A sleek, silver fish darted through the water. In the silt and mud at the bottom of the riverbed, something cold and ancient stirred.
The only sound to be heard was the trickle of water on rock and the summer song of a bird nesting somewhere high among the gum trees. Occasionally, a fly or other insect would venture too close to the water, and the steady musicality of the flowing water would be punctuated by a quick splashing sound as a fish broke the surface and grabbed its unlucky victim, dragging it down into the waters of the river. A lizard sunned itself on a rock by the riverside, its blue tongue flicking lazily in and out, tasting the air. It was a scene frozen in time, all but unchanged over millennia. The sun beat down from high overhead, hanging in that noon-time limbo that on some days seems to stretch forever.
Then, somewhere deep in the bush, a shout rang out. There was the crack and snap of branches and leaf litter under a running foot. The lizard darted away, seeking refuge under a tree stump. From out of the trees, a man appeared. He was deeply tanned, but as he paused on the riverbank and looked around in panic, white flashes revealed the tan didn’t extend beneath his clothes. He held one hand to a wound on his side, blood oozing between fingers ragged and callused with hard work. More shouts came echoing out of the bush behind him, and the man looked up, his eyes alighting on the trees on the other side of the river, some ten metres away. The water splashed and flowed steadily. The man appeared to reach a decision, and entered the water.
It was deep, and though the man was tall he quickly the riverbed fell away quickly and soon he was struggling in an awkward one-armed doggy paddle.
Beneath him, something large noted his entry into the water, sensed the blood in the water. Some instinct stirred in its brain, almost a memory. The wild scream of a smallish ape, the splashing as it awkwardly floundered with limbs not suited to the water. The sweet taste of its flesh and the satisfying tug as it pulled away from the bone.
Other figures emerged from the trees now, a largish party of ten or so, all men. The carried knives, large ones. The man in front raised a bloodstained hand as the group reached the riverbed, and they halted. The man in the water looked back to see them standing, silent. Watching.
The fleeing man turned his attention back to the task at hand, desperately pushing at the water with his free arm, kicking as hard as the pain in his side would allow. Blood was flowing hot and heavy from the wound now, and he kicked faster, knowing that even if he didn’t drown, he’d be dead soon from blood loss if he couldn’t reach help. Behind him, the lone voice of the man at the head of the group had sprung up in a low murmur. The rest of the men had their heads bowed, eyes averted from the sight of the fleeing man in the river.
The fleeing man paddled and kicked, praying he could stay conscious at least long enough to reach the riverbank. He battled for every inch of progress. His head dipped beneath the water, and he panicked, kicking and pushing, gasping for air as his mouth broke the surface. He was getting lightheaded. His side ached. He was four metres from the bank now. His head dipped again, longer this time. His legs burned. He let go of the wound in his side and pushed. His face broke the surface, and he coughed and spluttered. Three metres now.
Something brushed his leg.
Heart pounding, the man glanced down, but his kicking had disturbed the riverbed dirt and he couldn’t see even his own legs. Blackness was starting to creep in around the edge of his vision. He turned back to the trees on the opposite riverbank. Two metres. The tips of his toes brushed the bottom of the river.
Suddenly something grabbed his leg, hard. He felt the bones snap under the pressure just as he was yanked under. The world went silent except for his own splashing. His vision was a swirling mix of river mud brown and blood red, framed in black as he began to pass out. His lungs burned. As he passed out, he caught a glimpse of something. Something enormous. His world faded to black.
On the bank, the group of men had watched unflinchingly as the man was dragged to his death in the depths of the river. They lingered an extra moment or two to see if he would reappear. When he didn’t, they turned sharply and headed back into the bush. A cloud of blood bloomed in the water, then quickly dispersed as the current washed it away. Birdsong sprung up once more. A dragonfly hovered over the water, then darted quickly, narrowly avoiding the gaping mouth of a fish that broke the surface, bullet-quick. The ancient scene resumed.
Somewhere in the depths of the river, an ancient thing buried itself in the river mud, satiated.
There are two old men who sit at a table in front of the petrol station every day, drinking coffee and reminiscing, and if you were to ask either of them they would tell you they remember well the day that Carter Murphy came to Fisherman’s Creek. The elder, a balding, bespectacled man with ice blue eyes, would tell you he strode into town, the heels of his big black boots clicking as they hit the road. The younger, who had a shock of white hair and a drunkard’s red nose, would add that it was as if everyone in town turned to watch Carter Murphy come to Fisherman’s Creek, walking tall along the south road in the early hours of the morning.
In fact, on the day that Carter Murphy came to Fisherman’s Creek, he entered from the north side of town, seated in the back of a farmer’s ute amongst the hay, and the two old men – blue-eyed Dan McCrery and red-nosed Alfred Trammell – were still dead to the world. The local boys, the Fisherman’s Creek Tigers, had won the under 21’s football grand final the previous day, and Dan and Alfred – both old Tigers players themselves, and lifelong supporters of their local team – had gotten roaring drunk at the Wanderer, the local pub.
They were correct about one thing, though. Although the centre of town was all but empty at that small hour of the morning when Carter Murphy stepped down from the bed of the farmer’s ute and thanking him with a firm handshake, if you were to ask around you would get the impression that the whole town had come out to watch that morning.
In fact, there were two people who had been there, but because their version was true it was uninteresting and frequently disregarded. Stacy Hemphill and her partner Lauren owned and ran the Fisherman’s Creek bakery, and they could vaguely remember a dirty-looking fair-haired man in jeans and a pair of old brown work boots stepping in that morning and asking for a bread roll and a job. Stacy sold him the bread roll but said she didn’t have any work. Fisherman’s Creek was far from the city and any major roads, and although business wasn’t bad, it wasn’t booming either. Better to try at the Wanderer, where the proprietor was always complaining about being short-staffed, and might even have a room. He thanked her, wished both her and Lauren a good day, and then walked out. A mundane event, hardly noteworthy. Unlike every other resident of Fisherman’s Creek’s version, however, it is true, which gives it weight.
Fisherman’s Creek was – and is – a small, rural town, bordered on all sides by dense bush. It is more than two hours from the nearest major city, and more than half an hour’s travel from the nearest major town. No major roads go through it, and you will not find it in any traveller’s guides to Australia nor is it ever a recommended holiday destination. Many small towns are noteworthy for some reason or another, usually that someone famous was born or lived there as a child, and managed to overcome these humble beginnings to become something greater – while always remembering their humble roots, of course. Fisherman’s Creek was not a small town of this sort. No one came from Fisherman’s Creek, and only a few ever went there. It survived on business from the few farms nearby, and most residents travelled outside of the town for work. It was, however, quite beautiful, in its way, situated as it was at the base of a large hill in dense bush, frequently green and moist with rain in winter and bright and welcoming in summer sun. Nearby was the body of water which gave the town its name, which was in fact a river, although no one was concerned enough to rally for a name change. There was a small group that had tried in the nineties, until it was pointed out that mostly the distinction between a creek and a river was what someone had decided to name it.
The main business district of Fisherman’s Creek consisted of two main streets, Main Street running north to south and Redgum Street running east to west, intersecting in a crossroads. Each had a few small businesses lining it. On one corner stood the Wanderer, which had been the Wanderer’s Hotel until the proprietor immediately prior to the current one had attempted to ‘modernise’ it. This effort had not stretched as far as the building itself, however, which looked much the same as it had when first constructed shortly before the founding of the town itself in 1915.
Presently, and at the time of Carter Murphy’s largely unnoticed arrival in Fisherman’s Creek, the Wanderer owner was a short, jolly man named Henry Oaks, a Fisherman’s Creek native who had moved away for a few years after marrying, his wife wishing to live in the city. Upon her untimely death, he had sold all his worldly belongings – including a relatively popular if small Carlton bar – and moved back home, buying out the previous owner and performing a suite of universally-welcomed renovations that mostly consisted of reversing all the changes the previous owner had made to the beloved watering hole.