OUR witch woman was rather a remarkable old person. When she was, I suppose, considerably over sixty, her favourite granddaughter died.
Old Bootha was in a terrible state of grief, and chopped herself in a most merciless manner at the burial, especially about the head. She would speak to no one, used to spend her time about the grave, round which she fixed upright posts which she painted white, red, and black. All round the grave she used to sweep continually.
More and more she isolated herself, and at last discarded all her clothes and roamed the bush à la Eve before the Fall, as she had probably done as a young girl.
She dug herself an underground camp, roofed it over, and painted enormous posts which she erected in front of her 'Muddy wine,' as she called her camp. She never came near the house, though we had been great friends before.
She used to prowl round the outhouses and pick up all sorts of things, rubbish for the most part, but often good utensils too; all used to be secreted in the underground camp. She never talked to any one, but used to mutter continually to herself and her dogs in an unknown tongue which only her dogs seemed to understand.
We thought she was quite mad.
One day, while we were playing tennis, she suddenly, muttering her strange language and dancing new corroboree steps, clad only in her black skin, came up. Matah told her to go away, but she only corroboreed round him and said she wanted to see me. I have the most morbid horror of lunacy in any form. I was once induced to go over a lunatic asylum--the horror of it haunts me still. However, I thought it would never do to show the coward I was, so though I felt as if I had been scooped out and filled up with ice, I went to her. She danced round me for a little time, then sidled up to me and said:
'Wahl you frightened, wahl me hurt you. I only womba--mad--all yowee--spirits--in me tell me gubbah--good-I lib 'long a youee; bimeby I come back big feller wirreenun; wahl you frightened? I not hurt you.'
And after crooning an accompaniment to her steps off she went, a strange enough figure, dancing and crooning as she went towards her camp; and not until the spirits gave up possession of her did she come near the house again.
One day she gave us a start. We were schooling a new team of four horses. The off-side leader had only been in once before, and was a brumby (horse run in from a wild mob). We had to pass Bootha's camp. I looked about as we neared it but saw nothing of her. Suddenly from the ground, as it seemed, out dashed the weird old figure, arms full of things, jabbering away at a great rate. Whiz came a tin plate past the leaders' heads; the offside horse reared and plunged and took some holding. Whiz came an old bill; then, one after another, a regular fusilade of various utensils.
It did not take us long to get past, but for as long as we could see the attack was kept up. Coming back we saw nothing of Bootha, and all the utensils had been picked up.
I used to tell the other blacks to see that Bootha had plenty of food. They said she was all right, the spirits were looking after her. Lunatics, from their point of view, are only persons spirit-possessed.
Gradually old Bootha, clothed as usual, came back about the place.
Strange stories came through the house blacks to me of old Bootha. She was very ill for a long time, then suddenly she recovered; not only recovered but seemed rejuvenated. We heard of wonderful cures she made; how she always consulted the spirits about any illness; how there were said to be spirits in some of her dogs; how she was now a rainmaker and, in fact, a fully fledged witch.
I was curious to see some of these wonders, so used to get the old woman to come up when any one was ill, consult her, and generally make much of her. There is no doubt she could diagnose a case well enough. Matah suffered a good deal with a constant pain in one knee, he was quite lame from it. He showed it to Bootha one day. She sang a song to her spirits, then said:
'Too muchee water there; you steam him, put him on hot rag; you drink plenty cold water, all lite dat go.'
As it happened a medical man was passing a few days afterwards with an insurance agent. Matah consulted him.
'Hum! Yes, yes. Hot fomentations to the place affected, poultices, a cooling draught. There's a stoppage of fluid at the knee-joint which must be dispersed.'
I thought Bootha ought to have been called in consultation.
A girl I had staying with me was taken suddenly and, to us, unaccountably ill. She was just able to get out of her room into the drawing-room, where she would lie back on the cushions of a lounge looking dreadfully limp and utterly washed out. Hearing of her illness old Bootha came up. I thought it might amuse Adelaide to see an old witch; she agreed, so I brought her in.
Bootha went straight up to the sick girl, expressed a few sympathetic sentences, then she said she would ask the spirits what had made Adelaide ill and what would cure her.
She moved my furniture until she left the centre of the room clear; she squatted down, and hanging her head began muttering in an unintelligible dialect. Presently her voice ceased and we heard from beside her a most peculiar whistling sort of voice, to which she responded, evidently interrogating. Again the whistling voice from further away. Bootha then told me she had asked a dead black fellow, Big Joe, to tell her what she wanted to know; but he could not, so now she was going to ask her dead granddaughter. Again she said a sort of incantation, and again, after a while, came the whistling voice reply-this time from another direction, not quite so loud. The same sort of thing was gone through with the same result.
Then Bootha said she would ask Guadgee, a black girl who had been one of my first favourites in the camp, and who had died a few years previously.
The whistling voice came from a third direction, though all the time I could see Bootha's lips moving.
Guadgee answered all she was asked. She said Adelaide was made ill because she had offended the spirits by bathing in the creek under the shade of a Minggah, or spirit-tree, a place tabooed to all but wirreenuns, or such as hold communion with spirits.
Of course, according to the blacks, to disturb a shadow is to hurt the original.
In this Minggah, Guadgee. said, were swarms of bees invisible to all but wirreenuns, and they are ready always to resent any insult to the Minggah or its shadow. These spirit-bees had entered Adelaide and secreted some wax on her liver; their bites, Guadgee said, were on her back.
Well, that can't be it, I said, I for you never did bathe in the shade of a Minggah; for, going as you always do with the house-girls, you are bound to be kept from such sacrilege; they would never dare such desecration.'
'Which is their Minggah? Is it a big Coolabah between the Bend and the garden?'
'Then I did bathe there the last time I went down. I was up too late to go with the Black-but-Comelys, and as the sun was hot I went further round the point and bathed in the shade. And the bee-bites must be those horribly irritating pimples I have across my back.'
The cause of illness settled to her satisfaction, Bootha asked how to cure it. The patient was to drink nothing hot nor heating but as much cold water as she liked, especially a long drink before going to bed. Guadgee said she would come in the night when the patient was asleep and take the wax from her liver; she would sleep well and wake better in the morning.
Bootha got up then, came over to the patient, took her hand, rubbed it round the wrist several times, muttering an incantation; then saying she would see her again next day, off she went, taking, she told us, all the spirits away inside her, whence at desire they could be returned to such Minggah in their own Noorunbah, or hereditary hunting-grounds, as wirreenuns had placed them in, or to roam at their pleasure when not required by those in authority over spirits. Our old spiritualist denies us freedom even in the after-life she promises us.
Adelaide slept that night, looked a better colour the next morning, and rapidly recovered.
We think old Bootha must be a good physician and a ventriloquist, only I believe it is said ventriloquists cannot live long, and Bootha is now over eighty.
Others besides wirreenuns see spirits sometimes, but rarely, though wirreenuns are said to have the power to conjure them up in a form visible to ordinary eyes.
Babies are said to see spirits when they are smiling or crowing as if to themselves; it's to some spirit visible to them but to no one else.
When a baby opens his hands and shuts them again quickly, smiling all the while, that baby is with the spirits catching crabs!
Dogs see spirits; when they bark and howl suddenly and you see nothing about, it is because they have seen a spirit.
One person may embody many spirits, but such an one must be careful not to drink anything hot or heating, such would drive out the spirits at once. The spirits would never enter a person defiled by the white man's 'grog.'
Old Bootha had an interview with a very powerful spirit after she was ill, who told her that the spirit of her father was now in Bahloo, the moon; and that it was this spirit which had cured her, and if she kept his commands she would live for ever. The commands were never to drink 'grog,' never to wear red, never to eat fish. This was told her fifteen years ago, never once has she transgressed; her vigour for an old woman considerably over eighty is marvellous.
She was going away for a trip. Before going she said, as she would not be able to know when I wanted rain for my garden, she would put two posts in it which had in them the spirits of Kurreahs, or crocodiles. As these spirits required water I might be certain my tanks would never go dry while they were on guard. She asked one of my Black-but-Comelys, a very stalwart young woman, to help her lift one of these posts into the garden where she wanted to erect it. The girl took hold of one end, but in a little while dropped it, said it was too heavy. Old Bootha got furious.
'I get the spirits to help me,' she said, and started a little sing-song, then shouldered the post herself and carried it in. These posts are painted red, black, and white, with a snaky pattern, the Kurreah sign, on them. She also planted in my garden two other witch-poles, one painted red and having a cross-bar about midway down it from which raddled strings were attached to the top; this was to keep away the Euloowayi, black fellows possessed of devils, who came from behind the sunset.
The other was a plain red-painted, tapering pine-pole which she said, when it fell to the ground, would tell of the death of some one related to an inmate of the house. Should it lean towards the house it foretold misfortune; or if she were any time away, when she was returning she would send her Mullee Mullee to sit on the top and bend it just to let us know. This pole would also keep away the spirits of the dead from the house during her absence. While she was away there would be no one to come and clear the place of evil by smoking the Budtha twigs all round it, as she always did if I were alone and, she thought, in need of protection.
Old Bootha has what she calls a wi-mouyan, clever-stick. It is about six feet long, great lumps of beefwood gum making knobs on it at intervals; between each knob it is painted. Armed with this stick, a piece of crystal, some green twigs, and sometimes a stick with a bunch of feathers on top, and a large flat stone, she goes out to make rain. The crystal and stone she puts under the water in the creek, the feathered stick she erects on the edge of the water, then goes in and splashes about with green twigs, singing all the time.
After a while she gets out and parades the bank with the wi-mouyan, singing a rain-song which charms some of the water out of the creek into the clouds, whence it falls where she directs it. Once my garden of roses looked very wilted. I asked Bootha to make rain, but just then she was very offended with Matah. One of her dogs had been poisoned, she would make no rain on his country. However, at last she said she would make some for me. I bound her down to a certain day. The day came; a heavy storm fell just over my garden, filling the ground tank, which was almost empty. About two inches fell. Within half a mile of each side of the garden the dust was barely laid.
Old Bootha's luck stuck to her that time, and I had to give her a new dress and some 'bacca.' But during the last drought she failed signally. Her excuse for failing was that a great wirreenun up the creek was so angry with the white people who were driving away all emu, kangaroo, and opossums, the black fellow's food, and yet made a fuss if their dogs killed a sheep for them sometimes, that he put his rain-stone in a fire, and while he did that no rain would fall. He said if all the sheep died the white fellows would go away again, and then, as long ago, the black fellows' country would have plenty of emu and kangaroo.
We saw a curious coincidence in connection with one of Bootha's witch-poles in my garden, the pole whose falling foretold death of some relative of some one in the house.
One afternoon there had been drizzling rain and a grey mist overshadowing things. Matah went out to look at the chances of a continuance of rain, the usual drought being on. He called to me to come and see a curious sky. Looking towards the west I saw a golden ball of a sun piercing the grey clouds which seemed like a spangled veil over its face; shooting from the sun was a perfect halo of golden light, from which three shafts spread into roadways up past the grey clouds into the vault of heaven. The effect was very striking indeed, against the grey clouds shaded from silver to almost black.
As we stood waiting for the sun to sink and the afterglow to paint these clouds, as it did, from shrimp pink and heliotrope to vivid crimson, we saw Bootha's pole fall. The air was quite still.
'The damp has loosened its setting,' said Matah, 'but we had better leave it alone and let the old girl fix it up again herself; it may be taboo to ordinary mortals like us.'
We left it.
That evening a messenger arrived from the sheep station to say my cook's mother had died just before sunset. The camp were firm believers in Bootha's witch-stick after that.
It was just as well we did not touch that stick; had we done so, Bootha says we should have broken out in sores all over our bodies.
They say that long ago the wirreenuns always used to have a sort of totem wizard-stick guarding the front of their camps.