‘… There’s been a death.’
I am in my small house in Yulara, cooking for shabbat on a Friday in December 2006, when the phone rings. A male voice speaks: ‘It’s Sergeant Benjamin, Doctor, of the Mutitjulu Police … I’m sorry to trouble you … there’s been a death.’
The voice resumes: ‘It was a hanging. We need someone to certify the death. The nurses here can’t do it; it has to be a doctor. I am sorry, Doctor.’
The voice is careful, it is feeling its way. I don’t know the officer. The voice I hear is sober – sobered almost to a halt by the news of a death.
I ask the officer to bring the body to the clinic. We arrange to meet in twenty minutes’ time.
It is early evening – 1830 hours in official language – when they pull up at the clinic. Even at that hour the heat is relentless. The sky is painted blue. There are two vehicles, a police car followed by an ambulance in its familiar livery of white slashed with red. A large oblong man steps out of a police car of such startling blueness that the sky pales behind it. The officer’s face is deeply creased.
We shake hands.
His offsider gets out and straightens. She dwarfs her sergeant. Apart from the odd post-adolescent pimple, her face is smooth. She walks over to the ambulance and commences a laughing conversation with the nurses who have driven the body.
After a time the nurses are free to attend to my questions. I address the older of the two, the one I know from the clinic: ‘When was she found?’
She turns to her associate. For a moment, both are silent, then she says, ‘I’m not really sure. The family called us an hour ago – when they felt ready to let us take the body, I guess. Someone found her before that and called the family. We don’t know when …’
We release the latches and the heavy door of the ambulance clunks open, revealing a large white bag resting on a collapsed stretcher. Warm air flows from the interior.
The nurses step backward. Fumbling, I try to pull the stretcher a distance from the vehicle’s dark interior. The nurses step forward and help, then again retreat. I pull on the zipper and the bag falls open, exposing the head and upper body of a human.
I pause. No sound, no movement.
There is a moment of reverent peacefulness. The skin of the person whom I stand and regard is brown, the same brown that glows from the earth and the many heads of rock in the early sunshine during my early morning run. That colour has penetrated me, claiming me like a mother.
I place the back of my gloved hand against the brown skin. It is still warm. Just as shocking, the face is very small.
I straighten and ask the nurses, ‘Do you have a date of birth?’
One shows me a file. She points upper left, where I read, ‘19 November, 1991’.
I look again at the small face. There are a couple of blotches of acne. The child has buckteeth. The body is short and slender, the body of a girl who has scarcely begun the journey to womanhood.
I have no doubt, I feel no hope, but I rest my fingers lightly over her carotid artery. It is still.
I check her eyes. Dull now, pupils wide, fixed and unresponsive to the light – those are pearls that were her eyes.
I apply my stethoscope to her chest. The silence of death is drowned in a distracting chorus of inanimate rustling and chafing sounds. These are the artefacts of my examination. I hear no heartbeat. No air moves in or out of the chest.
This is the body of a fifteen-year old girl whose life is extinct.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
I have another question for the nurses: ‘What do you know of her health before today?’
‘Six months back she was sniffing, but not since then; there’s been no sniffable petrol in the community since then … There were some family problems. She had been seen by Mental Health …’
The answer is unsatisfactory. Any possible answer would be unsatisfactory. It all boils down to one thing: we do not know.
On an afterthought I lean forward again, peering past the fine cheekbones and the slender jaw, peering at the soft tissues beyond. There, on her throat I see what had to be seen, a bracelet patterned in her flesh, a curvilinear design that is unexpectedly graceful. It is the embossing in her skin of the fatal rope.