Once there was a young wombat named Benson, who lived in a nice, safe wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.
One morning Benson was looking for his skipping rope to tie two branches together to make a bridge, but he couldn’t find it anywhere. It wasn’t anywhere in his room, or in the kitchen or anywhere else.
His mother said, “Have a look down in the games room.” The games room was a long way down the wombat hole, near the back door. It was where they kept the croquet mallets and the skittles and the flat basketball and the Chinese checkers which they hadn’t played with since Benson ate all the yellow pieces in mistake for cheese when he was little.
Benson wandered along down to the games room, munching on a banana cranberry muffin, and hunted around for the skipping rope. He lifted up the old volleyball net and made a Discovery. There was someone curled up asleep under the net.
“Oh, sorry,” he whispered loudly. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.” He knew that lots of different animals came into the wombat hole from time to time for shelter for a few days, or just a quick rest.
The little animal stirred and unrolled himself and looked up at Benson.
Benson looked back. He hadn’t seen an animal like this before. It was small and pink, with two front paws with long claws, and two kind of stumps at the back. Its face was wrinkled and squished, and it had a long pointy snout.
The little animal said, “I was just having a rest. I’ll go now.”
“That’s okay,” said Benson. “You can stay as long as you like. My name’s Benson. I live here.” Something about the little animal made him ask, “Are you all right?”
The animal said, “Um, I’m a bit hungry.” He was looking at the muffin crumbs that Benson had dropped. Suddenly his little tongue shot out of his long pointy snout and every single one of the crumbs disappeared.
Benson said, “Come up to the kitchen. There are heaps more muffins. My mother’s just made a whole fresh batch.”
The little animal said, “Okay.”
Benson said, “What’s your name?”
The animal said, “My real name’s Tachyglossus Aculeatus, but my mother had a special pet name for me. I just can’t remember it.”
“I don’t think I can call you Tacky… Artist,” Benson said. “Maybe I’ll just call you Roly.”
“Okay,” said the animal.
“You can call me Benson,” Benson said. They set off towards the kitchen. Roly was very slow following him. He had to drag himself along with his front paws.
Benson said, “Can I give you a lift?”
Roly said, “Okay.” He held up his paws, and Benson lifted him onto his back, and gave him a nice ride all the way up to the kitchen. On the way they chatted about their favourite muffin flavours – Roly’s favourite was lemon poppyseed, and Benson’s favourite was chocolate orange.
When they got to the kitchen, Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss were there doing the washing up. Aunt Moss gave a tiny scream, and Aunt Lillibet dropped a plate. Benson said, “It’s all right, this is Roly. He was down in the games room having a nap. Can we have a muffin, please?”
Benson’s mother said, “Of course.” She put a muffin on a plate and lifted Roly up to the table. Roly crumbled the muffin into tiny pieces and and gobbled them all up very quickly with his sticky tongue. Benson’s mother got him another muffin, and a drink of water, and sat down to talk to him.
“Have you come from a long way away, Roly?” she asked.
“A fair way,” he said. “I’ve been looking for my mother.”
“What happened to your mother?” she asked.
“We were caught in the bushfires,” he said. “I don’t remember everything, but we hid in a hollow log and went to sleep, and the log caught fire. I got a bit burned, on my feet and my face, and most of my spines got burned off. I don’t know what happened to my mum.”
Benson tried to imagine his new friend with four feet, covered in spines. “Are you an echidna?” he asked, wondering. He’d never seen a real live echidna before, but he knew what they were supposed to look like. They weren’t supposed to be pink and black with puckered skin all over their faces.
Roly nodded. He said, “After the fires were gone, I tried to find my mother, but there was no-one to ask. All the animals had run away or died.”
“You’ve been looking for your mother ever since?” asked Aunt Moss.
“Whereabouts was this?” Aunt Lillibet asked.
“I don’t know exactly,” said Roly. “I was a bit lost, and I just kept going. Everything was burned up. There were no animals or trees or bushes. Even the dust had burnt. I found an empty wombat hole one time, and I stayed there for a while, but mostly I’ve just been looking.”
Benson’s mother said, “Do you remember anything about the empty wombat hole? Where it was or anything?”
Roly shook his head. “It had a funny smell, I remember that, like fennel.”
Aunt Lillibet said thoughtfully. “Janda’s place always smelled like fennel,” she said. “The only wombat I’ve ever known who ate practically nothing but fennel.”
“I remember Janda,” said Aunt Moss, “She was mad about shells. She made shell calendars and shell picture frames, and she put them on her fridge and just about everywhere.”
Roly said, “There was a sign made out of shells just inside the front door that said ‘Welcome’.”
“It must have been Janda’s place,” Benson’s mother said. “Lillibet, could you get in touch with Janda and ask her if she knows of any mother echidnas looking for missing puggles?”
“Puddles?” said Benson. “How could a puddle get lost?”
“No, not puddles, puggles,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Baby echidnas.”
“Wombats have joeys, and echidnas have puggles,” Benson’s mother said.
Benson giggled and said, ‘puggle’ to himself a few times. “You’re a puggle,” he said to Roly.
“Not really,” said Roly. “I’m nearly grown up now.”
For the next few days, Roly stayed with them while Aunt Lillibet waited for news from Janda. Benson wanted Roly to sleep in his room, but his mother suggested Roly might be more comfortable sleeping outside.
Roly agreed. “It gives me a bit of a headache being in here,” he said, “especially the kitchen.”
“Is it too hot?” asked Benson.
“No, it’s all the electricity,” said Roly. “My sensors keep buzzing, and it gives me a headache after a while.”
“Your what?” asked Benson. “You can detect electricity?”
“Of course,” said Roly. “Can’t everyone? How do you find your food under the ground, or know where anyone is in the dark if you don’t have any sensors?”
“You can find food underground?” said Benson. “Cool! Show me?”
“Okay,” said Roly. They went outside and Roly put his long nose on the ground and listened. “Over this way,” he said and set off, pulling himself along. After a while he stopped, next to the big peppermint gum. “Here,” he said.
Benson got really excited. “There’s food under here? What is it, turnips? Bananas? Muffins?”
“It’s ants, of course,” said Roly. He dug a hole with his front feet and started zotting ants with his long sticky tongue. “Mmmm, delicious.”
Benson tried one, but it was so sour it made his tongue buzz.
“I think I’ll stay here, if you don’t mind,” said Roly. “It’s nice and quiet, and the ants are excellent.”
“Okay, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow,” Benson said.
At the end of the week, Aunt Lillibet got a sad message from her friend Janda. Benson and his mother went to see Roly. Benson’s mother lifted Roly onto her lap and said, “I have some bad news for you, Roly. Your mother was killed in the bushfires. I’m very sorry.”
She held Roly wrapped up in her arms for a long time until he stopped crying. Benson crept back to his room. For a minute he imagined what it would be like if his mother and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss and Nanna all died and he had no family left, but it was so terrible he stopped thinking about it and started drawing instead.
After a little while, his mother came in and sat on the bed beside him.
“I’ve asked Roly if he’d like to stay here with us for a while,” she said.
Benson showed her what he had been drawing. It was a picture of himself, with his mother and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss, all together, with Roly right in the middle of them. “I think that’s a really good idea,” he said.