Mykaela Saunders
Warm Possibilities

Warm Possibilities is written by Koori Lebanese writer Mykaela Saunders voiced by Luritja musician Jess Beck. Take a moment and listen to Warm Possibilities.

A voice whispers in Cody’s ears as she secures her backpack.

‘Counting down,’ says the voice. ‘Five, four, three, two, one…’

A sharp wind whistles through Cody’s head and all turns dark, and then comes into focus again. Cody is on her grandmother's Country. There are small groups of people gathered in different areas all around.

Cody walks around, taking in the sights and other senses. She hasn’t been back here for years but she knows this place’s stories, its smells and its sounds. This is salt water Country, mud and mangroves Country, sticky, salty breezes Country.

There are small camps of activity all around and the whole place is buzzing with the movement of people doing things together, teaching and learning from each other, and the soft hum of song underneath it all. The people all look like her too—as though they are all related. Over there, they are rolling plant fibres into ropes and weaving nets. Down by the river they are catching fish with the nets. And up at the fire they are learning how to cook the fish.

There are plenty of other arts from Cody’s culture here too, being carried out all over—walking and yarning, dancing, painting—and they are all at her disposal, these nourishing, ancestral technologies of healing and renewal that have stood the test of time. Cody knows she can join in any camp that she wants because anyone who comes here may go walking the land and talking to Country and listening to the spirits, weaving themself into earth, sea, and sky, and taking the world into themself.

A group of people walks past and Cody joins them, walking at the back. An old grandmother is leading the group and talking in language, pointing to different plants as she leads the group through the saltbush scrub.

‘Bulam,’ says the grandmother, stopping and in front of a tall tree with tiny white flowers growing out of wooden knots in the branches. The small, thin leaves are green and glossy, and grow together in spears. They all gather around the tree to touch it. The grandmother breaks off a spear of leaves and rubs them through her fingers and sniffs it, then passes the leaves around for everyone to smell and examine.

‘Bulam,’ the old woman says, and each person repeats it after her, ‘bulam,’ as the leaves pass to them and they inhale their scent. The chorus of their voices envelop the tree in its name and tea tree resins stain their fingers, releasing oils of health in the handling. And so the word becomes scent, becomes sound, becomes touch. The word bulam is now Cody’s relationship with the plant and the place and the people, not some abstract word that lives in a dictionary, or long abandoned on a page or screen. Bulam becomes an experience which will become a memory, which will be readily recalled in the mind and the mouth.

Birds and insects dance around the trees in halos.

On they go through the bush, and every time they stop, and the grandmother touches something and speaks its name. She talks to the trees to love them, and the others touch them and learn their names too, naming the creatures that grow into and out of this land.

As Cody learns the words through embodying their meanings and her body stores her language through the sounds of the scents and the feelings of the leaves, and the memory of what they all mean, and the creatures of her Country awaken to their names being spoken – the names that they’ve been called for millennia – responding with gratitude for being remembered properly, and being belonged to.

Cody’s group walks out of the bush and into the open. Over by the water, on a cleared ground spread with sand, there are people teaching and learning dance. Cody peels off from her group and joins them.

An old grandfather leads the dancers in the steps for the butterfly dance. Cody has seen it performed but has never danced it herself because she was never taught. Until now. She learns the dance by copying the grandfather: one step here, one step there, and two steps back here, all the while her wings are spread just like a butterfly. It's easy to learn this dance in this world, and Cody is exhilarated as she follows these ancient patterns.

Another man, an uncle, swings his bull-roarer around, stretching sound out of the thin air. More music comes from around them: the children beat their clapsticks and keep a bright, sharp beat over the top of a deep droning yidaki, enacting its bass magic through the sonics and vibration. The grandfather sings and begins dancing faster in time with the music and the dancers follow suit: they sync their movements to the music too, and they tap their heartbeats on the ground with their feet, jumping and drumming.

Frogs and cicadas join in with their songs, keeping rhythm.

As Cody’s feet pound the ground, the dirt loosens. The soft pads of her feet slap the skin of the earth and dust flies up from feet that stomp, coating her sweating slicked up skin and drifting down to coat her hair with fine powder.

Cody moves inside the rhythms that play through the song and her muscles twist and twitch in time. She leads with her heart, in dance as in life. Her feet anchors her in step. Her fingers lead her hands which lead her arms which lead her shoulders, her shoulders lead her torso which leads her legs. She circles up and cycles back down, wingspan balancing her body as she moves around in every plane. Her hips like a bowl full of primordial juice, she swishes and circles but moves too gracefully to spill.

The dancers change into powerful gods and a creation spirits, now into destructive winds and waters, and now into swarm of delicate butterflies. They are serenading all who might be watching—human, animal and ancestor alike. Moving as one, the dancers spiral and shake. They are dancing the way their old people did, the way their own people still do, as these ones dancing now are the old ones, embodied: then, still, always.

In the shade of the trees, people are sitting together on the ground, painting on boards and canvases. One of the older people looks up and locks eyes with Cody, and beckons her over with their head.

Cody dances away from her group to sit beside this old grandparent. A canvas and some paints materialise in front of Cody.

The grandparent says, ‘Now you're going to paint who you are, which is where you're from and who you belong to—because that's what our art is all about.’

Cody looks all around at her grandmother’s Country, this place where she belongs. She picks up a brush and picks some paint up with it, and sketches out the shapes of the Country around her.

Plants and flowers unfurl their colours around her.

The grandparent yarns as they paint together. ‘Whatever we paint we relate to, and whatever we relate to we are responsible for. When we paint we express who we are, who we belong to, where we are from. This connects us all across space and time, and to the land itself, which connects us to our ancestors.’

Underneath the grandparent’s voice: the steady, soothing beat of a dozen plopping paintbrushes working bristles into paint palettes and placing designs down on their boards, the sound of sticky rhythmic brushstrokes moving over canvases, the rinsing of brushes in glass jars of water, tapping excess moisture off before starting again in the paint. Cody is lulled into these rhythms and soon her canvas is covered. She shows the grandparent, who smiles and opens their mouth to talk—

But the grandparent freezes, and a slowed-down version of their voice comes out, too distorted to make sense. Their face glitches and pixelates, and so does the rest of the world. All sounds begin to stretch and skip, then beep.

‘Tech issues!’ says a voice in Cody’s ears. ‘Prepare to come back in five, four, three, two, one…’

Blackness takes over, enveloping Cody’s vision in night. When she blinks her eyes open she’s back in the bright room she started in, standing beside the pod of painting modules that she’d helped to design.

Her colleague is walking over to her. He smiles at Cody as he helps slip her headset off. She wriggles the earbuds out of her ears and peels the visor off her eyes, the silicon seals pulling at her skin. The attendant slides two electrode pads off each of Cody’s temples and the last one from her third eye.

‘How was it?’ he asks her.

‘Incredible. Just like I remembered.’

‘We’re almost ready, I reckon.’

‘Yeah, we’re getting there. It’s a shame it was cut so short, I was really getting into it.’

‘Next time, sis. Once we fix these glitches, there’ll be no stopping what we can do in there.’

They smile at each other, warm with the possibilities.

Mykaela Saunders is a writer, teacher and community researcher living and working with gratitude on the lands of the Dharug, Kulin, and Bundjalung nations – Sydney, Melbourne, and the northern rivers of NSW.