The Chant of Jalimalu
by Pascal Inard
Phil looked around him. There was no landmark that gave him a clue as to where he was, just a sea of thorny bushes lit by the moon that shone like a beacon in the fog. He was cold, he was alone and he wanted to scream his despair, but no sound came out of his mouth.
A chant rose from the bowels of the Earth; had she heard his pain? He froze, and although he did not understand the words of this song, its rhythm resonated in him and tingled every cell of his body until it possessed him. He let himself be guided towards the moon that grew in size as he approached. The inflections of this mysterious song described every detail of the landscape: a termite mound on the right, a rock on the left, a baobab tree in front of him. His anguish dissolved as he followed the song. A change of pace announced a dune which he climbed to discover that the song was showing him a stairway that led from the beach to the moon. The rhythm of the chant accelerated and drew Phil to the first step where an old Aboriginal man holding a glimmering pearl shell was sitting. He looked at Phil and said, “Welcome.”
* * *
To his surprise, Phil did not wake up with his usual hangover. After a boozy evening, he came home in the early hours of the morning with a girl whose name escaped him. She was Irish and travelled around the world, working wherever she could to pay her way to her next stop. He gazed at her as she turned in his bed and opened her eyes. Then he noticed her pearl earrings, and he remembered his dream with an unusual precision. Everything came back to him for a split second: the moon, the aborigine, but mostly the mesmerizing chant.
“I didn’t think I looked that repulsive when I woke up,” she said.
“No, it’s not that, I was looking at your earrings.”
“Is something wrong with them?”
“I’ve never seen any like them.”
“I found them out in Western Australia; it’s the local specialty of Broome, a pearling town. Have you ever been there? It’s a beautiful place, with white sand beaches as far as the eye can see and warm clear water. I was there at the time of the full moon. It was magic; the reflection of the moon drew stairs on the sand exposed by the low tide.”
Phil tried not to show his discomfort and changed the subject. He preferred to keep his dream for himself. While talking about this and that, he wondered if he had subconsciously noticed the earrings of his latest conquest and dreamed of her as she slept next to him. But he couldn’t take the chant out of his head; as far as earworms went, it was one of the worst, surely equal to that dreadful Lady Gaga song that the radio persisted in playing.
* * *
The chant became his companion of every moment and seemed to be happy in his company. He had tried to drown it by listening to the music that alleviated the boredom that the job of picking pears procured him, but in vain. Even his favourite song “For Those About to Rock” was powerless against its spell.
At night, the dream came back, Phil felt like he was in a film that was played in a loop and that no one was watching. He had not seen Tessa again, as he held her responsible for the doldrums in which he was stuck.
He didn’t go to the pub anymore, and although his friends did not understand his sudden abstinence, it had a welcome consequence. The money he earned remained in his savings account instead of filling up the cash drawer of the pub. At the end of autumn, he wondered what he could do with this unexpected windfall. A change of scenery could be the solution to rid him of his tormentor. He’d wanted to go to Bali for a long time; all his friends had been there and sang the praises of its beaches and nightclubs.
Among the destinations the posters that lined the only travel agency in Shepparton advertised, Broome caught his eye. Everything was there, the sunsets over the Indian Ocean, camels carrying tourists along the beaches, the stairway to the moon that Tessa had described, and pearls adorning sparkling jewels. As he knew so well, there was no better remedy than the hair of the dog, and Bali would still be there next year.
* * *
In his haste to leave, he had forgotten to check the date of the full moon, and while he waited for the next one, he discovered the tourist attractions: the pearl farms, the dinosaur footprints on the reef and the beaches. The chant and the dream were also on vacation; he almost forgot their existence and enjoyed every day of his freedom, wondering if he could settle here. There were mango plantations; it would be a nice change from the pears.
When the day of the full moon finally arrived, he saw the reflection of the moon as Tessa had described it, without thinking about the vision that had haunted him, to be like the tourists that were seeing it for the first time.
The next day, he was overcome by a melancholy that he had not felt for a long time, for he always managed to keep it at bay with work, girls or drink.
When his adoptive mother had learned that she was sterile, she did not think twice, she lodged her application to give all her love to a child that a mother had abandoned. It seemed incomprehensible that a woman could commit such an act, and she was on a mission to right a wrong. When the social worker had explained that the mother was seventeen years old and her devout Catholic parents had forced her to abandon the fruit of her sin, she understood that things were not so simple. She was convinced that by giving him all her love, he would grow up happy, but the reality was otherwise. Phil had the sadness in his eyes of someone who has lost a loved one forever, and when anger got the better of sadness, he decided to banish his biological mother from his mind forever. Easily said, of course, but his body would not let him forget her. After all, each of his cells had half of her DNA, and his heart had a gap that no one and nothing could fill.
That day, he decided to do what he usually did when the inseparable pair of bullies, anger and sadness, made their presence felt. But when he walked out of his hotel room towards the pub to drown his sorrows, the chant came back to torment him. He tried to resist, but lost the battle and followed its directions: ‘Go right’, ‘Go left’, ‘Go right’. He barely noticed the landscape; he was going to struggle to find his way back.
He arrived at a big red rock, a miniature version of Uluru, a spectacular monolith and Australia’s most famous natural landmark which, like most Australians, he had only seen in photos. A cave was dug in the middle, and the embers of a fire sizzled near the entrance. Guided by the chant, he entered and when his eyes adjusted to the darkness that prevailed there, he recognized the old aboriginal man he had seen in his dream.
He saw Phil and stopped his chant.
“Hello Phil, I was waiting for you.”
“How do you know me? Are you the one who put a spell on me?”
“My name is Tanami. Are you ready to open your heart and your mind?”
Phil was burning with impatience to ask him the questions that had remained unanswered for lack of someone to ask them.
“What for? What do you want from me?”
“The answer will come in time. An oyster takes a lifetime to produce a pearl before man harvests it for his pleasure. Sit down and listen to me.”
Phil wondered what the oyster had to do with his predicament, but he realised that he had no choice but to do as he was told. The shaman’s voice carried wisdom and authority, and he did not take his eyes off him, his gaze stony like the cave he was in.
“The dreamtime contains the memory of all that has been, is and will be in the universe. It is where I heard the pain that is in your heart. When a grain of sand enters an oyster by accident, it is considered an intruder because its place is not there. The oyster will coat the grain of sand and eventually give a pearl. You took your pain for an intruder and you tried to chase it from your heart, but the harder you try, the more it embeds itself and takes root inside your soul.”
The old man paused, and silence reigned; it too had things to say to those who could listen, and Tanami had that privilege. Phil did not understand his words, he felt like an intruder in this cave, like a grain of sand that had entered an oyster.
Tanami looked like he had read his mind.
“The time has come for you to become your true self; that is how you will find your place in the world. Your mother bore you and she could not keep you. I hear her moans, she suffers as much as you do, but you are also a child of the Earth. You belong to her, you are part of her and her love exceeds that of the one that bore you and the one that raised you. We are all connected to each other, the people of the Earth, the spirits who dwell in the dreamtime and all the creatures of this world.”Whenever the wise man paused to let Phil digest his words, the only noise he heard was that of his slow, deep breathing.
“Phil, hear the story of the dolphin, it is your totem animal. A long long time ago, a man named Kwillanah was in love with the beautiful Jalimalu. He looked at her dancing on the beach every morning before diving to catch a fish. One day, he found the courage to talk to her, but he did not arrive in time. He looked horrified as Bilkiran, the evil spirit who was also in love with Jalimalu, caught her and took her to the bottom of the sea. Desperate, he dived to catch her but it was in vain. When his mother, who had watched the scene from afar, saw a beautiful animal rise to the surface to breathe, she realised that it was not a fish, but that her son had metamorphosed. Seeing his mother, he screamed, and she knew that he would remain so until he could find Jalimalu.”
Phil found that it was a very sad love story, but do not see how it concerned him.
“You are also looking for a woman who was forced to leave you by a wicked person. But you will not find her until you have metamorphosed yourself.”
“How would I do that? I can’t turn myself into a dolphin!”
Tanami smiled like a teacher who had heard a naive remark from one of his students.
“By diving into the well of knowledge and wisdom that is deep inside of you, you will rekindle your sacred fire, and you will give life to your spiritual body. If you wish, I’ll show you the way that will allow you to access this holy well.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I will answer you, but first, tell me if you wish me to be your teacher.”
If Phil had come all the way here, it wasn’t for nothing. He might as well go through with what the old man suggested.
“When do we start?”
“The first lesson will be that of patience. My people have no word for haste in their language. We let things take their natural course; we know that we need to wait for the rain to fill the rivers and water the thirsty land, and for the trees to give us fruit. My people have been patient; we have spent many years learning the language of the white man, hearing what he had to say. Now we wait for the white man to take the time to listen to us and understand us. Like my people, I know sufferance, but I know that the white fella has his own burdens. I have waited for a white fella to come and open his heart so that I could lighten his sorrow. By accepting what I give you, you open the path to the healing of my people.”
Tears welled up in Phil’s eyes, and for the first time in his adult life, he let them flow. His sorrow of being torn from his mother mingled with that of Tanami’s people who had been snatched from their mother by the invaders, like the blood of men whose vows of mutual fidelity would bind them until death tear them apart.
* * *
The following days, Tanami continued his teaching. Phil learned to love the land and respect it. He thought about the trees that bore the fruit that he picked in Shepparton, and he thanked the Earth for her generosity towards her children.
He also learned to be still and quiet to practice the deep listening that the aborigines call Dadirri. He silenced the hubbub of his thoughts to plunge into the depth of his soul. Like a deep-sea diver, he had to deal with dangers, because the sadness buried deep inside threatened to make him sink into the abyss of despair. But instead of running away from her, he confronted her, because he knew he could not get rid of her. She was like a noisy and smelly tenant that the law prevented him from expelling.
He lost consciousness of time, unaware of the number of days he spent in the cave with his mentor.
“Phil, the time has come to reap the pearl of wisdom that has formed deep down inside. It will help you to live in peace with yourself and the world.”
Phil knew that this day would come and he had prepared himself.
“Tanami, you gave life to my spiritual body. Thank you for being my father.”
“Take good care of your spirit, nourish it and make it grow as I have taught you. It is fragile and you have to avoid anything that can smother it.”
Tanami gave Phil a pearl shell in which he had carved some sacred symbols. This Riji was the only object of value Tanami possessed, but he knew he would not need it where he was going.
* * *
The plane flew over the vast expanses that Phil had found devoid of life and uninteresting on the trip to Broome. He no longer felt like a stranger on the Earth in which he had found a mother who would never abandon him. The memory of his first mother was still alive in his flesh and in his blood. When he thought of her, he wondered where she was and how she was. He wanted to let her know that he was doing well. Unable to send a card, he sent her his thoughts and prayers. Tanami had taught him that the mail of the soul always arrived safely.
Arrived in Melbourne on a gloomy day for which this city was renowned, he went to the shelter of Aboriginal women whose address Tanami had given him to pass a message to Liz, a woman who worked there. She was sorting packages of donations when he arrived.
“No, I don’t know the man you speak of; I’ve never been in Broome either.” She paused and looked at his eyes. “But it’s strange; I’m sure I’ve seen you before.”
Phil heard his heart say, “It’s her.”
He opened his arms and cried, “Mum!”
* * *
The old man sung the chant of Jalimalu before joining his ancestors in the dreamtime. It was the last time he was going to make this trip; he could go in peace now that Bilkiran had been defeated.
◊ ◊ ◊
Pascal Inard is a bilingual writer and IT project manager from Melbourne, Australia. His work is forthcoming in Antipodean SF Magazine and The Dark Magic: Witches, Hackers, and Robots Anthology. He is also the author of two novels, The Memory Snatcher, a science-fiction mystery about a police inspector and a quantum physicist who join forces to stop a memory thief from paralysing the world, and Web of Destinies, a time travel mystery about a doctor who inherits a mysterious typewriter that can change the past. You can visit Pascal Inard on facebook.com/Pascal.Inard. http://pascalinard.blogspot.com.au/p/blog-page.html