The six-year-old was crying. He was sitting on the tan carpet with the cow-pattern texture to it, in the shadowy room at the end of the hallway. It’s not that there wasn’t a window, there was, but the mulberry tree outside and the roof of the neighbours’ metallic carport took away most of the sun. His bedroom was long and rectangular; and the curtains were brown with pictures of African animals on them. There was no mystery or suspicion to the darkness of the room. The shadow made it cooler than the rest of the house and he was used to it.
In front of him was a black suitcase with a cheap aluminium band around it where its lid met the base and two aluminium latches to spring open with a click or push down to grip the case shut. There was a key hole but no key. The six-year-old cried because he was going away and in what had been his school bag there were not now books and stationery but the bare essential supplies he’d thought he’d need. There was no despair in the plan. It was not because there was anything wrong with his life; there’d been no argument or untoward incident of any description. He was crying from pre-missing his family, knowing that he’d not see them again, for he’d decided it was time to move into the dry grasslands and eucalypt forests of the extinct volcanic Warrumbungle Mountains at the zero point of the Castlereagh River, to live with the kangaroos.
It was usual after setting up the campsite that Dad would be busy with collecting scraps of wood to stoke a fire and boil a billy for tea, or would be unpacking the esky, piling bread and a tub of butter on the boot of the Kingswood in order to make sandwiches. His brothers and sisters would be helping Dad, lying in the tent or maybe climbing the hill across the small rocky stream that was lined with casuarina trees.
Dad never paid much attention to where his children were. He must’ve been worried as he waited for the six-year-old to find his way back to the campsite from a nearby walk but he never said anything. He never stifled his children’s sense of adventure because he always wanted them to be independent and confident and so, as the older brother had once climbed a quite high volcanic rock without ropes, a splendid outcrop arched as a dinosaur’s spine, the most Dad would say was, ‘You be careful.’ He liked to see his children trust themselves and believe in their abilities; and secretly he liked it better to see his eldest son come down again from the dinosaur rock safely.
For the children there was magic in it, especially for the youngest. On the hill across the casuarina creek the older ones had found a small cave and there were many six-year-old questions about it: how deep it was, how big its entrance was and what it was like inside. It was quite high on the hill the middle brother said and the six-year-old alone wouldn’t be able to get there, but his brother offered to take him, later, assuming he could find it again as the entrance was small. Dad didn’t hear news about the cave. Such things were strictly children’s matters.
But it wasn’t usually the hill that craved attention but the nearer grasslands. Through the grasses there was a whole network of tracks leading off from the campsite. Some of them were wide enough for a four-wheel drive and together they made a kind of cow-pattern across the landscape, diverging, re-emerging and joining, dipping down to meet the mostly dry stream beds where the stinging nettles often grew. It was in that terrain, particularly in the cooler evenings that he would wander off. It was there he would see the kangaroos.
In truth he never went very far but when measured in six-year-old steps distances are a good deal further and there were always animals to see. It wasn’t only the kangaroo mobs that’d usually be resting under a tree, only getting up slowly and hopping lightly away as he got close, despite him having trodden as quietly as possible so as not to alarm them. There were emus, often in pairs and sometimes with a clutch of brown striped chicks at their feet. The emus had eyes like his teachers when they scanned the classroom from their desks to see who it was that was talking out of turn. Emu eyes seem to look over the rims of glasses even though there are none. They are intellectual birds except for when they run and their grass skirts of feathers sway about like a car wash machine, giving away their stupidity.
The country was full of rabbits and many a burrow entrance was inspected with the hope one would come out, and it was common to see them as they darted away or raced back into the burrow to escape that very visibility. More occasionally it’d be their enemy, the fox, with his bushy reddish tail scurrying away from sight; and there were rarer animals: wombats with their bigger burrows and stories of tiger quolls and once, though it was up into the mountains and not by the campsite, high in a gum tree there’d been a koala. Meanwhile the kookaburras would be laughing at him and at the scenery.
That trail network never seemed to finish and finding out exactly where each leg diverged, re-emerged and joined was exacting work. And the further the six-year-old went the more he’d discover there was to discover, like the secret valley far down on the left side where there was the greenery of a few ferns to keep things looking cooler. Being alone never worried him because he never was alone. There were the roos, emus, rabbits and foxes at the least. They all seemed friendly enough, albeit shy. He knew there were snakes: red-bellies, yellow-bellies and king browns, and he’d heard the story of how his oldest brother had once stepped on a red-belly while on a picnic in the city and had to be rushed to hospital in an ambulance. But he never actually saw a snake and he suspected that they were probably more misunderstood than vicious. Why would a snake bite him when he meant it no harm?
It was indeed not the animals but the plants that it seemed important to be wary of, less because of the spiky thistles and more because of the nettles. It’d happened that he’d been stung and it was painful. Despite the nettles being pointed out to him by his brother so that he’d learnt to recognise them, they grew in many places and sometimes from thinking about the roos and their society he’d forget. But after he’d been stung a few times he didn’t forget; and he knew, his second brother had done it for a bee sting once, that if he could find some bracken fern it was possible to pull it out of the ground and rub its roots on the sting site. His second brother had made that up of course but the six-year-old had felt slightly better once the newly discovered remedy had been applied.
It wasn’t a plan without practicality. He’d thought it all through and knew it wouldn’t be easy. For a start, the roos were rather shy and it’d take time to properly make acquaintance with them; and he’d have to learn their language and routines. But once they trusted him he could pat them and feel the softness of kangaroo fur. Even as they slept under the tree in the mob he could be there with his head on one for a pillow. They wouldn’t mind. They’d get used to him in the end.
And it’d happen, after some time, that he’d know how to communicate in emu, rabbit and fox too. He’d know where to go to visit them at their homes and have accurate knowledge of where each trail and small valley led. The nettles would be no problem then and if ever there was an accidental encounter he’d know precisely where the bracken ferns grew. He’d know too where that cave was that his brothers had found on the hill. Perhaps there were bats that lived inside it to become friends with.
He’d thought of water. He’d have to learn to drink from the streams and truth is it’d happened anyway. His oldest brother had taught him to cup his hands and hold them under a part of the stream that had a flow to it, where the water was wedged between two small rocks or such. The water that flowed was cleaner his brother said. He’d thought of food. He knew it’d take time to adjust but the roos would teach him which grasses and leaves to eat and his stomach would get used to it after a while; but in light of the adjustment period for the new diet he’d asked Mum to put together a few sandwiches in a brown paper sandwich bag that was now one of the items in his suitcase. She didn’t imagine those sandwiches were for the transition before he ate only leaves and grass. She thought the six-year-old was hungry and didn’t know the packet she’d put together had been stored for later.
Most of the rest of the space in the suitcase had been allotted to his stuffed toys. In particular there’d be no leaving the dog called Boowy that’d been a present for his third Christmas behind. Boowy wouldn’t like staying in the house without him and he was sure to get along equally well with the roos. He cared so much about his stuffed toys, not only Boowy but Zebra, Pink Spots, Keemore and the white horse called Blanco that he’d once taken sheets of white paper and painted in turn each of their portraits. The portraits were stuck to wooden boards for display, but got piled up behind the red cupboard in the end. And although they were all coming along he cried thinking of how he’d miss Mum and Dad and his brothers and sister. Boowy would miss them too. Yet when he thought about his life ahead with the roos he felt happy and excited. It was a dilemma.
|The Bread Knife|
That was to be the last day with the human family. Mum and Dad were already busy packing their own bags and loading the car for the six hour, five hundred kilometre drive from Sydney to Coonabarabran where his grandmother lived. They would stay the first night there and in the morning Dad would leave early to drive down to the service station for fuel, perhaps to make sure the gas bottle for the stove was full, and to fill the esky with ice so that at least for the first day there could be cold drinks, butter for the bread and liquid milk for the tea. He’d come back with the final provisions having been bought and the children would say goodbye to Mum who wasn’t as keen on camping as the rest of the family. She preferred to stay in town mostly, to talk to her mother and her own brothers and sisters who used to randomly wander into the kitchen and sit down for a cup of tea.
The six-year-old knew not to say anything. He wouldn’t be allowed to stay living with the kangaroos, it was certain. So he was ready to dry his eyes and pretend everything was normal when he was called to the Kingswood he had secretly named Tigger, the white family sedan in the driveway out the back of his Sydney house, for the drive to Coonabarabran. He only wondered if he would leave for his new life before or after the family hiked the Bread Knife trail that stretched and wound its way up into the peaks of the extinct volcanoes. It would take the whole day and make everybody tired and probably he’d ride on Dad’s shoulders in the higher parts of the trail. Maybe he’d wait until that’d been done.
As it turned out the six-year-old was a little too consumed with thoughts. He’d been called several times but in his bedroom at the end of the hall he hadn’t heard. They searched him out and of course his bedroom was an obvious place to look. It’d been sudden that his sister had walked into the room and seen him sitting on the floor in front of his suitcase. There’d been no chance to dry his eyes.
‘What are you crying for?’ she asked.
Well, the emotions were a bit overwhelming for the six-year-old, so as much as he didn’t mean to, he just blurted out the plan. ‘I’m running away,’ he sobbed, ‘I’m going to live with the kangaroos!’