In The Riverlands, Drowning
A Cryptozoologist Story
By Emma Louise Gill
Read Caddo Lake, the story that inspired the Cryptozoologist Trilogy here.
Read part one, On Assignment in Birdsville, Qld, here
Read part two, Blackwood Valley Guardian, here
The swamp is peppered with floating peat and decaying matter, disgorging its pungent sourness over the Riverlands. Standing at its margin, I am reminded of the cypress-shadowed bayou back in Texas, that place of racing hearts and sasquatch ghosts. Not the landscape, perhaps, but the dread in my frozen limbs. Half a world away now. Waterholes lurk among the reeds of this foreign quagmire, hungry. In their depths hides a bunyip’s nest. A legendary creature unclaimed by science. A cryptozoologist’s dream.
“This better be it,” my sponsor rasps in my earpiece. “C’mon and get in there, then.”
I grind my teeth. I don’t need his irate urging. But I am beholden to him, cursed to deliver on a contract I should never have signed. I didn’t know the cost back then, the bitter taste of shame and regret.
“Alright,” I mutter.
I have to finish this. I wade into the swamp, while the midges bite.
Failure brought me here. Following—and failing to verify—bunyip sightings along the Murray, I reached the Coorong coast under a storm-heavy sky that bogged my truck and near-fouled half my equipment. Funds dwindling, I retreated to the highlands south of Sydney. But water management in the Riverlands had disrupted, nay, destroyed the potential habitat, along with my hopes. And despite my thylacine evidence, the exodus of subscribers still hung over me. I almost lost my sponsor, then. I lacked the charisma and charm to keep his viewers interested. Unlike Lina.
My once-partner had both—she had presence. But Lina eschewed his greed for fame and fortune; her ambition was discovery, not ‘exploitation’. A point I defended when I turned from the thylacine and shut the viewers out. Yet my sponsor allowed me a final chance, and my dream remained: validation in my chosen career. If I failed, I would be forced to return in disgrace, to insipid academics and concrete habitat. To suburbia.
That this consequence is more appealing with each impasse should make me hesitate. I shudder, uneasy, and squint for a path through the murk. Lina would say to trust my gut. To get the hell out, reputation be damned. But this swamp is a last-minute find: back of beyond, little used except by cattle farmers, and even they avoid it most times. Dire warnings from locals aside, I know I am close. My tongue has turned three meals to dry salt; the hairs on my arms stand thick and tall no matter what I do to calm them. Night’s shallow clouds threaten the landscape, and something nears.
The old desire smothers my reservations, my fear. I crave another glimpse of the deep magics of the world, to witness Wonder with my own eyes. Pulse racing, adrenaline courses through my bones. My stomach lurches.
Lina introduced me to this thirst.
There’s only one way to quench it.
I advance into the fens. Burrawang palms whisper and crackle behind me; dead reeds and detritus cast ominous shapes in the water, their stench sulphuric on the breeze. The oncoming night grows thick, expectant. Chill. Violet streaks creep across the sky. My mouth fills with a familiar sour-sweet bile, cousin to my churning stomach. I cover my nose, fingernails chewed to the quick.
This evening I am streaming on a private channel—sponsor only. Too much risk, he says; I am ‘too unpredictable’ to keep the feed public. I would scoff, but not having to narrate is a relief. Squelching through soft mud, incessant insects screeching from the gloom, my mind wanders. How late is too late to end this?
I select a densely-vegetated spot where my truck and path are obscured. Then I check my headset and prepare the speakers. The bunyip’s call is said to mirror that of the bittern: an irregular bellowing that menaces the night. The bird’s call abrades the air. A harsh halloo. A summoning.
I play it again.
A heartbeat after the bittern song ends, a new sound reverberates through my bones. Rotten, deep, unnerving. Not a bird. The spotted gums shake in an abrupt, dense breeze that whisks away the murderous call then brings it back again.
“That’s it! That’s gotta be—”
“Shh.” I mute my sponsor’s excited hiss, not needing his commentary now. Or ever.
The call repeats. An iron vice squeezes my chest. My lungs empty and cannot fill; my vision swims. Murk sucks at my boots. Reeds rustle. Bunyips are said to prey on humans. This is no incorporeal sasquatch.
My vertebrae are like scorched gravel, petrifying. If only Lina were here. My throat seizes, her face in my memory.
“Never forget you’re a guest on their territory,” she whispers. “Be a visitor, not an oppressor.” Then she smiles, and her teeth are sharp. “Or dinner.”
Something yanks me under.
Icy cold water swallows me, all jagged edges and foulness and pain. I drown in the rush. Fingers—is it fingers?—grab my ankles and thighs. Bubbles chase a ragged silhouette to the surface. I flail, finding no purchase, darkness and mud blinding. Slimy dead litter slips from my grasp. Darting creatures nip my exposed skin. I squeeze my eyes tight. Kick without escape. My earpiece crackles, hisses, dies.
I am dragged down.
Regret is a too-late wish: that I’d listened to the custodians’ warnings; that I’d listened to Lina. My arrogance brought me here; I could have turned away any time. I cannot breathe and I should have turned away.
In the dark of the water, where the bunyip’s howl consumes my soul, I see my legacy. The thylacine’s ancient eyes, amber, unblinking, casting judgment on my trespass. Min-Min lights, laughing in the flash of my wake, once more calling me to death. They flare like stars, like the sasquatch ghost shrieking in my face as my lungs collapse, as my heart bursts—
I am expelled onto a mud-slick bank softer than Lina’s skin. My skull bounces off wet earth. I vomit brown slurry.
My palms clench on sere-sharp reeds, desperate for purchase.
The air pulses along with my head, and a scream reverberates through the night. Pain like lightning shoots along my left leg—from flesh no longer there, torn away and gone—and like the pool, the darkness, the water, I am alone.
I am alive.
The truck accelerates over unmade limestone paths, headlights scaring cows, revealing the way, any way, away from the swamp. I tied off my injured leg before I fled. Scarlet seeps from the soiled mess. The truck reeks of peat and sweat, foulness and blood and fear. Determination.
Somewhere in that quagmire are my broken sat phone and a pair of infra-red wired lenses I ripped from smarting eyes. My speaker-headset is in there too, playing a bittern’s call, hollow, shuddering, and from the quagmire’s depths another answers. Whether bunyip or not, I do not know. Nor will I stay to discover the truth.
I drive for the airport. I will tell my sponsor to his face.
Pain makes me hiss, but pain keeps me present. My truck bounces on and I think of Lina.
Lina, who will ask what pulled me from the water, and I will not have an answer, because it was not me.
Lina, who will say that some things are better left unseen, that modern thoughts and minds cannot accept them. That Wonder should be wild. She will say that sometimes tales are told because swamps have unexpected pools that drown foolish children, and sometimes because carnivorous descendants of ancient creatures still live there, best undisturbed.
Either way, it is Lina I will listen to now, if she’ll have me. Lina, and the caretakers of the lands I tread. Australia is done for me. No more sponsor, no so-called fame. No more web-streamed hunts for an audience of voyeurs, or cold, mercenary bargains for ego’s sake.
I repeated the mistakes of colonisers, learned nothing until it was almost too late.
Every step will remind me what I should have left alone. I will hide my maimed leg and thank Wonder I did not lose my soul.
About the Author:
Emma Louise Gill is a British-Australian speculative fiction writer and consumer of vast amounts of coffee. Brought up on a diet of grey-clouded English lit, she rebelled and now writes sci-fi and fantasy stories in beachside cafes.
Her words appear in AntipodeanSF, Curiouser Magazine, Etherea Magazine, Where the Weird Things Are anthology, and others.