Excerpt from 'Death of a River Guide'
Death of a River Guide
As I was born the umbilical cord tangled around my neck and I came into the world both arms flailing, unable to scream and thereby take in the air necessary to begin life outside of the womb, being garrotted by the very thing that had until that time succoured me and given me life.
Such a sight you never clapped eyes upon!
And not only because I was being half strangled. For I was born in the caul, that translucent egg in which I had grown within the womb. Long before my damp rusty head was crowned between my mother's heaving flesh as I was painfully pushed out into this world, the caul should have ruptured. But I miraculously emerged from my mother still enclosed in that elastic globe of life, arriving in the world not dissimilarly to how I am now to depart it. I swam within a milky blue sac of amniotic fluid, my limbs jerking awkwardly, pushing with futile gestures at the membranes, my head obscured outside the sac by the wreath of umbilical cord. I made strange, desperate movements as if condemned always to see life through a thin mucousy film, separated from the rest of the world and the rest of my life by the things that had until then protected me. It was and is a curious sight, my birth.
I didn't know then, of course, that I was about to be exiled from my imperfect circle, itself just exiled from its own enclosing circle, Mama's womb, the walls of which suddenly, less than a day before, began moving most violently and extremely. If I had been forewarned of all the troubles that were so soon to befall me I would have stayed put. Not that it would have made any difference. The walls pulsed and pushed solely with the purpose of expelling me from a world about which I felt nothing but good, and against which I had done nothing bad, unless my continued and vital growth from a few cells to a complete person can be construed as some aggressive action.
The roof and floor of my world worked ceaselessly from that time onward, the power of each movement more powerful than the previous, like a tidal wave gathering size as it skips over each new reef. To such a violent determination I, of course, could not do other than acquiesce, allowing myself to be battered up against the narrow walls of the birth canal, my head squashed this way and that. And why this indignity? I had loved that world, its serene pulsing darkness, its warm sweet waters, loved the way I could effortlessly roll this way and that. Who brought light to my world? Who brought doubt to my actions that were once innocent of reason or consequence? Who? Who started me on this journey I never asked to begin? Who?
And why did I acquiesce?
But how do I now know this? I can't know it. I must be fantasising.
And yet ... and yet ...
The midwife quickly and expertly unravelled the cord, then pushed her thumb into the caul as if she were Little Jack Homer searching for the plum and, ripping her thumb upwards toward my head, burst the bag open. A small deluge of fluid fell upon the dusty floorboards of that small room in Trieste and made them as slippery as life. A scream followed. And laughter.
Mama kept the membranes. Later she dried them, for the caul that a baby is born in is considered to be of the greatest luck, fate's guarantee that neither the baby born within the caul nor the possessor of the membranes will ever drown. She was going to keep them to give me when I was an adult, but in my first winter I fell badly ill with pneumonia and she sold the membranes to a sailor so that she could buy me some fruit. The sailor had the membranes sewn into his jacket, or at least that was what he told Mama he planned to do with them.
After my birth that night all those years ago, the midwife — who was known by the magnificent name of Maria Magdalena Svevo but whose true name, which she hated, was Ettie Schmitz — switched off the harsh electric light and opened the shutters, now that there were no screams of the agony of a woman giving birth to fall upon the ears of those in the street outside. The pleasant autumn night air and the stench of the Adriatic flowed in, that peculiarly close European smell of millennia of war and sadness and survival, and this smell battled with the open bloody smell of birth that scented that little bare room, with its draped blanket for a door and its crumbling plaster walls and its solitary silverfish-sanded picture of the Madonna touching a bleeding heart with the outstretched fingers of her right hand. Ah, those fingers! So perfectly long and soft and silky. So unlike Maria Magdalena Svevo's short battered pinkies.
Maria Magdalena Svevo got down upon her knees and with those rough worker's hands and a rag began scrubbing off what blood and birth fluids had not yet seeped into the floorboards, the stains of which, she mused, were an archive of human life, a record written in fading blotches of blood and wine and sperm and urine and faeces of the progress of life from birth to youth to love to disease to death. As Maria Magdalena Svevo scrubbed, my mother watched her large round back rock back and forth, a half moon silvered by the light of the full moon that filled the room of my birth with its peaceful illumination.
How do I know such things? Maria Magdalena Svevo, who had untangled the cord from my neck, laughing, and who had continued to laugh about it every time she saw me ever after, told me only a little about my birth, so it cannot be from her. And Mama told me almost nothing. She didn't even bother to tell me that I was born in Trieste until I was ten — after we heard the news that Maria Magdalena Svevo had nearly died there in somewhat comic circumstances upon a return trip to her home. Two drunk students had accidentally ridden their moped into her at the market. It was generally considered to have been typical of her strength and stubbornness that whereas the two students died within twenty-four hours, the octogenarian Maria, after spending three months in hospital, returned to Australia in better health than she had left it. But then, as my father Harry often said, she always took more than she was given.
When Mama paid her the standard fee for assisting in my birth, she felt underpaid and on the way out swiped a bottle of prized whiskey — my mother's only bottle of whiskey, which she had gained in consequence of a night of lust with my father. That, and her unwanted son, me, was all she had at that point obtained from my father, who was then serving time in a nearby prison. My mother frequently lamented she would have been much better served if Maria Magdalena Svevo had taken me and left her the whiskey. Maria Magdalena Svevo laughed at that too.
`You Cosinis are all the bloody same,' she would say. `You get given the gift of life and what happens? You want to throw it away! Your mother wants to give you away, and you were so unwilling to come into the world that you tried to strangle yourself the moment you saw daylight at the end of the canal. Huh!' And with that she would resume smoking her cigar, a vice she shared with my mother, from whom she was not above nicking the occasional smoke.
`She is only lessening her own life and prolonging mine,' Mama would say of such petty thefts, `and for the fact of having to spend less of my life in her company I am truly grateful.'
Which was less than honest, for in all truth they revelled in each other's company but were loathe to admit it. When Maria Magdalena Svevo did buy her own cigars, which was but rarely, she bought an obscure Austrian brand that came packaged in a cardboard box embossed with the double-headed eagle. `The last flicker of the empire,' she would laugh as she took the final delicious fruity draught of smoke from the butt end of the cigar before stubbing it out. Her favourite subject of conversation was the pleasure of the last cigar. `How many people never know that pleasure of the final smoke? Cigars, cigarettes, the principle is the same. Tell me, how many, Aljaz?' She always made my name sound soft and beautiful. Sometimes I even fancied she took some pleasure from feeling my name gravel up her rutted and tarred throat to slowly billow from her bloated lips in clouds of smoke. `Ali-ush, Ali-ush, Ali-ush,' she would incant like a nursery rhyme to no one in particular, and I would look up and smile and sometimes she would see me, smile back, and resume her monologue on smoking.
`Then on their deathbed they smoke first one, then another, then another, never knowing which is the last smoke before death, and being therefore unable to savour that last fragrant moment of taste.' She would point her huge cigar at me, waving it like a conductor's baton, to make her point. `And that is why, Aljaz Cosini, you must make it a point to give up smoking at least once a year — for then it is an annual pleasure to be looked `forward to and long remembered after. Like taking the waters.' She would tap the double-headed eagle cigar box, wink at me knowingly, and laugh. `Like empires renouncing wars.' I understood almost nothing she said, but it all seemed to remain with me, embossed on my brain like the double-headed eagle on that cardboard box, vivid, meaningful, if one could only understand what such things meant.
Maria Magdalena Svevo had innumerable stories about her last cigars. Some she spoke of fondly as great and memorable moments of romance or tragedy, others as times of small pleasures taken easily, remembered lightly. There were the melancholic last cigars, such as the one she smoked on the day she left Trieste to go and live in Australia, sitting on the balcony of the pension of her despised son-in-law Enrico Mruele, looking at the sun rise one last time over her beloved home town. She would recount most movingly how her tears dropped onto her hand and ran from there onto the cigar, adding a bitter briny after-bite to her last taste Of smoke. There was the amusing last cigar she had when she and Mama got jobs at the jam factory on the Hobart wharves, putting labels on the jam tins. The butt went into a tin of pineapple and melon jam. Maria Magdalena Svevo was a woman for whom quality was everything and she very much loved the Australian phrase `Sydney or the bush', which summed up much of what she thought about life. Why had she put the butt in a tin of jam that would be opened by some poor housewife in the new and hyperventilating Australian suburbia? `Sydney or the bush,' she would reply, burnishing the phrase with dark smoke as she spoke. `The jam they made was shit. People ought not be so foolish as to buy it. Either make good jam or don't eat it at all. That last cigar was my warning to the good Australian people upon this matter.' She would draw her right hand into a fist and throw a few jabs with the cigar jammed in between her fingers, a smouldering knuckle duster, to dramatise her final point. `Good jam (jab) or no jam. (jab) But never that shit. (jab) Sydney or the bush.'
There were the tragic last cigars, such as the one she smoked at Mama's funeral, the ash of which she flicked into the grave as the priest intoned, `Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.' This is a last cigar to which I can personally bear witness. The priest halted and his eyes rose in disgust. Everyone stopped looking into the grave and looked around at Maria Magdalena Svevo. She wore a black dress and a black hat with a sweeping brim in a style that may have been fashionable in Trieste in the 1930s. Certainly in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1968, it was not fashionable. On anyone other that Maria Magdalena Svevo it may well have looked ludicrous. On her it looked grand. From under that sweeping brim, her half-shaded eyes — those large dark brown eyes set so deep in wrinkles they looked like the half-soaked muscatel sultanas with which Mama used to make stritzel — with these extraordinary eyes, into which you felt if you dived you might never again surface, she fixed the priest with one of her most fiercesome stares. For a short fat woman, Maria Magdalena Svevo could look ferocious. She had, at such moments, what can only be called presence. In her sing-songy Triestino accent she said in a most commanding voice "`Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher. All is vanity.'" And with that, flicked the stub out of her hand. "'One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.'" The glowing stub rose and fell in the most marvellous arc before all our assembled eyes, a smouldering spiral of smoke descending into the grave. When our collective gaze rose back up from the grave, it was to see Maria Magdalena Svevo's high heels (that she had bought especially for the occasion) swivel and Maria Magdalena Svevo stride off.
Ah, Maria Magdalena Svevo, would that you were here now, as I lie drowning, here of all places, on the Franklin River, looking up through aerated water at the slit in the rocks, above which I can make out daylight. It is not very far away, that daylight, and I would, if you were here, tell you how much I want to reach it. Sydney or the bush. Life or death. There are no other choices.
It makes me laugh to think that after all your smoking it is me rather than you who will die of lung failure. My lungs no longer feel like gigantic balloons burning up with a fierce fire. Well, that is not entirely correct, they still feel that way, but it no longer worries me; indeed, my mind has become entirely separate from the pain and is drifting in strange jerky motions like the air bubbles I can see above me, darting first this way, then, as if seized by some powerful magnetic current, tumbling the opposite way. Like those bubbles, my thoughts seem to have no specific direction, as much as I try to fix them on one point and move them along the path it indicates. The fire in my lungs I observe like a campfire in the receding distance, and my mind passes on to matters of much more immediate import, matters which, if they are still incomplete, if I remain unable to follow through, I still at least see with a clarity that I never possessed at the time they took place.
And then, before I can think it, I know.
I have been granted visions.
Suddenly it is clear what is happening to me.
I, Aljaz Cosini, river guide, have been granted visions.
And immediately I am unbelieving. I say to myself, This is not possible, I have entered the realm of the fabulous, of hallucinations, for there is no way that anybody stuck drowning could experience such things. But contradicting my rational mind is a knowledge that I was never previously aware of possessing. And the rational mind can only reason against that knowledge: that the spirit of the sleeping and the dying in the rainforest roam everywhere, see everything; that we know a great deal more about ourselves than we ever normally care to admit, except at the great moments of truth in our life, in love and hate, at birth and death. Beyond these moments our life seems as if it is one great voyage away from the truths we all encompass, our past and our future, what we were and what we will return to being. And in that journey away our rational mind is our guide, our mentor. But no longer. The rational mind is not persuaded by the knowledge — my knowledge — that everything I am seeing is true, that everything I see has happened. No matter. They may not be the facts of newspapers, but they are truths nevertheless. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. But what connects the two? What remains? What abideth in the earth forever?
I have been granted visions — grand, great, wild, sweeping visions. My mind rattles with them as they are born to me.
And I must share them, or their magic will become as a burden.