The flood has returned. Seven years since I last smelled the unmistakable scent of silty water; my nostrils now flare, filled with the pungent aroma. I hear old women crying, their shrill ululations cutting the stillness of the air. Stepping outside, I am greeted with an awe-inspiring sight: the vast delta, no longer a parched and blistering scar, now a shimmering brown floodplain. Birds flock by the thousand, seeking the insects driven out by the waters.
Fertility has returned to the delta.
I stretch my arms above my head and peer up into the clear sky. The rain must have fallen far to the west, for many days, for we’d seen no sign of clouds. We were resigned to yet another dry summer, eking out a sparse existence on infertile lands. For as long as our old women could remember, the delta flooded each summer, bringing thick mud full of nutrients to revitalise our soil. Seven years ago the water never came, and we’d been surviving as best we could since then, hoping that, one day, they would return.
We live on a plateau above the delta, so we no longer fear the flooding, and watch the mighty brown stain spreading with joyful appreciation. Children of seven years and younger have never seen this, and many wrinkle their faces in disgust at the smell. I laugh at them, and tell them this is what life smells like. The disorganised mass swirls on the edge of the plateau, scarcely believing that fortune has been reversed. A year of plenty.
I lead a group down to the floodplain. We sing an impromptu reverence to the life-giving waters. My father breaks down, his face a streaming waterfall, smiling gap-toothed as we march. He tells us of a time when we lived on the plain, when the yearly inundation caused heartache and fear. The fertile soils were an allure we could not give up, yet we paid heavily for that privilege. After a particularly wet year a decision was made to relocate into the hills and come down only once the waters had subsided, to plant our crops and reap the benefit of the rich earth.
He falls silent as we reach the edge of the flood. Spiders scramble desperately to escape a wet grave, and I see one hauling a silken egg sac behind it. Birds shriek with glee as they feast, wanton and gluttonous. The water stretches farther than the eye can see before us. Already our bellies rumble with anticipation of the surplus of food we will reap. There are long months ahead though, and our people are still on the brink until the first harvest. Seven long years have taken their toll, but now we have hope again.
The water looks good, full of red mud and promise. The scent of fish and manure dominates all thought, and finally we are driven back up the hillside, laughing and joking and dreaming of the months to come. Women surround us, and in a grand huddle we approach the Elders. Old Woman Flood sits regally in pride of place, obsolete no more. My father steps forward and a hush falls over the crowd.
“Old Woman Flood, we have been blessed. The mud is fertile and plentiful. Our people will flourish this year!” Cries of joy follow this statement, Old Woman Flood lifts a hand and silence descends once more.
“For seven years I have sat mute, unable to answer the question: when will the floods return? You turned your backs on me and disdained me when I said we must return to the plains. Mother Flood gives, and she must also take away. We have been reprieved, but you must heed me. To take and never give back upsets the balance, and Mother Flood must have her due. We are people of the flood, we should not fear and we should not turn our backs on her. A drought is coming longer than any endured before, unless we give back to the great Mother.”
Old Woman Flood folds her hands in her lap and gazes serenely across the crowd. Shock is etched on many faces, and the other Elders shuffle with discomfort. Old Man Sun sidles forward, casting her a sidelong glance.
“Sun thanks Flood for her wisdom. The people will have the chance to vote on Flood’s suggestion. For now, let us enjoy the moment and begin our preparations for a productive year of farming!” Cheers ring out again and the crowd disperses happily, the outlandish suggestion dismissed from minds. I brood on it, watching as Old Woman Flood sits calmly, dignified even as her wisdom is brushed aside. She struggles to stand and I rush to aid her, supporting her knobbly elbow. Once vertical she turns to gaze up at me.
“You understand, Young Man Mud? The smell of the mud carries the promise of life, but it also carries the scent of death. They are intertwined, the cycle cannot be broken. One must take life before life can be given. This is the Truth of the Flood. I fear for our people, for they have turned their backs on this wisdom.” She sighs as she hobbles away.
I stand for a while, staring down at the flood. I think of my daughter, a nimble lass of seven summers. I think of my wife, pregnant with our second child, after losing all the others. An idea grows in my mind and I slip away quietly, to return to the delta.
I pause with a toe just touching the water. I hope they will forgive me, for becoming one with the flood, for becoming Mud.
I’m sure the QLD floods have inspired a lot of stories… I wrote this one about a week after the Brisbane floods. I was struck by the idea that, in times past, the flooding of the Brisbane River really would have renewed and regenerated the fertility of the area (after destroying a lot to be sure!) In these days of chemicals and rubbish and whatnot there’s really very little blessing to a flood. Still, the grass is growing back lush and green, and the strengthening of community is a definite positive.