Aurora australis from

INFINITY (excerpt from The Archer’s Game  (c) 2008)

I power my bike along the driveway, through the grainy dusk. This evening is a portal of renewal, where darkness deepens the familiar face of my world and attunes the lesser senses.
The cattle grid thrums beneath my tyres and I scribe an arc on the bitumen, rebounding down the track, wheels spewing dust round the big, old cypress tree. My thighs burn and cold wind brings tears to my eyes, reflecting evening stars that brighten the infinite sky. But wait! One of them is moving!
The realisation is shocking. One of the stars is moving.
I brake hard; straddle my bike, mouth gaping. It is moving: a star, high in the southern sky, scraping a white line, slowly across the void. A gulp of excitement catches in my throat. This is a rare sighting: an orbiting spacecraft, wavering, with vapour spewing in its wake. But no! That’s not right. My hand clasps my own mouth. That vaporous, wavy line. Satellites don’t leave those. Perhaps it’s a jet flying very high in the atmosphere. No! You wouldn’t see the jet then, would you? Not the craft, only its vapour trail!
The jet stream begins to waver. ‘Geez!’ Fear parches my throat. ‘This isn’t right! Spaceships don’t do this…do they? I’m sure they don’t.’ Then realisation. What if it’s aliens?
‘Gotta get dad!’
I hurtle down the driveway to the front of the house, bark and twigs flying as I speed on. Crossing the grid, I rip to a halt below the front steps, bike wheels jack-knifed and spinning. The flyscreen door flings wide as I pound down the hallway to the sitting room, confronting the startled faces of my parents. Dad is already out of his chair.
‘There’s a thing in the sky,’ I rasp, ‘like a star but it’s moving.’
The look on my face must be shocking. He hurries past me. Grabbing my bike I race after him. We stand midway up the house paddock.
‘There,’ I point accusingly at the brilliant thing. He sees it and is awestruck like me. We just gape and watch.
I hear mum shuffling at the gateway. She can’t see anything through the trees and doesn’t come further.
‘Is it a spaceship, dad? D’you reckon?’
He doesn’t answer right away and that frightens me.
‘It’s an aurora,’ he declares finally, his face beaming. ‘Lord, I haven’t seen one of these in years!’
‘A what?’
‘An aurora. Aurora Australis. Watch!’ he urges. ‘See how that tail is spreading? Look, it’s changing colour. Watch! You may never see one like this again!’ The awe and intensity of his voice is compelling.
High in the atmosphere a vaporous cloud rises like fine dust, violet now, with folds of translucent mauve and radiant, deep blue. The star continues, scratching its line through the night sky, fading to the south. Above us the cloud turns indigo, brilliant, intense, and emitting energy I can feel but not explain. We watch entranced.
The evening is so still, crisp with cold, even the crickets silent. Nothing but the sound of blood pumping in my ears. And yet I can hear something. Or do I feel it? A high-pitched hiss emanating from the cloud like static on shortwave. Its presence stretches above me, confounding even my imagination. I am humbled by the utter beauty and scale of it.
The aurora has taken on a brilliance beyond that of any stars. The colour deepens in waves, moving ever so slightly, like the bottom of a long velvet curtain caught in a celestial breeze. The spectacle fills a good quarter of the sky, suspended right over Terang, bathing everything in eerie, dusty lavender. I remain captivated, no longer aware that my legs are numb with cold, or that my body is swaying, my heart pounding. I’m so utterly spellbound I can barely breathe.
Not even the presence of the most revered saint, or the most significant, historic event could turn me away from this spectacle, so powerful is its effect. This is an act of God I can understand, irrefutable, beyond spectacular. Its beauty assaults my senses, rendering all imaginings obsolete. Time and space dissolve and I ache to understand it.
Gradually the brilliance fades, the indigo deepens to violet. It has blazed across the sky for half an hour and in its departure brings a tide of disappointment. I am filled with a sense of longing, willing it to stay, holding it with every breath but powerless, helpless, as it melts into the night.
‘Mmm.’ Dad breaks the silence. He sounds weary, sharing my wonder and disappointment.
‘Oh dad, it’s going…’
Barely a smudge remains above us, and the aurora has ceased to sing. Time returns, like gravity to a landed swimmer, and I feel the chill air on my legs. Night has fallen so suddenly. Only moments before the first stars seemed pale and uncertain.
‘Well,’ dad sighs. ‘We won’t forget this moment, that’s for sure.’

I am shaking with cold and bewilderment. So many questions crowding in, such feelings begging explanation. I thought I knew much about my world, and now this. I never imagined beauty could be so real.
‘What makes the colour, dad? And what was that starry thing?’
He tilts his head, unsure. ‘I think dust in the atmosphere burns but I can’t remember why. I’ve got an astronomy book inside. We’ll find out more from there. But I’ve never seen one like this before.’
‘You’ve seen others?’
‘Yes, one or two. Much paler and brief compared to this.’
We wait a little longer, two figures in the dimness, swaying beneath the towering manna gum.
‘Well, I think I’ll go in now,’ says dad, finally. ‘It’s getting cold. There’ll be another frost by morning.’
‘Okay. I’ll be in soon.’ He walks stiffly back to the house.
My eyes are glued to the sky, to what I remember, willing it back. I stomp my feet for warmth and then, with one last glance, pick up my bike and ride a couple of circuits to get warm, all the while peering skyward. Perhaps another will start. If one, why not two? I bet I’ll be watching the sky for the rest of my life, now.
Hope of a reprise fades. I begin to understand that such events can happen anytime, whether I’m present or not: behind storm clouds, over the horizon, or when I’m asleep. I coast along the path, setting my bike against the fence. There’s an awful lot up there I need to know. I head inside, a dozen questions spawning a dozen more.
Dad’s library fits snugly into the corner of the sitting room, between the chimney and the wall. Neat piles of magazines cover the bench top of smooth green leather: Walkabout, UNESCO Courier, a volume about BHP, and another on Antarctica, obscuring a pile of yellow-spined National Geographics. The contents of the shelves appears unremarkable to me. Apart from a few leather bound titles and some classics, I assume the rest are reference books, and I’ve rarely seen dad delve into them. He doesn’t have time or the inclination anymore, preferring music, reading the paper, at least until the television arrived.
Tonight, I step from dad’s armchair to the bench top and set to ruffling across the spines, searching urgently for anything on astronomy.
‘It has a navy blue dust jacket and the title is in white writing,’ dad recalls, craning his neck and squinting to see. ‘It may be on a lower shelf.’
I grunt. ‘Dad, astronomy starts with ‘A’. Why isn’t it on the top shelf?’ It’s an impudent question but I’m impatient.
‘Because it’s my library, dear.’
‘Found it!’ I declare, pulling the book from its place to read the subtitle, ‘A Guide to the Southern Hemisphere.’ There’s an illustration of starry heavens on the cover, and it is stiff to open. The pages are cream-coloured with age, have a musty smell, and are unevenly cut. But, most of all, the volume is disappointingly thin. I imagine Aurora must be a vast subject.
‘Here,’ dad calls, reaching for the book. I hand it to him, and sit down on the bench, looking over his elbow. His eyes scan the index and I watch his face closely for a sign of discovery.
‘There!’ He exclaims, turning to the page and reading something about solar storms and magnetic fields, stuff I’ve never heard of before. Then he hands me the book. There a black and white photo of an aurora makes a paltry attempt to replicate what we’ve witnessed. I read through the text for anything he may have missed. There aren’t even diagrams to provide a better understanding of the phenomenon.
‘There’s a good photo of an aurora in that ANARE book,’ says mum.
‘What’s an ANARE book?’
‘That book about Antarctica, there on the bench behind you.’
It is a large book at the bottom of a weighty pile. I move magazines to get to it. The dust jacket has stuck to the bench top and makes a schtuck noise as I lift it up. Its glossy cover features a dramatic picture of a singular blue-white iceberg. I must have glanced at it once before as the picture is familiar. A quick riffle through it now is promising and I remain on the bench, resting the broad bulk on my lap, turning the glossy pages to rediscover icy wastes. I remember the picture of penguins and the one of the man whose beard is encrusted with snotty icicles but, inexplicably, I do not recall the next photo, a full-paged image of an aurora Australis. It is of a grainy, greeny-yellow cloud, such a disappointing contrast to the crisp indigo velvet curtain that hung in our night sky.
Some text on the following page offers more. I slide off the bench and curl up in my armchair, legs crossed to support the book. I read patiently and then sit back to consider the meaning. Across the room, mum knits, unmoved by the events of this evening.
It’s getting late and my curiosity is sated for now. While I’ve learned the aurora is uncommon, it is still hard to accept such a brilliant, dramatic spectacle as an atmospheric phenomenon. Surely someone else has seen it, too. Surely one of my school friends. I want to talk to someone who knows more about them. My teacher might know. She’ll be able to explain it better.
I show mum the picture. It is a solemn moment, and I feel as if I am showing her a secret, like revealing the face of God.
‘This is nothing like the one we saw, mum,’ I explain. ‘Is it dad?’
‘No,’ he agrees. ‘Ours was bright purple, and hung like an enormous curtain. That looks nothing like it, really.’
‘I should’ve come out,’ mum sighs. ‘I couldn’t see anything but stars from the gate.’ She resumes knitting. ‘I’ve never seen an aurora.’
‘There’ll be more,’ says dad, assuring her. ‘They come in cycles. It’s just unusual for them to be so high in our sky. The others I’ve seen were low-set, and most of them early in the morning, when I’m down at the dairy.’
I return the book and fish out The Overloaded Ark again, flipping through its pages.
‘May I borrow this, dad?’
‘Of course.’ He looks a little surprised. ‘Where’d you hear of it?
‘Last year our fourth grade teacher read it to us, a little each afternoon. We got right through it. I’d like to read it again.’
‘You’ll enjoy it,’ he assures me. ‘He’s a good bloke, Durrell. And, if you like that, there’ll be other books up there you’ll enjoy, too.’ He grins, pleased to have a visitor to his library.
Dad’s right, the book gives me an appetite for naturalist adventures. Other books are well illustrated or have intriguing covers, and I pull them down to investigate further. Several feature collections of papers written by famous scientists, philosophers and historians. They are quite readable and I take them to my room. There is a volume of prose and poems by Henry Lawson. I know some of them from school. They make me hungry for more about my own country.

One Sunday afternoon I happen upon dad dozing in his chair after dinner. I climb onto the bench to search the shelves again and he stirs. I hadn’t intended to wake him but, having done so, it pays off.
‘There are plenty of bush ballads about Australia,’ he says, limbering stiffly to search for them. ‘There,’ he points, ‘that one with the green cover.’
After a brief look I hand it to him, and climb down to perch at his side. He flips through the stained, musty pages, looking for something. ‘This was awarded to me at Sunday school when I was a boy,’ he reveals, showing me a certificate pasted on the flyleaf. ‘And there’s some good stuff in here.’ Turning the pages, he comes to familiar territory and stops, backtracking over one or two, and smiling in recognition.
‘This one is called Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, and it’s written by Banjo Paterson.’ He takes a breath, holding it briefly as he studies the page, and then he begins a most extraordinary reading. As the adventure of Mulga Bill unwinds, both dad and I roar with laughter, and he has to pause in order to recover his breath and composure.
We enjoyed it so much that he riffles through the pages and finds another. I recognise it from the first phrase.
‘The Man From Snowy River!’ I exclaim and dad nods, smiling as he reads. I lean back against the chair, closing my eyes, listening for the rhythm of words as they gallop with the horses, the bragging of horsemen and the excitement of the chase.
Dad enjoys reading it and asks if I’d like to fetch him another volume, this time an older collection of poets. And he reads me some Robbie Burns in such a heavy brogue I’m astonished.
‘Where on earth did you learn to talk like that?’
‘Oh, one of my uncles used to recite these after dinner. It’s a lot easier from memory than trying to read from the page. Look!’ He points to the verses and I can see what he means. Some of the words are unrecognisable.
‘And if you like Lawson, see if you like this one.’ He begins another, missing the title, straight into the first verse. His voice softens, lilting, and the words roll like the hills and plains they describe. While I have never heard it before, the images and pull of the words are undeniable.
‘What’s it called?’ I ask when he’s finished.
‘My Country,’ he replies, handing me the book.
While I read it through again, he reaches for more books, one a more recent publication with a colourful jacket and another, much older, with gilt edged pages. He sits back down again, legs crossed, propping his elbows on the chair arms.
‘You’ll like some of these,’ he promises.
As he flicks through the pages I spy numerous illustrations. The book is filled with short stories. ‘These are written by Henry Lawson. Some of them are yarns, but others are quite dramatic.’ Almost reluctantly he hands it over. ‘And this one…I’m not so sure. He’s a fine poet and there are some real gems in here.’ Finding one he begins to read. The rhythm is catchy, words about the love about two lands. Dad must know it well for he reads faultlessly, only occasionally glancing at the page.
‘That’s lovely, dad. The way the words ripple, rise and fall. The sound of the bellbirds and the colour of the bush. You can even feel the sunlight and smell the eucalypts. It’s so beautiful. I’ll never be able to write like that.’
‘Then enjoy reading it,’ he replies, showing me the poem. It’s called A Dedication. I reach for it, and turn to the cover. Gordon’s Poems. Searching for the title page, I discover the flyleaf. It is inscribed in pen and ink: ‘Wishing Bessie many Happy Birthdays with best wishes from Jack. 14.7.99′.
‘Who are Jack and Bessie, then?’
‘My mum and dad.’
‘You mean grandad gave this to your mum?’
‘Yes. In 1899.’
I’m astonished. ‘But grandad’s name is John. John Sanders. You told me. His initials are even monogrammed on his handkerchiefs.’
‘Well, everyone calls him Jack.’
‘And Bessie?’
‘Elizabeth. You’re named after her.’
I’m silenced by wonder. Perhaps I have more beginnings than I realise. Opposite the title page is an engraving of the poet.
‘This is such a beautiful book, dad.’
‘And it’s yours to keep and treasure. And this one.’ He places another volume on my lap.
I gather the books to me and offer dad a hug. While he has shared some wonderful books with me, it is the moments spent with him that are beyond words.
After realising the bounty of dad’s shelves, I spend hours perusing their contents. And when they’re exhausted, I cross the floor, and search mum’s collection. There are many volumes of Courier magazines, offering a more grown-up view of humanity than the National Geographics, portraying less pretty, simpler views of the bigger world, ones we glimpse on TV. But there is one book that leaves me baffled. I take it to mum, and ask her to explain it better. It is a small volume of reproduced paintings by various artists, each work accompanied by a short biography.
‘These artists are disabled people, dear,’ mum explains. ‘Some of them have suffered from diseases like polio and cannot use their hands or can’t walk. So they have learned to paint and hold their brushes in their mouths. Others can’t use their hands at all, and draw and paint with their toes. Yet the work is so fine, isn’t it?’
The book fascinates me and I return to it, marvelling at what a person can accomplish even after calamity in their lives.
Another of mum’s treasures is an intriguing book with the title Other People’s Children. It contains little text after its brief introduction, and there follow dozens of full-page, black and white photographs of children from all around the world. Unhindered by captions I’m forced to gather all I can from the children’s expressions, the way they dress and from the background, all of which suggest poverty and hardship: the harshness of snow or deserts. Their faces open yet their stories seem mysterious and tantalising.
Then there’s a book about Mahatma Gandhi called All Men Are Brothers, a recent addition to mum’s shelves. It is in his own words, with quotations from his speeches and writings. The man and his story bind a spell in my heart. He speaks of peace in a time of great turmoil in our world and I recognise, for the first time, a powerful politician who advocates change through peace: the concept of non-violent non-co-operation.
* * *
While continuing to study the skies, I become equally enamoured with geology, a subject nourished by adventures to a nearby lake and a neighbouring mountain, and Aunt Aileen’s expeditions to the coast. The aurora has left me in no doubt that mysteries are not confined to the pages of books or television, or even my imagination, but are present everyday in my own world, in every corner of the farm, simply awaiting discovery.
Each evening dad and I watch the weather forecast at the end of the news, and try to outdo each other’s explanations as to why the sunrise is red, or how a perfectly cool, clear spring morning can lurch into an afternoon of hot, blustery north winds. I learn how to read the barometer, to understand the significance of air pressure and humidity. And, pouring over weather maps in the newspaper, he explains the source of the south westerly storms, and the onset of frosts and fog.
After dinner one warm summer evening, I climb up the cypress hedge and roll into my hammock. As I brush away leaves and stray cobwebs, I gaze heavenward at the vastness of the Milky Way. It is a clear night, the stars flash pink and blue in the incomprehensibility of space. I mark familiar constellations and locate magnetic south from the Southern Cross. I have learned that magnetic poles are incidental, fickle, and capable of change. I notice variations in planetary positions, how the moon is higher in the sky, now, rising full and ripe over the shoulder of Mount Noorat.
As I lie there, staring up into the sky, an odd sensation overcomes over me, a wave of giddiness. It passes and I gaze once more, noticing how some stars are pale, millions of light years away, while brighter ones seem almost neighbours. Then the giddiness returns. This time I don’t look away, allowing the sensation to settle. I know I can’t fall. I’ve checked the hammock. It and the trees are sound.
Still struggling with the unnerving lurch in my stomach, I focus on the stars. Soon the vertigo eases and I begin to realise that my perception has changed. It’s as if I stand at a huge window or viewing platform in space. And, with the gentle motion of trees swaying, I numb to my own physicality, and float among the stars.
Clambering down to earth, I’m still shaking from that ethereal experience, and it is difficult to walk. And after this lesson, I view the sky in the new way. Whether lying adrift on the lawn, or draped in the less comfortable arms of the deckchair, I can fall into the sky. Night is never just a canopy of stars, again. It is an infinite ocean.