Authors: Lara Fanning
I spend the next hour working on sharpening my stick. I finally have a pointed end that if jabbed with some force would break the skin of an animal. I leave Whil to rest some more and scour the area. I find some more wizened blackberry bushes, but there aren’t any of the tiny, purple fruits on them.
The more I search, the clearer it becomes that the animals won’t go close to the electric fence. There are no prints in the snow or the few patches of dirt. The grass poking through the snow hasn’t been nibbled at by a hungry mouth. I go back to Whil, disappointed, and my stomach growls with hunger. I know how to make a snare but not with the materials in this bushland. Plus, my hands are too numb to create the intricate little traps properly. I’d probably just snare my own hand.
By dusk, Whil is still too head-sore to stand, let alone walk, so we stay put under the wattle tree. I gather fallen sticks and tree bark to create a lean-to against the trunk and when night comes, we sleep the events of the day away in uncomfortable but dry safety. No guards ever appear.
Whil is spritely and ready to go again in the morning. He wakes me an hour after dawn, and I glare at him, squinting against the slats of early morning sunlight that filter through the leaves of the wattle tree. Whil looks unusually bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for someone who was knocked unconscious yesterday.
“Come on, Freya,” he says. He takes my arm and yanks me to my feet while I groan in protest. My body wants rest, but then I realise how cold I am and know I need to warm up. I tug my arm away from Whil and blow warm breath into my cupped hands.
“We have to find food. Should we keep following the path?” Whil asks.
I rub my eyes with a stifled yawn, tasting the gross flavour inside my mouth. My teeth feel furry and it tastes like I’ve just eaten a bag full of warm garbage. I turn away from Whil before I speak.
“Yes. We’ll go to Native Dog, but we have to be careful because the main road is near that flat.”
“We can stick to the bush,” he says and off he waltzes up the track like he’s taking a casual hike through the mountains.
I roll my eyes at his enthusiasm, seeing very little to be happy about when starvation and dehydration looms, but I follow. The further we walk, the more contagious Whil’s good attitude becomes, and I soon find myself striding along after him with an uncharacteristic spring in my step. We are free of the wretched ring! We are wandering the alpine country I love! Things aren’t all bad despite the fact that we are ravenously hungry. I point out interesting things to Whil as we go, like the native Purple Star Orchids flowering by the track and flocks of noisy black currawongs in the trees. He’s interested in every word I say, and we question one another about random, trivial topics.
When Whil turns his head to answer one of my questions, my gaze falls to my torn shirt wrapped around his head. I hadn’t noticed it when I was tired, but now I can see the shirt is soaked through with blood and a vile yellowish liquid, which can only be puss. The mixture of the red and yellow has spread from the top of the bandage where his wound hides to below his right ear. He must feel the moisture there and just be ignoring it. I wonder if it’s better to take the shirt off. It must be filthy and the germs on it will infect his wound.
I don’t ask his opinion though. I don’t want to have to peel away the grotty bandage and see what lurks beneath it. Besides, what do I have to use to clean the wound or replace the bandage?
I clear my throat casually to hide the gagging noise that I make when I imagine the wound. I ignore my churning stomach by making a plan. As soon as we come by a house, we will find medical supplies for him: fresh bandages, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory. Hopefully, we will stumble upon a home before more infection starts to fester in the wound. Infection would certainly mean a swift death for Whil when the nasty wound is so close to his brain.
I casually pick up the conversation where it left off and try to ignore the bandage. Whil tells me about his family: his mother, father, and older sister. We quiz one another on our favourite colours, foods, hobbies, and movies (when they existed).
“Green. Watermelon. I don’t really have a hobby, and I only remember kids movies because the electricity went out when I was young,” I tell him, feeling a bit silly.
“Orange. Meatloaf. Cricket, and I don’t really have a favourite movie. I hardly remember any of them.”
We continue chatting as we wander until I notice that Whil is swaying quite a lot while he walks. I watch him for a minute, growing increasingly concerned as he sways in a zigzag pattern along the path. Eventually, he wobbles so bad that I take his arm and lead him along.
“How long will it take to reach Native Dog?” Whil asks tiredly, and it seems like all of his previous buzzing energy is gone in an instant.
“Maybe an hour. It isn’t far.”
“Is there water there?”
“Yes, the same stream near Native Cat runs to Native Dog. It’s a camping ground.”
“Do they have electricity set up there usually? Would anyone have generators or a propane cooktop to use?” Whil asks hopefully.
“There was never electricity there. Native Dog was a dry camping ground even before the government turned the power off. If there is anything or anyone there now, there might be some sort of cooktop or generator but I guess we’ll find out.”
“What is a Native Cat anyway?” Whil ponders out loud. “A Native Dog is a dingo. Why did they call it Native Cat flat?”
I smirk. “It’s a Quoll. The early settlers saw them and thought they were spotted cats.”
“How do you know that?” he asks, sounding impressed. I don’t think it’s something to be impressed about.
“My aunt and uncle told me,” I say, stepping over a mossy log in our path.
Whil is quiet for a minute. Then he says, “You’re very close to them, aren’t you?”
“Of course I am. They’re my family,” I say bluntly.
Whil makes a little
noise in the back of his throat, and we walk in silence for the rest of the journey. We pass a few native animals. At one point, a lone horse spots us fifty metres up the path and gallops into the shrubs, snorting with fright. We listen to its hooves clatter on rocks and thud on the dirt before the noise fades into the distance. The scent of the bush clears the head and refreshes the body. Though in spring and summer the bush air is laden with sweet smelling pollen, the minty smell of the native trees and the fresh snowgrass, in winter it is more of a crisp, woodland scent. It makes me feel like
again, and as I stroll on the path, the memory of walking along with my aunt and uncle on this same track plays like a television scene in my mind. So strong is the memory of them that my two relatives are like ghosts walking beside me.
I hold onto the image until we finally come to Native Dog Flat—the bush opens and then clears completely, and the flat is a welcomed sight for sore eyes. It looks exactly like Native Cat, with the long tussocky grass and wallowing holes, but this flat is divided into several areas all separated by narrow strips of bushland. The particular meadow we are standing by isn’t used as a camping ground but through the gumtrees on the opposite side of the field, just a hundred metres away, I can see the other larger flat where people used to park their cars and camper-vans.
I stand poised on the threshold between bush and pasture, eyes darting here and there, searching for signs of life or danger. The Teatree bushes in the centre are still, the lone gnarled Gum tree that stands alone on the open meadow hiding no enemy.
Whil walks straight onto the open land, and I hiss a warning to him, demanding he comes back into the cover of the trees at once. The key to survival and moving without detection here is being at one with the bushland and behaving as the animals do: cautious and alert. You need to listen to the stir of the trees, the raucous cries of startled birds, and be totally in tune with nature.
Whil does as I say, and we edge around the smaller clearing until we come to the little stream and the narrow strip of forest that divides the unused flat from the camping grounds. The creek is deep, set low between two grassy embankments but there is a small rocky crossing a little upstream that the wildlife use to pass over and we head to it thirstily. I crouch low to drink and although Whil sways uneasily as he kneels, he manages to get water to his lips as well. I watch his eyes glaze over and I know he is fighting off unconsciousness again. He has exerted too much energy walking and talking. The blood that had dripped down his forehead yesterday before I bandaged him has turned crusty and black on his skin. It makes his pale face look cracked, like a broken porcelain doll.
“Come here,” I say, wetting the sleeve of my jacket. “You look terrible.”
Understanding, he bends his head towards me, and I gently begin wiping the dry blood away. It is set firmly on his skin, and I eventually change my soft wiping to a rough scrubbing to remove it. It stains my jacket sleeve red but I don’t care. Whil looks much more like himself without the blood marring his handsome face. If only that disgusting shirt wasn’t wrapped around his forehead. He watches me intensely as I work and eventually closes his eyes so I can wipe it from his brows. I try to be gentle with my touch, but he eventually jerks away when I get to his temple, which is too close to the wound.
“Alright. Let’s see if there is anything here,” I say, standing up and squinting through the trees. I can’t see anything besides the stretching meadows. There is no sign of the dozens of RVs and four-wheel drives that used to be parked everywhere before the Biocentrics outlawed gasoline engines. It looks safe, but I still take a deep breath and brace myself, ready to run should any sign of danger appear.
“What were you looking at this morning when I woke up?” Whil asks suddenly before I jump over the creek.
A hot flush erupts in my cheeks, and I know I’m turning scarlet. I remember looking lastly at his lips and thinking stupid, disconcerting things that I haven’t thought before. Lucky I’m a good liar. “I was just checking your wound,” I say nonchalantly.
“It was covered over.”
“Well, I was just making sure it wasn’t soaking through,” I say, irritation working its way into my voice. I always get angry when I am caught lying. I jump the creek, purposefully landing slightly in the water to splash Whil and tread forward, forgetting that we are meant to be sneaking towards the camping ground.
“You didn’t look like you were looking at my wound,” Whil says, following me.
“Just drop it, Whil. There are more important things going on.”
He gives a musical, deep laugh at my statement, but instead of it making me all the more irritated, the sound of it sends a pleasant shudder through my tired limbs. We come to the edge of the camping flat, and are just about to break through the cover of trees and expose ourselves, when I see a flash of stark white in the green scenery ahead. Both of us stop dead in our tracks and drop to the ground like we’ve been hit with tranquilizers again. I hit the ground with a thud and Whil lands half on top of me. I know if I were alone I would be much quieter, much more careful, and definitely less clumsy. With a grumble, I push Whil off me, ignoring his muttered apologies, and peek through the blades of the wall of snow grass that we have landed behind.
Parked just fifty metres away is a typical white caravan with a tarp canopy pitched above the door. I can’t believe something that was once so innocent and common scared us so easily. It’s the thought of Seiger’s guards lurking inside that is terrifying. But as I watch, there is no movement in or around the caravan, and I stare at the windows, waiting for something to appear, but nothing does. No one does.
I can hear Whil and my breathing in unison, deep and trembling. I sit up a few inches higher and search for signs of life on the long strip of clear, grassy land. It is completely deserted except for a herd of brumbies in the far distance. I look towards the road, which is only half a minute’s walk from where we are. I can see the orange coloured gravel from our hiding spot and the faded green sign that reads
‘Camping Area. Native Dog Flat. No Dogs Allowed’
pitched by the road.
I study the road more closely. There are no fresh tire marks in the snow. There is no car attached to the caravan. It must have been abandoned or someone came to Native Dog to hide and the government found them anyway. In any case, there are no people nearby or the herd of brumbies wouldn’t be standing exposed in the middle of the flat. They know not to expose themselves because the high-country folk like to chase and rope them. Some even like to shoot them. I mentally thank the horses. Three times now they have saved us. First by leading us to water, second by warning us that the fence was electric, and thirdly by proving the camping area is deserted by humans.
“There’s no one here,” I say to Whil but my voice is still a whisper.
“I don’t think so either. Look at the wheels of the caravan.”
I look at the wheels and am surprised to see they have been slashed with a knife and are as flat as pancakes. Whoever brought it here wasn’t able to take it with them when they left.
“I’ll bet there is some food in there!” I say eagerly and I spring from the grass and run towards the caravan.
The horses on the flat all go tearing into the shrubbery in a terrified panic when they see me. I’m too excited about food to care. I grab hold of the door handle, throw my stick spear to the ground and fling the door open. The inside of the caravan smells like musty elderly people. The walls are off white, the cupboards and the kitchen counter laminex brown. The kitchen area offers no stove, just a plastic sink in one of the counters and I pump the manual tap a few times. Clear water trickles out and I smile. It’s a luxury these days to have running water, even if it has to be pumped into the spout. The floor is tiled white and there is a double bed at the back of the tiny space, jutting from the wall like some sort of soldiers bunker. A bowl of brown, sickly-sweet smelling rotten fruit sits on the counter top. It’s too old to eat so I pick it up and throw it outside. Just the sight of the festering fruit reminds me of what Whil’s wound could look like in a few days’ time.