Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Exsiccation

  

 

The drought had persisted through two annual cycles, and the lakes no longer held any water. Even in wetter times, both Lake Goyder and Lake Coongie were less than ten feet deep at their deepest points, so ten months without water flowing in from Cooper Creek would leave their beds dry more often than not.  Goyder, at the very end of that northwest branch of Cooper Creek and with high sand dunes north of it, was always the last to fill.

Observing the vegetation and dead fish and invertebrates, Ronnie estimated the level Lake Goyder had reached before the drought. He had expected Lake Yamma Yamma to be dry and wasn't disappointed when he'd reached it two days earlier. Eight hours of driving had brought him as close as he wanted to drive his old dual-cab pickup to Lake Yamma Yamma. Despite the long drive, the ten-hour round-trip walk, and the painful memories of Ysabel's invective, he'd found the visit to Yamma Yamma—or Lake Mackilop, as some of the old-timers called it—a positive experience. He'd spent that first night in the back of the pickup, which everyone in Australia called a ute, with the tailgate open for maximum air circulation. That next morning, Ronnie had walked the five hours to what would've been the middle of Lake Yamma Yamma, looked around, and taken a few pictures.

He'd brought his ultra-lightweight sleeping bag and thought about spending the night in the middle of Lake Yamma Yamma. In theory, the rains could return at any time, but Ronnie didn't expect them this year. Although locals called this season “The Wet,” the El Niño over the Pacific made significant rain in the Warrego Ranges extremely unlikely. Even if Cooper Creek did, against all odds, begin filling Lake Yamma Yamma, the lake could not possibly rise enough overnight to reach a level over his head. If he found water seeping into his sleeping bag, he could simply stand up and wade west and return to his ute. That sounded distinctly unpleasant, though, so he had trudged the five hours back to his beat up ute and spent the night there.

Still smarting from the latest tongue-lashing he'd received from his wife two days earlier, Ronnie had driven back onto the Arrabury Road the next morning and then two hours south to what was euphemistically called Arrabury Airport. Finding no one there, he had looked at and photographed—and been impressed by—the two runways then turned west and crossed into South Australia, where the road immediately became rougher and narrower.

Ysabel told Ronnie at least twenty times a year how terrible life was with him. Afterward, she usually told him she “didn't mean it,” but he always wondered which were her real feelings. His six-month consulting job had stretched to ten months and paid more than Ysabel's two years of teaching primary school, but still she criticized him for not going out and finding another job—not that there were any jobs within two hundred miles. About three weeks out of every month Ysabel found fault with almost everything about Ronnie.

You'd think he'd've gotten used to it by now, and maybe he sort of had. After twenty years of Ysabel's put-downs and name-calling, almost none of it justified, Ronnie remained in their marriage, although he sometimes wondered why. Ronnie loved his wife but did not like feeling under attack almost all the time.

After one of Ysabel's tirades, one or the other of their daughters—almost never both—would come to him and sympathize, say she thought he'd been treated unfairly. That always raised his spirits but never completely took away the sting.

For the past month, Ysabel had complained almost continuously about the weather—too hot—and the house they were renting—too small and too dilapidated—and always managed to make it sound as if it were all Ronnie's fault. Back home in Oregon, they had a perfectly good house—with a caretaker paying a peppercorn rent—but even there she found excuses to complain. For a dozen years, she had complained about the weather for six months every year. Ysabel had been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but giving it a name didn't make living with her any easier for Ronnie or the girls.

Two-and-a-half hours of driving from the uninhabited Arrabury had brought Ronnie to Cordillo Downs Station, where he stopped to look at the old woolshed, the largest in Australia. Even though Ronnie was a vegetarian, he felt delighted to discover that the 240-year-old Cordillo Downs Stantion formed a major part of a 27,000 acre organic beef operation. He also felt delighted to escape the crippling heat in the surprisingly cool interior of the stone and mud woolshed. The two foot thick walls had been built in 1883, he discovered, and had once witnessed the shearing of 100,000 sheep a year.

As Ronnie climbed back into his ute at Cordillo Downs, he thought of his family. Betty, his elder daughter, would move to Eugene in a few months to attend the university there. Her sister Alice would probably follow her in two years. They no longer needed him.

For more than a decade, Ysabel had regularly told Ronnie that she wanted out of their relationship. He had consistently replied, “OK, if that's what you really want.” Within five or six days, she usually said, “No, of course I want us to be together.” Even so, the cumulative stress had begun to wear Ronnie down. Over the past few months, he had begun considering a different response: “OK, do you want to move out, or do you want me to? Let's set a date.”

Instead, two days ago, Ronnie had replied, “Be careful what you wish for.”

I just wish I didn't have to be here with you,” Ysabel had said.

You don't.”

What else can I do?”

Whatever you want. What do you want?”

I don't want to stay here with you, that's for sure.”

Well, yeah, OK. I mean, you're not going to be here anyway—with me or without me. We're all packed up; I've already arranged for shipping our stuff and found a buyer in Brisbane for your car. In three weeks, you'll be back in a bigger, nicer house. What's the problem?”

I'll still be with you.”

Is that so bad?” Ronnie had asked, really wanting to know.

Yes. I need to get on with my life.”

So, do you want me to stay here? I've already bought the tickets and made the reservations and everything. You could just go back to Oregon without me.”

That would be great.”

The following morning, Ronnie had risen even earlier than usual and written a note saying, “I've always done everything I could to give you what you wanted,” and left it on the kitchen table with the airline tickets and most of his cash. He'd started for the door, then turned back and wrote another note telling his daughters he loved them and left it with the first one, then headed west on the Diamantina Developmental Road.

Ronnie left Cordillo Downs that next afternoon on a road, barely a track, leading south along the west side of Marabooka Creek's dry bed. He made slow time dodging the many smooth rocks, almost as thick on the road as on the rest of the gibber plain. That didn't matter, 'cause he wasn't in a hurry. The rough track petered out after about ten miles at a couple of large and currently empty cattle yards built right in the dry channels of the creek—although in the Channel Country almost everything from horizon to horizon became creekbed, when the rains arrived. After pulling onto a slight rise out of the way of the track, he switched off the motor and opened both front doors

As he was about to climb out of the pickup, Ronnie saw a six-foot-long eastern brown snake two yards away, trying to fit in the shade of a rock the size of a volleyball. He thought of picking up the snake and cuddling it, wondering if that would be the least painful end to his quest, but decided in the end not to disturb the poor thing. Besides, he thought, they have inland taipans here and that would be even quicker.

He'd left Windorah with twenty-two gallons of water in the pickup, two ten gallon jerry cans in the cargo bay and four half gallon milk jugs in the back seat. After carefully climbing out of the cab and circumambulating the pickup, Ronnie climbed onto the roof and scanned the country to the southwest. Once he felt satisfied he knew where he needed to go, he climbed down and made a couple of cheese sandwiches. As he ate, he finished off the last of the half gallon jugs of water. Afterward, he refilled all four from one of the jerry cans.

Thinking the note he'd left the previous morning inadequate, Ronnie decided to spend the last hour of daylight writing to his daughters. He wrote separate but nearly identical letters, telling the girls how much he loved them and how proud he was of them, of who they had grown to become. He told them how much he appreciated their intelligence, their strength, their essential goodness, and their beauty. He told them he intended to go for a walk and recognized that there was a possibility he might not make it back. “In case I don't,” he wrote, “I know you're strong enough and intelligent enough to do just fine without me there.”

At least in this drought there aren't any mosquitoes, Ronnie thought as he climbed into the back of the ute. Feeling uncharacteristically empty, he lay on top of his closed-cell foam pad and his sleeping bag. He thought about their little rented house in Windorah, then about their grander house in Oregon. He thought, although he'd tried to avoid it, about his family and wondered what else he could do for his girls. He was still wondering, when he fell asleep.

Ronnie woke before the first faint glow above the invisible eastern horizon heralded the day to come. At some point in the night, he had pulled part of his sleeping bag across his midsection. He threw that off, then rolled bag and pad together into a tight cylinder and strapped that to his old Kelty packframe. A small carton of UHT milk made a bowl of muesli palatable, and Ronnie followed it with his habitual handful of peanuts. He stashed one water jug in his pack and tied two others to his packframe, made and wrapped a couple of cheese sandwiches and put them in his pack, stowed a baguette and the remaining cheese in two outer pockets of the pack, and then re-checked the rest of the pack's contents.

Although the sun had not yet entered the empyrean, the sky had grown light enough for a walk. Ronnie hung a strap over one end of the tailgate and wiggled it, as he gingerly eased enough of his head over near the other end to have a look under the pickup. Seeing no snakes, he stepped out, pulled his pack out behind him, and set it on the roof. He then closed the tailgate and the camper shell and set his keys and the letters on the dashboard. Leaving all the pickup's doors shut but unlocked, he began walking west-southwest through a land of stony tablelands ending in abrupt cliffs, red sandhills covered with spinifex—or else bare and barren—and the occasional bed of a small, dry salt lake shining and dazzling like a sea of diamonds, and covered nearly three miles before the sun came over the horizon.

Just before the sun appeared, Ronnie encountered a dry lake bed surrounded and partly filled by an example of the chenopod plant community he had mostly observed while driving. He enjoyed getting to examine these salt-tolerant relatives of beet and spinach up close and noted the presence of several species of saltbush interspersed among the cheropods. Ten minutes later, as the sun shone a spotlight on some small mesas to the west, he reached Mudcarnie Creek. The creek contained no water but a small amount of barely damp mud which would be dry clay by evening.

Through the morning, Ronnie walked up and down as well as forward—because his route lay transverse to the many channels. Fortunately, he rarely had to climb more than ten or twelve feet and often only five or six before descending to cross the next dry channel. About two hours after he left the traces of Mudcarnie Creek, the terrain grew a little more steeply channelized and the soil turned less pink and more orange. The vegetation changed with the terrain and soil, becoming less dense, with far fewer shrubs but more large ones, mostly Old Man saltbush.

About two hours later, Ronnie crested a ridge to see the sparkle of several dry salt lakes ahead and to both sides. What caught his attention even more, however, was what appeared to be the top of a big Old Man Saltbush a few hundred yards to his left. He'd been craving more shade than his hat provided, so he turned that way and walked a quarter mile south. Watching carefully and stepping heavily, he approached the saltbush, which was more than six feet tall. A brown snake moved away and disappeared behind some smaller shrubs. Lucky, Ronnie thought, if it'd been a taipan it wouldn't have given up its shady spot.

He sat under the saltbush and ate his sandwiches while addressing grateful thoughts to the big shrub. Eager to explore the salt pans, he finished the first water jug and tied it back onto his packframe before heading due west. He reached the first crystalline lakebed in half an hour and spent fifteen minutes looking at its almost uniform surface. Heading due west again, he pondered the realization that the brown snake under the saltbush was the only animal he had seen all day. He knew the chenopod shrublands usually supported kangaroos and planigales and placental mammals—dingo, the long-haired rat, or native plague rat, Forrest's mouse—and maybe other furry creatures, plus more than two hundred species of birds, but hadn’t seen any.

Walking among spindly and sparse spinifex and saltbush from one sparkling salt pan toward another, bigger one, Ronnie made a slight detour to climb the highest nearby inter-channel ridge, less than thirty feet at its highest point. From that vantage point, though, he could see a score of sparkling lakebeds—much like the bed of the Mediterranean 5.4 million years ago. A twenty minute walk delivered Ronnie to the second salt flat. Twice the size of the first one, this second dry salt lake seemed otherwise identical and held his interest for only another ten minutes.

Ronnie then headed southwest to where he expected to find Sturt's Ponds, walking among sandhill spurge with spinifex and saltbush even more sparse and spindly. By the time he crossed the rutted track as he descended the bluff and dune system, he could see the clay pan that would usually be on the bottom of the Ponds. A reliable water source in most years, Sturt's Ponds held no puddles and no real mud, although Ronnie thought the clay felt a little damp in a couple of spots. If he'd brought a shovel, he could probably have dug deep enough to find water to refill his empty jug.

He spent half an hour exploring the Ponds and another hour-and-a-half walking almost due west. He walked across the southern part of Lake Marradibbadibba's dry bed without realizing what it was and arrived on what should have been the shore of Lake Goyder. Even more than Sturt's Ponds, the clay of the lakebed was deeply fissured. The Lake must have been dry for quite awhile, because the dead fish no longer gave off any smell. He explored the lakebed for half an hour and then began looking for a place to camp. He felt pleased to see what appeared to be a stand of large saltbush shrubs and less pleased when he walked to them and found most of them were Bassia, with their horrible prickly burrs.

A little investigation found two fairly large Old Man saltbush shrubs with no Bassia between them. Thanking the shrubs for their presence, Ronnie removed his pack and made a sandwich. While he ate, he finished the second water jug. Afterward, he removed his bedroll from the packframe and tied the pack as high as he could in the saltbush. Tired from a serious day's walk, he fell asleep early while naming the few constellations he knew in the Southern sky.

Again, Ronnie woke early in pre-dawn darkness. He lay motionless, consciously making his breathing silent, and listened. The silence seemed absolute, unworldly. After what seemed like an hour and was probably at least ten or twelve minutes, he heard a very faint scuttling, probably a Long-tailed planigale seizing an arthropod meal. Reassured, Ronnie lay for most of another hour—and heard two more planigale or rodent sounds, both some considerable distance away—before he saw the first faint hint of light on the eastern horizon.

By sitting straight up, he could reach the pockets of his pack that held the bread and the cheese, so he made himself a sandwich and ate it in the dark. He washed it down with an abstemious drink from the third jug. After pulling on a clean pair of underwear, then his shorts and T-shirt, he again rolled and attached his bedroll, slung his pack on his back, tightened the waistband, and again set out walking in the half light of early dawn. Proceeding very slightly east of due south and walking steadily, even with climbing Waltatella Hill and stopping to reconnoiter Lake Toontoowaranie's dry bed, he reached what would have been Lake Coongie by noon. Like her neighbors, Coongie had indeed given up any secrets she might've had, unless she had hidden them deep in the fissures in her clay bed.

More recently watered, the margins of Lake Coongie supported a far denser and more extensive boscage than Lake Goyder, even including several coolabah and river red gum. Not surprisingly, that environment also supported more animal life. Ronnie spotted a letter-winged kite twice and thought he saw a black-breasted buzzard in the distance. He didn't see any freckled duck or bush thick-knee, although he knew they lived here when the lakes held water.

Thinking back to his only other visit here—a 4WD trip via Innamincka to the south with a visiting brother twenty-five years ago—he remembered the lakes full of sweet water and birds. There must have been ten thousand of 'em, he thought, maybe more. He remembered pelicans and others he'd recognized, herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills, cormorants, black swans, terns, and gulls. Other birds he'd had to look up later: black-winged stilts, hoary-headed grebes, teals, pink-eared ducks, maned-ducks, Pacific black ducks, coots, red-necked avocets, kingfishers, swamp hens, cuckoo-shrikes, and hardheads. He remember feeling amazed by the number and variety of birds, all of them attracted by abundant fresh water less ephemeral than the salt lakes beyond the high sand dune complex north of Lake Goyder and less salty than the Murray River.

Thinking of that earlier visit also made Ronnie remember a building on the northwest side of the lake, and he decided to go check it out. On the visit with his brother, they had had to walk around the three-mile by two-mile lake's perimeter to get from one side to the other. This time, the drought saved him the trouble, and Ronnie walked, turning frequently to check out the vista in each direction, right across Coongie's dry bed. When he reached the other side, he felt puzzled and annoyed to find fresh 4WD tracks and signs of tents having been pitched under the coolabahs.

Ronnie had thought no one would come there with the lakes dried up and no bird life, Studying the ground, he concluded at least three big SUVs had been there and at least three tents pitched in recent days. Ronnie had walked from Cordillo Downs not knowing what he wanted to do. He had just felt a need to walk, and Sturt's Stony Desert sort of fit the mood of his heart. Those who knew Ronnie thought of him as a friendly, social person, but socializing with a bunch of campers in big SUVs did not constitute part of his plans—not that he actually had any plans.

Now that he was here at Lake Coongie and what was apparently a campground, he needed to make some. He could go back over the dunes north of Lake Goyder and simply walk through Sturt's Stony Desert as far as he could, maybe head west to see if he could make it to the Birdsville Track. He could stay right here at Coongie and simply leave, assuming he was still capable, if anyone arrived. He could walk back to the big Old Man Saltbush, where he'd dislodged the brown snake—he'd be unlikely to encounter anyone there. Or he could see if he could make it back to his pickup. If he rested in some shade through two or three afternoons and walked only in the early mornings, he might be able to get that far on less than one jug of water—but why?

Ronnie decided to stay put. He tied his pack as high as he comfortably could in a coolabah, became even more abstemious in his use of water, and spent most of the daylight exploring the area and watching the minimal wildlife. Returning to his pack, he retrieved his bedroll and rolled it out under the tree. Ronnie watched the last sunlight fade from the sky, then drifted off to sleep.

A chance to observe a Giles's planigale the next morning rewarded his decision. The tiny creature emerged from a deep fissure in the clay of the lakebed, still groggy from his 'mini-hibernation' overnight. Fortunately for the planigale, it had already warmed up and moved on by the time the letter-winged kite returned.

Rationing his water left Ronnie uncomfortably thirsty, but he had expected that and tolerated it reasonably well. He knew of ways he might be able to obtain more water but didn't feel at all sure he wanted to. For example, with a little searching and a little more digging, he might find one or two water-holding frogs and squeeze the water out of them. If he did that, though, the frogs would surely not survive the drought—and at this point, Ronnie wasn't sure his life was more important than a frog's.

 

 

Although Harlan Yarbrough began writing short stories only seventeen months ago, he has been a published writer since the ’80s.  For twelve years, he wrote a regular column, reviews, and feature articles for The Broadside, a national music and arts magazine.  For nearly a decade he wrote a syndicated newspaper column on the English language.  Harlan's short fiction has appeared in the Galway Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Red Fez, Veronica, Degenerate Literature, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, and other literary journals.