River of WhispersCindy Addison / Actions & Adventure
River of Whispers
Copyright Cindy Addison 2014
Cover image: copyright Cindy Addison
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It reaches above me, tall and resilient with age. I know this shadow; it keeps me cool and calm.
“We’re goin’ to the beach,” Dad says, rustling my hair, with a wink of an eye. “You girls ride back to the caravan. Here yas go, don’t spend it all at once,” he drawls, as he flicks two fifty-cent coins over his shoulder to us on his way back to the car.
Laura’s face widens into a toothless grin as she reaches up and snatches one silvery coin from the hot air. The other sails past me, hits the ground and rolls clumsily on its angled sides. I reach to pick it up. The squashed, stinking Moreton Bay figs stick their seeds onto my fingers. Captain Cook’s tiny face stares back at me as my fingers close around the dull coin.
Mum sits at the driver’s seat of the Valiant. She leans forward to look in the rear-view mirror. With chipped painted nails, she teases and wraps her long, dark hair into a high style. From the back seat, my older sister shifts her scrawny, sweaty legs to unstick them from the vinyl seats. She screws up her spotty face at me. One middle finger juts out from behind her dog-eared magazine.
“Whaddarya lookin’ at?” she sneers.
“Just tryin’ to work that out,” I mumble and roll my eyes.
Dad’s tanned arm hangs out of the open car window. His thin fingers tap on the white panel in time to the music wafting from the pub. He takes a gulp from his warm beer can.
“Don’t get into any strife!” he calls, with a wave.
Mum turns the car sharply out of the pub parking lot. I raise my old Leica to my eye. A turn of the focusing ring shuts out the rest of the world as our beat-up car almost disappears in a cloud of dust. I grin at the sight of Max poking his furry black and white head out the open car-boot window. A press of the silver shutter catches his sharp-toothed smile as his tongue lolls and drips. I bet he wishes he could stay with us for a treat—better than being in the same car as my grumpy sister.
I stand still with my eyes closed. I wish for hints of quiet between the hum and beat of drunken laughter and music from the town’s only pub. The sea breeze gently cools the beads of sweat above my lip. The thick leaves above me are still and silent. My annoying little sister starts poking me in the guts with her index finger in time with every syllable of her complaining.
“I-want-a-van-ill-a-ice-cream-now!” her shrill voice orders.
“Quit pokin’ me Laura and you’ll get your ice-cream,” I say. I glare at her without blinking an eyelash. Mum would say I was giving her the ‘stink-eye’—my big sister would be proud of me, for a change.
Laura stops poking me as quickly as she started. Her big brown eyes stare up at me with hope. Sweat shines on her forehead and sticks down her crooked fringe. I hate it how Mum cuts our hair so daggy-looking, like a Beatles band member’s bowl-cut. She reckons why waste good money on a haircut when it’s not rocket science to work a pair of scissors.
“Whatcha been doin’?” I ask.
“I bin jumpin’ up and down and you bin standin’ sleepin’,” Laura says.
I laugh and grab my bike from where it rests against the wide twisted tree roots.
“Let’s go to Joe’s for that ice-cream!” I yell.
Laura races me down the bumpy driveway. Her legs are a blur as she passes me, feet barely touching both pedals of her big, rusty hand-me-down bike. I sit tall and strong. I let go of the handles and straighten my hips to balance the bike. My hands reach to feel for the camera and I hold it near my panting stomach, shooting-from-the-hip at my sister and the wide street. Lens turned wide open, I click the shutter and look ahead to imagine what might be captured on the silver crystals safe inside the camera’s darkness: rusty handle bars; wide branches heavy with figs, a canopy of shade over the quiet street; and the rise of the dull, grey bitumen leading to the busy shops. Mum reckons it’s like ‘central station’ here in the summer holidays.
My heart beats faster in my chest. I let my camera go and it swings on its embroidered strap like a pendulum. I grip the handles hard and stand up on the bike pedals, building up speed. A few metres in front, Laura’s head turns and she pokes out her tongue through the dark gap in her teeth. Her bike swerves on the uneven road.
“Watch it, dumbo!” I yell, and she squeals in delight as she straightens up.
The faded red sign on Joe’s shop grows larger as we get closer.
“J for Joe’s, J for Joe’s,” chants Laura, throwing her bike down to run and squeeze into the crowded line of barefooted kids, pushing and shoving near the outside counter.
I lean my bike up against the spindly wattle tree and sit beside it. In the window of the newsagency and second-hand bookshop, next door to Joe’s, books and stuff are piled up. I feel the straight sides of the precious coin in my pocket—no ice-cream for me today. I close my eyes and picture the faded mystery books, their worn pages crisp and yellow. Just imagine the owners’ hand-written names and messages inside the cover! What story would they have to tell? Something cold and sticky lands on my foot. I open my eyes slightly and brush it off.
“Mmmm banilla,” mumbles Laura.
I lift my camera and her beaming face fills the frame. The dark gaps in her teeth contrast with the sludgy mess of white ice-cream. Stale cone crumbles off to feed the ants on the ground and she slumps on the dirt next to me, slurping and smiling.
I turn my head away from the people. Through my half-opened eyes, the world is wider. In the viewfinder, the ancient Moreton Bay Fig trees stretch further over the messy row of shops crammed with tourists and beach stuff. I shift my camera up or down, left or right to erase tourists from my view. Held behind a rusted wire frame from the breeze is a newspaper, its headline reads: ‘Local girl missing near river’. My eyes widen and, with a press of my finger, I capture the news forever. I grab Laura’s sticky hand.
“C’mon squirt, let’s go!”
We ride past the busy shops, past the kids on their bikes with their sandy feet and sunburnt noses, and past the rows of rectangle holiday houses—beach towels hang crisp and salty over the faded fences. I wipe the water from my eyes and nose as the sea breeze hits me head-on. Wildflowers paint their last fading colour amongst the tall grass, hanging in defeat from the south-west wind.
“Sa-ll-y! Are we there yet?” Laura whines, lagging behind and stopping her bike often to rest.
“In two minutes,” I answer, eyes fixed ahead on the narrow bush track.
“How long’s that?”
Our bikes seem heavier as we climb the hilly track. The sour stench of the river mouth is behind us. I stop and turn quickly with my camera to frame the distant landscape. The silver strip of river divides the land. The river ebbs and flows against the grey sandbar; it waits for the winter waters to swell and reach the edge of the world.
“But Granny’s Beach and the caravan not this way,” Laura protests.
“We’re goin’ to see the birds at the river,” I yell.
Laura squeals with delight and pedals faster to pass me in a flash of red and brown.
I let my thoughts wander. I put them on the water and send them off. Mind-chatter fills my head again. The track ahead is bare and sandy, and my heart thumps. No Laura!
My bike lands heavily on the track and my feet hit the dirt running. The seconds seem like hours. I look frantically in all directions. Red shorts, gotta keep an eye out for something red. I barely feel the sharp stones and twigs scratch my feet as I sprint and stumble along the river bank. Then in the scrub, a flash of red like a flag to a bull. I call and yell—nothing! Then I stop. I look. I listen. I focus in all directions. A dark movement shakes me from my stillness and I impulsively press the shutter. Click. The crow’s blurred black wings stretch out to fill the frame for a fraction of a second, and I run again. I stop and breathe slowly. I focus on endless water and bush; then two eyes enter the frame—human eyes. Beneath them, his wiry beard is camouflaged in the tangled mess of branches and leaves. My body freezes again, my chest rises faster and faster, and my hands tingle beneath the weight of my camera. I can’t move; any motion will expose me. The eyes shift and disappear.
I lean on a spindly trunk to catch my breath. Shit, the old guy must be deaf and blind not to see me—or maybe he did! With his hideout up ahead, I crouch down and crab-walk closer, slowly, slowly. A splash down at the riverbank alerts me and I turn to see a hunched figure wading knee deep before lifting himself into a dinghy, his silver beard shaking from the effort. I crane my neck to see the bottom of the boat littered with empty cans wrapped in fishing line. Fish bait spills out of a broken bucket. My knees sting as I creep closer to the clearing behind the trees. Two more eyes appear and I fall backwards on the dirt.
“I’m here!” she yells.
The messy brown-haired child appears in a rush from the hidden entrance. Her red bloodied knees match the colour of her shorts. I jump up and lunge towards her.
“Whaddarya doin’ ya drongo? Don’t run away like that, Mum’ll throttle me for losing you!” I hiss. Laura whimpers as my hand clips her ear.
“I’m tellin’ Mum ya did that, ya meanie,” she cries.
“Orright, are ya orright?” I hug her shaking body close to me.
Her grin breaks through the streaky tears and she grabs my hand.
“Come and see.”
Laura leads me under the canopy of tangled ghost-like branches that grasp onto each other. We stumble into a small clearing and the stark blue sky returns above and beyond.
“I made a new friend,” she grins. “Look at his cubby house him watches from.”
My eyes widen and I tighten my grip on her sweaty hand. At one edge of the clearing, a dusty door set up across tree stumps forms a table. I sit near it on a stool made from a thick stump sunk into the sand. I watch as Laura runs and launches onto a ripped brown couch, then sits hugging her knees tight, staring up through the branches. Dappled light contrasts with shade from the ripped tarpaulin above me, strung with rope between the trees. The sweat on my neck cools. Through the gaps in the trees, I catch sight of the harsh sun rays as they dance on the ripples of the river. In my viewfinder, neat piles of paperbark lay on the white, peeling table. They flutter and struggle to be released from the weight of the river stones holding them down. A small hand appears in my view and rattles a rusty soup tin.
“Ooh pencils. Him draws picture books,” Laura said. “Like the soup I had. Him said visitors need to be quiet.”
“Jeez kid, don’t they teach you about stranger danger at school?” I say, but my attention is drawn to focusing and capturing reminders of the collection of treasures laid out before me.
Her hands turn through the paperbark. Piles of black detailed sketches reveal the outlines of birds: swans, pelicans and cockatoos. I lean on my elbows to steady my shaking hands. The shape of a crow, wings outstretched, coloured black like a shadow fills the frame.
“The girl looks sad,” says Laura, peering over my shoulder.
Click. The outline of a girl’s face is framed: her big, frightened eyes stare back at me, surrounded by long, curly hair. The corners of her mouth are turned downwards and a frown on her forehead wrinkles her face beyond her years. Movement near the river catches my eye and my heart races at the sound of a splash.
“Quick, put everything back,” I whisper, scrambling to tidy the table.
Laura folds her arms and digs her feet into the marbled dirt.
“But I want to say bye,” she complains.
“Shut up! Just come on,” I growl and grab her hand.
We stumble through the soft sand and the fresh air makes me gasp. Laura pulls on my hand in protest and I grip it tight. Sirens whine towards town, their wails growing louder. My whole body tenses and I lunge forward, pulling my sister behind me. My eyes focus ahead, waiting to feel a hand land on my shoulder as we run flat out back to my bike.
“Where’s ya bike?” I say, as I pant and struggle to lift my bike out of the soft sand.
“Dunno, can ya double-dink me?”
We leave the river behind us. We pass by the houses with their afternoon smell of burnt chops and sausages. My sister perches in front of me on the glittery, red bike seat, the muscles in my legs burn from riding with a squirmy passenger.
“Hang on, cos we’ll turn home near the cop shop,” I warn. Laura grabs the handlebars and throws her head back giggling.
“Quit wobblin’ will ya, I’m goin’ as crooked as a dog’s hind leg,” I yell.
The policeman stands in the shade of the long, white verandah. His only movement is to fan his shiny face. I slow down to focus on the rough paper he holds. Her familiar sad, frightened eyes stare back; they connect with mine for a moment then disappear into the shadows.
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About the author
Cindy Addison lives in Perth, Western Australia, with her family.
She was a photojournalist for ten years in country WA and studies photomedia, editing and publishing. Cindy grew up in Midwest Wheatbelt towns and along the south-west coast. She is interested in listening to and telling stories about real people and real experiences.