There were noises. More like something was eating the trail than walking. At the very least, something rearranging the undergrowth. Were there Tasmanian devils on the mainland? Of course not. A troop of mountain bikers were headed for him maybe? What is the plural term for mountain bikers? Peloton? MTBers? Train? A murder? Nope that was crows. Anyway, mountain bikers groups fractured quickly within sight of the start line. Out for a social ride an MTB “bro” would carry on a conversation. Gary’d be able to hear snippets, like the time they taught Ryan to get up steep inclines, ‘…keep your pedals spinning over…pedal, pedal, pedal.’ Or the tale when Jonno fixed a pinch flat with just a Band-Aid. Wouldn’t have thought those repairs could be enough to get him home, but damn thing worked. Cheapskate Jonno was probably still using that wheel.
Anyway, MTB noises: what would they be—pedals grating over fallen branches and rocks, rear wheels slipping in loose gravel, chain suck or rear wheel wash out. Maybe someone yelling to warn the tail ender to avoid the way motorbike trail bikers had gouged ruts and loosened stones. Gary remembered his days growing up near the national park, exploring trails similar to the one he was on. That time they were confronted by the group of runners training for the Six-Foot Track Marathon. When his motley crew had been heaving supplies for several days walking and had met the sweat laden group, carrying little more than drink bottles, the track barely wide enough for them to pass. But those runners had been silent, apparition like; whereas now the landscape was interrupted by distinct grunts.
Noises of flattening scrub. Stomping on endangered species was more like an unruly group of army cadets or scouts pushing down the trail and breaking into Garry’s thoughts. Soon enough five burley fishermen lugging rods and a huge esky came into view. Pity, had it been mountain bikers Gary would have liked to see what they were riding.
They smiled and waved and the more senior of them asked Gary if he was all right, which he resented. They would be in trouble soon, trying to get the outsized esky down that steep hill without going arse over tit. Might function to keep drinks and, to a lesser extent, food cold but did they really need something the size of a small fridge, and just how did they manage to lumber it along these trails?
‘Perfectly fine,’ Gary answered.
‘Severe weather warning, bro. Came over the radio.’
Gary shook his head, refused to believe, ‘Thanks. But I only just got here.’
‘Reckon it’ll hit just after dark. You camping out?’
‘It’s going to be rough.’
Younger members of the group had gone on, the pair carrying the esky between them slipping and sliding and laughing, so the harbinger of doom bade farewell and went too, unhurried.
Harbinger. Hard bringer. Harp binger. Where had that word come from? If Gary had his phone he could find out. It was odd, not being able to satisfy his curiosity immediately. But he felt healthy, disciplined; like refusing a beer or a meat pie, increasing exercise or cutting back on sugar. Gary thought the words “Are you going to talk to me or look at your phone?” crossed his lips way too often these days.
It was less windy up here than on the beach, and there were places where Gary could see that the fishermen had skidded with the esky’s weight. Broken saplings, dishevelled bush on the track’s edges. He fell himself at one of these markers, his foot sliding back and putting him off balance so that he came down hard on one knee. Onward, Gary told himself, despite the throbbing and bleeding. Don’t even think about the giant mud bruise spread over his new walking pants. He’d encountered similar pain on more than one bike ride. More than his share of involuntary dismounts, most spectacular was that face-plant because he’d caught a glimpse of a large lace monitor lizard ascending a tree.
When he got back upright, Gary could barely make the words heard, competing with raucous laughter, ‘Thought the tree was moving…lizard was so big…’
All good fun till his step dad had issued that ultimatum. ‘Unless you can promise me no more picking dirt out of wounds, no more MTB.’ He’d tried to soften it by saying, ‘I’m only telling you this because your mother worries you will seriously hurt yourself…’ He should have known his stepdad wasn’t really concerned with the boy’s safety, rather on his own dreadful hobby horse. Stopping any adolescent potential. Gary always felt he could have really been famous, more well-known than Cadel Evans. His knee wasn’t that bad, Gary could shut it out. If you can’t see the blood it’s not hurting, he told himself.
First-aid kit. He supposed he should have packed one. Hadn’t even thought of it. Gary had a memory of a much younger version of himself trying to explain to his mother why a list of essential equipment had been ignored. ‘Well I did have food. I had a bar of chocolate and a packet of chips…’ That walk along the Helensburgh spur track had been a disaster; he’d been lucky to come back alive.
Gary turned at the first fork the track offered and went along for half an hour or so. By now his knee was pinging and his back hurting from the lumpy load. Further on around the shoulder of the hill before the track narrowed and dropped again to a small clearing. Perfect. The trees were taller here, not so wind-bent, and there was a stream and blackened fire spot. Gary was sure his old group never had tents like his brand new two-man dome, bright yellow and green, compactly packed, a cylindrical marvel with tiny instructions written in pale ink. He opened the bag.
Insert male push rod (4D) inside of female rud (33F). Bend for make
archin. Raise high the tent roop up by sliding rud flaps.
Gary was sure there wouldn’t be 33 pieces in his pack, nor that he would find any numbers, even if he looked. Plus, this was the best example of poor translation he’d ever seen, probably from Chinese or Vietnamese. He dismissed these instructions by folding up the paper and putting it into his pocket.
The rods and slots were colour coded; the tent pegs and guy ropes less complicated than the tents he’d erected on surf beaches with his stepfather. Always accompanied by adult caustic comments. He recalled being stung in the face with sand. The misshapen tent usually dismounted what seemed like mere moments later. Before too long Garry’s new tent took shape, sitting on the ground like an igloo, a child’s playhouse. Clever design. Any fool could put it up.
There were enough twigs lying about for a small fire, which he could get it started if the lighter held out. Inscribed Rugby World Cup 2011,found under the sofa in his flat. Gary sat on the ground, pulled the joint from his pocket and took a deep drag. And another, until he felt the warmth seep into his brain. Night was falling bit by bit and so was the rain. Heavy drops plinking and plunking on leaves high and low, sounding like music, the higher tones above and the bass pattering on the clearing floor. On the humus. Hummus. Humans. Hubris. Gusts of wind higher in the canopy sent scatters of rain falling in a rush, like a kettledrum on the tent roof and dead leaf litter. Just a few drops—Noah isn’t called for, Gary told himself.
One more drag took the last of it. Dave had hardly been generous. Anyway, the weed had belonged to a roommate, who said it was okay, as long as it was a pinner
Gary had stared at the wrinkled, emaciated thing. ‘Fifty bucks for that?’
‘I’m taking a commission,’ Dave said, ‘Then I won’t feel so used.’
A torch. He’d forgotten to bring one. Or even a candle, and now was the hour for candles, as they used to say in the times before electricity. Gary stood up, his legs stiff from the two-hour walk. Was his knee actually swollen? He felt his head spin as if he was going to topple forward. Might have been a pinner, but it was strong and he was tired and unaccustomed. Gave it up with smoking tobacco in his mid-thirties. Crazy idea to have a bushie now after all this time. And alone? What was he thinking? No torch. The night coming. Just him and a cigarette lighter out here.
Just him and his thoughts. His chance to do what he’d come here to do. Think about his relationship. If he even wanted it anymore. If he really wanted to go on with the same old, same old. ‘Plenty more possibilities out there,’ Dave had said. Fish in the sea, wasn’t that the saying. Being out here was all about efforts to deprive himself of company, anything really; see what was addictive, habitual, and what wasn’t. Live each moment in his own head. Shift the glut. Just be.
A mistake. What a wanker. What a lofty ambition, when most people on the planet are worried about how to get hold of clean drinking water and their next meal. To think he’d had this dream of escape in the back of his head for months, maybe years. Fifty ways to leave your lover… Recognizing those words Gary was filled with joy and regret. Had he wasted any earlier opportunities? Should he leave, or stay and work things out? Maybe he needed to stop taking himself so seriously.
But then he realised he was stoned. The self-abasing alter-ego was haranguing the paranoid ego for perceived failures, underachievements or instances of bad behaviour. He would have to try and shut this off. Reach outside his brain—that would be the go. As his step dad used to say, ‘Inside your head Gaz, that’s a busy place.’ Fuck he hated being called Gaz. Not like the prick didn’t know his real name.
Here was a bird nearby calling out mournfully, a single downward cry, as if it too resented the rain. The bush was quiet apart from the wet and that one bird. Too quiet. What he can hear others might call silence; therapeutic natural mumblings, bush ambience tones. Supposed to be relaxing, but this quiet made his skin crawl. He’d heard nothing other than gulls as he’d made his way up the bluff, and on the dusky ridge path an incessant insect drone. The single bird continued to call with little variation. Coo-woo. Coo-woo. The wind was strengthening. The bird went on and on.
Gary entered his tent, spread out his sleeping bag on the bumpy groundsheet and lay down. Almost immediately, as if it had suffered sudden death, the bird call ceased; strangled out, stopped mid cry. Rain drummed more steadily on fabric. A dome of pale, sunshiny yellow in the gathering gloom. The nylon rustling gently in the wind. He would go over pros and cons of staying with Brenda. Once. He would only do it once and then go on to other things. Promise. What’s in the past was done.
There was a scuffle in the leaf mould outside; maybe it was his imagination, again, but that did sound like the impact of flesh on feather. Gary was sure he heard a low growl, and the tent wall bulged suddenly against his head—solid, animal, alive—and then all that noise was gone again. He was up and out of his tent and into the clearing, working the cigarette lighter to a flame, with a clicking thumb. Shielding it from the wind and rain. A flash showed him two reflective eyes the size of golf balls and a dark, muscled shape hunched over a feathered mess. When the lighter agreed to illuminate again, Gary held it cupped towards the nonchalant animal, jaws working. Eating the catch where it had fallen. Pricked ears gleaming, a flash of white incisors.
A fucking huge wild cat. A super cat. He’d read about them. How feral cats were evolving after nearly two hundred years of going wild in the bush. Breeding ever stronger and larger offspring. How they feasted on native birds, marsupials, reptiles and lately rabbits, even cane toads didn’t stop these beasts. This one was easily twice the size of a domestic. Seemingly oblivious of the rain and increased chill of the night. A small tiger, brindled and strong, fearless. It must have known Gary was standing there, frozen in awe at such a powerful carnivore.
Still the creature just chomped on, implacable. What kind of bird was it? He knew the names of city birds, noisy and Indian mynahs, sparrows, lorikeets and even the aptly named king parrots. But this one wasn’t a parrot, even though Gary would have liked to think a feral cat might take one of those domestic vandals disguised as sulphur-crested cockatoos. That would be payback for all the chewed baloney railings, destroyed washing lines and robbed lemons. He’d told Brenda often enough, ‘Leaving out food only encourages them.’
The flame died in the same instant that Gary realised his finger was burnt from holding down the flint. He put it in his mouth and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The cat’s eyes reflected dully but with more of a challenging air than they had before. And moving, coming nearer to stand between him and the tent. And vanished. Into the tent. He was sure of it. He’d heard the sweep of fur against nylon as it passed through the opening. Or had the creature just brushed the fabric on the way back into the bush?
His hair was dripping into his eyes, his hoodie was soaked and Gary was paralysed with indecision. If he could get the lighter going again, he could bend into the tent and see what the monster was doing. But it could fly at him, blind him with poisonous claws. A beast big enough to knock him flat, rip his throat out, eat his eyes. Groping in the dark, Gary patted the tent roof once, twice, harder the third time. Then the same thing against the wall lower down, to scare it. He doubted the impact of his actions, they seemed so insignificant.
Then Gary listened. There was the sound of packaging being ripped open, like an eager child on Christmas morning. More ripping. It must be the salami. Or Garry’s small slab of cheese. The cat was quieter now. Difficult to hear over wind and rain. When he held his ear to the tent wall, Gary could hear another sound. A low rumble, and it took him a moment to realise the cat was purring. Monster hadn’t purred when it ate the bird. Obviously, it preferred his meagre supplies. Nitrates and garlic. Processed pork without feathers, must evoke genetic memories of ancestors’ lives spent eating human food and sleeping on soft beds.
‘Puss, puss!’ he called, in the way his mother had summoned the family moggie. ‘Puss, here pussy, puss.’ Falsetto. Shit if his gang of mountain bike buddies had heard they’d sign him up for the next stand-up comedy show.
The purring went on, as did chomping and tearing, while outside the rain beat down and wind picked up intensity. If he didn’t get under shelter soon, he’d probably catch pneumonia. Who knew what sort of germs were only now having a procreative party on his drenched person? Aside from potential illness, Gary knew he had to do something. Like riding that same trail after he’d fallen, getting back on the bike when his legs were quivering. Standing in the bathroom knowing he had to come out and face his stepfather’s lip curl, endure the next verbal onslaught. Dry his face, couple of deep breaths: do it.
It’s going to be rough.
Ridiculous. ‘Be a man!’ Brenda would have said.
‘Right,’ Gary said aloud to the listening forest, ‘I’m coming in.’
The cigarette lighter gave one last wavering flame, enough to see the way to his bed and observe a damp-furred scavenger hunched in a corner. Gary climbed into his sleeping bag and pulled the thing up over his head. Defence, he thought. In case this beast sprung at him. There was a short silence. Then the cat let out a low growl and went back to its meal, crunching, purring, and sounding out liquid mastication of cheese and sausage. Gary would be left with the tin of beans, that’s all. If he’d stayed in town there would have been a warm bed, maybe not alone, and a good breakfast to anticipate.
Nothing in childhood, hell even amongst his darkest “off the rails” moments of early adulthood, had prepared Gary for a night spent in a wet tent alone with an apex predator and this sharp, gut-wrenching stink. Gary could smell it even from the confines of his sleeping bag. Tomcat. Probably already crapped or sprayed, maybe both. No neat scraping in a cat-tray from this animal.
Eventually he closed his eyes. Didn’t make it any darker but Gary slept.
In the morning, when he woke, the cat was curled up against him, the tent floor a wasteland of greasy paper and plastic wrappings. The cat woke too and for one long moment met Gary’s sleepy gaze. Tooth and claw. Brute nature. His first waking thought was a projection into a feral primitive mind: was this daemon wondering what was next on the menu? Can I eat you?
Rapidly, with no warning, the animal extended a long hairy arm and scratched a deep incision into Garry’s brow and cheek, narrowly missing his eye. Then it was gone, a swift tumbling backwards movement as it leapt through the tent flaps. He heard drumming paws, then shifting and the refolding of enclosing bush.
At the bus stop Gary endured curious stares from locals and knew he must have looked a sight. In the public toilets he’d bathed the scratch as best he could. Wished again for a first-aid kit or at least antiseptic cream. Would probably need a tetanus shot. His face and knee throbbed. His foul-smelling tent had refused to pack neatly into the cylindrical bag. Gagging from the stink and half blind with pain he’d stuffed the bloody thing as best he could, but still had to carry the segmented rods loose in one hand.
After the night’s rain, parts of the track had been washed away. Gary had fallen, slipped, skidded, scraped his arms, and knocked his head on a low branch. His clothes were thick with mud, drying now but still likely to besmirch the seats of the bus when it finally arrived.
‘Rough night, mate?’ was all the driver said as he took the fare.
‘Yer, but you should see the other guy.’ Hurt his face too much to try and back that comment up with a grin.
They wound up over the hills until the city spread below. Close to midday, mid-week, everybody going about their business as normal. There was the distant sheen of the busy harbour. Grey moody skies with the sea crossed with the white wakes of boats and ferries. A vista. To Gary, the most welcome sight ever, in the whole world.
A deep contentment welled, satisfaction as unheralded as the sudden claw of the cat. He’d confronted the wilderness, he’d not taken his phone. He’d been alone with the elements, and survived. Soon as he could he’d get that old bike out of his mother’s shed, dust it off, get stuck into giving the thing a good lube, check the tyres, throw his leg over again.
For now, he was going home to a bath and bandage his knee. Cook Brenda’s favourite curry, have everything nice by the time she got home.
Ahead Gary saw a future with his arm around Brenda’s tattooed shoulder. Protecting her, being there for her. He wouldn’t act like his lousy step-dad.
Karen Lethlean has a successful triathlon career, including twice completing Hawaii Ironman World Championships. With such powerful outdoor pursuits and living close by two National Parks, she was inspired to write The Great Outdoors, dealing with things that might go wrong out there in Nature Land. She often tries to promote her published stories as part of her Facebook page. She recently won a Wild Words UK competition with Bleached Bones, and Bangalore Review published a piece titled Land Lore. Tiny Seed Journal also features some of her nature writing pieces.