The River Boys

When we were reaching the point in our lives where we might no longer be called young, my brother and I would go down to the river and we would swim there, and we would float in the river together until our bodies grew tired and pruney and wrinkled like the people we were aware—in those days especially—that we would one day soon become.

Our mother’d just passed, and we were drifting a bit.

Sometimes, when we were doing that drifting, or swimming, or floating, or tugging on the crab pots to check the heft of them, James, who was three years my junior, would ask questions. He’d ask things like: Where do dead people go? and, after thinking about it for more than a while, I’d come back with a question of my own. For instance: What is the specific moment during the dying process—that is, during the systematic shutting-down of the body—when you pass from living to dead? Is it when the brain shuts down? The heart? Which part of the brain? Which part of the heart?

My brother would stare at me, his eyes all glazed over as we treaded the water and watched how its surface became tiny waves that washed away from him and from me, and how when they hit in the space between us they didn’t move anymore. Every time we spoke like that my brother thought I was a philosophical genius. Truth was I just didn’t have any answers.

When we were done in the water we dragged ourselves to shore and on the shore we heaved up the crab pots and we poured the clawed bastards into an esky and tied up their claws and carried them home. The fishmongers bought from us twice a week, and we liked to keep the crabs alive out of courtesy. That’s what it was to us—a courtesy.

James and I carried together the esky down the road, and we switched sides when our arms got tired, or when the plastic handles dug too far into our skin, and we would sometimes stop and sit in the shade if it was one of those warm days when we had left our trip to the river too close to noon.

In the months that followed our mother’s funeral we got more calls to the house than we ever had. We met a lot of our family then, James and I. Even though we met most of them just the once at the funeral, we still made an effort to remember then. And it was good that we did, because a smaller number of those relatives each came by a second time, for the single-weekend visits they all seemed to do on rotation, back when it started getting harder to peel our father from his place in front of the silent television.

This large group of people known through blood was a new kind of connection for me and James to understand. We had always, as crabbers, known the tethered workings of the tide and the rain and our haul, and we knew those things were inseparable. It felt somehow like we had always known this. Like we had known this since even before Dad gave us his pots after his back went out while working on the trawler, which was the whole reason we started taking the pots out in his place, when James wasn’t even a teenager yet, and we did it at first for fun and then as a way to make the family some money while Dad’s back healed up.

He’d always talk about that—the day his back was gonna heal up. About how he’d go back to that huge vessel, the one he’d manned for months at a time he could bring in a year’s income in one season. Our father knew a job like that meant more time with the family, even though it didn’t feel like it when he was gone.

For a while he worked at the local paper, operating the press and tugging at page seven whenever it jammed up the whole bloody thing, but he had to stop that after a while too. His back was stressed from bending, and he was stressed as well, and so he retired early. 

He kept reading the paper though, even after he left work, and he shared the best bits aloud with our Mum, which was the start of each day for the rest of their time together. In those days James and I were shared too, if we were around and not in school, or out shooting shit with the other boys, or crab potting in the river, or swimming there when we could find a moment to ourselves, keeping our bodies afloat atop the river, a break from keeping our family above the bottom line.

When Mum died Dad stopped moving so much—and he wasn’t moving a lot when she was alive. The complex thing with injuries, Mum told us once, is that they are never just physical. Every part of the body is attached to every other part, and that includes the brain and the heart, and one of those two places is where the soul is kept, and so Dad’s soul was hurting, and that was why he was in his chair a lot.

Sometimes Mum would lie down on the flower-print sheets where Dad was and she would tell him to whisper to her the names of what he saw in the ceiling, which was where he’d been staring the whole day. He told her he saw waves and boats and fish, and the fish were jumping over the waves, and the boat was full of big men who were good at their jobs, and he was on the boat and he was happy too. That’s what Mum told us he saw.

And then there was Dad at the funeral, on his feet and shaking. He had a cane and he leaned heavy on his cane and it quivered as much as he did, as though it might have snapped at any given moment and toppled him to the grass, or into our mother’s grave where perhaps he would have rathered been.

But his cane did not snap, and he did not fall.

Instead he gave a speech about McLarry’s Fish n Chips, the now-closed business where our mother, he said, had worked for well over a year before he bloody well manned up and talked to her. She brought out for him two bucks fifty worth of chips wrapped in newspaper with her number scrawled on it. There was a note on there also, and the note said to only call between four and six because that was when she was at home and her parents at work. He said she told him to never leave a message. Her parents were in the audience at the funeral, and I can’t remember if they laughed.

After the wake and everything, our own answering machine became packed with first- and second-aunts and uncles declaring when they would be popping up or down to treat us to a weekend of overbearing company. Mostly when that happened, they’d spend the whole time keeping guard around the TV and our father’s chair, and James would roll his eyes and go to his room and I would just sit and watch with my face screwed up till we both finally mustered the energy to go down to the river to breathe. When we found time for that we savoured it. We watched our breaths on the water: the expanding waves from our expanding chests, the expanding waves from our deflating chests. They hunted out towards the river’s banks.

James asked: Why does Mum’s family come down and look after Dad too?

I didn’t know. I’d never seen any of them before, and I could only make sense of them from their long gazes at my father in his chair, and their short gazes at the creases he left in it, which were sculpted to the shape of his absence.

I asked James if he would look after someone’s dog for them if they asked and he laughed and laughed as though I wasn’t being serious. But I was being serious. I wanted to know.

He said of course he would look after a dog; he wasn’t a monster—but, he said, Dad doesn’t move as much as a dog.

I shrugged. I was just asking about the dog.

We only ever went home from the river once we reckoned we’d be able to face the combination of family who were around at the time. We were almost adults, for Christ’s sake. We didn’t need looking after, and neither did Dad. We looked after Dad ourselves, and when we weren’t home the TV did all right.

And still they came.

One weekend, Aunt Bethany and Uncle Peter came down and when they came down they brought with them our cousin Cynthia, who was seven and could therefore do anything she wanted.

After peeking inside our esky on the deck, Cynthia decided that crabs looked like fun and that she would like to come be a crabber with us one night when we were dropping pots. I shook my head and told her how dark it was on the river. How when you got far enough upstream the stars reflected in the water and it was like you were lost in space—but then James made the damned mistake of telling Uncle Peter how safe the whole thing was. And sure, it was safe, but he didn’t have to go telling.

When we were younger our father explained to us when and when not to use our words. That we were to use our words to help ourselves first and foremost and, while making sure not to hurt the other boys, we weren’t to tell them more than they needed to know. But somehow, perhaps because of our mother, we’d both ended up with a habit for stories, and for telling more than was necessary, and that got our father mad sometimes.

The main thing with crabbing is that it’s slow. Slower than kids like to move, which I suppose is why we liked it when we did: because it wasn’t a child’s activity, and we knew that, and we liked it more for what it wasn’t than perhaps we did for what it was.

Cynthia coming out on the water kinda ruined all that. Having her in the rusted tinny we’d bought third-hand from a guy looking to skip town in a bind—it felt incorrect. It didn’t feel adult anymore. But looking back on things now, it could still have been adult, and perhaps having Cynthia with us was what made it adult, and maybe at the time we just didn’t know all that much about what we were doing. Maybe James just thought I knew. I think that was it—he thought I knew, and so I thought I knew too.

I only really know now.

Dad passed away a couple years after Mum, and I knew a lot of things by then because I had to know them. It became my job to know things and it was those things’ job to be known. At the funeral, for ten or fifteen minutes at the podium beneath the cross, it was my job to hold in my voice and in the church everything that anyone else had ever needed. Knowledge, stories, sympathies—all that. I had to carry our family into tears and then back out again.

When we took Cynthia out on the water that night, she asked us some things. She asked us what it was like to be crabbers, as in—what was it like to do a job that sounded like a naughty toilet word? And also, she asked, what was it like to have a daddy without a mummy? James laughed at the first question and frowned at the second and I did the opposite, and that made me second-guess us as brothers for the first time since we’d fought in the river a couple years back, when I had bruised James’s face.

When we didn’t really answer her first two questions, Cynthia asked: What happens to the crabs when they move out of the esky?

We let Cynthia toss the pots out that night, and we looped the string around the milk bottle floats a couple dozen extra times so that when the pots fell through the water they wouldn’t even scrape the bottom and they wouldn’t catch any crabs and instead they would hang there like empty lockets from the neck of the world.

Cynthia and her parents had to leave early the next day, before we could take her back out to the river. They left before we were even awake. And so instead of saying goodbye to them we said goodbye to Dad in his chair, and he barely grunted a response but I saw him smile from the corner of my eye, and James saw him smile from the corner of his eye too. We always saw it; we always let it be enough.

When Cynthia called us that night from the motel phone, halfway home, she asked us how many crabs she caught, and James said: Lots and lots, which was the same answer I gave to her two years later when she came back down for the second funeral and she asked what it was like not having a mum or a dad.

I didn’t drink at the wake. James had a flask with him, sure, but I sniffed it and it was more Coke than rum. Neither of us were going to drink heavy that night. We knew we couldn’t. We knew that if we got too drunk that we would become tired, and so then one or both of us would have no doubt slumped that day into the creases of our father’s chair and never moved again. We would have fit too well and too easily into the place where he had been.

So we stayed up at the wake, and when everyone was done coming up to us and saying things like: You boys are so strong, or: You could be twins, or: James, you have your mother’s eyes—when everyone was gone we went down to the river and we didn’t take the pots. We swam under the stars and above the stars and we broke the surface tension of the water and James asked me: What’s gonna happen to Mister MacGregor’s Servo when it becomes a Seven Eleven?

And the thing of it is, I remember something now. From around that first day, the day that seemed to start this whole strange period of our lives, when our mother passed and James asked me about where dead people went. It’s unrelated, but it happened around the same time. It was earlier in the day, or on a different day of the same week, or maybe another week altogether, when James and I were building small castles of mudded sand on the edge of the river. I had built mine upwards and I had built it around a stick structure that was neat and sturdy and strong, and the water lapped at its base and it did not fall. It did not fall until James came at it with his calloused hand, and with that hand scattered every part of the sticks and sand and mud into the water and away from us. He asked me: Where did the castle go? and I stared at him. I stared at him once and then twice and then we left the river and we went home and came back again later in the night to let slip the pots into the water again, and we came back every night for years and years after, until one day one of us didn’t anymore.