Bindal Boy by Ian McIntosh

Bindal Boy by Ian McIntosh

Winner (adult category)

“See that over there my boy? That’s your totem. Strong, cunning, graceful and patient, like that crocodile; that’s what you will grow up to become, if you are willing to learn the ways of your ancestors.”

Edrick and his grandfather Fred were down on their haunches hiding in mangroves. They were ankle deep in soft, slushy, grey mud that gave off a pungent odour reminding Edrick of the musty stench of rotting fish. Even though they had only walked a short distance, mud had somehow managed to amble its way up the full length of Edrick’s gangly legs before recklessly leaping out across his brand new T-shirt as if it had been fired out of a scatter gun. “What was I thinking?” pondered Edrick, as he surveyed his mud speckled new shirt.

As Fred and Edrick peered through a thick tapestry of tangled, green mangroves, a majestic salt water crocodile silently meandered its way down the salt water estuary. His scaly, muddy, charcoal coloured tail swept rhythmically from side to side, pushing ripples out across the water before they ran out of momentum and faded secretively and silently back into the slow flowing waterway. The old Croc was moving downstream towards the mouth of the estuary. Perhaps the born hunter was instinctively heading that way in order to position himself in readiness for an ambush. Very soon there would be barramundi returning through the narrow inlet on the incoming tide in search of a feed of mullet. If not on the lookout, an unsuspecting barra may become the crocodile’s next meal.

“I reckon he’s about fifteen foot long,” whispered Fred authoritatively as he squinted and cupped his right hand across his wrinkled forehead to block out the sun’s glare. “See there, how his tail looks a little bit stumpy?” Fred pushed his chin forward, nodding his head slightly upwards in the direction of the crocodile’s tail. “That could mean that he got in a fight with a bigger crocodile and came off second best,” said Fred. “He might have won too,” he reasoned. “Or maybe he’s just a rough, old, ugly fella that was born all beaten up like me”, he jabbered with a grin, before releasing a soft nasally snicker.

Edrick smiled as he discretely looked Fred up and down. He mused that the aging warrior must have been through a few battles in his time. Fred’s body displayed many marks and scars. Most noticeable was the scared stump on his left hand that represented the remnants of where his little finger once resided alongside its 4 remaining counterparts. Edrick recalled how Fred had previously relayed with great gusto and embellishment the colourful account of the day he bid farewell to this diminutive digit.

Fred was a natural story teller. He had an uncanny ability to make even a mundane happening sound like an epic adventure. The story about losing his finger was no exception. One evening around a campfire, Fred had narrated to Edrick and a group of other Bindal youngsters that he had been out checking crab pots near the mouth of Alligator Creek on that fateful day. It had been a particularly fruitful venture for Fred and his fellow hunters. On that day, many crabs had disregarded their cautionary instincts and mindlessly clambered their way into the wire mesh pots in search of food. Lured in by the enticing smell of succulent fish frames, they scrambled in, one after another, only to find that they could not escape after eating their fill. Before long the pots were crowded.

After a while, the fishermen returned to retrieve the submerged pots. Pulling on the ropes, they dragged each heavily laden mesh pot up off the muddy creek bottom and in towards the bank. The men clapped and cooed as each pot broke through the murky waters surface to reveal an abundance of shimmering, dark green, speckled crustaceans, cluttering their claws and scampering about on top of each other.

About a kilometre away at Fred’s camp, family members could hear the faint sounds of cheering, clapping and cooees travelling in on the breeze from the vicinity of the creek. Instinctively, they gathered together some tea leaves, salt, alfoil and a billy can or two and headed off towards the creek. Shortly after, guided by the back and forth of cooees, the group rendezvoused with the happy fisherman. A shady tree was located, some wood collected and a fire started in readiness for a feast. As the raging fire diminished and settled into a bed of hot orange coals, a cut in half flour drum was filled with water and placed in the centre of the coals. Surrounding coals were then mounded up against the water filled drum to hasten the boiling process. During this time, captured crabs would be removed from the crab pots, placed into big metal buckets and sat in the shade. As soon as the water was boiling, the bucketed crabs would be carried over to be poured into the pot to cook.

These events were a way of life for Bindal people. Everyone enjoyed a good feed of crab and a pannikin of billy tea. “You can’t beat it,” Fred proclaimed as he told the story. “Bugger that fast food tucker; it’s got no flavour. Give me bush tucker any day,” he fervently stated.

As he told the story, Fred had conveyed to Edrick and the boys that on this particular occasion he was pouring the content of one of the buckets into a boiling drum of water. A big buck had decided that if it was to be his final moments alive, before plunging into the unsurvivable deathly heat of the drum of boiling water, he would go out fighting. As the gamely buck slid towards his watery grave he somehow managed to latch his vice-like claw on to the unsuspecting Fred’s dangling finger.

“I couldn’t work out what was going on,” Fred stated, wrinkling his forehead. “All of a sudden I felt a big pain in my finger,” he continued. “Then I looked down.” When he looked and saw the clawed menace clamped defiantly onto the base of his little finger, Fred let out a trumpeting bellow. He fell to the ground and rolled about as he wrestled and wrangled with the big angry buck. The buck held fast with one claw as he attempted to latch onto any part of Fred with his other flailing claw. Two of the other fishermen rushed to Fred’s aid, pushing him onto his back. One man secured the free claw whilst the other quickly bashed the desperate crab with a rock.

Fred told how he laid on his back in the dust with both of his knees pulled up to his stomach, grimacing and clutching his mutilated finger. “It hurt like you wouldn’t believe,” reflected Fred in a way that caused the listeners to clasp their own hands as if they were somehow experiencing the same pain that Fred had felt. His two rescuers attempted to pry the now bodiless claw from Fred’s mangled finger. They carefully broke one side of the gripping claw just enough so that Fred’s finger could be released. The smashed remnants of the dead, clawless crab lay off to one side. The crab had managed to escape the pot of boiling water and was now too smashed up and covered in dirt to be eaten. So in a way he had won. Fred kicked at the remains as he staggered over to the base of a tree before dropping to his knees. He felt faint as he plucked up the courage to look at what remained of his little finger.

Fred had told Edrick and the other boys that his finger was almost severed clean off in the incident. He described how another fisherman cut through the remaining skin with his pocket knife. Fred gritted his teeth, pushed his clenched right fist hard into his forehead and closed his eyes tightly as the fisherman amputated the dangly remains from the rest of his hand. Then they wrapped the jagged wound with a make shift bandage torn from Fred’s sweaty, dirty shirt. “Later on I used my finger for bait and caught a big old Catfish,” Fred had boastingly stated when re telling the story. Edrick was never sure if that part of the story was actually true or not.
There were numerous other scars and marks in various locations on the old man’s body. Fred said that he couldn’t remember how most of them occurred. He didn’t mind though. He said it meant that he could make up a new story every time someone enquired.

Edrick’s mind was drawn back to the present with a feeling of discomfort in his legs and back. He had been squatting for some time now and his young bones and muscles were starting to burn and ache. He shifted his weight onto his left leg and shuffled back in an attempt to alleviate the soreness. Edrick moved as carefully and quietly as he could. He knew that any noise or sudden movement he made could cause the crocodile to disappear under the surface of the water. If this eventuated, it would no doubt attract a disgruntled glance and disapproving grunt from his grandfather.

Edrick froze mid shuffle as Fred suddenly turned and looked directly at him. “Did I do something wrong?” he thought as he tried to read the contorted expression on his grandfather’s aging face. With eyes that implied a depth of wisdom and knowledge that only someone who had lived a lifetime could possibly convey, Fred looked upon Edrick as if he was about to reveal an ancient secret to him that he dare not miss. He paused for a moment as if to build anticipation and create suspense. Then, in a muffled voice, only moderately louder than a secretive whisper, the wise old elder looked deeply into Edrick’s eyes and declared, “He knows we are here you know boy. That Crocodile is watching us now.”

Trying to hide the sense of eeriness and trepidation he was feeling, Edrick gulped. Although they were on the opposite side of the creek and a good distance back from the water’s edge, Edrick knew all too well how quickly this old relic of the river could move. Just then, a chill shot up Edrick’s spine. He suddenly recalled another occasion when he and Fred had been out together. On that particular occasion, Fred and Edrick had been standing by a river bank observing another crocodile sunning itself on the opposite bank. Just as Edrick had thought how glad he was that the old crocodile was way over on the other bank, Fred had casually interjected that it would be the crocodile that you don’t see that ends up getting you. Edrick remembered how he had taken a couple of rather large steps backwards up the muddy bank in order to remove any possibility of an ambush from the “one he didn’t see.”

With that thought in mind, Edrick quickly threw his gaze searchingly towards the water’s edge that connected with the muddy bank only about three metres in front of their so called hideout. His thoughts began to run wild. ”There could be a crocodile hiding just below the surface right in front of us,” thought Edrick. They were a reasonable distance back from the water and somewhat protected by the thick coverage of the mangroves. But, Edrick suddenly felt as vulnerable as a turtle hatchling attempting to flounder its way to the beckoning ocean before having its journey and life threatened by one of the many adversaries that lay between the remnants of its egg shell and adulthood.

Edrick’s mind was racing. Without warning, a hidden monster of the deep could explode out of the water faster than a snake strikes at its unsuspecting prey. The man eater could be upon him before he and his aging grandfather had time to subtract their feet from the sticky, suctioning mud and make their escape from within the twisted and mangled mangrove trap.

Suddenly, as if the moment had been pre planned by nature, a school of mullet erupted from just below the surface of the water, directly in front of where the two humans were hiding. Startled by something bigger, or perhaps just to break the monotony of their perilous existence, the mullet darted off in several directions making a noise like someone throwing one hundred river stones as hard as they could at the water. Splash, splash, splash, splash!

Edrick’s entire body shuddered and then tensed. In his panicked state, he attempted to scuttle back and make a hasty retreat before he became the next meal of the man eating beast that he imagined at that very moment was hurtling towards him faster than his lanky, spindly legs could carry him away. But, as if to play a cruel joke on him, the sticky mud gripped mercilessly to Edrick’s feet, causing him to momentarily lose his balance and almost plop straight down into the rancid, soggy muck.

Fred had remained almost completely motionless throughout the ordeal that lasted approximately one entire second. Edrick quickly recomposed himself, trying to act as if nothing had happened. Fred cupped his hand firmly over his mouth in an attempt to suppress his desire to laugh uncontrollably. A garbled snicker somehow compelled itself through the corner of his dry lips. Fred removed his hand from his mouth, shook his head and gave a condescending snicker. “What you doing boy?” he grumbled, as he shook his head and looked at Edrick, who now sported a sheepish expression on his face.

Fred then turned to face back towards the water. “He’s gone now boy,” he said calmly. Edrick looked to where he had last seen the crocodile. Sure enough, there was no sign of him. “He’s probably still right there, where he went down,” said Fred, motioning again with the forward movement of his chin and tilting back of his head. Edrick searched with his eyes to see if he could pick the spot where the crocodile had submerged. “Right there just in front of where that tree branch is hanging over the water,” pointed Fred with his spindly black index finger. “You wanna swim over and check for me boy?” asked Fred in a jovial tone, a wry grin on his face.

“Bugger that Grandad,” gasped Edrick as he stood up to relieve the discomfort he was feeling from squatting in one position for so long.

“He’s still watching us you know boy,” uttered Fred as he rose to rest his hand on Edrick’s shoulder. “Don’t ever think that a crocodile doesn’t know you are there. That’s when you will get into trouble.” Edrick gave an acknowledging nod.

“Come now boy,” said Fred in an upbeat, cheerful tone. “Let’s head back to town. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a bit hungry”.