One night I was walking across that paddock, eyes on stalks on a frosty winter’s night, only the light of the Milky Way to help me. However beautiful that galactic phenomenon is out in the sticks where there is no man-made light at all, it’s not much help when all of a sudden the whole earth erupts in front of your feet.
Yes, that’s what happened to me. There was this monstrous noise and a huge shape appeared not a metre from me, as tall as I was. I simply froze on the spot. Pure, naked, absolute terror does that to you. Fleetingly I asked myself why I hadn’t gone home by the cemetery route.
What had happened, I’m sure you’ve guessed, was that in my determination to go stealthily cub-wolf-like across the paddock to avoid the panthers in the trees, I had blundered head-on into a sleeping jersey cow. She no doubt knew I was coming and was just as alarmed as I was, jumping up at the last minute in front of my straining eyes and scaring me out of my wits. She sidled away, turned to me and bellowed like a T-Rex, and I fell over backwards.
Thank all the powers-that-be that no film like Jurassic Park was around when I was a kid. I would never have made it home, not even once. The velociraptors would have got me in twenty seconds after going past Aunty Anne’s, even on a bright moony night that would have had Beethoven or Debussy composing like lunatics. (Those are links to well-known moonlight music from both. No prizes for guessing what. Enjoy them!)
Anyway, now that she had lumbered off, I sat shivering from fright for a few minutes where she had been lying, and took advantage of the warm spot she’d created on the ground while sleeping there for a couple of hours. She must have been cranky at the thought of having to warm a whole nuther spot for the rest of the night, but at least both of us survived the incident unscathed, except for a few years the fright probably took off both our lives.
Once I knew it was only a cow, of course, my heart rate went down from about 500 to oh, about 200 or so. Cows I could never be scared of, once I was sure this one wasn’t a cleverly camouflaged sabre-toothed cat having a little kip in the front paddock. Or a lion with a gigantic mane.
There were just three other obstacles. One was the curlews.
Yes, you read me right. Those terrifying blood-curdling wraiths of the night - bloody curlews.
For some reason there was a Calliope myth that we believed implicitly from birth, and that was that if a curlew spied you, then it would chase you.
|The fearsome bush curlew|
That was very scary. Don’t ask me why it would, or what it would do with you if it caught you, but it had a sharpish beak and that was enough. It had a mournful call at night, a very common sound and our childhood would have been incomplete without it, but for a small boy a little short in the bravery department walking alone across a darkened paddock, it sounded mysterious and threatening and dreadful. Especially when that banshee wailing call came from less than 100 metres away, as it often did.
OK, so I’m being a little melodramatic here, but like I said before, just you experience it as a little kid in the pitch-blackness and that grin would disappear pretty damn fast.
The truth is that you rarely see a bush curlew, because they’re so darn shy and not very big! The last thing in the world they’d do is chase you, although, come to think of it, I wouldn’t put that past any mother protecting her brood. I've seen a bantam hen with chickens attack a horse, and send it packing. It’s a chick (hah!) thing. But the fact that I’d never actually seen a curlew, in the feathers as it were, was what made them so haunting, in a distinctly uncomfortable way.
Yet it's true; if they had caught you, they couldn’t have done much. They’d be like Muttley, the little Yorky terrier next door, who chased our cat fifty metres and then she turned on him, and he realised he’d bitten off far more than he could chew. He turned and bolted, and she chased him all the way home. You could see by Soxy's face that it was an intensely satisfying experience.
Then there were snakes.
One evening, the fascinating snake man, Ram Chandra, came to Calliope, bringing cages galore of all sorts of snakes with him. He was an amazing character. Though born in Australia, his exploits even made a story in Madras (Chennai)'s famous newspaper, the Hindu. In the Diggers Arms Hall in Calliope, he talked from all-too-personal experience about taipans and king brown snakes, then got a (non-poisonous) carpet snake and demonstrated all about snakebite by encouraging one to bite his finger, and it obliged readily. The blood spots were impressive and it would have hurt like hell.
|Ram Chandra late in life|
You can imagine the effect all these snakes had on me for the journey home from Cubs from then on.
Not only had I now to deal with dinosaurs, African predator animals, Amazonian monsters and crocodiles; for weeks after Ram Chandra’s visit, there were deadly taipans in the grass all round me, in front, beside, behind.... it was almost too much. And remember, these shorts weren’t what you’d call snakeproof.
But, in spite of all, I reached home with nary a King Brown attached to my bum. Yet, if truth be told, snakes really would have been the greatest danger to me on that long walk home, walking through knee-high grass. I never saw a taipan reported in Calliope, but one had been killed at Machine Creek, too close for my liking. A bite from one of those and I simply wouldn’t have made it home. Deadybones in under three minutes.
Lastly, and I hope you’ll appreciate that I’ve left out some fascinating stuff for the sake of brevity, I turn to the final and scariest obstacle to reaching the safety of my old Calliope home.
The last fence before the home stretch, in fact, was far from metaphorical. The track from Aunty Anne’s at our fence line led right by the creek. The hessian bag wrapped round the barbed wire to prevent nasty accidents was there, at that point.
In Pix magazine (oh Lordy, it still exists, it seems – a 1950s version of what you find at hairdressing salons these days) I, at age 8, had read a review of a movie called The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It was not accompanied by any pictures of The Creature, though there are stacks online now. All it was illustrated by was a black lagoon or waterhole, with dark and sinister trees hanging over it.
Just up from where I had to get through the fence of the way home from Cubs, there was exactly such a lagoon in our part of the creek. There was no way of avoiding it. The paddock where Dad would grow peanuts and spuds was fenced off from the creek, which meant I had to run the gauntlet along the lane between the paddock and the creek.
|My picture of part of the Black Lagoon in broad daylight|
Much too close for my liking, I had to pass the Black Lagoon, where, I had no doubt, the Creature lay in wait.
The bottlebrush trees and a River Gum with long trails of lifeless mistletoe oozed over the water like weeping women. There was a constant dripping sound, like the tears of those women eternally splashing into the water. Surely it must have been for their loved ones, mostly their own children, and probably boys just about my size and age, who had been taken by the Creature, dragged into the murky depths to a fate too horrible to imagine. Yes, even worse, I am certain, than being slowly eaten alive, feet first, by an anaconda not quite big enough to finish the job in less than three days.
In short, it was the sort of fate I did imagine happening to the sort of boy I had firmly in mind, namely me.
It made it worse that I had seen no illustration in Pix of The Creature. What I imagined was vastly more horrific, more dark, inexplicable and more demonic than the green rather pathetic looking froggy thing I now see in the online posters. You can google it if you like but I wouldn’t bother. My image of it didn’t involve scantily clad women either, needless to say, unlike some of the posters.
Like an Injun Scout, I crept through the darkness along the lane, practically flattening myself against the barbed wire of the paddock fence. Any lighting, if I had any, was switched off. The very last thing I wanted to do was attract its attention. It couldn’t have eaten for a long time. It would be watching, peering through the gloom, waiting its chance. The lagoon it was in was many kilometres deep, like Loch Ness. Or, as I found out much later, about one metre deep to be exact.
Yet, I evaded it every time, which proves what a good Cub Scout I must have been. A hundred metre sprint from the danger zone into the light flooding down the hill from the 240 watt bulb under the house, left on just for me to negotiate the final steps, and I was safe. I had survived, for another week at least.
Of all the terrors of the night, the Black Lagoon was the most fearsome thing. Forget about the velociraptors, crocs and snakes, jungle cats and a lion possibly disguised as a startled cow. They were all significant obstacles on each journey home from Cubs, but all were safely negotiated weekly.
Without a doubt, the Black Lagoon proved that the most terrifying things in life are not out there, but inside the dark and mysterious workings of the human psyche.
And that is the end of my story.
Cemetries, dark nights and childhood fears can recur in adulthood. About 25 years ago Julie and I were camping in mid-winter Tasmania. We were the only campers in the park, the ground was thick with dry fallen leaves and it was very cold. We had spent the afternoon in a cemetry (a favourite travel activity) where several of the graves had caved in and were half open. We speculated on whether the occupants came out and prowled round at night.ReplyDelete
After an evening reading in front of a fire in the very small public library - which conveniently stayed open till 9pam, we made our way back to our cold tent.
During the night Julie woke me gently and whispered "listen". Outside we could hear a dreadful slow shuffling through the leaves, and our imagination ran riot. Picking up my sheath knife and a torch, I leapt through the doorway which Julie suddenly unzipped.
I swept the torch around, no zombies, no footsteps.
So, back to bed and sleep, until a very nervous Julie woke me again. Same actions ... same result.
By now, however, we had two rational, middle-aged campers thoroughly spooked and we did not get back to sleep. Then it came again, that dreadful, sinister shuffling tread, right outside the tent.
For the third time I leapt out, flashed the torch in all directions ... nothing.
Then I became aware of a small Scots terrier, wagging its tail, right at my feet.
After being patted ... honour satisfied ... the little dog shuffled off.
(And I did remember, Denis, not to begin a sentence with 'However' - but regretfully, began this one with 'And').
Thanks for the story, Bob! I would have been thinking Tassie Devils. That's funny. I confess I would somehow be a bit queasy about sleeping in a cemetery, though I can't say I would be too worried about spooky stuff. Did I just contradict myself?ReplyDelete
And.... there's nothing wrong with any wording informally - as long as it suits the task Even the dreaded 'however'.... :)
Yet another beautiful story, Uncle Den. I can so imagine you there...what a lot our children are missing out on. Their imaginations stuffed with visions from tv and movies, no long, dark walks in the 'woods' as even the trees in our suburbs are hacked down. The good 'ol days really were good - maybe we didn't know at the time...Thanks for a great memory.ReplyDelete
What a charming story! Yes, I was chuckling while reading, but only in recognition.ReplyDelete
I also had an overactive imagination from a very young age, mostly unrealistic. I remember to this day the sheer terror I felt when we would drive a certain road that ran along the shopping center. I was CONVINCED there was a dragon on the other side of the hill, going towards the river, just waiting to devour us. That it never happened made no difference - I KNEW it would get us some day!
Funny, I just went to Google maps/street view & it looks pretty much the same as 50 years ago (in fact, a bit more decrepit). Lake Marian Road 60110 We lived just to the East of Route 25.
That was Chicago, Peggy, I'm sure. I stayed on the Sth side for a while. I'm glad your dragon didn't get you. Paradoxical creatures, those dragons..... I'll look at the map when I wake. It interests me. Fertile imaginations allow for anything, don't they?ReplyDelete
Carpentersville? Is that where it was? Not all that far from Chicago. I was fond of Madison. I don't see a dragon....ReplyDelete