by Paul Sheringham
Text ©2005 Paul Sheringham; illustration ©2005 Cubist
Toor-roo-dun emerged from her cave, hidden deep in a yellow-ochre sandstone canyon. Her scaly snout sniffed the pre-dawn air; short ears soaked in the dawn chorus of croaking friarbirds and warbling magpies. Her webbed feet trod lightly on water-worn black stones collected at the base of the fern-fringed cascade. A sleek brown reflection was caught in a pool as still as glass, then blurred when a light breeze skimmed the surface.
As dawn coalesced into day, Toor-roo-dun listened to gum crowns paint the sky with whispering wind brushes, and watched the suns rays wash a distant hillside golden-brown. She rejoiced in the mournful cries of black cockatoos labouring above on heavy wings. Toor-roo-dun immersed a scaly arm into the pool. There was an infected wound near her wrist; her forked tongue licked it clean.
To block out the stinging pain, she closed her dark pupiless eyes. Her spirit journeyed out, skimming the canopy of hardwood giants wreathed in elkhorns and white sprays of king orchids. She dove below to join a whirr of gaudy red and green king parrots flying fast between giant mountain ash; the birds shrill calls carried far on the chill air. The pair landed outside a tree hollow. Inside, hungry pink chicks begged for food.
Like the bark-ribboned, ancient trees, Toor-roo-dun was a relict, not of the last ice age, but of a time still older. She had arrived long ago, when the world was new and vital and æons passed without change. Once there had been others of her solitary kind living in the billabongs of inland rivers, but they were long silent.
Her spirit explored rainforest glades where the sun slanted soft. A quoll registered Toor-roo-dun's presence, sniffing the air with his pink nose. She cloaked her spirit from the animal, so as not to frighten it. The quoll stopped briefly, before darting after a small skink rustling in the leaf litter. The rust-furred, white-spotted quoll leant on the precipice of myth, as did Toor-roo-dun. A disease spread by immigrant foxes had killed his brothers and sisters everywhere on the mainlandexcept for her domain.
Toor-roo-dun flew over hungry rocky spurs up to a tall plateau fringed with snow gum. Swirling mist transpired into the warming blue sky of mid-morning. She stopped to look out across the rolling skin of the vast forest wilderness. She saw flame trees bleeding bright red from dry rainforest that clung to scree slopes. A distant waterfall gurgled through a steep, forested gorge; a bushfire mushroomed into wind-streaked cirrus clouds.
A noise interrupted Toor-roo-dun's meditation. Her whiskers crinkled with displeasure. Out on the edge of her domain, a human cut at the bole of a veteran messmate with a chainsaw. Toor-roo-dun struck out at the source of the noise; the engine of the chainsaw stalled. The sun-hardened human cursed and yanked at the starter cord. The chainsaw coughed, but refused to start. The human threw the chainsaw to the ground, kicking it a few times, before picking it up, cursing under his breath and walking back to his truck. More and more, humans entered the wilderness, first eating way at its edges and then its heart. Toor-roo-dun grew tired of resistance.
Her meditation disturbed, Toor-roo-dun opened her eyes. She slipped into the pool, diving towards a crayfish lying amongst river stones, the yabbie's black pincers waving in the current. A platypus flashed by, grabbing the yabbie out of her mouth. Toor-roo-dun was not worried; there was plenty to share. A moment later she pounced on another yabbie.
The pink meat of the crayfish tasted bitter. Its tainted flesh inflamed ulcers in her mouth that wouldn't heal. Recently, the world was changing rapidly in a way that she feared and disliked. The bitter taste was in her food, the creeks and rain drops. Not long ago, her dear friends of the sphagnum bog and alpine wetland had stopped calling. How she missed their green skin and red eyes glaring out from amongst the pond lilies!
Toor-roo-dun basked in the midday sun, its warm fingers stroking the canyon, and reminisced on moons long past. Life had been peaceful until the first humans arrived. Toor-roo-dun had tolerated these first visitors. Sometimes they set fires that raged across the land, but mostly they were good stewards. Occasionally, young men stayed overnight in the forest as an initiation test. For fun, she sent ghost lights hovering through the canopy. Only the bravest of young hunters didn't run from the forest screaming in terror.
Later, the young warriors stopped coming to the wilderness and she feared something terrible had happened to them. In her travels she saw many of their tribe dead and dying from a terrible sickness.
Then overnight, a different tribe from over the sea brought their loud, heavy-hoofed, flatulating animals. Toor-roo-dun tried to scare the men away by making blood-curling screams at night, sending ghost lights to hover over their wattle and daub huts, and by filling their sweat-drenched nightmares with horrific antipodean monsters. Was a little peace and quiet too much to expect?
Toor-roo-dun sat on her favourite rock by the waterfall's edge and dreamed. Ink-edged clouds massed high in the afternoon sky. Thunder rumbled, first in the distance, then louder, closer. She retreated to her cave as the first heavy raindrops splashed the rocks, sending steam rising from the ground. Silver shafts of rain slanted against the sheer cliffs. In her prime the sound of rain had brought a feeling of comfort, but now it only induced melancholy.
Perhaps it was time to move on, to seek out other worlds to shelter in? The vital energy of this world was waning. Great holes were being eaten in the spirit world that she couldn't patch up. The thought of leaving saddened her deeply; she feared abandoning the creatures she called friends to an uncertain fate. Toor-roo-dun had hoped to spend her last days on this world that she held fondly.
The sun dropped behind golden hills, bringing dusk early to deep gullies where lyrebirds mimicked. Small bats glided in magenta breaks in the black canopy. A mopoke called in the distance, deep and resonant. Pygmy possums shivered at the sound and snuggled together for reassurance in leafy tree hollow dens. Soon the first stars came out and meteorites traced brief sparks across the sky before vanishing. She looked to the infinite stars, searching for a new home. The stillness of evening soaked through her heavy limbs and aching soul.
Toor-roo-dun's contemplation was disturbed by a roaring metal bird screeching high overheard. In anger, she created severe turbulence. The plane changed course. Fear and despair gripped at her soul. What should she do?
Throughout the night an anguished wail carried on the wind. Sugar gliders listened with ears cocked, continuing to lap up sap running from cuts in hickory wattles. A fearsome powerful owl, perched up high, turned large yellow eyes towards the strange sound and took flight on silent wings. In a grassy woodland glade, the sad call woke a bush stone curlew that returned a mournful refrain, rested its head on the ground and looked around with doleful eyes. Day birds slept lightly, their dreams soured by dread.
Just before dawn a light breeze rippled the canopy of the forest giants. A small light spiralled up into the sky, then faded. The cave entrance lay empty and silent. And, for the first time in forever the dawn chorus had no appreciative audience.