We belong to the Earth, Lainie-Bug. We were sent here in human form for a reason. If you don’t know what to do, then just be human.
Right. Like that was ever a simple thing to do.
In the heart of the Wimmera region of Victoria, an ancient gateway to Eden is kept hidden and safe by a creature so powerful that even the moon would obey her commands – at least it would if she had any idea that she wasn’t just a normal girl about to finish high school.
When a mining company begins exploratory sampling near Lainie’s sheep farm, a family secret is revealed that makes her regret not having learnt more about her Indigenous heritage.
What she’s told by their farmhand, Harry – an Aboriginal Elder – can’t possibly be true, but then the most irritating guy in class, Bane, begins to act even more insanely toward her than ever, until she can no longer deny that something very unusual is going on.
When Harry doesn’t return from his quest to seek help to protect the area from the miners, Lainie sets out to discover the truth of her heritage, and of the secret she’s been born to protect.
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The beast approached neither stealth nor apology. Its diesel stench tasted like ancient death as it gusted in on the breeze that flipped around my leaves. My residents had no idea what was coming and I had no way of warning them, no way to escape. Vibrations travelled through rock and dirt and shook loose a thousand filaments from where they fed in the soil. When the machine hit, my foundation cracked, but I held on, so the metal blade bit into the ground around my roots and chewed and gnawed and loosened my grip. A section of bark was ripped away, revealing a clearer layer of a much older wound, its chevron pattern a reminder of my sacred duty. My branches shook and the family of ringtails in my hollow squirmed around each other in fear. The beast backed away. But then it revved louder, and when it came at me again, it was as unstoppable as the north wind.
I had failed. The bulldozer was not permitted here. With a silent outcry I was torn free from the earth and left to die as the metal monster continued to devour its way towards the heart of creation ...
A blast from Mr Mason's whistle drilled a new hole in my skull, and I sat up so fast that my English essay tried to fly away. I snatched at the errant paper and then looked up to see if anyone had noticed me drifting off to sleep. Except I wasn't sure I'd actually been asleep. One minute I'd been silently laughing at the guys on the soccer team trying to hold their half-squats, and the next I'd been facing down a bulldozer. I'd had daydream visions before, but they weren't usually so ... consuming. Nor had I ever been a tree. That was definitely new.
I leant back against the peppermint gum and extricated a few bits of bark from my messy plait. Perhaps the grassy edge of the school oval was not the best spot for doing homework after all.
On the field, the soccer team were thankfully ignoring me, distracted by a scuffle between two of the players. Noah was trying to break it up, but my friend wasn't having a lot of success because one of the fighters was flailing his limbs around like he had a spider in his ear. Bane's dark fringe flicked around as he swung his elbow at his opponent, and Noah almost copped the rebound when he tried to intercept it.
Bane, of course, wasn't his real name. Ben Millard. Bane of my life. Noah and I had nicknamed him years ago after he'd 'accidentally' set my locker on fire. He'd picked on me since kindergarten, and no one could remember what had started it. All I knew was that his tight lips and freaky stare were always waiting for me when I forgot to steer clear of him. He was like a socially inept child who became aggressive every time anyone inadvertently tripped over his schoolbag while carrying four red freezies. It wasn't like I'd asked him to try to catch me. It wasn't my fault one of the freezies had ended up down his shirt. He reminded me of a toddler who couldn't seem to grow out of the biting-people phase. In fact, were those teeth marks on Noah's wrist?
Mr Mason's whistle blew again, long and loud. He didn't stop blowing it until three of the other players came to Noah's aid and forcibly pulled Bane and Jake apart.
Scowling, Bane wrestled himself free from restraint and then wiped the sweat from his face with his T-shirt, while Mr Mason put on his serious schoolteacher voice. From where I was, the teacher sounded calm, but I knew he was angry because he kept clutching at his stopwatch with one hand and his whistle with the other. After his rant, he sent Bane jogging around the oval, while Noah was given the key to unlock the school canteen for some ice. The rest of the team were given basic ball skills to focus on for a while.
Nalong College was the smaller and less funded of the two secondary schools in our Victorian country town. It tended to attract the rural families of the region, so over the last couple of years we'd seen many of our friends drop out of school to work full-time on their farms. They were still invited play on our soccer and footy teams though. It wasn't like every other country school didn't do the same thing. Otherwise there'd never be enough players.
The students who stuck it out at school, like Noah and me, were determined to make a life for ourselves outside Nalong. We both wanted to do well enough to get into one of the big universities in Melbourne or Sydney the following year, and our final exams were getting so close that I could practically hear the clock ticking towards the final 'pens down!' command. So after laying out all my stationery into dancing stick figures, highlighting the quotes I was planning to use in four different colours, and interpreting the title into runes to decorate the border with, I finally ran out of ways to procrastinate and knuckled down to finish the silly essay. It was on the origins of faerie tales and whether they related to early legends such as the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Garden of Eden, and Snow White wasn't really all that complex — a pretty girl, a bunch of ethnic minority friends, an evil witch and an apple. It was certainly easier than the Biology assignment on Australian megafauna that was also due the next day. That one was likely to take me almost as long as the Late Pleistocene Epoch had lasted.
I was just tidying up my last tenuous argument when I heard someone approach, breathing hard. I glanced up just as Bane ran past me, staring with such a vile expression that I flinched. Sweat dripped from his black hair as he sprinted, legs pounding with stubborn speed, as if he was relishing his penance. He gave me the finger so I gave one back, cursing myself for not coming up with anything more inventive. What had I done now? It wasn't like his punishment was my fault.
Noah came over with a freezer bag full of crushed ice.
'Hey, Lainie. Mr Mason said I can finish early, because apparently facing down a vicious predator is enough of a workout for one afternoon. Can we go or are you still working on your essay?'
I shook my head. 'We can go. I'm done with Snow White. I really don't care if she's supposed to be an allegory for Eve, neither of them should have been stupid enough to eat —'
'One of these?' Noah asked with a grin. He held out an apple he'd nicked from the canteen.
I jumped up and pounced on it like a poddy lamb after milk. 'You are a dead-set God-send,' I mumbled as I bit into it, ducking sideways to avoid the handful of ice he was offhandedly trying to slip down the back of my school dress.
'Yeah, I am. Man, you eat fast. And do you always have to eat the core as well? That can't be good for you.'
I swallowed without needing to reply because we'd had this conversation in all its forms already. There was simply nothing anyone could say about someone eating too much fruit. Even Aunt Lily didn't bother telling me off for it, and she had the predictable over-protectiveness of the guardian of an only child.
As we crossed the oval and headed towards the car park, I felt a brief flash of nostalgia. Just four weeks of classes to go. I would miss the cracked patch of asphalt where we'd played Four Square in Year 8. I'd miss the trees slashed with white paint that marked the out-of-bounds area past the maintenance shed. I'd miss the fragrance of squashed Vegemite sandwiches, old bananas and that unmistakeable waft from the boys' toilets. Or maybe not.
'So how's your wrist? Do we need to take you to see Dr Knox for a rabies shot?' I asked.
'You can't catch rabies in Australia,' Noah pointed out. 'Except from bats.'
'Yes, but it was Bane. Who knows what unholy germs he carries? You might catch whatever he's got and become a psychopath as well. Every full moon. Hey, did we ever check that? Does he get worse when the moon waxes and the fog rolls in across the moors?'
'Australia doesn't have moors, either. All we have are creeks named after dead animals. And if Bane's mood swings come in monthly cycles then you have no right to criticise.'
At that point our discussion descended into an ice fight complete with hair-pulling, wedgies, and uncalled for bra-strap-flicking, until eventually Noah sought refuge in the driver's seat of his beloved red ute. He slammed the door with a healthy Holden clunk before I could give him the nipple-cripple he deserved, so I dumped my school bag in the tray and slid into the passenger seat, grinning as he flinched away from me.
Noah had just earned his drivers licence a few weeks earlier and we were both enjoying his newfound freedom by hanging around every day after school. We lived on neighbouring farms that were three quarters of an hour's drive out of town and I was really enjoying not having to take the school bus. Sadly I was still nearly a year away from getting my own licence, on account of being too stubborn to stay in my own class when I'd started Prep — I had snuck into Noah's class so often that in the end the teachers had just given up and moved me ahead a year. I blamed that for my social ineptitude with my classmates.
As I did up my seatbelt I noticed a colourful flyer sticking out of the glove box.
'Why do you have a hang gliding brochure?' I asked. 'Are you in it?' His white-blond curls tended to find their way into all sorts of publications no matter how much he complained. Like the new billboard at the town Visitors Centre, right above the slogan that said that Nalong was 'Home to the largest grain silo in the southern hemisphere'. His older brothers still hadn't let him forget it. 'Grain silo' had become a euphemism for all sorts of strange things since the billboard had gone up.
'Yes, but that's not why I have it. I was trying to convince Claudia to come with me sometime.'
The apple I'd eaten turned sour in my belly. He'd been going out with Claudia for less than a fortnight but I'd already had enough of her.
'Don't look like that,' he complained. 'I want company. Last time I went I had to spend the whole pre-flight lecture with some dude with orange sideburns and feet that smelled like cat food.' 'Why would he need to take his shoes off for a hang gliding lesson?'
'He didn't. I could smell them through his shoes. Besides, Claudia won't come anyway. Too chicken, like you.'
'I am not! I just don't want to spend my hard-earned birthday money on something that lasts less than an hour. I'd rather put it towards my new jumping saddle.'
'Oh, the one you've been saving for since Year 7?'
'Just shut up and drive, Noah.'
He seemed more than happy to stay quiet and not talk about his new girlfriend. Which made two of us.
For the next twenty minutes we were so busy not talking about Claudia that I really did drift off to sleep. It wasn't unusual. The last few months of gruelling study were steadily taking their toll. And perhaps my previous daydream wasn't done with me, because in one of my dreams, my aunt was sitting awkwardly against that same yellow bulldozer with her hands chained above her head. The machine was huge and she looked fragile against it, even though she was yelling at someone in a voice that could have drowned out a hungry cockatoo. The man she was arguing with wore a high-vis shirt and a white hard hat and looked like he needed a beer, but he wasn't backing down. Instead, he was trying to get a word in to tell her something he clearly thought was important but that my aunt didn't seem to want to hear. I knew exactly how the poor man felt.
The screaming got louder and turned into a wailing siren and I jerked awake just in time to see a police cruiser fly past us, kicking up a spray of gravel from the road.
A sick feeling grew, right next to my spleen.
'Noah, I'm getting that déjà vu sensation again.'
He glanced my way. 'Like that time when I got lost on my dirt bike in the state park?'
I nodded. I'd been twelve, and Noah thirteen when I'd told my Aunt that he shouldn't be out in the park with the storm on its way. I'd had no reason other than a restless sense of foreboding to suspect he might have been out there, but she'd sent me with Harry, our farmhand, to go and get him. Noah's mum had bought me a box of chocolates as a thank you for raising the alarm and hadn't even asked me about how I'd known where he was.
Without a word, Noah sped up a little and I knew he was going to follow the cruiser. I didn't complain. We were far enough out of town that there were only a handful of properties between us and our farms, and past our turnoff was all designated state park. That left a very small sample of people that could be in trouble. And we knew all of them.
Ten minutes later, we both breathed a sigh of relief when we saw the cruiser's lights in the distance. It had continued to follow the road we were on instead of taking our turnoff, but Noah still followed it. He was as nosy as I was.
Luckily, with the recent rain we'd had, the policeman's tyre tracks were easy to follow, otherwise we might not have noticed where he'd left the road just past Dead Dog Creek in the state park. There was an old fire access track leading up a gentle ridge that had recently been widened. Very recently. There were still fresh bulldozer tracks corrugating the mud.
The sick, restless feeling came back.
Noah's old ute valiantly managed the greasy track even at the insane speeds he was asking for, and when we reached the small clearing on the other side of the ridge, there were no less than five other cars crammed into it: the police cruiser; Harry's ute; a couple of shiny white four-wheel drives with Kolsom Mining logos on the drivers' doors; and my aunt's blue station wagon.
'Kolsom?' Noah asked, pouncing from the car and striding down a track that hadn't existed a few hours ago. The scent of crushed ti-tree was losing the war against the stench of diesel. 'The coal seam gas company? What are they doing here?'
'Apparently their exploration licence extends down as far as Chentyn now,' I said, hurrying after him through the mud. It was the half-hearted sort of mud that only reached down a few centimetres. Just enough to peel nicely away from the dry ground underneath and stick to the soles of my school shoes. 'Aunt Lily's been going nuts over it. She reckons their gas fields up north are poisoning the river. If they decide to start operating anywhere near here she might just have a conniption, whatever that is.'
The track curved where it got a bit steep.
'Does it involve chaining yourself to a bulldozer?'
'Apparently so,' I croaked, stunned.
It was exactly the same as in my dream, only less vivid, somehow. Maybe because the reality of it didn't convey the ominous sense of danger I'd felt. Now I wasn't certain if I was scared because my aunt was chained to a giant metal monster or if it was because I had somehow seen what was happening without actually being present. Was there also a fallen tree nearby with a family of frightened ringtail possums huddled inside?
My aunt looked very uncomfortable, and sounded furious. 'Then I'll say it again. You either get your equipment off my land, or I'll have you charged with trespassing.'
There were six men in hard hats and fluorescent orange polo shirts, and all of them turned to Senior Sergeant Loxwood, leaving it to him to respond the crazy lady.
The sergeant had been in charge of the Nalong Police Station for as long as I could remember, and after that incident with the Ashbrees's ride-on mower, I was still just a little bit intimidated by him.
'Ms Gracewood, this is state park,' the policeman said. 'Kolsom are within their licence parameters to — '
'They need to check their maps again,' she cut in. 'The state park boundary is farther west. This is private property.'
Her statement was met by dubious looks from almost everyone, including me. I went to stand with the only person not frowning at her.
'Harry,' I muttered to the dark-skinned farmer, 'do you need a hand?'
'No, I think your aunt has it pretty well sorted,' he said. He was leaning with his back against a tree, looking unfazed, but his eyes were a little too tight.
'I mean, do you need a hand with her?'
'Do you have any suggestions?'
'Do you happen to have any chocolate-coated liquorice with you?'
He shook his head.
My aunt noticed our exchange. 'Lainie, what are you doing here?' Her jeans were coated with drying mud and her hair windblown. How long had she been sitting there for?
'Are you really surprised?' Harry asked her. She didn't reply but her face got that set look like it did whenever she caught me watching Game of Thrones.
I smiled at her. 'I just came to ask, do you want yellow flowers or purple? You know, for the side of your combi van? I prefer purple. That way it will match your tie-dyed kaftan.'
'This is not some Hippie thing, Lainie. This is important. And I would never buy another combi van.'
She really used to own one? Learn something new every day ...
The sergeant crouched down in front of her and put on a very patient expression. 'Lily, please don't make me arrest you. I have enough legal paperwork from my ex-wife to deal with; I'd rather not have any more.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Songlines"
Copyright © 2016 Carolyn Denman.
Excerpted by permission of Odyssey Books.
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