I first saw the Saint beneath the two road signs just
outside Kintore settlement: Darwin 1180 Miles; Adelaide 1182 Miles. When the
white-haired stranger grabbed ma wrist, painful tight, demanding water, I knew
it had finally found us. The stranger had that madness, like we seen on the
news, before the news stopped.
But then his eyes cleared. He seemed to see me for the first time. “Fire!” he demanded. “I need fire!”
“Are you crazy old man ay? Look like you need water, not fire.”
I shoulda left him to die but I couldn’t.
I took him in me arms, he weighed almost nothing, like a paper doll, and I carried him back to the settlement.
While I carried him, he wept, “Too late! Too late!”
The brothas told me to, "Put him down!"
But when they saw his face, they went strange, quiet, and let me carry him to the infirmary, once Winkiku Restaurant. After he had drunk almost a gallon of water, slept for a day, ate a full shoulder of goat and shaved off his white beard, he was desperate to tell us his story. The whole mob gathered that night around the single, fly-battered blue light, pulsating unevenly while somebody rode the bike to power the generator. We wore cotton masks over our noses and mouths, hoping this would save us from the bug but nobody questioned why I brought him back. We all wanted to understand what had happened to the World. Gemima, a little sista, tried to touch his hair, so unlike our own fuzzy black hair.
“I should have died…” He shook his head and licked his still-parched lips. “But I’m grateful now… It’s given me the chance… to help you! I know how to kill it!”
“The bug?” asked Gemima. She coyly sucked her index finger.
He smiled. “You might be the last people alive on Earth. You have to listen to what I say. It’s your only chance!”
“Where did you come from, mister? Adelaide ay?” asked one of the young gang of brothas, the last we had allowed into Kintore. Since then we had turned away, or shot, any brothas or gubbas. It was the only way. But something about this gubba was different.
“No. I came … from the sky. I was flying … looking for you. We crashed. I was so thirsty and the sun … It blinded me!”
“Common enough, alright!” said Jim Dunne, spitting on the red earth to emphasise his wisdom. He was a whitey too.
“What’s the bug like? What it do ay?” I asked him.
His face contorted in remembered pain. “It’s terrible! Terrible. At first, though, it’s sweet. It comes through the air. All you want to do is good … I'm a priest. I've seen terrible things. I’ve seen men cut their throats, just so a child could eat bread! It feeds on altruistic thought…”
“What’s ‘altruist?’” Gemima started to ask but her mother quietened her with a shake of her tiny shoulder.
“You eat less and drink less but you don’t notice. The sweet bliss of becoming a Saint is intoxicating. It’s a pleasure I can’t describe. But I saw a programme on TV … I knew it was false. The neurons associated with higher thinking and sacrifice make it fertile and it lays its eggs inside your brain. But then it needs the body to sustain its young so you finally want to die! Ed and I were the last ones left … We crashed. Knew I was infected … Looked after Ed until I became delirious. That’s when I had a vision. Suddenly, I knew how to survive. The bug wants us all to be Saints. Oh God!”
The stranger was gasping for breath.
“But there’s a way to fight it … ” he continued. “It can’t stand bad thoughts and Evil. I believe I had my vision because God wants us, his children, to survive. So I did a terrible thing!”
“What?” I asked. But me voice was drowned out by screams outside the tent.
“Jimmi! Jimmi!” Ol’ Martha was screaming.
The rest of the crowd quickly followed Mr Sissons out of the tent. He had once been a Missionary. He was always drinking the whiskey now but he was still white. We didn’t have a mayor but we looked up to him as our leader. I didn’t want to follow.
A hand grabbed me wrist. It was horrible tight. I looked and it was the stranger.
‘Oh no! Not again,’ I thought.
“You must leave! Just go… Any place!”
I pulled me arm free. “But I can’t! I have a sister!”
“It doesn’t matter. She probably has it already,” the stranger said, seeing me fear.
“It’s the bug, isn’t it?” I asked, desperate. “But what can we do ay? We don’t want no sorry business here! And if we do nothing, there will be nobody left!”
He looked me straight in the eye. “Kill me! You must. I don’t want to live anyway. I have done something a priest can never do!”
I shook me head and turned to leave.
“Wait!” he shouted. “You must do this. One of you might survive and there will be others. Eventually two people who cannot bear to kill each other might survive! Or the virus might die, or leave!”
“It’s all in my journal! You… you must read it son.” He tapped his chest pocket with his hand. He spoke quiet but then there was a fire in his eyes. It looked like he was looking up to that white man's Heaven. Then his hand let go of me and he suddenly grabbed my knife from my belt. He planted it, right in his stomach, and he was dead!
“Hey!” I shouted. The gubba! A few drifted back but when they saw he was dead, they lost interest. They had expected a stranger to die and he did.
I did a funny thing. I dunno why I did it. I never done such a thing before. I took the little black book right out of his pocket!
Then I followed ’em out. Ol’ Martha was screaming and crying. Mr Sissons and the others had followed her to the corner of her shack. She was pointing to something. I couldn’t see clearly but somebody told me it was the body of her grandson, Jimmi. He lay dead, with a half-plucked chicken next to him. His head was split open by Ozzie's axe. The blood was spreading on the tarmac next to his head and the axe lay in the pool. His shoes were missing.
‘Funny,’ I thought. ‘Jimmi hasn’t got any chickens.’
It made no sense because Jimmi was good and simple; he would never think of stealing.
Later, in a council meeting, we learned the truth. Jimmi had sold his new shoes for five dollars and bought four chickens from the Tanners.
Bob Tanner said, “Jimmi told us he wanted the chickens for Ozzie and Ol’ Martha.
When Ol’ Martha was angry with Jimmi, he said; the chucks were for presents. Jimmi was too simple to lie, ever. Ol’ Martha said he looked so happy, she couldn't be angry no more.
Maybe Ozzie told Jimmi he was hungry.
But Ozzie killed him for the other chickens. It was Ozzie's axe and Jimmi must have fought back. We couldn’t find Ozzie anywhere. He had run! There was no government anymore, where we were, so Mr Sissons said it was, ‘Accident by Misadventure’ and that was that.
That wasn’t the last strange event in the Kintore either. In fact it was the beginning of a wave of every type of crime. At first it was mostly theft. But soon there were many acts of violence and, finally, murders. It was out of control. It wasn’t long before there were only half of us left. A terrible madness had overcome us. I guessed it was the bug. It had come for us at last. I had to kill twice to keep me sister, Samantha, alive. Lots of the men wanted to do terrible things to her. Some just wanted to kill her and me. Finally it was just me sister and me left.
Then Sam stopped drinking anything and asked me to kill her. I knew she had the bug.
“No,” I told her.
We argued all of last night, sometimes with knives in our hands and sometimes clinging to each other, as if we could ‘love’ the bug out of us and onto some altar-rock where we could finally sacrifice it.
I found the journal!
I had hidden the stranger’s journal, I guess other things distracted me. Like staying alive!
But the stranger’s last words, “So I did a terrible thing!” kept coming back to me in quiet moments.
So I looked for it.
At first it was just everyday stuff. But then, about a week before the day I found him, it became more interesting. The last page had the following written in it:
I killed Ed! Oh, God! Will you ever forgive me!
Nobody is safe!
What I have to write, I could not say to anyone! Yes, you can survive but you have to commit murder, cold-blooded murder!
When you … do it … it comes out. It cannot stand to be inside you so it comes out. The pain is unbelievable, it hurts like Hell, and it takes hours but eventually it comes out. You can see it on the ground. It’s like a pool of silvery water. But it screamed on the hot rock. I don’t think it likes heat. I think that’s why the people here have survived. Apart from its remoteness, this is one of the hottest places on Earth. They must burn it! Fire is the only thing that destroys it!
felt sick. I read on:
It moves through the air. Spores or something. But I think it needs time, hours, to generate the spores once it's out. I don’t know!
All the good people are gone, all the bad people have murdered each other for what's left. The virus has nowhere left to go. That’s why it’s here.
I told ma sister what was in the black book. I think she understood but she just looked at me and cried.
I knew what I had to do. I was never going to kill my sister, even if the bug finally got me too! I would rather die than kill her. I filled a jerry-can with gasoline and plugged it with an oily rag. Then I curled up next to Samantha for a while. She moaned from a pain inside her. She knew she should kill me but she would never do it! Me sister gripped me around the waist and I put me arm around her. But then I picked her up and carried her out to the desert, along with the jerry-can. There, both in a nightmare of thoughts, we finally fell asleep. We clung on.
Just now, I woke and I looked at Samantha, lying on the red desert earth next to me. She was still.
‘I must have killed her,’ I thought.
Everything natural is either red or blue here, sky or soil, and I looked for her blood. It should have stained her white dress but there was none. Then I noticed something shining, on a rock beside her. It was a silvery liquid. I remembered what the stranger’s journal had said and poured gasoline from the jerry-can onto the rock. I lit the oily rag and dropped it on the rock, laughing. The strange liquid crackled and sizzled and made a sound like a scream for a moment, before becoming silent.
Sam woke up and smiled at me. Then she caught the peculiar smell of the fire. “What’s happening?” she asked.
“It’s gone!” I told her.
We are walking hand in hand now, down Gary Junction Road. Of course we won’t try and walk all the way to Alice Springs but we just wanted to escape the settlement, for the first time in ten years. We won’t ever forget the stranger, whom we will call the Saint. We will tell others about him, if they are out there, if we can find them.