Weeping willows tickle the water in the breeze. Shadows dance on the river’s surface. Other shadows skulk below: darker shadows; moving shadows. Eels weave themselves between goose-pimpled legs. Flounder hide in the mud. I remember them: flat fish with dead eyes staring.
The Rumahanga River is alive with memories: gumboots and whitebait nets, summer swims and birthday parties. My grandfather stands waist deep and throws my friends into the air. They hit the water with squeals and splashes and eagerly beg him, “Again! Again!”
Mud, silt and cow poo squish beneath my feet. I curl my toes into the blanket of gooey warmth. It is nice and repulsive all at once. There is a bloated cow carcass rotting on the bank. The smell is putrid; only flies will go near it. The river has its own distinct scent; a unique elixir of stagnant, swampy, and fast-moving water smells.
Cows moo in the paddock and cars thunder over the bridge. Beneath the bridge the water is murky green, almost black in places where taniwha sleep. The cool water gives relief from the hot summer sun. It flirts with us and lures us into its depths. It stores our memories: our romance with the river; the first blush of new love; the fear, the excitement and inevitable heartbreak. The river remembers us as we remember it: the canoeing, the swimming, the paddling…
It even remembers the drowning.
Wading through murky river-water memories, I remember his gumboots. The memory is strangely vivid. It is possible it is a lie.
His gumboots are black but muddied brown. They end upper-calf where his jeans tuck in. He is tall and skinny; this I know for sure. Duplicitous memory fills in the gaps: the dark woollen jersey with the odd pulled weave; the short dark hair and serious expression. Sometimes I see him with acne. Sometimes I don’t.
He is eighteen and awkward, but not as awkward as me. I am eleven, self-conscious and weird around boys. I do not make eye-contact. I keep my expression serious, in defiance of my awkwardness and the heat that warms my cheeks. He stands in the driveway by the ute with two men beside him. His father? My father? They are shadows lingering on the margins of memory.
I know his parents well; they are close friends with my own. I have met his sisters too. They are pretty and confident and I want to look like them and be like them when I grow up. I have not met him until now. He is here to help on the farm. I do not remember his name.
The Rumahanga runs through many farms. It weaves its way between one family to the next, connecting us all. We cannot disentangle ourselves from the lives that share the river. This is part of the river’s beauty, and also, part of its tragedy.
My family’s favourite swimming place is a ten-minute drive to the outskirts of our farm: off a major highway; unlock the padlocked gate; follow the worn tyre marks; past the poplars; through the paddock; pull up near the muddy shoreline we pretend is a beach. We make-believe the hard black mud is really fine-grained sand.
Across from us the riverbank rises straight up. Vegetation juts out filtering the light and making patterns on the water. We aren’t allowed to swim too close; there are unnamed dangers that reside there. My brother and I think we have it figured out; the shadows hide the lairs of giant eels eager to devour us.
Further down our makeshift beach willow trees have weeping branches that paddle in the water. We stay away by choice. The bridge looms nearby and heavy traffic thunders across it. The water is almost black. Flounder make their homes in the mud beneath the trees. We don’t think they live alone. Sometimes the current teases us and brings us too close, and in maddened fear we swim back to our safe little beach where taniwha avoid the open sunlight, and weeping willows can’t wrap their tendrils around our limbs.
On the other side of the bridge the river is not our own. Kids from school live nearby and claim the river as theirs. No one ventures past the bridge.
I wasn’t there, but I remember.
Because I know the kids on the other side of the bridge; because I know the gumboot-boy who happened to be their cousin; because I know his sisters. I can see them swimming there together.
Because I know the river, and because I know the taniwha; because I know the shadows that flutter on the water’s surface, and spring from unknown depths; because I know the viscose feel of the water as it wraps itself around you, cooling and heavenly on sun-burnt skin; because I know all these things, I was somehow there.
Maybe I knew the river better than they did? The river was only safe on sunny days when everyone was smiling, laughing, having fun. The boy with the gumboots must not have known this. I think the river forgot.
The girls sat on the bank, sunbathing, drying off and chatting between themselves. They thought he was goofing off; it was a favourite joke: swim out near the bank of willows; splash around; pretend invisible hands are pulling you under; wave your arms; yell for help… and then…then…with a final gulp of air…sink. Sink down. Let them wonder….Swim beneath the willow branches and hidden from sight come up for air. When their voices rise in pitch you can show yourself and laugh…and laugh. You fooled them!
The girls – they mock him with his thrashing arms and weak attempts at calling for help. “Stop messing around,” one of them yells. I don’t need to be there to fill in the gaps of the story. I see them giggling, elbowing each other, and taking bets where among the willows he’ll resurface. In absolute vividness I recall this fabricated memory.
They scour the river deep into the night until the water is the same colour as the sky. The police are there with neighbours and local farmers. My dad is there with the boy’s father, in a small borrowed dingy with flashlights and grim down-turned mouths.
His parents came to visit us many years later; we had moved away to where the arms of the river could no longer reach us. Grief had permanently settled on their features, etching a map of their journey in the lines on their faces. His father’s eyes were dull, the colour of the depths where only taniwha reside. His mother’s eyes held the hope of a nostalgic summer sky; they blazed and burned with belief and prayer. She looked at me, peered deep, as if searching for some sort of affirmation. She asked me if I thought intuition preceded death. I had no answer; nothing to say.
“I think he knew,” she said. “Everyday when he got home he left his gumboots muddy and dirty, lying untidy on the doorstep. And everyday I told him off for it. It drove me crazy! Put them to the side and stand them up neatly, I would say. Yes, Mum, he’d say, and yet still he’d leave them lying there in everyone’s way.” With a gentle softening of her eyes she continued: “The day that he went swimming, and he rarely ever went swimming, he left them neat and tidy, standing upright against the wall.”