Kirk turned his slingshot over in his hand. ‘This thing is going to hurt, Justine.’
‘Really hurt,’ said Steve.
‘Don’t smile, or I’ll aim it for the hole.’
I closed my mouth. Some of the teeth were taking a long time to grow through the gum.
Kirk pulled the elastic strap tight. ‘You’ve got ten seconds. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . .’
I took off through the trees as the numbers faded behind me.
I ran beside the river, sometimes looking ahead, sometimes at the currents. Soon I heard Kirk and Steve following. We kept the same distances between us, not trying to run away, not trying to catch up. We knew where the branches came low and close to our faces, where the roots crossed the path like rope and where the fallen trunks tried to block the way. Kirk, Steve and me moved through the jungle like Pop and Sandy running from the Japs. Pop never knew what the war was for. Why a river of blood? Why so many boys? What was it flowed in the veins of those bastards?
We ran and ran—they were not the enemy and I was not the prey. The river ran beside us, muddy and high, eating at the sides.
‘Coming, Justine!’ Kirk called.
One day I’d have a boat ready. A raft of branches I’d weave together with Pop’s towrope. I’d hide it at the top of The Choke, in the trees that stood underwater.
I turned and saw Kirk closer behind me now. I ran faster. I felt a sting in the back of my knee.
‘Got you!’ Kirk shouted.
I turned and Kirk held up his slingshot. I kept running. I felt another sting on my leg. I screamed, and the galahs flew up out of the branches screeching and screaming at the same time as me. I turned again, and saw Kirk pick up another stone. I stopped, my face throbbing as I scraped up a handful of rocks and dirt. I ran at Kirk. ‘No!’ I shouted. ‘No!’ All the cockatoos shrieked and blasted from the branches in sprays of white. I threw my dirt and rocks at Kirk.
Kirk cried out, dropping his slingshot, hands to his eyes. I picked up another handful of rocks, as he stood spitting dirt, wiping it from his face. Then he turned and left the river trail, running through the trees to our hideouts. Steve followed and I was close behind.
They tore at the branches of my hideout. They pulled away my bark-and-leaf walls, my towel-and-branch roof, my chimney of twigs. I threw rocks and dirt at them, then I ran to Kirk’s hideout and kicked at the top of the log. The log fell away, breaking into pieces. Kirk threw me on the ground and sat on me. I kicked and bucked, pushing up and down, twisting my head from side to side so that I saw the sky in pieces, dirt to sky dirt to sky dirt to sky.
Steve held the blade of his pocketknife to my face. ‘Better close your mouth,’ he said. I spat in his face.
‘Ugh!’ He wiped his cheek and I pulled my arm out from under Kirk, knocking the knife from Steve’s hand. Steve tried to take hold of my ankles but I kicked my legs too fast for him to get a grip. Our faces were red and hot, our breath hard and fast as we fought and struggled against each other as if it was the same war Pop and Sandy fought. If you lost what was it flowed in your veins, for what reason?
Kirk pinned my arms under his knees; I could only wriggle like a worm under the weight of his body. I pushed and grunted against him.
‘Enough,’ said Kirk and suddenly, as fast as we started, we stopped. Kirk put his hands in the air. ‘Smoko,’ he said, climbing off and sitting beside me.
Steve let go of my ankles and looked for his knife in the leaves. The knife only had one small blade, eaten with rust, but Steve said Dad gave it to him. That the knife could kill. Steve carried it with him everywhere. I sat up and we shook dirt from our hair and faces and out from under our clothes. We pulled off our shoes and tipped out the stones. I lay beside Steve, his shoulder against mine.
Kirk stood, hands in his pockets, looking up. The red gums leaned towards each other, as if they wanted to touch, the same as the banks of the river at The Choke. Kirk, Steve and me were held by the trees and their branches in the shapes of heads, faces trapped inside, pressing to see through the bark. Our three worlds joined. Our mothers were different but we all had the same name—Lee.
Kirk walked into the triangle of our hideouts, where there was a ring of stones like the one around Pop’s fire. Steve and me followed. Kirk sat and pulled a wad of White Ox and a crumpled cigarette paper from his pocket. Steve and me sat too, watching as Kirk licked the shiny edge of the paper and rolled the tobacco into a cigarette. Stray pieces of tobacco stuck out each end, like a cigarette for a scarecrow. Kirk pulled a box of matches from his pocket. The cigarette glowed orange and Kirk coughed. He blew out the smoke and it billowed around his face. ‘Fuck,’ he said, coughing into the smoke. He passed it to Steve, who closed his eyes when the smoke went down, then blew it straight into the air in a stream, as if he had always been smoking and was good at it.
I said, ‘My turn.’
‘You’re too young,’ said Kirk.
‘No, I’m not.’
‘You’re only ten.’
‘How come Steve is allowed?’
‘Yeah,’ said Steve.
‘And you’re a girl.’
‘I can still smoke.’
‘No, you can’t,’ said Kirk. ‘And don’t tell Pop.’
I kicked at the dirt. But I didn’t want to smoke.
Kirk and Steve passed the cigarette between them until it was so low it burned Kirk’s fingers. ‘Ouch!’ He flicked it into the air, then stubbed it out in the dirt with his boot. I scraped more dirt over the top. ‘Cigarette cemetery,’ said Kirk.
We got up, walked down to the river and sat on the edge. We threw sticks as far as we could, then stones to sink the sticks. The Choke was where the river was at its thinnest, the banks like giant hands around a neck. After the rain the Murray couldn’t hold, and it flooded, so the trees stood underwater. They stayed living until The Choke dried out and you could see the black water stains left behind on the trunks. You could see the cod moving across the river bottom, slow enough to spear.
We each picked up a stick and aimed. Kirk said, ‘If we had Pop’s Mauser we could shoot one and bring it home.’
‘Cook it on Pop’s fire,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ said Steve and Kirk.
‘Eat it with egg,’ I said.
Kirk aimed his stick at the water. ‘Kapow,’ he said, jerking it back. ‘Sorry, fish.’
Steve raised his stick and did the same. ‘Sorry, kangaroo,’ he said. ‘Kapow.’
‘Sorry, Mr Fisherman!’ I said and shot my stick.
Kirk and Steve laughed. We threw our guns out across the water and watched them fight the surface, then sink. Kirk said, ‘How about we leave you here, Justine? We could tie you to a tree. We could winch your mouth open so an owl could make a nest.’
Steve said, ‘Yeah, how about it?’
I said, ‘Yeah, how about it?’
‘Maybe next time,’ said Kirk.
‘Yeah, maybe next time,’ I said.
Kirk looked at the sky. ‘Better get back.’ We walked to our hideouts. Kirk came over and helped pick up my biggest branches, propping them against the pole-tree. Steve threw bark across the branches and pulled the towel tight for the roof. He took his knife from his pocket and cut the living branches for my shelf and Kirk shaped the esky. From inside my hideout I saw the forest between the branches. While Kirk and Steve fixed their hideouts, I scraped up piles of rocks and dirt as ammunition.
Soon Kirk said, ‘Come on. Pop will be waiting.’ We stood and looked at our hideouts, at the ring of stones, at the trees and the sky. Then we walked slowly, away from the Murray, along the path back to Pop’s Three.
Pop’s house stood at the top of three acres that he bought when he came back from the war. He got a job at the mills where he cut trees into sleepers for the railway. I’d rather cut the bastards then lay ’em, he said. When Pop was a prisoner in the war, the enemy made him lay a track between Burma and Siam for the Eastern Bullet. We were the living dead, Pop told the Isa Browns. We were ghosts. The house on Pop’s Three was pale green, stained with a line of dirt that rose up and down like a wave around the fibro. It was if the house had once stood underwater, like the trees at The Choke.
When we went through the back gate Pop was sitting at his fire, smoking. He threw a small stick into the flames. ‘Tea’s in half an hour,’ he said. He got to his feet and crossed the yard to the kitchen.
I never left Pop’s Three after Donna split. It was me that split her. I was breech, waiting inside her on my knees. I thought that was the right way to come out. Pop and Dad drove Donna to the hospital. Who comes out on their knees? Who comes into this world begging? I heard Pop ask the chooks. Poor bloody Donna. The doctor and the nurse put their hands on Donna’s stomach, trying to turn me, but I wouldn’t turn. I thought it was the right way. The breech nearly killed her. Donna stayed with Dad and me for three years, in the house in Moama, but she was sewn up so badly the stitches couldn’t hold; one by one they came apart, then when I was three years old she split for good. Pop asked Relle, Dad’s first wife, to take me. She said, Any kid but Donna’s. So I stayed with Pop.
It was Pop who found me at the bottom of the yard the night after my mother left. There was a barbecue. All the Worlleys and the Lees were there, drinking, listening to music. Saw you were gone, said Pop. When I found you at the bottom of the yard you were cold as bloody ice. Christ knows where you were going. I was looking for my mother. Was she at The Choke? Did she have a boat hiding in the trees? That was the night you met the big man, Pop would say. You remember that, Jussy? The first night you met him, when he was Ethan Edwards? Pop had taken me inside and sat beside me on the couch, holding my hand as John Wayne crossed the television on his horse, hunting down the Indian. ‘So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.’ Only thing to stop you crying was the big man, Jussy. I heard John Wayne as Ethan Edwards blasting the enemy. Pop said, You get ’em, big man, and then I slept. Every time I woke, Pop and the big man were there; Pop holding my hand while the big man cracked his whip at the Comanches.
Dad said my mother got on a train to Lismore to see her sister. He said she kicked up a stink because she didn’t want to do what a wife signed up for. When Pop asked the sister, the sister said Donna never got off the train and she didn’t blame her. If someone doesn’t want to be found, there are places they can hide; they can make a shelter in the trees, from branches, from rocks and things people don’t want. Tyres, milk crates, piles of bricks. They can use camouflage; they can hide in old cars, in skips, they can make a house from a couch or two doors. Dad said he had an idea where Donna was, a bloody good idea, but Pop said, Leave it alone, Ray. Donna is gone.
Kirk and Steve and me and Pop sat around Pop’s fire with plates of sausages and fried eggs on our knees. Corn and peas rolled to the edges. The coals in the fire glowed orange. Everything on our plates was sticky with yolk and sauce. Pop said, ‘Eat the bloody peas.’ We stole looks at each other and let the peas fall to the ground, kicking dirt over the top. Pea cemetery. Beyond the circle of light, trees moved in the wind and crickets called to each other. Pop’s fire held us together, burning with invisible flames that wrapped around us like arms.
Down at The Choke the river pushed its way between the banks. The water knew the way it wanted to go. Past our hideouts, past our ring of stones, past the red gums leaning close enough to touch—it flowed forward all the way to the sea.
The Choke is a mesmerising, harrowing and ultimately uplifting novel from the 2015 Miles Franklin winner.
I never had words to ask anybody the questions, so I never had the answers.
Abandoned by her mother and only occasionally visited by her secretive father, Justine is raised by her pop, a man tormented by visions of the Burma Railway. Justine finds sanctuary in Pop's chooks and The Choke, where the banks of the Murray River are so narrow it seems they might touch—a place of staggering natural beauty. But the river can't protect Justine from danger. Her father is a criminal, and the world he exposes her to can be lethal.
Justine is overlooked and underestimated, a shy and often silent observer of her chaotic world. She learns that she has to make sense of it on her own. She has to find ways to survive so much neglect. She must hang on to friendship when it comes, she must hide when she has to, and ultimately she must fight back.
The Choke is a brilliant, haunting novel about a child navigating an often dark and uncaring world of male power and violence, in which grown-ups can't be trusted and comfort can only be found in nature. This compassionate and claustrophobic vision of a child in danger and a society in trouble celebrates above all the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
Sofie Laguna, winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award for The Eye of the Sheep, once again shows she is a writer of rare empathy, originality and blazing talent.