It was late afternoon when the dark gold sun went beneath the tree line. Jules gathered twigs and formed her name on the ground. A kookaburra gave a crazed laugh and she smelt the fresh scent of gum leaves. The vegetation was dense around her—ferns, gumtrees, and yellow flowering wattle. The panic in her chest had subsided and she made the decision to stay there. Traipsing further would weaken her, make it harder to be found. Her water bottle was half full and hunger nagged in her stomach.
They would be searching, she knew. She craned her neck looking for choppers, yet saw only the deepening blue of the sky. As darkness encroached and surrounded her, she imagined claws reaching out and whimpered. It was not the velvet dark of the campsite, but a dark of emptiness. She zipped up her jacket and crossed her arms against the chill. Unseen animals crunched through the undergrowth and scratched in the earth. Wombats, she thought, or kangaroos.
Jules shivered, remembering the story her father had told the previous night. The spirits of ancient aborigines, roaming the bush at night. The ululating sound of their corroborees echoing through the trees.
‘Have you heard them, Dad?’ she asked with wide eyes.
‘Yes, Jules. It’s no joke. You wouldn’t want to be wandering alone in the bush around here. Many years ago there was a massacre, and an entire tribe, the Amangu, were killed. It’s both them and their ancestors who have appeared to bushwalkers. Sometimes it’s just noises, and other times they’ve been seen.’
Her mother rolled her eyes, warming her hands over the campfire. ‘Cut it out, Ray, you’re terrifying them.’
Jules’s sister Tia waved her fork with marshmallows at him, the fire casting moving patches of ochre light on her face. ‘You’re naughty, Dad. Look at Jules, she’s gone as white as a sheet.’
Jules swallowed, feeling emotion rise in her throat. Tears welled in her eyes. She lay down hugging her knees, her back against a tree trunk. Stones beneath dug into her side and as she fell asleep, tears fell from her cheek into the dirt.
A noise woke her. Something cut the air with a whine, close to where she lay. Then another and another. Jules sat up, staring into the blackness. Footsteps hit the earth, thumping a discordant rhythm as they passed. Unintelligible words, high-pitched and urgent.
Jules’s breath caught and she froze. She did not dare make a noise and sat still, her heart’s frantic beat loud in her ears. A second later, abrupt silence. She stood and peered through the blue-grey outline of trees, searching for light, for evidence of what she had heard. Nothing. The rustle of an animal, the low call of a bird. The moon glittered on the highest leaves above and she retraced her steps.
It was close to dawn when a diagonal stripe of torchlight illuminated the ground before her. The light found her and she was mute with gratitude.
‘I’m here!’ She found her voice and called, standing on weak legs. The silhouettes of three men emerged, smiling as they approached.
‘Jules?’ The man reached out. ‘It’s going to be fine. Are you all right?’
She nodded and stepped towards them.
Jules’s eyes hurt, unused to the glare of the light. She followed the men, turning to look behind. For a moment, she thought she saw the orange glow of a fire torch and the outline of a man, his muscular form almost one with the darkness.