It’s a smoky day and the western sky is red and grey. I drive away from the sun towards town. On a straight stretch on the lefthand road verge there is a kookaburra, upright, watching me pass. I slow, pass it without incident, wonder if it is sick because it does not fly away.
On the way home I think of it again, decide to stop if it’s still there, to make sure it can fly – see if it will allow itself to be chased away. I pass a black cat on the roadside, eyes bright in the headlights. It stays clear. As I near the spot where I saw the kookaburra, I watch for it on the right. But something looms pale coloured and fluffy on my side of the road. It is too tall to be a dead bird, I think – but then I am close, and it is, and I drive over it, wheels to either side of it.
I stop beyond it, park in the gravel, leave the dog in the car. With the vehicle off it is quiet and dark. There are the gentle rustles in the bush, the sense of the spaces of paddocks, the distant sound of the sea. There are no cars, no sounds of people.
I walk back. It is surprising how far I have come, driving at 90, between deciding to stop and stopping. I can see nothing in the gloom at first, and then the pale shape emerges. I shine the torch. The kookaburra is on its side, one wing is extended to the sky. As I approach it waves a little in the breeze and I start: it seems alive. Closer, and I see its eye, the one not planted on the road, is open. The wing is fanned, as though in death one half of it continues to fly. The eye seems bright, alive. I turn the bird with a stick and its head flops, the brilliant wing falls. I roll it onto the gravel.
Nearly a year on and it is early morning in the forest. The kangaroo on the roadside, flat on its stomach, is fresh: there seems no hint of the roughness in the coat or the darkness around the eyes to signal the presence of flies and birds and beetles.
I stop, and again the distance to walk back along the sloping shoulder is unexpectedly great; the forest unexpectedly quiet. I spend so much time spent driving through quiet places with road noise and engine noise and conversations and music. Don’t spend enough time stopped to listen, with no cars to ruin it and no one to talk to.
This roo looks as fresh as I thought, but it has grown stiff and feels hollow already. I lift one hind leg and roll it half over: it is a male. There is a small matting of blood on the other side of its body, mixed with faeces, involuntarily expelled.
Crouched there on the roadside with the dead roo, its eye open to the sky, I am not sentimental. But it is powerful being close to wild death, with its sharp, immediate reminder of wild life.
I remember others, with more sadness. A wombat, somewhere, years ago; such a solid creature. A small wallaby on the road to Meekatharra – this one we watched breathe its last. A wedge-tailed eagle on the Nullarbor, except this I don’t really remember at all; only my mother talking about it many years later. An echidna, feet to the sky, on the edge of the Hume Highway in Victoria.
And always, with the animals recently dead, the sense as I walk to them along the gravel shoulder that they might jump up as I near them, just to surprise me. But they never do.
Feature image: Nicolo Bonazzi