A town with a secret
Born in the year 2437, at fifteen years of age, Kelly was still too young to know the truth. That the thylacines existed at all, and that their ‘enclosure’ was almost half a day’s journey on foot from the town, was known to Kelly only because her nineteen-year-old brother, Edward, let it slip one day while they were placing flowers on their grandfather’s grave.
‘He’s not really dead, Kelly,’ he said, flipping a lock of sandy-coloured hair away from his forehead. ‘I’ve seen him again. Well, at least, not exactly him, but the look in his eyes.’
Wiping away her tears, Kelly had tugged at the sleeve of his tunic. ‘What do you mean, he’s not dead? We all saw him die!’
Edward frowned. ‘I’ve said too much. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but you remember that look Grandfather had when he knew one of us was lying, well, I saw it in someone else’s eyes, and I know it was him and not just my imagination.’
‘People don’t enter other people’s bodies when they die. You’re just being silly, so stop it!’ Kelly punched her brother, none too lightly, on the shoulder, and he put his arm around hers.
‘I didn’t say it was a person, Kelly, now did I?’
His sister stared at him scornfully. ‘What else, then? Knowing you, your big feet tripped over a rock in the dark and you hit your head when you fell over. It was just a dream!’
Known throughout the town for his clumsiness, and therefore stung by her words, Edward told her about the Thylacoleos, as he called them, then immediately regretted his lapse of judgement and refused to say anything further. In four years time, the elders would take her to the lions’ enclosure and she would see for herself.
Kelly now idly doodled a picture of a marsupial lion in the red sand, although she had no real idea of what one looked like. She would have to find an image of them on the lattice.
During the evening, Kelly spent as long as she dared studying the features of the Pleistocene carnivore. Its strong limbs, perfect for climbing, and the long, sharp claw on its thumbs – just right for tearing and gripping – were awe-inspiring, as were the thylacine’s enormous front teeth and powerful jaws. There was no getting away from it – she had to see them, though at some two metres in length and weighing around one hundred and fifty kilograms, it seemed wise to keep her distance.
Poking around in her storage cabinet, Kelly found a set of long-range binoculars with night vision. The journey would have to be at night, otherwise her mother and other family members might notice her absence. Thankfully, small as it was, she had a room to herself. The only problem seemed to be, where were the Thylacoleos? Edward would never tell her, and she was quite certain no one else would either, which meant there was no choice other than to follow someone to find out.
Two weeks of careful observation were enough to allow Kelly to work out when the next planned overnight trip to the enclosure would be. Unused to sneaking around and listening to other people’s conversations, she felt awkward at first, but her determination won out. Eventually, Kelly found herself using all her skills to tread carefully and silently behind the small group walking steadily in a north-easterly direction towards the stone outcrop that served as a landmark for their clan’s territory. The air was still, the moon full and low on the horizon. Its glow was enough for them all to see their way. The warmth of the night made Kelly’s skin itch a little, but she suppressed the urge to scratch – even the slightest sound could attract attention. The group ahead suddenly stopped and she quickly crouched down behind a saltbush, watching and listening. The murmur of voices was too low for her to hear what was being said, but before long, they set off again, this time quickening their pace.
Two and a half hours later, the townspeople rounded the first huge boulder and had almost disappeared into the dark shadows of the rocky hillside by the time Kelly caught up with them, her heart pounding with suppressed tension. Peering into the gloom, she could see the faint glow of a torch as its beam bounced off what could only be a force field, since nothing else could explain the pattern the light created. ‘Ah, that makes sense,’ Kelly thought, having previously wondered how the enclosure was kept hidden from prying eyes or visitors to the region – not that anyone encouraged visitors. One of the men looked around and she ducked, holding her breath. No one came to investigate, so her luck held.
A slight buzzing sound told Kelly that the force field was being opened to allow the townspeople to enter. She was sure the field would stay down only long enough for them to pass through, leaving her no chance to follow. Damnation! What to do? Giving in to temptation at last, Kelly scratched the itch that had bothered her for so long and, keeping well within the shadows, crept towards the place where the opening had been. At first there was nothing to see, other than the moonlit landscape beyond. Peering more closely, she could just make out the faint outlines of the townspeople walking slowly towards a gnarled tree, its furrowed wood silver-grey and gleaming.
Kelly took out her binoculars and knelt on the red earth; warm and dry, and somehow comforting in its familiar softness. The binoculars allowed her see the dim shapes of the thylacines as they approached the townspeople. She had somehow expected them to be fierce and threatening, and yet they were not. Huge, yes, mind-boggling in their strangeness, certainly, and frightening in appearance, without doubt, but with their heads held to one side and their gait slow and oddly comical, the creatures seemed more dreamlike than real. Surely this was some form of holograph?
Suddenly hungry, Kelly found the piece of sun-dried mango she had brought with her and chewed, thinking hard. Thylacoleos were supposedly extinct and had been for an awfully long time. How could these be real? Edward hadn’t been joking or trying to fool her: she knew her brother well enough to be sure of that. So, if they were alive, and not some elaborate image created for who knew what purpose, was her first theory the right one? She giggled. Nerves… Stop it! But what if they were flesh-eating monsters instead? When Kelly giggled again, she once more sternly told herself to stop – and then shrieked when she saw one of the men kneel down and allow the largest of the lions to tear his throat open with its claws. Standing in a semi-circle, the others simply watched while the giant marsupial crushed the bloodied throat between its huge jaws.
Clasping one hand over her mouth, Kelly, transfixed, saw the other thylacines join in to feast on the offering. No sound came to her through the force field, for which she was intensely grateful. Also, it meant no one had heard her. The minutes went by and before long there was nothing left of the man who had either been executed, or who had voluntarily given his life in this bizarre place. The thylacines cleaned themselves, licking the blood and pieces of flesh from their faces and paws, then slowly retreated into the distance. As the townspeople turned and began making their way towards the entrance, Kelly staggered to her feet and ran as quickly as she could – away from this place and away from this nightmare.
The next day the town buzzed with the news that Matthew Ryan had left, never to return, apparently. His granddaughter, Annelise, nine months pregnant and due to give birth any day now, walked along the main street in a daze. Her eyes stared vacantly at everyone who spoke to her, their tones hushed and their faces full of sympathy. The old buildings seemed to return her stare, their windows reflecting the stark landscape and the harsh light of summer. Inside one of them, Kelly finished the last mouthful of her chocolate sundae and watched, thinking furiously, her fingers drumming the tabletop. Should she speak with Edward? No, he would be so angry, and worse, would probably bring her before the elders. Annelise has to know! She’s old enough to know why, as well. Do I dare ask her? We’ve been friends for as long as I can remember… Damn them all, how could they do this?!
The heat outside was now so intense that the horizon had disappeared in a shimmering haze. Kelly was used to the heat, but it still enveloped her in a fist of iron as she stepped onto the hard pavement – no floral trafficways here as she had seen in Perth. No carpet of flowers could survive in this desert, except when it rained, once or twice in a lifetime. Walking quietly behind Annelise, she took a deep breath and overtook the young woman, then turned to her and said, ‘I know what happened to your grandfather. I was there. I saw it all.’
Annelise blanched, then grasped Kelly by the upper arm, her grip strong and hard. ‘You’re too young! How could you have been there?’ Her blue eyes bored deep into Kelly’s, and Kelly flinched. She felt the small hairs on the nape of her neck prickle, as if they were standing on end. Her stomach seemed held in a grip of iron as well. ‘I followed them,’ she managed to say, her voice high and uncertain.
‘You did what! Kelly, you’re a fool. You don’t know what you’ve done. Come here – come with me at once!’ Annelise half dragged her young charge into the shade of the one surviving eucalypt in the town square – at least it was one or two degrees cooler there. No one else was in sight, so the older woman relaxed her grip and demanded to know the whole story. When it was finished, she resisted the urge to smack Kelly, hard, across the face for being such an idiot. Instead, she insisted they find Edward and tell him the story – he needed to know what his own foolishness in telling his sister about the thylacines had led to.
Edward was repairing a fence post when they found him, his forehead dripping with sweat and the back of his shirt similarly drenched. He wiped his hat over his face as he saw them approach, then roughly shoved it back on his head. ‘Hi, Sis,’ he called out. ‘What’s up? And how are you doing, Annelise? Should you be outside in this weather?’
‘Hello, young Edward, and yes, it does me no harm. However, your sister and I have been having a chat and it seems you’re both in deep trouble. She knows about the thylacines and she knows about my grandfather…and all because you opened your big mouth.’
Edward gaped, and Kelly smothered a giggle, despite the seriousness of the situation. His mouth was big. Controlling herself, she stared at him and he returned the stare, while Annelise frowned at them both. At last, Edward shook his head and swore under his breath. ‘You followed them, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, and now I want to know what’s really going on. It’s too late to hide anything from me. Would it do any good if I promise not to tell anyone?’ Kelly looked down at the red earth and made a pattern in it with the toe of her shoe.
‘That’s up to the thylacines, Kelly. It’s completely out of our hands now.’ Annelise looked sorry as she said these words, but there was no hiding the fact that Kelly had broken their law.
‘No! You can’t let them decide, Annelise! You have your child – your bargain has been made, but Kelly is too young to go!’ Edward held her by the arm, placing himself between his sister and this woman who now seemed an enemy, not their childhood friend.
‘We have to, Edward. There’s no choice. The bargain isn’t only mine. It belongs to the whole town and has done for aeons. We’ve kept the secret for so long only because we’ve made sure no one goes unpunished if they break the law.’ Annelise’s face was hard, fierce. ‘We owe it to them. You know that!’
‘Don’t, Edward.’ Kelly moved out from behind her brother and took his hand. ‘I made the choice to go. It’s up to me to take the consequences.’ Her voice trembled, but taking a deep breath, she said, ‘If neither of you will tell me the truth, at least this way I’ll find out.’
That night, the elders deliberated for many hours before coming to the same conclusion. There was indeed no other choice. Not if their trust was to be kept and the outside world kept in ignorance of the treasure they had managed to keep safe for so long. Kelly was brought out from her room, where she had waited since dinnertime, becoming more and more afraid of what was to befall her. Her parents and Edward were conspicuously absent from the gathering, as was Annelise once her story had been told. Standing now in the middle of the circle of gathered townsfolk, Kelly waited. The minutes passed and no one spoke.
As the tears began to roll down her cheeks, the elder who was their elected spokesperson finally stood and approached. ‘You have been reckless, Kelly, and you have seen what you should not have for several years yet. As a youngster, you can’t be trusted not to reveal what you saw, no matter how many promises you make. Your brother has demonstrated how difficult it is to avoid saying too much, even though he’s old enough to have known better. We have already dealt with him – it is now time to deal with you.’
Moving closer, the elder placed her hand upon Kelly’s forehead, closed her eyes, and delved into Kelly’s mind. Kelly felt only the light touch on her skin, completely unaware of this other touch, deep into her very soul. A soft yearning for comfort overcame her, and her sobs deepened until she felt her heart would break. At last, the hand was withdrawn and she was allowed to return to her room to await the elders’ decision.
‘This young girl is of a true and courageous nature,’ the spokesperson told the gathering. ‘I believe the thylacines will like her.’
‘I hope you’re right. She would greatly contribute to their lives.’
‘Yes, I believe so. Now, if we all agree, it is time we made our preparations for the journey. We must start early tomorrow morning, soon after sunrise, if we want to avoid the worst of the heat.’
The gathering soon broke up and each went their own way to sleep and to prepare for the coming ordeal. The spokesperson told Kelly’s parents of the elders' decision, doing her best to ease their fears. Kelly herself was left alone to dwell upon her wrongdoing, and to come to her own conclusions about what the next day would bring. ‘They’ll eat me,’ she decided at last. ‘Why else would the elders take me to them? Well, at least it’ll be quick; I know that much.’
Her attempt at courage did little to help her sleep, and it was a very tired young girl who met with the elders the next morning for their long journey through the desert. Kelly had at least managed to eat the breakfast provided and took comfort from the quiet demeanour of her companions, as well as the kindly manner in which the spokesperson held her by the hand as they walked in silence. However, it was a different matter when they reached that part of the stone outcrop that Kelly recognised as the entrance to the enclosure. Her heart raced to the point she felt it would burst, and her breathing quickened until she nearly fainted. ‘Slow down your breathing, Kelly,’ she heard someone say. ‘It will do no one any good for you to be carried in. It’s best if you walk with your head held high, even if you have broken the law. The thylacines don’t appreciate cowards, you see.’
Kelly swallowed hard, drank a mouthful from her water bottle, then breathed slowly and deeply, gradually calming herself and managing the smallest of smiles. ‘If they want courage,’ she thought, ‘I’ll show them!’
Flanked by the elders, Kelly waited while the force field was briefly inactivated to allow them all to enter. Inside the enclosure, it was at least fifteen degrees cooler and the light far softer. It even felt slightly humid and there were plants here that Kelly had never realised could exist anywhere. They were abundant and lush, in hues she had seen only in the botanic gardens in Perth on that one visit four years ago as a special treat to celebrate her Namingday. Odd that she should notice and think about such things when, in all likelihood, she was about to die! ‘Well, if I only have a short time left, I might as well enjoy it,’ she thought, and straightened her shoulders. The spokesperson noticed and smiled, but the smile disappeared as the first thylacine approached, soon followed by more than a dozen others.
They were huge – much bigger than Kelly had imagined, having seen them only from a distance. Their teeth were much bigger than she had thought as well, and their muscular front limbs with their razor-sharp claws even more terrifying, now that they were so close.
‘Stand perfectly still, Kelly,’ ordered the spokesperson. ‘Allow them to examine you and do not say or do anything.’
Trembling now, and unable to think a single coherent thought, Kelly did exactly as she was told while first one of the creatures sniffed and circled her, and then the others, until all sat on the red earth, surrounding her, their eyes gleaming as they stared into her own. The ‘voice’ of the nearest thylacine lion suddenly sounded inside her head, and Kelly recognised it as her great aunt’s, who died eight years ago. In shock, the young girl listened, and now understood what her brother meant when he told her that their grandfather was not really dead.
‘The Thylacine suffered because your ancestors drove us to the brink of extinction. Only we few survived, and all these years, have been cared for by your people. You are our guardians, and the price you pay for their sins is to number no more and no less than us, and to give us your flesh when you die. Your souls are ours as well and in return, we share our immortality. The bargain is complete and you will, in turn, become one with us and within us; become one with your ancestors. Until we see you again, Kelly, live well and remember.’
One by one, the huge creatures disappeared into the forest, leaving the townsfolk alone with their secret. Kelly was not about to die, and was not to suffer any other punishment at the ‘hands’ of the thylacine. Instead, they had told her the truth; a truth she would now need to protect and carry for the rest of her life, until it was her turn to meet them again for the last time, just as Matthew Ryan had done.