Judith and Maribelle came to a wide stream of greenish brown water, the trees and undergrowth providing a natural screen along its edge. Several of the Warumbi were already there, women collecting water for their cooking and washing clothes, men and women standing in the water up to their knees, splashing and rubbing their dark skin. A pair of children played on the bank, a little girl making something out of mud, a little boy
swatting at leaves with a stick.
“The Warumbi always wade out into the stream to bathe,” Judith said, “but you won’t catch me doing it. There are crocodilians present with us, whether we see them or not.”
“Does anybody ever get attacked?” Maribelle asked.
“But they keep coming back?”
“This is the nearest water,” Judith said. “Now you stay back. I’ll get us some bathwater.”
“We’re going to do it here?” Maribelle asked.
“Where else, darling?”
“Uh, Judi, there are men over there.”
Judith grinned. “My dear, one cannot remain modest for very long in the wild. Those men are inured to nudity, and far too busy watching for crocodiles to be much concerned with us.”
Judith took the bucket and stepped with deliberation down to the water. She held her walking stick high with her right hand, ready to swat any submerged menace, and hurried to fill the bucket with her left. She brought it back to where Maribelle waited. “We can bathe here in relative safety,” Judith said. “But if you see anything coming up out of that water…”
“Haul ass,” Maribelle said.
Judith plopped the bar of soap into the bucket, along with a couple of rags she had brought with her. She began to undress, hanging her clothes on the branches of a bush.
Maribelle looked at the others. They were all naked, or almost naked. And none seemed
to be paying any attention to the women at all.
“What the hell,” Maribelle said. She unlaced her boots and set them aside, took off her socks and rolled them into a ball. She had clean ones to put on back in the hut, along with some clean underwear. She took off her blouse and shorts, her bra and panties, and hung them on the branches.
“Honey, you’re as red as a beet,” Judith said. She chuckled.
“Blushing, dear. You’re blushing.”
Maribelle looked back over her shoulder. Despite what Judith had said, at least one of the men in the water seemed to have forgotten about crocodiles and was staring at them. *Oh the hell with it. Let him look.*
Maribelle dipped one of the rags in the water and slapped it against herself. The water felt so cold it almost took her breath. She gasped.
“I’m afraid it isn’t five star,” Judith said, lathering up.
The water was cold, but it felt good in a way. Maribelle’s skin goosefleshed as she soaked herself.
“I’m sorry I don’t have any shampoo,” Judith said. “You’ll just have to rinse your hair out and run a comb through it.”
“That’s okay,” Maribelle said. “I haven’t had a good hair day since I left home, anyway.”
She lathered up and rinsed herself off. Birds and monkeys were conversing in the trees, the native women talking amongst themselves. The children laughed, chasing each other along the bank. Maribelle finished with the rag and dropped it in the bucket.
“Feel like a new woman?” Judith said.
“I’m awake, that’s for sure.”
Maribelle moved towards the thicket of bushes.
“Where are you going, darling?” Judith asked.
“I gotta pee,” Maribelle said. “And I’m not that liberated yet.”
“Don’t go far.”
“I’m right here,” Maribelle called. She couldn’t see Judith through the pattern of branches and leaves but was still just a few feet away. *It’s easy to disappear in here.* She finished urinating and stood up to move when the branches around her came alive. They trembled and twitched. Maribelle froze. Her heart pounded.
Then someone screamed.