суббота, января 12, 2008

An Incident at Hamilton's Crossing

A friend sent me an obituary of sorts the other day. It was not a formal obituary, but rather an article from a local rag about the death of a central Victorian man, Charlie Lowerson. He hadn’t done anything to deserve an obituary, he just appeared to have been the victim of circumstance. The article mentioned that Charlie had come to local attention some 30 years earlier, when he was camping with his kids at a outflow from the Cairn Curran reservoir, and one of them went missing and was later found dead. The rest of his kids grew up and moved on, but Charlie stayed in the area and got something of a name as an eccentric, obsessed with the flow. The reason my friend sent me the article is because I briefly ran across Charlie – and the flow – some years ago. Charlie recommended me to spend a night at Hamilton’s Crossing.

Hamilton’s Crossing is on the far side of Baringhup, and marks the beginning of the wide, desolate plain which stretches from the Dividing Range to the Grampians. We stopped in Baringhup for the night on the way to Adelaide. We planned to stay at the caravan park there, but while waiting for the manager to arrive an old digger sitting at the base of a peppercorn tree called us over and put us onto the Crossing.

‘Nice little flow,’ he said. ‘And free camping. Watch out for the carp. They’ll be watching out for you.’

And he widened his eyes into a parody of eye-popping mirth, barked out a stub-toothed cackle, then leaned back against the gnarled old peppercorn and closed his eyes.

A line of river gums running through yellow paddocks and dust showed the way. A concrete bridge, a clear stream over a bed of brown pebbles, a small clearing of white earth. Another group – a young family – had put up their own encampment. Domesticated adults, shrieking kids and a happy, barking dog splashed around in the water near the main bank. We kept our distance and flung up a tent on the far side of the Crossing. It was white hot in the sun and soporific in the shade, and no sooner had we flung up the tent up than we flung off our clothes and plunged into the shallows. The creek was cool and ran fast, and we waded downstream, past the kids and their dog, in search of deeper water.

Around the bend the riverbed declined and opened out into a sluggish flow. I pushed ahead of the other two and climbed up onto the trunk of a dead rivergum which had fallen into the creek. The blowflies were a nuisance. As I crested the dead tree, my shadow fell across the water, and half-seen clouds of fry swimming just below the surface fled further downstream. Through the gold-flecked murk I could see several brown carp slinking away from the bank, deeper, down through the gloom to the silt floor below. Why should they hurry? Nobody could find them down there.

A few sad, ponderous willows had cast their trailing fronds into the water, and both banks were spotted with bulrush. The creek narrowed again after a dozen metres and meandered off into the paddocks. Another ancient rivergum had fallen lengthways into the water at the narrowing, and the enormous, insectile root-system of the tree loomed up out of the water as if poised to swallow all which flowed into its clutches. I waded closer as the others crested the first gum I had climbed.

‘Whatcha found?’ asked Tracee.

‘Another fallen gum,’ I said. ‘Doesn’t look like we can get through here.’

The others carefully stood up on the first fallen tree. ‘Doesn’t look like we’d want to,’ Jane said. ‘It’s just paddocks and bulrush from here anyway.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, staring at the rivergum’s root system. The hollowed-out bole yawned back at me, inky black to water level, muddy brown below. ‘Let’s go back.’

The tent proved welcome relief from the mosquitoes that night. There was little breeze to speak of, but the flow coming down through the Crossing from the reservoir upstream was bedwater: cold and full of silt. The banks of the creek were cool, but I’m not so used to sleeping near water. I lay awake listening to the splash of carp as they feasted by night. I’d almost given up the prospect of sleep, figuring I could doze in the car the next day as we crossed the plains to Adelaide. But at some point I must have drifted off, because the next thing I knew I was blinking weary, sleep-deprived eyes in the morning light, the remnants of a dream slipping away: the purple shimmer of fish scales, the slipperiness of aquatic muscle, a thing ungraspable through slime.

I unzipped the tent and leaned out into the morning. Nobody else was up. The bright morning sun carved wedges of light through the leaves; it wasn’t hot yet, but it was going to be. The day was already suffused with the promise of deadening heat. I crawled out, stood up, stretched painfully, glanced at the car, and stopped.

Between the tent and the car, somebody had carefully constructed a small sculpture out of leaf-litter. Three dead branches had been leaned against one another to form a crude tripod. Upon the apex, somebody had carefully woven a cluster of twigs in a star formation. I stepped closer. Some of the twigs had small globules on the end. I crouched down to inspect. Three fish eyes, impaled retina-first on three twigs, stared back at me. Three more were impaled on the other side. I poked one gingerly; it was sticky to the touch, adhered to my finger, and as I withdrew in disgust, the eyeball remained attached to my skin, dragging the whole sculpture down in a gentle clatter. Several of the fish eyes poked into the ground, covering the membrane with a thin patina of white dust. I grimaced, stood, and glanced back at the tent. The others were showing some signs of life.

‘Jesus,’ I said to myself, then: ‘Check this out, girls.’

But the other two were determined to take their time, so I left them to inspect the collapsed sculpture on their own, and made my way down to the creek. There were no signs of life from the other encampment, but a few magpies warbled in the trees, and a flock of galahs slipped overhead, screeching and screaming their morning joy.

Well before I arrived at the riverbank, I spied the bodies. Or body, anyway, because the other two weren’t dead yet. A carp as big as my forearm lay on the sandy bank, mouth open, eye-sockets empty. Two more twitched in the shallows, unable to swim deeper, unable to swim at all. They gulped at the water as if drowning. Their eyes had also been torn out, just the slippery pink worms of nerve endings trailed out of the socket and down each cheek.

‘Jesus,’ I said again, and, not quite stopping to consider whether I really wanted to or not, I stepped into the water and scooped one of the carp up. It thrashed violently, and several dorsal spines speared into the flesh of my palm. I cried out and flung the thing away, back into the water, where it landed with a loud splash and disappeared. I made a panicked and ungainly dash back to riverbank and climbed up onto dry land, shaking. The carp resurfaced from the gloom, belly up but still twitching.

A human shriek nearby drowned out the fading squawks of the galahs and the morning song of the magpies. I thought it must be Tracee or Jane, having encountered the partially-dismantled fish-eye sculpture outside our tent. But it didn’t come from our camp. Several dozen metres away, a young girl stood transfixed, staring at something out of my view. The girl’s father had evacuated the tent at her scream, and we both arrived at her side at about the same time. Another small sculpture of branches had been constructed in their fire-pit, but this one had only two twigs woven together at the apex. A pair of canine eyes protruded from the end of each twig, staring past the gaping girl at the tent she had slept in.

‘What is this?’ said the man in disbelief. ‘Did you do this?’

I raised my hands.

‘Hell no. We’ve got one over at our site too. Ours look like fish-eyes, but these…’

I trailed off. The man snatched his daughter up into his arms.

‘Judy!’ he yelled. ‘Judy! Where’s Boomer? Boomer! Where are ya boy?’

The girl was crying in her father’s arms. I had a sinking feeling. Tracee and Jane were approaching from the other side of the crossing.

‘What’s with the fucking fish eyes?’ Tracee asked. ‘Some sort of sick joke?’

The man was pacing nervously around the campsite, calling for the dog and clutching the girl in his arms. A woman poked her head out of the tent flap.

‘Paul? What’s going on?’

The man turned.

‘Some bastard’s having a sick joke and I dunno where the dog is. Come help me find him. Ash! Scott! Get up and come help me look for Boomer.’

I retreated slowly back towards the river, Tracee and Jane following a dozen metres behind.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ Tracee asked.

‘I’ve got a bad feeling…’ I said. ‘Come and check something out with me.’

I stumbled downstream where we had waded the day before. The willows obstructed the view of the flow from the bank, so I splashed out into the stream and climbed up onto the first dead gum we had crested the day before. An open expanse of calm brown water slunk downstream toward the second rivergum’s web of roots and the open maw of its bole.

‘Chris!’ Tracee exclaimed. ‘What are you doing? Who’s putting fucking fish eyes on sticks?’

I spied it on the riverbank near the water’s edge, under the trailing fronds of the willow.

‘I dunno,’ I said. ‘This isn’t good. Look at this. Oh, this isn’t good.’

And I waded through the murky water and passed through the fronds, stopping short of the bank. Tracee and Jane pushed through the fronds from the other side. All three of us stopped several metres away from the trunk, facing each other. The golden water lapped gently at my ankles.

A dog lay whimpering on the ground under the fronds of the willow. I knew before I saw that its eye-sockets were empty, trailing clear slime and the pink tube of nerve-cluster. The dog had crawled out of the river and collapsed on the bank, it’s back legs trailing in the water. It tried to scrabble to its feet on hearing our approach, but succeeded only in catapulting itself forward half a metre before it collapsed again on the water’s edge.

‘Oh my god,’ said Jane. ‘What fuck is that? Who the fuck did that? Who the fuck would do that?’

Tracee approached the dog and knelt down, putting a hand on its back, unwilling to touch its head. The dog started and whined, but no more.

‘Some sick fuck has pulled its eyes out,’ she said.

Jane retreated, he hands to her face.

‘This is fucked,’ she said. ‘This is fucking fucked. Let’s get the fuck out of here now. Let’s get in the car right now, and get out of here.’

I was all for that. I didn’t want to touch the dog, but Tracee wouldn’t leave it – she carried it out through the fronds, back to the campsite, where she deposited the wretched animal on the ground nearby.

‘Hey,’ she called to the man. ‘We found your dog. I wouldn’t bring the kids over.’

The man began to run over, stopped, thrust the girl into the arms of the woman, and continued.

‘Where did you find him?’ the man demanded, furious. ‘What did you do to him?’

‘Down by the riverbank,’ said Tracee. ‘I think somebody’s been having a bad joke. A real bad one.’

The man stared at his dog for a moment before crouching down.

‘We’re getting the hell out of here,’ Tracee said to him. ‘I don’t know what happened here last night or who did this, but we’re getting out of here. Let’s just get out of here.’

The man clearly hadn’t heard us, nor could he hear the woman calling his name, asking if the dog was alright. She was standing near the tent, unwilling to move away, huddling all three kids near her. We retreated to our own campsite as fast as we could without breaking into panic, dismantled the tent without bothering to take the sleeping gear out or to fold it up, stashed it in the boot, got in the car and drove the out of there, over the Crossing, through the early morning sun and back toward Baringhup.

We pulled in at the caravan park. The manager, a man of middle-age, was crossing from the park back to the office.

‘Morning folks,’ he said. ‘Lovely morning.’

We soon changed that assessment. First the manager was blank-faced, then incredulous, then stony, as we told him what had happened at Hamilton’s Crossing.

‘You should’ve just come into the park last night in the first place,’ he finally said. He was very angry. ‘Who told you about the Crossing?’

I told him about the old digger.

‘Fucking Charlie,’ he said and looked down for a moment. He appeared to be thinking. ‘Look, just leave it with me, okay? I’ll get onto the Mount Alexander police, then drive out to the Crossing to have a look. I wouldn’t think anyone local would do anything like that. Not out here. You said the family is still out there?’

‘That’s where we left them,’ I said.

The manager was unimpressed with this answer.

‘Where you from?’

We told him.

‘And where you going?’

Adelaide,’ said Tracee.

‘Best route is out west, through Carisbrook,’ he said. ‘That way you skip Maryborough and head on over to Horsham. Flat country, you’ll go all the way through. Best leave your names and numbers in case the police want to speak with you.’

But they never did, and that was the last I heard of Charlie and Hamilton’s Crossing until I read the obituary my friend sent me, an obituary about a crazy old digger in Baringhup, who swore blue that years ago a ‘fish-man’ had taken his boy in the night, a fish-man who hunted along the flow from Cairn Curran, who had mutilated his son and left him for dead in the water, a fish-man in whom nobody believed except Charlie, Charlie who hunted the fish-man using the only bait he knew would work.

Комментариев нет: