The Lumbering Pulse by James McKenzie Watson
The Lumbering Pulse
I was bored of Australia before the plane’s wheels had hit the tarmac at Sydney Airport, an apathy that only deepened with ten hours of inland driving. It was dark when I pulled up outside Dawn’s homestead, and I was already craving another trip somewhere interesting– somewhere that was untamed because it refused to yield to man, not because there was bugger all worth taming.
She appeared in the yellow gleam of the veranda light, Jackson at her side. That poor little boy- how could he hope to grow up normal, homeschooled by a single mother on such a remote and desolate farm? He embraced my leg as I stepped from the car, his round face shining in the half-light.
“Hello, grandma,” he said.
“Hello, Jackson. Happy birthday. Let go of my leg, please.”
Dawn served roast beef beneath a flickering lightbulb, the walls dark with water stains. The old homestead was in desperate need of renovation or demolition.
“You look tired, mum,” she said.
I grunted. “That’s because I’ve had to drive all the way out here after a seventeen-hour flight.”
“No-one’s made you come out here.”
“Yes they have,” I shot back. “How else am I meant to see my grandson on his birthday?”
Jackson beamed through a mouth of mashed potato. “I’m eight now,” he said.
“I know, sweetheart. Close your mouth, you’re being disgusting.” There was a dullness in his eyes that spoke to his nature- kind, enthusiastic, something of an idiot, but a loveable idiot. My loveable idiot. My only grandchild.
“You say that like it’s a chore coming out here,” said Dawn.
“It is. Don’t think I’ll ever forgive you for moving. As if cattle farming alone in the red plains of Western New South Wales is something I’m meant to approve of-”
“When it starts to turn a profit-”
“If it starts to turn a profit-”
“Why do you hate Australia, grandma?” Jackson asked.
“I don’t. I just think it’s boring as hell. I like places that still have secrets.”
“Well, I just got back from South America. There are always new plants and animals and tribes being discovered there. It’s one of the last truly unexplored places.”
Dawn rolled her eyes and leant close to her son. “Once upon a time, Jackson, your grandmother’s job was to identify and classify native plants and animals. And ever since then she’s thought she knows everything about Australia.”
“Because I bloody well do. There are no secrets left here.”
“The farm has secrets,” Jackson said.
“No, it doesn’t, darling,” I said. “The farm has kilometre upon kilometre of spinifex. No wonder the cows all went missing. Probably died of boredom.”
“Mum,” Dawn said.
“But there are secrets,” Jackson said. “I saw all kinds of strange things while I was out building my den.”
“He’s built a little hut in the paddocks,” Dawn said, answering my frown.
“What, like a feral child?”
“Come out with me tomorrow and see it, grandma!” he said.
Dawn grinned. “What an idea. You’re an explorer, aren’t you mum?”
I didn’t return her smile. She only thought my travel habits were pretentious because the most exotic place she’d ever been was Tamworth.
I looked back at Jackson. There was time to instil a sense of adventure in him, something I’d failed to achieve with Dawn. Perhaps when he finally realised that there was nothing stimulating here, he wouldn’t just lose interest in the world like she had.
“Alright,” I said. “But as we go, I’m making a list of genuinely interesting places for you to visit once you’re old enough to leave this godforsaken hole.”
Jackson cheered. Dawn returned to her food with a weary smile.
“He’s not allowed to go beyond the fence line,” Dawn told me the next morning, the heat already ferocious, the sky beyond the veranda a blue so searing it was almost white. “There are ravines out there, we lose cows in those paddocks. He might try to push the rules if he’s with you.”
“He won’t push the rules if he knows what’s good for him,” I said.
The air was blistering as I stepped off the porch, Jackson chattering incessantly at my side. The paddock sprawled away from us, yellow ryegrass erupting sporadically from the red soil. I looked back to the house, the lone structure in the listless sea, shimmering like a mirage even as we stood right before it.
“So how far to this den?” I said.
“Not far,” Jackson said. “It’s just on the other side of that hill.”
“You know, I went to the Xiangshawan Desert in Mongolia last year. Sometimes the wind there makes a noise like an engine. It’s called the ‘sounding sands.’ Much more interesting than this desert.”
“That’s nice,” said Jackson. “I found a big animal hole I want to show you.”
My face soured. If he lacked the curiosity to be interested by something as incredible as the sounding sands, perhaps he was a lost cause after all.
He lead the way over the rise, his black hair shimmering with sweat. A low-slung fence cut through the land in the distance.
“There it is!”
The den stood in the shade of one of the few gums that had survived the drought. It was perhaps a metre high, three logs meeting at its peak like a tent, walled by broad plates of creamy bark. Jackson dropped to his knees and climbed inside.
“Even today,” I said, “a lot of people in Ghana live in thatched mud huts they’ve made themselves.” I squatted in the dirt beside the structure.
“That’s interesting, grandma.”
“They can build theirs in less than a day, too.”
“They probably have more people to help.”
I opened my mouth to rebuke him, but my eyes found the bark door. There was something strange about it.
Jackson pushed the wall away, revealing the den’s interior. Its floor was protected by another sheet of the same creamy bark. In the far corner was a pile of plastic cups and crockery.
“Do you want some tea?” he said. “Or food? I’ve been eating the leaves when I get hungry.”
“No thanks,” I said. “And don’t eat the leaves, that’s disgusting.” I reached in and ran a finger over his floor. It didn’t feel like bark at all. It was smooth and vaguely supple. “Where did you get this?”
I felt its edge. It was pliable, but as I bent it upwards, a shard broke off with a snap. I raised the fragment to my face.
“Grandma, are you sure you don’t want tea? I’m only going to boil the kettle once.”
“Where did you find this?”
His lips tightened. “If I show you, you have to promise not to tell mum.”
“I’m not promising anything,” I said. His face fell. I looked back at the shard. “Really, Jackson, where did you get this?”
He grinned. “Secret. You like secrets, right?”
I examined the fragment more closely. It wasn’t wood or rock. It almost felt like bone, but its shape, size and malleability ruled that out. To have spent thirty years classifying native flora and fauna only to come across something I didn’t recognise was perplexing. I looked back at Jackson, his grin widening.
“Alright,” I said. “You’ve got me. I won’t tell your mum.”
He’d scrambled from the tent almost before the words had left my mouth and took my hand, a new spring in his step.
“It’s amazing, grandma,” he said. “You’ll love it.”
We crossed the low-slung fence and trekked to the next crest. I climbed the rise expecting another plain but gasped to find myself looking down into decidedly different terrain. The paddock fell away to a deep creekbed that cut through the arid valley. Jackson followed a rambling cliff face down into the gorge. By the time I stood beside him in the basin, my heart was pounding, my face saturated with sweat.
“Have you climbed down here on your own before?” I asked.
Jackson nodded. “Don’t tell mum.”
“You’re obviously got more of my adventurous genes than you let on.”
His grin swelled to engulf his whole face.
I looked up at the banks that enclosed us, the sun focused as it bore into our rivet. There was something very odd about this gorge. Its width was almost constant, a uniform four metres across. The banks met the bed in perfectly smooth transitions, the earth shaped with near mechanical precision. Jackson’s prints were the only indents in an otherwise glassy-flat.
“We’re here!” he called.
I looked up and my stomach contracted. The rivet concluded in a gaping hole, a vast tunnel that stretched down at a gentle incline. Jackson was already descending into its maw, a smuggled pocket torch in hand. My legs went weak.
“Jackson, hold on-”
“This is where I got my doors from, grandma. Come on, we’re exploring!”
“Well, yes, but you don’t know what might be down there-”
“Yes I do!” He disappeared beyond the sunlight’s reach.
I hurried after him, his narrow torch beam bouncing around the cavernous tunnel. I looked over my shoulder as the curve eclipsed the circle of daylight. The temperature plummeted, the smell of earth rich and cloying. My heart pounded, my mouth dry, and for the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt afraid. There was nothing in the world I could compare to this.
The passage darkened as Jackson galloped beyond a corner ahead.
“Wait!” I extended a shaking hand to the wall and felt cold, textured rock. I ran my palm along it as I rounded the corner, and shrieked. I stood at the entrance to a monolithic, cathedral-sized hollow whose ceiling must have been twenty metres high. Openings like the one we’d emerged from dotted its far walls, suggesting tunnels that wound deeper and deeper below the earth. The smell of soil was displaced by something sour and decaying. The rock face I’d been touching curved away.
“There!” Jackson called. His light struck something against the cavern’s far corner, something the same pale cream as his den’s walls. I screamed again as he ran towards it.
“Jackson, get away from that-”
He turned to me, his exposed teeth glittering. “Aren’t they amazing?”
The egg was at least twice his size, its surface stained with orange dirt. He swung the torch beam across the clutch, revealing at least half a dozen more enormous eggs, before rushing to a broken shell and attempting to crack a piece off. He suddenly fell still as I neared.
It came as a physical sensation rather than a sound: a slow, lumbering pulse that beat through the sand and my bones.
“I can’t believe it!” Jackson breathed. “Grandma, I’ve never actually seen her before. We’re going to get to see her.”
It all fell into place. His eyes didn’t sparkle with adventurousness, they gleamed with naivety. I’d followed him into an underground cavern and yet it was now clear that ignorance, not curiosity, had called him here. He didn’t have the education to recognise the danger, but I did, and I’d followed him anyway- a giant trough, an enormous burrow, man-sized eggs. Weren’t myths of monolithic serpents as old as Australia itself? Oh, for a land incapable of keeping secrets, this one had been hidden exceptionally well.
But how on earth had it survived? How had it not been found? The cattle had been going missing for months- perhaps while it had such a steady supply of food it didn’t need to emerge too often, but what about before that? After that?
Jackson swung his torch to the rock face and squealed in excitement. The stone was moving, sliding across the cavern, emerging out of the hole we’d entered, disappearing into another opening at its far side. Not stone- body. Its scales caught the light, its shape at least three metres tall. She wasn’t coming; she was already there.
Follow James on Twitter.