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  • The Rivers of Babylon
  • Deborah Bird Rose (bio)

I had a little breathing vent that was also my peephole. Tucked into my swag on a freezing night in the Simpson Desert of Central Australia, I could look out and watch the stars. Orion is one of the great night folk: in winter, in the desert, in the hours that are so early that dark is all there is, Orion lies seductively low on the horizon. Even peering out through my little airhole I could see him and feel happy.

He is said to be a mighty hunter, and maybe he is, but that's not what matters. Nobody who was just chasing rabbits would wear his belt slung low at that interesting and supremely attractive angle. He is chasing the Seven Sisters, and he really gives them a run—all over Australia, north and south, east and west, and all around the whole world. Call him what you will, everywhere people seem to know that it is women he's hunting. I knew him in North America, where I grew up with him, and when I came to Australia, I started hearing about his adventures in this country. I imagined him wearing an Aboriginal belt: a well-ochred string with the brightest and shiniest of pearl shells strategically placed. Actually, I didn't fully appreciate the meaning of men's thighs until I saw Aboriginal men dance. Even the oldest greybeard can make you feel dizzy as you sit on the ground with your eyes fastened on…but these are not the best thoughts for a lady in a single swag on a night when it's way too cold to even go for a walk. Best to leave Orion to his nightly chase and try to get some sleep…

In the morning it was clear that the Seven Sisters had been running all around the camp that night. The tarp was covered with ice, and I could almost hear Uncle Fred Biggs telling the story. Roland Robinson wrote it up years ago and called it "The Star Tribes":

And there's those Seven Sisters, travelling Across the sky. They make the real cold frost. You hear them when you're camped out on the plains. They look down from the sky and see our fire And "Mai, mai, mai," they'd sing out as they run Across the sky. And, when you wake, you find Your swag, the camp, the plains, all white with frost. [End Page 1]

Such beauty, such stories, oh Lord what a morning!

The sky is full of stories of desire wherever you go, but I still felt lonely for the northern stars. When you say goodbye to your familiar night folk, you feel a strange loss. Knowing that there are no bears here on the ground in Australia makes sense of the fact that there are no bears in the sky—they wouldn't fit. And yet I like to think of them shining so beautifully in their own country.

It takes time to get to know new stars, but when I began to make their acquaintance, I found that though I was far from the Bears, I was now close to Crocodiles—both the Sky folk and their Earthly countrymen. At first I only knew of the Southern Cross through the words of Mark Twain. He was not impressed:

We are moving steadily southward—getting further and further down under the projecting paunch of the globe. Yesterday evening we saw the Big Dipper and the north star sink below the horizon and disappear from our world…. [But] my interest was all in the Southern Cross. I had never seen that. I had heard about it all my life, and it was but natural that I should be burning to see it. No other constellation makes so much talk….Judging by the size of the talk which the Southern Cross had made, I supposed it would need a sky all to itself.

But that was a mistake. We saw the Cross to-night, and it is not large. Not large, and not strikingly bright….It is ingeniously named, for it looks just as a...