by Barry William Metcalf
Regatta Day began like most days at this time of the year in Alice Springs--cool, but cloud-free with the promise of much sunshine and abundant warmth. It was ideal weather in which to hold the annual Henley-on-Todd boat races, for in this town these events were held in the dry river bed and rain would have brought confusion and ruin to the fun program planned for this special day.
For most of the morning all over the town last-minute preparations were being performed on the various entrants for this race: ropes holding beer cans in place along the sides of the craft were being examined for strength and the ability to stay together for the entire event, cardboard and ply-wood sides were tested to discover whether they would hold together until the end of the course, wheels were checked and oiled so as to offer the least resistance when running along the coarse sandy bottom of the riverbed, groups of individuals and team members made sure that their costumes were not only colorful or bizarre, but that they would also last at least until the end of the race.
When all these things were deemed to be in readiness, the contestants began to arrive at the venue, the waterless bed of the Todd River. In trickles that grew to a torrent as the time of the start of the race drew closer, spectators began to arrive.
Daniel, Caitlin, Joshua, Aaron, Mitchell, Natasha, Jake and Emma had no interest in the events that were taking place in the arid sandy bottom of the Todd River. Not for them were the boat races along the dry watercourse, the cheering and egging-on of the various entrants as each craft was propelled toward the finish line. Nor were they particularly interested in the numerous fast food outlets that had been set up to take advantage of this captive audience, this gathering of the populace for this one-day-of-the-year event.
These eight had more interesting and entertaining amusement organized for this day. They were not about to utilize their Saturday for such festivities that catered mainly to adults; for them there was much more enjoyable and appropriate game afoot.
For some months many of the children of the town, but especially these eight, had developed an interest in an old lady who lived in Kraegen Street. At least, they thought that an old lady lived in the simple, single-story house in the older section of town. The truth of the matter was that only Daniel of all the members of the group had actually seen the old woman, for she was a fairly recent arrival in the town and she seemed to keep herself pretty much locked away inside her house.
Daniel had described her as ancient, an old hag who preyed upon those unfortunate children who dared to enter her yard. He declared that she could cast spells that would change them all into frogs; but none of them, not even Daniel, claimed to have actually seen this happen. Spurned on by the tales that Daniel frequently told, the eight children had decided to spend today checking out once and for all whether the old woman was indeed a witch or not.
Once they arrived in the vicinity of the property, the eight stood on the other side of the street, unsure as to how to proceed, scared to go too close to the house lest the witch appeared from inside and cast a spell on them. For some time there was discussion about who should do what and when, and, eventually since it was mainly because of his stories that they were there, Daniel was elected to approach the house.
Daniel was eleven, and like most children his age, his world was peopled not only by sane individuals such as his teachers and parents (and he was not too sure about some of his teachers), but also by a whole assortment of goblins, elves, witches and giants that could do him damage in any number of disgusting and different ways. So it was that, although Daniel relished the attention of his classmates and friends caused by his knowledge of the crone, he nonetheless was rather dubious about approaching any closer to her house than the opposite side of the street.
However, bravery being something over which we often have no real control, Daniel was compelled by dint of much arguing, cajoling, chastising, teasing and pushing to cross the road and approach the house where dwelt the witch.
On legs that were made of rubber and certainly did no seem to belong to him, he slowly crossed the street, his eyes rolling, his skin crawling, his knees trembling, his head turning frequently to seek assistance from his friends, toward the house where lived that which he feared most at this stage of his young life.
Somehow he managed to make it across the street and approach the gate to the witch's house. Somehow he was not struck by lightning. Somehow he did not change into a frog.
After he had stood outside the gate of his greatest fear for a few minutes, and it had become evident that he was not going to be murdered or changed in any way, Daniel's bravado returned from whence it had lain dormant for many long minutes and he commenced to dance up and down, to call out epithets and insults, to generally show all and sundry that he was not afraid of the wicked witch.
Seeing that their friend had not been vaporized by the ancient hag that lived in the house, the remaining children determined to demonstrate their own courage by joining him outside the gate. Soon their confidence had returned in its entirety and they began to enjoy themselves.
There were stones in abundance along the gutters that lined the street and these they scooped up and used to advantage, throwing them at the front door of the house and then, finally, the front windows. This barrage of small rocks continued for several minutes with no damage of any real nature being done to the house.
Suddenly there was a sharp crack, a shattering of glass, followed by silence.
Inevitably, one of these missiles, thrown with accuracy that only children seem to be able to develop to any great degree, struck the pane of glass, about one-third of the way up from the sill, and formed a small, jagged hole in its surface.
Almost immediately the curtains were drawn back and an aged face topped by a mess of unruly gray hair peered through the window at them. She mouthed something that they could not hear, at the same time raising her hand, and she shook her fist in their direction; but the octet did not need to be able to hear. They knew without a shadow of a doubt that the witch was casting a spell upon them, a spell that she was directing with her hand.
As one they ran off in a mad scramble up the street, away from the front of the house.
When they were far enough along the street to consider they were out of range of the witch's powers, they stopped, the gamest pausing closest to the house, the more afraid further away. Huffing and puffing, their breath coming in short, sharp gasps, they began to regroup and check that all were present. When they realized that none of them had been made to disappear by the crone's magic, they commenced to plan their next move.
"Let's go back," suggested Joshua. He was the oldest and liked to lead the band, but he often had to give way to his younger brother, Daniel.
"Let's leave her alone," ventured Natasha, tiring of the game already. "I want to go and buy an ice cream."
"Yeah, let's have ice creams," enthused Jake, who was always hungry.
There was a chorus of voices agreeing with this choice of options.
"Quiet!" said Joshua over the babble of voices. "Let's ask Daniel what he thinks."
Daniel had avoided suggesting anything so far. He had been just as scared as the others had been when the old woman had appeared at her window, but he was not about to admit this. Nor was he about to suggest that they return; but he liked being the most knowledgeable of the group, so he knew he had to say something.
"Was anyone hurt when she cast her spell at us?" he eventually asked, sounding authoritative without actually making a decision.
"I haven't been changed into a frog," suggested Emma. She was the youngest of the group and tended to state the obvious.
"We can see that, silly," retorted Natasha, who had no time at all for the foolishness of others. "Shut up if you haven't anything useful to say."
Emma looked hurt. She had not realized that her statement was silly.
"What do you say, Daniel?" asked Aaron, wanting to return but not if he had to be alone or lead the way.
"Well, I don't know that we...," commenced Daniel, seeking a way to avoid returning to the witch's house without demonstrating cowardice.
"You think we should go back and have another go at her, don't you Daniel?" prompted Joshua, anxious to return but wanting someone else to make the actual decision.
Daniel thought about it for a moment or two. He could think of dozens of reasons why they should not return to the house up the street, and none why they should; but he did not wish to been seen as a coward, so he chose the option that would make him look best in the eyes of his brother and their friends.
"We…" he began slowly; "should go back!" He blurted out the last part of the sentence, the words tumbling over each other in their
endeavor to escape his mouth. When he was finished he felt sick in his stomach.
"It's settled then," said Joshua, full of importance now that the decision had been made. "Let's grab some more stones and see if we can break some more of the old bitch's windows." Joshua liked to swear, liked to use the profanity his parents often uttered. He believed it made him sound more forceful, more in control.
He turned and began to retrace his steps toward the house, picking up stones as he went, the others, one by one, following in his wake.
Supplies of ammunition restored, they strode to the front fence of the house and began to pelt the oak door with their missiles. Once again the elderly woman tugged back her lace curtains and glared at them, but this time she did not shake her fist or gesticulate in any way. Emboldened by her inactivity, they increased the tempo of their attack.
In no time at all rocks and stones began to rain upon the front of the dwelling. Glass smashed and tinkled again as more and more of the missiles struck their mark, and the old woman withdrew from the window, seeking safety within the building.
Suddenly, there was the shrill sound of a siren and the children turned from their self-appointed task to find that a police car had pulled up in the street behind them. As the constable alighted from the vehicle, tugging his hat onto his head, the eight children opened their hands as if orchestrated by some outside force, and dropped the remainder of the stones they had been holding. For some reason, not one of them thought to run.
"Just what's going on here?" yelled Constable Bryan Jones, annoyed that he had been called away from the regatta to deal with this petty incident. He stepped onto the footpath so that he stood before the eight. "Well?" he asked again when no one answered him.
The children arranged themselves, as children seem always able to do without any coaching or training, in a group where the leaders were at the front, the followers furthest away from the symbol of authority. Several of them looked down at the pavement, others scuffed the toes of their shoes.
"Well, who's going to answer me?" Constable Jones asked, casting around the group for someone to break the silence. "You, Joshua Westleigh," he continued, selecting the tallest boy in the group and one of the ones whose full name he knew; "what exactly is going on here?"
Joshua looked away nervously. When he looked back the policeman was still standing there before him, hands on his hips. With the sun behind him he looked about ten feet tall and very menacing to the youngster.
"We was just having some fun," he muttered at length.
"Fun!" sneered the constable. "You call throwing stones at a house and frightening an old lady half to death 'fun'?"
Joshua looked decidedly nervous now. He glanced back over his shoulder for support from the others, but they were all looking somewhere else.
"No, Sir," he ventured, hoping that this was enough for the policeman.
"No!" yelled Constable Jones. "Is that all you have to say for yourselves?"
"We didn't mean no harm, Sir," volunteered Caitlin, who had not spoken before. She was really scared now and needed to go to the toilet. She crossed her legs and began to jiggle. "We was just hoping to scare the witch."
"Witch!" sneered the constable. Then his voice softened a little. "You wanted to annoy the witch?"
"The boys did, Sir," replied Natasha, seizing an opening by which some of them might escape the trouble that seemed to be looming for them. "We girls just wanted to go and get an ice cream."
"An ice cream, eh," Bryan Jones repeated. "Somehow I don't think that there'll be too many ice creams for you lot today. Wait'll your parents hear about this."
"Please, Sir," begged Daniel. "Don't tell our parents. We don't want to get into any trouble. After all she's just a witch and we couldn't harm her."
"Who told you she was a witch?" the policeman asked, bending down before the children. "Who told you that?"
"Just about everyone in town, Sir," answered Daniel.
"Who's this 'just about everyone'?" asked the constable, looking from one to another.
"I heard my mum say it only last night," blurted Mitchell from behind the safety of Natasha's back.
"An' I heard my dad say the old witch in Kraegen Street hasn't yet paid her grocery bill," volunteered Aaron importantly, puffing his chest out to give credence to his words.
"I see," replied Constable Jones, scratching his head and thinking. "If I tell you something, do you think you can all leave here and never bother this lady again? Ever?"
"Yes, Sir," responded Daniel, anxious to say anything that would result in bringing an end to this trouble.
There was a chorus of assent from the others.
"Promise me," demanded the policeman. "Let me see all of you place your hands over your hearts and let me hear you promise."
As one the children complied. Each placed a hand over his or her heart and said: "I promise."
"All right," said Bryan Jones. "Now all of you gather around me, come closer and listen very carefully." And when the children were as close as they could be, he whispered: "The lady in the house is a witch. Her name is Wanda Jean and she has the power to cast spells on you all, even when you are safely at home in your beds. If you tease or torment her any more, if you throw stones at her house, if you annoy her in any way, she will change you all into toads and I will be powerless to stop her." The children listened with wide eyes and gaping mouths. "Remember," he concluded; "she is a witch and she can get at you anywhere.
"Now get out of here and I'll forget this ever happened."
As a single unit the eight children turned and ran as fast as their legs could carry them back to the regatta and the safety of their parents.
"Wanda Jean! Wanda Jean!
Look! Look! It's Wanda Jean!
She's so ugly, she's so mean!
Hide! Hide! It's Wanda Jean!"
"Wanda Jean! Wanda Jean!
She's a witch with curses mean!
She's in your nightmare, in your dream!
You can't hide from Wanda Jean!"
Children's rhyme, Alice Springs.
The moon hung in the sky like a paper lantern over the freezing cold countryside, its golden glow filtering through the misty haze that hung suspended curtain-like across the outback landscape. So big, so round was this satellite of the planet that it appeared close enough for anyone to touch, provided they were perched upon one of the many rooftops that lay shrouded behind the filmy layer of mist.
The time as indicated by the clocks in the airport terminal, located some distance outside the town limits, was almost midnight on this all hallows eve, this night when spooks and ghosts and the like were wont to be out and about, this night of October 29, this night of Halloween.
But the ghosts and spooks, witches and the like were all snug and warm within their beds, for the children who delighted in scaring the residents, their neighbors, friends and families, had long since discarded their costumes for the comfort of their pajamas and bedclothes and all were safely lost in slumber, each excited little mind at last lost to its own particular dreams or nightmares. All over the city of Alice Springs, the adults too were retiring for the night (those that hadn't already done so--and that was a goodly number, for "The Alice" held little in the way of night-life that was likely to tempt the inhabitants from their warm lounge-rooms and their even warmer beds when the nights were as cold as the days were warm), and all over the little city lights were being extinguished as yet another uneventful day in the ordinary lives of the inhabitants of this Central Australian town repaired for their well-earned rest.
Had one of these sober inhabitants happened to be out and about on this cold, spring night, they might have seen a dark shadow pass momentarily across the face of the golden moon; but then only if they had been looking upward at the very moment this event occurred. However, since none of those sober enough to have witnessed such an event were outside on this chilly night, nor were any of these people even looking at the moon from inside their houses at that very moment, the passing of the shadow across the lunar face went almost unnoticed. Almost... but not quite.
Eric James Stephenson was drunk, but he was down on his luck even worse than usual and had only been able to afford the one bottle of cheap wine, rather than the usual cask. He had thus awakened early from a drunken slumber to the realization that he was freezing his arse off where he had, in his drunken stupor, deposited his frail bones for the night. He had, therefore, with great difficulty, roused himself from his uncomfortable position on the concrete apron that led to the loading bay located at the rear of Woolworth's Supermarket in the heart of town. Eric commenced to stagger off in the general direction of the Salvation Army hall where his clouded mind had informed him he would be able to find a warmer bed for the night. He staggered as drunks usually do, rolling from side to side as if he had one leg shorter than the other, as if he had been at sea for many months and had not yet fully regained his land legs. Still, all would have been well for him as he staggered across the vacant car-park, even in his somewhat inebriated state, but for the fact that someone had thoughtlessly left a shopping trolley lying on its side in the middle of his somewhat meandering path. With a curse he toppled forward, the top half of his body striking the side of the overturned trolley, winding him, his right shin slamming against one of the bottom rails, removing the top layer of skin from his leg at the point of impact as it did so. Unable to think quickly enough to attempt to break his fall, Eric had collapsed, his limp body seeming to fold entirely over the offending barrier; and it was probably his somewhat less than rigid torso that prevented him from seriously injuring himself when he landed. Land heavily he did, however, rolling off the trolley to lie on his back, his breath rasping in his throat, stars spinning in the immediate vicinity of his wide, staring eyes. He wondered vaguely whom he was, where he was and what he had done to cause himself to be so breathless. As the stars began to fade in front of his eyes, Eric managed to focus on the sky above him and the enormous gold medallion of the moon above. It seemed so close that he reached forth a hand to pluck it from in front of him, for to him it looked like a huge gold coin hanging there, reverse side facing toward him.
So it was, that as he lay thus, struggling to regain his breath, attempting to gather this seeming gift from heaven that continued to hover just outside of his reach, Eric was perhaps the only person in Alice Springs who saw the dark shadow as it passed across the face of the moon. His eyes went wide and he licked his dry lips in fright.
"Wanda Jean!" he cursed and attempted to cross himself, even though he was not a Catholic. "Wanda Jean!" he muttered a second time as he rolled over and struggled to regain his feet. "Wanda Jean!" he screamed for the third and last time as she staggered as fast as his legs would carry him in the direction of the Salvation Army Hall and safety.
As silently as a shadow the four-legged creature strode through the silvered desert landscape that surrounded Ayers Rock. Despite the fact that it was only three minutes past midnight on the day of October 30 and that the huge moon accentuated rather than alleviated the shadows of the landscape, the dingo yet strode purposefully and sure-footed. A night hunter by preference, the wild dog was more at home in this wilderness under these conditions than any other creature, except maybe for the aboriginals. These days, however, made soft by the white man's civilization and the white man's alcohol, the aboriginals were not likely to be hunting him at this time of night, even if at all. In a hazy sort of way that did not include the details of this estimation of the situation, but which was part of his inherited communal instinct, the canine was fully aware that his greatest enemy was no longer the indigenous black tribesmen who had once lived and hunted in these regions. Tonight it was some other, darker fear that trickled through the animal's brain, making it more cautious than was its wont of late.
A noise, sudden and strident, from immediately in front of it, reached the dingo's ears and he stopped dead in his tracks, ears up-pricked, tail tautly held between his back legs, every muscle stiffened to respond should that be necessary. But the noise was not repeated and in its cunning animal brain it knew that it had been nothing more frightening than the noises campers often made when safely tucked away in one of the numerous camping grounds through which the dingo regularly trekked.
Once more the wild creature resumed its sure-footed procession and it was obvious now that its way would take it directly to and through the area where were currently located some one hundred and twenty souls, each of whom was sleeping in some form of tent, caravan or vehicle, exhausted by their day of touring on and around the giant monolith.
Many times in the past had the dingo strode majestically through this haphazard arrangement of abodes of both the white and the black man, and tonight it saw no need to alter the course that had taken it successfully through this and numerous other camps throughout the last seven years. It knew no fear of humans: true, it was timid of them when approached and would run away at the slightest indication of interest from these two-legged creatures; but fear of them was not something that dictated its actions, especially on its own territory, especially at night
Approaching the edge of the camping ground, the dingo barely paused in its stride, but headed deep into the encampment, dodging expertly each obstacle as it was presented. A slight breeze drifted off the desert, whipped around the flaps of one of the tents nearest the animal and ruffled the fur across the creature's back, but the dingo knew there was nothing to fear from this, and continued surely on its way.
Approaching a particular tent, the creature lowered its head to the ground and began to sniff. As it did so it commenced to prowl along the outer perimeter of the dwelling, seeking an opening or entranceway through which it might find ingress. Up one side of the canvas structure ranged the wild animal, faster and faster as if intent on not letting its quarry escape until, eventually, it rounded the corner of the large tent and an opening presented itself to the canine's keen eyes.
It was only a small opening, true, but more than large enough to permit the dingo to enter the front of the flimsy abode.
For the barest fraction of a second, the animal halted, head uplifted, again testing the wind for any signs of danger; then with an air and manner of a creature that has done this hundreds of times in the past, the dingo slipped as silently as death into the canvas shelter.
In mere seconds it had located that which it sort and had left the dwelling by the same avenue by which it had entered, only this time, in its mouth, it carried a small, round bundle. Having obviously accomplished its design, the predator headed directly towards the far side of the camp and safety. Nor did it seem hindered by the burden it carried. Far from it. The dingo continued to move with the same ease and speed with which it had first entered the collection of temporary dwellings.
Again the wind from off the desert ruffled the fur on its back, but this time it brought something else to the creature's highly-strung senses. It was not a sound, but a smell and it was obvious that the dingo associated that smell with something to be feared. It paused, snarled once deep down in its throat without opening its jaws (for to do so would have been to drop the bundle it had so successfully scored), and then ran as fast as it could toward the edge of the camping ground. No longer was it bent on stealth and cunning; it was now simply a creature striving to escape that which it desperately fears.
The dingo reached the edge of the camp, bundle still firmly grasped in its maw, its eyes focused not on where it was going but on something far off into the distance. Now that it was safely outside the confines of the human campsite, the creature could let its legs and muscles and its indomitable heart carry it to safety.
Three hundred meters from the edge of the camping ground, the dingo stopped as if it had run into a brick fence where no brick fence had any right to be. It bounced back from this unseen obstacle, a frightened yelp issuing from its mouth, the bundle it had been carrying dropping to the surface of the desert. A thin trickle of blood seeped from one nostril as it staggered to regain its feet, but with all the wind momentarily knocked out of its lungs by the impact, it merely staggered two more steps before falling facedown into the desert sand.
It was found there late the next afternoon by a couple of young tourists, who had headed out from their camp to explore the surrounding countryside. What had killed the dingo they could not tell, except that its body was flattened as if squashed by a giant boulder, although there was only a thin trickle of blood from one nostril.
The other object they found was much easier to explain: it was obvious that the dingo had infiltrated the camp at night and had stolen a package filled with sausages from some careless camper's supplies.
Chapter 2 and 3