The Fish and the Shadow (as retold by Richard Trudgen in Why warriors lie down and die, 2000, pp. 161-163). This story was originally told by an Yolngu man (Arnhem Land, NT), Tony Binalany Gunbalga, in response to a government worker who was trying to get their community to embrace unemployment benefits in the late 1970’s. The government worker couldn’t understand why the old people were resisting the generous offer…
He told the following story.
A long time ago, somewhere near here, there was a billabong. It was very beautiful, with calm clear water and water lilies growing across the surface. In the water lived some fish families – mother and father fish, old fish, young fish. They were very happy and loved their home.
Every morning the fish woke up and went about their work. The mother and father fish went off hunting for food, working hard all day. The young fish went with them, learning everything they could from their parents: where to find the best food, how to catch it and how to be on guard against sea eagles, ducks and other enemies. Their parents taught them many things about life while they worked together.
In the evening all the fish came together and shared the different types of food they had found during the day. They also told stories about the day’s activities. If any fish had done something funny during the day, other fish acted it out, making everybody laugh. At night the fish went to sleep early, tired from their day’s work.
The old fish taught the younger ones discipline of mind, body and soul, giving them direction and advice on all aspects of life. The young ones listened in awe to their wise counsel, hoping not to miss or forget even one word. The fish all shared responsibility for life in the billabong. They lived well and were very happy. They didn’t depend on anyone else or leave their work to others.
Then one day about four o’clock in the afternoon, the fish saw a shadow fall across the water. Something stood near the billabong. The fish had not seen anything like it before. The shadow threw something white into the water. The fish saw it land on the surface, sending rings out across the billabong. They all shrank back, fearful as the white stuff sank to the bottom.
After a while a couple of brave fish – there are always a couple in any mob – swam up gingerly to the white stuff. They nibbled it, finding the taste funny at first. But they nibbled it again and again until there was none left. When the white stuff and the shadow had gone, all the fish went back to their hunting and other work.
Four o’clock the next day the shadow came again. This time, because all the fish had been talking about the shadow and the white stuff, many more came out of hiding to taste it.
The shadow came again and again at four o’clock every afternoon. Now the fish quickly grabbed at bits of this white stuff, trying to eat as much as they could because it was free for the taking. The fish found the taste bland but it filled them up. As time went on they named the white stuff ‘bread’. The shadow threw bread to the fish every day, giving it freely.
Slowly the life of the fish started to change. They waited for the shadow to come every afternoon. At first they still went out in the morning to gather some tasty food for themselves and returned in the afternoon for the shadow. But when the shadow saw that lots of fish were interested in the bread, it threw more and more into the billabong. Soon the fish were not going out in the morning any more. They just waited around for the shadow to feed them.
For the first time in their existence, the fish found themselves bored at night. There were no more interesting stories to tell about the day’s experiences and they were not tired because they had done no work. Many stayed up most of the night because sleep would not come until the early hours of the morning. They started to find other ways to take up their time, gambling and things like that. This caused many arguments. Soon the fish were getting up late, but this was not a problem because they only had to wait for a while before the shadow came. The bread was still bland, but it was easy food and the fish had grown too lazy to care.
Trouble, however, was brewing. Some fish, completely forgetting their old cooperative ways, raced to get to the bread first. ‘We were the first to taste the bread when you were all scared, so the shadow’s bread belongs to us. You mob go away and find your own shadow,’ they argued. Others said, ‘the shadow comes to our end of the billabong. That means the bread belongs to us.’ They fought and jostled each other out of the way. Fish got hurt, which caused arguments between families. Sometimes these arguments went on for a long time, causing bigger fights. The fish had stopped thinking about each other; they only thought about themselves.
Then the old fish became very sad because the young fish had no respect any more. They did whatever they liked, following their undisciplined desires. It was all too hard to deal with. Many old fish became so sad that they died.
More and more the fish’s life changed. They didn’t teach their young ones the old ways any more. And they took and kept the bread for themselves, wanting it desperately, their hearts held by it. Many fish mistakenly thought the bread must be good for them because it made them all very fat.
Then the shadow began to change. Usually it came right on time and the fish were happy. But sometimes the shadow came a little late. This made the fish angry. ‘Why is it keeping us waiting?’ It knows we’ve been waiting all day,’ they cried. Then the day came when the shadow forgot to bring bread at all. As this became more frequent, the fish got really mad, swearing at the shadow and even threatening to hurt it in some way. But these threats only made the fish feel very weak because they knew their threats were hollow. They could not hurt the shadow; it was too powerful. It lived outside the billabong where no fish had ever lived. And only it knew the source of the bread on which they had come to depend.
There was now a deep feeling of emptiness and shame within the fish. They didn’t value or even think about anything other than bread any more. They lived badly, unhappily, with their hearts and spirits bound. Their lives became powerless and meaningless. They got sick because of their troubled thinking and couldn’t sleep at night. They had no peace of mind and felt deeply insecure, not knowing who they were or where they belonged.
Then came the time when the shadow no longer fell on the water. maybe the source of the bread had dried up. All the fish grew skinny and lamented its passing, because they were too weak to go hunting for themselves or didn’t know how. They had forgotten the way of the ngurrnggitj (black charcoal) – the time-honoured way of their ancestors.