THE NULLARBOR

 

JACK FORBES

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In my youth, I never understood my father’s fascination with the Nullarbor Plain of southern Australia. A big, red flat piece of nothing was all Mum said it was. We drove across it once, and true to my mother, the bright blue skies, and arid plains weren’t much to fuss over. My father, though, came to cherish the place. And writing this now, I’ve come to understand the significance of why the last time I ever saw him was on those plains.

Since he was a boy, my father absorbed everything to do with urban legends and the macabre. He would pore over dime-store paperbacks, Ray Bradbury, Lovecraft – all of that. He fell in love with American myths, real or no. He said Bigfoot was a hero, and that he’d see inside the depths of Area 51 before he died. When he wasn’t working, which was often, he wrote short stories, manufacturing his own urban legends. He hoped one day these stories would be immortalized and passed down to generations. He wanted people in thunderstorms or at fireside campsites to retell his stories with their own twists. I admired that about him.

You could say my father was the kooky type, but at least he was endearing. After a few beers, he’d gather Mum and I around and regale us with legends of the Bunny Man Bridge in Virginia, or Charlie No-Face of Pittsburgh. The shame was, my father always said, that Australia had none of these egregious legends. We – Australia – were big, broad and dull. Mum said the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories were full of wonder and lore. That wasn’t the same for my father, though, because he believed they were sacred stories relevant to a people he had no blood or land connection with.

My father worked on and off as a store man. He hated it. Although he never told us, we knew he wanted to be a writer. He worked on this old Olivetti sometimes late into the night, and it drove Mum mad with its clacking. I remember, when I was little, waking up out of bed and finding him in the lounge, hunched at the coffee table with a candle beside him.

All the lights were off, and the windows open for the stagnant heat. He sat there, typing, with the shadow of the typewriter dancing all over his stern face.

When I was 11, Mum inherited some money when my grandfather died. She suggested we trek across the Nullarbor for a family holiday to visit some relatives in Western Australia. My father wasn’t working at this time, and naturally, he felt guilty about holidaying when he couldn’t afford it. Always somewhat childlike with his emotions, my father moped all the way to Adelaide.

By the time we hit the Eyre Highway, his mood had changed. The straight, unwavering road within the endless red earth cleared up whatever cluttered his head. He was wide-eyed, inspired. When a goanna reeled onto the road, he swerved, stopped the car, and went sidling amongst clumps of chenopod, searching for it. He never found the goanna, as he claimed a trapdoor spider nearly nipped his ankle. Mum and I doubted that.

What my father did find on the trip, however, was a small crater off the side of the road. The earth surrounding was brown, but inside the crater was all ashen black. My father and I surveyed this together, while Mum stayed in the car, rolling her eyes.

The whole area smelt of sulfur. I remember my father tying a handkerchief around my mouth, and then his own. We dropped down into the crater to look around. He said we looked like bandits hunting loot. Sifting through the black rubble, my father lifted out a shard of metal. He dusted it with the hem of his shirt and held it up. Like a giant shark’s tooth. Across the middle of the shard, we made out the letters N and A in faded blue and red. My father chuckled and clasped my shoulder.

“It’s from NASA,” he said. “It’s a piece of a rocket ship.” He pointed to the sky, shielding the sun with his hand. Then he looked at the metal, smiling. Then he looked around the dead plains.

From there on in, my father’s fascination with Nullarbor grew. He began his research. Apparently, the Nullarbor and its plains were littered with unsolved mysteries. Though the piece of the rocket ship from NASA was probably just debris from launch, my father was convinced it had something to do with UFOs. The Nullarbor was Australia’s hotspot for UFO sightings, he told me. For the remainder of our trip, my father stopped to inquire with anyone – locals or tourists – about his conspiracies. The people of Balladonia and way out to Ceduna had reportedly witnessed all forms of ghouls and spirits that danced the plains by nightfall.

I couldn’t believe any of the legends, though. They were far too flawed and inconsistent. But if you could see my father – a grown man – there was no joking in his commitment. In hindsight, I realize he wanted so badly to write about this stuff, that a part of himself had to believe it was true.

The idea to return to the Nullarbor again had been in his mind for a while. But it wasn’t that easy to leave. He started working full-time to finance the trip. In his spare time, he frequented the library or read from our collection of encyclopedias. He’d cut and paste pictures, rumours, interviews – anything really, that was obscure enough from the Nullarbor’s realm.

Roughly a year on, as I was nearing 13, my father finalised the trip. Initially, I thought he’d go alone, but he wanted me to come as well. A scout, he said I’d be. He sold it to Mum as a father-son road trip, a milestone in reaching manhood, whatever that meant. To his surprise, she agreed.

We set off in a rented Kombi van. It was the middle of summer, and the dead heat followed us everywhere, day and night. Our mission, or my father’s mission, was to find anything supernatural to write about. He told me he was planning a grand, speculative novel about the Nullarbor.

At nights, stretched out in the Kombi with the vast black nothing in front of us, he’d show me his papers. Random notes, drawings, plot ideas. Even at 13, I thought all of this was somewhat silly. However, I couldn’t help but be swept up in his energy, his sense of adventure. He taught me the allure of the unknown. “Never be afraid,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in the dark.”

The dawn upon the Nullarbor plains is really something else. There is literally nothing to obscure the meridian as the red rim of light crawls up the eastern balcony. I was moved. My father instilled in me an appreciation for the wild, how humbling nature really was.

Every day we awoke a little before dawn and drank tea while watching the sunrise. An image – a memory burn – I have of my childhood is looking over to my father and seeing the pinkish flume of light cast over his face. I thought then, like I still do now, that he looked to be made out of the earth itself.

Diverting from the road, we scoured long, red plains of space. Through chenopod, the rough weed, our feet scrunched the dirt and everywhere the sun was searing. We walked for hours, then spelled for lunch. Some days it would be too hot to walk. Nights I’d peel off the flakes of skin from my sunburn. But it was the nights my father loved most. He’d take out a torch and wander, always a little too far from the Kombi. Nothing happened, though. His light would scan the earth; this proud, unflinching beam pouring over dirt and dust and nothing else.

One dusk we sat on rocks in the yellow light. In the distance, we studied a line of wild camels trotting the horizon. If the wind dipped, we heard them chortle and spit. We’d been talking about how we hadn’t found anything – not a scrap of metal, or even a bone. I could tell it was waning on my father, this whole ridiculous trip. He then proceeded to go into a long, tired monologue about how he loathed work and his life. He loved Mum and me but felt wasted and empty.

My father stood, shook the dregs from his Cooper’s beer bottle. I watched the sediment shoot out the bottleneck and rock the weeds. Close by, where I was watching, I saw the shining black legs of a trapdoor spider. Its legs were slowly receding, back into its lair.

They toyed with the dirt. The trapdoor had taken something, only we missed that too. Inside the Kombi, my father sprawled on his mattress. He said: “Tomorrow we’ll go see the Bight’s edge. Then I think we’ll head home…”

“Okay,” I said, moving in beside him. “I’m happy to stay out here a little longer, though.” He was silent and didn’t respond. He spun his wedding ring around his finger.

Later, I woke to the sound of burning. Peering out the window, I saw my father striking match after match and pitching them into a flaming bucket. I guessed he was burning his notes and stories. Out of everything so far, that made me the saddest.

The clean, blue sky went endless over the broad sea. We stood close to the edge of the cliff, watching the ocean leap up and swallow itself upon rocks. I liked to think it was called the Bight because the cliff’s edge looked like some ancient behemoth years ago had picked up Australia and taken a giant bite out of the land.

“Wow,” I said, but my father didn’t hear.

He gazed out, then closed his eyes.

That night we camped along the edge of the Bight. At midmorning, we tried to fish down on the beach, but the Bight had no beach access. In fact, there is no beach at all. Only rock and waves.

Dusk set its dun light over us, and the cliff’s edge. Beyond, the ocean’s calming surface was struck with a huge, gold sword of sun, strewn until the horizon. My father’s depression had rubbed off on me, and I wasn’t happy with nature anymore. Nature and myth let my father down, more than he could handle. Like a child seeing death for the first time.

We sat around a fire, eating baked beans on white Tip Top. Wind through our hair. My father disclosed to me that evening that he didn’t like a living, not in a societal sense. The idea of work and money and debt was ludicrous to him. He said that’s why he latched onto all these silly stories and legends because they’re better than what is real. He said he thought he would find something out of nothing in the Nullarbor.

Then he was silent, and we continued to eat. I watched ants marching in parallel lines. He then smiled at me and said, “Thanks for coming.”

I woke, disturbed. Coldness washed over me, and I badly needed to piss. I crawled over my father and gently opened the side of the Kombi door. Outside, the air was cold. I mostly watched the starry sky while I pissed, but when I looked down ahead, I saw a white, wispy figure crisscross in the distance. It looked like a sheet blowing on a clothesline but was moving too maniacally. I was frozen. Then, it whirled closer. I saw it had a small face.

Two stone-black eyes, and a red, toothless smile. Before the figure ran into me, it shot up towards the sky and let out a piercing shriek. It flew over the Kombi, and into the outer darkness.

When I ran back to the van, I saw my father was already up in the driver’s seat, staring out the window. I shut the door, sat beside him. He smirked at me. Then he looked at the apparition. “Do you know what that is?”

“No,”

On his lap was an old dusty journal, opened on a page with a grainy photograph of a wild woman, lurking amongst a troop of kangaroos.

“That,” he said, sticking a key into the ignition. “is the Nullarbor Nymph.” I looked ahead in disbelief. The thing was reeling before the headlights, toying with us.

 :::

We chased the Nymph across the black plains. The van’s headlights bounced over the earth, and every now and then, the beam would cast shine on the Nymph’s smoky tail. As we drove, he explained the Nymph to me. In the late 1970s, scratchy photos emerged of a wild woman feasting on kangaroos. The images were later debunked, the whole story was proven false.

Out of all the myths, my father had said, this was the one he least believed in. But here it was – a ghostly apparition, which in our brief catches of headlight racing through the dark, was adorned in a white dress, and her hair was coal-black and flailing.

“Murdered from the pioneer days,” said my father. “Butchered by her husband. Or by Aboriginals – whatever version you want to believe. All versions of the myth said the Nymph was driven by bloodlust and revenge. Her shriek sounded trainlike and torturous. Wounded, hurting.” My father pressed on.

I’d never seen such joy in his eyes. We chased the Nymph for the rest of the night. We thought she would lead us somewhere, but she didn’t. I asked about radioing the police, or somebody else, but my father said no, they’d think us mad.

Dawn was growing. My father looked to the dim bloodline in the east. He swore, then almost laughing he said. “Apparently, she disappears at first light. Vanishes like a flame.”

True to my father’s word, as banners of rose-tinted dawn sprawled before us, the Nymph, wheeling across the sky, dissipated. The only evidence that remained was a thin string of smoke that quickly vanished after her.

Over breakfast, my father kept saying I can’t believe it. We hadn’t slept much; we were wired and jumpy.

“What do we do now, will she come back tonight?”

“I doubt it, the Nullarbor’s a big place.”

I remembered that in my father’s dusty journal of news clippings, there was some information regarding the photo of the Nymph. I got the journal from the van, opened up to the section marked N. The grainy, black and white photo showed the Nymph crouched amongst a troop of kangaroos. Though it was hard to see, the Nymph appeared to be feasting on a kangaroo corpse. I showed my father.

“What do you think?”

He nodded. “You’re right.”

He returned from the van with a black bound book and showed me. “See here,” he said, pointing to a page of witness statements. “The one thing they all say, well, most of them say, is that she doesn’t stray too far from the game. She must prey on them at night when they’re docile.”

“Are kangaroos nocturnal?”

“Yes. Well, they’re crepuscular, meaning they’re most active in twilight.”

“So, what do we do?”

“Scout the area for a troop of roo’s, stalk them until nightfall.”

“Okay.”

We waited.

Afterward, my father told me to get some sleep. I was too wired, and the heat inside of the Kombi was suffocating. I dozed on and off while my father sat outside, writing. Clack, clack, clack, on his old Olivetti. He didn’t stop. When I peeked out the window, he was sitting at his little desk in the sun. Shirt off, sunglasses on, Akubra askew. His brilliant brown body. Like some drongo William Faulkner.

That afternoon we roved around the off-roads, seeking out a troop of kangaroos. It didn’t take long, luckily. We found a mob grazing open in the vast plains. Like soldiers at the frontline. Then we sat idle in the van, waiting. My father sketched the kangaroos. I gave them names that I don’t remember.

At the onset of dusk, they perked up. They jumped on, this way and that. Some diverted, but we drove after the largest packs. By the time night fell they had roosted, and some of them slept. We’d turned the headlights on. The bright white beam glossed over them in the far distance. I was surprised they didn’t move, yet we weren’t making a noise. Their eyes when they glanced toward us looked like glinting jade.

Hours passed. My father’s eyes never left the troop. I was growing restless. I was doodling on the page I used to mark how far we were from the road. Now that it was night, though, I’d lost my bearings. However, I don’t remember being worried. Getting lost in the dark was peaceful.

I needed to piss, but my father wouldn’t let me. He was scared of spooking the troop. Maybe this, all of this superstition, coupled with days of lost lands and scorching sun, made us imagine the Nymph. Still, we waited. And I was growing tired of looking at kangaroos until I saw all of their heads prick up. All of their heads jutted right. One or two whinnied. I leaned forward on the dash, as did my father. Everything was silent. My father’s breaths were short but controlled. I felt that coldness again – the one that woke me last night. Like an icy finger tracing up my back, then around my neck. Then we heard the shrieking.

A whiteness collided into the kangaroos, and they reeled and screamed. A cloud of dust engulfed them, and it was bedlam in amidst the shrieks of the Nymph and the wails of the troop. Once the dust settled, we saw her. A kangaroo lay dead in the centre of the headlights. The Nymph was spooned over the kangaroo, gnawing at its neck. I remember the roo’s dead, black eye. And then when the Nymph slowly rose up and faced us, her stone black eyes were no different from the animal’s – but they were angry, somehow, with a vengeful leer. She roared at us, her open mouth a void of blood and noise.

“Here we go,” said my father.

She leapt up and took off. We did too.

We roved after her, again. I don’t know why, but she wasn’t as fierce as last night. Her shrieking, though afflicting, was weak. Like an old dog yelping. She was not wild, anymore. She stayed in the headlights. She looked back at us. There was nothing in her eyes save blackness. Skin like wax about to tear. She was slowing, as were we.

“This is it,” my father said.

With a mighty shriek, she raised her web like arms above her, and shot up over us, into the sky. My father halted the van. I jerked forward, then looked at him. He was halfway out of the van, and I followed suit.

“Look!” He shouted.

Amidst the roiling of stars was the Nymph darkened by the celestial pave. Wheeling through the sky like someone’s lost umbrella. The shrieking was relentless. I heard a door slam, then looked down to my father.

He was approaching me, slinging his knapsack over his shoulder. He touched my arm.

“I need you to wait here while I go after her.”

“But –“

“No. Stay. Leave the headlights on. If the battery drains, charge the generator.”

“I want –“

“No. I need you here so I can find my way back. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yes, okay.” I said.

“Good. I won’t go too far.”

My father turned on the torch, shone it up to the sky. The Nymph was moving now, off into the sky’s wild. My father looked at me again, but he wasn’t smiling this time. I watched him fade out of the headlights, into his great nothing.

I was found two days later by a local ranger. Turns out we hadn’t diverted that far from the road, and they spotted me. The officer asked where my parents were, and I hesitated, then said, “My father went for a walk late last night, and never returned.” The Kombi’s headlights were still on.

I didn’t tell Mum the truth, either. There was a missing person’s report, news stories, all that. Eventually, we held a funeral. Years passed, and we moved on. I grew up. Marriage, a house, debt, and kids. I liked life this way. It suited me, not my father. But I can understand why.

I remember that night vividly, and often, I ask myself why I didn’t tell anyone. Nobody would believe me – only my father would have, and there was nobody else like him in my life then, or now. Of course, I was saddened by what happened. But there was something honest about my father disappearing. He was gone, either mad or dead, lost in the dark. Like he’d always wanted.

Out in the garden one morning, a postman approached me and handed me a package. I signed for it, went inside and opened it. There was no return address, but my whole body stopped when I saw it was a freshly bound book with gold lettering on the cover that read The Nullarbor Nymph. I was shaken, I had to sit. I immediately felt like I was being watched, for some reason. The book’s fresh leather in my hands, slightly cold. Underneath the title was an author’s name, I did not recognise.

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ORIGINAL FICTION

2019 MAY THE NULLABOR MOON.jpg

THE NULLARBOR

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jack Forbes is a writer living in Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in Tincture Journal, and the University of Queensland’s peer-reviewed journal, LiNQ.

CREDITS
Editor: L. Naisula
Cover Design: Shompole, N.L.
Original Images: Unsplash