In the nineteen seventies, the city of Perth, Western Australia experienced an urban sprawl that made its suburbs clamber up and down the coast of the Indian Ocean. These suburbs, tenuously connected by fragile railways, like a spiderweb, was where I lived as a child. These novel infrastructure developments meant that I was isolated to only my hometown, unable to find a reliable way to roam.
For that reason, my friends and I would often spend a lot of time at the namesake of our suburb, Lake Joondalup. Our group was a bit of a motley, connected by our own tenuous thread – we all loved to explore the bush, which at that point had yet to be swept aside by the development. Now despite a wide circle of friends with similar interests, I only really felt close to a young boy called Tristan. He was a large child with a kind manner, and a jagged row of white teeth that contrasted sharply with his dark skin and soft features.
We both loved the night. We loved the late evenings where a new world opened up to us around the lake; we would continue to explore the tree-lined banks after most kids went home for dinner.
This day, we had been skipping stones across the lake, while discussing the short assignment our teacher had set. Tristan, being aboriginal, had been given the assignment of finding out the meaning of many of the words we had in our day to day life that came from the first Australians.
“So,” I said, tossing another rock into the lake. “What does ‘Joondalup’ mean?”
“I actually know that one,” Tristan had picked up a larger rock than usual, and he weighed it in his hand as he thought about the best way to articulate his answer. “It means ‘place of shining’ or ‘place of white’.”
“No way, that’s so lame,” I said with all the seriousness a fifth grader could muster.
“You’re lame!” Tristan ditched the rock at the water beside me, and some of it splashed on my new white socks.I charged at him, trying to avenge myself for the inevitable wrath of my mother. He turned and legged it, with surprising swiftness for such a large boy. We both ran through the bush, our chase taking us right along the edge of the lake.
The next thing I knew, Tristan, maybe three or four paces in front of me, tripped. I saw him stumble, his ankle twisting in an odd fashion, before he keeled over and plunged straight into the dark water of the lake. The banks were a sharp, two foot drop into water, that was deep enough to submerge him entirely.
He surfaced “Christ!” He squealed, as I kneeled on the bank to try to help him out. “It’s so cold.” I didn’t respond. Behind him, was a white shape, blurry in the dark water but rapidly sharpening like an inverse silhouette.
“Yeah let’s go.” I reached out to help him when suddenly, the shape seemed to unfurl, wrapping itself around Tristan and dragging him downwards. My heart began to jackhammer against my ribs, causing the blood to pound in my head. Tristan surfaced, and flailed. I didn’t hesitate, grabbing the back of his shirt collar and pulling him upwards, as a pair of milk white arms, each finger tipped with gleaming claws, snatched at him from the lake.
He was hurt bad, his ankle was swelling and already mottled with bruising. I tried to drag him, carry him, but he was far too heavy. We stumbled along the rocky path, my legs nearly buckling as Tristan leaned on me. It wasn’t far to the break in the trees and the road beyond, but we barely got twenty feet from the lake before I looked back.
Darkened against the reflected moonlight, I saw the creature standing on the banks. Its form is etched like a carving on the inside of my skull. It had a human body, with broad, masculine shoulders and a long neck, like that of a deer, except it stopped abruptly, like it had its head severed at the base of the skull.
That was not the worst part of it though. The best way I can describe its legs were how one would expect a child to stack Lego blocks. They were many jointed, from the ankle upwards they stacked on top of one another, but not quite matching up, giving the impression of a jagged zigzag. I began to whimper and Tristan stopped to look behind him. I felt his grip on me slacken, and he also made a soft noise, I knew the noise, it was when your body was seizing up from the inside out, the nerves firing rapidly as your body began to employ its emergency response to fly.
“Let’s go let’s go,” our pace quickened. Behind us, I could hear the rustling of undergrowth and the light step of a pursuant. We fumbled faster. Tristan’s face was red and puffy, and the roaring in my ears had reached a deafening crescendo. We dared not to look back, our eyes fixed ahead, on the murky light of the streetlights.
Tristan jerked, and was lifted out of my grip. I tried to hold on to him, but I found myself shaken off, like a dog shaking its prey. I flew through the air, crashing into a tree and slumping into the undergrowth. My vision filled with stars, turning into flashes and eventual darkness as Tristan’s terrified screams faded away into unconsciousness.
When I came to, it was silent. I sat up, my breath ragged. It was well into the night, and a chill had descended onto the bush, meaning it was in the early AMs. I tried to stand up, but the world lurched, and turned on its side as a flash of pain threw me onto the ground again. I struggled to get up but, through it I began to feel unsettled.
I could hear footsteps. Seconds apart, like something was taking a step and waiting. I lay down again, peering through the leaves. It was itchy, and sticky down there, but I felt deep in my stomach that what was out there did not have any good intentions toward me. It took a few minutes to appear on the path, but there it was. That thing again. It turned out, that it was not waiting, but its legs were lengthening, allowing it to take huge strides. Now I realised, it was stepping backwards. Yes, I could make out its shoulder blades and the jagged line of its spine as it walked up the path. Its neck was swaying, as if it was looking around behind it.
As it drew level, I had to bite down on my tongue to stop me from crying out. It was carrying Tristan’s limp body in its arms, his dead weight barely seemed to register as the creature cradled him like a baby. It drew level as I was processing the sight of my friend, and I saw that at the end of that neck, where I had not identified a head, was a face. A flat. Human. Face.
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the creature to go away. It walked up and down the path, and even through the bush. It passed within feet of me. I could hear the sound of its joints popping as it moved. Its shadow blotted out the moonlight periodically, but it never found me.
They found me just after sunup. I was still curled at the base of an ancient white gum, sobbing silently. They nearly missed me, as I was obscured by a thicket of some spiny shrub, but there I was, clutching my knees to my chest and whimpering softly. They did not find Tristan, but they found clumps of his hair, and scraps of clothing on the undergrowth, at about an adult’s shoulder height, like he had been carried.
I gave a statement to the police, and was given therapy. About a week later, a strange whitish scum floated to the surface of the lake, collecting at the banks and coating the water in a horrible film. This scum was found to be human fat, that proved a DNA match to the kidnapping victim, Tristan Cole.
The memory faded from my mind. The disappearance was chalked up to a suspected homicide. The vibrant memory became a distant shape, backlit by the moon and reflection off water. Sometimes my fear would rear its ugly head when I drove past the solid wall of trees that made up the edge of the lake reserve, but it was nothing more than a traumatic event folded away into a corner of my mind.
That was, until last week, when the thought of the creature was refreshed, given a new coat of fear-induced detail. Running in the local paper, the Weekender, was an article on new findings in the etymology of the word “Joondalup”. New research suggested that Joondalup meant “place of the creature that can only walk backwards.”