Only we dream,
here, in the interspaces of the world,
but the world does not care about our dreams.
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Copyright 2015 Peter Quinton
Published by Peter Quinton
Touch the spinning thread of destiny,
Rejoice the portion racing past your fingertips,
Relish your life in fair wonder with others,
Until the great destroyer takes us back whence we came
I dedicate this book to counsel Katie Cameron, with whom I had the pleasure of working for the Attorney General some years past, on the occasion of her telling me (24 August 2015) she is expecting.
I dedicate this book to counsel Katie Cameron, with whom I had the pleasure of working for the Attorney General some years past, on the occasion of her telling me (24 August 2015) she is expecting.
Once upon a time, last week, I woke late.
No. Stay alive. I will tell you our story again, one last time, as you lay on this old bed. Stay with me. Stop it twisting away from me.
Last week I woke late. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and then walked in the cold shadows of the tall buildings. Eyes down, avoiding the cracks in the pavement.
I was running late for a meeting, a dark meeting with desperate people, trying to save a lifetime of work. The drift from ordinary work to crisis had caught all of us, except you, without showing a seam.
They were ready to take dangerous paths to save their dreams. Not my dreams. Not mine, not any more. Not yours.
With every step my feet grew heavier.
It is madness to continue to sit with them. But they would search me out if I did not attend. And one among them knew all the places I could hide.
I stopped and tried to think.
I could still see the hurrying people all around. It would be easy to step back into those currents. But, now I did not want to be part of that stream. Instead, I imagined myself rising into the air, high above. Looking back to the surface, watching the patterns swirl around the grid of buildings, roads, lanes drains and the infrastructure supporting them.
I need to leave this place. The patterns hid the occasional touches of real life, a blade of grass or a glimpse of the sky. I looked harder. Looking for spring and soft reflections. Somewhere with no metal and glass.
Maybe somewhere in the interspaces of the world I can hide. Maybe somewhere I might find a hint of spring. And a river, one I could follow.
But there was nowhere to run. They would find me. He would find me.
So I kept walking, trying to avoid the cracks.
As the meeting ended, Nat came over and said, "You were late. Some of the others thought you might have cashed us in."
I shook my head, "You are not finished yet. There are still options. I will keep looking to help you."
Nat said, "You dont get off that easily. This is your problem as much as it is mine." Nat held my arm, I could feel his fingers gripping hard. "I am throwing a party at the Avenue tonight. Come over and chill, nice food and some cool people. Just like old times."
I said, “I am tired.”
Nat said, “Take a couple of days off. We will talk about it tonight. We could fly to the Whitsundays.”
I walked slowly back to the stairs towards my apartment.
I was tired, and I wanted to wash the bruises away, but I wanted to forget even more. So when I came to my building, I went down. Down, into the basement bar dressed in darkness, low lights and harsh music.
I drank salted vodka straight until everything started to make sense. I sat listening to the music.
You said, "Hey there."
Even in my heightened state of awareness, I did not need to look. I said, "Go away. We do not talk anymore.”
Then I looked without meaning to. Your face swam before me. A good friend, before...
You said, "You have dropped your wallet," and pointed to the ground.
I said, "Yes. I put it there. Deliberate. Go away."
Your hands went up into the air and with a swish of silk you backed away to the jukebox.
I watched you looking through the selections, thinking about the past.
I said, "Dont touch!"
You turned around, hand on hips and looked at me, "Nothing is playing. I just want to drink a beer and listen to some music play. Come on, we are the only people here at the moment."
"I like the music playing right now," and as I reached for my wallet, I slipped off the seat. The world turned upside down. I suddenly felt sick.
I said, "Go back to whatever," I tried to wave my arm but was in an odd position between the bar and the seat. Nothing wanted to move.
"You look uncomfortable."
I said, "I am due at dinner in town real soon. Stop bugging me."
"Your call. I am going to play Avicii."
"Can you get me my drink? Glass on the bar?"
"The glass is empty. The barman is serving on the front bar."
"Damn. No, do not play that."
"Ok, this has to stop. This is my last night in town. I will get you up. Then I am going somewhere else."
"Touch me and I will scream," I said, suddenly feeling cold.
I said, "Why are you leaving?"
I said, "Ok. Come help."
You complained, "I came here to get away from them and I found you instead. You have become worse than any of them. I should have left when I saw you here."
I said, "Me as well."
Still, you came over and helped me up. And I meant to thank you, but suddenly the day became a whole lot worse and I was sick everywhere.
"Come on, let us get out of here. I will get you a taxi to take you to your party."
I said, through tears, "Not going anywhere now. Want to go. Go far away from here."
"Ok. I will help you up the stairs to your apartment."
You left me at my door without saying a word. I locked the door behind me. I struggled out of my cloths and found the way into the shower. The world was starting to become confused all over again. I put on a warm woollen bathrobe and went to the refrigerator looking for a bottle of milk.
There was a knock at the door.
I went and looked through the view hole. You were there. I said, "Leave me alone."
"You left your wallet at the bar."
I opened the door just wide enough to let the wallet through, and then I shut it tight. Through the view hole, I watched you walk back to the next apartment.
I woke late, with a headache.
I left my apartment just as you came out, settling a backpack on your shoulders.
I blushed. You said, "You look a bit better. All good, I am leaving, you will not see me again. I have not told anyone about what happened."
I said, "Where are you going?"
You said, "I quit my job yesterday. I am heading off to the country."
"Just like that?" I felt terrible about my behaviour, and we have been good friends. I said, "I am really sorry about last night. Buy you a coffee for old time's sake?"
So we ended up sitting in the back of the cafe a couple of doors down drinking skinny cappuccinos and eating pain au chocolate. We avoided the past, talking about work. You told me why you were leaving, and I told you I was thinking of doing the same. You said, “I am not going to work for them anymore. You sold us out. We were going to make a difference - instead the only people who are going to benefit are already stinking rich.”
I said, “No one planned it that way - things change. We did not change. And, anyway, with bigger profits we will be able to help more.”
You disagree, “Someone should release the research. Give it to those who really need it.”
“That would be a disaster." I shake my head, suddenly worried. You were quite capable of doing something mad like that, "It would be like tipping crystal meth into the water supply.”
"Still defending your friends,” you say.
A shaft of sunlight fell from the sky hitting dust rising just above the ground. In the distance, a couple of bars of music drifted in.
I said, "They are not my friends. It is madness to sit with them but they would search me out if I did not attend."
You told me that some of them were my friends.
"How much ever you want them to be gone,
You have made them your friends lifelong."
I looked at you. Your tone was wrong and as I watched, I heard myself saying, "They are businessmen. Yes, they took our work and misrepresented it. Now it is all falling apart. Maybe somewhere in the interspaces of the world I can find a hint of spring, and a river, I could follow."
"You seek a hint of spring and a river to follow,
Forgetting to sow hope and not letting your faith grow shallow."
I said, "Why are you doing that? Why are you speaking like that? "
You ignore me:
"I don't think you looked hard and long,
The path would have been there, but overgrown,
With the fears and anxieties of your life,
You missed something that was in front of your eyes."
The sun started to dissolve the pavement where it fell.
An alarm was going. I shook my head as the cafe disappeared. I was still in bed.
I was late, and my head was ringing in the silence.
I left my apartment just as you came out, settling a backpack on your shoulders.
"Hello again," you said, eyes shining bright.
I said, "What are you doing!"
He said, "I told you. I am going." We paused, as a cleaner opened a door further down the corridor, softly humming a song.
I said, “Where.”
You say, “With you. I am different from others. I listen. I float on your river, swim in your waters, taste the drops you offer and dive deep into the dark cold of your depths."
I said, "Stop it!"
He continued, "Perhaps you do not hear me, and maybe sometimes I do not hear you, but that is only because I am lying here, concentrating on the beat of your heart."
I shout and hit out at you becoming tangled in sweat and bedsheets, as I slowly wake from the dream.
I look at the clock, I have only been asleep for a couple of minutes. I drift back to sleep wondering whether to warm some more milk.
This time, I awake on a beach. It is dark night, the waves lapping the shore and the stars shining above. You are sitting next to me, a fire burning, embers flying into the sky. Far, in the distance, the beat of a music from a larger fire.
I say to you,
"All that you have said is fair, but alas none of these can I share.
I hear you all the time, night and day, like a soul in the body, you stay.
But my heart has a rhythm of its own, has taken a path unknown.
The fear and anxieties that I laid at your door, are more so mine, now, than before."
You say, "Imagine a dance. There is no harm in setting aside preconceptions and dancing for a little while. I could be the younger brother of a distant friend who explores far distant places, deep into the interspaces and cares neither for ties nor suitcases. Come dance with me as the sparks fly into the sky."
I say sharply, "I am bound to Nat. We have talked about this."
"So you told me a while back when we agreed never to speak again. But you fought with Nat and are living apart,” you look at me. “Still, to dance is not to deceive, it is part of the process of being within the world."
I say, "What do you mean, dance?"
You ignore my question and continue, "You have been dancing. Returning to your table, you sit with the uncertain knowledge that you have already taken a step along a different path. We can conceive of a perfect partner - lover, life partner, homemaker, father, innocent and wanton, likewise rigid and flexible. But, neither we nor our dreams are perfect. And the list of those things desirable contain opposites. We wish for innocence but desire the touch of the flame. We wish for faithfulness but find a litany of lies and deceits."
The stars are bright. We watch a falling star. You whisper, "The world does not care about our dreams. Only we dream."
I think of my flawed relationship with Nat. The anger and bitterness of betrayal. How I walked out of our city home on the Avenue swearing I would not come back.
I say to you, "We have had this discussion already. I only came here because I was horrible to you last night."
You say, "So do we presume lies and deceits and shut our eyes in the hope of stumbling on innocence? Shutting eyes and trusting in the gods has never worked real well. Truth is, we live a long time. A long time. Seconds, minutes and hours and days into which every conceivable temptation and doubt may be poured. So is the answer some painstaking 24 hour a day surveillance with eyes open? But keeping eyes open has never stopped the mischief of gods nor men."
I say, "I cannot dance."
"For a chemist, you dance with dangerous people. Their plans are failing around you,” you look at the ocean, a cool breeze lifting specs of seafoam to where we are sitting. “Again you remember the dance, and again. Was it deliberate error or simple mistake to smile? Is this what everybody wants? Is it what the gods intend? Or is it just a dream."
A drum is beating in the background, the sea foam is falling onto the fire, putting out the stars.
I hear a quiet knocking on the door.
I am wide awake. I get up and look through the view hole. It was you again. I said, "I am here."
"I heard screaming." You ask, "Are you ok?"
I thought hard.
"No. I am in big trouble,” and I opened the door.
“Please take me with you?”
He looked around the apartment. Crowded with unopened boxes, some askew with a sideboard strewn with laundry. He shook his head, “You hate the country. Remember. I took you there once. The country has lizards and midges and...”
“I have been to lots of places since then.”
“You have been to lots of resorts. Look, the places I am going... Can you ride a horse?”
“Yes,” she lied. She told herself, “I watched them learning on reality TV. It is not that hard.”
“Still sorting stuff out,” she started to apologize for the mess but then brought him into a small sitting room with a view of the black windows of the apartment block over the road. “Where are you going anyway?”
“Just going walkabout. Places I like. Nothing definite.”
“Was just going to go with the flow.”
“That is not much of a plan. Have you booked places? Motels and restaurants...”
“Motels? I can’t afford motels.”
“So where were you going to stay?”
“I have a tent. A one person tent,” he suddenly smiled. “I can go where I want. So, why do you suddenly want to get away?”
She turned away from him and looked outside, “I want to clear my head.”
“Why not a resort,” he was softer now, wondering at the new bruises on her arm.
“Because he can find me,” she said to herself and then shrugged, “Just want to do something different.”
He thought, “You are not trying to get back together with me, because that is not on.”
“No, don’t even go there,” she saw him looking at her, “I need your help.”
“I do not understand why. Palladium is just about to be released. You are just about to become a multi-millionaire with the rest of your executive friends.”
She shrugged, “It is not that easy. I just want to get away from everything and get clear space.”
“Because I trust you.”
“I am not sure I even like you anymore.”
“Well, I have no one else. You have no choice. So, where first.”
“I have not agreed.”
“Stop arguing. You never win. Beside, you offered help me. It could be fun. And I have something you want.”
“No, you do not have anything I could want.”
“You told me you were not going to work for them anymore because they sold you out. We were going to make a difference - you said that instead the only people who are going to benefit are already stinking rich.”
He half rose, and said quickly, “I did not tell you that.”
“You said that someone should release the research and give it to those who really need it.”
“Hang on. Where are you getting this from? I did not...”
“I know how you think. Maybe I agree with you, I do not know. Persuade me.”
“Look, I am leaving because, I just cannot work with them anymore,” he finished lamely.
“Me as well. Where are we going first?”
“I was catching the train to the Blue Mountains. Was going to camp down in the Megalong Valley and do some walking.”
“A train? In a tent? Look, I could drive us up to the mountains and we could stay somewhere nice - start off easy before,” she involuntarily shivered, thinking of the midges, “a thank you for taking me.”
“No, I want to take the train.”
She thought about it quickly. A vision of the plush green intercity leather seats of the intercity from Central Station rolled across her mind. Maybe it might not be as bad as it sounded. She relented, “Ok, but let me get the first night. Somewhere special. A place even you would like,” there was a hint of desperation in her voice.
“Have you got a bike?”
“No, but I remember how to ride,” she thought, “I think.”
“How fit are you?”
“I do yoga and I have a gym membership.”
He raised his eyebrow, “How long are you planning to tag along for?”
“I can get a couple of days off formally, but they owe me much longer.”
“How much longer?”
“I see.” he paused. “I thought you had thrown your lot in with the executive.”
“I don’t want to fight with anyone. I am on no one’s side.”
“Will they be looking for you? They can’t do it without you.”
“No one is indispensable. I need a break. If I do not get one right now...”
He got up and gave her a hug, “Right. First night at your expense, then you have to keep up. Then two nights in the valley, and I will go easy. After that, if you fall behind, you are on your own.”
“You would not leave me in the bush somewhere, alone?”
“I don’t think you know what you are getting yourself in for. After the first couple of nights you will have a better idea what is going to happen. Be ready at 7:00am. And, no suitcases. If we are staying up in the mountains, we can get some camping stuff along the way.”
He paused, waiting for the argument and not hearing a protest pushed it a little further, “No computer stuff. No phones, iPads or computers.”
“Wait, I can’t do that. All of my stuff is on my Phone. My camera, bank accounts... “
“One phone - nothing else.”
“Ok see you in the morning.”
“Can you stay?”
“No. I like my bed. Besides, Cassie will be waiting for me.”
He smiled, “How did you know?”
“You tried that on me once before, remember.”
He shrugged, “See you at 7:00. One small bag.”
At 7:00am she opened her door to find Nat’s driver, instead.
“Oh, hi Jason,” she said, “Nat sent you?”
“Yes Jemma,” the large Samoan shifted a little uneasily.
“Ok, I will be about 5 minutes. You are parked downstairs. Could you get Nat and me a coffee from the cafe downstairs? Please?”
She watched him turn down into the stairwell before reaching inside and taking a large carry bag. She headed to the next door apartment.
She knocked, but there was no response.
He came up behind her, as she was starting to feel queasy. He tapped her on the shoulder, and she jumped. He said, “Ok, I was just dropping my cat off with a friend.”
He settled his backpack on his shoulders, “Let’s go.”
She said, “Change of plan. We can’t get downstairs.”
He shook his head and bit his lip, “I should have known better. Ok. Come with me.”
He took her down the stairs, and then further down to the basement bar smelling of last night’s beer. He followed a dank corridor to a second set of stairs leading up. Jemma whispered, “Where does this go?”
He said, “Cleaner’s entrance. I use it as a short cut to the train station.”
He paused, “Can they track you?”
“No,” she said.
“Show me your phone - before we get cell reception again.”
She dug into her coat and gave him her phone. He looked at it and swore softly. A couple of key presses later, and he handed it back to her, “Your phone was broadcasting your location. I have disabled it.”
They come out into a grubby laneway, a raw smell of garbage and delivery truck diesel in the air. A couple of turns later and they were on George Street. He heading north, joining a group of the morning crowd heading to work.
“I thought we were going by train,” she said wondering whether she could lighten her bag a little as they moved towards the docks, “Not complaining.”
“Too many cameras on the city circle line. Your friends have influence. I take it you do not want them showing up tonight?”
“Definitely not. I have already messaged my team that I will be away until next week. I would kill for a coffee...”
He shot her a smile, “Ok.” He parked her at a bar just across from the Circular Quay, out of sight. “I will be back in a moment, just getting us some tickets. If you have something, wrap it around you hair...”
She ordered a take away cappuccino and reconstituted orange juice, wrapping a scarf around her hair. She resisted the urge to check her phone.
He ran back, “Quick, or we will miss it.”
She gave him the orange juice and he had a taste before throwing it into a bin while her attention was elsewhere. They crossed under the expressway and ran onto the jetty, just making the ferry to Parramatta. They found seats at the front of the river boat. It pulled away from the wharf, past the Opera House and then under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Away from the dock area, the river and bays became quieter, and the ferry picked up speed splashing fine spray as it hit choppy water.
Her attention was focused on the small boats in the small bays as they passed them. They looked lonely, sails furled and bobbing on water empty but for the occasional speed boat heading into the city. He pointed to the coffee cooling in her hand and she drank it in one draught.
She said, “You said we were catching a train. I have never been this way before.”
He said, “Everyone knows the ferry goes to Parramatta, But then they forget it. The trains are faster. But this is relaxing. It is the best way I know of bringing you to a full stop. For a moment only the river and the sky. Still, this only gets us halfway to the mountains. But I want to stop at Parramatta and see a friend. Just for a moment, ok?”
The ferry travelled from jetty to jetty, the crew effortlessly meeting each landing place. The people around them, school children, nurses, teachers, police officers changing as they boarded and then disembarked. Slowly the river tightened and the city signs became less obvious behind the forests along the water’s edge.
Finally they arrived at the last jetty on the ferry run. This place was far less glamorous than the city, and a bit dirtier. They climbed across to the jetty. He relented and carried her bag across the road and into the outdoor city plaza. Parramatta seemed half a world away from Sydney, shop signs written in a hundred different languages. A couple of blocks later, just as her legs were starting to ache, he pulled up at a small Greek restaurant knocking on a nearby residential door leading to an upstairs apartment.
Everything was quiet for a moment and then the door burst open and a large disheveled man with black curls rolled out. He looked at his guests and let out a roar of delight, “Aither! I dreamt you were coming!” He turned up the stairs and called, “Sophia, its Aither!” as he spotted Jemma he dropped Tom, “And he has brought his girlfriend!” The bear turned to Jemma and for a moment she braced against being crushed, “Pleasure to meet you?” “Jemma,” Tom supplied. “Jemma,” she felt Joe’s smile as he took her case and hunted them up stairs into an enclosed courtyard.
Sophia told her quietly, as they sat to a mid-morning snack of cheese and spinach pies tyropita and spanakopita, “These two grew up together here, when Parramatta was a different place.” Then she smiled, “They are like brothers, and we have been worried about him. He works hard and lets it upset him - we have not seen him for months. You are both a sight for sore eyes. How long have you known Aither?”
“Why do you call him Aither?” Jemma asks.
“Joe and Aither used to go climbing but I forbid Joe that pleasure these days. And you should as well. Aither used to climb like the wind but, well we all get a little older,” she smiled and Jemma felt herself lifting slightly.
“I don’t think he would listen to me,” Jemma grumbled, “I have known him for ages, dated him about a year ago, but it did not go anywhere. He is escaping work. So I have twisted his arm to come along. I am afraid I will not keep up.”
Sophia laughs, “Don’t worry. He has a high estimation of himself. He has let himself go, and is probably no fitter than you. Especially, you must forbid him tents. He forgets that they make him sore and tired.”
“He is determined to sleep in a tent.”
Sophia shakes her head, “He has lived in the city for too long. Look at them. They get together and become boys again. Maybe give him a taste of the tent, but then tempt him to something soft, warm and safe.”
Joe interrupts, “Sophia, when was the last time we had a proper holiday?”
“A month ago, we spent a week at our apartment in Ulladulla.”
“No, no, no, A proper holiday! With feasts and drinking! And dancing! With Aither!”
Sophia shook her head but smiled, “Soon.”
They walked back through the city area to the train station, the winter sun starting to beat down on them. He said, “I am sorry, they are a bit...”
“I loved meeting them. I found out more about you in twenty minutes than I did when we were dating.”
Her possessions had been reorganized into a spare backpack, and some of the shoes left behind. Despite a black stare from Sophia, Tom’s backpack now had a couple of climbing ropes and tack dangling from it, together with an old narrow tube. Sophia had given her a knowing look, “Watch him.”
“I could not come past here and not drop in.”
“What are the ropes for, and the tube?”
“Just some of my stuff Joe was minding.”
They entered the train station and bought tickets on the intercity through to the mountain town of Wentworth. When they were on the train she used his phone to make a reservation at a little studio on the escarpment. She smiled to herself.
For thirty minutes they travelled in silence, feeling the gentle beat of the train.
Travelling west over the great coastal plain on which Sydney had grown haphazardly, until they reached the outer city of Penrith and crossed the great Hawkesbury River.
There the plains meet the Great Dividing Range, a labyrinth of escarpments and mountains called the Blue Mountains that had confounded early settlers, for good reason. The train slowed and strained as it hit the high grades and tunnels of the sudden rise.
They sat together, her hand in his.
Den Fenella is a place of magic. The studio that bears its name sits on the edge of a great escarpment that plunges far into the depths below. The cicadas and smell of bush fires of summer are a memory, now just the occasional snow flake melts in his hair.
He looked at the old studio door, snowflakes settling on the iron work. “You will not find spring here.”
“This place has secrets,” she smiles. “Den Fenella is not just a pretty name.”
“I lived nearby, at Mount Victoria, once. I know some of them.”
“Perhaps we can trade,” as she opens the old door and comes into the darkened room, savouring the smell of warmth, old wood and the bed.
He closes the door and bumps into her in the dark, “sorry...”
“Shhh,” she whispers, “Listen!”
He stops and concentrates. Outside the sound of a gentle breeze and the silence of snow falling. To his left he can just make out a deep spa and the sound of a slow drip. Just ahead, a small servery and the aroma of cheeses and crisp bread and freshly squeezed orange juice. Then, on the very edge of his hearing, he heard the room sigh. He smiled, the room was breathing.
He hears the floorboards creaking in front of him. He watches as the moon briefly lights the room. She walks past an old brass bed to doors opening onto a deck. There is a sudden rush of cold air. The curtains fill and billow into the room. Den Fenella takes a deep breath of mountain air. She steps outside onto the deck.
He follows quickly, shutting the doors to keep in some of the warmth. They stand on the deck looking out across the escarpment feeling the bitter fresh cold. Along the escarpment it drops 1000 feet in a couple of footsteps. Tonight, low cloud danced fitfully, illuminated by a moon that appears and then disappears. For a moment they stood together.
He could feel her becoming cold and wet, and coaxed her back inside.
“You should not get wet,” he said. ” First rule of camping.”
She switched on the lights and said, “I will remember that in a couple of days.”
“I could not book for a single day, we live here for a couple...,” and as he started to protest, “We are both out of condition, lets ease into this.”
He looked around the room, feeling its warmth and slowly took off his backpack, “You planned this all along.” But then he looked around and, distracted, walked to the paintings on the wall. “These are very old - Norman Lindsay. He lived near here.”
“First rule of living with me in this den,” she started. “We have had our problems, but I trust you. I need you. I would like us to live for a little while in warmth and innocence.”
“Look, I have agreed to let you tag along...” thinking that this was not really what he had planned at all, “and I am happy to go with the flow, but I am not ready to fall into some short term sexual relationship. Apart from that, you know I do not have to be anywhere tomorrow.”
“Good,” she stripped out of her wet clothes and came up to him. “Run us a spa?”
The bed was comfortable, gently pushing them together.
He said, “Where did this place come from.”
“The escarpment is packed with old homes. It is not just artists like Lindsay who ended up here. But, yes, this place is special.”
“You said you had secrets we could swap.”
She pointed to a coloured engraving on the wall near them, the room glowing in candlelight and his warmth, “You said I would not find spring here. But there it is.”
The painting shows nymphs in flight, smiling as they are pursued, “He might be long gone, but Norman Lindsay called that one ‘Spring’. He found spring and inspiration here on the top of the mountains. Magic, the innocence and potential of love.”
“Is this why you brought us to this den?”
“I come here when I feel lonely, it clears my head. It feels old and magical. It changes with the seasons.”
“Is there another reason?”
“I heard once that Den Fenella, the area below us, was named after a powerful Scottish witch, the lady Fenella. Some of the early settlers came from the cold places in North Britain. The name was given by a lonely Scot who felt her magic here.”
He said, “Back in Mount Victoria I had imagined this a place of the rich and powerful, of church groups and golfers.”
“Plenty of those, a lot who never leave their halls or the resorts.” She snuggled into him, her eyes feeling heavy, “I enjoy the resorts, but I always take time to get away from them. Tell me a story?”
“I liked the story of your witch,” he smiled. “Do you know the full story?”
She opened her eyes, and shook her head, “No, I have asked but even old timers just shake their heads. Has it got dragons and spells in it?”
He held her and said, “Just one. But you look like you are about to go to sleep. Are you sure you will stay awake? I will tickle you if you shut your eyes.”
She places her head on his shoulder and says, “I promise.”
Aither’s first story:
Darkness descended on Rome. A few fought to rekindle the light. Pope Celestine I sent missions to far places of the world. Beyond the known world, to places never part of the Roman Empire. Places so far away that some claimed they were imaginary.
Celestine was told about the faraway lands of Northern Britain and Ireland by a young convert, Palladius.
She stirred, “Palladius? But...”
He said, “The name of the drug you are developing is deep rooted in the far past. From its first appearance in Troy, the name resonates through history.
A military family from Rome, the Palladii, had early adopted the name. As the Roman Empire collapsed, one of their family was the praetorian prefect of the Gallic provinces loyal to the last, even admired by the bards of the Celtic horde who stood in opposition to him. Like Celestine he had tried to stop the darkness, the Celts admiring his adherence to the law, and to equality.
When he died, his son fled to the safety of Rome. Celestine appointed him first Bishop of the Irish and he set off through the ruins of the empire to that far away land. Too soon for conversion, the rough men of the Irish shores ejected him and Palladius withdrew to the north east of North Britain. There he established a new community. It had grown into a strong community by the time of his death, with stone churches, relics and books.
She asked, sleepily, “And the dragon?”
The dragon came generations later with invaders from the north. But around the area settled by Palladius, faith was strong and the dragon was set in stone rather than fire.
So it was until the dying days of the first millennium, when King Kenneth the Third rode to the church established by St Palladius.
He poked her, experimentally. She said, “Not fair. I only shut my eyes for a moment, to imagine your dragon. What sort is it?”
He said, “Sinuous and long. The dragon’s head reminds me of the sea lizards of the island shores nearby, but the length is another matter. It roils and twists like a monster of the deep, different from southern dragons.”
King Kenneth the Third was a devout man, but he had committed many wrongs in maintaining power. His visit was both to seek forgiveness and repair his reputation.
As he turned home, near to the church, he was invited by the Lady Fenella into her castle of Fothircarne, near Fordun. Kenneth had killed her son, but Fenella promised the king her loyalty and invited him to view a wonder she had constructed in his honour.
Kenneth entered her keep to discover a brass statue. It had been constructed in his likeness, holding out a golden apple into which was set six different kinds of precious stones. He was awed by the statue, which was beyond the art of the province and the jewels represented wealth beyond that held by his kingdom.
He asked her by what art had such a statue been prepared and such wealth been collected. But he did not wait for her answer. Instead he reached for the apple. The touch activated an ancient machine,that sent darts to pierce his body. He fell to the ground mortally injured.
The Lady Fenella answered his questions as he lay dying on the ground. When the dragon first came to the northern shore, a horde of St Palladius’s treasure was gathered. She had gained both learning and treasure from dragon whispers.
In time, her story disappeared. Still, the folk still remember her in burn and hearth, imagining her skill arising from witchcraft rather than science. The story of the statue was regarded as improbable until a clergyman, Dr Leslie, discovered engravings on an old red sandstone paving stone. When the stone was cleaned, it was revealed to be a hunting scene with a Celtic cross and strange circular markings. The antiquarian John Stuart of Inchbreck who first described and studied the stone, attaching it to the story of Kenneth and Fenella. Today the restored stone can be found at the Fordoun parish church, Scotland.
Atop the restored stone remains the figure of a dragon.
He listens to her sigh. He waited until he heard her breathing softly. Reaching over to cover her shoulder against the cold, he settles down to sleep.
Silence returns to the room, and on the very edge of his hearing, he heard the room breathing. The windows rattled and then the sound of lightning in the distance, across the escarpment on the wild dog ranges.
Besides him Jemma dreams. It is a dream she has had many times before. She is in a temple, an ancient sacred place. In front of her, the Palladium, the Luck of Troy. It is unassuming, carved wood in the form of Pallas Athena. An artefact given the city by the Gods themselves with the promise that Troy would not fall, so long as it was in its walls. But then she sees the Palladium carried away, and her with it.
As she cries in the night, he holds her tight.
Shadows on Lichen
She woke in a bed of dry rushes. Moon light was shining through open windows of the stone building, through growing mist, onto the body of the man who lay in the centre of the room. She looked at his body, his life blood pooling around him, a jewel encrusted golden apple in his hand, a crown on his head. Outside the snicker of horses and the murmur of his guard from the bottom of the hill.
She picks up the apple and shakes the crown off his head, before running to the opening. Avoiding the light, she leaves the buildings and, marking the direction of the sea, runs towards it through light trees and heather.
Ahead, the dark of a treacherous abyss. As she ran along the steam, the sound of dogs and pursuit by the king’s men suddenly seemed loud behind her.
Suddenly, ahead of her, the stream stopped, in mid-air. She paused at the top of the waterfall. Far below came the sound of the water crashing onto the rocks below in the deep abyss.
She screamed, but it was a silent scream.
Aither was holding Jemma. He held her while she calmed and he said quietly, “You dream a lot more than I remember.”
“I was... You... I am sorry,” she collapsed back onto the pillow wondering why she was using Joe’s name for him. “I fell asleep while you were telling me a story last night. I dreamed about it.”
“The chasm below us is far greater than Fenella’s Den. Have you wandered over the edge?”
“I have had breakfast at the Hut down the road, many times.” she said, a little defensively. “There are some great views,” but then in the face of his silence confessed, “Aither, I am not very good with heights.”
He shot her a sudden glance, one eyebrow slightly raised. Then he smiled, “An old name to for a new start, eh?”
She smiled and gave him a hug, “The name suits you, telling me fairy tales and giving me nightmares...”
There was a quiet knock on the door.
“I ordered us some breakfast, before you started to thrash about in your dream,” he said, jumping up and, opening the door, taking the buffet. “Come on sleepy head, get rugged up. Let’s sit out on the balcony, and look at the view.”
She started to protest, but was hooked by the scent of coffee and toast. She arose, put on a warm bath robe and joined him on the balcony. The sun streamed down on her face, and she squinted, shivering in the cold air. She apologised and went back into the room, dragging part of the bed out to wrap around her legs.
The deck overlooked the chasm of the Den Fenella. To the right, hidden by gums and banksia trees, the conservation hut and the walking trails down to rock ledges and into the depths. A magpie was high in one of the trees watching her. To the left, in the far distance, the Blue Labyrinth and the headwaters of Lake Burragorang. She watched as a flock of white cockatoos flew down deep into the rising mist. Then she saw the sun hitting the mountains rising in the centre distance. Rising in the distance out of the mists swirling in the chasm, the sun picked out a line of cliffs along the top of the Wild Dog Mountains.
She shivered again, thinking about insects and midges. “Where are you taking me, in a couple of days, anyway?”
“Tomorrow,” he laughed pointing to the right. “This is all very nice and I could get used to a place like this. Tomorrow we will take the trail at Blackheath down to the bottom and Megalong Valley. Then we will spend three days lost from the world walking along the old cart track to the Jenolan Caves, if you are still up for it.”
“Tomorrow is very close. Dont we have to get some more things for the walk? We could spend a couple more days planning... Maybe you could show me the edge. It was pretty cold out there last night,” she remembered the snow in his hair and looked into his eyes. “We could snuggle into this nice warm room and you could tell me more stories.”
He started to laugh at her.
She complained, “Still cold here now...” and shivered in the warmth of the nest she had made. But the sun was nice and she drank her coffee slowly watching the mist rising off the Lake. She almost upset the table as a pair of crimson rosellas landed on the deck railing. He broke some crumbs onto the rail and they came up to chatter and feed. He smiled at her and served out steaming eggs, mushrooms and cooked tomato. She ate slowly, watching the birds talking to Aither. After the eggs, he gave her a bowl of fruit, “Eat up. You are going to need every ounce of energy.”
After breakfast they walked down the road to the conservation hut. For a moment, they sat at the top, looking onto the edge, adjusting to the cold winds of the valley. Then he held his hand out and she took it. They walked to the cliff edge and, leaving the sun behind, started the descent down the trails into the abyss.
She confessed that she had not gone very far along any of the tracks. He said that she would be fine, there were stone stairs. They dawdled along the gentle start to the descent, Aither telling her about the forests, pointing to trees and bushes. She heard him telling her that they had a choice of walking along the top of the cliffs, or just below the cliff edge, on a trail cut into the edge of the cliff. She smiled at him, and said she was just happy to be there. She felt the weight of the world starting to drop away from her. Then a blast of cold air brought her back to reality, and she wondered which track they were going to travel.
He took the signs to the National Pass track, and suddenly they were walking on a narrow path cut into the edge of the abyss, separated from a terrifying fall by an old metal railing. The rocks were still wet from the rain the night before and, in the shadows, ferns and ice were locked together. She found herself hugging the rock wall until they came to the first lookout and, leaving the ice bound rock walls, came out onto a rock ledge. She tried to think of these as a stable platform, rather than large rocks ready to fall, precariously perched on the edge of the cliffs. Here they sat in the sun.
For a moment, in the sun, with the morning breeze suddenly still, she remembered the last time she came here. The cicadas filed every part of the sky with a chorus of sound. With a rush the memories came back, including her first fight with Nat about bringing forward the human trials of the drug they were developing. How she came up here at the end of summer, into a world that smelt of eucalypt and bushfire. She remembered the banksias and a single massive waratah below the hut. She remember walking towards it, stopping short as the ground started to become treacherous.
“You know your way around,” she said to Aither.
“I used to do a lot of abseiling out here. There are a couple of good drops - a real rush.”
“So, why did you stop?” and then she suddenly thought about the ropes back at the studio.
“I am getting old,” he grimaced.
“Forty is not old.”
“I grew up coming up here with friends, and Joe. Climbing is about the company. You can do it yourself, but then it becomes about what you can or can’t do yourself.”
“Did you used to abseil, over the edge here?” she shivered, gently testing the rock with her toes.
He shook his head, “You need to know what you are doing to freestyle here. The edges are flaky and the drops are massive and the way out of down there,” pointing to the valley floor, “is very hard. People die here, even experienced climbers.”
She looked down into the valley below, seeing nothing but the tops of trees.
“So where do you climb?”
“There are lots of places where the cliffs are firm and safe. A lot of people are trained here. Maybe I could show you one day.”
She looked at the edge and thought, “not going to happen.”
Her toe nudged a dry leaf. She watched as the wind caught to, lifting it over the guard rail and then dropping slowly down the 1000 foot cliff. She watched and for a moment lifted her arms and backed away from the edge.
“Stop,” he said. He came and held her. “Do not shut your eyes up here. You have to look every time you take a step. Look behind you.” She let go, looking at her shadow on the lichen below.
The rock face she thought was behind her was cut by its own drop.
They turned back to safety and climbed to the conservation hut. There they had coffee then caught a taxi into the township of Katoomba. There they bought some additional gear, including a couple of wet suits.
On the way back, they detoured to Norman Lindsay’s stone cottage “Springwood”.
As she does to all visitors to Spingwood, Norman Lindsay’s wife greets them with a smile and the promise of hospitality, her stone face softening into ice crystals and lichen.
They walked into the grounds around the old house, looking at his fountains decorated with his fantastical sculptures.
“You will not find spring here,” he said looking at the figures. “Persephone and her friends have already been taken.”
They walked to the bottom of the gardens, following the path to the stairs that descend to a massive ruined stone pool, surrounded by statutes.
They sat on the edge of the pool looking down into the bush. Aither said, “I haven’t been here since the fires went through a year ago. You know they almost lost the grounds and the house?”
She said, “I am glad it did not happen. This place is so precious.”
“It would not be the first time fire has destroyed part of his art. You know that most of his early oil painting were destroyed in a train fire, set alight by a religious group in America,” he looked at her, but she was lost looking down into the gully. He tried again, “The fire came right up to here. You can still see damage to the statue right here, on the edge,” he pointed to the traces of carbon staining the stone work, and while her eyes followed his hand, she was miles off.
“You said you needed time to think. I get that.”
“I guess I will not be great company when that starts happening,” she smiled. “I was actually thinking about sharks. I do not know why we bought wet suits here. I really do not like sharks.”
“More or less than mountains?”
“I like mountains, from a distance.”
He took a breath and tried, “So why are you running?””
“Good try, but I haven’t even got to first base yet. I do not know. But, in the past two days... I have just really liked being where I was. I have not felt like that for a while.”
“Ok, I will lay off. I thought it might help if I.... You know, if I was here to listen.”
“Thank you,” she squeezed his hand, and twined her fingers into his. “I like the sound of your voice. Why are you running?”
“Mainly rumours. I didn’t like what the company was doing. With Palladium. I liked the people. Not the company. I started to hear plenty of rumours, but nothing definite.”
“Like the drug is being fast tracked into human testing.”
She laughed, “As if. What else?”
He paused, wondering if this was wise, “That the drug has a persistent side effect. They said they saw it in the rats. At first everyone was happy about a bit of weight loss - a decade of extra life and weight loss, double win. Then people started talking about finding damage to both the PTO and the reflection system in the limbic brain. You might be able to extend the life of the subject for a decade, but within a couple of months they will not be able to tell what is real and what is just a dream.”
“Why do you think they would have started testing outside the guidelines? Every regulator has been breathing down our necks like no one’s business.”
“There is always pressure. You know that. People are desperate. Pharmaceutical start-ups are the most desperate. People at the end of other options, with nowhere else to turn are desperate. And then there are the others, the rich and the collectors, who want it because it will add to their power or they are bored. There are lots of motivations.”
“Sure, but why would the company take the risk? They were on a winner...”
“I agree, it would be stupid. Someone got greedy. Now they are counting on someone solving the problem in time.”
He paused, “I do not think they will. Sometimes there just are no answers. We can stop aging now, but within a couple of weeks the patient is a mass of cancer and dead with a month. The company knows that.”
She smiled at him, “So. You are running away from rumours. Not very rational.”
He thought. Her hand was holding his tightly. “I believed that once. But then I found out...”
“If I tell you, people may get hurt.”
She said, “Look, I do not believe it is happening. Maybe if you tell me I can cure a misconception. If you do not, and you are right, many more will be hurt. Trust me.”
“I know your teams have been working on that, but I worked with people producing the serum doses. A couple of weeks ago we found out that a second company was producing batches of the untested drug, in commercial quantities.”
He felt her freeze, “How?”
“During development we vary both process and dosage rates, to reflect experimental results. Nat’s team told us to work with a manufacturing team to ensure that the process could be duplicated in bulk. It is fairly standard practice. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we modified our process - to reflect one of the test results. Nothing important, but the other group went spare. My team leader went to see them and saw their set up. They were in full manufacture mode.”
She swore. “I did not know this. I cannot believe this is happening. Do we have any evidence of extended human trials?”
He shook his head, “No. None. I did not want to stick around.”
She squeezed his hand, “I think you did the right thing. I need to think about things. I would prefer to do it in comfort. With a spa and a nice guy to tell me stories. I guess that might not be possible - you are hanging with one of your hated executives right now.”
“I don’t hate anyone - especially not you. This is more important than what I want to do. I was just running. You are the one who can figure out what should happen.”
She shook her head, “I just wanted to run as well. Like Fenella, but without killing the king. I just wanted to run to the coast and safety.”
“I almost did not show up the day before, to an executive meeting. I...”
He said, “Wait. You were going to run to the coast and safety? Why?”
She shook her head, “Not me. The story you told me. About Fenella. After she killed the king, she ran to the coast, down through the abyss, and to the coast. You know... where the ships were waiting for her... The story you told me.”
He said, “I do not know that part of the story.”
She said, “I dreamed it so clearly. It was like I was there.”
He said, “Was I in your dream?”
“You are now.”
Aither blushed, “A magic pudding - Norman Lindsay magic.” He stood up and balanced on the edge of the pool, “Beat you to the other side of the pool.”
She wrapped her hands around his legs, “You fool. You are going nowhere. You are stuck down here with me until spring.”
He relaxed and came back down to her. He said, “Lindsay did not believe in the real world. He remade the world according to his dreams.”
She looked at him with a smile, “And what is wrong with that?”
He looked at her, “It does not last.”
“I wonder what this place was really like, in its heyday,” she asked and shut her eyes. He held her against the fall, and she searched her memories for the sound of cicadas and the blast of a summer breeze. She opened her eyes and smiled, imagining a couple hurrying down to the pool to join others on the edge of the pool. She could see a picnic laid out on the stone tables, women and women in the long bathing suits of the 20’s all with short hair. She heard the laughter, and the splashing of water, which turned to shrieks of joy as the statues shook off the dust of time and joined them.
She opened her eyes, “It is still magnificent, even as it falls into ruin. Besides, spring always returns. Persephone returns. Or have you forgotten. I would not write this place off.”
He said, “This is not a garden to take a picnic in - reality is thin around this place.”
She puts her hand in his and they walk back to their taxi in the cooling evening. They walked slowly, leaving the slivers of sun, the statues and the hint of spring behind, in the grounds of the garden.
They returned to studio. He smiled and said, “I am in no rush to go. We can stay here a couple more days until you get your feet and I get the last of the rust off your back.” He ducked her swipe.
The afternoon was still, and they stepped back out onto the deck. He took out his phone and then they played different tracks watching the mountains changing colour in the distance. Quietly together. She fell asleep on the deck, in the early afternoon.
When she awoke, he was still sitting quietly listening to music, her head still in his lap. She smiled at him, “I am sorry, you did not have to...” And he smiles back.
But the world feels different. Thin.
He holds his finger to his mouth.
As night falls, she insists on taking him to dinner, at one of the more exclusive restaurants in the mountains. Close to the lake with a view to the northern escarpments, he whispers to her his unfamiliarity with the silverware placed around him.
She smiles at his and says, “When you are with me, you can use whatever you want.”
He bends to her and kisses her lips.
She blushes and shakes her head. She wonders, for a moment, whether she is awake or dreaming. She excuses herself and walks to the bathroom, running cold water through her hands, and then splashing her face.
In the mirror in front of her she sees an older woman approach, with a smile of recognition, “I thought it was you, Dr Bilson, or may I call you Jemma.”
“I am sorry, I do not know...”
“It is alright dear, I know you are very busy. I was talking to Nathaniel today, he said you might be taking a couple of days off from your work. My sons and I, we are also recipients of your wonderful gift.”
Jemma frowns. She shakes her head, “But why are you not at the clinic?”
The older woman laughs, “My family are old friends of Nathaniel. We helped clear some of the obstacles to your research. No need for clinics when it comes to us... But you are here to relax.”
“Yes, I have not had any time off for...”
The older woman was smiling and shaking her head, “Of course you need a little time to relax. We all need a little time. And this place is a wonderful place to relax. I hope you are having the salmon, my sons love the salmon. Are you staying nearby? Please let me drive you home, I am sitting just a couple of tables from you, with my sons.”
“Just let me know when you are ready.”
Jemma awoke in a darkened washroom, standing next to a wash basin, the water running cold on her arm. She thought to herself, “This is getting worse.”
She walked back into the restaurant and found Aither. He looked at her and his eyes narrowed, “What is wrong?”
She whispered, “Coming here might have been a mistake. Someone might have seen us, maybe, I don’t know.”
He said, “Do not look. Keep your eyes on me. I will describe the people at all of the tables I can see, tell me who it might be.”
She settled on an elderly lady, severe and well dressed, accompanied by two younger men in immaculate suits, both bald.
He said quietly, “Politicians and criminals, you move in bad circles.”
He called a taxi and when it arrived settled their dinner bill and left. He kept a careful watch, but did not see anyone following as they arrived back at the studio and went to their room.
He said, “We are not going to take any chances. Get into your wet suit, and get your stuff together, fast.”
Within a minute they had changed and collected their gear and were out the back deck and off down the path to the conservation hut. Half way to the hut they heard the sound of breaking glass back at the studio.
They retraced the steps they took earlier in the day, walking carefully by the light of a small torch. This time he takes a sharp turn to the right at the bottom of the first descent. She feels the cold breeze of the cliff face playing with her face.
A little further along he takes her off the path into the bush. He motions for her to be quiet, before she has a chance to protest. They are still for a moment. Then the sounds of pursuit from higher up the track becomes clear. He whispers to her, “We are going to leave the track here – we are close to the start of one of the abseiling courses. I will take you down the first cliff face. It is only 5 meters but they will not be able to follow us.”
“But there are cliffs everywhere.”
“These people are not your friends.”
He lets their packs down and then feeds rope into a chain by the side of the path. He takes her into his arms and he springs backwards into the dark, coming back to touch the rock surface with his legs twice, before they touch ground.
“This place is not safe for the two of us. I will take you just a little further to where you can sit quietly. I will come back for the rope.”
For the second time, he lifts her and, balancing carefully, walks 20 steps along a narrow ledge and out onto a more substantial slope.
Aither puts his fingers to his mouth. “Stay here”, he whispers urgently, “the ground slopes to a rock ledge below us, but all around us are drops. I am going back to get the rope.”
He leaves her in the dark and she remembers the chasms of the morning. The sharp sting of hail starts to fall around her, and she sees a powerful beam of light cutting through the dark. The hail passes and the moon light suddenly floods the escarpment. She sees Aither back at the rock wall trying to free his rope. Then the beam of light finds her.
There is a shout from above, “Found her!”. There is a short delay and then a second voice, “Stay where you are or I will shoot.” The light has shown her a couple of options and putting fear to one side she ducks under a nearby rock as the moon is cut by the clouds. She hears the crack of a shot, echoing through the dark. “Here, she used this rope to get down, help me to...”
From above a surprise cry from the pursuers and spinning lights in the air. Just below her, she hears a crunch and then silence. She feels the dry rushes around her. Then suddenly, moon light lights up the scene around her. Below her, the light shines through the trees onto a small rock clearing covered by a thin layer of hail. The clearing is spilt by a fast stream, mist rising from the ground and small trees around. She looks onto the body of the man who lies on the rocks below her, his life blood pooling around him, a smashed phone in front of him, a torch mounted on his bald head.
She picks her way down the steep slope carefully reaches him and takes the torch and a smashed iPhone on the ground next to him, checking quickly that both are disabled.
Aither scrambles down to her. Shock is written all over his face. In the moonlight he looks at the body, “He tried to shoot you. We have to go.”
He holds his hand to her, “We have to go.”
“Wait. Give me a moment, my body feels frozen,” she whispers back, “Where is the other one?”
Aither paused, “Both fell. We cannot go up. We must go down.”
She remembered the morning’s walk, “Can we get back to the path?”
He said, “No, they will be all over it shortly. I know another path.”
“No. No, you are not doing that to me again. Jumping off a cliff in the dark. No more ropes, my hands will not move. We should search him, get the gun, get the police.”
Aither shook his head, “I dont think you understand. These people own the police up here...”
Still shaking his head, Aither retrieved the gun and a wallet. “Damn. Ok, there is just one more cliff, then they will not be able to follow us until morning and we will be gone.”
“I still can’t move.”
“I can do this for you. Just trust me. I will rope you to me, but I want you to hold onto me with everything you have got.”
He picks her up, and ties the ropes tightly. “This is a recovery mode, quite safe,” he lied.
“Where are we going?” she asked, her teeth chattering in the cold
“Just step where I step. And when I tell you to scream, scream as loud as you can.”
They step into the water of the torrent, walking together towards the sound of thunder. She slips, but he holds her tight, and then bends, feeding his rope through a chain. As before he lets the packs down first. She loses feeling in her feet as a new beam of light appears above them and starts to sweep the area.
He says, bracing himself, as the cold and ice sweeps through her body, “Ok, we are at the top of the falls. Get ready.”
He lets the rope out as they lean out over the falls and the sound of thunder gradually increases, “Now, scream!”
For a moment his instruction made no sense, and then she felt them plummeting down the rock face, inside a raging torrent of ice and water. Then she screamed.
She lost her voice when he pushed them out of the torrent and then abseiled down the last 30 meters to the freezing pool below. There, promising they will be able to change out of wetsuits into dry cloths shortly, he cracked open a number of heating packs. They then traversed a rock face to a small cave to try to recover warmth and sanity.
She looked at him. “I never dreamed I would meet somebody like you.”
Warning: Abseiling down Empress Canyon is best done in mid-summer when you can see what you are doing and impress any nearby tourists, who will often then walk admiringly with you to the top of the cliff face and shout you to fruit juice and alcohol. The abseiling course is dangerous and should only be attempted with an experienced guide. No one in their right mind would try to do it at night, even a moonlit night, in the middle of winter.
Gurangatch and Mirragan
Outside, the clouds settled into the abyss. The wail of wind competed with the rattle of rain and hail.
Within the ironstone cave, the fire burned warm, casting deep red shadows on the wall and low rocky ceiling. Slowly, they rubbed life back into frozen arms and legs. While it was cold outside, the cave had caught the warmth of the afternoon sun, and the lichen covered rock-shelf was warmer than the air outside.
At first they could not talk. He helped her out of her wetsuit and into the dry sleeping bag. As he stripped his wetsuit off, Jemma saw cuts and bruises down the left side of his chest. He said, his teeth chattering and shock setting in, “Outcrop at the falls. I hit it.”
He winced when she sprayed antiseptic on the wounds. She tested each rib until he assured her nothing was broken. He climbed into the sleeping bag carefully and they tried to make themselves warm against the uneven stones.
He said, “Hard work.”
She felt his upset and felt her own anger, “Don’t!”
He said, “Just shock. Hold me.”
She looked unconvinced, “How often do you do that? Honestly?”
He said, “Never.”
They watched as a flurry of snowflakes were briefly caught in the updraft of the fire. She started to warm, her anger subsiding, “Ok. You probably saved me from something terrible.”
“That did not go as well,” he confessed.
She shook her head, “Not your fault. I knew the company would try to get me back but...”
He said, “That was not the company. The people up there were something else.”
She continued, “I cant see anything back there for me... but we cannot run.”
He said, “That was not about us.”
She felt the rock beneath, and thought about the dead man they left lying on the shelf far above.
“Anyone associated with those two and close enough to hear your scream will think you went over the edge as well. Come morning time, any traces of us will have washed away. We can vanish and no one will be the wiser.”
She thought about it, turning over the possibilities. “Maybe. So we disappear for a while... The company will keep looking.”
“You can come back, on your own terms, once we know what is happening.”
“I wish I knew, now.”
He said, “You have an ace in your pocket. You have his phone. We can mine it for whatever information it holds.”
“Why were they after me? I felt something was wrong. I had a day-dream when I was in the wash room.”
“You have been dreaming a lot, he said, and then half-jokingly, “You have not had any Palladium?”
“Absolutely not. But...”
“But what,” he prompted.
“After what you told me, I wonder how many others have...”
“Others. Like, the women at the restaurant and, maybe her sons,” she paused. “They were the one following us...”
“Yes. They are both dead.”
For a moment hail started to fall outside, echoing in the cave and lifting the fire.
“You gave me the hardest rocks to lie on,” she complained, trying to switch the conversation.
“The fern marshes of the Megalong below us will be softer,” he promised, feeling the warmth of her body wrapping around him.
“Will anyone find us there?”
“The valley is remote. Even people who want to be found get lost there forever. No person will find us.”
She shook her head, “No person?”
“People are the least of our worries down here. There are mozzies and midges...”
She kicked him gently. “Now you are telling stories. Does this one have dragons?” she teased, sensing he was starting to relax.
He blew her hair out of his face and said, “Here we call them rainbow spirits. But you sound like you are about to go to sleep.”
She said, “Tell me a story?”
“You went to sleep last time I told a story.”
She shakes her hair, trying to dislodge bits of bark and leaves. She places her head on his shoulder and says, “I do not remember going to sleep and you have no proof. I might have shut my eyes, but I still heard the entire story because I then dreamed about it.”
“I think your dream things I did not tell. But, maybe this time I will not be nice,” he growled as she reorganised more of his body between her and the rock.
She could feel the stress of the day starting to fade, as her eyes becoming heavy, “Yes.” Absent mindedly, she turned her attention to a patch of warmth on his foot. Then, with a little more concern, “There is nothing here that can bite us?”
“Nothing,” he lied, looking at the spider webs in the ceiling and the hint of scales in the rock cavities.
Aither’s second story:
We are travelling into dream-time country.
Some people describe the dream time as the far past or even the never-never. But, wherever you walk you are never far from the dream-time.
This country you see here, the abyss, the valley and the streams, were shaped by a meeting of two giants of the dream-time: the serpent fish Gurangatch and the tiger cat Mirragan.
“No witches? If the serpent fish and the tiger cat were so powerful, why is the abyss named after the Scottish witch, Fenella?”
You can feel the power in these names. The names are powerful.
Up on the plateau, Australians have lost their understanding of the power of names. They cannot remember the story of Fenella. It is just a word, strange and beautiful, something to beguile tourists with and make money from. Today, we name places after the rich and powerful, merchants and politicians, sportsmen and women, singers, horses that win races. We give things unique identifiers so we can own them, sell them. We name everything we can touch with artificial labels.
The first people did not do this. They only named specific things. The first explorers were perplexed that the first people did not have names for high peaks. Instead, the first people referred to the high peaks by talking about “the hill above the waterfall Warrumba”.
Those things they named had significance because every one of them had to remember every name in the landscape. Even so, this was still a massive pool of information. To help systematise the knowledge, they named things according to the essence of the thing itself.
You can still hear the name given by the first people to the waterfall behind us. All you need to do is to stand near the base of the fall, and listen quietly.
Listen to the rhythm of waterfall at Warrumba
shooting into the air;
hitting that rock;
crashing into that pool;
quietened by those ferns.
After a while a recurring pattern can be heard - the name of the place.
The essence of the thing.
Down here, Gurangatch and Mirragan are far more powerful that the witch from half a world away. We still know their story. Settlers came down to the floor of the valley, but they could not tame it, and apart from some farmland in the Megalong Valley, they have left it, taking their stories with them. But one of those early settlers recorded the story I am going to tell.
The first people travelled across this land, but the rivers and streams were of primary importance to them. The first people were spiritual and practical. The law of the people determined the names of things, how they were remembered in story and how they were retold in ceremony. The law of the people required that you take the name of the closest named place to the birth and you were forever associated with the place.
In the far past, animals took the shapes of men and women, and walked the world as giants. Two giants lived in this place.
The serpent fish Gurangatch lived in the deep rivers. From the name you can tell that Gurangatch is large and powerful in water, capable of moving fast.
The tiger cat Mirragan lived in the forests camping by the sides of the rivers. From the name, you can tell that Mirragan slides through the shadows of the night forest, deadly silent. Mirragan became a fisher. He became a good fisherman, learning catch fish according to need with hand, spear, woven nets, stunning poisons and rock traps.
However, when Mirragan saw Gurangatch, he put the question of need to one side. He desired to kill Gurangatch to show his prowess. He placed pride ahead of sense.
He felt her body finally relax around his. Her heartbeat returning to normal. He wondered whether he should tickle her but, instead, worked his way through each of the bruises on his body. Then he zipped the sleeping bag closed against the night, and put his head back into her hair.
Then quietly, he told her the rest of the story although she was fast asleep.
She woke inside the warm river, swimming with her kin, deep down into the waterhole, chasing small fry.
She felt his shadow and sensed the danger. She dived and his thrown spear travelled harmlessly past her, twisting and leaving a trail of bubbles to mark its passage. She dived into the dark cold depths, waiting for the danger to pass. But it did not.
Mirragan stripped the bark of wattle from the trees starting to flower and threw them onto the water. She saw fragments of wattle fall into the depths stunning all around her with poison.
Aware of the danger she exploded from her hiding place and leapt into the bank, destroying all around her, renting the land and carving a great abyss.
She was fast, but some of her paths were fruitless, and she had to double back. She was powerful, but even the powerful have need to rest. She rested with her kin, and in resting she made deep safe waterholes, protecting them with dangerous currents. She was strong, but sometimes the land defied her, and she had to travel deep under the ground instead.
As she fled, she caught glimpses of the hunter, the tiger cat, stalking her in the shadows. She saw him snarl at her, and she snarled back, looking for ways to escape. Suddenly, they were together, locked in struggle, scratching and biting. And then he went limp, and she tasted his blood in her mouth.
She felt him gently wrap himself around her and brush his lips across her face, and momentarily she renewed her teeth grip before opening her eyes and wondering where she could hide this time.
“Your teeth are sharp,” he said quietly.
“Oh no,” she said, “I did not mean to bite. I was... Did I hurt you much?”
“Enough to wake me, although the teeth marks may be hard to explain. It is time for us to get moving.”
“Can we stay a little longer?”
“Only a moment. While there is a heavy mist around us, the search parties will be getting ready.”
“I need a moment. I am here in this cave with you. I hoped it was just a dream.”
Outside, the morning light started to color the sky.
At the bottom of the valley, Jemma and Aither paused to sit. As she caught her breath, Jemma realised that they were sitting on the stump of a huge tree, originally with the circumference of a room. Aither smiled at her surprise, “Must have been big, eh. The tall trees were logged by the first settlers.”
Around them was dense bushland, dense packed trees completely obscuring the sky, and darkening the forest floor. Around them were frozen pools of surface water, and a dense understory of banksia, grevillea, ferns and other shrubs.
They had been scrambling down into the wilderness for most of the morning. Aither had moved slowly and deliberately, occasionally wincing. They quietly avoided contact with a campsite and other walkers in the mist that covered the valley and hung suspended in the trees.
For a moment it was possible to forget. Then, above, the sound of a helicopter back in the direction they came from. Aither said, “We better keep travelling. I do not know if they are looking for either of us, but we better be careful. If they are, there will be crews down here already coming along the main tracks. They will probably stop anyone and ask questions.”
“How do we avoid them?”
“By doing the unexpected and being outside any area they might choose to search. I have kicked around here a fair bit. If they are looking for you or me, they will expect us to double back into one of the towns. Instead, we will stay in the bush and travel the old less travelled paths. For now, listen and watch everything around you - a bird calling or a disturbed wallaby might be a sign of someone coming.”
Jemma tried to sit quietly, listening to her heart beating loudly, and feeling the cold from the long dead tree seeping into her. A little further on, she could hear the sounds of birds, and the wash of a creek. They filled their water bottles down at the creek and quickly washed dirty clothing. Despite the clarity of the water, Aither insisting on a purification tablet to avoid waterborne parasites.
They were able to pick up pace on the valley floor, walking along old paths, scrambling into the bush at any sign of others. They spent the rest of the day walking with frequent pauses to refill water bottles, staying close to each other. In the late afternoon, Aither took her up back to the escarpment and another rock shelf. She was feeling the strain of a day of walking, and wondered how she would cope with a second, let alone a week. As he pushed up onto the rock shelf, she saw him wince, and she wondered about him as well.
“Joe and I used to camp up this way, in spring, a long time ago. We will not be found here.”
The rock shelf was protected by an overhang and a well-used camp fire surrounded by rocks was positioned well away from the bush near the edge. Aither lit a small fire to help dry out wet clothes and they climbed into the sleeping bag positioned on a cushion of dried bracken. She made him show her his bruises, and was concerned to see a mass of bruises, with one openly weeping. She applied a little more of their antiseptic, remarking, “This does not look good. We might need to take you back up top, you should be strapped and properly cared for.”
He shook his head, “I will be right in the morning.” In the dying light of the evening, as the fire crackled and they drank reconstituted soup and then tea, he spoke.
Aithers 3rd story:
In the old days, the first people split into small family groups from mid-spring to mid-autumn. These seasons were periods of plenty. Small groups could make their own way.
However, as the days cooled, food became scarce. These days could be hard and desperate. Small groups came back together as a tribe, hunting together until spring.
Together they would travel long distances, enabling them to hunt and travel to more remote places. The rewards could be huge. When hunting was good, the tribe could feast and keep the hunger at bay for three days. When gathering was good, the tribe could carry full baskets of yams that would see them sated for seven days. Sometimes the rewards of hunting and gathering coincided, and the people could rest in a bountiful valley for a longer period, resting and building strength for the next foray. In these times, they sang the stories of the land, and the fires of the people burned warm.
But not too warm, and not too bright.
But it was also a time of great risk. A seen fire can draw others. All around them similar groups formed, some larger, some smaller. Sometimes the groups would arrive in an area to find that the food they were relying on had already been taken, and hunger and desperation replaced feasts. Celebrations could turn to war.
We sometimes forget that the first people did not see themselves as a single people. They formed themselves into separate language groups, and while they might trade with some groups, they were often at war with others. This issues is often overlooked by those who should know better - the first nations were dynamic, bound by loose rules of inter-national trade and conflict, and by rules dealing with pursuit.
Some of the larger tribes, like the Wiradjuri in central New South Wales, lived on lands of plenty along the banks of the great wandering river which, in places, they called the Wambool River. Today we call it the Macquarie River in memory of the great European Governor of the colony of New South Wales. The Wiradjuri were so powerful that they systematically raided the surrounding tribes for food and women to extend their own lands.
The Wiradjuri language is still with us, in the names of the land on that region, and in common words such a kookaburra, gang-gang, corella and billabong.
Tribes surrounding the Wiradjuri called them the “Come by Night” and spoke of them with fear. The Wiradjuri even declared war on the Europeans. There were a number of fierce clashes until a peace treaty was declared at Parramatta between the great Wiradjuri leader Windradyne and Governor Brisbane. But that is a different story - Homo sum, humani nihil a me alicuum puto, ("I am a man, I consider nothing human as alien to me").
So the first people stories emphasised the need for calls on kin to meet circumstances of great need.
I told you part of the story of the great battle between the tiger cat Mirragan and the reptile fish Gurangatch.
Jemma’s eyes were wide open.
Gurangatch retreated into the lands of Gurangatch’s kinspeople deep under the mountains near to the coast. Some say Gurangatch travelled under the mountains to the other side, into the coastal plains. Mirragan could go no further.
So the tiger cat called on his own kin to come and help: Billagoola the Shag, Goolagwangwan the Diver, Gundhareen the Black Duck, and Goonarring the Wood Duck. Even so, Gundhareen could not find the bottom of the pool where Gurangatch was hiding. Goolagwangwan could not distinguish Gurangatch from other fish. Finally Billagoola was able to find Gurangatch and tore a flesh from the back of Gurangatch.
It was only because he called on his own kinsfolk that Gurangatch was found and Mirragan tasted a piece of the flesh of the fish reptile.
The fire dimmed and they both slept, her arms tight around him
Jemma stirs. The sun is high above and hot. She is lying in a slight depression scooped out of sand along the banks of a creek. She rises and walks to the waterhole. Next to the creek, which runs high and close to the surface, is an expanse of sand. It is the same waterhole that she filled her water bottle at earlier, but instead of being surrounded by the tangled chaos of forest, she is in an open grassland with a regular spacing of giant trees. In the distance, beyond the trees, are the cliffs of the mountains.
Everything around her is dim, like a dream.
She looks into water, sees her reflection. She sees a soft face, wallaby fur in tufts tied to end of hair, the rest bound back by a thin band of animal fur. Her shoulders are covered by a coat of possum fur.
She starts as she hears the sound of movement around her.
Behind her, a man is watching her. He avoids her eyes and speaks in a language that is alien but which she understands. He speaks slowly, trying to remember the words of his youth. He says, “Drink, we travel soon.” She turns and looks at him, tall and young. He carries heat hardened spears and woomera in one hand. She sees the cicatrized weals of warriorhood on his chest. She turns back to the water. She reaches into it and gets a shock of cold from the water. She cups a hand and drinks the cool clear water.
She looks back to her sleeping place and sees many others along the bank with people rising. He takes her back to her sleeping place, and makes sure she collects a woven basket and a wooden pitcher. He takes her digging stick and holds it with his spears and woomeras.
On her left wrist she catches sight of a white ochre design with a couple of small brightly coloured feathers. He remarks, “Rosella totem.” He takes her hand and wipes the design clean.
There is a shout behind him and an older woman comes forward, growling at him. He takes two steps back and looks towards the ground.
The older woman steps up to her, and grasps her chin tightly. The old woman pins her eye open, and calls instructions to others nearby and they scatter to the creek side. She speaks rapidly to the man, in a language unintelligible to Jemma. He says, “I can speak your language, but the ‘Come By Night’ will not. I will teach you their words. Your eyes have a sleeping sickness. She will make a salve from ferns which you need to hold over your eyes. You will have to keep up so...” he demonstrated holding a salve over one eye and then the other. “You will follow in my footsteps. Do not try to run away.”
The older woman takes the fern into her mouth and chews into a loose paste and then holds the mass to Jemma and points to her eyes. He says, “Put it on one of your eyes now. It will hurt to start with. You will have to hold it on one and then another until we stop.”
Jemma places it over her left eye, and feels a sharp pain. After a couple of moments, the pain dulls.
There is a shout ahead and the party turn to follow the creek to the west. Jemma sees the warriors gather at the head of the party with a group of four running into the distance and each side, to scout for the main group. Another four run past them to the rear of the party. The party, of about 15 warriors, 15 women and as many children is now surrounded by a network of eyes.
The man explains, “It has been a hard cold season. The snow has blanketed the ground and wasted food stocks on our home ranges. This group has chosen to come into the mountains in search of food, but now that the sun has returned we are returning home. But we have no friends in this place since we have taken their food and you.”
After the scouts get into position, the warriors start to move forward at a fast striding pace. After about 200 paces, a second group of older men and young boys move forward as a separate group. Then the remainder of women and very young children start, at the same pace as the warriors ahead.
Jemma is concentrating on keeping her footing on the loose sand of the bank, but sees that most woman are carrying one child, with one arm, and holding baskets and other wooden vessels with bush food.
The pace is unrelenting and fast. The man guarding her occasionally motions her to change the compress on her eye. She starts to tire and notices that the man following her has a recent injury to his chest, and is moving with some difficulty.
She asks his name. He tells her, “Warrumba, I was born on the mountain creek named after the big tortoise.” She divides off some of her compress, which numbed her eyes and placed some on his chest. He looked grim but, in return, reached behind his ear and brought out a knob of tobacco-like substance. He broke a little for her and him, “Chew this. Do not swallow it. It will wear us out, but will ensure we keep pace. Being left behind is more dangerous for both of us.”
She looked at him doubtfully, but followed his lead. She tasted the bitter taste of the bark and, within moment, felt the narcotic sweeping through her body. She started to feel lighter, and thought she saw a flurry of wings around her.
They walked along the creek until sunset. At the top of a grassy rise the party stopped to drink at the waterhole and to eat a meagre ration of plants being carried by the women. He helped her scoop her bed in the sand for the night and then stood back.
She lay down, her face turned to the dying sun, and he calls to her, “Nguurruunggal.”
She asks, quietly, “What does that mean?”
“Nguurruunggal. Until the dawn.”
The night draws on, and Warrumba walks back to the waterhole in the moonlight to wash and drink. The waterhole is deep and permanent, one of Gurangatch’s resting places. Reeds grow along the creek, his eyes watching for any sign of a returning duck.
He is only gone a moment, but when he returns he finds her missing from the shallow sand bed. He crouches low, searching among the tracks for hers. Silently he moves away from the creek, following a faint trail of broken grass stems.
He tracks her in the night back along the old trail that leads to the high ridge tops, Muggadah. The tracks leave the path and disappear onto the side of a rock wall. He smells the smoke from a fire before he sees it, above the ground in a protected rock ledge.
He sits quietly below the ledge, considering his options.
Aither shakes Jemma from her sleep urgently.
He grips the gun and whispers, “There is someone out there!”
She freezes, confused by sleep and dreams, “Do you even know how to use that thing?”
He calls out into the night, “Who is there!”
There is the sound of scrambling and then silence. Then a soft male voice, “Hey bro, be cool. Just me, Warra. Sorry, I have been trekking and normally camp here overnight.”
The man pushes his backpack onto the ledge and scrambles up after it. He sees Jemma and Aither and his eye widen, “Hey look, I am really sorry. I will find somewhere else...”
“No. Don’t go. There is plenty of room here. It is silly to walk around here at night.”
“Yeah bro. Like those guys up at Wentworth Falls who went walking yesterday. Bad news, eh.” Warra pushes his backpack over the way from them and asks, “Mind if I stoke up the fire a little?”
“Go ahead, not much dry stuff. Leave some for morning.”
“Sure, just enough to make a bit of dinner. Maybe boil some tea.”
Jemma is rubbing her eyes, “I have something in my eye. Aither, can you have a look please?”
Warra says, “Here mate, use my torch.”
Aither thanks him and takes the torch, and looks at her eye. “I can’t see anything. What does it feel like.”
Jemma says, “Like a hair.”
Warra says, “I have some eye washes in my medical kit. You are welcome to them.”
Aither looks at her, and reaches for their dry clothes.
Warra says, “Hey, really sorry about this, I feel real bad about waking you up and all.”
Aither says, “All good mate. You are helping us.”
They get dressed and come sit around the fire with Warra. Aither does the introductions to Warra, “I am Aither, and this is my girlfriend, Fenella. She is just back from a stint over in England. I have been promising her that I would bring her down to look at the valley.”
Warra nods, “Her namesake, Macbeth’s grandmother...”
Aither shakes her head, “What do you mean?”
Warra says, as he stirs a can of food, “Den Fenella, named after the Lady Fenella. She was Macbeth’s grandmother.”
Aither shakes his head, “How do you know that?”
Warra smiles, “Your names are as mixed up as mine. I have always been interested in names. I live just down the mountain at Lithgow so this is, you know, sort of my backyard.” He pushes some dry gum leaves onto the fire to provide some fast light.
“Well, Fenella,” Warra pauses and looks at her with interest, “come over here and let me have a look at that eye.”
He positions her in the glare of the light. As he looks carefully at her eye, he keeps talking, “I come trekking through here ever year. Not much of a climber,” nodding briefly at Aither’s tack. “Some serious stuff there.”
He takes out a cloth and gently wipes the surrounds of her eyes, studying the result, “Very strange.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing obvious in there, although it looks like you have probably hit a bush with your eye. But then...”
Warra said, “I will wash your eye with an anti-histamine. That will settle it down and let you sleep. Ok?”
Jemma said, “Thanks, but you were going to say something else.”
Warra says, “Look, it might just be the light, but your pupil is pretty constricted. It might be nothing or it might be associated with whatever you brushed against. See how you look in the morning, or you might need to get it checked out.”
“Thanks,” and then a sharp intake of breath as the anti-histamine wash was applied.
“Hold your eye up for a bit.”
She withdrew to the other side of the fire, sitting next to Aither and they sat while Warra offered them some of his meal and sat quietly enjoying it. Aither cooked up some tea for them all, as the fire died back to warm coals.
Aither tried, “Bad news about those blokes. We have been down here for a couple of days. Had not heard about it.”
Warra said, between mouthfuls, “Me either, I walked to here from Jenolan. This morning I bumped into one of the recovery teams and offered assistance. They did not need me. The cliffs are treacherous at night, even if you are as sober as a judge.”
Aither said, “Thought we heard a helicopter earlier. Apart from that, you are the first person we have seen all day.”
Warra said, “Good way to be, eh? Just you and the country. The air is so clear. I am heading back to Jenolan over the old pathway at Karrangatta Waterhole and then down the 6 foot track.”
Aither said, “How long does it take you to do that?”
Warra said, “Used to take me 2 days from here, but I was keen back those days. These days I just dawdle along. And there is always the option of climbing back up the steps to Katoomba and a nice bed and meal, if the weather gets bad.”
They watch the fire glowing, as they sip hot tea.
Warra asks, “How is that eye feeling?”
Jemma says, “Getting better. Talking about civilization is helping a bit.”
Warra laughs, “You can sleep in a hundred sprung beds with starched linen and yet one night on those rocks will be what you really remember. You know, the first people, my people, got a pretty bad eye sickness. They came to the rivers and creeks here - including the Kedumba for a cure.”
She says, “The ferns...”
Warra smiles, the fire catching his eyes.
She continued, “Aither has been filling my head with old stories.”
Warra smiles widen, “A story teller. Good. Tell me one of the old stories of my people.”
Aither’s 4th story
Aither pauses and considers his position. Warra’s tone was measured and friendly, but he suddenly felt challenged.
I like old stories.
How do we know any stories? We read, hear or invent stories. Good stories entertain and teach. Good stories are repeated because they resonate within us.
Some stories teach commonplace knowledge, the things you need to live. Some teach us the value of kinship, friends and family. Some teach us things that we no longer need: how to use a spindle, how to make a candle, the import of keeping a fire burning or a fire stick smouldering. But even in those stories, there are lessons to be learned. One of the first stories we all learn is one about wolves. There are none around anymore, but the story still teaches us not to invent false risks.
Some teach different knowledge, knowledge that can only be used by men, or women, or the old, or those who lead or advise. Sometimes, some times, some places, this knowledge should not extend beyond those groups.
Sometimes we learn a story that contains information and we do not know whether it was commonplace or restricted. And that is the case with the stories I have told you about the great battle between the tiger cat Mirragan and the reptile fish Gurangatch.
The story I told you was told by Werriberrie, who lived down here, to a European farmer Bennett, who had a farm back towards the coast a century ago. But when I retell these stories, I worry about my role as story teller. How do I know these stories? Should these not be told by those who are associated with the land? What right have I to repeat them, perhaps introducing error and mistake?
So the story I have told you does not come directly from the first people, but from a white grazier. It may already be full of error just like the story of Fenella. Think about the story of Fenella for a moment. I have heard a couple of different stories and now you, have both introduced further variants. If the story was once about a real person, have you now invented a happy ending, with her escape down the waterfall? You may say this is harmless play. Why not have a happy ending? But what happens when proof is given of her actual death? What is the emotional cost of a dashed dream?
“Chill bro,” said Warra, “we know the Pictish witch escaped, and her family became an important part of Scottish history. Shakespeare has a lot to answer for in writing a fictive tale throwing poor Macbeth’s name into undeserved disrepute.”
“See,” Jemma smiled and nodded at Warra. “She escaped. Her Pictish magic continued to protect the real story - she still lives and breathes through those who retell her tale,” She gave Aither a hug, “But what is your point?”
Perhaps I worry overly, about things that are not important. Take the town high above us. The same records that gave us the story of the tiger cat Mirragan and the reptile fish Gurangatch, cast doubt on the name used for the town.
I do not mean that the name “Katoomba”, is imaginary. The name of the Kedumba River is real and ancient. It was applied to the river - or perhaps the ferns that grown along the river. The name was stolen from the river and applied to the town by the politician Neale 1876 who was aggrieved that the locality had been named “The Crushers” when a railway siding was built. The new name was formally adopted a year later and used to attract tourists from Sydney. It is a beautiful name, but it is in the wrong place. It feels wrong.
Warra says, “No point beating yourself up mate. The old people were involved as much as your town planners. The Kedumba River is still here. The ferns that gave it its name are still here. They whisper its name to everyone. Some things you cannot steal.”
The night deepened, and the moon set.
Jemma and Aither are together. Aither is deep asleep, but Jemma’s eyes are wide open. She is wondering whether Warra would be there in the morning.
Here with me
Early morning light is starting to penetrate the forest floor. A family of kookaburras greets the early morning with laughter.
The laughter fades into a murmur of voices and the soft vibration of footsteps. Jemma digs down deeper into the sleeping bag, trying to ignore the noise and the cold. But then she hears her name.
Aither says, “We have to get Jemma away from here, away from the company, and everyone else who will be after her.”
Warra replies, “What have you got me into? I don’t believe this. I agreed to give you a hand but... I do not believe what you are telling me. But if I did, just for a moment, the whole country will be hunting for her in a day or so!”
“She told me herself - she wants nothing to do with them. This is her choice.”
“You have not told her the full story. If she does not go back and help sort this out thousands will die.”
“I don’t like it either. But for once it is the right thousand. Didn’t you hear me? The greedy bastards who have taken this drug are the stinking rich, criminal leaders, our rotten politicians and their advisors, and big business. Every parasites on our current society. And they are all going to go out at the same time.”
“You can’t do this. You will not get away with it.”
“Look mate. We have known each other for ever. I just need your help to get out of here. No one will ever be able to link you to us.”
“I have only had a couple of minutes to think about this, but I can tell that this is nonsense. You have no idea what these people can do to find her. What if they release her picture and say she is carrying some deadly disease? Something plausible, like avian flu or ebola. What if they quarantine all the places you have been seen? What if they start having funerals for people who are dying from whatever they say she has? What if they lock this whole part of the country down? What if they put the military on the ground here?”
The sounds of voices stops for a moment. A bellbird calls urgently from the edge of the rock shelf. Jemma clenches her fists and kicks on her clothes, straining to hear the rest of the discussion.
“Believe me, if that many important people are at risk, this is the least they can do. She will not be safe anywhere in this country and the rest of us will be disposable. Tell me... no don’t. I don’t want to know anymore.
Warra continues, “You need to tell her. It is her decision. That is my final word. Now, as for you. Your wounds are infected. She did a good job, but... I can patch you up, but you need a couple of days rest in a hospital - not what you have in mind.”
Jemma blinks, tears forming.
“Sit still and I will try and sort your chest out. Then you need to tell Jemma. Ok?”
“No buts. And, by the way. Stop the pretense about her name. No one is called Fenella these days. Ok? Or do I have to tell her.”
“Ok. But let me tell it to her my way. And Jemma gets the final say. I was going to tell her.”
Jemma stumbles out of the sleeping bag.
She stands, unsteadily for a moment, trying to work out where the two men are arguing. The bush is a tangle of tall trees and bushes crowding into every space, signs of bushfire and animal life everywhere.
She feels something hit her leg. She looks down, as another small stone hits her. On the lip of the rock platform where the bell bird was calling she sees a dim profile. She walks to the edge, suddenly feeling dizzy. She stops, her eyes shut, remembering Aither’s warning. She opens her eyes to see Warrumba’s head, motioning her to come to him. She shakes her head, and looks again. He is still there and this time he is looking directly into her eyes.
The tangle of bush that was there a moment ago has gone. Instead she can see deep into the valley. Soft tendrils of mist are rising over a deep grassland, colours changing rapidly as daybreak develops punctuated by the dark silhouette of the occasional giant tree, reaching high above the valley. In the centre of the valley, she sees the outline of two waterholes, separated by sandy beaches, reedy soaks and bush land. A flock of wood ducks rise suddenly from the upper reaches of the Kendumba River and fly towards the waterhole at the intersection of that river with the Cox River. Something startles them and they rise again, now high against the backdrop of the escarpment rising high into the sky. High in the distance, the sun strikes the top of the cliff face on the other side of the valley. The scene becomes real.
She takes two steps towards him and holds out her hand, tears in her eyes.
“Jemma?” Aither has found the empty sleeping bag. Louder, “Jemma!”
Aither’s voice is sounds his worry, “She has gone!”
“Don’t panic. She can’t have gone far,” but Aither is already at the edge of the main track down from rock ledge. Warra says, “Freeze. Don’t go mucking up any tracks. We need to kill the fire and sort our packs as well.”
Aither says, “There are only two ways off this ledge. She didn’t come down where we were... so she must have gone the way were came up.”
Warra holds up his hand, “No, she has gone over the edge over there. Spend a moment and sort this out. Then we will follow her.”
“Damn, she must have heard us talking.”
“Poor kid, she probably needs time to work this all out”, Warra turns to Aither, “Slow down. You have not helped her much so far. Now we have to get this right.”
Warra lowers himself down the rock face, “Strange, there is an old track here. And footprints. She has gone straight through the undergrowth. Watch your chest, I don’t want you to stuff up that dressing.”
They progress a little further down the old path, Warra saying with some relief, “Her trail is very clear, we will catch up near the river.”
Warrumba whispers urgently, “How many of them are there?”
Jemma tries to remember, “Maybe two.”
Warrumba’s eyes ask whether they will follow, “Yes.”
He pauses and makes the sound of a wood duck. His call is repeated from two places in front of them.
They make their way down a path through the grass lands in fits and starts, both half bent as they run. He pauses to listen and watch when cover provided by an occasional bush or large tree permits. They reach the sand bank on the river’s edge, and they mix their footprints with those of the larger party.
They double back to a stand of low bushes and come up behind one of the older warriors making up the rear guard. With a rapid exchange of hand signals the warrior assesses the risk. After a moment’s thought he stands and makes the cry of hunting kite. He turns to Jemma and Warrumba. With a grim stare he dismisses them back to the main body.
Just as they start to move, the warrior pushes them back down. On the other side of the creek another warrior has arisen and is signalling the rest of the read guard. His body movements tell of the approach of a large group from further upstream the Kedumba River. The warrior points Jemma to a clump of bushes and gives the signal to dig in and hide. He pushes her in that direction as he and Warrumba set off in the direction of the other members of the rear guard. Jemma hears the click of them fitting spears to woomera as they run.
Warra finds Jemma cut and shaken near the creek. She motions them to be quiet and they sink to the ground.
Below them, they catch glimpses of the river, its surface a mirror of the bush around them. Upstream bellbirds call and, suddenly, a pair of black ducks take to the sky, the creek surface suddenly a flurry of movement. A bandicoot jumps past them ducking and weaving through the bush.
They hear voices from upstream. Eventually they catch sight of the bright yellow uniforms of a team of Emergency Services workers moving deliberately downstream.
Warra is looking at Jemma. She is a mass of scratches, her arms and face bleeding from a hundred collisions with small branches and sharp bushes.
They wait until the party moves past them and Warra turns to them both, “Ok. I do not know why I let that party go past. Both need to get out of here right now.” He turns to Jemma, “Do not do that again. You will kill yourself or someone trying to help you.”
Jemma turns on them both, “I have no time for liars and cheats. Be straight with me. Do not deceive me.”
The real story of Butch Cassidy, in Australia
Jemma glared at both of them, cuts and bruises all over her hands and face.
Aither said, “I started to explain...”
“Not enough. You left out the important bits.”
“You did not believe me. And I was guessing parts.”
“You didn’t tell me about all those people getting the drug. You said you didn’t know. But I heard you telling your friend here, who is as big a liar as you, about all the people who had been given the drug.”
“I am sorry Jemma. I need to stop your bleeding”, said Warra, “I...”
“I trusted you both, and ... I just want this to end.”
There is silence and she feels the world starting to shift. The sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal started to dissolve.
Aither’s 5th story
She says, “I am a chemist. A scientist. A scientist cannot survive without absolute accuracy.”
The world is full of beautiful lies. Everything we do is subject to those lies, even science.
Science by itself goes no place, it is the plaything of the wishes of men and women. It is hostage to their dreams. And the biggest dream of all is more time, something that will stave off old age.
You have been playing with that, a drug to keep people alive another decade.
But you cannot have dreams without imagination, you cannot have imagination without a suspension of the truth. You cannot have meaningful science without lies. Beautiful lies.
Science is full of lies. Whole professions are built on lies. Lawyers have never discovered a single truth. Geologists have never ever discovered a meaningful deposit of ore. Psychologists have never cured a mentally ill person. This does not make them useless, they serve a valuable purpose in rooting out those who would hold the people ransom to superstition.
Australians, of all people, know this. Our world is full of beautiful lies.
Warra is trying to dress Jemma’s wounds. He softly added that Mark Twain coined the expression, wistfully saying:
‘Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies. And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.’
He shrugs his shoulders and said that for himself, he agreed with Jemma. But he also understand that reality and unreality intertwine, and we sometimes need to understand both.
Before I attempt to defend myself, I would like to tell you about someone. Twain was not the only dreamer to come to this country. Plenty came in the gold rush, some of them with radical ideas of freedom, like those at the Eureka stockade.
But I will tell you the story of another. In Australia we call him Lasseter. Around him truth and lies, reality and unreality shimmers.
I once met a man... which is the sure sign that I am about to tell a tall tale. Perhaps I should say instead, an authoritative source once told me... but the call to authority is untested and may be spurious, words are cheap.
Instead, I will frame the claim as a story, a story of dubious truth. Like Fenella’s story once having told it, it will become impossible to differentiate it from the truth. But It is better than the truth, and it becomes our story, because the alternative is too horrible or too mundane to imagine.
There are some stories that subversively reshape history, they change the way we think, cause us to reconsider our view of the world.
A real bush man once told me this story. He is long dead now. He was old and gnarled when I knew him, with eyes that would look sightless into the west, always searching for something. He told me the story in a pub in Kalgoolie, for the price of a couple of beers. He said he needed the beer to keep his voice wet.
As a young bloke he had met Lassiter. A man of sparkling imagination. A man before his time. A man who quietly changed the shape of the nation. The old man at Kalgoolie went further. He insisted that the Lasseter he met was actually Butch Cassidy, on the run from the American lawmen.
Not possible you say. We have all seen the picture, and listened to the song, raindrops keep falling on my head. He died in a hail of bullets robbing something somewhere in South America. But Hollywood made that bit up. Someone died in a shootout with Bolivian soldiers, but lots of people did back then. The DNA samples from his supposed grave do not match Butch.
The old bloke said that stories of his death in South America were false. Pinkerton’s detectives chased him into South America and but they lost the trail in 1909. Instead, on December 9, 1909 Butch arrived at Freemantle aboard the SS Friedrick der Grosse. During the trip he started a new life as Harry Lasseter, a matured man, now adverse to his old ways. The old bloke had seen the photo of the five ring leaders they had taken after the robbery at Fort Worth, Texas back in 1901. He insisted that it included the man he knew as Harry Lasseter.
Harry Lasseter lived a remarkable life in Australia. He ignored the barriers between real and unreal. He may have been a liar, but he changed the world.
In the camps building the new city of Canberra, he emerges as a man of remarkable ideas. He sprinkled one of the local creeks (ironically named Poverty Creek) with slivers of brass, and then engineered a gold rush. But in almost the same breath, he first proposed the arched bridge across Sydney Harbour (prompting the architects working on it to switch from a cantilever to an arch design) and volunteered all sorts of ideas about the construction of the new city (including the streaming of electricity wires along underground ducts with sewerage channels).
In Australia, Harry Lasseter is remembered now only because of his tragic death alone in the desert in 1931. He led an ill-fated expedition to find a gold field he had once discovered of unimaginable value. The expedition captured the attention of a population sinking into depression. The expeditions he launched and those launched too late to rescue him, opened up north Australia. They inspired others with a taste for mining to look further afield.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge was finished in 1932 after news of Lasseter’s supposed death. Yet even then, in the face of evidence of his death the story goes that he faked his own death. The old bloke swore there is a photograph of him taken with the Golden Eagle Nugget in Kalgoorlie proving he did not die.
I do not believe this story. Every part of this story rings false. Yet the Sydney Harbour Bridge is an arch, and north Australia has been opened up, partly on the back of scores of fruitless attempts to discover Lasseter’s gold. They might not have discovered gold, but they discovered wealth unimaginable.
If the story is cut down to its individual components, and we try to test each one, those capable of proof can be proven. The old man told the story in the Kalgoolie pub. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was finished in 1932. The SS Friedrick der Grosse docked at Freemantle on December 9, 1909. The story contains no element that can be disproved. But those incapable of proof are outside the realms of the believable.
Every part of Lassiter’s story is a beautiful lie. Unbelievable stories of the undiscovered gold reef, his desperate trek with the tribe of Watta Mitta Mitta, his diaries and sketches of the location of the gold are full of surprises. Full of adventures, incongruities, contradictions, and incredibilities. And they are all true, they all happened. So ultimately, the old man held to this story, because he wanted it to be true. But not content with the unbelievable, he tied this story to another unbelievable one.
“I do not understand why you told that story. So a liar served up the ideas of others, and claimed credit for himself. A liar and a thief. Why should we waste any time on this man?”
“Australian’s damn Lasseter only because he failed to find the gold. I have said he was a liar, but the only occasion we have of him lying is his scam at Poverty Creek, from which he sought no profit.”
“What is the point.”
“Like Lasseter, I have not lied to you. I have not told you everything I know, but there are reasons for that, chief being that you told me you did not believe me. I did not tell Warra because I did not want him to get caught up in his either.”
“I did not believe you, it is true. But you broke my trust by that and, both of you, pretending you did not know each other last night.”
Warra said, “You have drawn us into a dangerous game with you. But we are all still here together.”
Aither said, “At a cross road in our history. Regardless what you decide to do, everything has already changed beyond recovery.”
“So why tell an imaginary story about Butch Cassidy in Australia?”
“To distract you while Warra patched you up.”
“I do not buy that.”
“Because, while unreality dogs every part of that story, reality changed as a result.”
They could hear the stress in her voice, “Why?”
“He subversively reshaped history. Like you.”
For the next three days they pressed through the bush, first into the Megalong Valley and along the six foot track to Jenolan Caves. After the scramble through the back paths below Katoomba, and the climb up into the Megalong Valley, the way forward was far gentler than the paths they had been travelling. They started to make good time.
At first, a mass of scratches she kept to herself as they scrambled along bush tracks. Her anger with both of her companions propelled her up and down the uneven tracks they followed out of the high valleys. Finally they moved carefully into the open farm land of the Megalong Valley. Uneven stone paths were replaced by farmlands, fences and stiles. That night they camped near a ford where the track leaves Nellies Glen Road and plunges into the bush towards the Jenolan Caves.
They set off, Warra setting a long stride. Warra says, “If we can keep this pace, we will be at Jenolan late tomorrow. I know a resort high in the Southern Tablelands. I can drive you there that night, far away from here. We can book you in for a couple of days .You can put your heads down and work things out.”
Aither said, “They hold a marathon here each year - the record for the 45 kilometres is about 3 and a bit hours.”
Warra said, “We are not going to try that. But, we have already gone a fair way along the track, so a steady pace will get us there in two.”
They plunged into heavy bushland, before emerging on an old road, following the Megalong Creek.
At Pinnacle Hill they stopped while Warra and Aither explain the drop ahead, down to the Cox’s River. She nodded her head, nothing could be worse that those first scrambles in the valleys below Katoomba. Still, even at a slow even pace, she found she still needed to concentrate.
As she walked, carefully placing her feet to avoid rocks, she tried to make sense of the dreams she had experienced over the past few days.
In the past, she had had normal dreams. That is, she recalled waking with the vestiges of strange happenings in her head. Mostly, she remembered confiding these to those around her, before they finally disappeared, like mist burning in the morning sun.
But her recent dream memories did not disappear when she woke. They felt real - she could remember the sound of dogs pursuing her through to the likewise rough and gentle touch of Warrumba’s hand. She could recall the sharp cold of the waterfall above the Den Fenella with the same immediacy of the icy water above the Empress Falls. She could feel scars from the dreams, although they left no physical marks. But, conversely, at the time she did not feel the sting of the bush as she must have crashed through it while running to the river with Warrumba.
A dangerous state to be in: to dream dreams so real, that reality could not intrude. She shook her head, her ears wet. She was starting to fear the worse that somehow she had been given a dose of the drug they were developing.
The dreams seemed to come from different places. There were those that lay in wait for her as she shut her eyes to sleep. Then there were those that appeared out of nowhere, while she was awake.
As for the content of the dreams, she was at a loss. Some followed on from the novelty of her situation, and the stories that Aither told. But then she recalled that she seemed to have supplied some of the content herself. She wondered whether her subconscious remembered other fragments, and had knitted the bits together - a syntaxis. She shook her head again, maybe they were just dreams, her imagination inventing believable endings.
They finally arrived at the green grassy banks of the river and, to the right, clambered across the river. From there they climbed up the bank to a deserted camping ground, and found a warm place to catch some sun, and lay down to relax for a while and empty gravel and grit out of their runners. The air was full of the sound of water over the rocks, and the wind in the trees. Dozens of birds were wheeling and diving in the air about the water, and the single high clear sound of bell birds echoed through the place.
Briefly, she wondered whether she should tell her companions about her dreams. But, in the end, tiredness overcame her and she shut her eyes and fell asleep, sitting in the sun, in mid thought. Warra gently lay her down on the sand and let her sleep for a couple of hours. He shook her awake to check her scratches and renew antiseptic dressing on a couple of open wounds. He then gave Aither, who was gently snoring closer to the water, a kick and got him moving.
Warra said, “The next bit is a little more punishing, but we are making good time. We will be able to spend the night at the next camp site.”
They set off, climbing into the afternoon bush up a steep grade. By this stage, she put dreams out of mind and just concentrated on her breathing. Aither walked beside her and eventually, she took his hand. They walked quietly together, but she thought she saw a smile of relief flash across his face.
Finally they pass back into farm country and to a camping ground near one of the mountain creeks.
She did not dream that night, around the low camp fire at Alum Creek. They sat, in the glow of the low fire, staring up into the sky, watching the Milky Way turn above them.
Aither said, “You do not see that in the city. It reminds me of something one of those old English poets said, John Donne, ”Goe, and catche a falling star ; Tell me, where all past years are.”
Warra laughed, “You and your English poets. Maybe your Donne knew the Northern stars. He never saw these ones. The Southern skies are just as mystical.”
She could not remember going to sleep but in the morning, Aither gently nudged her awake. They sat next to the ashes of the fire and ate a quick meal before pouring water on the smouldering coals. Despite the exertion, Aither’s stiffness had disappeared and she was not feeling as sore. Still, the perception of well being was only skin deep, a carefully calculated illusion of the sugars in their energy foods. The day was difficult and cold and the path took its toll.
After a solid day of walking into the Black Range, they paused near at the top of the last switchback before Jenolan much later than planned. In the late afternoon sun they agreed to Warra organising a room for them in the cave house below them.
They watched him set off down the track, resting in the cover of an old gum. Aither Broke the silence, pointing out a band of rosellas in the trees around them, “I think these have been travelling with us for a while.”
She responded, “I have been watching a bell-bird, I had been imagining the same about him. I think it is good luck. Look, I need to tell you something.”
“I saw you draw a rosella in the ashes this morning.”
“Nonsense, I can’t draw.”
“True. I even took a picture of it.”
“But... maybe I was day dreaming. Just recently, I have been having vivid dreams, and I can remember each one clearly. I need to talk to you about them. But I cannot remember A day dream this morning...” she says uncertainly. “Show me?”
He took out his phone, and searched for the image. He handed her the phone.
She saw a picture of the remains of a camp fire, the fire reduced to light grey ash with a couple of black coals in the center. There is a finger drawing in the ashes. It is a drawing of a rosella travelling through the trees. Next to it is the imprint of a small claw. She looks at it, and shakes her head.
She reaches and touches the picture.
The world swims before her eyes.
She is back with Warrumba, waking, as the sun warms the sand. He looks at her and smiles, “You are back.”
During that day, they walked together along the sand and over the rocks, travelling slowly out of the mountains.
Time passes, but she savours every moment. The days grew longer and warmer, and the river larger, as spring returned to the land.
Eventually, the large group they had been travelling and feasting with split into small groups of three or four families. She travelled with Warrumba, and two other young families, with a couple of small children, into a warm rich valley, a grassy place, dotted by occasional stand of tall trees and separated from other valleys by a parapet of weathered granite formations. Instead of wandering, they built structures to give themselves a little protection from the cold, and as the days and nights warmed, they were able to put aside their possum skin garments till next required.
During daylight, they collected food for the next couple of days. As the grasses cured, they used cold fires to hunt, renewing the land and preventing the possibility of dangerous wildfire.
During the afternoons they played in the sun and swam in the water of the river. Watching the younger children laughing, and laughing themselves.
In the evenings they ate, roasted meats, greens and hot cakes baked on hot rocks. After the meal they would watch the sun set, and the unseen river light up the night sky. They then exhausted the last scraps of energy from the young children by telling the old stories of those that wander the sky and reminding themselves of the old names of places they needed to know. As the last light of the day drained out of the sky, the couples would withdraw to their own separate places. There they would look into each other’s eyes and play more serious games on the sun warmed sand.
And then, as the days started to shorten, the men gathered dry material and talked to other valleys with smoke from a hot fire. Finally, as food started to fail, the groups would reform and they came together in ceremony, and long discussions about how the winter was to be spent. In good years, they stayed where they were. In years of need, the groups came together to travel into harder country to tap resources allowed to prosper against the days of need.
After a few cycles, she carried her own girl child, with a boy child running beside her. Occasionally, Warrumba would step back from the warrior group and smile at her, and reach out to her star child, and walk quietly as they travelled through the years together. She taught the little girl to thread seeds to make necklaces and draw pictures in the ash of their fires. At such times she would feel insanely happy.
Then there were reports of strange new men in the land. Almost as fast, a terrible sickness took the people.
She feels a sharp pain in her hand as the phone was prised from her hand. And she wakes, her eyes wild and her heart beating fast.
She sees a long forgotten Warra standing on the path looking at her in shock. Below her, Aither is lying on the ground, unconscious, blood on his head.
She screams as her legs buckle underneath her and she starts to cry, uncontrollably.
For Just a Moment
Warra ignores her for a moment while he concentrates on Aither. Then he looks sharply at Jemma, “What happened here. Get a grip!”
He turns to Aither’s body. Aither is unconscious, something has hit him and he is bleeding from a head wound. He checks his pulse and asked, “Did you hit him?”
Jemma is shaking, she stutters, “No. My children... What is happening?” Then she feels something old and heavy in her hand. Something very old. She looks down. It shimmers, the late afternoon light moving over it like a serpent fish. She gasps and throws it to the ground a little way from her.
She draws in her breath, “I cannot tell. Something happened to me.” She looks down to the serpent-fish, now simply a shaped piece of wood, her digging stick. One end is slick with blood.
Warra says, “He is stable, but he has been hit by something, I need to know what it is. Look for a tree branch, or something.”
Jemma steps forward, uneasily, and retrieves the digging stick, “Here.”
He looks to her, his eyes white, “Ok. Put it down, and come over here,” he watches as she steps towards him, “No. Put it down there.”
Jemma shakes her head, trying to return to the present, unwilling to leave the past. She looks back along the path, half expecting to see Warrumba and half prepared to run.
Warra continues, “He has a deep cut to his head, and there is a lot of blood, but he will be ok.” He says more quietly, “I think”, and then louder, “Come here.”
As she comes down to him, he says in a more gentle tone, “He has a good pulse and he is breathing fine.”
He rips a piece of cloth from Aither’s shirt, sprays antiseptic on it and folds it against the wound. He asks Jemma, “Hold it here, like this. I need you to apply pressure to this bandage to help stop the bleeding.”
He asks, “How long has he been unconscious? I was only gone a couple of minutes...”
Jemma said, uncertainly, “I did not see. It is complicated... I should have explained earlier...”
Before she could get any further, Aither’s turned his head slightly and his eyes blink open. He groans. Warra says, “Don’t move mate. Just take it easy for a moment.”
Aither’s eyes turn to Jemma, “What came over you?”
Jemma looks to Warra, “Will he be ok?”
Warra says to Aither, “You have an injury to your head, a cut. We are stopping the bleeding. You probably had a nasty concussion. But, if you are lucky, you will come out of this with just a gash an inch across. It needs to be cleaned and stitched.”
Aither makes an effort to stand up and they hold him down, gently.
Warra fires questions at him, “How are you feeling? Sick?”
“Good sign, Headache?”
“Good, maybe... You been concussed before?”
“A couple of times. Last time you were there, ages ago.”
“I remember that. How does this rate?”
“I think I can walk.”
Warra relaxed a little, “Ok. We will give you a moment, to catch your breath. I have got us a suite down in the cave house. It will be twilight in a moment, a good time for us to get in without attracting any attention. We can get cleaned up and I will get us some meals.”
They relaxed for a moment, the last rays of the sun hitting their resting place. A kookaburra calls the passing of the sun.
Warra says, “While we wait, I want you both to tell me what you remember.”
Aither says, “I was showing Jemma something on my phone.”
He lifts the phone to them, the picture of the ashes still on the screen. Jemma freezes.
“Jemma was looking at the screen, and seemed to fall into a trance of some sort. She froze, and her eyes shut. I could see her eyelids moving. I did not move, I thought she might topple. Then she clutched my phone tightly. I was worried she might drop or throw it. Then she gave a shout, so I took the phone back. I don’t know what happened then.”
Jemma asked, tears in her eyes, “How long was i like that?”
He said, “15 seconds.”
She says, “No. It can’t be.”
Warra points to the stick, “We think she clobbered you with the digging stick. Next time, just give her the phone.”
Aither grimaced and tuned to Jemma, “Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know. Well maybe I do. Tonight I will tell you all I know.”
Aither said, “Give us the brief version, right now.”
Jemma said, “I have been having sort-of blackouts - intense waking dreams. You showed me something on your phone, and I fell into one of them. I remember you pulling the phone away from me, and then... then the digging stick happened.”
Aither and Warra exchanged a glance. Jemma was defensive, “I did not take the drug. I cant remember anyone giving it to me.”
Warra turned the conversation gently, “That is a pretty solid stick. You must have picked it up to help walk the track. I wonder where you found it - it does look like something the old people made to dig yams and roots, and kill small creatures. See, it has been toughened in fire. That could have done Aither some real damage. Can I hold this? Do you mind?”
“You do not trust me?”
“Do you trust yourself?”
Jemma pauses for a moment, “No, but you are both here to help me through this.”
Warra looks at her. For a moment he wonders if she is the same person he met a couple of days before. She seemed different. He hands her back the digging stick, “Good, it did not feel right in my hands.”
They cleaned Aither up and, when the twilight fell, walked carefully down the last part of the path and up to the side entrance of the cave house.
As she walked up the path, she could smell the cold wind from the cave mouth, a vague damp smell from a distant past.
For a moment, she saw the cave formations she and Warrumba had explored, watching the shards of light explode off a star field of crystal.
For a moment she remembers sitting at the rock pool, fishing for Gurangatch’s kin, helping her daughter thread shells into a necklace.
For a moment she feels her digging stick twist in her hand, and she remembered how the caves were formed, as the tiger-cat chased her.
Then she bit her tongue hard, and felt blood.
The building smelt old, exotic with smoke and scents from the kitchen drifting along the old corridors.
Warra left them in the room, “I have all we need to sew you up. Boil some water please while I get the stuff I need from my car and the kitchen.”
He left them.
Aither said to her, “I feel tired.”
Her heart leapt. This was one of the warning signs Warra had told her to watch for. She said, “You have to stay awake.”
She put her digging stick close to the window.
She lay him across the old bed and sat next to him, his head on top of her, their eyes meeting.
He said, “Very tired.”
She cried, “No. Stay alive!”
As Warra came quietly into the room, Jemma said, “I will tell you our story again, one last time, as you lay on this old bed. Stay with me. Stop it twisting away from me.”
This story was built in G+. It is a retelling of the story of the Luck of Troy, the Palladium. I have dedicated this novel to all those that helped me write it. +madhura ravishankar suggested a book of this approximate title in a Google+ post. Before that suggestion, +Ann Pollak had gone a quest challenge to find spring at the end of a cold Canadian winter. I thank those who seconded Madhura's proposal and then encouraged me to finish it off - +Nina Anthonijsz , +Ann Pollak (who inspired the Empress Fall escapade), +Judy Waller , +Chris Sutton and +Janice Day.
+Laisa Gran early reminded me of the importance of dreams and laughter, while +shonie Hutter helped me untangle a bit of ireland and scotland which I got confused and then gave me a gentle shove off the cliff. +Monique Helfrich helped me work out what themes were important. Sometimes a smile is important - writing is a lonely task - and at different times +Jim Munro , +marilyn David , +Matthew Fowler , +Klara Moody , +Graciela Quiroga , +Stephanie B. Regan , +Jan Reid - Lennox and +madelene jeffery recharged my batteries. I also note my appreciation of all the support from those I have not named here, who made this enjoyable and helped me stay saner than I might have been.