There are monsters in the trees. I hear their shallow breaths, their teeth clacking as long talons are scraped along trunks like metal on bone. Worse still are the cries: horrid curdles of throat and air that reverberate through the foliage, sometimes distant, sometimes a whisper behind my ear: ee-eeee.
“Eeee,” I stammer back.
Oo-eee. Louder, now. Closer.
My mother turns around and pierces me with a look that could turn magma into glaciers.
I give her a sheepish shrug and obediently begin inspecting a broken fern with the gangly stick I have been carrying for the last hour. A bit of mud here, a few ants there. Yes, very interesting. Hmm. I prod around a bit longer, contorting my face into a deep thinking pose. Mum’s glare hovers until she stumbles over a fallen log, her gaze subjugated on an unsuspecting bracken colony instead.
“Anything?” Uncle Jerry whisper-shouts across the shrubbery. Mum shakes her head. I keep poking the ground.
In the half dusk, my uncle looks like someone who has seen too much sun and claims to have visited the mothership as a result. A huge tortoise shell of a bag loops over his shoulders. Lanky, pole-like tools protrude from open pockets. He fiddles with a beefy helmet, flipping it over and above his manic eyes. For night vision, he explains, but all I see are props for a bad ‘90s sci-fi film. If he is planning to stay until dark, it’s time to plan my departure.
“Mum,” I whisper. I wave my stick towards the growing shadows.
She doesn’t hear me or pretends not to. She has moved on from the bracken and now examines a few greyish pebbles. They look like rocks to me, but I know she is hoping it’s scat. The faster we find Uncle Jerry’s rat, the faster we can escape to civilization.
Two words: Oldfield Thomas. Correction, two names. Uncle Jerry says it’s fate that nineteen-year-old-him, ambitionless and sloth-like, stumbled across that documentary during his second semester of university. He said a flame ignited his soul while watching Thomas catalogue and describe over two-thousand new animal species. A week later Jerry transferred majors from art history to wildlife biology. Thirty and a few years more, and that soul fire is still burning. If Thomas and his mates had already discovered the animal kingdom, then he figures it’s his job to rediscover a forgotten species.
Something pinches the back of my exposed calf. I leap around, slapping limbs before malaria or worse pulses through my bloodstream. Mum says Australia doesn’t get malaria but, in the Queensland wet tropics, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bubonic plague still ran rampant. My anti-mosquito jig concludes with my stick catching on an upturned log, snapping into the still air. Two withering stares could turn soup into stone.
Mum says family supports each other no matter how ludicrous the dream. I suspect the extent of her support (traipsing from idyllic Hobart to sweat-stained Bedlam) had less to do with sibling ethics and more to do with the property loan she is trying to coerce out of Uncle Jerry.
Oo-eeee. A shrill explodes from the fan palm to my right. Is that a burr? It’s not twitching, is it?
I stutter out a pitiful, “Oook,” searching for Cerberus or a weaponised twig, whichever comes first.
En route to this jungle, we stopped at a tourist information centre in town so Uncle Jerry could cross-examine the employees about rat sightings. Only one lady said anything worth noting, “I dunno know nothing ‘bout rats but stay clear of them bushes at night. Hades’ mutts ain’t fussy eaters.” She saw my wide-eyed stare and leant so close I could smell cheesy chips fermenting on her breath. Her voice dropped and suddenly she was whispering that animals attack foes and ignore friends and the only way to self-identify as the latter is to mimic their call.
Mum thanked her and promptly dragged me from the building, sucking in the sticky day air with newfound ardour. Visions of hushed Frankenstein laboratories and dirty spell books circulated through my mind. Uncle Jerry appeared moments later, a nervous smile failing to mask the fresh sweat branding the crevice in his forehead.
Oldfield Thomas discovered two rodents endemic to Christmas Island: the first, Maclear’s Rat, was born with pecan-hued bravado and an impressive soprano range. The second, the bulldog rat, was a gargantuan beast, growing to thirty centimetres and constitutionally introverted. Both species reacted poorly to European germs and were extinct within twenty years. Uncle Jerry says if it was not for Thomas, we may never have known they existed at all. I didn’t bother pointing out that when it comes to vermin, ignorance really is bliss. But then a pair of geologists, Karl Flessa and David Jablonski, started concocting theories of supposedly extinct animals adapting to alternative environments and thriving in the pockets of the world humans forget to check. Lazarus taxa they are called. Now Uncle Jerry has hopped onto the resurrection gravy train and has convinced himself Thomas’ rats caught a lift to the Queensland tropics and have been flourishing elusively ever since.
Eeee. I slap a hand over my ear. The fan palm, barely three metres away, is screaming. Its body splinters, the burr once clinging to the ancient trunk now unravelling. Slowly at first. Climbing like a possum but drooling like a canine. Rolls of muscle crunch over bloodletting talons. What had that lady clerk said? Hades’ mutts. She was right; Uncle Jerry hasn’t been tracking a rat, but an apex predator summoned from the underworld. It scuttles across a frond, latches onto an adjacent tree, and hauls its big body up with grotesque fangs. Closer and closer it advances. It’s whining, it’s squealing, it’s launching itself into Mum’s bracken, and Grim Reaper is looking at me like tenderloin steak.
I scream. Loud and obnoxious—a cliche affirmation of the prepubescent girl I am. Dimly I hear the clerk explaining friends and foes and my tongue repositions, warping abandoned shrieks into a loosely tamed, “EEEEEE!”
Nylon gloves clamp over my mouth faster than Mum’s shocked stare can turn one-hundred decibels into dead weight.
Uncle Jerry’s ridiculous visor has fallen to the ground. The poles protruding from his bag sway deliriously. He doesn’t care. His eyes, manic as ever, at last adopt a glint recognisable to my mentality: excitement. Unabashed, childlike joy that has him bouncing on his toes and adrenaline vibrating the mitt still fastened over my gob.
“What did you see? What did you see?”
I stare at him, too doped on fear to verbalise coherently.
“Why did you ‘eee’? You heard squeaking? Not a hiss? You did? When? How loud? Where?” He rattles my shoulders as if shaking answers loose.
I blink out of my trance, finding Mum in the dark. Her gaze could melt gargoyles. Something shifts within: lungs disentangling from kidneys or intestines, coaxing out a breath I had held for too long. “I don’t know,” I mumble.
“Listen again . . . please.”
Squeak. Please squeak. Uncle Jerry’s thoughts are so loud I can hear them over the blood whoosh-whooshing in my ears.
I do not want to. We are in a menagerie of monsters and opening ears to the cacophony feels like commissioning Death. But Uncle Jerry is smiling now. More teeth than I have ever seen, massaging the humid air, and igniting the dark with something more potent than hope, more innocent than desire, more resolute than fear; his soul fire.
With gritted teeth, I relax my ears.
First the trees: lanky creatures that groan and sway, calling to each other through dancing limbs. Then the bugs: cicadas, crickets, katydids. Four-thousand species all singing the same song in four-thousand different languages. And in the beat that’s left, in the pauses that punctuate every chirp and croak, I hear the fantasy I scoffed at, but Uncle Jerry never stopped trying to share, and at last I understand.
So, I keep listening.