THERE IS NO such thing as bad Country; there just happens to be bad custodians. And marsh is a natural feature in accordance with time; encroaching damp from a swamp pays no heed to a progressive twenty-first century and the equity of development.
Early colonists sent to survey the wetlands along the southern banks of the river had remarked how the fallen trees on the crest lines reminded them of abandoned guns. Hence the placename given: ‘Cannon Hill’. Only men from military backgrounds would deem the metaphor appropriate during occupation of such a fertile pocket.
Local inhabitants labelled Country according to natural characteristics. Murarrie means ‘place of muddy water’, but as a term of endearment. These tidal billabongs were rich with plant and fish life. Then the neighbouring Minnippi wetlands had the watertable tapped and a highway ploughed through their fringe – but the narrow-leaved melaleuca shrubs are still inclined to regenerate rapidly in symbiotic growth with the local fauna.
WHEN WALLY MANGARRA first came to this part of the state it was the furthest south he’d ever wandered. He was in his prime: thirty-one years of age and his skin an obsidian hue that deflected the sun. Wally was almost six feet tall and physically fit. Although he appeared formidable, he was shy and gently spoken. Wally owned two pairs of jeans and kept his hair in a tight trim. He’d been bitten by the city before, some ten years earlier. So now he should have been twice as shy. When the Black man was finished with this city, and this city done with him, he swore he’d go home to Cape York – but back home he would never wander again. He’d recklessly stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time.
Wally understood atonement for sin. His immaturity and trust in Wendell would cost him.
A family friend had offered to help Wally with a hand up, and yet all Wally discovered was a vacancy waiting for a gullible slave. He’d witnessed corruption in his own Country and naively imagined such a thing inconceivable anywhere else. But the seeds of corruption needed little to germinate, especially in a city. So he didn’t even speak or breathe a word of his own Country and tongue; superstitious as he was, Wally feared souring any way home. The journey had been a mistake: he felt an evil presence had lured him and could easily track him, delivering retribution, if he attempted to leave.
But the claws of Wendell Thompson were firmly clasped around Wally’s throat, a grip that was applied with the slippery skills of a grifter. Wendell was an ‘urban’ Blackfella who immediately insisted his new protégé be exposed to all aspects of his earth-moving operations.
For ‘insurance purposes’ Wendell absconded with Wally’s equipment licences and furnished Wally with a cash float and advance on his first week of salary. And from that moment Wallace Mangarra knew that Wendell Thompson owned him.
‘You have to look the part my bro… Dress for success!’ beamed Wendell. Indeed: Wally noticed his mentor’s shoes had a sheen unusual for a labourer. Wendell’s stride had yet to kick dust.
But he did move earth – Wendell had a team of tattooed lackeys taking soil from one place to another, a mobile phone glued to each ear. Wendell’s crew were all young, urban Blacks who were simply about the ‘bling’. And Wendell had embellished his association with Wally to his minions. ‘Wendall told us you had to cut a dude’s ears off to get initiated and you once killed an alligator when yas became blood brothers… Is zat right?’ asked one inspired chap.
WENDALL HAD ACQUIRED several acres of scrub on the southern outskirts of the Minnippi wetlands and he invited Wally to take a cruise with him and check in on his new ‘pet project’. In Wendell’s black BMW sedan, they arrived at a heavily cordoned area: cyclone-mesh fence, six feet high, topped with several strands of vicious barbwire. The gate had the most solid padlock and chain Wally had ever seen.
‘Check this out!’ exclaimed Wendell. ‘Help us with the gate…’
As the pair juggled chain and padlock, a gold money clip – loaded with $50 bills – fell out of Wendell’s jeans.
‘Damn!’ he quipped. ‘I’m jus’ throwin’ this shit away…’ Wendell eased his car in and then relocked the fence.
It was late in the afternoon. Light was dropping and shadows grew across the landscape. The area wasn’t heavily forested: tall thickets of grass rustled with the evening breeze.
They were on a dirt road that looked and travelled well without a blacktop. Swamp reeds waved gently and the water sparkled in the remaining sunlight. Ibis took their time inspecting the edges of the marsh.
Wendell tapped at the console of his car and blasted them both with decibels of a creepy bass beat. Wally was of a Bumma clan from south of the Cape. His Bumma were rainforest custodians. Unlike the sanctuary of his home, the plant life moved differently down here when mixed with the elements. A spiritual realm had been tampered with and Wally could feel it. Whatever Wendell was about to reveal already had Wally thinking ‘desecration!’
‘SORRY MAN…DO YA MIND?!’ Wally had to raise his voice.
‘Cool,’ said Wendell, switching off the stereo. ‘It is nice here…’
They drove to a clearing where it seemed the ground had been freshly resettled. Wendell parked the car.
‘So… What are we doin’ out here?’ asked Wally. ‘What’d you want to show me?’
Wendell took his time getting out of the car. He motioned that Wally join him.
They leaned on the smooth, warm bonnet. Wendell had the smile that he always sported before attempting to impress an audience. Once again, he toyed with the cache of money from his pocket, the clip gleaming in the blaze of dusk.
‘You’re standing on it, man…’ answered Wendell, stretching out his arms. He took the wad of cash in his left hand and kissed the money with his smooth, coffee-coloured lips.
‘You’re standing on it my man!’ he repeated, and the mystery was almost painful now in Wally’s mind.
He stood away from Wendell’s BMW and surveyed the surroundings. The final flares of sun caught the gold-plated clip.
‘I’m not even thirty and I’m on my way Wallace! HAH!’ bellowed Wendell.
‘Well…good on you…’ said Wally, still unsure as to what he was congratulating his ‘friend’ about. Wendell was starting to test Wally’s patience, and so – with ease and respect – he went and sat back in the car. ‘I am truly happy for you bro… I am Wendell…’
‘I brought you here because it’s a goldmine,’ continued Wendell, walking around to Wally’s side of the car and tossing the money into his lap. He had lowered his voice and now took on the demeanour of a man-child, playfully sneaking about the car.
They were alone. The nearby highway was like a sound barrier on one side of them, the wetlands silent.
‘A bloke just paid me serious cash to bury some asbestos,’ Wendell explained, ‘And next month he’ll pay – you and me – the same amount of money to lose another couple of truckloads…’
Wally refused to raise his head and look Wendell in the eyes – eyes that he was quickly starting to loathe. Wendell was now leaning over the bonnet laughing, a narcissistic flash overriding any clarity.
‘I don’t know anything about asbestos, Wendell,’ Wally said at last. ‘You can’t bury it here… It’s wrong!!!’ He was weeping, and as he opened his eyes he saw tears fall onto the money in his lap. He wouldn’t look at Wendell, who seemed now to be mumbling something more and more incoherent – or maybe he was laughing?
‘I’m leaving, Wendell,’ said Wally. ‘I’m going home!’
AND THEN WENDELL’S laughter muffled as his body seemed to counter the enormous impact of a foreign weight.
Wally glanced out of the car as a dark cloud blocked the last of the afternoon’s sun. Wendell had been consumed by a sudden mass of constricting blubber.
Wally felt the entire car shudder and buckle. A small ectoplasmic storm of slime mixed with marsh water and a nebula of static electricity showered over the vehicle. In a panic, Wally tried to jump out of his seat – but what seemed to be a huge kicking slime of whipping tail and dorsal fin prevented him.
This ‘thing’ was both aquatic and serpentine, its prey yelling – though trapped and incomprehensible.
Wally’s own breath choked as he found himself staring out through the windscreen into the glutinous eyes of the catfish, its jaws dripping a relish of quagmire and weed. The jaws chewed, gaping, and a blood frenzy bathed the metallic body of the car. Wendell’s lower torso compacted, patellas and femurs snapped, crackled – and then a final, grotesque POP!
The fish slumped against the car, ending the gore with a sumptuous gulp.
Wally, hopeless and unable to counteract anything he’d witnessed, felt a spastic surge of adrenaline making its way down to his feet. This incomprehensible episode, both done and just. A moment born from greed and taken back to the wetland with a herculean twist, that gargantuan hall of muscle in the murkiness. Ibis’ wings and screeches above the turmoil.
Finally, Wally dared to took over the dash in the last of the dusk light: a flash of fin, a spindrift of wake, the settling waters: the mud reckoning of the Minnippi…