General Fiction posted October 31, 2014

This work has reached the exceptional level
a child's world is shaken by tragedy

Collecting Colour

by mfowler

The year; 1956. My world stretched from our playground by the Torrens to the limits of Papa's farm. It was a world of curiosity and wondrous adventure, a world shared through those days of endless time and imagination with Rosa, my sister. Until that is, Joey entered our lives and changed us forever.

Summer was our time. The days drifted like soft clouds across the southern sky. We would always finish our jobs by noon, and with no school interrupting our plans we would disappear to the cool haunts along the river banks. There in the shadows and dappled light beneath the river gums we created worlds worthy of our Saturday afternoon matinee heroes.

Pirates for two was a favourite. A homemade eye patch and headband magically transformed me into Errol Flynn. The hollowed log half submerged in the reedy pools served as a galleon; and Rosa tied loosely with reedy rope, was the perfect heroine in need of rescue. The knotted rope hanging from a limb above the swimming hole delivered me safely to the deck. A dozen or so pirates would be dispatched at will and Rosa would gratefully acknowledge my bravery. Sometimes a cheeky kookaburra would see the comedy in our adventures but mostly the nodding magpies and screeching parrots seemed to appreciate the moments.

Joey appeared that summer. Rosa saw him sitting with legs lazily dangled from our patch by the river's edge into the water below. He clapped and laughed at one of those dramas on the boat.

"Hey!" I yelled, "What are ya doing? This is our place."

"Today, maybe," he shot back. He smiled, gap toothed and friendly.

With that our friendship began. It was a secret friendship at first. Rosa and I even spat on our hands and shook with Joey. And we happily shared Mama's pasta and fruit with him.

We never asked who he was or where he came from and that is what he seemed to prefer. He was a little older than us, perhaps ten, but he seemed like he knew everything and that he had been born in a time we didn't know. His skin was darker than ours. Our olive brown skin and black hair made us the dark ones at school but Joey was different.

"Ya know where the platypus lives?" he said curiously.

Of course we didn't, because we thought platypuses were just animals from stories like bilbies and bunyips.

"They're real, they are. They lived 'round here long before anyone."

With that Joey led us carefully, following the river bank towards the hills. Near a bend where the sandy bed of the river was exposed, Joey placed a finger to his lips and with his right hand guided our sight along the far bank.

The reeds grew dark and green there and the river pools reflected flickering light on the surface. Suddenly, bubbles, small at first, pushed above the water and then the black leathery bill of a platypus appeared. It rolled, jerked its body forward, and as smoothly as olive oil poured out, glided to the sandy embankment. 

"Oh!" Rosa gasped softly as the glistening body of the platypus revealed itself. It seemed to sense our presence and disappeared as quickly as it had come.

Rosa ran into the water towards the sandy place. She waded knee deep till she reached the exact spot where the shy animal had been. She collected small brown and black pebbles which lay about and placed them carefully into her pocket.

"She just wants the colour," suggested Joey.

"What colour?"

"Rosa wants to remember him, that's all."

I didn't understand then. And Rosa continued to collect the colour as Joey opened our eyes to the beauty and the mystery that filled our worlds.

We had come to this paradise from a country torn to shreds by war. We were our parents' hope and the little farm where we had settled was to be our lives and their legacy. They worked long and hard at what they knew. The gardens sparkled with zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes. Our lives were filled with the smell of green life.

Mama cooked and cooked. She bottled and pickled and preserved all that would be preserved. Her bambini were her pride and she delighted in feeding us the best of Italian. She also delighted in the freedom and promise which our new home offered us. So while our summer ramblings must have concerned her, they made her children happy. It must have seemed just another good thing about this place.

Papa loved me and saw in me a mirror image of his own youth.

"Marco, you a strong boy. Justa like your papa," he'd brag whenever I lifted anything heavy about the farm. But his special place of the heart was for Rosa. She was gentle like his Mama and her innocent black eyes sparkled with the same joy and spontaneity that she had once possessed. Mama told me this in later years, but I never would have known otherwise.
Joey taught us daily. We met at the galleon and our adventures began there. Mama's food seemed to be all that Joey asked of us.

One day he showed us a clump of river reds. Broken limbs and peeled grey blue bark lay about.

"Look up. See the lumpy bit. Look close."

And sure enough, high on that ancient tree where the trunk split in many directions I could see the swivelling head of a parrot. A flash of blue and then red, a fluttering of landing wings, and suddenly two more eastern rosellas clung expertly to the nearby branch.

"They are so pretty," offered Rosa.

"They collect the sky and the trees and the blossoms," stated Joey like a wise old man.

"Hey Joey," I said, "You talk a lot of rubbish." He cuffed me across the ear and we continued to watch the birds shuffle and bob along the branch. Their squealing chatter made a change from Joey's strange declarations. Rosa gathered tiny blue, red and green feathers from the bushes below where spider's webs the size of dinner plates had trapped her treasures as they spiralled from the nesting place above.

The long blue days merged. We swam in the shallow pool and washed away the heavy heat of the late afternoons. We found the places where the long neck turtle drifted idly near the base of the river. We listened to the frog choirs chortle in uneven sequence among the reeds.

Even the dangerous snakes that fed along the banks became part of our days. Joey knew the tell tale signs of slide marks near the water's edge and the soft rustling in the dry grass away from the banks. We learnt to stand still and let them pass or simply to avoid their feeding places. Danger did lurk near the river but we never called it that.

Rosa loved everything she saw and felt, absorbing the moments with pure delight. She gathered her souvenirs with special care and at nights she would draw vivid pictures in crayon of the scenes secreted in her memory. I revelled in the adventure and Joey's companionship.

Summer faded and we returned to school and our busier life on the farm. Joey faded too. For a while we returned to our meeting place on weekends but he had gone. 

When the school finished just before Christmas, Rosa urged me to return to the creek.

"He might be back. Joey. You know. Please can we.......?"

I wanted to. I had looked forward to this time all year. Life along the river had never been as exciting without Joey and this was the time when we thought he might return. But Papa needed help in the orchard. The birds had taken to the ripening fruit and my job was to scare them away as Mama and Papa rescued what they could of the diminishing crop.

No one noticed Rosa slip away. Near sunset, I began to miss her presence. We searched the farmhouse area frantically.

"She could have gone to the river," I suggested. I told them about her pleas from earlier on but added, "Nuh. She wouldn't go without me." Joey's name popped into my head but I dismissed the idea quickly. We hadn't seen him since last summer.

Papa called the police and the neighbours joined the search. Lanterns and torches cut the night sky like air raid beacons as the searchers fanned through the darkness amongst rows of fruit trees and muddied irrigated furrows. The anxious voices calling Rosa's name in the darkness persisted late into the night. Mama clutched me close and sobbed as we watched from the lounge room window.

At about two in the morning they called off the search. "Too bloody dark down there. We've looked right along the bank for two miles. Nothing. Sorry Enzo. We'll start again at first light." said the policeman.

Papa pleaded for them to keep searching, but the policemen and the neighbours were worn through.  Papa stood at the door calling into the night like a baying hound, "Ro-sa! Ro-sa! " until he slumped to the floor in exhaustion.

Next morning the search resumed. Papa had wanted me to show the police where we had played near the river.

It didn't take long before they found her, floating face down. Her tiny body was wedged under the log we had called galleon. It had been well hidden from the beams of the searchers' light.

The sight of her familiar blue dress with the tiny white flowers stunned my senses. But when I saw her plaited pigtails with the rose red ribbons wet and mangled on her back, a sickening feeling filled my entire body.

I could not have rescued her this time.

"Get the kid outa here!" ordered the policeman and one of the farmhands from Campbell's block guided me firmly away. I heard my father's cries; deep, raw, painful cries of grief.      
How she drowned was never clear. Apart from a small cut and lump on her forehead there was no evidence of anything unusual on her body.

I told the police about Joey. Maybe he knew what had happened.

The police looked into it. They asked questions throughout the neighbourhood. The Advertiser  ran a story about the tragedy and even mentioned the mysterious Joey, but no-one came forward and his existence seemed to be dismissed. Maybe they all thought it was a lie - maybe it was the fantasy of boy feeling guilty about his sister's disappearance.

On the grassy bank near the drowning pool, they had found the biscuit tin with the embossed picture of Saint Francis feeding the birds on the lid. In it Rosa had kept her treasures and the colourful pictures of life that had captured her the previous summer. Not far from the tin, they also found two partly eaten tomato sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper. But these things had given the police no clear clue to Rosa's death.

That summer was heavy with grief. The light in my Mama's eyes died and Papa stopped singing songs from the old country as he worked. I stayed close by and helped him in whatever ways I could.

Rosa's loss defined our lives from then on. The farm barely survived.

I stayed away from the river and the summers passed by without colour. School became my refuge. I never talked to anyone about Joey or Rosa or our summer of delight. Rosa's memory sat deep in me like a heavy stone at the bottom of a dark pool. Joey became almost ghost-like as I wrestled with conflicting doubts about his very existence and the possibility that he might even know something about Rosa's death.

I saw Rosa in the treasures of the biscuit tin. The pebbles, the feathers, and the abandoned chrysalis each told a story of my sister.

My father died in 1968 and our mother followed shortly after. In truth the light in their lives had gone out years before. The farm was sold and a hundred triple fronted cream brick homes of the encroaching suburb of Campbelltown replaced the vines and vegetables and sprawling orchards of summer fruits.

Later I moved to Sydney where I learned my craft. Today I write and illustrate stories for older children. Sometimes they tell of loss and sadness, and others are peppered with mystery and intrigue. But mostly they are full of the energy of imagination, of life, and inevitably of hope. I place them in bush settings, on farms, along creeks and rivers and I try to be faithful to the light and colours of these settings, and to the memories I hold of Rosa, Mama and Papa, and our summer friend Joey.


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