The Jacky Winter Stories – 1
A Pair of Brown Eyes
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I still remember the day that I met Jacky Winter. As clear as yesterday, though it was thirty-six years ago.
We drove up from Ballarat to Irishtown and Dicko’s bushland block. Dicko being Mum’s new husband and so, technically, my stepfather. He tried to get me to call him ‘Dad’ for a while. To me, ‘Dicko’ seemed to suit him better – and besides, the other name was already taken.
It was a hot January afternoon, and I took myself off, to avoid the Creeps.
Mum said that I shouldn’t talk about my stepbrothers that way. ‘It’s hurtful, Keira. Their names are Noah and Will. Can’t you at least try to get along?’
I maintained that they were the Creeps, because they gave me the creeps, on account of their behaving like creepy critters. Those quick little mouse eyes, following me around the cabin …
Mum sighed and shook her head. ‘They’re just little boys. Be nice.’
I had turned twelve and I was at war with the world. Particularly the male half of it.
Firstly, none of those useless males was my Dad: my beloved, irreplaceable, dead Dad.
Secondly, males were just bloody annoying. My few little male friends from primary school had become distant and odd, and there was teasing and snickering where there used to be innocent companionship. I felt I was always on the outer in some joke.
Baffled and hurt, I just wanted them, and everyone, to let me be.
So, after lunch I skipped down across the parched paddock to the lower boundary fence, slipped through the barbed wire and into the State Park.
Will and Noah were forbidden to enter the woods because of the old gold diggings: the hidden shafts and rusty sharp metal, the rumours of cyanide and arsenic still potent in the tailings and the ponds.
Nobody successfully forbade me anything at that difficult time in my life. Not for want of trying, mind.
The temperature dropped in the shade of the trees, though my nostrils were still full of the stale smell of hot dust. I made my way down through straggly gum trees, crackling through the dry grey leaves and snapping twigs. Avoiding stands of prickly green wattle bushes.
At intervals, cicadas were drumming: relentless, intoxicating pulses of sound. Coming close to one of the giant, unseen insects, I could feel the waves of high and low pressure, painfully flexing my eardrums, filling my head.
The path was steep and barely perceptible, probably just a wildlife trail. At first I stomped to flush out snakes, but it has never felt right to me, making a racket in nature. Soon I slipped back into my old habit: placing one foot carefully, softly, in front of the other; trying to glide silently through the dry bush like an Aboriginal tracker. Failing, but always trying.
Now I could hear the rush of the hidden river, feel its humidity on my skin and moistening the dried snot in my nose. I smelled eucalyptus oil, damp humus.
A final, steep bank to slide down – and I was at the river, revealed only at the last minute through the dense undergrowth. Dark, tannin-stained water rushing over rocks, tugging at snags. The deep pool above the stone weir looked cool and inviting, eddies spun lazily across its surface.
I pulled off my scuffed boots, tucked my socks inside, rolled up my jeans to the knee and teetered across the slippery submerged rocks to the weir.
Almost there. Then the algae-covered boulders proved too slick – and I was waist deep in cool brown water, startled, then giggling at my silly self. I waded the last few strides to the weir and sat in my sodden jeans, feet kicking lazily in the deep water, hands spread on the smooth stone to resist the gentle pressure of the current.
A flash of electric blue! A kingfisher plunged from a branch above my head, arrow swift . It entered the water with barely a splash. Erupting an instant later, it flew back up and alighted on its perch. Two quick taps on the wood subdued the wriggling, silver prize, which it gulped down head first in several jerky motions, beak upturned. I watched the bulge of the fish slide into the feathered gullet.
I dropped my gaze at last – and looked straight into a pair of brown eyes. Looking straight at me.
My throat constricted; my heart stopped.
Then my brain started listening to what my eyes were telling her: it’s okay.
The eyes, you see, had the kindest expression of any eyes I’ve ever known. A soft chuckle wrinkled the outer corners and shook the snowy white beard and brows.
‘G’day. Sorry if I gave you a start, young lady. I was watching our handsome friend here, waiting for his dinner. Thought you were going to scare him off, when you fell in.’
The speaker stood up. I could see that he was the same height and build as twelve-year-old me, just over five foot tall and slight. His deeply wrinkled face and the luxuriant beard made him seem ancient, but his movements were lithe and swift.
The most remarkable thing about him, though, were his eyes. Such eyes! Big, soft, nut-brown eyes. Shining with an irrepressible joy and kindness.
‘I’m Jacky Winter,’ he introduced himself. ‘Like the bird.’
I must have looked puzzled. Back then, I could tell a cockatoo from a galah, a magpie from a mudlark; that was about it.
He laughed. ‘Little brown job. Flits around the bush. Like me.’
‘Oh. I’m Keira Smart.’
He nodded. ‘Pleased to meet you, Keira.’
No stupid jokes – no ‘Bet you are,’ or ‘Smart is as smart does,’ – like too many adult males, who unaccountably thought that teasing a girl about her surname was a way to make themselves liked.
I became aware that Jacky had a cleft stick propped up next to him, with a large fish hanging from it, hooked through the gills. He followed my gaze.
‘Brown trout. The river’s full of them, though they don’t belong here. Good eating. Want to learn how to catch one? With your hands?’ He held up his.
‘There’s one just upstream, beyond that snag.’
Jacky motioned me to follow him. He waded around the deep pool, on the soft, silty side below the kingfisher’s tree.
I saw. A dark shadow hanging in the stream.
‘You got to approach him from downstream. Slowly, keeping low.’
Half an hour later, the trout lay on the bank. Jacky caught it for me, in the end, after my clumsy attempts simply spooked the fish.
‘Reckon you’ll need both of these. They’ll make a good feed for you and your folks.’
I considered the trout. There was no way I could tell Mum and Dicko about Jacky. I’d never be allowed down here again. They’d up sticks and whisk me straight back to Ballarat.
‘No, you take them, Jacky. My family don’t like fish.’
Jacky shrugged. ‘No worries.’
I looked at the sun, getting low over the hillside. ‘I need to get back. Do you come down here much?’
‘Sometimes. When there are no visitors who need their privacy,’ said Jacky in a matter-of-fact tone.
Halfway up the slope, I turned back to wave, but Jacky was gone.
Next week in The Jacky Winter Stories:
2 – Kindling the Flame
Keira finds that Jacky’s love of the Goldfields bushland and its creatures is infectious – and in her case, life-changing.