This is a true story. It is up to you whether or not to believe it.
It was a long time ago. My memory’s never been that good; not when it comes to my own past, anyway. Everything earlier than about 2002 is a jumbled blur in my mind. Perhaps it’s a side effect of prolonged caffeine abuse, or perhaps my non-stop accumulation of useless facts has destroyed my ability to remember actual events. But I remember that weekend well enough.
If I had to guess, I’d say I was about twelve at the time. I’d just moved to a new school, and this school had girls in it, and life had suddenly become a lot more interesting. It was also a Catholic school, a fact which I embraced a lot more than my parents had expected. The truth was, I enjoyed the Bible reading subject, I liked that there were real live nuns roaming the halls, and I would get thoroughly excited at the prospect of Confession; the Monsignor was such a kindly and popular old man that many students, myself included, would make up imaginary sins to confess (“I ate my brother’s lunch,” “I forgot to wash the dog,” etc.) so as not to disappoint him.
At the time, my family owned a holiday house about three hours’ drive from the city, tucked away in a beautiful little region known for its beaches and vineyards. It sat on a large block of land – mostly old karri forest – fully detached from the road and the town. You couldn’t see the neighbors’ houses, not even from the upstairs windows. We’d go there four or five times a year; somehow, these were the only family holidays where we didn’t transform into a monstrously dysfunctional mess after two days in each other’s company.
So there we were, on one such holiday. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was summer. I woke up in the dorm room that I shared with my brothers. It was pre-dawn, and a weak light was just starting to seep in through the cracks in the venetian blinds. Carefully, so as not to wake anyone, I dressed and readied myself.
I pulled on my hiking boots; I’d owned them for years but they were still stiff, as I only wore them on these trips to the forest. I packed a backpack: bread, cheese, water, and my trusty Swiss Army knife, the one my camp leader had temporarily confiscated in Grade Five ‘because I couldn’t be trusted with it’. I picked up my walking stick; it was gnarled, twisted in improbable ways. Probably, it had come from some sort of thick, creeping vine. It was, undoubtedly, magic.
You see, I considered myself something of an outdoorsman. I’d just discovered Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons – those twin pillars of youthful geekdom – and what I wanted more than anything else in the world was to be a Ranger. For those not in the know: Rangers were the silent, vengeful spirits of the forest; able to hunt from afar and to blend, unseen, into the foliage. They were mystical and powerful; a force of nature. Rangers were cool.
Please, don’t laugh. I’m opening up, here.
So, leaving my family to sleep, I crept out the door at that ungodly hour and set off into the forest. But this wasn’t a random stroll in the foliage. No, I had a very specific destination in mind. It was the same place I always went.
Let me tell you about karri forests: For one thing, the trees are enormous. Not thick around the trunks, but tall and towering; so tall that their ghost-white branches are always swaying, dancing, with the wind. The karris were the most beautiful of all, but there were others: the burnt-black jarrah; the lumpy, pale marri-gums; the bracken fern that covered the forest floor like a waist-high green carpet. As a walked, I kept a sharp look-out for fairy wrens and the tiny flashes of fluorescent color that marked their flight. Amateur birdwatching was something of a youthful hobby of mine. Did I mention I was a geek?
Pushing through the bracken and dew-flecked cobwebs, past the cubby-house I’d built with my brothers years before, I went deeper into the forest. I knew that when I reached the first clearing – a hole in the canopy formed by the death of an old, old karri, its carcass now a playground for termites, ants and other insects – I had to turn and head further in, towards a fat little tree stump. There I reached the path (actually a cleared fire-break) that separated our property from that of the neighbors.
I followed the trail. The path was wide and clear, but it felt just a little bit more dangerous, now that I’d left my family’s land. I was walking into uncertainty. I pressed on, testing each step with my gnarled walking stick, feeling the leaves crunch underfoot, wondering idly if there was anyone else around to hear them crunch.
I came at last to the end of the trail. The sun was just over the horizon now, and the day was starting to warm up. I looked around. Behind me and to the left was our neighbor’s property. Back and to the right, the tree-line ended and the land sloped down towards a tiny communal creek, where we would sometimes go to try and catch yabbies. And directly in front of me there was a barbed-wire fence, beyond which lay a forbidden land.
I studied the fence. I knew there were several ways to get through. My brothers and I had discovered them all. First, you could crawl underneath. Besides being fairly difficult to do with a jumper on, this method left the front of your clothes covered in dirt and leaves. Second, you could get someone to pull back the strong wired gate of the fence, allowing you to slip through. Seeing as it was just me here, that left option three: climb over.
This had gotten easier as I’d grown bigger, but it was still a reasonably high fence. Carefully, I tossed my walking stick and backpack over the other side. I dragged a loose tree stump over to the fence and climbed up onto it. Then, with careful movements, I hooked one leg over the fence, followed it with the other, and suddenly I was on the other side.
I was standing in farmland. Dirty brown grass stretched away down the hill into a small valley. Here and there, the pasture was spotted with an occasional tree. I didn’t know who owned it – on all our visits here we’d never seen a farmer, or anyone else for that matter. Usually, this was as far as we came. But today, I was determined to walk a little further.
I set out into the hilly farmland. The cows were nowhere in sight, but their leavings dotted the pasture like landmines. Carefully, I stepped around them. I was quiet now as I walked, just as I imagined a Ranger to be. I knew what awaited me at the top of the next hill, and I knew I had to be quiet as a mouse, or I’d scare them away.
The kangaroos. That was their hill, the one right beside the forest’s edge, its sloping side covered with ferns. They grazed there in the mornings; usually, the herd numbered at least twenty individuals, including the tiny joeys.
I can hear some of you sniggering already. Yes, kangaroos are pests and vermin, and not particularly pleasant animals when you get up close to them. Even as a city kid, I didn’t think that much of them. But when you see them in a herd like that, grazing on a hillside at dawn, they can seem almost prehistoric; like a lost herd of ornithomimus just recently wandered out of the Cretaceous.
Slowly, I moved towards the top of the hill, ducking silently from tree to tree. I must have looked completely ridiculous to anyone watching. Finally, I reached the top and looked out over the crest towards the other side of the valley, to the fern-covered slope beside the edge of the forest.
And there they were, right on time. There must have been two dozen of them there on the hillside. Some foraged among the grass or tended to their youngsters, while others lay on their backs in that lazy manner roos have, as if greeting the sun. I knew I had to be very quiet; if even one of them panicked, it would send the entire herd bounding away to safety.
I watched them with interest. Here, two tall males were having a scuffle while other members of the herd looked on. There, a mother was leading her joey around, never letting it get too far from the others. I imagined names for them, and personalities. For a good ten minutes, I just sat and watched.
Then I looked towards the centre of the herd, and I saw the strangest roo I’d ever seen.
It was hunched over, and the muscles of its back seemed oddly large and bulky. Its legs bent awkwardly, and as it reached down to gnaw on a fern, a long mane of hair fell down around its face. That’s when I realised…
It wasn’t a kangaroo. It was a boy.
He was naked, but his skin was brown with dirt and grime; the brown of a roo’s fur. He moved in a curiously mammalian way, first pushing along with his forearms, now rearing up on his legs. The effect was deeply unsettling. It was like looking into your own genetic past and coming face to face with something dark and primal. Prehistoric.
Then he looked up, and he sniffed the air, and he stared across the valley at me.
They ran. It happened instantly, as if some ultra-sonic starter’s gun had just gone off. One moment they were there, the next moment the entire herd was leaping madly towards the tree-line. And he ran with them, faster than I’ve ever seen a human run, and they disappeared from sight.
After that, I stopped going on my dawn walks. I never told anyone about the boy on the hill. Whenever my family asked, I told them I wasn’t interested in the forest anymore.
I grew up, and my memory became worse and worse, but I can still recall that old house and the ghost-white karri trees surrounding it. We sold it years ago, when the family finances could no longer support such extravagances. The week before we were due to hand it over I drove down there for one last look around, and before I knew it I was out in the forest, walking the old path, noting the landmarks like I was twelve again.
At last I came to that old barbed-wire fence, the final signpost on the way to a mysterious and forbidden land. It looked so much smaller than I remembered. I’m sure I could have jumped the fence and gone out into the field again. There was no one around, no farmer to stop me. I might have seen the herd, one last time.
But I didn’t. I turned away and walked back, and the next day I drove away from that house for the last time, content in my memories.