Fantasy Historical Australia ghost story Camping

Breath

By Tara Calaby
Dec 6, 2019 · 2,418 words · 9 minutes

Photo by Wil Stewart via Unsplash.

From the author: A campfire tale proves all too real for a group of Girl Guides and their leader in 1930s Queensland.


When the ghost stories took over the campfire conversation, Ellen Andrews protested mildly, fulfilling her duty as chaper­one, but made no real attempt to stop them. Past trips had taught her that a little fear was the perfect way for the girls to work off their excess energy before climbing between their blankets for the night, and a couple of scared ten-year-olds were much easier to handle at three in the morning than a camp full of gigglers, too high on adven­ture to fall asleep.

Betty Richardson was always the one to start the stories. At fourteen, she was one of the oldest girls in the unit, but she had never been made a Patrol Leader, or even a Seconder, too fond of mischief to be a suitable example to the younger girls. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—she was one of Ellen’s favourites. Officially, of course, a Unit Leader didn’t have favourites, but you couldn’t spend hours with a group every week without getting to understand the different personalities and forming the corresponding biases.

Margaret Brown, for instance, was the perfect Patrol Leader. She listened carefully to everything that Ellen said and looked out for the newest members of the unit. Her hair was neat—even in the middle of the bush—she always carried a handkerchief, and she was one of the greatest bores that Ellen had ever known. Her best friend, Rosie, was similarly well-behaved, but had a broad streak of timidity that irritated Ellen to the point of gritted teeth at times. She would happily take the mischief of Betty or the accident-prone daring of Janet over fearfully good girls every time.

“This is a true story,” Betty said, leaning towards the fire so that the light of the flames cast rippling shadows over her round face. “It happened very near here.”

The younger girls fidgeted nervously, and one jumped as a spark flew into the air.

“Now, Betty,” Ellen said, smiling reassuringly at her unit, “you know it’s just a story.”

“It’s not, Miss Andrews,” Betty protested. “It’s true. My brother told me so.”

“Your brother isn’t a particularly reliable source.” Ellen had seen Joe Richardson stumbling out of the Nerang Hotel with red cheeks on many occasions.

“But he is, Miss Andrews. He’s ever so smart. Anyway,” Betty continued, unperturbed, “this all happened a long time ago, back when the bush stretched all the way down to the store. Nerang barely even existed back then. It was just a few sugar and maize farms, and nothing but trees and scrub and the river in between.”

“We’ve heard this one before,” Margaret said, and Rosie nodded beside her. “You tell it every time.”

“That’s because it happened right here,” Betty said. “The new girls haven’t heard it before, and they need to know the story in case he comes to the camp tonight.”

“He?” Little Shirley Butlin, fresh out of Brownies, was Betty’s perfect audience.

“The ghost of Tamborine!”

Several of the girls moved a little closer to the fire.

Encouraged, Betty continued her tale. “He wasn’t always a ghost, of course. He used to be a farmhand called Henry Addison. He worked for one of the first farmers in the area, harvesting the sugar cane and cutting down trees to clear the paddocks. The farmer was greedy and cruel, but Henry kept out of his way as best as he could, and they got along well enough.”

“Until the daughter arrived,” Janet said.

Betty nodded. “Exactly. The farmer had a daughter, you see. She’d been at school in Brisbane for all the time that Henry had been working at the farm, so he’d never so much as seen her before. But, when they finally met for the first time, they fell instantly in love.”

“I thought this was a ghost story,” Shirley complained, “not some stupid romance.”

“It is a ghost story. You see,” Betty said, “the farmer didn’t think much of his farmhand wooing his daughter. He thought she was too good for a simple harvester like Henry, so he worked out a way to separate the two of them forever. He sent his daughter to her aunt in Brisbane for the weekend, and then lured Henry to the dam by telling him that there was an issue with the water supply. And, when Henry bent over to see what was wrong, the farmer leapt forward and drowned him!”

There was a collective gasp from several fire-lit faces. Even Marga­ret appeared to be listening now, although she maintained her air of displeasure by keeping her gaze fixed on the fire.

“The farmer told his daughter that Henry had run away with a timber cutter’s wife, and she believed him. She cried for a month, and then started taking long walks with the minister’s son. The farmer thought the affair was over.” Betty smiled. “He was wrong. The very night after the farmer announced the engagement of his daughter, he received a visit from Henry Addison.”

“The ghost!”

“The ghost.” Betty nodded across the fire at Shirley. “Henry waited until the farmer was sleeping, and then stood over him, dripping dam water onto the floor. He leaned forward and slowly, very slowly, opened his mouth and inhaled.

“In the morning, the farmer was found dead in his bed. The only sign of Henry was a puddle on the floor and the terrified look on the farmer’s face. The doctor said that he’d suffocated, but the truth was that the farmer had stolen Henry’s breath from him, when he drowned him in the dam, and Henry had finally claimed his revenge.”

Janet picked up a long twig that lay at her feet and used it to stoke the fire, sending a spray of sparks into the blackness overhead.

Betty watched as they faded, and then continued her story. “Since that night, Henry has roamed through the bush, appearing every few years to kill again. So if you hear the sound of dripping water, or smell the mud of the dam, you can be sure that the ghost of Tamborine is nearby, waiting for you to fall asleep so he can steal your breath away.”

There was a moment of silence as Betty sat back, looking pleased with her performance. Then a green branch snapped loudly from within the fire, and several girls shrieked.

“It’s just the fire,” Ellen said quickly, before the squeals could turn to tears. “The only ghosts you’re likely to see here tonight are the ghosts of all those sausages you ate for dinner. I’ll never understand how such small girls can get through so much food.”

“It’s the hiking, Miss Andrews,” Margaret said. “It builds the appetite.”

Beside her, Rosie was looking rather pale. As one of the older members of the unit, she had probably heard Betty’s tale on at least four other camping trips, but if there was anyone timid enough to jump at shadows on every occasion, it was Rosie Miller. Ellen still remembered the time the girl had fainted at the sight of an engorged leech stuck to one of her knees. Guiding hardly seemed the most suitable activity for her, but there was always the hope that some of Janet’s verve might eventually prove contagious.

“How about another story, Betty?” Shirley asked.

“Oh don’t.” Rosie looked to Ellen for support. “We’ve had enough of Betty’s horrible stories for one night.”

“Horrible?”

“I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that, Betty,” Ellen said. She spent more time preventing squabbles between her Guides than she spent teaching them how to tie knots or leading them on hikes. “Besides, it’s getting late, and we have a long walk back tomorrow. It’s time you all climbed into your tents.”

“Must we, Miss Andrews? It’s such a lovely night.” Janet gestured broadly to the heavens above them. “Can’t we sleep beneath the stars?”

“Oh yes, let’s.” Margaret clapped her hands in agreement. “There’s not a cloud in the sky.”

Ellen looked to the younger girls, who were looking a little worried at the thought. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t sleep in the open if you want to,” she said, “but those of you who prefer canvas over your heads may join me in the tents.”

Despite her earlier bravado, Shirley was one of the first to claim a tent. Most of the younger girls followed suit, as did Rosie, who ignored Margaret’s entreaties in favour of a little more protection against spiders and snakes. Ellen delayed her own bedtime until she had checked the dying fire and ensured the older girls were safe and comfortable in their blankets under the stars, but soon she too was wrapped in scratchy wool and feeling the pleasant sensation of sleep settling upon her.

#

She was woken by a scream. Betty, she thought immediately, but when she untwisted herself from her bedding and clambered out from her tent, Ellen was surprised to see the girl in question looking sleepy and confused as she rose from her own bed on the flattened grass beside the embers of the campfire.

From the colour of the sky, Ellen could tell that dawn wasn’t far away. It was a strange time for mischief, but she had spent enough nights with these girls to know that anything was possible. “All right, who was it?” she asked, looking from shadowy face to shadowy face as she searched for any hint of guilt from the culprit.

“It wasn’t us, Miss Andrews.” Janet pointed toward the line of tents. “It sounded like it came from over there.”

“It wasn’t me,” Shirley said quickly. A brown blanket was wrapped around her shoulders, making her look like an extension of the tent she stood in front of.

“Actually,” Margaret said, looking worried, “it sounded a lot like Rosie.”

“She probably just saw a spider.” Betty shook her head dismis­sively, and settled back down into her wrap of blankets. “If nothing fun is happening, I’m going back to sleep.”

“But if it was just a spider, where is she?” Margaret moved over to Rosie’s tent, looking back to make sure that Ellen was following her before she bent and ducked beneath the canvas.

Ellen gestured to the other girls to wait where they were. They were looking more disgruntled than interested now that the screamer had been identified as Rosie, and Ellen wasn’t sure that she blamed them. It wouldn’t be the first time that Rosie had overreacted to the sight of a tiny spider, although it was certainly the first time she’d managed to wake the entire unit by doing so. Ellen tried very hard to like all of her charges, but sometimes it was a challenge.

As Ellen walked over to meet her, Margaret’s head appeared from the darkened triangle of Rosie’s tent. “Miss Andrews,” she said, her face white, “I think she’s dead.”

Ellen ran the last few steps. Margaret began to cry as Ellen helped her to her feet. She hugged the girl briefly before passing her into Betty’s care and crawling into the shadowy tent. Rosie lay in a cocoon of blankets, her face a pale circle surrounded by messy hair. Her eyes were open, but she didn’t move, even when Ellen knocked a knee against her as she dug in her pocket for a match.

The flame lit the tent with an eerie light that reflected off the water-spattered groundsheet. Rosie stared up at the canvas roof above her. Ellen felt her breath catch in her throat. Margaret was right. Rosie was dead.

#

They hiked out as soon as the sun rose above the horizon. Ellen hated the thought of leaving Rosie there alone, but she had no other choice. Logically, she knew that poor Rosie was past minding, but there was just something so final about covering her motionless body in blankets and leaving her with the charred circle that marked where the fire had been.

The other girls walked in melancholy silence. Ellen had never known them to be so quiet, but she was glad for the lack of conversa­tion. She dreaded their arrival back in Nerang and yet could not find any of her usual enjoyment in the hike through the thick bush of the hinterland. Even the sound of birdsong and the rich scent of decaying leaves did nothing to cheer her. It was a long walk—somehow much longer and more tiring than the chatter-filled outward hike the previ­ous day. It seemed that the bush stretched on forever, but when they finally arrived at the road, noon was still hours away.

The rest of the day was a slow blur of phone calls, policemen and crying girls. Although the Guides’ campsite was regularly used by other campers, the police insisted that Ellen accompany them on the trek back through the bush, in case they were unable to locate Rosie on their own. They were joined by Bill Jackson, the local doctor, who puffed and coughed with the exertion of the hike. The gums loomed like bark-draped skeletons on either side of the track and cast ever-darkening shadows as the sun began its downward arc.

When they arrived at the clearing, Ellen waved the men towards the lone remaining tent, but did not follow them. There was a circle of bruised grass around the remains of the campfire, and she sat within it, twisting a string of bark around one finger and trying not to hear the blunt conversation of the policemen.

Jackson was in the tent for a long time. When he emerged, still fastening his bag, his brows were low and his expression grey. “Strange,” he said, his voice just loud enough to carry over to where Ellen was sitting. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“What do you mean?” The youngest of the policemen peered into the shadowy opening of the tent.

“From what I can tell, the child suffocated. But there’s no airway obstruction and no sign of interference.” Jackson shook his head. “It’s as though something just stole her breath right away.”

The bark tore. Ellen stood and walked over to the tent, ignoring the group of men as she pulled the canvas roof free of its wooden posts. The groundsheet was dry now, but when Ellen bent to stroke the hair back from Rosie’s face, the scent of muddy water filled her nostrils.

The dark bulk of Tamborine Mountain rose above the canopy of eucalyptus. Ellen straightened and turned away from its ancient gaze.

This story originally appeared in Undertow (Prana Press).


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Tara Calaby

Tara Calaby writes speculative and historical fiction, usually featuring neurodiverse and/or queer protagonists.