The River past the Lake

Caitlin Farrugia  •  Melbourne, Australia

“Slut.” A raspy hormonal voice pegged itself at Celine like a rock thrown with a strong arm.

“Why don’t you just fuck off, Nicholas?” Celine staggered past him, her thongs not defensive enough against the bristly thistles under her feet. The boys sniggered, passing around a cigarette. They hadn’t worked out how to inhale properly yet, quickly chuffing in and out. Their tight short wet swimsuits stuck to their legs like glad wrap, ruffling in bunches like saggy skin. Their chests concaved, shadows filling the ditches between ribs. Their pink coned nipples like rose buds. It seemed as if all the kids from town were at the lake. Housebound mothers, sweaty aunts and dads covered in mowed blades of grass had kicked their kids out of their farmhouses for a day in the sun. Bronzed kids with white blonde bowl cuts floated in the water with boogie boards, laughing, shouting, holding each other under. Girls with long pink legs and bulky hair sat on the edge in neon bikinis inspecting each other’s fashion.  A few of the older kids sat in second hand cars destined for the wreckers, biting hickeys into flesh. A blue heeler in its seniority chased a thrown stick, loyal to the game of fetch and then rested itself under a tree. Its tongue thin like sliced ham, open and panting, white with spit. The heat pressed down on the bodies of the youth, unprotected skin shimmering and glittering with sweat.

“You—you gonna suck Jordan’s dick?” Nicholas’ chapped mouth curled. He choked on the smoke.

Tyrese looked up at his older sister, the middle of his brow bending downwards. “Why did they say that?” he asked, carrying the blue Esky and a fraying lemon towel over his neck. Celine didn’t know. She’d never even kissed a boy but if she had, she reckoned that it didn’t warrant a display of public humiliation. She shrugged her shoulders in response, “Who cares?”

The walk from the house to the lake had been a long and hot one. Sandra’s home was on the cusp of the bush four kilometres out of town. That meant a painful parade of the bush while the sun rubbed its tongue against the children’s skin and burnt black sticks pierced bloody holes in their legs. Tyrese had sworn he’d seen a snake but Celine was sceptical. He wasn’t a liar, just someone who liked to tell big stories and play tricks. The brashness of the bush’s treatment was on par with the stroll through town. Skinny sun kissed kids stopped their bikes to watch the new kids in town move through like tourists. Melted ice cream lined their lips and drooled from the stick down their forearms. Men in blue singlets whistled at Celine, their beers amber to the unwavering yellow light that hung in the sky above them.  A pregnant woman in an oversized cotton sundress told the siblings to get off the road. When arriving at the lake, Celine and Tyrese hadn’t wanted to swim in the popular pool: a wide body of water yet not big enough for them to join the school of kids that paddled together and gossiped by the embankment. Anyway, they heard that someone had died there and being alone was kind of their thing. The neck of the river was a short walk up from the lake. It was some kind of paradise. The water was clearer as it glassed over nature made walls of rocks, its pour coming from a wider belly of water. The meditative trickling surge of the river covered the thick layer of noise coming from the lake. Tall, old gum trees lined the river, their long bark arms gifted shade to the land. Their roots crawling backwards into a wheat coloured paddock of tired, overheated cows.

“Come on, beat ya in!” Tyrese’s face was as bright as his brain.

Tyrese was that kind of kid – fearless. Someone who did back flips on a single bed. When they’d lived with their parents, he would canter on his horse without a helmet. Eyes closed, hair flying in the speed of the wind. Celine watched as her brother sprinted for the water. He leapt from his bare feet, curving his spine in the air and dived in to the deeper end of the river.  For a moment, the water had eaten him. It was just Celine standing in this sacred place. The echo of water from the splash of his body softened and reformed to make a flat brown face. And then, he arose from the surface as though resurrected.

“The water is so nice!” He laughed, shaking the droplets of water from his head like a saturated dog. Celine inched her toes into the water. The fresh flow was cool against her skin. It instantly made her whole body feel refreshed, beating away that sticky hot sweat that layered on her upper lip and crawled around her middle. The bather material had been uncomfortable on the walk. She had worn a one piece to hide the little hairs that had recently grown around her bellybutton. Though her bather bottom line was unavoidable so she had furtively borrowed Sandra’s razor to shave away the newfound pubic hair. It itched. But the gentle water against her feet made her forget that. She walked in slowly. The deepest part of the river was just below her breasts. Regardless, she pushed herself on her back and floated.

It was funny how heat didn’t eat a cool body. Hydrated limbs and necks were a repellent to an enduring sun. Two tanned bodies sat on the bank of the river on a picnic blanket of dried olive green and lilac eucalyptus leaves. These fallen leaves gave an aroma of balmy honey and hot mint. It was a searing swarm of smell that blanketed the children and filled their nostrils. Ravishingly, Celine opened Sandra’s Esky. She was pretty nice, that Sandra. Inside the cool box were a stack of cold meat and homemade barbeque sauce sandwiches and two bottles of coke. Celine passed her brother a sandwich and within a few bites, it was wolfed down. Celine chewed hers, her teeth finding a bit of gristle pulling the sandwich backwards to snap the fleshy skin. Oil smeared their mouths and with every morsel handled hungrily, the pristine white bread became brown with meat stains.

“Sandra is a good cook.” Tyrese licked his fingers, wishing they were sausages from last nights BBQ.

“You reckon?” Celine asked.

“Yeah.”

She watched her brother unfazed by the flies that without invitation rested on his face. His thick, cow like eyelashes blinked them away.

“You like your room?” She was curious.

“Yeah, it’s ok.” Tyrese wasn’t bothered. Neither was Celine. Sandra’s was the first home in a while where they’d had their own bedrooms.

“You know we are seeing Mum and Dad next weekend?”

“Oh, okay.” Tyrese threw a rock into the river. It made a splash followed by an instant thud. “Do we have to? I don’t want Sandra to feel sad.”

They hadn’t known Sandra for very long, a few months. She was fat and loud and opinionated and funny. When they first moved in with her, she danced silly in the lounge room until the kids laughed and felt comfortable.  She didn’t have a husband. She said she never even had a boyfriend. This was an idea the kids finally grew used to since all the other homes had a Mum and a Dad.

“Hey, wanna climb that tree?” Tyrese pointed up to the ancient white and sunburnt orange-armed gum tree whose leaves were bright green.

Tyrese was part possum, Celine was sure of it. He had scampered up the tree, claws shaking branches. The view was vast. An endless stretching sky of blue with swirling feathery clouds like pulled apart pearl white fairy floss. Hairy treetops of soft green pear, army green and grapefruit orange, a scene they could eat. A gathering of galahs had flown past; grey wings flapping and pink bodies soaring. Even more than on the ground, the air was a perfume of warm eucalyptus. The sun a hunter, feasted on the backs of their necks. Standing at the height of the tree, they were gods of the sky, kings of the bush. Up high, looking down on the world.

It must’ve been 4:30 P.M. Celine had reckoned. Well, she’d watched the sun elegantly slip itself down the embankment and cross the river. The air felt cooler too, its soft breeze caressed the tall grass across the water. Her bottled coke had become warm. They’d accidentally left their drinks in the sun after lunch. The fizz had gone but the taste of hot wet sugar panged in her mouth, drying the inside of her cheeks. She spat a wad of saliva on the ground to get the bitter taste out. They’d probably have to head back shortly. Sandra was specific that dinner and bath would be early so she could watch Hey, Hey It’s Saturday. Their mother liked that Daryl Somers too which was the reason the kids excused themselves to play in their bedrooms anytime Sandra was watching. Celine’s nose was burnt red like the flowers of a gum tree.

“So this is where you’re hiding.” Nicholas glided down the small dirt hill, kicking a wattle branch out of his way. Puffs of yellow flew into the air and then decayed into smaller fragments. She made a mental note to build some sort of booby trap out of branches next time they were here. She imagined Nicholas being stabbed in the eye by a stick.
“Just gonna ignore me?” He hid his annoyance with a smirk. “Why don’t you guys come hang out by the lake with the rest of us?”

“‘Cos we like it here.” She said. Then suddenly conscious of this mornings dodgy shaving job, she laid her towel across her waist. She was glad Tyrese was trying to do handstands underwater and didn’t have to listen to this guy’s drool.  Nicholas’ brain must have been a bit sun-fried, as he couldn’t think of anything to say and instead just sat down next to her.

“My Dad’s got a Porsche 944 Turbo.”

“I don’t care, Nicholas.”

“Do you want a cigarette?” He asked. “I could run back and ask Warrick for one?”
Celine didn’t even bother answering and started packing away the Esky. She looked out to beckon her brother but couldn’t see his long legs running around. He must have been diving under the water or something. She placed the coke bottles inside the box and shut the lid, shoving her frizzy strands of hair out of her eyes.

“Do you wanna touch it?” Nicholas had a short fleshy dick that sat limber outside the elastic band of his shorts. It was whiter than the rest of his body that had been basting in the heat for hours the way a dead chook does on Sunday. His testacies were still tucked underneath the wet polyester. Thick, a few pepper coloured curled hairs, wrinkly. There it was, unsolicited, the first penis she’d ever seen. Celine gasped.

“No.” Her word was a single soft and timid piano note. The situation made her feel sick. Her eyes had grown dry and started stinging. Nicholas laughed and placed the lump of skin back in his swimming trunks.  Celine quickly wrapped her towel in a knot around her belly and kicked her thongs on. The rubber caught around her big toe and flew in front of her. She speedily stumbled to place it on correctly.

“Tyrese,” she yelled. “We have to go.” Her eyes searched around the water looking for her younger brother. He wasn’t in the river. His pink soles weren’t jutting out from the water mid handstand. He wasn’t hunting for smooth rocks in the shallower part of the river and he wasn’t watching ant’s track food back to their nests.

“I’m up here.” A little voice called down from the ancient tree, ending Celine’s investigation. Tyrese waved. He smiled. He blew a tuft of hair from his face, squatted and jumped.

“No, Tyrese!” Her voice danced to the treetops.

It was too late; he had flung himself from the height of the tree and dived through the atmosphere. He was a valiant acrobat. The air was his playground. Gravity was his opponent. His growing body straightened as a proposal to the water to accept the perfect dive. His head hit the river and his body crumpled underneath the surface. He was a loose ribbon that travelled downward, piling on top of itself. Fuck.

“Fuck.” Celine was breathless.

Nicholas’ face had turned white. His smile snapped off as though a pair of scissors had shorn his lips right off. The river sat unapologetically or maybe not realising that it had taken a boy below. A single cockatoo crossed the landscape. It didn’t take long to fly through the trees before turning into a small white dot in the distant sky. Tyrese’s body slowly inflated to the surface, buoyant. His sister could only watch. She waited for him to roll over and give her a toothy golden smile or to snort the water out from his nose. Or to get out, run up the tree and do it all over again. Nothing.

‘Please be tricking,’ she thought.

The river past the lake was still. A collection of bird sounds sparked in distance, singing to each other a light symphony. A tractor sliced the grass in the beyond paddock. No one spoke. Afternoon sunlight moved through the trees creating ephemeral patterns on the water. Celine ran to her brother.

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