The Dam

By Loretta Smith

We built our first house on the drained wetlands of Aspendale, a southern beachside suburb of Melbourne. It was fashionable grey brick that merged with the grey clay until new grass and flowers grew and hid it from view. ​ Everyone in the street had the same secret to hide and, like us, managed to keep it hidden underground. Except when it rained a lot. Then the effluent from each of our septic tanks would rise until a truck came to suck it up with a fat, vibrating black hose that didn’t stop until it had had its fill. That first winter it rained non-stop. I lay in my room listening to the downpour gurgling along our gutters, my mother rushing to keep the stench at bay with perfumed sprays, my father cursing until his blood pressure matched the rising tide. ​ Behind all our houses in the street was a huge tract of farmland. It was flat all the way to the horizon. A couple of willows grew so far away you could imagine walking for days to get to them and then discovering they were just a mirage. We were told there was a dam on the other side of those trees but no one could see anything from the backyard fence. People said the dam was the colour of thick pea soup and stank even worse than all our sewage put together. We heard that slimy creatures lived on its bottom and anything that was thrown into it sank without a trace. All the neighbourhood kids were warned to not so much as throw a leg over their back fence. The creatures, we were told, could tunnel and surface without warning. We were only safe the other side of our paling fences, which were built high and deep so nothing could penetrate from the other side. ​ I wasn’t convinced the dam even existed. If there was anything, it was probably more like the puddles that formed spontaneously in our backyard. But the rumour about the clay bog that could suck you under like quicksand could have been true. Once our garden hose disappeared so far into the ground even my father couldn’t pull it out. I took to studying the cows that grazed between the willows and our back fence. They were my monster guinea pigs: if I saw one sink, then I’d believe. But they only ever chewed on soggy mounds of grass and looked bored. Sometimes cows would come up to the fence to scratch an itch. If they stayed long enough I’d pat their enormous heads and move my hand down to their bony hips. Often their bums and tails would be covered in wet poo. ​ That first Christmas I got a pair of plastic blue binoculars. I could, with a couple of twists, make the willow trees real. I could see their leaves moving in the wind but I couldn’t see any dam. Soon the neighbourhood kids were lined up on the crossbeams with me, waiting in turn to see something, anything. I’d never been so popular. ‘C’mon, it’s my turn!’ ‘Wait! I thought I saw something.’ ‘What is it? Come on!’ Then plop! The binoculars landed over the side in a sloppy cowpat. Roger was over the fence in a blink, slamming his shoes into mushy grass. He picked the binoculars up and flapped them about, ha ha, spraying us all with brown flecks. ‘Piss off!’ we all said. Then Jane called, ‘I can see something coming! Roger, quick!’ ‘Bullshit,’ said Roger but he scaled the fence so fast he got splinters in his fingers. ​ After that no one was interested in my binoculars. The twins down the road got dragster bikes for their birthday and everyone was lining up to bags a turn. I didn’t care. I hung off the back fence and stared out like Captain Cook looking for dry land. I thought I saw something near the willows glinting red and yellow but it was hard to see, even with my extra lenses. It’s easy to imagine things when the sun bounces off surfaces on the way to the other side of the world. ​ That night I dreamt of pea soup and turtles. ​ The morning brought heavy spring rain and the familiar rising smell. While we waited for the truck to drain our tank and suck the turds off our lawn a helicopter flew low overhead, its propellers slashing through the downpour. It was too wet to be outside but Mum let me go down two doors to Sara’s to play card games and checkers in the afternoon. I put on my raincoat and swished all the way to her doorstep in my black and red gumboots. I liked Sara’s mum and dad. They weren’t as strict as my parents. Sara opened the door, grabbed my hands and pulled me, giggling, along the floorboards in my socks. (Mum had told me Sara’s family didn’t have enough money to afford carpet yet). In the kitchen Sara’s mum was rolling biscuit dough into balls and listening to the radio. She opened the oven and put the first batch on the sink’s drain board. The smell made my mouth come to life. Just then a news bulletin came on and a man with a deep voice announced the police were searching for a missing girl who’d last been seen on a red and yellow tricycle. I stared at the biscuit tray then up at Sara’s mum. I suddenly felt a bit sick in the stomach and she looked at me with a little crease in her forehead. ‘They smell delicious,’ I said.

(Image by Chris Gresham-Britt on Unsplash)