Sturt’s Desert Pea,
the Blood Flower

(Euahlayi)

Great was the talking in the camp one morning of the river tribe, for during the night Wimbakobolo [‘man-like-a-mountain’] had fled, taking with him Purleemil [‘starry-eyes’], the promised bride of Tirlta. The elders sat together and planned how to capture them. While they were talking the young men came and told them that the tracks of the fugitives were leading towards the large lake where was camped a hunting expedition, part of a tribe from the back country, of whom the father of Wimbakobolo had been one.

Then the elders knew the fugitives must be going to take refuge with this tribe. They called the fighting men together, and they said: ‘Gather ye your weapons, we shall go to this tribe and demand that they give us the fugitives. Wimbakobolo shall we slay, Purleemil shall be Tirlta’s to slay or keep as it pleases him.’

Soon they went forward, after having painted themselves in full war paint and armed themselves with many weapons. For two days they followed the track. On the third day they saw the camp fires; then they sent their messengers to the tribe, whose elders received them and listened to their request that Wimbakobolo and Purleemil should be given up.

‘Do not send me back,’ cried Purleemil, ‘to old Tirlta. Two wives has he slain with his waddy; let me not be the third.’ And she sobbed aloud.

‘Cease your crying,’ said Wimbakobolo. ‘I give you up to no man, rather would I slay you with my spear. Let Tirlta,’ he said, turning to the elders, ‘be a man and fight me. I am ready, but he is a coward. Men of my father’s tribe, who have given us shelter, who when we were hungry gave us food, remember that in the days that are past my father was one of you, a great warrior who slew your enemies as if they were ants, so powerful was he. Even as he fought for you, so will his son in the days to come, if you give him your aid now. Long have I loved Purleemil, she with the starry eyes, and her heart has been mine ever. Can a maid at the bidding of greybeards turn her heart to a wife-slayer, leaving the one she loves, turning from one who is young, strong, and straight, to a bowed cripple? Remember my father before you despise the help of his son before you, and his grandsons to come. We shall never go back to the tribe of Tirlta, rather will I spear Purleemil, my heart’s beloved, as she stands before you, and mingle my blood with hers.’

Wimbakobolo drew himself up and looked so powerful and fierce a warrior as he stood, weapons in hand, before the elders, that they said: ‘Fools should we be to give up the son of our old leader to our enemies. He shall lead us as did his father before him, and his Purleemil shall be the mother of warriors to follow him, for strong are the clan of Wimbakobolo, men like mountains.

Then an elder turned to the messengers saying: ‘Let Tirlta come alone out on to the plain; there Wimbakobolo will meet him, and there they can fight. If Tirlta will not, then let him go back, a coward, to his country, and stay there. Wimbakobolo remains with us, we shall give him up to none.’

Back to their tribe went the messengers, but no Tirlta came to accept the challenge, and back to the big river went he with the others.

Wimbakobolo and Purleemil lived in peace, loved by all the tribe they had come to, for he was a mighty hunter, and she a singer of sweet songs.

After a while when the cold winds began to blow round the lake, the tribe moved their camp to where, on the far side, were more trees for shelter and firewood, for the winter was at hand.

Before the winter had gone a son was born to Wimbakobolo and Purleemil, and seeing what a big baby he was, the tribe laughingly called him ‘The Little Chief,’ and brought him offerings of toy boomerangs, throwing sticks and such things until the eyes of his mother shone with pride, and the father already began to make him weapons to be used one day against enemies of the tribe who had sheltered them.

And Purleemil sang new songs, which she said the spirits taught her, about her little son, whom she said was to live for ever, the most beautiful thing on the plains of the back country.

Purleemil would sing her songs, and her baby would crow and laugh, and the father would say little, but bear so proud a look on his face as he glanced, from his carving of weapons with an opossum’s tooth, from time to time at his wife and child, that all would smile to see his happy pride, and their hearts were glad that the elders had not given up Purleemil to be the bride of Tirlta the wife-slayer.

The winter passed away, and with the coming of the summer all made ready to return to their hunting ground where the fugitives had first come to them.

But Purleemil sang no longer. The spirits she said told her that misfortune was at hand.

‘Let us stay in the winter camp,’ she said to her husband, ‘where we have been so happy. I fear we shall lose our Little Chief if we go. Let us stay, my husband.’

‘That cannot be, my wife, or the tribe would call me a coward, and say I feared to meet Tirlta.’

‘Better be called a coward, which all know you are not, my husband, than lose our Little Chief. Dark would our lives be without him, he is the sun that brightens our days, without him dark as a grave would they be forever.’

‘That is true, my wife; now he has been with us so long life would be dreary without him, our Little Chief. But why should we lose him? Did not the spirits say he should live for ever on the plains? Then why should you fear for him, my loved one?’

‘I cannot tell. Truly the spirits said so, and yet they say now, as their voices come to me on every breeze, that misfortune is at hand.’

‘But not for the Little Chief, Purleemil. For the tribe, maybe, who sheltered us; then how could we leave them to face it alone? Come with me bravely, mother of the Little Chief, lest your son drink in fear at your breast.’

So Purleemil hugged her child to her, and spoke no more of her fear. And as the days passed merrily in the new camp which was the old, the fears were forgotten, and the spirits ceased their warnings.

One night when the tribe were all asleep unwitting of danger, their enemies, who had been waiting their chance, closed in round them. Closer and closer they came, led by the crafty Tirlta; too great a coward to risk an open fight, he stole like a dingo into the camp at night, meaning to slay by treachery all who had baulked him of his prey Purleemil; she should be slain with the rest; men, women and children, all were to be sacrificed to his hate. He had laid his plans well, waiting until all fear of vengeance was over and all vigilance relaxed.

Closer and closer they crept, making no sound as they came nearer and nearer.

The Little Chief stirred in his sleep; Purleemil crooned him to rest again with the spirit’s song telling how he should live on the plains for ever, the brightest, most beautiful thing on them; soon was he soothed and the mother, nestling closer to the ever loved Wimbakobolo, slept again unwitting of danger.

A dog at their feet growled, and Wimbakobolo stirred; again the dog growled, Wimbakobolo rose to his feet, but even as he stood up he was felled to the ground by a deadly blow from Tirlta, and into the camp rushed the enemy, slaying the sleepers as they lay for the most part, though some had time to seize their weapons—all in vain—to defend themselves.

Tirlta, who for days had known the camp of Purleemil and had now claimed as his own victim her husband, having killed him, next with a fiendish yell transfixed the body of the Little Chief with a jagged spear.

The tongue of Purleemil, the sweet singer, clove to her mouth as she saw her husband dead beside her, and her child on the spear of her enemy. Then she wrenched the spear from Tirlta, and the end which had passed through the body of her baby she turned and plunged into her own heart, pinning the Little Chief to her, and fell with him dead on to the body of her husband, where the life blood of the three mingled into one stream.

Thus was accomplished the vengeance of Tirlta, which left not one of the tribe who had given the fugitives shelter alive. Leaving the bodies to the hawks and crows, Tirlta and his tribe went back to the Callawatta.

The next season they determined to hunt on the hunting grounds of their dead enemies. But when they reached them they camped some distance away from the scene of the slaughter, lest the spirits of the dead should molest them.

At night they saw strange lights moving on that spot, then they knew that the spirits were indeed abroad.

The next morning they went for water to the lake. How it glistened in the sun! But was it water? They paused and looked. No water was that before them. On they went and then saw that the large lake had been turned to salt. Then the tribe were frightened, and turned back to their own hunting grounds, for no man likes to dare the spirits. Tirlta said he would follow them, but first would he go to where bleached the bones of his enemies, it would give him joy, he said, to see them. With hatred still strong in his heart he went. But surely, he thought, must his eyes be dazzled with the glare from the salt lake before him, for he saw no bones in the place where his enemies had been, only masses of brilliant red flowers spreading all over the scene of the massacre, flowers such as he had never seen before.

As he was gazing with a dazed expression at them, there stretched down from the sky a spear with a barb that caught him in the side and lifted him from his feet. As he hung in mid air he heard a voice, though he saw nothing, say: ‘Cowardly murderer of children and women, how dare you set foot on the spot made sacred for ever by the blood that you spilt, the blood of the Little Chief, his mother and father, which flowed in one stream and blossomed as you see it now, for no man can kill blood, for more than the life of the flesh is in blood. Their blood shall live for ever, making beautiful with its blazing brightness the bare plains where are the salt lakes, the dried tears of the spirits whose songs Purleemil sang so sweetly, the salt tears which they shed when you and such as you poured out the life blood of their beloved tribe. Here shall you sit for ever before your handiwork, the work of a coward.’

So saying the spirit transfixed Tirlta to the ground, leaving the spear still through him.

There in the course of ages man and spear turned to stone as an everlasting monument of the spirit’s power, and there at Tirlta’s feet spread the beautiful red flower, the glory of the Western plains where the salt lakes are—Sturt’s Desert Pea we call it, but to the old tribes it was known as the Flower of Blood.

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