Letter: On Fear - Blame it on the Night (2022)
Dear Ravi, Good Health!
My greatest thanks to you for your wishes, and my embarrassment that my first reply, carefully prepared and full of joy, was mislaid. I have a fleeting memory of an interruption which is no excuse for the misadventure - but I hope you will forgive me. I am afraid this response has a different overtone.
Thank you for the birthday offering, it gives me great joy to share your table, if only in spirit. Perhaps, if the world becomes a little kinder, in the future we will be able to meet and smile into each other's eyes.
The uncertain stench of plague still lingers here, but high vaccination rates have calmed its severity. Today, unexpectedly, I was thrust into a throng of unmasked folk, and I felt high anxiety. I will have to work on that. To be human, is to join the world. After 2 years of being a hermit, crowds still cause me distress when they should engender excitement. I hope it will not be forever thus.
Life on my farm has been very satisfying. I have been translating at night, working in my fields during the day. I have broken each of my tools at least once, and have taught myself to craft and replace wooden handles, all the way through to welding and machining parts for my small tractor (without which I would be lost). The year has been very wet - floods have washed away old fences a couple of times, and the forests burnt in the bushfires have regenerated. So I have been kept busy.
It is into this idyllic quiet existence that disquiet has slowly creeped.
I am not talking about the incessant arguments between conservatives and liberals in our towns or cities, or the clumsy posturing of warlike nations who have better things to do. Nor less the increasing activity on the sun's surface, sending plasma flares this way. Although, with a brand new internet service, all these things I can now see much clearer, with an illusion of familiarity my distance from civilization does not deserve.
Instead, it is from the wilderness that my concern has spread - but to be complete, and put all my cards on the table, with your indulgence, I should start back a couple of years. For in the early days of the pandemic, my inability to keep up solid exercise, and some poor choices on my table occasioned an increase in weight - something I have always struggled with. This time I ventured into the realm of Diabetes II and elevated sugar levels caused all sorts of unexpected changes to my physical and mental balance. Since then, a strict diet and improvement in my cardio has allowed me to resume walking and short runs, as well as the satisfying hard work on the farm. While my physical state has resumed its normal happy form, and perhaps even improved, the sugar levels in my blood remain volatile - and causes all sorts of strange experiences: sometimes elation, sometimes tiredness. The imbalance sometimes takes me to the edge of reality - I trust not over - but in that state I sometimes experience fleeting shadows, or inexplicable sounds. Sometimes, I come across tracks in overnight mud that fade even as I regard them. I mention all these things simply as a prelude to discussing the cause of my concern. For it may be that some of the events may be explained by sugar imbalance or, simply, loneliness.
My farm is on the edge of the Tallaganda Wilderness. It is a vast area, some parts of which were badly damaged by fire.
A disused logging track passes through my farm and winds back past two others before entering the forest and gradually fading into dozens of small indistinct paths. Just before entering the forest, one may stand and look back to the Australian Alps - snow covered but far more modest than your Himalayas - a sight I long to see one day. As part of my exercise regime I walked these paths frequently, and spent time exploring some of the secret tors and gulfs of the wilderness, for a time laid bare by the fire. I have watched with pleasure (a little bittersweet) as the forest has regained life hue, and gradually forced me back to machined trails. The last couple of ventures into the wilderness were full of birdsong and wildflowers and the sound of heavy animals, wombats and kangaroos, returning to the now renewed burnt areas. But there was something else that cautioned unease. I cannot point to anything tangible - perhaps I caught a whiff of some fey smell or perhaps it was unexplained tracks on the trail.
I found myself making excuses to pursue different roads, away from the wilderness, to take my exercise.
The nearest farm along the trail into the forest is in a ruinous condition. It is not much to look at, and overflows with unfinished grand designs. The ramshackle house was occupied by a genial man, a former security specialist, who had escaped from the cities to live a peaceful life out in the backwoods. He was untroubled by clutter, and saw through the need for a hundred small jobs to the beauty surrounding him. He enjoyed the company of wombats, tolerated the snakes that live too close to his home, and shared the wonder of orchids and waterfalls near his stead. He died there unexpectedly for reasons unknown a couple of months back, but I still find myself composing summaries of the day to tell him, until I recall his absence.
The last farm along the road is occupied by cattle. The owner removed sheep years earlier because of attacks from feral animals. The wilderness here boasts an uncomfortable number of different animals - wild boars, larger wild dogs and the Australian wolf, the dingo (which is said to be descended from the wild dogs of your continent - although I cannot confirm that). There have been reports of other things seen - black shapes that move like panthers and vague human shaped shambles that move like trees, if trees were minded to walk. The First Peoples describe other creatures, Stone forms that morph and snatch people in the wild. Spirit creatures that live in the high trees that call out warnings to those below. Pale human-like creatures that are thought to be spirits of the dead. This last farm has no house, although there are two deserted ruins. Just the fireplace remains of one in a soft valley. A second ruin sits on a high hill on the edge of the wilderness, regarding the forest with empty eyes.
Perhaps, had I kept up my walks I would have avoided what was to come, or maybe would have been better prepared.
I awoke, perhaps a week ago, to an unearthly racket outside my bedroom. I froze in terror at the sounds. As they quieted, I rationalized a hundred rational explanations. I am no stranger to sound - the farm is noisier than a town by bird quarrels, animal snorts, and the sound of road works lower in the valley. Gradually, I lulled myself back to sleep, and forgot the interruption.
In morning time, I walk around my farm, checking my vegetable patches for signs of rabbit or rat or bandicoot. I noticed some strawberry plants have been pulled from their planters, but that did not unduly concern me - a wallaby and her baby trim my lawns at night and I do not begrudge them the occasional treat. But on the high ridge I came upon something quite different. A gate between paddocks had been knocked off its hinges and lay askew and open. I could not think of something large enough to cause such damage - other than my horses or a trespassing cow. But these possibilities were quickly dismissed - the horses showed no sign of injury and the soft ground at the gate gave no clues to the cause. It was then I remembered the sounds from the night before, and resolved to keep closer watch.
Unlike my neighbors, I have no need for guns. I keep a hunting boomerang close by, an old machete which has never been pulled from its sheath for anything more dangerous than long grass and a bow, which has some fearsome looking arrows which I have lost and which have been replaced by small tomato stakes. That night I dreamed of the Icelandic poet, Kormac, who constantly faced trial by combat because of his vicious poems.
Once, after a most unbecoming poem, Kormac approached the wizard Skeggi who owned the sword Skofnung. Skofnung was often sought by lawyers. Skeggi tried to explain to Kormac that the sword had to be carefully prepared before trial. The sun was not to shine on the pommel of the sword. The blade was not to be withdrawn from the scabbard until trial. Skeggi gave the following directions before Kormak's trial: “Sit by yourself and draw it there, hold out the sword blade in front of you and blow on it, then a little snake will crawl out from under the hilt. Turn the sword sideways and make it possible for him to crawl back under the hilt.”
Kormac sneered at the wizard's instructions, disbelieving the nonsense about the magical snake. As he left, he asked ‘What will you sorcerers think of next?’. Of course, Kormac didn’t bother to follow the instructions. He was a poet, impetuous, and prone to jump into trouble without looking. But then, when was the last time you read the instruction manual before using that new piece of equipment?
When Kormac came to the day of trial and drew the sword, Skofnung came out of its scabbard howling. Kormac lost his case, ruing a split thumb and the loss of the duel ransom. He probably had time to think about the sword's preparation. "Sit by yourself before the battle. Catch your breath and relax. Draw the sword and hold the blade out in front of you. Consider your position and the consequences of continuing. Blow on the blade. Watch as your breath reveals the detail of the design etched into the metal, of a serpent protected by runes. Recall you are wielding a sword unbroken by past battles. Turn the sword. The design is replaced by the sharp edge of the blade. Take the responsibility for wielding a named sword." It is a powerful spell. And, if the spell does not work, and you get hurt, Skofnung had one more trick up its scabbard. Attached to it was a healing pouch.
That morning, recalling Kormac's error, I oiled the machete and practiced with it, until it slid easily from the scabbard. I trained in sword play as a young man - and the old routines are drilled into my mind. Although, age and a couple of falls hunting waterfalls have taken the edge off.
It is less easy to practice with a hunting boomerang. It looks nothing like a returning boomerang and is uncompromisingly deadly. There is a First People account of an engagement between Yuin and a raiding party from East Gippsland, the insular Kurnai. Hunting boomerangs were deployed at a distance, causing havoc and great loss of life in the opposing forces. In the chaos, those boomerangs which did not find a target turned and sped back to their owners - sometimes striking them with equally deadly result. I have a heavy Chinese drone that performs much the same way - for reasons I have never understood, it will sometimes switch from ordinary flight to 'return to sender' which is no fun if the blades find you. The hunting boomerang is a last resort.
I like my longbow. It throws an arrow about 50 meters, and I used to be quite good at it. I am far less accurate using tomato stakes - light canes. After a short search for my quiver of proper arrows (lost for many years) I gathered a couple of these together and confirmed that I could still hit a tree at 10 meters, doing more harm to myself as the bow string struck my hand.
Satisfied with my preparations, I patrolled the farm looking for spores or unusual signs. I contacted farmers lower in the valley asking for reports of stock losses or sightings, all to no avail.
When trouble burst on me, I was completely unprepared. Two unkempt pigs wandered in front of me digging up my lawn as they moved. Smaller than the boar's skull found in the nearby forest, these can still charge and knock you flying. I shouted at them and it was over. They turned to the closest fence and crashed through it. The horse stamped their feet and burst into a gallop. The alpaca herd closed in a defensive circle and screamed out a warning. I scrambled for my bow, and gave chase, but all I found were broken fences leading up into the forest.
On my way back down to the farm, I surveyed the damage. There was a pattern to their damage - they were leveraging fence crashing using holes previously made by wombats. I have inherited a century of old rabbit and sheep fences, which I have dutifully patched as needs required. I have never seen the need for anything fancier, as those bulldozers of the bush, wombats, are quite capable of digging up the most carefully laid fence. And I have lots of wombats. Despite the damage I saw, I was unable to reconcile the night scream, the broken gate and the mischief created by the two feral pigs.
I arrived back at the farm to find the two pigs had circled around and come back to where I had first found them. This time, they just looked at me, and were not inclined to move. So, getting closer, I nocked a tomato stake and pulled the bow string back a moderate distance. Instead of flying to its mark, the arrow fell to my feet and the string hit my hand drawing blood. The pigs heard me mutter and raised their snouts. Finally, I managed to get an arrow off into the air. Against the odds, it travelled as far as the larger of the pigs, bouncing harmlessly off the pig’s backside. The pig didn't show any signs of having noticed the arrow hit.
In a moment of foolhardy frustration, I threw the bow to the ground and ran at the pigs screaming. This time they departed a little slower than the first time, and I had a moment of brief pleasure when the horses joined the chase, probably in error. I spent the rest of that day visiting the scene of every wombat incursion on my fences and belting metal stakes into the bottom wire to hold the fence against entry. I then repaired inside to patch a bleeding hand.
Despite patrolling, they did not return that day. Briefly, I wondered whether the bow strike had struck fear into the hearts of the pigs. And, as unlikely as that seemed, I clung to the belief.
I will not test your patience with a recitation of the raids and chases that happened over the next few days. My attempts to patch the fences failed to prevent the pigs finding a way in. My days were punctuated with strange happenings that I put down to the pigs - large scuffles and tracks, unusual sounds and that feeling in the back of the head that something was watching me. On each occasion, the damage done by the pigs became more - it became clear that hunger was driving them to dig up my farms - lawns and vegetable patches. Finally they demolished my grain store and raided the chicken coop. During this time, I called for reinforcements, without much to show. I became far more deadly with the longbow, and found arm and hand guards to make the whole operation far less painful. Occasionally a hit would cause them to leave with a squeal, but tomato stakes were just not cutting it.
Clearly, nothing I possessed was going to discourage the pigs. So, in desperation I took a bag of bread, and laid a crumb trail back up to the forest hoping that a feast might take their minds off my farm.
I must have struck a desolate figure walking up in the rain. Mist was rising and I ignored the sounds of the alpacas calling danger. The downpour became heavier, and I put up my hood.
Please, Brother, do not laugh at this image of a defeated elven form trudging away in defeat, longbow in one hand and a useless machete tied around his waist.
I followed the road back up into the wilderness as evening started to fall. At the top of the first high rise, close to the dead farmer's deserted farm house, I looked back into the gloom and thought I saw pigs following my trail. And then, madness seeped back into my world. For as I turned around back to the dead man's ruinous farm house I heard a repeat of the scream I had heard a couple of nights early. I froze in fear. The sound came from further up the path, perhaps at the edge of the wilderness.
I thought quickly, and took my bread trail into the house yard of the dead man. Despite the condition of the house, his fences were unusually solid, something I had failed to notice previously. I threw the remaining bread in the center of the house yard and retired to one side, startling a wombat as I went. The pigs charged in and I circled to close the house yard gates. The pigs ignored me, but the wombat started to test the fence, to no effect. I briefly wondered once again why the need for such effort with the fence, and briefly offered a short prayer of gratitude.
In the darkness I stood on the road and looked towards the wilderness, wondering what I had heard. I turned my back toward home, and started to walk. It was then I felt it, behind me, watching me. I felt its eyes burn into my back. I didn't need to hear it, but it screamed at me anyway. I started to run, slipping in the mud, panic stricken.
I felt the precise moment it stopped watching me. By that time I had fallen a couple of times and was covered in mud. I kept moving as quickly as I could, putting as much distance as I could and trying to rationalize my fear. I had not seen anything. Against the odds, I had found a way of corralling the pigs. Surely my only problem was just an over active imagination - perhaps caused by a spike in blood sugar.
I didn’t sleep that night. In the morning, the floods receded and I was able to arrange a pig hunter to come and catch the pigs at the dead man's farm and relocate them far away to start a new life. He said that they attacked him on sight, desperate to get away from the place.
Midday, I put away my collection of useless arms, and I walked up to where I had been the night before. It had rained a little that night, and my tracks were indistinct. But, next to them, I saw tracks of what appeared to be a large beast. As I watched, even those traces disappeared into the mud bath of the road.
For a week following I had terrible dreams. Flashes of the fire storm, and of things deep in the forest being disturbed. Things big and nasty enough to scare feral pigs out into the farm lands. An elf walking away from defeat, trailing his longbow.
But, despite these dark-mares, my life is slowly returning to normal and the bits are falling into place. It is now weeks since I have heard or saw or perceived anything. Perhaps the danger is passing.
Please write and tell me that your farm life is not troubled by such visions. Tell me of your harvest and days spent in gentle contemplation of the world.
This is one of a series of letters (2000-2020) that explores issues from slavery, law reform, deontic logic, plague and legal theory. Some were originally included in a legal text "Lessons" (2019) prepared for teaching legal theory to legal students. Others simply address or reflect on issues of the moment.
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