©By Dominic Ward 2010
For Eric and Eyre – Love, Chicken Pox and Mumps
I jabbed my clever hands ahead of me, making me a way through the meta-quandary of the bush. The mid-morning heat was on my thoughts, such that it blistered them to a vile plasma run-off. As I swooned, I vomited disgust for the act I had had to commit, alone and unseen under the canopy of the great trees. I hated myself then, as I hated night and day. I could not reconcile my romance with the bush to this one final act, an act which had been long in the coming, long overdue, principally redemptive. The world is being carved up; with the drop of each progressively smaller slice cold in his lap, man proclaims to want all his equations returned to a blessed whole. But as our cuts become ever more numerous, the further we move from redemption. Until concrete acts are undertaken. Acts completed by men who are not afraid; men outside of the influence of all else; men who recognize where the true blame lies; men such as myself. And if I must bear around some awkward fire-blasted cross for these actions, then so it must be. I dodge around the iron rod of an old gum, pausing against its far side, my left hand on its belly, the cut of the crown of thorns starfish in my scalp. The view before me is obvious. The trees are thick and the going will remain difficult.
A man, riding a train, alone in his berth. Green bush through a single, double-paned glass window. On the empty seat next to him rests quietly a stack of papers. The man is young, mid-to-latetwenties. A 9mm weapon sits on the seat opposing him, looking back at him with a greedy mouth, though it is itself unregarded. The man is wearing a military fatigue jacket, heavily customised. He lies back into his seat, one leg crossed over the other at the knee, perpendicular, one hand under his chin, supporting daydream. The man is staring out of the window.
The three other seats in my berth were empty. I was finally alone again, after having been patient for so long. I could think again as I saw fit. The train blurred through another small station. It hadn’t stopped for some time. Ten minutes later: I was heavily awash in daydream. I wondered that I might never think on anything particular again. A lot goes rushing by outside. Through the double-glazing a constant blur came finding its way up to me. I wasn’t paying special attention to this mess outside of the window, though daydream often took my gaze there. What was there for me when I did trouble my gaze out there, that mess outside of the window…Anything tasteful, miraculous definite? Greens and browns. A constant blur, each set of greens and each set of browns taking up their own distinct intervals - the greens of the bush, greying as the long summer spent its water; the browns of an occasional town, country towns with greying populations. Greens and browns. The colour associated with an end to violence transposed against the colour of earth, stable yet stubborn, the home we will all rejoin at death. Blur the synaesthetes, hamper their designs on life, steal all of their habits and keep them there, in iron-solid cages buried far beneath the slow melting snow of pallid spring. Steady them with pain until
they speak, answering for the insight we crave into the malignancy of colour. No military has yet had the stomach for such a study. The green was now strong again outside the window. The train most likely had ended by all the larger towns and getting on now into real bush. The journey would be long. I would sit here and more yet. I break a pen in half, throwing the two pieces against the glass of the sliding door of the berth. I drift away again. There were papers sitting patiently on the opposing seat, still quiet, steely: certain that the time I gave to my stare out the window should be for them. I'd been handed them yesterday. A radio repeater, standing alone in the bush, was to be reactivated for the use of the military. - Reactive this thing, device…err contraption. Feel it up with electricity. It will give itself away, sure. And quickly. Why the fuck wouldn’t it? Pass me a drink, Grinchfellow. However, where was I, we feel the closeness, hic, of the situation demands this action, be it proved err, umm, valueless or otherwise. The repeater, they had informed me, had not been inspected in a long time, not in fact since it had first been relocated from its original site. It was hidden away in a glade in the bush, and although its position had been given to me marked on a map, I'd been assured a little perseverance would be required in finding it. - You won’t be going alone. You’ve never been good at sharing. Maybe this is the day you learn. He is an officer in this man’s army!
Not outstanding, mind you, but by Jove he fits the bill. - Hic! Why the officer? There was no reason for this! Minute details worked over feverishly, the end product rarely the logical amethyst for them. A tired, old ill-fit. To what damn roll were they going to throw this village boy! Let him drown then, blast him. And let him not salt sand me. I hated distraction. It fired my temples like blessed coals. The mission, then, without further analysis, was to make the repeater by any means eloquent, staff it with a new battery and turn the sullen thing back on. The papers shrilled like screaming mandrake. You want my attention? Soot, I thought rigidly. All you contain is dripping nonsense: briefings of objectives; weather forecasts; recent known enemy movements and possible armaments; recent satellite photos covering the repeater site; maps. To wit: I could do without more of that! The briefing I had long since committed to memory; I would need no further reminder. The Generals had made their usual effort in assuring to that. The summer weather could not be predicted, particularly past three O’clock in the afternoon when almost everyday brought the chance of storm. And these things they had around these parts could be particularly vile. The forecast was therefore particularly useless; as a general rule, I never included such items when making considerations for a mission anyway, as
weather, variable as it is, has too few foreseeable ways of ruining a road. The report on enemy movements claimed no evidence of enemy activity, at least none which would interest me. The satellite photos were grainy and honestly, my bones did not produce developer. The map was the only item of any real value. It alone of all the paper could help me complete the mission. Now, I flipped back quickly through the pile, my thumb playing on the margins. The pages had been packaged together in the tremor quake of a God. To the Generals, though, who believed that everything was important enough to view in ink, these papers were well worth their weight in gold. I had known the three Generals well. I collected my missions from them personally, visiting whatever dungeon of the starling city in which they felt it blessed to meet. They knew I thought the military weather beat, but they had accepted this, saying no more, well, because they thought me a monument at what I did. And I was. I never gave those chloral hydrate abusers pause to curse me. Or if I did, I made sure they could only do so through gritted teeth, sauntering the ink down on yet another commendation. They were terrible defuncts, destined to live many branches of the common tree of life lower than I. They spoke to me and as they did I knew I had become their wayward, yet ultimately loyal and gallant son, forever unorthodox but forever in the service of the father. Although this notion was admittedly hard to stomach at room temperature, I was at least honest about the need for their petty favours to my
ego. Thus, I could ignore the worst of it. Their fetid romanticism provided me with the deal I wanted: I spent most of my working life in mischief out in the bush. The Generals knew how I was taken with it, being way out in it, alone, complexed. They knew they could rely on me to complete my missions, to complete them with an understanding of the larger picture, to always prove discreet and secure in doing so. My performance record was, in their eyes, exemplory. I had not earned their esteem through sheer luck; nor had I found it through any natural progression of circumstances. As a kid I had been sent on the same low-level, over-regulated, over-supervised missions as every other indistinct. I had had to choose to either passively wait my time - which might have come later rather than sooner, or not at all - or to boldly forge it, with both eyes focussed on the end and nothing else. I had chosen the latter course, seeking ascendancy, earning the Generals’ eyes by volunteering for a few select missions. In those days of fervent rising, I had comitted the most terrible sins of deed and word and though my heart had baulked sickly at such fibroid behaviour, I had nonetheless set myself to it; it was everynight depression dreaming that I had had to make those demeaning and shallow attempts to reconcile with myself. But I had been patient, and now I no longer had superiors to count below the Generals and now nearly all I could call a subordinate. Now I could condemn those days of weak-yellow youth with total impunity. A rifle range for my malice.
There had been an equal, however. An old bastard whose neck had creaked every time he had looked over his shoulder, watching as I came on him, closer and closer, powerless to stop me overtaking him, then finally being overtaken, forced into a muted, bitter redundancy by a rising power he could not compete with. They said we had been similar, but I had felt no empathy for or with this man, much nuisance to him. I pushed my legs out and sat back in the seat. The greens were still floating past; messy time stamps on the mind-print of recognition. I had time to turn thought to current events, thunderous as they were, darling Peppermint Parliament. The most pressing disaster: it had been a day now since the news of the Foreign Minister's death had penetrated through every head and the shock had stopped almost every industry. He had been returning from the East when his plane had broken and spilt itself out over the land, rushing and gurgling like nitrous filing down a throat. Nothing definite was yet known about the crash, though rumour had sprung to life like a kite thrown to a changing wind. The facts of the crash were still rather limited, and the Generals had offered me no more on the subject than what I had already heard; a bastion of celebrated imprints. These few details had already been public knowledge. They had been chased all over by the journalists, much as most of the movements of the Foreign Minister had been, and the story had revealed itself swiftly in the newsprints, certainly well before I’d been offered the Generals' version. Mouth water of
the gays still pools where the journalists had been. Those papers in my lap kept staring at me with their pup-seal inky eyes. Fuck it, I thought, and this emotional blackmail. I picked up the set and flipped through them again until I came to the map. - Get on that train to McKellar’s Junction, refute you. Our man will meet you at the station. The map was heavily detailed – pedantic, fascinating. Everything with a physical presence on the earth had been named, given representation. Paths, rivers, gullies, hills, rocks. No form of geography had been overlooked. A man would need a kiloton of salt to rub into this wound. The repeater site was marked in an area of dry eucalypt forest. Looking over the crisp, starched paper from McKellar’s Junction to the repeater, I quickly figured about one hundred and twenty kilometres - a moderate hike. I decided on a week to make the distance, fragrance blessed. Beyond the repeater it was another forty kilometres to the bush highway, the end of our journey and the point from where we could hope to find an easy return. I hadn’t bothered to ask the Generals why we wouldn’t be starting from this point. Their nurses had been already busy attending to their syphilitic injuries. They had shouted wretchedly for more massage. I would find the hike easy. I had my balance over rock, hill, bush, able to orientate myself at any time of day, a foot down onto any detail of the land I willed. If required, I could manage about eleven hours hiking a day, travelling between twenty and thirty kilometres
in that time depending on the terrain. I’d already had two or three missions where I had had no choice but to make these distances, where I’d had to cover around two hundred kilometres in a week, comets spilling down on me. However, I much preferred hiking at a dormant pace, being able to stop here and there as I pleased, picking daisies, rigging booby traps, cursing the land through the filter of drink. For this mission, I figured eight hours a day the optimum, which for only a week at the guess wasn’t pushing too hard at all. However, I planned for seven hours in the day so as to allow for the officer. He might turn out fatuous and I’d need a kiloton of salt on his tummy to get him moving. I realised I had been staring again. And why not! I thought. Who else would stare for me? My childless Aunt? I had to acknowledge though, that for a man something around his twenty-seventh, I spent a lot of time on the widest oscillations of thought; rarely steady, forever using my energies on a shifting fulcrum. That I got any of my work done was to one thing – sheer expense of time. Hiking long over the earth gave me my time, but confined to a seat, as now, I could get none of it done. McKellar’s Junction was marked in bold type on the map. The map of course held only a hint at the skin and bones of the town, but I’d been there once before, stopping through, and still remembered a little of it. It was a service town for the many farms in the area. Its station was the last on the line, the line itself the only way in or out
for goods and produce. I remembered the main street of the town, the core of McKellar’s Junction, a central part of the townsfolk’s collective pride. It ran parallel to the station and was fenced with a run of small shops and cottages - a small population made somewhat important in that all of its roads worked to the exclusion of everything but the farms. The population of McKellar’s Junction was, from what I had heard, for the most part still quite friendly and open to travellers. Outside of town though, things were apparently now a little strange. The farmers, always a pioneer folk, were said to be organising themselves into bands of armed gangs, roaming the countryside, protecting against the times. I had learnt this last rumour in a conversation with a local teacher with whom I had been sharing the train journey. - I’ve lived and taught in McKellar’s Junction for ten odd years now. Things have changed a lot in that time. - How so? - The Junction I fairly adjudge is circumferenced by isolation. There is just the one way in or out – this train - and that once a week. Now with this war, this altercation of needs, looming, I guess everyone feels that that isolation is soon going to be total. The enemy has been out on the mountains in the moonlight. They’ve taken a couple of beef cows. - Yes, yes. Say it! - We’ve always had a few undesirables amongst us – Old Russ’s
family out by the Water Shack have always been insane for one reason or another. But now it seems like every polite man in town is frightened, keeping their pistols loaded. Bailey Clements was shot and killed by his own neighbour last month because he was out late in the dark. God knows what he was doing out there then. Peter apparently was roused by one of his cows and he came out to see a silhouette at his fence. It was the far paddock, but he still cracked his brine for him. War was now a distinct possibility in everyone’s minds. Perhaps it would break out in the next wet of our lips. The Foreign Minister had been on a diplomatic mission to save a peace, but when his plane had broken and cracked open, many weren’t sure that that didn’t mark the beginning of war, that the country wasn’t even already at war. The Foreign Minister had wanted peace more than other, and most had felt sure he was the only one who would try for it. Not that the Government wanted war, I supposed. The Prime Minister herself just simply lacked the self-confidence to stare down the Generals. As much as I believed she too hoped for a peace, still she couldn’t ignore her own intuition – kick as hard as the conservatives or give the whole guest list away. I could only shake my head, saddened by the Bloody Mary of it all. In any case, people were starting to give more and more of their day in thought to war. ‘Should it come, how shall it be? Will I see my family destroyed? Will I die in an until now unimaginable pain?’ In a place like McKellar’s Junction, where geography was as much the
enemy, these stresses were doubled in the least. - Most folk in McKellar’s Junction believe war will come to us soon. And it will come swiftly over the mountains, past the Water Shack, into the farmhouses and finally onto the platform that we will soon step down onto. We arrive not at the answer of what it might bring, but once it’s here, there will be no rational method for its eradication. - You talk about war as though it is a pestilence. - An enemy in McKellar’s Junction will not have any open roads to protect against, if you won’t suffer my language. The Teacher had been really only considering her own little life. But if war came, it would come to us all - not just the villagers of McKellar’s Junction. Few would be able to hide away on other tasks hoping and waiting that someone else will do with the fighting. And at any rate, it was doubtful the enemy would move on McKellar’s Junction. Attacking across all that open farmland, with armed farmers waiting in every unseen place, to the capture of no great reward was a stupidity the enemy didn’t possess. A nasty war deep out in the bush would be most likely, though perhaps the mountains around the farms of McKellar’s Junction might become a little dangerous. ‘They’ve taken a couple of beef cows...’ A beef cow? Only with a gun to my head would I use language like that. Wouldn’t the teacher have felt it more natural to have said ‘cattle?’
I smashed the arm of my chair, fist lightly clenched, the rebounding hand opening. A repeater. If I put all those hen clucking papers out in the rain - the map, the weather report, the enemy activity report, the briefing, the satellite photos - maybe when the ink ran out, it would run away towards the repeater, so that I would only have to follow the black, congealing trail... I thought back to my last mission - a scouting job out in the wet sclerophyll forest just north of McIntosh, below the middling arms of the Rusty Range, down in the Deepness Valley. That last mission I had been flown into McIntosh on a chartered Cessna. Comfortable, taking over both rear passenger seats, I had chatted on and off with the pilot. He had said he enjoyed his job, though he had added his boss could be a little cheap. He had been a big man, and having looked at him squashed into the cockpit, I had wondered how he could ever get out. Maybe he would have to wait for a crash, when he could then be prized out, cracked out as a delicacy all juicy and runny. I had stayed the night in McIntosh, getting a room at the old Central Hotel, spending the evening in its year-stained pub downstairs. I had wanted to talk to the locals to get whatever I could from them about the land ahead. Nobody, though, had been out as far as I was going in a long time. Country folk are forever claiming their worth on the land – the truth is they rarely venture outside the secure gates of their properties. The only news of any value had been the
story of a family feud running between two of the outlying farms. The two families were taking pot shots at each other over a son’s affections for a daughter. I had thought it probably best to avoid those farms. The next day I had set out, and after ten days of zigzagging through the bush, surveying the land as I went for places where troops could be moved, hidden or ambushed, I had returned back to McIntosh to be flown home again. The Rusty Range formed part of the rim of an ancient shield volcano. Rock structures and large boulders had littered the floor of the valley. Many places to mark down for the Generals. Climbing down the back of the range, down into the valley, I had come across a real treat - a pocket of remnant temperate rainforest. The Antarctic Beeches had loomed like gods looking down on their people, their true forms swimming distorted in the mist. I had no other words to describe the power that those trees had possessed. I had passed out then, flagon of white rum in my hand. On the seventh day I had been blinded by an impenetrable fog. I had made on as best I could, until I could finally go no further without fear of very real and aggressive scientific danger. I had camped where I was, and when I had woken in the morning, I realised I had had it near the exit to a deep conifer gully. The fog had lifted, and the conifers were awake, drying themselves. I had gone to them, but before I could reach them, in a turn of events that had surprised and even stirred me a little, at a little stream flowing
out of the gully, I had found fresh footprints... The train went on. I vanished away in stare. Again, and not for the last time.
The busy platform of a large station. The strength of the artificial light indicates a subterranean location for the station. Porters and platform attendants run around determinedly, solid in the
performance of their duties. Passengers mill about, some more sure of where they should be than others. A particular couple: a woman stands with a manilla folder in her hands, crisp and stiff in her military dress, her hair back in a bob and pushed tight into the dress hat she is required to wear. Opposing the woman is a man. He has an air of disinterest to him. The woman may or may not be aware of this. She holds out the manilla folder to the man. - Come and never the hour, be you slow, your haste left bleeding from heart, bed covers sprayed in it, left in bed. Late you never
know, standing room and hare-brained, ticket I give you, come and take the hour. Here, eternal fortune. - Disclaimer? - Medication? Solace finds you, door sweeper, let solder form, melt rind slow-tube feed. Medication, I presume? - Present, present, you do. I’ve never been more further from your heart. - Ticket and walk, stand, baulk, grip the rail, strength yourself into rest. Mission, peace, that’s why we need you. - Very well. Huff. Your kind lords it over me. I’m dripping… - Away, Captain Abrahim!
I threw my pack onto the train and then turned and stood in the well of the door, gripping the cold steel handrail for support. And as I leered out at her, I reached down deep into my trouser pocket with my one free hand, producing in this movement a small Syrette. I gave her a wink and then dabbed the homemade poppy solution into my leg in full view of her, squeezing in the contents (15mg), throwing the empty Syrette under the wheels of the train. The train began its whistle, we started moving. And then I left her. I
remained perched where I was in the well of the door. ushered me inside the carriage.
And so I left her, this strange
servant of the serpents, and she was still standing there on the platform when the train carried my overdose out of the station, foam beginning in the corners of the mouth, foaming all the way off into the night.
End of the Line
I came from McIntosh to the memory of an earlier incident: Oxprey had been vagranting outside the blood-speckled room in which I had just met the Generals, offal abiding his fatigues. He had given me a half-smirk below nasty eyes and even chuckled as he had turned to the door I had just closed. I had seen the bastard only recently too, and here he was again, looking like he’d only just come in from the bush. Oxprey was dead now. No more creaking that arthritic neck over left shoulder. An odd half an hour had passed when any quality began again in my thoughts. The conductor had just announced over the train’s PA
system the now shortly expected arrival of the McKellar’s Junction platform and with a seriousness at the last, I looked again at the Generals’ map and the roads it marked out of McKellar’s Junction. There were two main roads leading out of town. Both truncated often as they went out to touch the farms that they serviced. The left road drove out at a rough right-angle from the main street of McKellar’s Junction, splintering just enough to give it the appearance on the map of a kind of warped fan. The right road swung out at perhaps an even hundred degrees from the left. It continued approximately the train’s journey north, deep into the farmlands, to the Water Shack and beyond. It was perhaps to this right road to which I would turn, though I regretted not having asked the Teacher about routes when I had had the chance. Before I could reprimand
myself any further, the conductor had asked his way past my berth, asking that tickets be ready and baggage not forgotten. I folded the map, putting it and the other papers back into the front pocket of my pack. The train began to brake. The rushing outside the window slowed to the perceptible, seats were vacated, baggage gathered and the door wells busied with the alighting. The final brake threw us all a little off balance. We collected, the doors opened and I saw the Teacher out past the stationmaster first, self-anointed to the last.
The platform at McKellar’s Junction. The disembarking passengers mill about, creating something of a human mess. A line begins to form, the key object of which is the passage out of the station through the small gate that opens out onto the town. The stationmaster has no help for the collection of ticket stubs at the gate and a bottlenecking of the line soon results. Coming through the station at McKellar’s Junction was as easy as slipping through as a grain in an hourglass. I only had to wait my turn. I had calmed my way off the train, and now found myself well back in the line. Ahead of me were all the usual dishrags: farmers on errands to bigger towns; farmers' wives visiting friends who had long ago escaped for the city; the feral children of the farms returning from school excursions and sports trips; drug addicted salesmen coming in to move the latest tractor, feed, or fertilisers. Towards the head of the line, some Empress was shouting at his equally bizarre friend about the latest model of steely hell. Just behind me, a mother was trying to quiet her colicky baby. Only the one track ran into the station; on either side of the track a concrete platform followed along for a small distance. The platforms, the left for arrivals and the right for departures, converged just at the last of the track to create a corrugated ironroofed space. This space, quite thorough and lined with benches, was, as were the platforms that ran to it, set with the greens of
potted plants - ferns and palms mostly. The station building itself was built onto the arriving platform, the structure extending out to where tickets could be bought from outside the station gate. The gate itself was a small white-picket fence, the same kind of fence you can see many times over in a country town. It was here that the stationmaster met the disembarking to relieve them of their burden of ticket. After passing through the gate, the new arrivals would be covered for four metres or so by the same roof that sheltered the chlorophyll decorating inside the station. Here each arrival had gone their way - off to the left on their own, straight out into waiting family or friends, or off to the right, towards the main street. I wondered if war had been haunting them as they had gone off to their days, or whether they still just had the daily to tend. Perhaps the more sensitive were, perhaps the less sensitive weren’t. At the gate, I had passed a polite question to the stationmaster: - Are you expecting anything? - What do you mean by ‘anything,’ my lad? Knives and guns and bullets? - And where do you think it will come from? - I’ve been telling anyone who will listen we need to do something out on the Water Shack road; they will come from the mountains. Later I would ask a dust-backed farmer the same question and receive in answer a complaint about the condition of the soil. I had wanted to smack his head back into the ground for that.
As the other passengers and their lots disappeared, I noticed a man in military uniform alone under a tree. This could have only been the officer I’d been promised. He was young; his face, though by no means a shame on anyone’s part, was a little small and it didn’t well off-set his deeply short hair. And tall - he must have been around a hundred and ninety centimetres in height - though for his height, his body didn’t look like it carried the weight it should. The Officer had noticed me and was waiting patiently for me to acknowledge him. So, I walked over to him. He had been waiting under a large ironbark. The shade ate him up, though it was a gentle digestion, the gum hanging down its many hands in the midday breeze, dominating the narrow grass partition that separated the station from the side street that supported it. I arrived fortuitously at him. He appeared a little tired. He had a slight blue tinge under his eyes from what I assumed was a lack of sleep. Against this however, his face retained the freshness of youth, and his eyes shone with what could have been anticipation. He had obviously already been briefed and this probably was his first real mission, pop the cork. On reaching the Officer, I offered myself in the formal military manner and was met in kind. For early morning it was already quite hot and the Officer quickly agreed that we could talk in the airconditioning of the car on the way to his office. The car, an official military plan, stood in neutral as it waited to give us ride. I loaded my pack into its cavenous boot, jumping then into the oasis. The
Officer lithed into the driver’s seat, giving me a ‘let’s go, Sir’. With that, he flicked his wrist in an accurate manner, bringing the car’s engine waiting up to us. He let the clutch out so that the engine picked up first gear and we pulled off the kerb. We had to drive a little down the street to find a U-turn. - Sir, I couldn’t help but notice your shoulder patch. That’s the Bushrangers’ patch, isn’t it, Sir? He had noticed the only patch, faded as it was, that I wore on my uniform. The Officer gave a single nod now towards the patch, to make the point that it was open for anybody to see and that he hadn’t been checking me out all weird. I pulled my sleeve around to where I myself could see the patch. ‘It is old,’ I thought. The patch itself bore the unit emblem – a helmeted stick figure caught in a stylised pose of electric shock underscored by two crossed rifles, a blue and black stripe - the former superior to the latter - running behind the figure. How long had it been since I had first won that patch? Six years maybe. - Sir, you are a Bushranger? - It’s all the same to me. - Sir? - Maybe I am. Will you look at me then with eyes averted? I riddled up with laughter. The Officer was a draught of a familiar air, one filtered through warm, soft sunlight. He had the immediate feel of a younger brother, someone who respected unconditionally upwards, waiting on answers, not seeking them himself. He might
also be disposed to cling too tightly if allowed. And he enjoyed talk: - I was briefed on the mission last night, Sir. They talked to me for an hour, Sir! - And what did they tell you? - They told me I was to go with you to set up a transmitter, Sir. - What did they tell you about this transmitter? - Nothing especially, Sir. Just that one has to be set up out in the bush somewhere. - It’s not a transmitter. It’s a repeater. It’s already there and has been for a while. - Sir? - Yeah. All we have to do is put a battery in it. The Officer’s eyes then shot bright as manganese. Whatever previous experiences he’d had, I saw then that they very definitely compared poorly to whatever he was expecting of this mission. He seemed to want this to be a real adventure, with a real mystery to discover at the end of it and I imagined he might prove incredibly persistent in this, whether he was discouraged or not. I wondered then how much rum I would be able to jam down into his pack. - What is it, Sir? - What do you mean? - Whether we’re reactivating an old one or setting a new one up, it’s still a bit strange. I mean, why do they need a repeater out there, Sir? - That’s classified, my jelly chum. You’re going to be disappointed
at the end of this if you’re expecting anything. We’re just repairmen, is all. - Why didn’t they give me the full story when they briefed me, Sir? - Listen, why have you on this mission at all? Secrets are the Generals’ way. It’s what they know. I don’t know why they bothered. They know I’m far too portly of mind to share interest in their secrets. It’s me versus them, jelly haughty. I’ll kill them when the time comes. You didn’t hear that from me, though! We had found our U-turn and were heading back towards the main road. The station was still now. All the passengers were gone. I imagined the driver, conductor and stationmaster finishing off the last tasks that precluded heading into the station office to get drunk off the ghosts of a hundred thousand dead Kanakas. The Officer indicated out onto the main road and we began passing the comfortable little country cottages as we drove up towards the office. McKellar’s Junction was in summer - a favourite time of year - and the slow gait of the few pedestrians on the footpaths reflected that. In this area, temperatures could reach as high as forty during the day in January and February, though nights could still cool. The main road was an old, grey-stained bitumen track marked for opposing lanes and frayed at the edges; like most country roads, it ran at its edges into dirt before it had a chance to hit kerb. Tall gums prouded up on the footpaths on either side of the road imported river gums, the ubiquitous grey gum. Well-watered,
recently mown grass held around their strong feet. A road sign went by for a turn-off to a creek a kilometre further along. We continued our conversation: - A lot of people in town would be interested to know about our mission, the repeater, Sir. - You talking again, are you? Very well. How so, then? - Most of the town already believes we will be attacked soon, Sir. If they knew a military repeater lay just over the mountains… - ‘Not in my backyard,’ they sip as the serpents wend around their gorged bellies. Truly, they can get fucked. - Sir, a lot of people around here already despise uniforms… - Yes, Lieutenant. They always have and they always will. But they won’t hinder my, our, work. They never do, even though some might look at you as though they will hunt you down that very night while you sleep fatly in their Central Hotel. You’ve made a lot of friends here? - Yes, quite a few actually, Sir. - How long have you been here now? - A year in. A year to go, Sir. - What’s this creek down here? - That’s Loveway Creek, Sir. It flows on down towards Hilhouse. It’s got some permanent waterholes, but it’s otherwise fairly intermittent and it really only runs after rains. About a kilometre further downstream from here there is an amazing set of cascades, Sir. These giant slabs of rocks have been shaped into water slides.
After rains you’ll find every boy and girl around here down there playing on the slides. It was easy to imagine the children’s play frozen in time, preserving them forever, so that they may never run into years that have been counselled by the Generals and the many like them. Oxprey, hunting for his own amusement, unrepentant that his actions had consequences for all. That kind of person – any end for the glory envisioned, one own personal glory. Oxprey was never going to be a concern again, but there were others, and the Generals were quite accomplished at working within limitations, asthma on the asphalt. We passed a car parked on the kerb, very close, almost too close. I looked at the Officer. He hadn’t even noticed. I wondered if he was even concentrating on the road, or if he was too busy in his excitement to pay the necessary attention to it. Hitting a pedestrian was no concern - there were too few around at this time - but running into the gutter and puncturing a tyre on the kerb was a possibility and it could potentially waste a lot of time. I could easily and without shame waste time through my own marvels, but I couldn’t tolerate this same waste when it was due to a petty mistake on the part of another. Still, the Officer probably wouldn’t actually crash. Regardless, I trusted to his further driving as I had a lot of other matters to determine, things I wanted to begin making clear in my mind. In order to begin the mission early tomorrow morning, I would need to have at least a vague plan for the first stage of the hike in mind.
To do this, I would need all the talk that the Officer could offer me regarding roads and paths through and out of McKellar’s Junction. However, he would require some leading. He was still talking nonsense when the car came up to the last building on the main street, only the creek turn-off and intermittent farmhouses left beyond: - I haven’t been back home for a while, Sir. Maybe a year. Leave’s hard to get out here. Maybe they reckon everyday out here is a kind of leave. Don’t have much to do really. Don’t really know what’s going on back there. Got the radio but it doesn’t transmit atmosphere or anything. How’s it all looking, Sir? - War? - Yes, Sir. What’s the general feeling? - You’re asking me? I don’t know what to tell you, arachnids are grey. - But are people supporting the Prime Minister, Sir? - If they are, then they wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what they’re supporting. A flip of the indicator showed that this last building was the office. The Officer kept a continuous speed as he dived the car from the road into the shallow driveway. He braked at the very last. There was no call for that. - Well, here we are, Sir. So, you don’t think the Prime Minister really knows what’s going on either? - She wants to act, but she’s unsure.
I opened the door and escaped the Officer and his conversation for my pack in the boot. The office was a single storied Queenslander with a wide encompassing veranda. It was set a little off the ground, as was common for its type, by uniform wooden stumps hazed over with creosote. A well-stormed corrugated iron roof wore down over the verandas, running out over the front steps. The garden was grassed, mown, furnished with palms whose reach was old enough to sweep nearly to the ground. Like so many houses of its kind, the garden continued right up to spread over the veranda. The front steps, if progressed to in a straight fashion, would lead over the veranda and right into large French doors. The doors were inspired. They gave the air and light of beguilement to the room inside, well offsetting the course of the veranda on the outside. Ahead of me, the Officer unlocked and opened the French doors, standing aside them to salute my entrance into the office. Inside it was all wood; I even thought that I could smell a little Huon in the large table that carried the business of the office or Officer, whichever it was. At this time there was no need for lights as windows were enough to over-supply the room with hot sunlight. I put my pack down to recline against a leg of the table. - Sir, would you like to freshen up a bit and relax a bit after your trip? - We don’t have time for that, shoplifter. We have to leave early tomorrow morning and we’ve got a bit to try on for size before then. No time for anything else. Get me a drink, usurper, then pull up a
chair. We’ve got a lot to discuss. The Officer went away to the fridge in the corner of the room and drew out a bottle of water. - Tree clippings! That’s not going to do for me! I’ll have that. The Officer prepared the drink and brought it over to me. I had already pulled the map from my pack, laying it across the table in wait of him. With a gentle sweep, I flattened out the crinkles and then ran my finger over the ink, searching. It all meant something. I turned to him: - Here is McKellar’s Junction and this here is the repeater site. As you can see, we’re heading north for most of the way, up until we hit this last area of bush, anyway. Firstly though, I want to concentrate on getting to these mountains. What’s the best way to get there? - To the mountains, Sir? - Yes. - Well, there are two roads that will get us there, this one… and this one, Sir. Both roads run to the Water Shack, Sir, but past the Water Shack there’s just the one path up to the mountains. - Ok, so here’s the Water Shack. From here there’s just the one way? - Unless you want to go bush, Sir. - Brightness. How about these two roads going to the Water Shack? What can you tell me there? - The left road, the H2, you can drive it as far as the Water Shack,
Sir, but you’ll need a 4WD and about four hours. The right road is usually a lot quicker but it’s now only drivable as far as the bridge, which was washed out in the flood last month, Sir. - How far from the bridge to the Water Shack? - Maybe a day’s walk, Sir. - Alright, that’s an easy one then. We’ll drive up on the H2. - Yes, Sir. I took a sip of his drink, the ice having chilled it to refreshing comfort. Looking out the big wood-framed window, a few clippings lay on the grass where the Officer had been maintaining the garden. I wondered what else the Officer had to do as part of his station. These little country offices were quite common and had been for some time, though with the tension there was now, I imagined they must have taken on some new importance, bedazzling and entrancing. The Officer would at least have to be making daily radio reports back to HQ, reporting whatever news there was in his jurisdiction, though looking out the window at the sleepy
neighbourhood of McKellar’s Junction, I doubted he would ever have anything to report that would find its way on to the Generals’ desks. What else the Officer had to do I couldn’t guess. He probably just spent most of his time engaging with the locals, running around on self-generated errands to keep out in the fresh air. At least that’s what I would be doing. Maybe shoot a few feral animals, threaten some farmers just for kicks, that kind of slow summer amusement.
Abrahim is on route to a lonely bush shack. His driver is a purpleyellow in the face from heat on an alcohol problem; this man has succumbed to a boredom reserved only for the ambitious. The two men do not converse; rather Abrahim looks out over the tetanus disaster that forms the window well of the passenger’s door into the dry bush skipping past. Constant jolts from the passage of the track underneath keep him from a more solemn daydream.
I thought back to when I had been a simple Lieutenant, a nothing, feeling like I was an inch of gutter dirt. My first posting as a junior officer in the then nascent Bushranger unit had been to the Holes, a barren outpost a two week hike from its nearest service point. I had been driven to the departure point, a single shack hidden along a prohibited military access road on the outskirts of one of the larger cities. I had stayed the night alone in the shack, beginning the hike to the Holes the following day, having been joined in the early morning by another newly commissioned officer. We had struck out with minimal supplies; it was our first test as Bushrangers – Oxprey had wanted to see if we really deserved his patch. We would arrive at the Holes and commence our orders there, or we would die en route, marked by none, eaten to the bones by daemon cockatoos. In the end we had made it in good shape, a little tired and hungry perhaps, but otherwise in fit condition. We had even felt pretty
pleased with ourselves when we had arrived, perhaps even expecting a ‘well done’ from the commanding officer at the Holes, at least a hot meal and a bed for the night. Rather, he hadn’t even looked at us. - You the two new guys? - Yes, Sir. - Then get yourselves over to Hammond in the B tent to see about your orders.
- Yes, Sir. - Go! We had soon found Hammond, a wiry Lieutenant with happy eyes and a warm liquid person. His fatigues had been rolled back to the elbow, and his forearms, though thin, were chiselled hard with the lines of earned muscle, all wrapped up nicely with intravenousfriendly rope – a sportsman’s veins. He had smiled at us. - Lieutenants Abrahim and Marky? Bad news I’m afraid, guys. The boss wanted you out at the OP as soon as you came in. I’ve got some stuff I want you to take with you, as well. though. Hammond had then weighed us down with a pack each, enough supply for the OP for another week. We had struggled with the Not too much,
weight, rolling and pitching at the will of the packs on our backs. Then, at last, Hammond had given us a map, sending us off in the direction of the OP. We had eventually found it the following day. It had simply been a small trench dug into a bush enshrouded hill. Two men had been waiting for us. Didn’t expect you guys for a few days yet. Nevermind, that’s
nothing I’ll complain about. - Yeah, see you later. - Hey, you’re leaving? - Yeah, of course. You’re replacing us. Didn’t they tell you? - No. Nothing.
- Fucking Command. Never tell anyone shit. Just keep an eye out on that valley. There’s a smuggling route down there somewhere. Don’t radio back to camp unless you actually see anything. boss is pretty strict about that. The radio’s down in the hole. - Oh yeah, the shitter’s over that way. Good luck. And without further word they had gone. We had had no idea how long we were going to be there and a week had past before we were relieved. By that time we both had had serious thoughts of The
resigning our commissions. Nothing at all had moved in the valley except for the occasional white spray of a travelling cockatoo. Two weeks later Marky had resigned his commission. I had been
detailed to hike the two weeks back to the service point with him. The son of a successful Major, Marky had berated himself turgidly by day, sniffling quietly in the nights, back turned towards me. He had been a failure, no question. He had said at our parting that he was alright with the fact he didn’t have the same aptitude for things as his father. Again I had spent the night alone in the shack, the next day beginning the hike back to the Holes…
Reasons for Choosing the H2
There were sounds on the front steps and the veranda. The Officer was back already. He had been prepping the car. - I’m glad we are using the H2, Sir. It’ll keep us away from Old Russ. - Old Russ? That was the second time I had heard mention of that name. I thought back to the Teacher on the train, gripping eyestrain. She had said something about Old Russ, though I couldn’t recall exactly what. She had largely teared me with her bore. I remembered, though, that at the time the name had sounded like it went with the kind of man who gets mentioned often in the quiet breaths of a country town. - Some sort of local curiosity is he? - Yes, Sir. Best to avoid Old Russ. His family, they’re all strange. Their voices to hear are like nothing calling to nothing. Their land is beyond ripe and their crops are weeds. Their farmhouse you walk up on soon after the bridge on the Water Shack road. There are many wild groves brooding aside the approach to the house and in them I’ve imagined ghosts shadowing about. In all the time I’ve been stationed in McKellar’s Junction, I’ve been out that way plenty and every time I’ve felt something heavy in the air. They’re just a bunch of in-breds, but I don’t doubt they’re dangerous. There’s always one of them out walking the East roads with a gun. Only a matter of time really before someone gets shot. I also heard they
do nasty things to cats and dogs they come across. They have been there for generations, taking whatever they can off their land to sustain themselves. There’s something like ten family members, though no one’s really sure about that. When you’re near their land though, they all know you’re there, and you get a strong feeling you’re being defended against. The room had darkened. Did the Officer possess the power to call clouds over the sun when he wished to give effect to a story? No, of course not and neither did I take his story too seriously. War was close and the stress was bending minds enough that Old Russ’s family might have just been the infected apple, placed in the barrel with its rot by the enemy to eat away from within. There was probably a truth in the Officer’s story, but as to the extent of this truth, well...War was burning the head of the Prime Minister; it was burning the heads of all her people. The cloud shifted and the strong, warm beams removed back into the room. We talked on some more about the mission, our route out and things in general, and a half hour later the Officer was gone into town on last errands and I was left alone with my own preparations.
I was waiting in a cramped room with fading and peeling rose pink wallpaper. A noise registered outside the wood panel door; the
ornate silver doorknob began to turn. A youngish woman, tall and brunette, in a simple white blouse and navy blue skirt. I stood to acknowledge her. - Oh, hello. - You’re the nurse? - Well, I am a registered nurse, yes. I’m sorry, do I know you? - No. Not at all. - Do you mind me asking who you are then? It’s just I didn’t expect to find anyone here. - Captain Abrahim. - Oh, very well then, Captain Abrahim. So why do I find you in my little clinic? - We are neighbours…temporarily. I thought I would come and visit. - You didn’t think that I might have been busy? - No, not really. - So why are you really here? - You could help me with some data. - Yes? - I’m out here collecting data. I’m with the infectious diseases unit. My team is detailed to data research, so I get sent out to every kind of place to go through medical records.
- Sounds boring. - You don’t know the half of it. I’ve been trying to get a transfer for months now. The Nurse had relaxed a little now, having seen that I - an inaccurate man who had arrived from nowhere with no clear purpose - wasn’t of a type she completely despised. She walked
around the table, away from the door, choosing a chair diagonally across from me. She gently pulled the chair out from under the
table and sat down smoothly. - In particular, I wanted to get some weather information from you. I noticed your office here has a little weather station out the back and I wanted to have a look at the records for this year. - Sorry, I just sent my receptionist on a small errand. She has the keys to the records room. She won’t be back for a while I expect, though. - Excuse me. I’ve got to go to the toilet. - Down that corridor, third on the right. - Thank you.
I finished with the toilet. − Have you ever seen a bird of prey trapped in a cage to rot? − Excuse me? I need to look at some of the papers that you keep here...
- Yes, you already said that… - And I can’t wait for your receptionist. - So what do you want to do about it? I’m not about to let you kick down the door. - Now there’s an idea. - No, come on! You can’t do that, seriously. She gave me no choice; I had to go bubbles on her. I pulled my shirtfront up just far enough to reveal the 9mm weapon, tucked as it was always into my jingle jangles. - Oh God. The Nurse went away then and let me do my work. I kicked the door off its hinges and then went straight to what I was looking for – the medicine cabinet. Oh yes, I’ll have one of those, and one of Oh look and yes, definitely
these…and maybe one of these too. take these with me.
I was out on the evening footpath of the main street of McKellar’s Junction. The moon was up on the mid-heaven, waxing like corn blight. I strolled the footpath quickly, pausing frequently mid-stride, taking stock of a passing thought. At ten O’clock that evening I had been ready to go. And so I had gone for my little walk along the main street to think over my plans, which with the help of the Officer I had been able to decide at least as far as the repeater. They were of course subject to change, but I had set them nonetheless as a rough guide. We would leave at seven the next day. It would already be hot at seven. I liked the heat. My favourite images came alive when the sun was welding down and the cicadas were singing me my way. As the day progressed from there, it would become hotter and hotter until about eleven when the temperature would peak. From this point on until about three it would plateau. This long period of constant heat would provide the biggest challenge for the Officer, though I would certainly welcome it. It would be four hours out to the Water Shack on the H2 road, bogging down through the weather-rutted vales of the farms, riding up high again over the crests, coming down on the next farm. With the H2 saving us a day and a half already, I now put five days between us and the repeater. Though I had no belief in the importance of the repeater, and though we were not in any great
hurry, I still desired to hike with all succinctness, wasting as little time as possible. In any serious career there maybe a natural hesitation in treating time as a toy, regardless of the individual disposition. From the Water Shack it would be another fifteen kilometres to the mountains. We couldn’t drive this, but the land was kind and I knew we could slip slide over it smoothly enough. The mountains themselves, though they loomed over the outer farms of McKellar’s Junction, and indeed loomed over McKellar’s Junction itself, were in actuality neither too high nor too extensive to hold us for longer than a day. I expected that we would begin climbing them sometime on the second day. Coming down the back of the mountains we would be brought to a real treat – an extensive series of artesian springs. Artesian springs were rare in the extreme, usually found only in small, isolated areas where faults had tapped a subterranean reservoir. But the map marked these springs boldly, and their colour ran a fair space of the paper. In fact, they appeared size enough to keep us a further day. The springs were set on their north by another range of mountains, though this range was a lot less than the first. From the northern slopes of this range, away went the bush again. This was scrub bush, only intermittently broken by streams or rock outcrops. It was also relatively flat bush, and though the path would run no further than a day into it, I knew it would be easy enough to find our way from where the path concluded to the repeater.
That then was our journey, at least as far as I imagined it. It swept away over time like a great fathom of movement yet it appeared as simple as a bold stroke. How it would end, well, on this footpath I was still standing in a time when thought of the final movements could not yet have begun. On my walk I thought about a lot of things beside the mission. I kept gliding down the smooth running edges of tangents, and often it was I had to catch myself and re-focus my attention: I wonder why that Nurse didn’t test my blood, or at least my blood pressure. They all seem to do that, like a nervous tic. I’ve swum the fore-shores of Malachite islands and breathed in gold dust like tailings from a war-plant of heavy metals and still I live with the fear of cancer. Others covered their mouths with cloth as a filter against the particles, but tests reveal all, platelets heavy with positive ions, attracted to industrial magnets. It went on like this for an hour, until every possible tangent had been explored and I was walking, walking, slowly arising in awareness to the sounds and lights of what in most country towns was called the Central Hotel. And there it was, the ‘McKellar’s Junction Grand.' The first story, the public bar, had long glass windows and a wide mouth that opened directly onto the street, while the second story, the hotel proper, was rounded off by a broad veranda filled with potted palms and other small decorative plants. There was a small crowd buzzing around outside the pub on the first floor. They were all dressed as if they had come straight from the
day, and they probably indeed had. Several people seemed to be both inside and outside of the pub at the once. I went over. Maybe have a drink or two. I walked past the throng outside, somehow without receiving comment. Once inside, I was quickly able to push my way over to a stool against the counter. The room was quite full, both with people and with smoke. The room itself was large, standing room mostly with a few tables set right at the back against the far wall. Over the heads of the militant, I could just make out the Gentlemen and Ladies signs demarking the toilets on that side of the room adjacent the pub counter. I recognized a few faces from the station that morning, but not many. There must have been at least thirty dirty, worked faces in there. The wood in the pub was stained. I sat down. The publican smiled at me. He was an older man of perhaps about fifty. His cheeks were both ruddy and yellowed at the same time from years of exposure to alcohol and tobacco. His smile was horrible, all teeth. - What'll it be? The man sitting next to me turned around towards us. I wondered if he was really interested in what I would order, or whether he had simly turned in an involuntary reaction to sound. I ordered a beer. It came quickly, the head repealed, as was expected. I took a sip, set the glass back down on the faded mat that ran the length of the counter and took a look around at my fellows. Of their number, there were amongst them only a few
women, though they didn’t at all look out of place, the glasses piling up as fast around their ankles as those of the men. These women were no surprise to me, nor as they would have been to Oxprey. He would have shouted terrible things at them, leering oddly at their breasts, his fingers raised towards the ceiling, forking them in a cruel gesture of absurdity. Perhaps I should do the same. The men were all obviously farmers, or farm hands, or otherwise invested in occupations of that sort pertaining to the land and ruggedness. Except for two men seated right at the very back of the room, barely able to be seen, hemmed as they were into one of two table booths. These two men were both far too neat in appearance to have been straight off the day’s work, and the way they sat their large solid silver watches tight on their wrists suggested that they had never been anywhere near a tractor or a yard in their lives. I watched them for a few moments; the organophosphates I would shout in their faces. They looked too weird to be clean of anything. I had a gun. I would confront them. But before I could give the matter any further thought, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and there was a farmer, too close for empathy. The farmer was an elementary construct, a pilot of my mind. Born slow to a furtive labour, he possessed all the nonsense of a robust splintering, the cataclysms of the spleen. He filtered things for me, the way I wished I only could. I sat down to party with him and his group, sharing a few rounds with these wild aberrations of
whatever, missing to understand them by a few good inches of neck rope. At last I could stomach no more of them and their claggy minds, getting up to leave them, winding back through the great doors of the pub and out into the night again. I walked back towards the office. Before long I came on the last block before return. The air in the street covered me like a blanket, the footpath swimming in the low opaque light flowing out of the mooned sky. I crossed the last cracks of the footpath and brought my path left to meet the French doors from where I had first started out into the night. Awaiting at the French doors, however, was a hurried looking officer. - Sir, where have you been? Somebody’s been on the radio for you for ages now. - Who? - I don’t know, Sir. But it sounds important. I followed him into the radio room and sat down to make the return call. I let him stay while I made the call. - O3226. Awaiting acknowledgment. Over. - Roger that, O3226. This is HQ21. Standby for transfer to GE1. The Generals. What did they have for me now? The line crackled for a few seconds before that familiar old honey voice came dripping out. - Abrahim, we want you on that mission tomorrow. - Yes, Sir. I have already planned for that.
- Good. Just make sure there is no delay. - No, Sir. There won’t be. - Good for you. That’s all. The line went dead. I shrugged my shoulders, got up, and went to the toilet. The Officer watched me in hopeful wait. I didn’t turn to him. The last thing I did that night was listen to the radio. It was a quiet country station playing a classical show - the monotone of a local dedicate introducing each number in pedantic detail, sharing his wild passion for the classics with long since dumb ears. I listened with half-interest, as his monologues were quite informed, and I got excited when finally he played something I knew, Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. And in great fashion did the Viking warriors ride down on their enemy, their Nordic swords ablaze... The announcer drifted on to other musings and I was lost. I fell asleep, the stars outside my bedroom window still chattering away like Morse signals from the helm of a communicating starship.
The Road Away
I stared at the ceiling, bereft of positive movement for the time. It had been about six thirty when the Officer had woken me. He was up and already ready and I wondered if he had slept at all. When he was confident he had woken me, he meandered off somewhere to track down final preparations. I just hoped he didn’t bother me too much. I wasn’t good on even the best of mornings, and I wasn’t interested in sharing his enthusiasm, yet. My head was still quite heavy and sleep was still quite close, but I managed to strengthen myself against the lure of a return to dream and sat up. The sun smashed its way in through the French doors that walled my room. It had probably been in the room for a half an hour already, and its strong fingers would have soon shaken me awake had the Officer not. I stretched my fingers for the sleep in my eyes, and found a store of it. By placing one fingertip under and another over the lashes, I was able to pull most of the junk off. My face still slept, even as the grime of sleep on my body began to irritate me. I felt a plumb weight dragging down on my eyelids, though this feeling lessened the longer I was awake. Finally, I had to get up. I put my right hand down under my side and levered myself out of the bed and into the day. The Nurse too was already awake. Through a window I saw her at the letterbox outside her little clinic. She was retrieving the morning paper. The letterbox snapped to and almost had her hand. It was a
rusty old iron trap. She would have serums for such an injury inside her drugs cabinet though, the ones I hadn’t stolen, anyway. I found the Officer in the kitchen, cutting sandwiches, though his efforts with the knife were doing more for the cockroaches and mice than the appeal of his sandwiches. He finished, quickly acknowledged me, then speeding out of the kitchen to other duties. I imagined the Officer’s poor shadow, breathless as it was being pulled all over the place. I made myself a good cup of chai, using leaf I had found in the pantry next to the refrigerator yesterday and an old earthen tea-pot, with a splash of rum. I sat down at the small pine table and set my cup down amongst the condiments. Salt from the ocean; pepper and basil from the dry
market gardens of the West; marjoram and oregano from similar regions; burnet from the mountains; and turmeric for the blood. I gazed out the kitchen window. Between the mess of foliage of a large myrtle I could just see the old timber of the fence that separated the Nurse’s clinic from the backyard on the far side. Grasses ran about the feet of the myrtle and inside the grasses would be ants, skinks, that sort of thing. In the yard on the other side of the fence, natives sprang forth. A table and chairs formed a place for the easy indulgence of Sunday breakfasts and the garden had been well composted with cane mulch. The garden looked like it might produce its own weather, such was the abundance of green. I lifted for my chai.
But before I could enjoy anymore, the Officer came back. He charged into the room, all uniform ready for blood and sweat and boots polished and tied up tight like he had strapped himself in for a dangerous ride. He had come in hoping that he would find me ready to leave, knowing that I wouldn’t be, knowing that he’d have to pull me along with him in order to bring my pace up to his. - Sir, it’s six forty-five. We are going soon, aren’t we? - Calm down. My stuff’s all ready. Just need a quick cuppa and I’ll be set. - You haven’t had breakfast yet, Sir? - For fuck’s sake, relax. I’ll eat on the way. I just need a cuppa to get started. Why don’t you go and get me that gun you told me about? The big, nasty thing! I very rarely carried an assault rifle with me, having never felt any great need for one. Though by regulation I was required to carry a firearm with me at all times when in uniform, I was generally happy with my 9mm. An in-concealable weapon I thought an unnecessary burden and indeed a danger – the sight of a man walking onto his farm with a gun could elicit several undesirable reactions from a farmer. But the Officer couldn’t believe I hadn’t brought one with me. He had obviously felt I wasn’t taking this mission as seriously as he, and he had looked a little hurt. So, for the sake of keeping the peace, I had asked for one - though only as I had been closing my bedroom door on him the night before. Even at that late hour, he had seemed more than happy to go and find something for me.
Besides, it would be fun to fire off at pigs and cassowaries. - I already got it, Sir. But I could only find forty odd rounds for it. - That’ll do. - I’ll just clean up this mess here, and then let’s go, Sir. - Clean up the mess? Why? Leave it. Just go and get your pack and take it out the front. I did feel like getting a move on. It was nearing seven and I guess I was starting to feel a little of the same excitement as the Officer. Right on seven we pulled out of the office driveway. - The H2’s probably still a bit boggy in places from the rain last month, so we could go a bit slow. - As long as we get to the Water Shack today. Within five minutes the Officer had us on the road that would take us to the H2 and the Water Shack, and eventually beyond into bush and the repeater and finally, the unseen end of the mission. Soon enough we began passing the outskirts of McKellar’s Junction.
A Path through Farms
The 4WD winds along the white track of the H2, dodging precisely the robust farms that keep jumping out at it. The Officer seems relatively comfortable with the twists and turns of the road beneath him. Abrahim is leaning back into his seat, feet crossed and up on the faded dashboard. He is playing with the clip of the assault rifle. About an hour into our drive the little sidetracks that ran off from the H2 to the farms started to become fewer, the interval between each increasing as the farms steadily grew in acreage. The H2 had long since turned to dirt, and, though the surface was a little soft and occasionally rutted where the soil was weak and had been moulded by heavy use, it was still quite drivable. The farms, all of cleared bushland, followed along on each side of us, kept from running out over us by a rusty old barbed wire fence. The rich pastures of dairy properties predominated, though occasionally we would drive past a field of sunflower or corn. The farms of McKellar’s Junction were relatively productive, and the condition of keep of most of the farmhouses we passed reflected this – shining silver ripples on the roofs, a painful glare off a brand new water tank or windmill, fresh paint washing the timbers. Equipment too looked recent in purchase or otherwise in a state of well maintenance. We travelled an occasional hill, rising only steeply enough so that we couldn’t see what we had left behind as we rode down again on
the other side. Great gums stood sometimes, preferring the solitude to the clamour of the younger gums which frolicked together in clusters. The farmers respected the big gums and would not now cut them. They were all old and eminent entities, many of whom had been already established before the first clearing of the land for farms took place. As such, they held a certain presence, an ability to haunt the farmers, and the farmers accordingly feared them a little and let them drink from their roots in peace. Most of the younger gums, though they had already survived a great deal of felling, would not live to know such acclaim as their elders. I went away in stare:
Flashback. Noises down below them, deep off through thick rainforest. A clear, crystal clear stream flowing over a liquid bed of sand, might that it be not a storm had formed glass that appears as water. Noises below them, the fetid joking of a day’s killing, hearts sliced open left still rotting in the field, a farmhouse, a home. A man says to his Captain, ‘I will go and see if they are ours.’ He steals his way along the thin bank of the stream, sometimes putting a foot into it where needs be, fast, ready. Before long he comes to a waterfall, a cascade really, that takes the stream down to the voices, drops the water down into a steep, narrow gully. He eases down the rocks of the waterfall like a hunting spider, discovering at the bottom a short pool bordered on its sides by wide, flat banks thick with palms. The pool is quite deep, and translucent, with only the faintest blue-green tinge to its waters. He moves in between the palms, ever coming toward the voices. He alights behind one last palm, a short palm with yellowy fingers, heavy and taught without wind on them. There were five voices to the talk, and our man marked them all. From behind rock and palm he stole back in life retribution for what had been done. And as quietly and quickly as he had come, he left that place, let the roots and the waters get back to the task of renewing the earth. Perhaps the first thing that you noticed about Oxprey was his large
hands. They sat on the end of his piston-like forearms like magnificent golden claws, and you knew if they were ever bunched tight in anger, the damage they would render would be extreme. I had seen him work the fingers of those giant hands over the fine details of a bolt-action rifle and knew the speed and agility with which they could move when necessary. He had also been quite a handsome man, as such characters often are. Middle aged, yet full, thick, jet black hair. And eyes, dark yet light, true drowning pools. They had had enormous gravity. Oxprey had had perfect eyesight with those magnets. In fact, overall he
had been as close to the ultimate physical specimen as I’d ever seen. He had been a champion sportsman in school, carrying a
fierce reputation as an athlete and competitor throughout his university days. This reputation had extended into his military
service: he had been the army cross-country champion for four years straight. When I had run the course as part of basic training many years later, I had not even come close to making the same sort of times as he had so consistently. In fact, to my knowledge, the record he had set in his final race still stood. Along with the fine body had gone the fine mind. He had graduated university with first-class honours and had since added a PhD in Letters to his resume. He had conversed mostly through the veil of anger though, and you either simply listened to him, nodding at the appropriate times or, you risked his claws tearing away your face. His rants, though, had been, without exception, well informed and
he had made cogent argument. But within his talk, he had missed certain soft points, things I felt a man with his logic should have been capable of working with. This had made me feel, yes, I was better than him.
The Nurse’s clinic, yesterday. - You must have found something interesting in all your research?’ - No, not unless you count the three people who died from a strain of the flu within the two months after the comet came. Have you ever seen a bird of prey caged? - What?
The purchase of the 4WD, now heading steadily towards what is obviously a larger hill in the background. I had rotated in my seat to a stare out of the window. The Officer was keeping a steady drive, shifting occasionally to re-position his weight on the seat. About three hours into the drive we had begun to climb the first of the bigger hills. The hill we were now ascending rose quite slowly to its summit of six hundred metres - a marker in a local hand - though it probably stood only four hundred or so of these metres over the land surrounding it. It was alone for kilometres around, a single hemisphere still separated by a day and a half’s walk from its bigger brothers beyond. And it was quite gentle; pastures and sunflower fields ran its slopes; in the few places where this polite vegetation wasn’t, thick bush rioted. I looked up towards the summit from our approach. The steep relief offered the chance of a long view from the top. - Any place we can stop up the top of this hill? I want to have a look around...wouldn’t mind stretching the legs as well. - Yes, Sir. There’s a little park up there. It’s not much and you won’t get a view to the west, but you should be able to see pretty much everything else. - Sounds good. Let’s stop there then. - Yes, Sir. The road here was running like bitumen and the 4WD was finding
great traction. The bigger ruts also disappeared in the final two kilometres up to the summit and we made quick work of the ascent. As we began the last of the ascent, the pastures on the left side of the road passed into bush, though the sunflowers on the right held fast. In the last kilometre we climbed about hundred metres, giving us a marked, though not challenging rise. It was here that we started to get the first of the good views. Looking back I could already make out ten or twenty kilometres, recognising a few of the shimmering grey farmhouses, picking up the thread of the road as it trailed back through them. I could also pick out some of the lone gums we had passed by, still waiting as sentries of an earlier time, not knowing that that time had run its course and had long since swept to something new. Suddenly, the view disintegrated into a sudden bush. The bush rushed by like an express train. When it had passed we were looking at a small clearing. In the centre of the clearing a single picnic table had been set. Lush grass filled the clearing surrounding the table, insulating it from the bush. A lone water tap had been fixed near the road, right at the edge of the grass. Beside the tap was a small parking space into which the Officer now steered the 4WD. My only thoughts were of accessing those views from the edge of the clearing that I had been promised. I got out of the 4WD and walked quickly over, momentarily forgetting the Officer. I came to the edge of the clearing and was immediately hit with the
view. The view from the north to the south took in about a hundred and ninety degrees of the compass. The land below swayed light headedly in the mid morning heat and in the haze it was hard to see clearly beyond thirty or so kilometres. To the north the mountains stood. They were quite close now, and I hoped that if we could start our hike sometime soon after lunch, we could get to their feet around eight tonight. They looked tall and strong from this distance and they seemed to brood like an old master who has written it all but now waits, pausing before bringing his pen down for the next word. I felt their mystery and I felt a cry in me for a chance to read that next word. Also to the north, looked down on by the mountains, was the cylindrical form of the Water Shack, its corrugated iron rusting so that what would once have been a blinding glare, was now just a brown shimmer. Another hour’s drive would bring it to us. To the south were all the lands behind us. McKellar’s Junction was now too far away to be seen, though it was a little far to the southsouth-west to have been seen anyway. Smoke. Out in the east. The smoke was right on the horizon, far enough away that no flames could be seen. It was thick, billowing up a way into the sky before the wind could thin it to invisibility. I squinted hard, trying to pick up any clues. There was nothing, only an old black farmhouse. - Sir, Old Russ’s place! - Are you sure?
- Yes, Sir. That’s his house, and that smoke is definitely on his property. - You don’t have any idea what it might be, do you? You don’t do late burning here do you? - No. Not now, Sir. Not in the summer. I’ve got no idea what it is. - Oh well, fuck it. It’s a way away. The smoke was gnarled and lifting in thick curls - enough to suggest quite a serious fire. Looking at it, I felt a sense of there being something not quite right, as though the barren fields and poison algae lakes of Old Russ’s farm had raised up against the old farmer himself. I knew nothing of Old Russ or his land of course. It was just simply a feeling. - Better get on that radio. Make sure the cops know what’s going on. - Yes, Sir. I left it at that. I walked away to the northern edge of the clearing again to look out at the coming times - the Water Shack and the mountains beyond them. Another day and we would be beyond even the mountains. The mountains were spilling a magic on me. They were all at once beautiful, mysterious – enigmatic - and I found that, looking out over them now, a great sense of adventure and exploration was awakening in me. Where the people of McKellar’s Junction felt trepidation at the thought of the unknown behind the mountains, I felt a sentimentality I could trace back to childhood and the feelings
I had felt then as I had first looked on the neighbouring hills, feeling for the first time that urge, that desire to adventure, so far away from what was safe and comfortable. Once we had climbed the mountains though and come back down off them, they could no longer retain any sense of mystery. They would be conquered. The largest mysteries lay still far off beyond these mountains.
The Water Shack
Our 4WD was back on the H2, making slow but steady progress through the lands below the Water Shack. The Water Shack itself was still standing away in the distance, still largely out of view. The farms finally dwindled to a few. The cattle turned brown, kept now for their meat rather than their milk. The land was becoming increasingly hilly, though for now the hills remained rolling, bounded and un-monumental. The border mountains were growing larger in sight, rising up over us, pushing themselves all over me in a private communication. On either side of the road, bush was starting to jump up more and more as the farms slowly decayed back to their origins. - How long has this path been muddying soles? - I’m not sure, Sir. As far as I know the path has been there forever… I could see how he was right. The path had most likely evolved even as the town had, coming into being as the more adventurous of the new townsfolk had sought to explore their surrounds. - …at least as far back as Gumnut Arthur’s time. - Who? - He was some big figure back in the early days of the Junction. I don’t know much about him really, Sir. He went a bit crazy in the end apparently. - I hate pioneers.
The sun rebounded hard and strong off the quarry stones that formed the road. Most of the stones had at least one flat surface and where the angle was correct, the sun was flown back up at us. The windscreen did little for the Officer’s driving; it wasn’t tinted, and the glare struck hard. We had had our first good view of the Water Shack about two kilometres back, occasionally catching an extra glimpse of it as it flittered through the tight eucalypt forest. The H2 was now running an old creek bed, the banks in some places over a meter high – a single-lane - if we’d met another vehicle then, it would have taken a lot of time to have worked our way by. The road had been for the last five kilometres an easy drive. The stones had run smoothly undercarriage. The Water Shack, the Officer had explained, was no longer in service. In fact it had not been functional for ten years or so. What had once been a visible source of pride to the McKellar’s Junction farmers, a landmark supporting a claim to a rich and successful farming industry, was now rusted and invaded by the pests of the land. The Water Shack had had a practical value to equal its symbolic power. It had been a pumping station, built expressly for the irrigation of the farms; by all accounts it had been a very successful enterprise, rewarding those who had invested in it many times over, making very powerful several of the families of McKellar’s Junction. But that was then. Changing weather patterns, with a lean towards greater rainfall, and new technology had eventually rendered the
Water Shack obsolete. It had run at half capacity, and then quarter capacity for a time before it was finally shut down; the last of the water to flow through its pipes had long ago soaked down into the tilled earth of the farms. However, despite the abandonment of the Water Shack, the two roads that ran to it remained in an only slightly deteriorated state, paved with the stones as they were, and built with the care that they had been. Reference to the map showed that the Water Shack was set on the highest hill in the area, two hundred and seventy six meters in a small range of three or four two hundred metre plus summits and a collection of barely significant rises, melting away on all sides into gentle rolling hills, watery gravy. The Water Shack would afford a good view over all this, and maybe even a glance of the path as it headed up into the mountains. The H2 road curled up from behind the hill and met the Water Shack road, which ran a straighter, flatter line out from McKellar’s Junction, just at the front gate to the outer fence of the Water Shack. The Water Shack road was primary to the H2, and when the bridge was travelable, it would offer a shorter three hour drive from McKellar’s Junction instead of the four and a half it had taken us on the H2. We drove up around quite a few bends in getting to the top, the climb soon becoming steep enough for the Officer to keep the 4WD in second gear. We passed a fallen tree, or what really was now a rotted-out log. A large water-dragon gaped at us from its perch on the higher end of the log. Finally, as the gums quietened down to
nothing and grasses sprang up, we came to the last curl of the H2, coming then out in front of the Water Shack. I hadn’t quite known what to expect. I had imagined all kinds of majesty, but now, in the round, I found the Water Shack best describable in plain terms: There it stood, the brown, rusted, forgotten dream of McKellar’s Junction. It stood alone, so far protected from the ever encircling bush by its two perimeter fences, though these themselves wouldn’t last for too much longer. Despite its faded state, it remained yet significant – tall, unascendable, its diameter equally impressive. I wondered how long it had taken to construct. Or how much its construction had cost its investors. The Officer had told me that the Water Shack had paid for itself with record sales of livestock and produce within only its first few years of operation. Its appearance now - rivets having popped to where the corrugated iron was peeling off, producing gaps of various sizes through whose entrances the pests, snakes, spiders, possums, mice, would have come; the lack of a roof, probably blown off in stages by the frequent summer storms that arose behind the mountains, or collapsed in under the victory of gravity over human endeavour was a stark reminder that success does not guarantee longevity. Oxprey had known all about that, too. About twenty metres down from the Water Shack there was a large old jacaranda. It was past its bloom, and its limbs and fingers were thick with bright green foliage. At this time of day its shade was
precious; its cover large enough to have rested the many picnickers who I imagined had once congregated here, Sundays at the solid proof of progress and prosperity. There had probably been gentle grass to spread a rug over then. The grass now was long and wild, hiding many biting, stinging creatures. The Officer drove the 4WD under the jacaranda and stopped it there. - Well, here we are. - Finally. - Will we leave straight away, Sir? - Jesus, how about some lunch first. Want to water the adenoids, prepare them deep. Regardless of the unkempt state of the Water Shack and its surrounds, this still felt a nice place to stay a moment and lunch. I was hungry, and the path was not yet calling that urgently. The Officer had already jumped down from the 4WD and was busy pulling his pack down after him. - Looks like you’re pretty hungry there too, boy. Don’t go giving yourself a stitch though. Chew your food slowly. - Yes, Sir. We went over to the jacaranda, each of us picking a particular root to sit on, and we began opening our packs to get at what might be had for lunch. Time moved on. War; it was inevitable now, at least in some form. Those who wished to see it done have had more than enough time to organise
support for their interests. That damn Prime Minister was confused enough to start believing their argument that a quick, decisive war was what was needed. Why not let those silly bastards separate? The government could not claim any genuine influence over their poltics anymore anyway. Why fight and die to maintain possession of something that will turn on us again and again. Haven't our hands been bitten enough? You know? We beat them and ram their lands full of our own people – you really think they will suffer that for long? Another war will break out, fuelled by even stronger energies, promising even stronger implications. Kill them all, it’s the only way. But who has the courage to do that! And what of this repeater? I didn’t really believe the Generals could have had any real concern for our mission. They wouldn’t have bothered too much if I had sprayed it all up in big fluoro-pink lettering. The Officer gleamed like a child who has found a vein of pyrite; secret mission! It was right that we were the major players in some grand conspiracy. Too much didn’t make sense. But where he couldn’t see logic, I saw the over-working of logic, to the point where it blurred into the curiosity of puzzle. In their plays, the Generals liked to predict, counter-predict and then predict all over again all possible events, the causes and effects. In this way they built up their plans. I could see how it had become their way of thinking – three men waking up every morning to a power, or a sense of power, no one else could really imagine, having no real challenge for that power. So, they created challenges, tests. They
manufactured missions that wound like old rivers, missions that contained all sorts of complexities and found as many new questions as they did answers. They wanted to see if the dominoes they set fell in the pattern they had expected. Our mission would fit in somewhere, another domino to the game, another angle to the question. What these men had no handle on was the very real notion that, in conjuring up these tests for their powers, they were rejecting out of hand the responsibility they had to act rationally. They took their power too seriously, too literary, and this weakness gave them the ability to neglect a central point – the mere possession of power did not necessitate its exercise. I wished the Officer could have seen them at work, furiously calculating the best way to turn things, setting up the rolls of thunder so that they would come down right on cue to crash on the unwary earth. ‘And I’ll just add this,’ a sudden burning taking my face. ‘If this all ends with the loss of my children, someone else will be dead.’ I
stood, not knowing where my sudden rage had come from, then remembered the train of thought that had led me to it. The
Generals. Fuck them. And Oxprey. Beyond cognizance, I’d slipped the knife I always carried at my belt out from its sheath and stuck it deep into the trunk of the jacaranda. The Officer was looking at me, mouth ajar. I pulled the knife back out of the tree and cursed
myself for the wound I had inflicted unnecessarily. Soft green meat opened to the air. Look what they made me do, curse them. I'll rip
their throats out, strip their veins from the forehead down, excise their whole organism, turning the meat loose for the pigs and dogs. I sat back down, talking a little with the Officer. I checked the time. It surprised me. - Alright, time to get moving. - Give me a minute to re-pack, Sir. - Well, that settles it. I’m going for a walk. I went over to the Water Shack. I wanted a quick look at it while I had the chance, asthma pulling DNA off my lungs. I walked over the grass and dirt that ran the way to the outer fence. This fence, perhaps half and again head height, was an old cyclone. Wrought shapeless in places by time, the wire hung tensionless like an abandoned spider’s web. Brown dust grew on most of it and to be punctured by a loose end would certainly draw a chance of tetanus, gram-positive spores feeling away in the anaerobic depths of soft, fleshy tissue. I went in through the one gate in the fence, which actually opened quite easily, coming quickly to the inner fence. This was in much the same state as the outer; having been erected together, they now corroded together. The inner fence also had only the one gate, though for some reason this gate was a little further around to the side than the one I’d just come through in the outer. Instead of walking around to the gate, I simply slipped through a hole in the fence where one of the sheets of wire had come away from a post. From the inner fence it was
about twenty metres again to the Water Shack itself. Here, grass gave way to stones – the years of termite treatment having created a poisonous ring around the structure – and the stains of old work began to show on the ground. I looked back over to the Officer. He was still under the tree,
twiddling his thumbs, thinking about the ill-comforts of a bush path. I looked around the Water Shack for a way-in. There was an opening close to me where the corrugated iron had been bent. It wasn’t
enough for passage, enough though that I could move my head in for a look. It was dark and dusty inside. A few beams had crashed down from the roof and where these had been a little sunlight now shone in bright. I noticed that the pumping equipment had been salvaged at some point. There were, however, two thick lengths of piping left
emerging from the floor of the tank. It would be interesting to see how far they still ran, though I shuddered at the thought of what may be running in them. On the far side of the tank, there was a hatch set into the floor. I remembered something the Officer had told me earlier: - There’s a series of pipes deep under the Water Shack, Sir. They run for kilometres out from the Shack, each as high as a man. They all slope down on a shallow gradient - they used gravity to save pumping costs. Never been down there myself, but I’ve heard
they’re a real adventure, Sir. If I ever came back this way, I thought I might like to take a look,
dump a body down there or something. And that was all there was to see. I turned from the Water Shack and headed back to the tree. The Officer was now fiddling around in the 4WD. I quickly came back over to him and five minutes later we were standing at the head of the path. The path - its dirt carried its way through the caress of the grass out over the northern slope of the hill. There it fell out of view as the slope began taking it down, over the back of the hill. - About two hundred metres further on, just out of sight really, we’ll hit the bush, Sir. There’s about two K’s of bush, then we’ll come out on the Badrick’s farm. Junction. It’s the last farm out from McKellar’s Anyway, from what I’ve heard it’s
They’ve got cattle.
about five or so kilometres across the farm and then we’ll hit bush again, Sir. From there we’ll start climbing up into the hills. - You ready? The Officer hardly needed to respond with any word, voiced or otherwise, for I well knew exactly how he felt, now that we were standing at the head of the path, a path which for him would bring only adventure and lead on, past mere tranquillity, to an unknown conclusion which would be as bright as an epic burning in the night or as subtle as a cold dying chill. I looked away down the path. It slipped away so tidily through the slightly fading grasses; someone with a strong purpose had taken scythe to the blades of the growth in their initial spring so that they,
thus trained, would never grow to cover the course. The soil that formed the path was black and compacted, suggesting recent heavy rainfall. Stones occasioned, adhering with great bond to the soil,
and around the stones large red ants moved in a procession towards a found food. The recent rains would have tortured them well, but those that had survived would be now enjoying the heat in their blood again. And so we began. I led off first, the Officer behind me, fallen on an old pattern. I threw a handful of the apple seeds I always carried with me off into the bush. ‘A little alien growth for you, too!’ Around the path there were a few scattered melaleuca trees. These were older trees; the ones which had survived the original clearing of the hill when way had had to be made for the Water Shack. They had experienced much trauma, and would no longer seed. When they finally died, it would be new species that would grow up in the waste of their roots. We began to descend as the path took us off the hill. The trees
started to thicken in trunk and number and were observably younger in the wood, marking the gradual coming of the bush back onto the hill, until it would finally overcome the work of McKellar’s Junction and force the Water Shack into its last ruin, in which it would lay, for eternity, under the awnings of the green abound. A little further down the back of the hill, the path, as the Officer had said it would, suddenly ran into quite thick bush. It was a steady eucalypt bush, of the kind common to the drier insides of the
continent. The trees, for the most part, reached up to a ceiling quite high, and at a few points they took argument with each other over space. This was the familiar mix of old and young wood that told of remnant forest, bush that had never been put to it by the sharps of the farmers. Between the trees, the undergrowth sprung up strong – grass trees, lomandra in the gullies, sipping on a refreshment now no more than a dew, bracken fern, shrubs, saplings, leaves, twigs, the occasional branch that had fallen from a height. The smell in the undergrowth was strong, though confused, for the undergrowth itself was both alive and dead – the life afforded by photosynthesis, the fragrances of growth and the odours of the decay of that which had broken and fallen, nutrients released directly into the growth around. The path picked its way carefully enough through the mess so that it never stepped out of its depth, and it was easy enough to follow, even for those following it from a daydream. The bush was a superior insulator. In summer it was cool, or cooler at least than other kinds of topography. And though it was not yet rainforest, still it maintained canopy enough to control the force of the sun. And in winter too it was comfortable, as its thick walls,
which could close in quickly, made it difficult for the cold needlepoints of the continental air to penetrate the skin. After another five minutes or so of descent, the path began to level off. A little further on and we finally took the last steps off the large hill of the Water Shack. We were beginning to put the Water Shack well behind us.
We continued on through the bush, coming at us as it ever was. Though now off the significant height of the hill where we had lunched with the Water Shack, the path nevertheless took us up and down as we rose and fell over many small rises. At the crest of the third gentle ascent, the bush gave way a little into a modest opening and we stopped for a moment to look back at the treedistorted view of our noon an hour before. However, the angle was such that we couldn’t make the top of the hill itself where the Water Shack had stood. Only memory could now serve to remind us of anything of the place from where we had just come. The Officer took off his pack to re-adjust the straps. I had thought he might have also had a word of complaint, out of early frustration with the effort so far, but, if he did, he didn’t bother me with it. I may have curdled him in wish bones otherwise. While the Officer fiddled with his pack, I threw a few small stones from the path down into the bush. It wasn’t a considered action, rather an empty idiosyncrasy that many had transcended to more rational, conscious, behaviours. I hit a tree; a lizard, I think, scurried away through the wire undergrowth. The Officer finished his work and prepared himself anew. jumped off the crest and back into hectic bush. We walked on, letting time pass us as it would. The dry eucalypt continued and little changed as we went. But I was content, the We
bush at my four sides. I breathed deeply, taking the breath down into my diaphragm. I felt my lungs expand, and as they did I
imagined them washing with fluid energy, a cleaning of filters as they filled with the wholesome bush air. And then I let the air back out; as it floated away it took with it the acrid must that had been loosed off my chest. I breathed in again. The smell of the bush was as it ever was: the dry green odour of the gums, the hot sun releasing the oils from their leaves; the raw, organic smell of the brown earth as we walked down the bare bank of a gully; the occasional grab of dry air, stale as it lay un-moving in the downs. The Officer jogged up to my side: - I guess after the farm, we get into the real wilds, Sir? - No hotels on this trip. - It’d be a bit dangerous to go north now, right, Sir? - I was in Thomas last month. The roads are still open, people are still driving them, going about their business. I went out in the bush out from there and saw nothing. Fucking boring. - You think it might not happen, Sir? - The war? I hope not. I don’t want to lose what I’ve got now. It’s a sweet deal, being able to hike around in the bush like this. The Officer nodded without comment. Looking around on his
quietened face I realised I had said the wrong thing. I should have said, ‘The war? No way that’ll ever happen. Really.’ But that line was not in my heart, and if I had given it to him, he would have at once found it wanting for conviction, remaining as dismayed as ever. Reassurance was beyond what I could offer him. Cold honesty was all I had, and at any rate, it was only honesty that could really
prepare him for what may be coming. You know of course if war does break out, then with your rank Once they’ve assigned you a
you’ll be off to fight pretty quick. command, you’re off.
- I think about that a lot, Sir. I understand I signed on for this, but… I just don’t feel comfortable about it anymore, Sir. I just feel like something is different, you know, but I liked how things were.’ The Officer was being open with me. I acknowledged him in a nod. I also felt something changed. We had entered a new level of
existence, a level unknown and for which we had not asked. But I also knew that, given time, things would adjust to where they would all again permit the self-containing pall of normalcy. This of course is just the equation on which the Generals’ were banking, mathematicians trained on their blood-red eyes. That war might
become a norm though, was an immediate and oppressive weight pushing right down on our ribcages, setting to burst through to the treasure inside. I didn’t offer any further reply to the Officer and soon the pause filled out into an ending, the Officer slowly dropping his walk back in behind me.
The Forward Scout
I awoke from a daydream sometime later to the awareness of the gurgling of a small creek. We had found ourselves in a shallow
depression where the water table was but bare below us. The bush had deepened a little, from dry to wet sclerophyll, even bordering in places on rainforest. Many of the trees grew beards of lichen and moss, and on the south-facing side of some of the older, larger trunks, there were a few wild gardens of outburst. The temperature had noticeably dropped, perhaps even by as much as five or six degrees, the sunken land we were now traversing acting as a heat retardant, the high quantity of water inherent in the land further aiding this process of refrigeration. That was the bush – you could be hiking through plain open forest one minute, hot and bright, and then the next, for no more reason than a slight change measurable only in the fine-point terms of topography, you could find yourself cold and wet in a sunless void. Many thought it easy to travel around in the continent – its reputation for unchanging expanses of open eucalypt forest made it seem so friendly, particularly when this was compared with the images of the impenetrable jungles of the world – but the only thing that was actually easy about it was the way in which you could quickly find yourself out of your depth. I had rescued many walkers who had thought they could venture off the path and go unchallenged. I’ve even had to retrieve a few bodies – invariably
those who had come suddenly on an unexpected change in the land and been unprepared for it. Neither was I always prepared for what I encountered out in the bush. I had access to the most precise
maps, maps I had myself often helped to populate, but it was more than sometimes that even one of these such maps had not been able to warn me of a danger – a sudden storm, for example, could make many otherwise insignificant land features into unending moments of peril and fear, adrenaline burning. But I wouldn’t have had the bush any other way. The gurgling grew in velocity as we went on and it wasn’t long before the tree line gave and the path came out on a slow yet worthwhile creek – neither deep nor wide, its current nonetheless toiling under the weight of a steady volume. The path turned to the left just as it met the creek, and from there it ran away again, keeping a course parallel and tight with the creek. We followed on. Around a bend we came to a point where at last the path sought to cross the creek. It was an unusual crossing though, if it could be called a crossing at all, for the creek seemed to flow straight out of a jumble of rocks (we were tracing the creek back upstream), the path completely disappearing in amongst these rocks. - Sir? The path must be here somewhere. It’s marked on my map
through here. - Maybe the map is a bit out, Sir. I took off my pack, pulling the map out.
- Here! The path is marked through these rocks. There must be a way. - Well, it must be invisible then, Sir, because as far as I can see the path ends here, and all I see is water coming out of those rocks, Sir. To all appearances he was correct – there was no sign of the path beyond its abrupt termination at the water’s edge. Once it stepped off the bank of the creek, there was no obvious indication as to where it went. For a moment I even wondered if we wouldn’t have to go up around the rocks to pick it up again on the other side. Maybe the land had changed here recently. These rocks may have fallen across the path in the rains, disallowing its use. However,
closer inspection of the rocks revealed that this could not have been the case: the rocks were of water-smoothed granite, and had a fit with the land that showed they had been fixed in their places for millennia. Furthermore, a fall would have created significant debris, and nothing of that kind could be seen anywhere around the area, a sure sign that no recent upheaval had taken place. The path had to be here somewhere. - I’m going to take a look, wait here. I took off my boots and put a first foot into the creek. The water was refreshingly cool, and clear. I bent down and scooped up a handful of the water into my mouth. It was beautiful. As I moved my feet over the sand bed, guppies swam around in fright of the invasion. A little further on the sand bottom gave way to rock, smooth and a little slippery. I dared my balance over the rock, and though I had a
few nervous moments, I managed to keep my feet. Finally, I came to the granite mess, the place from where the creek elicited blankly, without explanation. A large slab overhung the
creek, sheltering the rocks that had risen up out of the sandy bed. Under this awning I delicately sidled, moving arachnid, a horizontal climber. It wasn’t that I was being careful about a slip onto cold, wet rock, rather, here below the low ceiling, this was all the range of movement that I was allowed. A little way in I came to a sudden gap in the upper slab of rock, large enough that I could climb up through. As I started to work my way up to this gap, I noticed, just under a small water-carved ledge on its left side, a single bar of white paint. And, my eyes straining into the dark, I saw another white mark a little further up that would lead me up into the gap itself; and beyond it, just on the edge of sight, a third marking on the lip of the gap itself. I’d found the path. I threw my discovery back to where the Officer was waiting: - There are markings for the path through these rocks. It looks like a bit of hard work, but the path does continue up through here. C’mon. Above the loud rush of the water he had heard me, and he was now getting ready to follow me. I turned from him and got on with my climb up through the gap. The three markings did indeed take me up through the gap, through a short rock tunnel that glistened in the small light, shards of geometry onto the granite walls flown up by the rushing water;
finally up through an opening in the head of the tunnel and into daylight again. I lost my footing twice getting through this opening, and I was relieved when I finally pulled my way out into the sun again. The first thing I noticed was the difference in the land. The bush had largely gone. It had been replaced by a wide, flat
creek with large, gently sloping granite banks. At the edge of the left bank, wet eucalypt forest waited, far from the water, unable to sink its roots through the old granite. Just beyond the granite bank to the right were the barbed-wire fence and pasture of a farm – the last farm. The white markings had come up out the rocks with me, continuing over the granite to the right where the path began again at a gate set in the fence. Looking up the wide creek, which ran parallel to the fence, I could see maybe a hundred metres or so before the creek and granite disappeared again into the patient bush. After the Officer had emerged from the gap and we had begun congratulating each other, we then exchanged looks that confirmed the realisation that we had forgotten our packs back down below the rocks. We smiled as we went about completing the remedy – there was nothing else for this kind of turn-up. When finally we had ourselves back in a position from where we could move forward again, we found a gentle way beckoning. The path led from the gate straight over a rich pasture splendid with clover, here and there unstable with the old weight of a grazing hoof. I imagined a spring replete with butterfly colours like
something I had read as a child.
Daisies, buttercups, daffodils,
marigolds, bluebells, that sought of thing. But here now there were cobbler’s pegs and spear thistle and slender nutgrass on the fringes. There was no sign of cattle, though a water trough stood full under a lone oak a little way off to our right. They will come when the tides summon them, I thought. At the end of this first pasture a short rise bounced up, blocking our immediate way. The path did not hesitate though, and we followed it up through a short grove of camphor laurel to where it finally levelled. The small view gave us enough to show us that we were on a brief island, a patch of thicket surrounded by undulating pastures. On the western side of the rise however, the thicket
seemed to persist, not so ready to yield to the whims of farmers and the needs of their herds as had elsewhere been the case. And
below us, just a short descent, was an old tin shack, bursting from the inside out with lantana and Johnson grass, so that it resembled the coming forth, the explosion of a botanical aneurysm. A metre from the rent wall of the shack was a ditch - most likely dug for the purpose of irrigation - that led down to a slight field. The field itself, only the length and breadth of a small market garden, was sunk well down into the ground, drains marking its four sides. Nothing could have been grown in it for years. The shack, then, was once a pump house. I felt curious. I just wanted a quick look. The Officer was surprised, frustrated even at my interest in something so obviously off the
path. - Sir, it’s just an old shed, isn’t it. - Yes, it is. But I’ve always had a weakness for old sheds. Stop your whining or I’ll shoot you and leave your bones for the cows. - Sir… - On second thoughts, you go on ahead. I’ll catch you up. If you beat me off the farm, how about looking for somewhere to camp? Not too close to the farm, though. I swivelled the assault rifle around my hip, waving him on. He
agreed to my suggestion and turned back to the walk towards the mountains. I left the path and sprang the short distance down to the shack. It was as I had thought – a thoroughly rusted old hand-pump lay disconnected and useless up against the one good wall of the shack. The bore was filled with weeds, dust coating everything. I went over to the field. The ground was hard, baked by the sun, all moisture removed long ago, or else retreated to the lower layers of the soil deep under foot. The grounded cracked under my boots. Old root stock prickled underneath. Behind a tussock of grass on the far side of the field I found to my surprise a small bog, rivered with just enough water in its near side to save the thirst of a dozen cows, but not one more. I stopped here for a minute. It was beautiful; the grass and the
water, quiet, undisturbed. It wasn’t the kind of place to which you could take a new thought and develop it joyfully, inspired by the
view around. No, it was more sort of a rough image, an archetype that you could build into a great memory and keep with you forever, just something small that could make you remember beauty and tranquillity when things weren't otherwise so. I knelt down by the small barren field and thought for a moment about other times I'd felt such a sentiment: the bush proposing to me in delightful, melancholy ways; a harvest moon over the Eastern horizon of a lonely hill-top road; the earthly adventures of childhood lived in quests to the meadows and fields beyond the visual reach of our home. It seemed then that all I was about now had to do with the preservation of everything represented by this sentiment. The path was still there waiting for me when I came back to it. How far along would the Officer be? He couldn’t have been too far. I hadn’t stopped long, and I hadn’t day dreamed too much either. I set off at pace with the intention of catching him up before he could make camp. An hour later and I was back in the middle of rich pastures. A few cows watched my slow progress, but otherwise I was alone. The path was here a little down from the top of a low ridge, running parallel with the crest. Though the ridge afforded a proper view,
there wasn’t much to be seen. The pastures stretched beyond the base of the hill through a slight dale and on to a further hill, distant and beyond full eyesight. I walked on for another ten minutes, making quite good ground. I had come now to another ridge. It was getting on towards five
O’clock and the westering sun was throwing all its rays at me, like a tree in its last flowering. The force of its heat, though, was
mitigated a little by an afternoon breeze that had picked up. The Officer had obviously been a good distance ahead. He may have even already come to the boundaries of the farm and found somewhere to camp. I remembered having asked someone about a mistake to which they had once alluded. They had turned the whole thing back on me: - I’d better answer the question then. Yes, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. None of them carried any risk of serious consequences though. - For example? - Acquiescing to farmers when I shouldn’t have, standing over farmers when I shouldn’t have, trespassing, stealing... - You’re a minor criminal then? - Essentially. Though the law protects what I do in the bush. - You mean if you take someone’s tractor and drive it off a cliff, you won’t be held responsible for it? - The military will compensate the owner, but yes, they can’t touch me. Whatever is necessary for the mission. An old gum tree shook off its age in the breeze. I stopped just past this tree and took a drink of water. As I was turning the flask over to my pack, the breeze carried me a sudden information. Four
gunshots sounded on the cooling warmth of the afternoon air. And close.
The path ran past a solitary mango tree about twenty meters further on. I picked up my pack and flashed over to the tree, lying the pack down against it. Then I turned and jogged off down the path,
leaving the pack behind under the broad span of the tree. I jogged as low to the ground as I could, keeping well off to the side of the path so as not to make an obvious target of myself to anybody who might have been watching. The path ahead exited the pasture through a hedgerow of gums. Pushing through to the other side of this tree break should bring me close to where I would have placed the origin of the shots. Most likely a farmer shooting at rabbits, I thought to myself. Maybe the Officer had been shooting at a pig. It's not like I ever hadn't, out of wanton boredom. I hit the tree break. The gums pushed out of the ground at me like great pistons, the saplings appearing constantly at my face came as angry hands, bristling me with their slaps. The leaves, stones, and twigs all cracked and crackled under my run, concerning me a little with the strength in their voices. I kept clambering on, ignoring the cuts that were steadily growing in number on my arms and legs. I kept pushing back that next stalk only to have it recoil violently against me as I inevitably lost control of it. Even if I did successfully sweep one of these nuisances out of my way, there were always two others waiting out-stretched for me where I hadn’t seen, or where I didn’t have the reach to prevent their attack.
On and on and over and finally out of the back of the break and into the next pasture out along the ridge. The sky was blue again; the Spanish mosaic of greens and browns focussed sharp and clear again into farmland. There was little to be cultivated. The ridge curved away to the left, to the north-west: until it disappeared around this curve, there were only its grasses and a few trees to be seen. Nothing else. Nor were there any sounds, except for a lone cockatoo blasting away in the distance. I noticed that the path had come through the tree break about twenty metres further up the ridge. It carried along the ridge until it disappeared into a fold near a crown. I waited and watched from the edge of the break until I was certain nothing malicious would immediately present itself. Then I moved, adrenalin at peak flow, doubled over, grabbing my way beside the path. Eventually I came to a point right before the ridge began its curve. A few steps further and the path would drop down into the fold. There, within the fold, I could plainly see the prostrate figure of a man. I edged the few steps to the head of the drop and recognised, simmering in the lowest part of the fold, the Officer. He had already noticed me, waving me down. I brisked on over. On reaching him, I threw myself down beside him, taking care that the wall of the fold completely wombed me. - What have you got for me? - Four or five of them, Sir. I noticed them first in the lows down
there. He was pointing to the line of trees that ran the fence at the bottom of the ridge. - I just thought they were farmers, so I didn’t worry too much about them, Sir. Next thing, they took a couple of shots at me. - You fired back? - Yes, Sir. They took off after that, down along those trees. The tree-line was on the far side of the fence; they would not be able to come on us so secretly again. - You should have killed them. Would have been good practice for you. Stay here, I’m going to check things out. I snuck my way up to the top of the ridge and crouched down on the soft grass. The view out over the west was spectacular. At the
bottom of the slope, the pasture ran to its last fence. Immediately beyond this fence, the bush jumped up again and sprang away for as far as I could see, over the close low hills and beyond to the larger mountains of the range as it swept around from the north, away in the distance. The mountains now took on a massive,
ominous shape and this was possibly the best view I’d get of them before we would actually climb up through them, for, from this point forward, they would become too near to permit focus: like a finger drawn slowly towards the face, it would become clearer, more present until finally at the threshold, it becomes too close and it blurs from comprehension. The bush was growing and dying simultaneously as it always did,
and it was doing so now as I looked out over it, shimmering slightly in the afternoon heat. There were birds, many birds of many kinds skipping over the canopy, diving down under it. Though the
distance between us was too great for the twittering voices of the smaller birds to be heard, I could hear well the sounds of the whip birds, bell birds and currawongs, as well as the omnipresent blabber of the sulphur-crested cockatoo. But as far as I could see, I was the only man watching and listening to any of this. I waited another five minutes, and when nothing extraneous revealed itself, I silenced back to the Officer. - There’s nothing going on over there. Did you get a good look at them? - Not really, Sir. Sounds like farmers. If it had been the enemy, I think they
would’ve made a better effort. At any rate, we should get moving. You stay here and keep an eye out. I’m going to go back and get my pack. If they come back, make sure you keep them right away from the path. Shoot them in the head. Get yourself a war trophy. - Yes, Sir. Within two hours I had collected up the Officer and we had left the pastures behind. We were again hiking through the bush, glad to be off the farm without further incident. We kept on until seven o’clock when we made camp. I had it made some hundred metres off the path, in the deeps of the gums. buried the camp deep, talking only in whispers. I
With the Officer
settled, I then went back to the path, and, some distance back along it, built a small campfire. I kept a watch then to see if I could attract a pursuit. But at three, with nothing having happened, I fell asleep. The next day we set out early.
Shepherd green face, long, doughty wall; the view of the mountain range from directly below. The mountains seem to jump straight up to their height in an escape from the underworld; they enjoy the heat of the sun on their potent angles, using its absence in crooks and gullies to build waters for the nourishment. Abrahim and his Officer draw ever closer to the base of these large monuments. The longer we hiked through the day, the greater we became aware that we were ascending. Slowly at first, so that we would only
notice it in the staggered levels of the treetops if ever we turned to look back. Then suddenly we would encounter sections of obvious, though yet gentle, climbs where we would wind thirty or so metres up a hill face, the path levelling off again at the end of each short burst. This is how it was until about twelve O’clock, when we came upon the first of the serious climbs. All at once we came out of the dense bush and found ourselves in a small clearing studded with boulders. On the far side of the clearing, the great wall of the range stood. It gleamed with a faint metallic green, and black too in places with a harder metal. With what kind of cutting device had the path been put into this wall? It seemed insurmountable; dare we try our feet on it… In reality, although I would agree it was steep, it was not yet steep beyond what we could achieve. I had been confronted with much
more daunting ascents on my travels, ascents on which I would have simply not risked the Officer, ascents where I had sat at the base of the climb for hours just steeling myself for the attempt. Seven hundred meters the wall rose, four hundred of these straight up as far as could be seen. It continued its line both left and right, running away on both sides until the dimensions of the thing finally blurred and could no longer be understood. It was beautiful, and again I was awed, now, more than ever, especially so - the sheer proximity of the mountains in both space and time was working powerfully on my senses. I was finally standing at the base of these regal lofts, at last ready to challenge them directly. I think I may have shaken a fist up at them. We took a break in the clearing before beginning the climb. The
Officer sat down to open his pack. He looked a little tired, flushed. I wondered if the shock of the previous day hadn’t kept him awake last night. The Officer had in fact done well. He hadn’t panicked; he’d remembered his training, successfully putting it into practice, risking neither his own life nor mine. Maybe there was a slight
change to him, though the appearance of fatigue could have easily been the sole work of the path. I wriggled loose of my own pack, laying it down on the nearest rock, though I did not yet sit to open it. Instead, I found the largest
boulder available to me, climbing it. This, however, proved a little difficult – the boulder was quite rounded and it was rarely I could find on its diabolical surface a strong grip. Eventually, I was able to
use an adjacent boulder to lever my way up, taking in the view then from the three meters of height it provided. I tried to look back to from where we had come, but the boulder didn't offer enough height to allow me to see over the heads of the gums. So I looked instead to the ascent. I noticed now that the path didn’t progress upwards at all in a straight manner. Rather, it zigzagged, in some places moving off at an about forty-five degree angle, angling back again here and there as it kept its rough line of ascent. The path ran out of view about a hundred meters up,
disappearing over a sudden ledge to somewhere, and I couldn’t pick it up again on the higher section of the climb as it appeared, forbidding, floating above the ledge in the background, high enough it seemed to frame the sky. The mountain face held a few scattered trees, but for the most part it was simply stuck with knee-high grasses, emerald green from the touch of the recent rains. A variety of small shrubs mingled in
amongst the grasses, their presence indicated by the multitude of incompatible hues in the green matting. As vibrant as these greens were for mid-summer, in the spring I had just missed, this climb, I imagined, would have swum, deep under, in the melt from a rainbow, as soft new petals unfurled, demonstrating themselves to the flying insects. I could hear the voice of the mountains so loudly now it was unbearable. Climb, climb, and see our secrets.
It was a familiar voice, a voice I’d heard often. begged at me.
It never simply
It always came with the complex tinges of a
melancholy, a melancholy I most often felt when looking out over wilderness, running its way before me. Wilderness so vast that I
could never explore it all, so intricate that I could never really comprehend it, finally, lonely; I would never be able to share in all its grand store of mystery. Weathering me down in all my total
insignificance. What will did I possess that could be companion to the bush? None. I could make it tremble with fire and bulldozers to be sure. But there is no conversation when purposing this kind of intent. I climbed back down off the boulder and came back over to my pack. The Officer was drinking. - You see anything interesting, Sir? - No. But, the climb, I think, is a bit easier than it looks, though. - How far do you reckon it goes up, Sir? - All the way to the top. I took my water bottle from my pack, endorsing its contents before returning it to its place amongst the miscellany. - We’ll climb for an hour and then have lunch. - Yes, Sir. - Well, goddamn it, let’s get on with it then! We started our climb. It was easy at first; the path ascended over steps that had been dug rigidly into the soil, the energy purposed
for this task utilized directly and without compromise. I was a little surprised at the condition of the steps given the recent rains and the obvious lack of protection against erosion. However, as I looked more closely, I noticed the soil was heavy with a brown clay. Furthermore, the soil had been compacted – perhaps at the outset so that most of the water coming down on the steps would not permeate but rather run off harmlessly. A quarter of the way up, at about the point where I had first seen the path disappear from view over the ledge, we came to a steeper section of climb. Here, I paused for a moment. The Officer, though managing a respectable pace, had dropped behind me, and I had to stop often to allow him to catch up. Looking back down from my pause to where he was, I realized I had a couple of minutes before he could reach me again. I used the time to get the view which I had not been able from the boulder. It was an incredible sight. Though I obviously had no view of the north - and therefore the land that would lie ahead of us - from this southern face, I had a magnificent panorama of all that over which we had already passed. I could see all the bush between us and the last farm. I could see the farm itself, its pastures now so small, the farmhouse a shimmer, though it could be found easily by the starkness of the white road that fed it. I saw the bush we’d come through on the Water Shack side of the pastures and the barren grey of the granite banks that marked the rough location of the rock tunnel from where we had first come out on the farm. Further back
in the distance was the Water Shack itself, barely visible, standing alone on its hill. Light-green pastures, yellow and reddish-brown
sunflower fields and dark-green bush all took turns to colour the rest of the view. It was now a long way back to McKellar’s Junction, and we were nearing the last reaches of its speculation, from which point we would truly pass from beyond what comfort it could have ever given us. There was a light breeze blowing and I noticed that already the temperature was lower than what it had been down in the bush below. Eventually the Officer arrived, and we continued on together. The path as it should have been above us was now out of sight. At last we came to the final section of the climb. It was over bare rock, rock that had been smoothed by years of water action. It was a delicate final movement, but not impossible, and we soon found the confidence to move over the rock without too much concern of a fall. A last little quiver backwards when the Officer’s ankle came down a little wrong, unbalancing him for a moment, and we were back in bush. Five minutes on and the path was running level again, flitting delicately between the greens and browns. The Officer lagged
behind again. I jogged back to him. He was bent over, his hands on his knees. heavily. He was a strong red in the face and was breathing
- You are a sad sight. Might have to put you away. - I’ll be ok, Sir. - You had better be. We’ll stop for lunch at the base of the next climb. I’ll take your pack and go on ahead and get a fire started. - Sir, I’m fine, really. - I give the orders here. Now give me your fucking pack. I gave him a wink, gesturing for him to hand me his pack. He wasn’t going to allow a superior to carry his weight for him though, but again I ordered him to acquiesce, levelling the barrel of the assault rifle at his head. With a monstrous effort he slipped it off his back and handed it over to me. It took him a great moral effort to
achieve this simple action. He looked away in shame. I didn't care. I took the pack, strapping it around my chest. We set back to the going. Again, he tried and failed to keep pace with me. Even with my new handicap he was soon drifting behind. I walked on for a time in silence, until I eventually found a decent question to ask myself: - So, what were you doing this time four years ago? A bank of grass led the way over to the glass stream. The darkling eaves of the forest waited only for the last of the sun to vanish. I couldn’t take flight from them, their wintry claws coming ever on. I turned from them, not forgetting them. I stopped and sat under the willow gum that lent its curls out over the water, dropping its nightshade leaves for the myriad small fishes. and white. Its wood was soft
Allegations of unlawful conduct had been levelled at the military. My own father had come specially to visit to say, ‘I hope you have never been involved in any of this.’ I was stricken. I came down with the claustrophobic and sudden symptoms of a man who has been surprised with the news that his body had filled with rank disease. It was as though my very heart was filth, my blood
carrying leucocytes and dirt, so that if I cut myself, the wound site would soon be a sticky and abrasive mess of cells and soil. I had taken my troubles to Oxprey: - Wake up to yourself, kid. These things happen. Doesn’t change a sweaty thing – we are right; we are pure. Let the nobodies beat on about it. It doesn't change a thing. - Sir, I'm just not sure about it. - Damn you, it’s not my cup of tea either, but I already told you, this stuff happens. Now, what you gunna do? Get used to it. You’re not a weak-hearted faggot are you? Back at the stream the willow gum bent even lower and asked, ‘Well, how do you feel about him now?’ And I couldn’t answer, not immediately. But the darkening forest knew, and its craggy,
wretched claws were stretching close now, the sun no longer protecting me; and those claws were coming to remove my heart in a bloodless surgery. - No, I said to the willow gum. - What? The sun no longer keeps me, and I must choose for myself my path.
And it is not into the dark of the forest where the trees are winter and will possess in their upper boughs my heart frozen and spring never comes. Again, MacBeth, you delusional wreckage, to the sword. The Foreign Minister had been dead three days. The bush told us no news, but I could imagine some of the things that would be said back in the cities. The Generals were crawling for war; lonely, grey helmets were wanting to be filled; the Foreign Minister’s plane; the finest mouths busy secreting their nectar; television cameras and newspaper inks would be obtained to document it all, the final headline – Enemy Sabotage. And the by-line would read, ‘WAR.’ I had a natural disinclination towards conservative policies. I could never understand the interest these people had in war. What kind of option was it, even for a liberal Prime Minister out for kicks. Maybe they were right. However, what I did know was that, with the Foreign Minister dead, the voices for war had become the loudest, and, in many important ears, the most compelling. The Foreign Minister had been a great man; he had seen both forwards and backwards along the line into which time formed itself. He had had his short-comings, but these paled in contrast to the brightness of his mission. He had been the only one in the
government who had interested himself in those of us who carried alternative information. He was the only one who had ever asked me what I thought, and he had listened when I had told him… Lunch was a routine affair. We stopped in a small glade by the path.
Just past this point the path jumped back upwards again. We would have all lunch to ponder this. I didn’t think the Officer would be a friend to his ponderances – he was tired and the sight of the path attempting another mountain face wouldn’t offer anything to revive him at all. The first four hundred meters had been a test on his
reserves and he had obviously been found wanting. A few birds called in the thickets, but otherwise it was quiet. The sun waved down on us, and though the altitude took a few degrees off its smite, it was still hot. The Officer had been forced to strip most of his uniform, and even what little he retained was stained with the climb and the heat. He was visibly uncomfortable. He
appeared to be moving in involuntary motions. I should distract him a little, I thought. I stretched out, my back to an ironbark, asking him about his women, just some throw-away nonsense in which neither he nor I could be really interested, but would nonetheless be easy enough as conversation, not breaking the mind. - Um, ah, I don’t have a girlfriend at the moment, Sir The words were coming out of his mouth forced and bunched up. His eyes were pale and his face was blotched. He was trying for me. - But you’ve been with a woman, haven’t you? His words were slow in the coming; one sentence spanned out over what seemed like many acts. His frequent pauses were filled with guttural utterances and heavy breathing. - Um, I haven’t had a chance, I guess, Sir. I was um, shy in school
and then, er, um, the military took up all my time. - We can’t have that. It will never do! With a war coming up and all. But he couldn’t go on. He was exhausted. And the mountain wasn’t finished with him yet. I decided to try something else for his peace. I grabbed out a roll of electrical tape I had in my pack and went over to the trunk of a nearby tree. − You see this? Well, we just stick it between these two trees, like this, wrap them up tight, and there you go. The next man who comes along this path is going to see this and wonder what the fuck is going on. You have to keep them guessing. He smiled for me, then dropping his head back into his lap. I gave up. We finished lunch in silence and got back to the path. Though time went by the climb didn’t relent. Through the afternoon we ascended a further eight or nine hundred meters, the path climbing and then levelling again in three separate stages. I looked at the Officer. groaned it. Finally it grew towards six O’clock. The sun was getting older, Each metre heavier than the last and his legs
becoming gentler as it readied itself for sleep. The sky had turned a deep blue, travelled only by the occasional wisp of cloud. Venus
was already beating quietly in the low Western sky. Like the sun, it too would set shortly into the night. The path had become quite steep again. The Officer looked now
near complete exhaustion. He wore his head low, not even thinking about his steps, but rather just moving on as in a trance. Somehow he was managing to keep an even ten paces or so behind me. My legs were a little tired from all the climbing, but otherwise I felt much as I had when I had first woken that morning. I could push on for a while yet, but I knew the Officer needed to stop; it would be unwise to stress him any further this day. I looked up the path. It hit more steps, a set of maybe fifty or so, before vanishing into the heights. The bush here was tight and the path waded through it with ever diminishing strength. Often we had to duck down, walking stooped to avoid hitting the ceiling. This was making things worse for the Officer, and he stumbled a number of times, falling over into the untidy reaches of the bush. Everytime he scrambled himself back out onto the path he vomited raw energy. Soon, he would be down to nothing but black bile. We came to the steps and started climbing. The Officer was resting often. On we went. I forgot about the Officer for a minute and turned around to find him bumbling around about twenty steps below. I didn’t want to go back down all those steps only to have to climb them over, but I couldn’t leave him like he was. I went down and when I got there, I saw that he had had enough. - We’re already pretty high. I’d say this mountain is going to run out of height pretty soon. Can you hang on a bit longer?
- Yes, I think so, Sir. But this isn’t just any mountain. This is evil, Sir. With a little grunting, he was finally able to continue his limp up the steps. I left him here and escaped up the path. It wasn’t long
before I came to the final step. The path then carved left to where it seemed to open out into a clearing. As I came closer, the full extent of the clearing became quite obvious. When I finally emerged from the last of the bush, I couldn’t believe the sight that awaited me. I found myself in what was indeed a clearing, cut out of the summit. An old wooden marker with etched lettering gave the altitude – one thousand, three hundred and ten metres. I looked around: the
clearing folded up a little on the western side to where the true summit lay, running down from there on an ever so slight gradient for half of its distance before flattening right out and moving over to the east where dark hues promised something of a drop. A grove of palm trees stood about halfway into the centre of the clearing. Just beyond these I could make out a low rock wall set just to the side of the path, which was continuing its way through the clearing. The red light of the dawning sunset was playing off everything, and the view out over the land was already resting in deep, deep colour. It was comfortably warm on the summit. A gentle breeze floated in to add to this pleasantness. It would probably stay around this
temperature for most of the night, cooling a little only in the pale hours before dawn.
I looked up at the sky. Stars were quickly filling it. Not long from now the Milky Way would become visible. I headed over to the rock wall, passing through the palm grove. When I reached it, I saw that there were in fact three walls to it, three sides of a square. What would have been the fourth side had been left open in welcome of the path. I guessed the walls had
been set like this, right against the path as they were, for the purpose of offering camp. The rocks themselves had been piled loosely together, neither cemented nor otherwise bonded in any way. They showed the
yellow and reddish mineral stains of age, and had obviously been set in place some years ago, perhaps even when the path had first been made. That would have been a story, and now that I thought about it, I was a little regretful that, though I had briefly broached the subject with the Officer on the drive to the Water Shack, I had not made it a longer study while I had prepared in McKellar’s Junction. But there were some interesting hints: a quick observance of the clearing showed that the rocks had not been quarried from here. They had been brought in from elsewhere. Who had that
much energy? The soft grass that quilted most of the clearing comforted also the insides of the camp. Looking into it over the nearest wall nearest, I could see the remnant ash of a small fire, though it was not at all recent. I wondered how long it had been since anyone had been here. It looked like the camp had been lonely a long time. We
would use it for the night though. I put my pack down and went back to check on the Officer. He had just come out into the clearing. Having looked up and taken note of where he was, he smiled up at me with relief. - How are you? - Exhausted, Sir. - There’s a little place we can camp just past those palms. C’mon. We walked together over to the rock walls bounding the little camp. The Officer slumped straight down. The first few days of a long hike can near ruin you, but every extra day you add to that your strides become easier as your lungs adjust to allow for the sway of the twenty kilograms strapped to your back. - And what will you do when we get back? - When we get back, Sir? - Back from this ratsac mission. - Get a more comfortable pair of boots, Sir. - You fucker. We set up camp mostly in silence, eating our dinners with only a light tongue, our collective mood brought down by the Officer’s fatigue. After dinner, I began to make damper, conversation finally loosened up between us. I asked the Officer if he wasn’t pleased with the adventure so far: - Sir, I had always wanted to do this, go on a mission. But I would never have had the courage to do it by myself. I probably would have turned back even at the disappearing creek. That would have
been far enough for me, I think. And then I almost got my head blown off. You know, the one thing that kept going through my mind then, Sir, was that you were near and you would know what to do… - You did very well back there. You did a good job. - Thank you, Sir. He almost blushed. He deserved it. He had done well. − You might even be ready for war now. − Don't say that, Sir. now. I'm not particularly interested in war right
I may have very well just been lucky back down on the
farm. What if they had been real enemy, Sir? − You might still be here to talk about it. I think you're only half as useless as what you think you are. − Thank you, Sir. But I'm no Bushranger. − Of course you're not! But that doesn't mean you can't survive. Yes, I was definitely liking this man more and more. He was honest, abrupt. Oxprey wouldn’t have tolerated him though. He would
have emasculated him with a heavy dose of vitriol and then spat on him, walking off with a tear in his eye, ashamed that such men walk the earth. What a pity that Oxprey would never open his mouth to another living man again. It was a beautiful night that night. The Milky Way spun low and
showed us all of its collection of stars. I made out the Pleiades, and the Officer pointed out the Jewel Box, a smaller, though more spectacularly rendered constellation set amongst the Southern
The Southern Cross itself was high in the sky, waiting for
anyone to come and take their place and bleed. A couple of possums had emerged from somewhere and were scurrying about the fringes of our camp. Occasionally, one jumped over a wall, sniffing around for a moment before disappearing back into the night. The Officer had a few apples. We sliced one up and gave it to the more adventurous possums, those who came close enough to take the pieces from our hands. These were common
brush-tail possums, possums which were, by nature, quite urbane, though these cheeky few seemed to have been fed before and knew their way around humans. When my damper had finally finished making, I unwrapped it from its alfoil plan and divided it as evenly as I could for the two of us. I took my portion and a cup of billy tea to flavour it, and slouched back against a wall, relaxing into the night. The Officer did likewise and we sat there enjoying the slow chew of the damper and the new, calmer mood that the warm night had finally brought. Eventually, with the possums still watching us patiently, and the Milky Way still promising not to drip down onto us, we fell asleep.
A Day in the Springs
Bumble bees drone in the large flowering gum that stands as a rearguard to the summit clearing. The sun promises more heat than ever, creating languid a day before it has even really begun. Abrahim and his Officer pack slowly, taking care that the coals of their small fire are all fully extinguished. The next day we hiked leisurely down the back of the mountains. We had started off late, having enjoyed the morning on the restful summit. I wasn’t too concerned with making ground; if we followed the same pace we had set yesterday, we would come to the artesian springs around lunchtime or early afternoon. If we had
continued on into them from there, it would’ve inevitably meant spending the night in them. I was eager to get into the springs and experience their various draughts and information, but camping on their sodden grounds was a different prospect, wet all through. I
had therefore decided to take this day slowly, making camp at the last of the descent off the mountain, in dry bush, leaving the run into the springs until the new day. This plan would also give the Officer a slight reprieve, which after yesterday’s effort, he had quickly agreed was a very good idea. The lowly pace and the morning sun brightened both our moods, and we really set out to enjoy this day. It soon became hot, hotter than previous days, even on the mountains as we were, privy to their elevation and breezes.
Around three O’clock we dropped down a short slope. We’d had a serious lunch and I was feeling a little light-headed with satiation. My eyelids were under magnet spell, and they continuously moved to close over my sight. The heat and humidity only added to my lethergy. As we descended further, the air stilled. There was a calm. A light breeze played about the highest branches of the trees, but it remained up above our heads, never seeking to register on our skin. Looking up once at the trees, I thought I noticed black cloud bubbling somewhere behind them, though I couldn’t get a good enough view for the mess of leaves. We continued on. A little further into the afternoon and my body began to feel tight. The path kept on doggedly under the trees. A little frustrated by this, I shook my fist heartily at their growth. A low-pressure was
acting on us. Sucking gently at us, trying to pull us into the black core from whence it was emanating. Another minute down we finally walked out of the trees and onto an open slope. Just below us we could see the beginnings of the
artesian springs. And here we saw it - a dark, almost jet black line away on the western horizon. The secret of the mountains. A
storm. And, by the looks of it, a serious one. The storm was still away on the horizon, but it was moving quickly and it was growing as it came. Its leading edges would race over us in only a half an hour or so; the front would be only another fifteen minutes behind.
Another few minutes and it had spread to cover most of the western hemisphere. It was now close enough to reveal its great belly. As this came into view, I noticed its green tinge - hail. Storms could be immensely powerful, showing no regard for anything that lay underneath them, whatever the stature of that thing might have been. I did not want to get caught naked by one. I knew their intent. As the leading edges blew ever closer, I began to see how large this storm was, strong as I’d ever seen. It was rotating, like a heavy
black iron wheel, and I watched in awe as its base extended even lower. Lightning gleamed from it like the flashes of the sun off
drawn swords in the midst of some dark, forgotten battle where the prize had been survival. The thunder was already coming up hard to our ears. It would soon drop down onto the mountains with the hunger of a starved wolf, devouring anything not stronger than its own mighty power. I quickly scanned around us for a place to hide. There wasn’t much on offer. I eventually chose a small grove of young gums whose
green wood would not break down on us, and whose small height would not bring lightning. The grove itself was a little further down from where we were and we would have to make pace. I hurried the Officer down to the grove and had him get in amongst the quivering trunks. I then waited just outside the grove and watched while the storm came at us. The leading cloud quickly covered us, dampening all our senses.
With this cloud came the first drops of rain. Then everything was still. The air around me was slipping off, being taken back into the storm to feed its great black engine. The light was dropping too, becoming darker and darker until it was impossibly heavy. It was not a gloom, for a gloom is stale and without pace. This was a I
brooding that was building quickly to an outing of violence.
couldn’t see much of the approach of the storm from where I was, but I heard it – the wind ripping somewhere just behind the western descending ridge of the mountain. The wind had been still sucking only gently when the front hit. The initial gust that came with the front smacked me in the face and bent the young gums of the grove to their knees. Seconds later the downpour began. It was a hard, heavy rain, and we were both soon drenched. The gale and rain continued in tandem for about five
minutes, the rain coming at us horizontally, propelled as bullets by the gusts. And then the hail began. I dived into the grove to take cover. We used our packs as shields, and with these raised over our heads and the grove all around us, we managed to avoid the worst of it. I was stung maybe twice, though I could see from the rate at which the ice was collecting on the ground outside the grove that a few stings were probably inevitable. The lightning now sliced all about us, and the thunder split our heads with its axe. The rain, hail and wind kept on coming, ever abating in short seconds only to be brought back with new force. There wasn’t anything else to do but slip away in dream, a warm
dream… We waited and in a short half hour it was all over. When the hail and wind had passed, and only a steady rain and occasional stroke of lightning remained, we ventured out from the grove. It was still
dark - the sun would not be back today; the rain and its heavy clouds would continue well into the night. Though it was dark, we were still able to make out some of the sad debris of the storm – branches, having been stripped bare of their leaves and ripped from their trunks, lay everywhere, the bones left behind by the wolf to decay. In this rain we wouldn’t be able to light a fire, but we had both brought a small tent each, and with these I hoped we might be able to have a reasonably comfortable night. After we had pitched our tents - a quiet ordeal in the dark and debris - we had an unsatisfying dinner and went to sleep. The day was already shining bright when we woke. The sky was a calm ocean again, its waves gently lapping at us, bringing us the day’s heat. The storm though, along with the scars of its native
destruction, had left us another mark of its passage – a sapping humidity that rendered all movement lethargic, slowing the passage of electricity in the brain like a powerful insulator. Neither of us had had a good night. Even though our tents had kept out further rain, we each had taken some from the first of the storm to sleep with. The Officer looked the worse for it. He said he hadn’t slept much, his eyes dry and red. I hoped that we could push hard
today, through the springs, camping then on the other side of them tonight, where it would be dry (though with the humidity so high, I felt the chances of another storm might be quite high). How far we could get, of course, depended entirely on the Officer’s mood. He had been wringing out a wet sock when I had asked him: - How do you feel this morning? - Wet and miserable, Sir. But I’ll be fine. - Feel up to a big effort today? I want to camp on the other side of the springs tonight. I already knew he wouldn’t disappoint. - Lead on, Sir. After we had had a short, unimportant breakfast, we packed up everything and started the day’s hike. In the light of the sun we saw the full damage of the storm – trees everywhere torn of limb and despoilt of plumage, the ground blanketed by a loose down of browns and greens. We also saw the ending of the bush and the levelling off of our descent. We slid down, packs pushing us from behind. Finally emerging from the bush, we came out on a significant flatland. Low grasses lead the way about five hundred metres to what looked from distance like a patch of reed. The path shrank
here, a thin line between the grasses. It was a simple start to the day, and I stepped out, pulling the Officer with me. It was beautiful, the grasses soft and cool on my ankles, the sky open in deep blue above us. About half way to the patch of reed (I could now see from this distance that it was indeed reed) a few crakes flew overheard.
They drifted on past the reeds, disappearing away into the heat haze. As we approached the reeds, the grasses gave way to sedge; little pools of clear water appearing in scars between the waves of this new flora. Beyond this first spring, many others could now been seen. As we went on it became steadily more difficult to avoid the pools of water. In several places the path failed us completely, falling down into them, submerged and untraceable. Only about fifty metres
from the beginning of the reeds, I stopped and bent down to look into one of these pools. The particular pool I had stopped by was in depth about a hand’s length. I put out my hand, dropping it into the pool, swirling the cool water around delicately with slow
movements. A goby darted away even before my hand. The Officer didn’t acknowledge his surrounds. With feet still damp in last night’s residue, daydreams of hot showers and changes of clothes would have blocked any last possible avenue to observance of the wondrous things around him. He gave a rough cough. His posture was a little bent with a nuisance, but otherwise he was managing quite well. I left the pool, standing up to the path once again. As I did, the
Officer seamlessly fell in behind and we got back to our pace. At a thicket of reed deep enough in which to get lost, we caught up to a point along the path where a few boards had been lain down across part of a large spring. The spring itself was mother to the reeds, and they swam gladly in it with ever-submerged stalks,
standing on ever-drinking roots.
The boards were lying loosely;
caution was needed in crossing them. They had obviously lain there a long time, the wood discolouring with rot. Indeed I was surprised that they held us at all, and didn’t at once disintegrate under our weight. They must have had been treated with a potent force to have withstood the constant waters on their fibres for so long. Not creosote; some other preservative. The waters of artesian springs usually arise from mounds associated with faults in the earth below. These mounds, comprising soil and carbonates, could be up to ten metres in height and a hundred metres in diameter, though mounds of this size were in fact rare. There was, on initial speculation, no obvious mound here, though the depth of the reed thicket prevented any real examination of this. However, looking ahead at a second and third patch of reed, I could clearly make out several rises - the reed seeming to bulge upwards for as long as its water held; finally giving out on the steeper inclines, exposing gentle helms of sedge. This sedge would mark the tops of the mounds, estimation making their heights at about five metres. The path seemed to lead off between the two patches, trusting them as the reed trusted to the mountain rains. It wouldn’t be long before we came on them. The sedge continued, hiding the little pools as it had before, sometimes showing them in sudden slips of the ground. There was another small cough again behind me. By and by we came on the second two springs. We passed the first
of the two a little off to the right without ever seeing its waters. The path then curled around hard to the left, bringing us close to the second. This was the largest of the springs we had encountered so far. Again we found planks of wood lain down here and there over its wider pools and wetter sections. The top of the mound, away to our right, was still a good adventure through the reed from the closest point the path made to it. I decided to make this adventure. I jumped off the path and into the midst of the reed. They, though terribly crowded, were light, being of hollow stalk, and were easy to push from my way. The worst of the going were the constant pools, quite deep in some places; where avoidance was impossible, I had no choice but to wet my feet. After a few minutes of this, the ground began to rise, and the water ran-off below me. It wasn’t long before I pushed through the last of the reed and began on the light sedge slopes of the upper part of the mound. Of only a few metres height, I quickly covered the When I arrived there, surprise took me at the
ground to its top. view.
I could see fairly around me, at least enough to see that there was no easy way through the series of springs. In fact, the path seemed determined to take us into the hardest of it – a particularly large and wet looking thicket still relatively beyond us. This was indeed an
ominous thicket, in look so dense and full of portent that it might have had its own storm cloud, brooding and above it always. The artesian waters that washed through it would, I could guess, contain
some depth, and I imagined we could easily find ourselves backtracking for more solid ground. In size, the thicket itself would
swallow up a great store of earth, running roughly two-thirds of the width of the basin in which we were in, leaving us with little room in which to manoeuvre. An interesting passage, I imagined. But the size of this spring wasn’t what had caused my surprise. Along the path, between my stand and the larger thicket away, where the path found again and for a time a drier route through plain grasses, was a sudden outing of what appeared to be paperbarks. These were the only trees of any kind to be seen for kilometres around, at least out on the open green face of the basin. Paperbarks may centre themselves on swampy conditions, but nevertheless, I would not have expected to have found any out here. I abandoned the mound, bleeding my legs a little on the slaps of the reed as I passed back through it. The Officer was waiting for me back on the path. - See much, Sir? - Only enough to know we’re still not through this day by a long shot yet. - Great. - There looks like there is a place we can stop for a bit of a break though just up ahead. - Sounds good to me, Sir. And so we walked on, a half an hour passing us before we even
started to get close to the grove of paperbarks I’d seen from the top of the mound. - Sir, looks like there’s a creek up there. I hadn’t seen the creek from the mound. Its course had obviously been set too low into the earth to have been visible from that distance. The path was now out of the sedge and back on relatively solid ground. As we got closer, it became clear that the creek was full and churning by with some metres between each of its banks. Fortunately, it also became obvious that there was a rough bridge across the gurgling mess. Finally we reached the near bank. A deep creek indeed ran before us. Its source was evidently back in the mountains, its current
energy in no doubt derived from the storm of the night previous. Crossing the bridge, which was of no further construction than two old logs laid together side by side, we entered the paperbark grove. The grove itself was centred on a small, shallow billabong, an old oxbow the creek had left behind. The path continued on through the grove; towards the far end of the billabong it suddenly jumped to the right and went off up a small rise. Here, a large ghost gum paled in the dim light, the only light it had managed to free as its height ruptured the canopy. Ghost gums are beautiful trees. They are elegant, majestic, yet aloof and enigmatic, the spectres of long dead kings. They are never seen in or near paperbark swamps. As we came under its boughs, we could plainly see that it had been
living too richly for its own good – it had gorged itself too greedily on the watery earth and it was fat, permanently satiated, a miserable king whose only interest left in life kept him at the dining table. Its trunk was bloated, its leaves off-colour and sagging with weight. In this state, I was surprised that it was still alive. Another cough startled me from my observation. It wasn’t a deep cough, but rather throaty, scratchy. The Officer wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He was obviously still a little damp on the inside. He went over to the ghost gum, perhaps to lean against it. A little further along the path, though still under the reaches of the great gum, we found an excellent spot to sit down and have our break. It was a small grass covered bank fringed by callistemon
among others. - I wonder where that creek flows, Sir? - No idea. - Sir, how far from here? - Already had enough? - No, Sir. Just getting a little impatient. I pulled the map from my pack, laying it out on the ground so that we could both look over it. Well, here’s the repeater. We’ve still got these mountains of
course. Not too big, though. More like hills really. We should get over them pretty easily. And then I’d say another two days of open bush after that. The Officer ran his hand over his nose again, this time extending the
activity by turning around and, with a finger closing off one nostril at a time, blowing each clear, giving drippings of bacterium laden mucous to the bush. Did this stuff cross species? - Are you ok? - Yes, Sir. I’ve felt better, but yeah, I’ll be ok. The Officer leaned back and relaxed his body, bringing his head up so that he could stare at the sky. It was only blue, a deep blue that escaped the mark of cloud. Though only noon, the sight of the
naked sky gave me hope that there would be no new violence in the heavens today. A light breeze pushed against our backs. It was a sea blue in both hue and fragrance. The frail hands of the ghost gum waved with the air slightly off above our heads. I wondered if the storm last night had ravaged the springs as well, for there was no obvious sign of this. Oxprey had often hiked through storms, not seeming to have cared if lightning had found him, or at least so I had heard. He had been a tough man, and had always been so. The Bushrangers – we – were his creation. He alone could have claimed credit for the formation of the unit. He had petitioned the Generals for years to allow him to build such a unit within the military, a unit comprised solely of individuals, each specially trained and equipped to deal with the bush on private missions of any nature. The Generals had turned down his requests time and time again, for they had felt the already well-established Special Forces unit could cover the ground
proposed by Oxprey. But eventually they had relented when they had witnessed the revelatory power Oxprey maintained. Later I would view classified interrogations of a man wanted by the military. He had been brought in by Oxprey, taken deep out in the bush. The man had spoken in childish gushes, describing how he had been overtaken by Oxprey in the wilds; he excused his captor’s excesses (what these were exactly was never made clear), professing that they had been necessary in order to bind his love (sic) to him. And, perhaps most tellingly, the man had revealed an absolute terror of Oxprey, a terror of which I had never seen the likes before. The old film was at times hard to watch, if just for the terrible pain on the face of this one man. I looked over to the Officer and nodded to him. We got up and
started off again. Beyond the paperbark grove, it wasn’t long before the path soon wallowed back down into sedge and spring. Here and there we encountered the same swarms of midges as we had before, only this time they seemed more virulent in their behaviour. By and by we came on the large central spring that I had reported from the top of the mound I had climbed some distance back. Reed sprang up again from the sedge and the pools muddied and merged even as they came up under our feet. The Officer tripped over, just reaching his hands out in front of him in time to stop a greater plunging of the depths. He slowly pushed himself back up, looking a little out-of-sorts. He coughed, a dry, hard cough that sounded as though it had arisen in the back of the throat, the tonsils. I didn’t
need him getting sick now.
He sighed audibly, putting his hands
down on his knees to rest his body, looking up at me with a dreamy, yet strained, look. I wondered if the chills had come on him yet. I remembered his assurance that he would be fine. How bad was he going to get? Unlike those before it, this spring, the largest, had been left completely undisturbed by the human preoccupation of engineering; we found ourselves often losing the path into a pool, leaving us then to skirt around well out of our way, desperate for any dry passage, narrating our content to the world when we would chance upon it resurfaced. Time grew on, and the reed grew denser, nearer. In
amongst the distraction of this passing time, I thought I heard a splashing sound on ahead somewhere. A promise, perhaps, of the eternal need for vigilence against the rigours of a cruel world. single, sore gust of wind itched through the reed. - Let’s keep it quiet through here. The Officer just nodded his head and tried to keep his eyes open. If he had been well, he might have asked me, ‘What’s going on, Sir?’ - I’m not sure. But I thought I heard something. - What do you think you heard? Movement of some sort. Probably nothing, but let’s just go A
carefully. We went on, over pool and brown, matted waste, adrenalin leaking out with the sweat release from pores, dripping down into the murk to pass eventually on into root or gut. No immediate reiteration of
the original splashing sound came. Here and there we passed the marks of loose trotters, where the reed had been scuffed and trampled flat. A particularly dark patch of reed, swilling around in fetid wash, rose up before us, and the already hesitant path dropped down into it in frailty of indecision. I could have left the path here and gone on my own way, choosing a course according to my blood particles, the lymphocytes that always seemed to accumulate in the vessels that faced closest the correct direction, but the sheer depth of the thicket prevented me from finding a good range and so I left trust with the path. A dank air permeated the mess of stalk and eye that ruined the opening to the patch. We went in, hoping not to be cornered finding the Minotaur in some sick dead end. A sow, in protecting her young, could quite quickly freeze our mission, stop it still as zero Kelvin. I fingered the trigger of the assault rifle, letting it walk out in front of me, the gape of its hungry mouth to my advantage.
Abrahim approaches a lonely farmhouse semi-buried by deep bush. A vicious looking farmer stands ahead of him, watching down on him, two dogs by his side. Every step now had to be careful. I had come face to face with the watcher of my soul. The farmer looses his dogs on me, but I don’t shoot them. I wait, and then I use the butt-end on them. The
farmer spits at me and he tells me, ‘You better clear-off or else,’ to which I reply, ‘What have you got for me?’ gesturing up towards his homestead. He fears a little, paling, trying to keep his posture. ‘I told you, clear-off!’ ‘I’m out here, trying to investigate alleged
crimes against children, and you tell me to clear-off? You must be mad. You must want me to torture you, before I kill you…’ I’d
prayed that I’d find evidence against him. snakes at harvest.
Like burning white
The Danger Passes
Reed, sedge, water, nuisance. Moments passed, and moments became periods and still luck kept to us. A great bower of reed shot up on our left. It was the last of it - beyond this sunlight grew again. A crake wheeled in the sky above and the reed passed eventlessly. The Officer looked dazed. I saw in his posture that his whole body was in a restless shock, leaden and without power in movement, yet achy and jittery in rest. His body had been sucked of all its energy, yet the mind was firing off signals to it at a great rate. He was sick. His glazed eyes and paled face also reported this. The wet night of the storm and the continuing dampness of the springs had softened him enough for an invasion to have taken place. become something. Tonight he would not sleep restfully - the strange repeating dreams of illness that would trap him in a torture already building just out of my sight. Tonight his sickness would really catch him. I hoped that if he could sweat it out, he might at least be feeling well enough to journey on tomorrow. For now though, his mind, I guessed, would be busy at tearing itself apart trying to deal with the flood of negative information from the body. I coaxed him on. The blue of the sky was deepening at the end of another day. We left the final steps of the springs, hiking on again through the hot His cough had
bush. It was good to be rid of the water, the midges and the threat of pigs. I felt a tension lift from my skin. A further half an hour later, we had made camp.
The End of the Path
Camp, at night.
A small fire operates between us.
looked terribly drawn.
The campfire couldn’t dance off his sallow
face. His head was obviously astray from the general discomfort he would be feeling. His voice was now very weak and he missed much that I said to him. The chills wouldn’t be washing him as hard as they would have been in the springs at least, though I didn’t think it long before he passed out completely. After leaving the springs, we had walked up and down bush hills much as we had done three days previous. We had followed the same earthen path through the same grasses and gums, while the same birds had gathered for the night even as we had passed them and the same cicadas had sung on. It had been as though we had never had the days broken by mountains, storms, the springs, midges and heaviness. But we had, and we had come through. Our hike had ended when we had come to a promising site on the rounded top of a hill. There, I had set up our camp, making a fire and wrapping the Officer up in the few blankets we had between us, sitting him as close to the fire as was reasonably possible. - How are you, chimney sweep? - No good, Sir. - Try and eat. - No, Sir. I can't. - Right, well just try to get some sleep then.
And as if touched by a magic wand, he fell instantly into some kind of unconsiousness. When I had finished my dinner, I lay back next to the small campfire with its rich, woody smell, and enjoyed the night air cool on my skin. I looked over at the Officer. He was curled up in his blankets,
asleep. He twitched every so often with the stress of his illness. Politically, the situation had been tense for years, going back at least ten years to the first appearances of the new ideas in the East. But for most of that time, it had remained strictly a political phenomenon, a story followed only by those interested in
government and policy. That had all changed about three years ago when the young, vibrant liberals had taken office after a long period in opposition, in purgatory. Perhaps the enemy thought they could push far the new, inexperienced government, forgetting perhaps the power of the fear the word ‘weak’ has for a liberal. Perhaps the new Foreign Minister, with his inclination for drama, was most responsible for the sudden rise in tensions. Even now in death, the Foreign Minister still had a starring role in the unfolding of events, and thinking about him and how he had liked that accentuating light, I thought how he could have unwittingly made things easy for certain interested parties. Perhaps it was something else entirely. Whatever it was that had caused it, the whole situation had accelerated in months from quiet port wine chats in drawing rooms to an all-encompassing fear on every street corner.
The enemy could not want war, because it was they who stood to lose everything and gain so little. Diplomacy was their best bet;
either way the road to their hopes was long, and in few situations is a long war better than a long negotiation. The enemy’s ideas had trapped them in the end, and I thought for the most part they were locked into facing war. government who held the power of the first move. It was our The enemy,
caught like this, could not afford to plan for peace without abandoning their dreams and their pride, but nor would they attack first – they would not want to destroy what small chance they had of winning a peaceful solution. The Foreign Minister had brought them close to achieving this, and even though he was now gone, they still wouldn’t risk the little hope for it that remained. If war was burning our heads, I shuddered to imagine what it was doing to the people of the enemy, by far the lesser in military strength. But of course I had no real truth in my hand; what if the enemy did want war? I looked away into the dark night under the trees. A slow, defensive war of gloom loomed there. I checked on my charge one last time. His sleep sounded uneasy, yet it was sleep all the same. - See you in the morning, boy. The next day rose quickly, and I came out of my own dark, dreamless sleep refreshed. The Officer said he felt a little better, though he was still to sight out of sorts and shaky about the legs.
After a short breakfast, we got going. We walked on all that day, stopping quickly for lunch in a soft low between two weather-scarred ridges, their sides clawed and red with injured soil. We passed through the afternoon through the familiar greens and browns of the dry sclerophyll bush. On into the twilight we walked, finally setting up camp in a small hollow off to the left of the path. The Officer was exhausted, and the constant torture of his sickness reclined him fast. His fever had broken though, and another
morning, I thought, would bring him a definite relief. At least tonight the dreams shouldn’t bother him. After tending to the Officer, I sat down with the map. We were now only a few kilometres from the last of the path, and the repeater was not far beyond that. Once the path concluded, it would be all bush navigation, and I wanted to build up a strong image in my mind of the line we should make now while I still had the time to let it take hold properly. My first consideration, however, was for the Officer. What if he was still sick tomorrow? I knew I couldn’t push him on too far if that was the case. What were our options then? I quickly looked at the map. It was farther back than on now. If tomorrow we had to change
course, we could turn east a two day walk to a small outpost. I wondered if we shouldn’t make for the outpost regardless. It was a day shorter at least than any other route.
And what would I say when I was asked why the repeater had not been activated? I felt a certain blood rise in me, though I knew that this reaction was unnecessary. The Officer was sick. How dare the Generals expect that of me - to forge on, without regard for the Officer’s well-being. I sighed and lay back on the ground, playing with my empty cup, tapping it on the ground, tracing it then through the soil. After a while I admitted to myself that I had given up on the map and our course and looked up at the stars. Out in the bush they were incredible, a black room stuck with a thousand of the sharpest points of light. The Milky Way curtained its way across the sky – its light fabric of silver lace veiling ever so delicately the stars in its arm. Orion shone out to one side of this great arm, alone and
distant in a separate existence, its Betelgeuse, a fiery red, marking it clearly, pronouncing even further its isolation. The Southern Cross was again in the sky, as were Taurus and the Pleiades. I found the stars fascinating. I deciphered their hidden meanings in flights of imagination. I wanted to travel to these far distant
luminaries, where real loneliness lay to be experienced. I threw a stick away into the dark. I put out the fire and lay down in the black, listening to the noises of the night animals. After that I slept. I slept, and though dreams brought manifestations of unspoken worries, the morning again brought nothing but hot sun and a long day. The Officer said he still felt a little slow, but
certainly the night had healed a lot of his sickness – he was fuller to the eye at any rate – and so we packed up and headed off with the repeater in mind. After about the first half-hour of our morning’s hike, the path fell down the back of a last hill and brought us into view of what looked like an old farm. A homestead, a couple of rusted sheds and much dilapidated fencing could be seen at once. It had obviously been abandoned for many years, although the bush had not yet had the time to completely re-grow where it had been cleared. However
long it had been here, there was certainly much more of the farm in rot on the ground than still at stand. As we came closer, we found ever more frequent blasts of rust – lost bolts, horse shoes, tools, bits of fencing – set at lie about the path. A feeling of absurdity, of otherness pervaded this place. The light fell different on my eyes. Certainly, the path had gone astray here – it had taken us into what I could only describe as a dream, a dream as strong and as strange and as remote as that of the mountains, though where the mountains had been deep in their wisdom and honest in their revelations, this old farm was bleeding with ill. What added to this feeling was the total unexpectedness of it all. These ruins were not marked on the map, though I might check it and check it again, and, stranger still, nor did they seem they should be. Manufactured in the night, a mirage perhaps…until we reached the homestead and opened the gate – the gate itself coming to its final rest as it fell from its last rusted hinge at the least of my push – and
realized the undeniable physical existence of it all. I looked back at the Officer. He was as equally wide-eyed. - I guess we can assume no one from McKellar’s Junction has ever actually been this far. - Yes, Sir. - The homestead looks a bit worse for wear. It was an old Queenslander, not far in style from the office back in McKellar’s Junction except for the state of its repair: its light blue paint was peeling from the weatherboards in allergy to time; the windows were opaque with scum and more often than not broken; the garden, which looked as though it may once have been landscaped, was burning with weeds; where there was still a roof, it was a faded corrugated iron, hardly convincing as a strength against the elements. I led the way towards where the front steps should have been. The encircling veranda was the first obstacle to entry into the house. Just getting onto it required a sturdy hand on the skirting railings. Once up however, the veranda itself proved just as difficult as each step across it brought the chance of misadventure through a rotten board. Picking our way carefully, we eventually came to the door. - Looks like they took everything when they left, Sir. I opened the door. It creaked in pain of arthritis. The room,
presumably what had been the living room, was a little dark. The Officer had been right – the room was more or less bare except for a
dirty green carpet running the floor and a few books, a ragged doll and, glass-less, a framed photo of a young couple lying on the carpet. A missing door on the far side of the room revealed a second room. This smaller room glowed with sunlight, obviously having lost a portion of its roof to the decay. I headed over towards this second room, passing under a ceiling fan as I went, filthy and hanging by only one last wire, a green earthing wire browned and disappearing up through a sizable hole in the ceiling. - This place stinks, Sir. I came to the room; a bathroom. There was a sink and, in the
darkest corner, a cast-iron bath. The sink was old, well stained with many chips in its porcelain. Another old photo lay over the drain hole. It was of the same young couple, though from a different They looked happy, yet sad. Had they lost
period in their lives.
everything on this farm? I went over to the bath. It was filled with a brownish liquid, what I assumed to be tepid rainwater. It had an evil stench. It made me feel sick. Something caught my eye just under the surface of the brown foul, something with an obvious texture. I stuck the barrel of the assault rifle into the water, prodding it. I got the barrel underneath it, lifting it up to the surface. It was a cane toad, dead, bloated and wretched. I focused more
closely and saw dozens of them in the bath, dozens of cane toads
suspended in death.
I couldn’t imagine how they had become
trapped in the water - and what had lured them into it in the first place. I retracted my gun from the bath and went over to a broken window, the only one in the bathroom. I looked out over the back veranda to unkempt fields, where farm equipment quietly dissolved alone, abandoned from their purpose. I escaped the room. The Officer was waiting for me back in the first room. have explained the bath to him, so I didn’t. - Let’s go. The Officer accepted this without comment. We left the house and came back to the path. Just at the last pile of rust that represented what had once been something of use, it dashed hard right. We I couldn’t
could see ahead that it continued straight on for a little way before finally wrapping out of sight around a small hill at the bottom of the farm. - Sir, there isn’t any road into this farm. I didn’t see one anyway. - Yeah. I didn’t see one either. We had walked through a good section of the farm, from where its poisons still kept the bush back, past the broken holding paddocks and cracked feed trays and the outlying sheds, through what had once been its nucleus – the homestead, across from it a thoroughly rotted barn, several workshops and garages – and now down towards its ends again at the northern side, and seen nothing, not a single indication of anything amiss. otherwise. And yet the very air told us
Don’t know what to make of this place.
It just doesn’t fit
anywhere into our story. There was no obvious reason why, on this mission of pedantic importance, we should have encountered a day such as this. - Gumnut Arthur might have known, Sir. - Fuck Gumnut Arthur. We had come up on the hill at the bottom of the farm, its little rounded climb jumping up just before us. still, peering hard up towards its top. - Look at those three trees up on the hill, Sir. We both looked up. - They look cared for, Sir. Look, they’ve been clipped recently. The foliage on the trees had been uniformly cut, so that they resembled three green rectangular prisms, set on the ridge of the hill by a groundskeeper. - The grass around the trees is also trim…like it’s been mown or something, Sir. Should we go up and take a closer look? - No. I already know what we’d find up there. - Sir? - Something that can’t be explained. Let’s just get out of here. We came to where the path rounded the base of the hill, taking us out of sight of the farm. But as we turned the hill, we came upon a new surprise – an ancient field of sunflowers. The path ran right to the edge of the field. And then stopped. That was it. It didn’t disappear into the field, hidden underneath the The Officer had frozen
sunflowers. It just stopped. We had reached the end of the path, and in what manner – the way blocked by what looked like a hectare of browned, weed-tangled sunflowers. - Sir? - Straight through these, boy. With that I turned around and plunged into the sea of dead sunflowers. I registered no sound as I went. Nothing at all was to be heard. The air was still, bland. It was dry and unkempt, dust choked. Every stalk that we bent back seemed to straighten right back again as soon as we had passed. The Officer; probably the fine powder of decaying sunflower I had disturbed had injured him a little – he was snuffling quite a bit and a few times he dropped behind me, making me wait. I pushed back another stalk at my face. A grime of plant matter and sweat crawling my skin. I still felt unnerved from the farm; this field was made of the same spectacularly vile stuff, its structures all forced out of the same materials, the same basic design. I dared not guess what might be discovered if the meat of these dead stalks, grown in this soil as they were, were ever put under a microscope. What foul secrets they might have given up was
beyond what I could deal with sanely. I wouldn’t want to be here alone and at night. Once more I stopped to wait for the Officer. We must have been somewhere close to the centre of the field. There was no way to tell
this though as we could see naught for the sunflowers. I imagined ghosts, keepers of all wrong with this world, homed in this briar patch of illness, sunset red eyes stalking about. A deep chill swept through my marrow, creeping all through my body, settling at the base of my neck. I experienced the awful feeling of goose bumps on a hot day. The Officer finally caught up. - These sunflowers are evil. They’re choking me. At about an hour into our wade through the field, we came across a narrow, though deep, irrigation dike. The bottom of the dike was lined with hard-dried mud, cracked and tessellated by the sun. It ran away both left and right; I imagined it must have once drained from a bore somewhere further back on the farm, an everlasting source of contentment for the sunflower field. Now it was just as ruined as all else we had encountered since waking that morning. I took a giant leap over the dyke, the Officer stepping over it gingerly and we were back into sunflowers and we were back to dreaming our way through the un-ending field. After the dike, we had crossed a bone flat section of the field. As our walk had just begun to find a nice quiet rhythm over this broader land, we had suddenly come upon a small series of light rises. I assumed they had something to do with contour farming; otherwise it would have been just the natural rise and fall of the land. From over behind the crest of a third rise came the sound of a heavy rustling. At first it was far off, but it soon became louder and
nearer. In short time we were confronted by the rising wall of this sound. Then it came at us – the stalks of the sunflowers bending flat as the wind raced through them, laying down before us we made towards the third rise. Finally, at its most deafening, the gust hit us, blasting us with sunflower mess and dirt, disorienting us so that we could only kneel down, hands barring our faces. It came at us for five minutes, disappearing then as suddenly as it had first arisen. - Heat convections. The flattened and crushed sunflowers now made the way a little easier in the going, and after rounding the top a last minor ridge line, we broke free of the field, soon after again finding ourselves back in bush. Talk between us had disappeared, and we didn’t say much to each other either when we stopped for lunch. We were
both tired from the battle through the sunflowers, and to my eye the Officer looked a little off again. Hiking slowly the rest of the day, we set up camp that night under plain stars. I quickly found the
Officer’s fever had indeed returned anew. He couldn’t move. He quickly slipped off into another fitful sleep. I decided then and there to abandon this obsolete. He could not continue under his own
power and I was not the kind of man to carry another on his back. The Officer had expired, his mission over and that wasn't my fault. I did worry about leaving him here alone, but I was more concerned about the possible consequences of not getting to have fun with the repeater. I set my mind to this new way of being.
I would go to the original script.
It made most sense now.
working alone, and for the greater good of mankind whether this would ever be officially recognised or not. It was perfect fit and a new delight to my darling consciousness. I was ready; and I knew the Officer would be too. His bones had been leached of all their available calcium and to look at him I knew he understood he had reached his maximum. I would pilfer his karma. The next morning the sun woke fine and filled me full of its stuffing, strands of energy that could be wound out like DNA, the sun’s own DNA, the beautiful sleep I had had the night before rendering me open to its penetration. I felt charged. The Officer too was awake. But he wasn’t moving, except to inhale the air that would allow him to moan. Prolonged fevers often
became hard to sleep on, as though the body had had enough rest and wanted to get up and visit the day. - Morning. - Sir, I’m sorry. - You can’t go on. I’ll go on for help. You just rest here. - I’ll be ok here, Sir? - Yes. You’ve got plenty of water…and I’m not going to be long. I know where you are. See, I've marked it here on the map. - How about you, Sir? - Me, alone in the bush? I couldn’t be safer. We were parting ways sooner than we had thought and not under the easiest of circumstances. I tried to imagine what the Officer was
making of the situation now that day was up, but I couldn’t. After that we ate (I ate, forcing the Officer to take some water), and over the meal, I thought back on the previous day. Dirty fence
palings, oily film on shards of broken glass, disrepair, beyond all, despair. This was no common vileness such as you find in decrepit neighbourhoods where the residents do naught but hate. No, it was higher than this, abstruse, and it seemed to signify that something had been done to the farm and its fields against its will, turning it from health. Now, what could I make of all of this nonsense? Everything, all
these splendid movements, would be all connected somehow: the smoke at Old Russ’s, the shooting on the last farm, the mood on the abandoned farm and in the sunflower field. I put it all down to a growing war, a collective building of madness propelled by the stress of fear. War, burning all our heads. Burning everything our minds touched. Burning every piece of experience, every last part that would fall into history. Burning all creation. After eating I set a shelter for the Officer as best I could from the materials I had available. I left him the bulk of the water, for a fever demanded to be quenched, and as much food as I could spare for when his fever did break and he could manage solids again. It was my hope of course, that I would have already collected him again by the time food and water could have become a serious issue in his days and nights. I checked myself for weakness in my reasoning one last time. What
other choice did I really have? My energy surged.
Bush, greens and browns. I set off a little further into the morning, taking only a little food and water, the parts for the repeater, a bedroll and my 9mm. The repeater site lay roughly along my path, and as it would only take me five minutes to reactivate, I could see no reason to not complete this task. Anthills appeared every so often. They had been constructed
following the compass north to south, an early experiment with magnetic forces – a pre-cursor to the MRI machines that now run medicine. I walked on through the hazy bush, and as I went I began to feel that a great amount of time had passed me. Twenty-something years. It was nothing, I knew, in the larger design of things, but for me, individually, it felt as though a drainpipe had been attached to my heart and my blood was beginning to run off down it, down to the rinses of decay and disastrous foment. I looked up at the sun. It was close to the mid-heaven, close to midday. I checked the map and reckoned myself close to the repeater. It was certainly near. It was towards the time of day when I could have taken lunch, but I had no interest in it now. Some people have the ability of being able to pace themselves, to keep themselves in ordered, calm patterns of movement from start to finish. While I could certainly manage this in the early stages of anything I did, in latter stages I always found myself obsessed in the speed to the end.
But now I did stop.
The repeater was close enough that I could
throw down the map and begin to look for physical traces of it beyond the confines of ink and paper; in order to find it as quickly as possible, I wanted to make an appraisal of the land around me. I slid off my pack, sticking a hand in for my water canister. Producing it, and using my thumb and forefinger, I curled off its lid to drink. As I drank, I felt my cells becoming turgid and aqua again with the soaking of the water, the neurons in my brain finding smoother connections as the new water went to aid conduction. I drank for a full minute. Finally, I was satiated. A new malevolence had arrived on me. I spat a taste of the water out into the bush. Taking the canister away from my mouth, I let it rest by my side while I looked on that around. I stood for moments, until, finally, I decided that there were three possible places that I might begin my search for the repeater. I was standing on the north slope of a small hill. The slope continued
down a little further into a brief hollow before beginning a slow rise again into a thickly planted bank. To the left, the hollow burst out into a significant gully that drove away down to the right of the hill where I stood. To the right, the hollow simply opened up again into flat bush, and this continued on into anonymity for as far as I could see. The gully to my left I felt unsure of; as a watercourse it would be prone to flooding and was subsequently of no value as a site for anything, let alone a piece of sensitive electrical equipment. The
bush to the right was a little plain to consider seriously. I decided to begin my search on the bank in front of me. The bank was obscured from view from a low point by a vegetation mostly composed of wattle. I found it hard to penetrate. The bank went up further than I thought, perhaps ten meters or so; I added scratch on scratch as I clambered my way up. When the bank
finally levelled off, it was only more wattle and barbs that awaited me. On I went, any grime that may have been remnant from the sunflower field now having been washed away by blood. And so it went until eventually the growth could bar my way no longer, and I pushed back a final knotted wire, stepping out into a wondrous glade. The glade itself was stuck with grasses that had been set long ago, where gums once had yielded to men and been replaced all about their dead stumps by a cunning, a cunning that sought to hide something. The repeater was standing alone in the exact mathematical centre of the glade, a longish steel rod within five paces of the edge of the wattle, grey and boring like the winter ocean. I just stood there and stared at it. This was my mission finished. I was free, complete. I felt relieved, and then I felt good. I felt good about myself. Another tick against my name. Another brilliant
report to sit on the Generals’ desk.
An edge closer to their I
permanent confidences, if they hadn’t already been secured.
thought then to the Officer. All of the interactions I’d shared with him the last week had been to the cause of this single metal rod,
and now it was just I who witnessed it. It was unfair in a strange way that I should be the only one to actually meet it. He had been the one who had been blood-curdling excited about this mission. He’d already given a part of his soul to it when he’d taken those shots back on the farm, fried up in the heat on the mountain, blasted himself through hazy days of fever and vile discomfort. And then for a second I felt as if I had abandoned the Officer, going on for my own glory. Maybe I had. But if I had, it wasn’t right. Re-activating the repeater was no more difficult than I had thought it would be. I scratched around in the dirt at its base for a moment or two, finally finding the top panel to its guts. I took off the panel, inserted the silver battery, connected its leads and closed it all up again. It was on. Whatever the military wanted the bastard thing for, it was now theirs to use. With my mission done, it was now time to focus entirely on the rescue of the Officer. I wasted no further time, completing my work with the repeater, then fighting my way back through the mess of wattle and back out into bush.
I listened carefully to the wind. It was moving something along in its waves, something heavy and morose, a sound that was factored into the walls of existence but was rarely audible, so sensitive did one have to be to garner even the faintest hint of it. Maybe it was the solar wind, or what of it that had penetrated the magnetic belts of Van Ellen and come in on a low trajectory. I thought back again to my previous mission: the strange footprints in the bed of the cycad gully I’d woken up next to one morning, the long distance I’d tracked them through the deep bush, hiding me or hiding my chase whichever it was, entering down into a tea-tree swamp where I lost his trail, his mark was gone, until wandering along the far bank of the swamp I had come upon him – George Oxprey, the man who had first made the cut in the Generals’ eyes, the origin of the Bushrangers esteem, a man who had been so great for so long, but was now starting to lose it, a man who had felt some great threat from me and had spent time trying to insure himself against my rise. I had waited for him all that day and at night I had come on him, taking his own gun and waking him from a fat sleep with the barrel right on his nose. ‘G’day George,’ I’d said. He had sat bolt upright and almost screamed until his senses had adjusted and he had caught himself and he had acknowledged me. ‘Jesus Christ,
Bluey. What the fuck are you doing out here?’ ‘That, of course, is classified.’ ‘Why don’t you sit down. There’s plenty of space.’
The one time I had spent any significant time with Oxprey was when we had both been detailed to a reconnaissance mission a couple of years earlier. We were together for a week in all, mapping potential routes in and out of the Star Falls, a beautiful area in the northeast dominated by the Star Falls themselves, a series of spectacular rainforest waterfalls that marked the end of the brisk but serious Crayol Range. I had learned on that mission that while Oxprey was a master of the land, he had no regard for it, at least not in the conventional sense. He wouldn’t let others degrade it in either talk or action, yet he himself flushed his waste all over it. All the
dirtiness in his mind he let out over the land. If it struck him to kill a bandicoot, he would. This was his land, he was the King for all time. And he had cornered me once, just outside a staff sergeant’s office, all foam and dense anger. - Two years ago to the day Colonel Song defected to the East, Bluey. You remember that, of course. He may have been born there, but his loyalty should have been to the Generals. And though a lot of the smaller minds both military and government regarded him as being tactically fallible, I knew that that simply wasn’t the case. So did the Generals. Song was destined to become one of them; I bet you didn’t know that! His defection was a personal slight against them. They called me in and my advice was to strike hard at the East, destroy them at once before Song could get a foothold. The government stalled and eventually fled completely from the plan. That fool Foreign Minister made some clever argument for giving the
East a little more time. We spied out his papers and came across many notes he had culled from conversations with you. You of all people, Bluey. You were helping turn the country back from what it should have been doing.
Early morning. I awoke from a sleep of sorts. I rolled a mist from my eyes and looked about my camp. It is the first morning since I left the Officer. The sky was red. The sun was just up and it was shining red. Rain. Hardly likeable. I left camp without breakfast. There wasn’t a want in my belly. A small hill stood alone a small distance from where I was. The view would help. The climb up the hill was grass here and eroded bank there. Once at the top I shuddered with delight for under my outstretched arms ran away a deep face of rainforest framed at its back by the black line of a storm. Summer, I’d forgotten. The storm was still building, and it would be several hours yet before it struck. I had always found my heart most in rainforests, so quiet and cool, always careful of too firm a tread for fear of leaving a mark on their perfection. The rainforest below was set flat in a shallow valley, its front at my feet and its back away against a small but not insignificant range. Its hardest travel would lie in the heavy lines of the many creeks and gullies that the range waters had created. I wouldn’t need the map here to find myself. Just beyond the far edges of the rainforest were the Bush Highway and the end of my mission. Of all the
journey I had undertaken, this final section I now anticipated most
keenly. A day to myself, to take me through the dark and the wet of the rainforest. Birds could be heard down in the rainforest, calling for rain. A
distant crack of thunder sounded, yet far distant. I ran down the closest bank. Already the gums were ending and being replaced by palms, figs and the giant strangling vines that wound up the bigger trunks, looking for eggs to steal. At the tree line, I pushed back an elephant leaf and swam on into the dim cool. Smaller palms and ferns drank in gullies and along other veins of support. The figs and taller palms pushed in tight, almost trampling the bracken that balanced at the great root-feet, as unseen as ants. A little way in I came across a simple path, barely recognizable as such. As it seemed to be moving in my direction, I decided to follow it. And so my walk began over the soggy, leaf-litter mess of the rainforest floor, and the skin under my clothes eased a little at the report of a lower temperature. Though the wind and the sun
searched long, they found too few ways in, and beneath the dense canopy it was still and dark as the path plodded on before me. Frequent streams were bridged with old logs cut from the nearby giants or, sometimes, wire-trussed planks where someone had been prepared to carry in such materials. Constant fluttering up in the canopy attracted my attention to the crows-nests and stag-horns that were hiding the forms of the trillers and twitterers. The path was running more or less flat. The worst of the moment
were the occasional patches of mud. These patches, hidden by leaflitter, were a constant danger to my balance as I would place my tread down onto the slimy leaves and ever risk their skate over the mud underneath. The path, though flat, was not running straight. It followed the contours of the rainforest, forever skirting around a gully here or travelling along a bank there, skirting and travelling as far as it was necessary in order to find an easier place to move. The moss-flecked trunks and elephant leaves, all too innumerable, moved in behind me. Around midday I began to climb a little. As I climbed, I also became aware of a rushing sound. It was the sound of water landing on rock from a tall height. I was coming up on a waterfall. A little further on the burbling of a creek also became apparent, though this burbling was for the most part drowned out by the ever loudening rush of the waterfall. Finally I reached the full height of the climb and, pushing back an interfering palm frond, looked down onto a wide gully, cut by the waters of the burbling. The path didn’t hesitate - it went straight down into the gully. The bank on which the path slid down into the gully was steep enough to warrant steps and, further down, near the bottom, it dropped off completely, forcing the path to walk a fortyfive degree angle back upstream to avoid a fall. Once the path had navigated the bank, it turned away to the right, following the creek downstream. From the top of the bank I couldn’t see the waters, hidden as they were by the wings of the myriad palms and other
stout flora, but they gurgled healthily with a volume afforded by the rainforest, aided in their flow with gravity upon them. I started down the bank. The steps made the descent quite
manageable and I had little trouble. At the bottom of the descent, the path soon evened out, beginning its run alongside the creek. Here I now got the occasional sight of the creek through its green border. It was a rock stabbed creek, bleeding its way through the daggers that would remain permanently embedded in its body, cutting its channel in many places. growing in sound. I came to a bridge – three planks wired together – over a second creek that had swung in from behind. This new creek pulled left Ever still the waterfall was
hard at the last, erupting through the bank of the first, losing its identity as its waters spilled off into a new channel. Though neither of the two creeks was worth more than their soft gurgles alone, their junction brought about a more considerable offering for the waterfall as the volume of water increased two-fold. Passing over the bridge, the path swept away again to the right, taking me momentarily away from the creek and its new energy. I caught a last glimpse of the creek as it disappeared again into the green haze. The next time I would see it, it would be falling exposed through meters of rainforest air, something it hardly could have expected as it had lazily washed through the back gullies of the rainforest. I imagined all the powerful characters the masters had given us; all
desperate, bleak characters of enormous potential, of strength and charisma. How would Oxprey have liked their company? For he had been one of them. Undoubtedly. He had shared their intelligence, and their passions, and their confusions, the confusions that had driven them all towards their ends. different. And Oxprey had been no
He could rightfully take his place in that pantheon of
demi-gods who had gone mad on the largeness of their own being, men who could bend the very elements of the earth to their will, tie knots in the thickest trunks of the mightiest trees and fear mountains to their very roots, washing them away as sediment to the seas. Men who could claim ownership over the individual
molecules of the deepest oceans and keep the dark matter of all space and time in their back pockets. And yet fail and fall into
madness and ruin, bringing whole aeons down with them, crashing like furlongs of white lightning and torpedo thunder, crashing down to break the bare back of time, splinter its spine, shards pushed through into the innards, death and poison as perforated bowel leaks out over all life, heart eviscerated, pneumo-thorax, the ending of all thought; and the slow, melodic patter of the rain left to fall the sky voided by the done storm, its easy pattern reassuring and soporific. - Sounds like that waterfall’s going to be around any one of these bends. I interjected with a short word to myself. - Should come on it soon.
I had tripped a little, stubbing my leathered toes, just managing to avoid the final loss of balance that would have landed me face first on the rock. In my daydream, I hadn’t noticed the path catch up to the waterfall, and my right foot had caught hard as solid rock stole up out of the moist of the path. As I recovered my walk and my eyes came up again to their normal level of sight, I became aware of the majesty before me. The drop of the waterfall wasn’t right before me. Rather, it was
away beyond a short series of rock pools. The rock pools were all quite shallow, none substantial, the water moving quickly through them to the final rock before the drop. The channel through the
rock pools was quite strong; I was a little surprised when a water dragon jumped out from under the milky movement and darted off over the rock and down the face of the waterfall. Coming in fast on either side of the rock was the rainforest, darting in tight at the very hint of the rock conceding to soil. A soft mist was floating in from over the edge of the waterfall, and it was, without voice or fuss, slowly diffusing the light for which the rock provided. This waterfall had stood here for thousands of years, waiting for me to come and admire it. I finally had. Looking down, it was about twenty meters to the white churn at the bottom, where the hydrogen and oxygen atoms of the water were split as they found their trauma on the waiting rocks. It wouldn’t happen for many
years to come, but the water was going to have its final revenge
over the rocks, slowly wearing at them until their cruelness would eventually be blunted as they were dissolved to nothing. As the curd settled back into a creek, it continued on in a narrow valley until it eventually ran off into the indiscernible. This valley it seemed soon rounded out into a vast bowl, filled with a mistenshrouded rainforest, the northern mountains of its final reaches away but within the day’s walking distance. Though the mist was still quite light, I could see it beginning to billow in places. By late afternoon it would probably be quite heavy and cushioning, if the coming storm didn’t destroy it first. The vale in its mist was another world, far, far removed from even the adventure of the mountains. To enter it would be to leave
behind the past, present and future. It behaved according to rules set by another force, a force I could intuit but never know. Once enveloped by it, the vale would not allow any communication with that outside of it. The view of the vale filled me with a melancholy as I recognized the mists swirled with the peace we all hoped for but knew we had to, in fact wanted to, return back home from eventually. A place as long out of time as this was always heavy on the mind, and I knew that, as sensitive as I was, its spiritual weight would soon begin to ache my head. I felt a need to experience it, but also to get quickly back out into the dry, earthen bush again. I started my way down into the vale. The path went off to the left of the waterfall and zigzagged down the ridge that shouldered its
falling waters. It was only a quarter of an hour’s walking down the path to the floor of the vale. Here, the path found easy passage through the less dense rainforest of the vale. I had noticed this
change in flora quickly; it had altered completely from the traditional rainforest left still above, to an older, palm dominated, bunya-tinged affair. The forest here looked tidier too; the trees
seemed to be set apart at even, fair distances, and the smaller plants fought with none else for their space. It was beautiful, crept as it was with the brush of the mist as it pushed in so quietly. I eventually came to the creek again where the path hit the floor of the vale and ran across the base of the waterfall. The creek was screaming from the torture of the rocks on my right; on my left it was flowing away calm again under the guidance of gentler boulders, its waters largely hidden under a green camouflage of algae and nardoo. It was here that I got again that sense of
adventure. Looking downstream, the creek wove off around a bend into mystery. The creek and all the bush I had experienced so far was all at least expected, if not all understood. But here now the creek disappeared off into something I had never been out in before, something that wasn’t known to me. Something old and wise – an ancient forest that lived alone of its own accord, its hermitage a reflection of the depth of spirituality, and the dire nature of all existence. The existential forest. The afternoon went on. flattening right out again. The path had lost the creek long ago, It was running over a soft, porous soil
quilted with the same leaves that had fallen all throughout the rainforest. I continued to over the myriad watercourses where
bright guppies swam amid waterweeds, nardoo and washed stones. The waters were cool and fresh and as energised as the blood from the heart, spinning heavily with the weight of vital nutrients, carrying them off to needed places. Again, the fragrant twittering of birds up in the canopy could be often heard; a quick look down on the path revealed the passage of all kinds of life, from searching leeches to hurrying ants, decaying bugs fallen from wing and darting rainforest skinks. In amidst all this industry, where the busy still were busier, I felt something growing on me, like some sort of wild germination of the forest taken root. Again I felt compelled to turn my head back around to the path behind. It was something I felt, a feeling of someone else having been there. A trick of the delights of this old forest? Maybe, I
shrugged to myself as yet another turn brought sight of nothing. The mist was thickening around me. Perhaps it was just this, and the small light that was stubborn enough to insist on being let in, but it all built to a real sense of being alone, and helpless. I felt as though I didn’t have the ability to protect myself, nor to see against what to protect myself. The rainforest was starting to climb all over me, its figs reaching up to strangle me down into its earth, its nettles searing my flesh as well as Satan might. I kept on for another couple of hours without incident. Moss wet
rocks came and went, lichen kept passing me at every step, the
trees blurred and their vines were no longer noticed. I turned my head back for the hundredth time. Late-afternoon brought me down into what was, I hoped, the last reach of the rainforest. The path seemed to be keeping me straight, though the congealing mist prevented any real appraisal of this. The mist was now curling in around the trees. Out from behind
green hands it appeared, the heavy down of orbs of water, dull with their own ghostly weight, dampening anything not resilient enough into a rot. I could see it moving, slow was its ride over the barren space of the path, over the path, on into the betweens of the foxtail palms. It drifted like we had done as children, ghosts at play under white sheets. These ghosts were not silent though, and the mist
talked to me of more than childhood memories. I turned again. Mist. Was my head also burning? Maybe this should be the old forest’s message. All those ghosts, all following along at what could have only been set distances behind me, all like little shadows but those that did not tell of my being, some kind of antithesis of existence, sucked of life with thin, morbid edges that trailed off into the gloom whether it was under midday sun or raincloud night. A little further down the path, I made out through the gloom what appeared to be a rock outcrop. The gradient down to the outcrop was slight and I caught up to it quickly. It was quite significant;
maybe seven or eight large boulders resting against each other, some wedded to the bed of the small gully in which they’d been
trapped; the others elevated to the slight breezes that would play their underbellies. In amongst the cool slabs of the boulders, many smaller rocks sheltered, and between them ferns and other small plants found themselves. If there had been something brooding in my thoughts for a time, it now found the energy to come to life and run around freely, unchecked by reason. I tried so hard to bring into control what was happening in my mind, but I couldn’t get a grip on the million lines a second of monologue as it streamed through somewhere behind my eyes. I was standing now almost right at the first boulder, where the mist sucked the path down and to the right and on in between the outcrop. The gully in which the outcrop was lying ran away both to the right and the left, though I couldn’t see for how far for the mist. The gully itself was heavily walled by a plant life that was following the vein of water that tracked the bed of the gully. I looked behind and ahead. Another look at the outcrop and suddenly I knew what to do. I felt sick, not a nausea or such as the Officer would have felt with his illness even as I had left him. No, not the feeling associated with physical disease, but the deeper, darker, more intensely painful torture of moral distress. Like the dreams born of a virus, a virus that replicates in the cells of deep tissue, my mind slipped back repeatedly, ad nauseam, to that one thing. Then, the rainforest spoke to me. A clear voice, like that which is
reported by the movements of water chimes, arose from the earth and filled me. It may have been that the leaf litter and other decay on the floor had filtered the voice as it had passed through them, for the voice was as wet with nutrition as though it had picked up some of the leaking minerals from the waste. The voice whispered gently, once and once only. It simply said, ‘He was no friend to us.’ The boulders of the outcrop were granite, uniformly grey, though occasionally stained with the orange of mineral escape. I passed
the first of the large boulders and came to an archway where the path ran between two further boulders, roofed by a third. I could see that beyond this archway was the last of the outcrop, and though I had no real view, I knew that after this, it was back to flat rainforest again. I stayed crouched behind the boulder for about five minutes. Then I got up, walking on into the mist. The path dropped off to the right, not in the direction I wanted, and so I left it. This was real rainforest now, no path, only Gumnut As I walked, the rainforest started to
Arthur’s hideous cackle.
darken. Where in the open bush there might have been reasonable light up to seven thirty, under the canopy, a rainforest would join the night much earlier. I walked another kilometre or so to a point where the rainforest floor suddenly leapt up, disappearing up a hillside where gums grew again. Finally I emerged from the wet under. I turned and gave the rainforest my deepest sigh. It truly had the majesty it had
promised. It had been as though I had never had the day broken by the rainforest, mist and heaviness. But I had, and I had come
through, already starting to lose bits of it from memory. It was no longer in my consciousnesses, except to say that I still had its old wisdom on which to cogitate. Someday in the future, when fear
wasn’t so much an issue, I should like to return to continue my study with the old spirit of the rainforest. I wandered on through the dry sclerophyll scrub for some time yet, choosing a course that was as direct in line as possible to the Bush Highway. The storm, which had held off for so long, was finally It was a different kind of storm, not the short,
starting to break.
violent burst that had caught us on the back of the mountain days earlier, but a long, slow rain, with only moderate winds and plenty of lightning. The occasional flash signified the beginning of its release of energy, and a light rain began falling shortly afterwards. A sudden flash illuminated for a moment the slow face of a rocky hill right in front of me. It had just jumped up out of nowhere. I decided to camp on the other side of the hill, hoping to find a nook in the rocks somewhere where I could get out of the rain. A crash of
thunder arrived just before my left foot came down onto the ground that marked the first of my ascent. It wasn’t particularly loud, but it was compact and intense, its waves arriving all within a short period of time. I stopped, letting the last of the roll sound out back into nothing. I reached slowly with a damp hand for my face. I wiped the rain, oil with sweat, off my fringe and found minutes later that I
still had my hand there, covering my eyes, as though I was in some kind of emotional distress. My mind hurt, that was certain. All my brain cells were filled with base filth, heavy fats. I came out on a bunya tree, and there was Oxprey, sitting comfortably in its branches. Doesn’t the fool know that the leaves of the bunya tree are needles? Does he feel no pain? He looked down at me, mocking with horrid evil eyes, ‘Bluey, I never knew…’ And then he laughed a cruel laugh. And I just stood there.
The Scent of War
It was hot. The wind had stilled and the sun was angling right down at me. It was a little past noon, maybe two or three. It was two days since I’d reactivated the repeater. There would be no further storm today; the western horizon was clear. The remnant of the
storm had kept me awake until late last night. I had enjoyed the throw of lightning from under a rainless sky. I wondered if the same storm had had an impact on the area where I’d left the Officer. I wondered how his fever would be. And the Officer? He was an officer. He’d be flown from the bush to a hospital, and upon recovery he’d be fed back into the machine at some point. If war broke, he would be going to fight. He’d fare well in war, should it come; he was a man with the commonsense to survive much in this world. I quietly wished him luck. I also wondered what news my return to the city would find. Talk of the crash would be at its height. Things would have shifted from shock and disbelief to contemplation of action. have already been decided. It was now we’d see how strong the influence of those who wanted war was, whether all their positioning would finally get them what they wanted. As I went on my thoughts got stuck in a rut. It was like a screaming of metal as it shifts painfully against metal. ‘He was no friend to us.’ I wondered what Oxprey would have done had he been on this Something may
mission and not me.
Before even leaving McKellar’s Junction he
would have alienated the Officer. At some point before arriving at the Water Shack, Oxprey would have pulled out his treasured handgun and put it to the Officer’s head.
McIntosh Rise Lands. I stood alone at the top of an escarpment, a machete dripping from my hand. A cockatoo had taken up perch in a gum tree just apart from me. I was staring out into the deep view beyond. I had camped. The night had moved on. Star had turned to pale dawn, the waking of the day again. I hadn’t slept, but it wasn’t lack of sleep that had been dragging down on me. Actual sunrise is a very quick process. Once it comes to the point that the sky is well awake and the sun’s entrance can no longer be denied, it is only a matter of moments from when the first razor brightness of the sun’s disc appears to when the whole fiery globe has ascended into the air. I had had only perhaps an hour before the morning reached that critical point. I had moved out from the small grove where I had buried myself, quickly crossing the sparse grasses of the open bush. Shortly, I had come to a red gully, eroded and naked. It had been deep enough to cover most of me, and the earth, dry and loose, had been, if I was careful, of a silent type. Levering myself off my right hand, I had jumped down into the bed of the gully and started my way down the hill. A little way down, the bush had begun to thicken again. Gums and their attendant shrubs had been rising out of the ground just bordering the rim of the gully banks. Here and there dead branches
had lain at my feet, stolen of their energies. I had finished the last of the descent, coming out on the dry bed of a creek that ran away from the base of the gully. I had left the creek, though, turning off into the bush on the left. Day had been apparent. Oxprey had finally reached too far, I thought. He had threatened this kind of behaviour even years ago, though I never thought I’d actually see it come into the real. How long had he been planning this? It all might have occurred to him around the same time his wife was divorcing him; but more likely the things going onside his head had their origins long before that, back in the compounds that made him. He had no choice in the matter, really. Things fell the way they did, much as the Generals’ dominoes did. Later that night I had found him. I had tracked and caught the great Oxprey! He had been sleeping on the banks of a shallow billabong. He had had his hat pulled down over his face. I had walked up to him and noticed the barrel of his precious handgun just sticking out from his pack. I bent over and took it out…
…I had kept the gun on him. His sun-scarred face had showed signs that he was feeling contempt. - Let’s be quick, Oxprey. What’s going on? - If you’ve come this far, you must have worked it out, Bluey. I must say I am a little surprised to see you, though. - Why is that? You didn’t come across my camp here by accident, did you? I
made sure you had orders that you would keep you well away from me. - You’re being awfully open with me, Oxprey. - Why not? What can you do with this news? Nothing. Everything is already set, Bluey. He had shifted a little in his posture, moving his weight to his left side. He had stretched his left arm out a little further behind him to accommodate this new weight. With his right hand, he had stuck his index finger into his eye and fidgeted it around for a moment, eventually dragging it out from the outside corner. He had flicked the sleep his finger had collected away towards the bush and looked back at me. Oxprey had had a ruined and deliberately evil smile. I didn’t believe in evil as a concept, but it was nevertheless of some use as an adjective. I had wondered what Oxprey thought of the word. He had been a conservative (if that’s what you could call his ideas – for
he seemed to comment very little on morality) and I felt sure that he had believed in a concrete good and evil; and in that universe he was a man of good. It was one of the only ways in which people such as Oxprey could operate successfully – do the things they do and then rationally justify it all afterwards. Maybe I was the same, with a few extra grey areas. - No, Bluey. I’m not going to give you everything. You’re going to have to work for that one. - Fair enough. I still have some questions for you, though. - You have questions for me? How dare you! I had then fired a round into the sand next to him. He hadn’t even flinched. - You know what, Bluey? I made you who you are today. Honestly. I created everything that you claim as your own now: your training; your skills; your prestige…and then you spit it all back in my face. You’re an individual, Bluey, and that’s fine. But you work against me. Why? Your reports contradict mine, you sneak around on your own private missions, you dismiss me, you stalk me in the bush and then stick my own gun in my face. You think you’re morally superior to me. That’s right, isn’t it? Well, let me tell you something… He had been glaring right in my face. His rage had been obvious. I had kept my composure. - …you aren’t better than me. Your ideas are weak, fashioned from the driftwood and other shifting fancies of long dead believers. I’ve watched your relationship with our beloved Foreign Minister
blossom, and how it irked me no end. You betrayed me, Bluey. I had twisted the gun a little in my hand. This had been an
interesting story Oxprey was telling. It had made some sense…well it had made a lot of sense actually. been playing a good game. - What do you fear from me, Oxprey? You fear I’ll replace you soon, don’t you? I’ve been a bad boy, yes, that’s all true. But that’s not what’s really bothering you. Oxprey. I’m better than you in the bush, Oxprey had been right. He had
I’ve tracked enemy squads that you never could, I’ve
gotten into places that you never could. I even tracked the great Oxprey, and caught him napping. likewise to me. - Bluey, kill me if you want, but I will still die your superior. I won’t concede that, ever. - You’ve got me in a tight spot, Oxprey. The man I have always wanted to kill, alone in the bush and unarmed. - I don’t have time for this. Now let me get back to my job, since you woke me up. He had leaned over, making for the radio that was just out of immediate reach. I had fired a shot into it, destroying it. - And you did that for what reason, Bluey? We both know who you are, really. You despise my way of getting things done, maybe the coarse nature I display on occasion, but this we both have in common – we both like to kill. Two years ago that farmer… - That was an accident. The investigation cleared me… You never would have done
- Yes, Bluey, and what of the other accidents since then? And what about your worst crime…and the very first one you committed? I found the body, Bluey. Even at that young age you were already arrogant enough to suppose nobody would ever come across your deed out there. But I did. Of course I didn’t know what had
happened at first, a body in the bush so cut up and removed from its humanity as to be a picture of the mind of the devil himself…but I removed the warped bullet from the poor man’s brain (now that hadn’t been too hard) and took it back lovingly to the lab. I got a nice surprise when the result came back…this bullet had been fired from one of my own men’s weapons. Now who could not be
accounted for at the approximate time of the killing? You, Bluey… only you. You mustn’t have liked that poor man too much – the
torture you obvious put him through before you finally blew his brains out. Almost made me lose my breakfast. And he had laughed. He had laughed loudly, like a drunk high on his last begged dollar. - You got a taste for it, didn’t you? You enjoy the power, the ability to act with total impunity. And so I kept your secret, secrets,
nurturing you, telling only the Generals of my business with you. That’s why I’m so disappointed with you – you are a killing machine, Bluey – invincible - and you would have served me well, if it hadn’t been for your ideas. Why, Bluey? Why the hate for what we, you, are doing? - You knew? You saw him?
- Yes, Bluey, I saw him. - But you know nothing of why he had to die, do you? You can talk about what you found all right, but you don’t know what really happened out there. You don’t know anything, Oxprey. - Bluey, don’t shit yourself over it. I’m sure you did what you had to. He meant nothing to me. Meant nothing to him? I had thought. That man had meant all in the world to me. I hadn’t done what I had without reason, without a feeling of the gravity around me. No, Oxprey. He had still been smiling at me. I had pulled the trigger, on his gun. It had kicked back. Oxprey had been ended. I had picked up a
handful of the sand that had lain loose on the bank of the billabong and thrown it into the hole in his head. There’s some of your dirt back, I had thought.
The twilight shone me orange.
Tomorrow I would find the bush
highway. But for now I’d found a banana plantation. I entered it, dream starting in me again. Fronds I pushed back to reveal more fronds, yellow and green, brown down at my feet. Hard cuts into flesh on the trunks around me – machetes, the passage of many. Further on a cease in the hacks. I was closed in now. I knelt down, playing a finger in the blood, looking over a field of empty bullet casings and clips. I looked up. I was kneeling in a turmoil, banana trees ripped apart, blood splattered over those that still stood. Some sort of blood-freezing ambush. Like anaerobic bacteria in my malaise. There wasn’t a sound, except for a dusk breeze. It was pushing up the big banana leaves, showing me how dead and finished they were, looking like the long ragged strands of cancer-sick DNA drunk on ribonucleic acid and hermit filth. There was blood, so much blood in there. I wanted to move but I couldn’t. I had to go but I couldn’t start. With the effort of all my heart did I come out from that plantation. And walked down a bank into a march of freshly dug graves, set in a grove of macadamia trees, night’s light freezing them pale like sickness. A rope, a noose, hung easily from the branch of a
macadamia, a hastily put together platform directly under it.
The repeater now made sense, if there was an action taking place that required it. The air was frigid. It was night and I was alone, after having been patient for so long.