I have this recurring dream, maybe twice a week. Or, maybe because it has recurred for so many months, it’s only once a week but it seems like twice a week. Whatever. The dream arrives like the slow-motion appearance of a wild-eyed merry-go-round horse emerging from the swirling fog of sleep, and it seems to be saying to me, ‘Okay, girl, let’s ride.’ Of course, it’s a dream so I have no choice: I have to ride with it wherever it takes me, although, like the wild-eyed merry-go-round horse that it resembles, it always brings me back to the same place, to the place where I started, which is in my own room, in bed.
The content of the dream is always the same, even though some of the details vary from time to time. It’s always mid-November and I’m always standing on the banks of the Russell River staring out over the pitted surface of the river in the rain. It’s always raining and the rain dances on the river and it plays jazz rhythms on the leaves of the trees overhead like the jazz rhythms of famous drummers from my grandparents’ era, famous names I don’t know in the same way as I don’t know the names of the trees the rhythms are being played on. The jazz rhythms are wet but warm and they provide a kind of counterpoint to the bass beating of my blood, which is also wet and warm, as I stare out over the water. I’m dressed for the city in the ripped jeans uniform of my inner-city tribe and a tee shirt the colour of sorrow and my feet are coffined in trainers inappropriate for where I am and for what I’m doing. But I have on a sort of ankle-length poncho, camouflage-coloured with a matching hat, so I’m dry despite the weather. In my hand I’m carrying a rifle that weighs as much as all the combined regret of my fifteen years and, somehow, I know that I know how to use it.
Hypnotically, the river flows past me at a steady pace and I feel that, below the surface, secrets are being transported somewhere safe where no one up here in the upper reaches of the river can steal them. What secrets might a river hide? Who knows. Fish secrets that can be communicated only through fish lip-reading as they silently call to one another in their unknowable language that merely looks like the opening and closing of mouths to us above the surface of the water. In the dream, I never find out about the underwater secrets, if there are any. In the dream, I never see any fish. Fish are not what I’m here for. I’m here for the pigs.
There are never any other people beside the river and there are never any sounds of distant vehicles to suggest there might be other people in the vicinity. Maybe if there are other people nearby, they came on their own merry-go-round-horse-dreams in the night. Or maybe there just aren’t any other people. The nearest habitation as far as I know is at a town called Babinda in the area of Bartle Frere. I’ve never been to Babinda or Bartle Frere and I don’t know where either is in relation to where I’m standing on the banks of the Russell River, but I do know, in the way that you always know in dreams, that Bartle Frere is close by. In Far North Queensland ‘close by’ could mean within a hundred kilometres. Two hundred kilometres. Distance in Far North Queensland means something different to distance in Melbourne. And distance in dreams means something even more different than that. So, ‘close by’ is as near as I ever get. Sometimes in the dream, I think I might go to Bartle Frere just to see what a place with such a strange name looks like, but I never do. At other times in the dream, I try to imagine what it looks like. Is there a country town called Bartle Frere? Does it have a Post Office, for instance? A pub? A school? Is there a sign at the edge of the town saying, ‘Welcome to Bartle Frere. Think of our children, drive slowly’? I can never decide, and when I try to conjure up an image of a remote settlement with a strange name like Bartle Frere close by the Russell River in Far North Queensland the picture fades and dissolves like an old black-and-white movie on the kind of TV people had before flat-screens and I’m left with nothing but the river and the river secrets and the jazz rain in the trees.
Fear is an essential and unwavering element of the dream. Fear is the constant. Fear of the pigs. Without fear, the dream would be a saunter through sunshine in temperate climes holding an ice-cream cone while I search for puppy-dogs, instead of a rifle held in a sweaty grip in tropical rain ready for a confrontation with tusked and dangerous pigs. Even as I’m aware of the sound of the rain in the trees and even as I’m aware of the underwater secrets being whisked to safety downstream, I’m more aware of the menace posed by the pigs. I don’t always see the pigs, but, like shame and guilt, I know they’re there. Which is why I choose where I stand very carefully.
There’s a large rock that rises from the ground on granite hind legs and it pushes its granite shoulders up into the branches of the jazz trees to form a solid barrier at my back. It stands there like an igneous father figure whose only role in eternity is to protect me from the pigs. Nothing can come at me from behind. Which is a blessing because it’s well-known in the land of dreams that evil and danger and all manner of depravity approach from behind. So, unless the rock is evil or danger or some class of depravity itself, I’m fairly safe, if only from that one direction. And, as with many dreams, the physical position of the protective rock seems to be quite fluid as I can see clearly in whichever direction I choose to look. And the rock affords no shelter from the elements, either. It’s only there to cover my back, no matter which way my back is facing. Sometimes, of course, I hear a noise behind me and I try to turn around at great speed but I find all movement reduced to the torturous slow rotation of a heavy wheel geared against huge resistance and when I do manage to complete the turn, the rock has gone from its position to still be at my back, and I’m faced with the stinking breath of a monster boar. But this has only ever happened once, at the end of the dream, when the dream was effectively over and I was about to return to the safer and colder life to be found when I climb off the merry-go-round-horse-dream back into my teenage bed.
Usually, when there’s noise in the middle of the dream it comes from the birds. What I know about birds can be written on a teardrop with a large brush. Nothing. Oh, I know the difference between a seagull and those irritatingly noisy brown birds with yellow legs and matching eyeliner, but I don’t know their names. I don’t know what kind of birds they are. On the banks of the Russell River, though, there are flocks of birds I’ve never seen before. Some have bright orange feathers and others have neon green feathers and others have multi-coloured feathers as though they couldn’t decide what to put on that morning so they wore everything they had to fly over a drumbeat river through the rain with only a single teen-aged girl to see them. They fly in flocks of tens or they fly in flocks of hundreds depending on what they’re wearing and they skim across the punctured surface of the water in slashes and swoops or they pass far overhead like reversed-out stars against a negative of the sky from an old-fashioned camera that used film in the days before digital had been invented. Sometimes I think about the rifle in my hand and then the birds flying high overhead look like winged buckshot fired wide of every target in the stratosphere of my imagination. I never consider shooting at the birds because I know I would never hit one and, anyway, shooting birds is not what I’m here to do.
If I was awake in my life in the way that I’m awake in my dream, I’d wonder how I got here to the banks of an obscure river near an unknown place with an unusual name in a state I’ve never visited. Maybe I would wonder if I’d driven all the way from Melbourne. But then I would have to wonder about how I could have driven all that way when I don’t have a car and, anyway, I’m only fifteen years old and don’t know how to drive. Something would tell me intuitively that I couldn’t have arrived by train because where I’m standing beside the Russell River is as far from a train track as you can get, unless you live in the middle of the Simpson. Or the Nullabor, I suppose. But I don’t question these things in my dream. In dreams there are more important things to wonder about than how you get places. Maybe I’d know that I rode the merry-go-round horse all the way from the second bedroom at the back of a two-bed fibro in Coolaroo to the untamed rural outback of Far North Queensland three thousand kilometres away. Maybe that was why the merry-go-round horse was wild-eyed. Maybe he never wanted to travel that far by yo-yo-ing in a circle all night in mid-November. In dreams, how you get there is immaterial.
In one of the dreams – or in one version, one iteration of the dream – I saw a number of pigs on the far side of the river. The river was thirty metres across, give or take, busily ferrying its underwater fish secrets downstream, the parental rock was at my back and between me and the opposite bank the air was being carved into abstract rainshapes by a choreography of green-clad birds with scimitar wings. Suddenly, beyond the birds’ arabesques and beyond the gauze of rain, a malevolence of feral pigs materialised from the brush. Four of them. Five. The more I looked, the more there were, as though my looking created them. Eyes like pinpoints of blind lust locked onto my own fearful gaze. Snouts raised against my upwind scent, raised hard and certain against my presence, quivering with excitement at the prospect of warm flesh. Bristles matted at the mouth with dribble-oozed muck from rooting in the wet ground. Six of them. Seven. Lined up like suspects in a TV ID parade, contemptuous and silent. They were huge, the sinister size of hopelessness, and as powerful as privilege in their environmental domination, and they stared unseeing at where they scented my fear.
My fear grew outwards from some lost part of me, an internal part of sensitivity and promise that I could feel withering like the fast-motion rotting of figs on the tree before the sharp scrutiny of these filthily destructive animals. I watched as the largest, foulest of the group tossed its head like a magistrate, grunted a low sound from the back of its throat in phlegm-clearing derision and scraped a hard-toed hoof across the ground. This was what I was here for. This was the culmination of my fifteen-year life up until that point and it was as though I would achieve the very purpose of my existence if I could destroy just one of the stinking creatures. My hands trembled like the leaves above my head as I raised the rifle under the poncho, and sweat greased my fingers where they fumbled at the bolt. The rifle caught in the fabric of the poncho and the soft sound of entanglement carried across the water to the keen ears of the pigs. They started to mill about on the far side of the river, their grunting rising in volume as they debated their next move. I shifted the poncho away from the barrel of the rifle and I raised the rifle to my shoulder as I slid the bolt forward. The pigs stared blindly and sniffed collectively, although I knew they couldn’t smell a weapon. I aimed the rifle at the largest pig as my trigger finger slid over the surface of metal, oiled by sweat and anticipation and fear. The group of pigs half rushed the edge of the water, their pointed hooves dancing porcine ballet steps in the grass. My finger tightened on the trigger as I held the lead pig in my sights. The lead pig had stopped at the edge of the water and it grunted at the water as though to make the water go away but the only place the water was going was downstream where it was taking the underwater fish secrets to a safer place than here at the final pig showdown on the banks of the Russell River near Bartle Frere in Far North Queensland. The lead pig looked confused at the water’s refusal to disappear and it grunted its confusion to the other pigs. Any sympathy the other pigs had for the lead pig was lost in the translation of communal grunts amongst the group and they all just milled about and scratched the ground with horny toenail hooves whingeing to each other in phlegmy grunts at the back of hoary throats. My finger squeezed the trigger slowly as I held my breath on the out cycle to steady my aim as the rifle barrel held steady against the sighting of the lead pig. The lead pig grunted something to the nearest other pig and the nearest other pig either didn’t find it funny or didn’t think it worthy of a reply because it grunted nothing in response. A response would have been too late. My trigger finger passed the point of release and the firing pin shot forward and… click. No percussive explosion. No bullet speeding across the waters of the Russell River. No dead pig. An unloaded rifle is no more than a poor walking stick held horizontally. I raised my head from where it had been sighting an impotent rifle on a never-in-danger target and I saw that the pigs were gone. All seven of them. Six. Or five. Four.
All emotion spent. I pulled back the bolt and checked the chamber. Nothing. I leaned against daddy rock to catch my breath.
A noise behind me.
I try to turn around at great speed but I find all movement reduced to the torturous slow rotation of a heavy wheel geared against huge resistance and when I do manage to complete the turn, the rock has gone and I’m faced with the stinking breath of a monster boar… the stinking breath fills my nostrils with the stench of defeat and my heart beats its last tattoo like a thousand rifles firing at a thousand missed pigs in five seconds and my legs tremble as the boar rushes forward, its tusks at just the right angle to enter some internal part of me, a part of sensitivity and promise that will never be realised…
In Coolaroo I wake up to a mid-November schoolday morning with no merry-go-round horse anywhere to be seen and I wonder if there is such a place as Bartle Frere and I wonder if there is a Russell River that carries underwater fish secrets downstream to a safer place. One day, maybe, I’ll leave Melbourne and I’ll go and see for myself. Until then, there are feral pigs waiting for me wherever I am.
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