Welcome to "The Damming," a novel in eight parts
written by John Kinsella and published exclusively in The Cortland
We present you here with "Chapter 1: Abandoned Vehicle."
Chapter 2 will be published in our Summer 2003 Feature. Each
subsequent chapter will appear in our Features consecutively until the
conclusion of the novel with Chapter 8. We hope you enjoy this
special treat from John Kinsella and The Cortland Review.
Chapter 1: Abandoned Vehicle
A scene set for us: worked up over a hundred years,
the intrusive foliage peeled back, the underlayers of
salt risen up like moods breaking the seals of
suppression. It's a psychological stage, with the
materiality a hindrance, the desolation just a
stimulant or downer, depending on ignorance or malice
in the observer, the real deal happening off stage,
just hinted at. A place of sun or low cloud and
fierce electrical storms; the light is always tinged
with red or a violent blue or is stark white, a
burning, glareanti-light. Closing your eyes,
you see a blackness darker than light. It makes you
paranoid. In the height of summer a red filter is
imposed over the place, the deadwood rising out of
the lakes and scaldings like atrophied veinwork
escaping from a corpse. There is no nice way of
describing it. Which isn't to say you can't construct
beauty, at least simulate it. At sunrise and sunset
you feel compelled to do so, but any number of pasts,
presents, and futures run together, collide. Tenses
change. You speak from outside the place, buried in
the black mud that's just below the white of the salt
crust, or beneath the tinfoil surface of the water.
There is never, however, any doubt that some or many
have worked hard to make this place as it is. It's
not random, not simply a product of natural
occurrences. And if change and a gradual movement
toward degradation have been encoded from the
beginning, the code has been read and
over-interpreted in more recent timesit is
clear change has intensified, the undoing has been
They crop to the edge of the reserve, to the furthest
reaches of the salt. A white salty foam kicks off the
rim of the lake and flicks up the gradient to burn
the already dead and dried wheat stalks. There are
levels of death, it seems to say. The strong
easterlies are unrelenting at this time of
yearDecember. Rubbish pits gouged into the sand
by the Inland Ski Club regurgitate tinnies and
stubbies, old DDT drums. There is no room for
pathetic fallacy here, unless the dead are really
living and this is a place already of the other side.
But it gets into the intruder's body so directly that
it's impossible to think of it as anything but a
malevolent living entity itselfa complex virus
on a massive scale. Members of the Ski
Clubfarmers, shire workers, drinkers at the
town pub, the publican (ringleader)possibly
shells of the virus hollowed out and working in a
relatively immune environment by subterfuge. It's a
risky business, thoughtechnologies like this
have a way of coming unstuck when you least expect
it. The consequences for future generations can be
In the nature reserve surrounding the lake, spent
shotgun shells litter the sandy patches between salt
bush. Duck hunters, rabbiters, fox cullers. Illegal
of course, unless it's the ranger, and he doesn't use
a 12-gauge. Flies gather around the barbecues, though
no one's used them for agesit's a gesture, and
a focal point for us to imagine out of. The wandoo
and York gums incline to the West with a political
Civic-mindedness and public pride are evident to some
degree. Corrugated iron demi-sheds, barbecues,
toilets crammed with plastic and encrustings of
long-ago-upset stomachs. Signs placed by a government
department about appropriate behaviour, and the right
and wrong way to navigate a speedboat about the lake.
The ranger and police rarely come by, and the
burnt-out car in the middle of the car park is
testament to their lack of interest. It's only
recently been fired, so it's a minor miracle that the
sketchy patches of bush, the vast swathes of
deadwood, and bordering crops didn't spark and go up.
It's as if no amount of burning can damage things
further, a black hole whose gravitational force is so
overwhelming no incandescence can escape; rather, all
is sucked into it. God seems not to register here on
any scale we might all understand, but to speak in
private ways to specific individuals. Or maybe this
is just optimism, and there's no talk at all. A
spiritual void. What the surviving and persisting
species of birds and animals that live here manifest
as transcendence, is brought in with them from the
outside, and maintained as air in a bathysphere,
requiring constant fresh feeding from elsewhere.
There are bad stories about the place, but people
have forgotten them. An ambush of the local people,
late in the nineteenth century, by
"settlers", a rape about forty years ago,
and the disappearance of a couple almost six years
ago. Surprisingly, this final catastrophe is the
least discussed or even remembered; it's as if
amnesia has fallen over the district. The missing
couple were locals, two women living together as
married, who despite harassment had kept pretty well
to themselves, making paper by hand and running a
small hobby farm. The usual stuff that you get around
these parts, outside the vortex of the lake, about
unnatural behaviour and punishment, surfaced in the
local news at the time; came up, but that was it.
Sure, it was splashed over the state news for a week
or two, and the place attracted sightseers and police
for a while, but it passed quickly, the smell of the
lake in high summer and the driving easterly curbing
curiosity. Anyway, the details are lost to the salt
The glare. Ultra violets. Sunburn. Skin cancer.
Ted Wagoner drives slowly along the Kenning Road, his
mid-range tractor dragging a massive silver field-bin
toward the top paddock. He can see the header working
the canna wheat in the distance, and he eyes the sky
through cabin's tinted glassstorms are
expected. The moisture levels are okay, but the air
pressure is dodgy. Last year, storms meant an
insurance job, hail flattening three quarters of
their crops. He is thinking about his missus watering
trees with the small tractor trailing a tank. What
the hell, it's going to piss down anyway. It's part
of her tree-planting project, part of that
"healing the land" idea she's got going
with one or two of her girlfriends in the district.
Of course, there are plenty who think she's a
meddling bitch. He inclines that way himself, though
he defends her in public. What else can a bloke do?
You can't give other blokes an inch. The Project. He
hasn't yet told her that he bulldozed that bit of
scrub down near the lake, the bit edging the reserve.
She's not healing that bit, so she doesn't go there
often. She won't find out for months. He'll deal with
it when it comes up. And the neighbour bordering that
side has a scorched-earth policyclear-felled
his place to the lake. His father was the one
responsible for the damming in the first place,
founder of the Inland Ski Club. Ted doesn't own a
boat, though he enjoys getting out there with his
neighbour Jim Prosper.
Ted pulls over, aching for a piss. He steps down,
turns his back to the wind, unzips, and throws his
head back as he relieves himself. The piss swirls in
the breeze and somehow sprays back over his boots. He
swears, shaking them and making the situation worse.
The urine is dark yellowhe's dehydrated. He
often forgets to drink, and the toxins build up. The
tractor ticks over in neutral, and his large frame
seems an extension of it. The pissing and the
revolutions of the motor interconnected. This is what
he's thinking. He likes being a big bloke. He recalls
pissing against the tin wall of the shelter down at
the lakefull of beer, it was clear and
voluminous, solarising as it sprayed through
perforations from shotgun pellets, made by him and
his son when they were pissed and shooting duck a few
years ago. They shot a bagful that time. His wife
refused to cook the things because they'd come from
the reserve, so they stuffed them full of strychnine
and placed them near the chook pen for the foxes to
Ted shakes his head as he zips up. Memory is strange,
he thinks. Comes rushing in when you don't expect it.
Not so bad with a good memory, but the bad ones are
also unpredictable. Can mess up a perfectly good day.
He feels dizzy. Something is trying to edge its way
in. He starts to whistle. He pulls himself up into
the cabin. Lets out the kind of yell he'd never allow
anyone else to hear. God! God! It makes him think,
briefly, about his promise to do the church
firebreaks. Time has passed, someone else must have
done it or they would be in contravention of the
firebreak laws. And the minister wouldn't let that
On a bottleneck of land between the large lake and
one of the smaller lakes, wattlebird nests clump in
she-oaks. Seed-eating mulga parrots pick among the
carrion of tiny snails left exposed by the
evaporating waters. The polish of dead wandoos feels
like skin. Pleasant and comforting to touch. That's a
memory that comes after the damminga few Ks on,
the sluice gate, then the dogleg into the river
The header red on the crest as dust kicks up from the
corrugations in the gravel road. Jam trees and York
gums in symbiotic clusters read like purple prose in
patches along the roadside. This is the long paddock,
where stray sheep feed after a long dry winter.
Gemma slows down and pulls the Range Rover toward the
edge of the road.
Gemma, Bill says, you'd better drive up onto the
bank, this bloody thing is too wide. He braces the
windscreen as Ted crawls towards them.
Don't stress out, it can get past easy. Gemma gives
Ted a wave, but his return wave comes as he's past
them, and both strangers feel his apparent neglect is
a sign of hostility. Ted is battling with memory and
saying God! God! God! over and over to block out the
sound of his own thinking.
He was yelling, says Bill. He was yelling at you for
not giving him enough room.
He doesn't own the fucking road, Bill, just calm
Ted wonders, just before waving, who they are and
what they are up to, but the occasional outsider does
visit the lake, so it passes quickly. He is wondering
now what his wife has asked him to do before
returning to the house that evening. The first link
in a chain reaction that takes him back to the city
and his marriage a quarter of a century ago, She'd
insisted on arum lilies for her bouquets, which upset
his mother and aunties. Even in this unholy dry place
they live in, she maintains damp shaded bowers around
the home where she cultivates lilies, or they
cultivate themselves. During the drought they seemed
to impel him to make special journeys in the truck,
out to the stand pipe to collect water to keep them
A twenty-eight parrot flashes past him and takes his
eyes across to his parents' old place, derelict in a
paddock. The house isn't really so old, certainly no
more than fifty years but, in its decay, gives the
impression of an ancient history it has no right to
claim. Eaten by the salt, it looks like a folly in a
snowdome that is permanently being shaken. Maybe this
isn't so far from the truth, the Meckering Quake
having finished it off in 'sixty-eight. The river,
the clotted artery fuelled by Slow K and sodium
chloride, a hundred metres from the front verandah,
winding out and shadowing the road.
Decoration. That's what those lilies were at the
wedding, just decoration. Why does he bother reading
something into it? Maybe she put that lily in the
abandoned vehicle for the same reason. Just to make
something look better than it was. That car had
really bothered hershe rang the police
continuously, but by the time they got to it, it had
been stripped and burnt out. Just a few books and
papers strewn about the saltbushes, driven against
the deadwood by the wind. It wasn't a bad car,
either. A late-model Toyotaif you like that
kind of thing. Police reckoned it wasn't stolen, but
they didn't know or wouldn't say, any more. Elle
tried every trick to wring them for info. No use.
Ted feels a flush of pride at the stubble lines of
the crop's harvested sections. The neat
figure-eighting of the corners, the fine curves
following the contour banks all shine through. It's
his good work. His secret code.
Up on the high ground, along the granite outcrop over
to the right, he notes that the Wagyl track seems
brighter than usual, as if the sun has been caught in
the rock. Even where the track descends to the soil,
nothing will grow. His wife has told him that he
shouldn't crop it anyway; that hasn't stopped him
trying. He isn't disappointed at the failurehe
just had to try. His brothers expect it of him.
Prosper admires his efforts but reckons he should
quarry the granite if nothing else. Prosper is
Turning into the paddock over the cattle grid, he
scrutinises his son's movements on the header. From
outside the tractor cabin, we see Ted suddenly
gesticulating, his face a grotesque contorted mess.
It looks like a case of possession from an exorcism
film. Generic in its presentation, no film in
particular. Dehydration? Can it cause such an effect?
His face moves in and out of focus. His son has seen
him and is watching from the header cabin, bemused.
Ted is pumping the tractor's accelerator and the
field-bin is hopping about, almost jumping the
hitching pin. Close observation of the mouth-muscles
and lips, and a good translator, might produce:
Where's the fire truck, you fucking little moron! I
employed that little prick Dom because he was your
mate, but I knew he couldn't be trusted to do a
decent day's work. There might be other words there
as well, but they're coming out so fast it's hard to
Ted drove the tractor straight at the header, cutting
his son off as he was about to turn for another run.
What's got your balls, you silly old bastard?
Where's Dom and the fucking fire truck?
He's gone into town to get a few beers, so what's the
No fire truck, no harvesting! If either of you had
any brains you'd be fucking dangerous. And even
fucking worse given there are storms around.
Okay, okay, don't stress out, man. I'll stop until he
More time lost. What's the fucking use!
Curlew sandpipers around the lake's edge grow uneasy
and disperse. They vanish nowhere. Everything is
suddenly still. The storm breaks as Gemma and Bill
are finishing their sandwiches. The lake explodes
with lightning. The flies disperse. Rain starts to
belt down. Wiping the crumbs from her jeans, Gemma
pulls her legs into the car and slams the door. Wow!
This is amazing.
Bill, who has been feeling peevish, comes back
sarcastically, Yes, amazing. We might even get fried
by lightning. That'd be amazing.
You're such a stick-in-the-mud, Bill. Boring.
Though the storm is intense, it passes quickly. The
sandy ground drinks the water and feels almost dry
again when they step out.
I'm going to take a closer look at this old car, Bill
says. Dragging his heavy body out of the passenger's
seat, he pauses. The air is still close and, slightly
asthmatic, he begins to wheeze. He thinks he can
sense Gemma inwardly laughing at him. He wonders why
she hangs out with himshe's got it so together,
as her young friends always point out to him. He
bends his head towards the window and looks at her.
She's gazing out into the lake, probably not even
conscious of him. He's not sure what's worse. The
light on her copper hair annoys as much as it entices
him. He turns away and studies the car. Walking off,
he picks up a soggy book jammed in saltbush. He
studies the cover, turns a few pages, and then
erupts, as if the energy of the lightning storm has
finally connected with him and jolted him into the
present. Hey, check this out, can you believe it! he
Gemma almost breaks into a run. She's there. Geez!