This time Frank was the first to head down to the water. He stood leaning against the same paper bark, his toes spread and clawed into the earth. There were two other families there. Two white Australia tots, watched over by their parents, shrieked and paddled in the shallows. Further along, where the vegetation closed in again, a long red eucalyptus was bent double over the water, as though in prayer. Up it scrambled a group of black-skinned Aboriginal children. When they got to the top, one by one they would fling themselves into the water below and, laughing, would repeat the operation.
Frank’s uncle padded up quietly and stood close by, watching over the scene.
“Is there anything out there?” Frank murmured, without turning his head.
“Just fish, son. And not many of those.”
His cousins thundered down the bank and flew into the water. They were carrying foam body boards. They had been instructed not to goad or encourage Frank. Within a few moments they had kicked out to thirty metres of the shore. They were laughing and jabbering at each other.
A single triumphal sentence from Kyle hovered back on the hot air: “The water looks like blood!”
The adults began to slouch into the waters like ponderous herbivores. Frank’s aunt wandered up and stood next to her husband. He glanced round at Frank. Without warning the boy stepped out and walked slowly down to the water’s edge. The sunlight flashed on the surface and fractured into little kaleidoscopes of changing colour. The splashing and laughter of the kids throbbed in his ears, intensified, magnified. He saw the white teeth of the Aboriginal children and the upturned whites of their eyes, the kicking feet of his cousins and the bowing silhouette of the praying red gum.
Suddenly he felt the cooling waters of the lake rushing over his feet. He began to tremble. He was wading in. He felt a tingling surge like an electric shock shoot up his back. It was just like the first time. He was shaking now, and laughing. The water came to his waist. He threw himself in, felt the embrace, and began to swim. His style felt jerky, slipshod. It felt as though he had palsy. It was just the accumulated rust and the water acted as oil.
With each downward cut and backward pull of his arms, the kinks were ironed out and his stroke became smoother, more confident. He laughed as he swam, the water gurgling around him, sometimes washing back into his throat and making him splutter. He felt such animal joy. He couldn’t believe he’d been away for so long. Couldn’t believe he had ever stopped. He reached his cousins. They were delighted and jumped and splashed around him, shouting his name. The old reserve was gone.
“It’s Frank! He’s back!”
And he was.
They returned to Brown Lake most days after that. Each time Frank would swim a little bit further but never beyond shouting distance of the shore and the rough span set by his cousins. But the old Frank was reawakened. He needed a challenge.
It was two days before they were due to leave. He and his cousins were about thirty metres out. As usual they lounged on their body boards. He bobbed in their wake, treading water. There was colour and life back in his face. His young shoulders had already broadened through the exercise, his waist and hips had narrowed. He felt lithe and fit, capable of anything. Almost.
He had been looking across to the other side of the lake, at the dense bed of reeds that threw up their crowns like pike heads. They stretched almost the entire length of that side, blocking the view of the shore beyond. It was difficult to gauge how far it was to the other side. Five or six hundred metres. Perhaps more.
“Let’s see how far we can get! You guys stay on your boards, I’ll swim.” Frank said suddenly.
“Okay Frank!” shrilled Kyle, quick to win favour with his cousin who was rapidly establishing himself as hero to the young boy.
They set off without pause, Frank leading, the others paddling up in untidy rearguard. He stopped to check on them a couple of times – his new confidence still rested on others – but he soon relaxed to a contained and easy rhythm. When he looked over his shoulder a third time he was surprised to find that they had turned tail and were scuttling back to the beach. They had been summoned by their mother in a deliberately breezy and unconcerned manner. She was about to call out again to Frank when his uncle laid a gentle, restraining hand on her arm. He was watching his nephew, smiling to himself.
Frank flapped his feet and considered. He could hear his breath coming in long, low draughts. The three kids had reached the shallows and had become lost in the disporting figures of other children and adults. It was about a hundred metres back.
With a decisive spin Frank turned and ploughed on. Head down. With each rotation sky and bush flashed, to be replaced by the churning waters. Sky and bush. Churning waters. His slicing arms stood out stark and curiously alien against the peat brown of the lake. He felt like one of those blind cave fish.
When eventually he stopped he was in the middle of the lake. He was as far from the opposite shore as he was from the shore he had left. Water stretched all around. The land and trees looked far off, slight and insubstantial, as though they didn’t really count, or weren’t really there. Looking down his pale body was foreshortened, insignificant. Below, the sepia waters turned to the blackest of blacks. It was deep water. One could sense the deepness. An ancient deepness. Here the world was water.
Frank felt the rising of the old fear. Flashes of memory from the harbour stole back. He combated them actively, parried, feinted, did battle in his own mind and imagination.
“Just fish, son. And not many of those.” He repeated his uncle’s words silently, then aloud. “Just fish, son. Any not many of those.”
He began to swim back, concentrating on his stroke, his breathing, his rhythm, himself – everything he could influence and nothing he couldn’t. Periodically he would rear up and would be relieved to find the shore that little bit closer, the people on the beach a little bit bigger and better defined. Eventually he could hear splashing and shouts, could see the twisting limbs of swimmers, the sandy bottom rise from the murk. The first thing he saw when he dragged himself upright and began sloshing through the waters, was the smiling face of his uncle coming down to greet him.
“Your father would be proud of you son,” he whispered.
Tomorrow, their last day on the island, he would swim to the other side.
The yellow-green variegated eyes had been open for some time now, perhaps fifteen minutes. They were a largely nocturnal apparatus, though, and the pupils were reduced to a vertical slash which could assemble only a vague image. At night they would dilate into black circular discs which would pick out each object with razor clearness. Even so, every sense strained to detect what had passed through the water in the middle of the lake just now. The valves in the nostrils were fully open and winnowed what came back in the heavy air. The flesh quivered at the ripples which reached it as the briefest of lappings. It swished its tail very slightly, shifted its bulk and turned over one of its hind feet so that the pad was facing upwards. It couldn’t be certain but suspected it might be man.
It lay in a muddy hollow in the shade of a grey, hairy gum. Its pale under-surface was wet, the ridged osteoderms of its back were white and cracked with dried mud and matted sticks. It was a ‘Saltie’ – an Estuarine Crocodile – the largest species of Crocodilian in the world, known to reach seven metres in length although prodigies of ten metres were rumoured to exist. On a conservative estimate this one was two thirds grown, being just shy of five metres, but it would grow no more. Its skin was drying out as quickly as its mud bath. It was closer to dead than to living.
Frank’s uncle was not lying when he told him that the lake contained “just fish, and not many of those.” What he said was repeated from local knowledge. Brown Lake hosted no populations of native crocodile nor, for that matter, did any of the lakes on the island – nothing, in fact, larger than a hairy-whiskered catfish. This crocodile was an interloper, a stray. He was lost.
The floods in Queensland were widely recognised to have been the worst in three decades. The rains, falling after a lengthy drought, bounced off the rock hard land and tumbled into ditches and water holes. The water level rose dramatically and the rivers swiftly became raging torrents. Thousands of people lost their homes. More than fifty were swept to their deaths. The centre of Brisbane was drowned. But it wasn’t just the human population that suffered. Trees and vegetation were uprooted. Animals were flushed from their burrows. Anything that couldn’t fly was in peril. Even those who could swim…
The Saltie had lived on Crabbes Creek, a narrow tributary with deep pools off the Brisbane River north-east of the city. He was solitary by nature and had crept to the southernmost limits of his range to escape the fierce competition of his kind. He was also by temperament cautious ,which had perhaps saved him when the aggression of some of his cousins had led to them being captured or shot. He was content to roam skinny tidal creeks, feeding on mud crabs and water fowl, cracking the shells of river terrapins when he could find them. Only once had he gone after ‘big game’, when a sulky bullock had slipped down to the water line to drink. He lunged and caught the animal by the haunch but it had kicked back with such force that he released immediately. The blow knocked out a tooth and the wound went septic. He was unable to eat for a month. After that he went back to animals that could be swallowed whole.