by Katie O’Donnell
“The thing is,” says Jan. She pauses, sucking on the joint. It’s their last one.
Cath waits, but there is no thing. No joint-passing either. The silence slides down to the waves whispering on the shoreline of the mangrove-fringed beach they have found at the edge of the rainforest.
“At least,” Cath offers, “you have a job. And your own place.”
Jan sighs. “For now,” she says. “But the mortgage.” She shrugs. “That’s Sydney, I guess.”
Cath sips her brackish cider, grimacing, and tries again. “At least,” she says, bumping her drawn-up knee against Jan’s, “you’ve got the whole bed to yourself.”
Jan snorts. “Yeah, better than having to share with you, ya mong. Did you hear yourself snoring last night?”
Cath laughs too. Their laughter is as unlikely as moonlight in the Wet, but they both feel better for it. “Careful, the PC police will come for you,” says Cath. “Snap.” She claps crocodile hands next to Jan’s ear.
Jan swerves away, spilling her beer. The damp sand sucks it down immediately. Huh, she muses. The sand doesn’t look thirsty. Still, you can always fit a beer.
“Anyway, you can talk.” Cath pokes Jan’s foot with her own. “You’re no Sleeping Beauty. More like an eel, or … I know. Did you see that episode of that show, that one where the celebrities go into the jungle and see snakes and squeal a lot?”
“I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here?” Jan replies. “The snake pit?”
“That’s the one,” Cath says. “How do you keep all that in your head? Especially with all your other stuff going on.” Cath flaps her hand, as though to dissipate the mist of Jan’s stuff. “Sharing a bed with you is exactly like sleeping in a snake pit.”
She’s gone too far. Jan’s shoulders droop as she finally passes the joint, hugging her knees close to her chest and resting her forehead on them. Muffled words slide out, barely audible above the ringing of crickets. “Do you think that’s why Gary left?” she asks.
“Gary? Fuck Gary,” Cath says, surprising them both. She’d always had a laugh with Gary. “He doesn’t deserve the energy you’re spending on him. Loser. Give it to yourself instead. Or better still,” she buries the roach in the sand, clears her throat and flings her arms wide. “Gather some of Earth’s energy instead. Let Mother Nature cradle you against her abundant bosom.” Her hands meet under an imaginary pregnant bump. “We’re in her very womb here. The Daintree Rainforest. Most fertile place on earth etcetera, etcetera. Home to blah, blah, species of flora and fauna found nowhere else. Namaste.” She folds her arms in an exaggerated salute.
“Hmm,” Jan says, eyebrows raised. “Let me guess. Next we dance naked in the rain? With the taipans”… she slaps at the side of her neck. “…and the dengue mozzies. Or nudey dip with the box jellyfish? And don’t get me started on crawling through the rainforest with the wait-a-whiles and stinging trees. Yeah, cheers Mother Nature.” Jan turns her back on the ocean, raising her beer to the steep hillside behind the beach. Clouds loom above the canopy, pressing down on the vines and trees and who-knows-what-else tumbling towards the road cut into the slope. Isn’t the tropical rainforest supposed to have a thousand shades of green, she wonders vaguely? In this snuffed-out night she finds only darkness. She swings back before she suffocates.
Cath throws her hands up, and with them her cider bottle, then quickly covers its open neck when a shiny green Christmas beetle tries to fly in, looking for a sugar hit. “Ok, ok, I get the point,” she says. “Gaia’s out to get us. None of this nurturing crap for her.”
“Yeah, who wants that,” Jan replies. “Just a con to get Mum to do all the work.”
“Yeah,” Cath agrees uncertainly. She never aspired to kids. The thought of having someone plant something inside her and leave it to grow for nine months made her shudder. Now she’s too old anyway, thank Christ. What is it with people and nakedness? Cath asks herself. No thanks. Give her an exoskeleton any day. She brushes sand off her bare legs. They prickle and itch in the damp salty heat. Maybe my pores are spawning, she thinks. Releasing their follicles to drift into the air like a billion coral babies under the sea. Maybe it’s exactly the right temperature tonight. There’s barely a difference between sea and sky here.
“Anyway,” Jan says, unfolding herself. “It won’t be all to myself for much longer. Tallulah’s coming home.”
Ah, Tallulah, thinks Cath. Youngest of Jan’s three, and another reason Cath never wanted kids. Free-spirited, Jan calls her. Spoilt brat, if you ask Cath. Jan’s never known they don’t see eye to eye on this one. Until now. Thanks, Mary-Jane.
“Oh now let me guess,” Cath says. “The hippy tribe thing didn’t work out? Missed Mum’s laundry service?”
“What?” says Jan. “What are you saying?”
Cath clicks her tongue. “It’s just… don’t you get sick of people always wanting something from you? There’s gotta be a bit of give amongst the take.”
Jan stands up, wheeling to face Cath as she crushes her empty beer can in her fist. “Oww,” she winces, putting her bleeding finger into her mouth. “You don’t take from your kids, you twat,” she mumbles. “Anyway, when was the last time you put someone else before yourself?” She shoves at a half-buried lump in the sand with the end of her sandal. “You’re just … selfish.”
Cath watches as Jan stalks towards the water’s edge, still sucking her finger. “Oops,” she murmurs. “I guess that didn’t quite come out right.” She surveys the cramped stretch of beach. She’s not sure beach is even the right word. It’s a strange, colourless conglomerate of raw-sugar-sized coral residue and castor-sugar-sized estuary silt, interspersed with mysterious brownish sentinels—probably mangrove pods—and indefinite lumps; coral perhaps, or empty beer cans, garnished with seaweed.
Jan vanishes into empty space between beach and ocean. “Watch out for crocodiles,” Cath calls into her trail. “Sshh,” the waves tell her. “Ssshhh.”
A cider-flavoured bubble makes its way up Cath’s throat. Dizzy, she leans back on her elbows and lets the clouds float into her. There’s a star—two, three.
“Hey Jan, look at the stars,” Cath calls, excited. You don’t see many in the Wet. Their shine makes a sound like a damp finger around the edge of a wine glass…oh no wait, that’s the crickets. She sings some Coldplay, but her voice peters out, too thin for the dense air. She closes her eyes and drifts, waiting for Jan to cool her hot-tempered heels.
A thousand breaths away, Cath hears a faint splash and a squawk. She sits up. Shit. Too fast. The world keeps going forward, bringing cider flavoured chicken curry up with it. She groans and attempts to kick sand over her vomit, but the mud clogs between her bare toes as it vacuums the puddle down, leaving stranded lumps.
Probably just a stupid pelican crash-landing, Cath thinks, but she stands up, peeling her damp shorts off the backs of her thighs, and wanders towards the space where she last saw Jan. An incongruous breaker and a fainter squeal has her feet quickening, pulling against the sucking sand.
“Jan?” she calls, her voice tiny in the big night. “Jan?” She waits, listens. “Ssshhh,” the waves say. She takes a deep breath, shouts. No one shouts back.
Cath jogs along the shoreline, stabbing her city soles with coral, marking her passage in droplets of blood that sink and spread into the sand’s capillaries even as they appear. Possibilities fly through her head, circling to converge into a single scaly-skinned, snub-nosed fear that burrows itself into her thighs. She falls to her knees, gulping her breath, forcing it to slow down—in, two, three; out, two, three. She didn’t do all that yoga for nothing.
Breath under control, Cath hauls herself to her feet and staggers frantically up the beach to check the rainforest-lined carpark beside the road, trying to convince herself that maybe Jan gave herself over to some Nature Healing after all. But she knows Jan’s not up here. She’s out down under, rolled and salted.
Cath limps to the car anyway, pats her pockets for the keys, finds them in the ignition. A couple of wines, three ciders, half a joint: Jan was the driver tonight. She probably shouldn’t drive, but she needs to get help. She switches on the lights to reflect a shiny-wet, leaf-entangled wall. Beyond, a world apart. There’s no way in until you’re already there. If it was easy, Sleeping Beauty would have been woken up sooner.
Cath honks the horn, long and loud. The silence is bigger when she stops; the crickets have retreated. She starts the car.
“Geez, Jan,” she mutters. “How’d you squeeze into this spot?” An image of Jan squeezed into an underwater tangle of mangrove roots floats into her head. Bloated flesh bulges through odd gaps, splits to reveal insides as bloodlessly pale as the outside. She dry-retches, scrambling to wind down the window, and accidentally plants her foot on the accelerator. Light explodes into noise, and then the world is dark and quiet.
The horn blares and she can’t shut it up. Her head aches. She fumbles for the keys, turning them in the ignition. Blessed silence. She rubs her forehead. Her face is wet—blood? No, just water. The car smells musty, and her feet, swimming in a puddle on the rubber floor mat, feel like peeled prawns. It must’ve been pouring for a while, she thinks. The clouds look lighter; relieved almost, of the pressure they’ve borne on the earth all night. She can almost make out colours. Is it morning? Did she pass out? Whoever wrote that rainforest-covered hills were like green velvet was deluded, Cath decides. Trees are not soft, and they do not get out of your way. She turns to share the joke with Jan, but it dies on her tongue as her stomach drops. She yanks at the door handle. The door won’t budge. She slumps back in her seat, hands over her mouth to hold back her rising scream.
A bird screeches. “Shut up!” she yells. Probably a rainbow lorikeet, but who knows, she thinks. Anyway who cares? They’re all the same, aren’t they? Messy bloody things, dropping seeds and crapping all over her driveway. Only tourists like them, for their unlikely colours. Jan likes them. Liked them. The stupid bird has woken its friends up and now the bloody ear-splitting dawn chorus starts up. “Shut up,” she screams through the open window. “It’s too early. Anyway, you’re too late. She’s gone.” Tears block her throat. “Not yet,” she tells them, swallowing. “I have stuff to do.”
Heavy wings flap above her and her car shivers in tandem with the strangler fig-wrapped tree it’s smushed against. Something groans. Shit. The door is jammed against broken seedlings poking their curious sharp fingers into the side of the car, so she squirms out the window and staggers away. In her mind’s eye, she sees the moisture-filmed screen of her phone lying on the front passenger seat. She turns back, freezes. The screech and pop of tearing metal joins the dawn chorus as the heartbroken giant sags heavily, gracefully, against the car. Leaves jitterbug down from its outstretched arms, drawing her eyes upwards towards the frenzy in the canopy — birds launching themselves into the air to hover like paparazzi, branches flailing to find a grip on the sky. The thought that it must have been too hard for the besieged tree to keep a grip on this strange, sandy soil floats through her head. For a moment she feels sorry for the epiphyte’s hollowed host, but the feeling evaporates as she stares at her crushed car. She slaps at a sudden sting on her arm. Bloody mozzies. Dusk and dawn, they like; the in-between times, the whole thing a hard-to-see mess.
A black and blue Ulysses butterfly emerges from the rift the giant’s fall has created in the foliage wall. A raindrop batters a wing; another. The butterfly falters, fluttering into a muddy puddle, dousing its bright beauty. More drift out, undaunted. Cath stares at them, struggling, in her mind, to save them, to turn back time. “Turn back,” she screams silently to them, to Jan. “Don’t go into the water.” She turns toward the beach, but the mangrove pods that moped on the sand last night now bob happily in the shallow waves of high tide. She catches a glimpse of hair drifting mermaid-like on the silty surface. Oh no, wait. It’s just seaweed. Her knees give way, and she sits in the mud, crying.
3. Early morning
How can you be thirsty and at soaked at the same time, Cath wonders, an hour’s trudge in the rain along the deserted highway later. A million different shades of green lean over her, surge under her. She chants in time with her steps: olive, pea, emerald, lime, bottle, mint, acid green, sea, eau de Nil, sage, aquamarine, khaki, teal. The road is a hard, tarry slash through the scratchy spill of encroaching weeds. Insects launch themselves at her from the guinea grass that whips her shins, and she flicks yet another sticky brown cricket off her shoulder. How has she never noticed before how much like a grizzly toddler their whining is? Bloody lucky she never had kids. She’d’ve kicked their arses so hard… She stops, knees buckling. “Crap,” she mutters. “Tallulah. And the other two.” She can’t remember their names. She’ll be the one to tell them, she guesses. Their father won’t be much use.
She’d kill for a drink. She tips her head, opens her mouth to the sky. The rain is fresh on her face, but not enough lands in her mouth. Ray Bradbury was wrong, she thinks. It’d take all day just to get enough to swallow, let alone drown yourself.
Drown. There is a sudden buzzing in her ears. Did Jan draw breath to scream, find only ocean? Drowning is peaceful, they say. Maybe she chose it. Think of the alternative. No. Don’t think of it.
The buzzing inside her head gets louder… hang on. It’s coming from outside. An SUV shape slowly separates itself from a distant clump of trees and creeps towards her.
Is that a kangaroo, Jai wonders, squinting through the rain? He flicks the wipers on faster. Rare on this busy road — they’ve learnt the hard way. Right time of day though, early morning. He rubs his eyes. He’s been awake half the night worrying about the big strangler fig up near Wonga. All the rain they’ve had lately has washed out its host’s roots and he’s noticed it leaning further and further over the carpark. In the end he’d given up on sleep and gotten up early to check on it. Maybe he should sing to it. His grandad used to stop and lay hands on every forest giant they came across during their shared hikes down in Dyirbal Country, chanting under his breath. As a kid, impatient to reach their fishing spot, it had driven him nuts.
Not a ‘roo. Another broken-down bloody tourist? He sighs. He’d hoped, when he became a ranger, to be more than a live Google Map of the nearest servo. Had big dreams of Saving the Daintree.
It’s a woman, wet, with her arms out. He can’t just drive past… He pulls over and jumps out.
Cath stands limply as a man walks towards her. At least, she thinks it’s a man. His limbs are sharp and skinny like broken saplings; the brown of the crickets she’s flicked all morning. She’s sure she’s seen that exact khaki shade of his buttoned shirt in a thousand trees. His mud-coloured eyes though, are concerned, human.
“You right there, mate?” he asks. She slumps, and he springs forward, gripping her elbows. “Whoa,” he says. “Let’s get you in the car. What happened?”
She can’t speak. Time oozes as they stagger to the car. Finally her mouth remembers how to make a word. “Water,” she croaks, but he is already holding his water bottle to her mouth with one hand, the fingers of the other splayed, nursing the back of her head.
She puts her hand over his on the bottle. He slowly releases her head, trailing fingers checking for lumps. She has a small gash on her right cheek, but it’s not bleeding, and he wonders how long it’s been there. He reaches into his shirt pocket.
As he pulls out his phone, his shirt pocket logo shifts and settles into focus. National Parks, Cath reads, the words sitting atop a crocodile hauling itself out of a lagoon, jaw gaping. She shudders and jams herself against the seat. “Jan,” she gasps. “The beach. My car. Gone.”
A crease appears between his eyebrows. “Someone took your car?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “No. Car’s back there.” She waves vaguely. “A tree fell on it. Jan’s gone. She went in the ocean. Then… she wasn’t there.” She licks her lips. “She wasn’t anywhere.” She stares out the window, numbly noting how the million different greens of the forest canopy carpeting the hillside move together in the sea-breeze like lungs.
He blinks. “She went in the ocean? Just now?” They must be tourists, he decides.
She drops her eyes, shaking her head and muttering something about dark clouds and drinking too much. A tear splashes onto her knee, another.
“You didn’t see her again?” he checks.
He reaches for his CB. “Rob? Come in, Rob,’ he says. ‘You there, mate? We have a situation. Over.”
The CB whines. “Morin’ sunshine. Need a hand? Over.”
He jumps out of the car, stretching the CB cord as he moves around the bonnet. Rob can be a bit insensitive. “Yeah mate, might do. Picked up this sheila. She’s saying something about her friend disappearing up near Wonga Beach. Went into the water, never came out. Over.”
“Did you say went in the water? What is she, a fuckin’ retard?”
“Steady on mate. Prob’ly tourists. She’s right here with me.”
“Rightio. Disappeared, huh? Could be what we’ve been after.”
He glances back at her, but she seems oblivious, staring out the window.
“Ya reckon? Big bastard? Finally?”
“Sure. Bring ‘er in, man. Let’s get on it. I’ll get the boat out. And mate?”
“Can’t say Sheila anymore. PC police’ll be onto ya. Over and out.”
“Right,” he mutters to himself, striding back around the car, jamming the CB back on its mount.
Cath sits in the small office under the rattling air-conditioner, a threadbare towel draped over her shoulders. She clutches a mug stamped with a Queensland Parks logo—a possum this time, thank God—in two hands. She frowns at the thick rim. Her legs itch and her head throbs. She scratches her calf with her toenails. Her rescuer, his back to her, is on the phone.
“Yup,” he says. “See ya then.” He turns back to her, sliding the phone into his crocodile pocket. She looks away, staring at the bits of old blu-tac on the wall where the corner of the faded poster has peeled off and curled over. …sive Weeds of the Wet Tropics she reads, over and over.
“Cops are on their way to get a statement,” he says. “Can I get you anything else? Call someone?”
She shakes her head, then winces. “Actually,” she says, “a couple of Panadol? I’ve got a splitting headache.”
“I’ll go ask Gladys,” he says. “She might have some in her bag. I reckon the cops’ll take you up to the hospital though, get you checked out for shock and stuff.”
She covers a yawn with the back of her hand. “Thanks. That’d be great.”
As he reaches the door she speaks again, in a rush. “What… do you think happened to her?”
He pauses, one hand gripping the door frame. He sighs and slowly turns to face her, his mouth a tight, straight line.
“You a local?” he asks.
She nods, swallows.
“You’d know then,” he says, “not to swim near mangroves around here. ‘Specially at night. We’ve been chasing a big saltie up near Port Douglas.”
She draws in a noisy breath. “Jan isn’t,” she says, and hiccups. “A local. She’s from Sydney. I told her, but she was angry. I should have tried harder.” She sniffs, sobs.
“Hey now,” he says, bending to put a warm hand on her forearm. “It mightn’t come to that. She might have just gotten her gander up, taken a hike. Might walk right back in through your door tomorrow.” He straightens, walks through the door. “Hey Gladys,” he calls. “Got any Panadol?”
It has already come to that. She feels the strong jaw closing on Jan’s leg, the savage pain, the nightmare drag out past the mangroves into deeper water. It loops inside her mind, flickering through the gritty sand behind her knees, the salty strands of hair sticking to her neck. Her mouth feels like the spilled guts of a squashed toad. She takes a sip of tea, despite the mug’s thick rim.
A knock on the door. It’s Gladys, with Panadol and a glass of water, and a kind, worried smile.
“Police have just pulled up, dear,” says Gladys. “You ready?”
Cath closes her eyes. She breathes—in, two, three; out, two three—and opens them again. “Thanks Gladys,” she says. “Send ’em in.”
Katie O’Donnell is a Master of Arts (Writing and Literature) student at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. Her poem “Stinging Tree” will be published in edition 7.2 of Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics. Katie lives with her family in the Australian tropical city of Cairns, surrounded by rainforest.
Lawrence Bridges is best known for work in the film and literary world. His poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Tampa Review. He has published three volumes of poetry: Horses on Drums, Flip Days, and Brownwood. He created a series of literary documentaries for the NEA’s Big Read initiative, which include profiles of Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Tobias Wolff, and Cynthia Ozick.