It was during the early years of my residence in this forest country that I had my first and weirdest experience of these ingenious little gnomes that often become so persistently the bushman’s bane.
I had only recently achieved the dignity of a four-roomed bachelor dwelling that had at its back a partly cleared paddock between house and creek.
An Irish settler new to the district had, on the night I write of, paid me a visit, partly to break the monotony of his own life of single blessedness, partly to lend manful aid in dealing with a certain fluid birthday gift that I had just received from the city.
It was a summer night, sultry and vaguely ominous, with thunder in the air, yet a cloudless sky from which nearly a full moon lit the bush with mystery.
Wearied of gossip indoors we had gone on to the back verandah to watch the effect of the moonlight on the tall gums and wattles by the creek.
Suddenly Terry gripped my arm with both hands.
“Be the powers,” he gasped in a scared whisper. “Dud you hear ut?”
I signed to him to keep silent, and again, from somewhere between us and the river, came a most lugubrious and uncanny bellowing, strangely muffled in quality and ending in a bubbling moan that was like no other sound on earth. It was as if some poor lost soul, realising at long last the futility of vocal protest, moaned forth its last lorn hope mechanically and without purpose.
Immobile with horror we listened, and again –- this time without doubt from somewhere in the paddock -– came the muffled bellowing, ending in that fearful gurgle that suggested unnameable macabre possibilities.
Yet nowhere in the moonlit clearing -– where the tallest of the bracken clumps was more than six inches -– was there sign of any living thing –- certainly of no being that could produce that deep, bellowing note of despair that seemed to shake the very earth beneath the house.
Recovering first, and greatly daring, Terry asked for a gun. I pointed to the old blunderbuss in the corner of the porch, neglecting to mention that it contained no charge; a circumstance that Terry in his excitement quite overlooked.
He crept down the verandah steps mumbling indistinctly of bunyips and banshees; and, in the brilliant moonlight I watched him creep cautiously from patch to patch of bracken.
Then, suddenly, to his left, and close to the ground, I saw a slight movement as something like twin crescents gave back a double ray of reflected moonlight and faded again into shadow.
“To your left, Terry!” I yelled. At the same moment his glimpsed it. I saw him lift the gun and heard the futile click of the hammer against the empty breech.
Then, as the bubbling bellow again began to lift in volume, I saw Terry fling the gun from him and race for the verandah, yelling as he came.
“’Tis the divvle himself,: he yelled, “thrustin’ himself up out of the ground wid his two horns and howlin’ for the souls of men. Wid me eyes I saw him, plain as I see yourself. Come away from this place; ‘tis cursed!”
He grabbed me by the arm, and his headlong rush bore me through the house and out through the front door.
Here we collided with an old bushman, who, attracted by the yelling had come to investigate.
Despite the terrified warnings of Terry and my own guarded advice, the bushman continued to investigate; and presently we heard roars of laughter coming from the back paddock.
Emboldened we joined him and discovered –- a cow! A very cramped, very muddy and very mournful cow buried up to her horns in a subterranean cavern that seemed half hull of water.
“She broke through into a crab-hole,” the hilarious bushman explained. “Alf Jones’s Blossom she is. We’ll have to dig a bit of a ramp here and yank her out.”
And that, in shamefaced silence and with much labor, is what we did.
And that, too, was my first experience of those mysterious little crustaceans which bushmen call “crabs,” and other people call “yabbies”!
And this, too, is the second occasion on which I have set out to describe what I know of these miniature crayfish –- engineers, masons and cavern dwellers –- only to arrive at the limit of my space before I could reach a detailed description. But a time will yet come.
And all that Alf Jones said when I described in great detail the unselfish rescue of his Blossom, was that I ought to mend my fences and not get trapping people’s cows that way.
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2003|