Waddle

Once there was a young wombat named Benson who lived in a roomy, comfortable wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.

One day Benson’s mother came home from her Bushcare group looking worried. She went into the kitchen where Aunt Lillibet was making a rockmelon smoothie for Benson and his friend, Roly.

Benson’s mother said, “We found a baby echidna in a little burrow near the paperbark gully. It looks like he’s been abandoned by his mother.”

“Abandoned?” Benson said, shocked. “You mean his mother just went away and left him?”

“It’s more likely that something happened to her,” his mother said. “Mother echidnas make a special burrow for their puggles when they get too spiky to be carried in their pouches. The mothers go off to get some ants for themselves, but they always come back to give their babies their milk.”

Benson said, “Maybe she forgot where the burrow was.”

“More likely a snake or a feral cat,” Aunt Lillibet said quietly. She didn’t want to frighten Roly.

Roly’s eyes grew big and round, and his snout started to tremble. “Cats!” he whispered.

“What’s wrong with cats?” Benson asked. The cats he had read about in stories were soft and furry and curled up in front of the fireplace, purring. Sometimes when he was full of lemon delicious pudding and he had his warmest socks on, he felt a bit like a contented cat himself.

“Claws!” Roly said, “and horrible sharp teeth! They slink around in the dark with their green eyes and their whiskers and they kill soft baby animals whose spines haven’t grown yet.”

Benson didn’t like the sound of that at all. “But cats live in houses, and eat food out of tins, don’t they?” he said.

“Feral cats are different,” Aunt Lillibet said. “People dump them in the bush when they’re kittens and they grow up wild. They eat anything they can find, birds, lizards, mice – anything they can catch. They’re expert hunters.”

Benson thought of a baby puggle alone in a burrow in the middle of the bush, with a hungry cat slinking through the bush towards it.

“We should go and get the puggle,” he said very firmly. “Right now.”

His mother said, “It’s not that easy. He’s very little and he’s frightened of strangers. I tried to pick him up but he dug himself in further and I can’t get him out without hurting him.”

Roly said, “I’ll do it. He won’t be frightened of me.”

“I’ll come too,” Benson said. “I’m not scary.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “What about the cat? If it was a feral cat that took the mother echidna, it’s probably hanging around, looking for a soft juicy puggle.”

“Don’t, Lillibet!” Benson’s mother said, shuddering.

Roly said, “If there is a cat, then the sooner we get the baby echidna, the better.”

Benson’s mother knew that Roly was right. It was dark now, and if a cat found the little puggle, nothing could save it. They set off straight away.

They took the track that led down to the paperbark gully. Benson’s mother led the way and Benson followed her with Roly getting a lift on his back.

When they got to the trees near the puggle’s burrow, Roly went up by himself to talk to the little echidna.

“Hello,” he said in a quiet, friendly way. “What’s your name?”

The little echidna had dug himself so far into the ground that only the very tip of his nose was showing and two little button eyes. He sniffed, and whispered, “Waddle.” He was so frightened he could hardly talk.

Roly sat down by the side of the burrow and talked to him quietly and gently until the little puggle stopped shaking. He asked him about his mother, and when she had gone away.

Over in the trees, Benson was feeling worried, as if a big old water dragon was doing somersaults in his tummy. “Can’t Roly just grab him and run?” he asked his mother.

“Shh!” said his mother sharply. “I think I can hear something!”

The water dragon in Benson’s tummy started jumping up and down. “Is it a cat?” he whispered.

His mother didn’t answer. Instead she walked softly over to Roly and murmured to him, “We have to go, now!”

Roly nodded. He said to the little echidna, “Waddle, it’s time to go now. How would you like a special ride on a nice, friendly wombat? And some lovely warm milk?”

The little echidna let Roly pull him out of the burrow. Roly helped him climb onto Benson’s back, and he climbed onto Benson’s mother’s back. They set off through the bush as quickly as they could.

A couple of times Benson thought he could see something dark slipping between the trees just beside them and he tried to hurry a bit faster, but the little puggle had never had a ride on a wombat before, and he kept slipping off. Benson kept having to stop and hitch him up again. He was very glad when he saw his front door just up ahead.

Aunt Lillibet opened the door for them, and Benson tipped the little puggle off his back. Then he heard a sharp, “Meowwrr!” Five sharp claws swished past him with a fierce hiss. The cat was there, nearly on top of him.

There was no time to think. Benson pushed the puggle inside and scrambled in after him. Right behind him, he heard his mother shout, “Get inside, Roly!” then Roly tumbled in after to him.

They heard spitting and howling just inside the doorway, then there was a sharp crack and a long yowl, and the sound of a cat running away.

Benson’s mother came in and shut the door firmly. “It’s gone,” she said.

“Are you all right?” Benson asked anxiously. “What was that noise?”

“I’m fine,” his mother smiled. “A wombat’s backside is made tough and hard for a reason. Claws and teeth hardly even make a scratch. The cat tried to get past me so it could get at little Waddle, so I just lifted up my rump and squashed its head against the roof.”

“You squashed the feral cat’s head?” Benson asked, amazed that his mother would do such a thing.

“Just a bit,” his mother said. “Just enough so it won’t try and break into a wombat hole again, not while the wombats are home, anyway.”

She made some warm milk for Waddle, and hot chocolate for everyone else. Roly played with little Waddle until he got sleepy, then they found a soft blanket to cuddle him up in. Roly said quietly to Benson, “I think your mother is the bravest person I know.”

Benson’s mother lifted Roly up onto her lap with tears in her eyes and said, “It’s all right to be brave when you’re not frightened, but I knew you were so frightened of that cat and yet you stayed with Waddle and talked to him so calmly – I’ve never seen anyone as brave as you were! You were amazing!” She gave him a special kiss on the end of his little snout, and Roly went pink all over.

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