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Edition 12

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Fiction

Downstream

Whatever lies under a stone

Lies under the stone of the world

The Green Centipede – Douglas Stewart

 

A MONTH AFTER the funeral of Wilfred Lampe's mother, and having not seen or heard from Wilfred, Mitchell the publican was delegated to drive out to the house in the valley.

The lucerne was so high from the front gate to the house that Mitchell was forced to drive through a straw-coloured tunnel, the stalks taller than the vehicle. Inside the open house, on the kitchen table and resting under the sugar canister, was a note: Back next year.

It was grief, they discussed quietly at the Buckley's. It did strange things to people. Grief could crowd out an empty house. Send you into unmapped terrain.

"He's gone fishing, probably," they said. It was their age-old euphemism for rectifying all of life's ailments – death, depression, money problems, diseased stock and even sin.

Wilfred had told his employers the Cranks nothing. It was days before they noticed his absence. It was mentioned as brief and passing news at the dinner table in the main house, in between discussions on the perennial problem of flyblown sheep and the titillating findings of the recent royal commission into the sly-grog rackets.

There were more than a few who thought Wilfred had gone, yet again, to find his missing sister, Astrid. His only sibling, and now the mother passed on. That he wouldn't stop until he'd tracked the girl down and brought her home. It did not matter that she had vanished from the Monaro almost twenty years before, and had, over that time, become a figure of myth, a firmament in the folklore of Dalgety. She had become an ageless character in their storybook. He would never stop looking for her.

 

SO AS THE town theorised now about the whereabouts of Wilfred Lampe, he was fewer than sixty kilometres away, as the crow flies, leading a team of drillers and surveyors into deep, mountainous scrub near Geehi. He had become a bush guide for the hydro-electric scheme.

They were partly right, back in the Buckley's Crossing Hotel. He had viewed his mother's death as portentous, entangled somehow in the preparations and activity upstream.

And, indeed, he had gone fishing for three days after the funeral, and landed a few slender browns, which he cooked there and then, over an open fire, on the gravelly bank. There was always something satisfying about cooking and eating a catch beside the river.

At the end of the third day, as he was packing his gear, he noticed a man's black felt hat carried by swiftly on the surface of the water. He stood with creel and rods in hand and watched the hat glide past. Within seconds it had disappeared around the bend.

The next day he rode into Cooma and found the pink-cheeked Dunphy and signed up with the scheme. He didn't care about the money, though they immediately provided saddlebags and supplies and even a new pair of boots. He had to see, first-hand, what they planned to do with the river.

That night, he drank beer in a pub crowded with freshly arrived workers. Dunphy, across the bar, tipped his pork-pie hat at Wilfred.

Men were playing cards and backgammon at several tables. Wilfred's boots felt tight and ill-fitting.

Someone tapped him on the shoulder.

"Herr Wilfreed. No. Meester Wilfreed. I am pleasured to make your acquaintance."

Wilfred turned and faced a short, sandy-haired man in a black suit and tie. The wiry man held out his hand in greeting, his elbow seemingly pinned to his ribs.

"Mr Wilfreed. I am Boris Hintendorfer, sir. I will be your accompaniment to the camp tomorrow."

They shook firmly and once.

"Mr Dunphy is informing me that you are the expert of the Australian boosh that will take us to our camp site, sir."

"That's right." Dunphy beamed across the room, his cheeks aflame, and touched the brim of his hat again.

"Very good, Mr Wilfreed. A beer for you, yes?"

For more than an hour Hintendorfer sat with Wilfred and asked questions about the terrain and the river and creek systems. Each time the German struggled with his English his eyelids fluttered uncontrollably.

"I am accustomed to the forests around Hamburg, sir, but familiar I am not with this they call the boosh."

"You'll be familiar with it soon enough."

"Yes, Mr Wilfreed, thank you, but can you illuminate on the animals of danger that we may encounter. As team leader I am to be aware of all possibilities."

He jotted down pertinent facts in a small, black flip-top notebook, nodding and fluttering as he scribbled with the pencil.

"Ja?" he said as he wrote. "Ja?"

They drank more beer. A scuffle had broken out over at one of the backgammon tables. A dozen men rushed to placate the players.

"I had a German teacher once," Wilfred said, almost to himself. "Mr Schweigestill."

"Schweigestill. Ja. Das ist Deutsche."

"He created an opera."

"So, Mr Wilfreed. You are to say there are none of the wolves?"

Hintendorfer licked the tip of the pencil and his heavy eyelids batted like moth wings.

 

THE FOLLOWING DAY, Wilfred met Hintendorfer and the team at Jindabyne, and they headed over the range to the proposed camp site at Windy Creek, north of the Geehi River. They were mainly surveyors and drillers and of several nationalities – Poles, Balts, two other Germans and three from Norway. Two Italians commandeered a Land Rover that followed the team.

Hintendorfer rode in the vehicle as far as the eastern foothills of the range, then saddled up and joined Wilfred.

A fresh and steady wind funnelled down from Kosciuszko.

"This is not the boosh as they call it?" Hintendorfer said.

"Not yet."

"Is beautiful in its own way," the German said, "this that is not the boosh."

They crossed the range and into the lightly wooded scrub below the snowline. Wilfred followed an old brumby track into a steep gorge. The horses' ears twitched at the grinding of the Land Rover's gears.

It was mid-afternoon before they reached the site for the proposed camp. The Land Rover was still half an hour away. It moaned like an injured animal in the distant bush.

Hintendorfer dismounted, beaming. He inspected the thick carpet of ferns at his feet and the tree canopies. "Is quiet, Mr Wilfreed, like the cathedral."

Wilfred unpacked the horse and set up his swag for the night. The grinding of the Land Rover made him clench his teeth. He was irritated after the long ride and tired of Hintendorfer's officiousness. This small man of sharp angles and precise movements. He was a shiny piece of fresh-cast metal here in the scrub.

The next day, they cleared the site and erected neat rows of tents, a mess and rudimentary lavatories within view of the camp.

Wilfred built the central fire. Hintendorfer erected a portable outdoor office for himself beneath a large gum. He sat there going through his paperwork and could have been in a building by the Hamburg docks. He brushed seeds and insects off his papers as he worked.

For the next few weeks, Wilfred led several teams of the men into the bush for surveying and retrieving soil samples. He took two of the Norwegians down to the Geehi, where they performed several tests on the river. He sat quietly and watched them on the river bank.

There were men – like the Norwegians – with boxes of instruments standing knee-deep in creeks and rivers all across the mountains. The whole place was being measured and pinched and scratched at. Reduced to numbers and figures and dashes.

 

WILFRED HAD NOT been able to get out of his head the news, from Hintendorfer, that huge aerial photographic maps of the region were being prepared in Sydney.

"I am told," Hintendorfer quipped, "that your big river, your Snowy, looks like the giant ... what do you call ... question mark, from the air. You know it? The question mark?" He drew a loop in the air with his index finger.

It irritated him like a leech, the thought of the photographs taken from an aeroplane. And now the teams of men scraping at the earth.

He had had a picture in his mind of the Snowy River from Omeo up to its source since he was a boy. A private map. His own personal topography. Now he was being told it was shaped like a question mark. A question mark? And it felt somewhat obscene to him, an invasion of his private thoughts, that there were men in buildings in Sydney spreading out large maps on tables and overseeing, for the first time, his river, and the valley where he lived. He felt small and powerless at the thought of the giant men studying his world.

 

IN THE EVENINGS, around the fire after dinner, the men talked in several languages and drank rum and now and again communicated with Wilfred in broken phrases that crackled like dry wood. Late one night, Hintendorfer checked his watch and clapped his hands twice. "Schlafen," he said. "Big day for tomorrow."

One of the Poles – Wladyslaw Drabik – drained his tin mug and stared across the fire at the camp leader. He held the cup out to the man next to him for more rum.

"Go to hell," Drabik said. The group fell silent.

Hintendorfer stared back, tensing his jaw. "Was?"

"It is not the war anymore," he said, nursing the cup again with two

hands and returning his gaze to the fire.

The young Hintendorfer remained silent and after five minutes repaired to his tent. The two Poles muttered to each other. The talk around the fire resumed.

Later that month, Wilfred guided Drabik into the bush north-east of the base camp for some surveying work. They were gone for three days.

At night, at their makeshift camp, they struggled with and achieved a sort of dialogue. Wilfred liked Drabik. He was not uncomfortable with silence. His black hair was dusted grey at the temples. A heavy, black-blue shadow of a beard made his face look perennially soiled.

"You farmer?" he asked Wilfred at the fire on the first evening.

"Not really."

"Farmer? Crop? What crop?"

"Sheep."

"Ahh, sheeps."

"You?"

"I? Engineer."

"Engineer."

"For the Polish Army, I am engineer. Was engineer."

"Oh."

They shared a jug of rum. Drabik rolled them both cigarettes.

"Married, you?" he asked. He lit his cigarette with the end of a burning

branch he pulled from the fire.

"No."

"I married. Was married."

He fell quiet again. The heavy silence of the bush dropped over them and they could both detect the encroaching dewiness in the air. They stayed anchored to the dying fire for another half-hour before retreating to their swags.

The next night they assumed the same positions around the fire and repeated the ritual of the rum and the rolled cigarettes.

"My wife I lost. In the war," he said, handing Wilfred a rollie.

"I'm sorry."

"You see the war?"

Wilfred shook his head. He picked at the eyelets of his boots. He looked up and could see the orange light playing across Drabik's lined face. His eyes were dark and moist and for long moments he wouldn't blink. It struck Wilfred that his eyes, his whole face, looked different in the night. He became a much older man, the man he would be in fifteen or twenty years, his shoulders rounded over, the cheeks sunken and defined by sharp crescents of shadow. He was like a flower that reacted to sunlight, and closed in on itself in the dark.

"We was in Lublin. We was. She was died in Majdanek."

Wilfred drew quietly on the cigarette.

"You know Majdanek? It is the concentration camp near Lublin."

Drabik ran a hand down both sides of his face. He leant forward and shifted the wood on the fire. The cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth as he squinted at the spark rise and smoke.

"I was in Majdanek also. For four years in Majdanek, but I did not see her after the first year and someone telled me she was died."

"I'm sorry."

"I was strong. That's why I was not died in the camp." Drabik adjusted the stew pot at the side of the fire and sat back on the damp earth. He threw his butt into the flames and immediately rolled another cigarette. "What is it, the place you kill the sheep for their meat?"

"Abattoir."

"Abattoir," he said, licking the cigarette paper and looking at Wilfred. "That was Majdanek. It was just the place for the killing. Is all. Russian soldiers. And the Greeks and the French and many others more. And us Poles, too. Of course, us. I was in control of the tractor, yes? The tractor. To take the bodies to the Krembecki Woods. At the forest I was one of them who took off

the bodies to make the bonfire. You know bonfire?"

He jabbed the cigarette at the fire.

"It was like the making cake. One level, layer, layer of the bodies, and the

planks, and another layer, up and up and up."

He picked a speck of tobacco from his lip and stared at the wet flake on his index finger. "The light of it, of the bonfire, you could see many kilometres away from Lublin. You know?"

Drabik rubbing his hands vigorously. "Getting cold, no? Me, I like. The cold."

Wilfred looked away. He could see Drabik's skeletal face surveying equipment at the extremity of the firelight, and the wall of bush.

 

THAT NIGHT WILFRED stayed awake for a long time looking at the stars through the treetops. He looked across the fire at Drabik in his swag and could make no shape of the man in the dark. He wasn't sure if he was there or not. He made no sound in his sleep.

He pondered the aerial maps Hintendorfer had told him about. What his world actually looked like from up there. He wondered if his shack in the valley would be visible in the photographs. Or the Buckley's. Or the Bolocco Cemetery where his mother and father rested under granite. He wondered where he was when the picture was taken from the aeroplane.

I must be in the picture, he thought. And everyone I know would be in the picture. It was his whole world, his universe, small enough to be rolled up and secured with a rubber band.

Wilfred suddenly longed to hear a sound, anything, from Drabik.

Dew had settled on his swag. He could still see a glow from the dying fire, but no warmth came from it.

He did not want to see the mountains from the air. He did not want to be able to trace the meandering route of the Snowy River. He didn't want to look at it and know that he was in there, somewhere, so small that not even a magnifying glass could find him.

That night, Wilfred wasn't sure if he slept or not. He trembled with the cold in the swag, with the enormity of everything – the scheme, the men drilling into the earth and moving mountains and redirecting entire rivers – and the thought of the map, his life, and he not even a fleck of dust in it.

What kept him awake, too, was a question that had occurred to him as Drabik talked beside the fire, but one he could not ask. He wondered what had happened to Drabik's wife. He wondered if Drabik, as the driver of the tractor, had unwittingly transported the body of his own wife to the giant flaming cairn of human beings near the forest.

He realised he was ignorant of the great questions in life, and human suffering, and the incomprehensible evils that the world produced. He was here, in the bush at night, with one man, a single stranger, who lived with an unimaginable horror, one that would not touch Wilfred in a dozen lifetimes. Then you had to calculate how many Drabiks there were now, in the mountains, holding seeds of horror in their heads as they laboured away, day after day, at a foreign landscape.

He held himself in the envelope of the swag, and in the dark he listened hard for signs of Drabik's breathing.

 

THE INSTANT THEY blew the Bailey Bridge at old Jindabyne, Wilfred, astride his horse, felt the shock wave pass through him and knew, before the shower of river water returned to earth, that the river was dead.

They had come in throngs to watch the army bring down the bridge. There were gasps and cheers when the explosives were detonated. Cars parked in rows shone in the winter light like beetles, their headlights trained to the cleared valley and the old town. Soon it would all be under water.

Wilfred wore his old tweed jacket and his only tie. He could have taken the Humber but wanted to go by horseback. He tracked the Snowy River from Dalgety as best he could, almost to the base of the new dam wall, and was surprised by the carnival-like crowds.

He could have tied up the horse and joined the locals – Straw Weston from the old pub and Polly McGregor from the store – but he needed to see this alone. He had no desire to talk to anyone.

Sitting on the grass hillock, he tried to imagine the old town submerged in the new man-made lake. Old Ted's Snowy River Café. The hotel with its worn bench on the veranda. The church.

He thought of people's living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms deep down in the murky water. The backyards, the lanes where children played, and the trees they stole fruit off, and the gates of the old cemetery, the empty shelves and counter of the general store, still there but cold and silent under the water.

There would be no fish straight away, he thought. But they'll introduce them, and when they do they'll be swimming in the spire of the church and around Straw's bar and in and out of houses where people had eaten together at a table on winter nights and rooms where they'd made love and women had given birth and children had grown up and fought and hugged and slept. It would all belong to the fishes.

He had no inclination to see the new town up on the shore of what would be the lake, with its fresh bitumen roads and gutters and electric lighting and shiny roofs and fledgling gardens. On his last trip up to the summer leases in the high country, he'd caught a glimpse of it, laid out in grids, worked over by smoke-belching bulldozers, the outline of a town in white pegs and rows of fresh soil. It looked fleshy through the trees, like a wound on an animal's hide.

And he'd seen for himself the damming up at Island's Bend.

 

YET DOWNSTREAM NOTHING seemed to be affected. Wilfred went about his daily business and checked the river like you would tend to a small child for any changes, any distress or difference in behaviour. There were none he could detect.

He still fished and caught some decent trout. It was this, the unaltered rhythm of the fishing, that made him wonder if he'd been worrying about nothing all along.

One afternoon, wading in up to his knees at one of his favourite spots at Iron Mungie, he saw something he'd never before witnessed in all the years he'd fished the river. He'd only caught a single brown in two hours when a small cloud of red dragonflies appeared above the surface of the water. Out of nowhere dozens of rainbow leapt up into the blur of insects, the water boiling with their attack, the sky alive with trout. And just as quickly the dragonflies were gone and the river surface smoothed.

It was this moment that quelled his concerns. Men had burrowed into the mountains, poured untold tons of concrete, scratched out roads where there had never been roads and diverted streams and creeks and rivers that had remained undisturbed for thousands of years, maybe millions – he had seen much of it with his own eyes – and still the river could produce something that surprised him. An intense flash of life.

When they finally blew the bridge, though, and the invisible wave of air from the explosion passed over and around him and the horse, and they were left in that horrible vacuum of silence and nothingness in its wake, he knew in his soul that the river would never be the same again.

In his head he'd found it hard to reconcile the contradictions. With so much water around, how could the river be killed? That day, he watched it rise an inch an hour after the explosion. It was like the spring thaw happening in fast motion, even though it was only July. They were filling the valley with water.

The closer the hydro-electric scheme got to completion the more confused he'd become. They were told the summer grazing leases would not be affected. Nothing would change. Australia was thinking big at last. This would be one of the greatest engineering feats the world had ever seen.

They had debated it in the front bar of the Buckley's. The closer the scheme got to completion, the less the talk.

Old Alf Brindlemere's son, Jack, with the same velvety rattle in his chest as his father, couldn't see the fuss.

"We done without it all these years and we did all right," he said. It became his mantra.

"It's progress, mate."

"The way I see it," Jack said, and his companions groaned, "they just wanted to keep the war goin', with all the dynamite and stuff. Couldn't let the war go."

"How you think they gonna' dig them tunnels for the pipes and shit, with toothpicks?"

"Country thick with bloody Yanks and Eyeties, like we haven't got the blokes here to do the job. Building a bloody nation, my arse. We got hands to do it."

"I seen your new water tank, you silly old bastard. You couldn't build a billycart for your kids. Three wheels and facin' backwards, that's you."

"I built plenty of billycarts in me time."

"You're a stone's throw from the biggest source of 'lectricity in the bloody country and you still scratchin' around with candles and kerosene out at your joint."

"That'll do me."

They cheered in the bar. They'd been waiting for it. "That'll do me."

 

AS THE YEARS went by and the Snowy kept up its temperamental seasonal flow and Wilfred went about mending fences and shooting rabbits, as he had done forever, he felt, whenever he did think about it, a little stab of pride that the river and the mountains would be sending electricity to the east coast of Australia, lighting buildings and railway stations and houses he would never see. It made the river seem bigger to him than ever before. Invincible.

And still he found himself, on some nights, getting out of bed in the dark in the early hours of the morning, padding out onto the front veranda, and cocking his ear towards the distant Snowy and its comforting roar. Just as he had placed his ear to his dead mother's open mouth the day he found her collapsed in front of the fireplace.

Sitting on the stationary horse that day, he watched the crowds mill about the old town like it was an open-air museum. Folks having one last look at their homes. Sightseers and strangers strolling through it, hands clasped behind their backs, like it was already the ruins of Pompeii.

The water was rising. So much water.

He made his way around the back of parked cars and the straggly crowd and headed for home. He heard a single car approaching from behind, and moved to the gravel verge of the road.

The car stopped about twenty metres in front of him and a woman in a straw sunhat with a scarf around her neck and wearing large black sunglasses emerged from the passenger's seat and held up her hand, motioning Wilfred to stop.

He jerked on the reins of the horse.

"Excuse me, but would you mind?"

He looked down at her as she foraged in a shoulder bag. She pulled out a large black and silver camera. "Just one photograph?" 


From Griffith Review Edition 12: Hot Air © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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