By Scott Bailey © 2018
There was a white fleck on that dark skin. Tiny and mysterious. Despite his situation, despite his thirst and an undetermined, lurking threat Dan was drawn to that fleck.
It sat on his captor’s left cheek, just beneath the deep well of his eye. Neither the man’s sweat or occasional movements seemed to shake it.
What was it? A fleck of stone? A crumb? It did not belong there and it was starting to annoy Dan.
His captor did not appear to notice it.
That annoyed him even more and he did not understand why.
Was it correct to think of the man as his captor? He was not preventing Dan from leaving.
He was not helping him either. That was the point. Without help, he would die out here in the bush. He was spent. He did not even have the energy to struggle any more.
He had lost his way in his arrogance, thinking he could travel the outback like those explorers he loved to read about.
He was no explorer. He should have stayed behind his desk. But he had wanted to see something of the land he had been helping to administer for so long. He had wanted to see the fruits of his work.
He had wanted to feel first-hand the pride of taming this uncivilized wilderness.
That was what had drawn him over the wide seas to the other side of the world. The promise of adventure. The chance to relive the dreams of a young schoolboy. The final chance to push the last frontier. To achieve man’s mastery of the world and complete the map.
His dreams had outstripped his abilities. He realised that now. If he had not been so dry he would have shed tears.
At some level, he supposed he had always known this. That’s why he had spent his life here behind his desk. Dispensing mastery through letters and paperwork. Bringing the world to order, bringing knowledge to the dark places of the earth.
His stare once more returned to the man before him and his fleck of white. He sat on his rock, waiting patiently.
What was he waiting for?
He had arrived yesterday. Dan had already been collapsed where he was for several hours at that point. Already resigned to defeat. He had walked in calmly and sat down. He had not acknowledged Dan in any way.
Dan should have felt relief, a renewal of hope. Yet he had not. He felt no surprise, no hope, nothing but a vague sense of threat.
He could not explain why he felt that.
The stranger was an aborigine. He was barely clothed, barefooted and dusty from his travels.
Dan had clothed himself with the very best outdoor gear he could get. He also had every travelling device you could ask for. Compass, knives, maps, glasses and much more.
In little more than a loincloth, the stranger looked infinitely more comfortable than he ever would.
He had sat there for a day and a half and still looked as composed as when he arrived.
Dan had stared at him for what felt like hours. He had no idea how long it had really been. Finally, he had summoned the energy to speak. He dragged a word from his throat as if regurgitating sandpaper.
The man stared back at him now. He had deep, dark irises on yellow pools. His face was wide and gentle.
Yet Dan still felt the threat peeking over his shoulder.
He seemed to study Dan for a long moment. Then he spoke.
“Where are you going?”
Dan had frowned. What was that supposed to mean? He was going nowhere right now.
He had swallowed hard and gathered his strength.
“How far?” It was all he could manage. He had wanted to ask where the nearest town was. The nearest house would have been enough!
The stranger stared again for a longer time. He had seemed to understand though and eventually, he said.
“It is four days walk.”
They had fallen silent then as Dan absorbed this. He would not survive a four-day walk. Not without help.
This stranger did not appear to be inclined towards aid.
There was another long silence. The stranger appeared relaxed as if he were sitting in his living room on a Sunday afternoon, reading.
Dan doubted he could read, doubted he had a living room.
Now he thought about it he didn’t even know where these people lived. In caves? In hovels?
He should really know that he had enough dealings with them. With their children at least. But they were always brought to him, he received them into civilisation.
Civilisation! The thought of it brought back memories that made him thirst, made his throat burn. He found himself involuntarily moaning – though it sounded more like a rasp.
The stranger stirred.
“What do you do?”
Dan did not understand. The man’s accent was thick but he understood the words, not the meaning.
“I am thirsty,” was the best reply he could manage.
The man looked at him with a measuring stare. Then he stood and strode to a nearby bush. With a flash of sunlight, he whipped out a knife and slashed off a thick, fleshy leaf.
It dripped with green liquid.
Any other time he would have been repulsed by anything other than tea or water. Now, this was nectar to him.
The man brought the leaf to his mouth and squeezed.
The taste was acrid and perhaps would have made him sick if he hadn’t been so desperately dry.
He swallowed and it gave him respite. His throat felt slick again and he could talk.
But he knew it was not enough – not enough to let him walk out of here and back home.
“More,” he pleaded.
The man simply sat back down calmly.
He repeated his question.
“What do you do?”
Confusion swirled around in his mind. Why did he not help him? Why didn’t he give him more of that liquid? It was a big bush – surely there was more in there.
What was he asking him? Did he want to know what his job was?
He should keep the man talking. Gain his trust, maybe then he would help.
In faltering sentences, he tried to describe his role in the education system to this native. He tried to keep it simple, in terms he might understand.
He wasn’t sure he succeeded. The man gave no reaction as he spoke. Eventually, Dan trailed into silence, exhausted by the effort.
After a short silence, the man said,
“You are a teacher man.”
It was not a question but Dan nodded.
Then the man spoke again.
“You take our children.”
It was spoken in the same calm tone he had spoken since he arrived. There was no anger or threat in them.
But Dan felt a chill nevertheless.
“We educate them, give them a better future.” He protested.
“They are not with their mothers.”
“But they are given knowledge they would not get otherwise. They will be greater for it. In my country – we do it too.”
“Did you miss your mother?”
That struck him, dredging up memories he thought he had buried long ago. Pain that he had considered childish and worthy of contempt.
“Mothers cannot teach what we know,” he said angrily.
The man gave him that measuring gaze again. Then he nodded.
Dan turned his head, not without some pain.
Nearby he saw a deer. It appeared to be completely unaware of their presence.
There was a younger one by its side. The older one nudged the younger to a bush where it proceeded to nibble.
Dan snorted. Did this savage think things were that simple?
“The world is changing. Your children need to know things, to be prepared.”
The man sat silently, calmly.
“The world is changing – you can’t stop it. There’s nothing you can do about that. Civilisation is coming.”
The man sighed. He picked the white fleck from his cheek, casually, and flicked it away.
“We can wait,” he said.