After lunch, we wander along the foreshore of the lake. There’s a raised wooden path, shaded and cool. As we walk, she tells we how the lake formed. ‘Where the lake is now,’ she says, ‘used to a great valley full of trees. The local people used to come here and celebrate every three years, when the trees bore fruit. They would walk for days to visit with each other, to sit under the trees and share food and talk.’ She has finished peeling the mandarin by now, and pushes her thumb into its centre so that all the sections are forced out and away from each other. Then she peels one away from the others and hands it to me.
She keeps peeling away sections of mandarin and handing them out: one for me, one for her. Very even-handed. Very steady. The valley was shaped like this, she says, and cups one hand into an elongated shape, with fingers for mountains and her palm for the earth. ‘Well, she says, of course there were more trees than I have fingers. Anyway,’ she says, ‘they decided that the people around here needed water more than they needed trees, even some of those trees must have been hundreds of years old. And the people who cared about the trees were old, too, whereas the people who cared about the water were younger, and louder, and wrote more letters to the local council and such.’
The people who loved the trees were old, as far as people go, but they were also new as babies compared to the valley in which those trees lived, and the stories that occupied the valley. But the valley had no voice, and the stories had been forgotten, and nobody who was anybody of consequence was even able to imagine the shore of the lake when it was not a lakeshore at all; when it was just the midpoint on a downhill slope, and those trees were saplings, growing at their grandfather’s knees.’
I try to see the reservoir before me as a deep, narrow pocket, with slopes treed with bunya pines, but I cannot even imagine the absence of this park, or the road we came in on. My inability to imagine the deep spread of time embarrasses me. Even my mother, passing another segment of mandarin across to me, who still seems to me to have been in the world forever, has really only been alive for such a short time. She has never known what it was like to live without electricity or store-bought shoes in the world. She was not alive when the valley became a lake. I spit a mandarin seed into the water and try to picture it sinking down between the drowned skeletons of the bunya pines. Down to muddy clay that has surely forgotten what it was like to be dry earth, blown across a field by the wind.
I wish the reservoir was not a reservoir at all. I wish it was a true lake; something that had formed millenia ago, along with the mountains that surround it, and the stars that admire their reflections in its surface each night. I wish it was more permanent, more true. I wish it were less like me: a thing of frequent and terrible change.