The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. Then another. Then two more. The nearby lake was black and still, and the thick eucalypt forest that was wrapped tightly around it stirred in the hot night air as it watched the log cabin glow for the first time after a long sleep.
Inside the old, abandoned goldminer's cabin, the newborn candlelight crept around in the darkness, curious, probing gaunt, dusty corners, and caressing the twists and turns of the four young hikers’ tired faces. Then the light crept up the walls, and revealed a message painted in white, a little faded, long dormant in the darkness.
‘WHITES STAY AWAY’
The group stood with their large packs heavy on their backs, and stared at the writing for a few seconds before anyone spoke. These particular seconds felt like they ticked slowly, as if a clock hand was struggling in the heavy cabin air.
‘Damn. Bad luck guys,’ said Brian, whose parents were Vietnamese. He knelt by his bag and unzipped it.
‘What the fuck?’ said Scott, the words escaping accidentally, carried by a shallow breath that wobbled his candle’s tiny flame.
‘Yeah, bad luck,’ said Bianca, putting her bag down. Her boyfriend Scott kept his on. ‘Maybe we should stay away,’ he said with worry in his voice.
‘Bianca, what do you mean ‘bad luck’, you’re white.’ Brian said.
‘I’m not white, I’m Italian.’
‘That is white!’
Scott interjected. ‘Guys - semantics. I’m thinking if the kind of person who paints threats on the wall is nearby, maybe we shouldn’t be.’
The final member of the group, Charlie, sat down on the floor and yanked off his hiking shoes. ‘It’s probably nothing. Plus, it looks old. I reckon we’ll be okay. Anyway, we’re only here for a few nights - we can set up a camp tomorrow on the other side of the lake if that makes you feel better, but we’ve been walking all day, and I’m wrecked. Tonight, I’m sleeping here.’
‘I don’t think the message is just for the cabin, I feel like it’s the entire area,’ Scott countered.
‘How do you know the specific longitudes and altitudes of the graffiti threat, you spud?’
‘I’m a spud? It’s ‘latitude’, not altitude. You’re the spud.’
‘Will everyone shut up.’ Bianca interrupted. ‘This isn’t what Australia Day weekend is all about. It’s about drinking. Now, who wants room-temperature beer?’ She pulled out a six-pack of warm cans.
They all said yes, and sat around in the candlelight eating sandwiches, drinking, and telling stories. One by one, they rolled their camping mattresses out on the hard floor, and tried to go to sleep. It was the height of the Australian summer, and their sweaty limbs stuck out of unzipped sleeping bags from wall to wall on the cabin floor, and they all lay awake for a while, baking. They left the door open at first, hoping to welcome cool relief, but the night was stagnant, and no breeze visited. Only mosquitoes accepted the invitation, so Brian shut the door. Even with the heat, their full day of hiking from the car to the lake soon got the best of them, and dragged them down into hot, syrupy sleep. Bianca was the last to fall, and just as reality melted around her, and dreams whirred to life like an old movie projector, she thought she heard the walls of the cabin groaning like an old ship in a storm.
She woke up to the sound of magpies warbling and choking, welcoming the morning sun. She realised she was drenched. Her face flushed with embarrassment. She thought maybe she’d wet herself during the night, and so she lay still, trying to think of an escape, or an excuse. But, she soon realised there was simply too much liquid for that theory to be true. Her arms and her hair were wet, and she sprayed away water that was sitting on her lips with a forceful breath, as if she’d stepped out of a shower just seconds before. It felt like she’d swallowed water too, and she lurched up and began to cough. She caught her breath, and when she opened her eyes she saw Brian standing there, dripping, stunned. It looked like he’d just swum in the lake.
‘What the fuck?’ he said quietly.
Soon Charlie and Scott awoke, also sopping wet. They stood like children in swim shirts, fresh from the ocean, dripping and overwhelmed. The droplets hit the wooden floor, which was completely dry underneath them. Brian was now drying himself with a towel.
‘Did it rain last night?’
‘It must have. But the roof looks solid.’ They all looked up at the ceiling.
Bianca navigated past the soaked men, walking carefully on the tips of her toes, and then stepped outside. It was only morning, maybe 8 o’clock, but the air was already hot, and getting hotter, and the sun was bright. The ground outside the cabin was dusty, and the sky was clear. If it had rained, it must have been hours ago. A hot wind was beginning to whip up.
The others followed Bianca outside, and squinted in the burgeoning day. No one really talked for a while. They quietly went about laying their bedding outside to dry, and it all dried quickly, and caught a thin layer of dust in the wind.
Scott fired up his portable gas cooker inside the cabin and boiled some water. Then they set up their camping chairs outside in a circle, around a picnic rug laid out on the hard ground, and they drank coffee and ate some chocolate muffins they’d bought from the supermarket on the drive in. As they drank and ate, their spirits lifted, and they began to forget about the strange happenings of the night. Or at least, in the light of day they found ways to rationalise it to themselves, even if deep down, something felt off. After the coffee and muffins, they cracked open some beers, and Charlie put on a pair of novelty Australian flag sunglasses. Bianca connected her bluetooth speaker to her phone and found an Australia Day playlist.
Just before lunch, Charlie took off his hat and sunglasses, grabbed a cigarette, and headed over towards the lake. His friends wouldn’t let him smoke near the trees in case any loose ash fell and started a fire.
‘Who’s swimming?’ He called out as he walked away.
The rest of the group were deep in a game of Uno, and made non-committal sounds.
‘Yeah, yeah, calm your farm. After this game.’ said Scott.
Charlie stood at the lake’s edge with his hands on his hips, looking out over the water, which was rippling and tearing in the wind. Dead trees and bushes poked out of the muddy banks, as if the lake had recently grown wider and drowned anything living at its edge. He took a drag of the cigarette and wiggled his toes in the mud. He took a couple of steps forward and then noticed something poking up out the water in the middle of the lake. It was dark, and symmetrical, and whatever it was, it looked, or felt, like it was facing him.’
‘Uh… guys? Are there crocodiles this far south?’
They stopped playing, and looked up.
They dropped their cards and stood, then walked quickly to the water and stood by Charlie. They all squinted and shielded their eyes, struggling to see anything against the blinding glare of the sun which shimmered across the water.
‘I think it’s just a rock,’ said Brian, and Bianca agreed. Scott said nothing.
‘Maybe. But I swear it wasn’t there earlier. And… don’t you get the feeling it’s watching?’ Charlie asked. No one said anything. The wind washed over them with a vicious, dry heat that was cooked up somewhere above the red sands of the outback, and deployed east, into the bush and towards the ocean, and the group were caught in its ire. ‘I think it’s a crocodile - which settles it, I’m not swimming. Count me in for the next round of Uno.’
‘I’m sure it’s not a croc, but suit yourself,’ said Bianca. There was something in her voice that betrayed that she might not believe her own words. She knew what Charlie meant when he asked if they felt like it was watching. They went back to their chairs and played Uno and drank beer until lunchtime, and every now and then someone would glance at the lake, because the feeling of watchfulness wouldn’t quite rest, and out here in the lonely bush, it was easy for the mind to get carried away inside itself.
For lunch, there were sausages in the esky, which they cooked using the small gas cooker. As they ate sausages in bread, Bianca noticed something.
‘The rock’s gone.’ They all turned and looked to see that the lake was flat once again.
‘Shit. I knew it, crocodile,’ said Charlie.
‘We still don’t know that. It could have been a log,’ said Brian.
‘You’re a log,’ replied Charlie.
They kept drinking and talking until the sun began to fall low in the sky, and with a full day of heat buried in their bones and a tower of beer cans lifting up their confidence, the group psyched themselves up to put on their swimmers and approach the lake. In a line, the four stood along the edge of the water, scanning for any kind of abnormality. They could feel the air that hovered above the water was cool and refreshing. And yet, no one made a move. They stood, watching in silence. And then, closer than before, something rose from the water, slowly, and at a perfectly steady speed. It was a head, that was for sure now, but it wasn’t a crocodile. It looked kind of like the snout of a black dog, or a seal, and it was shaggy, with a coat that fell somewhere between fur and the strands of a sludgy, aquatic plant. They might have thought it was a seal, if it weren’t for the eyes, which looked human, bright and calculating, set deep in its head under heavy brows, looking at them, scanning across the line of friends. Then its face split open into a grin, and its teeth were human, but more plentiful, stretching back into its mouth. And there it sat, watching and smiling, and the group were beset with terror.
‘What is that?’
‘Let’s go,’ whispered Bianca. ‘Come on. Let’s go now.’
Bianca and Scott turned and rushed back to the chairs and began to fold them. Brian followed, and then Charlie, but Charlie walked backwards, not taking his eyes off the creature in the water.
'Charlie, come on!’
‘Guys. I swear it’s gotten closer. Just a little, but closer.’ They all stopped and looked, and they agreed.
‘Fuck. Okay, hurry up. Scott you go pack up mattresses and sleeping bags.’ Bianca said.
‘Let’s just go.’ Brian was putting his shoes on. ‘Forget the stuff, let’s just run.’
‘It’s a full day hike, we need our stuff. Oh fuck, it’s moving. It’s definitely moving.’
‘It’s moving slowly though. Let’s at least grab- oh fuck it, yeah okay, just put your shoes on, we’ll leg it. But get the torches.’
‘Wait.’ Charlie said. ‘It’s stopped. It’s stopped smiling too. It’s sinking back in.’
They all stood and watched as it disappeared, leaving just a ripple that headed out in all directions.
‘Let’s still go. Come on.’
Suddenly, a booming voice rushed them from the trees. It trembled with anger and fear.
‘OI! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?’ A man came charging towards them from out of the forest. He wore work-boots, footy shorts, an old flannelette shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. ‘You shouldn’t be here!’
‘Who are you?’ Bianca asked.
He didn't answer. He rushed over to them, and scanned their campsite strewn with chairs, Uno cards and Australian flag merchandise. Then he looked up at the setting sun.
‘Are you the one who painted that threat on the wall?’ asked Charlie.
‘It’s not a threat, mate. It’s a warning. And it’s not warning you about me.’
He was looking around nervously, and in particular, at the lake.
‘What is it warning against…’ asked Brian, before Scott interrupted his friend. ‘It doesn’t matter, we’re sorry, mate. We’re leaving now. We’re sorry.’
‘You’re not going anywhere, it’s too late now. It’s getting dark, you’ll have to stay the night and I’ll escort you away in the morning. Get in the cabin.’
The group looked at each other nervously, looking for anyone else to make a decision.
‘Get in the fuckin’ cabin.’
They rushed in, and the man followed them. He shut the door behind him, and was rubbing the bridge of his nose, thinking deeply.
‘What’s out there?’ asked Bianca, quietly.
‘The… Bunyip? Like... Australian Bigfoot?’
‘Yeah, except real.’ He let out a long sigh. ‘When the whitefellas first landed here, my people fought ‘em. But the invaders had guns - and diseases. And more and more just kept coming. So we did something. I dunno if it was the right thing, but we woke up the Bunyip. The Bunyip was here before us, and it hunted us too, a long time ago - 50,000 years ago. But we respected Country, and it learned to live with us, or at least, ignore us. And eventually it went to sleep, until we woke it up and it saw invaders pouring into its land. And so it hunted the whitefellas, terrorised them. But in the end there were too many, and it retreated. But it never went back to sleep like it did for us. It still hunts the settlers sometimes - the invaders - you blokes.’
‘But, we didn’t do anything!’
‘But your ancestors did. Or maybe yours didn’t. The Bunyip doesn’t seem to care anymore.’
‘Do we know the Bunyip’s policies on Asians?’ Interjected Brian. ‘And Italians?’ added Bianca.
He didn’t laugh. ‘Do you want to find out?’
‘Wait, but what exactly is a Bunyip?’
‘A spirit, a creature, a giant dog that lives in the water. Your pick. But here’s our problem - it can leave the water at night, when the sun’s not looking, so I need everyone to shut up and lie down. It doesn’t attack Indigenous people, so I’m going to sit outside the door and stay on watch. You stay here. You can sleep, except I want at least one of you awake at all times. You can take it in shifts.’
He went outside and slammed the door behind him, leaving them alone with only the sounds of insects overcome with lust creeping in through gaps in the wood. Then he opened the door again, and threw the Australian flag paraphernalia into the cabin.
‘And hide this, although the Bunyip’s probably already seen it. You idiots.’ The door slammed again.
They all sat in silence, not quite believing what was happening. Their day of drinking was catching up with them too, and they felt tired and nauseous. Scott lay down slowly, facing away from the group.
‘I can stay awake first,’ said Charlie.
‘We’re really going to listen to this guy?’ asked Brian.
‘Whether or not there’s a monster in the lake, there is a strange man outside the door. I think one of us better stay awake.’
To that, they all agreed. Bianca went over and held Scott, and they lay silently. Brian went to sleep too, and Charlie sat in the silent dark, thinking about the Bunyip.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Brian woke up with pains in his stomach. Everyone was asleep, including Charlie, although Bianca was stirring. He sat up and held his stomach with his hand. It was groaning and twisting, and a sweat began to creep across his forehead. Each new feeling was a familiar warning sign, an omen that vomit was coming. He rushed to the door, lurched over, and pushed against it, but it hit the back of the man’s chair and only opened a few inches.
‘I need to throw up,’ he pleaded.
‘Do it in the cabin,’ was the only response, and the door opened no further.
With difficulty, Brian craned up from his hunched personal hell and looked out towards the moonlit lake, and saw the creature, the Bunyip, much closer now to the edge of the water. Once again it was just a head poking up from the murk, and again he could make out its eyes, cold and grey, set deep like they were being sucked in. Again, its face was torn into a smile crowded with human teeth. And then, Brian threw up, and it felt like all his organs were pushing towards his mouth in a mass evacuation. The man yelled something that didn’t register, and slammed the door shut again with the back of his chair, as Brian threw up over and over again onto the door, and on the floor. Even once nothing was left to throw up, he heaved and heaved, and tears ran down his face and dropped on top of some surprised bile that had been dredged up from the deep.
He could hear Bianca vomiting too. Then Charlie rushed to the door, but couldn’t open it, and then he was vomiting, and soon Scott completed the quartet. Brian dragged himself to a corner away from the door and lay there crying quietly. After they’d finished, the others did similar. No one talked for the rest of the night, but occasionally someone would dry heave. The cabin air was noxious and putrid.
The next morning, the man knocked on the door and entered, and a wave of hot air rushed into the rotten cabin and promised them the fury of summer. The four friends sat maudlin and ghostly, with bags lurching heavy under their eyes. The man covered his nose with his shirt, and his words came out muffled.
‘Come on. Let’s go.’
The four pulled themselves up. With almost no energy left inside them, it felt like gravity had grown stronger during the night. They slowly began to pack their things, not talking, moving with great effort, every decision foggy.
‘The sausages… must have been bad,’ said Brian, to no one in particular.
‘It wasn’t the sausages. It was trying to flush you out of the cabin,’ replied the man. ‘Come on, hurry up.’
They stumbled outside, struggling to lift their bags. The hot wind whipped and lashed at the surface of the lake, but otherwise, everything looked normal. They began to pack the chairs and things they’d left in a hurry the night before.
‘I need to piss,’ said Charlie, looking at the man like a child looking up to a school-teacher. The man looked out at the lake, scanning. Finally, he answered. ‘Alright, but do it behind the cabin, and make it quick.’ As Charlie trudged into the bush and around the back of the building, each step crunching loudly in the dead, dry leaves, the others shared a muesli bar. They chewed slowly, staring into space. While Charlie was gone, they noticed the head rise out of the water again, eyes watching them above a wide, stretched grin. This seemed to push Scott over the edge.
‘FUCK. OOOOOFF.’ The word ‘off’ stretched out until his breath ran out and his lungs burned, and remnants of the words echoed across the lake for a few seconds more. Then he fell to his knees, exhausted. The man thought about telling him off, telling him not to antagonise it. But he felt sorry for them, so he said nothing, and the moment passed. Bianca brushed her hands through Scott’s hair and spoke quiet, comforting words.
Behind the cabin, after he’d finished, Charlie was overcome by a sudden and unbearable urge for a cigarette, although he knew he shouldn’t smoke in the dry bush. He shook away the urge, and readied himself to go back to the group, but the urge came back immediately, stronger than he’d ever felt it, gnarling deep in his brain. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and laced a long breath with its smoke. He let out a sigh of pleasure, and then stood there, looking out into the bush. The branches of the endless forest were being tossed back and forth noisily by the fury of the wind.
Soon, he smelt smoke, and it wasn’t from a cigarette. He looked down, and noticed an ashy ember at his feet quickly become a red hot leaf, then three, crackling quietly, sparks jumping this way and that, smoke rising.
He stomped on the patch of leaves, but there was already another patch being tangled in flames, licked and suffocated, then several more, and suddenly the fire was crawling up the side of a large eucalyptus tree, and jumping from the leaves into another, its manic riot egged on by the wind. His stomach dropped, and the weight of what was happening, what he’d done, struck him, and every atom in his body ruptured with guilt. He ran back to the group, and in a small, stunned voice came the word ‘fire…’
But a warning wasn’t needed. The group already watched as flames erupted from behind the cabin with a roar, and a foul heat began to peck at their skin. They shielded their faces and began to run, leaving their bags to burn. They made for the path out, but the fire moved faster than they could have imagined, and it swallowed the exit. Each eucalyptus tree was like a twisted drum of oil poised to erupt at the slightest flame, and the forest was quickly being glutted; nature eating itself, and throwing up acrid smoke into the air, vaporised bile, stinging and seething. The group moved along the lake’s edge, being pushed further and further. The heat was becoming unbearable, and they were coughing from the onslaught of smoke. The man had nothing to say, no help to give. All he could do was keep shepherding them away from the fire, hoping the wind would turn and push it away, perhaps giving them a window to escape. But instead, the wind seemed to be changing direction constantly, like a paintbrush twisting on a canvas. The man realised the fire was shepherding them, and his heart sank, heavy and hopeless, but he said nothing.
Bianca was the first to get in the water. Her skin was blistering, and her instincts gave her no choice - she ran as fast as she could to the lake and leapt in, submerging herself. She came back up, and faced the group, but she could only see raging, blinding orange, and she shielded her face from the heat. She submerged herself again. It was too hot near the edge.
‘No! Don’t go in!’ The man yelled, his voice battling against the fire’s thunderous crescendo of noise. He told them to stop, but he knew they couldn’t. They could never choose to stand by an icy lake and die by the hot knife of a fire - but if they truly knew the alternative, perhaps they would.
Scott, Charlie and Brian followed Bianca, sprinting into the lake, and the cool water splashing around them was an angelic feeling of relief. The man followed. They all plunged underneath the water, and then popped out and stood waist-high, dripping, but the air was still too hot. With no other choice, they began wading away from the fire, towards the middle of the lake. When they saw the head rise from the water in the lake’s centre, grinning, they halted, and each of them wailed - but the heat was roasting their skin and singeing their hair. They could do nothing else but keep wading towards the middle, and towards the Bunyip. Charlie and Brian were a little ahead, and switched to swimming as the water deepened. Bianca was sobbing. She realised the frailty of their situation now, the unimaginable horror of continuing on, and the pointlessness and pain of turning back. But she kept wading, the heat pushing her on and on. Scott wrapped his arm around her and tried to console her, but there was nothing he could say, and he was crying too. Then the water was too deep, and they both had to start swimming as well. The four friends, paddling as slowly as their tolerance to their burns would allow them, headed towards the grinning monstrosity in the middle of the lake. The Bunyip waited and watched through the light smoke.
Charlie was the first to be pulled under, pulled by something unseen. His hands thrashed around but his head was submerged. The others were screaming, and they turned and briefly made for the shore. But the bush was volcanic now, and Brian, Scott and Bianca flailed in no man’s land, twisting and turning in between two unimaginable choices, or fates, their limbs aching in the water. Scott was pulled under next, and Bianca shrieked. Scott became a desperate animal, like a springbok flailing in the jaws of a lion, and his final act was to grope at her legs, scratching, trying to hold on to anything, and her’s was to kick him away, and swim out of reach. It didn’t matter, she was soon pulled down too. Brian’s eyes shimmered with utter terror, and glowed with orange as he turned and made the decision to swim back to shore once and for all. He swam breaststroke, and each time he popped up from the water the air was hotter, and soon his skin was melting and warping, and his scream even pierced against the wailing and cracking of the bushfire - and he turned back. His immediate survival instincts had won. Brian, burned and blinded, barely conscious, thrashed and flailed away from the nuclear heat, and back towards the smiling Bunyip.
The man began towards him, but Brian was pulled under, with little protest. The man suspected he’d passed out, or gone into shock. He treaded water, breathing heavily through aching lungs. He’d watched with horror as the four had been pulled into the water with no explanation. The Bunyip was a large beast, a lurching dog, but it seemingly hadn’t moved a muscle, or bitten and torn at its victims like it had in the past. It sat still and silent while the four friends drowned at the hands of something unseen. The man stared at the Bunyip, who stared back with ancient knowing, and satisfaction. The Bunyip wouldn’t hurt him, but the fire might. The air was getting hotter still. He took a deep breath and plunged down into the water, cold and dark.
Everything in the lake glowed a dim orange underneath the flaming sky, and what he saw was not a creature, but a monstrosity - a god. The head poking out of the water was just the top of a living mountain of sludge, mud, flesh and fur, writhing in the water, continuing down into the deep. Embedded in the flesh like prized gems were human beings, seemingly preserved, pale and pickled. Their eyes were open, and tentacles made of mud and reeds covered their mouths and noses. The man could guess why, but he didn’t want to. Tentacles held the four friends just underneath the water too, so that their arms could feel the air, but their lungs couldn’t. Their faces were centimetres from the surface, and they stretched and jerked their jaws trying to lift their mouths above the water, while their arms thrashed for something to grab. He saw now that they were still alive, still struggling, because the Bunyip would occasionally let them poke out their faces to breathe in the smoky air. It had been torturing them. Finally, it pulled them all in towards its gargantuan body and they disappeared inside its lightless gut. The man now wished he’d pushed them into the fire. Then he could be sure they were dead, and free.
He popped up out of the lake again and filled his lungs with rancid air, felt the scorching heat, and then resubmerged. He tried to stay calm and hold his breath. Now he saw parts of the lake bed rising and falling, like the chest of something asleep, breathing slowly, but beginning to stir, about to wake up.