River Story

August 2020, no. 423

River Story

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.

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