bore, n. a deep hole of small diameter bored to the aquifer of an artesian basin, through which water rises under hydrostatic pressure. —Macquarie Dictionary
The steam is the colour of sunset. In the cool breeze ahead of a storm, it oozes over the bore drain, winding around the sorghum stands. It runs down the sandbank where the water stops, and out into gullies through bull-rushes, flowing thick enough to muffle the permanent gush of the bore.
It blinds them as they stumble down a gully through the rushes. She’s only two strides ahead of him, but her body’s just a shadow in the red.
They pass between two eight-foot stands of sorghum, and he sees ahead a drop where the salt crust ends. He has just time to notice that the ground beyond is smooth and nearly bare.
And land in mud. She makes a choking sound. He grunts. It’s up to their hips, thicker than quicksand. His toes stretch for the bottom, but can’t find it.
Heads of sorghum sway above the bog, just out of his reach. A couple of metres away she’s stretching too, her jaw locked, neck separated into its sinews. But there’s nothing to shove against, and as they kick the mud just drags them down.
When it’s up to her ribs she slumps back—‘What do we do?’
With nothing underfoot he can’t think.
‘What are we going to do?’
She struggles again.
His stretching toes can still find nothing solid. Now little shocks of doubt shoot up his legs.
The mud is up to their chests.
From the direction of the sorghum that borders the other end of the bog, there comes a moan. It starts from too low down to hear and rises till it makes the bog vibrate. Other moans and bellows join the first one, rising, dying out. The vibrations go up through his spine and hair. Against the wall of sorghum, moonlight on their horns, the heads of half a dozen cattle stick out of the bog.
The steam dampens her screams for help.
His mouth tastes of bile. To keep it down he holds his breath. He listens for an answer, knowing there’ll be none.
She screams till her voice cracks. There’s no sound when she stops but the whine in his ears. He tries to free his arms to reach for her, but the mud grips them.
I’ve drowned us both. In a fucken desert.
It’s then he remembers his father’s warning about quickmud, how it can bloom in the bore drain in summer. He was only a kid. And it’s that long since he lived on this station, he just forgot.
A few stars wink through the steam. She counts them to quiet her panic, but there are only five. Instead she tries to count the throbbing places where the poison tips of bull-rushes broke off in her skin.
Why did I come with him? Why did I even want to come north?
She knows, but for a moment she wishes she’d never met him.
It was her idea to charge down the dune. But she was aiming for the sandbar, and their clothes on the other side. Through the steam, the sandbar is a line of darker shadow, maybe twenty metres away, the low point where the course of the bore drain cuts the mass of dune. Scarcely high enough to hold the water at bay. She’d thought the momentum of charging down would carry them up the other side. But they had to swerve around spinifex. Then he dragged her off course and he didn’t let go of her hand until it was too late.
Now look at them here, naked, in the middle of nowhere, squirming out their lives in silence. Can’t even touch. It makes no sense, but she can’t help feeling it was his fault. And that, somehow, he wanted this.
The storm mobs across the moon.
He hears the first trickles of the bore’s nightly flood spill over the sandbank, down into the rushes. His throat aches watching her struggle, hearing the trickles come.
‘Don’t try to kick, you’ll dig in deeper,’ he says. He realises as he says it that that’s why the cattle aren’t sinking.
His own legs want to kick. He forces them to stop trying and the mud no longer seems to drag him down. It’s denser than the quicksand in movies, more clayey, stinking and heavy with sulphur from the bore. He’s tamped in, tight as a fence post, to the neck.
By the time the crows have finished, they’ll be unrecognisable. Whoever finds them will find their drivers licences, anyhow. The die-cast head of a driller with a famous Birdsville Track surname. Twenty-nine, not smiling. The governess he hooked up with, an Adelaide girl with cold green eyes, younger-looking than thirty-one.
Two heads, cut off at the neck.
Lightning has made the night darker, but he can see tear tracks down her mud mask.
Water flows over the length of the sandbank, and sneaks out of the rushes onto the bog. Dead rushes start to float on a slurry of mud and cattle shit. When rain drops plonk in the slurry the cattle sing out and lunge.
Plant rubbish starts collecting on the sandbank. After a while, the rising water rolls a bundle over. It disappears in the rushes, but eventually slides down onto the bog. It catches in her hair, then swirls on with the current, coming apart, and a paddy melon vine tangles round his throat. He blinks out rain and nudges a sorghum stalk with his chin till he can get an end in his teeth. He blows, but the stalk is split. A stem borer maggot crawls out of the split and drowns.
The rain gets thick and sweeps more rubbish from the undergrowth around the bore drain. When another bundle passes close, he stretches his neck to catch a vine in his teeth, and hauls. He works the stalks along the slurry with his lips and chin. But they’re all either blocked or split.
His breath goes out in thumps and after a while it hurts his chest to suck air in. By the time he gets the last stalk in his mouth he can only manage a puff. But this one’s hollow through, and it looks intact.
It takes him a long time to work it till he can bite halfway. It cracks in his teeth like bamboo. He leans on the cracked section with his chin, making it kink in the middle, then he takes one end in his teeth and swings the other end to her. It stabs her cheek. Her neck’s cranked back to keep her face above the mud, so her ears are under the slurry. He can’t tell her what he wants to do. Her eyes are narrow when the current swirls her hair aside. But then she turns her head and gets the end in her teeth. He shoves his chin forward. She shoves back, and the stalk kinks further, and splits where he crushed it. It makes a flattened ridge between their mouths.
Maybe they’ll get some air through the splits when the slurry covers their noses.
Soon the water laps her bottom lip. She’s snorting a bit when she breathes out. She can’t keep her head back like that, her neck must be killing her. He’d like to say something to calm her.
Her eyes are on him. She blinks at him twice, then drops her chin. The slurry covers her nose, and her eyes go wide. Bubbles boil up in front of her face. Then air whistles in through the splits in the stalk. At the same time, the air is sucked from his lungs. It makes him want to struggle, but he keeps panic down by breathing through his nose.
She breathes out only a few bubbles this time. It’s not enough. The splits are too narrow.
Her breathing gets quick, erratic. Soon the air in the stalk tastes rank. She starts twisting her head one way and the other. He siphons air through his nose and, before it passes through his lungs, tries to blow it to her. He can’t tell if he’s blowing her fresh or stale air.
A cow drowns in snaps of lightning. Its nostrils blast for a time after its eye sockets have flooded. Then in the next flash the nostrils are flooding.
The bull moans, and it goes right through him.
Through the stalk he feels her tremble.
His throat’s hot and he’s that dry his tongue has stuck to the stalk. But he feeds her air till eventually her breathing settles into a shallow rhythm. He’ll have to keep up this breathing—one breath for himself, one to her.
‘Drink,’ he croaks.
But her ears are under and her eyes are closed.
Keeping the stalk in one side of his mouth, he leans and sucks up slurry as quick as he can. He shuts his eyes, as if it’ll shut out the taste. Then they don’t want to open. The weight of mud against his chest has made him tired just breathing.
Won’t his old man love it. Drowned them both like cattle in the ancestral mud.
The cattle bellow welcome home.
His great grandfather made this bog. He divined and drilled this bore. When he selected a piece of desert, at the end of the nineteenth century, no one in South Australia had drilled that deep for water before—they didn’t even know they were on the Great Artesian Basin. What gave a man such faith in his own divining? For fourteen months he drilled one hole, burning every stick of wood within a day’s ride to feed the steam engine. A mile, he bored, before he hit the million dollar flow.
His great-grandfather was a man of gold, diviner of a hundred bores, a legend on the Birdsville Track. His grandfather had it easy, but he was still a man of silver, a kind man with a silver singing voice. His father lost the station, but they still talk on The Track about what a worker his old man is. A big man, a bronze man.
He must be scrap iron. He’s never owned a house, let alone a cattle station. Spent his work life making holes, as a driller for mining companies. It was crawling the Bunkers with a gold-drilling crew that he came to the station where she was governess. But apart from that he hated every metre of drilling. And he’s not half the diviner his great-grandfather was.
Lightning rips the dark again. The slurry is up to her eyes.
In the next flash her eyebrows are raised.
Is that goodbye, or blame?
He raises his eyebrows back at her. It’s about all his face can do, anyhow. Then the slurry swells and she has to close her lids again.
Not long after that, her eyes are under.
He feels like a bore about to blow, pressure roaring up under the blockage in his throat. But he can’t scream or cry. Just watch, and breathe for them both.
When he got up this morning, he’d still planned to propose to her today—at sunset, at the bore drain, where his great grandparents got engaged. But in the vehicle he woke up to himself. He’d never keep her. Her friends and family are all down south, and she could pick from a lot of wealthy, educated men. What is there for her up here? She’d go south again, as his mother did in the end.
Only now she’ll be married to him, by mud.
In the dark under the slurry, flickers from their journey up The Track return, in colours she’s not likely to see again. The Strzelecki Desert’s orange corrugations; the Stony’s gibber like beads of blood; all swamped in late afternoon by the Simpson’s vermilion dunes. Her ex called her twenty ks before Lyndhurst, to wish her happy New Year. When she put her mobile away, she could see how jealous he was. He knew she’d been engaged before she came up north. He got bitter after that. Instead of stopping at Marree, he just shook his head at a pumping station: ‘She’s all uranium up here, now.’ Then, launching over the Dog Fence grid, he grimaced and put on his sunnies when she tried to catch his eye. She lost her temper then.
The truth is she liked to hear from her ex, because he never talked down to her, unlike all the condescending guys up here. He looked baffled when she said that.
She came up here governessing after running out of money in India. To keep away from her ex, and all their friends. But the station kids were wild, they just wanted to be stockmen. And she couldn’t really blame them, she was a terror at school herself. She was missing her family badly, and she was ready to cut her contract and return to Adelaide in May. Then he appeared at the station with the drillers.
She’d really wanted to see where he grew up. But the Toyota was too hot and it vacuumed dust from the road. More and more crowded as well, as they argued their way up the Birdsville Track, what with the two of them plus all the generations of his family’s rural dynasty. If only she could make him see that nothing makes anyone gold but time and selective memories. But he’s been branded with the family myth by his bitter father.
She told him he should start a Consciousness Restructuring Process. He looked at her for the first time all afternoon. Flies crawled into his eyes behind his sunnies, and, as always, he let them. Then he surprised her by saying, ‘Yeah, I should.’ Yokel glottal stop in his laugh.
When the sun was low a storm had appeared, like a distant hill. He turned off down two wheel ruts and slewed them over dunes to the bore drain. Climbing out of the car felt like tearing free of a web.
‘This is ’im,’ he said, ‘the first bore my great-grandfather divined.’
She began tugging off her clothes before he could start again, and ran down the dune.
It felt so good to be unconstrained, naked in the hot outflow. She crawled on her hands up a channel where the current was strong. Trailing her legs like a walking fish, she slid away from him into the sorghum.
The snorkel yanks at her teeth. Is his nose under, too?
He sucks when her lungs are empty; then breathes against her exhalation. When they inhale again, the air stalls, then stretches between them. Her legs twitch.
She doesn’t notice he’s stopped breathing. When her shuddering diaphragm draws breath again, her lungs feel bruised. She gets back her panting rhythm, feeling humiliated somehow—as if he’d grabbed her throat. She’s shocked when his breath falls in, more desperate than before, but staggered with hers. Then she remembers her own panic when her nose went under. In his terror, he held his breath for her.
She wills him her love.
They’ve been together six months, but somehow always at arm’s length. Rodeo, he called it, one night in the single men’s quarters, moonlight rivering down the flywire. They’ve been locked together at arm’s length, struggling now to be frantic gripper, now to be bucker-off. She’s felt his yearning to commit. But he’s lived so long in camps with misogynists and divorcees, he’s become afraid of women. Until an hour ago, she was terrified, too. And thinking she should break it off.
But now they’ll finish at arm’s length.
The shush of her breath is like a tide, receding, getting shallower. She turns her thoughts to the bore head.
The water had got stronger and hotter as she’d walked on her hands through rushes towards the head. Sixty degrees from the pipe. Made hot, he’d said, by shooting up from so far underground. When he lunged from the rushes and grabbed her hips, she yelped. And swung without thinking and thumped him. But they held hands then against the flood.
The heat and smell and rush of it had brought back Rishi Kesh: strong backbends in an ashram by the Ganges; the reek of carbolic from limbering baths; her spurt of tears one pranayama class.
Sunset dyed the steam as they leaned, up to their ribs, against the birth channel of the bore. They grabbed at anything, parted rushes on more rushes until they could see the pipe, bent in an L shape, shooting water like a fire hose just above the surface of the drain. They pushed into the rushes, scalded, blinded by the steam. But her feet were suddenly pulled away by the water’s narrow force. She heard him yell. They tumbled back down the channel through the sorghum towers, and floated out to the shallows under crimson steam.
She would have loved to tell her mum what she realised then…but her brain’s so foggy, she’s forgotten what it was. And where…Not at Rishi Kesh. She went to find herself, but overseas is further from yourself…
A flask of mercury. In year nine science, for the challenge, she took it down from a high wooden shelf. Looked around at the other girls. Then smashed it carefully on the floor. What lovely skating, scattering beads! So hard to sweep back together…
No, it was floating on the waters of the fountainhead in crimson, the bore’s umbilicus plumbing the Basin a mile below, that she realised she’s not seeking anymore, she’s tired of solo adventures. And their union in the desert suddenly seemed like fate…
Her breathing is so faint he can hardly feel it now. There’s nothing he can do.
‘I’m sorry,’ he hisses into the stalk, though she’ll only get it as air.
He shivers. The top of his head’s freezing, so the clouds must have cleared. If tomorrow’s clear, the sun will set the bog drying back to mud. He has to keep still or he’ll pull the stalk from her teeth, but sooner or later he’ll go to sleep.
He can only measure time in breaths. He tries to match his breathing to hers, but his mind keeps roaming off. Getting harder to drag it back from burial, from times with her, from rodeos, or childhood rolling down these sandhills. It was down here at the bore drain that his great grandfather showed him how to divine. He was eight years old, and frightened. The bore drain smelled like welding, and he was terrified an arc would jump up from the artesian to the wires in his hands. It surprised him when the Ls just turned in his fists, like a dog’s ears.
‘I don’t believe in divining,’ she’d said, cold-eyed, when they were introduced by the station manager. Maybe he should have trusted first impressions. But maybe if he’d let her feel the wires herself…
For a while there’s been a stir in the mud below. It’s too hot to be just rain seepage. The pipe must have busted not far underground. Does the bore flow as mud down there? Remotely he knows that the mud’s crawling around his feet and shins, but he’s numb, rooted like a tree. The numbness rises, breath by breath. Eventually, he can’t keep it down. He has to sleep.
A booming sound wakes him.
Something thumps the small of his back, knocking his breath out.
The stalk is jerked from his teeth.
A bubble rolls from his lips and over his face.
Then, slow as treacle, his arms lift to protect his head. The shocking movement drives his head right under. Now he’s being dragged down by his legs, into slowly churning mud.
The bog’s dissolving.
His arms frog down in slow motion. The booms get louder in his ears. He kicks again and sweeps. Cold mud on his face.
He breaks the surface. Air rushes in clean as starlight.
The bull. It toils past, hardly making headway, grunts booming in its chest. His hand grabs the butt of the tail. He looks around for her, gasping air. Near the bull’s shoulder, the sorghum stalk sticks out of the mud. Gripping the tail, he reaches round the flank with his free hand.
His hand trembles as he tugs the stalk.
It slides out with no resistance.
He flings it away. He feels for her with his feet and his free hand, a groan rising from deep down, like bedrock splitting. He should dive, but his hand won’t let go of the tail.
The cattle are all swimming, now. A few metres away, beasts climb up off their knees onto a shelf of solid ground, and clamber up a short slope into the rushes. A heifer is trampled on the slope. She slides back into the bog, too weak to sing out.
His body won’t let go. But she’s drowned by now, no question. If he went down again he couldn’t kick back up. He’d better keep his eyes on the slope then, let instinct decide.
But the slope starts melting. When he blinks, the salt crusted on his eyelashes dissolves, stinging more tears. He squeezes his eyes shut. She’s waiting, late sun on her face. As on the second day he knew her.
She was crouched down in the homestead yard, wiping blood from the little boy’s nose. Her pupils had been fighting, as he used to fight his brothers, for the attention of a pretty governess. Watching her from the windbreak of dusty athol pines, he was on the edge of tears himself. She looked towards him, sun in her eyes. He saw that she was lonely, too.
Another beast hauls itself out of the bog and trots off into the rushes. If he just holds on, the bull will tow him out.
But now his lungs are drawing more breath than he needs. For a long time even death seemed preferable to his life traipsing deserts. It strikes him brutally now that all those miserable years the only point of his life was divining her.
He lets go.
He is dragged into dark, dissolving heat. The slow current in the mud below sucks him down and sideways. Too slow.
When he’s sunk maybe half his height, his toes touch something solid. He folds over to feel with his hands.
Hide over ribs. His hands crawl over the beast and find another one jammed against it. It moves. His heart jumps. But it’s only mud, boiling up in the hide.
The air in his lungs sprouts wings and beaks. It’s hard to push on, even with the current, as if he were swimming into an artery. Putrid mud squeezes up his nose, making him gag. He grips a horn with both hands, and snorts.
Adrenaline has fizzled. Between the carcasses, he finds himself melting. Too hot to move. Too weak. He lets go of the horn. As the current drags him over the second carcass, his feet touch another one. He turns on his hands and knees, and crawls to it.
On the third beast his hand brushes skin, and finds a weak heartbeat.
He grips her under the arms. He wraps an arm around her, under her breasts, and squats on the ribs of the carcass. Bouncy underfoot. His body coils to spring, but she’s heavy, and he’s too weak.
By dawn the bore drain has flooded the gullies of its delta. It shines like a copper tree stained with an oxide of rushes. Within the year, the cappers will get machinery to the head, they’ll choke off the bore with pressure cement. The Track’s last free-flowing bore will be plugged, like all the rest. The oasis of its drain—getting loud with birds as he watches—will be swamped by sand.
He swallows. But for the tail of the last cow swimming, they would have choked there, too. How he got hold of it, he doesn’t remember.
She drained herself of mud, then curled up on her side.
Now, on the slope of the sandhill above him, she struggles to lift her head. She unfolds herself and sits back on her heels. He turns and sits on his own heels, looking up at her. He holds the eyes in her mask with his.
She might be anyone.
As the sun clears the dunes her hair stands like a flame. Then the light gets in her eyes and again he glimpses gold. Part of him wants to run, but he stays. He sits and looks up at her and light oozes down her face, over her skin. Gold runs down his arms when he reaches up. It seeps into their wrinkled hands.
First published in Southerly 2005