[Mountains near Luthertal—Other side of the Galaxy…well, that’s where the adventure begins.]
Friedrich hiked up the steep valley. The higher he ascended the mountain, the drier and more faded the landscape became. The blue grass and purple sky turned into brown-red rocks, golden grasses and those irritating prickly bushes.
He approached a cave. The sand near the cave sparkled and winked at Friedrich. He knelt and examined the glitter. His fingers played with a gem of translucent crystal. He turned it round in his hand and added the treasure to his pocket.
After entering the cave, Friedrich wriggled between a narrow split in the rocky wall. The inside of this mountain hummed, and a soft red glow guided him onwards.
This twelve-year-old Wend boy sidestepped slimy surfaces, weaved through a labyrinth of stalactites and stalagmites, and then following a light that widened into an opening on what he presumed was the other side of the mountain.
Shielding his eyes from the harsh sunlight, he shuffled toward the cave’s opening, caught his foot on something solid, and stumbled. A bag, with straps like a knap-sack was the offending item that tripped him. Friedrich squatted and studied the sack. Glancing around to check for its owner and finding no one, he slung the sack over his shoulder, stepped out into brilliant sunshine and blue skies, and continued to walk down to the bottom of the valley and then into a narrow gully.
Friedrich looked back at the hill behind him, and took note of the cave from which he had come. That was his landmark. He whistled and skipped. ‘No English today! No more silly Englishmen! No Herr Roach. Ha! Ha! Ha!’ He sang the tune of an old hymn, “Rock of Ages”. Seemed appropriate considering his surroundings. He did not feel guilty at all. No one would notice, especially Roach.
As a precaution, that morning at breakfast, when Wilma had been presented with her left-over potatoes to eat, and his mum was busy with the washing up, he had offered to take the potatoes as a trade-off. His sister had willingly agreed. She promised to tell the teacher that he was helping on the farm that day.
Friedrich dug into his pocket and pulled out the roast potato. It had gone soft and leathery. He bit through its skin and enjoyed the powdery substance of cooked potato that melted in his mouth. He stared at the rise at the far side of the valley and tried to figure out in his twelve-year-old mind why rain did not fall on this part of the land.
Thirsty, the boy trotted along a dry creek bed in search of water. The harsh solar rays beat down burning the nape of his neck. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, especially since he’d eaten such a dry potato, and needed something to wash it down. He hunted for any object that offered relief from the sun. Then, he remembered the sack on his back. Spotting a pure white tree nestled in a small outcrop of rocks, he scrambled to its sanctuary of shade and perched himself on a flat boulder.
Sucking in the dry air, he tugged at the mouth of the bag that seemed locked by teeth. The tiny black teeth clung like a bull terrier and refused to open. He could hear water sloshing, but where? He lifted the bag above his head and gazed at its underside. The sack seemed heavy. There must be water there, somewhere. He lowered the sack, and, as he did, he saw it. Shiny and shaped like a log. Was that the water vessel? Tucked in the side of the sack?
He drew from the pocket, the flask wrapped in a thick blue cotton and unscrewed the lid. The boy sniffed the opening. The water smelt fresh, so Friedrich tipped the spout to his mouth and with long slow gulps the water slid down his throat. As the bottle emptied, Friedrich welcomed the remaining drops to dribble down his neck and under his white cotton shirt. He gasped with satisfaction and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
Revived, he fiddled with the mouth of the bag. He remembered Herr Roach wore trousers with a similar device. “A fly”, Herr Roach called it, his beady eyes glinting. He remembered Herr Roach behind the barn pulling at a tag at the top of his fly. Friedrich shuddered. He didn’t want to go there again, not even in his mind. He’d been curious. So what if he’d just happened to be passing when he assumed Herr Roach had decided to “water” the geraniums near the barn? That’s what men do. But that day, when Herr Roach had undone his fly to water the geraniums, he had seen that Herr Roach was not exactly human.
Friedrich shook his head. What did Herr Roach do with all those legs? What? He’d counted an extra two right there, wriggling out from his pants.
He located the tag at one end of the teeth and pulled. I hope there’s no legs jiggling about inside this sack, he thought. With a gentle ripping sound, the bag opened and Friedrich peered inside. ‘Das ist gut!’ he muttered. There was a torch, matches in small a box, and another box similar to Herr Roach’s magic box only smaller. Friedrich pressed the button to see if the box would light up the white tree trunk with English words, but all it did was go “click” and flash in his face, blinding him for a moment.
As the green spotted blindness wore off, he heard another click and something cold and hard on his ear. ‘Stealing is verboten.’ A voice spelt out in measured words.
Friedrich turned from bag-rummaging and faced the foreign voice. The barrel of a narrow and light-looking rifle was close to his face. He raised his hand to the barrel and moved it to one side. ‘Bitte,’ he said, his eyes pleading for mercy.
‘So, who are you?’ Now the foe was speaking English and Friedrich had no idea what he was saying. He wished he’d paid more attention to English lessons.
‘Ich weise nicht.’ Friedrich raised his hands above his head and retreated from the offending bag and its owner.
His opponent laughed and placed the rifle on the ground. ‘Du weis nicht? Spreche sie Deutsch?’ He squatted, and rested his hand in his messy blonde hair and chuckled. He spoke in words similar to Friedrich’s tongue, but with a very strange accent. ‘You don’t know? You don’t know who you are? You’re a funny one! What a jolly joker! Wise guy! Are you from one of those queer sects that set themselves up in the mountains and then with cyanide kill themselves? Are you? You look like one. Dressed like that.’
‘I er, I don’t understand.’ Friedrich peered at this fellow who must work an awful lot of time out in the sun as his face was tanned. ‘If—if you are Australian, why do you speak the language of the Kingdom of Prussia? Have I not left that land? Am I not in Australia?’
The stranger picked up some red earth and sifted it through his fingers. ‘Well, yes, you are in Australia.’ He shrugged. ‘We are in the Centre of Australia. Both lost, right in the middle of it. Think about that!’ The young man reclined against the white trunk and placed his hands behind his knotted locks. He wore what seemed to Friedrich to be only under-garments, his grey singlet bearing a red heart with a white cross. He paused, gazing at Friedrich. ‘What I don’t understand, is why you keep on about Prussia. Do you mean Russia, where the Communist come from? Because Prussia has not existed for over a hundred years.’
Friedrich kicked the rock. ‘Well, to tell the truth, I—I’m a Wend—a Sorb, you know.’ He gestured with his hand self-consciously. He had a habit of feeling intimidated and inferior to all who were not Wend. And this fellow had the ruddy complexion of someone from Bavaria. Or was he a real Australian? The earlier settlers his Papa was on about? Did he have to preach the gospel to this young man, who was, he could see, looked about seventeen years of age?
The older lad returned a blank expression. ‘Wend? What is Wend? Never heard of them. Are they some religious kooky sect?’
‘No! No! We’re just a people on the edge of the empire—We’re quite normal. We came to Australia for a better life. That’s all. We’re not kooky, whatever that means. We’re a good people, really.’ If this fellow has not heard of the Wends, Friedrich was not going to enlighten him. He was eager to impress. He wanted no trouble. He had seen his family go through enough hardship back in Silesia because of their religious beliefs, so he wasn’t that keen on spreading the gospel.
The young man smiled. With a wave, he beckoned Friedrich to come closer. ‘You’re okay. I was just testing. You never know what strange characters you come across in these parts. Come, I know this great water-hole. We can swim there. Let’s go!’
‘I would love to. But I have no swimming trunks.’
‘Don’t worry about bathers. There’s no girls around.’
‘Underpants would be fine, then.’
Friedrich relaxed. ‘Well, then, what are we waiting for?’ He raced after his newfound friend.
Friedrich and his friend dozed on a slab of rock. The afternoon had ebbed away in bomb dives, swimming races, pot shots at lizards with his friend’s rifle, and more bomb dives. As they lay there soaking the warmth, the sun’s sting had begun to subside. Friedrich admired the older lad’s swimming trunks. They were made of a material unfamiliar to him. He assumed they were Australian. Unlike his heavy hemp trousers, the fabric was fine and stretchy, and dried rapidly in the sun.
Friedrich basked in the mellow late afternoon. ‘This is much more fun than boring English lessons.’
Cold interrupted the drying rays. Friedrich opened his eyes. There was a shadow cast over his body.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2017
Photo: Bomb dives at Glen Helen © C.D. Trudinger 1981