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Weird Tales January 1954

Black Heath

BY FARFAL DELANO

IT WAS my afternoon off. I left the hospital enjoying a genuine relief and sense of freedom from being off duty. I brought along my telescppe since it was a fine day, bright and unusually warm for this time of year, and I knew how clear the H valley would be from a certain vantage spot. I had in mind a bare jutting rock which I had seen many times from the window of the hospital canteen. The view, I imagined, would be like looking off into eternity. That was why I had to reach the rocky cliff.

I realized that I must forget the hospital for a few hours. For almost two weeks without stop I had worked among that lot of human wreckage that had once been part of the 32nd Division. Hundreds of war-weary wraiths had been flown from Buna to the mainland and then by Australian hospital trains to us. A more emaciated, maimed, malarial, and jungle rotted and war-disillusioned bunch had never returned from a campaign before! And yet they had beaten the Jap wherever they met him, although they had not done so well with that other enemy—the jungle.

My descent was careful. The ground was very dry and loosely rocked throughout the slope of the hill. There were trees in spots, but mostly charred stumps remained in tomb-like memory of-what once had been a woods. I expected to see reptiles crawling among the crevices and. stories. It was a desolate terrain. I made my way into a miniature canyon, and for the moment my goal, the rock, was out of sight. I hesitated in the hollow, for several times I had heard the peculiar and almost bleating call of the Australian crow. Was it more like a cat mewing or like a baby crying? Climbing again I noticed that the timber on this side had escaped the fire. At. the top I saw my goal once more, slightly below and not far away. The valley was much closer now, and as I looked behind and above, there were the hospital buildings along the ledge of the mountain. Only shortly ago these buildings had been one of Australia's most famous hotels.

AT LAST I stepped on the rock and adjusted my glass to the magnificent world below. There was a precipitous drop from where I stood to the tree tops. A catcall suddenly sounded near. Then I saw a great black bird leaving a tree top from an adjacent crag. Its wings took on a silverish hue in the sunlight. Despite its bulk the bird flew with a wonderful grace and soon became a diminishing tar spot in my glass. I kept looking, fascinated when a voice from behind split the natural silence.

"What a marvelous bird!"

I was startled. I had heard no one approaching my isolated perch. So quickly had I turned about that my balance became uncertain. At the sight of the unexpected company I felt my scalp crawl and chill. A tall bald figure with dark beady eyes faced me. He leaned on a heavy knotted walking stick as if for support. There was a sickly grayish hue about his facial skin. A long bloodless nose drooped loosely over what was not much more than a thin line for lips. Instantly I was reminded of a vulture.

"I see you are interested birds—" he began.

"Yes—a hobby of mine," I said cautiously.

"Good-o, we have something in common, digger. You're a Yank, of course?"

I nodded feeling somewhat more at ease. I noticed that his voice was weak and trilling, as though his larynx was injured. When he spoke his Adam's apple throbbed and vibrated noticeably in a neck which was very long, frightfully thin, and parched like old wallpaper. His speech seemed to have less, too, of the typical Australian nasal quality, and I imagined that behind his gaunt form there was some culture of note. I couldn't help but wonder how he had in his apparent debilitated condition made the difficult descent.

"They are more than a hobby to me," he continued. "Birds have been a passionate study for me a long while they are the most fascinating of all earth's creatures.

I was a bit alarmed by his enthusiasm. He had stared off into space as he talked, definitely -lost in his own thought world. For a moment, following his eyes, I was diverted by the bed of the valley. I could plainly discern the white ribbon of a road winding through the green fiats running on past toy houses, and finally disappearing among the enclosing...

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