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Fiction

Shifting

An eerie evening; even now as sun withdrew its light from hills there seemed a whisper – Here comes night-time, beware!

Sitting on the veranda, mesmerised by that view off into shadowed bush at the base of Eagle Hawk Mountain, were a hodge-podge group of hikers under my leadership. Closeness enforced, but still there, helped to overcome a sense of isolation dusk evoked.

Some hikers were locals, but most were from overseas. They’d heard about majesty of this region and wanted to experience Eagle Hawk fully, in person, rather than to just see images in glossy magazines or on-line. Now as we gazed out at darkening hills there was a murmur of congratulatory comments which circled ideas of such spectacular scenery so close to suburbia.

I sucked on a cigarette, holding smoke for several moments before releasing it into cool evening air. Bluish smoke hung about, clinging to group members. In a way suggesting concern for smokes dispersal into surrounds, fearful of mixing with intensity which already hovered.

Except for swishing out of smoke everyone sat silent. Dark green shadows grew deeper, obliterating bubble like-cauliflower features of treetops marking ridge surfaces, as if towering chasms were covered by a dark crumbled velvet. Clouds already closed in across hill tops. Pushing their cotton fluff closer into ridges round craggy edges called Eagle Hawk. Now sun’s gold dressing faded and only a smoky whiteness remained hanging.

Gradually colour washed out of skies, high ridges and even our faces. Turning heavens first to pastel dusk hues then dimmed to grey, eventually fading to blacker tones as if someone pushed

contrast controls. For some time both moon and sun existed together, finally moon’s light grew in intensity as her lonely vigil began.

A dinner bell shouted away ominous mood. Sustenance taken from pantries and served, hot and steamy. Having completed whatever private sunset worship ceremony each of us deemed essential, hunger now pulled. We moved inside almost as limbs formed into one joined body.

As fires were lit, air warmed; both with conversation and shared meal. Outside stillness lurked and looked in each window, one by one. Not a Mopoke hooted; nor even any other night-bird. Fireplace smoke rose straight up knifing blue blackness with its flimsy spear. Many homes close to the hostel also used solid fuel heating, adding to the smoky environs, in which all sorts of things could lurk. A distinct burnt log aroma further cloaked Eagle Hawk.

Contained in their secure walls we swapped tales, past treks, mountain climbs and other places visited. How once we shared sleeping spaces with a rampant snorer, kept awake long hours with a sound like crunching rusty gear boxes or the tug of buried chain. Everyone would be breathing in fumes of wet socks, muddy clothing and rehydrated food methane, snack packs emerging from bags, foodstuffs forgotten during walks. Always a dawn chorus of zips, plastic bags and coughing from hikers that outstripped being woken by any nature noises. No matter how arduous previous days, someone always wanted an early start. Well before jam on toast or typical breakfasts.

We planned the next day’s events, drawing on combined expertise. Checking and rechecking gear, boots lined up ready like troopers about to face down a cavalry charge. Would clouds clear and to make brochure-like views visible? Everyone appreciated scenery in total sensi-surround experience rather than as a printed two-dimensional version or devised from combination of tiny dots of magenta, cyan, blue and yellow, of pixels on a screen. Kindred love of wild places existed, not fragmented by national or ethnic heritage. Long into night hours we nestled together. Much to be shared; how challenged you were when pitted against nature. Knowing that by day’s end each of us would be filled with a fellowship invested in stinging muscles, perhaps a few new blisters, ruined toenails and multiple scratches from twigs and sticks endured like a love-bite inflicted by an earth mother trying to stop us from reaching too deep into Eagle Hawk’s secrets.

Many humorous events were recalled; a time someone brought bongos on a trek; or coming across a mountain biker with a flat tire miles from anywhere. Fixed with a few extra strong Band-aids. Or a recount of a lost hiker’s boot worth several hundred dollars, sucked off in thick, black mud, like that hazelnut spread, and how he spent the next three days walking in socks, mesmerised by watching his feet sink to different levels on sodden tracks. Someone began the tale of starting serious four-day hike and encountering two Israeli boys who survived two days of the same trek with one chocolate protein bar and a can of tuna between them. How their kitty was added to with single serve jam sachets. Followed with a recount of another chance encounter with a running group in training for one of those ultra-marathons; stick thin; pack-less creatures who seemed to fly down roughest incline with mountain goat-like grace. Everyone squeezed in against opposite rock faces for them to pass, leaving behind a sweaty residue and bevy of thank-you. While tales were shared none of us contemplated anything happening outside these timber walls, except memories.

When sleeping bags were unrolled, and vary-coloured, multi-zippered pocket pants hung up, vests and jackets strewn about, bunk beds became a scene resembling village washing day.

Everyone selected partners for a dreaming waltz, I took my leave. To my private sleeping space, joined to the original building by a timber walkway, as fragile as an umbilical cord. Every time I walked those planks, an uneasy feeling of previous residents prevailed. I imagined women sent here when this hostel featured as a correctional “school”.

To soften those thoughts, I drew out my tobacco, another cigarette promising solace. I needed to focus to succeed in the art of withdrawing a cupped handful of aromatic strands and fall into my long-practised routine of construction from paper and filling. Thin paper attached itself to my lip while I pushed tobacco into correct shape. On an evening like this I wished for a few leaves from my ‘plants’. Then my smoke would gain a twinge of danger, put some spark into this peacefulness. Strange how I used ‘the good stuff’ to escape from pressures no longer part of my daily routine. Yet I still craved the effect. Time to remind myself I’d left all that behind when I moved out of the city. If I kept uttering such a mantra, I will convince myself, no need to escape from Eagle Hawk’s environs.

Even though a youngish leader, who’d only spent mere months taking out this type of group. I already begun to feel like Eagle Hawk’s unofficial caretaker. My tasks are mainly making sure walkers kept to appropriate trails plus doing occasional head counts. No matter how much groups were made tiny in these huge vistas; strung out like beads on a vast décolletage, they were still my responsibility. I ensured the same number reached our next shelter hut. No one should wander off alone; take a wrong turn, not on my shift, anyway. Easy to get lost up on Eagle Hawk. I also saw that hikers returned with any rubbish and keep tabs on any obvious human impacts on animals or habitats.

Eagle Hawk morphed into my private domain. Very rarely, do I miss elements of a previous life. No regrets, right? But oddest reminders do trigger wistfulness. Like my herb garden, and voices now whispering from behind my brain.

Leaning on the wall, I listened. Nothing. My imagination. Watch out for those voices inside your head, mate; first sign of madness. Not a hush from wind flicking leaves, nor a cricket’s twitter, nor scurry of any night animals, nor grind of any cars disturbed surrounding stillness.

Suddenly earth around Eagle Hawk groaned, or was that my stomach, dealing with dinner?

Staring long and hard at mud about building’s edges, I feel sure I could detect a crawling movement. Since yesterday’s heavy rain, mostly absorbed, ground lost appearance of peanut butter, crunchy of course. This morning’s quagmire already settled some. But ambient air was still embedded with a freshness heavy rains bring. I hoped tracks wouldn’t be too badly affected. Nothing worse than trying to encourage tired hikers to keep putting feet down and stepping forward when mud squelched, stuck between ‘to give ants a fighting chance’ ridges on their boot’s soles. Walking in mud also damaged tracks meaning before long I’d have to take out another work party of those nasty school dropouts, jobless no-hopers and make attempts to teach them basic handyman, maintenance skills.

Background noise must be my imagination, every time I think about feeble attempts at path building of those dead-beat kids, something shifts, makes me unsettled. They only agree to do this work, so unemployment benefits don’t get cut off. Anyway, I can’t shake notions people, anyone, were trespassers up on Eagle Hawk.

A low, deep moan crept up from depths of my mind. Been reminiscing about her again too.

Wondering if her arms were being warmed by another or was, she too spending lonely nights clasping her pillow. Knew I’d never get answers to these questions. Best put thoughts about any ex to bed.

Over the last few months, I’ve made efforts to turn mere sleeping quarters into a home. Adorned the walls with a few posters, pictures of shiny baubles at a local farmer’s market, some trophies, and a pair of antlers, two antique traps, polished to a bright sheen when I needed to occupy spare hours with a mindless task. A few books scattered about. The wooden bunk wore a brightly coloured patchwork rug, legacy of a doting grandmother. Additional furniture limited to a chair and wardrobe. Atop a shelf, I like to call my pantry, I keep memorabilia, some beer mugs, ashtrays and my grandfather’s pipe and stand, are all on sentry duty.

About midnight my eyes popped open, and I sat bold upright. A soft noise disturbed; just as deep sleep finally descended. Light rain became heavy, tumbling earthwards from dark heavens. Were they tears, huge hurtful tears, or perhaps juices of life, waters broken for forthcoming birth, or mourning potential deaths? Convulsions formed waves out there, somewhere, wouldn’t be long before impact.

Lightening split skies and illuminated inside my room with a phosphorous intruder. Thunder’s crash followed closely. Heavens asserted a power.

Raining pick handles, coming down in streamers; roof noise deafening. I want to sleep again, since noise is only rain, nothing I could do, so may as well sleep. Going to put a dampener on tomorrow’s walk, ha ha! But from the depth of consciousness thoughts still needled. Some sort of animal instincts became re-ignite and caused me to toss and flop. My senses are tuned to Eagle

Hawk’s unease. Even with closed eyes all my body functions don’t rest. Ears, nostrils and nerve endings are alert and issue warnings. Up and down these tingles pace, like a caged thing.

Out amongst Eagle Hawk crags rivulets of water rush down, moving mud; at first only surface soil, then gradually wetness soaked into already wet ground moving whole chunks of terrain. Quiet silently great weights formed, minute by minute in darkness heaps slid, a block sliding, tumbling, high above, gathering weight, till whole hillsides appeared to be falling, creeping toward my tiny lighted place, rolling downward. In darkest pre-dawn hours when Eagle Hawk’s movement reach my building, by which time an earthy contortion with a force akin to labour pains, not birthing but much more vicious, ‘crush, destroy, demolish...’ being its chant.

Things inside the building began to rattle and shake. I’m awake, aware of the room’s distortion. Twisting as if my building attempted self-protection. Structure attempted to pull up timber skirts and move away from convulsing mud born up on Eagle Hawk.

Without contemplation I do - shorts, clothes, dark outside, torch. Door won’t open. This building not ready to evict its resident. More to be done, some other desired revenge. Walls begun to crash under pressure. Something alien, powerful, uncontrollable slammed shut. Eagle Hawk held doors with mud-rock limbs, breathing loamy fumes, arm hairs of sticks; forced egress tightly shut. I pictured my body being found, swallowed by earth – a before death burial. If I just gave up, who would care? I am inside a magnetic pull; take extraordinary effort to reverse the poles. Staring at an uncooperative door I take a few seconds to think about what to try next. Window! Yes, that’s how to get out. Break glass! Fast, before Eagle Hawk negated options. As I wriggled through I felt sure I heard a cold, unsympathetic giggle from grumbling rock-strewn earth. Freedom; at last, gained by pushing through an almost too small space. But my legs were stifled in moving mud, cold, clinging newborn mud, I am held, entrapped. I look about for a landmark, feeling ground morphed into an ant-lion’s trap and I’m the next victim, to tumble down. Each step a panicked movement which leads to further doom. A view last seen over a leisurely cigarette gone, nothing in correct positions, angles or dimensions. Someone just shook my pantry; things fell readily from shelves. I’ve fallen in reverse out of Alice’s rabbit hole! Finally encountered one of those trips, everyone talks about.

Grasping at timbers which were previously walkways, my arms finally reached a down pipe. It leaked icy water, but I cling desperately. Surely a building is stronger than this gyrating earth. But any conviction faded fast. Make some noise, whatever you can manage! A yell; sounded more like gasped breath than a call for help.

Hikers collected me, shaken but not hurt. Together they watched as the smaller building fell to its death. Pushed along by birth of a new part of Eagle Hawk in a mud deluge.

Later a newspaper quoted John O’Brien, tour leader, saw my name right there with a non-descript passage I couldn’t remember having uttered. Apparently, I said, “This sort of thing just shows how powerful nature is and how insignificant you really are...”

No way I elaborated on what felt like an attempted strangulation, nor my responsibility for any human action; from a history of escaped convicts, or death rained upon indigenous people, or stealing from stocked pantries, or more than our fair share of mass murderers, or random supernatural events which might caused Eagle Hawk’s retribution.

March 17, 2022 00:25

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