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2005 short fiction (pdf)
2006 short fiction (pdf)
New Australian Tales of the Supernatural
Edited by Bill Congreve
Once, when walking at night in the bush near the peak of Mt Kaputar in outback New South Wales, I came across a wild pig.
I have a ritual whenever I camp at Mt Kaputar, and that is to walk to the treacherous, rocky peak at night by whatever light the moon or stars have to offer. There I lie back, a hundred-and-fifty metre drop on two sides, and watch the stars until I'm forced to return by the cold. It's a proving myself sort of thing. Perhaps silly, but invigorating.
The drive to the peak is like a pilgrimage into nature. We leave the dry, country town of Narrabri with its very few monuments to the 21st century: McDonald's, KFC, and the interstellar interferometer, and drive east along an increasingly lonely country lane towards an imposing volcanic shield wall.
The blacktop gives way to dirt, and the farmhouses become ancient. A rusted iron bridge crosses a dry creek bed, leading nowhere. A lonely intersection advertises 'No Through Road' on both forward options, then the narrow dirt road winds upwards through the trees and between the ancient volcanic monoliths. Drive this road in the golden light of dusk and the sensation of being on a pilgrimage becomes overwhelming.
On the night I want to tell you about, there was no moon. I had been to the summit once already to watch the sunset. The sky is red, orange, yellow, blue and gray. The rain from a thundercloud over Tenterfield drifts into pink mist. Smoke from a forest fire west of Moree spirals into the atmosphere, adding to the texture of the light. The sinking sun glints from thousands of roadside puddles, farmers' dams and small lakes. The lights of Gunnedah and Armidale wink on. Perhaps somebody on the Warrumbungle Ranges, a hundred and eighty kilometres away, is looking back at me where I stand, thinking, wondering, as am I.
Back at the campsite, I cook dinner, prepare my tent and bedroll for a freezing night, drink a mug of port, and wait.
Then it is time to return to the summit.
If you wish to know the sound a kangaroo makes in the middle of the night when it is spooked, imagine the first grunt a large dog might make if you sneak up on it while it's asleep, and whack it with a ping pong bat. After that comes a pounding crash, and you have time to think 'Oh shit' to yourself a half dozen times at high speed, and then you hear another pounding crash a half dozen metres away from the first, and further away from you. Then another, then another, all receding.
The first kangaroo you hear in the bush at night will startle you. Beyond that, kangaroos are no problem. Neither are owls, snakes, nor the creak of massive boughs rubbing against each other in breezes so gentle they barely touch your face.
Pigs are different.
If a wild pig knows where you are, but thinks you don't know where it is, you may be safe. It feels secure. It can sit behind its screen of dense scrub and think to itself: 'Hey, look at that idiot human. I can tear its arse out if I want. But I'm too lazy. Heh, heh, heh.' It is lucky for humans that wild pigs have no idea how badly they stink. So, if you smell a pig in the bush, talk confidently, bang a couple of rocks innocently together (Douglas Adams had that one right!), and keep walking right on by. The instant you change your actions or body language in any way, the pig will think: 'Oh shit! It knows I'm here!' And then, quite likely: 'I've gotta get it before it gets me!'
I felt something watching me; then I smelt the pig. The dirt road led past a hollow, the kind of place common on the plateau where a thin layer of sand and mulch stretched over an ancient lava flow. The three-metre-high scrub of tea tree, eucalypt and acacia was dense at chest height, much less so at ground level. The pig made no sound, just gave off a typical, rank aroma.
I couldn't switch on the torch. I couldn't run. I couldn't shout.
I dare not even stumble on the rocks or potholes in the dirt track. Without breaking stride I stepped higher, splayed my feet wider. I tried to control my sweat glands, control my breathing, and be confident. I whispered the chorus of Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water' to myself and imaged the mess my torch would make smashed into the pig's mouth -- which is bugger-all, really.
And I walked on by.
Fifty metres further up the dirt road, with the stench of pig behind me, I switched the torch on then off again, and laughed out loud. I walked on up to the summit in a great mood, and there let the night sky prove to me that space is not as dark as we like to pretend.
Then I realized I must return...
I felt intensely alive that night. I had confronted the dark -- both inside myself and out there in the real world.
And I had walked out the far side, respecting and loving every precious moment.
This is what a good horror story is about.
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