Earth’s songs have dimmed over the world, ousted by noises of our own making but she sings here.
Now has finished the ‘Knock ‘em down time’ that comes after the monsoon season when the strong winds flatten tall spear grass of the savannah woodlands. Heavy rains have abated, floodwaters drain towards rivers, creeks and billabongs. The woodland savannah begins to dry.
Winds settle. Stringybark, woolybutt, ironwood flower. The people burn flattened spear grass in small sections. Thin spirals of smoke climb from burning underbrush. Kites cast shadows, circle above. Sharp eyes look for small animals escaping flames.
On the river, water is the colour of thin tea. An archer fish rises towards light, emerges from beneath. Leaves no ripple. Still and silent, motionless in light current. A slow rhythmic flutter of tail and fins hold it in place. In shallows along banks rich with sedge and lotus flowers insects are legion. A watery missile brings down a grasshopper. Small ringlets form as it struggles for safety. The water breaks silvery with light and movement. The grasshopper disappears.
A barramundi lunges towards the surface scattering a school of small fry in a burst of tiny splashes. Large scales reflect light. A red-backed sea eagle swoops, lifts it from the water in steely talons. The eagle struggles with the weight. Begins to sink towards the surface. The eagle kens what lies beneath, releases the large fish with a splash of silver and a slap on the surface. The barramundi’s luck is fleeting. Wounded and bleeding it is snapped up by an opportunistic crocodile.
Over the banks and surface of the river, dragonflies, hunters, masters of their craft, wings like leaded glass windows, dart side to side, up and down. They’ve been around for 300 million years. With two sets of wings moving independently, they take their prey from any direction. Eyes like fisheye lenses they have near 360-degree vision. They miss nothing. Nature’s mosquito abatement squad.
A darter perches on a naked limb and stretches its wet wings to dry. The tree is white and bleached as bone rising from the water, a deformed skeletal hand, strong and sturdy but long dead.
Evening approaches. Smoke and sun paint the western sky vermillion, pink, orange and violet. In velvety soft twilight whiskered catfish rise to dimple the surface making rings that ripple, swell and disappear. Lean white egrets, long and tall, lift from steamy mist like dreams. Jabirus stalk with long-legged grace through shallows. Gnats, midges, mosquitoes hover the surface, swarm in clouds. Angler fish knock them from leaves and stems with well-aimed spit, the insects tumble in the water and the fish grow plump. Cicadas' high-pitched whines cut through the sweltering tropical air to choruses of frog song. Sedge, grasses and reeds bend and shimmer in the breeze. The bone white trunks of mangrove and melaleucas catch the coloured light. Pandanus palms’ rich-green lancet leaves silhouette the sky. All framed by a brilliant red sun descending beneath the stillness of the floodplain. A chorus of life and death, varied and plentiful.
Old Bull Crocodile, eyes, ears and snout just above the surface slowly sinks and disappears. Hits bottom and rests there still as stone. Powdery rich silt rises around him, settles over his knobbly scaled back, water clears to tinted sepia. He waits. Five metres long, he weighs more than a tonne. He’s an apex predator. Motionless. He knows more than any that movement betrays the hunter and hunted. He can stay like this for an hour, maybe more. His heartbeat slows to two beats a minute. A clear membrane slides over his eyes. His senses tune and refine. Water flows over him with mail of blood, feathers, scales and fur. His scales armoured, hard and tough, sensitive enough to detect changes in temperature and movement. He’s wired to water. It conveys vibrations and motion. There’s no hurry. He can wait. It’s what he does. Everything is measured. Heartbeats. Movement. Breathing. Kangaroos, wallabies, feral pigs will come down to the river’s edge to drink. His length, power and incredible weight will rush from the water at heart-shocking speed with a slap of mighty tail. Those jaws will close down and crush its prey. Bones will snap like crystal and shatter beneath the force. He will roll and roll. The water will boil and splash around him breaking the tranquil silence until his prey is overwhelmed and drowns and the surface returns to glassy calm.
His kind have been here for two hundred million years, outlived dinosaurs by sixty-five million. He has three eyelids. From beneath the surface he can see prey on land. He can see prey beneath the water. He can see prey while he’s on the surface. He’s got it covered. He is part and parcel of the water he inhabits. Stealth and cunning, he is the arch-ambusher. He has lived more than seventy years. He’s badass and has the battle scars to prove it. He is predatory perfection.
The water smooth and still reflects trees, sky and setting sun. Winged insects skim the surface. Birds sing. A soft breeze ruffles the sedge. All is tranquil and serene.
* * *
He finds open space high on the far bank of the river towards day’s end. He prefers to get at eye level and close but in these parts the river’s edge can be dangerous. This is a good spot. Beautiful light, sun filtered soft by smoky sky. He tosses his gear on the roof of the van, climbs after it, sets up his camp chair and tripod. Clear views in both directions along the river’s run. Pushes the lens to its full focal length and slowly pulls in from distance, taking in scenes, framing untaken shots in his mind. Exploring light, textures and patterns. He takes his eye away from the viewfinder, follows the wide scope of land and river, returns to the viewfinder, takes pictures, long shadows, sunsets, painted clouds, soft silhouettes, wildlife. When the light vanishes, he finishes with shots of the night sky, the stars spread out like spilled sugar on black velvet. He stows his gear in their bags, climbs in the back of the van, sleeps.
* * *
In scent-rich darkness, beneath a cluster of powdery stars, the old bull croc settles close to a sloped clearing on the bank. The smell of thirsty warm-blooded visitors still fresh at its edge. Eyes and nose above the surface, his massive bulk beneath, rock still, he waits.
* * *
He’s up before first light, prepares sandwiches and thermos of tea for the day, climbs to the roof of the van. It’s a struggle at his age. It’s easier in early morning when he’s fresh but there’s still aches and pains in knees and shoulders. Reckons there’s not too many climbs left in him.
Through the lens he captures dawn’s languid entrance on the river, shafts of red, pink, gold light shifting and changing with the sun's ascent, a flock of black and white magpie geese winging across a bruised blue and vermillion sky just before sunrise, giant white egrets lifting in the sky on outstretched snowy white wings, a jacana daddy-long legging across water and lily pads like a magic trick in a shaft of light, a cormorant spreads wings in supplication as it admires its reflection in a river current so slow and indolent it looks still.
He can hardly remember the ins and outs of his old profession. This is what he does now and he’s good at it. He takes thousands of photos. Beauty stored on hard drives. He’s got the best of it just after early morning. Now the light is harsh. Shadows deepen, glare on water squints eyes. He fits a polarising filter to his lens. Looks through the viewfinder. It’s an improvement. He could quit now. Climb down. Spend the day elsewhere. He decides to stay. Maybe because he dreads the pain of climbing down from the roof. He doesn’t overthink it. It’s pleasant in the sun on top of the river bank. He takes a book from his bag, leans back in the chair, spreads out his legs and reads. He looks up now and again. It’s a nice view.
* * *
The children run ahead of the old woman, excited and laughing, but they don’t go far. Two boys in ragged khaki shorts too big for them. The two little girls in bright cotton shifts, hems adorned with thin ribbons of lace and little brass bells. The hems swirl and swish delicately around thin legs. The girls pirouette on dainty feet so the hems spin around their knees and catch the breeze. Bells tinkle in the soft dry wind blowing across the woodland savannah.
She is power. Solid like a brick. Dark and shiny as obsidian. A nimbus of electric white hair surrounds her dark face. The eyes penetrate from beneath her brow. Intense. She walks this path on bare feet. Thickly calloused as tough as the woman herself, a no-nonsense sternness. An elder, keeper, teacher of culture. She’s good at it.
The children gambol and frolic but they know the rules. It’s as if the woman has them on an invisible leash. They never pass a certain distance. The savannah spreads out before them. The red dirt path winds and twist towards the big water.
The morning mist has vanished. The sun ascends farther in the sky and a dry wind eases the humidity. Thin spirals of smoke drift in columns. Whistling kites cry out, circle above, keen eyes searching.
The twisted papery branches of the swamp melaleucas, and the dark green dangling spears of pandanus palms line the banks of the big water ahead. They approach a sloping bank that leads down towards the river. She sees the old man on top of the van. His head leans forward, his face shaded by the brim of his hat. He’s either dead or asleep thinks the woman. She surveys both directions, deeply inhales through her nose. Her chest swells with ambient air, breathes in the river, taking the sweetness of green sedge and lotus, the dense rich complexity of river bottom silt, the hint of melaleucas and eucalypts.
She nods. The boys race down the gentle slope towards the river, throw themselves chest first in shallow dives and skim on their bellies creating trails of glittering water through the shallows.
The girls pull the shifts over their heads, fold them neatly, place them on dry log, step into the water, dainty and graceful as river nymphs as the boys roll and tumble and splash like delinquent dolphins. Splashing. Laughter. Eyes always return to the woman.
* * *
The bull crocodile drifts downstream sans ripples, only his knobby head, yellow eyes and nostrils show. This is his patch. He’s fought for it time and time again. He knows it like he knows breath. Splashes vibrate through the water. He feels them. Hears them. The water pumps through the river marshland like blood through his arteries. He reads it with his eyes closed like a blind man reading Braille.
Another bull crocodile has dared to enter his turf or maybe it’s struggling prey. Fight or feast. He’s up for both. The splashes continue. He closes in on the vibrations. Like dead weight he sinks beneath the surface, continues on. Serpentine tail, rhythm and grace, no ripples betray him. Takes his time. He’s good at this.
* * *
He’s not certain how long the children have been swimming and frolicking in the water. The laughter and sound seems to blend in with bird call, the light whisper of wind and warmth of the sun. Maybe he fell asleep for a bit. It’s almost as if they were there from the beginning. He sees their slippery wet skin, the delight in their eyes and smiles, the music of their laughter. He’d love to take photos but doesn’t. He’d feel it an intrusion. Disrespectful. He marks the page in his book and watches them from beneath the shade of his large straw hat. He recognises the woman. They talked when he stopped at the cultural centre a few days back. He smiles and waves to her across the water. She waves back. The heat is building on the roof of the Land Rover but he remains. He leans back in his camp chair, takes out a sandwich, a thermos of tea and watches the children swim and frolic in the midmorning sun. It does him good. Occasionally, he checks through the lens of his camera, zooming in and out, changing perspective. Off in the distance he sees a long flat tourist boat packed with people. He can just hear the guide’s commentary carry over the water.
* * *
The man across the river wakes. Lifts his head. She recognises his face beneath the shade of his hat. Returns his wave. Watches his movements, monitors the direction of his camera then turns her attention to the children swimming in the river. She settles on the log where the girls have folded their shifts. Runs her bare feet in the soil, feels its moist richness. Thinks of her youth and her own swims in the big water. Knows how it becomes part of you, gets into your blood, into your heart. She wonders if the old man across the river has such feelings about his own country, if he ever swam in its big water and felt its message.
Her eyes aren’t as sharp, nor her ears. But she knows, registers small changes, watches the river. A shag surfaces, perches on a limb downstream. An egret stills, leg frozen mid-step. She tilts her head, takes in the air, furrows her brow, concentrates, focuses. Smells the silt, water, the fragrance of melaleuca, mangrove, pandanus, eucalypt, lotus, sedge and the hint of change, something new, something dank and fishy, something different on the wind and the water. She squints over the surface, smells the deep musky odour tinged with mud and algae moving slowly beneath the surface like a lump of scaly land. Things add up. Looks across to the man on the roof the van. He leans forward, intense. She calls out the warning.
* * *
He hears the woman shout out. Through the lens, he pulls the focus slowly back to include more of the river and bank. The filters helped. He sees a lazy shadow, indistinct beneath the glary surface, slowly making its way downstream.
The games are over. The children scatter across the surface like a school of fingerlings chased by a stalking barramundi. She gathers their clothes and summons them to the top of the slope. They run to her and stand by her side, excited and panting. Waiting. Watching.
The silt and mud mark a channel of the children’s retreat from the big water. Slowly the silt settles and the water clears. Tiny fish scurry in between the stems of lily pads and sedge. Something rough and dark rises to the surface. The cloudy amber eyes first, the lids slide back, clear black vertical pupils sharpen, the dark hollows of the nostrils appear. The rough scaly head takes shape, surfaces, yellow eyes watching.
The woman and children wave to the photographer and disappear over the rise. The photographer packs his gear and climbs down from the van and drives away. The bull croc sinks below the surface and waits.