When I saw the squalor they lived in, without any of the conveniences that make our lives better, dirty and seemingly incapable of being clean, I was horrified. When I discovered they had intelligence I was surprised. When I was told their souls had not been saved I resolved to do something about it.
– THE REVEREND MOTHER MARY SANTESLOSH
JACKY WAS RUNNING. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running. The heave of his breath, the hammering of his heart were the only sounds in his world. Through the film of tears and stinging, running sweat in his eyes there was nothing to see, only a grey, green, brown blur of woodland rushing past. Jacky was running. Other days he had felt joy at the speed, at the staccato rhythm of his feet, but not today. There was no space in his life for something as abstract – as useless – as joy. Only a sense of urgency remained. Jacky was running.
Sister Bagra paced the oppressively dark, comfortably stuffy halls of her mission in silent, solitary contemplation. She was dedicated to her duty, to bring faith to these people, if they could be called people; to bring religion, to bring education to these savages. An almost completely thankless task, a seemingly pointless, useless task. The recipients of her effort seemed totally incapable of appreciating what was being done for them, even going so far as resenting her help.
No matter how much she questioned the validity of the task at hand, it mattered not. She twisted, writhed, fought like a hooked eel, trying to throw off the pointy bit of steel in its mouth, inside her head where nobody else could see. She moaned, bitched and complained behind her nearly always expressionless visage, careful to ensure nobody else would ever know about it. She would persevere, she would fulfil her duty to the best of her ability.
They may be out in the middle of nowhere, there may be nobody to see them bar the ubiquitous Natives, but that was no reason to allow decorum to slide. The walls glowed faintly; an observer would guess rightly that in daylight they were a blinding pure white. The sort of white that hurts your eyes if you are foolish enough to stare at it for too long. There would not be a speck of dirt on the walls, no sand on the floor, no scuffs, nothing to demonstrate that the building was used. An army of hands kept her halls spotless.
Her robes, her habit was too thick, too stiff, too warm for this ridiculously hot place, yet to not be dressed in the full dress of her Order was unthinkable. She would never suffer a lowering of the standards of any of the women under her command, and she was always far harder on herself than she was on them. Far better to
pray, again, and then again that the weather in this godforsaken place where she had found herself would get better, get cooler, or wetter. Her role, her duty was to suffer through discomfort if needs be; her job was to be disciplined, to teach discipline, to bring the Word to the ungodly, so suffer she must.
There was no escaping the certainty that she did not belong in this place, it was too hot and too dry and the food – the quickest way to earn her ire, the easiest way to unleash her famous temper was to mention the food. Certainly, there were local plants and animals that the savages seemed to relish, but surely she could not
be expected to actually eat them. Attempts were being made to grow crops from home but they were hampered by the lack of rain and lack of farming expertise. So many people kept arriving: troopers, shopkeepers and merchants, missionaries and thieves. What they needed was just one decent farmer.
Over half the colony were still totally reliant on rations delivered by ship from home, and what arrived was barely edible after the months of transit. Most of it was barely edible before it even left home, after what they had to do to make it survive the trip. Once it arrived at the colony it still had to be transported overland in the
heat to the mission. The food, don’t get her started about the food.
Stopping suddenly as if startled, she listened. She could hear the susurrus of voices – no intelligible words, just the faintest of tiny noises like the scurrying of the infernal mice that infested this unliveable hellhole no matter what measures they took to eliminate them. Wrapped in the comfort of her accustomed silence she followed the faint, bare trace of sound, finally tracking it down to the correct door.
Talking after lights out, and in that jabber as well – that nonsense the Natives use instead of language. Will the little monsters never learn?
She opened the door and slipped through it, the hems of her neat pressed habit cracking like a whip with the speed; she moved so fast she was almost invisible. Two children were kneeling beside their beds whispering prayers to whatever primitive god, or gods, they worshipped. Surely they were newcomers to the mission school if they knew no better. They would soon know, that much was certain; both would be in solitary before dawn. Why wait, why not this instant?
She dragged the little animals by their too thick, too curly hair, chastising them in a constant hissing monotone, ignoring their screamed, unintelligible complaints. They had fallen before she had dragged them through the kitchen courtyard, past the new plantings she had been eyeing earlier that day in anticipation of their future fruit. The dead weight of the children was no hindrance to Bagra in her fury, they left two uneven runnels in the gravel and dust.
At the far side of the dusty red-brown courtyard, past the straggling green, yellow, brown weeds that needed pulling by the too-lazy Natives, was a neat line of three sheds. They were rough but strong, constructed of sheets of iron and local wood, barely the size of kennels. Two of them she opened, the bolts sliding with a snick like a drawing blade, and the windowless doors were yanked ajar. The screech of the doors opening was even louder than the wailing of the children as they were each in turn dumped unceremoniously in a box.
They kept wailing after the doors were locked, screaming more of their jabber. She suspected that they were new to the mission but surely someone had told them enough to fear the ‘boob’ as the Natives called it. Some other little monster would have terrified them with the story.
Sister Bagra had never bothered to learn the noises the Natives made instead of speaking; she could not see the point of learning a language so close to extinction. She berated them in hers, totally unconcerned whether or not they could understand her. Kicking each door once for emphasis, the sheet metal emitting a yell like a cross between thunder overhead and a church bell, she stormed away.
In the dormitories, the other children were silent in deep pretence of sleep. To hear Sister Bagra at all was rare, to hear her in a fury was something few forgot. Like an ill-mannered ghost she stamped and clattered her way back to her room to pray for the strength to survive these little beasts, this terrible place.
Several hours later, over an irritatingly bland breakfast – the best the nuns and their Native servants could pull together from the rations they had claimed, begged, cajoled or scavenged from the last ship and from the poorly grown crops of the local Settlers – Sister Bagra held court. ‘We will continue to try and help these “people”.’ Her voice was firm, leaving no room for dispute. The word ‘people’ she said in such a manner, with such venom, as to leave no doubt she did not consider the Natives people at all.
Pausing to think, to choose her words, she continued, ‘We will do our best, whether or not they can be helped.’ One of the younger sisters was new to the mission – only days, a couple of weeks at most, off the latest ship. She was too new to know when to open her mouth and when to stay silent. ‘Are we so sure they have souls to save?’ Sister Bagra stared blankly at the young woman, trying to recall anything about this nun: even her name would be a start, a handle to hang other information on. She recalled nothing; it was as if the girl had arrived unannounced to the table from the ether. Racking her brain for at least a name, she almost forgot she had been asked a question, rather, a question had been thrown into the air of the room and someone would have to answer it.
She was that someone.
‘They have language. It might be vulgar, it’s horrible really, but they can communicate with each other. They have names. They have at least enough intelligence to learn a little; they must have souls.’ A name swam into her vision, faint but she could read it: Mel, that was the foolish child’s name.
Sister Bagra waved a slice of toasted bread – the poorly made primitive bread she tolerated, although she hated it – in a long bony hand for emphasis. ‘What souls they have, we will save. Whatever it is they use for brains we will educate it –’ she smiled the self-satisfied smile the other sisters most likely hated though they should be scared to say it, ‘– whether they like it or not.'
Dr Norman Swan to publish his second book, SO YOU WANT TO LIVE YOUNGER LONGER?, with Hachette Australia