Darkes Forest – CWPG811 Creative Writing 2


Reflection: Darkes Forest – CWPG811 Creative Writing 2

I have had more than 100 short stories published over the years, but the bane of my writing life has been an inability to support a narrative over a novel-length text. After completing Creative Writing Seminar 2, I felt the confidence to start not one but two novels. After reading Jane’s Hopscotch and later discussing it in class, I was inspired to begin writing Darkes Forest, my second work for class critique. Genre can often be so generic, so reading a novel with a distinct sense of place – with local Sydney settings with which I was familiar – gave me a sense of immediacy and richness that I sought to recreate with Darkes Forest, which is set in my local area of southern Sydney and northern Illawarra.

Description and metaphor is critical to Darkes Forest, and Anne Proulx’s “Pair a Spurs” and its colourful, enticing use of language that showed me the possibility of metaphor to aid vivid, concrete description. Before analysing this story, I only used metonymy and synecdoche instinctively. Proulx’s story is rich in transference of meaning. I applied these metaphoric principles to Darkes Forest with my use of colour (yellow representing the foreign and invidious, white the native).

The creative use of anachrony (analepsis and prolepsis) as demonstrated in Carol Shield’s Larry’s Party was also crucial for my planning of the full Darkes Forest story (the yellow flash in chapter one is a crucial set up for analepsis later in a later chapter).

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By Shane Jiraiya Cummings

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Hebrews 10:31


Eucalypt trees crowded the lonely road into Darkes Forest. The trees were blackened, as if a bushfire had burnt through the area in the summer, but the last major fire Alex Ward could remember was a decade ago. Thick, wiry scrub bristled around the grey-black tree trunks, forming a dense vegetation wall on both sides of the road. The road itself was long and straight, but in the distance, it was soon devoured by that unrelenting bush. The white lane marker was faded, and beyond a dozen metres, it vanished altogether, signalling the end of civilisation and the start of something else, an unmarked adventure into a locality barely on the map.

“What do you think?” Alex asked as he drove down the old bush road. The sun was high, and it cast thin shadows that strobed across the windshield as they drove deeper.

“I had no idea this place existed!” Cass said. “We’re only half an hour out of Sydney, and, what, about the same to Wollongong?”

“Yeah, the ‘Gong’s not far off. The Bulli Pass is probably fifteen or twenty k’s south.”

“It’s like the city doesn’t exist out here,” Cass wondered aloud in a child-like voice. She shifted Brayden in her lap to peer up at the trees.

“Now you know why I jumped at the chance to buy this place when I saw it online. Lots in Darkes Forest are as rare as hen’s teeth.”

“You sound old when you say stuff like that, Lex.”

“About buying a place?” Alex frowned.

“No, that hen and egg stuff.”

“I didn’t say anything about an egg!” he protested.

“Sure you didn’t.” Taking advantage of his arm on the steering wheel, Cass nudged him in the ribs. “Losing your memory, too, vecchio ragazzo?”

“Let me guess, that means old something or other?” Alex asked. “I recognise vecchio.”

Cass just smiled and returned to peering out the window. Brayden opened his eyes; they shone brown and bright in the striped sunshine. He nuzzled into Cass, asking for a feed.

Alex blinked against the flicker of light and shadow, and as he did, movement in the rear-view mirror caught his gaze. A blur, yellower than the flickers of sunlight. Something flew across the road faster than his brain could process.

It was shaped like a man.

A cold shudder passed through him. He squinted into the mirror, but the car crested a rise and he lost sight of the road behind them.

“You alright, Lex?” Cass tapped at elbow.

Alex exhaled, realising he’d been holding his breath. “Yeah,” he said. “These flickery shadows play tricks on the eyes.”

He breathed a few more times to regain a rhythm and concentrated on the road until something familiar and reassuring drew his attention.

“See that big tree there,” he slowed down and pointed to a broad-trunked gum tree on the edge of a small roadside clearing. “See the squiggles. Mum used to read me a book about gumnut babies writing messages to each other on the bark.”

“Cute!” Cass flicked her dark hair and fumbled with her shirt buttons. “You should read it to Brayden. Make it a tradition.”

Alex nodded. “This is important to me.” He gestured at the window. “I want our son to have the same kind of upbringing I did. At the ‘Burgh, I used to play down the creek and run through the bush. Mum said I’d get lost out there for hours, but she only needed to send Dad out once or twice. He usually whistled me home.”

Cass took a moment to guide Brayden to her nipple, and she paused further before answering. “I’m trusting you on this, Lex. I like Helensburgh, I do, but I don’t love it. It’s like an old suburb squashed up in the bush. The people are, I don’t know …”

Alex exhaled a long sigh. “I know. They can be a bit feral, but look around. Helensburgh is fifteen minutes away but a lifetime away. I used to go horse riding out here. It’s all farms along this road, all nestled into the bush.” Alex brightened his smile. “It’s gumnut babies and farm animals for Bray. Wide open spaces. You’ll see.”

They soon passed the old cider farm, which had stood on that same bend in the road since he was a kid. The owners had erected a bold sign inviting tourists in for a tasting.

“They’re dreaming,” Alex muttered.

The road twisted and turned, and the bush receded to fenced paddocks. Here and there, angry signs declared “No fracking in Darkes Forest”, “Fracking: Not in my backyard!” or “No fracking way!”

“What is fracking, exactly?” Cass asked. “Was it something about water catching fire?”

Alex scratched his stubble. “Didn’t we see a doco about it? Yeah, it was about mining in people’s backyards.” He continued scratching, trying to remember the documentary, but something as abstract as fracking hadn’t been thrust into his day-to-day life until now. “Sorry, Cass, I’m just a firey, not a geologist.”

Most of the farmlets they passed were only a few acres, and the homes were close to the road, flanked by a thin screen of trees. They’d passed maybe ten driveways, and a couple of orchards covered with fine white nets to keep the pests away from the fruit, when they rounded a bend and a rich bloom of sun-gold came into view.

The shock of colour caught Alex’s breath in his throat, but he regained his composure quickly. “There it is.” He pointed. “Home sweet home.”

Cass wriggled in her seat, repositioning Brayden, to get a better view, and sensing this, Alex slowed the car to a crawl. It didn’t matter; they wouldn’t hold any traffic up. They hadn’t passed a single car on the long, twisting road into Darkes Forest.

The farm house Alex had only four weeks earlier paid the deposit on was even more breathtaking in the warmth of Spring daylight. It was a two-storey Georgian-style timber farmhouse that had been restored to near-pristine condition by the previous owner. They had repainted the exterior a crisp white with green accents along the gables, windows, and veranda railings. It was set back about fifty metres from the road, and the gravel driveway had been lined with immature gums. In the time since he’d seen the place, the dapple of wildflowers around the house and in the paddocks had exploded into bright bushes.

Alex caught himself holding his breath, and he exhaled.

“It’s like a painting, Lex,” Cass murmured. She squeezed his thigh tight, but he was relieved by her enthusiasm. It had been a big gamble to put so much of his inheritance into this place; he’d told Cass only after he’d signed the paperwork. Their fight lasted two days, but it was the right call, and he’d do it again to secure a place like this before someone else snapped it up.

Before he turned into the driveway, he glanced down the road at their nearest neighbour. Their farmhouse was fringed with a scruff of stringybarks, and from what he’d seen on his last visit, the place was just as old as his new house but hadn’t seen the same level of care from the owners. The timber was greying, and the tin roof bled with rust patches.

The drive in, from the moment they’d left the highway until now, was one long, uninterrupted, romantic magic trick designed to maintain Cass’s belief in his good judgement. To cement his vision for their future. The blooming wildflowers were a bonus. His breathing returned to normal, his chest, unburdened.

Alex stopped the car several metres short of the carport so Cass could soak in the scene. He stepped out and then helped Cass out, taking Brayden from her. The baby was content for his father to take him, his feed enough to keep him subdued.

The air was warm and a sinus-cleansing hint of citrus hung on the breeze. It was like a commercial, a collage of bright colour and scent, but not a man-made sound to be heard. Only the warble of a nearby magpie tutoring its greyed, adult-sized child, and like white noise, the drill-drone of a handful of cicadas who had taken up residence on the driveway saplings.

“What do you reckon?” he asked.

“It’s gorgeous, Lex. Absolutely gorgeous, mi amore.” Cass clapped her hands together and smiled up at the green and white windows, the gleaming silver roof. “So much bigger than our apartment.”

“Here,” he dangled the keys. “After you.” He tossed the keys to Cass, and she caught them after a fumble.

Cass climbed the stairs and strode across the veranda to the door, each step a solid but muffled thud, a testament to dependable early twentieth century craftsmanship.

Alex made to follow her, but movement near his feet caught his attention. A line of ants streamed from between the boards that covered the space under the veranda. He’d never seen these ones before. They were big, maybe half the size of his thumb, and dusky yellow, a shade subtler than the wildflowers. Their joints had a jagged hint to them, like they were tiny insectoid knights in full plate. The ants swarmed over the carcass of a white and black cicada. A white drummer. One of its veined translucent wings dangled at an unnatural angle, and the ants were in the process of dismantling and carting off pieces of the other wing, as well as two of its legs.

Transfixed, he didn’t notice the ant crawling up his sock until it bit him and a matchhead of fire burnt his shin. “Fucking…” he grunted in shock but kept his voice low and trailed off so as not to disturb Brayden. The pain lingered, so he bent down to flick the little prick off. Its mandibles held tight until a second flick sent the insect flying off under the veranda. 

Alex moved clear of the ant’s feast and rubbed his shin to ease the pain. “Rotten little bugger.”

Brayden’s eyes lit up with the energetic bouncing, giggling as he was jostled on Alex’s hip.

“Lex,” Cass called from the veranda. “You must come inside. There’s so much room.”

“I know, love. I’m giving Bray the tour out here.” He stopped scratching and hoisted the baby up over his head, which elicited an even more excited giggle.

“From up here, I can see those flowers all around the house. They’re breathtaking.”

“They’re boneweed,” an older voice crackled from the behind Alex. “They’re a bloody nuisance.”

A shrunken, sinewy woman wearing a faded dressing gown and gum boots let herself in through the gate.

“Uh, hi,” Alex said. “Can I help you?” He pulled Brayden in tighter.

“Depends. Have any English Breakfast on the boil? Earl Grey is too sweet for me tongue.”

“We don’t have a kettle,” Cass said in a guarded tone. She descended from the veranda and came to stand behind Alex.

“Sorry,” Alex said. “Our furniture hasn’t arrived. We’re moving in today.”

“I can see that. The name’s Kay.” The woman gestured to the weathered home they’d seen from the road. “I’m your neighbour.” Kay shuffled closer. The rubber soles of her boots scuffed up the gravel.

“Nice to meet you, neighbour.” Alex forced a smile.

“Ciao,” Cass said at the same time.

“Do you live alone up there?” Alex asked.

“That’s a rude question,” Kay chided.

Alex flushed and readjusted his hold on Brayden. “Sorry-“

The old woman waved his apology away. “It’s just me and Reg since the dog died. He’s too dithery to meet his new neighbours. The height of rudeness, he can be.”

“It’s fine,” Cass assured her. “We can pop around to say hello after we’re unpacked.”

Alex cut in. “If it’s alright with you, Kay, we have a lot of work to do, and we’re expecting the truck any minute.”

As if on cue, Alex sensed the rumble of a heavy vehicle. A moment later, he spied the dark shadow of a truck rumbling along at a measured pace. “Here comes the guys now,” he smiled, happy for the timely interruption.

The woman turned to watch the truck as it came into view.

Instead of the red and white removalist’s truck Alex expected, a mottled green army truck with a tarp-covered load rumbled past the gate. The noise grew louder as three more army trucks ambled past, flanking an even bigger sandy-coloured drilling rig. Another truck and an eight-wheeled light tank trailed the driller.

Alex did his best to cradle Brayden through the commotion, but the toddler tensed and began to cry. In the quiet that followed the army convoy’s passing, Brayden’s squealing was high-pitched but muted, as if the air was too thin to carry his distress far.

Kay spat at the gravel and muttered, “Damn frackers.”

Alex struggled to quiet his son, and he looked to Cass for help. With a practised motion, she eased Brayden out of his father’s arms and held him tight, swaying and bouncing the way she did every time the boy needed calming.

Seemingly spooked by the trucks and Brayden’s crying, Kay had begun shuffling down the driveway for the road.

“Hey!” Alex called after her. “What was all that about?”

Kay didn’t bother turned back to him. “That?” She hiked her thumb in the direction the trucks had disappeared into. “Is your government hard at work chewin’ up our backyards for profit. Bloody scumbag Liberals.” She hoiked another spit and Alex cringed at the sound. She landed her spittle with freakish accuracy on a lone daffodil by the gate. It bobbed from the impact.

Alex sighed, and then shouted to Kay’s retreating back again. “Where are they headed? Isn’t this road a dead end?”

This time, the old woman stopped and turned. A heavy shadow from the trees cut across her face, accentuating her crags. “For the likes of you and me, it’s a dead end. But not for them. They can go anywhere they damn well please.”

Kay smiled like she was pleased with herself, but it looked more like there was a bad smell under her nose. She nodded her head and trundled off through the gate and down the road towards her house.

Brayden’s crying had petered off into mewling and sucking in air in fitful gulps. Cass continued to jiggle him and pat him on the back.

Alex turned to her, and they shared a long, exasperated moment. “Listen,” he said, breaking the spell. “It’s not all bad. If Australia is ever attacked by China, we know help is close by.” He forced a smile.

Cass ignored his weak attempt at a joke. “Did you know there was an army base nearby?” Her tone was flat. He knew what that meant.

“Cass, it’s not a problem,” he assured her. “Have a good look around the place. Four glorious acres. It’s all ours.”

Cass gave him a hard stare, and as if sensing the mood, Brayden refused to settle. After a long moment, she looked down on their son, sighed, and walked back up to the veranda. She passed through the open front door and into the darkness, taking Brayden’s subdued little sobs with her.

Alone in the silence, Alex wandered over to rest his elbows on the roof of the car. He glanced around at his new property, taking in the swaying trees, the blooms of boneweed shrubs, and the occasional patch of wildflowers in the open space around the house. Down past the house, beyond the carport, he spied the workshed. Something glinting in the sunlight caught his eye, and he strolled over to investigate.

The shed large enough to fit a car or a couple of bikes in and was built faded green colorbond, although it was still in good nick. In front of it and slightly off to the side was the skeletal shell of an old timber shed. It had rotted away from the weather and maybe a termite infestation, but if the bugs had feasted on the wood, it had been many years ago. A rusted old workbench sheltered in the ruin of the old shed. The rain had eaten greedy rust-orange holes through the benchtop, and the surface was pitted with barnacles of rust.

Beneath that, in contrast to the dilapidated bench and shed, was military green steel storage box in pristine condition. The box was maybe seventy or eighty centimetres wide and over two metres long. The silver latch shone in the afternoon light, and he longed to flip it open to see what was inside, but a sudden realisation stayed his hand.

It reminded Alex of a coffin.

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