I had never thought of myself as a smuggler until my father compelled me to visit Australia. Thoughts of seeing him for the first time in half of my life had distracted me to the point that the Customs officer was forced, rather impatiently, to repeat her half-constructed question. “Articles to declare?” she insisted. Still new to English, I struggled with all her vowels.
“Oh, yes,” I started apologetically. “I disposed of some fruit, back there.” This, I told her unblinking face directly. Perhaps I hoped that she’d declare me a hero for wasting produce. When she didn’t, I delivered the answer she was seeking, word by carefully chosen word, into the vortex of her silence. “I have…nothing else to declare.”
Trailing her pen across my form like a Spirograph, she had nearly handed it back to me when something on her X-Ray screen snatched her attention, causing her hand to snatch back my documents. She turned the screen toward me on its spindle, and pointed accusingly to a translucent angle. “What’s this?”
I squinted just enough to give the question polite consideration. “It is a boomerang,” I answered. Some reflex urged me to add, “I am bringing it home.”
“Mate,” she snapped, in a startling imperative, “I can see that it’s a boomerang. I need to know what it’s made of.”
“Gum tree, I believe,” I stumbled. Suddenly, this territory felt much more distant than the thousands of miles I had travelled. “Not the whole tree, of course, but—”
Redundantly, she demanded to know, “Is the article made of wood?”
Her interruption bit with a fierceness that would, in my country, have been uttered only by the vilest of enemies. In my innocence, the answer seemed so obvious that I floundered for a response. “Well, a gum tree…is it, uh, in your language, made of…”
“Mate,” she commanded me again, making me look over my shoulder, “Australia is a closed ecosystem. You can’t bring in wooden articles.” She split this word, ‘articles,’ into three distinct syllables that each pounded like ammunition.
My mother’s warnings about travelling began to creep into my belly and gestate apologies that I hoped would evoke some humanity from this woman. “I have only just arrived,” I explained, “and there are things here that I do not understand.”
“Nup. Ain’t gonna fly. You would’ve heard on the plane that we don’t allow untreated wood into the country.”
“No concern,” I reassured her, now seeing the misunderstanding clearly. “I have treated it well. I have cared for it since my father made it a gift. A gift for me, years ago.” My smile reached into the space between us, striving to soothe her fears and set me on my way. “I am bringing it home.”
But my smile betrayed us both by patronizing her, and that angered her further. “So your Dad gives you a present, and you think you can just sneak it over the border without submitting it for treatment. Is that it?”
I sifted through this for a moment, trying to chase thoughts that her accusations had shattered and set adrift in a hundred directions. “No, I think—I think you misunderstand. The wood is OK. It came from here—your country—many years ago.”
“What I understand,” she mimicked, scooping my documents into a fist and lifting a gate to exit her station, “is that you need to explain this to my supervisor.”
Glancing nervously between her receding brown uniform and the ghostly image of the precious boomerang through my bag, I willed my legs into the decision to follow her. I did not understand very much about travelling, but one lesson that my mother had drilled with me was to keep my passport surgically attached to some part of my body at all times. Now, my passport was on its way through crowds of exhausted tourists, couriered by someone who had found a way to be angry with me for owning a souvenir.
So, I left my bag behind to follow the boomerang that I had brought halfway across the globe. The crowds between us were slow to forgive our collisions as I tried to keep up. Harassed from their own problems travelling, they treated me to snarls from a language never learned in any school.
“Get off, ya tosser!”
“You a bit unco, champion?”
“Your eyes wrapped in cotton-wool, mate?”
‘Mate.’ The customs agent had used that verb, too. I remembered it from my English lessons, and it wasn’t polite. In fact, my friends and I used something like it to swear in English during breaks: ‘Mate Off,’ we would say to each other, or so I vaguely remembered.
“Wait,” I panted, catching up to her at a door I would later learn was made from Formica. “I very much need those papers to see my father.”
“Well, then,” she settled, escorting me into a stark, white room, “you’d better ‘very much’ hope that my boss likes your story better than I do.”
So I sat, with an ageing fluorescent tube flickering above me, awaiting this inexplicably angered woman’s ‘boss.’ I was there long enough for my thoughts to repeat in a kind of cycle: my father’s gift, our years apart, returning again and again to the importance of bringing it to him now. He was unlikely to wait, if I failed.
After a mountain of moments, a burly man entered, with my documents in one hand and my father’s boomerang in the other. It was the item that held his attention, revolving again and again between his fingers as he examined it. “It’s a bit of authentic, ain’t it?” he asked admiringly, mounting a chair in reverse across the table from me. “Good nick.”
“No, I am not,” I protested, seeing another error threaten to compound the situation.
The man glanced up at me only then, through the tops of his eyes as one would a distraction. I could see that he had once been athletic, but this career had left him only big: still big in the jawline and chest, but also in the jowls and the stomach. Both of them shook from the bass of his voice.
“You’re not what?” he asked.
“I am not Nick.”
He changed a little in response to this, emitting a burst of air through his nostrils that was something like a laugh. “Mate,” he asked, abusing that verb again, “why didn’t you just declare it?”
After less than an hour with these Australians, I had already learned that they were nearly impervious to explanations. Still, the importance of the days ahead left me no choice but to make him understand. “It was a gift for me when I was a boy,” I objected. “There are things in your country I do not understand, such as the need to declare this. I would, of course, declare something alive, or poisonous.” Supporting my head with fingers against each temple, I tried to forge my words into a promise. “I would declare something dangerous.”
He held the boomerang aloft, examining its silhouette against the tube above my head that flickered the aboriginal design into light and shadow. Dreamtime snakes appeared in the flickers, making promises through their poisonous fangs.
“It’s a weapon,” he argued, “in some cultures. I’d call that dangerous.” He laid it gently on the table between us, just slightly closer to him, and then slapped my passport and Customs documents between them with a force that bordered on disrespect. “Righteyo,” he decided. “Normally, we’d just confiscate undeclared dangerous goods, but I’m gonna help you out. We’ll put it in for chemical and radiation treatments, and you can pick it up in seven to ten.”
For a moment, I felt a sense of relief that this would all be over in ten minutes. Then, my mind registered the amount of time that I had spent just waiting to deal with two people upset by a toy, and my relief collapsed into a miasma of panic. “Do you mean ten days?”
“’Course, ten days,” he answered obviously. “Wouldn’t take us weeks.”
With that, he was finished. The boomerang that my father so urgently needed would soon be on its way, in his beefy and confident grip, to be sprayed like a crop and bathed with invisible light. I needed something to say that would make him stay until he understood, but an inventory of my limited English left me with only one choice.
He was rising to escort us both from the room when the single syllable I had uttered froze him in disbelief. Before he could open his sizable jaw to respond, I elaborated on my ultimatum.
“You must stop. I must take this home to my father. It must be tomorrow.”
This made him laugh, louder than before but, somehow, without the amusement. “You don’t have a choice, mate.”
And that was when I remembered the word. ‘Mate.’ I hadn’t heard it used this way for years, but it wasn’t always a verb. As a nickname, it was an expression of friendship that my father himself had used on the terrible day he had left. I knew, now, that I could reason with a man who was my ‘mate,’ so I rose to my feet to do so.
“There are things about your country,” I repeated, “that I do not understand. Your fear of…furniture…is one of them. Some of your words are baffling, also.” I lanced his gaze with mine, to quell the protest that I sensed was surfacing. “And Melanoma. This, I understand least of all: sunshine that kills.”
The fluorescent tube flickered above us, bathing his creasing face in visible light. His silence told me that he was beginning to comprehend, so I filled his silence by tapping the boomerang he had in his grasp. “He gave this to me, when I was a boy. My father. He told me to keep it, because boomerangs return. You throw them away,” I mimed, tossing my hand against a phantom sky, “and they return home. Always home.”
He looked down at the boomerang, and bounced it lightly in his grip. “And did it?” he asked. “Come back home, I mean?”
Now that my grasp of the language is stronger, I know that this would have seemed a strange question to most. To me, though, his words made more sense than any uttered that day, and I shook my head in response. “Only today. At the time, a mere gift was not enough. He was leaving, and I was a boy. There were things then…I did not understand.”
Light softened around him as the tube finally extinguished. Now he had a choice, that hefty Australian, which I doubt he had ever made before. The arc of wood in his grip had once been a living tree, and his government told him that this made it dangerous. Still, there are some dangers—like chemicals and radiation—that trees or people should never be forced to endure.
Other dangers—like forgiveness—everyone should.
Sitting back down, he struck a line through the word gum on the form, and wrote in another word that I would only learn later: Formica. There were some signatures, some risks, and a crushing handshake. Then, my good mate watched me from the doorway of his office, while I smuggled my father’s boomerang home.
K. Alan Leitch has slept in the Borneo jungle, sailed a catamaran through a hurricane, set a record for collecting Monopoly games and written about it all. What he writes depends on who he wants to reach: YA for the kids, Speculative for the nerds, or literary fiction to make his Mom feel like he’s doing something good. With more than twenty short stories published in the WOW journal, The Compassion Anthology, and Writer Advice—oh, and Gathering Storm Magazine, Stringybark Stories, KYSO Flash, Ink & Sword Magazine and the Sheepshead Review and more—his unpublished novels have placed in the Eyelands Book Awards and Geist’s 3-Day Novel competition. His YA mystery, Too Much Information, also placed among the top ten of 1,974 entries in the Book Pipeline competition. Watch out for his forthcoming fantasy adventure, Olivia Tames Olympus, and read the prequel online. You can also find links to his other stories at his website.
‘Gram, Tweet or Tumble him @KAlanAuthor