Blood and the Waterbaby



I swallowed hard, looking into the upturned eyes of our three young daughters, and strapped them into their life jackets. Maybe Chris is right. Children must learn to be adventurous, not to be Nervous Nellies. On school holidays we’ve braved the Upper Murray River and Port Phillip Bay together, haven’t we?

‘Come along, girls,’ said Chris, my husband. I ushered Anna, our middle child, into the bow of my canoe. Of course, they’re wary of boats—not of water—I’ve seen to that. No, on our most recent adventure on the Hume Weir, a submerged branch catapulted, barely missed them, and gave their father concussion. Once more, I braced myself. Nobody could say THAT was his fault.

*

When I crossed the vast Pacific Ocean, to this desert continent, I didn't anticipate terrifying encounters with water. Floods, rips and river surges are rare in Europe. If I did think of Australia, I thought of beaches — never of water, or boating.

*

That golden morning, our small convoy slid through the rippling waters of the Upper Murray, under a canopy of towering eucalyptus trees and willows. The cattle grazing the other side of the barbed wire fence raised their heads and lowed. Ah, tranquility, barely a breeze. Mesmerised by the lap-lap of the paddles, I surrendered to the rhythm of the stroke, until the boat gave a jolt, then veered suddenly. With each bend of the river, it bounced with increasing violence.

‘It didn’t seem this fast when we started,’ I cast a glance over my shoulder at the other boat. Chris said nothing. Maybe he hadn’t heard. He’d tell me if there was a problem. Or would he?

The canoe continued to lurch, twist and turn with each new approach to the bank. It’s stable, sturdy, reliable, the rental person had said. No worries on that patch of river.

‘Don’t you think the river’s picking up speed?’ Significantly. Chris didn’t answer. The canoe bumped against the rocks again, spraying water into the canoe. Little Anna gave a squeak. ‘It’s alright darling. Just keep paddling.’

‘Right. Paddle right,’ called the captain.

Dammit. Does he have to be so dominating?

‘Keep right. (Pause) Paddle harder to the right!’ Anna and I obeyed. We paddled -- hard.

‘Down. Lie down flat on your BACKS. NOW.’ Chris spoke in a low flat tone. ‘Anna, lie down...NOW.’

Several hard thumps followed, as the canoe swung around. In silence, I eased the child into the space between my knees. A kaleidoscope of greens, blues and yellows circled above me; trees, leaves and branches merged. Total immersion? I gripped Anna with my legs, but she was dry. The motion of the canoe slowed, and it glided along the bank. Not a sound, not a voice could be heard, until I sensed a small body trembling. I pulled myself up and looked down to see Anna’s little blonde head, streaked with red. She whimpered as I tried to rinse off the streaming blood and examine her face.

‘She’s cut her…’ Oh Good God, her eye? her mouth? ‘Uh…she has a gash in her cheek. How did that happen?’

‘Uh, barbed wire. You were headed straight for it.’ Chris reached across, his hand trembling and washed the spurting blood from Anna’s cheek.

‘Hmmm…press this wet cloth against your face, Anna,’ his brow creased.

Back in the car, Chris turned off the radio and revved the motor. He had swaddled the shivering child in an old blanket on the back seat; I held the blood-sodden cloth against her cheek.

‘Should we call a doctor? An ambulance?’

‘We can call from the hotel.’ The vehicle sped along the corrugated gravel road, stirring up the dust and obscuring the mountains.

The hotel proprietor raised her eyebrows as Chris carried Anna in. She lay in his arms, trembling, her eyes glazed over. ‘There, there, love. You’ll be right.’ The woman sat them down, then leaned over to inspect the wound. ‘Lucky for you, I’m a trained nurse.’ She began applying Betadine and butterfly strips to the slice across Anna’s cheek. ‘This is a nasty gash?’ She tut-tutted under her breath.

‘It…’ I said.

Chris coughed, stroking Anna’s hair.

‘Barbed wire, by the looks of it…lucky it only caught her on the cheek.’ The woman drew back slightly, casting us both a scathing glance. I clenched my fists. Whose damn idea was it…to go out with three kids on that river? ‘There you go, little one,’ she gave Anna a lolly. ‘You’ll be right. Now you make sure Mummy and Daddy take you to see a doctor.’

I wanted to punch Chris. What-a-a-t? He’s always on about making the kids resilient. What the hell was I thinking? – after those other episodes.

‘Who rented you those canoes, anyway? Didn’t they tell you about the record flooding? The fence posts under water?’

*

I recalled my prickle at the sight of Chris’ ashen face. When the river came for his family, it came with no warning. Something caught his eye; it glinted below the surging foam. In a split second, he shot a glance upwards. The barbed wire jutted out just above surface level, stretching taut to a tilted fence post on the bank.

'Down. Lie down flat. On your BACKS. NOW,’ he’d said, holding in his fear; tamping the flame of chaos.

*

Now that the children were safe on dry land, Chris stood in the hotel office, his shoulders heaving, and pulled the girls close to him.

‘Yep…I’d get her a tetanus shot,’ the woman looked him over. ‘You did well to get out so lightly. As for that bloke in the shop, I’ll give him a bloody earful. He’s a local…should’ve known better.’

That Easter afternoon, I gave up thanks to the water gods and for Chris’ presence of mind, his courage, and the example he showed his young daughters. And from now on, he can show his love in other ways. They won’t be going on any more boats with that captain.


COPYRIGHT – Magz Morgan 2021

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