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The Summer of the Floating Fish

By Caitlin Wilson

In all directions stretched the great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions.

- Patrick White

In summer my stomach sinks with the sunrise. Every day, a bleaching kind of sun beats down. The hairs on my arms whiten like marrow, the undersides of my knees slick with sweat, sticky. Excruciating heat, like ant bites all over. The air is sick with eucalyptus and far off fire smoke – Australia writ small, made perfume. You’re scratching your head again – the shk-shk-shk of your untrimmed nails, rhythmic and entrancing. You are unembarrassed of your urges, not yet a teen cowering at your body’s humiliating whims, not yet hiding them from me. At the bottom of our block, two older boys from one town over strip bark from the tall gum trees, getting ready for a burn off. I paid them each five dollars, more than the task is worth; I’m soft for boys with sun warmed skin and sweaty hairlines asking for favours. It’s how your father got me – it’s how I got you. Both of your hands are in your hair now – shk shk shk shk. If it’s lice I’ll kill that Jamie Edwards, and his whole plague-rat family. I see why you like him - friendly and grotty, a caricature of a ten-year-old boy’s best friend, the snot on his t-shirt and the scrapes on his knees. Still, I don’t think I could take the tiny metal comb to your knobbly skull again. Sifting tiny bodies from your bruise-brown hair, sitting on the veranda in silence. Why can’t his mother keep him clean? Why can’t I keep you clean?

On the third week of your summer holiday, the fish start dying. At first one by one, not so unusual. We are on one of our walks, which started accidentally the second day of your visit. You wandered off, I told you not to go too far, and suddenly the sun is soon to set. I went out after you and found you some five hundred meters down the road, walking along the fence-line of the neighbour’s hobby farm. The sheep in the paddock bleat impotently, and you turn away. When I reach you, you let me stand close for a moment, then walk on. We walk the length of the fence that day, down to the river at the bottom of the road. We walk for ten… twenty… thirty minutes, past dark, not turning around until some unknown impulse pulls us home to plain biscuits and drinking chocolate made in the microwave. I dream of ripples and tadpoles and clean cold water. This night, the river is a nightmare - the bloated carcass of a medium-sized fish sways with the soft current at the edge of the river. You see it first and run to it. I let you because you are a boy, and it is natural to be curious about death. I’m glad you are; it saves me telling you. You cup it up in your hands. Its eyes are open and staring. You say nothing. I say less.

You take my hand on the walk home. You don’t do that much anymore, not since the boys made fun of you, the last summer you spent here. Your hand is clammy and a bit chubby still, like when you were a baby. You are a baby.

You don’t complain of boredom. You don’t sing, you don’t write. I would tell you to start, but then I don’t sing or write either. You take off with Jamie Edwards and the other boys on the street after breakfast and come back tired. You must miss the city, your father. Your real life. It must feel like a dream to be here with me. I feel like I’m dreaming.

When the fish start rising in multiples, I get the sense that something is off. That’s not natural is it? Not normal, for groups of fish to up and die, suddenly? On our walk this time I see it first, as we reach the base of the slopping road. Six or seven scaly, bloated things bobbing with the gentle current of what water remains. Can I smell them? Or is my brain just supplying the acrid choke of death to match my eyes? You wrinkle your nose, but that could mean anything. These nighttime walks have become ours in a way the day never is – we are a tiny unit, a team taking on our easy quest. But each day the fish are there, dead on the water, waiting to be swooped up by lazy birds or chewed at by foraging dingos. I wonder if you see them as a warning – 'don’t stay here where it’s brutal', their ghosts whisper, 'go back to grocery stores and cinemas and red cordial whenever you want'.

That night, we watch the news and they talk about the heatwave. It is historic, they say, but they said that last time. Every summer hotter, every year a new record scorcher. Life is building on itself, higher and higher. I feel like I’m climbing with the mercury. The news makes the dying sound triumphant.

When you were born, I saw a tarot reader once every two or three weeks. Your tiny body in my arms made me feel the weight of all I didn’t know, and I had seen on the café noticeboard in town an advert for a psychic witch ‘all-knower’, and that seemed like just the kind of confidence I lacked. I brought you to the first session. Her hair was in two thin blonde braids which swung like contrapuntal metronomes when she shuffled her cards. I remember your eyes following their movement, getting heavy. She called you a very pretty girl and waved her hands over you, halfway between priest-like and spasming. Her bald-faced wrongness made me so happy. I called you Christina at every session from then on and stopping going when your father moved you to Melbourne, the week of your fourth birthday.

Suddenly: February, and the riverbed is choked with the dead. We are walking again. I don’t know why you still come with me; maybe the coming dusk frightens you? Or being alone? I thought I frightened you most of all. We have walked together almost every evening for six weeks, quickly and mostly silent. Today when we crest the hill, I know I can smell decay. The river is still and very low, almost entirely dry. The Edwards chitter about stolen water every now and again but I never believed it. It’s hot, but not that hot, they’d say. Evaporation takes longer, they’d say. But what would they know? Here it is: fish on the mud, dozens, suffocated. I walk out into the silt, careful not to step on one. I am ankle deep in mud and brackish water, walled in by dead fish. I must look like a painting, one by an angry, Surrealist European, maybe. I laugh to myself. I kneel and dig my fists in the mud, so soft and yielding. You must think I’m psychopathic. You must hate me, and the world, all of us who let dozens and dozens of fish die for no reason. You don’t look scared, but you are sad. I feel like I know you, now.

You walk me back to the house and we stand in the shower together in our clothes long after the water runs clear. Next year you won’t be back.

Art by Isabella Lill


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