Terri Windling has been writing the most wonderful series of blog posts on the magic and myth of the wild wood. I'd love to start a whole new 'movable feast' on the subject, but I've been down and out with the flu for coming on three weeks, so while the spirit is willing, neither brain nor body are functioning particularly well at the moment. So in lieu of some new thoughts on the subject, and because I've just been reading through old scribbles that go back more than 15 years and don't know what to do with them all, I thought I'd post a couple here that are somewhat relevant to the idea of forests, and wild woods, and the dangers (real and imagined) to be found within them.
Terri mentions the old Irish story of Suibhne, the cursed king who is banished to the woods where he lives out his life in the tree-tops like a bird. He is a mythic figure that I find fascinating, so here is a poem, from 2007, from the point of view of a woman who loves him. It might become a song, I'm not sure...like so many of my poems, I'm never really sure if it's finished.
Suibhne’s Lover Laments (early Dec 2007)
Shall I tempt you down again
My mad and melancholy king?
Gently I’ll unwind the feathers
twisted in your hair.
And soothe the searing truths the thorns
have written on your skin.
Shall I tempt you down again
My solitary lover?
From the treetops of your exile
in the chill and biting wind.
To the friendship of my bed
your scars with kisses cover.
Your darkened eyes replete with pain
You cannot stay, you cannot stay
The wind will call you out again
My mad and melancholy king.
What use a warm body and a warm bed
when you from languid arms are seized?
By the song of the wind among the leaves
of the silent, frost-festooned dark trees.
Shall I tempt you down again
My sad and solitary lover?
From the exile of your mind
in the biting wind.
And in my warm caress, again
your human soul discover.
* * *
THE BLUE GLASS MARBLE
There it is again, the same few seconds of news footage. I’ve watched it on every station now, I can’t seem to stop, though it chills me to the bone each time. My life has tipped sideways. Everything I was told, everything I’ve believed for the last fifty years is a lie.
Every TV channel is buzzing with the story, the miraculous survival of a little boy, found after almost four weeks lost in the bush. He is delivered into his sobbing mother’s arms by an SES officer, the camera behind her as the boy flings his arms around her and holds on as if he’ll never let go. He buries his face in her neck and the footage ends, fading dramatically to black. But each time, just before he drops his head to her shoulder, he stares into the camera for a moment. And grins. The image shimmers and I see the lank black hair, the pinched face. The grinning mouth filled with rows of oddly pointed teeth...and the eyes that are not human. And I want to scream at his mother, like I screamed at my own. “It’s not him, it’s not your boy. He’s still out there!”
* * *
I remember those last days of stifling heat when summer digs in and refuses to give an inch to autumn, when everything is waiting, praying for rain. The light so bright it bleeds the colour out of everything. The trees looked drab and greyish, everywhere the smell of hot dust. Like a half-done watercolour painting, only the sky finished, and so blue it hurt your eyes to look at it. An ordinary Saturday morning, and Jackie and I were keen to make the most of the day, but mum didn’t have any spare coppers so the pictures were out. We decided to head down to the creek and play explorers or Kokoda track soldiers. The war was over, but it was still a heavy presence in our lives. Uncle Joe had come home...but dad didn’t. I could vaguely remember him, a smell of tobacco and a laugh, but I was only four when he left. Jackie was a few months old. Dad was a bloke in a photograph on the mantelpiece to him. Mum made us lunch to take exploring, a jam sandwich, an apple and Uncle Joe’s old army canteen filled with water. “Make sure you look after your brother” she told me as she sliced the day old bread. Once, that would have been as far as it went, but Jack fell out of a tree last year and broke his arm in two places, so now it was followed by “...and keep your shoes on...keep an eye out for snakes...don’t get sunstroke...and don’t let Jackie climb any trees!” I said “Righto mum!” keen to get going, but I was just happy she let us go at all, she’d got kind of clingy and worried for a while after the tree episode. But Gartie would always say, ”you can’t molly-coddle them Patty, boys need to go exploring. Grows them up.” In hindsight, I wish to God mum had said no. But I didn’t know how the day was going to end.
Gartie had dragged the old chair off the back verandah and planted herself under the big old fig tree in the backyard, by the chook shed. She had a jug of lemonade, and looked like she was set for the day. It was the coolest place to be, she said. She was plaiting her long white hair when Jack and I went out to get a kiss goodbye. We never went anywhere without getting a kiss from Gartie. She gave us a peck on the cheek, and pressed a caramel toffee into each of our palms. She always had a tin of them. She had almost no teeth now, so she reckoned she just sucked on them till they were paper thin and she could swallow them. “My only vice!” she’d say with a toothless grin, and give the tin a shake.
With lunch in my school bag slung over my shoulder, shoes on as required by mum (though they’d be off soon enough), we set off down the street, heading down the end to where the road fizzled into a dirt track that ran along the ridge of the hill. About two miles on, another track dropped away to the left and we carefully picked our way down that because I knew from experience that sliding on your bum down the gravel hill when you’re wearing a pair of threadbare shorts is rather painful.
When you get to the bottom, the track widens out a bit, and then you hit the creek. There was a fallen tree across it up the hill a bit, but the water level was so low it was barely more than a trickle, and the prospect of cool wet feet was infinitely preferable to scrabbling our way through the prickle bushes to the old log. Shoes off then. We only had two pairs of shoes each to our name, so it wasn’t a good idea to go sloshing through a creek with them, even the second best ones.
The far side of the creek always felt like entering a different world. It was mid-morning and already the temperature had to be nearing the old century mark. The bush surrounded us on all sides, the track meandering along the creek line, between dull blue-grey shrubs, granite outcrops and tall white gums. There was that oppressive hush you get in the Aussie bush in summer, as if everything is just too hot, too drained of energy to move or make a sound. There would have been magpies warbling as the sun came up, but now, apart from the occasional ‘Caar caar caaaaaaaaar’ of a crow somewhere, and a few half-hearted cicadas it was almost completely silent. I could hear a vague trickling which meant the creek was still running this far. Sometimes it dried up completely, or just left a few muddy puddles here and there. That was good, it meant we might catch some jilgies. Not that we did anything with them, you can eat them but they’re awfully small and they can nip with those claws so I don’t know why anyone would bother. Jack wanted to catch tadpoles, but I reckoned we wouldn’t see any this time of the year. We were heading for a spot where the scrub opened out a bit to a view down the hillside, and big chunks of granite like the walls of an ancient fortress were strewn around. The track curled around there and plunged down towards the creek again, at a deeper spot that almost always had water, and in winter there was even a small waterfall. The shade was thicker there, and it was slightly cooler, a good place to sit and dabble our feet in the cold water. I slung the strap of Uncle Joe’s canteen over a branch and let it dangle in the water to keep it cold. We ate our apples, made small boats out of bits of paperbark and sticks, lay on the rocks and stared up at the clouds and talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Jackie wanted to be a cowboy. Well, he was only seven. I wanted to join the navy. Like dad. All the typical stuff a couple of young boys might do on a Saturday at the end of summer. A completely unremarkable day in all respects.
After lazing a bit on the rocks, I remembered mum’s warning not to get sunstroke and decided it would be better not to bring Jack home glowing like a beetroot. He’s got fair skin and blonde hair. ‘Golden hair’ Mrs Pendleston next door calls it. I’m darker like mum, brown hair and eyes and I get tan really quick. We decided to be brave Kokoda diggers, cunningly sneaking our way through the dense jungle of New Guinea right under the noses of the Japs. Crawling through the low scrub, keeping my eyes peeled for Japanese soldiers...and dugites...I squeezed through a narrow gully that split a large boulder in two, and found a different track, running parallel to the one we used, a bit higher up the hill. It seemed to be heading uphill slightly, gradually veering away from the other track. I could no longer hear Jackie scratching through the bush away to my right, so I stood up for a moment to get my bearings. And I had no idea where I was.
It was the same, and so not the same that my head spun. The fall of the land was identical, I was part the way up the hill on the opposite side to the track we came down, except I couldn’t see that track at all now, there was dense forest there, not sparse trees and grey-green scrub. The creek still ran along the bottom, but it was a roar of rushing water, deeper than it ever gets even after the winter rains, a torrent. It sounded like a proper river. The trees were the same sculptural gums with their pale ghostly trunks and weeping spear point leaves, but they were dense. And they were big, metres across the base. I don’t know how long I stood there with my mouth open wide before I heard a scrabbling sound and Jackie burst through the gap split in the rock and breathlessly rushed up to me, tears streaming down his face, sobbing. “Where’d you go? Why’d you leave me? I’m gonna tell mum and she’s gonna tan your hide Tommy...wasn’t funny.” He stopped and looked around. And shut up. His words sunk in finally and I said, “don’t be soft in the head, I saw you five minutes ago.” Jack exploded in a combination of anger, bewilderment, terror and vulnerability that only a seven year old can pull off. “You’ve been gone ages! Ages and ages. I’ve been down across the creek and up the other side and back this side three times looking for you. It’s getting late, mum’ll be worried. You’re really in for it!” I looked around me, it was clearly just after midday, so I didn’t know what the heck he was on about. “Don’t be silly Jacko, I’ve really only been gone a little while. And look at the sky, can’t be much after lunchtime mate. You just got yourself into a state. Mum isn’t expecting us for hours, we’ll have some lunch and then we’ve got the rest of the afternoon.”
After the initial shock of being in the same but different place, we took it in our stride as only small children can and became intrepid explorers, discovering the dark heart of Africa, or the source of the Nile...or both at the same time. And of course, there were Zulu warriors to fight, and lions to kill, and crocodiles to watch out for, and an entire city of gold to find.
It really was getting late, the sun was low and it was time to find our way back to the track we knew, and home, when a voice clear as a bell and not five feet away said “my, what beautiful children have we here!” I swear he hadn’t been there two seconds before, but on a granite outcrop just ahead sat a man. An odd kind of man. A strange pinched face, with sweeping cheekbones and large eyes that sloped oddly upwards. With a smile that did not warm my heart at all. When he stood up and bowed to Jack and I, he seemed impossibly tall and impossibly thin and dressed in such an odd assortment of clothes he looked like a cross between Robin Hood and an old swagman. A ragged, tattered, khaki coat that might once have been an army great coat from the first war, but was now covered in a bizarre combination of tweed scraps and old bits of wool and rag strips all in shades of green, from the dull grey-green of eucalypt leaves to the bright lime of new fern fronds. On his head was what I think is called a coachman’s hat, a little like a top hat only shorter. It looked like it had been dragged backwards through a hedge far more times that a hat should be. There was a brilliant green feather stuck in it, from a Ring-neck I think. His hair was long and black, but I noticed it had a green sheen when he turned into the sun. Jackie and I stopped dead in our tracks at the sight of him, so he came down from his perch. As he approached every hair on the back of my neck stood up, every nerve quivered. My nose twitched as if it smelt something very bad, but my brain wasn’t getting the message about it. His eyes were all wrong, the pupils were the wrong shape and the whites of his eyes weren’t white at all, they were green. Every instinct told me to run like hell. But I couldn’t move.
He bowed a second time, sweeping his hat flamboyantly off his head in a gesture that didn’t belong to the middle of the twentieth century at all. Like something out of a movie. And then he extended his hand for me to shake. There was nothing I wanted less than to touch it, but I couldn’t help myself. His hand felt cold and dry like old paper, and when I withdrew mine my fingers stung with electric shock. He bent over and looked Jack in the face, then chucked him under the chin like some old maiden aunt might. “What a delightful child! So beautiful. “ I felt Jackie’s grubby little hand find it’s way into mine and I hung on tight. “He’s my brother Mister.” Jack stared at the ragged man with his mouth wide open until I nudged him. Mum was very big on manners. He shut his mouth for a moment, then opened it again and asked, eyes big and round, “Are you Peter Pan? Are we in Neverland?” The man looked surprised, then chuckled to himself. “Nev...erland?!” Then he leaned forward and smiled at Jackie. “Well, perhaps we are indeed in Nev...erland.” I didn’t like the way he smiled and I really wanted to skedaddle out of there as quick as I could. ”We have to go now mister, mum will have the dinner on and we mustn’t be late or we’ll cop a wallop.” “Ahhhh!” the man smiled and nodded his head. “You must not keep your mother waiting on my account then. Off you go then, enjoy your dinner. Perhaps you might like to visit again, sometime.” He smiled and waved us off, and we backed away then turned to get down the path as quick as we could. We hadn’t gone more than a few steps when he called out again. “Boys, dear boys, I almost forgot. Look what I’ve got in my pocket!” I didn’t want to stop and I didn’t want to look, but Jackie turned and pulled me up short. The strange man was now sitting cross-legged on a smaller rock right next to us. I had not seen or heard him move, he was just there. He was gently unwrapping something, folded up in a crisp white handkerchief which wasn’t what you’d expect a swaggie to have in his pocket, that’s for sure. He held out his hand for us to see. Nestled among the folds were three perfect strawberries as big as small peaches. The smell was glorious and they made my mouth water. Jackie made a soft ‘ohhh’ sound. Strawberries are a Christmas treat. It’s the only time mum can afford them. “Now, I have more at home...many more, so why don’t you lovely boys have these three. You can take them home if you like...or eat them right now!” He smiled his withering smile. “ There’s one for your mum too. I’m sure she won’t be too angry with you for being a little late if you have such a lovely gift for her.” Jackie stared and his eyes grew about twice as big as normal. I finally worked up the will power to say “thank you but mum doesn’t like us taking gifts from strangers” and got as far as opening my mouth when Jack said, “but what about Gartie, she’d like one too?” The stranger smiled again, and placing the handkerchief and its contents in Jackie’s hands, he waved his fingers elaborately round for a few seconds then, like a conjuror in a magic show, he produced a fourth strawberry from behind Jackie’s left ear. He added it to the three in Jackie’s hands. “There you are, can’t have anyone missing out, can we?” Jackie looked slightly odd, transfixed by the sight of the fruit, but he knows mum’s rules as well as I do. I guess he thought a swap was different because he said, “I’ve got a marble in my pocket, a good one. It’s my favourite. Would you like it in return?” My jaw dropped open because no one, no one could have convinced Jackie to part with his special marble. It was cobalt blue, it looked like some jewel from a maharajah’s crown, and it was Jackie’s most prized and sacred possession. The man laughed and said, “oh no, this is a gift. I wouldn’t dream of taking your marble. Off you go. Enjoy!” He bowed once more, and I half dragged Jackie along with his precious strawberries down the path. When I turned back to look, the strange man was nowhere to be seen.
It really was getting dark now, the sun was just below the horizon, and Jackie and I half ran and half slipped down the hillside. I was trying to find the big rock with the split in it. Some instinct told me we had to go back through there to get home. Jackie wasn’t paying much attention to where we were going, he seemed more worried about crushing the fruit. Their scent was overwhelming, and I wasn’t even carrying them. It made you want to sink your teeth into those strawberries and feel the juice run down your chin and drip off. But I wanted to get home more. Finally, I skittered down the last strip of track to find the boulder with the gap just off to my left, beneath an enormous tree that wasn’t supposed to be there. Jackie was meandering behind me, sniffing the handkerchief wrapped parcel with a dazed look on his face. I yelled at him then, angry and scared, an eleven year old boy who just wanted to go home. I grabbed the handkerchief in one hand and his shirt sleeve in the other and dragged him down to the boulder. “For Christ’s sake, let’s just get home Jack!” I let go of his shirt to shimmy through the gap, and turned around to yell at him to just COME ON! He had stopped. He looked scared, scared like he’d done the most awful thing and he could never, ever fix it. Something dropped from his hand. There was strawberry juice trickling from the corner of his mouth. I heard him whisper “I can’t”, then he seemed to waver. I could see the tree behind him, except I could see it through him. He sobbed “I CAN’T!” And then there was a crackling like lightning in the air, my hair all stood up on end...and it was night. Deep, black, long after midnight night. A hot, still, summer night with no sound of a river, and the vague shapes of scrubby bush and a scattering of white gums in the moonlight. I screamed “JACKIE!” and tore back through the gap in the rock, but everything was just the same on the other side, black night and low scrub. I must have gone backwards and forwards through that gap a dozen times, yelling my head off, sobbing, finally dropping exhausted onto a flat outcrop clutching the stupid handkerchief and its squashed contents and sobbing myself to sleep.
I woke to the bright, white light of morning and someone shaking me gently. “Wake up lad. You’re safe now. We’ll get you home.” I opened my eyes to find eight men standing around me, two in police uniforms. One of them knelt down next to me and said, very gently “can you remember what happened lad? Do you know where your brother is?” I shook my head and tried to reply, but my mouth felt so dry and cracked I couldn’t speak. “Jesus Pete, give the kid some water for chrissake, he’s been out here bloody days.” A cup was held to my lips and I drank. “A man...a man...gave us strawberries” was all I could get out. I still had the handkerchief clutched in my hand, so I tried to open it to show them. But what dropped out of my clenched fingers wasn’t a white handkerchief stained with the red of smashed fruit. It was a torn piece of cloth, with three stones wrapped up in it. I recognised the cloth. It was the sleeve of Jackie’s shirt, the one I’d grabbed.
Seventeen days after we were lost, a man chasing a lost dog found a small boy, filthy and emaciated but alive, curled up in the foetal position beside a granite monolith just above the creek. He was dressed in Jackie’s clothes. Everyone claimed it was a miracle. I thought so too, until they brought him home. No one else could see it. To them it looked and sounded just like my little brother. But I could see what it really was, maybe because I’d been to that place through the split in the rock, I don’t know. I could see the outline of Jackie, the sun shining on his hair, his smile. But it was like a translucent mask, and beneath it had a pinched face, tiny pointed teeth, and its eyes were the same as the raggedy man. I watched helpless as it grew stronger and stronger, and my mum grew weaker. It never looked better than emaciated, but its grip was like steel and it left dark bruises on me. I wonder if Gartie suspected somehow. In the year that followed, the thing took pleasure in getting me blamed for its own mischief, and Gartie always stuck up for me, even when mum didn’t believe I was innocent. Thirteen months after they brought it home, my mum died. And on the day after her funeral, I killed it.
It was bloody strong but I was more than a little crazy. Apparently the neighbours heard the noise and the screaming and kicked the door in to find me with my hands wrapped around its skinny little neck, bashing its head into the cement floor of the washhouse. It was well and truly dead by then, but I was still screaming, “you killed my mum, you killed my mum!” I don’t really remember much of it now, I was dragged off by the police and doctors were summoned to calm me down. I’ve got a big gap in my memories between twelve and sixteen. Four years of shock therapy and tranquillisers and I don’t know what else, and over and over they hammered it into me that the story I told them was just that, a story I’d invented to hide from what I’d done. I murdered my brother.
And tonight I’m sitting with my toast and baked beans balanced on my knee, watching the news, and suddenly I know it’s not true. I thought I was a murderer. All those terrible, lost years. It took me so long to find a way to live, to appear to have a normal life, to look and behave like everyone else. To find someone who could love a murderer. I told Margie. I had to. She took my hand and said “You were just a little boy. We’ll never speak of it again.” And we didn’t. The kids don’t know. They don’t even know I had a brother. And I’m sitting by myself, a lonely old man, and Margie’s gone and I can’t even tell her I’m innocent. Maybe she knows. I hope so. All I can think is, if the raggedy man’s got a new boy, what’s he done with my brother? Where is Jackie now?
* * *
It was a news report that sent me back to it, about a discovery near Earl Brook, and I remembered the newspaper article I’d seen. The box was in a plastic crate up in the roof space, covered in dust. I dragged it down, and started sorting through it. There was a bizarre collection of things, old school exercise books filled with scribbles from fairytales, a torn scrap of fabric, some sort of old medical file, and newspaper clippings, a couple about a boy lost in crown land near Earl Brook. These were odd in themselves because they had almost identical headlines but were fifty years apart. “Lost boy miraculously found alive.” I picked the recent one up. I remembered the case, from about eight years ago. It was all over the news for about three weeks, the media talking of paedophile rings and kidnappings and serial killers and generally doing everything to sensationalise the case and distress the parents even further. And make other parents paranoid and afraid. I remembered it especially because my boys were little then and it was close to the bone.
Dad had highlighted bits in orange. ‘Earl Brook’, ‘found alive after all hope gone’, ‘miraculous survival’, ‘experts at a loss’. He’d scribbled ‘Erl Brook?’ and ‘it’s not him’ in the margins. And ‘where is Jack?’ which meant nothing to me until I read the older clipping. “John (Jack) Pembroke, aged seven, was found alive yesterday after being lost in bush near Earl Brook for three weeks. Authorities have dubbed it a miracle. John and his older brother, Thomas, aged eleven, became lost at Earl Brook on the 2nd of March this year. Thomas was found five days later but all hope for John’s survival had been given up.” An uncle I didn’t even know I had. Then I found another small clipping, yellowed and fragile. It was dated a year later. About a bizarre murder. Have you ever had that awful, inevitable sliding feeling where everything you know just falls away and in its place there’s something else entirely, something that was there all the time but you couldn’t see it? I picked up the file. There were doctors’ notes, some court records, more newspaper clippings. My dad. My beautiful, gentle dad had killed his own brother. Just little boys, both of them. And then years in institutions, alone, drugged, undergoing shock therapy. He was finally released into the guardianship of his grandmother shortly before his seventeenth birthday. I knew that dad had gone to sea on merchant ships when he was seventeen. Now I know he was running.
As I looked through everything in the box, a cold feeling began to spread through my belly. The exercise books were scribbles, diary notes about things ‘it’ had done, references from books read, strange bits and pieces that at first made no sense. They were all about the same thing, stories of children stolen by Fairies, notes on how to escape, how to tell a changeling from a real child, what to do and not do if you meet a fairy. Fairies for God’s sake! But fear nagged at me. I couldn’t believe my dad had done that. I found an envelope with several sheets of paper folded neatly inside it. It was labelled Mike and Jenny. Please Read. Dad’s familiar neat hand describing in detail the day he and his little brother were lost. I read and nausea welled up my throat. Two small details made all the difference. I wanted to be able to hug dad and tell him I believed him, and yet part of me wanted to believe he had killed Jack, because the alternative was worse. But the news report the day before had been clear.
* * *
While bushwalking in Earl Brook Conservation Park yesterday, a local resident discovered bones in what appeared to be a grave and alerted authorities. Police confirmed they were human, those of a small child though male or female it was impossible to tell. The bones were found curled in a foetal position in a shallow grave below a large granite boulder. Recent rains had undermined the rock and soil had been washed away beneath it. The body appeared to be naked, and no clothing was found in the area. From the state of decomposition, forensic scientists estimate the body to have been in the earth about eight years. A small boy was lost in the area at the estimated time of death, however he was later found alive. There are no other reports of children missing in the area in recent times, though two boys went missing for several days in the area in 1949. Both were found alive. Police are searching missing persons records from the previous ten years in the hope of discovering the identity of the child. They are hoping dental records may reveal more information, but currently, the only identifying features on the body are an old, well-healed fracture in the left arm, and a small blue glass marble clutched in the fingers of the right hand. Anyone with any information is asked to please contact police immediately.
© Christina Cairns 2013