I grew up on a great river that flings its tail far back into the grey and green bushland of Australia. Impotent tributaries spread unevenly from its snaking body like tentacles sucking at the dryness. It is a wide river and long but for most of the year its sandy bed shimmers dry and hot under the indifferent sky. In summer the hot breath of the eastern deserts blows across the country around the river and stuns it into silence but for the ringing of cicadas. In the hot air, mirages float above the ancient water course and blur the image of gum trees and strange animals moving slowly through the glassy illusion of water.
But the summer also brings rain. Wild cyclones that swing in from Asia, all noise and anger, grow calm and leaden as they are swallowed slowly into the endlessness of the land. Then they drop their rain and die and the river fills quickly and sends a brown frothing bounty rushing towards the West. And there, where the river opens into a wide and shallow mouth that forks around a scrubby, sandy island, the land spews its brown stain far out into the ocean.
Before my people came here, there was only the sound of the ocean and the birds and the wind, always the wind. Sometimes it blew from over the waves for days and nights on end, pushing the cool salty air across the green fringes of the mangroves towards the country’s deep belly. Sea birds pointed to the West and rode the moving air, hanging steadfast over the tidal plains of shallow water where stingrays and sawfish basked. Each day the tide made timid excursions around the toes of the river and each day retreated again towards the waves.
The Mandi people of the floodplain called this place the neck of the sea. By the time I was born, the Mandi had long gone and their stories of the river are lost like the voices that told them or fading on red rock walls far from my town. The sickness of white men carried them away by the hundreds and for a long time their bodies would be found floating in the mangroves or lying under the wattles. The old people simply walked away from their camps to die. They returned to the dust of a home turned strange by the feet of sheep and foxes.
Only the river dreams of the Mandi now. And one day it will dream of me.