Whenever the air had that lilt in it, smoky with distant yearning, Blair knew it was time to leave. It was the way of things—the mountains singing his name, and bent winter grasses springing back to life, no longer yellowed and broken but bright with promise and as supple as a young girl’s limbs. He grinned. The flight was on time, the hire car shiny and the service impeccable. He loved this part; it simmered with secret irony and a dazzling kind of worldly justice.
“Your bags, Sir?”
“I don’t have any.” His reply was followed by a quick, wry smile and an unnecessary tip. In a country that did not view tipping as a must, the gesture almost always provoked delight and surprise. “I have everything I need, right here with me,” he explained, throwing his thousand-dollar briefcase onto the back seat of the hire car, barely noticing the scuff to his impeccable shoes and the small smudge of mud that splattered his tailored trousers. It had begun to rain. His pulse quickened. He was beginning to escape the airport, the smells of overly deodorised people, and the slicing of cool air-conditioning on his skin. The rain beckoned and a whisk of breeze settled somewhere beneath his shoulders.
“Lucky, some people are lucky,” the hire-car attendant mumbled as he walked away. “They travel and buy the stuff they need when they arrive. Not like the rest of us who pack and carry and pay airport baggage fees.” For some reason the small, flame-haired man with the sharp, sinewy movements of a forest animal played on the attendant’s mind for the best part of the day. By nightfall, though, all that mattered was battling the traffic. The inexplicable, wealthy traveller was entirely forgotten.
Blair barely noticed the roads he had become so accustomed to. The west coast was neither busy, nor overly peopled. Passing the small townships with their handful of houses, he was far more interested in not colliding with wallabies, possums or little devils in the encroaching darkness.
It was countless years since the first time; years and years of visits and returns, visits and returns. Each time he swore he would go elsewhere but the magic roared through his blood now. At the back of his mind he knew it would never change. It was an otherworldly realm; he understood that better than most.
In barely an hour, he would arrive. His spine tingled, his legs ached for movement and his hands became twitchy. This was always the hardest part. Winding down the car windows, all of them, he invited a frivolous gale to bluster around the interior of the car, spurring him on. His laughter was happy and loud. Inhaling for long, piercing moments, he poked out his tongue, tasting air that was wet and wonderful. Narrowly, he missed a family of Potoroos holding a meeting in the centre of the road.
The car brakes screeching sent them scattering, only one looking back, marsupial eyes piercing Blair in the car lights, its tender expression afraid, flaring. “Intruder!” And then it, too, hopped away, melting amongst the ferns.
Hesitantly, Blair stepped from the car. He couldn’t drive on without checking the road. He kneeled down to be sure. He could not smell blood, or see it, and there were no sounds of anguish coming from the bush. He sighed with enormous relief. All was clear. He waited several moments, listening by the immediate roadside, but nothing else moved and no eyes shone in the dark. All was well, it seemed. He would have to be more careful. Distractions were sloppy and, for moments, he feared he was becoming superficial and careless. That would not do!
It was 12.23am by the car’s clock when he pulled into the driveway. Looming a little under the brash lilt of the three-quarter moon, the hut was a solid bump in the bush. The moon slid behind a knot of cloud. It wouldn’t be full for several days yet.
Blair did what he always did. He parked the car beneath the hut’s steep awning so that the wild weather of the west wouldn’t ruin it, then switched the lights and ignition off and peered around, stilling his pulse, a broad grin blazing from ear to ear. Soon, the change would come. Already, the air was closer to his skin than it could ever otherwise be. He sensed the first tufts of milky dew lingering beneath shrubbery, murmuring to him.
Quickly, he double-checked the car windows, winding them all fully up, except for one. Then he undressed, neatly laying his trousers down on the car’s back seat next to his briefcase, then his other clothes with the socks last and his shoes carefully placed on the driver’s side floor. Briefly, he shivered, but that was always the way of things. It would become easier now.
It was the curl of mists that woke him. They spliced through the half open car window, luring him with the promise of escapades. He opened his eyes and stretched, sniffing the dawn, understanding that the rain had set in.
Leaping from the car, his first impulse was to find the others. He paused, sending out little sounds into the dark, searching. With a quick glance to the car and another to the hut, he dug his short back legs into the ground, growling at the human surrounds, then rushed and bound into the undergrowth where the old tracks lay unspoilt, active and well used, urging him on.
In mid-run he stopped to scratch away a large twig tickling him behind the ear, tapping his whiskers and reaching down to the light stripe along his chest. He knew he was slightly different to the others but only in that he sported a splash of ginger on his rump, instead of white.
Wriggling away from the twig, he turned. As if with a memory he gazed in the direction of the car. Impatiently, he knew he should remember this place, but time was short. Sniffing the air, he took his bearings. On turning forward, he noted the shine of his thick black fur. He shook, rain splashing onto leaves, his warm pelt a familiar recollection from other times. He felt grand!
A bevy of short, low barks from the shadows alerted him. Car forgotten, he scurried like a huge black rat into the underbrush, to greet his long-lost friends. Together they ran through the ferns and scrub to find shelter from the day. The next night, they would hunt and, if he was lucky, perhaps play together—but that was a rare treat.
He split from the group as they rushed to their dens. Time for sleep—the daylight was no time for a little devil. For moments, he paused, unsure. He needed his den but could not smell the trail. Guessing, he plodded to an inviting groove beneath a long-decayed tree stump.
Swinging boldly and squealing loudly, a huge possum dropped from a languishing gum tree. Pausing briefly, the possum rushed to its destiny with a meal, making eye contact for a mere flicker.
The distraction was off-putting and for moments he eyed the stump with a bared grin, considering what to do next. The scent was unusual, offensive. He proceeded with care. Strange rustlings haunted him. He knew those sounds. Turning to run, he found himself pinned in the glare of torchlight, counting two people with strange flashing lights bouncing from them, their chatter garbled, excited and incomprehensible.
He roared, baring his mouth and arching his back, screaming at them to go away, to leave the bush and to stop claiming it as their own. He was small compared to them. Even his ferocious roar was more of a bluff than anything. With one last nervous screech, he turned and charged through the shrubbery as fast as his legs would carry him. He was surprised and frightened. But there was work to be done. Nothing followed him in the dark.
The voice was familiar. Croaking with small sounds of delight, he tumbled into the warmth where the voice had whispered.
Vaguely, like a prevailing knot at the back of his brow beckoning him, reunion was the reason he returned, year after year. In all of the long, vigilant days of his ordered life, there was always somewhere he would rather be. He longed for the rowdy wash of pungent mud, the riotous insects, the scurrying to a cryptic scent, and his belly rumbling, keen to crunch moist lizard bones and old bird flesh.
Often surprising him in his reflections, the thoughts were his secret knowing, buried, obscurely present in his heart. His nose twitched constantly for the scent of the winds, the bearers of the messages that would let him know – it was time, again, for a holiday. And here it was, amongst the prodigious, ancient trees dribbling with foliage and secrets, their memories abounding—his true home, his own fertile secret—a message from the bush and the netherworld.
Sometimes, life crossed barriers and boundaries and the gentle creatures found a way to make their presence felt and heard amongst the invaders, doing their utmost to heal the broken earth, the dying rhythms, the primeval beginnings and the vital knitting of structures painted within the very breast of the earth from the dawn of time.
Inching, poaching lichens sprayed lavishly upon the bare-breasted breathing of the saplings and their older cousins, the giant-ish woods of origin. Multi-coloured fungi sprawled through the ranges, carefully hidden but often peeking through the damp, bewitching forest beds. It was the biting chill of fresh and iced mountain waters that he loved most, the rivers and lakes carrying the language of creatures buried in wholesome pursuit, floating in and out of days made from the fragile workshops of splendid elves; from imposing nature spirits unseen by human eyes and yet plain as day and night.
Walking through manicured parks of artfully planted foreign trees, his pristine other self often revelled in the crunch of leaves underfoot—the more the better—the deepest piles were best! He never cared that others saw him as a man clothed in carefully stitched coverings made by costly artistry. He barely noted the strange looks they gave him. Unmoved by their judgements, he wished only to bury deep into those leaves, to hide amongst them, and go to sleep.
His tailor abhorred the carelessness with which he treated the hard work of others, and would often say so. But there was never a response, only a look of hardened grief that there were too few voices such as his, speaking the very same words with the same magnitude about the wild world where other beings lived and breathed, yet were cared for almost nought in the never-ending quest for more.
Reunion would creep upon him as he sat in tight shoes made for millionaires; as he pulled on sleek socks where the scent of nature eluded him and the strange coverings he wore were part creature and part mineral. Reunion hollered to him from the travail of the desk he worked at, cut from a precious being shut down in its prime then cut into corners so that man could call it his own, a neatly pasted price tag stuck to the priceless wood.
Reunion called him on days when he muttered politely to others and studiously mimicked their ways lest his actions spell trouble and reveal his otherworldly self. But he had studied hard. He was lauded as one-of-a-kind, the best of his profession, perhaps almost a genius amongst men, and that, alone, allowed men to look the other way from his twitching nose and the scuffed, uncared for, costly attire.
If only they knew that it was reunion that made him all of the wonderful things they said about him. To heal his troubled world from its pain and suffering, to spread the word, he had learned that it helped to have bounty from his pocket.
“Mother!” He gurgled the words in his throat now, rushing forward into the den of the one who had saved him that day long ago when, as a boy, a human boy, he had tripped and fallen amongst the hidden roots of monoliths and lain broken and close to dying, in a then-foreign land. The sounds of thumping and scratching, which raised doubt long into the first night of freezing winds and dripping moisture, lulled his little body close to untimely death.
Rising from that maimed body, he had turned and met the Giantess, the mother of wild things, beautiful beyond belief, her thick black pelt starred with a white stripe on her chest, her teeth strong and powerful, her eyes tender and loving, as one living being to another should be.
“Follow me.” Her dear, sweet murmurings had robbed him then of any longing for toy trains and cricket bats or cell phones. He wanted only to be free amongst untamed brethren.
She had poached his spirit and urged him to follow her into the warmth and safety of her small den. “I have been waiting for one just like you.” Her words were short gentle barks and grunts, clear as a bell, understood. Feasting on wonderful things never tasted before, he had listened and nodded and acquiesced, triumphant that he had a purpose, a greater purpose than he had ever supposed, certainly more engaging and challenging than all of the things he had ever wished to be and which his smiling parents lauded as aspirations of greatness.
“We need you,” the Giantess, the beautiful black mother of the forest, had whispered. “We need your help. The forests are being murdered.”
Horrified, his boy’s heart had given freely of himself, his spirit reeling with the message of destruction and untimely death, of giants felled and the tiniest of little scurrying things no longer to be seen.
In the eerie, pre-lit dawn, he had made his special pledge. “I will become anything you wish of me. I will fight for you, Mother of the forest. Show me how to make it happen, for I am just a boy and I don’t know how.”
“I will show you,” she had replied. And it was there, in this very den, unharmed for decades, that his heart had made a pledge. Tasting the magical waters of the oldest rivers in the world, he became a proud creature, a beautiful black brother of the woods and of the mountains, his orange hair merely a small dot on his back.
It was painful only when his parents and the search party had finally found him, sprawled, a little broken boy on a pile of moss-soaked rocks, almost breathing, a smile on his face, calling out to his mother. “I’m here, my darling,” his parents had replied again and again, but they would never know, and he would never tell them, that from that day forward the Mother he had called for was the black beauty of the Giantess, who had fed and nurtured him and shown him the secret of the magical journey he had sworn to take.
It mattered not that the Giantess scattered her seed into the generations of those who came after her. To him, they were all Mother, year after year after year.
“You know what you have to do.” She breathed the words to him now. Matter-of-factly he nodded, frighteningly uplifted by the challenge of his task.
It was nearing evening. Sleep was done. It was time. “Until next time.” They grinned together, never sure of a next time. Never sure this den would be there, never sure of anything. How the forest was changing!
Pouring himself along the track, he sniffed the scents, bowling carelessly into the camp beside the malodourous sleeping bags and the smells of cooking.
Greeted by gasps of excitement, he paused just long enough to be sure they were captivated, challenging them, appealing to their pride.
He could always tell the ones who were there for the sightseeing. The sightseers brought a trail of broken twigs and unsanitary habits, squeals and noise, loud laughter and brash smells, rubbish thrown amok, gushing with spurious fakery when an unsuspecting forest being dared to show its face. This lot were sightseers. He could run all day. He knew they couldn’t. With something like a frolic, he dared them to the chase.
Grinning, he lost the first one on the little land bridge that crossed the scrappy rivulet, hearing the yelps and crashing and some ensuing groans. The others kept coming.
Luring them to where they would fall and blunder, he pushed them through the least dangerous rivers, pausing just long enough to let them see him, flash their cameras at him, squeal with delight and follow.
He lost the second one over the ridge that stepped onto a plateau of the old mountain, leaving them stranded and knowing it would take them an hour to climb back out. Hopefully to leave forever!
Concerned voices called to others, the mists now rising, blunting the edge of sounds and barely heard above the gentle, new rain. He was left with only one.
Missing the dens of creatures who wished to sleep, he charged ahead, finally reaching the resting place. The old shed, shaded by grey and white gums and lavish ferns, silently hovered over the hire car. Leaping through the window, it was just moments before he stepped out, dressed, facing the last one, his eyebrows questioning, his silent demeanour a trifle daunting, no real pity for the breathless, unequipped human before him.
“You’re looking for something?” He questioned the last one quietly in almost a whisper, but in the silence of the forest, he was heard. “You do know,” he grinned, “that there is a creature that waits for humans by night here, don’t you?” He nodded, not unkindly. “Don’t forget to put your fires out.” His eyes hardened and his nostrils flared and twitched. He could see the fear in the other’s eyes. “Campfires… well, they don’t suit the bush.” Unknowingly, he was baring his teeth. “And your rubbish, take it with you!”
They stared at each other, and although they seemed so much the same, the sightseer wondered why the ominous bright-haired man wore no shoes and why there were small twigs in his hair.
“Was it a good business trip, Sir?”
Blair squinted slightly and grinned, vaguely remembering the fellow from the flight in. “A holiday, actually. It was a holiday. I like to get out of the city and into the bush as often as I can.” He nodded casually. “You know how it is.” Then he drew a note from his wallet to tip the man. Some pieces of paper fell to the ground. Irritated, hating the untidiness, Blair went to pick them up.
“Let me get that for you, Sir.”
They were just a couple of business cards. Cleverly designed, glossy, revealing a bold grey stripe down one side and handsomely embossed rich brown writing on the other, the cards spoke of diligence, industry and genteel business acumen. The attendant held them briefly before handing them back, reading the well-balanced, neat blurb and the business name. He didn’t know that recycled paper could look so good.
“B. Deville Accountants & Co.” He read, smiling politely, making conversation. “You’re an accountant, then, Sir?”
Blair eyed him judiciously, sensing a hint of accomplishment in the young man’s words. “Yes,” he replied softly, “it’s a living.” And then he tipped him. After all, a hire-car attendant probably earned only a minimum wage.
Still smiling agreeably, the attendant nodded, jingled the car keys and turned away, politely heading to the next customer. An accountant, hey? Well, they could afford them, couldn’t they… all those holidays! He felt better somehow, as if he had been randomly vindicated. Nothing to envy there, other than the money. After all, everyone knew that accountants led the most boring lives.
By Deby Adair from Australia