitjantjatjara tongue that she was an ancient spirit asleep in the sands, until the desert decided to birth her. She had heard stories of the great creatures that roamed in the sulphur of volcanoes, and the towering mountains ranges that folded up into the sky near Alice Springs. But they were all gone now. The desert took them back. It would reclaim her too, one day.

 

She sighed and slipped on her velvety evening gown of indigo. It matched the cloak of the sky where the first stars murmured. She would parade all day for the cameras, but the night was her own. The Anangū knew her well- they said that they could see her moving and changing at night. She was sung as their sacred place and she took them as her family. Watching their ceremonies, their firelight shadows danced on her skin. She sheltered them from the desert sun and wet season storms and, in return, they wove her into their song lines and ochre paintings. Only a few of the elders remained now, living nearby. She hoped the ancestors would call their children would back to the desert one day.

 

As the day folded, she embraced the mulga and the she-oaks, tucked in the bearded dragons and shooed mala wallabies back to their caves. She bowed her head to the great spirits and sang to the skies to protect her desert country. Uluru nestled into her night blanket, calling out goodnight to her sister Kata Tjuta. Tomorrow was the start of the dry season, Autumn, when she would start wearing a new collection of colours. Her dresses of light.

 

Judges comments:

This is a unique piece that gently summons the magic and beauty of Central Australia in all its colours.

Full of lyrical descriptions, and lines that have imprinted on me ‘…the bent back of her sister, inspecting the flowers in the blue pre-dawn’, the author’s seemingly intimate knowledge and adoration of their subject gave it a quiet strength.

The slow reveal of this story and the surprising central character means it gives more with every read.

 

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