Chapter 27 – The Milk-like Eye Patch

Agrimona folded away bunches of webbed tresses, and twirled roots hanging down, to get to the cupboard. She got hold of a stone rod, which looked like a pestle, before she grabbed a bowl with a thick white liquid, resembling thick cream more than milk. Leaning back, she poured the white substance, as a covering over one of her eyes. Amazingly, it stayed on as if glued.

Mumbling some incomprehensible words, she stood up to point the rod, and then stir the pond water. When finished, she quickly flung away the gooey patch back into the bowl where it returned to liquid.

‘What are you doing?’ said Ben.

She was unresponsive, staring into the pond. Half a minute went past in silence, and without movement.

‘What do you see?’ said Jack, impatiently.

Agrimona’s mouth drooped.

‘So … what?’ said Ben.

Bill shook his head. ‘I don’t see a thing.’

‘Well, it’s enough if I do. I see the hunting patrol. They’re at the fork … on the path … they’re arguing … some seem to want to take the left one. It does not bode well.’

‘But what does it mean?’ said Ben.

‘As I said; it does not bode well.’

‘A-are they on their way here?’ said Ben. ‘What about Charlie, and Whistler, and Andy? What do we do?’

Bill pulled his finger out of his nose. ‘I really think we should leave. We don’t know where they are right now, or if we can believe any of this. It’s a bit out of the daily grind for us. I just hope they’re not on the same track, as that other horrible band, or the monsters.’

‘What … eh … monsters are we talking about?’ said Agrimona.

‘I mean those huge hungry-looking larger-than-life lizard-crocodile thingies. They were terrifyingly scary. Do you have lots of them down here?’

Ben became alarmed. ‘What are they?’

‘Oh, you mean them. They’re mostly in the unused caves, living in the depths. You won’t see them.’ She waved her hand, as if there wasn’t a care in the world.

‘For your information, I did see one!’ said Bill. ‘And he was a gigantic monster, especially when he stood up. How do you know they’ll stay down there? Mine walked across my stuff. If I’d been right there, I think he would’ve taken me for breakfast. I don’t think they’re that hunky dory to tell you the truth.’

‘Bill, oh, Bill, you exaggerate quite a bit. I rather see one of those than a hostile any day,’ said Agrimona. ‘The huge ones aren’t fast for one thing. Now let me see if I can find out some more about your granddaughter, and your friends.’ She made the magic procedure one more time before studying the pond water.

‘Well, well, well, now I do see a young man, and a young boy … holding onto a young girl … oh, no, they’re running … approaching now … ‘

‘It’s them! You’ve got to make the door. Make it quick,’ said Ben. ‘So they can get in, but not the others.’

‘Oh, no, no, don’t! They can’t see that they’re followed … she stumbles … oh, no … up again … faster … NO … FASTER! They’re turning their heads to look behind … they’re aware of the hostiles, but still can’t see them …’

Agrimona mumbled some incomprehensible words, stirring the water with the stone rod. ‘Done,’ she said.

Bill scratched his head. ‘You mean that’s all?’

‘What?’ said Ben. ‘Did you make the door?’

She nodded. ‘I opened it. And I removed it too.’

Bill glanced at Jack and Ben.

‘Listen! My methods are sincere, very sincere! For your information, they’re already inside. I felt the trembling, as they came through. Safe for now, but we should greet them. Hurry to the entry!’

‘But can’t the baddies get in now?’ said Bill.

Agrimona sneered. ‘You haven’t understood anything, have you?’

‘Well, it’s kind of hard to believe this hocus-pocus,’ said Jack.

Ben thought he knew better. ‘Just some kind of weird magic is all I can say.’

She nodded. ‘Believe it. My milk-like eye patch has not been wrong yet. Not ever.’

The group hurried back towards the entry. As they reached the area with the platforms, and the station house, the others had arrived, and stood waiting at the bottom with their backs turned.

Ben was ahead, and called out to Charlie. ‘Hey!’

She turned. Her eyes filled with tears. ‘Oh, Ben, I was so scared I’d never see you again. I know they were chasing us, and …’ Her eyes found Bill.

Bill smiled. ‘Yep, sweet pea, it’s me alright.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘No time for worries. But you should know that Ben’s been right all along. This cave world is more dangerous than a nesting site chock-a-block full of vipers.’ Bill went into an explanation about craters, ponds, and the shrinking water where it apparently had happened.

Charlie looked confused, but then the hugging, and kissing started. Her grandpa’s predicament was briefly forgotten.

Everyone explained in short words what had happened to them. Bill went on to tell Charlie, Andy and Whistler that Agrimona had seen the ones right behind them, but they were saved with the help of her outstanding magic.

Charlie was bewildered. ‘Magic, or not, are you sure they can’t get in? Are you really sure?’

Ben wondered how safe it could be. ‘Does the magic last?’

Agrimona frowned. ‘Not to worry. They can’t enter unless I let them. That’s how it’s always been. The only thing we need to worry about now is the time. A quarter past six to be exact.’

Shocked, all turned to look at an ancient station clock on the wall.

‘Is that thing even working?’ said Andy.

‘Of course, it’s working,’ said Agrimona.

‘We should be alright for a while then,’ said Bill, but he had trouble comprehending.

‘I can’t for my life understand what it is with a quarter past six,’ said Jack. ‘We hear it all the time.’

‘You ask about a quarter past six?’ said Agrimona. ‘Some say it’s quarter past six at all times. I’d say that’s only when the extraordinary magic down here is lost for fifteen whole mind boggling minutes. Sometimes they’re the longest minutes in history. As you can understand, anything can happen.’

Ben’s ears began to ring. ‘What do you mean? The ones chasing us pretend that it’s a quarter past six all the time. Why do they do that? And Earl …’

‘NO!’ screamed Jack. ‘Don’t say his name!’

‘I-I forgot,’ said Ben. ‘It’s this guy, and he says the time’s always a quarter past six.’

‘That’s wishful thinking by the brutes, my boy,’ said Agrimona. ‘That’s the only thing I can think of, but the magic here doesn’t work that way. It has to be the absolute right time for the cycle to break.’

‘We need to get away from here before something worse happens. What do you say, grandpa?’ Jack turned to Agrimona. ‘How much is a ticket to Lemirius Rock? Can you also tell us more about the blowholes, especially how they work, and the safety?’

‘Yeah, are they really supposed to be okay?’ said Ben.

‘Five each, and, of course, they’re safe,’ said Agrimona. ‘Well, as safe as anything in this land.’

‘That doesn’t really convince me,’ said Andy.

Ben fished out the leather bag with pebbles from his backpack, and started counting with Whistler hanging over his shoulder.

Jack whispered in Ben’s ear. ‘Do we have enough?’ He turned to Agrimona. ‘What about half price for the youngest?’

‘There’s no such thing as half price in Panghellan,’ said Agrimona. ‘They either pay full, or they can go through the snake hole. It takes much longer … unless … well … you know.’

Ben and Bill stood with their mouths open.

‘I’m-I’m not going through any snake hole,’ said Ben.

‘We weren’t told about any snake holes in the blowholes,’ said Charlie.

‘It’s bad enough with the blowies,’ said Bill. ‘Not to worry, guys. I’ll pay full price for all of us.’ He took out his wallet from his backpack, and pulled out a ten, and a twenty dollar note.

Agrimona glared at Bill. ‘NO! You can’t pay with worthless paper! I need currency.’

Bill had trouble understanding. ‘What are you talking about? It is currency.’

‘Grandpa, they don’t use Aussie money down here,’ said Ben. ‘You’ve got to pay with pebbles.’ He showed the small white stones he held in both hands.

‘WHAT? You mean you pay with those. Are you nuts?’ said Bill. ‘Wait a second! I think I’ve got some. I found them close to the pond. I might have some on me.’

‘Yeah, but were they white?’ said Jack.

Bill couldn’t find them.

Ben gave Agrimona all he had left, which was twenty-two stones.

‘Can we owe you the rest if you give us something to eat before we leave, please Agrimona?’ said Jack. ‘I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we’re very hungry.’

‘Yeah, I’m sorry I don’t seem to have your currency. But I’m dying for something to eat,’ said Andy.

‘How do you all propose to pay then? You don’t have enough for the fare, or the food, and I don’t know if you ever come back here. Well, you can’t go return for one thing. Only creep around aimlessly through the prickle mesh, and try to find your way through, either this year, or the next, depending on the backwater undersurges. That scourge comes when you least expect it.’

‘I think we’ll have to get back somehow. Ben is the one who’s going to find the Binehogen. If we get out of here, we’ll take you with us. How about that? You want to go home?’ Bill nudged her with his elbow.

‘Home? Oh, no, it sounds like an impossible idea. I can never get used to the hurly-burly up above again. Tell you what though! If you stay until tomorrow, you could work it off before you leave.’

‘What do you want us to do?’ said Jack.

‘Just help me fix some stairs. I’ve got a room in my cellar here, but it’s so blimey difficult to get down to my own bathroom for the moment. It needs some cleaning up of rock falls, and the like. And the young lady can brush my hair. Haven’t done that for years. How about it, my dear? Would you happen to have a hair brush, or should we use my home-made one?’

Charlie nodded. ‘We can use yours.’

‘Looks like we have to stay until tomorrow then. Tell us more about how to travel through the blowholes, and we’ll do the work for you,’ said Bill. ‘I might be small, but I’m still pretty strong.’ He showed his muscles in a body-builder stance.

Ben had trouble to keep from laughing.

‘I’ll let you use one of my shacks overnight then,’ said Agrimona.

‘Shacks? You’ve got shacks?’ said Jack. ‘You mean ‘real shacks’? I can’t believe it. Where are they?’

‘Have you never heard about shack hire, pal?’

‘Yeah, ‘course I have. I just haven’t seen any down here,’ said Jack.

‘My shacks aren’t just ordinary shacks. Did you happen to see the big bottle trees on your way in? Or did you arrive blind-folded?’

‘Far out! You mean they’re the shacks? How?’ said Jack. ‘Are they furnished … with some sort of beds?’

‘There’s a tunnel system connecting all underneath. Some of the tree shacks have beds, but probably not the ones you’re used to. Just because we don’t have what you’ve got above, doesn’t mean we’re entirely uncivilised. Sometimes we hear things, and try to adapt,’ said Agrimona. ‘I’ll take you over there now, and I’ll show you the vein too.’

‘Vein?’ Bill was puzzled, and made a face, thinking about varicose veins. ‘I don’t need to see any vein.’

‘Okay, you don’t have to, but I will tell you that the northern vein is connected to a few places up the top in your world, is also linked to the passageways, and cellars under the shacks. If you enter our land here through the vein, there’s no return, always one-way traffic. ‘

Agrimona showed the way to one of the larger holes in the wall. She climbed through and took them into a tunnel. At the end, a rocky stairway led upwards. Before they took to the stairs, she showed them six doors at the bottom, all elaborately decorated.

She opened a chocolate brown door filled with knobbly bits in swirly patterns, and motioned for them to enter. ‘Badda-badda-bum! Here’s your bathroom! I’m afraid you’ll have to share.’

All looked in, and saw a large, steamy chamber with boulders on the floor, and holes in the walls where steaming water came out in a steady flow.

Agrimona pointed, proudly. ‘You have here a hot spring, an artesian, and over there, in the corner, is a cold flushing system. Everything needed in an ablution block. There’s no contamination, as everything flushes to a lower level, and most probably will be sifted, filtered, and diluted for another million years. I believe I’ve got the most modern system in these lands to date.’

‘It’s almost like a bathroom,’ said Ben.

‘It IS a bathroom, boy,’ said Agrimona.

‘Yeah, but how can it be like this?’ said Jack.

‘Ambrosius had a good set-up too,’ said Andy.

‘Who built it, is what I’d like to know?’ said Bill.

‘Built?’ said Agrimona. ‘In Panghellan you don’t need to build. It’s all here, one way or another. Well, maybe sometimes, it needs a bit of adjustment, or adding on at times, but that’s all. You can try the bathroom later. For now, I want to show you the upstairs.’

They continued up the broken, uneven steps.

Agrimona opened a door at the top. ‘Here’s your shack! This is one of the larger ones with two bedrooms. Should be enough. Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll leave you to it, and will call you later for supper. When you hear a tingeling in the air, you’ll know it’s time to eat. Cooked, or raw?’

Jack stared at her. ”Scuse me?’

‘I’m asking if you prefer cooked or raw?’ said Agrimona.

‘Cooked, or raw, what?’ said Jack.

‘I don’t know yet,’ said Agrimona. ‘Depends on what I can find. Maybe some raw moss berries in a salad of raw eels.’

‘You wouldn’t have smoked eel, would you?’ said Jack.

Agrimona sighed, and laughed. ‘No way, I have. It’s a darned good idea for some other time though.’

‘I-I think I’ll have cooked then,’ said Jack. ‘What about you guys?’

All preferred their food, whatever it was, to be cooked to be on the safe side.

Ben had been thinking. ‘Before you leave, please tell us what’s going to happen at a quarter past six? You said that the magic doesn’t work at that time. So, if the magic doesn’t work, can they get in?’

‘Well, when the door’s gone, it won’t appear, so in that respect you’re safe, unless they try to enter some other way.’

‘What … eh … way would that be?’ said Jack. He did his usual thing, and started to roll the hem of his t-shirt up towards his chest.

‘I wouldn’t fret too much about that. I don’t think they’ve ever seen the door. They ought to be utterly confused when there’s no entry to be found. I don’t think we’ll have to worry, but I will check my milk-like eye patch again to make sure.’

She left by waddling off.

Bill turned to the others. ‘Anyone feel like a nap? We can do the work tomorrow before we leave. How hard can it be? Just carry a few rocks, hey. And at dinner time, we can go through in more detail what’s happened to us. As long as the old woman says it’s safe here, we’ve got to trust her.’

Bill was in dire need of a rest. He had not slept since he came to the station the day before. The weird goings-on, Agrimona, and her eye-patch, the strangeness of the blowhole station, as well as him having shrunk were taking its pesky toll. The world under the Nullarbor was definitely a world of its own. He had become young and small, but felt the irritation bubbling close to the surface.

‘I’ll take the other bedroom,’ said Andy before he disappeared.

‘Can we just check out some things first before we sleep?’ said Ben.

‘Have a sleep, Ben! You need it,’ said Bill. ‘Trust me on that. Look at Charlie on that bird’s nest of a sofa! It doesn’t look that comfortable, but she’s already gone. And, by the looks of it, Whistler’s looking after her in his sleep.’

Everyone was settled. Everyone except Ben. He was not the least sleepy. After he had seen the rope curtains, the chandeliers made of stony crystals, the flimsy furniture put together with gnarled tree branches, and stringy vines, he checked the primitive cupboards, and the bedding.

The beds were made of sticks and stones with furry blankets on top. A pleasant smell of hay made him feel like he was in a barn. When he discovered the dry grasses, and mosses in between the layers of hides, he knew why.

He had seen enough of the rooms, and with no windows he was unable to look at any possible view. Instead he went out on the landing where he studied the steps leading down. Something beckoned him to investigate. What harm could it be to take a quick look?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Published by Lena Nilsson

Swedish-Australian Critical Thinker, who loves to research, write and crochet in no particular order. 😁

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