The Fish Moon

One of the favourite foods of the Arnhem Land people is the beautiful purple water lily. When the flower dies it forms a dense knob of seeds which the women grind between stones, form into a dough and bake in the ashes of the fire. The flower itself, its stalk and its bulb are all eaten. The long stems stretch from the mud on the bed of the billabong to the surface of the water, and these taste a little like celery.

The water lily bulbs are gathered after the flowers have died; they lie undetected in the rich mud, and groups of women search for them as prized delicacies. In muddy water the women feel with their toes in the soft mud until they find them, but in clear billabongs on hot days they prefer to dive in and feel with their hands. These highly nutritious, chestnut-like vegetables are then roasted in the fire.

The sisters swam across the channel that divided the island from the mainland and pulled themselves up the rocky shore. It was not a large island but many trees grew there, and there was an open grassy space which contained a tiny lake, where the water glistened with the changing colours of an opal.

‘This is a good place to be,’ one of the women said. ‘I would like to live here for ever. Just think, no babies to feed, no food to cook, water to drink right at our feet, grass growing on the hot ground, and shady trees to shelter us from the sun.’

‘And no one to bother us,’ her sister replied, throwing herself on the grassy carpet and stretching luxuriously. ‘Wonderful! But we couldn’t live here for ever.’

‘Why not?’

‘Why not? Don’t be silly. We would miss the men after a while. It wouldn’t really be exciting, would it?’

‘Excitement! Who wants excitement all the time? Much better to rest and eat, sleep and play, whenever we feel like it.’

‘But what about food? What could we live on?’

‘Roots and shellfish and grubs. Probably there are yams somewhere, and there must be water-lily roots in the lake…’

She sat up and pointed excitedly, ‘…and fish! Look!’

The rounded back of a large fish curved out of the water and slid out of sight. The woman jumped up and ran round the edge of the lake to a place where a rock hung over the water. She lay flat on her belly, the fingers of one hand clutching the edge of the rock. In the other hand she held a spear, point down, ready to strike. The fish swam unsuspectingly below the rock. There was a flurry in the water as the spear flashed in the sunlight and pierced its body.

‘Quick, sister, come and help me!’

They jumped into the lake, caught the dying fish in their hands, and threw it on to the bank.

‘There!’ gasped the woman who had speared it. ‘I told you there was plenty of food. It’s as easy as that. You can gather a big pile of firewood while I find a place to make an oven.’

The fire was soon crackling merrily, and before long the sand and stones were hot enough to bake the fish.

‘Doesn’t it smell good?’

‘Yes, maybe,’ the other said grudgingly, ‘but fish is not much good by itself. we need roots and all sorts of vegetable food.’

‘What an aggravating woman you are…never satisfied with anything. I tell you this island has everything we want. take your digging stick and see what you can find over there. I’ll go in the other direction. You see, we’ll soon have as much as we can eat. Don’t forget to take your dilly bag with you. You’ll need it.’

Much later they returned, their bags well filled, their mouths watering at the thought of the feast that was in store for them. They made their way to where the column of smoke was rising lazily in the still evening air, and looked down at the fire in astonishment. The stones shimmered with the heat, but the fish was gone.


The fish was half-way up the trunk, climbing steadily upwards. The woman who had speared it caught the lowest branch and began to climb the tree but her sister clung on to her and said, ‘Don’t be foolish. You might fall and injure yourself. Where can the fish go? When it reaches the small branches at the top it will probably fall, and we can put it back on the fire.’

They watched the fish growing smaller as it inched its way up the trunk. The top swayed to and fro when it reached the uppermost twigs, but the fish did not stop. It floated upwards where the black mantel of night and the twinkling stars had veiled the blue sky. By now the fish had swelled until it was perfectly round. It’s skin was silver and shining with a steady light. The women watched it for hours until it drifted away and sank behind the hills of the mainland.

Two puzzled women lay close to the fire that night. When morning came they cooked the vegetables they had gathered, and roasted cockles in the embers of the fire. They could hardly wait for night to come to see if the fish would appear in the sky. The sun went down, and they knew that the fish was coming long before they saw it, because a radiance was streaming across the eastern sky. It rose slowly and majestically, but it was a little smaller than it had been when it climbed the tree and escaped form the earth. It was no longer round but slightly flatted as though it had been lying on its side.

Every night the sky was clear. Every night the fish made its long journey from east to west. Every night it grew smaller until, after many nights, it was only a thin, curved sliver of light… and then it was gone, and everything was dark. the island seemed a pleasant place no longer. As soon as morning came the sisters swam back to their own home, to the husbands they had deserted, and to the unending work that is the lot of those who bear children.

There came an evening when the fish appeared again in the east. Every night it grew larger until it was perfectly round. Then something began to eat it away, but it grew once more, and dwindled, and grew, as it has been doing ever since.