Den Whitton - 2002
My arm ached. The doctors said that was a good sign; it meant the bone was mending. Some of the pain was muscular, the result of my physiotherapy to get me flying again, but most of it came from the kevlar tube around the break just above the elbow.
"You'll be right, mate?" called the taxi driver. He'd been very quiet on the drive out, unusually quiet for a rabbit. He'd started the trip from Dubbo with incessant chatter, but fell silent when I told him my arm was broken.
"Yeah, thanks. How much do I owe you?"
He waved a hand dismissively. "Forget it. My shout," he said, giving me a look of pity as he drove off.
A black mood settled on me as I shouldered my pack and walked into the airport terminal. It worsened as all the waiting passengers turned to stare when I walked through the automatic doors, and then immediately turned away. I saw the look on their faces: pity for the bat with a broken arm, the grounded flyer who would never fly.
They were wrong, of course. I had already proven I could glide by leaping from the roof of the hospital, scaring my doctor in the process and earning a stern talking-to from the matron. It was just a matter of time until I would be flying. My arm was in a sling now because I'd over-done the physio and had strained the break. I was not a cripple.
I was not a cripple.
I fronted the security desk and stared at the cat in uniform there. He stared back. "I'm here to see Philippa Potts," I said finally.
He checked a clipboard, nodded, and handed me a pass that would let me onto the tarmac. I wandered through the security doors and turned toward the cluster of small hangars beside the terminal. The third one was my destination, a low, corrugated iron building containing a couple of Cessnas in bits and a sail plane. On the concrete apron before the open doors stood a small helicopter with the words 'PP Air' painted on the side. A pair of legs in jeans poked from underneath and I could hear the faint metallic noise of a spanner being used. I dropped my bag beside the legs.
"I'll be with you in a second," said the mechanic. I bumped her foot with mine. "Do that again and I'll break your leg!" she growled.
"You can lose customers with that attitude, Philpot," I said.
The tinkering noises stopped and there was silence for a few seconds, then the legs kicked violently to drag the rest of the body out from under the 'chopper. The glider blinked up at me for a moment before a huge smile spread across her muzzle. "Shady!" she cried as she jumped to her feet. Her smiled faded as she saw my arm in the sling. "Oh, yeah. How is it?"
"It aches," I said. "But the docs reckon I'll be flying soon."
She nodded as she reached out to touch my injured wing. "I can't believe Rick stabbed you," she said.
"It sounds worse than the alternative," I said. "I would've lost all the membrane if he hadn't."
"Yeah, but still-" Philippa paused for a moment. "He only did what-" She paused again.
"He had to," I finished.
"I suppose so. I was going to say 'what we've all wanted to do.'"
"Oh that's bloody nice!"
The little possum laughed as she reached up and patted the side of my muzzle. "You're far too serious," she said. "There's some cold juice inside," she added with a nod to the hangar. "Grab what you want. I'll be finished here in a few minutes."
Half an hour later we were sitting on canvas chairs in the shade. I sipped a bottle of peach puree while Philippa drank her sickeningly sweet special mix of honey, nectar concentrate and apple juice concentrate. I shuddered at the memory of its taste.
"I can't believe you added sugar to that," I said as she took another mouthful.
"I'm not called a sugar glider for nothing." Philippa leaned back and stared at the sky. "There they are!" she said, pointing.
I looked up and saw a tiny plane circling far overhead. I guessed it was at least three thousand metres high. "Who?"
"Steve and Andy."
"You hired those loony ferrets to fly your planes?" I laughed.
"No, they hire my planes."
I frowned at the tiny aircraft. "If they're not flying, what are they doing?"
"Jumping," said Philippa. At that moment a pair of specks began to drop from the plane.
Drought had pounded the rest of the country to dust but our town around the Marshes escaped the worst of it, which is why the nomadic families moved in from the West. We had water and the grass was green. The Marsh was a swamp, a hundred and fifty kilometres long and fifty wide, and our town was a tiny rind of civilization clustered along the western edge; maybe a thousand families spread along ten kilometres of firm ground.
We were only pups, cubs and joeys then, and we got into enough trouble to have a gang. Our Gang only had four and a half members: me, Philpot, Rick and Cas, a water rat. The half member was John, a young otter who moved in and out of the area as his father's job required. When he was here we made fun of his American accent, had a wrestle, and found someone to annoy. He was away the day the ferrets arrived.
The Gang had three clubhouses. One was a raft on the marsh. Cas taught Philpot and me how to swim there and shared her catches with Rick. My parents and The Potts hated us being near the water. Another clubhouse was a burrow under Rick's house, which annoyed all our parents. We were up in the tree house (high enough to upset Rick and Cas' parents) just lying on our backs in the shade and talking crap, when someone shouted from below. We looked at each other, then scrambled onto our bellies and peeked over the edge. A pair of young ferrets stood below, looking up at us.
"Find out who they are, Shady," whispered Cas.
"'Cos you can fly back."
"Cas is right," whispered Rick. "We won't have to let the ladder down."
"What if they want to come up?" I wondered.
"They'll have to climb," said Philippa. "If they want to join our gang they have to do everything we can."
"Brilliant idea," said Rick. Cas agreed.
I stood and stepped off the platform, dropping half the distance to the ground before opening my wings and landing lightly in front of the strangers. They stared at me with huge eyes. The smaller ferret let out a soft "wow."
"Who are you?" I asked.
"I'm Steve," said the older ferret. "This is my brother Andy. Who are you?"
"Can we join your gang?" blurted Andy. "Are you the leader?"
Steve rolled his eyes. "Kids," he whispered.
I couldn't help smiling. "Come up and see the others," I said, and immediately flew straight up. As I landed on the platform I was greeted by a row of behinds. The others were watching the strangers through knotholes in the pine and ignored me.
"Won't take them long to find the hollow," said Cas.
"If they can't climb that, then they can't join," said Rick.
The ferrets walked around the base of the river gum and vanished from sight. A minute later we could hear the faint scratching of someone climbing up the hollow interior of the ancient tree. We lay on our backs and watched the hole in the trunk just above the platform.
A dusty face appeared, smiled and said "Hi!" Steve scrambled onto the planks followed immediately by Andy, who was hanging on to his brother's tail. Cas took a soft brush from our Hoard and whisked dust, wood fragments and cobwebs from the young ferret.
"There!" she exclaimed as she handed the brush to Steve. "That's better!"
Andy looked at his feet. "'nk you" he muttered.
"This isn't dust," said Steve with a laugh. "You should see how dusty we get down the opal mine." Our ears pricked up. He saw our looks and shook his head. "It's boring. We either have to sit in front of the short wave to do our school work or help dad in the mine. There's no one to play with."
"Which reef does your dad work?" asked Rick. He was the more educated of us, and knew how to throw in words like 'reef' to sound like an expert. He pulled out some jerky and began to chew on it.
"Wanaaring," said Steve, watching the jerky with hungry eyes. "The town ran out of water so we moved here. Can we have some of that meat?"
"How about some eel," said Cas before Rick could reply. She offered a packet eel pieces to the ferrets.
"No thanks," said Steve. Andy screwed up his face in disgust.
"No," said Cas patiently. "If you are with us, you do what we do and you eat what we eat."
That was it! That was the initiation. "When you prove you can eat our food you can have some meat," I said, and picked out the smallest piece of eel and stuffed the revolting thing in my mouth. Somehow I managed to chew the horrible, oily stuff and swallow it without pulling a face. Philpot and Rick each took a piece, as did Steve and Andy. The young ferret barely put it in his mouth before he spat in disgust.
I held out a packet of dried apricots. Everyone took one yellow disc and managed to choke it down.
Then Philpot held out her flask. I took it first and swallowed the sweet syrup. Today's mix was honey, apple concentrate, molasses for colouring and some maple syrup for flavour. I suppressed a shudder as I swallowed, and shoved some of my fruit in my mouth to kill the sweetness.
Cas winced as she swallowed and handed the flask to Rick. He took a large mouthful, stared straight at Steve and swallowed. After a moment he handed the flask over. Steve also took a large mouthful and swallowed. He sat motionless for a long while, then one eye twitched. "I don't think Andy should drink this," he said with a cough.
We laughed. Rick smiled and passed two pieces of jerky over. "No. And Shady and Philpot can't eat this."
"Why?" asked Andy.
"It makes us sick," said Philpot.
And so ferrets joined our gang. None of our parents were very pleased, which gained Andy and Steve much respect in our eyes. Their parents were horrified to learn their sons were playing on rafts, or high in trees, or underground, which gave them something in common with our parents and brought them all together for heated discussions; discussions which became a weekly event that eventually mutated into a BBQ picnic.
Summer dragged on, the endless heat beating everything into dust. The only difference between day and night was the light levels. We found the tree house was the most comfortable of our clubhouses; the others were too hot or too humid. We lay on our backs, watching the leaves of the ancient red gum sway in the slight breeze, and sucking cubes of ice from the bag we'd made Andy steal from the shop. I found out many years later that the old storeowner divided the cost of our thefts amongst our parent's accounts.
If anyone could see us from above we'd resemble one of the tessellated images drawn by M. C. Escher.
"You're touching me," said Rick. I shifted my wing a fraction. "Oh, and happy New Year."
I grunted a reply. It was too hot to say anything.
Andy sat up suddenly, his ears twitching. "What's that noise?"
We listened in silence for a moment. "It's a willy willy coming through the trees," said Rick. He scrambled to his feet. "Cover the ice! Quick!"
Philpot and I looked at each other. "Willy willy!" we shouted happily. While the others scrambled to put everything under cover, we scanned the surrounding skyline looking for the telltale column of dust kicked up by the mini-tornado. I saw it first, a swirling red column standing against the blue sky.
A tree just a dozen metres away began thrashing about as the dusty air raced through it. The wind in our tree picked up. Philippa braced herself, then charged forward and leapt with a shout. She held her arms and legs out stiffly to stretch the flap of skin running from wrist to ankle. The wind caught her and flicked her straight up. The rest of us clung to the bucking platform and screamed in mock-terror.
Then the wind was gone. I launched immediately and flew after the willy willy. I tucked my hands close to my body but left my elbows out to form tiny wings, and plunged into the whirlwind. As I tumbled around I could hear Philpot's dopplered cries: "aaAAaah!" and "eeEEeeh!" and "hahahAHAHAhaha!"
The willy willy dissipated suddenly leaving us stranded a hundred metres above the ground. I simply spread my wings but Philpot plunged a dozen metres to build up speed, then spread her arms and legs to glide back to the tree. She had enough height to circle the tree twice before losing velocity and dropping onto the platform. I landed behind her.
"You two will get into so much trouble if your parents find out you're riding willy willies," said Cas. Rick said nothing but I could see in his eyes a mix of amusement and envy. Flying was the one thing he could not do.
The ferrets stared at us with wide eyes. Finally young Andy breathed a soft "Wow!"
Steve blinked. "Can- Can you show us how to do th-that?" he stuttered.
"What are you thinking about?" asked Philippa.
"Teaching ferrets to fly," I said.
Philippa laughed. "Oh yeah! We were lucky they weren't hurt."
"Or killed," I added. I watched the tiny specks fall for a moment. "They seemed to be moving horizontally faster than vertically."
"Steve brought some special suits in France. They have cloth sails that run from wrist to knee," she explained. "It lets them zoom around almost as good as I can. But the silly buggers are too heavy to be a true glider."
We watched the specks rapidly grow in size as they zoomed and swooped, then, when I judged them to be about 300 metres from the ground, a 'chute streamed out behind each and popped open into colourful parafoils.
Five minutes later Andy was skimming low over the grass and pulling on the control lines. He came to an almost dead stop in font of us and dropped lightly to the ground, his parafoil collapsing behind him with a soft rustling sound. As he gathered his 'chute Steve landed even closer to us.
"Hey Shadey!" called Andy as he walked over with his arms full. "I hear you're flying home with us."
"Yeah!" called Steve as he bundled his gear. "We can show you how to sky-dive."
"OI!" I said loudly. "Who showed you how to fly?"
Andy laughed and punched my shoulder. I winced. "Oh yeah, sorry," he said. "Did Rick really stab you?"
"It bloody hurt!"
"It really does hurt," said Steve as he walked past. "I'll show you my scar when I change."
"The difference," said Philippa, "is that Shadey doesn't pick fights with drunken devils in pubs."
Steve did a dismissive wave at her. "Feh! Details," he said as he disappeared into the hangar.
I sipped my drink and thought about home. I wasn't looking forward to seeing mum and dad and trying to convince them that I wasn't a cripple.
Having my loony friends around will make it easier. Maybe I will take up Steve's offer to jump out of a perfectly good plane. It couldn't hurt.