It was a funny thing about the river. Anybody and everybody thought they might ride this river like some legendary buck-jumping wild horse called Diesel or Gidgee or Mulga. People were always travelling up to the northern coastline over the rough roads of the Gulf on long weekends. They'd haul up and launch straight over the side into the yellow river: flash fishing boats with sixties country-and-western names, like Donna, Stella, and Trixie. Bright coloured boats, powered by engines of many horsepowers, bought with top dollar gained from doing stretch shifts two kilometres down underground, hauling up rich ores scraped from the mother lode embedded in sequences of rock that looked like the growth rings of a powerful, ancient being.
And on the water they would cast a line here, a line there, over the sides with state-of-the-art fishing tackle, but no knowledge of the way of the river. Nothing was thought about it. There were a considerable number of people living in the region now, with the great influx of mine workers who had nothing to do on their days off. More new mines became established in the region with little regard to anyone's say-so.
After the mining stopped, neither Normal Phantom and his family nor his family's relations, past or present, rated a mention in the official version of the region's history. There was no tangible evidence of their existence. Even in Uncle Micky's collection of bullet cartridges.
Micky had lived with a metal detector for God knows how long. He said he had a fever which drove him on because he would never know when he picked up the last piece of evidence -- all of those forty-fours, thirty-thirtys, three-o-threes, twelve gauges -- all kinds of cartridges used in the massacre of the local tribes. He had maps, names of witnesses, details, the lot. A walking encyclopaedia. Now his voice lives on in the great archive of cassettes which he left for the war trials he predicted would happen one day. But no tourists go to Micky's museum. Maybe because it was built in the wrong spot. That's fighting for you. Fighting, fighting all the time for a bit of land and a little bit of recognition.
All the old mines, old mining equipment, old miners, old miners' huts, skeletons of miners in the cupboard -- anything to do with mining was packaged in a mishmash of nothing words and marketed on gloss as the ultimate of local tourist attractions. The shiny covers of these tourist brochures celebrating selected historical sites and museums ought to grab you from across the room at airports, hotels and motels, or from the rack of any tourist or travel centre selling the highlights of mining. You can't even hide the stuff because of its iridescence.
But this was not vaudeville. Wars were fought here. If you had your patch destroyed you'd be screaming too. The serpent's covenant permeates everything, even the little black girls with hair combed back off their faces and bobby-pinned neatly for church, listening quietly to the nation that claims to know everything except the exact date its world will end. Then, almost whispering, they shyly ask if the weather has been forecast correctly today.
If you are someone who visits old cemeteries, wait awhile if you visit the water people. The old Gulf country men and women who took our besieged memories to the grave might just climb out of the mud and tell you the real story of what happened here.
Copyright 2006 by Alexis Wright
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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