Ben had chosen a different spot to the one Andy had picked to be the bush toilet. Instead of sitting on the horizontal tree branch, he had dug a small hole before crouching on the ground. When finished he scraped sandy dirt into the hole before he rubbed more on his hands for a quick clean. He stood up, took a swig of water from his bottle, and poured a tiny amount on his hands. As he was about to swing his backpack onto his shoulders, he had a shock.
The surroundings had changed without him noticing how, and when it happened. Now the trees were much closer, and grew tighter together. He turned his head, back and forth. Again and again. There was no way to see through the masses of leaves. He tried to move in between the tree trunks, but every space was too narrow. Nothing gave way. Stricken by an awful feeling, he called out for help, but his voice broke. The call came out as a whisper. His next call was stronger. He waited and listened. The only sounds were the humming of insects, and the loudest hoot from an eerie-sounding bird.
After another try to make himself heard, there was still no reply. He knew then it was up to him, and him alone, to find his way. Nobody was anywhere near to hear him. He struggled with the closest tree branches. He tried to push them apart to press himself through, but they acted like steel rods. Peeking in between, he found nothing familiar behind them, only more tightly growing trees.
He stood still, and saw how buds on trees turned to leaves in seconds, and small shoots popped out of the ground to end up as saplings before becoming fully grown trees. Everything happened so fast, and before he had time to blink. Seconds later they were tall as flagpoles. When masses of stringy tendrils, and vines stretched upwards, and sideways to knot their way into the enclosing framework, he was close to a titanic panic.
His fear was broken by crackling, rustling, and a cacophony of hoots, and peeps, followed by a shrill whistling sound.
‘Don’t do that Jack! I’m scared as it is.’
But there was no answer.
He tried again to bend the enclosing framework, but a sturdy tree branch moved as if to stop him, while vines and creepers circled his legs. Next came a big crashing sound, like something heavy moved through the bush on the other side. By now he was frightened out of his wits.
He screamed the loudest he could, before he understood that whatever was out there could be hostile. Shivers ran down his spine, and he felt an urgent need to pee. While he stood there to do what he had to do, he anxiously turned his head back and forth.
When done, he knew it was now or never. He pulled, shoved, and kicked at the trunks and branches. Nothing gave way. There were just too many tightly growing trees, too many climbers, too many vines, and too many layers. An icy chunk formed in his stomach. The plants had continuously strengthened the framework to make it into a cage-like prison. There was no way out.
He called out again, while snivelling, and wiping his face. ‘Why don’t you hear me? I can’t get out! Help me!’
Suddenly, a most horrifying roar came from outside the cage. He was at once blasted back into earlier thoughts about extinct animals like giant marsupial lions on the prowl. Fearing for his life, he stood absolutely still.
When no more lions’ snarls were heard, he decided it was time for another try. He took a couple of tiny steps, but another growl made him stop. If the wall had not been there, the animal would have been close enough to touch. Stricken by renewed fear, he staggered on the spot, and trashed wildly with his arms to get away from swaying vines. All to no avail, as new ones kept surging through to snare him. Something thumped his leg. Angrily, he pushed away a hard persistent tree root, which had curled in from underneath. It bounced back like a tensed rubber band. Trying to ward off everything by jumping, ducking and swivelling on the spot, he worked himself into a frenzy.
Suddenly, like an arrow shot from a bow, a liana hit him smack bang in the face. Another coiled around his left ankle to hold him in a vice like grip. The more he struggled, the harder it pressed, and the less he was able to move. He surprised himself when he remembered his pocket knife, and awkwardly fished it out of his pocket. After he had made some restrained slicing motions, he was able to cut off the persistent liana. The good feeling disappeared when two more budding shoots popped out too close to his face. The new tentacles twirled in front, and wavered, and wriggled every time he hit at them. They wrapped around his left arm, and before he knew what was happening, they had tied themselves into a secure knot.
He waved frantically with his free arm, the one holding the knife, and managed to cut off the thinner ones right in his face. He screamed again the loudest he could, but was horrified when he realised the wild animal must have heard him.
Then it hit him. What if he slowed down? Not moving at all. Maybe the plants would wither away, the same as when he had fallen into the disguised trap in the ground.
Gathering some willpower, he never knew he had, he closed his eyes. He tried to think about agate thunder eggs, which his grandpa had cut open to reveal the most amazing colours banded with lines of tiny crystals. The positive thoughts were come and gone in a flash. There were more rustling, and crackling. He opened his eyes. The sounds came from outside the cage.
He stood in a twisted mess of growth not knowing what to do. With not much possibility of moving in the confined space, he managed only one step, but the restricted movement made him stumble. His right foot was stuck under a looped tree root. He lost his balance, and fell to the ground where he hit his head on a dead tree stump.
On the other side of the puzzling enclosure were two strange-looking creatures with long arms, and humped shoulders. They had deep set eyes, chins jutting forward, and bodies covered in orange-brown hair partly covered by primitive clothing.
They moved around, and shook the cage of plaited greenery before sitting down on top of a fallen tree log by crossing their legs. Both began to make hand signs, while whistling. The discussion with clawed hands became faster. There were loud growls, a few grunts, and some long mutterings.
As if on cue, they slid off the trunk, and lumbered over to the cage-like structure. They brushed away some of the tangled mess before the taller one held out a crystal wand to make some flicking motions. The wall of plants began to fold away. A few moments later the structure had disappeared, only to leave a mass of wilted plant material on the ground. In the middle was a motionless body.
When they discovered the liana around the arm of the human, it was loosened, and so was the tree root, firmly coiled around the foot. The shorter of the two beings moved its hands over the limbs, but found no reaction. He fiddled with the shoe laces, and managed to untie both sneakers, and pulled them, and the socks off before scraping the soles of the feet with his curled fingernail.
The taller grabbed hold of a sweeping branch, and heaved himself up into a tree. He grabbed a vine, and gnawed it off with his teeth, as easily as eating corn on a cob, while he already held another vine in his curled hand ready to chew. He purposely fell to the ground, made a quick somersault, and ended up in a nest of ants where he scooped up a handful. He shoved them into his mouth, licked his lips, and made sounds as if he enjoyed the quick snack.
The shorter of the two produced a primitive cutting tool out of the folds of his clothing. He cut down a few thin branches from one of the smaller trees, and tied them together by using vines. He fastened the piece to the leg of the wounded before turning over the limp body.
‘Oh, … ouch … ouch!’ mumbled Ben. When he opened his eyes, he saw a hairy being towering like a dark shadow above his face. The unexpected sight shocked him into action. He tried to get up, but when he discovered two big hairy feet pointing up in the air with no body, he stopped to stare. The two feet disappeared down a hole inside a tree trunk. Thinking it was a nightmare, he closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he discovered two clawed hands stretching out of the hole to search the air much too close to him. At the same time, something pressed hard on his back. He tried to roll away, but was stuck in an iron-like grip. In a weakened confused state, terrifying thoughts bounced around in his head.
All of a sudden he was flung forward. He tumbled head first into the hole inside the tree trunk. This was the second time he lost consciousness.
The creatures dragged the body through a secret passageway. Out of the hollows, they put the body on some grassy clumps on the swampy ground before signing to one another. Out came two stone axes, which were used to chop off tree branches before being stripped of unnecessary growth.
They pulled down a handful of lianas, which they chewed off, one after the other. The taller one held three pieces together. The shorter one plaited. When finished, they quickly built a frame consisting of stripped poles tied together with the rope they had made.
Ben’s limp body was transferred to the simple contraption together with two backpacks. The creatures took off carrying him through the bush.
A short time later the group arrived at a small clearing where they left the homemade stretcher in the vicinity of a massive Boab tree. The unexpected event caused a stir. Curious beings surged from all directions. All wanted to touch the body with careful claw-like fingers. The younger ones hovered like bees over a honeypot.
The ones who had brought the body started to tell their story with hand signals. They elaborated by grunting, and mumbling to make clear how they had stumbled on a group of humans before following them through the forest. When they came to the part about their clever cage-like trap, there was a rustle, and a few grunts coming from behind. All eyes turned towards the grassy knoll, as a large body crawled out from an opening. When standing up, he was much taller than the rest.
‘Good … must take to Ingenrod,’ he said.
The body was carried fast to a cave opening close by. A long haired, ancient-looking creature with one eye popped its head out through the entrance.
‘Hurt his foot,’ said the impressively tall one. ‘You must heal?’
Ingenrod pointed to bring the body inside before limping out, holding onto an ornately decorated walking stick.
Ben’s body was laid to rest on a pile of soft grass mixed with plant material. A flat rock was placed under his head.
Ingenrod rummaged around outside. She took some plants out of a pouch before adding them to an indent in the outside cliff wall. With a twig, she pulled away a stone from the bottom. Boiling water seeped in from an underground hot stream. After she had plugged the hole, and dropped a few sprigs of aromatic healing herbs, she added a mummified amphibian to the liquid.
After a few minutes of strange rituals and mumbling, she scooped up the brew into a bowl, and brought it inside.
Ben was nudged, and handed the warm concoction. Surprised and thankful, he gulped down every drop. A vague memory about how lucky he was to have been found flashed through his aching head. Despite resting on a foul smelling bed, which was not all that comfortable, it took him less than a minute to fall asleep.
He woke up by relentless rumbling, sudden rustlings, and rapid chattering. ‘Ouch, my head! Is that monkeys? What are you guys doing out there?’
He looked around, and discovered he was inside a cave with no inkling on how he had ended up there. He felt confused, uncomfortable, and scared. When he turned to the side, a whiff of something disgusting hit his nostrils. Warily, he moved his hands to feel around the bedding. The sticks and grasses made him even more confused.
For a few moments he stayed where he was, while memories slowly made their way back. He remembered the underground world under the Nullarbor. They had searched for Jack before fuzzy images of a psycho forest entered his mind. The last fading memory was when he had been caged in by freakish plants with no way out, and nobody coming to his rescue.
‘Is anyone there? Where are you?’
Tears welled up. He lay there snivelling, wiping his face. Where were they?
Suspicious, and on his guard, he studied the gloomy room. An odd-looking hairy mask decorated one of the walls. Other strange home-made items made of wood, or straw, were placed on the floor. He wondered who lived there. He looked back at the mask, but discovered it was gone. Now it was a window without a glass pane.
Sounds of approaching footsteps made him ill at ease. His eyes turned to the doorway. Two short hairy beings appeared in the opening. Another, slightly taller, one-eyed older creature with long, golden hair streaked with silver, came up behind them. It grunted, and made signs to the younger ones. They left.
He was paralysed by fear, and cowered in the corner of his bedding. The creature muttered when walking around with its claw-like hands stretched out in front. It sniffed the air, and came closer. When the long bony fingers touched his arms, and felt for his hands, he gasped, but dared not move. It continued searching, and found Ben’s foot. A weird plant-like dressing had been tied around his ankle. He had no idea how and when it got there.
The creature peeled off one leaf after the other from the dressing before putting them straight into its mouth, chewing them with gusto. It seemed to offer one to Ben, who shook his head, and kept his mouth firmly shut. The being persisted, but Ben turned his head each time. No way was he going to eat a bandage.
After the last had been taken off, and disappeared, he discovered the sickening blue-green colour of his ankle. He hoped the dark stripe was due to the leaves, or else it was dead serious.
The ancient-looking one made a sign, human like. He understood. Too scared not to obey, he moved up from his resting place, and leaned on the foot. It was sore, the same as his head and body, but he took a few careful steps.
One of the smaller beings returned with a large leaf in the shape of a bowl, and handed it to him. He took one look, and because he was thirsty, he drank it all. The ancient one signed, took hold of his shoulders, and steered him to the cave entrance. Ben limped on, holding onto his forehead.
At the doorway, his eyes were hit by the brighter light outside. He had to rub them before he looked again. What he came to see filled him with renewed fear. That was until he realised his grandpa had been right all along. He wished he was there to see the truth. They were tangible, and there were dozens of them. He, Ben Starling, was the one who could show the world the perfect evidence that Yowies were real.
They looked like humans, only so much hairier. From what he had seen so far, they acted human-like too. They had taken care of him with a bed, something to drink, and nursed his foot. He had read about Neanderthals. Could these ones be the missing link?
Then the most horrifying feeling washed over him. Were they the ones they had to fear the most? Were they the hostiles? Could they speak? Would he understand them?
‘How … how did I end up here? Am I a prisoner?’
Ben’s words had an immediate effect. The large group backed off, while all eyes stayed glued on him.
‘I-I think I had a camera. I know I did. Where is it? And I want my backpack and my stuff. What have you done with it? And where’s my mum and dad?’
Nothing happened. Not a sound from the crowd, only the staring eyes.
Ben took a few steps back to stand at a safer distance. He calmed down to ponder the situation, and looked at the one he thought must be the boss.
The impressively tall Yowie, with the longest reddish hair, was dressed in a leather skirt, coloured parrot feathers, and an ancient tropical helmet. With a bunch of normal household keys hanging on a string around his neck, he looked more comical than hostile.
Ben was an inch from smiling. He had gone from being utterly fearful to something close to being amused. That was until he looked at their eyes. They were small and round. And they squinted. Although, he was not sure if that was enough to classify them as hostiles.
He continued to stare, especially at their clothes, or the little they wore. Animal hides, and plant material had been sewn, or tied together into vests and skirts. Some of them had their hair plaited both on bodies, and heads, adorned with nuts, feathers, fern leaves, or grasses. To top it off, they wore beaded necklaces made out of shells, seeds or root pieces, sometimes with a bony piece as a focal point. One had a red plastic clothes peg around his neck.
Ben stood there waiting, but had no idea what he was waiting for. He looked towards the many cave openings. Then his eyes wandered to something out of the ordinary. It was most peculiar. If he had seen it on the Nullarbor, it would have been out of the question. Since he could only believe he was under the Nullarbor, it was even worse. And because the nature around him seemed to be a lush rain forest, it was much more than strange.
A majestic Boab tree, lumpy and bulbous, with its enormous bottom, and long slender branches sticking up at the top grew in the middle of the village. He was reminded of their neighbour at home, Mrs. Chiavelli, as she looked when hanging up her washing.
The silence broke by the tall one. ‘You ‘rived in Baffling! Well come!’
Ben laughed hysterically. ‘I’m Ben Starling ha, ha. Am I in the Grim Islands at the Kernel?’
The tall one shook his head. ‘No, here in Baffling. Me Kenairies.’ He patted his chest, and walked up to grab hold of Ben’s arm.
Ben broke free by moving away a few steps, but looked him bravely in the eyes. ‘You-you mean canaries? Flying? Birds?’
He hit his chest. ‘No, me Kenairies. Spells like so K E N A I R I E S.’ He had spelt his name, but also taken a step closer. When he took one more, Ben moved another few steps away. Kenairies followed, and snatched Ben’s arm again.
‘No, don’t do that! I’ve got to sit down. I don’t feel that good. Can’t you see that my foot is sore, and my head … ouch …?’
Kenairies gave out a thundering laugh, but persisted in pulling Ben like he was dragging a stubborn mule.
Ben tried to wrangle free. ‘Leave me alone! Hey, what kind of creeps are you? Don’t you get it? Let me go! I’ve had enough of this.’
Members of the tribe came up from behind, and pushed on. Ben’s heart raced faster – BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM. He realised it was no longer a game. This was life or death. He kicked, and punched, as hard as he could.
They laughed, and slapped their legs.
Ben’s mind screamed; ESCAPE-LEAVE-FAST! The words bleeped through his brain like bytes through cyberspace. RUN-RUN! But where to? With no idea where he was, he had not the faintest idea where to go.
When he discovered two of them, further away, digging in the dirt, he made a quick decision. He was not to be an easy target. If it was sudden, there was a chance.
Before he could activate his plans, he watched, as the very tall one signed to the diggers. One of them pulled off large sheets of paperbark from the ground. Smoke poured out. When this had lifted, Ben discovered the stones underneath. Something must be simmering in the dirt. Whatever it was, didn’t matter. He would eat anything, whatever they had. Even an old, parched, blackened goanna covered in sand, as long as it was well done.
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© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.