River Crossings

Further Information

  • Current Issue

River Crossing, or, Variations on the Derbarl Yerrigan by Henry Ward

Once, you found yourself on the bank of a wide river with no memory of your journey to that place. You stood on that sandy bank staring into dark water while a name that you could barely pronounce repeated itself inside your head, each time with minor variations on a vowel here, a consonant stressed or unstressed there, as if, in fugue, the sequence looped back to a beginning stranger than before.

You couldn't remember if that word was the name of the river or of something else. You forced your eyes from the water whereupon they fell upon a man sitting by a post, watching you. Tied to the post was a simple ferry with enough space for a dozen people. Occasionally, someone would emerge from a trail that threaded through the bush and hand a coin to the man. Then you would watch the ferry float away until both figures disappeared into the low scrub of the faraway bank, and your gaze returned to the water. The name turned itself over in your mind; variations, subtle changes of sound, until the word meant something else, and left you grasping at its origin.

The ferryman returned alone and your mind went quiet. In your pocket you found a coin. You examined it closely and noted the markings on either side: a face in profile, symbols you could not understand, images too small or obscure to catch their meaning. The coin found its way into the tough palm of the man and you were soon floating on the black water while the sky darkened. The man spoke.  

“How did you come to this place?” he said.

The voice was rough like those hands and seemed to fill the space around you, routing silence from its hiding places.   “I’m not sure,” you offered.  

The man used a single, long oar to push and guide the ferry across the water. You looked back towards the shore, just a strip of pale colour against dark now, and a grip of confusion seized you, so that you couldn't tell whether you were coming or going; if you were approaching that shore or leaving it.  

“I’m not sure,” you said again.  

The man hummed a song as the sky filled with the sound of wind. You knew this song which sent its rhythms into the air, and you found yourself staring into the dark water while the name that you could not pronounce turned over and over in your mind. The wind and the song and the name all washed together and became one thing. Only then your confusion subsided.   Under the clean skin of the water you saw pale things writhing against each other. Here and there you saw bulges in the unbroken surface of the water like mushrooms pushing up from the dark earth. With every slap of the oar those bulges retreated deeper into the darkness, trailing long tendrils.  

“Did you travel for long?” the man said.  

The air emptied once again, and so your confusion rose. You lay down on the smooth boards of the ferry and you couldn't tell whether it was the sky or the water that darkened above you. You closed your eyes as your head swam.  

“Yes, I did,” you managed to say, but you could hear yourself lying.  

“Where did you come from? What did you see?”  

“I don’t know. Many things.”  

“Yes, there are many things to see.”  

“Some are not worth the worry, though,” you said, remembering now.  

“That's true.” The man frowned. The ferry had stopped moving.  

“Forgive me for asking,” you said, “but what is this place?”

The question seemed the one to ask; the confusion, the lumpy river full of writhing things, the sky and water mirrors of each other, the landscape familiar but forgotten, the man and his ferry. But you were embarrassed.  

The man looked at you with an expression of mild surprise. He laughed. “I don't know. The river, I guess. I don't know the name. Thought you would,” he said.  

“I can't remember it,” you said. "I must be confused."  

“Confusion has its place,” the man said, nodding, as if convincing himself of the fact. The ferry bumped against the shore and the man helped you onto the sand. “I feel confused too, sometimes,” he said, “It's nothing to be ashamed of.”  

The man squinted, though against what you couldn't tell. He had the appearance of someone peering through frosted glass into an abandoned house. He moved his lips a few times, tried to speak, gave up eventually. You were angry at the man for telling you nothing, for offering nothing, for taking everything. The sun was behind the hills.  

“It has an old name,” he said finally, “Can’t seem to remember it.”  

You surveyed the shore. Here and there lay bulges in the sand, some clear where the tide had washed them clean, others covered with sand and grit. The dark shallows seemed full of these pale creatures, crowding each other out until the tide deposited them onto the sand, where the combined toll of sun, wind, and rain eventually returned them to the dirt. “The river's rotten,” you said.  

The man turned and stepped onto the ferry and pushed off. The flat swish of the oar receded and left its cadence resounding in your mind. It resolved into a name that repeated with minor variations.

Author statement

River Crossing, or, Variations on the Derbarl Yerrigan, translates the Greek myth of Charon and the crossing of the river Styx to a West Australian setting in order to interrogate the themes of memory, dispossession, and historical amnesia in colonial Australia.