A story about various kinds of theft.
Have you ever seen a bunyip?
I’ll bet the answer is no. Not that they’re rare. More that if you see a bunyip, you usually stop breathing shortly afterwards.
One evening, when I was up in a tree, I saw eight bunyips emerge out of the murky water of the billabong.
I was up in the tree because that was where my mother had hidden a bag with three guns in it. Only one of them actually still worked, but we kept ’em all safe out of sight. If a whitefella came across a gun on our land it wouldn’t matter to him whether it worked or not.
My granduncle was the one who told me to get the guns, right as the sun started to set. “Get back quick, girl, if you don’t want a whap,” he’d told me. But I hadn’t been in a particular hurry. Granduncle’s whaps, delivered with his shriveled, veiny hand, had barely enough force to break through a spiderweb.
The billabong looked like a green-lipped open mouth down in the dried up plain, with scraggy trees making a beard all around it. Granduncle had a name for the billabong, like he did for most everything else, but it never stuck in my head. It was just “the billabong.” Like the river was “the river” and the town was “the town.”
Every summer crocodiles got stranded in the billabong when the riverbanks shrank away with the heat, so it wasn’t a popular place. I once saw a whitefella take his cattle down there to drink. He came back missing two cows and a lot of his temper.
As usual, I was hoping that the crocodiles wouldn’t get too interested in my activity. You’d think being in a tree would stop a crocodile, but you would be quite wrong. I’ve seen a croc power out of the water, twisting like a snake, and snap a whole damn bird’s nest off a branch. Babies and everything.
I climbed up the biggest tree at the billabong, a massive eucalyptus with scratchy bark and branches that stretched out and crinkled downwards. The tips of the branches just touched the water’s surface, so that ripples formed as I climbed up.
The sack with the guns in it was wedged securely between two branches, almost at the very top of the tree. I was a little amazed that my stout mother had gotten them so far up there. I prided myself on my ability to climb like a spider, and I was still getting puffed. I had to stop and take a rest midway up the tree.
The tree bark made the soles of my bare feet itch, so I propped them up and out. The ripples were passing through the whole still surface of the billabong, under waterlilies and through clumps of weeds. I saw a glimpse of something brown that might have been a turtle disappear under the water.
The air was dry in my throat as I swallowed, and resumed my climb, scaling the skinnier branches. I have to admit that crocs were on my mind again when I finally got level with the sack. It was heavy, but the guns inside could straight kill a croc if you aimed right. Guns made a person feel a lot better. Well, depending which end of the barrel you were facing.
I reached up and idly tugged at the corner of the sack. It was wedged tight. There was a good chance that one of the thin branches was going to break while I was pulling it out, sending me toppling right back into the murky water. Granduncle would have no one left to whap but himself. Well, maybe he’d come whap the crocodile that ate me.
The image made me smile. Granduncle would, too; he was that kind of man. He talked back to whitefellas all the time, which was just about like whapping a crocodile. My mother was always signaling my grandmother to shut him up, distract him, before he got of on a real hate-spewing rant, his wiry gray beard trembling with emotion.
Granduncle didn’t understand the whitefellas, that was his problem. It was possible to get along fine with them if you were just nice. He was always going on and on about how we were going to make them leave someday; if you heard him talk, it was always tomorrow.
That made my mother mad. “They’re not leaving,” she’d say, shaking her whiskey flask at him. “You’re delusional. You’re going to get us all killed.”
(This was something I wasn’t supposed to hear.)
I didn’t think the whitefellas would really kill us, but they could make our lives real hard if we acted out. Which was why I just didn’t get Granduncle. Always mad, always yelling, and never really helping anybody. Always talking about the past. Always grabbing me and getting me involved in all his yelling.
“You’re a Wemba-Wemba,” he’d said to me once, the sagging flesh on his stick-skinny arms wobbling as he gestured. “Don’t you forget that, and don’t you let those pink-faced bastards take that away from you.”
I had rolled my eyes. “They’re English, sir,” I’d said to him. “And I’m a blackfella. Tribe doesn’t matter anymore, we’re all blackfellas.”
I’d never seen him get so furious. Spit was flying from his mouth and dripping down into his beard when he screamed, “Don’t you ever let me hear you call yourself that! You’re not a blackfella or an abo, you’re a Wemba-Wemba!”
He grabbed my arm and shook me hard, and I gave a little scream. My mother came running and shouted him down, her thick fists swinging like she was going to snap him into pieces. He let me go and shouted back to her. I snuck away, kind of hating him, kind of hating the whole thing.
The memory was making me feel all sour, and I lolled my head down on top of my arms in the tree. Then I sat up again, really quickly. Where the tips of the branches touched the water, there was something floating there that hadn’t been before: a log. Except I knew it wasn’t a log. It was a big old crocodile.
I stayed deathly still. The branches I was sitting in were leaning almost directly above the croc, but they might have been thick enough underneath me to stop him from jumping up. I didn’t want to test the idea if I could help it.
The croc just floated, as crocs do, pretending to be a log. Its slit-pupil eyes didn’t even blink. Then, very slowly, it sank downwards, the brownish water slowly closing up over its scaly back until it had completely disappeared. There wasn’t even a ripple where it had been.
I put a hand over my mouth, heart hammering. Was it going to jump? Or had it decided I wasn’t worth the effort?
Suddenly I thought of the guns in the sack directly above me. I’d never shot a gun before, but I wasn’t afraid to try and learn…
I raised myself up slowly- slowly- bark scraping at my legs. The branches creaked a little and I froze.
Nothing came up from the water. I started to relax a little, in spite of myself. I mean, there was no way the croc would try to power up through all those branches…
In a twist of cruel irony, just then something scaly and green and absolutely pitiless burst up out of the water, body twisting from side to side. I howled out a word and fell forwards, tangling painfully in the branches. I had a killer view of that croc flying up towards me. Its eyes were nearly black with dilated pupil.
Underneath the croc something else came up out of the water. Something bigger.
I didn’t have much time to register what was going on, because in the span of a few seconds an enormous beak snapped down over the crocodile and dragged it under the water, still thrashing. The water boiled madly for a moment, the crocodile’s flat tail emerging to slap the surface from time to time, and then slowly quieted down.
I lay there, supported on my belly by several branches, too terrified to even think. Ok, crocodiles I knew about. They were scary, but familiar-scary. But something bigger than a crocodile… something that could eat a crocodile?
I was just starting to wonder how I’d ever convince myself to come down from the tree again when the water split and up rose this gigantic head. The crocodile’s pointy snout was bobbing limply out of the end of that massive beak, but even as I watched the creature swallowed it the rest of the way down.
I could barely focus enough to take it all in. It was big, that was for sure. It had a flat beak and little pin-prick eyes like a platypus. But underneath it was covered in white feathers… but it also had the odd-fingered hands of a koala… I couldn’t see the hindquarters under the water, but I imagined them to be equally bizarre.
The weird, mismatched creature opened its beak then, like it was yawning. The beak seemed to stretch out, and suddenly sprout teeth, and then it became the conical snout of a crocodile. Scaly ridges rippled down the creature’s feathery back.
The creature scratched its chin with a koala-like hand and gave a little grunt, like it was all satisfied by this peculiar transformation.
I was most definitely not, and I was shaking so hard it was a wonder the thing didn’t notice. All it’d have to do was look up and I’d be a goner. I was certain of that, because I thought I knew what the thing was now.
Granduncle and the other older folks told a lot of stories, most of them obvious lies. Like the bunyip, a nasty creature that lurked in dark water and ate unwary travelers. That was clearly a made-up thing, especially since no two people I had ever talked to could give the same description of it.
Now I was beginning to understand why that might be.
Underneath me the bunyip moved to scratch at its feathery shoulder- I guess it was itchy or something. It yawned with its new set of jaws, showing all those sharp teeth.
“Have you had a crocodile?”
The voice made me stiffen. It was hoarse and smooth all at once, like shallow water running over rocks. I looked all around, trying not to make any noise, and saw something else coming out of the water. First came huge spines, all tangled up in scummy pond weeds, and then a big fat head with gooey eyes- a wombat’s head, with an echidna’s body. Another misshapen bunyip.
“I have,” said the first bunyip, the one with the crocodile snout. Its voice was a little lighter than the other one’s. It blinked its slitted yellow eyes. “Who are you?”
“I don’t know,” said the one with the wombat head. It raised up a black, slender foreleg with two claws at the tip, like an insect’s. “And you?”
“Don’t know,” said crocodile-head. Its voice sounded bored.
Wombat-head licked its nose, seeming satisfied by the answer. “This pool is good for catching crocodiles, isn’t it?”
Crocodile-head didn’t answer that, just swirled two of its koala claws in the water. “Are the others coming?”
“They’re here,” said wombat-head. “You know, there have been fewer crocodiles here lately.”
“Just wondering where they’ve gone to.”
“Mysterious,” grunted crocodile-head.
Wombat-head didn’t have much more of an opportunity to needle his companion after that, because just then one, two, three more giant heads popped out of the water: a cockatiel, a dog, and a spider with huge shimmering eyes. I was beginning to feel more baffled than afraid. The billabong wasn’t all that big, nor that deep- how had they all managed to fit down there?
“Who are you?” asked dog-head.
“I don’t know,” the others said, all together.
“Well and good. Say… is it me, or are there fewer crocodiles here than before?”
Crocodile-head gave a very slow, languid blink. Behind him, cockatiel-head was shifting around in a nervous way. I noticed that beyond his head he seemed to have a mostly crocodile body.
“Crocodiles aren’t exactly rare,” said spider-head. It had a very soft, gentle-sounding voice. “Shall we discuss what we came here to discuss?”
Dog-head sneezed, and scratched behind its ear with a kangaroo’s blunt nails. “There are still more coming.”
It paused in its scratching, and lifted an object from its furry back with its paw. It was a tiny green lizard.
“It’s not good to gather like this,” said cockatiel-head. It seemed to be a jumpy fellow, its head jerking and twitching every which way. “Wedged-in-the-crack might send others to infiltrate this meeting…”
“Yet you came,” pointed out crocodile-head. “Wedgey can’t do anything even if he does spy on us.”
“He could have us eaten!”
“That’s hardly worth getting so fidgety over,” said dog-head, nodding. The lizard was gone from his paw, but it seemed to have just acquired a long, sticky tongue, which whipped out to lick its eyelid. “If we want there to be any variety left for our palates-”
“It’s not so bad as all that, stop being dramatic,” said crocodile-head, shrugging its feathery shoulders. “All we want is just a chance to rotate territories. Hardly revolutionary.”
“It might be to Wedged-in-the-Crack,” said spider-head, very softly. “Being caught in one spot for so long has made him more resistant to change than you might think. And he does look for excuses to eat things.”
“How long d’you think it will be before he gets big enough to break free?” asked dog-head, but then his wet nose twitched. “Ah, they’re here.”
Just like that, three more bunyips rose up out of the water. The billabong was now ridiculously crowded. Cockatiel-head actually dragged his big crocodile body out onto the shore to have more room.
The three newcomers had the heads of a lorikeet, a quoll, and…
Up there in the branches I swallowed, feeling sick. The third newcomer was swaggering forward through the water on two legs, though it had the furry, stocky body of a thylacine. Its neck was long and scaly, snaking forwards, and on the very end was a human head.
The worst thing was that I recognized that head. It wasn’t an ordinary head- it was a whitefella’s head. A young whitefella, the son of one of the ranchers in the area. His name was Joseph.
“Who are you? And what have you eaten?” asked dog-head, sniffing the air.
“I don’t know who I am,” said Joseph’s head, “but I know what I’ve eaten. It’s one of those new-breed land dugongs.”
“The albino ones?” asked cockatiel-head.
“Leucustic, I would think,” corrected spider-head, in a whisper.
“Lovely color,” said wombat-head. “Unusual.”
“Not so much nowadays. They’re getting a great deal more common,” said lorikeet-head. “I’m surprised none of you lot have tried one before. Anyway, shouldn’t we get down to business?”
It cocked its head towards Joseph-head, rather reproachfully. Joseph’s facial expression, queerly magnified and distorted, still seemed unrepentant.
The bunyips kept on talking after that, but most of it was lost on me, lying up in the branches with numb arms and legs. Seeing that head filled me with a different kind of fear, an awful, sweaty kind. I used to play with Joseph. I’d seen him recently, riding horses with his father around a paddock. If this bunyip had his head, did that mean…
I shuddered, and the branches trembled. None of the bunyips appeared to notice.
My mother worked in Joseph’s house, for his father, for a long while. Joseph’s father was a decent sort for a whitefella. He let me play in the big stables and pet the horses while my mother was working. Joe came to play a lot too- we were of a similar age- and we dragged around the dusty paddocks and threw cow pies and did all kinds of stupid kid stuff.
Joe always had candy in his pockets, and every day he’d give me one piece. Before that I’d never had candy, or really anything made with cane sugar, so it was like a rainbow splashing down on my tongue the first time I ever had a piece. Joe always laughed about that.
One time he’d just given me my piece from his pocket, which was bulging out. I usually crammed it in my mouth right away, but that day I held onto it my hot fist and stared at his pocket.
“Can I have another one, too?”
Joe was a little bit older than me, so there was a faint kind of superiority in his grin when he answered. “Why d’you want two, greedy?”
“I want to eat one now and save the other one for later,” I said, puffing up my chest a little. (That was kind of a lie- I would probably just have put both in my mouth then and there. Didn’t have much patience then and still don’t.)
Joe got a kind of look on his face then. “You get one every day, isn’t that enough?”
“You have a whole bunch, though, so why can’t I have another one?” The candy was getting all sticky in my sweaty hand.
“Listen, girl,” said Joe. He called me girl when he was irked with me. He called my mother that, too, whenever he asked her to get him something to eat. “I give you free candy every day. If you’re not grateful for that, then you can just give it back.”
He stuck his big, pale hand out, palm-up. Not the slightest bit of laughter remained in his eyes.
I met him eye-to-eye for a minute, then I put my sticky hand to my mouth and let the candy drop onto my tongue.
The blood drained out of Joe’s face, and he grabbed me by the front of my dress and slapped my face. The candy went flying out of my mouth and fell onto the dirt.
I started to cry and tried to push him away, but Joe took this poorly and set about smacking me around the head with measured blows, his eyes set and his face still bloodless. All over a damn piece of candy.
Eventually his father heard my yelping and ran out and grabbed Joe by the arm and shook him and shouted at him. I shot off and hid underneath the porch of the house like a beaten dog.
A while later Joe’s father brought him around and made him issue a stiff apology to me. Apparently he’d heard what it was all about, because he extended his hand to me. There were two pieces of candy on his palm.
I took them, because I liked candy. And I made up with Joe. Just stepped a little lighter around him after that. Laughed at his jokes. Pretended to be dumb and fascinated every time he told me stories about England.
I hadn’t played with Joe since my mother stopped working for his dad, a year or so back. And now a bunyip had his head. I didn’t know what to feel.
The bunyip eventually finished up their discussion, and started to slide underneath the surface of the water again, one by one. I followed them with my eyes. I’d almost forgotten about my predicament, up there in the tree, until I saw spider-head reach down into the water and pull out a little squirming fish and eat it. His black skin rippled with new silver scales.
The thought of being plucked out of the tree like a piece of fruit and eaten sobered me up a little and brought my mind off Joseph. The bunyip that had stolen his head had already gone back under the water.
To where, though? That, I had to wonder. Were they just sitting in the mud at the bottom? But no, there was no way eight of the gigantic things would be able to rest comfortably down there… The billabong had hardly managed all of them sitting up.
Eventually there was only one left: the fellow with the crocodile head, the very first one I’d seen. It didn’t seem in any hurry to leave with the others. Instead it sloshed over to the bank and leaned back onto the dirt, sticking its webbed toes up out of the water. Its huge round belly was like an island unto itself. With its belly and feet exposed, and the huge crocodile snout pointing up towards the sky, it made the most ridiculous sunbather I’d ever seen.
As funny as it was, I wasn’t about to laugh. If it wasn’t going to leave, I was stuck in a real predicament. The sun was starting to go down, and I was splayed out in a tree. At some point I was going to end up doing something stupid.
The bunyip shut its eyes, placing one koala hand on top of that furry belly. I licked my lips and tried to push myself- ever-so-gently- up onto my knees in the tree. The branches creaked, and I winced, but the bunyip didn’t move.
Maybe it was asleep. Maybe it was even a sound sleeper. I crawled backwards with extreme caution. The bag with the guns in it was still sitting above me, but I wasn’t planning on reaching for it. Shooting at something this big would have just tickled it a little.
I was maybe halfway down the tree when a branch broke off under my foot with a loud snap. I froze. Everything froze. I think the world froze.
Slowly, the bunyip opened its muddy-yellow eye. It turned its head ever so slightly and looked directly at me.
Suspended in the tree in a ridiculous position, arms shaking, one foot dangling, I blurted out, “Please don’t eat me.”
The bunyip blinked, once, twice.
“I wasn’t planning on it,” it said.
I relaxed a little, which had the unfortunate side effect of loosening my grip. My fingers slipped and for a terrifying moment I found myself dangling from one arm, legs kicking out into air, before I was able to brace myself with my feet and grab another branch.
The bunyip gave a kind of grunt and pulled itself up, making a great, sloshing wave in the water, and squelched over towards the tree. I panicked a little and nearly lost my grip again, but before I could break my neck the bunyip’s big koala hand closed me and plucked me out of the tree just the way I had imagined it would.
It didn’t eat me, though. It set me down on the muddy bank instead. It set me on my feet, but I ended up sitting down right afterwards.
The bunyip withdrew its hand and wiped it on its side. I was still registering where I was, clutching handfuls of mud on either side of myself.
“What’s that?” asked the bunyip, tilting its snout upwards. I followed the trajectory and saw that it was looking at the sack with the guns at the top of the tree.
“Uh…” The words stuck in my throat, and the bunyip looked back down at me.
“If you don’t know, that’s fine,” it said, and turned, like it was going to slouch away again.
“Wait!” I wasn’t sure why I said that. Maybe I felt a sense of etiquette towards the thing, since it had just helpfully pulled me out of the tree, and maybe I was worried it would show up the next night and eat my entire family if I didn’t answer the question. “It’s guns. A bag of guns.”
The bunyip said, “Oh.” It sounded remarkably blank.
“Do you not know what a gun is?” I asked, in a very tentative way.
The bunyip made a kind of deep rumble, and I tensed up.
“I’m not an expert on land dugongs,” it said, almost petulantly. “I don’t know all your words for things. Is it alive?”
“No,” I said, with a very dry mouth.
“Then there’s no reason to care, anyway.”
“I- I guess not.” I swallowed. “Well- thank you for helping me, sir.”
The bunyip said nothing to this, just blinked slowly. I got the urge to cough.
“Do you- do you have a name?”
The vast creature gave a kind of shudder, making messy ripples in the water.
“Why would I need a name, when I am always changing? It would pin me down.”
“Oh,” I said. “I guess… I guess that makes sense. But how does anybody know what to call you?”
“They don’t,” said the bunyip. “They don’t need to call me anything.”
It leaned towards me, and I tensed up.
“I’m still not going to eat you, you know,” it said, though it leaned back. “I’ve just eaten a crocodile, and I am full.”
“But aren’t-” My fool mouth. “Aren’t you worried about me repeating what I heard?”
The bunyip opened its toothy jaws to give a great shout of laughter. “To whom?”
It had a point. I shook my head a little. “Do you not eat humans? Um, I mean, land dugongs?”
“I haven’t in a while,” said the bunyip. “So I might, since I like a bit of variety in my diet. But I don’t think I’d eat one of you brown ones. You’re starting to get rarer.”
“What so you mean?” I asked, standing up. My voice had suddenly taken on a quaver. “What do you mean, rarer?”
“I mean, we don’t like to eat rare creatures, lest they die out,” said the bunyip. “Those pale ones used to be uncommon, but it seems like they’re outbreeding your lot.”
“We’re not rare,” I said, in a very low voice. “We’re not getting rarer…”
“Look, little one,” said the bunyip, peering down at me over the end of its snout. “I’ve been around this place since the earth was born, and I’ve seen thousands of animals rise and fall. The way your kind is declining, you’ll be obliterated in the next century.”
I stood there a moment, muddy fists clenched, the bunyip’s words kind of clanging around in my head. Then I turned around and walked away from the billabong.
“Where are you going?” called the bunyip.
I didn’t look back. Eventually, in the distance, I heard a quiet splash.
I got back to my home, which was just a collection of shanties out on the edges of a whitefella’s land- all wrinkled tin roofs and crazy leaning walls. My mother was sitting out waiting for me, drinking something, but when she saw me coming up through the dust she dropped the bottle on her chair.
“What took you so long?” she demanded. “I was-”
She stopped, and I guess that was about the time I realized I was crying. I went straight into her big, solid arms and cried and cried. She stroked my hair and rocked me slowly.
“What happened? What happened, little girl?”
I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t stop crying. I clutched her dress with dirty hands.
“Where’re the guns?”
The harsh, hoary old voice was my granduncle’s. He pulled me roughly by my shoulder out of my mother’s arms.
“Where are they, girl?”
I wiped my eyes and tried to answer, but all that came out was more sobs. My mother grabbed me back and enfolded me in herself again.
“She’s been scared bad by something,” she said, fiercely. “You leave her be. Get your own damn guns.”
“What’s she been scared by?” demanded my granduncle. I became vaguely aware that more people were starting to cluster around. “We need those guns! We need ’em tonight! If she’s lost them-”
“Shut your mouth and leave her alone,” said my mother, in her lowest tone of voice. The tension rose in the air.
One of my uncles came over, and stroked my cheek, where my face stuck out over my mother’s elbow. He pulled my hair lightly back from my sore eyes.
“Anything happen to the guns, honey?”
I shook my head. He straightened up.
“See? We can just wait another night, Dad.”
“We have to go tonight!” said my granduncle, stamping his foot in the dirt like a stubborn old nag.
“You shouldn’t go at all, ever,” said my mother, her arms tightening around me. She seemed like she still wanted to pick a fight. “You put all of us in danger with your stupid raids.”
My granduncle’s eyes bulged.
“Hush up! Be quiet!” someone shouted. “A rider’s coming!”
The air instantly went dead all around me, and I became aware of the sound of pounding hooves. I pulled out of my mother’s arms and turned around.
A lone whitefella was coming our way, clopping on a big brown horse. I recognized the horse before I recognized the man- I’d played in the stables in the straw underneath her warm nose a hundred times as a child.
When he got close enough, Joseph’s father swung down from his horse and walked her forward by her bridle. His face was set and grim. I could feel a new current of anxiety traveling all around the shanty town now. It wasn’t a good look to be directed towards us.
My mother gripped my shoulder and spoke up. “What can we do for you, Mister Henly?”
Mr. Henly didn’t speak right away. His jaw worked for a moment, his flat, pale eyes searching the faces of everyone gathered around.
“Any of you seen my son recently?”
I went rigid, but my mother didn’t appear to notice. “Little Joe? No sir, I haven’t seen him around.”
Mr. Henly rubbed his chin, his fingers scraping over a day’s worth of stubble. To my horror, his eyes landed on me.
“What about you, little girl? You haven’t seen him, have you?”
I swallowed. I knew my eyes still had to be puffy, my lips trembling. I wanted to say no, but I couldn’t get the word out. Mr. Henly’s look intensified.
“Something bad happen? You all right?”
“I- I-” It was like torture, trying to speak. I swallowed down hard. “I’m fine, sir.”
Mr. Henly got a look in his eye then, like he’d figured something out. He raised his gaze away from me.
“All right, if Joe’s in one of these shacks, he can come on out. None of you are going to damn well get in trouble out of it. I’ll see to it that he doesn’t come back here.”
Nobody move. My mother said, in an uncharacteristically tremulous voice, “He’s not here, sir.”
“Why’s she crying?” demanded Mr. Henly, stabbing a finger towards me. “Why’s her dress all ripped, then?”
I looked down at myself and realized that the front of my dress was ripped open. My shoulder and the top of one half-formed breast was showing. My face got hot, and I tried to pull the fabric back up. It must have happened when the bunyip was pulling me out of the tree.
“He’s not here,” said my mother. There was a new kind of edge at the bottom of her voice. “I haven’t seen him.”
Mr. Henly’s eyes got thin, and he shot her a look.
“He’s been missing for a whole day,” he said. “Now, all I want to do is get my son back and tan his damn hide. Surely you lot have no objections.”
He looked pointedly at me. My face grew hotter.
“Mister- sir- I haven’t seen Joe all day,” I stammered. “I promise. He didn’t-”
Touch me, I had been about to say, but then I stopped short. Now everybody else was looking at me. My granduncle’s eyes were full of fire.
Mr. Henly took of his hat and slicked his hair back with one hand. Then he walked over to me and squatted in front of me.
“I can tell you’re lying,” he said. His voice was oddly gentle. “It’s all right. Tell me where Joe is, child.”
I couldn’t look him straight in the eye, but when I looked over his shoulder, I saw my granduncle’s face. His lips were forming a single word: whore.
“No, no,” I blurted out. “Joe didn’t hurt me, I swear. He’s- he’s- I think he’s dead, Mister Henly.”
A kind of jolt went through Mr. Henly’s body. “What did you say? You say Joe’s-”
“I don’t know for sure,” I stammered. “Honest I don’t. I just saw-”
When I stopped, I thought Mr. Henly’s staring eyes would pop right out of his skull. He stood up and grabbed me by the arm.
“Saw what? What did you see, girl?”
I couldn’t tell him, but I had to, I had to. “I saw a bunyip with his face on, Mister Henly!”
Dead quiet all around. My uncles were all looking at each other. My granduncle looked scotched. I couldn’t see my mother’s face- she was behind me.
Mr. Henly ran his tongue over his thin lips and didn’t say a word for a painfully long time. His fingers around my arm were like iron.
“You’re coming with me,” he said, finally, and started dragging me towards his horse.
I was too surprised to resist at first, but my mother’s voice rose up like a howl. “No! No! Don’t you take her anywhere, sir!”
“Be quiet!” shouted Mr. Henly. “I should’ve taken her away years ago!”
“No!” My mother came forward, but Mr. Henly turned around and looked at her. Just one look, and she stopped dead, her heavy arms falling helplessly to her sides.
“If Joe raped the girl, that’s my responsibility,” he said. His breath was starting to come hard. “If the girl gets pregnant by Joe, that’s also my business to handle. And if the girl hurt Joe over all this… If she killed him…”
He let his voice trail off, and gave me another yank forwards. I stumbled, only kept upright by his bruising grip.
“No…” My mother’s voice was quiet at first, but then it got stronger. “Mister Henly, don’t take her! You know she’s not half-caste! You know that! Don’t take my baby away!”
“Let me come with you!” shouted one of my uncles. “Let me come with you, sir, I’ll watch her, I’ll make things all right with your son- she wouldn’t ever hurt him, she’s got to be all mixed up-”
“She’s not half! She’s blacker than me!” cried another. “Mister, you’re making a mistake!”
Mr. Henly ignored all these voices, all these cries, and dragged me up onto his horse. I felt numb. I couldn’t bring myself to fight back- I couldn’t believe anything that was happening.
Mr. Henly started to get up on the horse himself, but it was my granduncle’s voice that finally stopped him.
“You let her go right now.”
Slowly Mr. Henly looked back. The mare shifted her weight underneath me as I turned too, putting one hand on the back of the saddle. My granduncle was pushing his way through the little crowd. In one hand he held a glass-tipped spear.
“I’ll put this through your throat,” he said. “If you don’t let her go and leave.”
Mr. Henly took his foot out of the stirrup and turned the rest of the way around. I heard my mother give a muffled utterance.
“Nice spear you have there.” Mr. Henly laid a hand on the leather holster at his side, his thumbnail flicking the brass button that held it closed. “I s’pose you’d feel better with one of these, though.”
My granduncle didn’t say a word. His black eyes were as dark and deep as two wells.
“We’ve been having a problem with cattle thieves, lately,” said Mr. Henly, in a conversational tone. “But they use guns, not spears. So I wouldn’t suspect any of your kind.”
The pronged tip at the end of my granduncle’s spear trembled a little. Mr. Henly laughed.
“If I take her away from this place,” he said, “it’d be the best thing that ever happened to her.”
Then he mounted up in front of me and started walking his horse on out of there. Just like that. One lone white man with his back turned to my whole family while he stole me away.
And they couldn’t do a thing about it.
I rode on the horse like a dead thing, smelling Mr. Henly’s sweaty back, gripping the sides of the saddle instead of holding on to him. We were plodding forward through the thin brush, back towards the billabong. My brain was working slowly, fitfully. Why were we going back there? I would have expected him to turn towards town…
I had heard, of course, of black kids being taken away, but that was only supposed to be the creamies, the half-castes; the ones that had a chance of fitting into whitefella society as servants. Not full-blooded blacks like me.
What was he planning to do? How could he take me? How could he… how could he be allowed to just take me?
While I chased my thoughts in circles, Mr. Henly spoke up.
“You’re gonna show me where you last saw Joe.”
That made my brain kind of snap back together. “Sir, I didn’t-”
“Don’t lie.” His voice was very cold. “I know my son probably deserved a thrashing. I know you aren’t the kind of girl who’d murder him in cold blood. I’m not going to try to punish you.”
I hesitated, and he continued. “These tracks come from the billabong, don’t they? With the crocodiles? Is there a body left?”
I worked my jaw a little. There was a tinge of exhaustion in his voice. It seemed… it seemed like he actually wasn’t angry with me. Like he thought he was really doing something in my best interest.
“I don’t know where his body is, sir,” I managed to say. “I didn’t see it.”
“Well, you’re just going to have to search for it, then,” said Mr. Henly. “We can search all night until we find a trace. I’m in no hurry. He’s my only boy.”
He wasn’t lying. I felt my blood running cold. He’d have me out there searching for a body that didn’t exist- for a murder I didn’t commit.
Without thinking very much about it, I slid sideways off the horse.
I hit the ground and rolled, while the mare danced beside me from surprise, and then I took off running. I headed straight for the scratchy brush while Mr. Henly swore and tried to get her back under his control.
I scrambled through the brush, mindless, desperate; anything to get further away, further and further from the sounds of the horse and the shouts of the man. The soil got soggy underneath my scratched, slapping bare feet, and my arms got scratched up, and my dress got ripped even more, but I didn’t care. I had to get away no matter what.
I was knee-deep in water before I realized I had somehow stumbled back into the billabong. The big eucalyptus tree with the sack of guns in it was straight across from me- I’d somehow scrambled all the way around the shore.
I stared at it a minute, getting my bearings, feeling the cold water swirling around my legs, stinging my new wounds. Then somebody grabbed me by the shoulder.
It was Mr. Henly, his face red with fury. I howled and struggled. but he dragged me backwards, out of the water, his fingers contracting around my neck.
“Where’s my son, girl?” he shouted. “What did you do to him?”
I struggled, but his fingers were closing on my windpipe, and the blood was draining away, draining so that his skin got pure white, and his eyes were wide and staring, and he looked just like Joe- just like Joe when he heard me ask for two pieces of candy instead of one. And maybe Joe’s father was going to strangle me here, leave my body for the crocodiles as revenge for his son. And nobody who loved me could do a thing to stop him.
I was losing air, losing my mind, but I managed to connect a kick back against Mr. Henly’s kneecap and twist away. He grabbed for me and I stumbled and I fell sideways into the murky water. For a moment black silt clouded up my vision and blocked my ears, Mr. Henly’s shouts vanishing into a torrent of bubbles.
I burst up out of the water, coughing and gasping, my neck aching worse than anything I’d ever felt. Mr. Henly was right there in front of me, standing with his boots all covered in filthy water, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at something up over my head.
The guns, he’s seen the guns, I thought, wildly, and whipped around, and then ran into something vast and furry.
A koala paw caught me and set me straight, though I still staggered in the mud. Mr. Henly was frozen stock-still, gaping upwards at the looming bulk of the bunyip.
For it was most certainly the bunyip, the one with the crocodile head and the feathers on his shoulders, the koala arms, the platypus body. It was blinking its slitted muddy eyes at the two of us.
Mr. Henly suddenly made a strangled sound and grabbed for the gun at his waist. In the blink of an eye, the bunyip’s crocodile jaws snapped down and over him.
Just like that, Mr. Henly was no more.
I gasped and shook in the shallow water as the bunyip slowly raised its head back up. A bulge traveled down its crocodile throat before it spoke.
“We meet again,” it acknowledged.
I had to try three times before I could say anything, and even then it was, “Yes.”
The bunyip looked up towards the sky, and said, “It’s going to get dark soon.”
I looked up too, and a shaky, near-hysterical laugh burst from my lips. “I thought you said you were full from the crocodile?”
“That was a long time ago,” said the bunyip, scratching its belly. “I get hungry again quickly.”
I looked up at him. To my surprise, though he might have been a little bigger, nothing else about him had changed.
“Why haven’t you- I mean, don’t you usually look like the things you eat?”
“When we want to,” said the bunyip. It was starting to sound a little cross. “I didn’t want to have much of that thing showing on me. Really, I don’t know why I even ate it.”
“Yes, it might give you indigestion,” I said, and then gave another too-shrill laugh. The bunyip cocked its head at me.
“Are you all right?”
“No,” I said, and then sat down with a splash, hugging my knees to my chest. “No, I’m not, I’m not all right, sir.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the bunyip, though it sounded as though it was only trying to be polite.
“Mister Bunyip,” I said, shivering in the cold water, “do you really think my kind is going to die out?”
The bunyip looked at me for a short time, its crocodile gaze rather calculating.
“I don’t know,” it said, finally. “I can never predict these things properly. Populations rise and fall. Maybe yours will come back.”
“Maybe,” I whispered. “Maybe the whitefellas will leave someday.”
“Leave?” wondered the bunyip. “What do you mean? Did they come from somewhere else?”
“Yes,” I said. “They came from across the sea, from a land called England. You didn’t know?”
“Across the sea? That’s impossible. You’re land dugongs- you can’t swim across the sea.”
“On a ship. They came on ships,” I said. “Have you seen a ship?”
“Is it alive?”
“Are you only concerned with living things?”
The bunyip gave me a blank look, as though I’d just asked an incredibly stupid question. “Why did you call me Mister Bunyip?”
“Because I didn’t know what else to call you, since you have no name.”
“Why do you need to call me anything?”
“Well,” I said, “it’s- it’d be hard to know who you were, and to talk to you, without a name.”
The bunyip recoiled. “Who I am? Why would you want to know that? I don’t want to know that.”
I thought of the bunyips’ strange greeting ceremony. “Why don’t you want to know who you are?”
“Because I won’t be a bunyip anymore if I do that,” said the bunyip. “Because I’ll stop changing, if I know who I am. If I have a name.”
I shivered again. “Is it… is it really so bad? Why do you want to keep changing?”
The bunyip slowly lowered itself down into the water, stretching its body flat. A wave passed over where I was sitting, getting me wet up to the shoulders. The bunyip put its huge, crocodilian snout in the water just next to me to fix me with its yellow eye.
“Once there were only bunyips,” it said. “Did you know that? We were all capable of changing, endlessly, into one thing from another. That was a long time ago, and it was when I was first born, when the earth was first born. And then some of us stopped changing. They found out what they were, and they picked a shape to be, and they gave themselves names. And those were all the plants and animals, and you, too, little dugong.”
“I’m not a dugong,” I muttered.
“But when you name something, that gives it a beginning and an end,” continued the bunyip, ignoring me. “I’ve lived since the beginning of the earth, longer than a hundred thousand million of your lives. But the ones who stopped changing- they had to die. Once you know who you are, you can’t change it, and you are doomed.”
Water slopped gently against my knees. The bunyip’s words struck me, oddly, deep in my chest. Tears started to prick at the corners of my eyes again.
“Why do you become what you eat?” I asked, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand.
“We don’t have to,” said the bunyip. “But it’s easier than thinking up new ideas on our own. It wears you down, all this changing. After so many seasons. And it is hard not getting too big.”
“Why, why shouldn’t you get too big?”
“Because the one wedged in the crack will take notice of us,” murmured the bunyip. “And he will want to eat us.”
“There’s something out there that can eat you?”
“He is a bunyip, as well,” said the bunyip. “He is the eldest and largest. He was unable to crawl all the way out of the crack in the earth he was born in, and he has been caught tight there ever since the beginning of the world. Now he waits, and eats, and eats. He wants to get bigger.”
“But…” I was feeling a little overwhelmed with the imagery. “If he gets bigger, won’t it be harder and harder for him to get out?”
“He wants to get big enough to split the earth apart,” said the bunyip. “Then he’ll be free.”
I swallowed. “What about- you know- the ones living on top of the earth? What happens to us?”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the bunyip, almost sounding amused. “It won’t happen in your little lifetime. He has far to grow. He spends most of his time tormenting the other bunyips, or trying to eat them.”
“I think that’s terrible! How could he eat his own kind?”
The bunyip laughed. “He is a bunyip! It’s not such a terrible thing to be eaten by one of us. You’ll only become part of what we are. If old Wedgey eats me, I’ll become a part of what he is. I prefer moving around, is all.”
“So you don’t… die?”
The bunyip raised a dripping, massive arm and patted my head with two koala fingers.
“I don’t know who I am, and that means I cannot die.”
I stared at it, water dripping down the sides of my face.
“Unless I learn who I am,” said the bunyip. “But I don’t want to.”
“Me neither,” I whispered. “Bunyip?”
It shifted around a little in the water, as if being addressed like that made it uncomfortable. “What is it?”
“If you have any room left in your stomach, could you eat me?”
It blinked several times, very rapidly, and raised the end of its snout up out of the water. “I have never gotten a request like that.”
“But I won’t die,” I said. “I’ll be a part of you.”
“Don’t you like moving around on your own, little one?” Its voice was gentle. Mine broke.
“No… no, I’m frightened. I’m losing who I am. Maybe it was already lost when I was born. You’re right that things that don’t change have to die… they’re dying all around me. I’m so frightened. Please, help me.”
“I can’t change what’s happening,” said the bunyip. It touched my head again. “I can only change myself.”
“But if I become a part of you,” I said, “I’ll be there forever, and I won’t die.”
“You’ll change,” said the bunyip. “You won’t know who you are.”
“I don’t want to know,” I said. “I don’t want to know, anymore. Please, will you eat me?”
The bunyip gazed at me for a very long time. I stared back into its slitted eyes. Somewhere deep inside them I thought I might have caught a peek of what the bunyip kept trying so hard to hide, that thing it pretended didn’t exist.
“Very well,” said the bunyip, finally. And then it ate me up.
Thanks to blackdogrunning for suggesting bunyip, and asktastytahno for suggesting “a crocodile with the head of a giant parakeet.”
The previous story in this collection was Three Gifts Given Back. The next short story is The Sky Cage.