BY KATE WHITFIELD
She sees a Tasmanian tiger. A thylacine. It walks right out onto the path in front of her like it has a right to, as if it is really alive.
Lauren holds her breath. There is no question of what she is seeing. It is a tawny, narrow-faced animal as big as a medium-sized dog, and there are the unmistakeable stripes across its back and rump. She is surprised to have identified it so immediately, because she is on the mainland, and because Tasmanian tigers are extinct.
It doesn’t seem to see her, though it has stopped on the path for no reason Lauren can see. She feels like she has never been as still in her life. She thinks of taking a photo—her phone is in her pocket—but she doesn’t move to get it for fear of startling the animal away. Instead, she consciously records the image in her brain. She opens her eyes wide to let the sight sink in, like ink into paper.
She hears Martin come around the bend in the path behind her, and the scuff of Benny’s paws in the dust. She doesn’t take her eyes off the thylacine, but from one moment to the next, it is gone. The long, dry grass edging the path – the same colour as the animal’s coat – sways slightly.
Martin looks at her. She opens her mouth, then closes it, looking at Benny. The old dog is nosing around Martin’s legs with the tennis ball he has been throwing.
‘I think I just saw a Tasmanian tiger.’
Martin raises his eyebrows, then frowns. ‘Would have been a feral cat,’ he says.
‘I swear it was.’
Martin just laughs. They keep walking and Lauren looks carefully at the spot where the thylacine had stood, but she can see no trace on the baked-hard, pale ground.
She looks up thylacine sightings on the internet, and it turns out there have been many, including plenty on the mainland. But there has never been any firm evidence. Formal searches, by rangers and conservation bodies, have been conducted many times in areas of concentrated sightings, but they have always returned nothing. It’s like the ghost of an extinct species is haunting the country.
Lauren scans constantly every time they leave the house. Even inside, she stands at the kitchen window watching the tree line. Days pass and she sees nothing.
But the old dog, whose appetite has been waning for years, starts cleaning out his food bowl every night.
Then one of the chickens goes missing.
‘Foxes,’ Martin says.
Lauren starts going for walks on her own.
She thinks about reporting her sighting. It would be logged, perhaps, and that would be it. But what if she really had seen it? Everyone thought they were gone, but what if they are not? What if there is a family of them, or even just one – this precious one? What if they are not gone.
She sprains her ankle out there, with no phone reception. She has to holler, again and again, her voice exploding throughout the hills until she is hoarse. Enough to make every wild creature take flight. Martin comes after half an hour, walking up the hill to her, very slowly, it seems.
He piggy-backs her home, grunting. He did it once before, a long time ago. It seems too obvious a memory to mention; he is surely thinking of it too.
The landscape was greener then – as green as it ever got. Their picnic had been two bottles of beer – not even a rug – but they had made love under a tree by the bubbling creek, forgetting, for a few minutes, the roots and gumnuts and ants they were lying on. The gum leaves draped lazily toward them and swung to spangle the sunlight. Lauren closed her eyes as it flashed through her eyelids, hot and red, and later she found tiny gumnuts embedded in her back and arse.
Afterwards, he’d sat beneath her on the steep bank of the creek, circled her knees with his arms and picked her up, as if she weighed nothing.
She is shocked by how long her ankle takes to heal. She always used to bounce back from these things. She notices that the place where she scraped her arm on the fencepost is still a bright-red blear across her skin, and that was months ago. It’s the first time she has witnessed her body changing on a cellular level and she has not been waiting for it; she wasn’t expecting it at all. Nobody knows when they are going to stop being young and start being old.
Sitting on her bed, she watches the footage of the last Tasmanian tiger pacing in its cell in the Hobart zoo. It’s not a beautiful animal, but she is struck by how very much it is an animal. It scratches, it yawns, and though its jaws open freakishly wide, it has all the mannerisms of a real living creature. It takes her two viewings to realise that the constant bobbing of its head in the silent film is the thylacine sniffing the air, ceaselessly trying to orient itself through scent. Almost as if it has no idea that it is already dead. Yet here it still is, immortalised; a symbol of a witnessed extinction.
She dreams the thylacine has silently entered the house. It comes into the bedroom, circling Martin’s side of the bed to stand by her pillow. It opens its mouth, so wide the pale fur is all gone and it’s only teeth and tongue and the raw, ridged flesh of its palate.
She wakes and, for a second, rejoices to the sound of rain on the roof. In that single moment she imagines the tanks filling, and she is flooded with relief. But it stops. It is only the sound of a laugh track. Martin is still up, again, with the tv on.
When her ankle has healed she sees the thylacine again. It has ventured out into the open for a drink at the small dam. It has to walk far into the dam to reach the puddle of water that’s left.
While its head is down she takes out her phone and seizes a photo, but it’s distant and blurry. It’s the best she’ll do, though; the animal has seen her and run for the cover of trees.
But this time it has been in the sticky mud of the dam. The dam’s edges are baked hard, but in the middle, closer to the remaining water, there is still moisture in the earth. She searches until she finds them. Clear prints. Doggish, to her eye, but also alien.
She gets on the phone with the department of conservation; she emails them the photos. A week passes. Two weeks. Christmas comes, and she and Martin exchange the gifts they have requested of each other. Hers is a camera with a proper zoom.
‘It’s not just for taking shots of Tassie devils, is it?’ Martin says.
‘Tassie tigers. You said devils.’
‘Oh right. Yeah, as if you’d get Tassie devils around here.’
He smiles at her hopefully. To cover the fact that she doesn’t want to smile back, she lifts the camera and points it at him.
‘No, don’t,’ he says, raising his hand automatically. He hates having his photo taken.
She lowers the camera. He lowers his hand and says ‘No, go on, it’s ok.’
She shakes her head. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ she says. ‘Tomorrow. In better light.’
They stay up for New Year’s together; she insists. She disguises her superstition as tradition. They watch the countdown on the tv with a glass of champagne, and she goes to bed straight after. They put a teaspoon in the mouth of the open bottle but the champagne goes flat in the fridge.
The nights are stifling and they sleep naked, as far from each other on the bed as they can get. They leave the windows and doors open hoping for a breeze, even a hot one, but their flywire screens are old and damaged, and all they get are mozzies. Lauren lies awake with the buzzing in her ears, occasionally slapping herself in the hope of killing one, getting up and going to the bathroom to see if she has dead mosquito smeared on her. She never does.
They have extremely short showers, and they both pore over weather forecasting websites. Some of them say there might be rain later in the month.
A week after New Year’s, Lauren gets a call from Graham, from the department of conservation. He wants to come out. She tells him she hasn’t seen the thylacine for over a month, but he doesn’t seem perturbed.
When Graham arrives two days later, Lauren is surprised to find that he seems to believe her completely. She privately admits that she didn’t even find her photos that convincing herself. But, while Graham tells her they cannot be considered firm evidence, he speaks to her as if there is no question of what she saw.
She takes him to the locations of her sightings, but they find no trace. She leaves him out there but sits in the house alone all day, unable to focus on anything, looking out the windows to see if she can see what he is doing.
He finds nothing. He asks her if she thinks it was the same individual she saw both times, or if she’d ever seen a sign of any others. Lauren is pretty sure it was the same animal both times.
She wonders if that one animal, alone, is of any use to its species, or if it is more relic than survivor. An endling, Graham calls it, if it is very the last of its kind. But he says that if it has survived, others may have, too. It is a matter of keeping that individual safe until others can be found.
‘Is there really any point, though?’ Martin asks in the evening. ‘Surely extinct and doomed are basically the same thing.’
Lauren does not think he understands, not having seen the creature with his own eyes. This animal, who should not have been there and yet had more right to be than her, seemed to concentrate hope in its lean body. There it stood, undoing wrongs.
There are fires nearby; not a threat to them, but enough to turn the daylight rust-orange and coat everything with a fine layer of ash.
The dam dries up completely. Lauren takes to leaving out dishes of water but only at night, so that they don’t evaporate so easily. Martin frowns, but says nothing. She leaves one outside their bedroom window.
It is the end of January and a strong southerly has blown up. It brings relief from the heat and sweeps the atmosphere clean; the moon turns from red back to white. Lauren regularly stands outside and sniffs the air, trying to smell rain. Sometimes Martin comes with her, and they ask each other if they smell anything. It is the most time they spend together.
The southerly lasts for a night and a day and into another night. Everything in the house is open, and though it is very late, Lauren lies awake in the brightness of the full moon.
She lies on her side with a good view of the dish of water outside the window. Martin snores. The wind blusters and everything outside the window is dark movement.
And then there is something pale and still. Two black eyes and a long face. They emerge only because of their stillness against the tossing bottlebrush tree outside the window. The face comes closer, moving like a ghost. It stands there silently for a very long time. Lauren is afraid to blink.
Eventually she realises that the animal’s head is bobbing very slightly. It is sniffing the air, just like the thylacine in the old film. Since the window is wide open, it can probably smell her. The thought gives her a thrill. Her excitement grows when it steps forward to the water dish and drinks. It raises its head, turns, and trots away.
Immediately, Lauren shakes Martin awake. He is hard to rouse and when she finally penetrates his sleep he growls with annoyance.
‘Martin, get up quickly, we have to go.’
Suddenly he is alert and sitting up. He thinks it is a fire.
‘It’s ok. I just saw the tiger,’ she says. ‘Come with me.’
‘I’m sorry to wake you, but come.’
‘You think you’ve seen a Tasmanian tiger again?’ His words are slurred with sleep and bluntly annoyed.
Lauren pauses, turns on the lamp. They both squint violently. She stands up and puts on a dress and shoes. She stops a moment and looks at him carefully.
‘I just saw it. It drank from the dish outside the window. Please come.’
Martin still looks at her with a frowning squint, but after several more moments, he gets out of bed and puts his clothes on.
The animal is still lingering at the edge of their garden, but at the movement of their back door it trots off again.
‘Did you see it?’ she asks.
She points, but there is nothing there anymore. They move after it as quietly and quickly as they can.
Unless it can fit under fences, it has most likely followed the path up the hill. They scan with their torches, but the moon is so bright Lauren thinks they might have better luck without them.
In the moonlight, they search the landscape for several moments, until finally Lauren thinks she sees an animal moving in the distance. As they climb the hill, they realise that there is still a red glow of fire on the horizon.
Then Lauren points, urgently, to the crest of the hill. For a moment, it is silhouetted there. And then it is gone.
‘Did you see it? Did you see the shape of it? Its belly hung down, I think, like a female with babies in its pouch. Did you see it?’
Lauren finally takes her eyes off the horizon and looks at Martin.
‘No,’ he shakes his head. ‘Sorry, I didn’t see it.’ His voice has a cautious kindness that makes her stare at him, while he looks away from her.
They continue to the top of the hill, where they look down on the dry creek bed. Lauren sees no sign. She is wondering if she really saw the shape she thought she did.
They stand at the top of the hill for minutes, saying nothing. Eventually, Martin switches his torch back on and sweeps the landscape.
She sees it. And Martin starts forward, so she knows he sees it too, though it is only a flicker. Down in the creek bed, a pair of wide eyes reflects the torchlight. But it is only a moment, and that is all. And then it’s gone.
Kate Whitfield is a freelance writer and editor. Her short fiction has been published in journals including Southerly, Westerly and Tincture, and she is currently writing a children's novel. She blogs at looselions.wordpress.com and tweets as @sushipyjamas.