‘Have you ever noticed there’s never any roadkill near cemeteries?’
Patricia was documenting the drought by photographing the kangaroos and wombats that tempted then embraced death while grazing on the roadside. She needed a cemetery shot to complete the collection, and Majors Creek would be perfect. The unkempt gravestones leant down a hill. Setting up a shot at the right angle would have them peeking over the cemetery’s stone wall at a carcass by the roadside. But there were no crumpled sacks of fur and bone to be found.
‘Look, we’ll come out next week in my ute, grab a kangaroo carcass from the Kings Highway and dump it there.’ Evan pointed to a luminously green verge south of the main gate. ‘It’ll be perfect.’
Patricia snorted. At the beginning of the project she’d been happy with any carcass in an interesting pose. Now, with gaps to fill, she was more particular. However, Evan saw her look at the spot and how she could frame the body with the grey-green cypress trees, fence, and graves.
Evan liked the drive and the occasional beer in quiet pubs. But he hated the destruction the work exposed him to. After the camera was unpacked, he always checked if the grass on the roadside was worth dying for.
‘It won’t look natural. There won’t be a scar of blood on the road. Or you’ll leave a drag mark showing it’s been pulled into position.’
‘If anyone knows how to arrange a dead kangaroo by the side of a road, it’s me.’ He hoped she’d capture the peace he could feel coming out of the Church’s grounds.
She laughed. ‘Okay, but can you make it a wombat?’
‘Fresh, smelly or rancid?’
‘Fresh, I want to use the time-lapse gear to show it disintegrating.’ Fresh was good, thought Evan. Less mess. But fresh was heavy. Against all the compassion that he usually felt for the animals, he hoped for a young dead wombat.
A dead marsupial wouldn’t fix Evan’s problems. His literature thesis was on how the undead distilled the anxieties of the cultures that spawned them. Evan wanted to explore how the immigrant experience had Australianised European revenants, but he couldn’t find an authentically local manifestation of the European preoccupation with the walking dead. There might be a vampire with a cork hat somewhere in the canon, but the monsters he could find had kept their inappropriately warm European clothes.
Evan looked up from his desk in the back room of their rented house and saw the little girl from next door in his vegetable garden. She liked to weed his none-too-ordered patch. Unfortunately, sometimes the weeds turned out to be his lettuce or tomato seedlings.
He decided to join her. Esky, his Staffordshire Bull Terrier, trotted after him. He’d called her Esky because she was the shape of a small portable fridge, and had the same capacity to store food.
‘What are you doing, Zoe?’
‘Helping.’ Zoe’s garden didn’t need help. The lawn was laid, not grown, and the box hedge had been set out with a tape measure. No wonder Zoe pushed through the fence to the chaos of Evan’s yard. She bent over theatrically but carefully to pat Esky’s head. The dog squirmed with delight.
‘Thanks. What are you helping me with?’
‘I thought that since it’s August you will be wanting to plant potatoes. So I set out some beds.’
Evan was always astounded by the child’s knowledge and ultra-polite speech. She was right. It was time for vegetables that grew under the ground, sheltered from Canberra’s frosts for a few more months.
‘Good work. Come around next weekend and we’ll put in a row of potatoes and a row of beetroot.’ Zoe looked surprised. He guessed that adults didn’t often help her get dirty.
‘See you next weekend,’ she said and pushed her way back through the fence. Evan wondered when Steve would insist on a new fence. The irregular pales must be a terrible backdrop to his shrubbery.
Before going back inside, he knelt down and ran his fingers through the dirt where Zoe was digging. She must have been close to the body of her guinea pig. The tiny carcass came from Esky’s unexpected hunting skills, and the fence that allowed the guinea pig to roam both yards. The soil was soft and crumbly. Nothing the size or texture of a dead guinea pig brushed his fingers. Esky’s guilty secret was safe.
The wombat they found was no baby. On its back in the tray, Evan saw it was a male. At least he wouldn’t have to push his hand into a decaying pouch.
Getting it onto the verge was harder. Evan had to place it in one drop to avoid drag marks. This meant bending down and lowering it close to the ground, without dropping it, so that Patricia could ensure that the angle of its chest was aligned with the fence and gravestones.
Finally he got it right, and went to get the camera. Patricia recorded the decay with a time-lapse camera that took a frame every ten minutes.
Evan saw the power of these images. Over time even the plumpest kangaroo or wombat collapsed to skin and bones, illustrating the devastation of the drought. Evan liked the ones that disintegrated without help, but Patricia liked the drama of interventions by foxes and crows. The scavengers were occasionally caught in a still, and sometimes added to the scene by succumbing to a car.
‘These batteries aren’t fully charged.’
Evan went to get fresh ones from the car.
‘Have you moved the camera?’
‘Let me check. You didn’t touch the focus?’
This was a testing time. They would leave the camera for three weeks, and if it wasn’t right the carcass would be wasted.
‘Okay, we’re ready to go,’ said Patricia.
Goodbye, Mr Wombat, thought Evan. Soon I’ll watch you go back to the earth.
The owners of the cemetery sensed Evan and Patricia. Since they were warm and moving, they were of no interest. The wombat was.
On the return trip to retrieve the gear, Patricia had an additional task. Her Catholic upbringing, long suppressed, told her not to leave the wombat next to the graveyard. She would have left the carcass in place if it had been found at the graveyard, but she couldn’t take a corpse to the border of sacred ground and leave it.
Evan walked around the flat carcass looking for a handhold. He wanted it to come up in one piece. He hadn’t brought a broom, so if it disintegrated he would have to use his fingers to rake up the bits. He didn’t expect it to weigh much.
But he couldn’t move it.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes, just having a bit of trouble lifting him.’
The next time he bent his legs like fit people deadlifting at gyms, and managed to haul the body to his thighs. He waddled to the tray of the ute. As he angled the body to slide it on, he caught a glimpse of something white moving in the wombat’s throat. It didn’t look like a bone fragment disturbed by the rude lift, and it was too large for a maggot. Evan wasn’t inclined to reach in and investigate. He closed the gate on the tray and hopped into the cab.
‘Where will we put it?’ he asked. Evan was planning on dumping it just down the road and going for a quick drink in Braidwood, where he could wash his hands and forget the oily touch of its skin.
‘This one is special. It decayed really quickly. I think we should put it back where we found it.’
‘But that’s miles away, and it’s nearly dark.’ A moment ago, Evan could feel the frost on a cold beer glass, smell the pub, and taste a crisp tap beer. Now he could see the beer, but there was no smell or taste.
‘We could do it tomorrow. It can stay in the back of the ute, it doesn’t smell. All of the gooey stuff must have dried up.’
Evan’s beer disappeared from his sight as well. He couldn’t pull up outside a country pub with a decayed wombat on his ute. A fresh one maybe. People who hadn’t met Esky would assume that he’d collected it for his hardened working dog. But not a dry one, even if it didn’t smell.
It was just as well they didn’t stop, because it was late when they got home. Evan left the ute on the street and went inside to tend to dog and dinner. He wasn’t worried about what his neighbours might say about the wombat.
On the tray of the ute, the creature scooped up in Mr Wombat senses it is alone. It cannot smell-taste-touch others, or warm bodies.
The creature is ancient, older than any European grave here. It can remember times of plenty and times of hunger in Majors Creek. For its kind, the drought is a time of plenty. Animals are lured to the green verge of the cemetery, to be served to them by passing cars. They rarely have to travel far for food and leave nothing for scavengers.
Since all had their fill of the juice of the wombat, it was allowed to crawl inside alone and savour the remaining skin and bones at leisure.
It smell-taste-touches the air again to make sure that there are no warm bodies to see it move. It decides to use the shell of the wombat to shield its precious skin. It has used this skin for five years, a mere baby. It took it from a freshly interred shearer before his coffin rotted away. It couldn’t afford for one of the others to get it. Burials are rare in their cemetery. So it used the last strength in its old skin to pierce the coffin and take the new white coat before any others got it.
It fastens the wombat’s paw onto the edge of the ute and contracts its filaments so that the carcass is pulled to the edge. Now it pushes all of its skin and filaments to the wombat’s head. The carcass topples out. The area where it falls is hard, but it can sense soft ground nearby. Still nervous in the new area and worried that it cannot sense others, it pulls the wombat under a bush, where it discards the carcass, and releases itself into the ground. It has just fed: it can rest before it looks for another meal, and others.
If there had been others around, they would have sensed its anxiety through the soil and air.
‘Where’s the wombat?’ Patricia sounded vexed.
Evan knew that a question in that tone of voice would lead to a demand for help, even before he finished his morning cup of tea. ‘It’s in the back of the ute.’
‘No, it’s not.’
‘It must be, look harder. Maybe the tarpaulin has fallen over it.’
‘No, it hasn’t. Come and help please. How can you spend so much time on a cup of tea?’
The carcass wasn’t in the ute. Why would anyone take a dead wombat? If he had left it on the ground he would have assumed that it had been taken by a dog, and that they’d find bits and pieces hidden here and there later. Maybe kids picked it up. Someone would find it on their lawn or, for maximum annoyance, in their pool.
‘I want to put it back. You have to help me find it.’
Kids or dogs could have put it anywhere.
‘Okay, I’ll see if it went down to the shops.’ That was Esky’s favourite destination when she escaped.
‘Don’t be funny. This is important to me.’ Evan wished Patricia would accept the zen of a morning tea, rather than charging straight into coffee.
‘Okay, I’ll take Esky for a walk to see if we can find Mr Wombat.’ At the sound of the magic word Esky was next to him. As soon as Evan turned around she was off rooting through the front garden.
‘Come on Esky, let’s see if we can find Mr Wombat.’ Evan held out the lead. She didn’t come.
‘Esky, walk time.’ Evan jangled the metal end of the lead to get her attention.
She was on her belly under a shrub, grunting and ignoring him.
Evan walked over to pull her away. As he reached down he saw the wombat.
‘Clever girl, but you just lost your walk. Honey, we found Mr Wombat.’
Moving through the soil at Majors Creek is hard. The graves, mines, and roads break up the clay and shale in places, making their passage easier. But between these pathways the ground is hard and inhospitable. The dry red clay and sharp rocks make them protective of their skins, and tell them that the ground has been intact for longer than even they can know. The ground near their cemetery will not yield for fungus from over the seas simply because Europeans have scratched at its surface.
In this new place the soil is like the home it left more than a century ago. Wet and loose, having been broken and enriched by the surface creatures. It can move about the moist cultivated soil of the Canberra suburb with ease.
Two months after the shot at Majors Creek, Patricia was ready to test her slideshow on Evan.
Evan sat and tried to take in the artistic impact of the repetitive decay of the kangaroos and wombats. But his mind wandered back to the dead end of his own work on revenants. Maybe the undead decided not to come to Australia, he thought. The land was deeply spiritual in a way that even the atheist Evan could feel. But it lacked the topography that nurtured European revenants. No impossibly high mountains to dwell on. No dark forests to lurk in. Only a few caves to hide in, away from the too bright light.
Mr Wombat caught Evan’s attention.
‘I remember that little fellow.’
‘You didn’t think he was little at the time.’
‘No, he wasn’t.’
‘Shush. Look at that,’ said Patricia. She paused the presentation.
Mr Wombat had been beside the church yard long enough for the shadows of the cypress pines to pass over his face. Then the camera captured five white fingers reaching for his eyes. They stared at the fingers.
‘Looks like a hand, doesn’t it?’ said Patricia.
‘Did you see anything strange when you picked up the carcass?’
‘No. Yes. Maybe. There was something white in it.’
Patricia un-paused the slideshow and let it advance one frame. The fingers were gone.
‘Must have been maggots,’ said Patricia. Evan wasn’t sure, but didn’t have an alternative.
They continued the show. Mr Wombat dried out quickly. Over one day, the wombat went from a robust carcass that could wreck the suspension of a car, to a crinkled smear of fur.
Like their graveyard, the surface creatures tend this ground. But there is little food. No wonder it cannot smell-taste-touch others. It found the body of a small rodent in the soft soil prepared for young plants. But now there is no smell-taste-touch of food in or above the soil.
So it is hungry. Hunger will not kill it or even make it weaker. But knowing that hunger will not kill does not dull the wanting and pain. It doesn’t feel time like the surface creatures. Its kind have no end date to their lives. So they do not divide time to measure the distance to their death. The pain of hunger isn’t amplified by thinking about how long the next meal will be. But the wanting is intense because it is the present, and here and now are all there is.
Evan looked up from his desk at Esky and Zoe digging in his vegetable garden. He’d bought a punnet of beetroot and asked Zoe to plant it. He didn’t care if Steve and Louise were irritated by having her squeeze back through the fence freshly muddied.
Looking at the child talking to the dog, who was more than happy to help her dig holes, he realised that what she wanted was company.
Evan decided that he wanted company as well, as he was having difficulty concentrating on his work. He shut his computer and walked to the vegetable patch at the back of the yard.
As he got closer, he saw that Zoe and Esky had dug quite a big hole. Much too large for beetroots. It looked more like a child’s fort: deep enough to hide from enemy spies, or adults. Zoe, and Esky were excitedly jumping in and out of the hole. Evan watched as Zoe jumped down, disappeared as she bent over, and then jumped out again. He laughed. He should be annoyed, but he could remember the joy of a secret spot.
Zoe saw him when he got to the edge of the vegetable patch. She paused and then, with greater deliberation, jumped in the hole. She leant down and reached out for something on the bottom.
‘Look Mr Evan, the earth is trying to shake hands with me.’
Evan thought he saw a white leather glove sticking up from the ground. The child screamed with delight and her body twitched as she brushed her fingers against the tips of the glove’s fingers.
Evan saw the fingers of the glove move in concert with Zoe’s hand, like the tentacles of a sea anemone searching for a fish with a sense unfamiliar to us. The earth hand wanted to prolong the child’s tentative touch.
She turned to Evan and smiled. Growing in confidence.
‘Shall I shake hands with it, Mr Evan?’
She reached down more definitively this time. The anemone fingers stopped moving around, and extended towards her hand.
‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Zoe,’ he said. He bent down and scooped up the child. He’d never picked her up before, but he held her tight now. All he could see at the bottom of the hole now were five white dots, the very top of whatever it was that Zoe was playing with.
‘Did you touch the earth’s hand sweetie?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘No. Maybe I did touch it. Just a bit. It made my fingers tingle.’
‘Oh. Can I have a look at your hands?’
‘Here they are Mr Evan,’ she said, holding her hands up. There was a dry white powder on the tips of her fingers, which were slightly red.
‘Let’s go and get your hands cleaned up. I don’t think we want you putting them in your mouth after playing with the dirt.’
Normally he’d send her home to wash her hands, but this time he wanted to make sure that she really cleaned them. So he took her to the bathroom in his house, and scrubbed them for her.
Later he filled in the hole and, with gloves on, pushed the beetroot seedlings into the dirt. He nailed all the palings he could find back onto the fence and covered the remaining gaps with the side of a second-hand wardrobe he was pretending he would repair one day. He didn’t want to instruct Zoe not to come over, but he’d like it if she couldn’t push through the fence alone.
It started to grow well before Europeans arrived in Australia. It is older than the church yard in Cornwall where it used to live, before the priest accidentally took it and the others to Australia in a secreted relic. It is older, even, than the Roman road that defined one side of the pre-Christian burial site that the church took over. And for all that time it has been able to smell-taste-touch others. Here in this rich but empty suburban soil, it is alone for the first time.
Reaching for a warm, moving body is not a part of their culture. Their laws prohibit touching a body not ready for fungus. Alone and hungry, it is confused. It feels disgust at what it tried to do, but there are no others to weave its filaments around and sense what is right. Its shame seeps into the soil.
The newly fixed fence stopped Zoe from coming into Evan’s backyard. He missed the child, but he didn’t want her digging in the garden. He won’t go back to that patch of garden either. He used to love the feel of the earth in his vegetable plot and the warm smell of decomposing mulch. Not now. An acrid and offensive smell kept him away.
Evan didn’t want to believe that he’d seen a hand. Hands did not simply sprout out of the ground. But there was a picture of something similar in Patricia’s slideshow just before Mr Wombat’s body collapsed. At least the time-lapse picture of five white fingers reaching for the carcass in Majors Creek confirmed that he wasn’t mad. But he didn’t know what to do.
He’d like to tell Steve not to let Zoe touch the ground in their yard either, in case the hand could move about. But how would he explain it? He’d like to tell someone that there was something dangerous in his garden. He didn’t want to try to catch it himself. But who would he tell? The police? Urban services? What would he say to them? An underground monster wouldn’t be easy to sell to the police. Particularly if you were a university student researching the supernatural.
So he stayed quiet. He didn’t even tell Patricia.
Esky loved the new weedy hiding places for her bones in the garden. She was fastidious about hiding them. Evan had seen her carefully dig a hole only to see a crow watching her, which meant she had to move the bone.
Evan watched from his desk as Esky dug a hole in the vegetable garden and dropped a new bone in. He smiled. In a couple of days it would be on the back step, covered in mud and putrefying flesh.
After putting the bone in the hole, Esky looked around to see if her new spot was safe. Evan instinctively dropped his gaze so he didn’t meet her eyes.
When he looked up again, Esky had her head in the hole. She was growling and trying to pull something out of it. Evan watched, amused by the dog’s daily new games.
Unlike the ‘trotting around with his shoes in her mouth’ game, this looked serious. Esky was getting genuinely, not pretend, angry.
Evan remembered Zoe’s last game with the earth and jumped up. When he got to the vegetable patch he could see that Esky had one end of the bone in her mouth, and was pulling against a white hand that had the other end firmly in its grasp. Esky was trying all her tricks to get the bone from the hand. She pulled hard, so Evan could see a forearm extend out of the ground. Hoping to fox the hand she stopped pulling. The hand and arm retracted into the ground. Then she shook her end from side to side to wrench the bone from her buried nemesis. It didn’t work. The earth had a firm grip on Esky’s bone.
Evan reached down and grabbed her by the collar. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to help her regain her bone, or pull her away from the fray. Esky wasn’t sure either. She turned and half bit him, no doubt under the impression that she was being attacked from both sides. It was a mistake, because she had to release the bone, which quickly disappeared under the ground.
Evan let go of her collar. Free again, Esky started to dig, chasing her bone into the earth. This time Evan grabbed her collar with a clear objective. They were both going for the safety of the house, insulated from the ground by a six-inch slab of concrete.
Over the next week Evan worked on convincing Patricia to move to a better suburb south of the lake. He didn’t tell her why. He knew she had a right to know. But the explanation might tempt her to chase whatever was in their garden. He simply wanted to be away.
He made sure that his badly repaired fence wasn’t the only bulwark against Zoe. It broke his heart, but he told Steve that he didn’t like how she dug holes in his garden and she wasn’t to come over anymore. The next time he saw her on the street his face lit up as always, but she didn’t meet his eyes. Esky didn’t get any more bones. She was only allowed out to go to the toilet.
One day, hungry, and alone without others to remind it of the wrong, it reaches out and grabs the leg of a warm thing. A moving creature doesn’t taste right. But the body is juicy, and it feeds on the twitching muscle and flowing blood.
After the meal, it doesn’t want to go back to the earth and lie in the smell-taste-touch of its violation. So it stays in the carcass of the warm thing and lets the air currents above the surface ease away the slick sour-tasting odour of its sin.
Evan felt crushed as he carried Esky from the backyard to his ute. She was heavier than he remembered, and smelt more than she should. He wanted to kiss her soft temple, and run the side of his face across her fur. She’d been at his side throughout university. She deserved a last cuddle. But he was afraid to kiss or nuzzle her, though she’d do it for him. In fact he took care not to let his bare skin touch her.
He wouldn’t bury her at this house. That would cede victory to the earth that Esky fought with. He’d have liked to have buried her in their new rental house, so that she could be close to him when he finished his degree. But they hadn’t taken possession of the property yet, and the current tenants probably wouldn’t appreciate him turning up with a dog carcass. So he decided to take the body to one of the roads that they’d scoured six months ago. Patricia’s pictures brought out the gentleness of decay in the countryside. He’d tell her that he buried Esky in the backyard and then went for a drive to clear his head.
It recognises the smell-taste-touch of the metal box that took it away from the others.
Sensations wash over it as the box bumps over the back roads towards Majors Creek. It smell-touch-tastes proper, cold, rotting food.
All of a sudden it senses others. Its filaments tighten, anticipating what it would be like to wrap itself around them, to smell-taste-touch them and what they are sensing.
Esky’s carcass spasms. If Evan had been looking through his rear-view mirror he would have seen a blur of white leaving his dog and disappearing over the lip of the tray.
Evan had slowed at the Majors Creek cemetery. He wasn’t going to stop, but he wanted to see if there was any clue about what might have followed them home that day.
The thump from the back of the ute as the creature left Esky made him plant his foot on the brake. He skidded to a stop on the verge beside the cemetery. A wheel skipped off the asphalt and dug a groove into the gravel.
He’d been afraid of the white hand in Canberra. Now, it seemed to him that Esky’s body was being attacked again, and that he’d be denied the chance to bury her. His anger beat his fear. He got out of the ute, picked up the spade in the tray, and moved to the back of the car, ready to attack anything trying to interfere with Esky’s corpse.
Nothing was moving. Apart from some birds singing in the distance, nothing was making any noise either. There wasn’t even any road noise from cars.
Evan smelt the air. It was cold but clean and softly scented by the chlorophyll from the grass and the oil from the leaves of the cypress pines. He looked around and remembered why this had been such a perfect spot for Patricia’s final shot. A deep sense of peace and contentment hung in the air. Evan wanted to be buried in a place like this when his time came.
The grass inside the gate was uncut. It didn’t look like there would be a gardener along anytime soon. He shuddered to imagine what Patricia would think of it, but he walked to a corner of the graveyard and started to dig a grave for Esky.
If you didn’t know where it was, you could see Majors Creek as either English or Australian, he thought. It was green like England, but the cypress pines that shaded the graves had a hint of Australian grey in their trunks and leaves, and if you looked closely, you could see red clay in the bare patches near the fences.
Maybe that was the problem with his thesis, he thought. Perhaps European-Australians were still overawed by the landscape, like the early painters who could only see it through British eyes and transformed gum trees into willows and oaks. In a hundred years, maybe we’ll understand our fears well enough for genuinely multi-cultural revenants to crystallise. Perhaps they’re here already and we just can’t see them.
More time, he thought.
Nick Hartland lives and works in Canberra, where he regularly drives between the city and the coast. He has a lifelong love of speculative fiction of all genres. His fiction has been published in Antipodean SF.