** WARNING: Violence, drugs, language, abuse. **
* * *
Howie ignored an urge to turn and look back in the direction of the only place he’d known for the entirety of his 14 years. Broken Hill would soon be left far behind. After adjusting the duffle on his back, he lowered the cattleman hat over his eyes. Relentless dust and shimmering heat rose from the hot floor that carpeted the Australian back country.
“Bet Hell’s no worse than what we got here, eh Dad?” he’d said earlier. That was right before his dad had given him a backhand that saw him chip a tooth on the hearth on his way to the floor.
“I’ll not be hearing no fuckwit in my house cursin’, unless you’re looking for a bloody beatin’, you got me?”
He left Howie and went to the kitchen with his signature sloppy swagger.
Howie slowly got up and brought a shaking hand to his mouth. It felt hot and wet. Limping to the washroom, he looked in the mirror. Blood was pouring from his nose. Having been boxed before for getting blood on the family towel, he ran the water and washed his face as gently as he could. It hurt like the devil.
No crying, not this time. Nor ever again.
He bypassed the tattered family towel and reached instead for one of his mother’s tea towels meant for decoration. She’d embroidered them herself and they were designated ‘hands off’ to Howie. He pressed it to his nose until the bleeding stopped. Then he bent and dipped his face into hands filled with water, mindful to avoid his sore mouth, and then dried with the family towel. He discarded the tea towel in the rubbish bin, along with his fear.
He stared at his battered nose and mouth in the mirror and, with narrowed eyes, nodded his determination.
* * *
Howie lowered the hurriedly packed duffle out his window, then followed, landing in a cloud of dust. He began edging his way around the house, listening.
“I baked these for the church social, remember. If I see so much as a finger laid on any one of ‘em, I’ll skin ya alive.”
Howie could smell the rich meat and pastry coming from the kitchen sill. He inched his way until he was kneeling beneath the window where he could see the edges of three perfect pies. He listened again and heard nothing.
It’s now or never, mate.
Howie stood, turned, and in a single motion, reached with both hands and slid a pie off the ledge. He quickly laid out the kerchief he carried and placed the pie in the center, then tied the four corners of the cloth together.
Wood splintered just behind him and littered Howie’s back. He looked over to the front porch.
“So, you're a thief, too, eh? Put that back or I'll splatter yah!”
His dad held the shotgun used to control the rabbit population and aimed the barrel directly at his son.
Howie initially went numb, but the memory of his damaged face in the mirror and his nod of determination catapulted him into action.
Howie grabbed his prize and ran for his life. He easily tuned out the fading sounds of the rabbit rifle jamming and his father’s fumbling and cursing. He ran, trained his gaze straight before him and kept going. For the first time in his life, he knew where he was headed.
* * *
Once Howie had trekked through Flora and Fauna Park, then beyond the public boundary, he relaxed and felt eager to apply the skills he’d secretly been honing for this getaway.
While passing through the park, he had filled several water containers. The sun was beginning to set, so Howie went about preparing to camp for the night. He knew of a mound of thick shrubbery a short distance away and headed for it.
For months, he’d been stashing supplies, including a pup tent, beneath a pile of brush he'd chosen as his. He found everything as he’d left it, wrapped in a weatherproof tarp he’d pilfered from the shed.
Daddo will be mad as a cut snake when he sees it’s missin', but by then I’ll be long gone.
Howie set up his tent and prepared a minimal fire pit for later. He had a flashlight but a bush telly would be nice. As he continued getting settled, he thought he heard a sound, a tapping. He stopped and listened.
What in bloody hell is that?
Howie looked over his camp to see that it was secure and then began tentatively tracking the sound.
At the edge of his mound there were smaller swells that sprouted shrubs of varying size and color. Howie recognized an Aussie Blue Bells bush. He remembered as a child watching hummingbirds congregate and zip all around the purple flowers nestled in silvery foliage. At first he thought the birds were bugs. His mother had laughed at him; his father had walked away.
The sound seemed to be coming from the Aussie Blue. Howie went closer and checked under the bush. Within the shadows, there was something. He could just make out a sliver of it but Howie thought he recognized what it could be.
A perfectly round stone.
Howie looked again. This time he saw movement.
Ostriches out here? Where’s the mum?
The mum! Howie froze.
“No worries, mate. It’s abandoned, that one.”
Howie went from cold back to hot. Standing behind him was a boy, younger, Howie assumed, smaller. He relaxed.
“Where’d you come from?”
“Been on a walkabout. That egg’s damaged. The herd’s moved on. They’s wild birds, feral. Left it behind. Nature knows, I s’pose.”
“Then what’s that tapping?”
“Eh? Make way, mate.”
The youngster crawled past Howie until all that could be seen in the low light of the setting sun were the soles of his sandals.
“I’ll be right back.” Howie thought of something. He sprinted back to his camp and retrieved a flashlight. When he returned, the boy was sitting next to the bush.
“I’m stayin’ here. Yer right about the hatchlin' hatchin’.”
Howie looked at the bush, then the boy.
“Maybe I can move my camp here.”
The boy said nothing.
“What do you all like to be called these days, eh?”
“I'm Bouddi. My clan is Kula. My father would enjoy hearing me just now.”
“I thought you people wanted to be called ‘Indigenous Australians’.”
“I don’t give a lizard’s tail what you think. I'm still Bouddi.”
“No worries. I’m Howard, Howie. Help me move?”
The two worked quickly. Bouddi was surprisingly adept at reconstructing the fire pit that Howie had attempted. By the time it was officially nightfall, the tent was up, the bush telly was in full blaze and Howie was sharing his pie with Bouddi.
“Don’t you have a home?” Howie managed, between bites.
“Don’t you?” Bouddi countered.
“This is home tonight, but I asked first.”
“I’ve been on my own for a while.”
They sat silently, eating and watching the crackling fire.
“I would like to ask,” Bouddi said, while continuing to stare at the flames, “even though it’s not my bizzo.”
Howie stared ahead, shrugged.
“Does the fact that your face looks like a half-sucked mango have anythin’ to do with you not havin’ a home?”
Howie tried not to laugh but it turned into a sputtering, painful display as he fought for control.
“Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.”
“Sorry, Mate,” Bouddi grinned. “Like I said though, not my bizzo.”
Bouddi dug into a pocket and brought out a round, flat canister.
“Here,” he offered, “A good pinch under your tongue should see you through the night.”
Howie took a few breaths and, without hesitating, took a bit of powder between his fingers and gingerly placed it in his mouth.
“Best locate your pillow, mate. You’ll be blinkin’ like a toad in a hail storm before you know it.”
“You’ll tend the fire then?”
“Righto. Go rest your face.”
Howie got up and went to the tent, tossed a light blanket to Bouddi.
“What’s this for?”
“Don’t make me laugh again. Use it if, and however, you want. So, my turn. How old are you, Bouddi?”
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not.”
“Go on then, get your gob to bed.”
* * *
Howie had just enough time to remove his boots and have a sip of water before his blanket reached out and pulled him down. Howie then floated away, drifting past snippets of his life. Visions of things that would have upset him in the past simply moved past and kept going. He knew they were there but did not mind. He felt freed of it.
At one point Howie was back at the fire pit. He was laid out on the blanket he’d given Bouddi. The fire spat sparks that zinged around like tiny missiles. Howie felt some land on him, like tiny wooden splinters.
One spark landed on his neck. He felt one hit his ear, his eyebrow . . . this one pulled his hair.
Pulled his hair?
Howie forced an eye open. He was in his tent. He tried retrieving enough memory of the prior evening to form a picture, but there were too many pieces missing. That changed when he heard light scratching above his head accompanied by an occasional "peep."
Howie stretched his neck to see who, or what, he was sharing his tent with, though the peeping was enough of a clue to keep him from startling.
“Well, now, how ya goin?”
At the sound of Howie’s voice, a tiny gangly creature with inquisitive eyes turned its attention and wobbled over to Howie’s side. Howie had lifted himself onto an elbow and watched as the ostrich chick began to peep excitedly and made its way into the crook of Howie’s arm and nestled its neck and head on Howie’s shoulder and under his ear. Howie could hear cooing.
“See here,” Howie whispered, not convinced he wasn’t still dreaming, “I’m not some shell you can just crawl back into.”
There came a rapping outside the tent. When the flap pulled away, there was Bouddi.
“So, bonding with the newborn, I see.”
“So, this is . . .”
“What d’ya think? How many ostrich eggs you come across yesterday, mate?”
“I don’t want to move.”
“You make a good mummy.”
“You don’t think . . . he doesn’t think I’m . . . bloody hell, I can’t take care of a . . .”
When Howie’s tone changed, the chick emerged and appeared to look Howie up and down.
“You may not have a choice in the matter, seeing how Tarka’s takin’ to you.”
“How’d he get in here to begin with . . . Tarka?
“He named himself, sort of. By the time he hatched, he was already up and moving. Usually takes a day or two, but that must be how long he spent in that shell tryin’ ta break out. Tarka means “egg shell.”
“That’s not much of a name.”
“Next time you try breaking free like he just did, let me know.”
Howie thought about it.
Some shells are harder to crack than others; somehow we both did it.
“All right then, but how did I become the mum?”
“I had him wrapped in that blanket you gave me. There you were, showin’ your maternal side already, mate. I fell asleep with the chick near the fire, for the warmth. When I woke, he was peckin’ away at the tent flap.”
“So you just let him in?”
“So, what would you have me do then? Give ‘em the flick?”
Tarka had discovered Howie’s watch and was studying his reflection.
“Is he hungry, ya think?”
“Nah,” Bouddi answered. “They eat enough while in the shell to last at least a week.”
“You don’t feed them; you point out things they should eat and they feed themselves. That’s how they learn.”
“You know more than I do, Bouddi. Why don’t you be the mum?”
“Not up to me, mate.”
Howie looked at Tarka, who looked him back in the eye and blinked.
“How does a newborn bird come off havin’ longer eyelashes than me?”
“The better to bond with, eh? A girl couldn’t do no better.”
Girls were the last thing on Howie’s mind. Well, actually ostriches probably had been, too, prior to Tarka’s arrival.
“Say, Bouddi, would you consider stickin’ around a while?”
“Sure. Let’s have some brekkie and hit the frog and toad. Where we goin’?”
“I have thoughts. We’ll gab on the way.”
* * *
After they finished the last of the pie, they packed up and buried the fire pit. With Bouddi along, they were able to take the tent and tarp. Tarka was an amusing presence, peeping and whistling. As his legs became stronger, he wobbled less and less.
“I made a hammock with my blanket.”
“’Use it if, and however, you want.’ That's how I remember it.”
“If Tarka needs rest or protection, he’ll be a breeze to carry.”
“Are you now the mum?”
“You want my help or don’t you?”
“Bouddi, you see any reason for why he was left behind?”
“Look at his toes, mate.”
Howie stopped and knelt. Tarka, who had been closely behind, scampered up and began pulling at Howie’s shoelace.
“He’s missing a nail.”
“And the other’s deformed, may not grow. That’s a major defense he’s lackin’, mate. He’d never make it on his own.”
“As it is, Tarka’s best defense will be the dunny.”
“Somethin’ you’ll find out about sooner or later, mate. Ostrich poo makes great artillery. My brothers and I used to have fights when we were kids.”
“With bird poo?”
“Just one hit guarantees surrender.”
“But how did you . . .”
“That’s nasty business, Bouddi.”
“So is life, mate, if you haven’t noticed. Believe me, if ostriches could fly, they’d rule the world.”
Howie thought for a minute.
“Let’s give that hammock a burl.”
“Sure, mum. Take it for a test.”
When they were ready to leave, Tarka nestled into the makeshift hammock against Howie’s chest, Bouddi handed Howie a walking stick he’d made from red gum tree. Howie nodded his thanks and they were off again.
* * *
“So, mate, where we headed?”
Bouddi stopped short.
“Do you know what’s out there?”
“That’s a trick question. I’m going there precisely because no one’s been there before. No one will ever find me either.”
They walked in silence for a time.
“You think you’re up for that sort of adventure, mate?”
“Whatever’s there can’t be any worse than where I came from. I’ve done my homework. I know the rainforest has something like its own medicine chest, tools, hardware, market, even a church. I’ve learned everything about it. You just need to know where to look.”
“And whatever might be looking back at you, you ready for that?”
“Still, couldn’t be any worse.”
They continued to hike. They welcomed shade when they found it, filled water containers whenever able. Tarka alternated scampering behind the boys and riding in his hammock. Whenever Howie’s mouth bothered him, Bouddi would offer a small grain of what he called his “magic powder,” enough to keep Howie comfortable but still on his feet.
Then they came to a sign posted on a lemon scent gum tree.
“Turn Back Now!
Never Never means Never Never!
“Well, Mate, this is where I make my exit.”
Howie was crestfallen.
“You sure? You can come if you want. Aren’t you curious?”
“I don’t need to know all there is, mate. Some things I don’t mind leaving off the bucket list.”
“Bucket list? Just how old are you, Bouddi?”
“Not old enough, mate. Here then, your supplies. Think you can manage?”
“If you’ll help me make a travois before you go.”
The two boys worked together to affix the weatherproof tarp between two poles that Howie loaded with his tent and supplies and now could more easily drag behind.
“This’ll put hair on your chest, mate.”
“It’s not that heavy. I can make it work.”
“Howie, you sure there’s no one’s looking for you?”
“I doubt it. Even if there is, I’m not meant for the life back there. Trust me, Bouddi, I’m doing just what I want.”
“What if we meet back here, say in a months’ time? Just to see how you’re getting along? And Tarka; I am his dad.”
Tarka was busy inspecting the travois.
“Tell you what. I can’t say how reliable my calendar will be from here on, but if I need you, I’ll find a way to get word to you.”
“Ya know, mate, the world’s gonna think you’ve got kangaroos loose in the top paddock. I may be thinkin’ the same.”
“Never said I didn’t, did I?”
“Here then. Take this.”
Bouddi fished the tin from his pocket and handed it to Howie.
“You’ll be needing some magic. I wager you’ll be makin’ your own concoction before long. Use it sparingly ‘til you do.”
“Thanks. Again, Bouddi, thanks.”
“Take care of the chick. Tarka, see after your mum.”
Howie turned to look at Tarka. The busy chick had made a nest for himself in tent canvass and was sound asleep.
When Howie turned back, Bouddi was gone.
Howie stared for a moment, then hoisted the travois over his shoulder, gave the warning sign a nod of determination and disappeared into the forest.
* * *
Years passed. Bouddi never saw Howie or Tarka again, but he heard rumors that grew over time of a wild creature who roamed the Outback atop a prehistoric beast. There had been a similar piece of Australian folklore that was known as The Yowie. This new unknown gained notoriety as a possible descendent, as well as a new and even better reason to stay away from Never Never.