Caitlin thought she heard something when she threw the last net into the dark water. She turned her head quickly as the sound of the splash faded in her ears. Silence. She eyed the bush nervously but everything was still and quiet. The trees were black now, silhouetted against the twilit sky.
She looked back at the car to see her father standing blackly against the newly lit gas lamp. The light coming on, and the shape of her father, calmed her somewhat. She began to walk back towards him along the shore.
As she drew closer, the light of the lamp threw shadows across the uneven ground, so that she sometimes felt she was about to step into a deep depression. She stumbled several times, misjudging the distance between her feet and the ground.
‘Are they all out, Cait?’ her father asked as she entered the safety of his presence. His voice was muted by the hissing of the lamp.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Let’s hope we catch a feed.’ He squatted down to stack the stones he had gathered for the fireplace. ‘Pity we didn’t get here half an hour earlier. If it wasn’t for that wretched car of ours we would’ve had our first haul by now.’
He stood up and looked around for more stones. ‘We’re not supposed to light a fire this time of year,’ he said, ‘but there’s nothing to worry about if we’re careful.’
The sky was entirely dark now. Caitlin found several large stones at the edge of the lamplight and brought them back to her father.
‘Oh,’ he said, remembering suddenly. ‘We haven’t put the chook pellets out yet. Be a good girl, will you, and put them out while I get the fire going.’
‘But Dad—’ She stopped short. She was scared of what might be out there in the bush in the night, but she was scared, too, of what her father might think if he knew she was frightened. She rarely had him to herself like this and she did not want to ruin it. ‘But Dad,’ she said, pleading more than protesting, ‘I don’t know how to do it.’
‘Sure you do! You’ve helped me before. Just chuck a couple of handfuls into the water every ten steps or so.’
‘But won’t the drop-nets be enough?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘We want to use the scoop net too. Seeing as we’ve come all this way we might as well make the most of it.’ He squatted by the fireplace again to rearrange several stones. ‘The pellets are in the red bucket in the boot.’
She wanted to say, ‘Please don’t make me go.’ She wanted to say, ‘Come with me, Dad.’ But instead she said, ‘Can I take the torch?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But mind you don’t drop it. And don’t throw the pellets too far out. Keep them close to the edge.’
As Caitlin set off with the light of the gas lamp at her back, her shadow strode ahead of her, long and deep, but it fled away when she turned on the torch.
The last time her father had brought her to this cove at the back of the dam, another group of people had been camping on the other side of the feeder river. The lights of their torches and lamp and fire had been a comfort to her—not only because they provided a sense of companionship, but also because they defined the extent of the black water. Tonight, however, there were no other lights. She was alone, the water gaping endlessly at her feet. She shone her torch across it. The beam lay on the surface like a streak of oil but failed to reach the other side.
She threw a handful of pellets into the chasm. They sounded like a scattering of gravel as they hit the water. She liked the sound. She counted out ten more steps and threw another handful into the water. They settled on the muddy bottom and showed up whitely in the torchlight.
Reaching the place where she had left the last drop-net, she noticed the rope trailing into the water. It was like a boundary mark on the shore, warning her to go no further. If I stay this side of the rope, she thought, I’ll be safe. But she knew she was being silly, and she knew she was being cowardly, so she stepped over the rope and counted ten more paces.
She threw the pellets in and heard that scattering sound she liked. She listened intently. After the peppering of the pellets there was only silence. She shone her torch back to see the yellow rope. There it lay, like a dare. She had crossed over it and nothing had happened.
Then she decided to test her bravery. To see if she could bear the blackness without panic, she turned the torch off. Immediately the darkness pressed upon her like a living, dangerous thing. Terrified, she cried out.
In the aftermath of her cry, in the instant it took her to thrust the torch switch forward with her thumb, a commotion broke out close by. There was an enraged squeal followed by a loud crashing noise, like the sound of a large animal forcing its way furiously through the undergrowth. The light leapt from her torch as her heart leapt from her chest. In the pale circle of light she could see the bushes boiling. She dropped the pellets and ran, stumbling and falling, back to her father.
He looked up from the fire. ‘What’s the matter, Caitie?’ he asked, putting the lid on the billy and standing up.
Caitlin was panting too hard to speak. She bent over briefly, then straightened up. ‘There’s something out there,’ she said, pointing. ‘I heard something.’
‘You probably startled a kangaroo.’ He hugged her with that hard hug of his that made her feel precious and protected. ‘Nothing to worry about.’
‘But it was big. It sounded big.’
‘Probably a boomer. They can grow pretty big.’ He let her go and turned back to the fire. ‘The billy’s almost boiled. Let’s have a cup of tea, then we’ll check the nets and the baits.’
He poured a lot of milk in her tea so that she could drink it quickly. He gulped his, even though it was steaming hot. Then they set off. She carried the torch and a bucket. He carried the scoop net.
They came to the first bait she had laid. The pellets had softened and gone fluffy, like papier mache, but because the water was barely flowing they had not dispersed. A small marron was feeding on them. Its eyes shone bright red in the torchlight like a pair of tiny coals.
He poked the scoop net at it. ‘Shoo, you little squirt,’ he said. ‘You’re no bigger than Cait.’
‘Dad!’ she exclaimed, thumping his shoulder.
He chuckled and walked on.
A large marron, almost as large as a crayfish, was feeding on the second bait. He gently dipped the scoop net into the water behind it. Sensing danger, the marron flicked backwards, right into the wire net, and he whisked it out of the water.
‘Got him!’ he cried. The marron flicked and thrashed about in the basket of the net, almost flipping out. He wasted no time tipping it into the bucket.
Caitlin shone the torch on it.
‘What a beauty!’ her father said. ‘It’s gonna be a good night!’
They moved on to the first of their four drop-nets.
‘Do you want to pull it up?’ he asked. ‘Give me the torch.’
She passed him the torch and reached for the rope.
‘Give it a good yank and keep it moving,’ he said.
She hauled on the rope hard and fast. The net rose swiftly through the water until it hung in the air like an ornamental lampshade. Several small marron dropped through the bottom, but there was nothing big in it. She collapsed the two wire hoops together and threw the net out so that it hit the water flat-on.
‘Good throw,’ he said. ‘It must be all that frisbee practice.’
They glimpsed several cobbler feeding on the other baits. The fish rippled away the moment the light touched them. They also saw many small marron. One was so small that it could have been a prawn. With its ruby eyes it looked like something a man might have worn on a tiepin at the turn of the century. But there were no more big marron, either on the laying pellets or in the drop-nets.
‘Let’s have another cup of tea, Caitie. Then we’ll do another round.’
As they made their way back to the campfire, Caitlin suddenly realised that the animal—or whatever it was—had been completely quiet. She found herself wishing that it would move and make a noise, so that her father could hear it and know she had not imagined it.
‘Are there any dangerous animals in the bush?’ she asked.
‘Not really,’ her father replied. ‘There’s snakes, of course. And feral pigs. I’ve heard they can be pretty ferocious if they’re cornered or if they’ve got young.’ Then, sensing he had said the wrong thing, he nudged her and added mischievously, ‘But I reckon we’ve got a better chance of meeting a bunyip than a wild pig!’
She was silent for a moment, then asked, ‘Are bunyips real?’
‘Oh, Cait!’ He laughed and tugged her hair. ‘You’re determined to frighten yourself!’
The billy was boiling vigorously by the time they returned, so they made their drinks straight away.
Caitlin looked at the captive marron. It had stopped struggling now and lay quietly in the bottom of the bucket with its tail tucked beneath it. She was glad they had caught it, but she felt sorry for it just the same.
She felt safe by the fire, the gas lamp hissing in her ear. It seemed to her that the lamp had made a room—a room whose walls were darkness but whose interior was light. She imagined that so long as she stayed in this room with her father, nothing could harm her. Nothing bad could come into the room of light.
‘What are bunyips like?’ she asked. Standing in the presence of her father and the lamp, she was not frightened by the question at all.
Her father looked at her seriously. ‘They aren’t like anything because they aren’t real.’
‘But the Aborigines used to believe in them. We’ve talked about them at school. My teacher says they are monsters that live in rivers and waterholes and come out at night.’
Her father stood his mug on a stone by the fire. ‘I didn’t look to see if that marron is carrying any eggs,’ he said, ignoring her remarks and reaching into the bucket. He grabbed the marron expertly and lifted it to the light. As he did so it flicked its tail and several drops of water flew onto the lamp. The thin glass cracked and a shard fell inwards, tearing the delicate mantle. The light went out instantly.
‘Blast it!’ he said, flinging the marron back into the bucket.
His eyes were so accustomed to the bright light of the lamp that it was some seconds before he could see anything by the pale light of the fire. ‘Where’s the torch? Get the torch. Of all the luck!’
Caitlin found the torch and switched it on. It looked pale and pathetic compared with the light of the lamp. It does not make a room, she thought, and shuddered.
Her father threw the remaining wood on the fire and watched it begin to catch flame. He sighed. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘let’s do another round and then pack up.’
They set off again, but without immediate success. The marron on the baits were undersized. Her father let her have a go at scooping one of the larger ones, but it was too fast for her.
When she tried to pull up their second drop-net, she found that it had snagged on a branch under the water. Her father had to rip it free. When he finally pulled it to the surface they found that a long-necked tortoise had got caught in the nylon mesh and drowned.
‘What a night!’ he said as he freed the body and tossed it back into the water.
There were two large marron in the fourth drop-net. She could see them flicking about frantically in the torch-lit water as she pulled the net up.
‘Come on, sweetheart! That’s it, pull fast! Don’t let them flick out!’
She got the net to the surface and the marron were caught.
‘You championess!’ he said.
When he put his hand into the net to grab one of the marron, the other one latched onto him. Its powerful claw sliced right into the soft flesh between his finger and thumb. He yelled and tried to shake it free, but it would not let go and he had to tear it away. He cursed and threw it into the bucket roughly.
As he did so a noise broke out beside them, loud and furious. He jerked the torch towards the sound and gasped. Caitlin clutched his arm. Something big was thrashing about in the bushes. After a series of hideous squeals, the commotion abruptly ceased.
In a whisper, for fear that the sound of her voice might provoke another outburst, Caitlin said, ‘That’s what I heard before! What is it?’
‘Oh, just some animals.’ Her father spoke in a normal voice, which in the circumstances sounded loud and daring. He shrugged and began to walk on as if the subject were of little interest to him. He sucked the gash on his hand. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘It’s getting late. Let’s get the rest of the nets and go.’
Back at the car he seemed in no hurry to load the equipment, but Caitlin noticed that he did not cut the meat from the drop-nets before packing them into the boot.
‘Okay, that’s it,’ he said. ‘Let’s get moving.’
She ran around the car to the passenger’s side and tugged at the door handle. The door was locked. Dread gripped her as she stood waiting for her father to let her in. Eventually he reached over from the driver’s seat and lifted the latch. She burst into the car and slammed the door behind her.
‘Goodness!’ he said. ‘You’re like a hurricane! You might be just what we need to get this old bus moving.’
He turned the key in the ignition so that the red lights showed on the dashboard. ‘Hold your breath and hope,’ he joked, switching it all the way.
The car started instantly. He shifted into gear, then back into neutral.
‘The fire,’ he said. ‘I forgot to put out the fire.’ It was burning brightly from all the wood he had thrown onto it when the lamp went out. The breeze was fanning the flames and carrying off an occasional spark.
‘Can’t we just leave it?’ she begged.
‘No, it’s too risky. Everything’s tinder dry.’
She clutched at his arm. ‘But when you lit it you said there’s nothing to worry about.’
‘Yes, as long as we’re careful.’ He turned the motor off and stepped from the car. ‘Sit tight. Back in a jiff.’ He shut the door and went to the boot to retrieve the bucket.
Caitlin watched him walk towards the river, beyond the reach of the fire’s flickering light.
She waited anxiously, eyes and ears straining. The night was so silent, and she was listening so intently, that when a bug hit the windscreen her ears actually twitched with the shock of it. Her heart battered at her ribs like a moth at a lantern. To calm herself, she reached up and switched on the interior light. The darkness retreated from the car. For a moment, in her room of light, she felt almost safe.
Then she glimpsed a shape at the edge of the firelight. She turned off the car light to get a better look. She squinted and leant over so that her forehead rested on the door window. Her breath frosted the glass. As she wiped the window the shape moved out of the shadows.
It was a wild boar. Caitlin was shocked by the size, the bulk, of it. She had thought that pigs were small, pink animals. But this one was enormous—and black!
The boar moved towards the car, its tusks glistening in its snout like ivory daggers. It seemed agitated and kept swinging its head violently, as if trying to slash an imaginary opponent. Caitlin was so afraid that she forgot to breathe.
Then she saw her father step out of the blackness, his right shoulder tilted with the weight of the bucket. He kept coming, drawn by the fire he was about to dowse. The boar swung around to face him.
Caitlin’s breath exploded from her. She gasped for air, desperate to cry a warning. But the boar moved faster than she could breathe.