Bonk propped his feet up on the old wine cork that sat in front of the couch in the home he shared with his wife, Trellis. Having just eaten two fly kebabs, he was well stuffed and ready for a relaxing evening. Trellis smiled at him and suggested fire and music. They had recently wrangled a recording of butcherbird and currawong songs from a family of magpies, and this was their new particular favourite. During the spring just passed, Dody the fox had dragged a pink plastic radio-and-cassette player over to their caravan park from the local rubbish tip but only the magpies and ravens had been able to figure out how to make the thing work. This had surprised no one, as it had been these same residents who’d hacked into a co-axle cable from the local petrol station. The man who ran the station, even had he not been an inattentive and drunken sort, would never have suspected, since the birds had been clever enough to intercept the feed before it reached the meter. As a result, the animals had a regular supply of electricity, which they used sparingly. They often left gifts they’d gathered from the wood over at the petrol station, in appreciation for the stolen watts: edible mushrooms and berries, beautiful pine cones, discarded feathers, and even an occasional silver or gold coin dropped by some long-gone human.
The Rimey Times caravan park was a retirement home for aged creatures who had spent their working lives in various community-wildlife posts and were now enjoying gracious living at the edge of a small forgotten lake, in a remote section of the Wombly Wood. At one time, the wood and its surrounding area had bustled with tourists on holiday, who would camp, hike, swim, and entertain their children with marshmallow roasts and wildlife spotting. But several years back a bypass had been built and the local highway left to rot, while the tourists had found other places to visit. Within two years, the wood had come to feel like a place that had fallen off the world’s maps. The nearby town had always struggled to survive and the bypass had been the final blow to the local economy that had sent most of the locals packing; all except those too sentimental, stubborn, or poor to go elsewhere. The Rimey Times’s only neighboring establishment was the petrol station and milk bar that serviced occasional drivers-by on the desolate highway, whose owner spent most of his time drinking beer and watching telly in the ramshackle caravan that he kept parked next to his business. Old Jake had been planted in that spot for thirty years and had no intention of leaving, no matter what everybody else did. The animals considered him harmless. He was not a hunter or arsonist or litterbug, and he had never been accused of any unkindness towards local wildlife. He had an old beagle who lived with him, who was likewise harmless and rather well liked by the Rimey Times group.
Once the humans had cleared out, the permanent inhabitants of the Wombly Wood had begun to reclaim their home. Scurrying out from under bridges, slithering from beneath logs and rocks, hopping out of ponds, swooping down from trees, they came together one evening at late dusk, as a full moon rose in the east. The animals of the wood were, for the most part, a united group, their ancestors having formed a pact to protect and preserve their ecological birthright from the inevitable destruction brought about by humans constantly trampling through their land. Like all living things, they wished to survive, and for their wood to remain healthy and life-sustaining.
This creaturely alliance worked, in most ways, but tensions between predator animals and those they preyed upon could not be helped. For this reason, the predators remained outsiders, quiet loners who contributing generously to the well-being of the wood by scaring off interlopers, clearing out rubbish left by the humans, and collecting things needed by the other animals. Dody the Fox was one such creature. The rabbits did not like Dody, which was understandable since they were her main food source, but she was a friendly and helpful fox with no family of her own, who enjoyed lending a paw where she could. This is how she ended up at the Rimey Times, where most of the residents were either naturally vegetarian or eschewed the eating of other living creatures. The wood’s worms and insects, being incapable of higher-level communication, had not been consulted on the question of whether they were suitable food for vegans, and so were considered fair game.
Rimey Times had once been a booked-out holiday caravan park for humans. Being resourceful, the animals had made good use of its abandoned infrastructure, re-purposing the objects left behind, as well as scavenging other useful supplies from the local tip. Over time they had created a pleasant and comfortable home for themselves and had assigned Bonk, a natural manager, as their overseer.
Bonk was a pobblebonk, otherwise known as an eastern banjo frog, who had spent his working life tucked under an everlasting toadstool that had been there for as long as anyone could remember, at the edge of the creek near the main entrance to the wood. From this spot, he would keep an ear out for danger and be prepared to alert the other animals. The bonking sound he made had been intended as a warning, rather than a mating call, and yet it had been just such a series of bonks that had alerted Trellis to his presence. Trellis was a young troll whose new job it had been to guard the sturdy hardwood bridge that passed over Bonk’s creek, from her post in the shadowy bracken undergrowth beneath the bridge. The bridge had been heavy with human traffic, in those days. The bonking call of an eastern banjo frog, under ordinary circumstances, should not have lured this tiny troll away from her post and up the creek, where she stood stock still, gazing upon Bonk with dull orange eyes and feeling, for the first time, the stirrings of love. So perhaps these circumstances were not ordinary.
Bonk had not known what to say. Seeing her standing there, this grey-green troll with bumpy muted-orange spots, dressed in a pink tutu she’d scrounged off a Barbie found in the water under her bridge, Bonk’s bonking had dried up in his throat. He, too, felt a stirring. She was small for her kind, being no larger than himself. And, though her form was that of a troll and his that of a frog, their colours and markings were astonishingly similar. He, too, was grey-green with bumpy muted-orange spots. Even their eyes matched. Her irises, like his, were the same orange as her spots, and her pupils, like his, were enormous and inky black.
Well, odder things have happened, and inter-species romances were not entirely unheard of in the Wombly Wood. But this love-match of frog and troll did cause a stir among the animals and, even all these years later, remained a source of wonder and amusement. What kept the old-timers talking was not so much the scandal as the fact that Bonk and Trellis’s bond had proved true and had never grown cold or contemptuous. They were a local legend, these lovers, as adoring of one another now as they had ever been, regardless of his hop having lost most of its pep, and her spots having faded.
On warm evenings, the couple could often be found sitting by the lake holding hands, watching the sunset. On cooler nights, such as now at the brink of winter, Bonk and Trellis were more likely to sit under the carport of their refurbished Barbie van, warmed by a small fire built in a baked-beans tin, and listen to recorded birdsong while chatting amiably to one another. Frequently, Dody would join them, forming a strange but affectionate trio.
Trellis was just reaching up for the on switch that would start up the butcherbird-currawong chorus, when she was startled by the sound of a twig snapping behind her.
“Pssst . . . Trellis, it’s me!”
Trellis glanced up to see her friend Monty, a gang-gang cockatoo, smiling down at her. But then, Monty always seemed to be smiling.
“There’s a gathering on tonight, under the moon, over by your old bridge. The birds are landing in droves, and all you lot from Rimey are invited. Big news coming to the wood, big news.”
Trellis cocked her small green head at Monty and cocked one brow up at him. With Monty, everything was big news.
“Really? Because we were just about to settle in for some music and fire, and Dody’s going to come round. So you mean this is truly big news and not just the birds getting all worked up over nothing?”
“The way I hear it, it is BIG big news. Changes coming, big changes. The swans have the full story though, so I don’t know the details. All I know is something to do with a witch, a WITCH, A WITCH! And not a white witch either, no fairy godmother this one. She’s dark as death, to hear them tell it.”
“A witch? Right. A witch. Well, that is big news. Monty, are you crazy? I don’t believe in witches, and neither should you.”
“But . . . ” Monty hesitated.
“But, but, but . . . go on, say it. I know you’re thinking ‘but you are a troll and no one believes in trolls either’, and you’d be right about that. But I know trolls are real because I am one and I come from a long line of them. How many witches do you know? I ask you that. Seriously?”
Monty was thoughtful for a moment and then said, “You may be right, I don’t know. But the swans are serious people, not silly gossips like the geese and . . . well . . . like me. If the swans say there is a dark witch moving to our bright and happy wood, and that we should make a plan, then I believe them! And at the very least, I should think you would want to come to the gathering to hear what they have to say. Even the snakes and turtles are coming, and you know how standoffish they can be. The water rats are setting up a moon picnic — always such a sense of occasion, that lot. At the very very least, you’ll get to see folks you haven’t seen in a while, and it just might be fun. Bring Dody with you, she’ll be welcome too.”
Monty flew off and Trellis was left staring at the branches where he’d been, watching the last wisps of pink and orange fade into the coming twilight. She popped her head into the van and called for Bonk, and within ten minutes, they’d gathered Dody and were heading for her old bridge. When they arrived, the three of them were surprised by the enormity of the turnout. Whole families had come, so children were hopping and waddling everywhere, their parents frantic to keep them in the clearing and as far as possible from the predators in attendance. Although the woodland gatherings and the time it took to travel to and from these events had been officially enshrined as hunt-free zones, it was not unknown for some young fox or owl to temporarily lose his mind and attack, even knowing that the penalty was banishment from the wood.
Dody leapt onto a flat-topped boulder with Bonk and Trellis perched on her back, where they would have a good view of the evening’s speakers, two popular swans named Hans and Parsifal. As the full moon rose, all of the animals settled down around Trellis’s old bridge, a hush falling over them as they waited for the swans to appear there, eager to hear the story that was already taking form in their minds as The Coming of the Dark Witch to Wombly Wood. They had come for a party, or to satisfy their curiosity, or merely for an evening’s entertainment. They had not come for the real story they were about to hear, the story that would change everything, forever.
To be continued . . .