Currawong - an Australian bush legend

Category C: Highly Commended (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition

Author: Lauren Wild

Title:  Currawong - an Australian bush legend

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The wind, it seemed, was furious today. Currawong grunted and puffed as she soared along a precarious ridge of wind - her wings ached against the upward drag of the mighty bellows. Flap flap flap - she tried to change direction when an elbow of wind pushed her off course, buffeting her small body to bounce sideways along the pillows of air. She righted herself with her head streamline into the oncoming gale and felt the fingers of air comb her feathers back comfortably, making a glossy black layer that glinted in the glaring day.

Looking up, she eyed the land ahead of her - a promontory, jagged and scarred. She nodded - it seemed that for now it would hold firm against the churning stomach of the Tasman Sea. The only obvious sign of distress on the ancient cliff-face was the movement of shrubs whose roots were embedded deep into the vertical rock cracks – their gnarled branches whipped aggressively as if the wind was a child tugging at their hair. Currawong could see the long-suffering of the land from high in the sky. The dolerite columns had once been a bright orange when they sprang from the earth, but the wind had filed them into a dark gray and the white-water splatter had polished the lower cliff-face to a shiny black. Slowly it was chiseled and morphed, a land very different than the one she had once known. 

Eventually, Currawong reached land. As she crested the edge of the cliff, the wind sagged away – the turmoil of the open ocean left behind. She flapped in wide circles, her beady eyes looking and looking for whom she had come to warn.  The hikers are coming!! She squawked to the waratah next to an Oyster Bay Pine. I just saw the hikers arrive on the jetty! She sang her warning to a passing wallaby who thumped the ground and rustled away to tell the others. As Currawong soared, she eyed the eucalypt woodland before her. It was a rush of light brown, and as the trees whispered and received her warning, the brown gradually swept into a green, as they began to stand. Yes, the trees began to stand! The trees, you see, had been lounging like sleepy snakes in the sun. This is what they did every day. All day – except these brief periods when hikers arrived. They needed the rest. They were tired and weary. Their trunks were vast with annual rings of growth; their roots, brittle. Currawong could hear their moaning as they righted themselves and opened their arthritic hands, showing the world their glorious green gloves. There was a dirt hiking track which wound its way along the cliff-face, through the eucalypt woodland, the heathland and then the temperate rainforest, and the trees formed an arch, like dutiful soldiers with swords in salute.   

Eventually Currawong lowered herself to the ground next to a copse of trees that were slower than the rest to rise. Her small feet landed on the hiking track, so puffs of loose dirt rose like dandruff into the breeze. I can’t! I can’t! One tree wailed while his comrades wheezed. Most of the trees managed to rise, some experiencing deafening cracks down their trunks, as their brittle bones adjusted, but there were four trees with nests of ants swarming from their hollow centers, that could not. They lay horizontal across the track. They were a pitiful sight – their bark was sloughing off unattractively with age, their leaves crackled and no longer felt buttery and alive, but like toes with gangrene that shriveled up and died. Currawong stood unmoving for a moment, wondering if she should pester them to try one more time, but she knew that just like the trees yesterday, that already piled up the understory, trees could not live forever.

The muffled noise of beating boots against the hiking track, made Currawong launch into the sky. She watched them, as they watched her with cameras and hands shielding the sun from their eyes. They strolled leisurely, along the hiking track, adjusting backpacks and swinging arms. One man had a long stick that he used like a third leg. The trees that had fallen yesterday had already been pushed off the pathway by the Park Ranger, so today the hiking group just had to step over four trees as they continued onward. This change in their strides seemed to be worthy of exclamation. Really bush bashing it now, said the girl with the bucket-brimmed hat.  

***

Currawong wasn’t sure how long she had acted as a scout for the trees or how she had even known it was her duty. Maybe another currawong had taught her long ago? Or perhaps it was innate? Regardless, in the wakeful part of her mind, which was sometimes hidden behind her animalistic tapestry, she just knew what to do.

As each season aged and gave way to another, Currawong noticed a stillness to her world in which she did not feel innately prepared. There was fewer rustling of wind through the eucalypts and sheoaks. The smell of rotting and decay permeated the understory. This was a smell Currawong knew well because the rainforest over there in the grove had always smelt like that – a flurry of life and death. But up here in the eucalypt woodland, it had not always smelt this way. Currawong mused the smell stayed because more and more trees couldn’t stand back up. Sometimes the trees whispered that times had changed, there were more deaths than births these days – a dying race. And when Currawong flew above them with her daily warnings, it increasingly looked as though a cemetery lay out before her. In some ways it was good. Slugs and millipedes came in droves around the bodies of weary trees and Currawong became gluttonous. Crunch crunch - she devoured them with enthusiasm. But some days she would stop her chewing and listen to the moaning and despair from the semi-lucid trees. Then she’d take one last peck and soar away. 

***

On a very hot day in late Tasmanian Summer, the sun was livid. It slapped the ground of any moisture and Currawong had to find refuge within the rainforest. The myrtle beech and celery top canopy kept her, and the damp man-ferns beneath, cool. She would stay here for a while, she reasoned. The rainforest was full of juicy foods, and no hikers had passed through in days. Currawong assumed the heat had kept them all away. 

So, Currawong busied herself with what currawongs do: eat, play, sleep. But over time, slowly seeping into Currawong’s consciousness was a smell that was different from anything she had experienced. It was a smell that plumed upwards in the air then floated thickly to the earth like raindrops. Currawong hopped down from her perch atop a man-fern and tilted her head curiously toward the sky. She travelled through the rainforest for a time, following that thick stink, her small, wedged feet pattering on the cool ground. Occasionally she would launch herself from a boulder and fly shallowly, her body skimming the rainforest debris. Eventually she took to the sky, for the smell was greater up there. What is it? She thought. When she broke the canopy of the rainforest, her beak opened, and she panted – she had forgotten how hot it was outside the safety of the rainforest. 

There! Currawong gasped. Off in the far distance, upon the third cape, she saw a blaze of orange that shone even brighter than the sun. Currawong wondered if perhaps the sun had split in two and fallen from above. She soared toward it, watching as it walked forward along the cape and through the green trees, turning their trunks black and their leaves into floating dust. Currawong tried to get closer, but it was so hot and loud. It was almost like the thing was a living being, roaring loudly in approval as it ate away at the trees gleefully and chased native hens and wattle birds from their homes. The trees seemed to scream with loud crackling noises. Horrified, Currawong turned around and raced back to her trees on the first cape to tell them what she had seen. As she flapped away, panting and feeling the heat fall behind, the roaring sound became clearer to her – the trees were not screaming in fear; rather they were cheering each other on as they howled like newborns entering the world. Strange.

Overhead, she saw a helicopter swoop past. She was momentarily caught up in the swirling currents of air left by its huge metal body. It dropped a bomb of water down – once, twice, three times - to leave a dark splodge on the horizon as it blossomed with smoke. Orange replaced by gray. And in this moment, Currawong was certain the jubilation of the trees morphed into an orchestra of screams. All across the cliff faces the trees wailed; distressed – not relieved – that the fire had been stopped. 

***

Flapping above a pile of eucalypt corpses, Currawong let rock after rock fall. She had placed a large lichen covered rock from the nearby beach on the peak of the pile and had been dropping a second rock down onto it since dawn. 

A few days ago, she had spied a hiker, showing two young backpack-laden children how to create a fire – Rub the rocks together like this, he had demonstrated. Sure enough, a spark lit, and the children clapped and squealed. He quickly doused it out with his drink bottle. Don’t do that in front of the Park Ranger, the man’s wife had warned and looked back along the trail pointedly. Currawong had been watching from the cover of a hairy boronia and noticed how the trees closest to the family swayed inwards, almost as if they were attracted to the small kernel of fire. Burn me! Please, they seemed to say. It reminded her of something she had seen long ago – the Paredarerme people with sticks of fire, lighting up the land… a sense of certainty struck her. 

Currawong’s feet were numb and sore as the day wore on. Every failed rock drop was another step toward ear ringing frustration. Currawong ground her beak together after every failed attempt. The coolness of the day didn’t make it any easier, but Currawong didn’t want it too hot because when the orange appeared she knew it would be unbearable. And then suddenly a spark sprang from the friction of the two rocks. A tendril of smoke wafted up to meet Currawong’s puffing nostrils. Yes! That’s the smell! That’s it!! And very quickly, the fire leapt out and ate away at the closest tree. 

The tree gave a gasp of relief and then very slowly exhaled in pleasure. Currawong came forward to touch the fire, hoping to feel the pleasure too, but it was too hot and hurt her foot. She flapped backwards and continued to watch, the heat making her eyes bead and sweat drip down her beak. Soon, more trees were engulfed. Currawong even thought she heard one giggle in happiness. The surrounding trees appeared to bend inward, brushing at the flames and inviting them to ride along their flammable, oily leaves. They wailed like newborns and cheered, just like they had last time. 

Eventually, the fire dissipated. It somehow ran itself exhausted and sizzled away. Maybe it was because of the cool day? Or maybe it was because Currawong never stopped watching? Regardless, Currawong was relieved.

***

Over days and days, Currawong watched the charred bodies of the eucalypts. They slowly cooled and stopped smoking. On the day that a new embryo of life appeared in the form of rubbery green tufts, Currawong crooned and sang.  

 

 

 

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Last updated: 02 September 2021