Although Salties had a justified reputation as man-eaters, he himself had a deep distrust of them, bordering on fear. For him man was not five or six feet of bone, muscle and organs, but the tough hides of boats and the gnashing teeth of their propellers. Man was the predatory small planes that would sometimes whine overhead, and the heavy-shanked ‘utes’ with their ferocious bull-bars that would bellow their territorial demands. For him man was a clanging, bashing, dangerous protean creature. And he stayed well away.
In his secretive, careful way, he lived out his life. He had mated once or twice and indifferently fathered broods of little, snapping, squeaking miniatures but was alone now and had been for some time. He had no crocodile neighbours, which suited him. At nearly seventy he was getting old, but still had thirty or forty years left. He was large but because of his abstemious diet he was no giant, and never would be. He was a survivor, with the keen-eyed pragmatism of age.
Nothing could have prepared him for the rains though. They fell so hard and so fast that he couldn’t escape to high ground. Powerful swimmer that he was, he couldn’t resist the spate. He was caught and swept along, emptied out into the main river like all the other flotsam. He was hurled against uprooted trees, buffeted in newly formed rapids and spun round in eddies. He submitted meekly because he had no choice. Once he rose amongst a scattering of mewling livestock. They brayed pathetically when they saw him, mouths foaming, eyes rolling white. He rolled with cars and came unobserved within feet of a rescue operation trying to save a stranded boy. In this way it took him two days to reach the coast, tumbling through Brisbane City Centre before being disgorged into the silt-choked waters of the sea.
It was the middle of the night when he was washed up on Eighteen Mile Beach which ran nearly the entire west coast of Stradbroke Island. Disorientated, he headed inland. Crossing a road he climbed a short ridge before slithering downwards through bush and scrub. First light found him wedged between some exfoliating leaves of crumbling sandstone and a stunted mallee bush. Below him glittered Brown Lake.
He slid the remaining distance on his belly, flopping into a muddy trough by the water’s edge. He remained there for the next two weeks. He was exhausted, torn, battered. He didn’t have the strength to hunt. He began shutting down his body, chamber by chamber. He was beaten. In the instinctive, unemotional way of wild animals, he was preparing to die.
Frank headed straight down to the lake, sloshing purposefully through the waters, without pause. He knew what he had decided to do, what he now had to do. He didn’t want any unnecessary drum rolls, time to consider, time to doubt. And he hadn’t told his uncle and aunt what he intended either. He didn’t want the extra burden of their worry. As far as they were concerned he was going for a final dip before departing for home. They would find out soon enough. And it would be fine. For now though, there was work to be done.
Frank threw himself in. He was swimming. Head down. Focused. He wanted to get to the other side with as few breaks as possible, and those only for orientation. He knew the danger in stopping too long in the middle and allowing that sense of vastness to steal up and overwhelm him. He knew his fears but had the wisdom to know now that they could be controlled, corralled. Although he didn’t want to think about it, this was a big day for him. If he could do this, he felt he could do anything. And if he did this never would he allow the fears to conquer him the way they did all those years ago in the harbour.
Frank ploughed on. Arc, dip, pull, breathe. Arc, dip, pull, breathe. This was no casual swim. It was a race. With only one competitor. Him. Time was irrelevant. Finishing was everything. Still, he was doing the thing he loved and he couldn’t fail to find joy in the elements – the regular draw and splash of his paddling limbs, the little fountain of glittering water that erupted near his blowing mouth, the sun dappling his back, the brief flashes of sky and trees and hills.
When he felt that he really must stop to check on his progress, he found that he had carried an almost perfectly straight line from the beach. He was surprised to discover, though, that the opposite shore was still a way off. Unconsciously he checked on his fear, and in that instant when he became conscious of doing this, he was disappointed in himself. Still, what he did find was encouraging: excitement, a fluttering of nerves – yes – but at heart an even-keeled happy confidence. The fear was there but hung back, skulked.
In this way – raising his head when he felt he must – he drew steadily closer, although the reed-clad shore, hanging like a mirage, seemed to remain at an unchanging distance. Then almost suddenly, he was there. The reeds rose sharp and defined. Fifteen, twenty strokes and he was among them. The water was still deep. The reed bed stretched back in blurred perspective. It was difficult to know how far, but it appeared impassable. He didn’t venture further in case of snakes.
With a twist of his torso he rotated round. He could only just pick out the beach as a faint break in the tree-line. But it was impossible to distinguish any figures. No sounds carried back either. The whole world, it seemed, was drowned in the mechanical drone of cicadas. It was so loud and constant, so consuming, that it seemed to emanate from his own head. At either end of the lake heat quavers warped land and water, merging and separating them in a Daliesque illusion. It was a different world he was in. He was completely alone, but savoured the loneliness; he would be back amongst people soon enough. Without warning he kicked off and began to swim back.
The yellow-green eyes were open once more. The massive mouth hung open in its crocodile smile, tasting the air. The thing – whatever it was – had passed across the lake again. His senses early on had identified the little beach and the splashing human interlopers, but what this new creature was which intrepidly ventured out beyond the safety of shore and numbers, he couldn’t be sure. Was it really man?
The Saltie was slowly coming out of its self-induced coma. It wasn’t a conscious decision; he was merely responding to a deep and primitive urge: survival. There was something large and alone swimming out there on the lake. If he could track it and take it before it got back to land, this might not be the end.
He flexed his short legs and raised the bulk of his body off the ground. His joints creaked. It hurt. He waddled forwards to the lip of the depression, his girth swinging, his meaty tail stretched straight out behind like a scaly rudder. He then sunk down, settling like a truck on its suspension. The water glittered away into the distance. He folded his front legs back against his body, and then, pushing off with his back ones, he slid down the short bank. When his snout touched the water the transparent third eyelid shot over his eyes. He sunk underwater and with a brief swish of his tail, he was gone.
The swim back was definitely easier. There is something in returning, in having the end in your sights that powers you on, that makes light of the effort. Curiously, though, Frank experienced the same phenomenon with the shoreline he had on the way out – it seemed to hang back at an unchanging distance whenever he checked on his progress – and then suddenly it was there; the stained sand of the bottom through the lightening waters, the flash and splash of bodies, the paper barks on the bank. He was intercepted by the vanguard of his young cousins on their ubiquitous boards. They clamoured round him as his feet found purchase on the lake floor and he began to walk.
“Wow, that was amazing!”
“Did you reach the other side?”
“Did you see anything?”
“That was so brave Frank!” gushed Kyle.
Once more he saw the smiling face of his uncle. There was something else there too. Relief.
Frank stood in the shallows as his cousins shrieked and cavorted round him. Suddenly he turned and began striding back out.
“Are you going again?” asked Kyle.
“Yes,” answered Frank, “It’s only two K. My dad swims that every morning before breakfast.”
“Frank!” shouted his uncle.
Frank sang back over his shoulder, “I’ll be okay. Once more. There and back. I promise.” And then, with a smile, “Only fish, uncle. And not many of those!”
His uncle frowned in bafflement and Frank flung himself into the lake and began to swim.