An Australian Faerie Tale
I wrote this in part because I wanted to tell the story of a boy. And I wondered how a traditional faerie story might be told in an Australian context. Then, of course, it got very dark. Because faerie-folk aren’t friendly folk. Lots in here that I have to come back to.
“Slow down Harrison!” Jacob called, panting as he started up the hill. “Come back!”
Nearing the top, Harrison wasn’t about to slow down for his friend. Jacob, aged nine, two years older than Harrison, was always out of breath behind him. He’d catch up eventually. And Harrison always enjoyed the view he got clearing the top of the hill. He would slow down on the ridge.
Suddenly, glimpsed through the bushes: a wallaby? But white, the light briefly bouncing off the animal’s fur before it disappeared again. Harrison picked up the pace, clambering over the ridge, pausing to admire the view: the river down below, crawling to a bigger river towards the horizon, it in turn rushing headlong to the distant sea.
Again, just ahead of him, the wallaby. Harrison crept forward, getting within a metre of the wallaby, only a head taller than he. He could reach out—
The wallaby bolted. Climbing down the steep side of the ridge, to the river below. Harrison looked behind him. No sign of Jacob. But no matter, they were on their way to the river. Their favourite spot after school finished for an afternoon, this stretch of the river was just hard enough to get to that few people ventured there. Jacob and Harrison could spend an hour chasing each other up and down with sticks, or swimming endlessly in the summer months when it was too hot for school. No sign of Jacob, but the wallaby was getting further ahead. Harrison raced down the hill, his thin shoes stumbling and skidding on the stirred up rocks.
Moving quickly — faster than usual, without Jacob slowing him down — Harrison found himself moving off the usual path, determinedly chasing the wallaby, who seemed always just a few steps ahead. As though— there he was, looking back at Harrison as if to make sure he was still following.
They reached the river.
But it wasn’t any stretch of the river Harrison was familiar with — and he had explored it up and down. The wallaby hopped to the water’s edge, looked back at Harrison. Up river was scrub, some fallen branches. The wallaby hopped nimbly over the obstacles. Harrison followed, stumbling himself, scratching his arms and knees in the process.
When he broke through the scrub, he came on a small clearing, where a stream met the river. Around it, a whole variety of animals, all looking up at him as he entered. But not startled, as he’d expect.
Another wallaby — the first’s mate? — hopped closer to him. At the edge of the clearing, in shade, two wombats. At the riverbank, an enormous goanna. In the water, platypus. And around, dingos, quolls, snakes, all peaceful. In the trees, all kinds of birds — more shapes and colours than Harrison had ever seen out here.
It was impossible.
The first wallaby then hopped closer. But he paused, as if asking Harrison to do the same. In response, Harrison took a step forward himself. He was used to taking care with the wildlife. You didn’t want to threaten a dingo, nor even a ’roo, in its own space. But none of the animals seemed to mind. They watched him with curiosity, as if they’d not seen a boy appear here before. Harrison and the animals monitored each other, each wondering what the other would do next.
The wallaby nodded.
Harrison took another step forward.
The wallaby stood tall. Now he reached more than a head taller than Harrison. And he seemed to grow taller still.
Harrison’s vision seemed to dim, or the world around him grew dark. The wallaby stood, its bent legs drawing up straight beneath him, its arms extending, beckoning. Now the wallaby stood as tall as Harrison’s father, twice the height of the boy, or so it seemed. No longer a white furry animal, the wallaby seemed more like a man, and yet without shape, like a ghost, and without light, like a shadow. Harrison found himself stepping closer, reaching out his hand. The spirit-wallaby reached out and snatched up his wrist. Harrison burnt cold where he was gripped, but his mouth couldn’t scream. Around him, the world turned darker, losing shape. The animals were no longer at peace, turning on each other, jaws biting down on fur and flesh.
The birds in the trees took to the air as the trees themselves lost their shape. The sky was dark, the birds became specks of light, like fire, like stars born new into the night sky. The river and the dirt merged, the great serpent writhing beneath the ground, forming the land at its birth.
It was the Dreaming, the beginning of everything, but it was broken. Tears came to Harrison’s eyes. And through it all, the man-wallaby clasped his wrist, tight, though he seemed to have no fixed shape.
“We need you, Harrison,” came a voice like the trees, like sand on rocks, like the river spilling into the ocean. The man-wallaby, talking, directly into Harrison’s head. The star-birds in the sky, calling, filling the air with their cry. Beneath him, the serpent twisting, birthing the earth.
“The Dreaming is being undone,” the man-wallaby pleaded. “You have to help us; only you can protect us from the Unmaker.”
Then, behind him:
“Come back Harrison”— Jacob, clambering through the bushes, terrified, but desperate to reach his friend. Jacob stumbled into the dark, wide-eyed, grasping Harrison’s wrist, unable to say any more. And at the same time, the spirit-wallaby’s grip loosened.
Behind the shadowy man-wallaby, his mate, now a woman-wallaby of shining light, hopped forward. She whispered in her mate’s ear.
“You are right,” the man-wallaby murmured. “He is not ready. And the fat one can do nothing.”
Jacob’s mouth hung open, too shocked to find the words to argue back.
“Go now, dear Harrison,” the woman-wallaby spoke, with a voice also of trees and stone and water. “Your mother and father worry for you.”
“But—” Harrison protested. “I can protect you!” His voice trailed off as the shadows around them faded.
“You will,” the wallabies spoke, into his head, before turning and hopping away.
The shadows cleared, as though waking from a dream. The light of the afternoon sun returned to their eyes; the sound of the rushing water to their ears. Harrison and Jacob turned to each other and smiled. Jacob, who’d do anything for his friend, just shook his head, finally letting out his breath. Harrison let out a little laugh. The two turned and ran back up the hill.
Reaching home, Harrison saw his mother, peering worried out the window. He laughed, ran, threw himself into her arms.
“Never let me go,” he sighed.
“Never,” she replied, both of them knowing there was no such thing. The Unmaker was still out there in the Dreaming.
But right now, this was all that mattered. This love could make everything. This was their Dreaming.
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