Wednesday, April 28, 2010

car trip.

This afternoon I wrote my first proper short story since high school :) I like it, so I'm sharing it! My English Curriculum teacher has explained that we shouldn't ask students to do anything we can't do ourselves, and that we also must bring to the classroom a personal culture of reading and writing if we hope to develop one in our kids.

So, enjoy: it's quite stream of imaginative consciousness, and all in fun. The first part is the stimulus we had to use, written by Mal Peet. (I didn't match the style, though I did try to use a children's literature voice.)

That summer, we drove up to the cabin in the hills. My parents liked to ‘get away from it all’. What they meant by ‘all’ was stuff my brother couldn’t do without, like broadband and TV and pizza delivery.
On the fourth day we went ‘exploring’. It wasn’t exactly a Burke and Wills type project, seeing as how we had four-wheel drive, satnav, a map, mobile phones and an Esky the size of a coffin. Plus a whingey twelve year old with his head wired to an iPod.
After an hour or so Dad said “Let’s give this a whirl”, and turned off the road on to a downward-winding dirt track. Eventually it levelled out and we found ourselves in a valley. It was hotter down there. Mum cranked the air-con up. The track ran alongside a dry creek; off among the scrub I glimpsed sag-roofed buildings and the ribs of old fences.
“What is this place?”
“Dunno”, Mum said. “There’s nothing on the map.”
And then we came to a stretch of crooked, bleached-white fence, and standing behind it was a horse with a boy on its back. They were completely motionless, even though flies clouded the horse’s head. The boy had hair like black snakes, and wore only a frayed pair of cut-offs. We were past them in a second. I looked back, but they were lost in our dust. No one said anything, which I thought was kind of weird.
I dozed off, I don’t know for how long. I woke up when the Toyota lurched and the first thing I saw was the same rickety fence and the boy on the horse. His dark eyes met mine as we passed.
“Are we lost?” I said. “We’re going round in circles.”
“No, we’re not”, Mum said.
“Yes we are”, I said. “We passed that kid on the horse a while ago.”
Dad squinted at me in the mirror. “What kid?”
Mum turned and looked at me. “What horse?” she said.

I looked at Mum’s face for a moment, and when I saw how serious she was, I turned to the window to stare out at the wild, dry landscape. It didn’t make sense—but in this surreal, unfamiliar place, I think that affected me in a different way to how it might have at home. Everything was slower, as if Mystery were a character who belonged here just as much as I did. Mum and Dad were right: there was no one there. Not only the horse and the dark boy were missing, but as far as I could see behind us, there was also no fence.

“Um. I was only joking.” Of course I didn’t want to explain. Dad was always going on about the rational approach, and how superstitious, sentimental types create dreams out of nothing and try to make others live their lives accordingly. If I were going mad, I didn’t want to argue it with him—as if the horse boy were something I’d chosen, or wanted to see. But I was absolutely sure, clear as anything else.

“No you weren’t!” Daniel replied loudly, not even taking off his headphones. “You were serious!”

“Was not.” I couldn’t think of anyone in the world more annoying. I wished he’d stayed at home, like he’d wanted to. I wished he played on his awful computer all day, instead of ruining the whole trip. “As if you know what I’m thinking!”

Before he could answer, Mum turned around again, and Dad pulled over to the side of the road. “‘Bout time for morning tea”, he said, and everyone agreed. Dad was good at that—cheering people up, making Daniel stop fighting. I didn’t like the conversation anyway, so I bit my tongue and let it all slide.

I was confused. Who was the dark boy? Why would he disappear? Why would I see him? I knew people could see things when they went crazy, especially old people on medicine—like my great-auntie Melissa who used to talk about feeding the cats who weren’t really in the room at all. Mum said she knew they weren’t real, but that it was hard for her, because she could still really see them. I guess you have to believe what you see.

Maybe he was real. Looking out at the dried grass, and the wide, wide sky and horizons, I could almost certainly believe in ghosts. They sort of made sense here. This whole place felt strange and unknown: felt just like ghosts. What if he were some dead child from an unknown past, in the empty houses near the creek—and now haunting us? Why? I tried to tell myself it was ridiculous.

Clicking my seatbelt back on, I slammed the door closed. Mum handed me my apple juice in the yellow plastic picnic cup. “Don’t spill it in the car!” Dad said. “Be enough trouble just cleaning the outside.” He was smiling, and I could tell he didn’t mind. It wasn’t often that we got to go on a holiday like this. I decided to try to enjoy it as much as I could; after all, I was fifteen, and not immature and boring like Daniel.

Even though the satnav said we weren’t lost at all, the track seemed long. It was all repetitive. Nothing really changed. The same sort of trees, the same grass and sheep, sometimes cows. A little while further, more cows, and the sun staying high and hot in the sky. I put my pillow next to the window and leaned my head against it.

I think I must have started dreaming, then, but it felt real. Everything felt just exactly the same, as if the world had gone into my mind without changing at all. The dried out grass, the broken down fences, the same hills rising to both sides of us near ponds; all the sheep, and tall eucalypts spotted over the landscape. Just when we’d passed a paddock with a few cows further in the distance, the car stopped, so I opened the door.

When I got out, I saw the boy. He was galloping towards us on the road, still a long way off, but coming fast. My heart leaped. He was chasing us. I wanted to know who he was—but I knew that I couldn’t meet him. I started to run.

I ran, with the galloping sound growing louder, louder behind me. The fences were all still the same, repeated over and over on a long dirt track that I couldn’t see the end of. The sun was very warm: so bright and eerily red, in the dusty sky. The horse boy had almost caught up to me. I could hardly breathe: my legs were like lead, but I was running as fast as a greyhound. He passed me.

I stopped still, breathed hard with relief. He mustn’t have seen me. The curious figure sped away to the darkening sky—still glowing, but it looked heavy, as if it might storm—and I knew that I needed to chase him. To find out who he was, and why he was following us. Everything was dark by now. All the grass was replaced by a deep orange dust that glowed under the moon, the flashes of lightning and the bright Milky Way, peering through wherever the clouds parted. Large drops of water hit the ground, and my skin; I started to run again.

It must have been at this point that I realised I was dreaming. The boy on the horse was out of sight, but there were others running with me. Jenny from school, and the twins from down the road, and a whole hoard of animals on foot and birds flying—calling out, screeching and shouting as we went. Even though it felt completely mad, all moving so fast, it felt like we ran for a very long time. Somehow I forgot I was dreaming, and realised how much I was enjoying the chase: if it weren’t for that nagging, lingering wonder, dark inside me like the night. Who was he? Where was he?

I knew where he was: he’d gone into the bush. I sped to the front of the group, past the dingoes at the front, and turned off the track onto the fine sand, soaking under my bare feet. “Into the bush! He’s in the bush!”

They all called after: “In the bush!” Their voices a cacophony, under the sweet, white light of the sky and its opening clouds, growing louder and louder as we ran through the wet trees and leaves to a clearing. It looked like a billabong (I’d never seen one before, so I wasn’t sure), wide and stagnant under the light of the full moon. Everything was silent, and I was alone again.

There were definitely ghosts here. I threw stones over the water, making them bounce, skip, then splash, down into the murkiness at the bottom.

I jumped in to swim, hoping there was nothing there lurking, watching me in the depths. It seemed that there might probably be, but I loved the squishy mud under my feet. I loved the sweet, warm air that filled my senses when I closed my eyes, letting it sweep around my wet face. Good thing I’d practised my swimming in Mitchell and Daisy’s new pool. Hundreds of fish wandered around me; I opened my eyes to find that they were leading me, in a long, trailing school, towards the other side. A shadow stood dim beside an immensely tall tree.

I reached the bank, and everything was darker. The moon must have gone behind thick clouds: only the stars were left. A voice whispered to me, and I knew that this must be the beginning of my adventure. “Lily?”

“Yes”, I replied. It was very solemn, all serious and grown-up. I sat down next to the person, who wasn’t nearly so tall as I’d thought. He was a platypus, with sleek, deep brown fur. I didn’t want to seem too high: he was very old, I thought, and held too much authority and wisdom.

“It’s so good to meet you”, he whispered again, with a sort of richness; he really meant it, I knew. “I can tell you this: that the horse boy would very much like to meet you, and is waiting for you at the Great Mountain.”

“I haven’t seen a mountain,” I replied—and then realised I shouldn’t have spoken so loudly. “Where is it?” I added softly. “Where did everyone go?”

“I don’t know much”, he said gravely. “Not even the wombat knows, and I must confess I’m only a messenger. But if you go back into the lake at midnight, and follow the moon on the surface, you will certainly find out.” He nodded slightly—kindly—and then darted away into the water.

The sun began to glow against the horizon, almost immediately; then, there was only one bright star left, cold in the grey sky. All sorts of birds were singing, and the kookaburra was cheery, joyful as anything, up in the early morning gum tree that seemed to reach to the ceiling of the world. I supposed there was nothing to do but wait for the day to pass—so I sat down, to watch it begin.

The blush of the heavens in the east was beautiful enough to look at for hours. Even for Daniel, I thought. I wondered where he was, and realised that he must have run off with the others.

About half an hour later, a sound caught my ear. A puppy came swimming to me on the lake, and came out panting, smiling, wanting to play. She looked like Felicity, the brown and white dog we used to have at our other house—the house with the really big back-yard, and the ice cream truck that came every single week. She was smaller, younger, though. I patted her wet head, and laughed as she ran off yapping, pretending to howl at the newly born sun.

We set off running again, all refreshed from the night’s swim; we welcomed the brightening morning, while all the birds were still singing with full lungs and happy hearts. The dog wound her path into a field full of soft, dry grass, which was not nearly so prickly to run through as it looked to be.

To our right, in the north, were piles of great red rocks, as if giants’ children had piled them all up for a game. I couldn’t see the sky beyond them, except through a few gaps in the structure. Their origins were impossible to guess at. They looked like something a clever animal might make for a shelter, or maybe a sort of landmark left as a sign by some ancient race whose great footprints were long covered over, and eroded. At the same time I noticed that there was a strange, almost inaudible singing, coming out from the bushland behind us.

When the puppy suddenly stopped ahead, her wagging tail moved the grass so that I could see where she was. She’d stopped by another pile of stones, almost only pebbles: this time only ten of them, just sitting there together on the ground. I wanted to know what they meant, much more than I wanted to understand the boulders. This miniature mountain belonged not to some distant time, with only its remnants in the present, but to someone still alive. Someone close. Someone, or something, who still had things to say. It was all very strange, exciting, under the jubilant sun perched once again as high as it had been while we were driving. Even brighter and much clearer, now, I thought.

The breeze came strong from the opal blue sky. The singing grew louder, and I could hear clap-sticks.

All at once the bushland was in flames, growing quickly higher, and all full of smoke, threatening to crawl into the grass where I was standing. The puppy barked softly, and scampered off too quickly for me to see where she’d gone to. From behind me came a boy, a few years younger than I—and he wasn’t concerned about the fire. His skin was streaked in white earthy paint, and he was pointing at the pile of stones.

“D’you want to know what they are?”

“Shouldn’t we run?”

“It won’t catch us. It’s a safe fire. We make them so the bush grows, and the seeds fall open, and everything comes back to life: like the morning of the trees and the earth.”

“Wow.” We stood and watched the scene for at least five minutes, those lapping red flames in a wall that ran on and on through the bushland, but didn’t come near us; only grew taller, brighter, over the sky. “What do they mean?” I’d remembered the rocks, thirsty with curiosity.

“I don’t know what they mean. Just what they are.” I’d never thought there was a difference: I hadn’t really thought about it at all. “I put them there to say to the big rocks, ‘You belong to me, just as much as you belong to the great men who heaved you into the earth, in the time outside the time.’”


“Because they’re here.”

“Why’d you want to say that?”

“Yesterday, I asked Auntie if the rocks could think or hear. She said they could understand the earth and the hearts of people, whether they belong to the sky, or flee from it into the caves.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I put them here this morning, when I came into the grass. But we have to go up to the mountain now.”

I knew he meant the Great Mountain, and my heart jumped inside.

There was nothing else to say. So with the bright heat of the fire and the shining depth of the ocean of sky bearing in on us, we started to run once again. We ran until we reached one of the giants’ mounds. “This isn’t the mountain”, he said quietly, looking up high to the top. “But I’ve always wanted to climb it.”

“Are we allowed?”

“When we walk at the top, you will tip-toe.”

We climbed up. It was easier than we thought, because the stones were uneven, and there were places to clasp onto, to put our feet. We felt strong in the smoky afternoon, under the wheeling of thousands of birds over the grasslands. We explored the dark hollows inside, where the sunlight crept through in strange columns; then we wound our way up to the top, watched the sun set, the stars coming out one by one. They were gliding slowly over the sky, precisely where the birds had been before. There were rivers on the ground in the far distance, shining and winding like earthworms that wriggle when you dig them up and hold them on your hands.

Night fell quickly. As the glow from the fire died down into ashes, the terrain took on a blanket of surreal black shadows, each merging into the inky flow of the others, and softly reflecting the lights held high up in the sky.

“You’d better go down with the birds”, the boy spoke into the silence, after a while. “You’ve got to reach the waters.” I’d half forgotten about the mountain quest, and about that riding horse boy.

“Will you stay here?”

“Only till morning.” We sat for some time longer, and then he hollered an unfamiliar call: singing out and out, so that a frightful, flapping shape appeared in front of us, landing on one of the giants’ rocks. “It’s safe. Worry about some things, but never the birds.”

“O.k.” I looked at him to make sure, and then jumped half a metre down. I landed on the warm and feathery back. The boy smiled large, and waved. I snuggled into the plumage, each feather larger than myself, and held on as we plunged and soared far, far under all the constellations. There were also two planets out. I flew over all the landscape I’d seen while it was still day. When it was time to come down, I slid down the great tail feathers, into the layer of sweet-smelling gum leaves that littered the earth in the clearing. There was the water, and there on its surface lay the moon. There also was the platypus.

It all seemed very familiar; the night that had passed came back to me, like a gentle flood. “Are you ready?” The platypus seemed happy to speak more loudly, now. His voice was funny, hardly human, but really endearing in some sort of way; I could tell what he was saying without any trouble.

“You’re coming?”

“If you like. I have nothing to do tonight, and I might say I fancy a bit of a swim.” I was pleased. Instead of a cold, mysterious journey, I would take the adventure with a friend. We both waded in, and I was surprised at how well he could keep up with me.

It wasn’t long at all until we reached the reflection of the moon. We treaded water there, all the white light rippling around us. The platypus seemed to be deep in thought, and then decided—“Keep swimming on, I think, till we find your mountain”. There was nothing else for it. We swam on, my loose hair wet and cold about my face, and came to a place that changed to be as narrow as a creek. It was deeper than anything I could get to the bottom of. We swam on and on, through the same trees, and the same darkness, as if that night were all that ever had existed on the earth. As if the morning, and the boy, and the afternoon, the light and the fire, all fell back into the dream—like a clearing mist—and gave way to the truth of darkness. I knew that like all nights, it had to come soon again to morning; but while we swam on, there was nothing but the silvery light on black water.

The dawn came slowly, and this time silently. The sun brought his face up through the distant leaves, and we saw that we had nearly reached the end of the stream. We began to clamber onto the slippery rocks, and then out onto the bank.

“We ought to follow the fence, then”, my small friend then suggested. There, deeper into the scrub and trees, was the white, half-rotten fence, leading into the invisible distance. He had to be right. “You’ll have to carry me, if it’s not too much trouble. Not too good on my feet these days, you see.”

“Of course.”

We followed the fence all morning. As time went on, I began to hear voices, and everything was muddled. Mum’s voice. What was it? I began to wake up, my eyes still closed, with the sun on my face and arms. I was glad we’d had to put on sunscreen: the light was sharp, as well as hot.

“Just try to enjoy it, o.k.?” Dad sounded frustrated, but still excited. Nothing was to be taken seriously on a holiday, and I loved it.

“So boring!” Daniel fumed. “I hate this trip, stupid cows and stupid fence, there’s, like—nothing here.”

“Not really,” I murmured, half to myself.

“That’s enough.” Mum hated fights. “We’re not going back yet”.

Dad opened his window to let the hot breeze come streaming into the cold air inside. We came soon to the end of the long fence, and he steered the car off the track, onto even rougher terrain.

This adventure was going to be good.

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