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Red Spikesby Margo Lanagan
“Well, at least its a fine night,” said Mum.
She looked enormous, but that was mostly the bedding shed gathered as she hurried out of the hut. Her hair, coming undone from its nighttime tail, was a shock of silver on her shoulders.
“Though how well sleep with this moon I dont know. Its like the floodlights at the Cricket Ground. We need to find a place in the shade. Not under these gums, though-if they drop a branch, were dead. Down by the creek there, among the casuarinas-”
A bellow interrupted her. Everyone looked up at the hut. Mum walked away down the hill, trailing a corner of the quilt across the moon-white grass. “And a good distance from that. That could go on for hours. Days. Come on, everyone, lets get settled.”
Dylan followed her slowly. She wasnt acting right. Anything to do with babies and births, Mum usually took over. She became queenly herself, moving differently, spreading a radiant
peacefulness all around. She paused the world so the baby could land on it safely. Yet here she was, walking away from a woman in labor.
“I think we should get the police,” grumbled Ella, lumbering down the slope. She was pregnant, too; she was what Mum described as about ready to drop. “Its outrageous. Whoever heard of it? Where did those people escape from-some kind of costume party?” Todd gave an enormous yawn. “Dunno what youre moaning about-you werent asleep anyway. You never sleep, remember? S what youre always saying.”
“I do never sleep,” said Ella. “Not these days. Or nights.” The family moved down the slope ahead, in among the darker trees. They werent nearly alarmed enough; that must be part of the magic. Dylan was panting, as if his body were trying to pump out the strong, wet-grass smell of bear and replace it with the proper bush smells of eucalypt and pine.
“Check for sleeping snakes,” Mum said when they reached the creek side, where the ground was flatter. “Bang about a bit.” So everyone stamped around in their pajamas. It would have been funny if Dylan hadnt been so frightened. Werent they worried about that bear? Werent they upset about what had happened? It was eerie that they were positioning air mattresses and spreading blankets and plumping pillows. Titch and Edwin were already asleep-look at them. They hadnt even cried. It was all a dream to them. Dylan pinched the inside of his elbow hard; he rubbed his arm roughly against a tree trunk; he breathed in and stared at the frills of white water along the creek, at the shadow people and the shadow trees, at the millions of stars above among the needly casuarina twigs. He smelled the smoke from the hut chimney. That funny man must be building up the fire. You needed boiling water when a baby was coming. What for? Dylan couldnt remember.
“Come on, Dylan. Come and settle down between Dad and me. Well protect you against jibber-jabbers.” Her smile was the only part of her face that was moonlit. “Jibber-jabbers,” said Dad dozily. “Thats going back a long way. What were those things, anyway, Dyl? You never told us properly; you were too scared even to talk about that nightmare.” Dylan crawled up the valley between them, laid his head in the pillow cleft, and shuddered. “They were these horrible creatures, hundreds of them, about up to my shoulders. They had big heads, big jaws, lots of teeth. Jibbrah-jibbrah, they said, jibbrah-jibbrah-jibbrah-jibbrah. They rushed at me out of the wardrobe and snapped their teeth.” Dad snored gently.
“I still dont like to think about them,” Dylan said to Mum.
“Dont, then,” said Mum comfortably. “I dont know where they came from in the first place-some movie? None of the others had such night terrors.” She closed her eyes with decision. She always knew what to do. Dylan tried to be as firm about closing his. They had rushed at him, jabbering, their eyes glowing yellow among the spines. And then a worse noise, a terrible rough growl, had stopped them, made them cringe, made them jabber quieter, at each other instead of at him. Zing! Someone had drawn a sword, over by the wardrobe. Then a white flash, and a snap, and theyd gone, and Dylan was sitting up in bed staring at the wardrobe and yelling into the empty room. Now, he buried himself deeper between Mum and Dad. The creek rustled and chuckled and blipped. Todd farted musically. Ella said, “To-odd!” “Whats your fuss? Were out in the open air, arent we?” Mum gave a little laugh through her nose, and Dylan let his giggle out.
“Shh, now.” Mum turned on her side so that her face was out of the moonlight. Dylan followed the shadow line of her profile, from silver fringed forehead along to soft under-chin and lace nightie collar. Nothing could seriously go wrong with the world while she hung there, could it? Or while Dads back was all up and down his own? He thought he heard a sound from the hut, through the creek noise. He tipped his head so that both ears were free to listen. His body had tensed; he tried to go floppy again.
“Still, Doug . . . ?” said Mum. Dad made an unwilling sound.
“Hes asleep,” whispered Dylan.
Dylan waited for her to speak again, but she didnt. “What were you going to say to him?” he whispered.
“It is odd, isnt it?” she whispered.
“Its very odd. Its really, really, really-”
“I mean, who are they? How come we just let them- Where did they come from?” Dylan lay there awhile. He breathed and she breathed, and when he thought, from her breath, that she was possibly asleep, he whispered, very quietly, “I found them.”
She lifted her head. “You found them?” He nodded. The moon jiggled in the tree.
“When? On your walk this afternoon? Up on the mountain?” He shook his head. “When we were playing hidey. In among the rocks over there.” And he pointed above his head, across the creek.
“What, theyve been lying low in the rocks?”
“It wasnt hard for them to hide,” said Dylan. “They were only this big.” He showed her with his thumb and forefinger.
“Stiff, you know, not moving. On bases, like those soldiers Uncle Brett paints.” He had held the little figures in his hand in the sunlight, waiting for Aaron to find him.
From the Hardcover edition.
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