I REMEMBER the rasping lisp of her voice. Narelle, she said her name was, sole proprietor of the general store. I did my best not to stare at the dark sweat stains spreading under her arms as I stood under her fly-specked ceiling fan.
“You got a permit, love?” she said, resting overweight arms on the formica counter. Outside, cicadas screamed their joy at the heat of a top end day, revelling in the steaming weight of humidity wafting off the Arafura Sea.
“Nobody needs to know where I’m going.” I spread three fifty-dollar notes on the counter and gave her a flash of my smile. Being six-foot two and a bit of all right according to the Brisbane ladies, I knew she’d come around.
“You’ll need more kero,” she said as the notes vanished faster than a rat up a drainpipe. “The Gulumoerrgin people calls this time of year barramundi and bush fruit season. There’s nothing east of here before Nhulumbuy. Rotten country, but plenty to eat if you know where to look. Better if you cook it.”
I bought the kero, wondering how much weight the bottle would add to my overweight pack, and then shrugged. It could be months before I found what I wanted. Months of pushing through the murky gloom of the rainforest on my own. I knew a pale-skinned people settled the far north of Australia in the years before Julius Caesar’s rule. Almost forgotten Macassar stories spoke of enormous wooden boats passing modern-day Indonesia on their way to the great southern land. Stories do not spring unbidden into the mind; there is always a grain of truth hidden deep inside. The people of the First Nations had thrived on this land for countless generations, so why hadn’t the Old World survived here before the last two centuries? My answer lay east in the vast emptiness of Arnhem Land.
Years of slogging through sand-fly infested mangrove swamps had rewarded me with two stone tools from a people that blossomed and vanished like dew in the morning sun. No one accepted my interpretation of the chip marks in the tools that matched no other culture on record. I would show those snotty academics that locking themselves away in the ivory towers of Sydney and Melbourne was no substitute for solid boots-on-the-ground Queensland ingenuity. The polite sneers from the last conference replayed in my memory as I stepped from Narelle’s store into the blazing sun.
Her voice is what I remember, even now. Some memories stay with you when you so spend so much time alone, eating away at your resolve to be alone, like an insatiable company of ghosts. Two months have passed since I left her store. Two months of fruitless searching through thick jungle and dense swampland. Unseasonal warm rain fell, turning the ground to mud, and filling the air with the humid miasma of decaying plant life. Each day took me further from people until I even began to anticipate seeing Narelle’s gap-toothed smile again. But none of it slowed me down. The endless days of walking were the only way to be sure I was right.
I pushed on until the dense clouds of mosquitoes almost ended me. They bit me raw and left me shaking with a fever that left me chilled despite the heat. The fever ate into my bones like a gnawing dog—’breakbone fever’, the old folk used to call the sickness that sank into your joints and left you groaning in agony.
A cacophony of birdsong called out the day my fortunes changed. Birds are funny like that in the rainforest. They huddle together in groups as if the safety of numbers still protects them from a long extinct predator. They may just have been singing to celebrate the bright tropical sunshine sunlight that spilled into the forest clearing before me. Weak from the fever, I could think of nothing more than setting up my stove in the drying warmth of the sun and resting with a much-needed cup of tea. Once the billy boiled, I rolled out my swag and sat with my mug, my eyes half-closed in the heat feeling the sweat beading under my straw hat.
The ink-dark shadows of late afternoon got me going again. I stood and stretched, reaching for the last of the sun’s warmth as I took in the clearing. Most rainforest clearings are an emptiness, a place where storms have felled one of the giant canopy trees leaving a gap for light to reach through to the forest floor. Plants engage in slow-motion battles to claim the precious sun until the forest canopy is whole once more. This glade was broader, grass grew across the open space defying the encroaching forest. A gnarled strangler fig stood over towards a low ridge, its skeletal trunk wrapping dark vines around the space where a host tree had once stood. Weird things, stranglers – they start as a little vine that crawls up a tree trunk, and then year by year they grow, spearing more roots into the ground and spreading a network of vines around the tree. All the while slowly crushing the life out of the tree. You see them in the forests; great hollow trunks filled with the webs of generations of spiders that moved in after the host tree rotted away.
Turning my gaze from the strangler fig, I gasped as my eyes took in a line of rectangular stones to my left, now visible thanks to the angle of the light. It had to be a wall, ancient, broken and abandoned, but almost certainly a wall made by human hands.
I strained to see more, but night fell with the absolute suddenness of the tropics. Groping for one of the few meal packs I had left, I fed myself in the dark before laying out my swag and falling asleep in the instant way of the truly exhausted.
The next morning brought the start of nine days of painstaking excavation. It’s the not so glamorous part of the job they don’t tell you about in movies about adventurous archaeologists; the measuring and meticulous sifting; the way time flows like molten wax as you brush dust from an inscription. Incontrovertible proof of the wall’s man-made origin followed within a few days of careful removal of the ancient moss. I found tools marks—minute scratches left by long forgotten stonemasons as they dressed each stone for the wall. Other walls emerged as I worked; strange curved structures. I imagined round stone buildings unlike anything else in the region.
Around the end of my first two weeks, I noticed two wide curves leading into a dense scrub of what turned out to be lawyer vine. I fought my way through the dark leaves, cursing as branch after branch snagged my clothing with the curved thorns that gave the vine its name. Clouds of small drab birds rose shrieking from the upper branches. The scrub became resistance personified until, in my struggles, I slashed a great tear in my shirt that left blood welling from my shoulder. I swore, surprised at the cracked hiss of my voice after weeks of silence. Above me, a bird screamed agreement before shitting a muddy mess of digested fruit and seed over my neck and injured shoulder as it flew off to join its mates.
My grandmother always said that bird droppings on your shoulder were good luck, but I didn’t believe in that sort of thing, of course. I stopped struggling and wiped myself clean as I took in my surroundings. To my left, a toppled pillar lay, half-hidden among the leaf litter. Beyond it, the crumbling remains of a wall, and a low plinth that may have been an altar. Twin lines of an ancient script ran along the side of the walls surrounding what must have been the central chamber. My rage and frustration evaporated in triumphant joy—the chaotic, ancient structure could have been a temple. The stonework was nothing like I had seen before, the product of an unknown culture. Late afternoon sun picked out a broken mass of stone tablets covered in the same indecipherable writing. I should have carefully dusted dirt off each tablet, labelling and cataloguing it, before starting the painstaking process of preparing them for transport but the overwhelming need to be proven right welled inside me. I grabbed the nearest tablet and fought my way back to my campsite before darkness made the snagging thorns impenetrable.
Birds saluted the end of the day as I built a small fire and ate my last pack of instant noodles. Tomorrow I would need to forage. I dug deep in my pack to find the small bottle of whiskey I had borrowed from the hotel room in Darwin. Today was a day for celebration. I sat on my swag sipping from my tin mug as I ran my hands over the tablet. The wording resembled nothing I expected. Societies from Paleolithic Southeast Asia were the most likely candidates, but their scripts were ornate curves. Rosy firelight illuminated the chicken scratch script of the tablet making it look more like ancient Phoenician Punic. My studies had given me a basic understanding of old-world writing systems, but this was different. I guessed at words that lay just beyond my comprehension as I lay there turning the smooth tablet over and over in my hands until the dying embers were too dim to see anything.
The next morning, I awoke shivering with a renewed bout of the fever that had haunted my walk. Birdsong reached a gleeful crescendo as if they revelled in my misery. The scratch on my shoulder throbbed with an unpleasant heat. I groaned as I tried to reach for the antiseptic cream in my pack, my torpid body stubbornly refusing to stir itself. I managed a sip from the canteen lying near my swag before collapsing once more.
Days passed as I lay there shaking. The fever racked my body even as it poisoned my mind. Distorted visions drifted through the surrounding jungle filling me with the sense of green things growing in the rotting mud. On one day huge rats ransacked my pack for its remaining supplies leaving only the water. On another I watched a cohort of Phoenician soldiers burn immense boats. Behind it all the mystery of the tablet teased me until I was sure one phrase said, ‘great tree’.
On the fourth day, the grinding knotting of my stomach beat my fever. I needed to eat if I wanted to build up the strength to go on examining the site. That meant foraging for bush fruit. I rose, reaching for the tender skin that was the scratch on my shoulder. My hand encountered great, hard ridges of burning flesh running down my back. Placing one leaden foot in front of another I made a slow path into the forest in search of food, gritting my teeth against the irony that I was walking past plants the locals would know. Eventually, I found a quandong tree laden with giant blue berries and collapsed at its roots after gorging myself on as much of the thin, bitter fruit as I could reach. Nearby a foetid swamp pool offered water that I could strain and purify.
I filled my canteen then stuffed my pockets with as many quandongs as I could carry and made my way back to my swag before succumbing to the fever once more. I think the sun rose twice before I awoke feeling cold to my bones and curled into a foetal ball. Running my hands down my legs I encountered more hard ridges in the flesh of my right thigh. I tore off my trousers in shuddering haste. Hard, brown veins ran down my leg and over my knee. A keening noise filled the air as I ran one quivering hand up the intrusion into my flesh, tracing the path across my hip and up my back towards my shoulder. I realised the sound was the scream coming from own lips. After long hours, the noise faded as my voice gave out. Unable to do more than sip tepid water, I watched long shadows creep across the ruins.
A long restless night followed until I jerked awake with sunlight spilling over the ridge at the far edge of the glade. Need for the life-giving sun on the ridge filled me with an overwhelming desire to burst out of the cold and dark of the glade. After days of sickness, I wanted nothing more than to escape the misery this clearing had brought me. What would be better than to sit in the sun and grow strong once more?
The short walk drove my weakened body to the point of exhaustion. I fell down, revelling in the sunshine as I drank the last of my water.
Shadows lengthened about me as the day grew old. Feeling dog tired, I didn’t move. I can only guess how many days passed as I lay there. Sunlight wheeled across the sky as time flowed; rain fell more than once. I stirred only to take in the water flooding the soil around me before succumbing to the dreams once more.
All I know is that a time came when I awoke with the need to stand. I rose and stood there taking in another glorious morning. Reaching absently for the itch on my shoulder, I encountered a cool, glossy object. I craned my neck desperate to see what it was then recoiled in horror as I took in the luscious green leaf growing from my shoulder. I wrenched at the leaf, frantic to remove the foreign intrusion from my skin. It tore free with an unbearable pain. Shrieking in agony, I stumbled back, filled with an urgent need to be away from this madness, but my feet wouldn’t move. The brown veins in my legs had extended into the ground. Already the shape of my feet had become indistinct, merging with the mass of fibrous roots that even now burrowed into the fertile earth.
Seasons have passed since I left Narelle’s store, near as it was to the edge of the known world. I remember the sound of her voice because here I only have the silence of the glade. Even the birds have left me now. In fever dreams, the tablet speaks to me in the voice of the long dead. It says, ‘This land belongs to the first people and the all-consuming strangler fig.’
Sometimes I think of the life I left behind, but it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not hungry now that the fig has woven itself through me, and strangely content to be in the sunlight on the ridge. Stranglers feed the host even as they kill it. One day, I will die like all hosts do and spiders will fill the space where I stood. The strangler fig and its hollow core will remain, an empty monument to my fallen pride. I wonder if Narelle remembers me.