North of the Swan

There’s a duality to conversation around that Country; a space imagined as both sublime, and ugly.


Content warning: mentions of domestic violence, references to the Stolen Generations, mild coarse language


My house is slightly north of the Swan River. Pressed up against a main road on the edge of a little street, beneath tepid sky spattered in fog that shapes itself into sweeping ghosts above us.

George tells me there’s space where only Gooniyandi are truly safe. “Well, you can go there, but if you’re not family you won’t wanna stay overnight.” Country that guards itself.

He has a story or two on that, like he does for everything. He describes a woman-like scream that pierces the night. George and his brother turn pale on the back of a ute parked up by the water. Nothing and no one around for at least fifty kilometres.

George impersonates his brother’s would-be-stoic frown. “It’s alright.
This is our Country.”

When the boys tell their story in town, one of their grandmothers affirms that their own Country would never harm them.  “Aw… They were just makin’ a fun. They know you.”


In his early years, George was a vibrant haunt of the Kimberley region.


“They called me Casper,” he says. “That was back when I was a little naked kid running around Hall’s Creek. Pale kid with white-blond hair, running around butt naked.”

He woke his uncle Russel once to ask for an icy pole. Calling out for “Uncle Ah-sole,” because he couldn’t say Russel. George’s laugh breaks open his mouth and spreads over his upturned brow. “Just this little white thing, he thought I was a ghost.” His hair is dark now, thick, his skin slightly browned by sun.

“A ghost calling him an asshole,” I giggle.

He rolls a cigarette, needs me to cup my hands around his face so he can light it in the wind. In the cup of my hands, his face is the only smudge of warm colour in the dulcet blue of darkness.


South of the Swan. Hardwood floor with warm rugs. The windowsill Pilea leans tall in its pot, leaves springing out, suspended at the ends of their green stems, as though jumping ship. Knitted blankets drape over the cushioned rocking chair, the old couch.

I realised I wanted to meet Emma after I met her house, with all its blankets and windchimes of seashells and driftwood, its overgrown garden with those persistent rope swings secured in the great dead tree.


Emma sits on the couch. Her son stands by the door, moving as he talks. By the table, by the kitchen, back at the door so he can blow nicotine vapour out into the dewy evening. I rock in the chair as I listen to stories from Up North.

George informs that the Fitzroy River swells and shrinks reliably. (Now he corrects that it used to be reliable.) Drinkable, he asserts, though Emma admits it’s not clear water by any stretch. You swim in your clothes, and they might keep you cool for a while once you emerge back into the incredible dry heat. George reckons you can work for hours in dry heat.

“I only swam across that river twice, and both times because girls were watching,” George says. “I was floating in the middle of it, looking up at the sky for sunset.” He leans back and waves his hand at the ceiling, eyes blooming with purples, pinks, blues. “Looking up, thinking… okay, don’t think about what’s below you.” The murky depth creeps endlessly down, but his hand dismisses the thought with a wave beneath his stretching back. “Don’t think about how deep this part is.” He looks at me, swiping, swatting the depth away.

He breathes. “And it was serene. But then I came to my senses and paddled out.” George swivels off his back to paw at the air, doggy paddling back to riverbank.

Emma says George gets his skill in storytelling from his dad. “There’s something about the way Steven speaks.” She tries to replicate it: “Ey baw! Eyy boy!” She tells me I can hear it firsthand when I go Up North.

In this living room, she’s told me violent stories from Up North, too. George, as well, though he self-identifies (always with a wink) as a lover, not a fighter. There’s a duality to conversation around that Country; a space imagined as both sublime, and ugly. I recall Emma’s complaints of a culture of ignoring domestic abuse. “And when I say something,” I hear her saying, “I’m the one who’s out of line!”


At a friend’s house, George says, “We caught a crocodile once.”

The rest of us laugh—how?

“Sear a bit of meat, tie it to fishing line, fling it in the water, have a few beers, come with a net back to all these prawns. One time we come back.” He looks at us. “And the line is taut.” His hand traces straight along the invisible line. “We tug, and—swishswishswish!” His hand, sudden and swift, serpentines towards us, the little crocodile in the water.

“It comes ashore,” he says to a laughing audience. (Now I know this was an embellishment, that it came close to the bank, even lifted its head—but stayed submerged.)

George stands feet far apart, edging away from the crocodile. “No, no—and we were there with the lighter—just like—” One hand holds the line while the other flicks on a lighter beneath it. Tongue pushes air past teeth as he flicks the lighter on again and again. His eyes wide, lips pulled back, contorted. Everyone is laughing, including George, who drops his tools and stands up straight again. “And the line breaks and it fucks off,” he concludes.

I remark about how scared I would’ve been, but George explains why it was not so terrifying: “No, no—those ones are freshies, in Fitzroy River, only little things, want nothing to do with ya.” Hands sheathed into his coat pockets.

At some point, because it came up in conversation, a friend asks George: “So, how much of you is Aboriginal?”

“I have a great grandfather who was white,” George begins, without going into detail.

But here’s the detail, for our benefit:

White great grandfather, but claimed to be Mexican, because he was running from something he’d done over Elsewhere. “What you did if you fucked up over East, was you fucked off to the Kimberley.” Disguise by word of mouth. “He had his dual slings.” George’s hands crisscrossing over his chest to trace those holstered slings.

Emma said, “He was swarthy.” My mind paints a sombrero and fringed shirt to match the two steaming pistols, rough sweaty sun-damaged skin. “They travelled round on mules and donkeys.” On the donkeys: George’s dark-white great grandfather and his great grandmother Emily.

“My Jugu Lily.”

Lily was Gooniyandi, decided she didn’t want to marry the husband promised to her by law. She returned to her family and her promised husband in Ngurtuwarta after her too-fair babies were stolen. Her stolen daughter Ivy ended up at Moola Bulla station, married a Gija man, their son Steven initiated in Gija law. Steven grew up on the stations, and now he lives on Lily’s land, Ngurtuwarta, in Fitzroy Crossing.

But like I said, George doesn’t really get into that. “My father looks kind of like a tanned Mexican,” he says. “And my mama’s white,” he adds, with the un-silent h.

“If you were describing your father’s generation,” someone interjects, “where would it be on a scale of Comfortable to Stolen?”

“Oh, Dad was pretty comfortable,” George says. “But you know, the beautiful thing about being Up North, is no one ever—it’s not—that idea about not belonging…” He squints at something intangible grasped in his hand. “That’s a Western idea.” Hands pocketed again now. “When I used to worry about not belonging, family up there, in Fitzroy, would say…” One palm unsheathes, faces the ceiling. “What’re you talking about?” The other hand comes out to point at the invisible self stood before him. “You’re your father’s son.” Finger shoots down, strikes palm for emphasis. “You blong ‘ere!” Eyes looking straight ahead, out from under a straight-set brow.

When I ask George how he feels about such questions as those, all he says is:

“No, I don’t tend to get funny about that sort of thing.”


We bundle up bags with blankets, squish them into the backseat space of George’s car, and start flowing down the freeway stream. The car shakes and rumbles like it has orange gravel stuck somewhere in a metal crevice, but steadily it drives downward. Further south than South of the River, there’s Down South. It’s saturated, all luscious green in the little town of Margaret River.

I can taste magic in little zaps in the grape and berry wine, the sizzling cold strawberry champagne. For the weekend, we rearrange the borrowed house into a temporary home, squeeze a huge mattress in the floorspace between three couches that make a cosy niche. Now we have a comfy cubby cove, a place to eat our IGA camembert and Dairy Farm smoked gouda, our expensive chocolates from the Chocolate Factory. Through the window, the night sky wriggles with constellations that don’t dare come alive above the street-lit city of Perth.

“It’s even clearer Up North,” assures George, gazing skyward through the glass. “You should see it.” He looks at me and says, “I hope I haven’t made you afraid of Fitzroy Crossing.” He tells me it’s something about the land that stands out to him, something beautiful. “Weather, but more,” he likes to say.

He says I have to see it.

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