THE WOLF AND THE RIDING HOODS
The twins, Catalina and Philippa, were on their way through the stretch of bush between their house and their grandparents' farm.
"Do you think we'll meet a wolf?" Catalina asked as she jumped from log to log.
"We might." Philippa put down the basket their mother had packed beside one of the fallen logs: the log had settled across two larger ones and formed a nice little bridge.
The girls walked along its narrow surface, their arms outstretched, hands spread, balancing.
Arthur drove along the slushy track, wet from the morning's rain, looking for Leggatt's farm. He wondered if their bit of insurance was worth going out of his way. Rounding a bend in the road, he saw ahead of him, two little figures clad in red raincoats and hats, walking along a fallen log. He stopped when he reached them.
"Hi, there, chicks," he called, grinning as he wound down the window. Though he was nearing sixty, Arthur liked to keep up with what he thought was the latest jargon of the younger set.
The girls stared at him then said in unison, "Hello."
Arthur switched off the engine. "Where are you going?"
"We're going to see grandma," one of the little girls said.
"Where does your grandma live?"
“She lives in a house on the other side of the forest.” She pointed to the track behind her, which led into the forest. “We’re having a sleepover with her and Granddad tonight.”
Arthur’s eyes, set in a pudgy red face, glinted with expectation. “I’ll give you a lift. It’s a long way for two little girls to go by themselves.” He leant over and opened the door of the car.
The little girls jumped down from the log. One of them picked up a basket. They stood with the log between them and Arthur.
"Jump in. I won't hurt you." He hadn't hurt the other little girl he had picked up last month: just given her a little cuddle. The way she had squawked anyone would think he was about to murder her. He had to gag her to keep her quiet so he could play with her a bit. The police had made a big to do about it and published what they thought was his description on the radio and TV. His 2006 Holden would fit the description of thousands of Holden cars. He always made sure his number plates were muddied. He had worn his dark brown wig that day. Now he wore a light brown one which hung nearly to his shoulders. He always wore a wig to cover his baldness when he went on a selling trip. You never knew what or who you might run into. It was his luck that he had run into these two innocents. He grinned. Two for the price of one. He and they would have some fun together.
When the girls didn't move Arthur slipped from the car and walked towards them. "Come on. Don't be shy. I'm going past your grandmother's house. She might even invite me in for a cup of tea."
The girls glanced at each other then stepped backwards until they were at the head of the track leading into the forest.
Arthur clambered over the log without looking and stepped into a puddle. The muddy water splashed dark brown spots over the legs of his smartly pressed fawn trousers.
The little girls grinned.
“You little devils,” Arthur muttered, staring at his trouser legs.
The girls glanced at each other then ran down the track. They turned and looked back.
So you want to play, Arthur thought, deciding to follow them. It wouldn’t matter if he was late at the Leggatt’s. He might not even call on them. The chase he had here was more exciting.
The girls ran along the path and hid behind a low branch of a tree.
Arthur heard their giggling and saw flecks of red through the leaves. He hurried after them. He didn't mind playing hide and seek when there was a prize at the end, but when he passed the protruding branches of the tree, the girls had gone further down the track.
He felt in his pocket for the chocolates he always carried. He had caught his last little girl with a chocolate. "Hello, hello," he called, pulling two Chocolate Crumbles from his pocket. "Do you want a chocolate?"
The girls glanced at each other.
A grin of anticipation on his face, Arthur stalked towards them, holding the chocolates so they could see them. He hadn't known a child who would knock back a chocolate. When they took the chocolates, he would grab one or two if he could.
The little girls moved back a pace in unison as if they were one not two children.
He stopped. For two pins, he'd leave the little devils and return to his car and his business with the Leggatt's.
The girls watched him.
Arthur sat on a fallen log and tore the wrapper off one of the chocolates. He bit into it. "Do you want one?" he called his mouth full as he held out the other chocolate.
The girls walked towards him then stopped a short distance away. Their long skinny legs reminded Arthur of frisky young foals. "After you've eaten the chocolate, we'll go to the shop and buy some more.” He smiled widely, showing smoke-discoloured teeth.
“There aren’t any shops around here,” one of the girls said.
Arthur feigned surprise. “Isn’t there? Never mind. I’ve got more chocolates in my car. Sit on the log.” He patted a place beside him. When neither girls moved, he continued, “You can tell me about your grandmother.”
The girls stared at him.
Arthur felt miffed. What was wrong with them? Any other kid would be sitting beside him, eating chocolates and listening to his promises of more. He dropped the wrapping on the ground and tossed the unopened chocolate towards them. When they came to get it, he would grab them. He pretended to examine the sole of his shoe and saw them nod to each other. Only several more metres and they would be close enough. Arthur flexed his hands.
One of the girls stepped forward.
He was about to jump to his feet when the other one pointed to the tree above him. "Look out," she cried in a high childish voice.
Before Arthur could stop himself, he had glanced up. As he did, he saw a flash of red when the girl ran forward and grabbed the chocolate.
Arthur jumped up like a runner out of the blocks, his hand sliding along the red coat's slippery surface as the girl ducked under his arm and ran back to join her twin. They both raced off down the track.
Arthur leant against a tree to get his breath. His pulse raced and he breathed heavily. He saw them eating the chocolate when they stopped further down the track. After they finished, one of them screwed the paper wrapping in a ball and put it in her pocket. What a fool he was chasing these kids. He wiped his sweaty face with a handkerchief. When he regained his breath, he would return to the car and drive back to town. The Leggatt's and their insurance could go to pot. What he needed was a hot shower and a cold beer to settle his nerves.
The girls watched him: hey were enjoying it, he realised. The sensible thing for him to do was to cut his losses but the little girls were like magnets.
Climbing to his feet, he ambled towards them.
The winter sun was low in the sky. Within minutes it would be hidden behind the trees.
The girls walked at his pace, not getting any further ahead or allowing him to fall behind.
The warmth of the autumn day had gone with the sun. Arthur felt the chill of the damp forest seep through his clothes and into his bones; he shivered and buttoned his brown jacket to the neck.
Ahead of him, the girls, their coats a flash of colour in the swiftly darkening surroundings, hurried as if they were late for a rendezvous.
Arthur wondered if he could make a detour around the track and get ahead of them. He imagined jumping out from behind a tree and grabbing them.
He looked for a path which might lead off the main track as he puffed along like an old train running out of steam, feeling he was in a dream like Alice as he followed these two will o wisps who always kept in view, but never allowed him to come any closer.
Then they disappeared.
Arthur was shocked and wandered aimlessly along the track, which fanned out into a small clearing. He stood at its centre, the forest looming darkly around him. For the first time he felt fear. The girls weren't human, but little imps belonging to the devil.
Across the clearing, the little girls popped out of the gloom from behind a fallen log like Carroll's white rabbit.
After a moment's hesitation and shock at their sudden appearance after he thought he had lost them, Arthur walked towards them, slowly at first so not to frighten them, and then when they didn't move, he quickened his step. He felt overwhelmed with success. He had their confidence now. In a moment he'd have them, the little imps not devils. He would make them pay for their tricks. "I've got more chocolates in my pocket," he called, pretending to fumble in his pocket as he clambered over the log, keeping his glance on them as he jumped.
The shock of not landing on solid earth didn't hit him until he plunged into the water. He fought gasping to the surface.
He was in a well. Thrashing about in panic he glanced up to see the faces of the two girls peering down at him. "Get help, get help," he spluttered. He felt along the wall of the well, trying to find something to cling to, but the well's walls were rotten and slippery and the soft wood crumbled to pieces in his hands. Amid his thrashing he saw the girls had vanished, and then a plank of wood was dragged across the well.
He didn't realise what was happening until two more planks were placed over the well: they were wide planks and covered most of the opening. "Please, please," he stuttered, exhausted from trying to stay afloat. "Please, help me. I promise I won't hurt you. I was only pretending." His last words were lost as he choked and went under the water.
Catalina and Philippa pushed open the kitchen door.
"We're here, Grandma," they called, running to Petunia Leggatt.
Petunia hugged them. "Where have you been? I've been worried sick about you. Granddad's gone to look for you. He’s not very pleased I can tell you. He spent all afternoon when he wanted to go to bowls, waiting for the insurance man who didn't come.”
“We met a wolf,” Catalina said.
“Did you? You shouldn’t make up stories about wolves in the forest. You know there aren’t any wolves in Australia. They only belong in fairy tales.”
“Mummy says to look out for men dressed as wolves who offer little girls lollies,” Philippa said.
“Yes, I know she does, dear, but she didn't mean it literally. It's what is called figurative speech."
“So there are wolves in the forest,” Catalina said in triumph. She handed Petunia the basket. “Can we have some of mummy’s cake please, Grandma? All Philippa and I’ve had since lunch is a chocolate bar.”
Wind from Danyari Joe Hennessy builds a sheep station for his heirs