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Friday, March 10, 2023

Wattle Valley Shanty Town

The windscreen was covered in golden wattle stems and powdery pollen as the police cruiser slowly pulled to a stop in the valley's clearing. Jasper and his dad had arrived here on a strong tip that the child snatcher was hiding out amongst the wattle valley-dwelling community.

It had taken nearly 3 hours of slow driving down a barely perceptible fire trail, through dense wattle trees, to reach the clearing. The people who lived in this valley didn't want to be found and they hardly ever left this place except on the rare occasion that essential supplies from the nearest township were needed. Having settled here long ago, the valley dwellers had gradually learned to live almost entirely off of the land.

Jasper and his dad sat quietly in the police cruiser for a moment as a short, rotund woman emerged from a thick wattle bush to greet them in the clearing. The woman was dressed in a dirty yellow linen poncho which appeared to have been fashioned out of a bed sheet. Her face and hair were also stained yellow, the same colour as the wattles.

Jasper's dad, Officer Rice, stepped out of the cruiser to greet her.

"Excuse me, Madam. Sorry to intrude but I am here on official police business."

Officer Rice held up a neatly laminated mugshot of the child snatcher as he continued his introduction.

"We have received information that this man has taken up residence in Wattle Valley."

The rotund woman briefly glanced at the laminated mugshot, grunted dismissively and turned back into the yellow wattle bush, gesturing with a flabby arm for Officer Rice to follow her.

Officer Rice turned back to Jasper, who had gotten out of the cruiser and was standing timidly behind his father. 

"Follow me Jas, but stay close. These valley folk aren't like the people back in town. They can be a bit aggressive towards outsiders."

They both approached the wattle bushes, which had swallowed the rotund woman whole, leaving no trace of her. Officer Rice reached forward with both arms outstretched and parted the fronds. 

It was such a thick bush that it was impossible to see where she had gone and in which direction, but they pushed forward through the wattles. They were engulfed from all sides and the wattles covered them in a sweet, sticky nectar. Their clothes were stained a golden yellow.

The trickle of a stream coming from somewhere deep in the wattles was an aural map for them to follow through the thick wattle maze. They continued to push through the sticky flowers, towards the sound of the water, until they finally emerged in a large field of bright green grass covered in shiny dew drops that glistened in the sun.

The field was a sight to behold. Running through the middle of the field was the tricking stream, and beyond the stream, hugging it closely, was the shanty town. The tiny shanty town homes were neatly arranged on a grid, with small dirt paths cutting between the square-shaped shacks. The shacks appeared to have been constructed from an arrangement of corrugated iron sheets, mud brick walls and wood. Rope had been strung between the various shacks from which hung rags and dried fish meat. 

The shanty town appeared largely deserted of adults, aside the rotund woman who was standing on a duckboard bridge that crossed the narrow stream. Several groups of young children sat outside the nearest shanty town shacks and were curiously looking towards Officer Rice and his son. The officer immediately recognised the faces of the children as some of the missing kids who had disappeared from the towns that surrounded the valley. Hundreds of children had gone missing in the past several years and Officer Rice had spent many sleepless nights poring over the photos of the missing children, searching for clues.

Officer Rice looked towards the rotund woman. She grunted and pointed further downstream to where a dam and large reservoir had been dug out by the townsfolk. Unattended bamboo fishing rods had been stabbed into the earth and fish lines, attached to the ends of the bamboo poles, had been cast into the water. The reservoir, aside providing drinking water for the shanty town, was also a fish nursery and food source.

Officer Rice and Jasper crossed the duckboards that lay across the stream and began walking towards a shack that was built in a pit below ground level, up against the dirt walls of the dam. This shack was different from the other homes and very unusual as it was surrounded by a leafless thicket of twigs and branches. Hanging from the twigs was an array of hundreds of small doll's heads that had been tied to the twigs by their plastic hair and left to dangle in a ghoulish display.

Tentatively, Officer Rice and Jasper drew nearer to the shack surrounded by dead bushes and doll's heads. The wooden door of the shack creaked open and out hopped a bizarrely deformed woman. The woman had one good leg, her right leg, but her left leg was a dangle of flesh that resembled an ear lobe. She hopped towards them using a homemade crutch that she had fashioned out of a gum tree branch. The crutch was wedged under her armpit. Both of her arms, from her bicep down, dangled in droopy flesh to points similar to starfish arms. The only limb that wasn't deformed was her right leg that she used support her body weight, aided by the gum tree branch crutch.

The deformed woman grimaced as Officer Rice drew closer. She exhaled sharply and then yelled "Hey Daddy! Why you coppers come round here? You ain't gonna find nothing!"

The deformed woman's face was attractive and fine featured, framed with long brown dreadlocks. Her nose had two large silver rings piercing both nostrils and her face was smeared with dirt and appeared to be bruised. 

She began laughing hysterically. Menacingly. Spittle flew from her mouth in the direction of the officer and his son. 

Officer Rice was unsettled. As the deformed woman continued laughing, the officer heard a stir from a large burrow beside the shack. The burrow travelled at a sharp angle into the earth and it wasn't easily noticed because it was covered in large grass stems that partially concealed the circular entrance.

The grass at the burrow's entrance parted and out emerged the large body of the child snatcher. He had the robust body of a miner, wearing a blue singlet, with heavy stubble covering the lower half of this face and unnaturally thick eyebrows covering the upper half. He took one sharp look at Officer Rice, leapt from the burrow and began running up towards the dam, moving at a much quicker pace than you would expect from a man with such a hefty, bulky body.

"See ya, Baby Doll!" The child snatcher called towards the deformed woman. With a final glance towards Officer Rice, the child snatcher took a swan dive into the dam and began swimming at a great speed towards the other side of the reservoir. 

Officer Rice took off running around the dirt wall of the reservoir, hoping to cut off the child snatcher's escape on the other side of the dam, but the child snatcher swam at the speed of a crocodile and before Officer Rice had circled a quarter of the dam the child snatcher had emerged from the water at the other side of the reservoir and began fleeing into a thicket of wattles at the far edge of the field.

"Stay here Jas! Back-up is already on the way!"

Officer Rice then began yelling into his police radio that he had located the infamous child snatcher and to send all units to Wattle Valley.

Jasper ignored Officer Rice’s commands and began running towards his father. Officer Rice was running as fast as he could, taking great strides towards the wattle bushes that the child snatcher had disappeared into. As he drew closer to the wattle thicket he drew his police baton and held it in front of him like a sword before he plunged into the yellow foliage, wading through the spongy wattles that drenched him in more thick nectar and pollen. His blue police uniform was already stained yellow from pushing through the previous wattle thickets, but by now the wattles had turned his dark hair yellow and covered his face in golden nectar. Officer Rice was now a bright yellow colour from head to toe.

The wattles soon gave way to another field. This field was a long, narrow corridor that was tightly sandwiched between steep, grassy slopes on either side. The grass was cut short and impeccably manicured like a golf course and it covered the steep slopes smoothly and entirely. Standing on top of these perfectly manicured grass slopes, on both sides holding surfboards, were hundreds of children. As soon as the officer emerged in the clearing the children leaped onto their surfboards and began riding down the valley slopes just as if they were surfing an ocean wave. They zigzagged down the smooth grassy inclines and began swooping in front of Officer Rice. The child surfers would slide across the field and then up the opposite slope's walls, like skateboarders on a ramp sliding back and forth. Officer Rice had to dodge and weave between the laughing children to avoid being bowled over. 

The children began calling out to each other in menacing, high-pitched voices.

"Get him! Hit him! Get the old man!"

Officer Rice noticed how sharp the points of these surfboards were and realised that at the speeds these children were travelling he was at real risk of being impaled. Luckily, Officer Rice was agile and was able to dodge the flying harpoons to reach the far end of the field. 

As Officer Rice dodged the final swoop of a child surfer he heard piercing howls of pain coming from the edge of the field. He followed the howls to a tall gum tree and ran around behind the gum’s thick trunk. Behind the tree the child snatcher was lying with his ankle caught in a rusty metallic object on the ground. Officer Rice noticed that it was a large bear trap that had snapped over the child snatcher's ankle, almost severing his foot. The child snatcher looked up at the officer with a helpless and pleading look on his face.

"Get it off me. Please. It's gonna chop my fucking foot off."

Officer Rice held his radio up to his cheek and signaled to the police back-up that the suspect had been detained and the missing children had been located. He then sat down in the grass beside the child snatcher, ignoring his cries of pain, and began wiping the sticky nectar from his face with a handkerchief.

Back towards the steep, grassy slopes Jasper had stopped running after his father and had instead turned his attention towards a small girl who was smiling at him. She wasn't carrying a surfboard and had motioned to Jasper to follow her up the grassy slope.

Jasper was mesmerised by how pretty this girl was and began clambering up the slippery slope, following her to the top.

As if being caught in an unseen current, Jasper felted hypnotised and couldn’t help but be very drawn to the girl, as if she had cast a powerful spell on him and he was now in an inescapable riptide. 

As Jasper reached the top of the slope he found the girl sitting, staring out over the vast yellow valley of wattles.

"It's beautiful here. We can do whatever we want," she said wistfully.

The girl looked towards Jasper with teary eyes.

"Don't let the adults from the town come here. They will ruin everything with their rules."

Jasper sat beside the small girl and they both stared over the yellow valley together as the sounds of police sirens wailed and drew closer in the distance.

In that moment Jasper forgot his father entirely and instead began to feel a deep and longing desire to stay in this yellow forest for the rest of his life. 

The girl entwined her soft fingers in Jasper’s, stood up and began leading him into a particularly thick wall of yellow wattles. As the wattle’s sticky fronds engulfed Jasper’s body, he held on tightly to the girl’s hand as the dense golden forest swallowed the sounds of the police sirens and the outside world.

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