When I started entering the NYC midnight short story and flash fiction competitions, this was the first story that I had success with. I wanted to write something uniquely Australian and capture the funny side of our culture as well as explore the more spiritual aspects of the desert landscape. In the competition you get assigned a genre, a setting and an object. For this one I got action/adventure, an underwater cave and a dumb-bell. You have 48 hours to write and the story must be <1000. The image of the underwater cave came to me quite quickly. I wanted the protagonist to feel a bit alienated, a bit of an outsider, so I took a city type- used to working out at the gym- and put him in an outback town. I really wanted to capture some of the more haunting aspects of the ancient landscape and Aboriginal culture. I read a story when I was younger called ‘Quinkin Mountain’ by Percy Trezise and I liked the idea of the quinkins; often tricksy and sometimes frightening ancestral spirits who live in caves. I was never really happy with the ending and have learnt it’s a real skill to come up with a story that has a satisfying ending in less than 1000 words.
Read the story below;
Beneath the nothing blue outback sky, Nathan replayed the events of last night. His face was already starting to turn rash red and he felt the trickle of stale beer sweat run down his back and soak into his jeans. It was just after seven but already the horizon had melted into a mirage of shimmering ooze. In his pocket was a rough map printed from Google with a smudge of pink lipstick marking the spot. No wallet. No phone. No shoes. No dignity.
The first week on the farm had been heavy work. Nathan’s soft hands were blistered and weeping and he’d suffered his share of humiliation. It was pretty clear that his ability to lift weights in an air conditioned gym did not translate into an ability to toss bags of grain onto the back of a flat-bed truck. His prowess at lifting dumbbells made no difference to his ability to dig fence holes in baked earth. When it had come to letting loose on Friday night he was left with no option but to head to the only pub in town, a shabby relic of former colonial glory now dulled with red opal dust, and drink beer and shots of rum with the locals.
He could feel the curse spreading out from his solar plexus as it tightened his chest and corrupted his lungs. He could still feel the vibration of the old man’s voice as he pointed the human bone, hair glued to the end with spinifex sap. Every stab to his chest felt bayonet-deadly. Nathan had gaps in his memory from the night but knew he’d had too many drinks and engaged in too many flirtatious gestures with the wrong woman. He was a sucker for pink lipstick. When the singing curse was done, he saw the yellow white of the Aboriginal man’s eyes blink closed and his earth coloured skin dissolve into the impenetrable dark before he disappeared entirely. The effect of the curse had been instant. The locals stood around Nathan who began to clutch at his chest as his head slumped and rocked sickly on his neck. Falling to his knees, he began to wretch with big violent spasms that bought up a stomach juice steak dinner and a gush of beer froth. A crowd had gathered and there was some low whispering. The girl with the pink lipstick crossed her arms, shook her head and went back inside the pub. After that only fragments of the night…talking…a map…a bumpy car ride. Then the morning sun white hot on the horizon.
He trudged on painfully. After a few unbearable burning breaths he saw the landscape up ahead begin to change and a burnt orange monolith rose, ominous and ancient, from the bedrock. Blackened tree trunks stood like watchful sentinels as he stumbled on towards the craggy rock form, terrifyingly human in its shape.
Nathan rested on the rock and was grateful to be out of the sun. He followed the wall around and located the rocky outcrop with the opening, like a jagged smile, just behind it. His feet had been cut and scratched and he was happy to feel the more forgiving coarse sand of the cave mouth. Small wiry shrubs clung to the rock and the earth exhaled a mossy breath which cooled his face and spoke with a silent ancient tongue. It was strange, but as he crossed from the outside into the shelter of the cave his stomach, which had been burning and twisting, seemed to settle somewhat. He kept going over the instructions; move deeper into the cave until you come to a small body of water that seems to be glowing with a holy light. Strip naked. Dive into the pool and swim towards the light. You will surface in a second cave. What happens next is not certain. You may be met by the Quinkin spirit. You might not. He might forgive you. He might not. You need to take one of the smooth, ancient river stones from the secret cave and swim with it back to the other side. If you are not forgiven the water will swallow you down into its monstrous belly womb where your blood and flesh shall feed the earth and your bones will rattle for eternity. Simple.
The water shrunk his genitals and his heartbeat throbbed in his temples. He could see light bubbling up from below and braced and inhaled as he slipped under the surface, the first time just to look. His vision ebbed and flowed and he tried to keep his submerged body still. The light was indeed coming from a large hole under the water, big enough for him to slip through. Surfacing, he took one huge breath and this time he exhaled slowly, as he had learnt from skin diving documentaries, and swam towards the light.
When he emerged again, river stone in hand, his clothes were gone. Nathan made the long walk back towards the town naked, relieved, exhausted. As he approached the pub a collective cheer went up and the Aboriginal man from the previous night came out to greet him, grinning broadly, shook his hand and slapped him on the back. He grabbed the river stone from Nathan and beckoned him to follow. In a special room at the back of the pub was the ‘wall of shame’. It was decorated with numerous photos of naked sunburnt men, all taken as they emerged from Quinkin Rock. In a corner of the room was a large glass cabinet full of similar smooth river stones.
‘You survived the initiation.’
But that night in bed there was something more. Inside the cave, something had stirred inside him. An ancient voice spoke and he knew he was home.