Resting Place by Karen Lethlean

Resting Place by Karen Lethlean

Resting Place

Alan finds a glade with no overhead branches which might come crashing down if winds blow up. Legs burning from walking in, focused on drawing in presence of his mother. Hearing her words. ‘Won’t be easy, but after you’ve spread my ashes, I challenge you to be caretaker for this place, visit me. Not going to say, once a year, leave frequency up to you. Think you can manage, be strong enough?’

Underfoot only hard ground, rough with exposed pebbles frustrates him. Surface sand aright, but a clay base baked so hard he can’t drive in tent pegs. So he looks around for any rocks to use either as a hammer or just to stabilise his tent. Isn’t a rock, bigger than coin sized, within fifty miles of this place. He has to make do with ropes. After a couple of tries, until he gets a double half hitch knot right and secures his tent on long lines between tree trunks. Looks like a canvas carcass strung up as he prepares to evoke some sort of macabre punishment. Not best job, but will have to do. He’s worked up a sweat, getting this done, and here he is, right next to a river. Perfect. Reminds himself, Mum asked me to come here before looking around, and stripping off.

Brown water reflecting flecks of blue sky, slivered trunks and grey-green leaves, as sprawling river red gums mirrored positions on concave banks. River water low and lazy. He scans surfaces thinking of fish, turtles, eels, yabbies, grubs, waters teeming invisible life. How different from searching high tide marks for blue bottle jellyfish bodies. Watching not to step on a stingray basking in shallows.

This is not just idle contemplation; He’s also looking for snakes. Crouching close, looking for signs. Tracks of woven slight depressions forming undulating patterns. Head tilted to one side to cut out reflections, like his mother taught him. She made sure basics, roo, emu, lizard, snake, sea gull, turtle were recognizable well before high school.

Between river gums, banks are a chaos of fallen trees half submerged. Broken boughs and strewn branches, must have been one hell of a blow recently. Maybe his mum has been hosting some sort of ghoulish party?

Been a while since last time he honoured Mum’s dying wishes. Sure is peaceful here, she was right to insist, make time to come see my river bend.

Growing around and through dishevelled giants are saplings with slender trunks and round, blue-green leaves. Lucky to find such a good spot for the tent. High above him in gum trees partially unseen are hundreds of sulphur-crested cockatoos perched resembling blossoms. He can hear their communicative faint squawks. See occasional flower cap fall. Reminds of those festivals with street parades where flowers are thrown, tomatoes, all sorts of projectiles. Alan concludes cockatoos above are waiting for something interesting to happen. Be a mistake to take relative lack of movement for granted. Heard himself promise not to take anything on face value, ever again.

Away from the coast Alan feels a tension, recalls bunyips stories, events such as Uncle Graham sneaking around in darkness, emitting a low growl, lifting fine hairs on behind his neck while Alan tried not to whimper or wet his sleeping bag. 

Time for a swim to wash away those memories.

There’s a bit of a beach on his side of the river but on opposite water is deep and cool. Once immersed a steeper bank faces Alan, resembling sculptured faces, patterns of runoff, floods and flow variations. He splashes around here for a while in big gum tree shadows. Kicking up enough white water to keep snakes away. As distinct from keeping splashes and surface tension vibrations to a minimum, hopeful not to attract sharks. Here you can’t really strike out and swim any distance because of snags, from fallen trees and branches. Again a variation from his usual avoidance of shallow areas around inshore reefs, or taking care not to let waves, tidal currents or general water movement push you onto weedy rocks. Floating, keeping himself in position with one arm hooked around a branch watching sunlight play on ripples and sky reflections, he is suddenly, deeply happy. 

Alan sees two Willie Wagtails, his eye drawn by their flickering dance, a sharpness of black and white low down at water edge trees branches. A curious bird capable of reaching out to others. He’s seen pictures of Willy Wagtails on crocodile’s heads. Best not dwell on crocs here. His Mum used to unravel complicated stories. That one’s a bully, disliked so much others suspected he’d been feasting on human flesh. When they found out the truth, they sung over him until his back was broken, and he became a little bird unable to straighten his tail...Another version; a gossip monger, brought bad news about illnesses, falling out of love, unfaithful women. Those sort of things. Watch out for your words around him. See his eyebrows, old wizard face, hear little clicks, he’s listening. But respect. Direct links to other spirits right there in his waggly dance. You can’t possibly know what his dance is saying, but something greater will read its message. Pity this bird hadn’t brought news of her impending death. If so, might he have done something to prevent her stroke?

Isn’t until another bird moves he understands cause for Wagtail’s agitation. A small owl, disturbed in its roost. Dark rings around its eyes, like spectacles. A mopoke, he thinks, although too early for identifying calls, he knows this sound from most sleep out nights. …Bad tempered, selfish man, not keen to share; don’t be like him. Spirit disguised as a man changed him, so now his empty call, shows regret, sadness. Careful you’re not like him regretting any could-have-been. He’s one dark being too, cover yourself, and watch out for night time things.

The owl swivels its head but otherwise makes no move to avoid wagtail harassment. Weird how such a little bird should torment another much larger threat. Sort of like a skinny runt, primary school kid taking on a fully professional full forward, trying to steal a footy.

As he watches, the mopoke swoops from this roost. A single heavy wing flap, a low curving flight over water and out of his perspective. Leaving an image of broad, brown-grey mottled wings – solid yet less real against more tangible pale silver tree trunks and sky-shining water. 

Owl. Another symbol of death, or wisdom? Messengers bringing letters from home in Harry Potter’s world. Which mythology should he take?

Alan closes his eyes, lulled by water movement against his body, sounds of branches shuffling high up, eucalyptus and faintly lemon scents of bush all around.

A physical shock, bringing him upright, wide-eyed and gasping, breathing in mud fused river water, when overhead cockatoos suddenly take flight. Their noises, a screech of rusted machinery forced into action, resembling throat bleeding panic born screams.

Is someone else coming down the pathway? This late, unlikely. Must be a reason for their instant noisy alighting in flight. Mind playing games on him? Maybe they detect signs of a predator, what feeds on cockatoos? Monitor lizards, probably, because no dingoes around here, too close to towns, too far south. Remembers he’s seen those birds swinging upside down from various roadside objects, chasing each other around his washing lines, just for fun. Must be able to perceive air pressure, or some secret lore. Concludes no way to explain reason for their taking off.

Alan is passing beneath a black box tree, registers in part of his mind, fallen branches, and piles of dead wood as snake hidey-holes. He crackles through twigs. Eyes continually scanning ground for any sudden movement, stirring or quick slithering. Sticks growing scales and taking on breath, blood, and venom. Morphing from an inanimate object, gaining colour, red belly, yellow stripes or a copper sheen. Borderline paranoia, back off and relax, mate.

It’s not the snake you see that you have to worry about; it’s the snake you don’t.

Why did she instruct me to come here, a place so laced with danger?

The bite comes straight through his thin cotton trousers. For a second, he thinks he’s caught a jagged twig edge of a twig but then he sees. Confronted with a rearing, hissing head, neck flattened and spread in cobra-style outrage.

Not a twig, Alan freezes.

An invader in this paradise. When really, trespasser status belonged to him.

Full realisation trickles down his spine and panic begins to beat wild wings against dumb cage of his body. Nope not a twig.

Alan stands as still as a tree, for snake departure. Reptile in no hurry. Done its job.

Think, think.

Doing his best to focus. Not another soul in sight. No buildings nor anyone else close enough, capable of raising an alarm when he doesn’t come home and here he is with a tiger snake bite low on his leg. Has to be said – things aren’t looking too good. Will Jenny, his down stairs neighbour, notice an absence tonight on light illumination time? When she’d normally hear his movements. Will she wonder where I am? Like she knew Mum was gone, fronted up on his doorstep, held his shaking limbs, her tears dampening his T-shirt. Let Alan know he needn’t shoulder grief on his own. Did he tell her of his plans to walk into where his mother’s ashes are scattered? Will she sent Frank out to find him?  It’s a chance. A slim one, but it’s a chance. How long till dark?

Too long.

Slowly, very slowly, each movement made with minimal effort, painstakingly away from snake habitat. Head for the vehicle track.

You have so little time.

Be more if you carried a snake bandage.

Movement pushes venom around his body. Must move a little as possible. He looks at a skinny half-overgrown trail closer to river edges. Place he used to vanish, getting space from an uncle or some pesky cousins. Can make it so far, but could he go further? Which is shorter? Back to a house, find a telephone. Should he risk it? No. He won’t make it. Too far. And efforts wiping out any chances. Get to a vehicle track. Do what you know you have to do. Before he leaves tree shade, Alan picks up four long, thin sticks.

Out here in full sun, but at least visible, if there’s anyone to see. His leg beginning to tingle and his toes feel cold. Imagination? How quickly does anybody respond to toxins? Depends on how long since last snake’s strike, age of the thing, doesn’t it?

He unfastens his trousers and steps out of them. Lowering himself onto dusty earth track side. Then winds his pants in a clumsy bandage, tight as he can, strength vanishing, up the leg from snake bite to thigh. Fastens it with his belt, firmly. Concentrating hard. Sweat breaks out on his forehead and runs into his eyes, stinging. Takes off his shirt and spreads it over the other leg to keep late afternoon sun off his skin. His red T-Shirt will protect the upper body to some extent. Sunburn least of his problems but Alan tries to give himself the best chance.

Can’t just give up. Seen too many of his cousins go that way.

Strung out, tired from fighting against booze, drugs, even cigarettes, until they can’t resist anymore.

Breaking up collected sticks, he lays out a word TIGER on the flat track. If anyone does happen to come along and find him, they’ll know immediately what his problem is. Or was. Wonders how long he’s got. Reactions to tiger-snake bites are highly individual.

There’s an inch, no more, left in his water bottle. Why didn’t I refill from the river?  He drains it and lies down, pulling his hat over his face and hearing his mother’s words from a long time ago.

If a tiger snake gets you and you can’t reach help, lie down and keep still. After four hours you’ll gradually begin to recover you strength. Or you’ll be dead. Either way, you’ll be through the worst of it.

Not funny now.

Tears prickle behind his eyelids. Is it possible to weep away poison? Waves of nausea roll over. He feels clammy, and shivers a little. Stay calm, Al. Keep still. There’s a thick coil rolling and curdling of his stomach. Fear or venom?

From somewhere over by river banks come sounds of a kookaburra’s echoing hysterics. Raising a warning, bringing help? Mum used to say, signal of coming rain. Alan finds thoughts hopeful this bird call is about celebrating eating a snake lunch.

Discovers he cannot move. Cannot even will movement of little finger wriggles.  Consciousness retreats to a pinpoint, a space of quiet astonishment in a body without boundaries.

Someone is whispering. His mum?

Don’t die, don’t let him die, oh please, don’t let him die…

Who is pleading?

Cannot open my eyes.

Over and over again, a dry whispers comes, mumbled, semi-words, brushing like hot dusty breezes. Rather than bristling with Indian Ocean, long way out there before another land mass, air currents here belong to inland vast solitudes. Yet grains lifted to be airborne conjure images of sticking to dark, dancing feet. 

Danger. Everywhere. Never find me here. See! Nothing. Will never find me; I am part of land. I am already gone. No, you are still separate from this place, you are not dead.

Sun moves on.  Flies drone and crawl on him, can’t feel their legs, or their regurgitation, because he is not there. Roaring fills his ears; wind, dry salty oceanic, brushes unbearably over his body in a rush of whispers and faint onion scent. Singing, chanting, scraping.

When Alan comes to, he is in a hospital bed, overhead light pinches behind his eyes, turns his head to see a connection with a drip and experiences the most dreadful headache of his life.

As nausea subsides for a moment, he gropes about to locate a bedside buzzer and press it. Someone will know what happened. How he was saved, and by who? Cannot shake off sensations of his mother’s hand squeezing his fingers.


Read another of Karen’s works right here on Baby Teeth.


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Karolina Ristevski

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