Byron saw the family hurrying to the car. The driver was calling, “quick you mob! We gotta leave now. That shop will close for lunch.”
He watched as the car pulled away. He spluttered as the dust swept over him. It was hot lying out there in the desert sun. If only he could reach that blanket that the family had left lying on the ground. He might be able to hook up some shelter. But Byron realised, with a sigh, that he could only move if someone helped him.
Byron lay there all day waiting for the little boy to come back and pick him up.
He lay there as the sun climbed high overhead. He wished he could close his little black almond eyes. The hot sun was relentless.
He was still there when the sun began to set low in the western sky. He could just see his hands washing over with yellow, then pink then a deep, deep red. The sky above him turned purple, dark blue then indigo. Byron began to feel very, very lonely.
As the night grew black and quiet Byron began feeling a little bit frightened. He had never been by himself before, not since he’d been placed in a box and put on the shelf in the toy section of the big store. He thought about the day the family had taken him off the shelf, the little boy roughly pulling at the cardboard to get him out of the box. Byron had felt very happy to be swinging by his arm in the little boy’s hand. He liked the little boy.
It had been a long drive to his new home. There were lots of people in the car. Kids were yelling and grown-ups were talking and Byron was so happy, even when the little boy’s big sister had sat right on top of him.
Sometimes the family lived in a house. Sometimes they took a mattress and some blankets and got some food from the store in a big brown paper bag. Then they sat down out in the bush, away from the other people, and they stayed there all night.
The kids played in the dark laughing and sometimes fighting while the grown-ups found wood and lit a fire. The dogs sniffed and growled and yowled and howled, sometimes ripping at each other with their big, yellow teeth. But they didn’t bother Byron. He liked watching all this.
But now, he was out here on his own under the big, star-filled sky. It was getting cooler and he could hear something moving in the dark. Byron was pleased that he could only lie very still because that way, he hoped that whatever it was would just go away.
Byron lay there for many days and nights. He realised that the family were not coming back for him. The blanket had been lifted by the wind many days ago. Byron could just see part of it, covered in red sand and the dead leaves that had blown from the tree under which the family had sat during those happy days and nights.
Ants in wide black lines hurried over him throughout the day and into the night. Sometimes they got inside his clothes, biting at him before finding a way back out where they joined the busy colony. Byron wished with all his heart that he could move.
Just as the sun was coming up one morning he heard pat, pat, pat, pat, and puff, puff, puff, puff. Coming behind this sound Byron heard an uneven scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch and a hahh, hahh, hahh, hahh. Angling his little black eyes as far as he could, he saw that there was a man, running down the track that the family had driven away on. Trailing behind him was a blue dog with a long, wet, pink tongue lolling out one side of his mouth. The man ran right past Byron without seeing him. The dog saw everything but he only cared to follow the man.
Another day he saw some boys and girls walking past. The boys were kicking and running with a football. The girls were laughing and chasing the boys, trying to get the ball from them.
One of the kids saw the discarded camp and ran right up to where Byron lay staring up at the sky. Reaching across Byron the girl picked up a hair brush that had been left behind. She called to her friends, laughing, then tossed the hairbrush across the road before running after the other kids. Byron sighed and waited for the day to cool into night once more.
One day, as Byron gazed up at the sky, he saw the mail plane flying lower and lower until he heard it land at the airstrip a long way back down the road. He wondered if the little boy was somewhere watching the same plane.
One night he saw the flying doctor plane all lit up like a spacecraft. He hoped the little boy wasn’t being flown away to Alice Springs hospital.
Byron did not know how long he had been there the day all the clouds began gathering in the sky. Byron loved the big sky. He loved those days when some clouds blocked out the sun from his sore eyes. But this day the clouds were huge and grey and black. Byron saw the lightning before the thunder rolled across the sky, like a thousand drums being beaten at the same time.
Byron waited for the rain to fall. First one big drop fell right into one eye. Then another hit him on the nose. Then it was like someone throwing buckets of water over him. It rained and it rained and Byron thought he might be washed right out onto the track. But instead, he just sank further and further into the sodden red dirt.
The next day the sun came out hot and bright again. Byron’s arms and legs had been covered in wet sand and red earth but now the sand began drying into red/brown clumps that sat hard all over his little body. He wished he could move, even just a little, and brush off his clothes which were now the same colour as his dirt stained face and hands. But Byron could only lie back and gaze at the sky.
Then one early morning Byron realised there was a woman staring at him and smiling. “Look at you,” she said, taking out her phone camera. “They left you behind, little bear.” Byron realised then that he must be so dirty and stained that the woman mistook him for a teddy bear. He wanted to say, “I’m not a bear! I’m a mouse! My name is Byron! And I need someone to get me out of here!” But the woman heard nothing. She took photos of him, lying there in the dirt. Then singing a little song to herself she walked on down the track. “It’s a lovely day today…” she sang, her voice getting fainter and fainter. Byron sighed and a very small salty tear ran from the corner of his hot, dry almond eye.
Byron thought he might just fade away and become part of the earth. In fact, the day the camp dogs came in a pack he worried that fading into the earth might have been better for him. They sniffed around the old campsite, picking up bits of rubbish in their broken teeth before discarding anything that couldn’t be eaten. One skinny dog came right up to Byron with his long tongue hanging out, dripping spit right onto Byron’s nose. He could see the dog’s big, brown stained teeth as the dog nuzzled at Byron, trying to smell if Byron was something he might eat.
Byron was never so happy to be alone as when the dogs all moved off down the track again. He let out a sigh of relief and looked forward to the night so he could just gaze up at the stars and imagine himself floating through space. He didn’t mind being alone when he was using his imagination. It was like living two lives; one in the dirt and one anywhere he chose to imagine. Byron was very good at imagining.
He didn’t know how many weeks had passed when one early morning, once again, the woman was standing next to him. She leaned down and smiled at him and then, taking one very dirty little ear, she pulled him up out of the sandy cocoon that had formed about his little body. “Oh,” she said. “You’re a mouse, not a bear.”
She brushed him down as best she could and carried him all the way along the track, back to her little house by the school. Byron realised she was a school teacher.
The teacher put Byron into a big basin of water. “Oh,” she said, surprised. “You have clothes on!” Byron’s clothes were as dirty as Byron was. He and his clothes were all the same red brown dirt colour. The teacher took off his little jumper and his little pants. She washed as much dirt off as she could. Then she put Byron and his clothes into the washing machine and turned the dial to the delicate setting.
Byron and his clothes were hung out onto the line. Byron felt so fresh and clean that he didn’t even care that his ears were pinned to the line by bright pink, springy clothes pegs. The warm breeze moved him gently and he felt sure he must be smiling. It was so good to move again.
These days Byron lives with the teacher who came back and took him home. She moves him to a new place in different rooms every day so that Byron always has something interesting to look at.
Yesterday, after the teacher had left for school, Byron heard someone quietly call his name. At first he felt somewhat afraid. He had thought that he was alone in the house. He focused his eyes across the room. A smiley doll was sitting on a small chest of drawers amongst the teacher’s perfume, hand cream and necklaces. “Byron, pssst!” The voice sounded both friendly and a little bit mischievous. “Would you like to hear my story? Let me tell you about the day she found me…”
Inspired by the NZ Bear Hunt during the March/April lockdown 2020, I started posting a story (in instalments) in the front window of my cottage here in Oamaru.