Matthew Rudy Anders ran along the narrow path to the beach. The dry sand scooped from his calloused feet made small clouds that hung in the air for a moment only to fall behind him like soft packets of rain falling from a sprinkler.
He was only nine, but “Matty, you can run like the bloody clappers” his father would say, and right now he was running just like the clappers. He didn’t know what clappers were but he knew if they were bloody then they must be special.
It was hot and two in the afternoon and he had nearly three kilometers to go before he reached the turnoff to Red Cap Lookout which was the highest point on the coast. He’d done this run hundreds of times before and he knew every stone and every turn and dip before him. In the early days his mum and dad ran with him making sure he could reach the Cap and now he could do it in the dark if he had to. He didn’t need Dale but they insisted he come anyway. That was the rule; Dale had to come with him when he did the run, always.
Dale was half dingo and half everything else. He had four thousand years of bush breeding in him and he knew better than to piss the old man off by running ahead of the kid. So he loped behind Matty, occasionally snapping at a sand fly that got near his graying muzzle.
As they ran further from the camp and closer to the lookout the cicadas everywhere had them prey to their forever screech, but just as stars in a ticker-tape parade ignoring falling confetti they pressed forwards just the same. They always did when the little buggers were out and hiding.
“If Dale was a kid he’d have been the boss because he was older than me,” thought Matty, but he wasn’t, so he couldn’t, and that was that. What he was though, was a big, four-legged, carrier pigeon with a message written on paper folded neatly in a tiny key holder that hung from his cracked brown leather collar. While Matty couldn’t read because the state wouldn’t let him learn, he saw the note once and asked his mum and dad about it.
“What does the note say?”
“It’s instructions for the blokes at the boat stop in the sand,” his father would say.
“That’s right Matty,” his mum said, “…just make sure you run like mad and make sure they get it.”
His spritely, sun dunked body was now lord of the cap run as his father called it. A cap run began as soon as he saw his dad put the collar on the dog and say to him, “Cap run, so off you go.” A cap run happened randomly. It could be three in the morning or just before dinner and there was no way of getting out of it. As soon as that collar was on Dale you were locked right in tighter than a Kookaburra’s laugh.
The first time Matty did the run at night he was scared.
“Listen mate. There’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just like running in the day but different only because it’s dark,” his dad said matter-of-factly as he put the collar on Dale.
He added, “You can do it with your eyes closed now and that’s harder than doing it in the moonlight. You’ve done the run exactly two hundred times now so you’ll be fine. I promise you.”
The old man’s tone comforted Matty. “And when you get to the Cap you won’t see any smoke because it’s night so you have to look and see if there’s a glow of the fire instead.”
That was six months ago and now a cap run came on any day in a week and any number around a wrist watch.
His kid brain hurt when he tried to think of what this all meant. All his life he’d been at the secret camp with the other families and life was hard work and fun at the same time. He was the oldest kid of the nine families because all of the other kids were bubs and toddlers only. They couldn’t fish off the spit or spot wallabies in the hinterland, and there was no way that they could find dry sticks of blue gum or melaleuca for the emergency fire stack.
The fire stack was an enormous cube of bundled wood that stood at the only entrance to the camp. It was strung together with loops of piano wire and was nestled in a larger cage made of dry timber. The unseen core of the fire stack lay beyond slats of brush and strips of tea tree bark and was a compressed mass of top end beach grass and dried kelp. Old towels, twisted tight as ropes, snaked their way outwards from the green core to the edge of the cube, their ends rammed into plastic bottles filled with diesel, keeping them moist and alive. Matty could walk under its belly if he wanted to. The whole lot of it stood higher than a man and a half and it sat atop a square metal frame supported by four steel poles and it looked at you sideways, hungry for a match.
“If this bastard ever goes up, the smoke will be so thick the birds will need ladders to come down,” his father would say. “You’ll see it for miles and they can’t hide that, no matter what they do.”
“Is this why I’m practicing the run dad?” Matty said.
“Yes,” he said slowly as he knelt down to the boy, “and when you get to the Cap you look back here…” he paused for a moment and tapped the edge of the fire stack, “and if you ever see smoke coming from this bastard…you know the drill, don’t you mate?”
Matty lowered his head and nodded, “Me and Dale have to run like the bloody clappers to the boat stop in the sand.”
“That’s right Matty, we can’t have you being a husk, now can we?”
Matty didn’t know what a husk was but he knew that the state wanted them and if they got him they’d turn him into one. He remembered last year after a camp dinner he wandered off with Dale and saw Mrs. Garlin crying alone under the starlight. He went up behind her and put his arm on her shoulder.
“Why are you so sad?”
She didn’t look around but said quietly, “They took my boy away to be a husk.” Matty didn’t understand. “Will he come home?”
“No…” she whispered, “They need him so they can make people.”
They were nearing the turnoff to the Cap now and Matty was caught unguarded by a sudden rush of joy. He slowed his running to a trot and then to a skip and he kicked at the peppery white sand and laughed. A tiny crab clasping a poor beetle scuttled quickly to miss his footfall and a hungry skink lizard watching it had slunk away as the boy and beast rounded the sun dappled corner.
The boom of the surf against the black rocks to the East was carried to him on the salty air and he stuck out his tongue to taste it. His joy grew stronger and from the middle of his chest a happy tickle rippled its way to the sweet spot between his shoulder blades. High above him two red feathered sea kites cried out as they chased their tails, printing crimson loops on the fat empty sky and Matty right then wanted to stop all the clocks.
He jumped high in the air with a whoop and collapsed on the soft path. Rolling over and over he laughed as Dale woofed and skidded around him in doggish delight.
“I’m a nat and you can’t catch me!” he sang out to nobody before lying on his back with his head resting on a clump of cooch grass. The thick hinterland surrendered a small blue strip of sky above and he looked up into it and wondered what a nat was exactly. Then he thought about what his dad said.
“The grownups all come from husks and technology,” he said. “Me and your mum made you right here just like all the other kids were made right here.”
He still didn’t understand and his father laughed, “You’re natural.” He walked off shaking his head and laughed again, “Lucky bugger. Bloody well wish I had a mum and dad.”
Matty sat up on the path. Something hunted him from his thoughts and he listened, daring himself not to move at all. He sat for a while and heard the sound of big sticks breaking but it sounded different somehow. He stood up and heard it again and this time he knew it was far away but he couldn’t tell from where it came. This unsettled him even more than his mum did earlier today when she was crying and hugged him so hard he breathed out but couldn’t breathe in. Even his dad looked strange when he put the collar on Dale and his hands shook like a Coronation Trout.
“C’mon, c’mon,” he said to Dale and they jumped from sandy stone to root and grassy clump all the way to the top of Red Cap Lookout; getting there in six minutes flat. When they reached the summit Matty put his fingers through the wire on the old fence that stood on the rim of the cliff wall and he looked towards the camp and saw smoke. It looked like it wasn’t allowed to be there but there it was: a silent, frozen, black smudge looming much larger than any tree in the endless forest beneath him. It wasn’t the only one either. Further away and to the left was another one, and way off to the right he could see three more. Matty’s heart thrashed in his chest and he opened his mouth in raw fear at the five terrible intruders, and now for the first time he could smell against the quiet sky the whiff of its deeper corruption.
“They lit the fire stack Dale,” he shrieked, “…and there’s other fire stacks too.”
Dale barked happily and trotted off down the path in the direction they had just come from. In a panic Matty grabbed him by the collar and shouted.
“NO. We have to get to the boat stop down there.” He pointed to the narrow path that threaded its way down the broken wall of granite to the beach far below.
Ten minutes later the boy and the dog were running on the beach to the forty-footer leaving a short pier. Alf Waylon, standing on deck of ‘The Simpson Guard’, lowered his binoculars and shouted below deck, “Wait. There’s one more. Turn about.” A moment later ‘The Simpson Guard’ veered port side in full circle and when its starboard rim bumped against the pier gently Matty and Dale jumped onto the deck.
“OK, mate, show us the back of your neck and we’ll get going,” he said to Matty.
Matty turned around and swept upwards the hair that fell against his green t-shirt and Alf grunted with satisfaction. He called out below deck once more.
“He’s a nat,” and then looking at Dale he continued, “There’s that dog with him and I reckon it’s got a note on him, sure as eggs.”
As ‘The Simpson Guard’ moved out to sea again Alf took them down the steps to the small bridge. Steering the boat was Alf’s son, Ryan, a boy of sixteen who fixed his eyes straight ahead and said nothing. Behind him was the open door to the hold and it was crowded with kids from bubs to a couple of young teenagers. Most of them were crying.
Kate Waylon, thirty six and weathered well for sea life like her husband and son, was the oldest one there. She smiled at Matty while Alf took the note from Dale’s collar and handed it to her.
“Here you go love, wassit say?” He shook his head at Matty and smiled with a tinge of shame, “Damned Matriarchy never let me read, boy. Wouldn’t allow it.”
Matty watched her face closely for any change at all and saw her lips tighten, and just for a moment her voice unsteadied.
“It’s the Anders kid.” She leaned in closely to Alf’s ear and whispered something else and he nodded slowly and bit the inside of his cheek. Kate turned away to console a sobbing boy of fourteen or so, and she spoke soothingly to him against the dull throbbing of the diesel engine. “You did well. You got your baby sister here safely.”
Alf took Matty’s hand and they went topside and looked out from the stern. The short pier was far away now, a tiny comma on the empty beach that looked as though it had fallen as a crumb from the black ribbon of cliff wall above it. Alf’s eyes welled and there was no way he’d look at Matty while they were like that and so he leant on the rail and stared out over the water.
“We’re going to a new home Matty, and we can’t take any more. Do you understand why?”
“No,” said Matty.
“The island is too small for loads of people and your parents know this.” He paused trying to find more simple words but found none. “It’s in international waters and the state can’t get us there see? There are some grownups there too.”
Matty shook his head.
Alf scratched a tear away before facing the boy. “Your mum and dad wanted to live with you in the bush forever mate, but they knew that if the state found the camp you’d have to get away.”
Matty didn’t know the words island or international and he was about to ask what they meant when he heard Dale bark happily as the bow of the vessel speared the rim of a wave ahead. The spray shot over the cabin and broke above them as soft as gossamer into thousands of colored gems. With the same bliss he felt earlier that day he ran and jumped up into it with his arms outstretched and shouted.
“We ran like the clappers.”