Wide Brown Land Part Three (Final)
Posted on April 25, 2013
My parents worked hard jobs over the following years and were happy to have the family re-united. I went to Northcote High School and made some life long friends, particularly my dear friend Sue.
Over the past six months my father had commenced plans to build a house at Bushies, the same piece of land in Rushworth that Ronda had spent her school holidays with her Grandmother. The foundations had been dug and Bob had begun hand making the mud bricks that he planned to build the house with. He had built a small mud brick out house with an old teapot as a toilet paper dispenser to test the bricks durability.
He and Ronda had taken to spending weekends in a caravan on the block of land. A few days after the Christmas of 1992 they set off from our rented Californian bungalow in Northcote on the two and a half hour drive to Rushworth, and planned to stay there for two weeks, taking Rex the dog with them. My brothers, sister and I all had our own plans for New Years Eve and stayed behind. I travelled to a seaside town with my friend Sue, to stay in a beach house rented by another friends parents. I arrived back in Melbourne on New Years Day to a house depleted of food and called Grant to ask him if he would like to go for a drive to Rushworth to see our parents the next day. He agreed after some cajoling on my part and said that he would pick me up early the next morning, as the day was forecast to be so hot.
At eight the following morning he came to the house with our cousin Andrew and we set off upon the journey. Heat mirages shimmered on the bitumen road ahead of us. We listened to Nick Cave’s album The Good Son, and talked, amongst other things, about the car accident that Grant had had when he was 19, and I was 12 and sitting in the back seat without a seatbelt. In the accident I was knocked unconscious and a full slab of glass stubbies of beer shattered all over me, covering me in a deceptive amount of blood. Grant talked about the phone call that he had had to make to mum from the hospital, and how afraid he was to tell her of my injuries.
Hi mum, I’ve had an accident, Dani’s in a coma. Bye!
The only thing that I ever recalled from that night in the hospital was of my clothes being cut off, and of Grant crying in mums arms as I was wheeled in for a brain scan. My external injuries were very minor in the end. On that January day Andrew said to Grant that he was lucky that he hadn’t killed me, “Ronda loves her kids”.
When we arrived in Rushworth we fetched towels from Andrew’s father’s house and headed out to a bridge over the channel. We jumped from the bridge and let ourselves be carried by the currents before swimming to the bank and jumping again. One of the times that we all jumped together from the bridge into the cold water, Grant said that he had jumped on something hard and unyielding, like a branch, and then he wouldn’t jump again. Andrew and I scoffed at his claim, insisting that we would have jumped on this mystery object too if such a thing existed. Grant was adamant and stayed on the bridge waiting for us to finish. Andrew and I soon grew tired of the game and we got out, dried ourselves and drove to our grandparents house to visit them and avail ourselves of the contents of their fridge.
Finally we drove back up the lane that was named for our family, from our Grandparents brick veneer house on a hill overlooking the Waranga Basin, to the block of family land where my parents were camping. The heat was sweltering at about 38 degrees by then. The grass was yellow as far as you could see. We drank beer in the shade and sat and bantered easily amongst ourselves. My father posed by a mantle piece on the veranda of the old shack that still stood there from the time of our settler ancestors. He said that when he died he would like to be sent to the taxidermist and stuffed in just such a position as this, with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, wearing his Stubbie shorts. We howled with laughter, my mother scoffing Who would want you? Andrew offered to have Dad on his demise. Grant said he would like to be buried here on this land amongst the gold and the ironbark, on land that had been worked by our family since they arrived from Scotland back in the original days of the gold rush. He laconically qualified it afterwards with a smile, and the words I’m never going to die.
I tired of talking after a time and retreated to the humid interior of the caravan to continue a rambling letter that I had begun to my boyfriend, but soon got so hot in there that I came back out and asked the others if we could go for another swim. They all agreed except for my mother. The rest of us piled into my father’s dusty yellow ute, dad and Andrew in the fron seat, and Grant and I in the tray in the back with the dog. My father looked up at the deep blue sky with its creamy white cumulus clouds as he got into the drivers seat, and remarked that it would storm that night and we could all be relieved of this oppressive heat. I didn’t believe him.
We drove to a different part of the channel this time, somewhere that my father had been swimming each day that he was in Rushworth, but that I had never been to before. He parked the ute beside a dusty track. I was the first to approach the water. Dad had brought us to a point of the channel where the water dropped perhaps a metre, due to a flow regulator pole across the width of it. I sat in front of the cascade of water and put my legs into the strong flow. The force of the water surprised and intimidated me. I did not jump immediately into the cool water this time, waiting for the reassurance of the others. My father was the first to enter the water, with a nonchalant dive, from a small platform just upstream from the drop bar. Naturally the dog followed him, and it was the dogs troubles that I immediately noticed, he went over the drop of the flow regulator and into the turbulent water below it. His struggles there brought to mind Grant’s recently vanished dog at Dights Falls in Melbourne and I remarked with a little alarm that the dog was in the water. Without hesitation Grant jumped into the churning water directly in front of me to retrieve Rex.
He never made it as far as the distressed dog. By this time our father had been swept over the drop bar into the suddenly fearful water below. Andrew and I looked on in silent horror for a timeless moment at what was unfurling before us. A nervous laugh escaped me, and then Andrew snapped to attention, crying out, It’s not funny, they’re in trouble! It was like a slap in the face, and it became clear to me suddenly how dire the situation had become. I ran to the ute and found a snarled and knotted long piece of orange rope. Andrew and I struggled feverishly for precious minutes, trying to untangle it so that we could throw a lifeline to the two drowning men. All throughout, neither my father nor Grant ever uttered any cry for help that I heard. When the rope was finally being tossed towards them they never heeded our cries to them. Their eyes were wide open, but blank of expression; no terror or desperation illuminated them. Their mouths were open as well, as the force of the water took them down and then spat them back up, over and again.
Andrew decided that he had to take the rope and go into the water himself to save them. He didn’t tie it around his wrist, merely wound it around his hand, and left me alone on the bank holding the other end. As Grant had never reached the struggling dog, neither did Andrew ever reach either of the men. Within seconds of entering the water it dragged him deep into its depths as it had them. In those moments I saw Grant sucked down for the final time and a second later saw the form of my father come surging up from the depths, propelled by this seemingly malevolent force, and looking like nothing so much as Christ on His cross for that brief final instant before he too disappeared. I screamed to Andrew that Dad was right behind him but by then Andrew was calling to be saved himself, so I tried to pull him in. I was a tiny girl, and Andrew’s much bigger frame combined with the force of the water ensured that my efforts -first pulling, and then winding the rope around and around my hand and arm- did not so much haul him to the safety of the bank as drag me closer to the peril of the water.
Bittersweet fate stepped in and one life was saved that day. Fishermen returning from the Waranga Basin drove along the dirt track beside the channel at the moment when Andrew and I were locked in our desperate struggle with the water. Two men heeded my flailing arm and screams for help and, leaping from their car, they heaved Andrew, coughing and vomiting brown water, to the bank. The men asked me if Andrew was the only one in the water and I told them that my father and my brother were in the water. They drove to the nearby farm house to alert the authorities and Andrew and I waited, him lying on the bank with fully realised grief in his eyes, and me frantically running further downstream trying to catch a glimpse of a foot or a finger in the calmer, smoother waters there, imagining that if the turbulent water had released them from it’s murderous undertow, that it would be possible still to save them. I did not believe that it was over: On that parched bank with its prickly golden grass, I never believed that they were truly gone.
In the days that followed, family and friends flocked to Rushworth to grieve and to help hold us up. Ronda’s oldest friend slept in the single bed with her and held her tightly. I gathered armfuls of yellow everlasting daisies and lay them by the side of the drop-bar. They found my dad’s body late that first night, in the midst of the wild storm and rain that he had earlier predicted. Whoever pulled him out left a pile of the slate rocks from the bottom of the channel like a cairn on the bank where his body was recovered.
It took a further three interminable days to find the broken body of my brother wedged up against a pylon under the bridge.
There was no consolation.
We, the living, the survivors, made our choice, of remembrance: My father and brother were buried in Rushworth cemetery with five generations of both sides of their family around them. We buried them as close to the back fence as we could, as close to the ironbark forest as possible, bureaucracy preventing a burial at Bushies. Their graves were twin mounds of loose mineral rich soil with a joint black granite headstone and no slab to cover them. They became part of the dry landscape, their marker visible from the road that lead out to the Waranga Basin if you looked as you passed, their names etched into black marble.
The first year of living without them passed, with all of us trying to adjust to the reality of their loss. We learned how to live without them, learned how to cope with the fading of their voices, the never ending sensation that they were just about to walk through the door. Ronda bought a small mixed business in Footscray to try to give herself and Mathew a job and some way forward. I finished my last year of school. My nights consisted of nameless nightmares but also of love. I dreamed that other people that I loved were drowning, but never dreamed the real deaths that I saw. Ronda could barely speak the names of the lost men, the family photos were like an open wound to us all. After a year she decided that she needed, finally, to move back to Rushworth, where she could take flowers to the graves and not feel as though she had left another child alone.
For exactly nine months she had lived a life that involved her family whole and together, it had felt like a beginning, not the fleeting state that it was to be.
Long years followed, and all of our lives unravelled in different directions: In 2004 I met my future husband and moved to Sydney the next year to be with him. When we married in 2007 it was in a paddock of yellow grass and ironbark on my Grandparents property. From the top of the hill where we had the ceremony, you could see the drowned swamp of Waranga, a brown, receding body of water in a land that more than ever held out its hands in supplication for more rain, more water, and more sustenance.
So the land remembers our footsteps, remembers the storms in the sky that buffet the branches of weeping willows and ironbarks and scatters golden wattle over the roads, remembers us long after we have become one with the land, long after we have become a word alone, the land caresses our bones.