In 1999, in the back of a pick-up truck bouncing across the bottom of the forgotten sea, Father Smith, who was the last Little Brothers of Mary left alive in in Belgo, sat and wondered about the desert.
He was returning to the settlement after having spent two days in the desert with Amos Helicopter, gnarled old fella and unlikely keeper of ceremonies from the time when the Cookatja were still wanderers. Exactly why he and Amos had gone out there the priest couldn’t say. They had slept in the sand, eaten lizards and yams and scooped water from a hole it had taken them two hours to dig with their hands. Sometimes they had happened across a tree and the priest sat in the shade while Amos wandered away for hours, why and where he just didn’t know.
At other times they simply walked.
The priest was aware that every step they took had some kind of meaning, but although he puzzled over it constantly, whatever the direction or purpose was behind their wandering, it was beyond him.
Decades ago Father Smith had been about blue stone universities and cool leafy streets. When he had been sent to the desert it was as an anthropologist. Somehow though, as the decades passed, it had just become home.
He was a quiet man, brilliant enough that, on the floor of his two room shack in Belgo, was a twenty year old answering machine with a message recorded in both English and Cookatja. But far more unique than his skill in learning the desert language, was his exceptional ability to absorb the desert truth that with words the really important thing was not to use them to ask stupid questions.
Always the silent type, the desert had only made Father Smith silenter. Even after the last of the other Little Brothers had passed on he hadn't always been alone, for such a remote place a surprising variety of outsiders had turned up over the years- anthropologists and nuns, exiles and bureaucrats and escapees from the south. He had watched them all come and then go with their theories and hopes and endless questions, and it was only after fifteen years, when he was still there and the Cookatja could see he wasn't going to hit them with that manic white fella noise the others were so fond of, that they had started to accept him as a friendly piece of the furniture.
By then he knew more about the old ways of the desert than a lot of the younger people. He could see it was all dying, but for reasons that were his own, this was something about which he never said a word.
There were raised eyebrows among the Cookatja when Amos Helicopter started taking the white priest with him out into the desert, though only slightly raised, because everyone in Belgo was terrified of him. A fixture though the priest might have become, keeping the shape and the sound of their religion a mystery to the white man was one of the few shreds of dignity they'd managed to retain.
A strange schizophrenic prophet of obscure baptism, Amos Helicopter was an oracle, enigma and suspected practitioner of the darkest magic. He had never married, never had children, and in a place where people clustered, he lived alone in a spartan lean to of salt bush sticks and prickly grass. He was one of the few people left in Belgo who still walked with the long nomad stride, was deeply suspicious of electric light bulbs and flatly refused to be in the same room as a TV.
He wandered in a way that made people uneasy, stepping out of the night and into the light of the campfires a hundred kilometers from where he was thought to be. It was easy to tell when he was in Belgo itself because the camp dogs were terrified of him and would whimper and try to hide under the nearest trash pile whenever he got within a hundred meters.
So no one could understand why Amos, of all people, had taken this sudden interest in the white fella priest, and the priest, as usual said nothing.
Two days out in the desert had been a long time for the priest, and he was very tired. He was glad they’d managed to hitch a ride back into town. Now Amos was riding up front in the cab. Behind him, in the tray with the priest were the kids, on their way back from a weekend in Hells Creek. They were in the final stages of finishing off a six pack of Coke which they'd picked up in town.
One of them, a seven year old- all white teeth and check bones and long hair, grinned up at him and offered a sip of the can he'd been drinking. The priest smiled a little and shook his head.
The kids sprawled easily in the tray with their legs dangling over the side. They chattered loudly in Cookatja over the grind of the engine and racket of the car rattling itself to pieces as it crashed along the rutted track. The cliffs that Belgo was built on top of were a distant red line. When the kids finished their Cokes they made a game of seeing who could throw them the furthest off the back.
Father Smith, who accepted that there were a lot of things he would never understand, sat with his legs bunched up and the morning sun on his face and said nothing.
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