The creek runs fast down the steep, forested hills that pass for mountains, clumps up into waterholes across the plains where sheep line the banks, and continues on through the bush towards the sea. On the town’s naming day the community gathers behind the hall to grill their black wattle-seed sausages over rusted barbecue plates, the younger children kick footballs that lodge themselves in the high forks of scribbly-gums, and the rest join the throng of revellers down by the creek where an ancient log, nearly petrified, hangs across the water suspended on forked plinths.
The men limber up, performing ridiculous stretches that have the crowd cheering, raising stubbies to the sky. The men pick up their poles fashioned from the elastic branches of young eucalypts and (at a run) launch themselves from the log, clog their poles to the muddy base of the creek, and become airborne, hoping but rarely succeeding in coming down on the other side. More often the pole breaks, or has no give, and instead they plummet into the water where they emerge, sunburned with cracked shoulders, laughing, and the crowd laughs with them, cheers for the battler, waits for them to swim back to the shore and tosses them a beer.
But that was before the company that produced manures, pesticides and growth-improvers moved in, buying up the expanse of farmland on the edge of town. Before the smell of blood and bone drifted over the town on hot summer winds. And before the algae, which according to the company did not come from them, clogged the creek. Tendrils run for kilometres like bloody mucus, and when the creek goes dry they form ugly scabs in the arid beds. Now, on the town’s naming day, the community gathers with plastic hessian bags and their poles scratch at the algae in futility. The men no longer jump in the creek, too worried any open wound will breed infection; a football in the water is a lost cause. Black sausages are grilled on the new barbecues installed at the Ox. They’re slapped into white bread and handed out to the muck-rakers – grease makes the bread sag.
As evening approaches, retrieved algae is piled into a pit. It reaches upwards like a drowning man. A little petrol, just enough to get it going, is poured over. A match is struck with a snap and a hiss, tossed down, pop, and the dry algae erupts. But the crowd doesn’t cheer. Muscles ache, lactic acid flooding taut fibres. Worn down cigarettes are sucked dry and tossed into the flames as a lapis lazuli night encroaches. People talk quietly or not at all. Beer in chipped glasses is lapped at, the dregs tossed onto the fire where they zip and sizzle, splashing ember showers to the sky.
Bill drags heavily on a hand-rolled cigarette. Rough tobacco seeds sputter and spark as lungs pull air through the barrel. In the dark Bill’s eyes glow like windowpanes with the light of a TV – static blue flashes through the film of encroaching cataracts. The years have passed, and although he is older and a little slower, his body still flows like water. Like the creek of his youth. He watches his daughter, Chantel, proudly. Her fingers are entwined with Jim Davies’, and Jim rubs a wind-cracked thumb across the band of gold with the diamond fleck adorning Chantel’s finger. Soon they’ll be married, once Chantel’s university years are behind her. Jim has purchased the plot of land and he has laid the foundations himself. He and Bill will begin erecting the frame come summer. But before then the land must be swept of all dry and flammable things threatening to destroy the site.
Bill smiles, his coffee and tobacco-stained teeth glimmering like smoky quartz. His stark white hair is slicked back with oil, the way the brothers of Our Lady of Perpetual Salvation showed them when he was young and robbed away from his family. A little in first to temper the follicles. Slide the fingers through to provide some form. A little more oil to give it sheen. Run the comb through as fast as possible because there’s work to be done.
Our Lady of Perpetual Silence, the boys called it. They would drink of the blood and eat of the body; they’d receive no answers in response to their heinous cannibalism. Our Lady of Perpetual Silence, when they would sleep on the thin mattresses and the newer boys heaved with quiet sobs. Our Lady of Perpetual Silence: the woman from the government with her pinned-back bun and clipboard, checking teeth and hair without a word, her fingers probing, always, and the flash of a camera. The photo hangs in a quiet place of the rectory, somewhere it can’t be fawned over, gathering dust and the greasy residue of diesel exhaust that flowed in with the arrival of the new motorway. And if Our Lady of Perpetual Silence was unheard before, now it was an impossibility with the roar of refrigerated trucks carting frozen fast-food from one end of the state to the other.
A group of dark faces attached to white shirts peers out from the black-and-white photograph forgotten in the abandoned rectory. The glow of lights from a nearby factory creeps through the windows but not far enough to illuminate the picture hanging in a dark corner by the stairwell. Dust settles as brothers no longer move in the hallways – antique fingerprints are drawn out in concentric circles on brittle windowpanes. Local children, summoned by desertion to the site, hurl rocks at the glass and run cheering as it shatters. Dark eyes, eternally locked awake, watch from the shadows.
The smoke from the algae fire reeks of chemicals. It clings and worms into the cotton of Bill’s polo shirt, settles in his thinning hair, rattles around his sinuses and sends him into a coughing fit. Blood and ash coat the phlegm in Bill’s tattered handkerchief. He needs to have his lungs looked at, but between work and home there isn’t time and Bill knows his end is near. He hides the bloodied tissues from his wife, maintains the appearance of humour and health, suppresses the urge to cough up his shedding lungs when he is at home. And although he hasn’t prayed since he left Our Lady of Perpetual Salvation, now he finds himself reciting the rosary and beseeching the Holy Mother to let him stay long enough to help Jim build the house, long enough to walk Chantel down the aisle.
A breeze swirls the dust at Bill’s feet, creates little tornadoes as hot air off the fire mixes with the cool evening. Reminds him of drawing with asbestos chalk on brick walls, aged fourteen, letting dust settle in his mouth as a blood sun shone through smoke haze in the summer.
The muffled siren of a tawny frogmouth, low and insistent, drops from the branches of a scribbly gum. In the light off the fire the drooping gaze of the bird angles in on Bill who stares back at him. Their eyes catch like a spark to petrol. Their gaze breaks as the shimmering scuttle of a cicada passes between them. The bird’s wings spread, only a moment of noise as it launches – and then silence in the evening sky as he begins his nightly hunt.
Bill stands, crippled by his dead leg, veering slightly to his left. Heads tilt to look up at him, drunk faces with dirt-ringed eyes.
‘Well … I’m going to jump it,’ says Bill.
He hobbles on his needled leg to the edge of the firelight; the Seven Sisters hang low in the sky watching his journey from their eternal river. The faces around the fire are bronzed with the light off the flames, like curious statues.
‘Anyone coming?’ Bill laughs, hobbling away.
Chantel’s gaze searches Bill’s figure for signs of hesitation and, seeing none, she rises to follow him, Jack in tow. Someone lets out a whoop!, pegs their drink at the fire and suddenly the townsfolk are following Bill down the dusty track that leads to the road.
There’s a sense of hesitant joy travelling along the strands of web binding the crowd together like drunken revelry at a wake. As they turn onto Main Street the fire behind them sputters as a log burns through its centre into two pieces, both desperate for the flame. Moths and locusts are drawn into the light of street-lamps that flicker through the haze of insect bodies. Plague shells crunch underfoot, slimy insides pepper the tar. Opal wings, separated from abdomens, scatter in an evening breeze.
By some un-seasonal coincidence the smell of fertiliser penetrates into the town centre, between ragged bricks with lichen growing in the spaces where mortar is missing, swirling around goalposts on the school oval, acting hurricane in the alley that runs behind the mini-mart/bottleshop/butcher. The crowd begins breathing in community through their mouths, all except Bill who faces the rot head on as if to breathe it into his carcass lungs and out of existence. To rid the town of this invasion by remaining alive.
The crowd crosses the park containing the sandstone monument, slipping between pine trees like wraiths – or more like banshees with screams of ‘Kooooooeeeeee’ and ‘Yewwwwwww’, a chorus of black cockatoos screeching. Someone picks up the decaying wreath left from the previous ANZAC day and a game of frisbee ensues. A mutt – with traces of kelpie and dingo in its expression – sails on muscled haunches to grab the toy. ‘Out of it, ya bastard!’ a voice rises. Laughter. Crunch of bottles against bark. And Bill, leading the crowd forward towards the creek.
Crumpled around the plinths that suspend the ancient log clings a feast of rotten algae, dried and brittle; and a haven to wrigglers that inevitably sprout into mosquitoes that may, or may not, find their ways into the homes of the town’s residents and cause them to wake in the night and be unable to find again for several hours that middle ground between life and death that we call sleep – and, more precisely, dreaming. And in the breath of a cool evening, with the last rivulets of light smeared across the western sky, the crowd becomes silent, watchful, a witching hour is observed, and in the stories that would be told of this night it would be called dreaming. And in this way, dreaming would cross a sky full of innumerable stars between life and death, and that somewhere in between.
Bill stretches his legs, relieving them of aches that have built up over a lifetime. Mounting the log, without grace, he edges to the starting mark where a haphazard saw once cut into the wood at the wrong point. He takes a breath, filling his forsaken lungs, oxygen swirling with soot, fertiliser and the scent of chemical fires. He breathes out again. Bare feet grip at wood polished by generations of jumpers before him. He presses back. Hurls forward.
Bill crosses the length of the log in six long strides, the crowd holds their breath, his feet dig deep at the furthest point and propel him up and into open air. In the distance burn the lights of the factory, but those who were there remember only Bill’s shadowed figure blurring into a night sky, with the Seven Sisters hanging like lights above him, and him joining them in their eternal river.
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