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Fiction by
Matthew Salesses

Roads by Mario Sánchez Nevado
Roads by Mario Sánchez Nevado

Fraser Island

The bus driver used a loud tour-voice that made his truths unquestionable. He knew that a good tour was the prospect of making space in the world. “I know all the bumps,” he had said as they began. “Thirty years I have been working here on Fraser Island. It will be a smooth ride.”

He had climbed like a bear into his seat, on the claws of his experience, and had adjusted the mirror to see his passengers. He had said it for their benefit, so they could concentrate on the scenery and not on his puddled, potholed road, the island suspicious with mud. They said no man was an island, the bus driver thought, but no one ever said no island was a man.

Now, as he drove back through the woods from Seventy-five Mile Beach, two Englishmen behind him collected the stories of a middle-aged Korean, like silver dollars.

“I lost my daughter one year ago—today.”

“Are you not mourning today, then?”

“I am traveling,” he said.

The bus driver listened and knew himself to be a man who could keep a secret. He was a man who knew the secrecy of preparation: all day through his microphone he had arranged the stories he had memorized into a map of silence-filler. His passengers had been quick to whisper how he laughed at his own jokes, but he had thick skin. He had given this tour a thousand times and knew how to clarify the island.

In the light from setting sun he avoided the divots on the mud roads by feel.

Today he had showed them all the sights, gotten to each in time to move on to the next, even in the rain. If it hadn’t been for the rain it would have been a perfect run.

He listed the places, looking in his mirror: Indian Head, The Pinnacles, The Colored Sands, the Maheno wreck, Eli Creek, Rainbow Gorge, Lake Wabby.

He noticed the boy and girl in the backseat touching shyly.

“I have been all over Australia,” the Korean was saying. “I have been to Uluru and Tasmania; and I have stored everything in my mind only, places to take with me when I pass into the next world.”

“What about when you go home?”

In the back the boy swept his hand over the girl’s shoulder, perhaps making the bet she wouldn’t mind, the moment gilded by the conversation’s pause.

“I often think, why don’t they pave these roads?” said the bus driver, swerving around a large puddle.

“I like a good dirt road,” the Korean said.

The bus driver said, “Fraser Island is the world’s biggest sand island. It is made up entirely of sand. I like to say that a good island is just like a person: if you can understand its one main factor, you can understand the whole thing. The sand is what makes the island the way it is. It is all sand, blown together by the wind and taken here from the coast of New South Wales. That is why we have the trees we do, and why the beach and dirt are our roads. So you could say the island is the way it is because of sand from the wind.”

The Englishmen pressed the Korean: “So how did your wife die?” one of them asked, and the other, “Does your wife not travel with you?”

“My wife has not traveled with me for a long time,” the Korean said.

“Then you are alone?” asked the bus driver.

“How did your daughter die?” pushed the one Englishman.

“We say she was overwhelmed by her inability to love a single man. It was a matter of great shame.”

“So now you are traveling?”

“Are we not all?” the Korean asked. He didn’t look away.

“Didn’t you have any sons? I thought you people were all about sons.”

The boy in the backseat whispered something to the girl and they both snickered. The bus driver readjusted himself, placing the seatbelt carefully over his stomach, and watched a few raindrops make fat planets on the windshield. They flattened and streaked off the side windows.

“You could call Fraser Island a sculpture of the wind—if you were a poet,” he said. “Geologically, the wind has caused the entire landform here. The predominant southeastern wind brings sediment with the waves from New South Wales twelve hundred kilometers to Fraser. Most of the islands farther north, including the Whitsundays, are made up mainly of coral. The wind has sculpted everything here, from the desert colors of the Pinnacle to the sand dunes, where the wind has pushed away the bush. That is why the dunes run northeast to southwest, and why Seventy-Five Mile Beach covers the southeast coast. The wind puts sand here and there, takes sand away—the island is ever-changing. So you could say sand is what makes Fraser Island the way it is, or that Fraser is a sculpture of the southeast wind, depending on whether you are a bus driver or a poet.”

His passengers turned their eyes to the native trees—their labels passed by too quickly to read, but the bus driver was ready with the names if asked. The Korean opened his window enough to trail his fingers in the air, and the bus driver said, “Most of these roads are old timber routes.”

“I wonder what happened with that fellow’s wife,” the Englishmen whispered to each other.

“Came and went. What does it matter? I wonder what happened with his daughter?”

“Doesn’t it? Where do you think he’s been since then?”

Terrible, beautiful places, the Korean thought, like a parade of nightmares and dreams—but everything passes. We have caverns of the mind, of the soul, of the body. There are caverns of the world. It was about where you were going next.

The first Englishman crossed and uncrossed his legs, then continued whispering, as if it took a twist of his body to wind him up. The bus driver stared intermittently into the rear-view mirror. He kept his concentration, knowing that they would go on talking, and go on to leave.

The Korean man had been in Australia for two years. The Englishmen had been traveling for three months, coming most of the way up the east coast. The boy was American, the girl German, and they had been studying the last semester in Sydney or Brisbane, and just met on the tour.

“We’ve got a home. That’s why we can travel,” one of the Englishmen was muttering. “We can see all of this and then go back to where we belong.”

The bus driver said: “Even the local Aborigines recognized the importance of the wind in the shaping of Fraser. It is linked to their creation myth. The Fraser Island Aborigines believe that the Creator sent his messenger to make the earth ready for them to inhabit, and this messenger shaped the land and the seas, and made the earth beautiful. But when the Creator’s daughter, who was the spirit of the wind, saw how beautiful the messenger had made the earth, she wanted to live there. She pleaded with her father until, finally, he allowed her to go, under the condition that she transform her body so as not to frighten the Aboriginal peoples that he was to set there. She agreed, and laid herself down in the sea and became Fraser Island.” The big finish took timing he had perfected: “So you could say that the sand is what makes Fraser the way it is, that the island is a sculpture of the wind, or that it is the spirit of the wind—daughter of the Creator—depending on whether you are a bus driver, a poet, or an Aborigine.”

A light fog misted the windows and drew out the squeaks of the windshield wipers, and the tree bark tanned like bananas with the sunset. One of the Englishmen packed a pipe and smoked it out the open window, watching the bowl redden and shrink and the smoke mix with the mist. The bus driver noticed but it wasn’t his bus and he let the man smoke carefully into the rain.

The American put his arm around the girl and kissed her cheek. She looked surprised but happy, shielding the second emotion with the first. They had sat in the very back of the bus from the moment they got on. Now the boy grinned; the girl raised a hand to his neck, resting it tenderly beneath his left ear, stroking it.

The Englishman not smoking watched and smiled at this, and the Korean wrinkled his nose and relaxed in his seat, and it was as if they had all been doing some work together and had just finished it.

The wind picked up and blew the sand over the road and the Korean man watched the tree falling in front of them.

The bus driver was thinking he had seen plenty of couples like this, made and broken in a day, come and gone, and men like these, and others with no families . . . they had all passed through, taking his name with them on their travels, while he stayed on his island and perfected the drive out to the beaches and back so that he could do it blind . . . the Korean and the Englishmen and the boy and the girl would tell stories of him when they left, but tomorrow on the island they would not even be ghosts, not even shadows when the night came, not sand or wind or gods . . . he, the bus driver, had a life here, he knew how to drive between the tides, he knew all the places to see and how to get them to give up their secrets.

The sun passed through the clouds, and finally the tree was all too visible to the bus driver. This tree, he realized with a deep feeling of community, was the end of his perfect record on the roads. In the mirror he watched the Englishman topple his cigar over the windowsill, watched the black flakes and red sparks fly up and get lost in the rain-drenched woods, still wet enough to put out this small source of fire before it could take. The Korean was shouting something in Korean and the boy and the girl in the back were breaking off a kiss. If the bus driver laughed at his own jokes it was because he had heard how comedians placed laughers in the audience to start the roar. He had heard it from his passengers. People were always saying he must have the greatest job in the world. He had his foot all the way down on the brake pedal.

I took a bus tour on Fraser Island in 03. The driver was a shell filled with tour information, or seemed to be. A character. I took some notes on what he said. A professor told me once that this story was about all people, which helped open up the revision process.