New Writing

The River Boys

Saraid Taylor

“There was a man, once, who died in a song.”

* * *

He smells the river before he sees it. The scent is soft, seasonal, earthy. A dagger of sunlight skims the water as he pushes through the undergrowth. Branches scratch at his arms, tug at his shirt. The curls are heavy down the back of his neck; he runs a hand through them and pushes them off his forehead. There are burning spots of colour behind his eyelids. He can taste the eucalypt.

Walking the bank feels like memories. The mud oozes under the pads of his feet. Sharp rocks wedge into the crevices of his toes. He spreads his towel drunkenly over a patch of sunlight, his heart moving through his body in pounding waves. In his ears. Behind his kneecaps. It pulses in his fingertips. In the inside of his cheek. It is something like fear. He throws the empty bottle and it winces against a gumtree. He remembers.

* * *

A man floats down the river on his back.

The boy watches him from the riverbank. Small body sweating. Forehead and cheeks burnt. His feet have been scorched by the walk on sun-baked mud. He dips them gingerly into the water. The first seven centimetres are warm. Below that, breathy, tingling, cold. Spindly cracks run through the ground like stripes of lightening, or jagged scars on the forearm. He splashes them and watches as they soften into a sludge; the edges crumble and are swallowed into the river.

The day is burdened with humidity. Time is heavy. His nostrils are filled with the smell of heated mud, and algae. Wind flames its tongue against his naked chest.

The water is a kaleidoscopic swirl of colour: brown at the edges, tinged with a greyed yellow; moss green blurring into a soupy blue of the sky. From where he stands, the boy can see the man’s brown face, the stubble along his jaw. His gravel-grey eyes are open. He blinks droplets from the lashes, slowly, staring upwards. Curls swirl around his head in an aura of brown. He closes his eyes and starts to sing something sad. The song is familiar. The memory cracks open like an egg. Shards of it spit outward in a rivulet. The boy falls into one.

* * *

That same brown face, but bloated, along the jawline, in the cheeks. The same grey eyes, but sightless. Lips tinged blue. The smell of the river. The sun, burning a hellish yellow. “His old man was a talent,” someone says sadly.

Hands grab at him. Dry, calloused. His chin is grasped firmly and he is forced to look up.

“Drink kills talent,” his mother whispers. “Do not ever drink.” The memory splinters.

* * *

There is something haunting within the melody of the wind. Its fingers trail through the trees and across the water, breathing of loss. It sings with the skittering of birds’ wings; the swish of stiff leaves spiralling to the soil. It sounds like a sad song.

That was what his music sounded like: the wind, the river; whined like mourning, like the lullaby of the trees, like humanity’s fallible condition.

* * *

Fizzle. A new memory. The landscape sharpens. The backs of his childish legs; inflamed, throbbing mosquito bites. His lips are cracked with the dehydration of summer. His hair is matted. The curls cling together from the river water, his sweat, the mud, the sunshine. There are fish in the river but he never sees them. They dash deeper as soon as the kids come splashing. Hot, beating sunlight: the pulse of a heart. A sky lowered with dense heat. The inconsistency of memory, fluid like that of the water, or the mud. A kookaburra howls derisively from a gumtree.

* * *

There is a contradiction that splits apart existence into two separate, two irrevocably connected, compartments. A fusion of living and death. A simultaneous saviour and killer.

Like a man on a shipwreck, who takes the life raft, choosing one unknown over another. It has saved him, he thinks. And then come days floating alone on the ocean: stomach cramping with starvation; parched throat, mouth, lips; raw and chapped skin; the raft only a delayed death sentence.

He escaped from the world into the music, just like the bottle. But the world infiltrated. And it killed him, slowly.

* * *

There is poetry in this riverbank, his father says to him one day. He nods, as he swallows. The lemonade is cold and sticky in his throat. The aluminium can like a chunk of burning ice in his hand.

And he spent his entire life seeking the poetry. But maybe that was not what he was made for. Maybe he was only part of the riverbank, an extension for his father to sing about. Maybe he was destined to only ever be the story, and not the storyteller.

* * *

A man floats down the river. A moment in time. A timed moment. An infinite, brief, second, or day, or lifetime. The fall of the leaves. The cycles of the spinifex. The phases of the moon mirroring the turn of the currents. The influences of a man bleeding into the life of another. A destiny of tracking the same path; the connection twining through one generation to dictate the footfalls of the next. Somewhere within the riverbed, heritage and blood mix with fate like granules of sand and tiny shard of rock. Two men float down the river, twenty years apart, and every day in between.

* * *

Paradoxes. He chose to drink, even if he did not mean to drown. He drank too much knowing death might be a symptom.

Paradoxes. He wrote songs because the world hurt him. And he drank alcohol because those songs hurt him. Songs that only reflected the world back at him. Songs that were spawned from the slow decay of life—that gave him relief, to release their poisoning melodies from his bones; and made him suffer in understanding its agony.

Paradoxes swirl over him, through him, form him. He is wretched apart with paradoxes. He thought that never leaving the riverbank would make the nightmares stop. But they only manifested new ones.

The little boy swore never to touch alcohol. He spent his entire life running from it but ended up running into it. He hid from his father’s fate, only for him to find it.

* * *

Empty bottles on the riverbank, floating with him on the water, like a wreath of laurel. The man tries to stand, angles his arms back towards the bank. Kicks at the riverbed. The water is too deep. His head goes under. He bobs desperately to the surface, helpless like an apple. Incoherent garble; a call for help. An eternity of dying. A moment left of life. Crying; tears flowing from his eyes, down his face, into the water. His lungs fill with his own tears, and he drowns in them.

* * *

The riverbank breathes of loss, and its betrayal; renewal, germinating trust; the betrayal of trust all over again, in shifting cycles. The riverbank breeds memories, spinning into each other, uncontrollable, effervescent and bright. It is a nucleus of lifetimes, holding together the years. The brushing, crunching of brittle leaves. The murmur of insects. The mutter of the rain. The hiss of decay and regeneration. A pulsating epicentre of existence. Life swishes in the trees, through the trees, are the trees. Time floats into nothing, falls into everything. It folds in on itself; writhing, coiling, disintegrating.

The boy grows into a man and the riverbank stays the same.

* * *

Warm, muted conversation runs over him like bath water. He is seven years old again.

The radio crackles like roasting pig fat. “The man was in his late twenties, healthy and a strong swimmer.”

A neighbour and a shaking head. “By misfortune, he went in when the river was bulging with tide. The water grew violent. His attempts to reach the bank failed.” Accident.

“The alarm took a … long time in being raised to find the man.” Murder.

“No. He didn’t want to be found.” Suicide.

It killed him, all the voices say. They drip over him, into him.

The drink?


The river?

No. The music.

The music didn’t kill him, his mother spits. He killed himself. In every single way possible.

* * *

Empty bottles on the riverbank, floating with him on the water, like a wreath of laurel. His eyes bright, sparking like the water. He lets out a note, as he floats, a haunting trill, and it is swept away by the wind. He narrows his eyes at the sky. Nods slightly; a salute. A farewell. He places his head under the silky river water.

* * *

You know the story of that singer, who died young? Died with water in his mouth and his lyrics on his lips, they say. He drowned in his bottle. The liquor raged thicker in his veins than blood, you know. Almost as much as his songs.

* * *

They used to like floating on their backs. The three-year-old, like a corkscrew pinched by the current, learned to fall back into it; to trust the unsteady, untrustworthy water. He learned to like the feeling of nothingness.

He learned peeping after his father, as the man drifted backwards down the river.

* * *

There is a myth that there was once two men who drowned in music.

A father and son. Or, the son and his son. Or, the son’s grandson and his own grandson. The melody of death and destruction is melded into poetry and it flows through their bloodstream like the river’s wind in the trees. Poets by nature. Fitting they die within their own art.

* * *

The man was swallowed in the song. And the song was swallowed in the river.

In the end, both the man and the song were lost. And the boy tried to lose himself.

* * *

The man enters the water, unsteady but deliberate steps, wading into the current. He sinks into it, allows the cool embrace. The water wraps its tendrils around his ankles, around his chest, buoys his torso and fingertips. He stretches backwards, downwards, into it, like his father once showed him; extending his arms, popping the vertebrae in his spine. His brown body are only shades lighter than the muddy bank. The muscles in his shoulders ripple, glisten, sliding in and out of the current. A lucid droplet dangles from his earlobe as he lifts his head to look at the riverbank. The sky is cast over, knitted across with grey. His eyes are the tint of the clouds. His cheeks are flushed with alcohol. The man lets his head sink back into the water, into the mass of his hair. He is singing, but not his own song.

And he floats down the river on his back.