I was among thousands who made the pilgrimage to the music festival each year. We traipsed around the parkland gardens like the faithful seeking redemption. Enveloped in sound waves that vibrated the air around as we lay on cool grass beneath river red gums, Moreton figs and pencil pines. Reality receded fast, smothered in tie-die, Indian cotton, beards and pigtails, and the thin trail of weed smoke that wended it’s way through the crowd to a melody so sweet it tasted like fairy floss, enfolding me in clouds of saintly bliss.
I wandered around the park to soak up the atmosphere and noticed creatures fashioned from chicken wire the shape of people. They were stuffed with brown autumn leaves that looked like skin after too much time in the sun and had been scattered through the forest like aberrant seeds. Someone’s idea of art, frozen in ghoulish stances, sitting in chairs, leaning on walls and spilling from the hollows of trees. Faceless creatures in poses of waiting. They appeared at every turn. I started to feel like they were watching me.
On the second day I noticed the leaf creatures had moved around the park over night. The one playing a piano in a gully on the first day was no longer there, and another riding a bicycle had materialised alongside a path. When I mentioned this to my girlfriend she said I had been drinking too much.
At dusk I was sprawled on the grass listening to the sounds of a throat singer and animal sounds emanate from a wind instrument. Their cries were answered by creatures deep in the park. At one point I was sure I heard a human scream, but when I struggled to my elbows all eyes around me were faced front to the stage. There was no sign anyone else had noticed, so I lay down again. After an hour the throat singer melted into the forest and an aboriginal women’s choir dressed in the colours of the desert emerged on stage and started to croon. Their haunted voices echoed through the night competing with the owls that dwelled in the high tree branches.
My bladder started to fill to bursting so I scrambled to my feet and headed into the dark toward the portaloos down the back. Far enough away that the stink wouldn’t seep into the crowd. I passed through a stand of pines and couldn’t tell whether the rustling of leaves was coming from beneath my own feet or others walking in the shadows out of sight. Gouls in my head took shape in the night around me when I thought I caught a glimpse of movement in the dark.
Fortunately the dunny queue was short. The bathroom experience was the worst part of festivals. No matter how often the tireless staff mopped out the stalls, at the end of a hot day the smell of urine was still nauseating. The relief of emptying my bladder to the distant keening of the singers overrode the feelings of disgust I had for my stinky box cubicle with its invisible splashes sprayed around the walls.
When I stepped back out of the loo, I was alone with the sounds of the night. Already a bit spooked, I started to walk stealthily in the direction of the haunting melody filtering through the trees then tripped and landed sprawled on the ground. I heard a low painful moan nearby and scrambled to my feet. In the dim shadows I thought I saw a figure prone on the ground and in my mind it’s mouth was stuffed with flaking brown autumn leaves. I turned and ran through the night as adrenaline flooded my body.
I passed a large tree and something latched onto me from the shadows. When I swiped at it I felt my sleeve grabbed and tugged and started to swing around wildly. A shriek escaped from deep in my throat and I struggled with the dark figure. Felt the scrape of chicken wire and the crunch of leaves as it wrestled me to the ground. My panicked mind realised that my daytime fancy of the chicken wire and leaf people coming alive in the night was real. The person I had tripped over lying prone in the forest must have been a victim and now they had come for me.
Another scream echoed through the forest louder than the distant singing. I was fighting for my life, could feel the sting of wire cuts on my arms. In the distance I thought I heard my name being called and yelled for help while I struggled.
Flashes of torchlight leapt through the forest nearby and after what seemed like a lifetime found me. All the spots converged on my face and there was a deathly silence. I scrambled to my feet and wheeled around wildly in the torchlight ready to defend myself again. Peals of laughter started to fill the forest around me. My attacker, one of the chicken wire and leaf sculptures, was flattened to a pulp at my feet, no signs of life having ever been in it.