The longer we stayed in Sydney, the more we wanted to have a child.
We were becoming solitary, nocturnal creatures that year. We woke early, around 4:30 a.m., so Abby could phone her coworkers back in Chicago. We spent our first hours in darkness. I would put a kettle on while my wife hoped our flimsy internet connection would hold. In June 2017 we’d moved into a tiny studio in the ritzy waterfront neighborhood of Kirribilli. We slept during odd hours, in a rented bed fitted between the couch and the patio door. The place was small enough I could reach into the refrigerator from anywhere inside the apartment, even the bathroom. We were alone on the far side of the world, Abby and I, but always within arm’s length of one another.
On those mornings I would watch through the patio doors as a truck dropped dairy crates unguarded outside the shops of Kirribilli. Too early for milk thieves. I would change into a pair of shorts and Nikes and head out, minding the slick steps at the front of our building. I am a graceless runner, and so I was happy to get out before my lean Australian neighbors would see. I would lumber a quarter-mile to the stairs under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where I’d huff my way upward.
The bridge path is just under a mile long, and if I timed it right, I would arrive on the southern side just as the sun began to rise. I often paused there, to catch my breath or pull at a cranky calf, but mostly to look out over the thick-forested headlands and the early ferries cutting through the harbor. I watched the first daylight splash up the walls of the Sydney Opera House and among downtown skyscrapers. On the days when no other joggers joined me, I felt so alone and so small, even while standing in the country’s most populous city.
So maybe it was loneliness, or maybe it was the fact that Abby and I were usually within sight of that rented bed, but we thought daily about starting a family. We’d been married nearly five years, and we’d considered kids before. We were sidling up to our thirties. Abby had once told me her greatest fear about marrying me wasn’t any of my myriad imperfections but instead the chance of infertility. Especially if it were hers. We knew people who’d struggled for years, through treatments and onerous adoptions. It was the kind of thing that could break a marriage.
To dispel the cramp in our Kirribilli studio, I would pull the patio door open as soon as the sun came up. In the dawn we listened to currawong calls and kookaburra laughs. The city woke around us. From inside our little place we could see flocks of children, schoolies, float by in ties and skirts and hats styled for a bygone century. And then it was less lonely.
Beauty, sometimes Bewdy, expresses approval. The neural tube is an invaluable cluster of cells that will one day become a baby’s brain, spinal cord and backbone. For the people living in Sydney Park long before it was Sydney Park, a cormorant visiting the wetlands would have been called a guwali. The proper greeting is how ya goin’?
For the first time in my life, I began seriously to think about leaving America, if we got the chance to do so permanently. If my grandfather left his home country in search of a better life, I told Abby, why wouldn’t I do the same? To us, Australia seemed – for a certain set of middle-class white people – a country that made good on its promise to give every citizen a fair go: nationalized healthcare, standard maternity leaves, four weeks of guaranteed annual holiday. It was easy for Abby and I to imagine our kids with Aussie accents, doffing their own school-uniform hats and swimming freestyle in their school’s water carnival.
Our optimism, of course, was based on a painfully incomplete vision of the country. Aussies sometimes bristle at the cartoonish Australiana perpetuated by Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin and those daggy Outback commercials. Kangaroos, sharks, sun-bleached Hemsworths. Our friends back home asked after our encounters with crocodiles and deadly snakes (none happened) and the giant spiders (those did). But like any other place on earth, Australia is complicated and contested. These glosses obscure the country beneath.
On the lawn of Old Parliament House, in the capital city of Canberra, dozens of people live at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. It is a semi-permanent camp of tents, mobile homes and RVs, established in 1972 as an ongoing demonstration urging government to return land to its indigenous owners. Signs and slogans abound. White Invaders You Are Living on Stolen Land. Heritage Under Attack. Sovereignty. The protestors’ demands have gone unmet for nearly fifty years, but still Aboriginal activists live there, at a site of political struggle.
Abby and I were there, once, at the edge of the Embassy. Another stop on our tour of the capital. Between tents and canopies, people sat in circled lawn chairs, talking. A man in a blue-checked shirt knocked on the door to his neighbor’s RV. It was midafternoon and quiet. Aboriginal flags hung limp on poles. The check-shirted man was finally admitted through the door. Nothing happened. Abby and I walked slowly and avoided staring.
A white Australian man and his two sons trailed us, taking pictures. We were voyeurs gawking at homes and lives, but the publicness of the Embassy is the entire point. Existence alone can be protest. The man behind us said nothing to his sons. Maybe he figured children make their own explanations.
Aussie kids enjoy lollies, of which milk bottles and snakes taste best. Intrauterine growth restriction, or IUGR, occurs when a baby fails to adequately grow in the womb. A dream is a nangami in the original language of Sydney.
That year, we walked. We didn’t have a car, but we saw the region in a way that driving would have denied us. Abby and I would take after-dinner strolls along Lavender Bay and at least once a week, we’d set out for a longer hike, maybe as far as the Blue Mountains or as close as the Royal National Park.
Walking allowed me to explore, and it also reassured me of my body, in a way that is, I suppose, a privilege of being nondisabled. I enjoyed a sense I was made to walk, inherited from an ancestry of humans traversing incalculable miles. All I needed to do was ask my body to move me, and it would.
In that way, walking seemed like the opposite of our first attempts at pregnancy. About eight months into our Australian year, Abby was due to have her IUD removed, and so we started planning seriously. We knew we’d be returning to Chicago after a year, and Abby imagined stepping off the return flight with a growing belly.
Abby is a planner, a detail enthusiast, a master of spreadsheets. For her, pregnancy was a data project. Temperatures were measured. Calendars were drawn up with cycles, potential due dates and prospective maternity leaves. Planning, I knew, was a labor that women are expected to take up, even while I, the grinning husband, only had to supply the sperm.
But our approaches were as much about our personalities as our genders. Abby believes the world can be conquered or made better by the application of skill and intellect. Life can be managed, she figured, and so starting a life was no different. I, on the other hand, preferred fatalism. It would just happen for us, I insisted. Abby’s body contained the reproductive structures, and we only had to ask them to move us along. Fertility was no different from walking.
One breezy morning we set out on the path that leads from Taronga Zoo to Balmoral Beach. The route wended along six kilometers of picturesque heads and lonely beaches, where water dragons sun on rock outcroppings or dart through the bush. While we walked, we talked about reproductive mechanics, especially how little we’d learned in school. Now we could calculate viability and list implantation signs. Abby was set to ovulate in the next week.
“I don’t understand why it has to be so complicated,” I said. We had just passed a massive web spun by a clutter of golden silk orb-weavers, one of the country’s least lethal spiders. “Most people probably just let nature take its course.”
“That’s the story that gets passed along.” Abby walked in front of me, checking the trail against a map we’d downloaded that morning. “After the kids grow up and you forget all about what it was really like.”
We stopped at a split-off to make sure we were headed the right direction. The final section of the hike runs along Bungaree’s Walkway, named for the first Australian-born man recorded in print. A member of the Kurringai people, Bungaree’s diplomatic skills so impressed explorer Matthew Flinders that the Englishman took him aboard to greet native people they encountered. Sometimes they let indigenous people believe the white sailors worked for Bungaree and not the other way around.
Bungaree’s Walkway took us past a naval facility from which we could see our destination below. Unlike the tourists’ Manly and Bondi, Balmoral is a neighborhood beach – at that time of day, it was trafficked mostly by locals chucking a sickie from work. Because Balmoral is sheltered in the harbor, its waters are calm enough for a relaxing swim. We descended the hill along a boardwalk weaving through teeming bushland, the promise of a dip in the saltwater not far off.
“So, we’ll try this month,” Abby said behind me, her steps clopping on the boards. “And if it doesn’t work this month, we can try the next.”
“It will work this month,” I told her.
“How do you know?”
In Australia, to root is to fornicate and should not be used in reference to the footy club for which one barracks. In the Gadigal language, putuwa means to warm one’s hands by the fire while gently squeezing a companion’s fingers. If all goes, well the zona pellucida will degenerate five days after fertilization. To be flat out is to be exhausted.
Australia is a new nation built on old country. Aboriginal people have lived there in continuous cultures for more than 50,000 years, and for them, the white invasion led by Captain Cook is a short but still-unclosed chapter in a longer history. Many white Aussies are proud to claim their ancestors among the 160,000 convicts shipped to the continent until 1868, but they are sometimes less apt to acknowledge decades in which churches and governments forcibly moved children from Aboriginal communities into white homes. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd acknowledged the Stolen Generations and the fractured families left behind.
The same year as Rudd’s “Apology,” Parliament adopted a welcome to country for its official opening. In a welcome to country ritual, an elder of the local language group will speak and might perform music, dancing or smoke rituals. In New South Wales, where Sydney is located, a welcome to country is required for all state-run events. Where a local elder isn’t present, speakers substitute an acknowledgement of country, in which they pay their respects to the site’s traditional owners past and present. I came to expect this acknowledgement at the start of any public event – a footy match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, an academic conference, or a museum tour.
Neither the welcome nor acknowledgement are universally embraced. For one, it’s difficult to reconcile the Eurocentric language of ownership with the more nuanced relation that many Aboriginal people hold with the land and water. Some versions of the acknowledgement refer to the first Australians as custodians, but one can see how this language, too is flawed, as if the caretaking relationship between country and people is one-way, rather than mutual. But perhaps most trenchantly, the acknowledgement and the welcome are symbolic acts without any meaningful justice attached. Acknowledgement does not entail legal ownership or economic value. These are imperfect symbols in an imperfect nation.
A few months into my time at Macquarie University, I was set to give a guest lecture, and I’d seen a few classes open with an acknowledgement of country. There had already been a formal version at the opening of the term, and so it wasn’t necessarily expected for every week’s presenter to give one. I debated whether I should. On the one hand, it seemed important for a people in positions of power (even relatively little power, like mine as a graduate student) to signal solidarity with the practice. On the other hand, I didn’t understand all the dimensions of the act, and worried I would be engaging in sheer tokenism. Even now, writing this, I worry the attempt that speaking about Aboriginal people entails speaking for, and it would be better I find some white American male silence.
It would have been easy enough to find a standard script online to recognize the Wattamattagal clan of the Darug Nation, but I forewent the acknowledgement that day. I was, I told myself, no child of Australia. Theirs was not my history to undo.
Putting in the hard yards means you’re doing difficult work. From the word government, gubba is Aboriginal slang for whites. Teratogens are the things that can delay, deform or disrupt a human in utero. Everyone likes to say no worries.
I arrived home from teaching one night, after having jogged down the steps of the Milford’s Point train station and past sidewalk diners at the Fitzroy Street restaurants. Teaching always left me enervated, but I always hurried home, anything to return to the private little world of the studio apartment. Abby had set out a salad for dinner and was watching Who Do You Think You Are?, a program in which Australians trace their ancestries through historical records, inevitably finding family trauma interlaced with wreckage. She kissed me hello and paused the show long enough for me to grouse about my students and a two-minute delay on the train.
I sloughed my satchel into the corner opposite the bed, where I kept my books stacked haphazardly on a pair of end tables. A little brown bag sat atop the books. I looked at Abby, who smiled and waited. Inside the bag was a tiny T-shirt, a smiling bear imprinted on it. And with it, a postcard, in Abby’s handwriting: “You were right. You usually are.”
She gave me the details of a positive pregnancy test. She’d already taken a follow-up, just to make sure. It had taken all her self-control, she admitted, not to tell me earlier, but she didn’t want to get my hopes up for no reason.
We spent the rest of the night talking and planning: when the baby would come, how we would arrange prenatal care in Sydney, whether we should immediately rule out all names starting with A (alliterative families being one of my chief phobias). I told Abby I hoped the kid would somehow adopt an accent in utero.
A woman doesn’t get pregnant in Sydney; she falls pregnant. Primip is shorthand for primipara, a woman during her first pregnancy. It can also refer to a woman with just one child. A multip is a woman who has given birth more than once. A woman who has given birth once but is pregnant with her second is also a primip, not yet a multip. It would be reductive to think of mob, which often refers to a tribal group or extended network, as interchangeable for family among Aboriginal Australians.
In the early 1970s, Eddie Mabo worked as a gardener at James Cook University. He’d been born on Murray Island, situated in the Torres Strait, before moving to Townsville, which had once been known as the Thuringowa area. The popular version of Mabo’s story is this: a couple of history professors were eating lunch when Mabo—known to friends as Koiki—stopped for a chat. They started talking about his ancestral home, the island that he would have called Mer. It was a lush place with a volcanic center. It was home to eight tribes, including Mabo’s ancestors. He often thought about returning to his land there, he told the historians.
His land? They had to break it to him. The island didn’t belong to him. It belonged to the Crown. It had been discovered by the British.
No, Mabo insisted. His people had a system of inheritance that had lasted more than 2,000 years before whites arrived. He was a rightful heir.
But when the settlers had come, they didn’t or couldn’t see the people living on the island—couldn’t see them as people, as legitimate owners. Like the Australian mainland, Mabo’s friends might have told him, the island was claimed under the colonial legal principle of terra nullius, or nobody’s land. International law stipulated that if territory wasn’t populated (or, perhaps, insufficiently used or built upon), the colonizing power could freely claim it. And thus terra nullius was deployed in legalizing invasion and genocide by denying that such things could have even taken place.
In the 1970s, Mabo and other Aboriginal activists brought lawsuits against the Australian government, challenging ownership based on the misapplication of terra nullius. White Australians were asked to acknowledge their land had, generations ago, relied on their ancestors pretending Aboriginal and islander communities hadn’t existed. In some cases, these claimants denied the same indigenous people that had helped settlers survive in the rugged bushland.
Mabo and four of his Mer-born compatriots hoped to legally establish their ownership of Murray Island, arguing against the legitimacy of terra nullius. For ten years, their case was heard before the Queensland Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia. Mabo’s was a test case for the nation’s so-called “history wars,” a litany of public debates about whether Australia was built on a relatively peaceful collaboration between colonizers and indigenous communities, or whether the Australian story was actually one of dispossession and exploitation.
Mabo died in 1992, five months before the court ruled to overturn all terra nullius claims. The next year, Parliament passed the Native Title Act to formally acknowledge indigenous land claims, allowing some latitude for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to decide how to use their ancestral grounds and waters. About 15 percent of Australian land is now recognized as belonging to its traditional owners, typically managed through more than 600 Land Use Agreements, under which control is still a matter of negotiation with the Australian government.
Three years after Mabo’s death, following a celebration of the court case that would come to bear his name, vandals spray-painted swastikas and slurs on his tombstone. They stole a bronze stature erected in Mabo’s likeness – another desperate attempt to deny his existence.
For contemporary Aboriginal people, the word deadly connotes excellence. Gravida, from the Latin word meaning “heavy,” refers to pregnancies no matter the outcome. Young Australians, especially, use the shorter devo to mean “devastated.” Nulliparous refers to a woman who has never given birth, gravida notwithstanding.
I never saw it – the blood. I don’t know whether it trickled or clotted or just flowed. I didn’t ask. I remember Abby walking through the door of the bathroom, only a few feet from the couch where I sat. I wanted to see, maybe. I wanted to go and gaze into the water and see what was there or not there, but it had already been flushed away. Maybe if I had seen it I would be able to say, to think, what it was.
We did what anyone of our generation does. We took to the internet, first to deny the worst, then to deconstruct it. Medical knowledge about early pregnancy is incomplete, largely because it is impossible to observe some of the initial germination. Pregnancy is something of a black box; we know what goes in and what comes out. It is nearly impossible to say, in any individual case, exactly what mix of chemical or organic arrangement was inhospitable for life to develop.
If Abby and I hadn’t watched so closely for that first pregnancy, we might have never known it was there. It might have passed without us thinking twice. Surely this happens to countless women, countless times.
In any case, ours seemed – not just then, but soon after – such a minor tragedy. It wasn’t a pregnancy we’d agonized over for months, and it wasn’t the loss of a child. We hadn’t struggled, or seen fertility doctors, or undergone treatments. Less than a footnote to a footnote’s footnote in the history of human tragedy. Barely enough for an essay, even.
And yet, in the days after I scrambled for explanation. I resorted to – maybe I romanticized – a roughly translated version of Aboriginal epistemology, one that posits a non-hierarchical structure for the world. In this line of thinking, there are complex natural systems, but even humans must perform their role the same way sea kelp or a wombat or even a rock might. People don’t own the earth but in some sense are the land and water and animals. There is no great difference between people and not-people because all things flow into one another.
And so, I wanted to believe, whatever had been there – bundle of cells or protein-formations or insignificant biological matter – it had been there, person or not. That might be enough to mourn, if only I could know for sure.
If you’re far from buildings and power lines and streets, you’re in the woop-woop. As many as 75 percent of miscarriages can be attributed to chemical pregnancy, which medical providers describe as a random occurrence, during which chromosomal abnormalities prevent full implantation. Wellama means to return or come back.
There once was a place called Yerroulbine, but by the time we stepped foot on the notch of bushland jutting southward into Sydney Harbour, it was Ball’s Head Reserve. Abby and I had ridden the train northward to Waverton station on a Sunday afternoon, with snacks and bottled water bouncing in my pack as we trekked through a middle-class neighborhood of federation-style homes.
At the north end of the reserve, we followed a path to a defunct coal loader, where a tunnel ran through the massive concrete structure. When we stood at one end, the rectangular hallway subverted our sense of scale. It looked like the other side might have been thirty feet away, or three yards, or maybe a third of a mile. The sun, bright as it was outside, could not penetrate the middle stretches. Water dripped and pooled. For almost a hundred years this had been the site of frenzied industry, men stacking and pulling and carting coal. Before that, it had been pristine bushland in the Wollstonecraft Estate, and before that, home to the Cammeraygal people. Now it lay quiet. We walked through.
In the middle of the tunnel, in its darkest spot, rock surrounded us totally. Buried us. We stopped for a moment there. Abby didn’t say anything, and neither did I. I looked back the way we came. It might have been farther away than the other side. I couldn’t say. We kept on.
We walked past organic gardens and the Coal Loader Centre for Sustainability, built recently in an effort to undo the environmental damage of the previous century. Past that, gum trees gave shelter to flying foxes, some of the megabats we often saw circling overhead in the Sydney twilight. The trails at Ball’s Head also led us past caves Sydneysiders had made into homes during the Great Depression. The squatters carved out shelves and bunks and rooms, so they might sit cross-legged around a fire, looking out over the slow roll of the harbor. The paths led, too, past sites of Aboriginal art, burial spots and middens. Loss and renewal in an indelible cross-hatch through the earth.
At the tip of Ball’s Head, just off the path, we scrambled down the rocks to a cliff-face high enough from the waves the spray couldn’t touch us. We were supposed to talk about going home. I was due to book our return flight to the states, where we faced the discomfiting prospect of resuming the life we’d had before. We would have some hard choices about which things to pack into our luggage and which to leave behind.
I opened the backpack and pulled out our water bottles and a couple of apples. The rock was damp beneath us, but the place was sunny and quiet and unforgivably beautiful. The city rose sparkling on the south side of the harbor, ferries and party boats punctuating the waves between us and downtown.
We could find another apartment back in Chicago, we figured, and buy new furniture. I told Abby I was lukewarm about the prospects of returning to my doctoral program. We didn’t talk about trying again. Not yet.
“Should we tell people?”
“People never talk about it,” Abby said. “Especially when it happens so early. I don’t even know what to say.”
“Should we use the m-word?”
She shook her head, sipped at her water bottle. “No. That’s not right.”
It wasn’t, of course. A miscarriage requires a fetus, and our – whatever it was – didn’t make it that far. What you call a thing matters. The language calls it into being. We could call it a loss, maybe, and let people understand what that meant.
We didn’t know then that it wouldn’t be our first loss, or that, after we’d become disillusioned and decided to take a break for a while, the losses would stop.
We had seen a dozen other hikers around Ball’s Head that day, but on the rock overlooking the water, we felt alone. The city could be like that.
The air off Sydney Harbour is salty and thin and carries music, the calls of cockatoos and waves against the rocks of Barangaroo. A city of gleaming towers and dim-sum houses and pie shops and beachfront cafes throbbed along the edge of the water, and still the magic loneliness of the place was undeniable. It was possible to feel totally at the cusp of life, isolated enough to touch the boundaries of everything. To think about everything that had been there and everything yet to come.
“I threw away the card,” I told Abby, “the one you gave me that night.”
She nodded. “You weren’t wrong. You just didn’t know.”
Alex Luft’s work has appeared in Yemassee, Midwestern Gothic and other magazines. He reads prose for Quarterly West and teaches writing in Chicago.