I balance, supple at the knees as instructed, and curl the 13 foot thrownet across my right shoulder. Balancing in the prow of the dinghy I take up most of the white knotted fabric in my left hand, with the last ten weights clustered in my right, like a Russian bride engulfed in a giant sagging heavy wet veil. I coil to the left ready to cast.
As I look back across my right shoulder waiting for the flickering colours of yellowbellies coming to the bread crumbs I spot a leg sticking out of the distant opposite bank. The leg of a cow discarded by a sated crocodile. An old withered leg poking out of the mud with a bit of dried skin hanging limply off it. In the oppressive wet season heat it is lit oddly by a spotlight of sun shafting through a hole in the clouds. Not a breath of wind.
A crack of thunder brings old William Ezekial to mind. His bellowing laugh across the concrete floor of my office. His skin so black it is blue and grinning like a movie star he wants to know if I can buy a barge. From King Ash Bay to Bing Bong he is Yunyuwa, with more than thirty words for dugong and fifty ways to cook a turtle alive. He sits beside a map of the outstations for whom I am trying to find sustainable avenues of economic survival. An area as big as Wales with islands, estuaries, mangroves, mountains, plains and hidden canyons, and marked with red dots for the 27 outstations.
Can I organise the buyout of the local barramundi man for half a million? I want to laugh back, with him, but he is too far ahead of me, too old, too smart, and too embedded in an ocean of culture in which my little European colonial vision is humbled. I cannot see that far but promise I will try. I am his net.
A yellow flash and I swing into my cast. A great circle floats from my arms and settles gently into the swollen highway of ancient trade that is the Macarthur River. My circle disappears into the deep water. Smooth washed pebbles and casuarina forests watch me from the bank as I step one pace sideways in the boat to balance against my cast. Or try to at least. I can hear the sea eagle laughing from above as I topple sideways, leg caught in the netline.
One assumes that floating to the top is easy but in the silty murk river which hungrily enfolds me all is a half light of wet gloom. I am suspended in the silt. My shorts have come off and I have to work out which way is up. I free my leg and pull on the rope as water forces into my nostrils. The end of the rope passes by me coming down. At least I have discovered the way up.
“We don’t fish” William had told me, “we just live and enjoy. You blokes fish. Sometimes the fish come after us. It’s like a game.”
Something brushes my leg as I leap from the water back into the boat. How did I do that? I check my leg and it still has all it’s flesh intact. The thrownet is gone forever or at least until a big dry when it’s picked out of the riverstones downstream and comes alive in safer hands.
My companion in the boat is an eight year old girl I have been minding. She reads a book and sucks her thumb through pink pre-raphelite lips. She looks up and smiles and goes back to the book. Not my game really, fishing for sport. Best get back and see about that barge.