Their Australia trip turned awkward and edgy after they picked up the local guy. Janet was sleeping with him, and Jimmy didn’t like it a bit. They weren’t in the best frame of mind to deal with the strangeness in Wallabenga Cave…
by Garry Kilworth
We had hoped to reach the cave by noon.
The long drive across the Gibson Desert had made us testy and irritable. Somewhere along the gravel road, chips of stone had shattered the windscreen of the Honda; turning it into glass hail which the wind blew into the car. Janet was cut a little around the cheeks, and Mace, who had been driving, had specks of blood like a rash of measles over his whole face. I was in the back-seat and consequently escaped unhurt.
Once the screen was gone the car filled with choking red dust and the air conditioner ceased to funnction with any degree of efficiency. We soon got the full force of the Australian desert sun, somewhere in the region of 50 Celsius, and began to bake inside our cake tin on wheels. The lung-grabbing blast of air coming through the hole was hot and full of grit. By the time we saw the rock, Mace had gone into the sulks, and Janet stated she was ready to strangle anyone who tried to treat our situation with flippancy. This remark hah followed an attempt by me to treat the episode lightly.
“I hate people trying to cheer me up,” she grumbled. “I’m British,” I said, my tone almost apologetic; “we always make jokes when the chips are down.”
She gave me another blood-and-dust glare, I suppose wondering whether my mention of the word “chips” was alluding to the gravel that had been the cause of our present condition. Her left arm was draped along the back of Mace’s seat, her fingers lightly touching his shoulder. Long black hair tumbled down to her (now dirty) white blouse and obscured most of her face as she turned to face front again and presumably stare into the billowing red dust, rolling ahead of us like the bow wave from a marine landing craft.
I studied Mace in the rearview mirror. There was no indication from his expression that he was aware of the touch of those slim fingers. I wished they were on my shoulder, not his. When Janet and I had begun our ten-month tour of Australia, we had been lovers as well as good friends. Things happen on the road, though, and now we were, as they say, just good friends.
It would be more accurate to say I was “just good friend.” For my part, I still had much stronger feelings. I still wanted her, emotionally and physically, as a lover again. God, my guts ached for the touch of those fingers. She had become supremely beautiful, wondrously fascinating since we had parted. What was once taken for granted was now unattainable, and the fact that I had once had it all — love, intimate companionship, sex — made the craving that much worse. I wanted it back. I still loved her, but I didn’t dare let her know it. She would have sent me away. So I maintained this minor war with her, taking ground, giving ground, remaining interested and, hopefully, still interesting.
Mace was a second generation Japanese-Australian we met on our travels. We stopped for him because he had a backpack and was obviously traveling on the cheap. Leaning in through Janet’s window, he told us he’d just passed his medical exams and was celebrating by going on walkabout. I didn’t like the way he was looking into Janet’s eyes or the way she was returning that look, so I replied that if he was on walkabout he wouldn’t need a lift in our car.
“It’s just an expression,” he told me, with a pained look. “It just means I’ve got no set destination, not that I’ve got to do the whole thing on foot.”
“Don’t mind him,” Janet said, dismissing me with a flick of her head, “he’s a pom.”
Janet is English too, but since we’d stopped sleeping together, she was about as approachable as a Martian. We were still going through what she called our “period of adjustment,” which to her meant getting rid of all those uncomfortable pieces of emotion that still surfaced during unguarded moments. As soon as she recognized one of these flimsy remnants of past love, she dealt with it ruthlessly in some way unknown to me. Her expression hardened, and she suddenly became very brisk and businesslike in whatever she had been doing when the unwelcome feeling struck. How did she do it? If she had let me in on the secret I would have gladly employed the same technique. Instead, I found myself anticipating such moments, looking for them, and (I suppose) enjoying the hurt they brought with them. Such pain is better than nothing at all.
This tall doctor with his Melbourne drawl very soon slipped into my place inside her sleeping bag. I couldn’t believe how quickly it happened, and the pain was then no longer pleasurable. Janet had once told me she had to be in love with a man to sleep with him. Yet here was the first unattached guy she had met since falling out with me, and he took over as smoothly as if he had been ordained my replacement. He had come to my tent late one evening, about a month ago.
“I want you to know I intend going to bed with Janet. She’s in agreement with this. Do you have any objections?” Mace was a gentleman. He wanted what he saw, and intended to have it, but felt the need to declare war before he bombed Pearl Harbor so that there could be no accusations of sneak treachery later.
“If you’ve already got her permission,” I tried to keep the emotion out of my voice, “what do you need mine for? I’m not in any position to object anyway.”
“You were lovers — ”
“Right. Past tense.”
The worst of it was, I had actually grown to like Mace. From that point on I hated his guts. I was sure I hated both of them, and I only stayed because . . . because . . . hell, I don’t know why I stayed. Maybe I thought it wouldn’t last, that Janet and I would drop back in together again, the way it had been before. There were these fantasies in my head, of her coming to my tent one night, weeping and saying it was no good, she couldn’t do without me. Or looking into my face suddenly, in the campfire light, and no words being necessary, just putting our arms around each other, and Mace getting the message, walking away into the night with his pack without even saying goodbye.
Once, when Mace was off somewhere collecting wood, she turned to me and said, “Why didn’t you object?”
“When Mace came to you that night.”
I became very angry then.
“I don’t know how to play these games,” I said. “I’m a practical man. I like to know the rules first.”
She smiled, not unfriendly.
“Practical man? You’re a dyed in the wool romantic, Jimmy, and you know it.”
And thereafter I was plagued by the thought that she had been testing the waters that night, to see if I still loved her, and I’d failed to recognize it. Should I have leapt on Mace and beaten him senseless? (Since Mace was a head taller that me, there would probably have been a very different result.) Or perhaps I should have said in a very dignified tone that I objected very much, because I was still in love with her? I don’t know. The skills necessary, the nuances of a three-cornered affaire, were beyond me. When it came to playing the game, I was hopeless; my head spun with possibilities, none of which seemed right for me. I ended up being flat and pathetic.
Janet was right about one thing, I am a terrible romantic. There were even times when I convinced myself that although they slept in the same tent, they weren’t doing anything, that Mace was still waiting for her to say yes.
So I had had a month of being the outsider, the observer. I thanked the lord that Janet was not one of those women who like canoodling in public, so I didn’t have to watch them kissing and cuddling and whispering into each other’s ears. The light touch on the shoulder was bad enough. Just that small show of affection was enough to turn on the flow of acid in my stomach. I suppose I still couldn’t understand how she could do this thing to me: fall for the fitst man she saw on the road. I could go a lifetime and not find someone to replace her.
The rocky outcrop appeared to rush toward us, yet remain unreachable. It seemed we had been driving toward it forever. Overhead the sky was a hard brittle blue, without a cloud. I could see no signs of life, either in the air or out on the desert.
There’s a lot of space on the Australian continent, and we’d been using it well. We’d been keeping away from towns, and the radio in the car had died on us, so we had little news of the outside world. The trading posts we stopped at for goods and petrol were run by thin men with faces like burned lizards: taciturn men who could spit twenty feet, but apart from that hardly opened their mouths. I had asked the last one if the civilized world was all right.
“Who the hell cares?” he snapped.
He had been one of those crusty frontiersmen who feel the place is getting crowded when someone moves into a neighboring valley. There were several like him, and they never looked unhappy to see us go, even though we were probably the only people they saw all week. Month?
I stared out of the dust-covered side window at the passing desert. I found the apparent stillness, the facelessness of the wilderness, disconcerting. Nothing appeared to have moved since it was all part of the great Gondwanaland. In Europe we expressed fears about the way the human race was reshaping the world, but out here the landscape mocked us for being ineffectual and fleeting. It had a spiritual presence that was undeniable.
To me, the desert felt like a deity; all-knowing, all-powerful. I wondered if anyone had ever prayed to the desert, revered it in the way that animists worship single trees and rocks. The Aborigines? As I stared out over the wasteland, I indulged in one of those banal daydreams where Janet and I were all that remained of the human race. A desert island, an Adam and Eve, a begin-again dream. Everyone has one of these mellifluous fantasies at one time or another. They’re hackneyed, it’s true, but then love itself is a cliché, the emotional patterns eternally repetitive.
The desire behind this well-used vision was strong enough. I suppose I prayed, to the desert, in those few moments.
Let it happen. Let it happen.
Janet’s voice brought me sharply out of my reverie.
“What’s the name of the place again?” I heard her yell, trying to make herself heard over the tire and engine noise.
“Wallabenga Cave,” Mace shouted.
The hill which housed the cave had been suggested by Mace as an alternative to visiting Ayers Rock. “Everybody goes to Ayers Rock. Let’s try for something different — whaddya say? There’s some wall paintings in Wallabenga — a special one, I heard, not like the rest of them. . . .”
So we had driven out into the head-flattening heat of the Gibson, to brave the kraits and spiders, under a sun whose rays could probably light paper, into dust that found every crease, every fissure of our bodies. On top of that, Mace had only three tapes for the car’s cassette, all of them by Midnight Oil. I had to listen to Dust and Diesel six times a day. I used to like it.
We finally reached the rock, a sandstone crag like a natural giant cathedral, standing proud of the desert. Bas-relief formations bulged from an otherwise smooth face. There was something faintly familiar about these projections, as if they had been carved at one time into forms representing human features or perhaps the heads of animals. The whole crag looked as if it had been chiseled from a mountain somewhere else, then tossed out into the Gibson, where its contours had been worked by itinerant craftsmen. I had to admit that its red colour and projections made it look magnificent under the afternoon sun, like the burning palace of some desert king. It had the same feel about it as Petra, except that there was no city carved out of this conglomerate, only the merest suggestion of architecture running like wet paint down the walls of the cliff.
Mace switched off the car engine and then untied the handkerchief he had used as a dust filter. It left a whitish mark around his mouth in contrast to the rest of his engrimed face. He pulled a pack onto his right shoulder by one strap.
I said, “Are you taking that in the cave with you?”
“Thought it would be a good idea,” he replied. “We might want to sleep in there, just for tonight. Then we can set out in the cool tomorrow, early.”
“Good thinking,” said Janet, grabbing her own pack.
No one ever consulted me, asked me what I thought of an idea. Once the other two had accepted something from each other, I was expected to go along, like a family pet. I wanted to argue, but I didn’t. Mace was right anyway; the cave would be better than a tent or the car. I was waiting, longing for him to say something stupid, so I could tear into him and let out a little pressure, but he never did.
I took my time getting my own pack, until Janet yelled, “Jimmy, are you coming, or what?”
She had her hands on her hips, as if she were scolding a three-year-old. I stared back, noticing that she was getting a little chubby around the middle.
“You can’t lay down the law with a tummy like that,” I said. “You ought to lay off the boiled sweets.”
She glanced down at herself, but instead of the distressed expression I was expecting, she looked up again with soft eyes. That one look startled me for a moment. Then she disappeared into the cave entrance.
I ran after the pair of them. They were waiting for me just inside. Mace had a flashlight, and he switched it on.
“The guide book says we have to keep going until we come to a cavern. We can’t get lost because there’s only one tunnel.”
He set off, and Janet and I followed behind, in single file. After a long while I realized that while the book might have been right about there being no run-offs, it hadn’t mentioned the length of the cave. We seemed to be walking for decades — or stumbling might be a better description — until finally I could detect a strong odor of something burning.
“What’s that smell?” I said, using the opportunity to touch Janet’s shoulder.
“Oil,” replied Mace. “There’s an old Abo who lives in here. He burns oil lamps for light. They call him the ‘guardian of the painting’ or something.”
“Aboriginal tribesman,” I stressed.
Janet said, “Don’t be so prim. You think he’s worried what we call him? Anyway, Mace has spent three summers with Aborigines. He’s got friends amongst them, so I guess he can call them what he thinks is right.”
My own reply was cut short as we entered a world glowing with yellow light. We had reached the central cavern. The three of us stepped into a great natural hall, with fluted columns on either side, and magnificent scalloped rock curtains hanging from the ceiling. There were lamps in many of the recesses, some balanced on rounded stalagmites. Our footsteps echoed as we crossed a floor worn smooth by running water. It was strange how all around this hill was a desert, while within it there was water in plenty. In the far right-hand corner of the cavern was a pool some twenty meters in diameter. We went to this and washed ourselves, getting rid of the dust and stale sweat, before exploring further.
Mace had spoken of a side chamber, which we found after a short search, inside which sat the old man who had been given the task of caretaker by his tribe. The walls and ceiling of this offshoot cavern were amazing. Not several normal-sized paintings as I had expected, but a single work covering all the available space within the large chamber, even the floor. It was dazzling — not with colour, for the usual ochres and stains had been used, but with intricate detail. A desert scene, with rocks, mountains, waterholes, and strange elongated figures, who seemed to be on a slow laborious trek across the hot sand-and-stone world of the picture. The scope of the work took my breath away. Such a painting must have taken decades to complete, and by people with such an eye for perspective that when you stared into the chamber you could have been looking down on a vast landscape from a cloud. Yet each individual stone, soak or patch of sand was evident with all its tiny markings, as if you were holding it in your hand and studying it closely. One moment I got the giddy feeling of being suspended, even flying, above a ruddled countryside worked over in places with orpiment; yet the next second I was peering at a small desert bloom from just inches away, its petals seeming to close against the fierceness of the sun.
“Wow, this is really something!” I said. “This was worth the drive.”
“You’re not kidding,” cried Janet. “Does the old man speak English, Mace?”
“Try him,” said the Australian.
The wizened round face of the dark-skinned man beamed at us. He was squatting on his haunches. There were no shoes on his feet, the skin of which looked tougher than any leather. He was wearing a red-chequered shirt, stuffed into an ancient pair of slacks.
“Speak a small bit, boss,” he said, showing us a tiny space between his thumb and forefinger, and he grinned.
Janet squatted down to his level but stayed in the entrance, careful not to tread on the painting.
“What is this?” She indicated the picture with a wave of both arms.
“Him one world, boss,” he replied. “This what happen outside, see? Him hare-wallabies come and put ’em here, tell us what’s what.”
Mace said, “The hare-wallaby people. They’re a mythological race from the Dreamtime. He’s saying they did the painting.”
“I’ve heard that some educated Aborigines object to the word Dreamtime. They say it’s not accurate. It’s supposed to be their Genesis, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, when the world was formed by their forefathers, tribes like the carpet-snake men and hare-wallaby people — strange hybrid creatures — and the songs were made which they use as maps to find water. The animal-people were instrumental in shaping the earth, giving it form. Abos will point out striations of rocks where they say ancient battles were fought and lumps of stone that are dead ancestors.”
Then Mace spoke to the old man quietly, and the old man replied in similar hushed tones.
“What’s he saying?” asked Janfet.
Mace said, “Just what he said before, that this painting represents the world, but I was curious. The book says that the meaning of the picture changes. It’s dynamic, not static. The content remains the same of course, no one alters the painting in any way, but the interpretation varies according to what’s happening in the outside world.”
I asked the ihevitable question.
“How does he know what’s going on outside? I mean, we’re in the middle of nowhere. . . .”
“Middle is right,” replied Mace. “This chamber is supposed to be the center of the earth. Outside the cavern everything is mutable, subject to time and tide, decay, growth. In here things are always the same.”
“I still don’t understand,” said Janet. “How can it reflect the outside world if it doesn’t change itself?”
Mace was patidnt with us.
“It has to be interpreted. The changes aren’t evident to us, but they are to the painting’s guardian. This is a sacred trust, handed down from a tribal elder to his successor. At this time only this one man can read the picture and tell us what it means.”
“But how does he know?” I insisted.
“He sees it in the picture,” remarked Mace, losing patience at last. “What do you want me to say? I don’t understand the mystique of this thing. If I did, I would be him. I only know what the book tells us.”
He spoke again to the old man, who replied with a smile.
“What?” cried Janet, obviously unhappy that she couldn’t be directly privy to the conversation. “Tell me!”
“I just asked him how it is with the world,” laughed Mace.
“And what did he say?” said Janet.
“Fine, I suppose.”
“What do you mean, you suppose?”
Mace shrugged. “The picture’s full of calmness. Yes, I think that’s the closest meaning of the words he used, ‘There is a calmness over the earth.’ ”
Although I didn’t mention it at the time, the old man might have meant “stillness”: a stillness over the world. The state that is said to exist immediately before a holocaust or the fulfillment of an apocalypse. Expectation.
We decided we would sleep in the cave that night, so we went out and got the rest of the gear from the car. I took a look at the night sky while I was out there. It was all right. It seemed fine. Not that I knew much about the bottom of the globe. There were unrecognizable constellations embedded in the darkness: my familiarity with the heavens ended at the equator. This wasn’t my sky, it belonged to the south lands. I could find the Southern Cross, but there my knowledge ended. The Polynesians used this sky like a dynamic chart, to navigate by, following star paths as they moved up individually from below the horizon and crossed the heavens. They could interpret the oceans too, the swells, the currents, even water temperatures, gaining navigational insights from them. I knew this for a fact. Westem seamen, with their finely drawn paper charts and shiny sextants, had challenged Polynesians to navigational runs from one island to another, and had lost.
So who was I to challenge this old man, who said he could read the world in a painting? We opened a can of beans, and I took him some. He ate them with relish.
We slept uneasily that night, not for any reason but that it was an unusual bedroom. I could hear beetles, or lizards, or something, scuttling in amongst the stones, going down to the water to drink. The old man kept the lamps going too, so there was no sense of night or day. It induced insomnia in all of us. I played a game with Mace.
“What if you were to go to a planet,” I said, “where everything was the opposite. Where night was actually day and day was night. Exactly the opposite from what we have now. A place where black men were white, and white men were black. A negative world. Would you know it?”
“If it was the exact opposite to this world, then it would be the same. Left-handed people using their right hands to do things, and vice versa. It would be the same.”
“No, but things would feel different, because they would be different. You’d have a kind of déjà vusensation, only not that, just a sense that something’s wrong. Like when you look out of a mirror at yourself from the glass, and you think, ‘I can’t tell us apart; we look exactly the same, yet he’s the real one, not me . . . I’m just two-dimensional quicksilver.’ ”
“When you look out from a mirror? Boy you are one wacky . . .”
“Go to sleep you two,” interrupted Janet, “before mamma deals a few heavy hands.”
And we did manage it then, sleeping well into the day, if it was day.
We trooped over to the old man after we’d had breakfast and asked him to interpret the picture for us. He started in by showing us where the sun was, and the mountains and seas, until Mace said, yes all that was very interesting, but what was happening out there, anything special? The old man smiled and said, nothing was happening, and Mace took this to mean nothing had changed, but there’s a difference. Nothing’s changed means that things are going on the way they normally do, whereas nothing’s happening might mean that, but it could also be interpreted as meaning absolutely nothing is happening out there.
We knew it was midday outside, so we didn’t bother leaving the cavern. It would be hot, dusty, and no place for delicate skin. So we opened a pack of cards and played poker for matchsticks, then read our books, then when all was tranquil and I was deeply engrossed in my novel, Janet rolled over on her sleeping bag and said in a quiet voice that she wasn’t getting fat on boiled sweets, she was having a baby.
“WHAT?” cried Mace.
I studied his expression as it went through various emotions, from horror to delight and back again, finally to settle on something between these two extremes. I couldn’t see Janet’s face. I just wanted to kill them both. I felt like I had a rock jammed in my windpipe.
“I’m going to be a father,” Mace cried at last.
And Janet said in the same quiet voice, “No, I don’t think so.”
Everyone was silent after that, and I listened to the dust settling on the floor of the cavern and the microbes battling it out in my body, before I said, “Me?”
She looked up and nodded.
“I missed one before we met Mace.”
“And you didn’t say anything?”
“I wasn’t sure; I’ve missed before,, and anyway we weren’t talking at the time. Are you angry?”
I didn’t even think about it.
“No. No, not really, as long as I get to have something to do with him . . . her — whatever. What are you going to do now? I mean, about us?”
She rolled onto her back.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.^’
Mace said acidly, “Well do let us know when you’ve made up your mind, sweetheart.”
But she had already started crying by then, and we both rushed to comfort her at once, and it got all confused, arms and arms, and bodies, and legs, until the three of us lay there in a knot, no one willing to let go, least of all me. All I knew was that I was being hugged, and it felt good. I was going to be a father! The whole world had changed its face in a split second. One moment I’d been at the bottom of a deep pit, with no hope of ever getting out. I’d been solitary, bitter, sent out into the wilderness and close to despair. Suddenly, I was back in the garden, with people touching me, hugging me. And I was going to have a child by the woman I loved. Just like that, without me doing anything but waiting patiently. I could’ve waited a million years, without anything happening; but I didn’t have to. One second the world was a dark lonely place, the next a place full of light and laughter. Just like that. Just like that.
We stayed wrapped around each other for quite a while, until we heard voices coming from the cave, and then we untangled ourselves only just in time. A middle-aged couple came into the cavern, blinking, and staring around with their mouths open. Mace started giggling, and Janet and I followed, until we were all snorting and snuffling, trying to stifle our laugher in case the couple thought we were making fun of them, which we weren’t.
The woman, tall and slim in a floppy hat, went in to see the old man. The male half of the pair, also hatted, came over to us.
“Sky’s looking kinda red out there,” he said.
“Red?” Mace repeated.
“Yeah. Sort of. Think we’re in for a storm?”
Mace said, “I don’t know. The book doesn’t say anything about inclement weather at this time of the year. We’re tourists too. That is, I’m from Melbourne, but this is my first time out here in the desert.”
“Well, the sky looks kinda funny,” said the man, glancing toward the picture chamber. “We’re pretty far out, here. I wouldn’t want to get stuck in a flash flood or anything. I’m from the U.S. — Mississippi. Place called Platten. You wouldn’t have heard of it, I s’pose?”
We shook our heads.
“No. Anyway, name’s Carter, like Jimmy only I’m called John. My wife’s Sarah.” He smiled and nodded in her direction. “I’d better see what’s doin’.”
I said, “My name’s Jimmy. Together we make an ex-president.”
He smiled. “I don’t think so,” he said.
As we watched him making his way over the uneven floor a ripple went through the ground. It felt like the skin of the world had just shivered. The American tottered, almost lost his balance. I found myself gripping at the wavy stone floor with my fingernails. I had a sense of falling for a moment, as if the earth were slipping away from underneath me. When I turned to look at Janet, she had a frightened expression on her face.
“What was that?” she whispered.
“Felt like an earth movement,” said Mace.
“An earthquake? Here?” I said.
We all waited for a follow-up. John Carter was standing, looking at his feet, as if he expected something more too.
After awhile nothing had happened, and we all began to relax. Sarah Carter came out of the picture chamber. She had a short conversation with her husband, who immediately left the cavern by the tunnel exit. Then she came over to us.
“Mind if I sit with you?” she said, not waiting for an answer, but settling on the hard stone next to Janet. “I’m not quite ready to go outside. It’s so hot out there. We’re going to have a picnic in here, like you. John’s gone to check on our car. That was a peculiar thing, now wasn’t it? That judder?”
“Yes it was,” replied Janet.
Mace asked, “What did the Abo tell you?”
“Ab . . . ? Oh, he said lots of things. I asked him what the little figures were doing, and he said, ‘Him run for rock, boss.’ Why does he use that word, boss?”
“Just an expression. He’s not being servile.”
“He looks a thousand years old, especially with that grin.”
Mace said rather unnecessarily, “His race is one of the oldest on the earth.”
Something was bothering me, and I voiced it.
“Listen, he told you that the creatures were running for the rocks?”
Sarah Carter blinked hard.
“I think so. Yes, that’s what he said.”
I got up and walked over to the side chamber. When I had studied those figures yesterday, they had been painted as if they were struggling against tired muscles, weary bones. As if they were just managing to pull themselves along, nearing the end of a great journey and were looking forward to a long rest. There had been no suggestion of running in their stances.
I stood in the entrance and stared around the chamber. There was no evident change in the painting. The people in the picture were in the same positions that I’d seen before. I heaved a sigh of relief, then immediately felt very silly. What had I been expecting? That the old man had modified the painting, altered it while we slept? Or that it really was a mirror image of the outside world?
I pointed to a little group of brown-skinned people. “Walkabout?” I suggested.
The old man shook his head.
“Him run, boss. Him hide.”
I stared hard at the primitive, two-dimensional beings. When I stepped a little closer, looking down on the figures, concentrated on them, I admitted to myself there was the possibility of fast movement, of haste. It was a matter of viewpoint. One of those tricks of perception, like staring at an Escher print and accepting that water can flow uphill. Or better still, a line drawing of a square figure. One moment it looks solid, but if you concentrate on a different perspective, it becomes hollow.
“Hide? What do they want to hide from?” I said at last.
“Nothin’, boss. Him hide from the nothin’.”
“The nothing?” Was that just the way it came out in pidgin, or did it mean the “nothing” was a frightening nonthing? A thing that was not a thing. A no thing. A negative something. Hell, an athletically obsessive mind like mine can do somersaults with such thoughts.
I returned to the others but kept the old man’s words to myself. I wasn’t sure what they meant anyway, and Mace might’ve made a meal out of my unease. Sarah Carter was speaking to Janet, who now looked as if she’d forgotten the tremor and was listening and chatting with an animated expression on her face. Maybe we had just had too much of each other, the three of us, and had become too internalized? Fresh company was making all the difference, putting our feet back on the ground. We talked for a good hour after that, until every one of us was taking surreptitious glances at the tunnel, waiting for Carter to make an appearance.
John Carter never came back.
Finally, Sarah Carter said, “I’d better go out and see what’s the matter. Will you look after my things?” She gave Janet a rather heavy-looking crocodile skin handbag and a Pentax camera. “I’ll be back in a while. John’s probably looking for the drink. I put it under the front seats to keep it out of the sun.”
She left the cavern.
Sarah Carter never came back.
“What’s happening?” asked Janet, after a couple of hours had gone by. “Even if he’d had a heart attack or something, she would’ve come back for us. And what about her things?”
I said, “The old man thinks there’s something going on out there. He said everyone was running and hiding from something.”
Janet said, “You’re scaring me, Jimmy.”
Mace got up and went to the side chamber. He stayed there quite a while, talking to the old man. When he came back he looked a little shaken.
“Well?” I said.
He glanced down at Janet, who said, “Don’t mind me. I’m all right now. I want to know what he said.”
Mace squatted beside us and his words were like a line from a fairy tale. They sent a chill down my back and had my skin tingling unpleasantly, the way it had done when I was told my father had died. The same faint buzzing in my brain, too. “He told me that there’s no world out there.”
Janet said in a choked voice. “What do you mean, no world?”
Mace looked a little angry.
“I don’t know. I’m just telling you what he said. The world’s gone — at least, the world as we knew it. It’s changed. It’s not our world any more.”
“Crap,” I said, and laughed. “Come on, folks. Lighten up a little. This place is spooking us. Screw him and his picture. He probably wants us to stay here and feed him.”
It was true we had been giving the old man scraps.
Janet said a little wildly, “I’m not going out there until I know it’s safe. Those people didn’t come back. This bag must be worth, I don’t know, it’s a Gucci for Christsakes. And the camera. I don’t want to put my baby at risk. . . .”
So that was it. The baby. It was probably her hormones causing the hysteria. Mace and I exchanged significant male looks. The protector surfaced in both of us.
“One of us will check first,” Mace said, soothingly. “I know what you’re thinking. That maybe they tested a bomb or something, in the Gibson. We’ll have a look. I mean, if the air’s not clean, we’ll know.”
“The world,” she snapped. “The whole world.”
“Look, to the Aborigines the ‘whole world’ is Australia. That is their world. One of us will check . . .”
“You go, Mace. I want Jimmy to stay here. I want the father of my child here.”
Mace’s face darkened. His eyes narrowed and he ran a hand through his long black hair. I took his arm and led him aside.
“Look, she’s just a bit overwrought. We’ve been in here too long. Go out and have a quick look; then come back in and get us. I think we should drive to a town straightaway, find a few people and get our heads back to normal.”
He sighed. “Yeah, you’re right, Jimmy. We’re cracking up in here. I won’t be a minute.”
He strode toward the tunnel.
Mace never came back.
We lay in each other’s arms that night, if it was night. I kept telling her that Mace had gone off in a huff, driven away, and was cooling down somewhere, feeling guilty.
“I don’t think he’ll abandon us, not completely. He’s just punishing us for something.”
“He’s punishing me,” she said.
After that we fell asleep.
When I woke I went to the old man. He grinned at me. I said, “Those people in the picture . . .” but he interrupted with, “Not people, boss,” and when I went right up to a group of them, got down to their level by kneeling on the floor, I realized only then that they might not be human. You see what you want to see, just like when you revise a document full of errors, but miss the obvious ones time and time again. Your eyes send the expected messages to your brain. In fact, when I got right down to it, studied their outlines very closely, they were really quite weird, though the flat style of the painting had made them little more than dark shadows against the white landscape.
“The world changed?” I asked.
He nodded. “All gone, boss.”
“The whole world? Or just Australia?”
“All things change, boss. Him different place now. Me and you, we’re not here, not properly, see?”
I shook my head.
“No, I don’t see. How the hell did it change, just like that?” and I snapped my fingers.
“S’how things happen, boss. One time this, one time that.”
“Was it a bomb? A war? What then?”
He shook his head and smiled, the texture of his skin looking like a dry river bed.
“No bombs. Nothin’ like that. Dreamtime come again. New world, see.”
“The world’s re-formed? What the hell are you grinning at? Aren’t you scared? What about the hare-wallabies, or the poisonous shake people? Are they here? Aren’t you worried about it?”
“Old man, boss,” he said apologetically. “Gonna die soon, see.”
I left him there and went back to Janet.
“What did he tell you?” she asked.
I made a sudden decision.
“He said it was okay to go outside now.”
“Are you sure?”
I forced a smile. I was thinking that there had to be a reason for all this, and the only one I could think of was that I had prayed to the landscape, to the ancient dust and rocks, to wipe out everyone but Janet and me. And when I got it into those terms, I didn’t feel guilty, I just felt stupid. It was ridiculous. I would’ve needed an ego a mile high to believe that anything out of my mouth could make the slightest difference to the world as a whole. Who did I think I was? No, the world was the same place we had left it. There was just something funny going on out there, that was all. Something a bit weird but with an explanation behind it. Everything has a rationale, doesn’t it? Sure it does. Absolutely. The world reduced to nothingand then the landscape gardeners being sent in, creatures whose purpose it was to shape it again? How could I bring all that about with a single prayer? There must have been millions of prayers like it, gone before, to no effect. It was stupid. It was ridiculous.
There was something at the back of my brain that nagged at me a little, a cliché that began, “The final straw . . . ,” but I suppressed it under the heavy weight of logic I had accumulated in my short lifetime.
I said, “Of course I’m sure. It’s all right, really. We’ll just walk out of here. I don’t believe in all that crap anyway. I don’t know what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Carter, but Mace is probably on his way back to us right at this minute, with a new windscreen as his excuse. I don’t want to stay in here, Janet. Let’s go outside and wait for him there?”
With that speech I convinced both her and myself that this whole unhealthy scene was the product of overactive imaginations. The old man had had us dancing to some strange tune. He was playing with us for reasons of his own, using his damn painting to put the fear of God in us. Well, I wasn’t having any more of that. We were getting out of the cavern and back to sanity. I had a family to take care of.
“Let’s go,” I said, but before I could pull Janet to her feet, we heard voices coming from the tunnel.
“There!” I said, triumphantly. “It’s probably the Carters.”
I walked over to the tunnel and peered down it, waiting for them to come into the light. Janet followed me, staying at my shoulder. I felt an enormous sense of relief washing through me, and it was then that I realized I had believed, subconsciously, in the old man’s words. He had been quietly persuasive: a powerful personality in a passive way. Well, we had been delivered from the nightmare. A nightmare that never really was. A return to the Dreamtime? It seemed so silly now, now that those voices were on their way.
Listening hard, I glanced over at the old man.
He gave me a tight smile, the equivalent of a Western shrug.
They didn’t sound like American accents. They sounded foreign: a language I couldn’t recognize.
When they turned the corner, coming into the light, I could see it wasn’t the Carters. It wasn’t anybody. Although I had seen silhouettes like them, just a short while ago, I actually didn’t know what they were.
All I know is that as soon as we saw each other we all froze, and the air was fouled by the stink of fear.
Photo: Graeme Churchard, under CC BY 2.0 license. Original cropped and color enhanced.
©1992 by Garry Kilworth. First published in OMNI Best Science Fiction Two, OMNI Books.