Held tall by six, concrete pillars spanning the width of Wilson’s River, the gentle flow of water caresses each column as it glides past Keyes Bridge. But today, the rains have come and the bridge is dwarfed by the rising water; its height lost and its pillars hidden in the murky, swollen flow of a different kind of river.
The rain is heavy and relentless travelling from up high in the mountains where no one dares to lives. Within three days everything has changed; the river, the grass, and the conversations at the village store. How much rain will come? What can we do about our over-flowing tanks? When can we drive into town?
‘Mum, when will the big rain stop?’ Joe asks.
His mother shakes her head and ruffles his blonde hair.
‘Soon honey,’ she tells him, ‘soon.’
He looks up at the grey sky as if the falling water will suddenly stop because his mother said so.
People head to the store for extra supplies. More Milo, cereal and spare batteries for the torch. Already the shelves are bereft of bread and milk, the supply truck can’t get through over the bridge. It hardly ever happens Old Harry says, it’s a mighty bridge that Keyes Bridge. The truck will come tomorrow the store owners tell their customers, don’t worry the rain won’t last.
Joe clings to his treat, a small block of chocolate with a picture of an animal he has never seen before, in full colour, on the wrapper. He almost doesn’t want to open it. His mother studies his intense gaze. What is he thinking? Does he miss his Dad? A father would explain something like this rain to his son.
‘Let’s go see the bridge,’ she announces.
She wants to show him the rising river. Joe pops the last piece of chocolate into his mouth and pushes the wrapper into the pocket of his jeans before he reaches for the seat belt.
He stares out the window as the car clings to the tight bends and his body rocks from side to side with each twist in the road. He’s glad they’re out. For the last three days they’ve played board games for hours on end, sometimes by candlelight when the power was cut. Stuck inside, Joe had filled a pad with pictures of every animal he could think of and then invented and drew his own. His mother fretted and kept checking the phone to see that they had a line out. Just in case she told him. She made him stay inside but the rain kept coming and his pleas to go outside grew louder than the rain pelting on the tin roof.
Ok, she said, but wear your raincoat.
Joe had raced outside and played in the little mini rivers that ran past the water tank as it spewed out the excess rain. He’d made leaf boats and used dead ants as passengers. For hours he played his secret river journeys. His mother was pleased, he seemed happy and didn’t miss school. She had sprinkled more flour onto the dough she was kneading and their small kitchen filled with the smell of warm bread baking in the oven. It kept her busy and occupied. And Joe seemed content didn’t he? She cancelled the doctor’s appointment too – it was okay, the doctor was flooded in and couldn’t make it to the surgery anyway.
The big rain changed village life. The farmers sat idle, there was nothing to do but watch the land become sodden and unworkable. The heavy clay soil clung to the tyres of the idle macadamia harvesters. For the dairy farmers there were cows that still had to be milked whatever the weather. But without the supply truck getting through, John, from the Heartbreak Hill had to pour the excess milk across the luminous green paddocks while the cows kept chewing the grass.
Joe’s mother parks near the curve of the hill behind a queue of cars. Together they walk to the Wilson’s River racing beneath Keyes Bridge. Gone were the quiet water spaces where they swum on days that were so hot they couldn’t be bothered to drive to the coast. No more ‘washing machine’ where playful rapids swirled around smooth river rocks, Joe had swirled with them laughing out loud to the nearby trees.
‘Look,’ she says to her son, ‘but don’t get too close.’
The water laps over the deck of the bridge. She holds her son’s hand tight as they edge closer to the brown river. Big branches have broken from unsuspecting trees that live too close to the rising water and they float by as if they are twigs. Joe pulls at his mum’s hand and whoops with excitement.
‘Stay close,’ she says.
She grips his chubby fingers tight in her hand, he’s going to be a big boy, she thinks as she smiles down at him. But he isn’t looking at her, his eyes are fixed on the rolling, brown water.
There is a roar, as if something had been stopping the river’s escape route and a landslide of water surges down the valley. The mother lets go of her son’s hand. Her gumboot slips on the wet grass, she leans back to try and balance herself. With one hand she pushes her son backwards and he falls onto the wet ground.
Joe doesn’t see his mother swallowed by the river as if she herself is a small twig. When he stands up she is gone and people nearby are shouting. There is a flash of her yellow raincoat as she passes under the bridge and then nothing. No one notices the boy standing there in the same position as if he is still holding her hand. As if he and his mother are still watching the river together.
©2009 Susanna Freymark
First published in Injoy magazine, 2009