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According to Mr. Philips everything has a price it seems… even paradise.







During the Plague years, crows filled the air with their incessant chanting. For the crow, the Plague was a caw to arms. Yet this was not the squawk of birds quarrelling over scant food. It was a cry of jubilation, the raven's ode to the infection. The black bird's belly was full and would remain so for centuries. To the carrion eater, the Plague was Paradise.

And while the crow sought out the disease, Englanders retreated into their row houses, bolted the doors, and hid like lepers in the rank darkness, praying to a deaf god. People not only shunned one another, they learned to shun themselves. Some went abroad. Others took to a road of endless misery upon which they hoped to find that one merciful soul who might take them in. But for a group of rich businessmen and their families -- known as the Elders -- their Plague years took them to a new world.

Every adult within the Elders was a parent, and every parent suffered a paralysing anxiety over how they might better protect their children from infection. Reviled by these Elders was how certain other parents -- the commoners -- had begun mistreating their own flesh and blood.

That the Plague would prey upon children was inevitable. That untold numbers of parents had begun to neglect and forsake their own was a cruel trick of nature. The infection was particularly brutal on the young, and the thought of burying a child so deeply loved was... Well ... it was enough to make a mother wish she had never brought children into the world. So this cruelness forged a kind of protective layer -- an armour -- around the hearts of many mothers and fathers and acted to diminish their agony and pain when the Black Death came to their door.

And so the Elders with their families escaped the red crosses, the plague pits, the miasmic stench in the streets, and fled by sea to a faraway land where disease could never follow, where children could play and not be plagued ... to where God would never go.

Deep in the bushland of the new country, the godless Elders discovered a lush valley, or were discovered by it. There, they encountered a merciful soul who took them in and gave succour and safety and promised to protect them. Only birds feathered in radiant, full-of-life colours like the rosella and lorikeet flew amongst the gumtrees. Crows did not fly here.

Exhausted from years of wandering -- perhaps it had been decades -- and desperate beyond all measure to find sanctuary from God and plague, the Elders struck a bargain with this soul of the bush, known simply to them as Gardener. And to commemorate the pact, a rainbow appeared in the sky....


"Wake up!" The boy's squealing voice cut through the village, and the morning mist gave a shiver. "Somethin's bumped the ground! Wake up!" His cries raised the hackles of the valley, spiking its restful grasses and rattling eucalyptus trees, which had a smouldering blue haze over their leafy crowns. And villagers too, sprang up from their beds with ironing-board stiffness in their backs, eyelids slack with slumber.

Despite the hue-and-cry raised by the boy, the bluish haze continued to bloom over the eucalypt woodland. He tore a path through the foggy grounds and sent curlicues of mist spiralling up into the air. His red-knuckled hand clenched a wooden fishing pole, which had minute notches along its crooked length. A scream roared up from the pit of his gut, but he could not quite bring himself to scream; he was his father's son after all.

In his frenzied rush to escape the goliath of a thing that had dropped out of the sky, he kicked over his tackle box and spilled its contents. This was no ordinary fishing box. It contained his homemade hooks, one of which, he reckoned, was magical and would someday pierce the lip of the Proud One, a giant old fish rumoured to lurk the depths of the river Everflow. And who could forget his fishing lines spun mostly of flaxen and made by the village spinster woman "who wove a wicked weave," as the saying goes. How terrible it was to have abandoned it all on the red-soil banks of Everflow. He carried his little heart around in that tackle box. He had to go back and rescue it.

With that, the lad came to a bum-skidding halt on the slick grasses. Drawing a lungful of air, he climbed to his feet, wiped down his shorts and shirt, both made of a faded red flannel and now smeared with grass stains, and took up his fishing pole. Little by little, he turned to face the thing, but his nerve failed and his eyes went elsewhere.

He instead looked at a nearby ghost gum with its white paper-bark flaking like sunburnt skin onto the ground. There, he saw a grass-chewing wallaby, a common enough sight in his valley home. But still his eyes shunned the strange, crescent-shaped thing down by the river.

His gaze sailed across the valley, over amber-toned wheat fields to orchards of passion fruit and pineapple. Other crops stretched beyond, to mountain slopes still hidden by the morning haze. Leviticus 19:19 forbids the planting of two different crops in one field, but that law, as with others like it, did not apply here in the valley of Gardener. There was but one law.

"Go back and get it, Matthew," he muttered not too persuasively. "What'll yah do if yah can't go fishin'?" To the young angler, the thought of this was bleak beyond misery. So he turned, he faced it.

And when he looked, he cringed to the ground, hugging his knees, trying but failing to hide his face; his eyes seemed positively magnetized by the thing. His body shrivelled like poisoned weed. His arms and legs folded in on themselves. He felt the cold arms of Death enfold him.

His lower jaw had instinctively pulled open so that his body could breathe during the paralytic terror. Whatever it was, it was still there, piled up on the ground, mere inches from his spilled hooks and tangled lines. And try as he might, he just could not pry his eyes from its strangeness.

With eyes fixed helplessly, he watched as his fat, juicy worms squirmed free and made a wriggle for it. And the thing, which was crescent-shaped and looked like a big smile, the kind of whopping great smile that might have just dropped off the face of God, was a mixture of luminous colours slurring and shifting. Despite its miraculous colouration, the malice and apprehension looming over it made Matthew feel sick to the bone.

Shuddering, he abruptly came back to himself, perhaps by some mental finger snap. Whatever the cause, fear began to slip away, defrosting his blood, returning life to limb. Slowly he unfolded his arms and legs and rubbed them. Clutching his belly, he then climbed to his feet and breathed a rather exaggerated, blown up sigh.

Everyone knew this pledgling lad was a natural born angler. Not a day had gone by in recent memory without his attempting to imagine that moment when a fishing hook -- perhaps his -- landed the lip of the Proud One -- the Phantom, as the older, more jaded fishermen call it.

Matthew's large brown eyes closed with a tearful flutter. The danger in going forward was much too great, and his courage was unconvincing even to himself. Life in Garden had always been wonderful. Strangeness was incomprehensible to him, to all villagers. There were no "events" in Gardener's valley. Harmony was a birthright. Yet here was something, an incident, an accident, an event right before his eyes.

With a violent, tremulous shiver that might've reshuffled all the bones in his body (his collarbone now connected to the thighbone), he turned from the abominable lump on the ground and fled.


Panting, he dashed cottage to cottage and banged on doors and shook window shutters. No fence, dike, or ditch enclosed the clay-hardened homesteads. Door locks, bolts and bars, did not exist. Humans and livestock roamed as they pleased. There was never a stray animal or unwelcome villager. All in the valley were good mates.

"Wake up, chooks," clucked Matthew, stumbling by a rounded structure where chickens roosted. "Please," he whispered breathlessly, "wake up." I gotta get my tackle box back, he thought with quiet urgency.

"What is it, boy?" asked a shivering man with goosepimply arms. "Where's everyone going?"

            "Down Everflow, Stew' John!" shouted Matthew, stopping to pay respects to Garden's custodian. The steward's cottage was one of two stone structures in the village, the second being the stone dairy where milk was stored in earthenware jars.

"No need to shout," grumbled the steward from his grand circular veranda. The red-haired man stood broad and tall but cut a rather less regal figure with his breezy nightshirt and big toe wiggling every so often through a hole in his sock. "And what's so special about the river this morning, hmm? You catch the Phantom?"

            The lad jerked his chin up, thrust his shoulders back. "I wish I had caught the Proud One. I wish that was my news..." Slow-tongued and still squeamish, Matthew looked sidelong back at the river. "Somethin's back there ... somethin'-" His tongue went limp.

            "Yes...?" prompted the steward.

"There's somethin' stroonge." Matthew could not quite say it. He had never had occasion to utter the word "strange," or ponder its meaning, so his mouth fumbled it.

A slender, milky-skinned woman with mahogany-brown hair raggedly pinned up, and wearing a lacy wrap-over garment of white, appeared in the doorway. She leaned sleepily on the doorframe, crossing her arms to ward off the morning air, eyes half lidded.

"What's str-" she slurred, tripping over the word that had vanished with disuse from local dialect. "John...?"

The man glanced at his wife and then turned back to the young herald. "You're the tanner's boy?"

"Matthew, first and only of Will' and Marge Tanman!" he proclaimed, switching the rod from hand to hand.

"Tell me, young Tanman, you reckon this ... thing might be an old wombat? They're quite robust creatures in Garden, you know."

"Naaah," scoffed the lad, "it fell from up there," he said, with a thumb to the sky.

"A koala, then...? Maybe one who's eaten a few too many gum leaves and dropped from his tree-"

"Never seen a koala that big. Fattest one I ever saw was in the old manna down by the gully. Even then," he added, "it weren't any bigger than Mrs Cartwright's tummy just before she laid the twins."

Steward John stroked his neat, carrot-red beard, which he wore in the old, Elizabethan fashion of the Round. "And it ain't the Phantom washed up on the banks?"

"Nope; Proud One would never do that," asserted the young angler with a firm nod.

"What do you reckon it is, then?"

Matthew just flipped his red-flannelled shoulders. "Can I go now...? Haven't told mum and dad yet."

            The steward nodded, and his beard gathered into woolly folds around his neck. Matthew scooted away up the path, apparently now taking some pleasure in his role as herald.

"Wake the children, Marion," the man groaned. "There's something str- Just wake them." And he and his wife and their five daughters and two sons joined other cloudy-headed folk tramping the sunken lane that led through the village and down to the banks of Everflow.


The rising sun glinted through the airy foliage of gumtrees, highlighting the soft, succulent edges of the valley; blue, vaporous air ever hung over the forest of eucalypts. In the gumtree woods, morning dew glistened on a stand of gigantic umbrella ferns, the drops of dew slipping frond by frond to the ground.

Steward John hardly spared a glance for the troop of grey kangaroos grazing down by the gullies, nor did he heed the cackle of the kookaburra, whose custom it was to laugh with the rising sun. His wits were leaning towards the thing, which was now ringed with the kind of crowd that might form around a schoolyard fight.

Ahead, he heard the squeal of cartwheels and children as families arrived on emu drawn carts, a few ginger-coated dingoes yowling at the day as they trailed alongside. Steward John tried to steady himself by breathing deeply on the bracing aroma of gumtree, which twanged at his nostrils, but not even the blue, eucalypt air, could ease the slimy, churning sensation in his gut.

He watched his village-mates shove and jostle for position. Their faces had grown wild with anguish, their eyes pitted and staring at the ground. And he heard pained groaning sounds, and the cloying, unmistakable reek of vomit crawled inside his nose.

"What've we done!" shrieked a woman in the crowd. "What'll happen to us?"

Steward John's eyes flashed at his wife's, and she glanced at their two youngest daughters, who wore red shorts and matching shirts and were far too busy skipping along to "Ring-a-ring o' roses" to care. Their five older children strolled ahead and were not dressed in red; they wore trousers and shirts of brown or taupe.

The steward heard a dull thump on the ground and a great intake of air and saw a rippling of bodies. "Calm down." He wrestled through jabbing elbows. "Calm down. What is it? What's the fuss?"

            "Don't yah see?" cried a young woman, who had taken a faint spell and was now helped to her feet. Her eyes flashed upward. "Look!" Her finger trembled at the sky, to the spot that had always bore the sign of the covenant of the people with Gardener. "Look, Steward John. Look!" she shrieked, her voice shrilling in high octave, a scream that made the quiet roar of Everflow seem like a trickling brook. "Look with yer eyes! The sky's got nothin' in it!"

            "Wha-" Steward John gasped up a lung. "Where's-" He gaped skyward. "Where's our rainbow?"

The crowd parted. The young lady shuffled aside. Her voice broke into tearful snivels. "This must be it ... on the riverbank."

            His eyes swelled egg-like, and he felt the gulp go down his throat as if he'd swallowed an egg whole. "Is this someone's idea of a prank? Where's that Tanman boy? He's the one who started this!" The steward glanced face to face. "Where is he?"

            "He's with me," said a gravel-throated man nudging through the crowd, which continued to shift and surge, because those who couldn't see it -- IT -- wanted to see the thing in all its naked, grisly strangeness, even if that meant turning sick at the very sight of it. "Me son's 'ere." The tanner wore his sleeves bunched up around his elbows, revealing blotchy brown forearms carved in muscle and brawn. A large blunted knife used for fleshing and unhairing hides hung at his side.

"Me boy reckons 'e knows nothin' more than what 'e's already said," continued Tanman, who rested a huge hand on Matthew's shoulder. The red-faced lad had just finished crawling about after his fishing gear. Although his hooks and lines would have to be untangled later, his tackle box was now safe in his arms -- he could not quite say the same for his trampled worms!

Steward John shook his head with unprecedented disbelief. The sight of a fallen rainbow right there on the ground was sickening and incomprehensible, abominably strange. His stomach churned as if a nest of worms squirmed inside. How could the eyesight of a mortal man make sense of it: a broken rainbow? a dead rainbow? The rainbow had been there in the sky, night through day, rain or sunshine, always.

As the sun rose and spread its dappled light over the valley, the shattered rainbow began melting. Its effervescent colours faded. The steward's breathing came in stiffer, ever quickening gasps. He vaguely heard sniffling tears. Someone fainted: another bodily thump on the ground. The crowd pushed hard against itself and then stirred back into position. Sickness stunk up the air.

Steward John was in his second year of a three-year term as custodian of Garden, and that position carried with it certain expectations. He felt, rather than saw, the eyes of the community turn to him and watch for his reaction. So he turned his gaze from woman to woman, man to man, to all the mothers and fathers of Garden. Had someone denied Gardener? Was it too soon for such conclusions?

William Tanman's wife stood a full head shorter than her husband. She wore her hair tucked under a baggy nightcap and had managed to lash on a dressing gown before rushing off to the river. Her red-veined eyes began to express something other than bewilderment.

"Perhaps someone's ... you know-" She cleared her throat, caressed her swollen, baby-filled stomach. "What I'm trying to say is," she continued in a shy, frail voice, "maybe Gardener's ready to Weed again. Maybe Gardener put the Fog on someone's door and that someone didn't quite notice. Maybe the time's come."

William Tanman tugged his son closer, and asked, "Who ignored the Fog...?" The crowd began to divide, shift away. He tilted his gaze from husband to wife, mother to father. He too, laid a hand on his gut and tried breathing off the queasiness with a few sharp drawn breaths, but nothing seemed to help. "Come on, own up! It's yer civic duty."

Steward John raised a hand. "I'll ask it once; for our pact can ne'er be compromised, lest we risk our very way of life. Has anyone this night denied Gardener?"

Silence answered.

"Then there must be another reason for this." But what? he thought, dumb with bafflement.

"We're talkin' 'bout our way of life," Tanman put in, "our 'appiness! Someone 'ere's denied Gardener its right to Weed. Who was it?"

"We'll have no more accusations, not now -" and quietly, the steward added "- not yet." He folded his disgusted eyes shut as he turned his back on the washed-out rainbow. "Return to your homes. Go about your day..." His voice trailed away, for he could not explain or begin to understand what he had seen.

Parents herded their older children away. The younger ones, those in red, seemed to fall aimlessly behind, as if their families shunned them. But not the Tanman boy. He walked side by side with his mum and dad, and happily hugged the tackle box to his chest.

Steward John looked at his own two youngest daughters -- themselves of pledgling age -- and saw his wife's hold on them tighten, her hands cuffing their delicate little wrists as she snapped them along at her heels. He nodded slightly, breathed a rueful sigh, for he knew that the one law in Garden was absolute.


            Folks returned home, and in forced, blissful ignorance pursued their livelihoods and crafts. The spinster woman took her place by the distaff where she dragged a thread of wool, twisting and winding it onto a bobbin in her hand. The herder rounded up sheep and drove them to graze on harvest stubble. Anglers dipped their rods upstream, away from the puddled remains of the rainbow. As usual, not a single fisherman could boast even a single nibble from the Proud One. And lingering in the backs of their minds, from the spinster to the shepherd to the fisherman, was the dread fear that the village had somehow betrayed Gardener, that the vow had been broken.

That afternoon, Tanman and his son stood by the gate of the tan-yard shed situated behind their cottage. They watched a gang of dark clouds rumble across the sky and cloak the valley in shadow. No longer did they feel that same sickness while they had stood near the strangeness, yet there was still a vague throbbing in the gut.

Tanman scrubbed his brown-stained hands in a bucket of water. Matthew regarded the man's face; it crawled with emotions unfamiliar to the boy. The lad was young -- still of pledgling age -- but was certain of one thing: his dad was fiercely worried about something, maybe cross at him for finding the rainbow. Matthew's chin dropped forlorn to his red-shirted chest.

Water droplets arced through the air as Tanman flicked his hands dry. "No worries," said the father to the son. "Ain't yer fault." He put an arm round the boy and led him across the yard to the cottage, for it was custom to retire indoors whilst the clouds rained their sacred waters on the valley, as it was custom for pledglings to wear red.

A deluge of rain shortly after the sun had crossed its zenith was the daily routine. If villagers had been able to watch a clock and time the arrival of the clouds, they would have seen that these clouds to a second were never late. They would also see that it never rained for more than four minutes and forty seconds. And if they had possessed the modern devices with which to measure rainfall, they would find that to a millimetre the volume of rain never changed. But what they did know for certain, which clocks and barometers could never tell, was the importance of the rainfall to the upkeep of harmony. The Rain supported their paradise.

Tanman exchanged a nervous glance with his wife as he entered the cottage. He kicked off his boots and plonked down on a stool. As his wife dribbled mint sauce over thick slices of mutton and heaped warm, steaming potatoes on a plate, the Tanmans heard the familiar pitter-patter on the roof. The Rain had come.

"Dad, can I go fishin' after Rain?"

"I dunno, mate." Tanman looked to his wife, his face no longer taut and carved in worry but made peaceful by the storm. "Ask yer ma."


"Once you've eaten, and Rain's done, you can go fishing," she said with a radiant, sunrise smile. "But don't go near that ... puddle thing."

So Matthew gobbled back lunch and took off through the door like a dog busting to relieve itself. His parents listened to the familiar, comforting sound of their son grappling for his fishing rod, which he always leaned against the outside wall, and they heard him scoop up his tackle box, which he always cubby-holed under the veranda. They then smiled at his soggy footsteps as he scampered away to Everflow to do battle with the Proud One: the Phantom, as non-believers called it.

Blessed rains had come. Their way of life would go on. No one had betrayed Gardener, or so it seemed. Steward John was right. There must be another reason for the rainbow.


            Tanman's eyes whipped open in the darkness. He panted and gasped his way out of a breath taking nightmare in which he dreamt he breathed fog -- as dragons do smoke and fire -- and soon the valley became lost in the stuff and people suffocated.

Tanman sat up and took tally of his senses. He looked across the family bed and saw a mound of blankets shifting so ever slightly with Matthew's every sleeping breath. He looked then to his wife's side and saw that it was vacant. He swung his legs out and was about to check the rest of the cottage when she shuffled back into the room.

            "What yah doin'?"

            "Will'?" she gasped, her hand jumping to her bosom.

            "What's wrong?" whispered William.

            "Wrong...? Nothing's wrong. Just had a mug'a milk."

            Tanman grunted as he listened to his wife ease herself back into bed. He rolled onto his side and drew the blankets up around his neck. We don't have any milk in the house. He did not question her. He simply closed his eyes, but sleep was slow to return.


Every day in Garden had been the same since the Elders arrived more than seven generations before. Folks took great pleasure in their crafts and trades, eagerly pursued hobbies and sports, married, raised families, and enjoyed the year-round picnic weather. For the first time since settlement, only yesterday had been different. And today, yet again, change would bring disharmony.

It had been an enjoyable lunch for the Tanmans. Matthew pretended to fall asleep with his head slumped forward in a bowl of euca-soup, snoring away as steam wafted up around his reddening ears. There was laughter and smiles and a loaf of euca-bread shared by all three. But in the midst of their private joy came an unfamiliar sound.

It was not the usual tapping of Rain on the roof. It was noisier, like marbles raining down, and made conversation of any kind impossible. Whatever it was, it threatened to bring down the roof.

Tanman's thick forearms tensed on the table, and his hold on his wooden spoon tightened until the spoon splintered. "What is that?"

The fierce downpour ended abruptly, and before silence could breathe again, they heard the cry of a villager and then another. Tanman snapped open the front door. Instead of opening it to the usual wet, soggy grounds, he looked out to a land blanketed in stone.

He rushed outside and was able to see most of the upper slopes of the valley. Small stones like gravel smothered the land, turning the green landscape into a powdery grey. Along the trail, he saw a man jumping wildly about and pointing at the sky.

Tanman leaned from beneath his porch roof. His eyes thinned and then blinked wide open with illimitable wonder. Right above, all across the sky over the valley, hung the dark clouds, stiff and motionless, and turned to stone.


Unlike the clouds on every other day, today's canopy of stone would not clear, nor would it yield rain. The southerly wind, which always appeared after Rain, could not budge them. So the craggy sky hung there and kept the land in dehydrated darkness. Tanman feared the whole cloudbank might just shatter downwards in a violent, devastating storm of stone. It took time and tremendous courage before anyone ventured from their homes.

And when they did, they headed to Red Gum, a majestic gumtree whose roots had clenched deep into the earth millennia before the Elders. Towering up from a hilltop at the edge of the village, Red Gum's enormous torso stood with the roundedness of a king's paunch. But the tree now sagged with a kind of scarecrow's limpness, its trunk and limbs battered by the stone showers. Yet this was where the village decided to hold its meeting, in the outdoors, under the sighing branches, to enforce the one law of Garden.

"Look!" An enraged man stabbed his finger at the woodlands. "The whole valley's dryin' up. We've no Rain, no water. Livestock's fallin' over buggered-"

"The stones ruined our wheat," croaked an elderly man, who rubbed his temples. "Gardener's punishing us, alright."

"And what's next...?" shouted a lady, who glared up at the sky. "Will it be blood from stone tomorrow?"

Seemingly trapped, many villagers crouched with hands and arms wrapped over their heads. A few cowered under the tree for fear of a cloudburst of stone shards. And with the arrival of these stubborn clouds, the sounds and smells of sickness had returned, and to add to their existing bodily afflictions, they now suffered brain-grinding headaches.

Bent slightly, Steward John clutched his worming gut. He turned to a man's voice in the crowd:

            "I've seen our orchards," that man said. "Everything's destroyed." There was a piercing gasp from the crowd. "It's a plague ... a plague of stone!"

"How we gonna get rid of it?" asked a woman, dabbing a hanky to her eye. "The land can't breathe under that muck."

            "I think-" The steward hissed at the white lightning in his temples. "The Rain might wash it away."

            "But the Rain's disappeared," noted Tanman, squeezing his eyes shut and sucking air through locked teeth.

"It's the Rain we need alright," added another in a faint voice. "But more to the point: Gardener's returned and someone here's denied Him. The only way we'll purge the valley of this ... stone, and get our rainbow back, is by giving it what it wants ... what it needs."

Steward John, William Tanman, and others nodded.

"We've got a traitor amongst us!" hissed someone.

            Villagers threw glances.

"It's true," groaned the steward, "someone's obviously denied Gardener. Whoever saw the Fog at their door last night and ignored it -- whoever you are -- you must make your pledge to the one who gardens by night. Heed the Fog. Give it what it wants. That's what the forefathers vowed. Gardener won't rest 'til it's weeded its garden. Now go."

And parents with their families -- the younger children wearing the red uniform of the pledgling, older ones in plainer attire -- left without word, only the crunching of boots on the gravelled earth.


Once indoors and away from the sight of stone, the headaches and tummy aches receded to faint, sporadic throbbing. Few parents slept that night. Only mums and dads whose children were older and no longer of pledgling age could sleep, and even those parents struggled to sleep out of wonder and curiosity at who had denied Gardener. When Margaret Tanman slipped out of bed and crept off for another mug of milk -- milk that William Tanman knew they did not have in the cold-box -- he followed her....

In the ink of night, with no lantern lit and no candle flickering, William and Margaret stood like pillars of salt on the plains of Sodom, their eyes petrified by the unspeakable. The Fog crawled over their front door.

And in their cold-blooded state, they vaguely heard a low rumbling. It might have been the wind breezing through the veranda and rattling its loose wooden joints, or perhaps the sound of cartwheels on gravel. But there really was no mistaking the Fog's low rasping voice, snarling wolflike at their door....


"Dad, can I go fishin' after lunch-"



"Not today," added Margaret in a faraway voice, the gaze of her dark-hooded eyes lost in the hearth's flames. She stood bent over the fire stirring a stew, her free hand supporting the weight of an unborn child.

Tanman glared at her. She seemed much too complacent, aloof in a way, as if the abysmal thing asked of them had drained all agony, all despair, from her heart and left her a void.

Tanman began pacing. "Where's the Rain?" He stared out the window at the grey-stone land, and the throb in his gut redoubled. "Where's the goddamned Rain?" The valley still lay in shadow, as it always did when the afternoon clouds rolled in, yet there were no raindrops on his roof.

He threw back the door, stepped out, and almost tripped on Matthew's fishing rod, which was always kept outside. Tanman squinted at the sterile earth and bit down on the renewed throbbing inside his skull. He waited for rain to come and clean it all away: the rainbow puddle, the wretched stones, the death that now lay within his heart, the cruel demand that he and his wife deliver their only child to the Fog. For that was what Gardener wanted, a child no older than twelve -- a pledgling -- but Rain would not come.

"Oh doom!" came a cry from a nearby homestead. The shoemaker and that man's wife rushed outdoors with their eight or so children. All gawked heavenward. "Look!"

And Tanman did, and the sight was so ghastly, so abominable, that it made him stagger. Panting and dizzy, he muttered:



Villagers felt no kinship or kindness towards one another; someone was destroying the harmony. So they made haste to Red Gum. Their very lives now stood in peril because black sores had begun to fester on their faces. Lumps appeared under their arms, and people's joints -- most notably the jaws, knees, and elbows -- had grown stiff as boards, as if they were stricken with rigor mortis.

Stories of old passed down from the Elders, which told of the Black Death, had been vivid enough in the telling. Here and now, the telltale signs were everywhere, even a noxious miasma hung in the air, the stench of which could collapse a man's nostrils. And the spotting on the skin was surely the black eyes of the pestilence. Without question, the Plague had come, and crows are followers of death.

High above -- beneath the roof of stone clouds -- the dark liquid mass of their murder stirred like an obsidian cyclone. The blackness had thickened fast, a tar and feather cesspool, and the pall cast down by their numbers threw an orgy of twisting shadows over the entire valley. With every beat of their wings, another appeared, and another, until the sky roiled in blackness.

The crows' rank cry writhed like a clutch of worms inside villagers' ears. Ten thousand beaks snapped with the scent of disease in the air. The battle cry poured down on the valley like the plunge of a waterfall, a roar of sound that left villagers mute. People clamped their ringing ears, and did nothing else, until the black laughter subsided. And for short spells, it did fade, as if the birds paused for breath, or to lick their lips.

During one of those spells, a rambling voice from the crowd made itself heard. An elderly woman by the name of Mary shuffled forward, a shepherd's crook in her hand.

"You all know," said she, barely able to move her lips because of her locking jaws, "that I bear no ill-will towards anyone, as is custom in Garden." A few nodded stiff, impatient nods. "This morn, before sunup, as I took our sheep down to the southern gully by way of the tan-yard trail, I saw-" The screeching returned with the rush of a battle cry, silencing the shepherdess.

During the swarm of sound, Steward John could only gape stupidly at others. He winced at their black pustules dripping snot-like ooze down their faces, and he gagged at the reek of putrefaction, of living bodies in decay.

"Out with it, Shepherd," he bawled, as the sky again fell silent, "before crows peck our eyes out!"

The old lady looked sheepishly at the Tanmans. "Forgive me," she murmured; and then proclaimed, "I saw the Fog shrouding their door. It's the boy Matthew that Gardener must Weed."

            The crowd surged and began shoving and shouting.

"Steady...! Quiet!" The steward's voice snapped and trembled with a mixture of dread and crowd-induced mania. He turned to the Tanmans. "Will'? Marge? Is it true?"

Tanman slowly lifted his head and then widened his stance. Despite the hardening of his joints, his hand seemed to glide to the haft of his knife.

The steward crossed his arms in passive defiance. "Your boy's a pledgling. It's your civic duty to deliver him to the Fog-"

"For Gardener sake, Tanman, look at us!" implored another. "We're rotting as we speak. It's your turn to pledge."

"You're gonna have another," supplied a woman cheerily, as if this crass optimism might ease the Tanmans' so-called predicament. "Yer hearts'll be healed in a day or two. That's what Garden does. I should know," she claimed, thumbing her chest. "I've twice pledged."

Tanman heard none of it. Who among them could truly empathise with his position? Everyone but the Tanmans had litters of children. And although his wife Margaret was now with child, they still had but one -- a fisher-boy, perhaps the greatest angler since settlement.

"Harmony, William: We take, we give back," explained the steward, nudging a loose piece of flesh on his cheek. "The life of a pledgling -- one or two in a year -- out of the many that go on to adulthood is all Gardener asks."

"Matthew's my son, not my pledgling."

"I don't give a damn what yah think he is!" barked a village-mate. "We're all gonna die if yah don't pledge!"

"This village raises sacrificial lambs," Tanman hissed back, "not children! And the more you've got, the softer the blow when Fog comes to yer door." He stared back with a look of mockery and daring. "You're nought but breeders."

He awaited their outcry, braced for an uproar, but it did not come. In fact, many just shrugged, but their shoulders had grown so stiff they managed no more than a twitch. There seemed not a shred of shame amongst them.

"Pledglings are what they are," said Steward John, "and Gardener wants what it wants. It's the one law. We have no other but that."

"You don't understand!" howled Tanman; but the wall of diseased faces just gawked back like so many animated, soulless corpses. His rigid shoulders seemed to slump. "Why don't they understand?" His body seemed to sag into sorrow.

Yet his wife, in spite of her frailty, stood tall, her face un-stricken, perhaps more resembling the blank expressions around her. "It is not for us to understand the law," she whispered, her voice peaceful in a manner. "It is only for us to know that it is there."

            "Then let the Fog take me!" bawled Tanman, ripping at the hair over his temples.

"It won't work!" Steward John's wife Marion shot back. "It doesn't want you." The crowd assented with murmured yeses. "Everything we have," she continued, with her sullen gaze spanning the once pristine valley, "depends upon our pact with Gardener, and so we must abide its one law."

"Stew' John, don't yah remember that story the Elders spoke of? You know the one," urged Tanman, "where mums and dads of the ol' country forsook their children just because they reckoned the Black Death was gonna take 'em away." He looked to all of their eyes for a glimmer of understanding. "Don't yah see?"

"See what?" snapped Marion, rubbing her flinty jaw and now struggling with speech.

"That we ain't no different than them parents back then." The human wall stared. "We left one plague behind and found another." Snorting, he added, "We turned our backs on one god and we found-" He blinked, seemed to reconsider his words. "Some thing else found us." He turned towards Steward John. "I'll no sacrifice me boy for a- for a way of life, goddamn it! I won't. I'll burn the whole godforsaken place down before that."

The murder's cry returned in one ripping howl and might have ruptured eardrums. With hands raised in the air, Steward John defied the deafening pain and stepped towards Tanman. The tanner half slid the knife from his belt.

"Yah touch my son," he seemed to say through the laughter of crows, "and I'll flesh yer bloody hide."

Just then, Matthew barged through the crowd and came face to face with his parents, tackle box and rod in hand. Despite the white pain that pulsed in his temples and regardless of the soreness of his joints, and the spotting, little Matthew had stood patiently at the edge of the crowd waiting to ask his father if they could go fishing. As the chanting sky again fell silent, Tanman jerked his cheek away and hid the agony that was plain upon his face.

"You promised," sniffled Matthew, a rivulet of bloodied snot leaking from a nostril. In gasping horror, Steward John recoiled at the sight of the nosebleed, for a bloody nose was a sign of certain death by plague. "You told me Fog would never come to our door," cried Matthew. "You told me Gardener wouldn't take an only child." He glowered at his mum's big belly. "You said I'd be safe-"

She reached out with uncertain arms, but he squirmed from her casual embrace, and of the pressing crowd, and shoved his way free of them. Despite the flintiness in Tanman's limbs, he took off after his son.

"You're threatening all our lives, Tanner!" Steward John nudged his way through. "The life of one pledgling ain't worth the happiness of an entire community. Pledge him to the Fog ... before your coward'ness kills us."

No one pursued Tanman or his son. All knew at some subliminal level that like a wing-clipped bird raised in captivity and finding its cage door left open and choosing not to escape, it would not occur to the Tanmans to just get up and leave. Like every villager, the Tanmans were clipped of all desire and notion to flee from paradise.

Matthew flopped onto his stomach by the river, blood streaking his upper lip and cheek. He couldn't hear the quiet roar of Everflow, that smooth soaking sound. Without Rain, the river had dried to depths of one or two feet.

Hugging his tackle box, he saw multitudes of fish arching and wriggling in the shallows. As if to scream, his mouth drew open with the wooden stiffness of a castle's drawbridge, but he could only breathe a terrified silence. There, towards the opposite bank lay a giant creature, perhaps three metres in length.

What he had taken for a huge boulder was an enormous fish foundering in the remnants of Everflow. Its gills throbbed sporadically, and its silvery-green scales dulled to a clammy grey. Huge rubbery lips formed intermittent O's as its body clutched for water. There, in the open shallows, lay the Proud One, defeated and dying, without so much as a hook in its mouth.

"He's alive!" cried Matthew, climbing awkwardly to his feet. "Everyone look! He is real!" I've gotta save him. He started down the embankment to the opposite shore but a great clamping hand seized him by the shoulder.

"River's prob'ly poisoned," grunted Tanman, wrestling him into his arms before taking the lad back up the bank.

"Let me go! I gotta... I gotta get him to deep water!"

            Back by the tree, Steward John sneered at the boy's snivelling cries to save the Proud One. "They'll give in," he assured village-mates, who passively watched Margaret Tanman join her family and start for home; "it's their civic duty."


            Next morning awoke not with the kookaburra's laughter, or with the yapping of dingoes, but with the quiet roar of Everflow. The eternal river had returned.

            As the significance of that distant watery sound soaked in, Tanman's eyes flicked open. His hand slammed down on the kitchen table. His gaze flashed to the sleeping form of his wife across from him. His headache was gone. No stomach-ache, no stiffness in the arms and legs. Healthiness imbued him.

            "Look!" came a voice outside. "The stone clouds are gone!"

            Blood shrieked through his veins. He surged erect, turned for the bedroom ... saw an empty bed.


Tanman shot glances from one murky corner to the next. While everything else had blurred, the bed loomed unmistakably clear in his vision, utterly lucid in his mind. He saw the childless bed with a terrible clarity.

            "The rainbow's back in the sky!" came another distant cry. "The pledge is made. We're saved. We're saved!"

            Tanman turned back to the kitchen where his eyes might have melted in their sockets. Although he missed it earlier, he now saw that the chair that had bolstered the door had been moved in the night.

Tanman gripped his wife's shoulders and, despite her condition, wrenched her up. "Where is he? Where's my son!"

            "I don't know. I- I fell asleep- I don't..."

She flashed a glance to Matthew's rod and tackle box, which now stood by the door, inside the cottage. Her eyes skidded back to her husband.

He gaped at the fishing gear, which may have been a message from his boy, a suicide note of sorts: The Proud One must live, so that the hunt may go on.