In the first years the island was all he knew. The bulrushes, Wonga, Aunt Dorrie called them, spearing from the marshy banks and the scent of the river, damp, dark, rich. Like Dorrie’s pudding—the one she made each Christmas.
Aunt Dorrie always let Quinn help. He would kneel on the red-gum stool and stir, then crack in five eggs, counting each one.
‘Never you mind, Quinn,’ she’d smile as yellow yolk trickled down the side of the cream china bowl. ‘Never mind what them others say, either. You aren’t weird, or strange. Not a bit. You are doing okay, lad.’
Quinn nodded. Of course he was okay. ‘Freak.’ ‘Aspey.’ He wasn’t sure what the words meant, and he always felt okay, here, on the island, with Aunt Dorrie. The island was formed by run-off creeks as the Murray River wended its slow, powerful course through the Barmah Forest. It was much smaller than Barmah Island, and didn’t seem to have a name of its own. Quinn always called it Wonga, because he loved the bulrushes waving, like brown, barbequed sausages on sticks, at water’s edge.
Dad had built Aunt Dorrie’s shack out of red-gum slabs from the mill. Dad and Dan, Quinn’s older brother, worked weekdays at the saw-mill, so it was easy for Dad to get wood. Salvage, he called it. The roof and lean-to kitchen were made of corrugated iron, now fuzzed with orange-brown rust, making it hard to tell where the wood ended and the iron began.
Just across the creek, a little way along the bank, was Dad’s house. It was part of a small cluster of timber workers huts. Nothing too flash, but it had a verandah, where Rex, the red kelpie sprawled on hot afternoons, pink tongue lolling. On weekends, once he was five, Quinn stayed with Dad, Dan and Josh, who went to something called the ‘tech’, in town. Josh was fifteen and seemed almost grown-up to Quinn, now just nine.
‘Back to your family,’ Dad always said, as he came to help Quinn across the creek. Sometimes he rowed the punt, if the water was running high and fast. But Quinn didn’t feel like it was his family. His brothers always stared at him, funny-like.
‘Why’d you always do that, Quinn? You’re counting again.’
‘Sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy!’ Quinn crowed. He shrugged. He liked counting. Numbers soothed him. They were predictable, unchanging. Once he reached one hundred he would count backwards. Sometimes he would make it five hundred, or a thousand, in his high, sing-song voice. Quinn couldn’t help it. The numbers were there, waiting.
When Dan or Josh stared too hard, or for too long, Quinn would slink off to the front room. Sit, rocking to and fro, before the small television set, and gaze at the blank, grey screen. Until someone, usually Dad, would put on a movie.
If he was lucky, there would be sub-titles too. That way he could make sense of what he was watching. Quinn loved words, as much as he loved numbers. Words told him things. They stayed there, right before his eyes, helping him understand. Quinn didn’t much like talking to people. Their faces changing, lips moving. Smiling. Angry. He couldn’t tell which. Sometimes, when Dan smiled, it didn’t mean he was happy.
Quinn discovered that, down at the cowshed, one morning. The jersey house cow had flicked her tail into Quinn’s eyes, while he was milking. Dan was leaning over, ‘supervising’, he said. Quinn flinched, his left foot shot out, tipping the galvanised bucket. The creamy foam of milk melted into thirsty red earth, turning it into a furrow of milky mud. He stood, watching the milk disappear and started to laugh. Dan smiled too, a crooked sort of smile then, swift as a striking snake, slapped him right across the mouth.
‘Stupid!’ he spat. ‘Idiot! That’s our milk for today, gone, dumb ass!’
Quinn froze. Wished he was back on the island, with Aunt Dorrie. Home, safe, lying down amid the tall river grass, cool, damp. Just himself, the moorhens and ducks.
He had lived on the island since he was two. That was when Mum died and Dad said he must stay with Aunt Dorrie. A red-gum branch had plummeted down, one hot, still afternoon, Aunt Dorrie told him later. Mum had been waiting for Dad to finish his shift, when it felled her. Quinn had been playing on the river bank nearby, when the great branch silently dropped—he escaped without a scratch. He tried to remember Mum, imagine the branch falling, but could not.
Aunt Dorrie was really Dad’s Aunt. She was small, with bird-bright eyes, beneath a frizz of springy, grey curls. She smelt of cigarettes and her cough rattled like pebbles in a rusty can. She became both mother and teacher and taught him colours, days of the week and sums. Quinn thought sums a strange word. Numbers were neat. They fitted together in all sorts of ways. Adding, taking away, dividing, multiplying. Making patterns. Aunt Dorrie taught him to read too. Although she said he really taught himself at barely four. Writing was hard. The pencil so round and smooth to grasp. Slipping between his fingers when he tried to copy letters. Better just to see them in his mind, no pencil in between.
‘You’ll need to write your letters for school, Quinn,’ said Aunt Dorrie. She bought many books of letters and numbers to copy and trace. Only when he had copied ten pages was he free to explore the island.
Each day brought new things to discover. He saw where the black snake slithered, down to the water, its trail of flattened grass wearing thin into sand. The snake’s hole was close to the black duck’s nest. He knew that one day the snake would take those oval, greenish eggs. One by one. Sliding in, flickering its dark, two-pronged tongue, sensing, smelling. That’s if the fox didn’t get them first. It came across on nights when the creek was low. Tip-toeing over the exposed dead branches and smooth river stones. The black ducks would rustle uneasily in their nests and mother would dart out, head ducking, wings outstretched.
He watched, hidden in the reeds. Silent as stone.
‘Quinn, lad. Tea time.’ Aunt Dorrie’s voice carried, through the silent dusk and the fox would slink away.
The golden glow of the hurricane lamp welcomed him back. Aunt Dorrie always rustled up a decent dinner on the black, one-fire stove. Fish, rabbit, maybe chicken or lamb, if Dad dropped by. Quinn’s favourite was crisp Murray perch with spuds and onions, fried in the cast-iron pan. Home-grown potatoes from Aunt Dorrie’s kitchen garden. She grew silver beet, spring-onions and sweet, red tomatoes, in summer. Quinn helped rake the river-rich garden soil, and heard Aunt Dorrie’s crackling cough as she worked beside him.
After dinner he helped clean up, and poured soapy water from the washing-up dish over the thirsty garden. Later he’d read to Aunt Dorrie, or curl up with a book by the stove, in winter. Sometimes they played Chinese checkers, or draughts, if she was not too tired.
Aunt Dorrie had a squat, brown mantle clock. It meant bedtime when she rose from her armchair and fetched the brass key to wind it.
‘Nine o’clock, Quinn. Time we turned in.’
He brushed his teeth outside and dabbed his face in the night-cold water of the enamel bowl. Then he climbed into bed, one of two Dad had made, each with a striped, lumpy mattress and soft quilts, hand stitched by Aunt Dorrie. The moon shone lucent through the window of the small bedroom they shared. Skimming Quinn’s chalk-white, cropped hair, brushing Dorrie’s wiry, grey curls.
She would rise first and set the stove, put the black kettle on to boil, its snake-spout hissing steam when ready. Quinn would wake to the smell of frying eggs and fresh bread if Aunt Dorrie had baked a loaf over-night.
Then, one morning, Quinn woke to silence. The shack was chilly for the fire was out. The black kettle was quiet and cold. No eggs sizzled in the pan. He looked at Aunt Dorrie’s bed. The covers were bunched up and the sheet still sleep-wrinkled. Empty.
Quinn stood at the door and cupped his hands, called, ‘Cooee! Coooeee!’ His cry resounded through the forest, making ducks flap, galahs screech. He listened for Aunt Dorrie’s answering call. There was only the hollow echo of his cry.
He dressed quickly, splashed his face in the outside bowl, combed his hair in the cracked mirror, as Aunt Dorrie always said he must. He would search the creek fishing spots first. The traps beside the bulrushes and the one beneath the big red gum, where they often tied a net by the yabby hole. Sometimes they found a couple of smooth, blue-green yabbies netted for breakfast. Aunt Dorrie had shown him how to check beneath their flat tails first, for eggs. This morning the net was empty.
Quinn turned and trotted along the track to the river-side of the island.
‘Cooee! Coooeee!’ his voice quavered as he ran, eyes scanning the red gum forest and reedy scrub—she had to be close by. The track narrowed as it snaked down to the river, to the spot where Aunt Dorrie often set a couple of lines. Something wasn’t right, a dark shadow, splayed in the mud. Stick-arms stretched forward, as if to grasp…of course, it was a snag, a sodden, submerged branch. Closer, look closer. Then he saw her—by the fish traps. She was face down at the water’s edge checking for fish.
Quinn knelt to see what she was looking at. Her eyes, wide open, gazed into the water. He grasped Aunt Dorrie’s hand, so cool and limp. ‘Aunt Dorrie,’ he breathed, tugged at her head, which flopped sideways as he tried to lift her above the water. ‘Aunt Dorrie,’ he whimpered as the river sucked and lapped at her dress.
He released his grip; she slipped, squelched back into the mud. As if she belonged there.
Quinn sank back onto his heels, heart throbbing inside his thin chest, knees trembling.
He crouched, hands clasped around knees, as the early morning sun rose in the sky. All was quiet, but for the rasp of his breath. Gradually the sounds of the water birds roused him. The soft peeps of dab-chicks, quacks of ducks, screech of white cockies in the red gums. Quinn’s legs cramped when he tried to stand. He moved numbly, puppet-like to the water’s edge. Everything would be all right—if he could just get her out of the water.
Quinn stooped, grasped the bundle of water-soaked clothes and began to drag Aunt Dorrie from the muddy shallows. She was heavy, water-laden—her thin, twig arms trailed behind. Her hair was already stiffening with mud. He tugged, bracing bare feet in the slippery reeds, slithering as he inched her out. He gasped, sobbing, sucking in air. Stared at the sodden, stick-bundle on the bank.
Aunt Dorrie…surely she would speak…any second now. Her hair snagged on the flattened reeds, free of the water. Her head tilted sideways, mouth open as if to speak. Instead a gurgle of milky, mud-water trickled from the corner of her slack lips. Her eyes squinted, lids purpled, swollen. A gleam of white beneath. The half-pupils staring—hard.
Quinn hunkered beside her on the mud bank, clasped his stomach, and rocked. Then he became still and silent. He crouched, all morning and through the hot sun-baked noon. He guarded her during the fierce, skin-searing heat of the afternoon. Quinn did not feel the sun, did not feel his legs spasm and stiffen. He began to count. He counted the ripples on the river as a late afternoon breeze sprang up, counted the puffs of seed from a split bulrush. The tiny brown seeds embedded in down, ready to spread and sow.
Flies gathered at the corner of Aunt Dorrie’s mouth, pulsing iridescent black, encrusting her eyes and nose. Quinn watched them. Noted their quivering busyness, but he could not connect them with Aunt Dorrie. Dusk settled, shroud-like, over the forest, mosquitoes whined and pierced his ankles and wrists, as he stared into the water.
‘Quinn—Dorrie!’ Someone was calling their names over and over. Dad’s voice, then Dan’s. The earth shook beneath heavy work boots, reeds rustled as they pushed through scrub.
Strong arms gathered him up. Quinn’s legs stiff coiled beneath him, his voice stiff too, unable to speak. He heard Dad call to Dan, and they were jolted, him and Auntie Dorrie, carried through the scrub. Placed on the metal floor of the punt. Quinn looked straight at his aunt—he saw her mud-dried hair, her stiff, mud-streaked dress, and her still, blank face. A stranger’s face. It was not Aunt Dorrie at all.
Quinn shivered—he was cold, so very cold. His stomach heaved. He scrambled to the side of the punt and threw up. The spasms kept coming in waves, although his stomach was empty. Clouds of black spots blotted his eyes and he could no longer see Aunt Dorrie. Quinn slumped back, sucked into watery darkness.
He jerked awake as Dan carried him from the punt, staggered with him up the bank and reached the darkened verandah. He felt Dan kick the front door ajar and set him on the sagging red sofa beside Josh. Quinn tried to turn towards Josh, but the inky blots blurred together and he lay back, submerged beneath eddying blackness.
‘What’s up?’ Josh leant forward and turned off the television.
‘Aunt Dorrie.’ Dan shook his head, put his finger to his lips.
‘I gotta go help Dad. You’ll need to watch Quinn. Fix him supper when he feels up to it. Don’t reckon he’s eaten all day.’
Quinn curled, possum-like, on the couch. His thin body twitched as a growl of thunder came from the west. Then he lay motionless. So silent that Josh leaned across him.
‘You okay, Quinn. You breathin’ still?’
Quinn drew in a deep, shuddering breath and curled more tightly.
The storm was upon them quickly—white lightning lit the single-fronted weatherboard. Garish, neon-bright. Thunder rattled the galvanised roof, the metal bucked and dipped as if pelted by rocks. Lightning sizzled through the house, spotlighting the two brothers crouched on the sofa, before plunging the house into darkness. Josh groped for a torch and peered at his brother.
Quinn trembled with each roll of thunder, then became still. Comatose. His breath shallow, barely there. His pale eyelashes fanned, frozen against his face.
The front door gusted open as Dad and Dan stumbled in.
‘Aunt Dorrie?’ whispered Josh.
‘In the barn,’ Dad grunted. ‘Wrapped in blankets. She’ll be right enough ‘til morning.’
‘Dad, he’s freaking me out. I can’t even hear him breathe.’
‘Shock,’ said Dad. ‘He can’t deal with anything when he’s like this. Not Aunt Dorrie, not storms. Nothing. We’ll have to keep him warm and put him to bed.’
Dad lifted Quinn, as gently as his sinewy woodworkers arms were able, and carried him to the lower bunk. He stumbled as he set Quinn down.
‘Can’t see a bloody thing in here. Where’s the hurricane lamp?’
Thunder hunkered overhead, pounding the unpainted weatherboard, as lightning slashed at the stark, glass windows. Quinn quivered with each assault and Dad pulled the covers more closely over him.
‘I’ve got it, Dad,’ said Josh, as he set the hurricane on the table. He struck a match and the flame flickered, pallid at first, then brighter as the wick absorbed the kero.
‘What happened to Aunt Dorrie, Dad. I mean, why did she die?’ Josh leant forward, bony elbows resting on the pine kitchen table.
‘Heart attack, I think,’ grunted Dad. ‘She’s had trouble with her ticker, ever since I remember. Best we wait ’til the storm blows over, then see the Doc and Sergeant Mc Cawley, first thing tomorrow.’
‘She’ll need a proper funeral, I reckon,’ said Dan, stooped in the doorway—subdued, sock-footed.
‘You better see the Pastor, in the morning, Dan. He won’t remember us, but.’
Dan nodded, as he peered closely at Quinn. ‘He doing okay? Think I’ll sit beside him for a bit, in case he wakes.’ Dan pulled up a fraying wicker chair, and slumped beside Quinn’s bunk.
‘Think we could all do with a cuppa,’ said Dad as he rose and set the kettle on the woodstove. The room was silent, but for the hiss of the cast-iron kettle and the creak of the wicker chair as Dan kept watch over Quinn.
The funeral took place a week later. Chill showers spattered, pebble like, against the stained glass windows of the little wooden Baptist church. Dad and Dan stood in the front pew, squeezed into shiny navy suits and stiff collared shirts. Three of their workmates clumped behind them, just to show respect for the family. Old missus Learson and her friend Eadie Hemming sat across from Dad. They had known Aunt Dorrie since schooldays. They sang Amazing Grace and Onward Christian Soldiers, the only hymns Dad knew, in rough, earnest voices, while Mrs Brewster, the pastor’s wife, wheezed out the tunes on the ancient organ.
Quinn did not go to the funeral. He stayed home with Josh who spooned him tinned tomato soup served with hot, buttered toast. He opened his mouth, like a baby bird, as Josh brought each steaming spoonful to his lips. He did not know about the funeral, did not seem to understand that Aunt Dorrie was dead.
Quinn could not speak of the day he found her by the river. To say the words would make it real. He was not sure, now, if it had really happened. It was all mixed up in his mind.
He did not want to think about it anymore.