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Submitted on 05/20/2020

Categories: General

Swan Song

by

Ernest Russell



Been a blue moon since a campfire lit up the old ghost town. Mine is the last one I recall. How long ago? No matter, now. It's their second-night camping. Full moon, too. Time to say hello, make some new friends.

"Evenin’, stranger, spotted yer fire. Good idea. Helps keep them Tasmanian Devils away. Mind if an old man rests his weary bones a spell? If yer up for it, I'll trade ya. The story of this here town for a cuppa coffee." Accepting the cup, the old man continues. "Bless you, now, as the story goes, a long time ago a prospector..."

Zeke scanned the area as he took a pull from the canteen. “Well, Maude, that old mine town should be just ahead. Hoping we can find a few nuggets, least enough dust to buy us some supplies, else I'll be fighting you for some of your wattle. Course, you don't mind the lighter pack, do you, girl?" Maude nuzzled against his hand as he scratched behind the pack mule's ear before leading her away from the silver wattle. She used the pause for an opportunistic nibble.

The afternoon wore on. He saw Widdershins on the rise of the gorge. Below him lay a river, little more than a stream in this dry season. A flock of birds darted in and out of the rushes in several ponds.

"Looks to be in decent shape, better’n some places we’ve been, eh, Maude? Might be some fish in the ponds. Must be a reason to draw alla those birds." As they approached the town, Zeke heard sounds like distant conversations. "Might get some company, Maude, sure sounds like folk chatting up a storm."

The travel-worn pair arrived in town a bit before sunset. For an abandoned town, it did look well-preserved. Zeke peered into a few clapboard houses on the edge of town and realized they were stocked. The undisturbed thick dust blanket served as mute testimony to the town's desertion. He hitched Maude near some of the silver wattle she liked so much and got her some water. He set about unloading their gear into one of the houses. The last of his bacon and potatoes, along with some coffee, made a good meal. Dinner eaten, he surveyed his surroundings by the light of the gibbous moon. By its wan, yellow glow, he viewed the bony structure of the town's long tom. The structure leaned crookedly against its sluice, likely the victim of a flash flood during one of the monsoons.

Zeke was surprised at the swans still swimming down in one of the ponds. He expected them to be nested in by now. The thought of nesting sounded like a crackerjack idea. It would be fine and dandy slumbering in a bed. After beating the old mattress to chase out any spiders or centipedes with the same idea, he settled in for a night of deep sleep.

In the wee hours before dawn, a bellowing cry startled Zeke out of bed. Grabbing his shotgun, he peered through the moonlit night but saw nothing. Maude, visibly shaken, pranced at the end of her tether. Again there was a hideous, otherworldly scream. Not the same as the one that had woken him, but from the same general direction. "Maude, we listened to Devils afore, but never at mating time. Sound bad enough when they’re alone. Don't think the two lovebirds want to be disturbed. Let's go inside." For the remainder of the night, the two calls echoed across the gorge.

Morning found Maude with her head out the window. She nibbled on grasses grown high enough to crop the tender tops. Zeke stumbled about, somewhat bleary-eyed but rested. After eating a small breakfast and setting Maude out to graze, he was ready for some prospecting.

As he assessed the area, Zeke decided to use his rocker box in some of the ponds. Flash floods may have deposited nuggets downstream around those rushes. If he had no luck at the ponds, he'd pan the stream. If all else failed, he knew he’d find gold dust, perhaps a nugget or two, in what remained of the long tom. It'd be a lot of work, though, tearing the thing apart. Work for another day. Today he would set some lines, try catching a fish or two for supper while hoping for a decent strike.

After setting some lines in one of the ponds, he set up the rocker box. He started digging around the reeds of the farthest pond. The tinkling of the small bells tied on the lines would be clear in the quiet setting, enough warning if a fish was caught. A few of the swans investigated what Zeke was doing, poking at the insects and grubs he had stirred up. An hour of digging and sluicing his rocker turned up nothing. Zeke moved to the next pond, closer to the village. More swans arrived to watch. Happy enough to find a couple of small nuggets, he kept mining, but a few more hours produced no more nuggets. Zeke pocketed his findings and considered trying one more pond. The bell chose then to start ringing. Pleased to find both lines had a medium-size bass on them, Zeke ran the stringer and staked it in the ground. He threw the lines out again.

Retrieving his rocker, he set out toward the largest pond. On his approach, the swans formed a line coming out of the rushes. Zeke gently tried to move through them. He held the rocker like a shield, shooing the swans out of the way. The entire flock exploded, madly nipping and buffeting at his heels and legs. Swan attacks being no trifling matter, Zeke began a prudent withdrawal. He stumbled, almost falling, but caught himself, afraid he might never get back up from these birds' fierce attacks. As he retreated, the attacks lessened until, as though he crossed an invisible line, the attacks ceased. The swans remained sentries on the alert. Taking a step to one side, he realized two things. First and scariest, the swans all watched him. Altogether, every swan turned in unison with his movement. Second, blood was seeping down his legs. Sweat from his morning exertions stung as it trickled into the cuts left by the bony spurs in the swans' wings.

Stubbornly, he tried to move around to the other side of the pond. Ominously, the swans moved with him, busking as they matched his pace. Never did they take their eyes off him. A rumbling growl reached his ears from across the pond. Zeke froze. A Tasmanian Devil could sniff the blood dripping down his legs. He realized all the swans took a step forward at the sound. This seemed to be a perfect time to end the day, take care of his wounds, and ponder his next steps.

The cold water felt as soothing to the cuts and scratches on his legs, as the whiskey had been bracing. While cleaning the fish, Zeke's thoughts kept drifting back to the odd behavior of the swans. Powerful and unnerving was the eerie growling. If it was a Tasmanian Devil, it was probably raiding their nests for eggs. After all, swans get territorial. Maybe he had gotten too close to their nests. The swans might have thought Zeke was robbing them. Might explain why they were so aggressive, but he had never known of a flock acting all together.

Wounds washed, fish cleaned, Zeke thought about how to cook them. The house held pans, but he decided on his favorite way, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and grilled over the open campfire. Zeke always enjoyed the slightly smoky flavor the fire imparted to the fish. With a fire going nicely, fish roasting on a spit, Zeke enjoyed the sunset over a cup of coffee. Darkness began to swallow the flood plain below the town. He thought, briefly,  he’d caught sight of motion out by one of the ponds. After watching for a couple minutes, he shrugged and said to Maude, "Dang, swans must’ve rattled me more than I thought, got me jumping at shadows now." Maude responded by twitching an ear and continued chewing on the sweet grass she had found.

Maude confirmed the quiet evening. The aroma of roasting fish filled the air. Zeke pulled his pipe to enjoy with his coffee. The circle of light cast by the fire was soon surpassed by the slow-rising full moon. Within its limpid radiance, the landscape shone, all evidence of the night diminished, paling the stars. Out of this light, a man approached.

Bearded, wearing the uniform of a Ballarat Ranger, the man approached from the direction of the ponds. He called out to Zeke as he walked into the town, "Hello stranger! What brings you to Widdershins?" Glancing in the direction of his shotgun, Zeke called back, "Passing through, a little prospecting. Something wrong?"

"No, sir, of course not, part of the job to ask, you know. My name’s Corporal Alvin Davies, at your service." Zeke stood and shook the offered hand. "Folk call me Zeke, man don't need too many names, and fish’re almost done if you want to share."

A bit later, the corporal licked his fingers. "Good fish. You have a strong talent for camp cooking. Had any luck prospecting?" "No," Zeke replied. "Not much at all. The fish was my best luck. Might stay a couple days. Try to catch a few more and smoke 'em for the trip back to Port Phillip. Speaking a Port Phillip, where you outta, Corporal?"

"I don't live far." The corporal nodded toward the flood plain. "Noticed the flame, wanted to check on the town. Make sure nothing being vandalized."

"Why would you protect an abandoned town? Expectin’ folk back soon?" Zeke asked as he scratched his head.

"So you don't know the story of Widdershins? Please, allow me to repay your hospitality with a story.”

“Sure,” said Zeke. 


"Widdershins was named for the way the river winds around the town from right to left. Settled as a gold boom town and was a prosperous place. One day, a tinker come through the post, reporting the town was vacant. He convinced the lieutenant-commander it was peculiar enough to send a few men to investigate. Four of us, along with a guide to speak with the Koori.

"From the post to Widdershins is a three-day trip. On the second night, while sitting around the campfire, our guide told us a Koori legend. It was about a creature called the 'Banip-ba-gunuwar' or ‘Bunyip and the swan’.

“His story went, ‘In this country, people enjoy the roots of bulrushes, which they use like onions. A group of lads was sent on a journey around the area’s ponds and streams to gather food for the village. Usually, they would weave the top of the reeds into a basket useful for carrying the roots collected. But today, wanting to show off their prowess as providers, these lads decided to catch eels.

“’A competition was suggested among the longtime friends. The one with the largest catch would make a present of it to the village elder, displaying their maturity and abilities as a provider for a family. Most of the lads baited their hooks with worms. One young man, though, cut a small piece of meat from his lunch. When his companions were not looking, he baited his line with the meat.

“'They fished all day with no luck. The day showed every sign they would leave empty-handed, but finally, the youth who had baited his hook with meat had a strike. Something weighty pulled hard on his line. He must either let go or be dragged into the pool. He called his friends for help. They finally managed to land a creature, a cross between a calf and a seal, with barely-formed horns, a long neck, a fur-covered body, and six arms. Though none had ever beheld such a sight, there was no doubt what it was: the cub of the awful Bunyip.

"'Abruptly, the cub gave a shriek of alarm. The infant was answered from across the pond. The mother Bunyip rose from her den. Fury set her yellowed eyes ablaze as she advanced. "Throw it back," his friends all hissed at him. The youth shook his head. "No, I won't return destitute!" Throwing the cub over his shoulder, the young man began to run. The rest followed, and they all began to flee for their lives. An unearthly howl began rising from the poor mother's distressed throat.

"'It was nearing sunset, though the tops of the hills were still brightly lit. The young men heard a thunderous rushing sound. Over their shoulders, the pool was rising. Where they had been fishing was already covered. The pool rose with no rain, not a cloud in the sky. Renewed by fear, they ran with all their might. Their village was over the next ridge. Upon reaching the ridge top, they made out their village ahead.

“’A peek back, only the treetops remained above water, and they were fast disappearing!

"'Into the village they ran. Everyone stopped upon seeing the Bunyip cub. For all, from the youngest child to most ancient elder, knew something terrible was upon them. "The water!" the cry went up through the village as they began to see beyond the young men. All lay eyes on the water, stalking its way over the ridge. Children were taken in arm by the parents, families embraced as if this would somehow delay the impending flood. The young man who caused this catastrophe tried to gather to his beau. Chill dampness touched him as he reached out.

“’Glimpsing quickly at his feet, the youth cringed. Black legs and webbed feet – he had changed into a swan. He cast about for his beloved. A great swan floated nearby. He turned to his friends, but they were gone. A flock of surprised-looking swans filled the village. As he lifted his hands to weep, the youth discovered instead of fingers, wingtips covered his eyes. He tried to cry out, to rail against the gods, but his new throat was muted. Noises arose around the village from lengthened, slender necks. The rising waters covered his hips, yet he sat comfortably upon it. Upon the water's surface, with the full moon above, was the reflection of a big swan. One of many, staring back at him.

"'To this day, according to the Koori, all animals have a language. To those with the ability to understand the language, these swans sound like no other swan. Some say they dream of days when they were people. You can hear them laugh and talk to each other.'

"We were soldiers. We scoffed at the story, obviously a tale to frighten children. The next day the patrol arrived in Widdershins and confirmed the tinker's claim. The town was empty. The only living things in evidence were the grand flock of swans in the nearby ponds and pools. Our first night, an unearthly-sounding howl set us all on edge. Sounded as if out-of-tune banshees were having choir practice.

 “We searched the church for any records. Near the end, we found birth records for a baby born to the Mayor's son Jacob. The book noted an unusual birthmark on its thigh resembling a full moon. A diary found in the Mayor's house told the tale. The last few entries mentioned the baby. The Koori, who worked and traded in the town, called the baby's birthmark the Universal Eye and proclaimed it to be a bad omen. A later entry noted Jacob had shot a strange animal down in the flood plain. It had giant horns and six arms, a cross between a calf and a seal with a furry body. No one knew what manner of beast it was. He was going to send the carcass to a friend in Melbourne who studied zoology. A postscript notation mentioned when the carcass was brought into town, all the Koori left. They simply stopped whatever they were doing, and left town.

“The second night in town, while I stood sentry, someone approached. I challenged him. He claimed he was Jacob, the Mayor's son. He confirmed the story we pieced together, with more detail.

“The town inhabitants had not left. The night he brought the Bunyip cub into the town, there was a raid. A massive critter, with the screech of a demon, broke through the wall of his home, stealing his baby as it slept in its basket. A flood came on the same night, and by next morning everyone in the town was swans. By the time Jacob finished telling us his tale, a chilling dampness enveloped us. I looked around, I saw no men, only swans."


The corporal finished, "And now you know our fate."

A loud clatter broke the stillness. Zeke blinked his eyes against the darkness, as if waking from a dream. The ruckus came from Maude. Zeke tried to shout after her, but no sound escaped his throat. Mutely, he watched his old friend flee into the hills. Zeke felt chilling dampness touch him; he glanced around to find only a swan staring at him. "Thank goodness! It was all a dream," Zeke said as he backed toward the door where he had left his shotgun. "Was it?" asked the swan. "Have you seen your reflection of late?"

"...And that's our story. Thank you for the coffee.

“So have you? Have you seen your reflection lately?"

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5 comments

Harken Void
14:24 May 28, 2020

Whoah, great story! There is so much richness in your writing, that the 3000 word limit really didn't do you justice. First of all, I loved the way you did dialogue. I could clearly hear the words Zeke spoke in my mind and was able to fabricate a fitting image of him from that. The dialogue sounded authentic, like that's how the characters would actualy talk if they were real persons. Secondly, the relationship between Zeke and Maude was so sweet! IT really felt like they were long friends, and it showed (at least to me) that Zeke was ...

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Kathy Smith
03:29 May 27, 2020

Good story! I liked the relationship between the miner (Zeke) and his mule (Maude). I'm glad she escaped Zeke's fate. And the twist at the end ... well done!

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Ernest Russell
00:07 May 29, 2020

I appreciate the comment. I really had fun with them.

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Essi Valo
00:29 May 27, 2020

This was great!

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Ernest Russell
00:03 May 29, 2020

Thank you Essi!

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