It is mango season in Darwin, Australia. That time before the monsoon comes, when the whole world, or this part of it, tenses tight, and is covered with a thin film of sweat. The air you breathe is liquid heat and the sky crackles above with purple fire but not a drop falls.
This time is called the madness season as well—when stories get wider and children go swimming in the mangroves late at night, wishing the ghost-tendrils of jellyfish far away. This is the time when mangoes hang like bloody tumors, waiting, and when backpackers go missing from highways. It is as if there is a membrane of plastic stretched around the earth, waiting for that first drop, and we are all stretched with it. Everything is heavy-sweet with that fruit and air.
We are all in the car on the way to the camping ground: Becca and Michael from next door with their Indonesian mother and Australian father. Georgia—the army brat, who likes to say that her feet and hair belong to her Aborigine grandmother, but everything else is a white potluck. Alex—the used-to-be Bhutanese refugee who threw away everything including his old name when he arrived here. And there’s me, who left New Zealand with my family two years ago when I was eleven to come to this place where the air never seems to thin. We are the mutt-crew, miss-fits, mixes.
Dad didn’t want to be one of those greener-grass-seeking Kiwis filling Australian park benches at night or lining up at soup kitchens, but Northern Territory police recruiters came knocking, and Mum said—like all wives of policemen seem to have to say—that the uniform did suit him. Two years later, “kiwi” is just a word we call ourselves when we’re winning at some sport. I can turn i sounds into u sounds when it works for me, pretend to be offended when the neighbors give us a hard time about the cricket or about being runaway dole bludgers, and Dad makes us all wear something black on rugby days.
“One weekend,” said Mr. Donald, Becca and Michael’s father. “We’ve got one weekend, I reckon, before the rains come, and we’re going to try to make the most of it.” Mr. Donald, or Mr. D as he’s asked us to call him, has a boat, parents born in this city, and can remember the cyclone of ’74: these are the kind of roots my dad likes to pretend we will have one day.
“Go have fun,” Dad said to me. “Maybe you’ll find a great camping site for us too.”
“You’ll probably get to talk to Michael a bit,” Becca said when she asked me to come along on the trip.
“Georgia’s coming too. Michael likes her better,” I argued.
“It’ll be like on The Bachelor,” said Becca. “He’ll choose the best one.”
Becca and I learned about being pregnant and periods together, but she got both first. Before then, we still thought that periods came out of nipples. How else are the holes made so that later milk can come through?
A few months ago, when Becca first started throwing up, and before she realized it was a baby making her this way, I went with her to see her aunt. Her mother’s sister had just moved here from Lombok and still believed in things like religion and old stories. She showed us her book of natural remedies, where it read: “Take guava leaves, the new ash-green tender ones that grow in groups of three. Chew and swallow. This is the cure for stomach troubles in the morning. For worse, such as amoeba, use papaya seeds. Split a ripe papaya, the scent is a mix of sweetness and sick, and scoop the seeds, pulp and all, from its red-orange belly.”
These seeds look like fish eggs, round gray embryos nestled in an orange-white jelly bed.
“You purée them with cloves of garlic, and then freeze until needed. To use, break off little bits with a paring knife and then swallow. You will barely notice the taste, only the cold sliding down the back of your throat.”
You do taste it, though. Just a little, the garlic coming back to your tongue hours later. At first you don’t know where the taste comes from and you try to wash it away. Listerine, bubble gum, breath mints. And then you remember that it was the papaya seeds.
But it wasn’t long until we knew it was a baby making Becca sick. Not a bad burger, not nervousness about a math test we didn’t study for. So we went to the aunt again. “No parents,” said Becca, and this sounded right, like it had come from a movie we had watched.
The aunt said that Becca would have to stay overnight. I should go home. The aunt smelled like turmeric and sweat and I wanted her to hold my hand like she held Becca’s. I wondered if the grains of colored rice she pressed to her forehead every morning ever fell off without her wanting them to.
“No baby anymore,” said Becca when I saw her next, a few days later. Georgia and I came over to swim in her family’s pool. We sat on the side of the pool, putting on sunscreen and drinking smoothies and we told Becca all we had learned about love and other things.
Don’t get your tongue in the road when kissing or it’s called French.
Boys don’t like it when you say you love them first.
Fizzy drinks can keep you from getting pregnant. Coke is best.
“That last one is wrong,” said Becca. “Trust me.” She tilted her head and smiled like she knew more than us now.
“Who’s the dad?” I asked, because that’s what I’d heard other people ask other girls who had babies, gone or not.
Becca shrugged. “Could be anyone.” Because another girl at school, who ended up keeping her baby, said that once.
“You slut,” Georgia said, because that’s what everyone called those girls with babies, and then they called them fat too.
“What do you know?” said Becca. She laughed too, but it was a laugh I wasn’t sure we were a part of. We jumped into the breaking cool of the pool and scared the birds in waves from the trees.
“You’re daring God and the mangoes,” said my mother when I told her about the camping trip. “The rain’s coming.”
“She’ll be fine,” said my father. “She’s got Becca. And the Donalds won’t let any crocodiles get to them.”
“I’m not worried about the crocodiles,” said Mum. But she packed me jam sandwiches for the drive and remembered to slip insect repellent into my backpack where I would find it later.
“The Donalds have been good to us,” said Dad. “She’ll be fine.”
“You already said that,” said Mum.
Putri, Michael and Becca’s mother, is driving today as we go to the camping ground, and she wears a too-new white cap with the name of some American sports team on it (the kind you can find at any old fair). She says that the news stories on the radio, about teen-pregnancy rates rising, and an abandoned baby in a sewer in China, remind her of a story from the Dreamtime that goes like this: In the old world there were the Wandjina. Spirits, who placed their mark on the earth, rounded and crevassed it with the pads of their fingers. They breathed heat and the skies answered with rain. And, today, they say the Wandjina can sometimes return as unborn children. They free themselves from the rocks they created by stealing into the soft cave of a womb. Unwanted or wanted, they try to return.
“My belly felt hot when it had the baby in it,” Becca said to me where her parents couldn’t hear, when they arrived to pick me up early in the morning. The sky looked like an old photograph gone yellow around the edges. “And now it doesn’t.”
Georgia says to Putri (now): “What do you know about any Dreamtime stories, anyway? Where do you come from again? Are you all stealing our stories now?” She is kind of joking but it’s hot and the gum is running low.
“Sheesh, touchy,” says Putri, and gets Mr. D to pass around the peppermints she keeps in the glove box. We count roadkill and abandoned truck tires as we drive past the floodplains waiting to be filled.
The night before the trip I slept with my bed bumped up to the window, trying to catch the first cool breath of any storm that might make it as far as the house. The air almost crackled, lifted wisps of my hair up straight. I lay awake and thought of the water hole that would be at the campsite and whether I would be brave enough to take off my shirt with my chest in my bikini around Michael and the others.
There’s a cliff at the campsite, one spot in the water below where you can jump and not break anything. Nose or leg or neck. That, I am brave enough to try. Michael might watch.
The signs at the park gate warn of floods and crocodiles. Only four-wheel drives allowed beyond certain points. Mr. D says there’s only supposed to be freshwater crocs in the water hole near where we put up the tents. They won’t hunt you like the bigger salties will. Just don’t step on one, he says, don’t back it into a corner. Mr. D squints at us with eyes like a cane toad’s. The skin on his fingers is damp like a toad’s skin too. Ranks of eucalyptus, with bark hanging off in loose scabby shreds, line the bank of the river. Wading in the mud by the shore there are birds with too-big feet that look like toys that have been taken apart and put back together again with parts from other toys.
After lunch and when the tents are set up, Georgia and I watch Michael and Alex in the water as we lean back against the stones of the riverbank. Those stones dig patterns like spider bites into our elbows and the backs of our thighs. Michael has a long stick he pulled from a Bloodwood tree. Before lunch he sharpened the end with his knife and peeled off long strips of pink-white bark. “I love the peeling part,” he told us. “Makes me think of skinning a rabbit. So smooth, the body just slips out and lies there naked.” Red dust stains the upside-down bowl of sky.
Michael poses on a half-submerged rock, staring at the water as if he can see through it, because he knows we are watching. I wonder how many times he has stood like this, in the sun with his shirt off, without us watching. He whoops once and jumps, with his spear, into the part of the river that is deepest.
Except for the dragonflies, dipping their jeweled bodies above the water’s oily brown, it is still now. Michael is somewhere, deep in the brown, down with the catfish and the barramundi, who watch him with their hook-jawed glares. Deep in that darkness bodies might touch and bump against each other. The gray of a fish, the thickness of a crocodile. Under water, when you lift rocks and put them down again their sound is as far away as a distant clink of a hammer on stone. I look at the water and curl my toes between the gaps in the rocks.
The water splits and Michael climbs onto the shore. His skin is thin against his ribs and goose bumps are raised in an army of nubs. His nipples, too, are hard and purplish. A blue vein tracks across his abdomen, forking over his hips and heading downward beneath his shorts. The shorts were gray before he got in the water, now they are black, like the soft clay found in pockets along the creek bank.
“Did you see that?” Michael shakes his spear toward where the mangroves begin downstream.
“See what?” says Alex.
“The turtle, it went that way.” He slides down on the rocks next to us. His footprints on the rocks dry quickly, slowly eaten smaller and lighter by the sun until they disappear.
We used to have a bucket out the back of our house where the frogs laid eggs. We weren’t allowed pets (“We might move at any time,” said Dad), but Ben, my little brother, and I begged to keep them and watch the eggs turn into miniature frogs. The water turned stagnant. The eggs hatched into tadpoles, but took forever to grow into frogs. Most died and floated, pale bellies up while the others nibbled their eyes, lips, tails away.
“You didn’t feed them enough to grow,” said Dad. “Toss them a lettuce leaf every now and then.” Since Becca’s baby went sometimes I dream of throwing up live tadpoles and that stinking water.
That first night at the camping ground we hunt cane toads in bare feet. Any other time, any other place, people might call you crazy for running around with cricket bats, homemade stakes. But no one cares how a cane toad dies, because they’re poison to the other animals, and mango season is when they lie in clumps in corners, piled up on each other. They leap at our knees in the dark. In the dark we grow larger, voices are louder, people can do things they can’t in the daylight. We can kill and touch. All because of the mango season.
The next day we all go swimming in the river. Last night the air was thick with heat and sound. Possum sounds, bug sounds, maybe a human somewhere crying. But that last one I may have dreamed.
“Not long now,” says Mr. D as he looks at the sky. “Those clouds are like a potbellied pregnant cat about to spew.”
Putri wears a blue one-piece, and we can see bruises on her spine, dotted here and there like crumbs along a path, where the straps don’t cover her.
“I’ll come back with a camera later,” she says, over her shoulder. “We’ll collect some memories.”
We pump our legs in the brown water as if we’re riding invisible bicycles to nowhere. Michael brought a pink and orange inflatable ball and we toss it back and forth, playing keep-away, but the person we’re keeping away from always changes. I try to get close. Michael has a scratch on his side where Georgia’s nail accidentally dragged. She smiles at me, knowing.
A foot touches mine. I think it is Michael’s. Then—one hand, once. Grabbing where it shouldn’t be. And both Michael’s hands are in the air, calling to Becca to throw him the ball. Mr. Donald slips from my side. The hand is gone.
I keep pumping my legs. Putri watches Becca from the rapids, and I swim away from the ball. Flies gather on the slime at the edge of the river.
There was a night, months ago, when Georgia and I slept over at Becca’s. Becca and I brushed our teeth in the bathroom together, and when we went back to Becca’s bedroom Mr. D walked out the door. “Just brought you girls some fresh towels,” he said.
“Stay out,” said Becca, and she looked at Georgia, hard.
Georgia said she didn’t feel well later that night, after Putri made us avocado masks for our faces, and she went home before morning. Maybe she got unwell because of those light beers Michael slipped us even though Putri said no. It could have been because of another reason. How am I supposed to choose the right or wrong version?
I move toward the shore. “Bored already?” yells Mr. D. “You kids have such short attention spans these days.” My towel is warm from lying on the hot rocks, and it wraps me all around. I once went on a school camp near the desert, and there was a dust storm which turned our bags out, threw underpants into bushes, unraveled the spare toilet roll that the packing list said was mandatory. When the winds stopped, it looked like something else had happened, something to make middle-schoolers giggle and teachers worry. We shook sand out of our underwear for days.
After lunch, Mr. D, Michael, and Alex go fishing. The rest of us sit in the shade at the campsite and suck ice cubes from the fuel station down the road that also sells things like yogurt frozen in tiny pots and miniature boxes of cereal. The type of food that people buy when they’re on their way to somewhere else, or only stopping for a short time.
Michael and Alex come back first. Michael has two fish gutted and hung by their gills. He waves them in the air at us. “We caught one each,” he says. “Dad and me.”
“Where’s your father?” asks Putri.
“Gone to the bathroom to wash up.”
Georgia, who went to the bathrooms earlier to wash her hair before the moths and flying ants start to collect near the lights in the showers, comes back with Mr. D. He is burnt from a day spent too close to the glare of sun on water.
Georgia sits on a spare camp chair next to me. “I’m tired,” she says, and she is trying to breathe in, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Her lips look like she is wearing blue lipstick, the kind of shade we would put on at a store from a sample tube and then mock.
“Don’t know what’s wrong with her,” says Mr. D. “Do you have asthma, Georgia?”
Georgia nods. In my family’s New Zealand home, where pollen used to ride thick on spring breezes and mold grew because our walls were damp and Mum couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it, my brother and I used to have asthma too. We lived off the little colored puffers that went in our backpacks to school and we had spares in the bottom drawer in the bathroom. I remember asthma as something like inhaling cling wrap, or liquid plastic. Something that seals off everything that can breathe and sticks worse the harder you try to suck air through it. There was a horror movie I once watched with Michael and Becca in secret, and the serial killer wrapped meters and meters of cling wrap around the heroine until all you could see was the ghost of a mouth through the layers of plastic in a big surprised O, and a bush of blond curls tumbling out the top, fat like coiled worms.
I think all this while Georgia tries to breathe.
“Her inhaler is in the tent,” says Becca. Mr. D. jumps up and runs to the tent, rummages through our shampoos and deodorants until it is found. He goes over to Georgia.
“I’ve got your inhaler. Sit down,” he says, though she already is sitting. “Now breathe.”
After five, ten minutes, Georgia no longer wears blue lipstick, and Mr. D. smiles.
“See,” he says. “Things like this don’t need to be a big deal even when we’re a million miles from nowhere. We’re a team, we’re survivors.”
Putri cooks the fish. Wraps them in foil (to ward off aliens, she says), stuffs them in the coals. Mr D chops a mango to make a salsa. Splits its cheeks, scarred by wasps and the tiny jaws of ants. He splashes it red with tomato guts, confettis it with coriander and pepper. A squeeze of lime to finish it off.
The three of us girls sit and stare into the flames of the campfire.
“Wine for anyone? Don’t worry, I won’t tell your parents,” says Mr. D, like a joke. He is in a good mood, and pours wine for us all in orange plastic mugs, even though none of us answered his question. It is still early, and the fish will take time to cook. We crack peanuts out of their shells and pretend to sip our drinks.
I am not sure exactly when or why something changes between Putri and Mr. D. We are all waiting around the fire for the fish. Putri gets up to check on her phone. Mr. D. gets up, too. But, all in one second, he nudges into her near their tent, almost like he tripped, and then she is on the ground and her wine that was in her hand is all over her and a sleeping bag lying just inside the tent’s open door.
“Mum,” says Becca.
“Just leave it,” says Michael.
“What a fuckup,” says Mr. D. He turns away from Putri.
For a minute there is no sound but the deep voices of crows as they gather the courage to edge their way closer to our scraps and peanut shells.
Then Michael laughs like he thinks he should. He and Mr. D bump their mugs full of wine together. Alex almost lifts his, but doesn’t in the end.
“Cheers,” says Mr. D.
“Come on,” says Georgia to Becca. They walk off.
“Typical,” says Mr. D. “Can’t take a joke.”
I stay sitting, just for a minute, watching a crow tempted by the glint of foil in the fire. Then I say to Mr. D: “You know, my dad is a cop.” He just turns and gives the potatoes a good poke with a skewer. The silence feels like a balloon’s skin. One prick from a needle in the right place and that skin means nothing. Poof, out the air goes and nothing can keep it in. Everything that was hard and couldn’t be broken is really like water, like the rain or the river, and isn’t solid at all.
I walk away from the campsite and down to the river where Becca and Georgia stand under some ironwoods. As I reach them the rain starts, but the sun is still shining and the rain comes through it.
“How is it raining when it is sunny?” says Becca.
“My mum calls it a monkey’s wedding when it’s sunny and raining at the same time,” says Georgia.
“Mine calls it the devil beating his wife,” I say, because I remember my mother saying that in the kind of way that you don’t know you remember until the moment to recall it is there. “The rain is the wife’s tears.”
“Who’s right?” says Georgia.
“Everyone and no one,” says Becca. And for a second I think that she is talking about stories the Aborigines tell us, her aunt’s Balinese herbs, the greenstone necklace that hangs around my mother’s neck. We’ve untied these things from what they used to mean in their root worlds, taken them to be filled.
“It makes no sense,” says Georgia.
“That’s okay,” I say.