A short story based on a true story.
She’d heard all the stories. Three girls were hitchhiking around the area, same spot where she was right now in fact, and got butchered in their sleep. One managed to escape, running manically from her killer, stab wounds flecking the white sand of Australia’s most beautiful beach blood red. Then there was the ‘Bodies in the Barrels’ massacre- and who hadn’t heard of that one. She shivered as she recounted the terrifying tale, passed around from traveller to traveller like a joint to excite the mind and while away the hours. The story was profuse because it could not be forgotten.
Eight bodies found partially decomposed in acid, sitting deep in the centre of one of Australia’s own bank vaults. And perhaps most peculiar of all was the mystery of the man found dead on Somerton beach. Dressed in an expensive suit, identity unknown to this day, he lazily lifted his arm and took one last puff of his cigarette before falling into an everlasting slumber. You couldn’t make that one up. After all, she had heard it been said; South Australia, murder capital. Little was resolved of drowned man, the leading piece of evidence being the words “this is the end” in Persian, ripped neatly from a poetry book and carefully folded into the breast pocket of his suit. This is the end, thought the girl, as she looked down at her feet half hidden in the sand.
Around ten hours earlier, two young travellers tumbled off of a tour bus after taking a ferry from the mainland coast of South Australia to the small town of Kingscote situated on the West side of Kangaroo Island. They swung their rucksacks against a nearby tree and took a minute to get their bearings. The town was one supermarket short of being a village, with just one tourist shop and a simple cafe which overlooked the water. Their eyes followed the bump in the road to the Indian ocean which lay behind, glittering romantically with the clear blue promise which so characterised a desert island. Turn in the other direction and you could see that the road wound upwards through a mass of brown and green shrubbery, stretching unhindered into the horizon behind a haze of hot air. It may as well be signposted ‘adventure’, the girl thought, and gleefully they swung their bags onto their backs and headed up the path. Several miles ahead of them lay the heart of the island, and the life and soul of the Australian wilderness.
As the travellers walked the sun shone mercifully upon a land ruled not by mankind but the animal kingdom. All kinds of animals ran free and untamed in a place devoid of humans but for the winding road which took a lucky few deeper into the outback. Seal Bay, D’Estrees Bay, and beyond that Vivonne. A paradise, they had heard. A vehicle of some kind was necessary, so the young couple bought card from the tourist shop and on it scrawled “VIVONNE BAY” with $1 biros, going over each letter until the words stood out from the page. Then it was simply about choosing the right spot and allowing patience to take over, the greatest virtue when it came to hitchhiking.
As the van rumbled down the empty road the girl tried to avoid the dribble which swung back and forth from the giant dog which took up 3/4 of the narrow space. She apprehensively pet his wolflike ears in the hopes he was friendly and wouldn’t suddenly attack. The first challenge complete, she felt a sense of satisfaction. Her eyes focused out and she took in the view behind the dusty panes of glass. A stillness fell upon her immediately, as her heartbeat came to rest somewhere between awe and wonder. Through the flash of the green pines were open fields which appeared to glow in the orange sunlight. Kangaroos jumped playfully with their young and stood flexing their muscles in herds. Everything appeared sun-kissed golden brown, reflecting Autumn in Australia. Birds swooped and participated in a great chirping chorus as the group sped further into the wilderness, fears replaced by anticipation of what lay ahead.
The cove where they were dropped, all danger averted, was every bit as earthly and peaceful as they had imagined. After a lazy afternoon the travellers received an invitation, through two other campers, from a mysterious local resident to have dinner at his house. Greatly curious and humbled they accepted, and began their journey across the fields to visit this mad professor type who supposedly spent days alone in the wilderness. The kilometres between the sparse roads were navigated by packs of wild kangaroos who thudded through the bush and reflected the gold of the setting sun. They glanced up at the tress and saw cute koalas, lazily chewing eucalyptus leaves and frozen in place as they napped the hours away. The girl thought she had a good understanding of the natural world, truly believing the idyllic notion that we should and could regain harmony with the earth. This, she thought, meant recycling, driving less and owning a garden. But passing through this great landscape nature took on another meaning. As the travellers stepped through a mishmash of weeds, tangled roots and giant ants a fire came in to view, blazing in the distance. Up ahead of them smoke wafted into the inky blue sky which signalled the approaching dusk. They had arrived.
It was not so much of a house as a strange assortment of things from which one could just about gather that a man lived there. Assembled close to the huge fire was a low building with an open roof, a shed and a camper which appeared dusty and unused. Chairs were placed around the fire, facing the orange flames as they licked towards the sky and radiated warmth as the night grew chillier. The travellers approached the scene cautiously, laden with snacks and wine as if though they were bringing offerings to an emperor. From the dark shadows of the encampment a man appeared, his slow and purposeful steps making his presence noticeable. He had a long grey beard of untamed nature and wore a hat pulled low over his head to accentuate his confident demeanour. He shook each of their hands, and introduced himself as the professor.
He lived several months of the year on the island and spent the rest working in a city much further north. That explained the makeshift feel of the place and the overbearing solitude. They began talking about the outdoors, and on expressing her appreciation for the natural world the professor cut her off-
‘If you really want to know about the natural world, follow me’, he told her, eyes glistening. He led her through the low building in which everything appeared hand-made, from the furniture to the doors and flimsy windows. The furthest wall represented the most impressive creation as it was composed of different coloured sea shells, each a carefully selected shade of purple and individually glued into place. The wall shone like the sea, and placed around were jars of white sand scooped from the surrounding coves. Beside this was a strange collection of objects on top of small white stones and surrounded by wooden fencing. They immediately attracted the girls attention, and she felt her throat dry up. Some of kind of animal bones, skulls of some kind. The skulls of animal heads or… humans?
The man laughed at her stunned expression and grabbed one, turning it over in her hand to reveal the smooth teeth still intact. He stroked the smooth underside of the molars and told her how much he enjoyed decorating his house with the bones of animals. Once more the words ‘THIS IS THE END’ flashed into the girls mind, and she turned around to see the shadows of her friends drifting in and out of view in front of the fire in the distance, surrounded by blackness. In front of her were were the various sized animal skulls, neatly arranged and polished to shine. The ominous professor looked at her, told her how white and neat her teeth were and emitted a bellowing laugh which made her jump. She barely had time to reply when the man darted his hand out with one smooth motion towards her mouth, and she fell forwards and landed with a thump which turned everything black. She turned and looked up at the towering figure with a skull in his left hand, bearing down on her, wondering if this would be the instrument with which he killed her…
Shielding her face she expected a blow but none came. Confused, she lowered her arm and saw that a hand was stretched out towards her. Careful! There’s a lot to trip on around here the professor chuckled and reached down to help her back up. Noticing her terrified expression, the man laughed and put the skeleton back in its place. Don’t let my odd habits put you off, these are just some bones I found walking down the beach. The glint was back in the mad professors eye, but now the girl saw it was an expression of excitement rather than murderous intent. What do you know abou tha’ history behind animal bones? he asked. She shook her head dumbly in reply, still shaken from the fall and the situation. Before this land became an island, aboriginal peoples lived here, and they collected animal teeth to make weapons and food. As he spoke they began to wander back through the house, and the girl began to see the objects as beautiful rather than terrifying. More animal heads decorated the walls and the curious man picked up a shark tooth and brought it the the group around the fire. She felt less scared of him now, and was curious to hear more of his knowledge of the land and its history. The sharks own the ocean in the same way that mankind has come to rule the land, he continued, and lowered himself into a seat by the fire as the other travellers gathered around. Many many years ago, there was a young warrior who went into battle for his tribe. He fought bravely and came back victorious, taking a shark tooth from the ocean as proof that he had become the most powerful of all. From that day on the warrior wore the shark tooth around his neck and no harm came to him or his ancestors. The necklace was passed down for generations as a heirloom which came to represent an affinity with the natural world. It was silent in the camp, the only sounds the licking flames and surrounding crickets. The man clapped his hands, breaking them out of their reverie. He laughed, now come help me pick fresh coriander to add to sauce. As they began to get up the girl notice a glint of something between the open fabric of the mans shirt, just hidden beneath the fold. It looked like a shark tooth.
As the sleepy travellers left the camp of the professor, under a sky of glittering stars, they began to feel as if had been transported to a parallel universe. All thoughts of roadside killers had gone from the girls head with the good food and laughter of the evening. The realisation dawned that she was more at danger crossing the street in a busy city than out here on the soft grass under the pale moon. Better than that, she had made good friends for life. Stories of ancient tribes would remain in the back of her mind forever, and they came to be the stories she chose to tell future travellers, urging them to visit the Australian outback. If ever she felt the urge to contemplate the mysteries of the wilderness again, her thoughts landed on the lone professor, in his house on the hill overlooking fields of kangaroos as they settled to sleep beneath the setting sun.