Where the Cross Turns Over
Old-time Australian drovers, walking cattle thousands of miles to market, are said to have planned their night-watches by the stars. “Call me when the Cross turns over,” they would say, “or when the Pointers are clear.” These stories happen where the Cross turns over: a regional urban Australian backyard, a regional suburban housing development; a state capital, over a century ago; an Outback waterhole. Another regional townscape, whose characters end off-Earth; a future planet whose fauna are, at the least, unusual. But even the Outback can prove . . . weird, here.
About the Author: Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes mostly novels, in fantasy, SF and mystery/time-travel genres, with alternate North Queensland or analogue Australian settings. Two of her novels have been finalists for best fantasy novel in the Aurealis Australian genre fiction awards.
The Cretaceous Border
You might think that a lot of strange things turn up in my backyard, if you didn’t actually live in Ibisville. For the tropics, though, the yard itself is pretty ordinary: picket fence, big hibiscus shrubs, golden-cane and fan-palms, banks of military ferns, shade-houses at the back and sides. Spreading over it all, the quandong and fiddlewood and African mahogany trees.
But an ibis comes, of course, one or several, I can never tell, though he or she’s there every year, as soon as it gets dry: striding and jabbing wherever the hoses ran. There are honey-eaters too, three or four sorts, and once a Wompoo pigeon, orange and green and sumptuous purple bosom, a bulky vision in the quandong tree. And a few times, a black-and-yellow treesnake, getting a bit too close to the windows, in pursuit of poorly cached green frogs.
Night-time usually brings possums, thumping and blundering over the roof. In season, flying foxes—outsiders call them fruit-bats—flap and squawk in the quandong, dropping little blue spaceball fruits. A mopoke ghosts through occasionally, opening the dark with its hollow, echoing owl cry: Hoo-o-o … hoop!—Hoo-o-o … hoop! And curlews, once or twice. That eerie unexpected chorus, like high-octave banshee screams.
Once, too, a burglar came. Blundering through the backyards after hiding his loot three houses down, hunted by irate citizenry, out with bicycles and cricket bats in the street. I wasn’t quick enough to chase him down my driveway into their arms. Instead he ran up over my tall Ibisville garbage bins, leapt the higher picket fence, and was gone. Vanished into suburban legendry.
But once, as the stories say, upon a time, something else came in, from some next door or other. Though precisely which door it used …
I did realise, very early in the piece, that it was something new. More night rustles, louder rattles and crackles in the ground-level branches of my town-side lillipilli trees, that I used to call the herbaceous border, before they grew twenty feet high. New vocal effects. Not the ggrrr of possums facing off, or the mopoke, or gecko chitter, or even cricket chirr. High-pitched, spasmodic. Nothing to pin down, just—another voice in the night chorus. Something there.
The first tracks were sunk deep in the lillipilli bed. Very far apart, for their size, long and narrow. Kangaroo rat, I guessed. Or bandicoot. They’re small marsupial hoppers with long narrow toes, and they take broad skittering leaps. And they dig for their food, animal or vegetable, so I thought, it’s very charming to have this memento of the bush in my suburban yard, but next thing they’ll be grubbing up my plants, and probably my fence posts after that. I’ll seriously have to consider trying to keep them out.
Which meant I wasn’t expecting the toad.
I did half-hear one odd noise in the night. It was a cross between a gargle and a squeal, but I wrote it down to yet another skirmishing possum, and didn’t get up. It was 5.30 am before I opened the back door to go running, and it was just outside.
I think it was one of the detested cane-toads. Not a native, pointy-snouted barramundi frog, I hope. It’s rather hard to tell, when the whole thing’s been ripped apart, and legs, head and bits of guts spread all over your concrete path.
Usually I meet my running partner, Cat, out at the front gate. She came down the drive to see what had kept me, and as she rounded the house corner her eyes got big. “Holy Dooley!” she said. “What did that?”
“I don’t know.” If it wasn’t still just dawn, you might think, a hawk. Now they know to leave the head with its poison glands, cane-toads make a regular meal for the local kites. “Not a … snake, I don’t think.”
“No, a snake would’ve just swallowed it.” We were both sort of stepping back. “Eck—it’s been eaten too.”
At least, part of the guts were gone. I stood there in my running shoes and shorts with the urban half-dark close around me, hearing a magpie start its pre-dawn warm-up, and a sudden, more than squeamish chill raced up the back of my neck.
“Euew,” Cat said. “Maybe it was a rat.”
“Yeah.” Rats are reputed to gnaw concrete if they’re hungry enough. Neither of us said, I’ve never known a rat eat toads.
“Well,” Cat said in something like a rush, “Let’s get the shovel from your garage, and clear it away before we leave.”
The noise next time you couldn’t ignore. I shot out of bed and grabbed a torch and blundered downstairs to open the outer door. An almighty brawl was underway among the big ground-sweeping fronds of the Chinese fan-palm in the back yard corner. Leaves in the torch-beam thrashed and batted up and down and things thumped the hidden leaf-mould in splattering thuds. Something yowled like a half-choked dog. Something else screamed like a berserker banshee. A very, very berserk banshee. Right on the edge of hearing and molten with more than rage.
I got two steps past the door. Then I went back for the nearest defensive weapon, the big downstairs broom. With that under one arm like a boar spear I set out again. I was halfway across the lawn when the palm leaves convulsed and a possum shot past me grunting like a furious pig and up the quandong faster than an Olympic wall-climber. I never knew one could move so fast. The palm-fronds thrashed again. Something went wham! so hard the back picket fence reverberated. Then the ground-level yard was empty. It doesn’t need hearing, sometimes, to tell.
But I could still feel the heat.
As if someone opened a sauna door with a swamp inside. It poured over me, thick and breathless, almost solid with humidity. The steam of over-heated, stagnant water, the reek of rotting plants. And composted into the hot water and vegetable mulch, a slight, gamy, well-steamed tang of beast.
Somewhere between me and the back fence, receding into immeasurable distance, something roared.
I took the broom and the torch and got myself back inside and shut the door after me. And bolted it. For all the use my glass-paned wooden door would be, against something that could produce that basso profundo trump. Deep as a liner’s foghorn. Feral beyond any noise out of Africa.
Finally, everything went quiet. A couple of crickets. Then, somewhere overhead, something, maybe the disgruntled possum, brought down a shower of leaves. By then the smell, and the heat, had evaporated too. I didn’t wonder what had made the roar. I just put the broom away and went back to bed.