On November 16, 1942, Tasmania raised the marriage age of women from 12 to 16 and men from 14 to 18. Other states, including Queensland, followed. In the early days of European settlement in Australia, males dominated the population. For some, women became objects of trade.
Cold black magic drifted through the old forest, flowing into places dark and light as sinister silhouettes of winged night familiars cut the velvet sky above searching for slight flickers of movement: searching for prey. Water gossiped dark secrets to rocks carpeted in mossy green. In the depths of the dripping ebon, an ominous waiting pressed into the earth.
Twigs snapped in protest under heavy feet, startling night demons, startling possums and pythons, startling bandicoots and bats. The man-shape was hooded but he was no cunning man, no sorcerer. He settled, threw his leg over the twisted branch of an escaped elder, lit his pipe, flicked the smoking ash into a small tree hole, waited. His mother’s voice whispered through the years, The elder is a lady’s tree, burn it not or cursed you’ll be. He humphed. Women’s talk. He was no superstitious fool. He brushed the thought away with a meaty hand. He’d come to protect what was his.
“I’ll come, Ted, when the kids are asleep. They’d tattle if they saw me go. ”
He had heard her, the little whore, talking to a man-youth, planning a night-time tryst. She was promised to him and she was almost ripe. He’d bought from her desperate father anxious for money, anxious to lose a hungry mouth. He’d marry her soon, proper, in church, take her back to his shack high above the logging camps. She wouldn’t talk to naught but him then. Sniveling drongos like this Ted didn’t ever come up the mountain.
His mad eyes glazed in lust. Finding women, girls, was a hard thing. Weren’t many of them unless you counted the blacks. This was men’s country, loggers, miners, hard-bitten farmers too dumb to see leached soil was no good for crops. He’d have her when she was twelve. It was legal then. He could do what he liked with her then. He shifted until he felt the unforgiving steel against his leg.
“It’s this way, Laura, this way. If we drop to the rock bench by the creek we’ll see ‘em. We gotta be quiet, but.”
Fleet young Ted looked back to the wraith lit by moonlight running behind him—in her nightie, cambric so worn the man could almost see the shape of her limbs, her budding breasts…He licked his lips. It was as good as his saucy seaside postcards from his London brother, better because she’d soon be his. She had no right to be showing herself to the boy. Not that he was looking.
“Here. I’ll help ya down. This bit’s slippery.” Ted held out his hand to steady the girl on her way down to the rock ledge. She slipped. Her nightie rode up. The man saw more than her legs.
Ted laughed at her, brushing her down. “Cripes, what’ll ya Mum say when she sees the state of ya?”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s washing day. I do the whites. She won’t even know.”
“We got to be quiet now. They come up just before dawn. That’s their burrow there, just above water level. Sit real still.”
“If you’re making this up, Ted…”
“I ain’t. There’s platypus here all right. Just you watch.” He put his arm round her slim shoulders. “See. See her coming.”
The man lifted the steel and squeezed. No one could touch his girl. He squeezed the trigger.
Laura leaned across Ted to get a better look at where he pointed. The bullet blasted through two soft childish bodies.
Night magic fled in a cacophony of red screams, startled feathers, running feet. No witchcraft saved the children. No familiars rescued the man. The ashes in the tree hollow found dry leaves. The elder tree burned, leaving him condemned, cursed, running.