The dream is always the same – a spinning marble.
He extricates himself from his tangled sheet. The sun is dipping behind the hills. “Time for work.”
The terrier pricks its ears at the sound of his voice.
Feet to the cold lino, he stands and inspects the map taped to the wall.
The red pins move further south each year – south and west. Woodenbong, Evans Head, Casino, Kyogle. These are the invasion fronts.
The enemy is getting better – more cunning, faster moving. It even has longer legs. “I think we can hold ‘em, Rusty, but there’ll be no slacking off.”
The dog wags its tail across the floor.
His bushy, grey eyebrows drop – the prognosis is dire. “Twenty native animals almost gone for good – and that’s just this valley.”
Picking up on his tone, the dog climbs to its feet. Like its master, its hair is thinning, its legs creaky.
“Lucky we’ve got all night, ‘ay?”
He doesn’t sleep when it’s dark – hasn’t done for thirty-eight years. He’s tried, but it never works.
A sun-spotted hand shifts a pin. Picking up a pen, he circles the area for tonight’s operation. “Goin’ up the range tonight, Rusty.”
It’s a good night. A gentle rain taps on the tin roof. “Should be a decent catch.” He opens the fridge to check the storage – a lump of cheese and half a litre of rancid milk leaves plenty of room. “No worries there, mate.”
Flicking on his torch as he steps onto the verandah, he cocks his head – listening for the call.
The males are calling. It’s like the dial tone of a phone in the rainforest.
Brrrrr, brrrr – is anyone there?
The dog trots behind him, pressing its nose into his leg before jumping into the front seat of the ute.
His first catch of the night is a big one – twelve centimeters. Hand inside a plastic bag he grasps the toad, knots the bag and drops it in his bucket. He gets back in his car, drives slowly down the dirt road.
The mountains rise above him – dark forest stretching all the way to Queensland. Two eyes shine in the headlights. He pulls over – another hopping hunchback. It would be easy to swing the wheel – to flatten it, but that’s not his way. You need to check it’s not a native. It can be hard to tell who’s who and what’s what on a dark night.
A quick grasp, a knot and it’s in the back with the others.
He never knows when it will happen.
A twig snaps behind him.
Instantly he’s back there – heart thumping, hands sweating – every shadow a potential enemy. The forest crowds him. A damp smell of rotting wood rises to his nostrils.
The only way to live is to kill.
They’re only farmers.
They’re growing rice for the enemy.
The dog whines, pulling him back.
What was it the Vietnamese said – the core of the body is not the heart, but the stomach?
Your stomach is chopped to pieces.
What does that mean?
You are in anguish.
There could be something in that. He still can’t stand the smell of Asian food – would choke on even one grain of rice. When in town he crosses the road to avoid the Thai restaurant.
He pulls out his map and the names blur, shift – are replaced by other names …
Maybe he should have moved somewhere more open – cleared plains. But this is what he knows. If he has a place in this world, it is these mountains.
If he has a place.,,
It takes ten minutes for his heart to settle.
Back home he updates his records – sex, location, size – then puts his catch in the fridge. In the morning when they’re asleep he’ll move them to the freezer. There’s no need for cruelty. They’re just creatures out of place.
Destroying without intent.
Wrong country, wrong time, Mister.
Pulling more thumbtacks from a bowl, he pins them to the map. If there’s a strategy to their invasion he’ll work it out eventually.
Six whiskies into the night the clock hands meet at the top of their circuit. He lifts the phone.
Calloused fingers touch the numbers, but he doesn’t dial. He imagines a phone ringing in a house in Melbourne he’s never seen. His eyes linger on their photo.
I can’t live with you like this anymore. You’re scaring Becky.
I’ll get better, just give me time.
It’s been twenty years – how much time do you need?
“Sometimes I wonder, Rusty, how things might have turned out if I’d been born one day later.”
The dog’s milky eyes regard him steadily. It’s heard this all before.
He pictures a hand digging into a barrel; pulling out the marble with his birth date on it. “Or one day earlier…”
If he hadn’t become a creature forever out of place.
He replaces the phone gently. “Come on Rusty, still six hours ‘til dawn.” Picking up his torch, he stumbles into the night.
Beside his path a barred frog glistens in the torchlight, its skin golden between the stripes.
Ok, ok, ok, ok, it calls.
The dog is well-trained. It cocks its ears, but doesn’t move.
Ok, ok, ok…
But without the marble – perhaps he wouldn’t be here… and someone needs to do it. “It’s alright, mate,” he murmurs to the frog. “I’m here now. We’re going to stop them.”
This story was the winner of the Byron Bay Writers Festival Short Story Award in 2008 and was originally published in the Northern Rivers Echo. I just came across it again and thought I’d pop it up here.