Fiction

Chronicles of the Maiwar mangroves

THEN

LIKE SO MANY human faculties that had been tested and failed in that new colony, the retrieval of accurate collective memory had been tried and found sorely wanting. Nevertheless, any tattered scraps of recollection salvaged about the day’s events coalesced around the point that the journey had started smoothly enough. Although the familiar wharf, the steamer, the excitement of the passengers and the promise of unimagined pleasures suggested adventure, there were no indications about the extent to which each of those involved would be transformed. It was November 1889, and in the settlement of Brisbane the weather was behaving itself – hot, but not so hot that it was stifling. Yet. 

Framed by the wharf and the tongue of land on the opposite bank, the waters of the river sparkled and glistened like a pretty and tame thing. A seductively successful ruse. On that same shoreline of the river’s most mighty turn, the dome and architectural contours of the spanking new Customs House sat like a proudly plump child. The building marked the place from which everything in the settlement arrived and left – the ground zero of its trade on the edge of the river that linked the settlement to the rest of the country and to the world. 

The crowd jostled to get onto the steamer. Dressed in their best, they stood apart from those onshore who slouched around to get a look. 

The awkwardness of getting across the plank from dock to deck was magnified by the ladies balancing unfamiliar parasols and the gents sweating uncomfortably into shiny suits. On that morning, the boating party were conscious they represented the who’s who of the settlement. Once they’d managed to make their way aboard, the crowd on the bank dispersed to drink off their resentment in nearby taverns. 

Whispers and rumours had abounded about this enterprise for a long time. It was to be Mr James Campbell’s finest achievement yet; the grandest adventure in the colony. The building achievements of the Campbell family had done more to keep the settlement’s workers fed and housed than any other enterprise. Campbell was a self-made man: he’d arrived from Scotland as a plasterer, lured, like so many others, by the visions and proclamations of the Reverend John Dunmore Lang. When his arrival in the settlement revealed that demand for his trade was even less than at home in his native Perthshire, disappointment ignited his entrepreneurial spirit. Within a few short years he’d established a building company that branched into timber supplies and building projects across the eastern seaboard of Australia. His reputation as a fair and frank supporter of his workers was as strong as that of his reputation as a visionary businessman. He’d been a proud Scotsman and was an even prouder Queenslander – and one who resisted the impending sentiment towards Federation. His fiery independence teetered between inspired insanity and visionary ruthlessness, a temperament that came to characterise so many in that tropical northern colony.

And now this! A ‘Pleasure Dome’! What could it be? How would it look? What kind of behaviours and responses would be expected of those who visited it? 

A nervous energy whipped among the passengers on the Woolwich like a quick snake. Small groups talked too loudly as the boat prepared to leave. Clusters of men – bellies thrust out, fat cigars in fat fingers – traded boasts and exaggerated achievements. Flusters of ladies flattened runaway hairs or smoothed quick-to-billow skirts while sneaking peeks at who was wearing what. A sense of competition was already in the air; a sense that they had been selected for some kind of test – a boatload of voyagers on a small odyssey of redemption. 

But once the Woolwich left berth, the journey cast all together into the siblinghood of fellow travellers, headed for a destination that promised otherness and the unexpected. 

 

MEMORIES OF THAT day told how, from the decks of the steamer, it was as if they were seeing the contours of the settlement for the first time. Perhaps the river had become a kind of ‘native informant’: a slowly twisting, turning, meandering tale-teller whose narration hinted at the power of her custodianship over this tract of country. But whenever this sense of the river’s primacy threatened to overwhelm, the appearance of landmarks reaffirmed the passengers’ sense of their own dominion over this land. The Breakfast Creek Tavern had just been completed, the best-looking pub in the colony, just over from the manicured lawns of Government House. And up high on the north-bank cliffs of Hamilton, a few stately homesteads looked down imperiously, their gardens cut carefully between unruly lantana thickets and scrub. After that, there was mostly bushland and occasional glimpses of farm homesteads. 

As a sense of nervy anticipation had mounted with each of the river’s turns, the landscape on either bank seemed snared in a kind of magic. Until, on turning that last bend at Lytton Reach, the very waters of the river transformed. Beneath the boat’s deck, the passengers could feel the river rise in anticipation for the coastline she’d travelled so far to reach. As the first deep swells of the incoming tide moved under them, carrying all the vastness and slow strength of the ocean’s surge, those aboard sensed that the relationship between that river and the sea was bigger than they could have anticipated. 

White seabirds wheeled and turned above the vessel. The wet-smooth, pearlescent heads of dolphins breached and dove and breached again, ahead of the bow wave and behind, following the curves of the river’s parting. All the world – from the clean, perfect blue arc of the sky to the glittering river’s surface – responded with a slow, purposeful rhythm as the boat travelled eastwards. 

The breeze lifted, and when the strange towers of the Pleasure Dome first emerged into view above dark-green mangrove banks, a collective acknowledgement of wonder and disbelief rose upwards from the decks of the Woolwich.

Across the banks came the smell of salt seasoned with something less familiar. Other stenches and scents and perfumes wove over and around the hollow core of the sea taste like a helix. Intermittent punches of subterranean sulphur from the mangrove beds plaited with scents of manna and lerp and heavy, heady blossom, the reek of effluence and rot interwoven with antipodean incense. 

And then the passengers grew vaguely conscious of another scent – an acrid but sweet smell that insinuated itself into the pit of the stomach. A smell that wafted in from sooty clouds of back-burning from somewhere beyond the contours of the towers; an aroma that first warmed the bowels and then warmed the brain, right behind the eyes. A scent that travelled with the invitation to suck the air for more, that urged a hungry intake of deep lungfuls. That gut-warmth spread along limbs with a delicious weight, stretching through all the bodies and out of their extremities like invisible spider webs that drifted upwards to connect with the dome of the sky. 

The effect was hallucinatory. Discombobulating. The passengers were aware that this velvety, sooty curtain was part of the last tailings of a cane burn-off. And one or two of them had heard rumours of even more lucrative crops introduced from far, far away in the northern hemisphere and planted between the towering rows of cane – crops that seemed to perfectly suit the slow heat of the endless Queen’s Land days. 

As the last of the river’s turns took its slow, wide arc, it occurred to each person on board that they might be captives in a journey between heaven and hell. 

The boat clung to the southern bank until it broke into one of the many tributaries that fanned throughout the estuary where the short, choppy surface of the river was left behind. Both motion and time slowed down. And as the oppressive heat wrapped more tightly, a stifling claustrophobia settled around the boat’s slow slide into a drunken mangrove forest.

Dark clouds of mosquitoes hung in threatening masses beneath the gnarled old mangroves’ boughs. Groups of egret and spoonbills hunched in the upper branches, their whiteness draped around their scoliotic shoulders, giving them the appearance of brooding mourners. In the shallowing green-brown water, shoals of swollen black fish shimmied sluggishly out of range of the prow’s passage. A primeval otherness enveloped the steamer like an ominous curse. As the last leaves of the mangrove veil parted, the boat moved into a final waterway guarded by two sentinel structures, each swaying hypnotically as it reached towards the sullen sky. 

 

THEY WERE HUGE: fat, earth-bound bellies balanced on squat, shapely legs that sat on floating pontoons. From these two bodies, what looked to be outsize tuba-horns, trombones, oboes and French horns wound around a system of pipes and pressure gauges that stretched up to the sun. The entire installation steamed and gurgled and hissed as its polished and sensuous surfaces glittered with light from the waves. And on each of the pontoons, these interconnected systems of boiler and storage tanks were driven by a 110-horsepower engine that beat a dull coxswain’s rhythm and filled the air with another heady smell, this time of molasses and yeast. 

As the boat approached, the pontoons pitched and yawed, fracturing and scattering light and noise. The tall, winding tubes seemed stretched to the point of exploding – jets of steam hissed angrily from their brassy towers. Emblazoned on the fattest brass gut of the starboard pontoon ran a copperplate name, ‘Scylla’; across that of its obesely lurching twin ran the name ‘Charybdis’. 

The steamer edged between the two, the final exhalations of its own engine rooms joining with those from the floating pressure valves. And when a cicada choir on the mangrove bank bay arced up, the air was ignited with a perforating, pressurised tinnitus. 

The boat berthed. 

By the time the passengers disembarked, they were struggling to hold onto even a slender sense of composure. Bludgeoned by the strange, sweet smells, the rhythm of the river and the heat of the day, they summoned their full concentration to make their way down the rocking gangplank and onto the wooden dock. Once there, the gaze of each was drawn upwards – up, up beyond the primeval, stinking mangrove forest to where the last tattered shreds of normalcy disappeared from the day. For there, above them, rebutting the laws of gravity and defying the rational, the entire architectural framework of a palace hovered in the sky. 

The apparition of an entire edifice floating in midair had been achieved by two cunning architectural features. The buildings soared above the ground on stilts in the style already called ‘the Queen’s Land architecture’, and these, along with all the supporting beams, had been covered with carefully angled mirrors to give the appearance of complete weightlessness. Winking and twinkling, reflecting itself over and over again, it rippled like a mirage and confirmed that here in Queen’s Land, the impossible was entirely possible. 

‘Welcome, welcome, welcome to our wonderworld.’ The call came from a tall, heavily built man who limped slightly as he manoeuvred his girth down rickety steps that ran from the grounds all the way down to the dock. Saucers of yellowing sweat saturated the fabric where his arms met the voluminous, sack-like trunk of his linen suit. He mopped his orange brow with a stained handkerchief. His shirt front displayed the leftovers of his last meal. One fat hand smoothed a great length of sweaty straw hair to his forehead as his tongue traced the contours of his wet, red lips. ‘Laydeez and gentlemen, welcome to the Pleasure Dome’s Realms of the Impossible! Welcome to the land where north meets south; where fantasy holds power; where all the wonders of the entire world have been brought together for your dee-lehhhhk-TAYYY-shun!’ 

Ever since their arrival in Australia, the settlers had learnt that this strange land refused to confirm to any of the northern hemisphere’s expectations and assumptions. They’d come to understand the necessity of wandering between fact and fiction, between fantasy and reality, between dream-like intoxication and the gruelling experiences of corporeality. They’d come to accept that this hyphenated state of being was essential to simply getting through the contradictions of whatever passed as daily life. 

This phlegmatic embrace of mutually exclusive experiences might have initially seemed impossible, but it had trained each of them to take one step at a time. And that’s what the passengers from the Woolwich did now as they followed this lumbering ship of a man, their master of ceremonies for the day’s events, up the set of stairs. Their acceptance carried with it an insouciance that hovered between the naivety and courage that would become part of the neo-nation’s gene pool.

Once they’d reached the top, the entire enterprise of the Pleasure Dome revealed itself, bit by unbelievable bit, in all its glory.

Inside the corridors of its labyrinth, it was as though all the wonders of the world had been compressed. In the aquaria, seals swam to the plate glass to snuffle and bow and turn and return with their silver bubble trails of breathtaking elegance. Entire herds of flubber-nosed dugong moved slowly and respectfully amid the grass beds of another tank, while above them, crazy-eyed bull sharks swam with a chilling watchfulness. Skates and rays shamelessly revealed their naked underbellies as they explored the horizontal glass surfaces. In other freshwater tanks, massive prehistoric lungfish seemed to carry the wisdom of the epochs in their beautiful velvet bodies, while eels half hid and peered at the spectators with piercing intelligence. Terrapins clambered in and out and in again with awkward reptilian determination. And on the branches that overhung the freshwater surfaces, entire battalions of eastern water dragons proudly displayed their roseate undercarriages before belly-flopping into the water.

Pathways led on to other vitrines, where the careful placement of angled mirrors and more plate glass made them seem like vast lairs for wild creatures – where tigers crouched and snarled and pounced beside a path that turned again to lead to a perfectly decorated Ottoman palace populated by monkeys. The monkeys, dressed in little waistcoats and fez, shrieked and screamed and chattered and bared their sharp little teeth aggressively while below, in a massive bearpit, four huge beasts lumbered in their pigeon-toed way across hand-painted Russian carpets. Their huge furry heads lolled from side to side with every soft step, as though they were searching for lost eyeglasses. 

Then the covered pathway wound upwards towards a kind of high-line walkway suspended between fields of native grasses: a pair of elegant cheetahs trotted through the waving veldt, big golden-brown eyes accentuated by the characteristic black tear stains outlining the contours of their muzzles. The pair stopped, cocked small heads quizzically, then folded their entire leggy length to spring effortlessly away into the distance.

And so it went on – cage after cage, aquarium after aquarium – until the path turned back towards the suspended weight of the magnificent floating theatre, curved away from all the other pavilions and surrounding sports fields, the switchback railway and parklands, and took a steep ramp downwards. 

Here, another, deeper sense of strangeness took over. This underworld was altogether other-worldly, a rich crepuscular zone where moving shadows flitted and settled, then disappeared. Dark, softly whirring insects the size of birds fluttered together in looping clusters. Oil lamps flickered warm light across the space. The moths danced in and out of the bands of illumination. Swarms of tiny fireflies hovered, and glow worms clustered on the stalactites hanging from the high, cave-like ceiling. Luminescent fungi and spores provided other sources of tiny light beads so that the entire enclosure was transformed into a phantasmagorical galaxy.

But why was this glorious space given over to a moth house?

And then, as the visitors’ eyes gradually adjusted to the dimness, an even deeper pool of inky black emerged: a sooty, languorous form that rested along the horizontal stretch of a wet limb, looking back at them. Waiting. Watching. Its presence emerged through sound rather than the visible. Sonorous and effortlessly rhythmic: a slow, deep-bellied breathing. A short, guttural rollover of breath. A cavernous, regular cadence that joined with the gentle thrumming of mothwings to swell the darkness with an ancient sonic pattern. 

With each intake of this breath, the travellers grew more acutely aware of their presence as interlopers. They’d wandered into a space that was not their own, and the room’s blackness wrapped around the fear deep within their bellies. They were invaders, trespassers. They had come into a heartland that was not theirs. 

As they grappled with this realisation, the guests became aware that what lay before them must be the rare black Javan panther the newspapers had all been braying about – a creature whose elusiveness and evasiveness assigned it to the realm of myth rather than reality. But such rational facts proved too thin, and each of them slowly succumbed to the sense of being confronted by an immense void, a dark mirror – a velvet pool that reflected their most secret inner fears, their foolhardiness, their folly. 

In that room, the travails of the day were completely left behind; the sense of being part of a group was forgotten. In place of everyday matters, every individual retreated into a fold of their being in which silence and stillness reigned; a place from which they might be capable of reimagining other parts of themselves; from which they might touch, for the first time, a point within themselves that had long lain abandoned. 

Those few moments were like plunging through a depthless tunnel in freefall; a place where, faced with death, life assumed a complete and piercing clarity for the very first time.

 

NOW

IT WAS THE middle of winter. Down in the paddocks that ran either side of the flood plains, adjacent to the narrow tributaries of mangroves, the horses had grown their woolly winter coats. The grass was green after the unseasonal late rains, but it didn’t hold much sustenance this late in the year, and the ribs and backbones of the older animals appeared in shadowy outlines beneath the unkempt scruff of their sun-bleached coats. 

Beneath the grass the ground was sodden, beaten up in places near the gates or around the water troughs or along the well-worn pad-paths. Little pools of water lay in hoof-shaped outlines, each sheened by a scum of pollutants that had continued its slow ooze years after the landfill laid down in the wake of the 1974 floods. 

While there had been other floods here in the woman’s living memory, 1974 had proved a rare marker in the otherwise history-free details of the place. But the event was remembered as a kind of heroic epic rather than part of a process of reasons and consequences. Brisbane was a funny kind of town in that way. People made scant reference to the past. It was inevitably treated as something that had existed somewhere else, sometime else – something with no ties with the present. Something that was better either buried, or torn down, or filled in. Filled in like the paddocks and the parks and the bikeways that had sprung up all along the tributaries and creeks and swamplands in those secret places that had grown in the goitres of the big, swelling snake belly of the river that wound its slow way through that city.

It was a kind of irony that these semi-wild places had sprung up in the wounds left by development. It was as if all the efforts to cover and fill in and forget that had scarred the old country were doomed to a slow failure. As if that old country was summoning the regenerative will of all those places as a gradual process of retribution. There was a feral presence that lurked never too far beyond all the slick and glitz of the coffee shops and brasseries and brow bars and nail plazas and new drinking spots of what had been reinvented as ‘BrisVegas’. 

On this particular night, the woman had gone down to feed the horses as usual. The familiar radio music announcing the evening news was her ‘call to duty’. She resignedly pulled on her boots as reports of the government’s failure to respond to the National Aboriginal Conference’s call for a Makarrata droned on.

The agisting paddocks were, remarkably, right in one of Brisbane’s inner-city areas, tucked away on the flood plains that lined the cul-de-sacs of suburban streets, unkempt groves of ragged paperbarks and the fence lines of factories. 

The light went down fast at this time of year, and by half-past five the sky was a bright slate of colourlessness as impassive as a Magritte dream. Only the shapes in front of that plane gave clues that the strength had gone out of the light – silhouettes of suburbia clinging like shredded black rags as if in fear of the approaching early darkness. These moments were short, brief suspensions of disbelief where dark and light co-existed, clinging to each other in a moment far more dramatic and truncated than the long summer evenings’ gradual surrender to slow, suspended twilights. 

She loved the abruptness of these early dusks, when the sky in the west beyond the ranges would arc up savagely and indiscreetly before vanishing in the sea of impossible green that preceded nightfall. She traipsed across the paddock, feeling the suck of the mud with each step until she passed over the wooden bridge still littered with detritus – bits of plastic and sticks and mangrove seeds – from the last high-tide flood.

The indefinite shapes of the herd turned towards her as she approached. Most of them stood unrugged, their broad backs facing away from the westerly. Some dropped their heads and began their slow walk towards her, and although her own mare lifted her head high in anticipation, she made no move. She seldom did. It had never been clear whether this was because of the animal’s rank stupidity, or her arch refusal to comply. 

As the horses approached, the air was infused by their presence. She loved these things about them best: their bigness and their smell; the way they would tolerate human presence while retaining an aloof camaraderie. Each of them took their turn to suck in lungfuls of her scent, and then let her pass. Some slicked back their ears to warn of rank, and there was the usual milling and restlessness of beast protocol before she could make her way through them. 

She waded through the swathes of darkening grass and stopped, just out of her mare’s reach, until the animal deigned to drop her head and drink in the woman’s person-smell. It was a kind of stalemate between them, a repeated testing point: the mare that would not concede to wanting to be with her, and the human who would mutely challenge the animal’s apparent impassiveness every time they approached each other.

The big appaloosa’s eyes half shut in bliss as she bent towards her owner’s caresses. The woman slipped on the horse’s headstall, secured the rusty buckle and took the lead rope to return the way she had come.

The night sky had momentarily ignited into a vivid green that was reflected in the still shallowness of the creek as she led the animal back across the bridge. Beneath them, the last spoonbills were shuttling along, heads bent in concentration, methodically sifting through the rich silts for tiny microscopic organisms while slowly sidestepping the skeletons of semi-submerged shopping trolleys and discarded office furniture. 

And all along the banks, dark mangroves sulked in groups, holding the darkness of the night beneath their skirts.

The mare’s hoofs dragged and clopped, dragged and clopped, hollow and satisfying, all the way across the wooden curve of the bridge. The animal swooped furtively at some long strands of grass while her owner paused to lock the first gate. She stood placidly, in no hurry to finish her snack. They crossed to the second gate at the other end of the bridge, and again the woman stopped to lock it. But as she turned, pushing against the bulk of the mare’s hindquarters with her own hip, she saw something move under the cover of the mangroves. 

The movement, which had begun slowly, suddenly stopped. The woman was reassured that nothing had alerted her normally flighty horse: in anticipation of her feed bucket, the horse was going through all the usual comforting motions. As was her owner – until now, when a sharp shock of fear ran straight through her body. 

She froze. Nothing rational signalled any real danger. But a sense of uncanniness cut through the familiar rhythm of the routine like a spike of light.

The mare took a deep breath, sensing her owner’s alertness, and tossed her head upwards, eyes bulging, nostrils flared. Her owner took a stronger hand on the lead rope, making sure the animal still had enough head to feel as though she had some kind of control, and began a steady stream of speech that was both commanding and consoling. She knew, in those milliseconds of terror, the stupidity of this: her voice betrayed her gender to any possible intruder. She instinctively felt for a sense of reassurance in the animal’s sheer bulk, knowing at the same time how stupid this was – in the event of a crisis, the horse would do nothing but bolt. The woman felt a cold sweat erupt over her back and behind her knees as she managed to coax the animal to walk forward again, towards the feed bays, the little tin shed and the thin fluorescent glow that leaked out from beneath the dilapidated feed-house doorway. A diagonal of light stretched across the patch of grass, and the feed bucket and its long shadow appeared like a surreal punctuation mark. 

The woman focused on it like a beacon, fighting the temptation to look back and check whether she was being followed.

But when an unfamiliar silence disturbed the mangroves, she felt the tempo of the night shift. The mare was too engrossed in feeding to be spooked, so the woman left her to her eating, ducked under the rails of the feed bay and walked slowly through the darkness towards the source of the sound. Through the lacy black silhouettes of the mangroves, the surface of the creek reflected the silvery light of the moon as if it were a magic, precious thing. The oil slicks, the filthy effluence across the mud banks, even the detritus: all were bathed in a shimmer like a beautiful antique daguerreotype. 

The wheels of a shopping trolley were visible above the water level, with the carry basket semi-submerged. And there! In the middle! From within the cage of the trolley bars, something was moving, setting off a system of ripples across the creek surface. 

She stood watching. There was something trapped in there, that was for sure. And judging from its movements, it certainly wasn’t a big old mud crab. The motion was short and sharp, then nothing; then the struggle would start up again. The woman watched, torn between walking away and wading into the creek to investigate. 

Eventually, making a pact with herself to only take on the practical necessities of life, she turned back towards the feed stall. The world had too many orphans, the woman thought, and while she was grateful that she’d had her share of blessings in looking after some of them, she didn’t want any more. She had her mare, her dog and her sanity to take care of; she didn’t need anything else. She took the feed bucket to rinse it, returned to the stall and slipped on the mare’s lead rope to guide her back towards the bridge and into the home paddock. 

But as she crossed the bridge to return to her vehicle, something stopped her again. Overcome by a sense of obligation that she recognised as irrational, she turned to the right, slid down the bank and waded out towards the semi-submerged trolley. Although the creek ran shallow, she was soon in mud and water almost up to her knees as she wrestled the contraption onto its side. The top part had been wired together with the metal grid of a barbeque plate, so that the entire thing was like a cage.

Lotta trouble to go for a crab pot, she thought, and unlooped two sides of the wire wide enough to get both her arms into the space. 

The wet sack inside clung to the contours of something that was definitely animal – a quadruped of some kind. During the unravelling process, its movements had completely stopped. 

The woman felt for the neck of the sack and carefully dragged it through the gap in the cage. It was heavier than she’d expected. But she slung it over one shoulder and made her way back across the creek and up the bank again, resting it on the mangrove spikes when she lost her footing. Eventually, she was up on level land. 

She hoisted up the bundle and headed for the light that ran from beneath the feed-house door all the way to the tap. There, she washed the worst of the mud from her boots and ran a little water over the filthy sack. Squatting in the semi-dark, she unravelled the loops of sisal that bound its top and slowly, oh so slowly, peeled back the wet hessian.

A little black quadruped lay exhausted, barely breathing. Nothing but the gentle movement of its skinny undercarriage betrayed it was alive. The woman stared, transfixed, trying to determine its contours. She fumbled for her iPhone, switched on its torch and ran the sharp beam of light from the creature’s head to its flanks. It was so familiar; so completely familiar. And yet this small creature was setting every hair at the back of her neck on end. 

It was a kitten. But it was too big for a kitten. And feeble though it was, its dark muzzle was proud and chiselled, and its flanks were lithe with the promise of enormous inner energy.

She re-embalmed the form in the sack once more and tightly tied the mouth. Then she walked to her ute, placed the bundle near the back window in the tray and headed for home. 

Griffith Review