Ripples on the Water – 1
(an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Cry of the Bunyips)
“Phew, what’s that smell?”
“It must be Ellis.”
“It’s the swamp, moron.”
Everyone turned as Joel burst out laughing. “Swamp morons, monsters of the bog!”
“You’re a swamp moron.”
Ellis picked up a rock and threw it out amongst the bulrushes. “Take that, swamp morons!”
“Don’t do that,” David said.
“Why the hell not?”
“Disturbing the water upsets the spirits.”
“What are they gonna do, squirt? Grab me round the ankles and drag me into the bog?”
“They’ll take your soul and make you into a swamp moron,” Loraine said.
“Ellis ain’t got no soul.”
Something rustled the bulrushes near where Ellis had thrown the rock, silencing the children.
“W-what was that?” Joel asked.
“David’s right,” Billy said. “Don’t disturb the waters.”
“Are there really spirits in there?” Penny asked.
“There’s no such thing as spirits,” Ellis said.
Billy shook his head. “I want you to all close your eyes and take a deep breath – don’t make such a face, Joel, it’s not that bad – and ponder whether those smells of decay might have been the source of the bunyip legend. Would a swamp monster that devoured wayward people have been responsible for such an odour?”
“Too right,” Ellis said.
They all turned as the rustling noise came again from the bulrushes, but could see nothing in the dark tangle of greenery.
“I can see the unease on all your faces,” Billy continued, “but imagine growing up here in a world without the ultranet where your only education came from the corroboree dances and the teachings of the Elders, perhaps having even seen one of your family or friends disappear in the swamps. Pretty scary, isn’t it?”
He could tell from the apprehensive eyes watching him that he’d hit the mark. “I want you to remember this moment, the feeling of dread rising up from deep with within you, and know there are things lurking in the dark corners, things the universe’s collective scientists still can’t explain.”
He let the fearful faces dwell on that thought for a few moments longer before breaking the spell by turning away from the swamp and picking up his backpack.
“Let’s leave the bunyips to their smells and go find those nice refreshing waterholes now,” he said, smiling as he heard their collective sighs of relief.
* * *
“Last one in’s a rotten egg!” Ellis shouted as he leapt into the waterhole, closely followed by Penny, Loraine and David. Joel became the rotten egg and was dutifully splashed by the others.
“The water’s so clear,” Penny said. “Look, there’s little fish on the bottom!”
“There’s little fish on Joel’s bottom!” David said.
Joel blushed. “I really wanted striped boardies like yours, but oh no, Mum had to buy me the ones with the fish on them.”
“I think they’re cute,” Loraine said, causing Joel to blush even more.
“It’s pure spring water here,” Billy said, easing himself in to join them. “Further down river there’s good trout fishing, I’m told.”
“Do you do much fishing?” Joel asked.
“Only in the fish shop.”
“My Dad likes to go fishing but he never catches anything.”
“That’s why I stick to the fish shop.”
“Race you all to the other side!” Ellis said.
“Hang on, I’m not ready!” Joel said.
“I’ve long since given up racing,” Billy said, “so everyone get ready and I’ll tell you when to go.”
“Whatever,” Ellis said, disappointed he had to give up his head start.
“On the count of three – one, two, three, GO!”
Ellis took an early lead, thrashing wildly through the water, with David and Loraine in equal second, followed by Penny and finally Joel. By the middle of the waterhole, though, Ellis was faltering, while Penny had moved ahead of David and Loraine and Joel slipped further behind.
Loraine crept ahead of David and was close to overtaking Penny when they ran out of waterhole. Ellis managed fourth place, turning and glaring at Joel who looked increasingly likely to drown before reaching the edge.
“Are you okay?” Loraine asked as he finally touched the overhanging rocks.
“I – I’m used – I guess I’m more used to salt water. More buoyancy, you know.”
“I can see now – why your mum bought you – the boardies with the fish on them,” Ellis said, also still huffing.
“Race you back!” Penny said, pushing herself effortlessly away from the rocks.
“You’re on!” Ellis said, splashing after her, but Joel just shook his head.
“You go, David,” Loraine said, “while I keep Joel company.”
David shrugged before stroking off in pursuit of the other two.
“I never was much good at swimming,” Joel said once the others were out of earshot.
“It’s all about rhythm. You have to make the water work with you instead of against you.”
“That’s what my sports teacher said, but it hasn’t worked. Neither of my parents can swim at all, so I’ve achieved something I guess.”
“Yes, you have.” Loraine looked into his eyes, smiling at what she saw. “Maybe, um, maybe when we get back I could give you some lessons, be your coach, like, if you want me to.”
“That’d be nice. Hey, what’s your brother doing?”
Loraine turned to see David veering away from the others, turning instead towards a clump of bulrushes on the left. A moment later he’d disappeared from view.
“You wait here while I find out,” she said, pushing away from the rocks.
Joel thought about following, but the prospect of drowning outweighed his curiosity. Instead he shivered, breaking out into goose bumps as a puff of cool breeze caressed his wet skin.
* * *
Joel jumped as a hand touched his shoulder, surprised to realise he’d been mesmerised by the rippling water. He looked around to see Billy standing beside him.
“There’s an easy crossing just a little way upstream if you’d rather not swim back,” he said.
“Yeah, um, thanks.”
“Where are David and Loraine? I thought they were over here with you.”
“David started swimming back, but turned away near those bulrushes, and Loraine went after him.”
Billy jumped into the water. “You stay here!” he said, turning his head back momentarily and freezing Joel with his gaze before swimming off after them.
Joel shivered again as a cloud passed over the sun.
* * *
Billy turned into what looked like a maze of bulrushes deceptively hidden from the shore.
“Over here!” Loraine replied from off to his right.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“And your brother?”
He turned to see her clinging to the bulrushes on the edge of a narrow channel leading further into the maze, and within moments had his arms around her as she started to cry.
She shook her head. “I – I can’t find him.”
Something rustled the bulrushes further down the channel.
“David! This is no time for games!”
For a moment something smelt of animal pheromones, musky perhaps though not as sweet, but then it was gone. Gone too was the sunshine as heavy clouds raced in from the south-west. In a split-second decision he’d later regret, Billy wrapped his arm tightly around Loraine and began swimming back the way he’d come.
“What are you doing?” Loraine asked between sobs.
“Taking you back to shore, then I’ll phone for help and come back after David.”
* * *
“The ranger’s coming out in his shuttle and will do an aerial search,” Billy said as he concluded his call and turned back to the frightened children huddled around him. “You all stay here and keep together while I try to find David. Ellis, you’re in charge.”
“Um, where’s Joel?” Loraine asked as she looked around.
“Oh shit, I left him on the other side of the waterhole.” Billy looked across to the far bank, but there was no sign of the boy. “I told him to wait there. Damn!”
He jumped back into the water, swimming out to the bulrushes again.
“David! Where are you?”
Once more he smelt the cloying pheromones as he moved through the bulrushes. In places the water was less than a metre deep, but as soon as he’d start to wade the bottom would drop away again into a murky darkness. Many minutes had passed since David’s disappearance, too many for there to be much chance of reviving him if, as Billy feared, he’d been snagged below water in one of those holes, but he continued to probe with his legs, fearing just as much the thought of David’s bloated body rising to the surface in a few days time.
The channel twisted and turned, occasionally splitting into two or three diverging branches before joining up again. Around a bend the constricting bulrushes suddenly opened onto a broad pool, its surface rippling even though the air was still.
For a moment he was sure he heard his great-grandson’s voice answering him, but when he called again he realised it was an echo of his own voice. Just the same, though, he could’ve sworn the first time it had been different.
“David! Can you hear me?”
The water continued to ripple, while far away and so faint he might easily have imagined it, a tiny voice whispered what sounded like jeepers. A chill grew from deep within him, frosting his nerve fibres as it radiated outwards to erupt in goose bumps all over his skin. The water around him seemed to freeze as well, trapping him in its icy embrace.
From the west came the roar of an aircraft, and moments later the ranger’s shuttle swooped low overhead. Billy called out David’s name once more, glancing around forlornly before making his way back to the other children.