I grew up on a large empty river, lined with gum trees and winding outwards from the heart of my empty country. Along time ago the Ingaada people lived there. It was peaceful enough around the river’s mangroved and windblown mouth until the squatters came and then the missionaries. After that, the Ingaada were gone forever.
But that river was not as dry as it looked. Deep under the its hot sands, giant aquifers fed the thirsty plants of the banana growers whose plantations lined its ancient banks. My grandfather called it the upside down river.
Once or twice a year brown water would surge seawards from the east, brought to us from unseen rain somewhere over the flat horizon. When the river past it’s zenith and steadied to a clear shallow stream we boys would go lashing.
It was Marko who taught us how to twist two equal lengths of fencing wire into a steel lash about the length of our bodies. Then we would trot through the water on tireless feet searching for the silver flash of schools of small fish. We would rain down our lashes scattering the silver sheen into helpless fragments, sundering flesh, and exposing the tiny, perfect innards.
We were thirteen and cruel. We cheered and laughed with breaking voices.
And then one day Marko’s older sister joined us. Unca was sixteen and went to the Catholic school. I don’t think we had ever talked to her. I don’t think we had even noticed her. But we did that day. She ran ahead of us wearing a brown bikini and looking over her shoulder saying, “Run faster, you boys!”. Her legs were brown and when she leaned over we could see the paleness where her breasts began. When she spoke it was odd like a boy but hoarse. When she laughed her white teeth flashed and her black eyes swept us with disdain.
“You boys are too slow.” She stopped and held her lash behind her. “And weak.” We heard the lash swish through the air and strike the shallow water like a hammer. Dead fish floated towards us. “All in one hit. That’s how you do it.”
Later we sat down and I stared at her as she sat silently kicking holes in the sand with her bare ankles. I had never seen a woman this close. I watched the drops of water drying on her shoulders and a feeling came over me like love but I knew it couldn’t be love but it made me feel sick and helpless like the fish.
And then she stood up and, without even looking at us, said, “You boys are boring.” She climbed the grassy bank and walked slowly back towards the tin packing shed. I’d like to say that I followed her and that, between the cardboard packing cases and with the smell of over-ripe bananas, she took me gently from a boy to a man.
But that wouldn’t happen for a few more years and then it was someone else and I was drunk and awkward and dumb with my lanky legs sticking out from the back seat of my mother’s Datsun 120Y.
Years later I saw her in another town. She had her own business. She was beautiful and when she spoke she said she remembered me. “You were one of Marko’s friends.” And there was that voice like a boy but hoarse. A feeling started in my belly and swam towards my chest. I said, “I live here now; I’ll see you again.” And I walked out but I never did see her again.
I bumped into Marko himself about six years after that. He had this long haired girl on his arm. He sold drugs. He was cool like a thug. “Unca?” he said. “She married a pig. I told her leave him but women like pigs, you know. Anyway they got two kids and she’ll never leave without them. Life turned out bad for her, you know.”
I bought him a beer. I asked him, “Do you remember when we went lashing?” And then we got drunk and we didn’t spoke of Unca again.
I keep that feeling for her deep beneath the surface of my life.