Australia has been emptied of people by a devastating fever. Slowly the cities are being eaten by the bush. Dario, a youth from a surviving community to Sydney’s north, tracks the fugitive Max into the empty city. Amidst these collapsing ruins he finds a desperate family whose daughter, Abigail, has disappeared, they believe kidnapped by marauders. The family want a peaceful existence, Dario wants honour and justice. Aligning himself with them, Dario learns that honour can take many forms. Through the example of the younger generation, Abigail’s parents learn that life is continuing and they must continue with it.
The road beyond the settlement was nothing new to him. He’d slept nights out off to the side of its crumbling emptiness many times. Every year trees grew thicker and taller at the edges and cracks widened between the great slabs of the collapsed motorway. Slithers of sunlight sucked forth sapling tendrils through the gaps and into the hot uplands of parched roadway.
Dario crouched at the gaping void which separated the settlement from the land to the south. Did he have the guts, or didn’t he, to go beyond that yawning crevasse? This was as far from home as he had ever been. But it wasn’t his way to avoid the instinct to do justice to a friend. It was coming into winter and he glimpsed a few of the foreign trees sticking their bare branches up through the forest. He stood and pulled the rope from his pack and refolded it. He re-checked the backpack with its pockets of fading synthetic. A knife and a whetstone, some flint, a cigarette lighter, a set of binoculars, four clean rags, two withered apples. He’d keep those apples as long as he could. A canvass water bag, bloated and cool, a piece of kit he’d been given by the old woman who’d lived in some commune round these parts in the days of the cities. Lastly, his bow and arrow. Fingering one of the arrowheads he enjoyed the silken taut texture of it and tried to remember the bird it had come from.
He dragged a finger through the dirt and again ran his eyes over the sticky mud flats he’d just passed through. A pig had been through the weedy grass at the side of the road, he recognised the churned undergrowth and freshly exposed brown of the clay silt. He smelt earth and again thought of Carter. It’d been four days since he’d last seen his friend. They’d been on their retreat with only one day to go. They’d been scavenging worms at the end, using their trowels around the base of the rainforest trees. At dusk, they’d built the hide from palm fronds and freshly fallen branches and laid there waiting for the brush turkey they knew inhabited the gulley of the snakes.
‘Will the Mayor make us talk about it?’ Carter had asked.
‘You’ll miss the bird, keep watching.’
Carter looked out of the hide again, but was breathing heavily. They were both hungry and concentrating was difficult.
‘The old Mayor used to make other kids talk about it—the retreat—how they did this thing. What they ate, how they managed the animals and other stuff. Do you think we’ll have to?’
Carter had always been self-conscious—he was thinking of reporting before the assembly. Dario watched for the bird. Carter was no hunter. He could ride, he had a way with the horses. The Mayor didn’t need to send Carter on that retreat. When his name had been announced, Dario had felt a falling in his stomach.
Their legs had been so close Dario could feel the heat from his friend’s body. The hide had been Carter’s idea. He was no fool.
‘Dario. I’ve smelt him.’
Dario turned sharply and met Carter’s gaze.
‘Don’t be stupid.’ Carter never failed to take him by surprise.
‘Before. Building up the hide. I smelt him—Max. He’s somewhere—round here.’
‘He’s irrelevant here, Carter, push it away,’ he’d answered.
They both watched for the bird, thinking. As they’d built the hide they’d talked of the turkey and eating it when the retreat was over. They’d been alone in the bush with nothing but a knife each. As they waited, a snake had crossed the hide, its thick green body muscling a trail through the grass and leaving a damp flattened road which exuded a sweetness. Dario considered reaching out from the hide and grabbing its glistening body and killing it right there and then in case the bird didn’t come. But he didn’t want Carter to think he’d lost confidence in the hide. He didn’t like snake anyway. They remained silent then, and said nothing more of Max.
When the bird appeared, they saw that it was an adult with a proud thick breast. Afterwards, they took it in turns to carry its carcass back to the settlement along the soggy dirt roads. It took three hours and they reached the gate as curfew was falling.
It was a while before Dario noticed that Carter had disappeared. He spent a day looking for him. At dusk, he’d gone to the Mayor and the council of elders. Fine men and women. They’d known the world of the cities. They’d bred him and his friends, Carter, the other boys and girls, they’d written the laws and kept the boundary fires alight for eighteen years. Dario owed them everything.
‘You’ve done well, boy,’ the Mayor said when Dario had finished speaking. ‘You’re tired. Go away and think about this.’
The Mayor sucked at the bones of the brush turkey they’d brought back. The turkey Carter had caught with his neat wire trip, the deft tug of his fingers. Dario would have used an arrow, but Carter had been proud of his trap.
‘It doesn’t make sense, sir. Why would he go? where?’
‘Dario, you’ve heard what my boy said. About Carter.’
Max—the Mayor’s son. Who’d said he saw Carter trip at the old gulley, who doubted Carter’s skills in the wild, who gave an account of a similar incident a year ago up in the abandoned mine. That explained it, they’d said, why Carter was missing. Some accident in his exhausted state, a cliff or collapsed floor in the bush. Or gone for a quiet time, either way, not much for them to do. Dario had fingered his cotton cap.
‘I still don’t like it, Mayor. Too long, it feels wrong.’
Ms Crawley had peered softly at him over her pink-rimmed glasses and exchanged glances with some of the others. It had been dusk and a candle had been lit. Just the one, and the faces had become creamy moons peering down at him.
In the gloom, there’d been talk and talk, and Dario had listened for Carter, for his light step outside, for him to arrive and smile in that lazy way of his.
They’d agreed to an inquiry, to talk more, but they couldn’t spare labour for a search. It wasn’t enough.
‘Prepare yourself, son. He may not come back. But that doesn’t mean anyone is to blame for this, it’s a dangerous place out there.’
Then the talk went to the past all over again. To fate and cruelty and the chaos of the universe, the stupidity of humankind and the rest of it. As always, to themselves and the days of the cities. They’d already forgotten Carter. He had no parents and held no territory in their damaged hearts.
The morning after had brought rain. Dario had slept in the rotting lean-to fronting his hut. His father had died in those mouldy rooms and he’d grown used to the outside cot surrounded by the noises of the night bush which in turn could be either musical or frightening. Some instinct had whispered to him while he’d slept that Max was gone, and he came to believe it was Carter offering him a challenge from some distant hiding place of his soul.
He didn’t say goodbye to the other boys. He avoided the women’s hut and the pen where the horses and pigs were because their placid snorting always touched him and he daren’t let any softness hold him back.
That’d been three mornings ago. Dario was a day’s walk from home. Pulling the leg of his pants up he saw a leech and instinctively he reached for the lemon and salt mix in his pocket and smeared it on. Catching its shrivelling carcass he crushed it so it popped, a bloody river between his fingers.
Where to start, he thought? Dumb question. It was the quarry which led, not the hunter. Somewhere down in the gorge water was running through. Winding the rope tightly, he stretched his back in a reaching tip-toed breath. The sun hit his shoulders and off to the left a whip bird issued a high pulsing call. It was his bird and its song an affirmation of this duty. Peering across at the weed and moss-encrusted gully wall, he saw at last what he was after—the evidence of a tearing away by a human hand, a patch of dislodged dirt and brickwork. The mark of a man.
He got the rope and started swinging it. He chose a fallen trunk on the other side and hefted the rope across to it. It took eight goes but at last the rope caught on the knoll where once a bird had found a home. As he swung across the rope dragged at his palm, creasing the skin in a stinging blistering sweep. He let his eyes glance down at the weed-infested abyss from which the tip of a rusting car protruded in bubbled welts.
A day’s walk brought him to a break in the trees and the remains of a bushfire which had burnt its path through a line of huts. The cinders collapsed under his feet, they were hollow logs of long-ago trauma. He looked into the distance to avoid seeing bones or the remains of a shoe, a tin can, a rag of clothing. He wanted no ghosts pursuing him. The rain was clearing. On the horizon he saw the arch of the bridge and the broken line of towers which had once been the city.
Jeanell Buckley writes speculative, literary and historical fiction. She is a Varuna Writer’s Centre finalist for her novel Citizens of Stone and winner of the Commendation for Academic Excellence (Macquarie University). Her next project is a series set in Sydney locations. Her interest is the impact of landscape on narrative.
To contact email: Jeanell.firstname.lastname@example.org.