This short story was published in the December 2008 issue of TiconderogaOnline.
Taking back the words
There was a taste of dust in Nick’s mouth.
Dust that coloured his hand orange-red and dulled the surface of the silver ring on his finger.
The ring. Kylie.
Oh God, Kylie. His groan was a deep guttural sound like it came from the earth itself, a sound that didn’t belong to him and yet it did, a sound that mingled with peaceful chirping of… zebra finches?
Nick pushed himself up. Finches twittered in straggly, leafless bushes surrounding the patch of red earth on which he sat. To his right, a clump of Spinifex lay in pieces as if cleaved by a giant axe. A skid-mark stopped on the other side and next to that was a wheel. A wheel and the ruins of a bumper and the road-blackened underside of a car.
Yes, that’s how it had happened: Kylie. Her father. The argument.
How dare you blame me for something that happened while I wasn’t even in the country, when my father wasn’t even here?
God – had he really said that?
And run out the house watched by Kylie’s grandmother and aunts and a dozen others on the porch. Jumped into car and took off down the dusty road at top speed.
He pulled a Spinifex thorn out of his arm. Remembered the massive red kangaroo that had jumped onto the road.
A nice fix he had gotten himself into now. Miles from anywhere without any food or water. And who knew when someone would be using this road. Could be hours. Days. Weeks.
Walking back to Kylie’s wasn’t an option. How many hours had he driven since leaving the community? God only knew. He’d be dead before he got there. If Kylie’s brothers didn’t find him first, and then he’d be dead anyway. They were big, they were very black, they were strong and they didn’t think much of city lawyers with fancy degrees, especially ones with long foreign-sounding names, like Papadopoulos.
How could he have been so stupid to get into an argument?
‘Excuse me.’ The voice sounded low and gravelly, as if it came from the red sand itself.
Nick turned and looked around. Bushes, smashed-up clump of Spinifex, upside-down car.
‘Where are you? Show yourself!’
One of the wheels on the car started turning by itself. Another wheel shook. The side panel shivered, twisted, warped…
A front wheel drew out, elongated, into a boomerang-shaped appendage, a long-nailed claw at the end.
Another wheel turned into a claw. The car boot became longer, and longer, until it grew into a tail. The body narrowed and twisted. Legs thrashed until the creature sat right side up: a monstrous lizard. Large red and yellow spikes covered its back, stubby snout and even its legs and tail. Round pop-eyes turned.
Nick crab-walked back into one of the dry bushes. ‘What the heck are you?’
‘I’m a thorny devil.’
A thorny—what? Nick remembered thorny devils from the zoo. ‘But… you’re supposed to be only the size of my hand.’
‘Supposed to be.’
‘Am I dead?’
The devil extended its tongue to lick a protruding eyeball. ‘Do I look dead to you?’
‘No, but…’ The skid-tracks of the car still marred the sand where the devil sat. ‘I… I don’t see cars turning into lizards every day.’
‘Bet you don’t, city-boy. You have a lot to learn.’
Nick stuck his hands in his pockets. Why should everyone remind him of his ignorance? Kylie’s dad and now this creature.
‘Pfrrrt. Ignore that old grumpybeaks. I’ll give you a ride into town.’
Nick turned at the new, breathy voice.
Behind him stood a camel. Moving floppy lips into impossible positions, it nibbled tips of the bushes.
This was getting altogether too weird. ‘You… you talk.’
‘Pfrrt. ‘Course I do. What d’ya think – that I’d be stupid?’
‘You gonna stand there or get on my back? ‘s a long way to town.’ The camel sank onto its front knees.
Nick did know a little bit about camel riding. At least he had ridden a camel before, even though it had been equipped with a saddle; he had been ten or so and the animal had been led around by an attendant. He pushed through the shrubbery.
But the devil shot in front of him, blocking his path. ‘Wait a moment. He’s never been to town; he doesn’t even know the way.’
The camel blew his lips. ‘Pfrrt. ‘Course I do. We camels have our desert tracks. Ride with me.’
‘Why would you go to town anyway? What’s in a town? The desert gives you everything you need. I will teach you—‘
‘‘Course he wants to go to town. That’s where the humans live, remember?’
The devil swung its tail. ‘Shut your flobbery mouth. You don’t even belong in Australia. You’re nothing but an introduced pest.’
‘Excuse me. May I remind you that I was born here? I have just as much right to be here as you do.’
‘So you say.’
‘Pffrt, why not?’
Nick pushed his way past the devil. ‘Oh, cut arguing, you two. I don’t even know if you’re real or not, but I’ll go with whoever can take me out of here. I’ve had enough local adventures to last me a lifetime.’ And that included Kylie.
He grabbed the furry curls on the camel’s hump and swung his leg over. From his position close to the ground, the devil looked even more spiky. Nick grinned. ‘I know a good opportunity when I see one. See you around, buddy.’
The camel ripped the tips of some branches off a bush. ‘So Kylie’s your girlfriend, right?’
Nick sighed. He had just spent the last half hour recounting what had happened. ‘Yes.’ Although after today, it would probably be more appropriate to say that Kylie was his girlfriend.
‘And she lives at the White River community?’
‘Her parents do. She got a scholarship to go to University. That’s where we met. She’s really quite an amazing girl, very smart and…’ And after having met her family, he appreciated that even more. Kylie must have had tremendous will power to have come as far as she had.
‘Pffrt. Trouble. I could have told you that. You see – these people are just like grumpybeaks over there. Introduced pests – animals or white people – are the cause of all evil. Whether we’ve been born here and lived here all our lives or just arrived. It doesn’t make a difference, as long as they have someone to blame for being miserable. And let me tell you: if you stick with that girl, that someone is going to be you.’
Nick nodded. ‘Good point. You know what my mother said when I told her about Kylie? She said, “Is no good son, is no good. You come home. We find good Greek girl for you to marry.” I think I might just do that.’ Although it felt wrong just to give up like that.
‘Right you are. Stick with your own, I’d say.’
Nick glared at the devil following behind.
Red sand passed under the camel’s feet. The lowering sun coloured the landscape alien orange, the kind Nick had adored when he and Kylie had walked hand in hand on the beach, and sunlight touched her brown skin and played in the deep brown curls dancing around her head.
Only this wasn’t quite so pretty. Sunset meant it was getting dark. Nick was hungry and thirsty and the town was nowhere in sight. He bent down over the camel’s hump. ‘Are you sure you’re going in the right direction?’
The camel snorted. ‘’Course we are. I’m just showing you the countryside.’
Showing me the countryside? ‘Excuse me, but I’d be more interested in getting to town.’
‘Don’t you think it’s pretty here? Look at that for example.’
The golden sunlight hit a ridge of sand dunes. White twigs of dead bushes contrasted sharply with the red sand. Yes, it was pretty. But when they crested the hill, the desert landscape stretched all the way to the horizon. Not a sign of the town.
The camel snorted. ‘Pffrt, this seems like a good place to stop for the night.’
Nick slid off the camel’s back and collapsed in the sand, his muscles were sore just from holding on.
A little way off, in a sandy hollow sat a familiar figure. Sharp spines on a long tail silhouetted against the setting sun. The devil raised a paw and continued eating.
Nick’s stomach rumbled.
That night, Nick slept on the hard ground. He woke up a few times to the sound of the camel browsing the tips of branches. Nick broke one off and chewed it to still the rumbling in his stomach, but the wood had a sharp tang, which only made his thirst worse.
He gave up tossing and turning when the sky turned grey at the eastern horizon and while the camel was still asleep, clambered up the sandy ridge. Nothing moved in the stillness of the morning except the devil’s tongue, licking drops of moisture from the folds in the corners of its mouth.
Nick’s voice sounded raspy from lack of water. ‘Please, would you have something to drink?’
The devil turned away.
Nick stumbled closer and repeated his question so the devil could no longer ignore his presence.
But still, the devil didn’t look at him. ‘You didn’t want to listen to your girl’s father’s stories. You didn’t want to learn about the country yesterday. You didn’t want to hear that old grumpy couldn’t find the town if he stepped on it, so why should I help you now, introduced pest?’
Why indeed old grumpybeaks?
Nick jammed his hands in his pockets and turned away, thirsty, hungry and all.
The camel had woken up and sore as he was, Nick clambered on its back.
They set off again. The sun rose and very soon became hot. The camel walked and walked and walked. Nick had long since given up asking if the camel knew where to go.
That evening, the camel stopped at the bottom of an outcrop of large boulders. It wandered off to browse the shrubs, but Nick was by now so thirsty he was ready to try anything for a drink. He remembered vaguely how Kylie had told him that animals would know where to dig to find water under the sand. Sure he could do that, too. He walked around the boulders, chose a depression where the camel couldn’t see him and scooped sand aside with his hands.
He dug, spraying desert sand behind him.
And he dug, and dug, leaning ever further forward into the hole that yawned before him.
‘What on Earth are you doing?’
Nick jumped up.
The devil sat behind him, chewing on the remains of a fat and juicy ant. To Nick, the insect looked almost palatable. The devil licked its eyeballs. ‘Just in case you didn’t know, this is not how the old colonials went about stealing our gold.’
Nick dusted sand from his knees and met the devil’s gaze squarely. ‘No, but I’m sure it is how they did their business. Why don’t you go away and bother someone else?’
The devil snorted and ambled away.
Still panting, and his throat drier than ever, Nick gazed into the hole. The sand at the bottom was just as dry as that of the surrounding ground.
Still more thirsty and sore Nick scrambled onto the camel’s back the next morning. From the corner of his eye he spotted the devil and for a moment wondered if riding on it would be any more comfortable than on this aptly-named ship of the desert. But the devil didn’t pay any attention to Nick. It had dug up some roots and sat happily munching and licking its lips.
Nick’s stomach grumbled. ‘Are we getting near the town? You promised to take me back.’
‘And so I am,’ said the camel, ‘so I am.’
But all that day, it kept on walking. Nick hung onto the camel’s back with the last of his strength, but frequently looked over his shoulder, where the devil followed, grazing on ants and digging in clumps of Spinifex.
Nick turned away every time it emerged licking its lips, but he still heard the sounds of eating and by the end of the afternoon, couldn’t stand it anymore. He let go of the camel’s hump and landed in the sand before the devil. He was dismayed by how much he swayed on his feet. ‘Alright, he doesn’t know the way. Even if I’ll be walking around this stupid desert for the rest of my life, at least show me how to find food and water.’
The devil looked up, licking its eyeballs. ‘Why should I help you now, after you ignored me? Don’t you think I deserve at least an apology?’
‘An apology? What for? You were the one calling me an introduced pest.’
‘Which you are.’
Then why should I apologise?’
‘Because you need me.’
Right then, the devil was lucky to be spiky, or, dizzy or not, Nick would certainly have kicked it. ‘Why are you being such an obnoxious pest? Offering help and then pulling it back, teasing me. What is going on anyway? We’re going around in circles in this bloody desert… I’m dead, aren’t I? And I’m stuck in some place like hell.’ Nick stood there, panting. Dry desert air seared his throat; he ran his parched tongue over lips cracked and bleeding and much too sore to belong to a dead body.
In that silence, a voice sounded. ‘Pffrt. Are you coming?’
Nick whirled at the camel, which had turned back. ‘No, I am not. You don’t know the way. You’ve been lying to me.’
‘Too right, Nick,’ the devil snorted. ‘You’re finally starting to see – he can never know the country as well as I do.’
‘Oh, shut up. You’re no better. You call him grumpybeaks, but all you do is whine. Whine, whine, whine. Introduced pests, useless towns, blah, blah, blah. I’m sick of it. If it’s all so bad, why don’t you do something about it, like try to see his point. And it’s not as if either of you are going to go somewhere else in a hurry, so you might as well try to get along.’
The devil licked its eyeballs. The camel raised his head. They eyed each other for at least a minute.
Nick stood there, his head pounding. Get along. Like him and Kylie’s dad. What a joke. What was he saying? He fell to his knees in the sand, clutching his head. Patches of black danced before his eyes. Water. He had to get some water soon.
When he looked up, the devil and the camel were gone. Only the breeze carried a wheezy voice. ‘Pfrrt. Can’t help that one. Doesn’t want to be helped. Why do we waste our time with people like that?’
‘Don’t know, my friend. Can’t see why the girl still loves him.’
‘Pfrrt – me neither, but what do we do mate? Give him another chance?’
And then there was only the whisper of the wind and the soft chirping of zebra finches
Nick scrambled to his feet. Clawed his way up the sand dune, filling his shoes with dust. ‘Hey! Wait for me! Don’t leave me behind.’ But his voice was no more than a whisper.
Red sand swam before his eyes, rippled like a river.
From the depths of the sandy image emerged a face. Brown eyes, springy curls of deep copper.
Can’t see why the girl still loves him.
Kylie – after what he had done and said, she still loved him?
He crawled up the dune and slid, half-rolled down the other side. Kylie still loved him? What was it his father used to say before cancer claimed his life? Decide what you want, and then fight for it, son. Never give up.
Never give up. He wouldn’t. If he died in the attempt, he would never give up. He crawled through the sand, dragged himself along. Never give up. He crawled and crawled until he collapsed in the shadow of a boulder…
Images span around him and from their midst came a smell. Moisture. And in a rush, the memories came back to him. Kylie standing in the dry river bed next to a boulder, pointing at scratch marks made by wild animals.
Nick dug. Soon the sand felt moist under his hands and not long after his fingers hit a small puddle of water. He scooped some out with his bare hands and drank. Although it was dirty and tasted of mud, it was the best water that had ever flowed across his tongue…
‘Mate. Hey mate, wake up.’
Water splashed in his face.
Nick groaned, coughed.
A young man bent over him. Sunburnt skin, blond hair, akubra hat. ‘Mate, are you alright?’
Nick nodded, and drank from the bottle held to his mouth. He sat with his back against a boulder. Behind his rescuer stretched a red dirt road and on it, a car. Not his car. This was not the place where he had crashed. He let the soothing water run down his throat.
‘You won’t believe how lucky you are, mate. You know how I found you? I was just fixing the fence over on the other side, and this camel came up to me and pulled my shirt. A camel! Would you believe that?’
Nick shrugged. After his adventure, he was ready to believe anything. ‘Did you…’ He cleared his still-sore throat. ‘Did you see my car?’
‘A red Toyota, Victorian numberplates?’
‘Yeah. It’s sitting a bit further up the road. I had a bit of a squiz at it. Couldn’t see anyone. Couldn’t see anything wrong with it.’
The young man had been right. There was the car, neatly parked on the side of the road.
The windscreen was whole, as if he had never crashed. The bumper, too, was still in its pre-crash position. Nick slid from his rescuer’s car and looked in through the window. What if it was a trick? The car looked familiar enough: the scratches marked the chrome doorhandle, his road map unfolded on the passenger’s seat.
‘Everything OK?’ The young man stuck his head out the window.
‘Think so.’ Nick opened the door. The smell of hot vinyl surrounded him as he slid behind the wheel, dug his fingers in its fake fur cover. That, too, was real enough.
The engine started with a familiar rumble. Nick ran his hand over the dashboard, uncertain, still expecting the car to turn into a lizard any moment.
It did not. He gave his young rescuer the thumbs up.
The man grinned. ‘If you’re coming to town, call into the pub tonight and I’ll shout you one.’
‘Thanks, but I’m heading the other way. I’ve got some unfinished business at White River.’
‘But that is…’
‘An aboriginal community, I know.’
A dubious look crossed the man’s face. He grimaced and said, ‘Fair enough, mate.’ And drove off.
Nick pushed down hard on the accelerator; the car span onto the road in a cloud of dust.
Dry desert wind whooshed in through the open windows and whipped his hair. He could have sworn it carried the words of two inhuman voices.
‘Pfrrt – seems you made a good choice after all, mate.’