Two pages into The Family Made of Dust and I’m hooked. Without ever having traveled through Australia’s outback I’m right there, living in the ruggedness amongst the mulga trees. It doesn’t take long before the characters have a hold on my heart…Gabe, the biracial Aboriginal hero; even the murderous shaman Dana and his hapless sidekick Kevin. I want to know more, understand more. What forces have created these people? What events brought humanity to this condition? The story draws me in knowing I will come away with a better understanding of life wherever I exist.
--Patty Kakac, singer/songwriter/recording artist
A biracial Aborigine’s exploration of the land, his inner feelings and who he truly is wraps around this engaging story of what Australia is today and who the Aborigines are.
--Patricia E. Canterbury, author, the Tanner Sullivan Mysteries
Laine Cunningham has written an intriguing story of a culture few of us have experienced, one which delves into the lives of characters so real and memorable you won’t put this book down. I recommend it to those who want an exciting look into an ancient world. This book will leave its mark as one of the best stories ever to lie in our laps.
--Pamela King Cable, author of Televenge, ALA’s 2012 Top Fiction Pick
A brilliant flow of friendship, ancient wisdom, sorcery and retribution combine to create a suspenseful story as generations clash in the outback. This is not an uptown homicide but one inked with shamanic intrigue and a spiritual battle of the souls. How far will someone go in the name of friendship? And what price will someone pay to go willingly into harm’s way? This story propels the reader into a world few of us will ever know.
--Dale Stacy, author Diamond in the Rough
In her first novel, Laine Cunningham paints a vivid picture of innocence, evil, and the
spirits that move in the worlds between these two dimensions. Through a complex
weave of characters, Cunningham creates a psychological suspense novel deeply
rooted in Aboriginal culture and legend. Astute readers will appreciate well-placed details from the honeydew flavor of lerp on a mulga tree to the gray-winged galahs whose job it is to escort souls to the next world. Written by a master storyteller, this fast-paced novel initiates Cunningham into the ranks of respected authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Sarah Gruen. A deeply felt work sure to please all who read it.
--Dena Harris, award-winning author featured in the Chicken Soup series
From the very beginning of The Family Made of Dust, Laine Cunningham makes it obvious that we are in the hands of an exceptional writer as well as a master storyteller…and it is a rare treat to find both of those things in one place. Insight into the characters’ minds, skill with language, and careful plotting are all brought together in a seamless package that explores not just the soul of her main character but the soul of a nation and its people. Combine that with an understanding of Australia that can only come from having walked the land, and Cunningham has crafted a truly special book.
--Edmund R. Schubert, award-winning author of Dreaming Creek & editor of anthologies from Tor.
Finalist, MN State Arts Fellowship
Finalist, Pacific Northwest Writers Contest
Finalist, William Faulkner Award
Supported by Cornucopia Arts Center Residency
Supported by 2 Jerome Foundation
Supported by New York Mills RCC Residency
Winner, James Jones Literary Society Fellowship
Winner, Hackney Literary Award
Chapter One from The Family Made of Dust
The Precious Dead
When a man dies in the desert, he is completely alone. At thirty-nine, Ian McCabe knew this simple fact. He had spent most of his life working the demanding seasonal jobs that kept Australia’s rural towns alive. He had seen a flat tire turn deadly, and knew that beauty and danger were the sisters who bore the land.
Ian was not a tall man but a shock of blond hair added inches to his height. Quick blue eyes and a steady aim were useful in his career as a kangaroo culler. Every night the slim .22 found its target between the shine of an animal’s eyes. On cattle stations hundreds of kilometers wide, engine trouble and the bite of the brown snake posed constant threats.
Ian’s white Land Rover was nearly twenty years old and it still ran like a lizard drinking—non-stop and practically unstoppable. In the rear a skillet, bedroll and a case of green beans were strapped onto narrow shelves. A bottle of port nestled in its own padded compartment, and a few golf clubs were tied to the wall. Sleep, slurp and sport, he called the collection, everything a man could want in one mobile space.
He eased the truck down the track. The spur was rough, really a strip of earth scraped clean of boulders, but it saved nearly half an hour. Besides, the less traveled a road was, the happier Ian felt. Cities, he knew, were for suckers. Why squeeze into a rabbit hutch when the outback was right next door?
This area, so close to the Davenport Ranges, was typical of the Northern Territory. Wide plains of twisted mulga trees reached southwest to Alice Springs. A network of creeks and rivers that ran only during the Wet sustained gum trees taller than most buildings. Cockatoos raised their young in the hollow trunks, and after a rain lorikeets gorged on the nectar in
Grass was sparse, edged out by the ubiquitous spinifex that cut flesh as cruelly as broken glass. Only the toughest creatures survived and half-feral Brahma cattle were the breed of choice. To a rancher beleaguered by drought and debt, every blade eaten by native animals robbed them of beef. Roo shooters were always welcome. And judging by the sun, Ian would arrive at the station house in time for dinner.
A flash of metal caught his eye. Through binoculars, he watched a red SUV beetle across the property. The truck stayed behind the ridges and moved slowly enough to keep its dust cloud low. The same stealth kept Ian from sight as he followed.
Eventually the trespassers parked beside a hill topped by a stone pinnacle. Ian stuffed the Land Rover under a mulga tree and watched as a pair of men hiked up the slope. The first, a sturdy white fellow about thirty years old, clutched a rifle. His legs were bowed so severely he rocked as he mounted the boulders. The other man, an Aborigine who might have been in his sixties, moved steadily upward. He was wiry yet had the grace of a predator. The outback was filled with men like them, drifters who found the bush far removed from the law.
At the top, the elder found a cleft in the rock. From this cache he retrieved a board nearly as long as his arm. Ian had seen dancers perform with similar objects and knew they were supposed to be magical. The cubby surrendered perhaps a dozen other artifacts. All would fetch a small fortune on the black market.
While the older man worked steadily, the bowlegged bloke couldn’t keep a proper watch. First he rubbed his nose with the back of his arm. Then he adjusted his shorts. He scanned the landscape, rifle at ready. Then he swatted a fly. Rubbed sweat through his hair. Tugged at his crotch. Abruptly he was alert again, scowling while the gun grew hot in the sun.
As they retreated, the Aborigine erased his footprints with a leafy branch. Ian let the SUV jangle out of sight before picking up the trail. They traveled faster now and corkscrewed across their original path. Where the spur intersected a paved road dusty tread marks headed toward the Stuart Highway, the only paved north-south road through the Territory. The pair could pick from dozens of unmarked byways. The artifacts would disappear.
Ian pushed the Land Rover to its limit. Although the old truck handled beautifully in the bush, it was as sluggish as a fly in winter. The needle was still climbing when Ian saw the red SUV parked beside the highway. If he pulled over, the men would surely notice when he followed them later.
The Toyota, a new model free of dents or scrapes, faced the road. The younger man smirked and the lines around his mouth twisted. Again Ian was struck by the elder’s expression. White pipe clay severed his forehead and chin, and his face was a jigsaw of violence.
“So you’ve seen me,” Ian murmured, “and I’ve seen you.” He adjusted the rearview mirror but couldn’t make out the tag number.
A roadhouse a quarter-hour away was a convenient place to watch for the men but they never appeared. It was possible they had turned east toward the coast. More likely they had dodged off into the bush. As night covered the sky, Ian had plenty of time to consider his next action.
He didn’t need a fraction of it. The kangaroos could wait.
* * *
Thousands of kilometers to the east, Gabriel Branch loaded the last of his bags into the hatchback. At six feet tall, Gabe barely fit behind the wheel even with the seat pushed all the way back. But the rear compartment was roomy enough to hold all his diving gear, and the hatch was easier to use than a station wagon. He squeezed in and steered for the coastal highway out of Townsville.
The next few days would be spent an hour or so south on the Whitsunday Islands. In the forty-five years Gabe had lived in Queensland, he rarely traveled more than a hundred kilometers inland. The neighbors never quite understood why his vacations didn’t take advantage of the expansive desert at their back doors.
They didn’t understand the...complications of Gabe’s life. Oh, they knew about the Aboriginal land rights issues that had consumed the media for decades, and had heard about the children adopted by white families in a long-defunct effort to assimilate the race. But they didn’t know what it was like to be caught by those issues against their will. Only a biracial Aborigine who had been assimilated at the age of three could tell them that. And Gabe wasn’t talking.
Nor was he interested in drawing attention. Black faces were scarce in Australia, so he stuck close to the coastal cities that hosted international travelers in all their rainbow colors. He blended in better there and no one asked many questions about his background. Even when they did, they were met with silence.
Silence had kept his life on the smooth, orderly track he worked so hard to create. Last week he had hit a bump—a big bump—in his relationship with a Jamaican woman. Chance hadn’t been in the country more than a few years. But she had some definite ideas about how much Gabe should say about his experiences and how loudly his voice should sound.
They had fought about it more of late. He supposed it was the same with all couples, as if money or household chores or work schedules were the cause of their problems instead of a symptom. Whatever the real reason, Gabe and Chance had split up last week. The separation was supposedly temporary, just a little breathing and thinking room, but Gabe knew where that would lead.
If Ian had been available, Gabe would have talked things over with him. In fifteen years of friendship, the men had seen each other through a number of breakups. None had been as serious as this one, though, and Gabe wished Ian would call. He already missed Chance’s rapid-fire commentary and her odd machinegun laugh. Before the split, Gabe had been thinking of proposing. But courage in one person required courage in the other. And that,
he knew, was the real reason their separation would be permanent.
When Ian did call, Gabe was already out of range. He heard only the clack of sugar cane as he sped past the coastal farms.
* * *
Ian tracked the men for days without coming within twenty kilometers of the truck. The outback was so big and its population so small, a little luck and a few calls let him keep tabs on the thieves as they passed through different roadhouses. At a tourist site called Devil’s Marbles, a vendor remembered the odd pair and pointed to a faint track heading west.
When he located the Toyota, he parked some distance away and hiked in for a better look. Perhaps a dozen coffins had been removed from crevices in a wadi. The thieves were stealing bodies. Ian trotted back to the Land Rover and gunned the engine, all but honking to make sure they heard as he rattled toward the ridge.
The thieves took the hint. After the Toyota disappeared, Ian walked into the gully to inspect the damage. The coffins, each a cradle for the precious dead, were lined up in the center. Tarps and coils of rope had been left behind, along with cigarette butts and candy wrappers. The urine drying on the cliff face still smelled sharp.
Then Ian spotted the truck tucked under a ledge. It was the same one he had seen leave, he was sure of it. The guano he had noticed days earlier was still smeared on the side window. Yet the culvert had no other entrance except the one he had just walked through.
A bullet spun him off his feet. He heard nothing, not even the echo of the shot, as his shirt soaked in a red tide. The blood was brilliant at first, like the eyes of the metallic starlings that congregated around his boyhood home. He saw the Aborigine kneel beside him as his breath fled past his tongue.
The man was older than he had thought, much older, and carried with him the aura of ancient things. He wore only a string belt, a pair of shorts, and bands on his arms and legs. Tufts of cockatoo feathers framed a radiant face. On his chest a swirl of dots and circles, made hypnotic by his breath, pulled Ian into a galaxy of red.
He was terribly confused. He tried to separate the ringing in his head from his memories. They ran away, he thought. He had seen them drive across the plateau that drained west of the escarpment, had watched them until they were out of sight. The tire tracks he had crossed floated in his mind. Only one set of tracks, he realized. The truck had never left. How could he have been so wrong?
As if to offer comfort, the elder caressed Ian’s forehead. The man’s hair, shot with gray, looked nutmeg. It was as if his great age had worn the shine off the strands and leached away the pigment. His eyes were luminous, though, beyond the touch of time. Ian thought of the dingoes that gazed into his spotlight. The dogs always waited, knowing he would leave the kangaroo’s heart and liver and kidneys for their feast.
Suddenly he understood. This man was a shaman. Ian had been lured into the culvert just as he had been tricked into speeding down the highway. He smiled and reached up.
“There, now,” the man soothed, and flicked his blade across Ian’s throat.