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An ill-matched couple encounter stranger things than they’d imagined
in the Australian Outback


The First Contact with
the Gorgonids

by Ursula K. Le Guin


Aliens in the Outback
Photo illustration by Robert K. J. Killheffer. Images: ingehogenbijl / 123RF Stock Photo and mik38 / 123RF Stock Photo.



Mrs. Jerry Debree, the heroine of Grong Crossing, liked to look pretty. It was important to Jerry in his business contacts, of course, and also it made her feel more confident and kind of happy to know that her cellophane was recent and her eyelashes really well glued on and that the highlighter blush was bringing out her cheekbones like the girl at the counter had said. But it was beginning to be hard to feel fresh and look pretty as this desert kept getting hotter and hotter and redder and redder until it looked, really, almost like what she had always thought the Bad Place would look like, only not so many people. In fact, none.

“Could we have passed it, do you think?” she ventured at last, and received without surprise the exasperation she had safety-valved from him: “How the fuck could we have passed it when we haven’t passed one fucking thing except those fucking bushes for 90 miles? Christ you’re dumb.”

Jerry’s language was a pity. And sometimes it made it so hard to talk to him. She had had the least little tiny sort of feeling, woman’s intuition maybe, that the men who had told him how to get to Grong Crossing were teasing him, having a little joke. He had been talking so loud in the hotel bar about how disappointed he had been with the Corroboree after flying all the way out from Adelaide to see it. He kept comparing it to the Indian dance they had seen at Taos.

Actually he had been very bored and restless at Taos and they had had to leave in the middle so he could have a drink and she never had gotten to see the people with the masks come, but now he talked about how they really knew how to put on a native show in the USA. He said a few scruffy abos jumping around wern’t going to give tourists anything to write home about. The Aussies ought to visit Disney World and find out how to do the real thing, he said.

She agreed with that; she loved Disney World. It was the only thing in Florida, where they had to live now that Jerry was an ACEO, that she liked much. One of the Australian men at the bar had seen Disneyland and agreed that it was amazing, or maybe he meant amusing; what he said was “amizing.” He seemed to be a nice man. Bruce, he said his name was, and his friend’s name was Bruce, too. “Common sort of name here,” he said, only he said “nime,” but he meant name, she was quite sure. When Jerry went on complaining about the Corroboree, the first Bruce said, “Well, mite, you might go out to Grong Crossing, if you really want to see the real thing — right, Bruce?”

At first the other Bruce didn’t seem to know what he meant, and that was when her woman’s intuition woke up. But pretty soon both Bruces were talking away about this place, Grong Crossing, way out in “the bush,” where they were certain to meet real abos really living in the desert. “Near Alice Springs,” Jerry said knowledgeably, but it wasn’t, they said; it was still farther west from here. They gave directions so precisely that it was clear they knew what they were talking about. “Few hours’ drive, that’s all,” Bruce said. “But y’see, most tourists want to stay on the beaten path. This is a bit more on the inside track.”

“Bang-up shows,” said Bruce. “Nightly Corroborees.”

“Hotel any better than this dump?” Jerry asked, and they laughed. No hotel, they explained. “It’s like a safari, see — tents under the stars.”

“Never rains,” said Bruce.

“Marvelous food, though,” Bruce said. “Fresh kangaroo steaks. Kangaroo hunts daily, see. Witchetty grubs along with the drinks before dinner. Roughing it in luxury, I’d call it; right, Bruce?”

“Absolutely,” said Bruce.

“Friendly, are they, these abos?” Jerry asked.

“Oh, salt of the earth. Treat you like kings. Think white men are sort of gods, y’know,” Bruce said. Jerry nodded.

So Jerry wrote down all the directions, and here they were driving and driving in the old station wagon that was all there was to rent in the small town they’d been at for the Corroboree, and by now you only knew the road was a road because it was perfectly straight forever. Jerry had been in a good humor at first. “This’ll be something to shove up that bastard Thiel’s ass,” he said. His friend Thiel was always going to places like Tibet and having wonderful adventures and showing videos of himself with yaks. Jerry had bought a very expensive camcorder for this trip, and now he said, “Going to shoot me some abos. Show that fucking Thiel and his musk-oxes!” But as the morning went on and the road went on and the desert went on — did they call it “the bush” because there was one little thorny bush once a mile or so? — he got hotter and hotter and redder and redder, just like the desert. And she began to feel depressed and like her mascara was caking.

She was wondering if after another 40 miles (four was her lucky number) she could say, “Maybe we ought to turn back?” for the first time, when he said, “There!”

There was something ahead, all right.

“There hasn’t been any sign,” she said, dubious. “They didn’t say anything about a hill, did they?”

“Hell, that’s no hill, that’s a rock — what do they call it — some big fucking red rock — “

“Ayers Rock?” She had read the WELCOME TO DOWN UNDER flyer in the hotel in Adelaide while Jerry was at the plastics conference. “But that’s in the middle of Australia, isn’t it?”

“So where the fuck do you think we are? In the middle of Australia, what do you think this is, fucking East Germany?” He was shouting, and he speeded up. The terribly straight road shot them straight at the hill, or rock, or whatever it was. It wasn’t Ayers Rock, she knew that, but there wasn’t any use irritating Jerry, especially when he started shouting.

It was reddish, and shaped kind of like a huge VW bug, only lumpier; and there were certainly people all around it, and at first she was very glad to see them. Their utter isolation — they hadn’t seen another car or farm or anything for two hours — had scared her. Then as they got closer she thought the people looked rather funny. Funnier than the ones at the Corroboree even.

“I guess they’re natives,” she said aloud.

“What the shit did you expect, Frenchmen?” Jerry said, but he said it like a joke, and she laughed. But — “Oh! goodness!” she said involuntarily, getting her first clear sight of one of the natives.

“Big fellows, huh,” he said. “Bushmen, they call ’em.”

That didn’t seem right, but she was still getting over the shock of seeing that tall, thin, black-and-white, weird person. It had been just standing looking at the car, only she couldn’t see its eyes. Heavy brows and thick, hairy eyebrows hid them. Black, ropey hair hung over half its face and stuck out from behind its ears.

“Are they — are they painted?” she asked weakly.

“They always paint ’emselves up like that.” His contempt for her ignorance was reassuring.

“They almost don’t look human,” she said, very softly so as to not hurt their feelings, if they spoke English, since Jerry had stopped the car and flung the doors open and was rummaging out the video camera. “Hold this!”

She held it. Five or six of the tall black-and-white people had sort of turned their way, but they all seemed to be busy with something at the foot of the hill or rock or whatever it was. There were some things that might be tents. Nobody came to welcome them or anything, but she was actually just as glad they didn’t.

“Hold this! Oh for Chrissake, what did you do with the — all right, just give it here.”

“Jerry, I wonder if we should ask them,” she said.

“Ask who what?” he growled, having trouble with the cassette thing.

“The people here — if it’s all right to photograph. Remember at Taos they said that when the — “

“For fuck sake, you don’t need fucking permission to photograph a bunch of natives! God! Did you ever look at the fucking National Geographic? Shit! Permission!”

It really wasn’t any use when he started shouting. And the people didn’t seem to be interested in what he was doing. Although it was quite hard to be sure what direction they were actually looking.

“Aren’t you going to get out of the fucking car?”

“It’s so hot,” she said.

He didn’t really mind it when she was afraid of getting too hot or sunburned or anything, because he liked being stronger and tougher. She probably could even have said that she was afraid of the natives, because he liked to be braver than her, too; but sometimes he got angry when she was afraid, like the time he made her eat that poisonous fish, or a fish that might or might not be poisonous, in Japan, because she said she was afraid to, and she threw up and embarrassed everybody. So she just sat in the car and kept the engine on and the air conditioning on, although the window on her side was open.

Jerry had his camera up on his shoulder now and was panning the scene — the far away hot red horizon, the queer rock-hill-thing with shiny places in it like glass, the black, burned-looking ground around it, and the people swarming all over. There were 40 or 50 of them at least. It only dawned on her now that if they were wearing any clothes at all she didn’t know what was clothes and what was skin, because they were so strange-shaped, and painted or colored all in stripes and spots of white on black, not like zebras but more complicated, more like skeleton suits but not exactly. And they must be eight feet tall, but their arms were short, almost like kangaroos’. And their hair was like black ropes standing up all over their heads. It was embarrassing to look at people without clothes on, but you couldn’t really see anything like that. In fact, she couldn’t tell, actually, if they were men or women.

They were all busy with their work or ceremony or whatever it was. Some of them were handling some things like big, thin, golden leaves, others were doing something with cords or wires. They didn’t seem to be talking, but there was, all the time, in the air a soft, drumming, droning, rising and falling, deep sound, like cats purring or voices far away.

Jerry started walking toward them.

“Be careful,” she said faintly. He paid no attention, of course.

They paid no attention to him either, as far as she could see, and he kept filming, swinging the camera around. When he got right up close to a couple of them, they turned toward him. She couldn’t see their eyes at all, but what happened was their hair sort of stood up and bent toward Jerry — each thick, black rope about a foot long, moving around and bending down exactly as if it were peering at him. At that, her own hair tried to stand up, and the blast of the air conditioner ran like ice down her sweaty arms. She got out of the car and called his name.

He kept filming.

She went toward him as fast as she could on the cindery, stony soil in her high-heeled sandals. “Jerry, come back. I think —“

“Shut up!” he yelled so savagely that she stopped short for a moment.

But she could see the hair better now, and she could see that it did have eyes, and mouths, too, with little red tongues darting out.

“Jerry, come back,” she said. “They’re not natives, they’re Space Aliens. That’s their saucer.” She knew from the Sun that there had been sightings down here in Australia.

“Shut the fuck up,” he said. “Hey, big fella, give me a little action, huh? Don’t just stand there. Dancee-dancee OK?” His eye was glued to the camera.

“Jerry,” she said, her voice sticking in her throat, as one of the Space Aliens pointed with its little weak-looking arm and hand at the car. Jerry shoved the camera right up close to its head, and at that it put its hand over the lens.

That made Jerry mad, of course, and he yelled, “Get the fuck off that!”

And he actually looked at the Space Alien, not through the camera but face to face. “Oh gee,” he said.

And his hand went to his hip. He always carried a gun, because it was an American’s right to bear arms and there were so many drug addicts these days. He had smuggled it through the airport inspection the way he knew how. Nobody was going to disarm him.

She saw perfectly clearly what happened. The Space Alien opened its eyes.

There were eyes under the dark, shaggy brows; they had been kept closed till now. Now they were open, and looked once straight at Jerry, and he turned to stone. He just stood there, one hand on the camera and one reaching for his gun, motionless.

Several more Space Aliens had gathered round. They all had their eyes shut, except for the ones at the ends of their hair. Those glittered and shone, and the little red tongues flickered in and out, and the humming, droning sound was much louder. Many of the hair snakes writhed to look at her. Her knees buckled and her heart thudded in her throat, but she had to get to Jerry. She passed right between two huge Space Aliens and reached him and patted him — “Jerry, wake up!” she said. He was just like stone, paralyzed. “Oh,” she said, and tears ran down her face, “oh, what should I do, what can I do?” She looked around in despair at the tall, thin, black-and-white faces looming above her, white teeth showing, eyes tight shut, hairs staring and stirring and murmuring. The murmur was soft, almost like music, not angry, soothing. She watched two tall Space Aliens pick up Jerry quite gently, as if he were a tiny little boy — a stiff one — and carry him carefully to the car.

They poked him into the backseat lengthwise, but he didn’t fit. She ran to help. She let down the backseat so there was room for him in the back. The Space Aliens arranged him and tucked the video camera in beside him, then straightened up, their hairs looking down at her with little twinkly eyes. They hummed softly, and pointed with their childish arms back down the road.

“Yes,” she said. “Thank you. Good-bye!”

They hummed.

She got in and closed the window and turned the car around there on a wide place in the road — and there was a signpost, Grong Crossing, although she didn’t see any crossroad.

She drove back, carefully at first because she was shaky, then faster and faster because she should get Jerry to the doctor, of course, but also because she loved driving on long straight roads very fast like this. Jerry never let her drive except in town.

The paralysis was total and permanent, which would have been terrible, except that she could afford full-time, round-the-clock, first-class care for poor Jerry, because of the really good deals she made with the TV people and then with the rights people for the video. First it was shown all over the world as Space Aliens Land in Australian Outback, but then it became part of real science and history as Grong Crossing, South Australia: The First Contact With the Gorgonids. In the voice-over they told how it was her, Annie Laurie Debree, who had been the first human to talk with our friends from outer space, even before they sent the ambassadors to Canberra and Reykjavik. There was only one good shot of her in the film, and Jerry had been sort of shaking, and her highlighter was kind of streaked, but that was all right. She was the heroine.


[ THE END ]



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This story copyright © 1992 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



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