By Alan Reid
It was one of those heart-of-winter moonless nights. Susan sat on the porch marvelling at the frost shimmering on the grass, a dancing reflection rising to a sea of stars. The vista swept across the open plain linking the ground and sky without horizon, without break, without division; the land and the sky as one in a sparkling discourse of jewels on a black canvas. The zephyr whistling a mournful, caressing tune through the giant pine at the corner of the house, providing harmony for the night chorus of frogs in the swamp on the plain.
Susan pulled the eiderdown quilt tightly around her neck and took another sip of tea as she surveyed the star filled sky. She had been irritated when the generator ran out of fuel and the kitchen was thrown into darkness, but it was so peaceful sitting on the porch watching the night, feeling the freshness. It would be good when the men returned tomorrow, but it was pleasant sitting, listening to the night, the soft whistle of the wind in the pine needles, staring at the winking stars as she thought of the lack of stars in the city. She smiled as she silently conceded that the beauty of the country sometimes made her forgot all about her beloved city and its way of life.
The peaceful scene was shattered when the pinecone banged onto the tin roof with a loud crash and rattled down the slope, cascading like a galloping cloven hooved herd, as it stampeded down the steep incline to the gutter. Susan’s scream echoed across the plain sending the night birds and their roosting cousins into a frenzied chorus of alarmed screeching. The offending cone hit the gutter and thudded to the ground sending Susan springing out of her seat and re-coiling against the wall, her pannikin crashing to the floor and spraying hot tea onto her legs and feet.
“Stupid tree! Stupid birds! Stupid place!” Susan retorted. “I don’t know why they have to have trees that drop things all the time just to frighten the life out of people.”
“I’m going to bed!” she announced emphatically to the pinecone and the rest of the earless, dispassionate multitude as she recovered the pannikin and went inside.
She quickly sank into the bed, the soft sound of the wind in the pine tree soothing her, its gentle hypnotic, soporific sound lulling Susan deeper into the caressing warmth of the blankets and eiderdown.
She didn’t know why she was awake. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep. She didn’t even know whether she had been asleep. She wasn’t even sure she was awake. In her confusion she didn’t know whether she had heard a sound, or it was a dream. Maybe it was still a dream; she couldn’t tell. But she was sure there was a noise; loud, intrusive, disturbing, foreign. Maybe it was another pinecone rolling on the roof. Then again maybe it was nothing.
The sudden crash wasn’t a dream. It was real, outside, near the laundry. Susan sat up, alert, drawing her knees in tightly and stretching the eiderdown to her chin as she listened to the steel bucket roll back and forth on its side, handle to handle. The night air was cold, but Susan could feel the sweat beading out on her forehead and between her shoulders. She felt the chill moving up her back to block her throat and she heard her laboured breath.
“Who’s there?” she called in an unrecognised voice muffled by the heartbeats drumming in her ears.
The rolling bucket speeded its rattle in a tightening arc until it stopped and the silence of the night embraced the house. Susan fought to cut off her laboured gasps for air; peering through the darkness, watching for shadows in the void, seeking the familiar but visualising only spectres in the gloom as she listened for alien sounds beyond the room, searching with her ears. Was there any difference to the creaking boards and windows in the old house? Was the whistle through the pines louder? Did something move past the window? Could it be something outside; or someone? She hadn’t heard a car. Maybe it was just the wind.
Susan eased back onto the pillow and lay still, silent, hearing sounds, identifying noises, leaves scooting across the ground, a wind driven rope tapping rhythmically on a post, the squeaking windmill in the distance, a gum tree rubbing its branches like some giant ship against its moorings. Gradually she closed her eyes, flickering at first, then giving way to the euphoria of caressing tranquillity.
The coarse, theroid screech was that of strangled agony from deep in the throat of some mystic animal. Susan leapt from the bed and spread against the wall, fear engulfing her being. The banshee’s cry echoed through the house as something scampered across the tin roof. Was it trying to escape? Was it being pursued by something bigger, something more threatening? Was it an animal or something more sinister? Ben had talked about the Yowie, the Big Foot, but Norman had assured her it was a joke, a myth. Maybe if she stayed quiet it would go away.
The abrasive shriek echoed again as Susan cringed into the corner and small feet scurried everywhere – on the verandas surrounding the house, out the back, on the roof and banging against the ceiling above her head; all the time the unearthly sound gathering new voice as it moved through the house. Something thumped over Susan’s head, triggering a crescendo of agonised screeching as the creature attempted to punch its way through the ceiling.
She fled through the darkened rooms to the kitchen, crashing into furniture, fumbling for the candle on the dresser, frantically seeking out a box of matches from beside the stove. The clamour was engulfing the house. The thumping against the roof was following her. Susan fought to control her shaking as match after match splintered onto the floor. The inhuman sound moved closer, the thumping on the ceiling grew more frantic. Then it stopped and silence once more engulfed the house.
Susan stayed her breath, placed the candle in its holder, laid the combination on the table and drew a long even breath. She took a match from the box, struck it firmly, cupped her hands around the flame and lit the candle.
She almost knocked it over when the rasping wail returned just outside the kitchen window and an assortment of tins and tools crashed to the floor. Once again she heard the sound of feet scamper across the veranda. Susan looked at the ceiling as something moved overhead. She stared hard, looking beyond the ceiling, trying to identify the threat from above.
She saw the rifle hanging on its pegs above the door. She stared at the rifle knowing she couldn’t shoot but thinking that if she just held it the protagonist might run away. It shouldn’t be too hard. She’d seen Ben use the gun. All she needed to do was hold it. That should frighten whatever it was. Animals always ran away and hid when a gun was produced. Susan reached up, lifted the rifle off its pegs and held it at arms length to push the door with the point of the barrel, easing it open.
The harsh cry sent her reeling back across the kitchen, grasping the rifle tightly across her chest. She stood against the wall, listening to the unnerving screeching and thumping outside the door. Something crashed against the door, forcing the screen in an attempt to break through to the kitchen. Susan skirted the wall to the table under the window and rummaged for the box of bullets Ben kept among the papers, pens, car parts and other bits and pieces. It had to be in the drawer somewhere; she’d seen it before. Susan pulled the drawer out, laid it on the table and held the candle high as she continued to sort through the paraphernalia. She knew the colour of the box; all she had to do was find it. She knew how to load the rifle too; she’d seen Ben shooting the gun when the fox attacked the chickens. Susan shook the contents of the bullet box onto the table, fitted one into the hole at the end of the barrel and closed the bolt. She lifted the gun to her shoulder and looked along the barrel.
She lowered the rifle to her side and lent against the wall alongside the kitchen window. She didn’t know how to shoot. She didn’t even know what to shoot at. Why was she holding a rifle anyway? It was ridiculous. What if whatever it was took the rifle and turned it on her? She wouldn’t let it. What if it had a rifle? Maybe Yowies have guns. Maybe its just waiting for her to come outside.
She stood, breathing quietly, thinking about Charlie and Norman. Father and son, camped in the bush, sleeping under the cathedral of stars. It would be so good to be with them tonight.
The rasping screech broke the night air as the beast crashed against the wall at Susan’s back. She tightened her grip on the rifle, moved to the door, took a massive breath, opened the door and put the firearm to her shoulder.
The squabbling possums stopped their tumble across the veranda and stood, tails erect as Susan discharged the rifle at something unknown across the plain. The possums scattered, skipping with an awkward crabbing gait towards the beckoning pine and other nearby trees.
Susan fell into the chair, half laughing, half crying, half hysterical, half relieved. She lent the chair against the wall, lifted her feet from the floor, laid the rifle across her lap and laughed aloud in chorus with the noisy, bickering audience of roosting birds in the surrounding trees.
Susan sat on the porch for some time before returning to the house and flicking the bolt of the rifle to send the spent cartridge spinning across the floor. She recovered the scattered cartridge from the table, carefully positioned the box back in the drawer, hung the rifle on its pegs and went to bed.
Norman and Ben finished stacking their gear on the veranda and walked into the kitchen where the tea was steaming from the pannikins on the table and Charlie was excitedly detailing the trio’s camping trip as Susan listened attentively to the exploits of her son.
“How was your time?” Norman interrupted. “It must have been nice and relaxing for you with everyone out of the house.”
“It was,” Susan replied. “I had a wonderful time. The sky last night was enthralling.”
“That’s good,” Norman said. “I thought you might be lonely out here on your own.”
“Of course not.” Susan said quickly. “I had the chooks and the birds and possums to keep me company.”
“Possums!” Ben yelled. “I just got rid of the blasted things. I’ll have to make another trap and re-locate them. Every time I get rid of one lot another arrives. It’s probably the same mob coming back all the time. Damn noisy things they are. I hope they didn’t frighten you Susan,” Ben added.
“No,” Susan replied, turning to the sink. “They’re really cute. Why would they frighten me?”
“That noise would frighten Garm off the gates of hell,” Ben said, pushing his chair back from the table and scooping the spent cartridge off the floor. “I’ve never been able to get used to that damn caterwauling in the middle of the night,” he said twiddling the cartridge between his finger and thumb and glancing at the rifle in its new position on the pegs above the door.
“You’re braver than I Susan. Possums frighten the tripe out of me every time. I’ve always got to fire a shot off to shut ‘em up,” he said dropping the spent shell into his shirt pocket and walking out the door with a grin lighting up his face.