Australia 9,200 BC
On that windless day, waves flopped onto the beach as though tired of living, sensing perhaps that trouble was afoot. As a result, flocks of bickering seagulls had an easy time of things converging on panicked bait-fish as they flung themselves to the surface. Inland, cicada insects screamed in protest as everything wilted in the ferocious heat, for it was a time when the ice-age was a memory, and a cycle of incandescence blasted the earth.
It would be around ten thousand years in the future before the region got labelled Australia—and a touch over that before a couple of young blokes messing about near that beach would discover traces of a sinister event in the making.
When that future time came, an Aboriginal kid named Juba would say, ‘My people foretold it.’
His best mate Danny, an obese white Australian, would huff and say to Juba, ‘Shit. My mum’ll bloody kill me.’
And a blind dyslexic school boy would say to NASA’s chief of aeronautics, ‘It was easy. I just felt the around the edges and the device popped open.’ And then, the dyslexic kid would go home with a prize, and the Australian boys would head off and forget what they’d seen in favour of a spot of fishing.
But not for long, for trouble was afoot.
Back then, it began when a needle of light suddenly cut through the sky, causing the gulls to abandon their hunt and scatter; something unusual was whistling through the sky. Whatever it was formed into a smoky cloud and slowed, hovering above the sand close to a cave set back from the beach. The heat from its propulsion system caused the cave’s rocky overhang to start melting.
Marwai—a seasoned old artist—and his young apprentice Yirra were inside the cave when this disturbance came. Though they’d soon get wind of events, they heard nothing as they worked. Well, at least the old man toiled away on a painting while the boy sulkily watched on.
Marwai’s task was to copy onto the cave wall a set of three fossils naturally captured in a tablet of red stone. The stone itself was about six inches in diameter, maybe a couple of inches thick. The fragile-looking fossils appeared moulded, their contours prominently embossed. A small fire crackled, providing enough light for the old fellow to paint. Yirra was bored, sitting in the shadows brooding while he tossed a couple of stones from hand to hand
‘Don’t understand why we have to do this,’ the lad mumbled from his sitting position.
Nor do I, thought Marwai. Not exactly. The Elders—wise and strict peers of the Aborigine people—had told him the fossils came from somewhere else, which usually meant some spirit or other. It had also been suggested the fossils didn’t come from this world, whatever that meant. But he could hardly tell a young man that.
Instead of embellishing the story, he said ‘Have to make an exact copy, only much bigger.’ He didn’t want to frighten the boy with fantastic fables.
‘But—’ Yirra began to argue, a trait Marwai found annoying.
‘Quiet. Just watch and you might learn something.’ The old man cut him short as he leaned forward to continue painting. In truth, Marwai found this task pretty daunting. Usually, he would simply paint from his imagination, such things as stick-men or a lizard or something he’d seen that day.
Both Marwai and Yirra were still oblivious to an approaching menace outside.
To achieve what the Elders demanded, the artist had chosen white ochre. First, he’d sketched the fossils to form a base and was layering over them with thick paint to make them appear lifelike. He continued to work as Yirra stood to examine the emerging result. The cave entrance was some meters away, to Marwai’s left.
A shrill noise startled them both. Their eyes swivelled toward the entrance, not visible as it was blocked by the wall’s curve. Marwai—foolishly assuming it was a flock of parrots—ignored the sound and continued painting. But Yirra, curious by youth and boredom, crept to the entrance.
Suddenly, he ran back into the cave, pointing frantically, spooked by something.
‘Stop dancing about!’ Marwai complained.
‘Danger!’ The boy was breathless as he gestured toward the entrance.
Patiently, Marwai smoothed the final ochre and stood back to appraise his work. Then he picked up the stone and his dilly bag, and casually shuffled to the entrance. Yirra crept further back into the cave, shaking his head in fear.
‘Marwai! No!’ he screamed.
The old man eased himself around the corner to stand at the entrance, where he peered into the brightness. His eyes were met by a steaming cloud not three tree-lengths away. It hovered above a smouldering rock that overhung the sea. Strange images, he squinted. Stick-men, he thought. Like lightning they flashed inside the swirling cloud. He wanted to run, but couldn’t; he was held fast by a force he couldn’t comprehend. His ears buzzed, his breathing shallowed, his heart stopped. The cloud approached him, dissipating as it came. In an instant, two creatures flashed into being right beside him. Eyes like an emu, feet like a gecko . . . these were Marwai’s final thoughts as he literally froze, feeling himself taken, placed inside a . . . He couldn’t know what.
Yirra’s eyes stood out like gum nuts. Crouched on all fours, he peered around a curve in the cave entrance to watch Marwai being shut inside a thing that looked like solid water, or a bubble. The thing floated into a bright object partially obscured by the cloud. Then it shot up into the sky and vanished, leaving in its wake nothing but a circle of molten rock spitting, hissing into the sea.
The deserted coast became silent once again. The gulls returned to their feast, cicadas resumed their shrill singing.
‘Kutji,’ the boy whispered. A terrible spirit known to cause havoc with all in its midst. He dashed back into the cave and sat hard against the back wall to contemplate. He’d heard a few stories from the Elders, but seeing this thing abducting Marwai was something he couldn’t fathom.
He daren’t leave the cave. His dread of being taken prevented any rational thought. Instead, he slunk further into himself and the cave for hours, madness shining in his eyes. As the day ended and complete darkness enveloped him, he made a decision; he stooped down and blew on the embers to rekindle the fire with an unused pile of tinder. From its light, he found Marwai’s discarded palette and spat into the drying ochres, mixing them into a malleable paste. He stood in front of the painted fossils Marwai had completed. After selecting a suitable space near them, he began to poke his finger into the paints.
All that night, he dabbed and stroked, oblivious of his thirst and hunger—driven to record all he had seen. Blood from his hands became etched into the surface. At last, exhausted, he traced a final stroke across the rock. Dawn seeped into the cave. Dazed, Yirra crept from the entrance to gather rocks from the desert. Back and forth he went, and built a wall that sealed and hid his experience for what he imagined would be eternity.