Oh Compassionate Ones,
this person is going from this world to the other shore,
she is dying without choice,
she is seized by the great evil spirit,
she is terrified by the messengers of the Lord of Death,
she is entering existence after existence because of her karma,
she is helpless, the time has come
when she must go on alone without a friend.
Bardo; Inspiration prayer, calling on the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for rescue, The Tibetan book of the Dead
There were mangroves down the bottom of our street. Beyond the street-end, curling grey-brown in the hazy brush, our great tidal hairlip. Our fetid old estuary. Sprouting cross-channel by the riverbank sediment, a garbled tree line. Mummified, black, hissing in shades of bracken and campfire smoke, flushed skyward in a Winter pallor. All scribbly and lemon gum, like a river of its own. The grove chirped in the daytime and jittered at night. A foster-kingdom, in youth, amongst the carcasses of small birds. Our road was harsh and veered jaggedly, like an earthworm caught in the midday heat. Speckled by mechanics and joineries who crouched broody, fetal goliaths armored in corrugated iron verandahs - Where ancient machinery once ground a heavy hanging hum between the warble of willy wag-tails and the screech of ibis. Ours was the only home. An old converted workman’s cottage at the top end of the road sloping towards the riverbed. Here, a frazzle of shaggy dwarf gum throttled the chain link of a neighboring meat processing plant in a constant funk of blood, bones and membrane. In the grubby street bottom-copse, if you were to scrape under the sand with the tip of your finger, it became black and utterly toxic from the old paintworks, or the copper foundry, upstream. Come December, feeble little flutters of honey-myrtle, forgotten from some stillborn springtime sprout, nuzzled the iron gullies of workshop eaves. A ring of spasmodic brown. And in our little garden bed, between the vine leaves and the lazy soil, my mother kept a trellis with six cherry tomatoes, no more, no less; always keeping score. ‘Home,’ is an old and outdated word.
I was about five at the time my family began living at the high end of Edwin Street. That’s a little younger than when this story’s set. I thought that our road ended at the edge of the world. Most nights those Winters after we found the girl, I would idle my car at the tail-end of that industrial cul-de-sac. The dark was feverish, the mangroves eaten by shadows where the crabgrass grew and the waterbirds screeched. It seemed as if the nearest foliage would almost quiver, plumb and rakish under the flicker of my headlight in the street-end reserve’s asphyxiated virgin-green. Here, I would imagine that grey-green explosion of red gum and pine, half-hollowed eucalypt branches crisscrossing in jutted pretzels over the black river, as the beginning to some unending landscape of alien brushland. In my mind’s eye I could nearly trawl the darkened terrain of berries and twigs and gum leaves, and bat droppings. Of sunken, damp, unseen life, writhing pale and blind and unknowing - bursting and scuttling across the uncharted world. I’d picture those inky pillars of Wollemi pine towering above the night-brush line. Quaking wordlessly to the stirrings of some great, nameless thing waking from an eons-old slumber. And I would drink. Every night those days. And cheap shit and nothing special and anything inbetween. Thinking about - trying not to think about the girl we found on the shoreline. Thinking about her all the same. Wondering why we found her face-up. That two-white white of her eye beaming brilliantly vacant from the murky mangrove slush.
When I was younger, every day as we were collected from the schoolyard we hunted for plovers and mud crabs in the Edwin Street-Stinney. Danny, who was not my brother but an omnipresence, and our selected companions, screeched and stamped across the miniature coastline. Here were storm-water drains and fallen signs that read ‘Submarine Land Mass,’ or ‘Copperworks, 5 kilometers,’ a clinging mishmash of fish-bone water fern pawing at the mud on our foot-bottoms. We must have mangled millions of mangrove stubs, who stood erect like miniature soldiers, moss-mottled and half submerged in the shallow crystal straits. And parents from the artificial stone-concrete embankment calling to put on our water shoes.
I have only recently discovered those tiny, multitudinal roots are ‘pneumatophores.’ They extend above the water, and allow the shrub to breathe.
No one let us back in after the girl.
Danny’s dad ran the garage in the street opposite ours. We met around the time I turned seven. He was a little older than me but that was nothing to him. He had thin, blonde hair. It seemed to exist in either a perpetual state of just-buzzed or pooling limply around his shoulders. He’d let off fireworks inside the black skeleton boots of car frames that stippled his yard. They were half-eaten by mounds of compost and wet soil which came streaming darkly across the patchwork flowerbed. He had a pet pig he kept on a chain that no one ever saw and chickens, who he fed honeysuckle vine leaves, a great lemon tree engulfing the coop. In those beautiful, grey-skied Australian Winters of my youth, he and I would muck around between the cars and the mulberry shrubs and the slashed-up trampoline in that crazy, muddy garden. It all reeked of cold smoke and vegetation, or an Antarctic wind might’ve clanked through the garden gate, with smells of sunless mangrove thickets and its rocky, algae-strewn beachfront, rushing in from the wetland, rushing in from the Pacific.
Nearby, the council had paved way to a wide, paddocked field where police horses were kept. The path wrapped around the bay and the mangroves followed. The river, her mangrove insects, the water rats and the waterbirds, her many disciples, skittered into partisanship. Each stagnant delta cleaved through the scrubland like a lock of matted hair. The city loomed in a blue hue. A smoky dust-ghost giant scratched into the horizon, just perceivable from the highest point of the trail. Danny and I, and his million older brothers walked that path nearly every day and fed the horses ivy-vines and gangly spider plant from the ancient, crosscut police station scaffolding. In those days it seemed as though school started when we felt like it did and for many of his brothers, it seemed like it never did. The paving ended behind a hospital complex which had been converted into a tea manufacturing plant. It was a strange landscape, these icons of decaying industry jutting up from the dense bush line and then the proper office buildings and high-rises with their square, squat, white apartments piling skywards all around. An abandoned punt, a bunch of neglected barges and a few dingy houseboats calcified over the river beneath.
We found her, the girl, on some drizzly Winter dusk. Ribbons of sludgy, rain-bloated gloaming clouds pottering across a sickly sky. Twilight rain is normally beautiful. Dawn rain is normally beautiful. It was just Danny and I that day, and two or three of his brothers. I can’t remember which. I’ve heard one lives close to me now. An electrician, maybe? He wouldn’t know me. Nor should you ask me how old we were, either. Early teens? Time didn’t feel like it does now, a side-effect of the attempt to halt memory of something that could never be forgotten. The mangroves looked gorgeously desolate between the slights of rainmist, and we saw her, the tips of her toes just touching the too-shady waterline. Her hair was black, spreading glossily across the pneumatophores and the mud-skipper burrows. We just stood there looking and Danny’s brothers ran off. We kept looking until that icy blue-red, blue-red in the reflection of her one unconcealed cornea and we heard adult voices, and we had blankets thrown over our shoulders. What’s that old country song? “Memory harmlessly/Fractures and fades”
Kisa was older than us and her boyfriend even older than that. Out of school most likely but her sister was in my grade. They said he was the one who killed her. He was killed as well a little while later. Not far from our street-end. The neighborhood was rife with gangs and violence, bikies mostly. It was still a suburb just practically risen from that feral tangle of river fern and wattle shrub. A peninsula, you see, obtruding the river. Better place to hide than any. A lot of new, vulnerable businesses back then. New families too, indecent ways of making a buck, keeping afloat, keeping people safe. It’s not like I knew her well.
Danny’s dad was an incredibly hairy, perpetually singlet clad guy of an indecipherable age. I loved that throaty laugh, and I loved to be the cause of its flourishing. He had the reddest face I’d ever known. He constantly stunk of Bond Street Blues and so did the boys’ school uniforms. I liked him because he’d say “fuck,” when none of the other parents would and he told it how it was. He was the one who took us in that night, that mad shambling cottage behind the depot with the mismatched stories because the company went bankrupt halfway through its renovation. My parents were still rushing home from work. He was the one who first found me with all those clothes a couple of years later as well. I heard that he passed away a few years ago. Massive heart attack. Sixty seven.
I never talked to him much after that night. That’s Danny. I know he wandered the grove all that grey Spring, the sun like a scratchy heart of muted brass beating palely upon him. A false sun, then. Danny’s hands were always born upright, a ragged Saint of grease and spindles, picking mulberries in the blue Springtime shade. He was unlike his brothers.
The mangroves depleted. Danny’s Dad quit the darts. Families moved in. The council pulled their fingers out and planted some trees and built some apartments and put up some townhouses. The new families had no idea about the forest and kids started playing down there again. There was a kind of collective spite from the older parents, probably festering from that long-kept pseudo secret. They abhorred the newcomer’s naivety, their own children overgrown and twisted, like a half-felled tree returning tentatively from some tumble into the river. People distill over time. A lot of the old factories were knocked down and a lot of the woods and bushland got cleared away. Civilisation trundled in great grey droves, a bleached cataract bursting drearily across the by-river country.
I stopped idling my car in the reserve and started night-walking the mangroves about a year after I earned my full license. About a month into my wandering, I stumbled upon my first piece. It was a small, striped shirt hanging dimly from the limb of a water gum plant. It was probably left by a boy from one of the new families after wading about in the river (by then, there were great efforts to detox the soil in the riverbed). I just stopped and looked at that little bit of fabric until it felt too much like I was looking into her eye once more. Before that night I never realised just how many clothes got left behind by an afternoon’s tramp-about in the mangroves. From then on I would come most nights and take a small souvenir; a lost shoe, an abandoned sunhat, a pair of board shorts. I never did anything with them. Mostly, I just kept them in my bedroom to look at from time to time. Even still, I’m not sure why I brought them home.
One night, about a year into my collection, Danny’s Dad caught me ambling up the street, trailing a stray sock at my side. He was sneaking out for a cigarette. His new wife was a bit of a drill sergeant about that whole thing, but he loved her all the same.
I looked at him and he blew smoke at me.
“found that in the mangroves, didja mate?”
I just looked at him.
“I don’t blame ya. I find meself looking down that way from times. It felt more homey before, even when it was just us and those old buildings.”
“I miss the buildings.”
“We all do. Them people in power’ll never understand. A place doesn’t become more human, more habitable and such just because more people are able to live there.”
“”Whatcha doin’ with that sock, fella?”
He exhaled, his liver-spotted skull vegetating a mangled crimp of greying hair.
“I get the feeling like I’m not standing on happy soil no more. Like this place is changing more than it ever should. I can’t understand it.”
His durry was out and he flicked it to the ground. His broad face cracked into a peculiar, sad smile. The overhead streetlight caught a patch of his messy braid, falling over one shoulder. That indecipherable beard and chest hair danced in a low singlet.
“All I’m tryna do is live. I’ve got my boys and my missus, and I love ‘em. I love you too, in a way. I hope you know that.”
We both smiled and nodded half-awkwardly in that sweet, silent way when you find a groove in the conversation and know by some unspoken manner that it’s over. We crossed past each other and walked in opposite directions. Once, I looked back at his vast, shadowy frame. In that moment, he was the benevolent wrath of every dog-tired old geezer whose once-abundant goodness had nearly frayed-through by difficult choices, and the actions of the world. I had never heard him say anything quite like that before.
A few days later I took dad’s pickup truck and put most of the lost clothes in a charity bin on the main street. I left some behind though; a pair of pocket sized sun-glasses, a sun-bleached rash shirt and that little lost sock, down in the mangroves for one of the Edwin Street kids to find, and hopefully get some good wear from.
Three years after that I was gone. There is no absence of memory. I’ve only been back a handful of times since. My parents live out West now and there’s less people. I like it out there. It’s an old country. I’m in the city for the moment. Sydney art gallery has a beautiful floor-to-ceiling windowed section. There, you can see the tawny old ferries dawdling white lacerations across the dark blue of Sydney harbor and out to sea. It’s impossible to think that somewhere, part of that harbour, part of that ocean was once and always will be flowing from the old Edwin Street inlet.
Yesterday, I learnt that Danny and three of his brothers got done up near Woy Woy on a bust running nearly four hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of cocaine and amphetamines up the South coast. His brothers were good to him and they took most of the wrap. If he behaves, he’ll be out in two years. If he doesn’t, he’s always got people looking out for him.
Is it a conscious choice to love,
Or does it take you in disbelief, like an avalanche?
Looking out at the harbour, I realised I never had another friend like Danny.
You never stopped to think about much back then.