I roll out of my tent at two. The night is in that silent moment when you can hear the soft humming of your own brain echoing in your ears.
I strap on my boots. The whisking sound of my boot laces drawing taught reassures me.
Flatten my tent. Pack my bag. Sleeping bag. Clothes, stuffed into their nylon sack.
I put my scarf around my throat.
I stand and look around. No trace. Nothing left behind. Everything I could conceivably need is inside my bag. I’m ready to travel.
Slow whining of rusty wire as I swing myself over the fence. Crunching gravel on the road shoulder. Distant traffic. Rustling leaves.The sounds of the highway flick the last sleepiness out of me.
I stand on the road’s margin. This is the way to hitchhike. Cool air. Grassy fields in the moonlight.
Lights coming round the bend. The vehicle slows and stops. It’s an old, rusty white sedan with a cracked windshield. I heft my heavy bag into the back, and climb into the passenger seat.
The inside of the car is coated with dust. The man sitting behind the wheel looks familiar in a way that makes my stomach clench. He is lean and angular like me. We have the same long nose, the same high forehead. His face is obscured by a shaggy greying beard but when he turns to look at me, I know his eyes as if I am looking into a mirror.
I study my reflection, sitting beside me. I look much older, even seen in the warm, soft light of the dashboard. I don’t know how to react. This is a strange situation. I feel ill-equipped to have this conversation, but he’s picked me up. I can’t just sit here in silence. But what to say? I genuinely do not know how to approach this guy. He seems ill-defined. He looks a bit blurry around the edges.
“You need to adjust your focus” I comment, hesitantly.
He looks at me sideways and kind of begins to laugh, but then turns back to the road.
“Don’t distract me while I’m driving” he tells me.
“You want me to just sit here?”
“Don’t distract me. Ninety percent of accidents are caused by driver distraction.”
“You sound like my father.”
He gives me a raised eyebrow, but doesn’t speak.
“How am I supposed to just sit here and not talk to you? I mean seriously. That’s just a ridiculous tease. You show up randomly and then tell me I’m not supposed to talk to you? Do you have any idea how many questions I have?”
“We’ll be stopping for a snack in half an hour. We’ll talk then. Meditate or something.”
“Meditate? Seriously? You’re on that bandwagon?”
“No, I’m just fucking with you. Just sit there and worry about stuff. Now seriously, be quiet.”
The car melts into a mushy, expanding bubble, and we step through it’s soft walls into a brightly lit room full of eating mammals. Two pretty girls, a badger and a wombat are sitting on stools eating donuts out of paper bags. A horse is grazing on a tiny patch of grass between a jukebox and a closed door with a hieroglyphic wheelchair stamped on it.
He slides into a vinyl booth seat, and I awkwardly squeeze into the seat opposite him, wedging my backpack against a potted palm with round purple fruit oozing out of it’s pores.
“This must be a bit weird for you, I guess” he says.
I stare at him and shake my head. “A bit weird? That is a bit of an understatement. Doesn’t meeting yourself in a dream mean you’re going to die?”
“You don’t believe in that new age crap, do you?”
“I don’t believe in lucid dreaming either, but here we are.”
“What do you want to eat? They have really good donuts here.”
“I need coffee.”
“OK. Great. Donuts and coffee.”
“Can I ask you questions now?”
He draws a slow breath.
“Sure. Ask away.”
“Alright. First of all, can I record this? I mean this will make a great video.”
He rolls his eyes.
“If there’s no YouTube video it never happened, right? Sure. Whatever.”
I get out my phone and punch the video camera on. I point the lens at the guy sitting opposite me and his image on the screen is less familiar than the man himself. He looks weary. His face is more lined, his hair thinner and shorter. There is a frailty in the face but also a kindness. I trust this face, but the grey eyes look back at me with an unsettling intensity.
“So you’re me, but older, right?”
“Are you here with me for a particular reason, or… are we just hanging out?”
He leans forward in his seat and I can hear the vinyl squeaking under his butt as he shifts his weight.
“Don’t waste our time. Ask the question you really want to ask. OK? Just ask.”
My eyes snap open as I jerk upright in my seat and gulp in air.
“Drop me off here!”
The woman in the driver’s seat swivels her head to look at me and swerves across the centre line.
“Sorry” I tell her, scraping the fog out of my eyes “I didn’t mean to yell like that. I just realised I’ve been here before. Can you please stop for a second and let me out.”
She starts to slow down the car.
“Are you sure? Here? This is the middle of nowhere.”
“Yes, yes. Thank you. I’ve been here before. I camped here a few years ago. I know this place.”
She slows the car and stops on the shoulder of the road, glancing at me nervously as I unbuckle my seatbelt.
I get my bag out of the back seat and wave to her as she drives away. Her car disappears into the distance.
The plain is empty now. Half a kilometre away there are a few kangaroos half hidden in the dry grass. One thin cloud in the red sky. The plain seems to stretch out forever in every direction. Flat. Dry. Still.
A little distance from the road, across the plain there is a small clump of stunted trees. I know I’ve seen those trees before. I camped there. Years ago. Right on that spot.
I walk toward the clump of trees. The soil is dry and dusty. It settles on my boots and pants legs.
These trees are so familiar.
The sun is dipping out of sight as I drop my bag on the ground. I unzip it and pull out my water bottle. It’s nearly empty. I drink half of what’s left and hope there is a creek somewhere not too far away.
Among the trees the ground is littered with dry leaves. There are three big anthills around the tree roots. A dirty broken bottle. A rusty tuna can.
It’s here somewhere.
By the time I realised I’d lost it I was half a day down the road. I thought I’d be back in no time at all, so I just kept on going, but I was wrong. That was eleven years ago. It turns out that this is a hard spot to come back to.
I drain the last water from my bottle, and watch the sky change from red to purple to black. My chest feels tight and cramped. I’m out of breath. My tongue feels gritty and swollen.
I crawl around examining the leaf litter. I push aside the crisp dry leaves and methodically examine every inch of ground. Somewhere. It’s here somewhere.
The tightness in my chest makes me gasp. I lean on the earth. Breath. I can feel the dry leaves crackling under my splayed palms.
It’s here. Here.
I start digging into the dusty soil with my fingernails.
“I’m going to answer your question in two parts” he tells me, and sits back in his seat. “First, I’ll deal with the ideological dilemma, then I’ll get to the facts.”
He picks up a donut and regards me seriously while he chews and sips his coffee. Watching him eat I see the deep lines around his mouth and the corners of his eyes. The creases make his face look both fatherly and frightening.
He pronounces: “You are a skeptic. Right? You are experiencing intellectual dissonance right now, because part of you just sees this experience as a sort of hallucination. But another part of you is consumed by curiosity. Look at you; mouth open; camera trembling in your hands. You don’t believe what’s happening but here we are. This situation is as real as anything else you experienced today. You’re into science. Think about it. Everything you did today, you only know it happened because of electricity and chemicals flying around in your skull. Well, my friend, it’s the self same chemicals creating this moment we’re sharing right now. This is the same world you live in every day; the world inside your head. The only reason it feels strange here is that you’re not used to seeing horses dining in fast food restaurants. Have a donut. They’re really good.”
I obediently pick up a donut and take a bite. It tastes like tinned tuna.
“Now, to the second part of your question. This is much more difficult to answer, but I’ll do my best. The only way I can answer your second question is by telling you a story. So: pay attention and keep your mouth shut because I hate to be interrupted.”
I push the rest of my tuna tasting donut into my mouth, fold my arms and stare at him. He nods and leans forward on the plastic table top.
“OK. This is a story about a man who set out to see the world and find answers. The story begins on a roadside, in outback Australia, on a hot summer night. The man is alone. He is tired and thirsty. Night is falling and he is a long way from home. This man carries a heavy bag full of things that he regards as essential. He has carried this bag a long time, over many roads, through deserts, over oceans, down narrow laneways and into dark, humid caves. He is weary from his journey. He is afraid. He feels himself becoming weak. His burden has grown heavier with every step of his journey and although he feels ashamed to abandon it, he longs to leave it behind. On this dark night, in the lonely wilderness he decides finally to give it up. He finds a place, hidden from sight, amongst a small clump of gnarled trees. Shaking with fatigue, muscles aching, he claws at the hard baked dirt and digs a shallow hole with his bare hands.”
The dull glow of my pocket flashlight fades away as the battery dies. It’s too dark now to search. My fingers are numb and gritty from digging in the dirt. I fall back against a tree trunk and try to catch my breath. In the darkness I can feel ants crawling over my legs and back.
As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I notice a slight, flickering glow, away beyond the treeline, silhouetting the grass stems and low hanging branches of the trees.
I pull myself up and walk cautiously toward the flickering light. I come to the edge of a steep bank, and peer over it. Below me is a shallow watercourse. Just a muddy trickle really, between jagged white stones.
He’s sitting on the creek bank, beside a tiny fire. He’s facing away from me but I can see his profile in the firelight; creased brow, hook nose, stained grey beard. Rage surges up in me.
I scramble down the bank, stumble across the rocky creek bed and stand in front of him.
He lifts his face and looks at me. There is a long silence as we stare at each other.
I am panting, my face screwed up in anger. His face is expressionless. His gaze steady and unsurprised.
“How long have you been sitting here?” I demand. “Do you know where it is?”
He shakes his head.
“Sit down” he invites me. “We can look tomorrow. You won’t find it in the dark.”
“I don’t want to wait until tomorrow! I’ve been trying to get back here for years. Help me look. It’s under those trees up there somewhere. Help me find it.”
He looks away from my angry face and studies the fire. He picks up a handful of dry leaves and drops them into the coals.
“Another night isn’t going to make any difference is it? Why don’t you sit down and I’ll tell you a story.”
I crouch down in front of him and lean close to his face.
“Help me. Enough waiting. I don’t want to hear any more of your fucking stories old man!”
The dry leaves on the fire ignite with a sharp breath. Sparks spiral upward into the blackness. He turns back to me slowly and deliberately.
“I’ll stop telling you stories if that’s what you want. But first you have to start listening. If you’re going to run around digging in the dirt you may as well know what you’re looking for, right?”
I stand up and turn away from the old man.
I stumble over the stones to the creek and squat at it’s edge. I dip my cupped hands into the muddy water. It feels gritty and thick.
“I wouldn’t drink that if I were you” the old man tells me.
“Why not? I’m so fucking thirsty, man.”
“I drank that water once, and I got the worst diarrhea I ever had. Too many animals shitting in it. Not fast flowing enough to stay fresh. Believe me, if you drink from that creek it won’t be pretty.”
“So do you have some drinking water then? Can I have some?”
He looks back at the fire and pokes at the coals with a stick.
“No need to drink here.”
“No water? Nothing?”
The old man shakes his head slowly.
“No. No water.”
A trickle of panic runs into my guts. I stride back to the fire and crouch down in front of him. I study his face. Parched, cracked lips. Dry flaky skin. Sunken, dull eyes. Bones steepling his skin at the elbows and cheeks.
“What the hell are you drinking, out here?” I ask him.
He takes out a crumpled packet of cigarettes and lights one with a stick from the fire.
“How long have you been sitting here, old man?”
“I thought you were tired of my stories” he says.
Piling the leaves together under the base of the trees.
Broken fingernails no longer a concern. Breath sharp and rasping in my throat.
I scramble down the bank to the creek bed.
The old man stirs in his asthmatic sleep. I drop down beside the fire, just a circle of glowing coals now in the inky night.
I pick up a dry twig and poke it into the coals. It catches alight easily. I withdraw the stick from the coals and carefully stand, keeping the flame on the twig alive by gently blowing on it.
The old man’s crusted eyes open and his face hardens.
“What are you doing?” he rasps
I start to edge away from him, toward the bank.
“Where are you going with that?” he demands.
I climb the bank toward the trees.
“Come back here! I haven’t finished the story yet. You don’t know the ending!”
“Fuck your story, man! Your stories are too long, and they don’t make any fucking sense!”
“Please, come back. Sit awhile. I can change the ending.”
There is desperation in his voice, but I scramble over the top of the bank and his croaking fades away behind me.
The tinder catches easily on the piled leaves. The flames quickly spiral up around the tree trunks, catching into the bark; the boney twigs on the lower branches. The fire starts to roar. The trees become pylons of light, the only colour in the night landscape.
I scramble to the deepest of the holes I’ve dug. I can see everything clearly now in the fierce light from the blazing trees. I upend my bag over the hole. Squinting and choking from the acrid smoke I shake my bag upside down and all the stuff inside tumbles onto the ground and into the little pit. The hole fills quickly. Toothbrush, sunscreen, harmonicas, plastic bags, toilet paper, empty bottle, socks, phone, stale bread, pocket knife, scarf, sleeping bag… the hole is full. I scrape the dust over the junk in the hole and slap it down. There’s still a bunch of stuff scattered over the ground. Blinded, choking I crawl across to the next nearest hole and shove the remaining stuff into it: passport; wallet; sunscreen; condoms…
I can’t breath. I have to get out of here. I can feel the heat of the fire on the back of my neck, scorching my skin, curling my hair. Press down the dirt – close the grave. I snatch up my empty bag and crawl away from the blazing trees. grinding my face into the dirt. Trying to tunnel into the cool soil like an earthworm squirming in the sun. I get clear of the flames and roll onto my back. The fire leaps up to the black sky above me. I roll over and over, feeling the blisters on my skin chafe against the gravel. Tears turn to mud on my cheeks and neck.
I rest for a minute while the fire consumes what is left of the trees. Sliding silently out of the dark sky, a whispering rain of grey ash begins to settle on my mud streaked face.
The glare of the dawn wakes me.
The trees I laboured under the night before are gone. All that’s left are a circle of black stumps, in a field of charcoal. There is no trace of the graves where my stuff is buried. Everything is black and smoking. A circle of charcoal in the middle of the red dust plain.
I roll onto my side and ease onto my feet. I stink of burnt hair and soot. The sunlight stings my reddened neck and cheeks. Mechanically I pick up my bag and slip it onto my shoulders, wincing with every movement of my swollen skin. So light. My empty bag feels like a balloon. I feel as though it can lift me into the air. I get up and wait a moment for the dizziness to slide away.
A light, dry breeze stirs the brown grass and sends the smoke from the trees into spiralling flicking plumes. From the creek bed beyond the edge of the steep bank I can hear a low rasping cough.
I start to walk. I walk toward the road. I don’t look back. I’ll come back here one day but for now I’ll travel light. An empty bag feels like all the equipment I need for now.
I wait on the roadside for maybe two hours. A few cars pass by without slowing. The drivers glare at me through their dusty windshields.
The sun climbs higher in the sky. I drape my shirt over my head to shield my scorched skin from the sun. I start to walk down the road.
At a narrow bend there is a car parked in the weeds on the roadside. A dust coated white sedan with a cracked windshield. The car is empty. The side doors are open.
I peer into the empty vehicle. Two large agile lizards scuttle off the cracked vinyl seats and vanish amongst the grass tussocks. Red dust coats every surface, the dashboard, the seats, the floor mats.
The key is in the ignition.
I look up and down the road. There is no one in sight. I climb into the car, drop my empty bag on the passenger seat and try the key. The engine whines and sputters, but then it starts.
I jam my foot down on the accelerator and the car swerves onto the blacktop, spraying dust.
I keep my foot firmly pressed to the floor. The old car vibrates and rumbles over the pitted, narrow road. I feel the steering wheel trembling in my hands but I don’t slow down. I want to get away from here. I want to get as much distance between me and this dead, scorched plain as I possibly can.
I look once into the rear-vision mirror. Away on the heat-hazed horizon I can dimly make out a wispy column of grey smoke spiraling up into the cloudless ultra-violet sky.