I hear his cries from below, beyond the rock face—he’s still alive!
My hands burn like smouldering charcoal as they skim over the sharp wet rock and my knees sting as they scrape against the fractured stone. I claw at the ledge trying to stop my descent, but the ancient outcrop shows me no mercy and gives me only a few seconds to brace myself for the fall.
The ground rushes to meet me with brutal force. Air shoots from my lungs on impact and a muffled ringing fogs my head.
Using my elbows, I prop myself up. A bone protrudes from the torn flesh of my leg and I vomit. Acidic liquid flushes my nostrils and scorches my throat, choking me. I cradle my aching ribs trying to protect them from each violent jolt.
‘What have I done?’
I lie on the baked red soil and the jagged overhang looms behind me. Surrounding hoop pines pierce the brilliant blue sky, like skyscrapers. No one will see me down here. I’d give anything to hear my mother’s soft voice whisper words of reassurance, but she isn’t here.
The crack of a snapping branch reveals his presence. The black and white speckled coat and masked oval eyes make him almost invisible in his natural habitat. His hind leg is raised, causing him to limp, and his usual wagging tail is tucked away. I close my eyes as his warm wet tongue licks my clammy cheek, his kisses give me the relief my mother cannot provide.
‘Hey boy, hey.’
I run my fingers through the soft mottled fur between his pricked ears and down over his slender frame. My playmate winces as I stroke his thigh causing him to stagger back.
‘Sorry, Bluey.’ He sniffs my bloody hands and my broken leg. ‘I know.’ He nips the bottoms of my bare black feet trying to get me to move. ‘I can’t.’
My body hurts all over.
Bluey paces and starts to bark. His high-pitched yelping would have been heard if we were closer to the house, but I’d wandered off past the boundaries my mother had set, and I’d got lost.
I’d set off this morning, knowing exactly where I was, after all, I’d ventured into the bush with my father many times before, but today my fascination with an ant trail had led me away from the familiar track. When I’d looked up, I hadn’t know which way was home.
A breeze whirls around me and makes the trees above dance like giants. As I watch them lean and sway, I drift into a fanciful sleep—the mighty hoop pines wander across the land like giants. They climb the steep granite cliffs with ease, then stop to bathe in the swimming holes before drinking from the cascading falls.
In brief moments of consciousness, I glimpse the vibrant colours of the king parrots and crimson rosellas decorating the vast ocean of sky, their song becoming part of the music that fills my head.
These vivid distractions merge together, and the trees, with their scrawny arms and clumsy hands, swipe at the birds who flurry around them.
Long shadows turn east as the heat of the day drops. Bluey sleeps at my feet and I listen to the rhythmic pulse of the crickets that gave the bush its very own heartbeat. His head shoots up at the sound of a red-necked wallaby that comes close as it forages the dense vine scrub for food. When it spots Bluey it jumps away.
‘Wait!’ Bluey rests his head on his paws and looks at me. ‘I’ll get us home, I promise.’
Bluey bolts up again. This time he tries to stand. I look around for the wallaby and Bluey growls.
Is someone there? ‘Hey, over here!’ Have we been found?
I hear it first, the loud hissing sound warning us to stay back, then I see the snake raise its head as if its puppeteer is hidden in the trees above.
If we were at home, my father would have grabbed his shovel and beheaded it without a second thought. ‘Not in my yard!’ he’d say. Then he’d walk down past the boundary fence and throw its limp body into the bushes.
Bluey stands on guard. He limps towards the serpent, positioning himself between the snake and me. Beads of sweat run down my face.
‘Here boy, here.’
I lean forward and try to pull Bluey back, but when I move a searing pain tears through my leg.
‘Don’t get any closer, boy.’
He snarls and the snake lunges. Bluey moves back just in time, but yelps as his back legs collapse. The snake, confident of a win, thrusts itself forward again and Bluey howls.
I throw myself towards Bluey and haul my wounded leg across the dirt but the pain is too much.
Blinded by spots of colour, and determined not to pass out, I reach for my brave friend, drag him towards me and fall on my side. He yaps and tries to gnaw his back where he’s been struck.
‘I’m sorry,’ I cry.
This is all my fault. My foolishness will cost him his life.
The snake stays for only a moment longer before it slithers off into the undergrowth.
I wail in the fading light.
‘Help, someone, help us!’
I listen. No one calls back. We are alone.
Bluey whimpers as the poison pumps through his veins. His body jerks and I rub his back in a desperate attempt to ease his pain, but it makes no difference. We lie next to each other, helpless and fearful of what is to come.
The hoop pines become black silhouettes against the burnt golden sky. They raise their arms in worship, and it reminds me of God’s power to turn day into night. The shadows around us turn into black holes and anything that lies in their path ceases to exist.
I stroke Bluey’s warm thick fur and he stares back. The moon’s reflection shines so bright in his eyes, I swear, I can see into his soul. I watch his trunk rise and fall as his breathing slows.
We both know this is the end of our journey together. He licks my wrist. His love for me now is as strong as it’s always been. He loves me unconditionally, and I hope he knows I feel the same way.
The sky above us is filled with a million stars. It’s boundless.
Transparent clouds sail across the sky and I can feel the earth spinning on its axis. We stare into this unknown abyss with wonderment, like two explorers, and watch the tiny lights call us home.
Our bond is unbreakable and will live beyond this lifetime. In death, our love will only expand.
From amongst this vast expanse of space, comes a deep sense of reassurance—I’m no longer afraid.
I shiver and bow my head, touching his. My faithful companion looks at me with sad eyes.
‘I love you,’ I whisper.
He tries to lick my face but he is too weak. I kiss the top of his head, then roll on my back and wrap my arms around me, trying to keep the cold from setting into my bones.
Bluey barks and in one last display of friendship, he pulls himself up, dragging himself over the top of me, and lies down on my chest. His warmth makes my fingers tingle and my face flush. He rests his jaw on his paws and watches me as I fall asleep.
The night is spent in fitful bouts of distress. I dream of floating out in space then flying over the great pines that try to catch me as I rush up and over and through their branches, escaping their grasp each time.
A piercing light appears. It’s so bright I can’t look at its core. Rays shimmer around it; its source is distant, not of this world. I blink and sunlight slips through the slits of my eyelids.
The birds chatter above me and I shudder, finding myself in my broken body once more. I can’t move.
I glance down and Bluey stares back at me. He is rigid. I can see his teeth between his parted lips and I rub his ears and neck, but he’s gone.
His coat is wet with the dew of the cold night. His glassy eyes still watch over me now—he’d protected me until his last breath. I lean towards him and let his nose touch my forehead.
‘Wait for me. Don’t go on without me.’
The giants I have come to know look down at me. Their branches, which reach out to console me, blur as I mourn. My cheeks are warm and wet, and I can taste the dank earth. I hold Bluey tight and inhale the familiar musk that reminds me of home.
I don’t want to let him go, but I have no choice. I try to lift him. My arms tremble, refusing to obey my instructions. In my injured state, I have to ration any energy I have left, so I slide Bluey onto the ground next to me, then with all my might, I push myself up into a sitting position.
Relentless mosquitoes buzz around me and feast on my blood, while birds and other insects carry on with their day, oblivious of my existence.
If I’m going to get out of here alive, it’s up to me.
Through the tree trunks ahead, there’s an open grassland which gently slopes downwards. If I can get there, I know I stand a better chance of being seen.
Walking this distance would have taken only a few minutes, but by the time I lie in the tall grass, shaking and sweating, the sun has moved halfway across the sky. I’d lugged my useless leg over the vine thickets and through the bracken ferns using my good leg and arms to raise my body just enough to slide backwards. Each excruciating movement had brought with it a new level of pain. Only the thought of seeing my mother again kept me going—I can’t die like this—it would break her heart.
Blades of grass slip between my fingers. I’m still alive. How long for though I don’t know.
My head is fuzzy, my body is numb and my mouth parched. I need water. I can no longer think or feel—I just am.
I look at the clouds overhead and over at the fluorescent greens of the rainforest canopy that lie further down the hillside. A brilliant blue butterfly flies over me then disappears into the flares of the sun’s rays. Although I can see all these things around me, my mind can no longer name them. It has let go of its compulsive need to label and categorise. What I experience now is vivid, lucid—immediate. I marvel at the beauty around me, overwhelmed by its complexity and simplicity.
Something inside me shifts—I gaze in awe, lulled by the divine—I know it’s time for me to go home.
© Michelle Upton