This river, banked in forest, carries the fallen sky to the ocean. Where it runs was once a glacial melt, before the first people crossed a land bridge to the island, on land now sea, and made a thousand paths and smokes of their dreaming over a new land, long before the white man’s name; before mineral prospectors broke rainforest tracks; before mud from tin-dish panning and railway bridges built with London money to carry materials for mines and towns, taking copper, tin, gold and silver, all of those towns and camps now gone; before 30 million super feet of Huon pine was cut for timber and floated down-river; before a million tonnes of effluent from the Rosebery mine and mill flowed in grey, steaming silt, smelling of sulphur, into the river from the Stitt; before that stopped, and the banks cleared, hiding sludge; before the 200-metre-high Reece dam, and all the dams behind it, flooding valleys for hydroelectric lakes of the Pieman Power Development Scheme. Before you left.
Just now, downriver and distant from the Reece dam wall, tannin foam turns on torrents, as it always has after days of rain, and the river’s edge laps as if the turmoil beneath and all that is hidden upriver seeks your feet. You must step carefully on the soft ground of the flooded bank. Kneel to be close. With your sleeve rolled, reach to lift a smooth stone from the shallows. In fluid mechanics the molecules of water are known to be soft and round. Water runs lightly off your lifted arm and the light glides with it.
Throw the stone. Think of whirlpools of the drowned. A story once had it that this river was named for an escaped convict who ate his companions for want of food on the run. The stone lost in black water conjures a severed finger in a pocket, on the person of a corpse, bloated blue, and snagged on the bank, yet you have in mind now not a false story but a corpse ordinary and real, in another place, on an undertaker’s table in 1984, and your younger sisters, the dead man’s daughters, from distress at the wronged sight of death, holding on to you, their brother; repelled by the newly sutured cut up to his neck, a bloodless face collapsed and curly hair combed straight and parted in a way it never was in life. The man dead at 59 who once fished this river, and the Macintosh and Murchison that flowed into it now also dammed for power. The man who fished creeks through button grass that colour the river water, and who worked for the mine that pumped an overflow of grey silt into a creek and rivers.
Think now of all that seems hidden from you, where you stand on the riverbank, at this distance.
In pools cut off from the river flow, you found yabbies as a kid, with no memory then of knowing the false story of the river’s naming, nor that of the true, that it was named for an escaped convict and pastry cook, Thomas Kent, called the Pie Man, captured by the river mouth in 1822. It was on the Pieman as a boy that you wandered alone and into dusk, over ancient logs and great rounded stones, from one nameless waterfall to another, to return in darkness, guided by the water, as by the chatter of a friend. You skinny-dipped with another boy on a hot summer’s day, with water down to small pools still coke black, and even the radiance of sun on skin and heat in boulders at the base of the near vertical bank of loose stones, by the pump house, seemed all of one and bound up with the name. The pump house at Rosebery, with its humming substation and concrete silo to the river bed, for which the stones and earth were bulldozed down that bank, and inside which a man you knew would try to kill himself with a shotgun, was like a screaming creature later, sucking peace from the natural world.
The violence of stories can fall away as you leave them, like rain washed to the road verge by the tyres of a car, leaving sacred country underwater. The riverbank here is a long way from the compressed-air screams of underground machines of decades past. A long way from rock drills on a steel bench repaired by a man whose dreaming was his vegie patch and glass house, and a wooden dinghy part-built in the shed of a rented mining company house; a man suffering sciatica from standing on concrete to work, carrying ulcers from binge drinking as a kid in timber mills where he had lost two fingers and half a thumb to the saw blade—and in another form of silence, not even yet half-knowing what it meant to have blood that bound him to those first people.
Let the world pass in the sounds of the river. In air that smells of sassafras, take off your clothes and hang them over branches to stay dry. Walk into the cold water, holding a tree branch for balance as you find your feet on shifting stones. Walk until waist deep, and then drop—to be submerged—and quickly rise to gasp for breath from the shock of ice. This river is cold in all seasons, colder after the lakes upriver. You will feel an ache like a dull burn, something more than displacement as you let yourself go, to swim where the river is suddenly deep. For a moment you may no longer feel that wrench that you never understood, because it was so hard at the time of leaving to reconcile so many contradictory feelings. You may glimpse in this the unintended cruelty of being a child from another father, of not understanding the world, or your place in it, and to have turned your back in confusion. Your toes underwater will scrape at the edge of an object, a log or boulder, as they lift away, and as your head goes under.
And all is still underwater. All that is unclear is suspended in dark current. It half floats with the corpse of myth, merging with a corpse of memory you should never have seen. Stay on course; keep to the river and deep water. Let reason sleep. Let other people’s monsters be their own. Let that tangled fishing line of boyhood stay snarled. Leave the wallaby still living, to bound crashing into bush, because you had no heart to pull the trigger of a rifle when he said you should.
You wake from this in a shack with an unlined tin roof, where surf on the ocean beach across from the Pieman river mouth is like the echo inside a seashell of other distant times. You wake where mist at night has left the setting moon inside a dewdrop, clear on the frosted glass of a small jerry-built stained glass window above your head, and even in that, as in you, is the river. You have slept on a bunk with your back against a soft log of hessian, with blankets placed over you that smell of human grease and snake and the earth itself. You have in this a sense now of a self you could never quite grasp, a self as a son who never quite fitted, who was always cared for nonetheless, when the essence of your becoming, if there ever could be such a thing, was defined, you now realise, by an absence unnamed, always just out of camera. You are as indistinct now as that eight-year-old schoolboy in a class of waving children in a grainy film on YouTube from 1971 promoting the town of Rosebery to potential new workers with families; the boy whom you lost even before you left home after fighting with him, and a year or so before you left the town; a boy the age now of your son, your second child.
The man who placed a blanket over you may have done just that on one of those camping trips to fish and hunt, when you knew no other father, nor yet an absence, before your shied away from those trips in a slow diminishment and made him sad. And he was dead even before the Pieman River was dammed: dead from having begun a working life so young, this man you could never become and must always awkwardly fail and reject, but must keep in your heart, and he is up already, by the river and has a fire smoking with only the thin light of a vast sky to see by.
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