7. Bootoolgah the Crane and Goonur the Kangaroo Rat: The Firemakers

In the days when Bootoolgah, the crane, married Goonur, the kangaroo rat, there was no fire in their country. They had to eat their food raw or just dry it in the sun. One day when Bootoolgah was rubbing two pieces of wood together, he saw a faint spark and then a slight smoke. “Look,” he said to Goonur, “see what happens when I rub these pieces of wood together—smoke! Wouldn’t it be good if we could make fire for ourselves with which to cook our food, so as not to have to wait for the sun to dry it?”

Goonur looked, and, seeing the smoke, she said, “It would be great if we could make fire. Split your stick, Bootoolgah, and place in the opening bark and grass so that even one spark may kindle a fire.” And Bootoolgah did so. And after much rubbing, a small flame came from the opening. For as Goonur had said it would, the spark lit the grass, the bark smouldered and smoked, and so Bootoolgah the crane, and Goonur the kangaroo rat, discovered the art of fire making.

“We will keep this secret,” they said, “from all the tribes. When we make a fire to cook our fish we will go into the thorn bushes. There we will make a fire and cook our food in secret. We will hide our firesticks in the openmouthed seeds of the thorn bushes; one firestick we will always carry hidden in our bag.”

Bootoolgah and Goonur cooked the next fish they caught, and found it very good. When they went back to the camp they took some of their cooked fish with them. Others noticed it looked quite different from the usual sun-dried fish, so they asked, “What did you to that fish?”

“Let it lie in the sun,” they said.

“Not so,” said the others.

But that the fish was sun-dried Bootoolgah and Goonur persisted. Day by day passed, and after catching their fish, these two always disappeared, returning with their food looking quite different from that of the others. At last, being unable to extract any information from them, it was decided by the tribe to watch them. Boolooral, the night owl, and Quarrian, the parrot, were appointed to follow the two when they disappeared, to watch where they went, and find out what they did. Accordingly, after the next fish were caught, when Bootoolgah and Goonur gathered up their share and started for the bush, Boolooral and Quarrian followed their tracks. They saw them disappear into thorn bushes, where they lost sight of them. Seeing a high tree on the edge of the scrub, they climbed up it, and from there they saw all that was to be seen. They saw Bootoolgah and Goonur throw down their load of fish, open their bag and take from it a stick, which stick, when they had blown upon it, they laid in the midst of a heap of leaves and twigs, and at once from this heap they saw a flame leap, which flame the fire makers fed with bigger sticks. Then, as the flame died down, they saw the two place their fish in the ashes that remained from the burnt sticks. Then Boolooral and Quarrian went back to the camp of their tribes with the news of their discovery. They all discussed how to get possession of the bag with the fire stick in it, when Bootoolgah and Goonur next came into the camp. It was at last decided to hold a corrobboree, and it was to be one on a scale not often seen, probably never before by the young of the tribes. The grey beards proposed to so astonish Bootoolgah and Goonur as to make them forget to guard their precious bag. As soon as they were intent on the corrobboree and off guard, someone was to seize the bag, steal the firestick and start fires for the good of all. Most of them had tasted the cooked fish brought into the camp by the fire makers and, having found it good, hungered for it. Beeargah, the hawk, was told to feign sickness, to tie up his head, and to lie down near wherever the two sat to watch the corrobboree. Lying near them, he was to watch them all the time, and when they were laughing and unthinking of anything but the spectacle before them, he was to steal the bag. Having arranged their plan of action, they all prepared for a big corrobboree. They sent word to all the surrounding tribes, asking them to attend, especially they begged the Bralgahs to come, as they were celebrated for their wonderful dancing, which was so wonderful as to be most likely to absorb the attention of the firemakers.

All the tribes agreed to come, and soon all were engaged in great preparations. Each determined to outdo the other in the brightness of their painting for the corrobboree. Each tribe as they arrived received great applause; never before had the young people seen so much diversity in colouring and design. Beeleer, the Black Cockatoo tribe, came with bright splashes of orange-red on their black skins. The Pelicans came as a contrast, almost pure white, only a touch here and there of their black skin showing where the white paint had rubbed off. The Black Divers came in their black skins, but these polished to shine like satin. Then came the Millears, the beauties of the Kangaroo Rat family, who had their home on the ridges. After them came the Buckandeer or Native Cat tribe, painted in dull colours, but in all sorts of patterns. Mairas or Paddymelons came too in haste to take part in the great corrobboree. After them, walking slowly, came the Bralgahs, looking tall and dignified as they held up their red heads, painted so in contrast to their French-grey bodies, which they deemed too dull a colour, unbrightened, for such a happy occasion. Amongst the many tribes there, too numerous to mention, were the rose and grey painted Galabs, the green and crimson painted Billai; they were most brilliant with their bodies grass green and their sides bright crimson, so afterwards gaining them the name of crimson wings. The bright little Gidgereegahs came too.

Bootoolgah, the crane, and Goonur, the kangaroo rat, found a great gathering assembled as they hurried there. Bootoolgah had warned Goonur that they must only be spectators, and take no active part in the corrobboree, as they had to guard their bag. Obedient to his advice, Goonur seated herself beside him and slung the bag over her arm. Bootoolgah warned her to be careful and not forget she had it. But as the corrobboree went on, so absorbed did she become that she forgot the bag, which slipped from her arm. Happily, Bootoolgah saw it do so, replaced it, and told her to be careful, so thwarting Beeargah, who had been about to seize it, for his vigilance was unceasing, and, thinking him sick, the two took no notice of him. Back he crouched, moaning as he turned, but keeping ever an eye on Goonur. And soon he was rewarded. Now came the turn of the Bralgahs to dance, and every eye but that of the watchful one was fixed on them as slowly they came into the ring. First they advanced, bowed and retired, then they repeated what they had done before, and again, each time getting faster and faster in their movements, changing their bows into pirouettes, craning their long necks and making such antics as they went through the figures of their dance, and replacing their dignity with such grotesqueness, as to make their large audience shake with laughter, they themselves keeping throughout all their grotesque measures a solemn air, which only seemed to heighten the effect of their antics.

And now came the chance of Beeargah the hawk. In the excitement of the moment Goonur forgot the bag, as did Bootoolgah. They joined in the mirthful applause of the crowd, and Goonur threw herself back helpless with laughter. As she did so the bag slipped from her arm. Then up jumped the sick man from behind her, seized the bag with his axe, cut it open, snatched the firestick, set fire to the heap of grass ready near where he had lain, and all before the two realized their loss. When they discovered the precious bag was gone, up jumped Bootoolgah and Goonur. Bootoolgah ran after Beeargah, but Beeargah had a start and was faster, so out distanced his pursuer quickly. As he ran he fired the grass with the stick he still held. Bootoolgah, finding he could not catch Beeargah, and seeing fires everywhere, gave up the pursuit, feeling it was useless now to try and guard their secret, for it had now become the common property of all the tribes assembled there.