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Decum Fabulum: The Rider to the Sea

English, Italian, Latin … in whatever language stories have come down to us as a delightful medium to offset worry or boredom … In the time of The Plague in Italy, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote of the stories told by just such a group as they while away the hours in isolation from the Black Plague.

In keeping with this tradition, we offer you likewise some stories here. These stories may or may not have appeared on this site before, but it could be from a long time ago and many may not have read them. Let us now go to story number nine:

The Rider to the Sea

Ah, youth! … a time of plenty … so much to want, so much to desire, so much to love … yet one had the feeling of so much to lose … so much to lose … there was never enough of anything, least of all patience …

Adam reached out for the handful of peaches out far on the branch. He quickly picked these and shoved them into his bag, it was now full. He clambered down the ladder and strode over to his bin. This was the last load for the day, the bin was now full. The overseer nodded his approval and checked it into his book. His third bin for the day, not bad, he was no gun picker but it wasn’t bad. A wave of fatigue swept through his leg muscles as he leant against the bin. Sweat flowed cleanly down his chest, his hair sticky and stringy from the heat and fuzz from the fruit. he felt tacky all over.

“What a day for Chrissake.” He spoke to himself as he sat on the trailer.

“Ok boys, let’s go home.” The overseer had hooked up the trailers that carried the bins and started the tractor.

The pickers flung their ladders on the empty trailer behind and clambered aboard, the dust thick and yellow in the air.

“You still going to Sydney tomorra’, Jim?”

”K’noath, can’t see me stayin’ here another week can you.”

“He’s got the hots for his wife already,” someone called out.

“Oh yeah, if you’d felt it once you wouldn’t be here even,” Jim retaliated.

The tractor slowly bumped and twisted through the orchard. Adam clung sleepily to the edge of the trailer, gently rolling … Life, small moments of awakened senses, aware: Daylight bright, the clatter of loose leaves dancing and whirling over the road in the buffeting wind of a passing car. Long strands of gum leaves hanging low and hot in the humid afternoon, with skinny shadows stealthily creeping like thieves from the glaring sun.

The banks rose steep from the river’s edge and the water flows with soft swirling eddies clipping the far bank and ripples fanning out from projecting arms of sunken logs, like drowning swimmers grasping for the sky, scratching, clawing … A long white sandbar swept smooth around the bend with scattered leaves over the grit and heavy gums leaning long fronds into silent waters of the Murray River creeping past in the afternoon.

(A.E. & J.B. Cameron. Fruit growers. Blockers: Owners of vast acreage of fruit trees. Peaches, pears and apricots. Pickers employed every season. Seven am – five pm, an hour for lunch.)

Adam was a nineteen year old picker … working the seasonal crops.

“Hey Casey, comin’ for a swim before tea?” … Ear cocked for an answer from the next room. A creaking bed, he’s there.

“No, I’ll just have a shower.” Another creak of his bed. He won’t even shower, Adam knew.

“Well alright ,but it’ll be nice … cool and fresh …”

“Yeah, so what.”

Adam left him there …

Dust and insects filled the yard between the dormitory and mess shed, with its rattling pots and pans and the cook’s yells and songs crackling between the weatherboard walls. The sweet-smelling trees all around the compound. Crowds at the showers, sticky men jostling each other, towels and dirty shirts and shins and bristly chins, water overflowing on smooth cement sheen floor, muddy puddle by the door. A singer; Gerry … ”O′ Gerry boy, th’ gurls of Cobram are calling … ” Then lost in the roar of the motorbike coasting the long straight into town. A quick trip through to the river in the hot afternoon, his shirt sticking to his back, small insects glued to his chest with the dried sweat.

Adam parked his motorbike at the top of the riverbank on the dirt track. A path cut down the edge onto a flat lowland of sand built up over the years. Tall gums and shrubs between, all thick and scratchy down to the river’s edge. He placed his helmet on the sand, stripped to his shorts and placed his shirt and shoes with the helmet.

Halting at the river’s edge, he gazed up and down, then slipped quietly into the water. The smooth liquid washed up his back and filtered through his hair, its soothing coolness cleansing the sticky sweat and insects from his skin then washing away with the current swiftly flowing. He dug his hands down into the sandy bar, floating motionlessly, body pointing upstream with water slipping around, caressing, soft … Every few moments he ducked his head below the surface to come up again with a swish and shake the lanks of hair off his face, the droplets flicking away with a splash on the smoother surface of the river.

A large grey log jutted out from the bank on the far side. He decided to swim for it. But the river was swift, so he crawled with his hands digging in the sandy bed upstream a little to allow for the drag, then with six deep breaths, struck out for the far shore.

The river grabbed him straight away as he swam, its liquid fingers grasping at every portion of his body, trying to pull him down the busy stream to a far away ocean … a body riding the river to its mouth … a rider to the sea! … The thought of just letting himself be taken like a leaf on the water crossed his mind, the thought of being supported by the river’s strength and coasting slowly down the ribbon of wide water to the rushing sea. He stopped for a second feeling the deep waters … Nothing below him: He sank a little and came up again spitting and swishing his head to clear his hair. Nothing below him, he thought as he struck out again, his feet churning steadily behind him.

Nothing below but hidden depths of liquid, soft flowing liquid’ deeper down below, lovely warmth … (he thought of Jennifer). A Willy-wagtail alighted on the log just before he reached it, to wag its tail a couple of times and then dart away as he swung an arm over and hauled himself up to rest. Adam lay on his belly over the warm log, his legs dangling in the cool river, the rattlings and scratchings of scrub animals and birds in the vicinity a relaxing tonic for his tired body … his memory switched to a story his mother told him about the river when she was a child … about a man who drowned and his body washed up on the bank of the river and they were told not to go near there to look at the drowned man washed up on the bank of the river but they did go there on the way to school and they saw the drowned man all bloated and bumping and bobbing against a log on the river bank, surrounded by a mass of oranges all a bobbing there with the drowned man … oranges dumped in the river when the orchards couldn’t sell their excess fruit … and they would pluck one of those oranges each to take to school … but not this time and never more … for the drowned man’s eyes had been plucked out by the creatures of the river … ” … eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves” Samson Agonistes … and they ran and ran away from the drowned man … but they couldn’t run from the memory …

A new sound pitched high above the others pierced his ear, squeals of delight and giggling laughter. Girls, young girls, splashing in the river up by the bridge. He looked to them, all white in the surrounding bushland, their bodies springing about with youthful energy, purity to think of. Tender youth not yet caressed with a lover’s gentle touch, young voices never lowered to a lovers ear, whispering lover’s desires.

Adam lay quiet, the water rippling about his feet softly. He listened.

”Julie, I’ll race you across.“

“Bet you won’t.“ Two girls splashed in, a glimmer of white before becoming submerged in cooling water.

”Hey, wait for me!” A third racing across the sand, her legs flashing with carefree running, the line of her swimsuit seen for a moment, gone into the river, laughter, splashing, voices, a moments desire quietly breathed the afternoon air, river water flowing down deep, deep down clinging, touching, Adam closed his eyes … he desired …

“Jennifer” … he mumbled … lost …

”Do you like it, Adam?”

”Mmm, more than anything.” Her hand moving over his body, searching, feeling … her finger trailing along his spine, sending thrilling sparks to his muscles ..

”Do you like that … hmm … do you feel that?”

“Ah … Now where did you learn that trick?”

”Do you like it?” Her hair brushing his cheek, soft whispers into his ear, the song of Circe … her arm under his over his back, her palm open flat, warm in the small of his back moving softly, gently, her voice, he remembered the tone perfectly, right in his ear, she was inside his brain, sweetly tacky. Gone, lovely woman, lovely life. Nineteen.

”Do you love me, Jenny?” … Nineteen … gone …

Adam slipped back into the water, kicked off from the log to swim back to the sandy bank, striking furiously at the water with each stroke, harder and harder, self-derision tearing into him. He finally dove deep to cool the heat in his head, deep in the river, the deeper you go the cleaner you become, it’s a game, you see, and the one who swims deepest and longest wins.

His lungs ached as he burst the surface about thirty yards down from his clothes. He gulped the air and swam the rest of the way to the bank.

The Sun dried his body, soaking right into his skin as he lay on the warm sand. He flipped his shirt over his eyes to shade them, only the heat now touched his body, the river moving gently away, quietly shifting … humming … water, the essence of life: All life emanates from the sea. The heat warmed him while the river swayed his thoughts slowly. as a limb in a breeze, rolling wave upon wave … drum … “… rolling drum we lay down gently with the wetness drum of the sea drying in sunshine … children! laughter trilling in our hearing mind … She is here too, her finger brushing down drum along our closed eyelid so gentle, the laughter, her person here beside us, touch removed why? Opened our eyes to see her but she wasn’t there … soaring drum ache of desire rushing longingly through our body … Oh that it were only possible for us … for us … we lay back down in the warm sunshine the wetness drum of the sea drying in the sunshine wave upon wave rolling O …”

Adam woke suddenly, he had dozed off for a few minutes, restfully, He collected his things and started back to camp.

The evening meal was being dished out when he arrived, so he dressed and stood in line with the rest of the pickers to collect his serve. The mess was empty of any sound other than the clatter of eating utensils employed in the consumption of food.

After dinner Adam lay on his bunk, hands behind his head and staring at the water-stain pattens on the ceiling. Casey stopped in and placed his shoe on the edge of the bed while he tied his shoelace.

“You comin’ to town, Adam?”

“What for?”

“Jim’s leavin’ you know, we’re gonna have a cupla drinks”.

“Yeah, I might be in that. When are you leaving?”

“O, a cupla minutes, you better hurry, Pete’s drivin” …

Adam raised himself lazily and reached for his shirt.

“I’ll be ready in a sec.”

“Meet you outside then, OK?” Casey tromped on down the corridor with his heavy steps echoing through the dormitory.

Pete screamed the car on the dirt road through the orchard and careered onto the bitumen heading into town. All along the left side of the road were peach trees heavy with fruit, their branches supported with crutches of forked branches of other trees. Jim talked of his wife, house, and car he had left in Sydney. He drolled on in his boring monotone in tune with the humming of the car motor, Pete just mumbling; “Yes” or “Oh yeah” to Jim’s comments. Adam sat quietly in the back of the car, the sun heating his face through the glass. Bright spots of fruit, the green of the leaves flicking past; harlequin. A man appeared for a second, on a tractor towing spraying equipment, mist fanning out from the rear of the machine. The afternoon finishing slowly as they bumped down the long straight.

The town appeared up ahead, Jim talking continuously, quietly, to no-one in particular … just his usual meaningless babble about his wife, kids, and home … the suburban dream slowly turning into a nightmare of endless debt, remission, work and more debt. Small snatches of his talk filtered through Adam’s observations of the world around him …

Big gums flash past … ”You come here to get away from home, to have a good time, save some dough for the little luxuries, you know” … outskirts of town, all the neat gardens, then the rubbish gardens, trellises of creeping plants being watered by an old lady … ”You buy these little knick-knacks, to keep you happy …” shoe stores, hardware stores, deli’s with cracked glass windows .. a town swinging on the survival of the fruit industry … ” … doing nothing but work and you end up a slob, like Casey here, only joking son, but just hanging around, waiting for the next season … the next job … ” residents of the town shuffling along permanent footpaths, ancients, middle aged, youths too soon to look as ancient as their grandfathers … ” … property clinging like … like leeches on your time as years slip by … ” … no-one really gives a shit for Jim’s woes …

Pete pulled the car up at an hotel with ugly stone facade and arches plain, brown painted wood angular cleaved.

There were crowds of bawling blockers, pickers, packers from the sheds .. red-faced from too much grog … “It’s weird if you ask me, a body just can’t seem to win with this life.”

A chord was struck in Adam by those words, simple as they were, the mere babble of a selfish man, they were a prophecy so clear for the moment. Of course, living, being alive, nineteen … nineteen! … that’s what matters; life, those places he’d been, all alive, still there, waiting for his return to pass through to newer places, towns on towns, states on states, countries, people, over seven billions of them in this world, all living, a living breathing world of people. World, so round, whirled, world so round, those girls at the river, youth just starting to live. The joy of revelation cooled his head and cleared all cluttering thoughts from his mind, a new energy flooded through his body.

Jennifer is gone … so be it … so be it … Let life begin again!

Loose leaves danced flittering along the footpath with each eddy of wind around the buildings, their clatter of slight sound a moments awareness.

“C’mon Jim, wipe that frown from your ugly puss, the first round’s on me.” The four of them pushed through the throng of drinkers to the glittering bar all a clatter of glass. The evening was alive with light. “Ah! … Here’s the boy!” … a cry from a friend at the bar … The silent river cruising steadily between steep banks to the sea … the mad whooping from a room full of rolliking drunks … riding a wave of booze-filled reverly … riding to the sea …

Down, down … the Murray River flows … down to the sea … John Millington Synge … we are all riders to the sea!

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  1. jon chesterson

    I remember fruit and tomato picking in late school summer holidays till your fingers turned to black sticky gum, for a few pennies. Back stiff, gruff bossy foreman, plain egg sandwiches for lunch, no river, no beer, too young and too young to refuse the work if you wanted pocket money. It was a mug’s game and the monotony teased the living even on the other side of the world. But I still like egg sandwiches and a mid-morning cup of tea – My river, simple pleasures when you can get them.

  2. Joseph Carli

    jon…welcome to the desert of story commentary!…at least YOU have some memories of those young years…I wonder that others do not recall the river swims where the water flows a tad swifter than near here at Swan Reach…the oranges dumped when they couldn’t sell them…the regular drowned people so we were warned never to dive into the river as you could get snagged under a fallen branch…so many things to recall…yet so little to comment upon..I get several hundred clicking on these posts, yet so few comments..I have to wonder if they actually read them..but place a short reflection on ..say…the choko fruit..and the memories flow like summer wine!…perhaps it is the loss of emotional connection to language..the seeking for simplicity of thought that creates simplicity of response..after all, that is what a victorious army destroys culture by destroying the subleties of language..I would challenge any readers on here to write a one stanza poem describing an emotion..tired, fear, ambition, love, jealousy, hope..without using words that actuially name that emotion…how good is your command of the subtleties of language..or have we become a victim also of a “conquering army” of banality?

  3. Michael Taylor

    I think most South Australians (excluding those up north and out west) have fond memories of the Murray. But you wouldn’t get me swimming in it. Fishing, yes. Swimming, no. Spent many days along or on the river… just not in it.

    I’m a Victorian now, but I’m glad I live along the Murray.

  4. Joseph Carli

    Well, one who was born and raised near the sea at Marino Rocks, I am well aware that sea water gives so much more boyancy to the human body than fresh water, so that one is unprepared for the lack of flotation when swimming in the river..hence so many drownings…that and the occasional excess of booze isn’t helpful…I recall back in my mid twenties swimming across Katherine Gorge with a young woman who picked me up (yes! that’s right…picked ME up) at the hotel and we swam the Gorge and were indulging in a frenzy of sexual activity in the water on the other side when suddenly a tourist boat full of Japanese rounded the corner upon us…we halted our “rumpy-pumpy” to wave a friendly greeting to them…but I don’t think we fooled them for a minute…never let anyone tell you the Asian face is inscrutable!
    But I nearly drowned swimming the distance back!…there is so little flotation in fresh water..

  5. Michael Taylor

    Joe, I grew up on Kangaroo Island. You couldn’t keep me out of the sea. Did my swimming lessons in the natural rock pool at Stokes Bay.

    Breaststroke, sidestroke, dog paddling, duck-diving, freestyle, butterfly stroke, backstroke…

    The only one I mastered was the dog paddle. ☹️

  6. Jon Chesterson

    When you look at the quality of language, dialogue, thought and emotional expression on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Reddi, WeChat, TikTok and QQ, it is spartan, repetitive, shallow, reactive, demonstratively narrow, oppositional and often angry, scapegoating and abusive. There are of course exceptions and oases. The vocabulary of the masses is limited largely to less than a thousand words or adjectives where instant popularity, fame or infamy is the holy grail regardless of any literary, artistic, fictional, cultural or meaningful merit, perhaps with the exclusion of skimmed humour which often presents as mocking and ridicule. I shudder to think what the common individual’s (mean or mode) word bank is these days, visibly less than 100 on commonly used platforms, and specific usage far less.

    Then look at our Freeview ‘commercial’ TV and film networks dominated by Hollywood American trash and ego, Foxtel business soaps and cop fiction, virtual reality shows, pathetic song contests where scarcely a word is uttered to describe the pretence and sublime. Most of the time is devoted to 10-20 second invasive grabs and memes of commercial and political advertising, plus extended morons like Danoz Direct and exclusive TV channels, where you can play couch potato all day digesting commercial products we don’t need – I mean who does this? The average prime time viewing is demonised by a haunting 40% of advertising per hour where great music and art alongside the plastic are reduced to band wagons of shit TV advertising, and the public broadcasters have become equally complicit and repetitive – So beware the damage to your brain!

    And for our News we have News Corp courtesy of Murdoch leading the press empires of the Anglo-Western world and a few independent sources, where you can find them, and even they are fractured and insulted by infectious commercial advertising whether it is print media or internet. I commonly cannot find a single newspaper article that isn’t inundated with grammatical, syntactical and spelling errors, factual errors, serious reporting bias, shout and literal ambiguity. As for the repertoire of artistic or emotional expression, it barely raises more than a few words above ground, although some is replete with intellectual and deliberate rarely found in common usage words to wow and inflate their otherwise empty column and cause. What few artistic and entertainment pages can be found on offer are either commercialised or intellectualised by critics hunting for social and economic status, shallow popularity, fame or infamy. I bathe in an oasis when I find it.

    Is it little wonder our language and literary interests have become the song of barking dogs, dumbed down along with meaningful, artful, even sociable conversation and dialogue – to the point where ‘colourful’ is an anathema, a tincture of derision, and false news has become the new popular fiction – A desert on any continent.

  7. Jon Chesterson

    May I indulge a little here, take up the quest and encourage, no matter how simple the art may be. On the subject of rivers and memories, so many possibilities –

    ‘I was a river, valley of waters,
    rare as a giant dragonfly;
    into the breach, down, down, down we fly
    where trails fade and our reach diminishes’.

    This is the final four lines (reconfigured) of one my most recent poems, ‘Stop me from Drowning on Pulpit Rock: (Written) (Spoken)

  8. Joseph Carli

    Yes…Jon…very nice…thank you for taking up the is indeed a lonely journey..I don’t know why it is..but the attraction for the ‘instant grab’ of the one-liner, five-second hysteria art seems to have smothered any deeper thought…or sublime daydreams…
    I sometimes read Gertrude Stein’s “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” as a quiet meditation…the history and gossip of those Paris years with the now recognised artists before the great war gives reassurance that the only cure for base ignorance in the arts is perseverance, perseverance and then more perseverance…on and on till it hurts!…I’ll post this short piece from that writing to show those artists understanding of how it all works..

    From the auto’ bio’ of Alice Toklas..: Gertrude Stein.
    Gertrude and Alice had just come from the (then) struggling Pablo Picasso studio. . .

    ” We left then and continued to climb higher up the hill. What did you think of what you saw, asked Miss Stein. Well I did see something. Sure you did, she said, but did you see what it had to do with those two pictures you sat in front of so long at the vernissage. Only that Picassos were rather awful and the others were not. Sure, she said, as Pablo once remarked, when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it.”

  9. Michael Taylor

    Jon @ 11:47 am:

    Bloody brilliant.

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