River Story

by
August 2020, no. 423

River Story

by
August 2020, no. 423

A crow-shaped shadow flies across the river. Juna knows that her daughter is coming, so the right thing to do is make her favourite feed.

Juna casts a fishing net over the river with her mind. The net drifts onto the surface, slips under the skin, and is swallowed by the water. The net descends through the deep water slowly, resting on the bed. River grass unflattens and pokes up between the spaces. Juna sings a song to attract fish to the area. The bulging tide turns the river over like a slow screw, and the net follows, one corner lifting and twisting over and over itself like a tight cigarette.

Pulling the corners of the net together, Juna tugs it back into her mind. It is heavy with water and fish. Inside her skull, she unrolls the net and five dirty silver bream, one deep charcoal catfish, and a dove-grey nurse shark begin to flop and bounce. The shark bares its teeth, its black eyes not giving anything away.

She inhales the shark and the catfish and the smaller bream into her throat, then breathes them out with a force so sharp they fly through the walls of her skull, through the window, and splash back into the river. While they are all busy reorienting themselves, the shark eats the catfish and swims away from the haunted place.

The three remaining bream flop heavier and less frequently, embodying all the drama of dying. The exertion of gasping weighs on their bodies, the way Juna feels when she breathes in her body. They stop jumping, shuddering to a shivering then a stillness. She imagines this is the way her lungs will stop working inside her comatose form.

 

Gracey enters her mother’s room. In her huge soft bed beside the window, Juna is cradled in sunlight. Gracey prowls over to the bed.

‘Hey Mum,’ Gracey’s voice catches. ‘Long time no see.’

Gracey inhales; the room is musty. She treads over to the window and opens it up to clear out her Mum’s sick breath circulating through the room. The river shimmers. It is very low, but at least there is some water – last time she was here it was bone dry. The skin of the water buzzes and cracks, licking the air, tasting the storm which is to come.

She sits on the bed beside her mother. Juna looks like she’s asleep, sipping air and panting it out. Clear plastic tubes catch the light, drip fluid into her wrist from the machine next to the bed. She looks soft, fragile, too different. From her eyes, Gracey projects her sorrow onto her mother. Unspoken words of regret and sorry business dance in the space between their faces. The heart monitor beeps steady.

Juna’s white hair has grown out in thin, soft wisps, barely hiding the skin of her scalp. Baby hairs are stuck down on her damp face, forming spit curls that frame her creased brown face in translucent waves. Her dearth of hair accentuates her fragile neck and round skull.

‘Same haircut as me, aye, Mum? Gracey’s fingers brush through Juna’s hair, mussing up the smooth nap and combing out moisture from the soft cotton wool. Detritus falls from her scalp like dust from an old book. Juna’s hair frizzes and floats.

 

Juna’s synapses are firing, old circuits lighting up like a refired grid. Neurons spark and spread like wildfire. Her daughter is here, in a way, but she’s still feeling too sorry for herself to be present. Always so serious, that girl.

In her mind, Juna takes each fish and lays them on the hardwood bench she’s set up over her left temple. She separates their bodies from their heads with her machete, fins and tails them, and shaves them down with her scaling knife. Opalescent confetti dances over the ground, sequins sticking to her arms. Her meaty hands became slick in the handling.

She slits a fish from arsehole to throat, and opens it up like a thick pink purse. The flesh is cold and sticky. She locates the dimensions of its spine and removes the entire skeleton in one go. Without its internal framework, the body is malleable in her hands. She prepares the rest of the fish, carves each body into thick fillets, forearm muscles tightening and softening with each slice. She tosses the fillets into a bowl so the meat can relax while her daughter does her thing.

Juna builds a campfire behind her eyes and sits beside it. As she waits for her daughter, she throws the fish heads into the river for Old Man Pelican.

Old Man Pelican rises over the river, lifting himself on powerful white wings, showing red and purple sinew underwing. Up he flies with an eye on the electric water and folds his wings before descent; streamlined and graceful despite his bulk, using gravity’s pull on his weight to slice through the air, he bombs down into the water. He widens his jowly jaw and closes it again over his catch, excess water streams down the sides of his beak. He chomps and swallows, skinny throat expanding and contracting to pull his feed down into his body. He soars back up again then down for another feed, stockpiling before he will have to take refuge behind the hill, the visibility too poor for fishing.

The campfire crackles.

 

Gracey takes her Mum’s skinny hand; her skin is damp and hot. Using the sheet, she pulls Juna’s body away from the encroaching sunlight, and arranges her arms and legs in a foetal position facing the window.

She picks up the framed photo on the bedside table: Juna is holding Little Grace in her lap. She’s about ten years old – many years before she grew up to hate this place and leave. They were in the backyard here, fishing. Juna took this selfie, squinting and smiling into the camera. The river was fuller then, but still not as full as it should have been. Mum and daughter’s long black curls are whipping out to the side, entwined in the wind. Once upon a time, they were close.

‘In the future,’ says Grace. ‘In the future – you used to say – we will catch fat fish, we will not have to worry about money or work or anything, and we will live a real life, just like our Old People did. We will be happy.’ She looks up at Juna and smiles.

But her Mum’s not there. The vessel is empty, as it has been all along. Her Mum has never been there. She’s always been somewhere else, somewhere away from Gracey.

She pulls off her big black boots and sits on the end of the bed. Nothing has changed really, but Gracey feels lonely now she’s admitted that her Mum isn’t here. She’s alone with the idea of her, alone with nothing but an empty-fleshed reality for company.

‘Please come home, Mum, from wherever you are.’ She holds Juna’s feet through the sheets. ‘I miss you.’

 

Juna sprinkles a handful of spinifex seed into her grinding bowl, a hefty stone worn smooth with aeons of use, and reduces the seed to flour. She shakes it out and it drifts down lightly on the hardwood. The shiny surface turns matte with powder. She slaps the fish onto the flour and flips them to coat them, and her tough hands become powdery and silky as she handles the fillets. Her forearms turn white. Puffs of flour float up and settle on the fine black hairs.

She stands and wipes her arm across her forehead to divert the beads of sweat about to run into her eyes. The flour bonds to the sweat, becomes a paste smeared across the deep lines across her forehead. An ochre smear, for ceremony. She splashes oil into a frypan, holds it over the fire, and drops the fish in the hot oil, cooking quickly. She hands a plate to Gracey and slides half of the fish onto it.

‘Remember, my girl,’ says Juna. ‘Even when the wind howls through your branches at night, and it blows right through your bones, and you’ve never felt so alone in your life, I want you to remember that you are my dream come true.’

 

Clouds converge. The glass rattles, and Gracey gets up to close the window. The wind pulls strips of water across the small surface of the river, in long thin striations, and across the wet skin the sinew warps and twists.

Gracey sits back on the bed and watches her mother for a long time. Tears drip and then rain hard. She holds Juna’s feet and keens, tears swimming down her face – grieving the absence of her Mum now, grieving the heartache between them in the past, grieving a never-to-exist future where they might make new memories, a future where hurt and heartache are old storm water under a bridge, the bridge between them well used and sturdy.

Sun on glass catches Gracey’s eye. She picks up the old photo. On the day it was taken, her Mum had caught a fish. After unhooking it, she made its mouth move to pretend it was talking. In an old man’s voice, the fish told Gracey to always be careful with her fishing lines and to put any broken line in the bin so the birds won’t become entangled. Little Grace, not a baby anymore, rolled her eyes and shook her head. Mum put the fish down. Then the fish jumped and rolled back into the water, scaring the shit out of them both, and they fell into each other wheezing and clutching their sides.

Gracey’s racked with laughter, coughing and spluttering, shaking the bed. Outside, the setting sun dips under storm clouds. The skin of the muddy river gives off pale amber light. Sunlight penetrates a few inches before it’s blocked by particles of mud, and the light reflects back and gets trapped in the epidermis, making it glow like honey.

 

 

Gracey is sweating, cooling off by the river behind the house, the river she was born in almost thirty-five years ago. Just like when she was born, the air over the bright brown water is dense with white smoke. Trees curve over the soak, and the thick air combs itself through the branches. Now, as when she was born, they’re burning off the sugar cane. This means that the fish will be running up the coast; it is also almost the rainy season. All of these things are connected, then and now.

Unlike when Gracey was born, the water in the river is low.

The sun is high overhead. Sunlight streams through the pale smoke and turns the opaque air golden. The smoke – sweet and ceremonial – soothes her lungs. Being here, so close to death, she remembers being born. At least, she remembers the story – her mothers’ collective memory of it – which is just as good as remembering it herself.

She watches the scene of her birth unfold in the shallows of the river: her mothers and aunties are squatting in the water. The youngest woman, Juna, looks like she’s swallowed the full moon. Black ash from the burning dances over the river. Juna’s mum, Jenny, and Jenny’s sister Liana are assisted by Juna’s sister Tracey.

In the trees, crows jump and sing. They are midwives too. They hop from one branch to the next creaky caws cheer Juna on as she pants and growls, rocking onto her haunches. The other women holding her djerrbilila, singing in comforting murmurs.

In between contractions, the women stand Juna up to prevent her skin getting waterlogged, and massage her vulva and perineum so her skin will stretch instead of tear. Juna wades over to the deeper water, howls, waddles back again. Assisted by strong arms, she squats in the cool water and steels herself.

Soon her body contracts again. She breathes into it. Roars. Her lower body is a white-hot portal of pain. She feels like she’s sitting on the sun. She crouches deeper into her squat, hunkers down into the chair made by her sisters’ arms for the push. The crows jump around, offer throaty screeches of encouragement.

Mum Jenny reaches down to feel Juna’s opening. Everything’s swollen like bloated fruit and stretched tight like a drum. Baby Grace’s head stretches Juna open, wearing her vagina like a crown. Jenny feels her daughter’s wiry hair encircling her grandbaby’s soft hair. Juna screams into the sky. Her toes clutch mangrove roots beneath the silt, slimy and wiry and strong.

Baby Grace’s head pops out, and the water beneath them reddens, then diffuses around them. The women hold Baby Grace’s head and gently guide her shoulders out. Juna lays back on Liana, as the others pull Gracey out.

With another breath cycle and push from Juna, Baby Grace slides into the world and into the water, and is caught by her other mothers’ hands. When the women hold her up to examine her perfection, she yowls, strong lungs expand her tiny chest. Juna takes Baby Grace, holds her to her chest and whispers to her, crying and dazed.

‘You did well, big girl,’ the women congratulate her, their eyes shining through tears. They all hold on to her. The water is opaque with blood and tiny guppies flit around and nibble at bits of Juna’s insides.

Juna’s body shudders again. Sister Tracey reaches down and grabs the thick slimy cord that still connects Baby Grace to Juna. She tugs gently, and the placenta moves to plug her opening. Juna breathes in. When she exhales and relaxes, her sister pulls the placenta out. It pulsates and floats around in the water beside them.

Juna bites into the umbilical cord, rips the tough sinew with her teeth, and gnaws until it separates from her daughter. She lobs the placenta at the fig, and it thuds inside their varicose buttress roots. The crows jump down lightly, walk around and examine it like real sticky beaks, necks tilting this way and that. They peck at the meat, pausing to chew. More crows appear out of thin air, summoned by their own fear of missing a feed. They are noisy and chatty, flapping around and feasting on the confluence of Juna and Baby Grace.

Juna tells the crows: ‘That’s us you’re eating there. That’s our body. You mob are responsible for her now.’ When the crows finish eating they squawk and fly off, leaving black feathers behind.

Her mothers bathe Baby Grace in the muddy river and clean her caul off, and they walk up the riverbank and gather around the campfire in the backyard. They oil Baby Grace’s thick black curls. Her mothers’ hands comb it this way and that, smoothing and mussing up the soft mossy nap. The warmth of the fire sinks into her skin and relaxes her. As her mothers paint her skin, they tell her ancient stories of resistance and triumph, and sing her myriad connections to an intricate community rooted deeply in this country in all-times.

She is passed around like the gift she is. Capable hands hold her and tickle her velvet skin, and the two younger women feed her their milk. She can taste the love flowing out from their hearts, through their nipples and into her mouth, down her throat and settling warmly in her belly.

When they admire her fat legs, which is often, their cheekbones ripen into fat golden pears with rust-coloured blush; she reaches and tries to pluck them. Joy shines so clearly out of their eyes that it dazzles her. As the sun sets, Baby Grace sinks into the peaceful sleep of babies who are loved.

As she grows up, Baby Grace’s memories of this are slowly replaced by the stories of it. But now that Gracey can see it, the intimacy of her genesis re-emerges. It floats up from the depths of the shallow river. She skims her hands over the surface of the water, remembering.

 

 

Nan Jenny, Aunty Trace, and Old Aunt Liana are out on the verandah, sitting around the table and drinking tea.

‘Gracey Galgalaw, my darling granddaughter! Come and sit down with us for five minutes, will ya? Haven’t had a proper yarn since you got here,’ says Nan Jenny.

‘Of course, my love,’ says Gracey as she hugs her Nan.

‘Haven’t seen you for such a long time!’ Nan Jenny puts her arms around her youngest grandchild.

‘We missed you, bub,’ says Aunty Trace, hugging Gracey.

‘Missed you too,’ says Gracey. She means it.

‘Well, why you been staying away from us for so long then?’ Old Aunt Liana says. ‘It’s been years since you’ve shown your face.’

‘There’s no work around here,’ Gracey says, but everyone knows there’s more to it than that. She squats down behind Liana, kisses her warm cheek and hugs her.

‘Oh, there’s work to do all right, just not work that’ll earn you a fancy salary. Your mum’s been having a go of it, been fighting for our water rights for a while now.’

‘True?’

‘True god,’ says Aunty Trace. ‘A few years after you left, she started cleaning her act up and taking her cultural responsibilities more seriously.’

‘And how was that working out for everyone?’ asks Gracey.

‘She was doing all right, truth be told! The water’s coming back,’ says Nan Jenny. ‘But between the stress of all the legal stuff and her drinking, well.’

‘You said she’d stopped drinking,’ says Grace.

‘She had. But I don’t think her liver ever really recovered, and she never stopped smoking. You know she started doing all that a long time ago.’

‘Yep, I remember. When the river started drying up and she couldn’t fish anymore.’ Grace had taken off soon after. ‘How come she isn’t in hospital?’

‘Everyone’s been chipping in to keep her here. You know she hated hospitals.’

‘Yep, she always said they were for sick people.’

Everyone is silent.

‘She come good in the end, Gracey girl,’ says Nan Jenny. ‘You would’ve been proud.’

 

 

Days pass, then weeks. Gracey sits with Juna every day, talking to her and remembering.

Nan Jenny, Aunty Trace, and Old Aunt Liana stay at the house too, fielding phone calls and visits, playing euchre and gossiping on the verandah.

Every morning, the nurse comes in to check on Juna, and someone or other from the community is always popping in. Gracey has lots to catch up on. Always, Juna is present, part of their connection.

Gracey prefers to be alone with her mum. When the visitors have left she selects a photo album from the heaving bookshelf and sits in the big comfy chair beside Juna’s bed, curled up with a cuppa. Gracey flicks through the photos of them when they were both younger, and narrates the story of the pictures.

Sometimes Gracey puts on the community radio station and sings along to country songs, or blues and jazz. Every new song is an old gem: these are the songs they used to sing together, and she hears her mum’s voice in her own. Sometimes she leaves the stereo off and sings by herself. After a while, some of the songs her mum used to sing to her in language come rolling off her tongue. Pouring out of her throat.

Visit by visit, story by story, and song by song, Gracey’s grief transforms into gratitude.

 

 

Every afternoon, Gracey fills two bowls with water from the river. She carries the river into her mum’s room and sets it down on the bedside table. She has to move all the photos and flowers and cards to make room.

She wets a soft cloth in the cool water, wrings it, then wipes her mum’s face and neck and chest with the damp wash cloth, then dips it again and wipes down her arms and hands. The water becomes cloudy quickly. She rinses the cloth in the other bowl, then wipes her mum down again, wetting and wringing and wiping and rinsing with cool water. When she is finished, she empties the water back where it belongs, thankful for another day.

Every afternoon, Juna swims in the river with her daughter.

 

 

Day by day, Juna’s breath thins out. Gracey barely leaves her side.

One night, Gracey knows her mum is leaving. She sits on Juna’s bed and cradles her tiny head in her left hand, and holds her skinny hands in the other.

Juna’s breathing is slower and shallower.

Gracey sings, murmurs, hums to her mother.

Juna takes her last breath in her daughter’s hands.

Gracey lays down and spoons Juna’s curled-up vessel, holds her in her arms the way she was held inside her belly once. She cries long and hard into her mother’s empty body.

 

Juna is leaving. She doesn’t mind. In fact, she barely understands what’s happening until it’s happened, because she’s too busy fishing and enjoying the presence of her daughter – especially her daughter’s voice, telling their stories and singing their songs. One moment Juna is there, the next she doesn’t belong to her body anymore.

A high-pitched buzz surges through her and vibrates exponentially, tone and sound sharpen and accelerate second by second until they peak in intensity, and when it all becomes too much she’s ejaculated from her body – a whole-being orgasm that ruptures her in spirit-shattering force. Skin emptied of herself, escapes through her skull, campfire and fishing gear abandoned.

An immense clarity peels away at her, and strips away every single hurt and horror, leaving only the joys she’d grown and carried in her heart. She splices and separates into unfathomable directions, following the threads of everything and everyone and everywhere that had ever touched her, and so she is divided infinitely, because all that had ever touched her had also been touched by other hearts and minds and places, and so all around her country, and other creatures, and then the cosmos, she splits and peels and zooms, fracturing off in new directions with every feeling ever felt, shooting back and forth through time because all the love she ever had has manifold origins and futures.

Soon the entire known world is inadequate to hold her at the velocity she is flying, hurtling through inner and outer space faster than the speed of thought. She pings through stars and molecules and black holes and atoms and bypasses nothing, shooting at phenomenal warp-speed toward the apex of the universe – the point of ultimate singularity where divisions between past, present, and future collapse into one preternatural state of fluid existence, and despite fractioning and fracturing infinitesimally, nothing of her is diluted but is restored to a wholeness of spirit by returning home to the repository of collective matter and memory – everything that ever was, is, and will be.

A new star is born in the sky, and ancestors around their campfires welcome their radiant daughter home.

 

Rainclouds gather in sympathy with Gracey’s loss.

 

Part of Juna swims into the clouds: part of her hitches a ride back to the river in a raindrop, and part of her splashes into the room through the window and onto her daughter’s face, who is still curled around her old body, and the rain mixes with Gracey’s tears and sinks into her skin, trickles into capillaries, into her blood, and swims around waiting to be reborn.

 

 

The rains have cleared, after a downpour that lasted a week, and the river is waist-deep with water.

The ceremony is in the backyard, and the place is packed. Everyone paints up in sacred ochre gathered from the marbled seams at the foot of the mountain. In a semicircle facing the water, most people sit on woven mats. Older people sit in chairs at the back. At the front of the formation, the young ones set up speakers and a microphone.

In language Nan Jenny welcomes everybody and gives thanks to country, community, and culture. A handful of the older people take their turns saying goodbye. Gracey wants to say something but she doesn’t know what to say.

Aunty Trace leads the community singing her sister into the river. Gracey opens the jar and shakes the ashes in, wrist circling, her mother’s remains sprinkling in a spiral. The ashes trail and melt into the muddy water, and everyone floats her away with flowers and dirt, then waters her with tears. When it is done, they stop speaking her name so that the living will no longer haunt the dead.

Everybody gets into formation to dance their farewell song. Gracey hasn’t danced this dance in years. At first she is rusty, disembodied, but her muscle memory soon pulls her into the patterns of the dance. Underneath the barriers that time has created she’s still a cultural girl. With her community she dances this new iteration of a ceremony that has been passed down unbroken for millennia, dancing the way her ancestors did, on the very same ground – ground that has changed so much in a short time but still retains its memory. This deep and ancient energy connects her with all the moving bodies around her, grounding them all in their home.

Afterwards, the sky bruises into purple at the horizon. In a choreographed dance of rise and fall the sun drops behind the hills as a full moon pops up across the way. Crows sing out from the trees and a pelican glides around down river. Some of the younger people strip off and play in the river. So much of the water isn’t there, but its history and its promises swirl together in the empty space.

Gracey watches at first, then joins in swimming. She can feel the old river still moving around her: a deliberate, weighted, immense body, thick and muddy, a huge snake carving out its path in the land, inscribing their songline through dusty banks. The ghost river is rebirthing, growing into its potential and ancient form from an ancestral template.

Laughing young people splash around in the long-lost water. Tiny bubbles of air and light reach Gracey’s skin, and her mother’s legacy attaches itself to her like a blanket and like armour.

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