Once upon a time, there was a bandicoot named Koombooloomba who lived in the Daintree Forest in the Land at the World’s Southern Edge. Imagine a kangaroo that could fit in the palm of your hand, with the dainty forefeet and nose of a mouse. That is Koombooloomba Bandicoot.
Koombooloomba kept one delicate ear, pale pink as a shell, tuned to the billabong. He nibbled on a fat witchetty grub, and pinned down another with his miniature kangaroo hind foot.
He preferred the nights when he reached the ridge afterWujal Wujal had already arrived. Koombooloomba Bandicoot’s nose twitched continually while he waited. Friend or foe, friend or foe? Every twilight noise might reveal a threat. His shiny black eyes scanned the underbrush for the treacherous spots that looked so much like a cluster of fireflies. Would Djarawonga be out hunting early tonight?
For what use would a bandicoot’s tiny teeth be against the mouthful of knives possessed by Djarawonga, the tiger quoll? What defense the tiny claws against his fistful of daggers? Envision a cat with a long, cruel face and slanted eyes, a turned-up nose, the pouch of a possum, and a rust-colored coat with irregular, pale spots that lure the unsuspecting like a dancing clutch of fireflies. That is Djarawonga Tiger Quoll, feared throughout the Daintree.
There was a big rustle in the brush, then a little one. Koombooloomba Bandicoot tensed, crouching to run. The grass parted, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He saw the smooth leathery snout, large and round as a stone polished in the river, of Wujal Wujal Platypus. It turned this way and that, scanning the path.
Picture a furry head, an otter-like body, clawed feet like bat wings, the venomous spur above the heel, and a wide flat rudder of a tail. That is Wujal Wujal Platypus, who lived in the great Daintree River, in the Land at the World’s Southern Edge.
Wujal Wujal turned back and nodded. Tinaroo, his little son, came bounding from behind. Tinaroo ran up the ridge and butted Koombooloomba with his head, nearly knocking him over.
“Easy, now, kiddaroo,” said the bandicoot. He returned the head butt, though.
“Koombooloomba! Koombooloomba! Guess what? Guess what?”
Tinaroo sat back on his haunches, balancing on his tail, bouncing from front left paw to right, left paw to right, rhythmic like rowing. Koombooloomba guessed that young Tinaroo was becoming a strong swimmer.
“I caught my first yabbie! All by myself! Dad didn’t even help.”
Wujal Wujal Platypus emptied his cheek pouches. Two large crayfish and one little crayfish scrabbled in the dirt.
“Tinny caught this monster here,” said Wujal Wujal, tapping the little one with a claw.
The boy platypus pounced on it and took a crunchy bite.
“She’s a beaut,” said Koombooloomba. “Witchetty, Wuj?” offered the bandicoot, patting the grub under his hind foot.
“Nah, mate. Yabbie? Good and fresh?” asked the platypus, pushing a crayfish forward, antennae still waving.
The bandicoot shuddered.
“No thanks, mate.”
Koombooloomba Bandicoot could not imagine how Wujal Wujal Platypus could eat that awful thing with pinching claws, and turn down a plump, juicy grub. But the platypus declined every night.
“You watch the river, I’ll watch the trees,” said Wujal Wujal, settling in with a yabbie in each fist.
“Tinny, son, you stay where I can see you.”
The friends sat back-to-back. They made an odd pair on the small ridge that overlooked the forest to the left and the river on the right. But they could talk in the open for a small time, with a friend keeping watch behind.
For Djarawonga Tiger Quoll traveled where he pleased. He struck from the trees. He stalked on the ground. He emerged from the waters of the great Daintree River, mouth open. Djarawonga is hungry, always hungry, his stomach with no bottom and his teeth with no end.
“Good hunting today, Wuj?” asked Koombooloomba Bandicoot.
“Pretty fair, mate,” answered Wujal Wujal Platypus. Without turning to look, he continued, “Do you see that bend just up river?”
Koombooloomba squinted. The river always looked so featureless and plain to his eyes.
“Do you see the thick fig vine that looks like a kangaroo’s leg, extending from the bank?”
The vine was thick, like the branch of a tree, and green with moss. Koombooloomba craned his neck and rotated his ears towards it. He thought he could hear the waters lapping against its gnarled side.
“Yeah, I see it,” said Koombooloomba.
Wujal Wujal went on.
“Imagine. This vine extends all the way to the river’s bed. It splits and curls several times along the way. It looks like a cassowary nest, upside down. When the Sun is at his highest, the waters shine between the branches of the vine like the wings of a kingfisher. Can you see it?”
Koombooloomba stared hard at the vine that looked like a kangaroo leg above the water, strained to envisage a kingfisher beneath its crook, in the waters now shrouded in darkness.
“I’m trying,” said Koombooloomba. “Keep going.”
“The river bed there is stony. The water is cool and fast. The vine makes it difficult to dig and the current makes it hard to stay in place. Can you imagine it? Can you feel the water rushing past your face, your flanks, your feet? Can you feel your claws scratch the skin of the vine? Can you feel the stones catch and slip against your snout as you dig?”
Koombooloomba Bandicoot’s heart fluttered and his chest heaved. He had fallen into the river once, when he was a joey. Where was up, where was down? The water pushed and pulled and there was nowhere to stop, nowhere to grasp the ground.
“Mmm hmmm,” he managed to say.
“I had a hunch some good yabbies would be hiding there.Today I got the notion to come at that vine from upriver. The current held me against the vine, so I could dig and dig. And there they were, some real beauts.” Wujal Wujal Platypus took a big crunching bite of the creature in his fist. Koombooloomba shivered.
“How about you, Koomba? Good hunting?” asked the platypus.
The bandicoot took another bite of his witchetty grub.
“Yeah, good hunting,” replied Koombooloomba. “I was doing a little digging, extending my den,” he started.
“Underground? In the dirt?” asked Wujal Wujal, with not a little disgust.
“Well, yes, Wuj, in the dirt, under that zamia palm,” said Koombooloomba. “There’s some really beautiful volcanic soil under there, about my height down, and –”
“Enough,” said Wujal Wujal. “You’re going to put me off my food, mate.”
Koombooloomba Bandicoot sighed. He was about to reply with something about the weather, when a cluster of fireflies down by the river caught his eye. There was no reflection of light on the surface of the water. The bandicoot’s delicate ears swiveled forward and his whiskers bristled. Fireflies don’t crouch. Then he saw the slanted eyes.
“Wuj,” whispered Koombooloomba, hardly daring to breathe, not taking his eyes off those treacherous fireflies-that-were-not-fireflies, the pale-spotted flank of Djarawonga.
“Don’t look back. Grab Tinny and head for my zamia palm NOW.”
Koombooloomba Bandicoot heard Wujal Wujal’s yabbie hit the ground. He heard the platypus’ claws dig into the dirt. There was a thump and he guessed that Wujal Wujal had shoved Tinaroo forward to give him a head start. Koombooloomba could hear their footfalls clearing the distance to the zamia palm.
But the spots in front of him were gaining on Koombooloomba faster.
The bandicoot’s body shook from nose to tail, fighting to turn and run, to not watch those leering, tiger quoll eyes bound closer and closer. But Koombooloomba knew that he could run like Tinny could not. He knew that Djarawonga Tiger Quoll must not see his friends like this, away from the safety of their river waters.
Koombooloomba Bandicoot waited until he could see Djarawonga’s teeth. Two more leaps would close the distance between those fangs and the bandicoot’s throat. Only then did Koombooloomba turn, and with an enormous leap, six times his own body length, he ran for his life.
He saw Wujal Wujal’s broad tail disappear into his burrow beneath the zamia palm. But all thoughts of his friend were driven from him when he felt Djarawonga Tiger Quoll’s hot breath on his back. Koombooloomba Bandicoot pushed off again and again with his powerful hind legs, springing again and again just out of Djarawonga’s reach. The tiger quoll let loose a snarl that made the bandicoot’s vision flash white.
Koombooloomba wondered if he was already dead. But his legs kept pushing and pushing, ignoring the pain of the tremendous sprint, ignoring the plea of his lungs for more air.
He was going to make it. The base of the zamia palm was rushing towards him as he flew along the ground. Koombooloomba could see Wujal Wujal in the mouth of the burrow.
He got close enough to see his own reflection in Wujal Wujal’s eyes. His own reflection, and Djarawonga’s. Koombooloomba shrieked as the tiger quoll’s claw pinned his tail against the ground, slicing it in two.
Wujal Wujal Platypus rattled a low growl. He jumped over Koombooloomba to head-butt Djarawonga square on the jaw. The tiger quoll snarled again and lashed out, ripping Wujal Wujal’s flank from shoulder to thigh. But the platypus was already turning, and the tiger quoll’s strike only helped him to pick up speed. Wujal Wujal slammed
his heel down on Djarawonga’s neck.
Wujal Wujal’s poisonous platypus spur sank right into the tiger quoll’s throat. Djarawonga kicked with his hind leg and gave the platypus’s belly a sharp swipe. But the venom was already pulsing through Djarawonga’s veins. His head lolled. He coughed up a dark clot of blood that stained the earth beneath his head. The tiger quoll’s slanted eyes rolled back. His limbs sagged in the dirt. Djarawonga Tiger Quoll breathed his last.
Tears welled in Koombooloomba Bandicoot’s eyes as he saw Wujal Wujal, his best friend in all the world, lying in a spreading pool of his own blood.
Koombooloomba looked up to see Tinaroo. The young platypus sat at the mouth of the den, eyes wide. The bandicoot swallowed his tears.
“C’mon, Tinny. Help me get your dad inside.” He hoped he sounded brave.
The bandicoot had Tinaroo help his dad on the left, where he had not been wounded by Djarawonga’s claws. Koombooloomba did the best he could to support Wujal Wujal on the right. The platypus sank to his knees more than once. But somehow, they got him onto the sandy floor at the back of the burrow beneath the zamia palm.
Tinaroo snuggled up under Wujal Wujal’s platypus chin and fell asleep. Koombooloomba Bandicoot watched and waited at the entrance to his burrow, cleaning what was left of his tail. He turned his face when the carrion birds came to drag Djarawonga Tiger Quoll’s body away.
Just before sunrise, Koombooloomba went in to check on Wujal Wujal. He was breathing shallowly, but he was still alive. Tinaroo blinked his eyes and sat up.
“Whaddya say, Tinny, shall we get your dad some breakfast?” asked Koombooloomba.
Tinaroo jumped up and nodded.
“Are we gonna dig for grubs, Koombooloomba?”
Koombooloomba Bandicoot hesitated. His heart raced as he thought of the surface of the river, unstable and unforgiving. Then he looked down into the face of his best friend’s son.
“Nah, Tinny. Let’s go down to the river and you show me how you catch those yabbies.”
© Bethany Joy Carlson | August, 2011