The August sky is china-blue, clear of clouds and sparkling. The rolling thunder is entirely peculiar. It is coming from inland, from The Rainmaker, a mist-wrapped mountain near Nimbin, and it is rolling across the landscape toward the river mouth at Ballina. Arthur hears the thunder but does not look up. He has been waiting for it.
His feet are deep sunk in the white river sand. The tide laps at his legs, setting a high tide mark. His fishing rod is lowered, wilted, almost touching the water. The intent has gone. The hook is bare, has been for some time, and of no particular interest to the cruising fish.
Three pelicans come from behind him sailing unexpectedly across his view, more impressive than steely flight. The air shivers through their feathers and he hears the sound clearly. His attention is taken at their appearance and he squints into the air and follows their heavy-chested glide up river. And then their eventual white blip disappearance.
He recalls a similar sound - the whooshing swoop of childhood kites.
"Half way to heaven!" he had sung as a boy in a field, attached by a fragile string to the sky. "Half way to heaven, indeed," he mumbles now in middle age as his life unwinds like a spilt spool of greying film.
Arthur is walking through the park in town. In breaks people are eating lunch in shady spots. A hippie is sprawled asleep without inhibition, whilst his brindled bitser dog lies against him placidly watching the passing parade. Laughing council gardeners offer odds on which of the two has the least fleas. Arthur sees Jess coming toward him along the crazy paved footpath.
"Long time, Jess. How's it going at Uni?" he calls and grins, and he enfolds her as he did when she was his painting student.
"It's good, Arthur. True."
She has a huge smile and Arthur is dazzled again. She is a little lanky, and slightly pushes her hips at him as she speaks. He smiles at this, and she notices his reaction. She has a sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks that almost blend into her coffee coloured skin. Her large brown eyes are sometimes bold, sometimes shy. She is an attractive Koori woman in her late twenties. Arthur is white, and forty-five.
There is a group of Kooris sitting in the shade of the yellow bamboo stand watching the encounter between Arthur and Jess. They are drinking cask wine from small plastic cups and talking quietly. A man in the group stands and makes a show of fastidiously tidying himself. He is dressed in a white business shirt and black slacks. He has no shoes. He half turns and speaks to the group, gesticulating with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder at Jess and Arthur. What he says provokes a burst of laughter. Then he turns and comes across the grass in an exaggerated shamble, taking the couple by surprise.
"G'day boss. Youse remember me, don't cha? Aub Wade, mate. Jess' 'usband."
Jess flares in surprise, "What you doin' Aub?" She throws his hand from her shoulder in disgust.
"What?" Aub shouts. "Can't a man talk to 'is mates now?"
He is seething hostility. Arthur steps a little from Jess. He knows this is an unhappy marriage - often violent, because Aub has take to the grog.
"It's all right, Jess," Arthur says rather lamely.
Aub grins now and drapes a mock friendly arm across Arthur's shoulder and pretends to whisper in his ear, but he is talking loudly, loud enough for everyone within earshot to hear. He asks for ten dollars.
"Juz ten bucks, mate. Lousy ten. What yer reckon, hey?"
"You got money off me just a minute ago, Aub," Jess yells at him. "He ain't drunk, Arthur. Not yet he ain't. He's just being a shit."
Aub realises the bizarre joke has run its course. Jess is livid. Aub strikes. Turning on her he says with venom, "'e don't want a cunt like youse." The spittle shoots from his mouth. "'e's got 'eaps of little white ones." And he waves his arms in the air in anger. He turns to Arthur again. "She's fuckin' stupid, mate. Thinks she's a big time painter. My arse! She's juz a fuckin' black cunt!"
An old, decomposing Koori woman screeches suddenly from the bamboo, "Git over 'ere youse fuckin' bitch. Git back to youse own pipple."
That stops the air in the park. The hippie wakes to the sound of his barking dog. It has sensed a fight. Heads have snapped at the lurid language. The wide-eyed children are called back to their mothers. They go reluctantly, fascinated by the unexpected theatre. Those seated nearest go quietly, unwilling to become involved.
"Black cunt!" The old woman continues, in a voice that carries surprisingly well. "Youse too good, are youse? Too fuckin' good for youse own pipple?" She ends her tirade with an emphatic, "Cunt!"
The group giggle, that is all except a youngish woman, who stands, clings to the bamboo in an effort to remain upright. She aims her face at her people, taking stock, as if surprised.
"Youse all a pack of bastards," she slurs, raising her eyebrows at them. Enquiring, do they understand? "Leave 'er alone, youse bastards. She's dun nothin' wrong."
She is pulled by the ankle and falls. Then hit across the face with an open hand. The slap smacks smartly round the park as she is told, "shut youse fuckin' face, bitch."
"Go!" Jess says to Arthur. When he hesitates, "Go!" she commands.
As Arthur follows her urgent direction he passes the group. The old woman calls to him, waves him to her, as if to share a piece of good news, a joke. She is smiling toothlessly at him.
"Hey! White fella. Hey! Big fella." Arthur's retreating back ignores her, so she screeches after him. "Don't come round 'ere looking for black pussy. She got here own black prick, yer know."
The group cracks up in raucous laughter.
It is a Sunday morning of interruptions. Arthur is painting in the studio down the back of the yard. Andy has called and invited him to lunch at Night Rain, and just when Arthur has got back into the work Jess comes walking across the grass to the studio. He feels flustered.
"G'day! How you doin', Arthur?" she calls from the door. She is smiling warmly at him.
She is in a loose pair of jeans without a belt, and a light pink blouse, and is barefoot. The way she dressed when she came for lessons. Arthur smells the morning freshness on her, and lets the heavy thought of work slide nimbly away.
"You okay, Jess? I was worried."
"Yeah. I'm sorry about that in the park. He's getting' bad Arthur. Not really 'is fault, but. It's just things. You know 'ow it is."
Jess takes the mug of coffee Arthur has made her and curls up in the cane chair across the room. He sees the pinkness of her sole. She sees his attention and wriggles her toes at him. They laugh with each other. She looks away - then around the cluttered studio, absently studying his littered work. She is quiet now, thinking things through. Arthur waits. Lights a cigarette and tosses the packet to her. But he comes over to light her cigarette. She smiles at him - a thank you. It is a smile that also says, "I'm not used to this! And I like it."
Jess begins to talk, but her eyes are averted from Arthur's. Directness does not always come easy for her, not with white people. It is a Koori trait.
"They made 'im drink, true, Arthur," she says quietly. "When 'e had that job. Put 'im on reception. Like a woman. A black face to tell the world they weren't racist. Aub 'as 'is HSC, Arthur, got a certificate from TAFE on running a small business, too. But that mob treated 'im like rubbish. Like they was doin' 'im a favour. 'e was their blackboy."
A willy wagtail suddenly swoops at a feeding magpie on the grass. Jess breaks from her story and laughs. She seems about to say something about the birds, but then instead returns to Aub.
"So 'e started goin' for a beer at lunch. Seein' some of the mob. Then 'e shot round at morning tea. It just took off from there."
She is silent again. Arthur waits patiently. He knows something of the story. He's heard the gossip. The things about himself and Jess, too.
"It's gettin' so I can't stand being 'ome no more. 'e's into me about everything. I can't do nothin' right.
"It's not you that worries him, Jess, you know that, don't you?" Arthur says.
"Yeah, but what can I do when 'e's belting me? 'e's got to do somethin' for 'imself. I can't do it for 'im. You just stop lovin' a person when things go this bad. You'll never know what it's like to be a nobody in your own 'ouse, never mind in your own friggin' country."
Jess is vigorously stubbing out the cigarette in the old saucer that's used as an ashtray. She sits forward in the chair, her elbows on her knees, and she holds her face in her hands.
Arthur is feeling both concern and an odd exhilaration. There is a tingle in his body and warmth in his groin. A little unsure of himself he walks over to Jess, touches her head. She doesn't move. He gently runs his fingers through her hair and places both hands beside her face, pulls her to him. Rests her head against himself. She allows his comfort, and begins to talk again.
"I just want to paint, Arthur. I'm nothin', been nothin', and I just want a chance at this. This thing I'm good at. I just want to be someone."
"Yes," Arthur says. "You've got that right, Jess."
"But they don't understand. Me people. They think I'm leavin' 'em, getting too big for me britches. It's stupid. I just don't want to end up like 'em. Buggered and drunk. I want something for my kids too, Arthur. You believe me - why can't they?"
Jess pushes Arthur away, gently, after patting his hands. He lets go, a little disappointed. He goes back across the room to his seat. His heart is beating like a boy's does before confessing a misdemeanour. He hears his words drop out, and the voice sounds odd to him. The words are dried on the way out of a parched and anxious throat.
"Andy rang. Invited me to lunch at Night Rain." Arthur says. He swallows and speaks again. "Why don't you come with me? Maybe we could draw."
Jess seems to be thinking of something else. She is twisting a lock of black hair in long fingers. She has bitten the nails down. Now she looks for the birds again.
"Cheeky buggers, ain't they," she says meaning the willy wagtails. She is grinning at Arthur. But for a long time she is hesitant at committing, thinking deeply of something. "Yeah, why not?" she eventually concedes.
They relax and Arthur feels a gladness in her that matches his own.
Out of town and on the Dunoon road a delightful fresh nor' easterly is blowing off the coast. Jess winds the back windows down and a breeze blows wildly about them. The road runs along a set of low hills, zigzagging north to the Nightcap Range. It turns off after a while and drops down into a tight system of small valleys before slowly rising again after The Channon.
"Hobbit country," Arthur says.
"Rainbow country," Jess replies.
It is quiet between them again. Arthur takes his eyes from the road and glances quickly at Jess. She is rubbing her thighs slowly, rhythmically, and looking apprehensively at the landscape. Tension radiates from her. Arthur sees a clearing just after a bridge and pulls the car to the side of the road.
"Oh, I don't know about this," Jess says. There is the slightest wisp of perspiration on her face. "I remember now," she says. "I've been worried right from the start about somethin'. I remember now."
"What is it, Jess?"
"This is men's country. This place 'ere. There's a Clever Man, you know, a tribal elder, a magician, buried round 'ere. "e was the lawmaker. Knew custom. I shouldn't be 'ere, Arthur."
It is too hard for him to say it, but Arthur knows he has to offer. His disappointment feels like a brick in his guts.
"We can go back, Jess. If you want."
Arthur cringes a little at the lack of commitment in his tone.
"They's sacred men's places, Arthur. I don't want to find meself in one of 'em."
They sit pensively gazing from the car into the bush. The strong midday smell of the lantana drifts to them, mingles with the smell of the hot engine. It pings quietly as it cools. Jess speaks again.
"You seen 'ow many dead crows are on the road? Lots of crows, not maggies. That ain't right, mate. You probably think it's a load of rot, but it's real to me, Arthur. True."
"No, I don't think it's rot, Jess. I don't pretend to understand, but we have our own myths and stuff," he replies uncomfortably.
"Crows means visitors," Jess says, "but those willy wagtails are trouble. That's what we believe."
"That's a shame Jess, I like the willys."
Well, not all you like is good for you. True, Arthur. Chase 'em off."
"We'd best go back then. I'll call Andy from the house."
"Ah! What the heck," Jess says, suddenly unwisely bold. "We come this far. Let's go, Arthur. Can't disappoint a man."
After lunch the three friends walk around the property. They are in high spirits, having polished off two bottles of wine. It's a warm afternoon, an hour or so before dusk, and the shadows are lengthening, beginning to snuggle in for the night under the bushes and trees.
Jess is ahead of the men and stops suddenly. She has her hands clasped above her eyes and is staring intently to the west, at The Rainmaker. The men catch up to her, and follow her gaze. They watch a vapid mist begin to wrap around the mountain. It is eerie.
They are standing on a sloping cliff face and a canopy of rainforest lies below them. They can hear a tinkling creek. Andy sees Arthur's interest.
"Go on down, mate," he says. "Check out the pool. It's beautiful. Beats the heck out of the Memorial Baths in town."
Jess and Arthur exchange looks. He is surprised to see the excitement in her eyes. It is the wine swinging through her blood. He is concerned for her, but only for a moment. She takes his hand and leads him to the track. After a few paces she pushes him to the front. He is to lead them.
They pass beyond the outer growth of bleeding hearts and finger thin white cedars. The ground is littered with fallen leaves, broken rotting, branches, and the base of languid vines that climb to the sunshine. Tangles of roots entwine across the ground like copulating worms moving turgidly in and out of the earth.
Deeper still they come to taller majestic trees, to strangler figs that achieve the top of the canopy by colonising, by embracing other trees. There is between the apparent chaos at ground level and the gently swinging tree tops a softly lit space. In this birds are silent, resting, and only weightless butterflies, their brilliant wings brushed by stippled light glide round the decorative vines and mottled trunks.
Walking stick palms no taller than a person appear to accompany the man and woman as they make their way. Dotted in clumps on the forest floor lichen covered rocks lie littered among small ferns like abandoned, bleached, skulls from an untidy massacre.
Then they come to the creek.
The shallow water purls over the smooth stones as it comes secretly from the scrub. Over ages the massive forces of flood has stripped the banks and gouged a pool whose depth is impossible to gage. It is not wide, but cuts along the cliff face for sixty metres or so. Bends a little out of sight.
Arthur and Jess climb down off the rocks to the water. Its sweet smell rises to them. Jess wanders off following the flight of orange dragonflies that dip and skim the mirror smooth surface, sometimes leaving the faintest ripple with their touch.
A bluish tinge hangs in the sunless air. There is no reflection from the pool but Arthur doesn't notice this. His skin is tingling. He eases himself onto a slippery rock and dangles his feet in the water. He is enchanted. He strips impulsively, sliding soundlessly into the water. The thoughtful penetration alerts him for a shivery moment. This he feels is God's tranquility.
He floats not conscious of his surroundings, of the bush noises and smells, and not conscious of himself any longer. His eyes set on nothing, stare past tatters of cirrus cloud stretched and shredded by icy winds from another country. It is timeless.
Later little splashes of water wash over his face making muffled noises in his ears. Jess is beside him. She too is naked and floating dreamily. Arthur swims to his starting point, pulls himself onto the rock. Standing and unhurried he lets the air dry him. He watches Jess swim to the rock and lithely emerge from the shadowless water. There is only the smell of the flowing, the hunger and an overpowering inevitability.
Just a few kilometres to the north the creek begins in a spouting, pristine cascade at Tuntable Falls. It ejects into the tight valley at Night Rain, then joins with Terania Creek. At this stage still clean, it gathers a momentum that pushes into wider, lush valleys, which lead home to Lismore.
The clearness goes, the water colours from seepage.
Beginning to die even as it grows, the creek joins the lazy Wilson River and meanders across the flat pasture at Gundurimba. It meets the Richmond at Coraki. Tidal, it flows through Ballina to journey's end, and empties languidly into the measureless Pacific.
The Rainmaker is hidden in sullen clouds, an alchemy of lightning bolts and crashing thunder. The dense cover of foliage on the slopes incessantly drips, trickles, then gathers and gushes down the muddy incline. At intervals spectacular rainbows appear, sometimes in doubles, their colour radiant against the pewter backdrop. The stunning glory is brief however, like the colour flash of tropical fish. Just as wondrously as they appear they vanish, insubstantial, dissolve into the murk. They return to the grumbling mountain.
Old Kooris nervously watch developments, quietly talk among themselves. They whisper of serious transgression, alert each other to offence against custom. Retribution must follow. It has been a long time, many years they say, since they've seen such signs. The young don't listen to the fairy stories. They laugh at the misgivings, the silly whispering. It's raining, that's all! It is said with a hint of nervousness, however. But the old people know the signs. The water is coming, is steadily coming out of the hills. They can hear the roaring, just like singing from far off, but getting clearer.
Jess has been in Arthur's house for a week. The rain has been relentless and a flood is coming. Cyclone Dido has bashed into the southern Queensland coast. Storms of fury have driven well into rainbow country. The levee to the west has collapsed and water is swirling into the town.
Under cover of nightfall it has been easy for Aub to move around the outside of the high set house. He has tried the door of the studio and found it unlocked. He watches the house blankly from the emptiness of the cleaned out studio. He is waiting. He longs to smoke.
The rain is like the pounding of a high-pressure hose, the wind savage and whipping. The time has come for Aub to make a dash to the house and get beneath it.
"Fuckin' jungle!" he swears as he runs through the garden. He finds the door that will let him in under the house and enters. A scraggy neighbourhood cat taking shelter malevolently stares at him. Aub spits at it, and it flees into the rain through the open door.
Aub waits, wetter, colder and angrier. "You'll pay, youse bitch!" he says.
Shortly Aub hears footfalls above him on the wooden floor. It sounds like Arthur making his way to the back door, to the steps that lead down to where Aub hides. A moment or two later Arthur does come into the darkness, carefully making his way to the car. Aub realises Arthur is moving it before the flood sweeps beneath the house.
This is what Aub has waited for. He watches the lights back away into the rain then swing off into the gloom.
Aub hears Jess's softer steps go to a side bedroom. He sprints around the house and sees the light above in the window. With a foot on the near fence and one on the house he brings his face level with the window and sees Jess begin to undress. He raps sharply on the window.
"Jess! Jesss!" he hisses. "Jessss, you cunt!" he calls.
Jess springs to the window. She makes sure it is locked, but can see Aub's dark,rain-soaked face distorted through the runny glass.
"Get out of 'ere," she screams. "Piss off! Don't make trouble round 'ere, Aub, or I'll call the cops."
"You come out, or I'm coming in," he threatens, spitting his mouth empty.
"What you want? You're mad."
"Juz come down the fuckin' back. To that shed. We gotta talk, Jess."
Jess is afraid Arthur will come back and discover once again this family of hers fighting like alley cats. She knows white people do it too, but they are not condemned as Kooris are, not likened to animals. She doesn't want this trouble, and she is trembling.
"If you ain't there in a minute, cunt, I'll smash every window in the fuckin' house. Youse understand me?"
Jess hears Aub drop off the fence. She knows he will carry out this threat and the thought of all the windows smashed panics her. She will have to go outside. She dresses again and stumbles through the kitchen to the back door. Then on a second thought returns to the kitchen and selects a carving knife from the drawer. Arthur's little dog watches in silent disapproval.
Jess can see Aub dancing in agitation from foot to foot in the unlit studio doorway. He steps inside when he sees her coming through the rain. She halts a short distance from the door. It is hard to see with the rain in her eyes. Her heart is pounding so. It hurts.
"Git in 'ere," Aub says brusquely.
"You wanta talk, then talk. I'm not goin' in there."
Aub comes forward and Jess raises the knife, pointing it at him in warning.
"What you gotta say, you say. From there. But you fuckin' stay away from me, Aub. I swear I'll use this."
Aub sneers. She will do him no harm. She never has, never fought back. That amazes him actually. If she had he might not have gone on after the first time. Not given her those beltings. But she took it, and in a twisted way he was proud of her, of her courage.
"Don't make me laugh," he says dismissively. "Give it 'ere before I 'ave to 'urt youse gittin' it."
"What you want, Aub? Just say what you want." Jess screams her demand at him.
"Who you think you are? Who you think youse ordering round, cunt?"
Aub is just going to remove the weapon, take away the silly threat. Jess pulls back as he lunges and grips the blade firmly. By accident. He feels the run of it across his fingers, then the sting of the slicing. He sucks deeply, drawing in flecks of rain. He feels the warmth of his blood. The cut is to the bone.
Enraged he swings his undamaged fist at Jess and hears and feels it smack dully into the side of her wet face. She doesn't fall from the blow but plunges blindly forward with the knife. This time the blade slides into Aub's stomach, surprising him with the simplicity of it all. He catches hold of Jess's wrist and forces it, and the blade, from his belly, but in doing so he sends the action of the blade downwards. The slicing opens him up like a cut carcass on a hook in an abattoir.
Aub smashes his fist into Jess again, this time sending her sprawling onto her backside in the water. Stumbling after her and holding his belly he raises his foot and brings his heel to her face with force. Her head snaps back as she crumbles into unconsciousness.
On his knees Aub picks up the fallen knife and drives it repeatedly into Jess. He is grunting. Crying. He is wilful in his savagery. Jess is immaterial to him. There is only this pain, this hideous lump of animal screaming in his mangled soul. He snaps the blade clean off on the bone of her skull.
Weakness makes him stop, and he is confused, in disbelief. He shakes violently and vomits blood. His intestines seep from him into the cup of his hands. He stumbles back past the house and into the street. Makes it to the end of the block where he finally falls face down in the gutter.
The flood has burst into the town and Arthur is stranded three blocks away. He will have to wait until morning to make his way home. The waters, a swirling chocolate, sweep away what isn't secure, rolls bodies of cats and dogs, and many other things, to the boiling river, and then to the sea.
A cool August breeze skips off the inland, drives off the clouds. The river looks refreshed, holds a dimpled reflection to the sky. Seabirds scratch slashing white lines against the cerulean screen with their plummeting dives after fish. There are only a few boats moving, the trawlers long home from the hunt and nestled now at berths.
It is the first time Arthur has been to the river mouth since Jess disappeared. Some women sun soak on the sand and watch Arthur from a distance, but they are near enough to know he is talking about birds. They glance at one another, unsure whether to move away, or to giggle at what they hear. Arthur is saying crows mean visitors, willy wagtails trouble. They are nervous, and a little scornful too. Somehow they feel this man is betraying them with his outlandish behaviour.
In the air there is just the faintest distant thud of the surf restlessly kneading the beach, and over that like a melody the cry of gulls. Then the sound of thunder comes and engulfs all other sound, and gives a final resounding clap about them. It shatters in Arthur's head, splinters him as he expects, and the women dance like jinking rag dolls. In fear they turn their backs on The Rainmaker, on men's country.