(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)
A p a c k a g e arrived from India. "I love parcels like this," the postmistress said. Wrapped in cotton, soft as a teddy bear, it had been stitched up, with a dribble of brown wax sealing each end. I could smell textile dressing and dust. The addresses were written in blue pen on the cotton in a careful but flowing script.
The package had traveled from desert to desert—from Rajasthan’s yellow sands in India to the deep red earth of Central Australia. It snuggled against my thigh as I drove around the Rock. I am a doctor. My wife and I live near Uluru, where my services are needed by the Traditional Owners, the Aboriginal community who are the custodians of this historic rock.
For the Traditional Owners, Uluru is sacred; it is not for climbing. Instead, there are miles of complex caves, copses, and valleys inside and around the Rock that we are allowed to explore. The Rock could be as repulsive as it could be radiant. When the desert sun burns, the Rock emits superheat. The rangers told tales of tourists tumbling, their body parts getting strewn among the boulders.
I knew what the package held. I had ordered cotton scarves, but received an email a week after I paid to say that the scarves were actually silk and would madam mind? They were inexpensive and a woman can never have too much silk, so I agreed. Five weeks later, here they were: twelve silk scarves, each wrapped in a tight coil the size of a small fist. The way they were wrapped bore the imprint of strong hands. They must have been wrapped wet, I thought, as I cut the package open at home.
I'd originally ordered the cotton scarves because they were a perfect size and texture for wrapping around my head. I had a collection of about eight, which came with matching outfits from a tailor at a night market in Delhi where I attended a medical conference in 2004. Most of the matching tunics and trousers had long worn out or had been given away, but I was still using the scarves. The only suit I still owned was a lovely red, gold, and earth-colored salwar kameez. With contrasting purple orchids in my hair, it became my wedding dress. These were the colors of the place we now lived in.
I have a big head and big hair. My hair is thick, fine, and wavy. I wear it in dreadlocks—the local people called them “ropes” in their language—a rough-looking hairstyle that benefits from the elegance of a cozily wrapped scarf.
Many of my patients love my matted and coiled hair as an expression of my indigenous roots. They sense the value I have for my own history in the accumulated knots of my woven hair, and they feel that value extended toward them. A few years ago, I visited an old people’s home in Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is an opal mining town. Milky pink and blue opals are chipped out of the rock there. It’s so hot that those who can afford it live underground.
Some of the old Aboriginal people at the home recognized the hair of their nomadic families in the look and feel of my ropes. An old woman in her eighties or nineties, still healthy despite multiple heartbreaks, became reflective as she felt a rope of hair in her fingers. Children and grandchildren had passed away from the diseases of colonization—the grog, the sugar. Perhaps my hair reminded her of the days she sat on her father’s shoulders as they walked through the desert.
My scarves keep me warm when the wind is cold, cool when the sun is strong. They keep the dust out of my hair and protect me from head lice when I hug a sick child close. I can use them to wrap a baby or a frail old person, or as an instant picnic or tablecloth. I would hate to use one as a bandage, but I could.
I shook out a silk scarf and watched it drift down like ink. Three of the scarves were of especially fine silk, such as chiffon or georgette. They had gold-beaded borders delicate enough to be exquisite, heavy enough to stop the scarf (or, to use its correct name, dupatta) from blowing away. The other silk scarves were coarser, but only relatively speaking. There were two brown ones and two silver ones; all the others were different colors. One was an exhilarating aqua.
Most of the scarves had been tie-dyed. Many had rows of visible needle holes where they had been stitched to create a ripple effect. The silver ones had silver and blue ripples. Another was made of pink and orange ripples. Some had been dipped in dye at the ends, such as a somber scarf with navy blue ends that was a dark grey in the middle. I thought that one might be good to wear in the hospital or at a funeral. Yet another was a brilliant golden yellow with rust-colored diamond shapes and rich, brown borders.
I filled our rusty bath, which took about forty minutes. We have very low water pressure because it is difficult to dig deep into the baked earth and the pipes run shallow. I made a foam with sweet smelling shampoo and left the pink, orange, and red scarves to soak in the cool water. Later, when I came back to squeeze them, the water had colored. The silks opened in spirals, wrapping sensuously around my hand.
I wrung them out, aware that my hands were not as strong as those that had coiled the scarves in India. I found a clean bucket and took them out to hang on the line, where they looked supernatural, floating in the wind against the blue desert sky and the dark red soil. The chiffon scarves were like a screen in a theater set, now revealing, now concealing. Like Uluru, which changes colors according to the time of the day and the season. The rippling tie-dyed scarves, especially the silver ones, played tricks on my eyes. It reminded me of the Rock by moonlight.
I washed the scarves in batches. By the time I'd finished washing a group of them, those on the line would be dry, so I could roll them up smelling of the sun. But not before I'd tried each on, checking that the color and texture flattered my complexion and hair. It was a glamorous morning.
(Janelle Trees is a doctor who works in very remote parts of Australia and the Pacific. She is a descendant of the Thunghutti [Aboriginal] clan of New South Wales and is joyously peripatetic with her wife, photographer Claudia Jocher.)