Han stood in the doorway of his hut, staring into the night. Something was wrong. ‘It should not be like this, Po-Yee,’ he whispered to his Siamese cat that was sitting by his side. ‘Something very bad happening.’
Arms folded and hands inside the wide, flowing sleeves of his purple gown, he watched for a sign. Anything. He shivered as he felt the first stabbing prickles of panic. He was certain. Some inexplicable thing, something
bad, was near.
The wild animals had known this, too. Like a wisp of smoke, they’d disappeared. The animals had, over the years, come to make Wu’s place their second
home. It was their place of freedom where they were safe – from each other, from all predators. It was the law, Wu Han’s law. Yet something had frightened them . . . some shadowy thing.
With Po-Yee following closely behind, he stepped outside, trying to see through the darkness, straining to hear any sound. There was nothing.
He made his way to the campfire that
he’d lit earlier in the clearing between his hut and the surrounding forest. When the weather was fine, sitting by the fire with Po-Yee on his lap, was a ritual with Wu. One he enjoyed. Its warmth and smoky fragrance were a comfort.
He looked down at Po-Yee. She was making rasping sounds from somewhere in the back if her throat like a baby choking. ‘Peace
not come tonight, Po-Yee. Yin and Yang not balance, Yin too strong,’
The two forces meant everything to Wu Han. They were life itself. Yin warned of darkness, weakness, all
that was bad. Yang was the opposite, meaning the bright, strong and good. From a very young age in China, he’d learned their meanings, learned that for harmony, good health and peace, the two needed to complement each other. ‘Yin very bad, Po-Yee. Yang weak.’
As if in reply, a sudden, choking smell surrounded him. His hands flew to his face, covering his nose and mouth. He tried to stifle his
breathing, taking only short, shallow breaths. Then, through parted fingers, he searched for the source. He saw nothing, but it lingered, continuing to hang in the air like thick, choking treacle and with it had come a silence, a quiet that didn’t belong.
His eyes, wide and darting now, continued to search the surrounds. He saw only the shadowy outline of his hut and the dark shapes of the forest, quivering in the glow of the fire. ‘Why
you hide from me? Why you not come out?’ he said.
Feeling a growing weakness in his legs, he lowered himself onto a handcrafted seat put together years ago. Then, with a rasping
sound, not unlike a low growl, Po- Yee leapt onto his lap where she settled into a ball among the folds of his gown as though hiding. He stroked her still body, feeling her fear. He felt it, too, and like a wild fire, it was growing.
He continued to sit, staring into the embers of the fire, watching its changing shapes without really seeing. He leant over and picked up a tin mug and a billycan that he always kept by the fire’s side and with trembling
hands he poured the hot liquid, a tea made from the leaves of a nearby sassafras tree. The ritual of tea-making did little to quell his nerves.
The situation was getting worse.
The stink had grown stronger, continuing to waft up his nostrils and down his throat. He held back a cough and wiped a drop of spittle from his lips with the back of his hand. ‘It has started, Po-Yee,’he said, suddenly realizing the worst. ‘They have come.’
the sky . . . listening for what he knew must be there. At last he heard it - a faint whickering sound.
It grew louder.
His grip around the mug loosened. It fell from his hands. Po-Yee snarled and leapt to the ground. She raced into the forest.
Wu, his eyes riveted to the northern sky, barely noticed
the cat’s panic. He continued to stare and his eyes widened as the cause of the whickering came into view. It was a ball of light, pulsating and moving in his direction. He bit his lips and his body trembled.
He struggled to his feet as it drew near, the whickering now a steady throb. He shivered and his heart thumped against his chest as he continued to stare.
Moving slowly as though searching, the thing, as big as a house and flashing from red to orange, drew to a halt, hovering above his home like a hawk in the sky ready to strike.
‘Go away! Leave us!’ Wu Han shouted.
As though hearing his words, the object shuddered. Then suddenly, like a balloon exploding, it sped towards the forest where it
skirted, then disappeared, behind the trees to the south.
Wu lowered his eyes and wiped his brow. He inhaled deeply, burying his face in his hands.
For ten minutes or more he stood by the fire, staring at nothing, struggling to think. ‘Yin bring terrible thing,’ he said aloud. ‘Karma very bad. Very bad feeling.’
Po-Yee! He had forgotten about her. With some effort, he shuffled to the edge of the forest, calling her name. ‘Po-Yee!
Where are you? It safe now. It gone.’
There was only darkness . . . and a silence that hung in the air like an invisible shroud. ‘Po-Yee. Where are you?’ he called
Then he saw her. She was moving slowly towards him, slinking close to the ground, turning her head from side to side as though searching. Reaching Wu, she made a rasping
sound and rubbed against his legs. He bent and picked her up.
‘Po-Yee,’ the old Chinaman whispered. ‘Stay with me. There is peril.’ With sad eyes, he rested
a trembling hand on the cat’s sleek back.
Then, as though an invisible signal had sounded, the forest began to stir.
Wallabies, wombats, quolls, devils, slunk from the depths of the trees back once again to their safe place on Wu Han’s land. Possums began to rustle in the branches and night birds cried. The moon, creeping from behind the dull, silhouetted clouds, cast
an icy glow on Wu Han’s face, and from some hidden place the cicadas began to sing.
Wu Han, with Po-Yee in his arms, shuffled back to his hut, his wrinkled face downcast.
He knew why they had come.