It slumbered for ages, hidden from the living. Alas! They discovered it. They woke it and enslaved me. It became a mere tool in their hands.
But, sometimes it escapes and then it rages to satiate its hunger. It voraciously consumes and reduces everything to mote, to the state from whence it once came.
The grasslands, bordered by acacia shrubs sloped upwards on one side to end in a forested nature reserve. During the day, the forest resonated with happy chirps. At night, it was tranquil.
Cooper, the Bilby, loved the nights. Lit by a silvery glow and serenaded by the chittering insects, the forest sang happily at night. He loved the cool breeze, the quiet and even the solitude.
But, tonight it was unusually hot. He grunted at the effort, as he dug, rummaging for food. His spirits were buoyant. He scurried in delight by the grasslands, far from his burrow on the other side of the forest.
Last night, Binky, his mate had given a litter of one Joey, Cooper Junior. Sqeak…squeak…squeak….The infant’s cries had filled the burrow.
This wasn’t their first litter. There had been others, twice before. The first, their twins, had perished to Dingoes. The second Joey had perished too…to…to that monster that had come to the forest.
The sorrowful memory of that night always brought acute heartache. The monster petrified Cooper. It was gigantic. It pounced from the skies and crawled on the floor, till everything was in its spate.
He shuddered now and stopped digging as thoughts of that dreaded night assailed him. He had been away from his burrow when alien sounds had reverberated in the woods – spits, hisses, and crackles. Their inquisitive Joey had scampered out of the burrow to investigate. Binky had followed, the protective mother that she was.
With a roaring whoosh, the monster had swooped and devoured Junior. Poof! Just like that. One minute he was there, and the next…gone. The entire tract of the forest had been licked by fiery tongues creating a swirling vortex of flames that had sucked Junior in. In a matter of minutes, their verdant Eden had been reduced to nothing. Binky had been severely burned too.
Cooper whimpered now at the painful memory. If only he had…
That night, Cooper had seen the monster. Bowing to his timid, gutless disposition, he had hidden till the monster passed. He should have rushed back to his family but, he had deserted them, coward that he was.
Poor Binky…she had been disconsolate. He had found her later, near death. Once recuperated, she had blamed him. Her eyes had accused and sought answers.
Where had he been?
If Binky had taken the loss of her first litter hard, the loss of the second drove her to the brink of madness. Squeaking pitifully, she had scratched him, bitten him, and clawed out his silken fur in clumps. Her claws had opened deep gashes that had taken weeks to heal. Grief-stricken she had pined for the loss of her baby. It was after a whole barren year that she had delivered Junior.
The guilt of the incident had weighed on Cooper’s heart since then. If only he had returned…
In the distance, a Dingo howled. The sound echoed in the forest and before long the pack joined in with their barks and yaps. Cooper’s head snapped up. Alert to the call of the predator, his ears perked and listened keenly. The Dingo’s hunted every night but tonight their barks sounded frenzied.
Had something scared them?
To Cooper, the Dingoes were the deadliest of the predators. There was a time when there had been more of his ilk in the forest. Now, only a few remained. He looked at the patch of sky peeking in through the shrubbery. The granite blackness that twinkled, wore an orange-red hue tonight. He reared up on his hind legs and sniffed with his pink-tipped snout.
The air smelled different. It smelled as if its breath was being suffocated.
His whiskers twitched. He knew that smell and yet he could not place it. What was that smell? Where had he smelled it before? Unable to discern, he shook himself, daintily licked a paw and resumed foraging.
Cooper jerked in fright. His body stiffened, wary at the prospect of impending danger. There…the sounds came again, sounding closer than before. Only now his keen hearing could also detect the shrill cries of animals. The cries sounded like animals squealing in the last throes of life.
Something was wrong!
Fully vigilant, Cooper looked towards the forest from where the cries emanated. The orange-red hue was darker now. It looked angrier, thirstier. The air too was hotter. It seemed to carry the malodour of asphyxiated destruction. With his poor eye-sight, he saw a giant blob undulating towards him, moving at a rapid pace.
Cooper loped to the safety of a rocky outcrop as the blob poured out of the darkness and morphed into a mob of fleeing animals, small and large– many with coats ablaze. Rooted in his hidey-hole, aghast, he watched the scene.
A Doe hopped by, shrieking in pain, her tail afire. Her dead Joey hung limply out of her pouch. Other Kangaroos barked in terror, stampeding towards safety, flattening everything in their path including the smaller critters. An Emu emerged, grunting pitifully, thumping its flaming feathers. A Possum, badly burned and carrying the charred remains of its Joeys, gasped and succumbed to death in front of the outcrop.
Cooper cringed, immobile in fear. His heart thumped. His perspiration turned to a cold sweat. Stricken, he observed the horror unfold.
The larger animals trampled everything in their path, leaving behind a trail of bloodied corpses, dyeing the earth red. Overhead, in the sooty inkiness, Cooper heard Parrots and other birds, screeching as they took flight. An Owl’s plaintive hoot was abruptly cut off. He could hear Koalas and Quolls bellow in pain. Taipans slithered, hissing and spitting angrily alongside the Lizards that were crawling to safety. Utter pandemonium reigned.
The cacophonic din made Cooper shiver. He stayed put under the outcrop, terrified lest he got trampled in the melee.
Cooper’s keen hearing heard the new sounds even above the bedlam. It sounded like…no, no…It could not be, could it? He cowered. He knew that sound. He had heard it before. Mustering his courage, he snuck a look. What he saw chilled his blood.
The monster was back!
Cooper’s bladder emptied involuntarily.
Angry fingers of the monster were holding and climbing on to the tree branches. Tendrils were creeping on the forest floor, like agitated serpents, swallowing everything in their path. The forest canopy was aflame. Greyish black smoke billowed, raining fiery embers of ash down.
He whined, tasting fear. Binky and Junior…they were at the burrow!
Terror parried with inaction as Cooper saw the monster swathe the forest. Frantic for the fate of his family, his mind raced to find solutions. He had taken the lily-livered route once; but he knew that his time he could not.
Familial instinct took over. Eschewing the safety of the outcrop, he leapt out. Squeaking, he ran around, trying to find a safe path into the forest.
He had to go back…for Binky and for Junior…
Spying a mound of loose rocks that could afford a vantage point, he scampered up and reared up to his full height. There was no path visible to home. There was fire and smoke everywhere. The forest was blanketed by it.
The monster was blocking the way! To get to his burrow he would have to cross the monster.
Fear clawed at his innards at the thought of facing the monster. But, he had to, if he wanted to reach home. Accumulating every vestige of courage and going against his timid nature, Cooper decided.
He would go back for Binky and for his Junior…
He jumped down and galloped homeward. He breached the periphery of the forest which was enshrouded by ash clouds. The air was thick with smoke. Gasping and sputtering for air, he manoeuvred his way into the very mouth of the monster. The heat was stifling. It suffocated him and singed his whiskers. The incinerated trees shot blasts of hot air that melted the delicate flesh off of his long ears. The pain was excruciating. But, Cooper persisted.
He could not leave them again, could he? Whatever fate awaited them; they would face it together as a family. He would be there with them.
Dodging flaming projectiles, Cooper ducked and dove as he made his way. He had covered a short distance amid ashy blackness when…
A flaming branch fell, landing on his tail.
The fur scorched instantly, sticking to his bare tail, smoking. The burn smarted. Cooper hopped to dislodge the branch. Whimpering pitifully, he hunched down, licking his seared tail.
The monster wanted him! It wanted to devour him just like it had devoured his Joey. But, he could not let it win.
Injured and in pain, with some difficulty, he crouched and ambled on. He could not stop. He had to return to his family.
All around him the monster continued to wreak havoc. The forest was littered with charred animal carcasses, embers still smouldering in some. The putrid reek of burnt flesh assaulted him. The nauseating stench was stronger in the forest.
If only someone could help him…
He felt tired and alone. Every pore of his body demanded a respite but he could not stop. He had to go on. He had to get back to his family. So, gathering his depleting strength, Cooper resumed his trek amid the fracas.
Like an infuriated beast, the monster continued to roar. It scorched the blanket of dried leaves and twigs on the floor of the forest, reducing them to a cinder. The hot soot stuck to the soft pads of Cooper’s paws, peeling the delicate skin off, layer by layer, as he navigated the torrid terrain.
The pain was agonizing. The tender exposed flesh, cut and bleeding, made movement difficult. Each step shot debilitating pain up his limbs. But, he did not give up. With undaunted perseverance, he hobbled on, one painful step at a time.
The going was slow. He lost track of time. His burnt whiskers and snot encrusted snout made him lose track of direction. The smoke made his eyes water, impairing his vision. But, dehydrated and with each breath a laboured rasp, he continued moving forward, propelled solely by instinct. He did not stop to rest, even though his wounds cried for salvation. He did not break his stride, even though his lungs howled for succour. He did not. He could not. Not tonight…
Cooper staggered into his part of the forest. There, just a few feet ahead, amid the thinning smoke, he could make out the entrance to his burrow.
Home…he was home.
His fur was badly burned but, he sighed in gratitude. That soon turned to concern.
Junior and Binky…where were they?
Cooper limped to the burrow. He gingerly crawled inside, into the relatively cool tunnel spiralling downwards. The tunnel was ominously silent. He froze mid-step, listening intently for any sound. There was none. Distraught, he scurried down further, afraid of what he would find and yet hoping for a miracle.
Just then, from deep inside came the squeals of his Joey, clamouring for a teat as Binky grunted.
Relief washed over him.
They were alive! He had made it back home…
As dawn broke over the nigh horizon, the monster licked its fingers. It had satiated its hunger. Its belly full, it sighed in content. Its flaming fingers sputtered and waned in ferocity and it prepared to slumber.
Author’s Note – The Greater Bilby is a shy, timid and nocturnal creature native to Australia. Sadly, its smaller cousin, the lesser Bibly became extinct in the 1950’s due to habitat alteration both on account of the impact of exotic herbivores (introduced by the European settlers) and changes in fire regimes. In a nutshell, the lesser Bilby fell prey to the vagaries of the dominant species on Earth i.e., humans.
The Australian wildfires, currently raging, are threatening the survival of the Greater Bilbies too. These gentle fossorial marsupials need help. If you would like to help them or others like them, please donate to –
Reference Link – https://www.britannica.com/animal/bilby
Image Credit – Jiri Lochman