Nine-thousand, five hundred square kilometres of lake. Millions of birds. No people. The perfect setting for Eyza. She lifted the flap of the tent and stared out at the reflection of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, breathed in the silence and solitude.
Clear sky. No rain today. Maybe she should forget to pack her rain gear. That would be the year it rained. She couldn’t. The list was checked against what she brought in, and no rain gear meant no access to the Park.
She slid into the camo-pants, put the phone in one leg-pocket and the camera in the other. The silt-brown shirt, the same colour as her skin and hair, was soft and warm. The brown vest would help keep her invisible. She stood up and jammed the hat on her head.
Took it off and removed the fly net. Too much movement. Stillness and camouflage meant the birds didn’t startle and upset the count.
She closed the screen on the tent, zipped the outer flaps, and secured it shut with the small padlock. Thieves might not bother with the tent if the gennie and the sled were easy pickings.
The final item went around her neck. The bright opal, black and red with a haunting centre that looked like an eye, was Nan’s. She’d carried it all her life, called it the Story Stone. The two heirlooms. The stone and the stories. Now Eyza’s. All she had in the world.
The top button of the shirt was tight. Secure.
The canoe hissed as she dragged it over the grasses and sedges toward the water. Mud clung to her boots and gaitors, but it would come off when she cleaned up in deeper water.
Most mornings, the birds dabbled in the shallows before venturing beyond the nesting areas. As the sun rose, they floated and soared and scooted and pranced. Magic. Eyza would watch and count and not think of anything else.
The lake was full, a rare sight. It might take months from the time it rained up north to when the water reached its final destination. This lake. Most years it was a dry saltpan, some years it had a dribble of water. Once, she’d seen it look like several smaller lakes.
In the years Eyza had been coming to the lake, only once did the levels remain high enough to last a full season. Once in her memory. Three times in 150 years. This year might be the fourth. This year it overflowed. With water and birds and darting fish, with dragonflies and frogs and snakes and sand-snails.
Drought everywhere else and this lake in the centre of the desert was full of life.
The birds came. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of birds. How they knew when to come for breeding was the mystery that caught Eyza’s attention. She’d needed a solid distraction. This was it.
The finalisation of her thesis awaited her in Adelaide, as it had for several years. With a full lake, she’d have to finalise it. The theories and proposals and data sorted and manipulated to make a statement. The question was unanswerable, but it was hers. Who could ever understand how the birds knew when the lake was more than a flat pan of salt? Her supervisor was only interested in whether the model she created would match the data with enough significance to demonstrate validity.
Eyza didn’t care. She was here, alone and at peace. All other water activities were banned in this location. No shooting or fishing or boating, no recreational pursuits or flyovers on this section. The birds and fish and other creatures didn’t have a long season, even with a full lake.
More often than not, the season ended with abandoned nests and dead chicks because the lake dried out too soon. Bones littered the mudflats in those years. Dingo spore marked the edges of the inlets, ready to clean up the easy pickings. Eyza noted those occurrences, too, and what it attracted, like raptors, dingoes, other carnivores.
The big lizards were the scariest, and apart from thieves, they were the reason she locked the zip on her tent.
Did the scavengers know when the season would be short, or did they do a cruise by each year?
Another project to consider when she finished this one, another long-term distraction.
The surface barely rippled until the water was deep enough to get in. That effort created small disturbances, nothing big. She unclipped the paddle, slid onto the centre seat, cleaned her boots. She set up the clipboard, binoculars and camera in the waterproof box on the front bench. Ready. The oar dipped one side, the other, and the canoe scooted across the surface.
The trip was smooth and easy. At the centre of her range, she set the lightweight anchor ropes to front and rear, waited until the ripples faded, and adjusted the bino’s to suit the distances. From this point, she’d have a panoramic view of the shoreline with each main nesting site for her zone.
The numbers were higher this year. Species and nests and eggs. A rare event.
This was her place. She felt alive, connected, when she was here. Except for the years it was all salt, and reflected the cruel reality of barrenness. Eyza scanned the changing shape of the world to the east.
The sky lightened to the first glimpse of the false dawn. Ethereal colours in blue and pink and mauve spread over the water and into the sky, reflected from the horizon like a promise. Within a few breaths, it faded to purple, slid into blackness lit by stars. Nan would have called them sky-sprites. The light of dawn dulled the stars as it rose.
Eyza docked the oar and reached for the clipboard and pencil.
The gentle swell became swacks and swooshes as waves crashed against the hull. Waves? She put the paddle back in the water to steady the craft. No wind touched her face, no clouds loured the sky — where did the disturbance come from?
Birds swarmed in from the northwest. Sulphur-crested cockatoos, Corellas and Major Mitchells. So many birds the sky flickered like panicked stars running from an exploding sun.
Just birds, though. What set them off?
The hubbub intensified. More wings skirred past. So many — what caused it? She shaded her eyes to see, followed the movement of the largest grouping.
Eagles. Wedge-tails mostly, but little eagles, the white-bellied eagles, the kites and ospreys and sparrowhawks and peregrines, even a barking owl. She’d have to note that. Owls hadn’t been recorded here for years. Decades.
The raptors massed into one group, flew over like a military front-line. That’s what upset the other birds, that’s why they set up the screeching. Another unique sight, unrecorded.
Eyza grabbed her camera and pressed, moved with a flowing motion to glide over the impossible display, imagined the pictorial effect as she clicked from one frame to the next. The pan had to be slow, careful, or the image would blur.
The flocks moved closer. Too close. Moving fast, more coming up behind.
Spoonbills and egrets hopped through the muddy shallows. She jumped when they tapped at the hull, turned her head to see if there was a problem.
Had she drifted too close to the mudflats? She could drag herself out later, but this was too good to miss. Amazing. She clicked the camera to video. The battery wouldn’t last long, but this was amazing.
Pelicans swooped in wide and low. Eyza lay back and balanced her weight over a wider area to avoid tipping.
Birds landed around the canoe, on the water. A large mass remained in the air, hovered in a spiral — hovered? Not possible. Birds didn’t hover.
The wader birds closed the distance. Two black terns settled on the prow. The birds in the air spread their wings and swirled into tighter coils until feathers and dust fluttered through the air. She tried not to cough, but it was hard to breathe.
Were they attacking? Was she in the wrong place? This was the central mud-flat, no deep pools, no fish or frogs, and not yet time for the brine shrimp.
Silver flashes lit the air. She was in the wrong location. Small silver fish, larger grey fish, slimy brown fish, leaping and splashing. Frogs, brown and yellow and ochre-orange, hopped and croaked and splashed. They leapt out of the water, created more pandemonium and chaos.
So much noise. Every bird added their unique sound. High-pitched squee-ti-ti of the hawks, honks of piebald geese, squawks and cackles of the pelicans, croaks and grawbles of the frogs — it all added to the discordant cacophony that increased in volume with every second.
An egret landed on her clipboard.
Eyza smacked her head. None of this was real.
A dream or seizure. She hadn’t had one for years. Noise. The noise of the cockatoos did it. Raucous aural disturbance, the same as when she came out here as a sprout. Nan’s pet name for Eyza brought tears to her eyes.
I’m sorry, Nan.
Or the high humidity. Or the sense of comfort in the aloneness. Whatever the cause, she couldn’t stay. The lake might not be deep, but if her head wasn’t all there, it wasn’t a safe place to be.
If the birds weren’t real, she’d just pick up the oar and paddle away.
She unclipped the paddle. An egret clambered onto the stern, danced a two-step until Eyza lowered the paddle.
The largest wedge-tailed eagle she’d ever seen — all the different shades of gold flecks in its eyes so clear — dropped out of the sky and landed on the boat. The terns fluttered away, fast.
“Warning, we bring,” the screeing eagle said.
Eyza didn’t move. Hallucinations. She’d missed a dose of her medication, or taken the wrong one, or — did she have a new script?
“Warning to take.” The eagle’s weight tipped the canoe dangerously close to the capsize point. It rose and hung in the air, glared at her with one multi-hued beady eye. “Tell people fly far, live high, cold, wet. It brings —”
“Death?” This was the nightmare. It wouldn’t go away until she responded. Fear gave strength to horrors, and she had to face it, or it would keep coming back.
“Life is death. Death is easy, many die. It comes again. This battle, like last, will soak with blood atop the stains of last battle. Death is not the fear. To fail be worse than death.”
“What is it you want me to run from?”
The eagle hung bare inches from her face, his wingspan twice as wide as the boat was long.
“You not run. Valki to be warn through talker.”
Eyza stared open-mouthed as the eagle pointed a flight feather at her phone on the flat plastic clipboard.
“Duty,” he said. “Find, trap, bar the vanguard, silence the call.”
A loose feather floated across the space and landed on Eyza’s nose. She pursed her lips and blew it off.
“As promised.” The huge bird opened his wings wider, tap-danced on the creaking fibreglass, dug talons into the summer-blue hull.
This was different. The nightmares of her childhood gave her horrendous monsters that tore at living creatures, smashed trees, screamed menace and terror into a red sky. They always ended with a message. Eyza shuddered and pinched herself. This was worse because it had never happened here.
New meds, or new side-effects. Had to be. She wanted to wake up.
“Not dream. No time for dream. Messenger of Diaballein weak today, tomorrow. Or not. No wait. No dream. Real. Slavery, torture be blessing when it comes.”
Eyza’s heart shuddered against her ribs, her dry mouth snapped shut. She retched and shook all over. It wasn’t real. Not. She closed her eyes.
“Not dream. Time is to act. If cracks open, nothing to stop call.” A hiss rolled across the surface of the lake. “It be duty, Valki duty, or victory to enemy be.”
The eagle lifted off. The raptors rose with it, flew away. She didn’t watch to see where. The wading birds returned to the shallows. She gazed at them, kept her head lowered.
Pelicans splashed to the patch of low islands where their eggs lay surrounded by white stones.
The lake stilled, its surface unruffled.
The tremble in Eyza’s hands fed into her arms, down her back, rocked the boat. The camera and sat-phone floated on the few inches of sludge in the bottom.
She couldn’t move. It had happened. She’d fallen into the family madness and would die where their ashes were scattered.
As I’ll be without internet for a day or three, I won’t be able to put up the third chapter tomorrow, but soon enough …