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When the River Died

by Jason Fischer

When the river died, its bones ran through a wasteland of our making. House-boats rested on crusts of salt, torched where they lay or stripped to the framework. Weather-beaten jetties jutted over dead ground, stretching for the water that they could never touch again.

And out in the middle of the cracked salty jags, a thin ribbon of red. Still water, tainted with algal blooms and two centuries of superphosphate. All that was left of the mighty Murray River, an artery that once carried steamboats by the hundred, a Nile that flooded and receded as it wished, coating the plains with thick, healthy loam.

When the river died, the pelicans left, and they never came back. If they found fish somewhere else, no-one knows about it.

All that was left of Australia’s fruit bowl, mile on mile of orange groves and vineyards, now dead sticks in dust and waving in the hot winds. Irrigation pipes led down to the salty muck, thick-throated and ultimately thirsty.

When the river died, it killed a hundred towns. Grand old hotels, rotting hulks that were witness to the empty, dusty streets. Cars without the fuel to run them left junked, burnt out. Rows of quaint country shops stood silent, the windows smashed and the doors broken or gone.

The only man left in each town was the statue of the lone Anzac, features nearly worn blank from the acid rain. Most of these stone soldiers faced the river, the old lifeblood, and perhaps it was a kindness that their eyes were worn smooth. “Lest we Forget” each slouch-hatted figure exhorted us, but they’ve been long abandoned. Nothing left but these ghost-soldiers to defend the dead places.

When the river died the arcologies were born, great spires of steel and glass, hiding the children and grandchildren of the evacuees from the murderous sun. A million of these pasty folk, living in a fluorescent hell with each other’s stink, praying that the desal plants will work for one more day.

But if you were to leave that crowded place, and knew the signs, the ways to strain the briny water through ash and stone, you could survive. If you figured on a method to trap the tough little creatures that come out at night, and knew which of the bitter succulants were safe to eat, a whole continent could be yours.

When the river died, a soft nation was finished, but a tough new land was born.

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