Mister Cassowary

Mister Cassowary

by Samantha Wheeler

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702256219
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 4 MB
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

Samantha Wheeler lives in Brisbane, with her husband, two daughters, two dogs, a cat and a horse. Her love of animals began with her pet tortoise in Africa at the age of five. After a varied career, involving dairy farmers and teaching, Samantha took up writing in 2009. Her first children’s book, Smooch&Rose, was shortlisted for 2014 Queensland Literary Awards and 2014 Readings Children’s Book and was inspired by her concern for Queensland’s koalas. Her second book, Spud&Charli, was imagined while riding her horse Oscar through the bush. Mister Cassowary began as a science project for one of her students. After discovering how few of these magnificent birds remained in the wild, the project soon developed into her third book.

Read an Excerpt

Mister Cassowary


By Samantha Wheeler

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 2015 Samantha Wheeler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-5621-9


CHAPTER 1

I'd never been to Grandad Barney's farm, even when he was alive. He'd grown bananas in the middle of woop woop, at a place in north Queensland.

'Look, Dad! That sign says Mission Beach. We're nearly there!'

We'd been driving for two days, travelling nearly 1,600 kilometres from Brisbane, and it felt like we were almost at the tip of Australia. I thought Dad would be happy we were getting close, but his face was growing darker with every passing kilometre.

Grandad Barney had died almost a year ago, but whenever I asked Dad what happened, he said it had been 'an unfortunate accident' and quickly changed the subject. So I really had no clue about Grandad Barney, the farm or Mission Beach. In fact, everything to do with Grandad was a mystery to me.

'Not yet, mate,' said Dad.

I sighed. How much further? My friends back home would be watching the cricket or playing the computer games they got for Christmas, while I was stuck in the car with Dad. If Mum hadn't got night shifts at the hospital, she'd have let me stay home with her, but since she couldn't get any time off it was just Dad and me.

On an abandoned banana farm.

For two whole weeks.

With no TV, no internet, and no clue about anything.

'We'll take the next exit, Flynnie,' said Dad, 'and then it's only fifteen minutes from there.'

'Dad, don't call me Flynnie, remember? I'm nearly ten.'

Dad had been working away on the mines since I was five, and it was like he thought I was still a little kid.

We passed endless sugarcane and a couple of banana farms before turning off the highway.

Finally!

I leant forwards. Would the beaches have crashing surf and jagged rocks? Or long sandy stretches lined with shops and high-rises?

But all I could see was more boring sugarcane. I wriggled in my seat, deciding this was going to be the worst summer holiday ever.

'So, Dad, what was Grandad Barney like? Was he tall, you know, like you?'

'Sorry, mate, what did you say?' Dad was an expert on avoiding the topic of Grandad.

'Grandad Barney. How did he die? Was it really an accident?' I'd assumed Grandad had fallen from his tractor or had some other type of farming disaster. Why else would Dad always say it was an 'unfortunate accident'?

'Let's talk about it later, hey?' said Dad, pressing his lips together. 'It's been a long day, and I need to concentrate on driving.'

Typical. Never answers. Always excuses. Like, 'Sorry, mate, I can't talk now. I'm racing to catch a plane'. Or, 'I'll tell you later, I'm tired from working 20 days straight'.

I shuffled my feet. Why wouldn't Dad tell me? I had a right to know. He was my grandad. I looked up to ask again but stopped before the words came out. There it was. The sparkling ocean. With tall palm trees bending like old men towards the waves, and yachts with white sails bobbing in the distance.

'Wow! It's awesome!'

'Beautiful, isn't it? Look, there's the jetty.'

A long jetty stretched into the ocean. Two kids stood at the very end, their fishing rods silhouetted against the water.

'Can we go fishing, Dad?'

'No, mate, we didn't bring any rods.'

'Maybe Grandad Barney has some? Didn't you go fishing with him when you were a kid?'

'Me and my father?' Dad snorted. 'Not likely.' Dad's jaw was tight, his voice bitter.

Suddenly something big stepped out from the bushes on the road up ahead. It looked like a giant emu but with jet black feathers and a long blue neck. Its scaly legs reminded me of a dinosaur's.

'Dad?'

But Dad was looking in the rear-vision mirror at the jetty.

The creature ran out onto the bitumen.

'Dad! WATCH OUT!'

Dad returned his eyes to the road just in time and wrenched the steering wheel sideways. I was thrown against the passenger door, and my seatbelt dug into my chest. We were halfway into the other lane when a loud thud echoed through the air. Dad and I were jerked forwards, and our bags crashed to the floor in the back.

'Hold on!' Dad shouted above the squealing tyres.

The car skidded to a stop on the wrong side of the road.

My heart pounded. I yanked my seatbelt off and turned to look out the rear window.

The animal lay on the side of the road, its head raised, its long legs waving helplessly in the air.

CHAPTER 2

Dad gripped the steering wheel. His knuckles were white, his breathing heavy. 'Are you okay?' It sounded like he was squeezing the words from his throat.

Like him, I could hardly speak. 'Yes, I'm fine,' I stammered, my pulse throbbing like a jackhammer in my ears. 'But what about ...' I turned back to look at the fallen creature. 'Can we go see if it's all right?'

'No, absolutely not!'

'But it needs help. It looks hurt.' The animal's long legs were cycling around frantically, like it was trying to get up. 'Please, Dad?'

'No, it's too risky,' he said, steering the car back onto the right side of the road. 'Cassowaries are dangerous even if they're injured. I'll ring the park rangers as soon as we get to the farm. Come on, buckle up.'

'But ...'

The cassowary became motionless as we drove away. I lost sight of it as we cleared a small hill. My stomach clenched.

We hadn't been driving long when a huge crack started spreading across Dad's side of the windscreen.

I pointed at the crack. 'We have to stop!'

'We'll be okay,' said Dad, staring vacantly ahead. 'I'll just drive slowly.' But he didn't look okay. His shoulders were hunched and his eyebrows were clashing together like dark storm clouds.

I tore my eyes from the spidery lines, hoping the whole windscreen wouldn't cave in on us. A bright yellow road sign with a picture of a smashed car beside a long-legged bird flashed past. The sign said, Are you speeding?

'We don't get signs like that in Brisbane,' I murmured.

Dad blew air out his mouth, like he'd been holding his breath. 'No cassowaries down there, thank goodness.'

I peered curiously into the trees. 'Will there be cassowaries at the farm?' I asked.

'Hope not.' Dad's eyebrows were clashing even more than before.

We turned onto a skinny road where tall grass grew on either side.

'Here we are,' Dad murmured, his voice shaky. He stopped the car at a letterbox that said Hutchinson, 132. Beyond the gate were two sets of overgrown tyre tracks: one set branched right towards a group of sheds, and the other left, towards what I thought must be Grandad's house. I expected Dad to get out, but he sat staring at the padlocked gate, like he was stuck to his seat.

I wished Dad would take us back to check on the cassowary. The sound of the thud was playing over and over in my head.

But I knew better than to bring it up again. I waited, glancing sideways at Dad. He was leaning on the steering wheel like it was a life raft in the ocean.

'Have we got a key?' I whispered to break the silence.

'Right. Yes. Of course.' Dad took a deep breath and eased himself out of the car.

Once he'd unlocked the gate, he drove slowly towards the house. My chest grew tight as we drew closer. The house wasn't anything like what I'd expected. It was made of pale blue bricks, with a sloping tin roof that stretched over its gloomy verandas. The windows and curtains were firmly closed and the garden out the front was full of weeds.

'Coming?' asked Dad, once he'd parked in the empty carport.

I opened my door, but my legs wouldn't swing out. The house looked lonely and sad.

'Don't worry, we'll have it cleaned up in no time,' said Dad, trying to sound cheerful, even though he looked like he'd eaten a rotten sandwich for lunch.

I dragged myself out of the car. The buzz of cicadas was deafening, and the smell of grass filled my nose. Away from the shade of the carport, the sun on my head felt hot enough to roast a lizard.

It'd been over a year since Dad had come here for Grandad's funeral. He'd turned down all offers to care for the place, and now dead leaves piled across the front veranda, cobwebs hung thick in every corner and gecko poo littered the pavers.

When the key wouldn't turn in the lock, Dad leant his shoulder against the door and shoved. Geckos fled for cover. How would we ever get this place ready to sell in two short weeks?

Eventually the door swung open. Inside, the house was dark and smelt damp and musty. 'Right,' said Dad. 'I'll lead the way.' But he didn't move.

I shivered despite the heat. The air was very still. And quiet. Spooky quiet. I rubbed my hands over my arms and felt the small hairs on my neck prickle.

I looked at Dad. Was this where Grandad had died?

'Come on, we have to do this sometime,' said Dad, taking a deep breath and letting it out in a whistle.

I followed him inside. The floorboards creaked under our feet as my pulse thundered around my body.

Dad tugged open the curtains in the kitchen. The house was flooded with afternoon light, and my hammering heart settled. Dust flew around the room, but everything else seemed neat and in its place. Had I been expecting anything different?

A green tree frog with webbed toes and a smiley mouth clung to the outside of the kitchen window. It didn't hop away when it saw us. I wondered if it had been there, all alone, ever since Grandad Barney's accident.

'Let's freshen things up a bit, hey?' asked Dad, unlatching the windows. A welcome breeze blew the stale air from the house. A trail of ants marched from the window to the cream laminex bench, where a diary lay open. I peered closer. It was open on the date Grandad had died. Just over one year ago.

'I'm glad you're here to keep me company,' Dad said, closing the diary. 'Couldn't face the house on my own after the funeral. Nothing but bad memories, this place.'

'What do you mean?'

'I'll go get our things,' Dad said, taking off out the front door.

Same old story. Always changing the topic.

'Wait for me,' I said, running after him. I didn't want to be alone in the house. Seeing Grandad Barney's things, untouched from the day he died, was giving me the heebie-jeebies. 'I can carry my stuff.'

'Okay, if you're sure,' said Dad. He brought in his bag and the bread and milk we'd picked up on the way, while I pulled in my wheelie suitcase and backpack. My suitcase was heavy, jammed with my favourite books. I couldn't decide which ones to bring, so I'd packed them all.

'Where should I put my bag?' I asked.

Apart from the kitchen and the family room, there were two small bedrooms, a bathroom with no windows, and a separate toilet. I tried not to be disappointed. It wasn't quite the sprawling farmhouse I'd imagined.

'You can take Grandad Barney's room,' said Dad. 'And I'll sleep in my old room down the hall.'

I gripped the handle of my suitcase. Grandad Barney's room? Where Grandad had slept? I turned to protest, but then I changed my mind. I didn't want to give Dad any more reasons to think I was just a kid. Anyway, Grandad's room might give me some clues.

I pulled open the curtains. There were two big bookshelves holding serious-looking books: butterfly books, bird books, fertiliser books, rainforest books and farming books. Grandad was more book-mad than me!

I decided to make a space and line my books alongside his. On the middle shelf, three picture frames glinted in the sun. I moved closer to take a look. Although Dad said I'd met Grandad when I was little, I couldn't remember what he'd looked like.

In the first photograph, two people stood smiling at the camera. Grandma and Grandad? It must have been an old picture because Grandma had died when Dad was really young. She was short, and looked straight at the camera with a twinkle in her eye. In comparison, Grandad was tall, like Dad, but with snow-white hair and a big beaming smile. He wasn't wearing a shirt, so I saw his lean muscly chest. He was exactly how I imagined a banana farmer might look.

The second picture was of Dad and Grandad. Dad looked old enough to be in high school, and neither he nor Grandad were smiling.

'Hey, what's this?' I wondered out loud, picking up the third photo frame. It contained a faded certificate with the words: To Mister Cassowary. From your feathered friends at the Cassowary Rehabilitation Centre. In appreciation.

Mister Cassowary? What did that mean? I thought of the cassowary lying helpless by the side of the road.

I found Dad sending a text in the kitchen. 'Just letting Mum know we're here,' he explained. 'In case she's worried. All unpacked?'

'Dad, who's Mister Cassowary?'

'Where did you hear that?'

'I found a certificate. In Grandad Barney's bedroom. Was that you?'

Dad grunted. 'No, mate. Not likely. Far from it, actually.'

'So was it Grandad? Was he Mister Cassowary?'

'Go grab your hat,' said Dad, as if I hadn't spoken. 'I'll take you for a tour outside before it gets too late.'

Dad pulled on his hat and walked out of the room.

'Dad! Was Grandad called Mister Cassowary?' I persisted, chasing after him. Dad headed left off the veranda and marched past a large shed containing machinery. Finally he stopped at the gate to the first paddock.

'Oh no!' said Dad, clasping his hands over his hat. 'What a mess!'

I frowned. Instead of rows and rows of tall, healthy banana plants, like the trees we'd seen on the way, long spindly vines wound up and over everything.

I followed Dad past the gate. We waded through waist-high weeds and crunched over knee-deep banana fronds. It smelt of rotten fruit and sweating compost.

Yuck.

A few minutes later, Dad gave up trying to walk through the weeds and we stopped. 'Doesn't take long for the rainforest to move back in, does it?' he muttered, taking off his hat to wipe his brow. Sweat soaked his hair, and trickled down the side of his head. 'We should have done this months ago. We'll never have this place ready for sale in two weeks. I must have been dreaming.'

I wished we'd done it months ago, too, when it wasn't so sweltering hot. My T-shirt stuck to my chest and my head felt dizzy and light. With the heat plus all the questions about Grandad flooding my brain, I could hardly think straight.

I swatted away a red-winged beetle whizzing past my head. Suddenly the bushes behind us rustled. I turned, expecting to see a scrub turkey like at home. But the leaves stopped moving, and I couldn't see anything.

I looked at Dad. His shoulders were rigid.

'Come on, Flynnie. Let's go!' he shouted, wheeling back towards the house.

'Dad! What ...' I ran after him, only pausing to shut the gate. Cicadas whined and cockatoos screeched as I struggled with the latch.

'Come on, leave that, Flynn. Quick!'

I dropped the latch and sprinted.


Dad's hands shook as he poured us both a glass of cold water when we got inside.

'What did you see back there?' I asked.

Dad took a long swig of water. 'I don't know. But I'm not going to worry about it now. I have some calls to make.' He poked out his shaking thumb. 'Firstly, I should call Roadside Assistance about the windscreen. And secondly,' he raised his index finger, 'we need to call Mum. She wanted to talk to us after we'd checked out the paddocks.'

'Don't forget the rangers. We have to tell them about the cassowary that we hit, remember?'

Dad ran his hand through his sweaty hair and sighed. 'Okay, I'll call the rangers, too,' he said.

While Dad dialled numbers on his mobile, I took my glass of my water down to Grandad Barney's room. The heat was making my head spin.

I sat on the bed and cleared a space for my glass on the bedside table. A small picture frame sat tucked behind the lamp. In it, a huge cassowary stood between Grandad and Dad. It was so tall that Grandad Barney had to reach up to place his arm over the cassowary's feathered back. But he looked proud as he smiled at the camera. Unlike Dad. He looked like he'd rather be anywhere else than beside that cassowary. His eyes were narrow and his lips were turned down.

'Flynnie?' I slipped the photo under the pillow as Dad stepped into the room. 'Mum wants to talk to you,' he said, holding out his mobile.

'It's Flynn,' I hissed at Dad as he walked out. Then, 'Hey, Mum.'

'Hi, honey. How's the farm?'

'Good. Did Dad tell you about the cassowary?'

'What cassowary?'

'We hit a cassowary on the way here. It cracked our windscreen.'

'Really? Are you okay? Were either of you hurt?'

'No, but Dad went all weird and shaky, and the cassowary wasn't moving when we drove off. I think it got hit pretty badly.'

'Oh, that must have been scary.'

'Dad was going to ... Hang on.' I put my hand over the phone and called out to Dad. 'Did you call the rangers, Dad?'


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Mister Cassowary by Samantha Wheeler. Copyright © 2015 Samantha Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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