By Sofie Laguna
Edited by Sophie Cunningham
When I was choosing the setting for my novel, The Choke, I was interested in a rural area somewhere on the Murray River.
I knew nature was going to be important to my central character, ten-year-old Justine Lee. I learned that Barmah, just north of the border with NSW, and only 230 km’s from Melbourne, was near the biggest red gum forest in the world. I was intrigued as I looked at images of the red gums growing in the floodplains of the Barmah National Forest. I read about the Barmah Choke – a place in the Murray where the banks come closer, flooding at certain points in the year, contributing to the wetlands environment. I liked those words – Barmah and Choke and the way they sat together – the first so round, lifting at the final vowel, and the second so tight, hemmed in by biting consonants. The words seemed to contradict each other.
The first time I visited Barmah I chose to stay in a hotel in Echuca, about 30 km away. Echuca is a busy tourist town and I thought I might feel safer staying there. Echuca is an Aboriginal word for ‘Meeting of the Waters’; It sits at the junction between the Goulburn, Campaspe and Murray rivers and was once a thriving port town. When I arrived in Echuca I parked the car near the Echuca-Moama Bridge and walked across, stopping halfway to look at the Murray flowing below, wide and brown. Moama was in NSW and Echuca was in Victoria – the river was the boundary. In my novel The Choke my protagonist, Justine, is intrigued by this flowing boundary, by the persistent nature of water, and the trees that continue to grow in it.
The next day as I drove along the Sandridge Trail that ran from the Barmah Hotel to the river I saw emus from my car, pecking the dirt at the side of the road, lifting their knees high. I felt far away from my own family, and immersed in the world of my book. Every detail in nature seemed to feed into my story. I drove into the campsite on the widest part of the Murray and looked at the trees. I got out of the car and put my hands against their trunks, the bark to my cheek. I have always found trees a great comfort. As I walked along the edge of the river I thought about the characters in my story. I wondered what kind of future Justine might have, I pictured her face, her pale freckles, her hair like straw, the way she tried to hide her bucked teeth with her half-closed smile. I looked across the water at the thick reeds and saw her pushing her way through, pursued by her brothers. I imagined the siblings bursting from the reeds, laughing and diving into the water.
It was beautiful there by the Murray, but I felt ghosts too. I didn’t know if they belonged to the lives of my characters, or to the mystery of the river itself. I heard unsettling whispers of something I couldn’t name. The twisted bulging gums were silent, but seemed to be speaking.
If you are very still you can hear trees speaking. I have never tried to find words for it before – I only know if I am really still, and look at the branches, I can feel the trees speaking. They don’t care for us and they do care at the same time. They are impartial but at the same time they seem to bear witness. These red gums became so important to my central character – Justine builds shelters from their branches. She hides there, feeling safe and protected. But she also imagines figures trapped inside the trunks, pressing at the bark from the inside. Sometimes she imagines she is the tree itself, or the river, or a cockatoo. At critical moments, when the stresses in her life are overwhelming, she can choose.
Just over a year into the novel’s development I was invited to speak alongside Rosalie Hamm at Echuca Library for the 2016 International Women’s Day. I was pleased to be invited, and to have an opportunity to stay close to the Murray again. On March 7, a few days before my visit to the library, I heard the news that a woman in her 20s drowned her youngest son in the Murray River, in Moama. He was five years old. The woman had tried to drown her oldest son first, but he had escaped, after being mauled by a frantic dog. It was then that the mother attacked her youngest son. The news distressed me – I didn’t know how to think about, or how to let it go. I kept thinking of the boys, their experience of those moments.
Justine lived in Moama for a while, before her mother left. She has a single memory.
I only lived in one other place. Moama, when Mum and Dad were together. Dad had a barbecue against the wall, close to the window. He was drinking from a can of beer and waiting for the barbecue to get hot enough for the sausages. Suddenly the glass of the window behind the barbecue shattered. I watched as a spider’s web of cracks spread from the centre. Mum screamed. I ran towards her, scared of the glass. She kept screaming. She didn’t stop.
Dad said, ‘You fucken better.’
It wasn’t long after that she was gone.
When I arrived in Echuca, just a bridge away from Moama – on the afternoon of International Women’s Day there was no time to think about the crime – I was due to speak at the library. Rosalie spoke about her book, The Dressmaker, about the ways her country upbringing had made her strong and capable. She described the special relationship she shared with her childhood friend, Sue Maslin, who would go on to produce the film of The Dressmaker. Her talk was warm and engaging and positive. I spoke about how I came to write my novel The Eye of the Sheep, how like acting is writing, how joyful is the immersion into character either on stage, or on the pages of a book.
As we spoke I could see the paddleboats sailing down the Murray through the library windows, and the giant gums bearing their roots, waving their branches at me. But when the event was over I didn’t want to go to the river. I blocked my ears to the cockatoos that screeched and squawked. I turned from the river, sensing it held secrets I didn’t want to know.
Later, back in my hotel room in Echuca, I began to feel sad. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to the two boys – the brothers – only days before. I tried to contain my thoughts – what good would it do for me to try and re-live in my mind what had happened? It was as if the story in my book, my beautiful vulnerable protagonist was mixing with the story of the crime that had taken place, too horrible for words. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t calm my mind. I could hardly bear to think of the older boy who had lived, and what he would suffer. I worried about how he would make a life for himself, after losing his brother in this way. I knew he was in hospital in Melbourne. I ached for him, knowing it was not my business – or was it? I had no answers.
In my novel, The Eye of the Sheep, my protagonist, a young boy named Jimmy Flick, faces his own death in barrel of water. Jimmy’s foster brother, Liam, has his hand over Jimmy’s head, and is pushing him down.
I came up for air only to give him something to push against. Then I was under and I couldn’t feel the sides of the drum anymore; there was nothing to hold. Every part of me hurt, my chest, my eyes, my throat, my back, my ribs, my face and stomach, legs and arms were all bursting with the pressure of the water filling every space.
That night I dreamed I saw what happened at the river, as if I, like the red gums, was a witness. In the morning, I wrote what I had dreamed.
The mother turned towards her youngest son. He was screaming for her. She jumped from the small fishing boat and waded towards him. The boy could see how angry his mother was, but when she came towards him he wanted her to come closer. She was his mother. She was pushing her way through the water, her hands scraping at it, as she tried to go faster. The mother was screaming the name of his older brother. But why when he was gone? The boy could still hear the dog barking. Was the dog chasing his older brother?
His mother kept coming. He wanted her to stop screaming. He wanted her to tell him he was a good boy. The time before she had done that. The visit before this one. She had said good boy.
The boy felt the hands pushing him down. Something broke open. Like wee coming. He was the wee coming, spreading into the river. He was spreading further and further, until he wasn’t the younger brother any more, and she wasn’t his mother and every part of him was water.
After breakfast I spoke to the woman at the reception in my hotel – the whole town was upset. Moama was so close. ‘The mother had only just come out of jail, there were warning signs but nobody wanted to know. The woman behind the desk spat the words. ‘Heads will roll.’
The trees stood in the Murray dirt, just a bridge away from the Meeting of the Waters, and watched the choice the mother made. Their branches moved slowly in the late summer sun, their silver leaves reflecting light. In my own book my young characters suffer – families fail, children are sacrificed. I despised the river then. Its lack of transparency. The way it seemed to collude with the mother. By not changing, by remaining neutral. I hated the ugly trees, their branches like talons, their bark peeling back like strips of skin. The sap that scribbled jagged faces into the trunks.
I wept as I drove back to Melbourne. The reason I wanted to write about the moments for the boy was because I want to give them space in the world. Moments nobody wants, nobody needs to have described, moments nobody can know. But I want to know them. As if by knowing I might ease something. It is the moments between life and death – that bridge I want to know. I want to know it for a child. Perhaps it is an easier bridge to cross than I imagine, perhaps it makes sense to somebody crossing it. I don’t know, I can only imagine.
I visited Echuca again after just after submitting my novel to my publishers for the last time. It was to be a two-day break for me. I looked in bookshops, watched Foxtel movies and swam in the 50-metre pool across the road from my hotel. Lap after freestyle lap. I walked to the main road, to the crystal shop and asked the fortune teller about my own son, if he was okay when he was so shy and that school was hard for him. I told her how much I worried for him, and about him. The fortune teller told me my son was fine. She shuffled the tarot, and lay out the cards. The woman told me that I was in the prison myself, and that I was looking the wrong way. She pointed to the card of a man crouching, halfway down a set of stairs. She said, ‘See, you are using the smallest candle to see the steps, but if you just turned your head, you would see nothing but the light.’