Swearing in Geesese
by Paul Mannering
Jessie and Tim came hurtling down from the house to the creek paddock. Their bare feet ran sure and quick on the lush pasture, tough soles black with dirt and Jessie’s long corn blonde hair escaping the blue ribbon to fly out behind her like a kite’s tail. They came skidding to a halt and then breathless and shining they walked through the verdant grass to where a towering row of flax bushes grew along the edge of the creek. Jessie watched with wide eyes as Tim heaved on a long dark stem of flax, the stalks were chocolate coloured and Jessie knew they were magic because they floated in the water.
With the hatchet they had taken from the wood shed Tim carefully broke the stems into arm length pieces. Then he split each one in half revealing the centre that looked like brown marshmallow.
“Where will they go?” Jessie asked.
“All the way to the sea, and then to Australia. Or maybe America, or Antarctica.”
Jessie breathed a soft exhalation, such magic names, distant countries she had only seen in the big Atlas at school.
“America…” she whispered, holding the wooden chunk of flax in her hands with the reverence of a religious artefact. “Tim, I’m holding it and it’ll go all the way across the ocean!”
“Should do,” Tim shrugged and went back to his work
Jessie lifted the piece in her hand, how marvellous to be connected to the world. “My name is Jessie, I live on a farm in New Zealand with my brother Tim and mum and dad and Cody the dog and my cat Snuffles,” she whispered three times letting her breath flow across the dark wood, infusing it with her message in a bottle.
“C’mon,” Tim said pushing through the narrow gap between the long green daggers of the flax leaves his arms filled with prepared chunks.
Jessie hurried after him, her hands in front of her face so the sharp leaves couldn’t hurt when they sprang back to hide their passing.
On the other side of the flax the creek swirled and rushed. The water was dark and murky from carrying dirt to those faraway places beyond the far paddock fence. Tim set down the pile of sticks and went among the tightly spaced willows that draped their weeping fronds over the water and rustled in the slight breeze.
Along the water’s edge the mud was pitted with the deep hoof prints of cows that Jessie called cow holes. When they had first found the creek and played in the mud and shallow depths of its summer flow there had been only one willow tree. Tim, then younger than Jessie was now, had come up with the idea of snapping small branches off the willow and they had carefully pushed one into each deep hoof print.
Since then they had seen the sticks grow in the rich wet earth to become trees of their own. A special garden that they had made by accident, their special place to play where the thin trunks of the saplings were growing so thick and close that they formed the walls of a natural play house.
Tim and Jessie gathered small twigs, inspecting each for straightness and strength. Jessie presenting each of hers for Tim to examine and either approve or discard.
“That’s a good one,” Tim said to one of her offerings. Jessie grinned from the warm glow she felt at Tim’s words and redoubled her efforts to find the perfect sticks. Not to thick, not to thin and they had to be fresh ones, because the old dry ones were brittle and lacking in the needed strength.
Soon they had their collection of necessary materials and they sat cross legged on the edge of the grass back from the fast flowing stream as Tim carefully bored the first of the sticks into the side of the flax pieces.
Two pieces were connected to each other by a pair of twigs which held them a few inches apart. A third piece was carefully attached on the other side with a second pair of twigs pushed into the sides of the flax.
“It’s called a catamaran,” Tim said finally. “A kind of boat that won’t tip over.”
Jessie nodded without question at this knowledge. Tim was in Mr Ballanytne’s class at school. Mr Ballantyne taught mysterious things to the giant nine and ten year olds who walked among the smaller children like gods. Long words and even longer division filled Tim’s homework exercise book. Jessie was in the other class at the small country school, Miss Minke taught junior kids from five to eight years old and Jessie was only seven.
The finished boat was wide and the two smaller pieces of flax stalk were the outriggers to the larger piece in the middle that Jessie had whispered her hushed prayer into.
Jessie stood back on the grass, the high flax hedge creaking and squeaking behind her as the leaves were touched by the breeze. Tim went down to the water’s edge and balancing carefully in the greasy mud lowered himself into a crouch his narrow chest lowering between his knees like a frog ready to pounce.
“Bye-bye boat!” Jessie chanted and waved dramatically at the departing adventurer. Tim laid the boat in the edge of the current and with a gentle push he set it on its way.
The dark wooden canoe pitched and heaved in the turbulence and a moment later ran up against a larger branch that rose out of the current with a sea monster’s silhouette.
“Tim!” Jessie wailed, “It’s stuck!”
Tim stood on the stream’s edge with the water being expressed out of the mud by the weight of his feet swamping them.
“Bugger,” he said thoughtfully, his eyes looking over the fast flowing current with that same calculating gaze he had when he had first suggested the idea of making the toy boat.
Jessie drew breath to wail again, this was so not fair. The game would be ruined if the boat didn’t go! Tim came to the rescue; she knew he would find a way. Tim always found a way to make things work, and to make the games more exciting and to boggle his little sister’s imagination.
Tim extended his arms the way the geese did when they charged across the yard, they would come hissing with their wings spread and their heads low, swearing in Geesese Tim said. The geese pecked and chased Jessie and she hated having to cross the yard to feed the chickens when they were out of their paddock. The idea of swearing in Geesese took a lot of the scariness away and she always giggled when Tim pretended to be a goose sticking his neck out, waving his arms and hissing.
He was doing it now, as he made his way out to the stranded boat. With his arms out for balance he started doing his goose impression, his head bobbing and his arms waving. He let out a long hiss and then a nasal honk for emphasis. Jessie’s sides started aching and she flopped down on the grass stunned with laughter.
The recent spring rain was flooding the creek and the water had gouged deep into the soft stream bed. Tim was soon up to the edge of his shorts in the torrent, his arms still waving and his goose impression sounding above the swift chatter of the flow and the shrill giggles of his sister. Underfoot he could feel the shifting gravel, the cold mud had been sluiced away and the stones were small and sharp from being buried in the ground and unpolished for so long.
A stabbing pain in his foot made Tim gasp. He reflexively jerked his foot up off the sharp rock and lost his balance. Arms flailing he splashed backwards and went under. Immediately the flood threw him down the current. He opened his eyes, hands scraping over the loose gravel he could feel it rough as bark under his fingertips as he scrabbled for a purchase. His feet couldn’t get down, and he began to desperately swim for the surface to grab a breath.
Jessie screamed when Tim vanished under the water. The carefully made toy boat came away from the mooring branch and quickly vanished out of sight atop the churning flow.
“Tim!” Jessie screamed again and again, first his name and then just a wordless wail that echoed the sudden and terrifying emptiness she felt at having him vanish so abruptly.
* * * * *
The stream was gentle now and clear in a way that glass could only dream of. Thick strands of green weed waved and caressed the occasional eel that held its place in the moving water. Sumer had passed and the air had the bite of coming winter and the trees were shedding leaves.
Jessie stood lost in thought on the bank. It hadn’t changed much since that day. The willow trees had grown into an impenetrable copse of trunks and limbs so tightly packed that they could have been one massive tree. The flax hedge was still a towering barrier but the gaps where she and Tim had slipped through to play were closed up. She had walked all the way down to the farm track which crossed the creek and then come all the way back up to this point. This special place, where she had realised that losing her brother was the worst thing she could ever imagine.
That distant day she had run screaming all the way back to the house, raising what her father called blue hell. Dad’s face was pale with fear and he ran to the creek, heading down the water way to the distant boundary fence while mum cuddled the trembling Jessie on her lap.
Dad came back an hour later, Tim stumbling along beside him, soaked through and shivering with shock and cold. Dad looking furious now he no longer had to be afraid. They had both gotten a hiding after Tim was bathed and wrapped in warm clothes and stuffed with hot soup. Tim copped the worst of it of course, being older.
Jessie had been in England, taking a year off from nursing in Australia to explore the other countries from the big Atlas when she got the email saying Tim was gone.
She hadn’t cried yet, she had to wait till now, until she was here, where the hollow emptiness of loss was real. Mum and Dad were up at the house, the farm still needed the same attention it always did. It was better this way; Tim would have wanted it like this.
The aluminium jar cradled in her arms was like a thermos flask and had been provided by the crematorium after the service. Jessie took a deep shuddering breath and unscrewed the lid. Pouring carefully she let the soft dust and grit run out and into the water where it swirled and spread with the current and flowed away out of sight.
“Where will they go?” Jessie said quietly and then echoed herself with the voice of childhood’s ghosts.
“All the way to the sea, and then to Australia. Or maybe America, or Antarctica.” The tears came then, a silent aching flood of grief that brought her to her knees in the soft grass
The wind was cold and the flax still creaked and groaned against it, but the hedge was the perfect windbreak, here by the creek the air was still. Only the dying leaves of autumn willows rained down around her, each landing lightly on the water, a tiny boat bound for those faraway places beyond the far paddock fence.
“Swearing In Geesese” © Paul Mannering 2014